Gore Vidal Obliterates Ayn Rand

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Gore Vidal

“She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other’s money openly… But it is Miss Rand’s second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ… Now I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which has figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race. We often fail. That predatory demon ‘I’ is difficult to contain but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action.

Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others. In the one case, through a state which was to wither away, in the other through the private exercise of the moral sense. Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.”

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Gore Vidal, writing a comment in Esquire in July 1961.

More Gore:

Ayn Rand

Rolling Stone’s Rape Story Is Even More Questionable than You Think

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Phi Psi

Earlier this afternoon, Rolling Stone released a statement saying that its seismic article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” is based on an opening anecdote whose key details are now seriously in question. Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at which the alleged gang rape occurred, has responded with its own statement, which makes clear the house did not have an event the night or weekend of the alleged attack and that the fraternity has no current or former members who match the description of the main assailant (pseudonym “Drew”), Jackie’s date on the night of Friday, September 28th, 2012.

September 2012 was the first month in over 3-and-a-half academic years in which I, as a brother of the house next door to Phi Psi, would’ve been living more than a stone’s throw away from the site of the alleged incident. This doesn’t make me unique, but it does make me unique among commentators. Whatever advantages may be conferred by author Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s being a woman twice my age, experience and recall of UVa campus life are not among them. And attempts to extract sweeping judgments about a school from a brief tour can, as so many high school seniors find out, give one a distorted picture of the place, particularly if you’re only looking for what you want to see.

Nevertheless, my purpose here is not to quarrel with Erdely’s general argument, that sexual assault and rape are rampant, under reported, and consistently ignored or mishandled on college campuses across the United States, including at UVa. Nor am I going to rehash the points contained in Phi Psi’s statement, which was carefully vetted and will likely form the basis of a hefty lawsuit against Rolling Stone. Instead this is an exercise – albeit easy in retrospect – to show why exactly Jackie’s story is almost unbelievable on its face to someone who has been a hundred times to that date function that didn’t actually happen with those rowdy frat boys who probably don’t exist.

Erdely’s intitial approach

By now several critiques have been made of Erdely’s lack of due diligence in her report, including the fact she failed to contact the alleged perpetrators of the crime or the three “friends” Jackie encountered afterwards – a clear journalistic lapse which raises questions about her credibility. Though perhaps more striking is the fact she consciously reverse-engineered her article. As a profile in the Washington Post notes, Erdely initially “wanted to write about sexual assault at an elite university, so she “interviewed students from across the country… at Harvard, Yale, Princeton,” scouring the most prestigious universities in the United States for the most gruesome account she could find. After contacting a leader of a sexual assault education group at UVa, Erdely was put in touch with Jackie, who burst forth with her two-year-old story, which became the fuse and powder in Erdely’s investigative bombshell.

“A Rape on Campus” is fundamentally a piece of narrative journalism, one which is heavy on the narrative side, while bizarrely thin in terms of journalistic rigor. (Qualifiers like “allegedly” almost never appear in the story, even though Erdely bases her retelling on a single anonymous source.) This raises a simple question: if she’d combed the country for a rape story to lead an article on campus sexual assault, why didn’t Erdely use one of the countless cases for which there is a mountain of good evidence? The answer is obvious. The force of Erdely’s article – the reason it has been shared over 173,000 times on Facebook as of this writing – is contained in Jackie’s story. It’s a stunning piece of narrative journalism crammed with details that play off our darkest anxieties about sex, violence, and the destruction of innocence. Without Jackie’s story, Erdely’s article is another 9,000 words on the politics of sexual assault. With it, it’s a startling indictment of fraternities, colleges, and gender relations in America today – a Rolling Stone article turned water cooler topic.

The date

Though Erdely’s account of the incident is chock full of familiar collegiate details, from the plastic cups to the well-worn description of UVa’s preppy student body, it contains little concrete information about the incident itself. In three paragraphs, Erdely introduces us to Jackie, her date “Drew,” and has them both ascending the stairs to the scene of the looming crime. Yet even this bare bones account is problematic, beginning with its date, Friday, September 28th, 2012.

To those unacquainted with Rugby Road, this detail would pass unnoticed, submerged as it is within the gruesome stream of Erdley’s narrative. Yet it is conspicuous because UVA has spring semester pledging and initiation for all fraternities. The assault, which is clearly portrayed as a ritual induction into the brotherhood, is led by Drew and another brother who goad the seven potential new members into repeatedly raping Jackie (“Don’t you want to be a brother?” they jeer to the final assailant).

It’s true fall pledging is technically allowed at UVa, but this is exceedingly rare and never have I seen a fraternity take more than two pledges during it. (Someone with access to the fraternity rosters can easily confirm this point.) Some fraternities do keep pledges uninitiated until the fall – usually to help with older brothers moving in for the new school year – but this is unusual and wouldn’t last into the final week of September. An outside reporter, no matter how well versed in the IFC handbook, would be unaware of these facts and thus unable to press the relevant sources for clarification.

Phi Psi 2

The timing

“Fine,” one may object, “but what if this was some sort of delayed initiatory rite that came after formal initiation the previous spring?” Again such a question raises uncomfortable issues with Jackie’s account. If indeed the seven assailants and two ringleaders were all active members of Phi Psi, then they would have compromised nearly half of a pledge class and about one-sixth of the entire house. Their “three hour” absence during a date function would be highly conspicuous, especially to their respective dates.

It’s important to clear up what date functions at UVa look like. They are closed parties, meaning only brothers and their dates are present. A fraternity of 75 guys will have roughly that many guests, making it a smallish event that, while occasionally wild, never gets very crowded. Four weeks into the school year, such events commonly open up to a select group of first years interested in joining the fraternity – “rushees” in UVa speak – but this only happens around midnight, after the alleged crime was already in progress.

If the fraternity knew the attack was to occur at that date and time – as the article seems to suggest, given its high degree of orchestration – then it certainly was a very risky choice given the circumstances. The fact Phi Psi is one of the biggest fraternities on campus in terms of membership only exacerbates this problem. UVa’s Greek system is notoriously porous; secrets, even those that involve only members, are exceedingly difficult to keep. A serial case of premeditated gang rape within a fairly observable fraternity is, to say the very least, a ritual that would be nearly impossible to keep buried.

The marijuana

The recollected “pungency of marijuana” is a strange detail. Like Don Lemon’s recent flub at the Ferguson protests, it reflects a Reefer Madness-like misunderstanding of how marijuana affects young men. While some drugs (perhaps steroids or powder amphetamines) may make the mania described in the article more likely, marijuana, with its low-testosterone high marked by docility and passivity, is not one of them. This is merely an observation of how seven fraternity guys smoking weed in a room at a party would tend to behave compared to their binge-drinking counterparts.

The scene of the crime

After Jackie is ushered by Drew into a “pitch-black” upstairs room, the following immediately occurs:

“Shut up,” she heard a man’s voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table.

This is the moment when the reader’s throat swells. Its animalism – driven home by the faceless carnality of “body” – is juxtaposed with Drew’s handsome, enticing smile a few paragraphs before. Here we know the “rape” in the title won’t be nice guy Drew taking it a little too far at the end of the night.

But the violence of the scene is so intense that unlike in many instances of sexual assault, the physical wounds sustained by Jackie would be visible, perhaps even to this day. The rape occurred on a bed of broken glass the size of a coffee table, with its “sharp shards digging into her back.” Jackie was gagged, pinned to the floor, and punched in the face. The excruciating ordeal lasted one-hundred-and-eighty minutes and involved seven attackers as well as violation with a beer bottle. It is absolutely critical to keep these numbers and their attendant scale and severity in mind. Individually, these injuries are gruesome enough, though their combined impact seems almost unendurable, especially when one considers that lacerations from single shards of glass routinely require stitches.

Furthermore, because all first years live with a residential advisor, in addition to a roommate and handful of suite or hall mates, it would be extremely difficult to conceal much less heal injuries of that nature. My first year RA, lax by UVA standards, consistently monitored our behavior and wellbeing in what is a universal feature of dorm life that’s been moaned by first years for decades.

The perpetrators’ insane pathology

The final and most peculiar aspect of Jackie’s account is the gratuitous and pathological cruelty of her attackers. A vast majority of campus sexual assaults involve a single aggressor and a prostrate, often unconscious victim. Jackie’s story isn’t like that. The nine assailants call her “it” throughout the attack, in a sadistic touch that Richard Bradley, skeptical of the article, compares to The Silence of the Lambs (“It rubs the lotion on its skin”). But, as Bradley notes, that film is a fiction. How often are two such psychopaths enrolled in the same school? How often do nine of them find each other in the same respectable fraternity? Of course the forces of mob mentality and peer pressure can make young men do strange, stupid, and even wicked things. But again, Jackie’s story is fundamentally different from even the worst of what we know of frat house antics.

The journalist Caitlin Flanagan, who just published a damning, year-long investigation into fraternities in The Atlantic, made the following comment about Jackie’s story:

In all my time studying fraternity rapes for my own essay, I didn’t come across a single report of anything like this. I did find reports of women who were raped by multiple men on one night — but those always involved incapacitation, either by alcohol or a drugged drink. And I did also find accounts of violent, push-down rape of the kind in the essay — but those were always by one member, not a bunch of members. (In fact, many of that kind — now that I think about it — were committed by non-members, or by visiting former members). But a planned gang rape, without alcohol or drugs, and keyed to initiation — I have never seen a case like that. Nor have I seen penetration with a foreign object — I’ve seen plenty of that committed by brothers to pledges as hazing, but I haven’t seen it in sexual assault cases. I’m sure it’s happened, but again — as part of a ritualized gang rape… Never anything like it.

Erdely’s general unfamiliarity with UVA

There are many minor points barely worth making, but which nevertheless show Erdeley’s general unfamiliarity with UVa and tendency to distort for narrative effect. It may well be true that Jackie “was harassed outside bars on the corner by men who recognized [her] from presentations.” What isn’t true is that one of those men “flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.” That’s a touch worthy of a Jackie Chan movie, but no thrown beer bottle has ever broken on someone’s face, and if it did, it’d leave more than a bruise.

Erdely peppers her account with the lyrics to “Rugby Road,” a lurid old fight song whose title and lyrics suggest some longstanding, deeply imbedded misogyny at the heart of UVa’s Greek scene. For the record, I’ve never heard the song. When polled, only one member of my twelve-person pledge class claimed to know of it, and presumably because men in his family have been attending UVa since long before women were admitted. Moreover, the stanzas which divide the article like some sardonic, derisive scoff at female rape victims, are deliberately placed to heighten and toy with readers’ emotions at key moments – the closest thing Erdely has to a melodramatic film score reverberating in the background.

But once its effect wears off, perhaps during a second pass over the piece, this trope begins to reveal Erdely’s general underhandedness. Coarse and misogynic impulses are expressed in all sorts of ways by today’s young men; nineteenth century ditties, however, are not among them. Why not focus on those issues, real and immediate to any reader, instead of going for the kill with a theatrical flourish? Such a question reflects the original one about Erdley’s consistent care for style over substance: why pick Jackie’s story when so many other, better grounded accounts of rape are out there? The answer to both is very simple. Erdley is not in the business of exposition; she’s in the business of advocating for a cause, and her credibility as a tour guide through American campus life is continually eroded as she points here and there screaming, “Wow! Look what I found!”

Phi Psi 3

Ultimately Jackie’s story is far from over. While Rolling Stone’s disclaimer seems to indicate where this is going, we can’t be sure exactly how it will end. Whether Jackie is deluded or misled, deliberately lying or suffering from some mental disorder, or perhaps even telling the general truth with some major inaccuracies, this saga has been utterly calamitous for her, the members of Phi Psi, and the University of Virginia, most especially its administration and the students who work tirelessly to illuminate the issue of sexual violence on campus. Though perhaps the most tragic consequence impacts past and future rape victims, whose stories, so often dismissed and defamed, now bear an even heavier burden of proof in the court of public opinion. Though the details may now be muddled, we still have a moral obligation to stand with Jackie and all of those who allege to have experienced trauma of this kind. This solidarity is, in the end, perhaps as critical as the demand we gather what evidence we have in order to gain some understanding of the truth.

While this cynical generation has shown a desire to side with the victims, on social media and beyond, it nevertheless teeters dangerously close to having heard “Wolf!” cried one too many times. That common question Why would the girl just make this up? is about to have its answer: I don’t know, but she has before.

A Eulogy for Philip

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by Godfrey Argent, bromide print, 8 October 1969

“We are here to mourn the death of our friend Philip Larkin. He was the most private of men, one who found the universe a bleak and hostile place and recognized very clearly the disagreeable realities of human life, above all the dreadful effects of time on all we have and are. The world of his fellow creatures was hardly less forbidding: privacy was to be jealously guarded. In the sense of complete physical solitude, he found it a daily necessity. He saw people as hopelessly cut off from each other, and revealingly misquoted Donne in declaring, ‘Every man is an island.’

And yet it was impossible to meet him without being aware in the first few seconds of his impeccable attentive courtesy: grave, but at the same time sunlit, always ready to respond to a gleam of humor or warmth. He was surprised if anyone found him a gloomy person: ‘I like to think of myself as quite funny,’ he told an interviewer, and he was more than funny about those in the literary and academic world whom he considered fraudulent, and he found no shortage of those; and to hear him sounding off about a politician or any other public figure who was not to his taste did the heart good.

But there was no malice in it, no venom. If he regarded the world severely or astringently, it was a jovial astringency. He could be at his funniest when uttering those same painful truths about life as those he made so devastating in his poetry. And it was all from the heart: he never showed off, never laid claim to feeling what he didn’t feel, and it was that honesty, more total in his case than in any other I’ve known, that gave his poetry such power. He meant every word of it; and so, though he may not have written many poems, he wrote none that were false or unnecessary.

His honesty extended to himself; again, nobody was ever more totally or acutely aware of his limitations. He took life seriously, he took poetry seriously, but not himself — nobody who said he looked like a bald salmon could do that. No solemnity about himself as a poet either; when he’d written a poem he felt pleased, as if he’d laid an egg. But we take seriously what he has left us. We are lucky enough to have known him; thousands who didn’t, and more thousands in the future, will be able to share those poems with us. They offer comfort, and not cold comfort either. They are not dismal or pessimistic, but invigorating; they know that for all its shortcomings life must be got on with.

And now we must get on with ours, a little better equipped to do so with the help of those fragments of poignancy and humor in everyday things, those moments of illumination and beauty we should never have seen or known but for Philip.”

by Godfrey Argent, bromide print, 19 June 1968

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As far as I know, this is the only place on the internet with a version of this tribute. It’s Kingsley Amis’s eulogy for his closest friend Philip Larkin, delivered 29 years ago this week.

Top: Amis; below: Larkin.

How George Washington Led

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George Washington

“Financial support from France and the Netherlands, and military support from the French army and navy, would play a large part in the outcome. But in the last analysis it was Washington and the army that won the war for American independence. The fate of the war and the revolution rested on the army. The Continental Army — not the Hudson River or the possession of New York or Philadelphia — was the key to victory. And it was Washington who held the army together and gave it ‘spirit’ through the most desperate of times.

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.

Again and again, in letters to Congress and to his officers, and in his general orders, he had called for perseverance — for ‘perseverance and spirit,’ for ‘patience and perseverance,’ for ‘unremitting courage and perseverance.’ Soon after the victories of Trenton and Princeton, he had written: ‘A people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove.’ Without Washington’s leadership and unrelenting perseverance, the revolution almost certainly would have failed. As Nathanael Greene foresaw as the war went on, ‘He will be the deliverer of his own country.’

American Revolution.png

The war was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate. By the time it ended, it had taken the lives of an estimated 25,000 Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population. In percentage of lives lost, it was the most costly war in American history, except for the Civil War.

The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget.

Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning — how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference — the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.”

George Washington at Yorktown

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The final page of 1776 by David McCullough.

Press onward:

“The History of Poetry” by Mark Strand

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Mark Strand

Our masters are gone and if they returned
Who among us would hear them, who would know
The bodily sound of heaven or the heavenly sound
Of the body, endless and vanishing, that tuned
Our days before the wheeling stars
Were stripped of power? The answer is
None of us here. And what does it mean if we see
The moon-glazed mountains and the town with its silent doors
And water towers, and feel like raising our voices
Just a little, or sometimes during late autumn
When the evening flowers a moment over the western range
And we imagine angels rushing down the air’s cold steps
To wish us well, if we have lost our will,
And do nothing but doze, half hearing the sighs
Of this or that breeze drift aimlessly over the failed farms
And wasted gardens? These days when we waken.
Everything shines with the same blue light
That filled our sleep moments before,
So we do nothing but count the trees, the clouds,
The few birds left; then we decide that we shouldn’t
Be hard on ourselves, that the past was no better
Than now, for hasn’t the enemy always existed,
And wasn’t the church of the world always in ruins?

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The History of Poetry by Mark Strand.

Mark Strand passed away yesterday in Brooklyn. He was 80.

Read all of Strand’s best work.

How Society Operates

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Will Self

Laurie Taylor: One of the things people say about your books is the difficulty in feeling any empathy or sympathy for the characters… why aren’t your characters lovable?

Will Self: But people aren’t really that lovable. Again an aspect of the modern Kulturkampf is to pretend that everybody’s lovable. That’s a collective delusion. Society doesn’t operate because we love everybody; society operates through sanction, through forms of collective control, through hierarchy, through the imposition of controlled forms of mass hysteria. So the novels that persuade you of the idea that everybody’s intrinsically lovable are pulling off a confidence trick – as are the moral systems that delude people into believing it. You see it time and time again, Laurie, and you know it’s true: people’s capacity for empathy for those who are outside their immediate social matrix is remarkably small. And it doesn’t matter if you validate this through evolutionary psychology or you pull up Stanley Milgram’s experiments at Yale or the genocidal impulse that seems to exist in humanity: these are true facts. The thing is people will hear these arguments and respond, saying, ‘Yes, you’re right, but we’ve got to aim for something better than that.’

But what would that world be like in which you empathized with 7 billion people? What would the world be like if you felt the pain of the 250,000 people who were rubbed out in Haiti a few weeks ago? What a strange place it would be.

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Will Self offering his typically disquieting opinion in an interview with Sociologist Laurie Taylor for the BBC program In Confidence in 2010.

“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”  – Zadie Smith

Remember the Signs

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C. S. Lewis

“But first, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from the following signs.

And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That it why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

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Excerpted from The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis.

Winston Churchill: The Simple, Complex Man

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winston-churchill31

“All who were with him then agree that the Old Man had more important matters on his mind than the sensitive feelings of subordinates. In any event, in time they came to adore him. Jock Colville later recalled, ‘Churchill had a natural sympathy for simple people, because he himself took a simple view of what was required; and he hated casuistry. That was no doubt why the man-in-the-street loved him and the intellectuals did not.’ Churchill, for his part, considered those on the left who anointed themselves the arbiters of right and wrong to be arrogant, ‘a fault,’ Colville recalled, Churchill ‘detested in others, particularly in its intellectual form.’ For that reason, Churchill ‘had dislike and contempt, of a kind which transcended politics, of the intellectual wing of the Labour party,’ which in turn despised Churchill. In 1940 the intellectualism of the left was inimical to Churchill and to Britain’s cause, which was simplicity itself: defeat Hitler.

Churchill cared little for obtuse political or social theories; he was a man of action: state the problem, find a solution, and solve the problem. For a man of action, however, he was exceptionally thoughtful and well read. When serving as a young subaltern in India, he amassed a private library that included Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Plato’s Republic, Schopenhauer on pessimism, Malthus on population, and Darwin’s Origin of Species. Reading, for Churchill, was a form of action. After a lifetime of reading — from the sea-adventuring Hornblower novels to the complete Shakespeare and Macaulay — he possessed the acumen to reduce complex intellectual systems and constructs and theories to their most basic essences. He once brought a wartime dinner conversation on socialism to an abrupt end by recommending that those present read Maurice Maeterlinck’s entomological study, The Life of the White Ant. ‘Socialism,’ Churchill declared, ‘would make our society comparable to that of the white ant.’ Case closed. Almost a decade later, when the Labour Party, then in power, nationalized British industries one by one, and when paper, meat, gasoline, and even wood for furniture were still rationed, Churchill commented: ‘The Socialist dream is no longer Utopia but Queuetopia.'”

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Excerpted from The Last Lion: Winston Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid.

More of the Old Man:

Winston Churchill

John Updike: Is It Selfish to Want an Afterlife?

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John Updike 2

“Do I really want it, this self, these scattered fingerprints on the air, to persist forever, to outlast the atomic universe?

Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn’t it terribly, well, selfish, and grotesquely egocentric, to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stoic virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gratefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy, would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do?

In fact we do not try to picture the afterlife, nor is it our selves in our nervous tics and optical flecks that we wish to perpetuate; it is the self as window on the world that we can’t bear to think of shutting. My mind when I was a boy of ten or eleven sent up its silent screams at the thought of future aeons – at the thought of the cosmic party going on without me.

The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience. Though some believers may think of the afterlife as a place of retribution, where lives of poverty, distress, and illness will be compensated for, and where renunciations will be rewarded – where the last shall be first, in other words, and those that hunger and thirst shall be filled – the basic desire, as Unamuno says in his Tragic Sense of Life, is not for some otherworld but for this world, for life more or less as we know it to go on forever: ‘The immortality that we crave is a phenomenal immortality – it is the continuation of this present life.'”

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John Updike, writing in the best book I’ve read this year, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.

To truly get the entire heft of his argument, it’s essential that you read all of this chapter, which closes Self-Consciousness on a note of such extra perception, depth, and clarity that you wish John Updike had lived a dozen lives to write memoirs about. These paragraphs, which deserve an attentive reread, tie into the remarks from King below. At bottom, both men emphasize a shift in perspective; the truly unselfish desire to live on is like the desire to help another – each requires that fundamental shift in perspective, from thinking first about “I” to thinking about “thou”.

Publicity photo of author John Updike

Martin Luther King: What Does the Story of the Good Samaritan Teach Us?

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MLK

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now his questions could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled his questions from mid-air, and placed them on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him.

And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy.

Martin Luther King Jr. At Home With His FamilyJesus ended up saying that this was the good man because he had the capacity to project the ‘I’ into the ‘thou,’ and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony. And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jericho to organize a ‘Jericho Road Improvement Association’. That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.

But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me: it’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road.

I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing… In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around.

And so the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

That’s the question before you tonight.”

Martin Luther King Jr. and His Wife

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Martin Luther King, preaching his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon on April 4th, 1968, the night before he was murdered.

The parable of the “Good Samaritan” is mentioned in only one gospel, Luke’s, the sole book of the Bible written by a Gentile.

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Martin Amis on Terror, Iraq, and His Father

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Jon Snow: Look at the war on Iraq – do you not think that would stir an urge in the Arab world when they see women and children ravaged by what we Westerners are doing?

Martin Amis: I’ve said in print that by far the greatest danger of terrorism is not what it inflicts, but what it provokes; and the Iraq war has been a disaster. I was against it at the time, and I’m against it now. Blowing up a London nightclub on lady’s night [as an uncovered terrorist plot had planned] doesn’t seem to me to be a proportionate act in response to that.

The other night, I asked an audience to put up its hands if it felt morally superior to the Taliban. To the Taliban – who have two-day massacres, slash the throats of children, not only subtract women from society, but black up the windows of the houses they’re confined to. And only a third of the audience raised its hands.

Jon Snow: But do you feel morally superior to Islam?

Martin Amis: I feel morally superior to Islamism, yes. By some distance.

Jeremy Paxman: Islam itself?

Martin Amis: Well, I feel an intellectual distance from it.

Jon Snow: What do you say to the charge that you are your father’s son?

Martin Amis: Well, he’s now being lazily and cornily defamed by his critics when he’s not around to defend himself. You have an argument with your father all your life – and he’s been dead for twelve years, and I’m still having that argument.

I was on most things to the left of him. But critics are accusing him of impulses he never had – he was never homophobic; he had a difficult time in his relations with women, but was not misogynistic; was not, in any sense, anti-semitic, except in the odd impulse. And why do we not admit to these odd impulses?

Do we cleanse ourselves? