Cut off

I think there is a particular evil of our time, one that cuts across the ideological spectrum and demographic groups. It’s the idea that in response to some perceived offense in the world, our highest moral imperative is to cut ourselves off from the offense… or some person or institution or place or practice associated with it.

The theories that underly this moral isolation vary. Some people say they are assuaging their consciences or protecting their rights. Others imagine they can punish or shame another party into change (a theory that is so ineffective yet so persistent in human affairs that it seems diabolical). Still others affect a kind of strutting victimization, claiming that there is some thing in the world that they (or a group they allegedly stand for) are uniquely unable to countenance.

But I think that when you look at the outcomes of this ethic of separation, it is always the same, whether it comes from the right or the left or traditionalists or radicals. It sets up a privileged group: the ones that can *afford* to stand apart. Some can afford it because resources and privilege enable them to isolate themselves. Others leverage access to an identity or experience that their moral stance necessitates they deny to others. Maybe the most tragic group are those who can “afford” isolation because their pride exceeds their love, and they mistake this for some sort of virtue or strength.

In some ways this is a difficult evil to fight, because doing so seemingly forces us to give up a piece of our identities, the index currency of the day. Yet I think fighting it is also so easy, because it involves actions of common decency: listening to others even when they are wrong, being polite even when we feel someone else doesn’t deserve it, or simply waiting our turn to express ourselves.

Those actions of tolerance for others are often interpreted as passive or meek, but in today’s world, I think they are uncommonly brave.

Science and the unseen

9780226238890Coming back home to the history of science, I wrote about Philip Ball’s latest in the LA Review of Books:

Science depends on cultural beliefs. Whether it’s an earthy commitment to empiricism or an ethereal sense of wonder about the stars, we commit ourselves to certain notions long before we peer into the microscope or fund the supercollider. And those beliefs are not simple, stable things — just look at the complex misgivings that even the most ardent supporters of science have about technological outcomes like genetic engineering or the atom bomb. …

In this book, Ball addresses the relationship between scientific inquiry and our beliefs about the world beyond our senses. … At first blush one may wonder if it is even possible to write a book about it — so much is unseen. Where and when does one begin? How does one address a subject that, by definition, resists description?

Ball employs a variety of literary, philosophical, and scientific resources to address these questions, some more effectively than others. Yet there is no doubt that this daring choice of subject serves as an excellent reminder that the relationship between science and culture is more like a quirky quantum froth than a stately Newtonian procession.

Here’s the rest for your enjoyment.

Kimmy Schmidt as our Don Quixote

Gustave_Doré_-_Miguel_de_Cervantes_-_Don_Quixote_-_Part_1_-_Chapter_1_-_Plate_1_-A_world_of_disorderly_notions,_picked_out_of_his_books,_crowded_into_his_imagination-Branching out a bit, I wrote an essay about “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Tina Fey’s new Netflix show, for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The key idea is that we can view the main character as a person “out of time” like Don Quixote or Ignatius J. Reilly. A preview:

The “man out of time” genre, wherein a character is somehow temporally displaced to comic and edifying effect, has proven one of the more lasting satirical forms. Aristophanes brought ancient playwrights back from Hades to mock Athenian ways in The Frogs, Cervantes was the progenitor of the idea in modern literature, and Rip Van Winkle represents the theme in Americana. One might even argue that Ignatius J. Reilly, redolent of Quixote, makes the cut as a bloviated medieval throwback amid an early 1960s New Orleans.

In each of these “man out of time” tales the characters’ temporal displacement does more than just make them the butt of jokes. It makes us reconsider the eras in which they inhabit — more critically, but also more empathetically, more affectionately. The best of these stories become emblematic of the times and places in which they were written, much in the way Don Quixote can be read as a universal stand-in for Spain.

So perhaps one day when the critics of the future look back on 21st-century Manhattan (and boroughs such as Brooklyn and America), they’ll think fondly of Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), the “woman out of time” at the center of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Unlike Don Quixote or Ignatius J. Reilly, Kimmy’s temporal gap isn’t centuries wide, but just a decade or two. Yet the narrowness of that gap heightens our sense of how strange our world has become, and how quickly.

Click here for the rest.

The fearful, frenzied elites

Phantom-TerrorI’ve got a new review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848. Here’s the gist:

Anyone who has studied the politics of this period knows that its elites lived in constant fear of revolution. Zamoyski’s contribution is to transform this fear from a general theme into a more focused object of inquiry. European elites’ paranoia about revolution takes shape as a set of specific beliefs sustained and exchanged by powerful figures like Metternich, the Duke of Wellington, and the tsars of Russia. Capturing the precise effects of the Revolution’s “Protean force” is a significant achievement of both documentation and narrative, but the amorphous nature of the subject necessarily limits Zamoyski’s analysis of its significance for our world today.

