Advice for Tearing Down Fences

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G.K. Chesterton“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”

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Pulled from the chapter “The Drift from Domesticity” in G.K. Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing.

My friend Matthew Sitman recently said to me, while sizing up the opposite sides of the Ferguson riots, “Maybe this just proves how conservative, in terms of temperament, I really am – I’m just not an activist.” He continued: “Any rage I feel is quickly tempered by the voice in my head that says, ‘Yes, but…’ I always go back to the great Max Weber line: Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

An approach this deliberative doesn’t thrive in the world of social media, nor does it naturally attract allies, loathe as it is to jump off the sidelines, don a jersey, and play partisan games.

You will of course read Chesterton’s (and Matthew’s) quote in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, rendered last Friday. I don’t have anything to add to this debate, which, if you haven’t noticed, is no longer a debate at all. Though several contradictory emotions have arisen.

I am happy for my gay friends; I am surprised at the lack of gravity being lent what is a moment of apparent social and political liberation (not to rain on anyone’s parade). I don’t think gay marriage “threatens” any individual, current, heterosexual marriage; I do believe our society has forgotten how critical that decaying, traditional institution is, and that the upcoming generation will have an impossible time recovering it. I am amazed how quickly this has escalated. I am fine with the Supreme Court deciding issues like this, even though it was 5-to-4, and even though I think ground-up, organic change is preferable for social issues. I am disappointed the executive branch has taken sides in a contentious judicial issue, displaying cutesy memes of support for one side in what has been an honest debate that’s divided good people on both sides of the electorate. I despise the vapid phrase “… right side of history,” currently being thrown around to justify certain positions on this issue. History isn’t about opinions. It has no right sides for the exact reason Eliot could declare that, in this life, “There are no lost causes because there are no won causes.”

Two other thoughts spring to mind in wake of last Friday’s verdict. The first is from Max Planck, who sized up the unglamorous way in which scientific progress occurs: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

It’s no accident this ruling comes at a moment when the Greatest generation is quickly fading from public life just as liberal Boomers now sit comfortably at the helm, braced by upcoming Gen-X’ers and Millennials.

The second quote is from Alexander Herzen, who had the following to say about the tumult of the failed 1848 revolutions:

The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

Read on:

“The End” by Mark Strand

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Woods

Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,
Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like
When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end,
Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he’ll never go back.

When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat,
When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down
No longer appear, not every man knows what he’ll discover instead.
When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky

Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus
And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight,
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.

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“The End” by Mark Strand. Find it in his collection The Continuous Life or his essential Collected Poems.

Three favorite Strand works:

Mark Strand

The Cleverness of Karl Kraus

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Karl Kraus

“It is better not to express what one means than to express what one does not mean.”

“When someone has behaved like an animal, he says: ‘I’m only human!’ But when he is treated like an animal, he says: ‘I’m human, too!’”

“There are women who are not beautiful but only look that way.”

“If I return some people’s greetings, I do so only to give them their greeting back.”

“Nothing is more narrow-minded than chauvinism or race hatred. To me all men are equal: there are jackasses everywhere, and I have the same contempt for them all. No petty prejudices!”

“We are sacrificing ourselves for our ready-made goods; we are consumers and live in such a way that the means may consume the end.”

“An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half.”

“The esthete stands in the same relation to beauty as the pornographer stands to love, and the politician stands to life.”

“My unconscious knows more about the consciousness of the psychologist than his consciousness knows about my unconscious.”

“War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that the enemy too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.”

“Corruption is worse than prostitution. The latter might endanger the morals of an individual, the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire country.”

“There are people who can never forgive a beggar for their not having given him anything.”

“Do not learn more than you absolutely need to get through life.”

“I don’t like to meddle in my private affairs.”

“Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.”

“I have often been asked to be fair and view a matter from all sides. I did so, hoping something might improve if I viewed all sides of it. But the result was the same. So I went back to viewing things only from one side, which saves me a lot of work and disappointment. For it is comforting to regard something as bad and be able use one’s prejudice as an excuse.”

“I and my public understand each other very well: it does not hear what I say, and I don’t say what it wants to hear.”

“Many things I am experiencing I already remember.”

“Only he is an artist who can make a riddle out of a solution.”

“Today’s literature: prescriptions written by patients.”

“Hate must make a person productive; otherwise one might as well love.”

“Sound opinions are valueless. What matters is who holds them.”

“The real truths are those that can be invented.”

“The making of a journalist: no ideas and the ability to express them.”

“Education is what most people receive, many pass on, and few have.”

“One of the most widespread diseases is diagnosis.”

“Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which regards itself as therapy.”

“How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.”

“The immorality of men triumphs over the amorality of women.”

“I am not for women but against men.”

“Feminine passion is to masculine as an epic is to an epigram.”

“A ‘seducer’ who boasts of initiating women into the mystery of love is like a stranger who arrives at a railroad station and offers to show the sights to a tourist guide.”

“Many women would like to dream with men without sleeping with them. Someone should point out to them that this is utterly impossible.”

“A woman who cannot be ugly is not beautiful.”

“Women at least have elegant dresses. But what can men use to cover their emptiness?”

“The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people meaner.”

“Solitude would be an ideal state if one were able to pick the people one avoids.”

“Family life is an encroachment on private life.”

“Life is an effort that deserves a better cause.”

“The development of technology will leave only one problem: the infirmity of human nature.”

“You don’t even live once.”

“Keep your passions in check, but beware of giving your reason free rein.”

“Lord, forgive them, for they know what they do!”

“There is no doubt that a dog is loyal. But does that mean we should emulate him? After all, he is loyal to people, not to other dogs.”

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Selections from the brilliant collection of Kraus quips Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms, compiled and translated by Harry Zohn.

There’s more:

Karl Kraus 2

Why Harold Bloom Quit Writing for Academics

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Harold Bloom

“I had so deep a revulsion, as I still do, against what was happening in the academies of supposed ‘higher’ education that eventually it drove me out of teaching graduate students altogether. It drove me out of the English department at Yale — I became a department of one. And I increasingly said, ‘I don’t want to write for these people.’

I’m not interested in ideologies, whether of the left or of the right. That has nothing to do with what I love. That has nothing to do with Shakespeare. I don’t want anything to do with that. I don’t want to take part in this madness in which sexual orientation, ethic identity, skin pigmentation, gender is deemed to be the most crucial element in apprehending a poet, or a playwright, or a story writer, or a novelist, or even an essayist. I couldn’t bear that anymore and so I started to write books for the widest possible public.”

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Pulled from Bloom’s 2011 interview with The New York Times’s Sam Tanenhaus.

Go on:

“On a Return from Egypt” by Keith Douglas

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Keith-Douglas

To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled cerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, there is a window
and with a crash I’ll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

__________

“On a Return from Egypt” by Keith Douglas, which you’ll find in his Complete Poems.

Douglas, who strikes me as the Second World War’s echo of Isaac Rosenberg, wrote this, his last poem, two months before his death in the opening hours of the invasion of Normandy. He was twenty-four. Reread the final stanza which Harold Bloom calls “Shakesperean” in its diction  with this information in mind.

The stanza and particularly its last line embody what Yeats considered the defining characteristic of Romantic poetry, namely, the principle of simplification through intensity.

More:

To Understand the World of Today

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John- December 2005 668

The woodcutters also starving,
firewood disappeared.

With nothing else
some tore down their homes
and took the wood to market.

It was said the value
of this wood
was not enough to live on
for one day.

Then, I was baffled
finding kindling painted red
and catching glimpses
of gold leaf.

I have heard
that in the distant past,
this nation was governed
with compassion
by certain wise rulers.

The palace was thatched
with common reeds,
the eaves left ragged.

When the emperor saw
smoke rise thinly
from the people’s hearths
he waived already modest taxes.

This was
an act of mercy,
a desire to help
his people.

To understand
the world of today,
hold it up
to the world
of long ago.

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From the first section of Hōjōki (The Ten Foot Square Hut) by the Japanese ascetic writer Kamo no Chōmei.

Written in 1212, this poetic essay concerns the 50-year-old Kamo no Chōmei’s decision to renounce his status and material prosperity and withdraw from the capital city of Kyoto following a fire and famine. He would spend the remainder of his life on Mount Hiro, living in a simple, hand-built hut, where he discovered, among other revelations, that in man’s quest to disengage from the world, he may become attached (even obsessed) with detachment. Chōmei’s literary and philosophical shadow lingers large over later writers like Thoreau; just as his work, like the final stanza above, is a stark reminder that the history of man and society isn’t just linear, but cyclical.

I snapped the picture on the other side of the world, in Houston, Texas.

Frank Sinatra in Israel

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Frank Sinatra in Israel“After our week in Hong Kong we flew on to Israel. Mr. S adored Israel, and Israel adored him right back. Here was a whole country of underdogs and survivors, the people Sinatra respected most, people like himself who had beaten the odds… Israel was the only place on the whole tour where Mr. S took a real interest in the country as anything other than a concert stop. He wanted to see everything, and Israel rolled out the red carpet. When he wanted to cross the Sea of Galilee and see the Golan Heights, the Israelis contacted the Syrians to tell them that our long convoy was not a troop movement and to hold fire. The sundown on the Sea of Galilee was beautiful. ‘Another few days and I could become a believer,’ Mr. S half-joked. […]

Most moving for both Mr. S and me and was The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on the Hill of Memory, where all the trees had been planted in memory of the victims. This was stunning and solemn place. The external beauty of the land of milk and honey contrasted with the horrors shown within, particularly the underground Children’s Museum, where each of the more than one million tiny lights represented the life of a child that had been snuffed out. Afterward Mr. S said the visit had made him feel rotten about not fighting in World War II and that Israel was ‘a wonderful country worth dying for.’

We often returned to Israel, which Mr. S decided was his favorite country. Mr. S often boasted he was ‘King of the Jews.’ He donated big money to Zionist causes, and would plug the place every time he had a chance… I liked Israel, too, so much that on one trip to the Promised Land I let Sinatra and [American composer Jimmy] Van Heusen talk me into rediscovering my ‘Jewish roots.’ Why, they insisted, should Sammy Davis be the only black Jew? They pointed to the Falashas, the black Jews of Ethiopia, who were a sect in Israel… So I let them find me a rabbi in Jerusalem, and after a three-day crash course, they got me a quickie bar mitzvah at a beautiful temple overlooking the ancient walls of the City of David. Afterward, to celebrate my being a man… we went to a fancy restaurant and I got so drunk on kosher wine I passed out.”

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Selections from George Jacobs’s tell-all memoir Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra. Jacobs, an African-American, was Ol’ Blue Eyes’s right hand man from 1953 to 1968.

More on the topic:

Frank Sinatra in Israel

Why Radicals Always Target the Family

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Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

“As our families fragment, so do the deepest structures of our consciousness. When a certain kind of family breaks down, so do the values which once linked parents and children, and gave continuity and character to our inherited world.

Which is precisely why ideological radicals have focused on the family. Change it, and you change humanity. But let’s turn the argument around: if changing the family would change the world, protecting the family might be the best way of protecting our world.

Which is, I believe, what our religious tradition has been doing until now — because the Bible is above all a book about the family. It begins with one: Adam and Eve, and the command to bring the next generation into being. And from then on the book of Genesis never relaxed its grip on the subject. It endlessly turns to some new variation in the relationship between husbands and wives, parents and children. Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob, Rachel and Leah: these aren’t miracle workers or agents of salvation. The heroes and heroines of Genesis are simply people living out their lives in the presence of God and the context of their families.

And we can perhaps now see that this forms the foundation of the Bible’s larger moral and social themes. The family is the matrix of individuality. It’s that enclosed space in which we work out, in relation to stable sources of affection, a highly differentiated sense of who we are. It’s hard to imagine a culture which didn’t possess a close family structure arriving at the breathtaking idea that the human individual is cast in the image of God.

De Tocqueville once wrote that ‘as long as family feeling is kept alive, the opponent of oppression is never alone.’ By which he meant that the family is the great protection of the individual against the state. It’s no coincidence that totalitarian regimes have often attacked the family. Against this, it was the Bible that gave rise to the great prophets who dared to criticize kings. The family is the birthplace of liberty.

Not only that, it’s where we care for dependents — the very young and the very old, those to whom we gave birth and who gave birth to us. And it’s a short step from this to the biblical vision of society as an extended family, in which the poor and powerless make a claim on us, by virtue not of abstract principle but of feelings of kinship. It’s this that lies behind the prophetic identification with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. They’re not merely people with theoretical rights. They’re part of the family.”

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Pulled from part three of Jonathan Sacks’s 1990 Reith Lecture for the BBC.

You can find this and the rest of Sack’s excellent, six-part lecture in his book The Persistence of Faith: Morality and Society in a Secular Age. As with anything from Sacks, however, try to enjoy it in audio form. His voice makes Morgan Freeman sound like Gilbert Gottfriend.

More:

Jonathan Sacks

“Immortality Ode” by William Wordsworth

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William Wordsworth

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquish’d one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

__________

From the last two sections of William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem “Immortality Ode.” The full work (which is often tellingly called the “Great Ode”) deserves a slow read. You’ll find it in the Penguin edition of Wordsworth’s Selected Poems.

There’s more:

Calvin Trillin on Parenting: Your Children Are Either the Center of Your Life or They’re Not — the Rest Is Commentary

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Alice Trillin

“There was no doubt about [my wife’s] priorities. While our girls were growing up, she hated being separated from them; after a two-week trip to Asia, when they were about ten and thirteen, she decided that one week was her limit. Concerning children’s constitutional right to sit down to dinner with their parents every night, Alice tended toward strict constructionism. When it came to trying to decide which theories of child-rearing were highly beneficial and which were absolutely ruinous to the future of your child — a subject of considerable discussion among some parents we knew — we agreed on a simple notion: your children are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.

After both girls were out of college, there was a period when Abigail was living in San Francisco while Sarah was in Los Angeles. Alice said that if they remained where they were we would simply have to live in California for part of the year. ‘If we want to be convenient to both of them,’ I’d say, ‘we could find a nice little place in between — Bakersfield, or maybe Fresno.’ Alice would shoot me the look I associated with a catch phrase from a radio sitcom I used to listen to as a boy ‘’Tain’t funny, McGee.’ By then, though, her desire to be near them was no longer based partly on her need to influence what kind of people they would become. In her New Yorker article about the recurrence scare in 1990, at a time when Sarah was a sophomore at Yale and Abigail was in Teach for America in Los Angeles, Alice wrote:

In the days after that bone scan, I couldn’t find a hopeful way out… I did manage to imagine uplifting conversations I might have with my daughters about how it was O.K. for me to die this time, as it absolutely had not been when they were four and seven, and I had foreseen their adoring but occasionally absent-minded father getting them the wrong kind of sneakers or losing track of their dental appointments after I was gone. Now I was sure that I had told them everything of importance I knew; they had understood it all and figured out a lot on their own, and were as close to perfect as they could possibly be. Then it occurred to me that neither of them was married yet, and I would hate to miss the weddings and the grandchildren. I speculated about which of my friends I would assign to help them pick out their wedding dresses. Then I cried and decided that I really wanted to stay around.

My problem in 1976 would have been much more serious than sneakers and dental appointments, I realized, when I finally allowed myself to dwell on what would have happened if Alice hadn’t survived. The real problem would have been that I couldn’t imagine trusting anyone else to be involved in raising our girls. I not only thought they needed to know everything of importance that Alice knew; I also thought, I suppose, that she was the only person who knew it. When I’m asked how both of our daughters came to be involved in the sort of work they do — Abigail is a legal-services attorney for children, Sarah is a clinical social worker — I, naturally, deny having anything to do with it. ‘I want to assure you that I tried to instill in them the value of selfishness and even rapaciousness,’ I say. ‘When Abigail came down to breakfast during her years in high school, I would tell her the temperature and the starting salary for an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.’ But they had Alice there as a model. Because she survived, they were exposed every day to someone who (as a friend wrote after Alice died) managed to ‘navigate the tricky waters between living a life you could be proud of and still delighting in the many things there are to take pleasure in.’ Sneakers and dental appointments are the kind of things you can figure out, or find someone to figure out. Exemplars are hard to come by.”

__________

Excerpted from chapter seven of Calvin Trillin’s 2006 book About Alice.

In a recent interview with Olivia Gentile, Trillin offered a few simple words that illuminate the above point, only this time from the perspective of grandfatherhood:

Do you feel [your daughters are] raising their kids with pretty much your values and techniques?

Yeah. Alice used to say that we were easy about the small things and strict about the large things. By large things, she basically meant values…

I’ve always believed that parenting essentially boils down to one thing: Your kids are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.

So, the question of which childrearing book you read or something like that is really not relevant. It doesn’t make any difference because, in the first place, you’re not going to act against your own nature anyway, and the kids see you in so many different situations that you can’t put in some kind of artificial system.

Trillin dedicated About Alice to those grandchildren. Picture above: Trillin and Alice.

Read on:

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