Click through for more.

The perfect holiday routine

White-Christmas1. Pull up White Christmas on Netflix
2. Watch through the end of the World War II part
3. Unpack the tree and the ornaments while they’re on the train
4. Do the heavy lifting during the minstrel and choreography songs
5. Stand back and admire your work while Bing and Rosemary are fighting
6. Settle in on the sofa sometime during the Carousel Club scene
7. Laugh together through “Gee I Wish I Was Back in the Army”
8. Cry together through the long shot out of the barn
9. Count your blessings, go to sleep.

Another experiment


Above her eyes a barrier,
in her mouth a verb —
ditransitive, the nerve —
to touch another person
without endgame or design,
to state one’s Gospel in a way
that never has the need to say,
“My cup runneth over,”
but just runs.
“Brim with me,”
She throws the hat away
the hope of return

A Theory of Friendship (with rockets)

4623670_1_lFor the past few years, the nature of my work has led me to encounter very interesting people for very short periods of time, usually just a few hours. Most of the time, a personal relationship would not continue after that (though an institutional one sometimes would).

This suited me. I like people. I like working with people. I like thinking with people especially. But people also take a lot out of me. I believe that I am by temperament what Proust advised writers to be… a gregarious loner.

Illustration: I remember a moment when I was on a People to People trip in high school… we were all on a bus driving through the south of France, a week into the excursion, by which time I knew most of my fellow travelers and their names and dispositions. During this particular drive, almost everyone, including the guy sitting next to me, had fallen asleep — but I was wide awake. I’d just finished “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and didn’t want to wake anyone up by reaching for another book. So I simply looked around at all the sleeping people on the bus — thinking about their names, thinking about their faces, thinking about how much I loved all of them. Any time I am on a long bus trip I still recall that wonderful silence.

But it was not insignificant that all of these beautiful people were asleep. In the waking world, thinking about how I ought to behave with each one of these people might cause me a degree of anxiety. These sort of rapidly assembled, immersive groups (think summer camp) are particularly stressful for me, and I often have to withdraw for a good amount of time each day just to keep my sanity. This has gotten worse, not better, as I get older and my empathy with people of all types deepens.

So that’s me. And brief, intense encounters fit well with that — I didn’t have to bother to build in the recharge time. But lately, for various reasons, more and more relationships have endured. And I have spent a good deal of my energy thinking about how to properly maintain them, how to respectfully engage with and love others in ways that are proper for the time and place and situation.

Since my neuroses themselves have neuroses, this has led me to wonder: why would I spend so much of my energy on these new people and not on the many significant people I already have in my life? I have been blessed with friendships that have endured since kindergarten, with colleagues who can finish my sentences, with a spouse who understands and accepts flaws I don’t even know I have, with family members old and new who I know would dive in front of a truck for me. I have all this, yet my mind still dwells on how new acquaintances might misinterpret a question or be offended by an ill-timed quip.

I did my best to heap the blame on myself, judging my own thoughts to be self-indulgent or obsessive or vain. Yet today a vision popped in my head that helped me forgive myself.

It was this: relationships of all kinds are rockets. Whether the person in question is a friend or a colleague or a lover, there is a fire that drives the first phase of the journey, and it is in the nature of human beings that this should be so. It takes real power to wrench someone free from the general mass of humanity, to elevate their position in such a way that we can witness their souls from a distance.

And this fire is not without its dangers. Vessels collapse on the platform and fall out of the sky. We lose potential friendships in arguments over politics or etiquette or the cultural significance of Taylor Swift. We insult somebody’s preferences in food or in faith. We miscalculate, and while we don’t lose lives, we do lose lives shared.

And the fire seduces us. We come to believe the bright lights are the point of it all, that the thing we were building is a firework and not a starship. Folks who investigate process addictions know that there are those who get “high” on the courtship period of romance, quitting every lover when that early glow fades. I’m sure the same is possible with admirers and confidantes and collaborators too.

But the fire is not the point. The fire is just a tool to get us where we’re going — the infinite reaches of space, silent and serene. Within the bounds of all my most enduring friendships (and my marriage, and probably all lasting marriages) there is the same kind of reassuring silence that obtained on that bus in France, an unspeaking acceptance and love. I know its nature from phone calls with friends that come years apart but pick up just where we left off, or from the little notes my wife sometimes leaves inside my books when I travel, trusting they’ll fall in my lap at just the right moment. The relationship has acquired its own momentum.

Does the rocket have a destination? I don’t know — it seems of little importance. All I know is that up here it is far easier for two people to stare outward together in the same direction. That’s not my line… but hey, what’s a little plagiarism between friends?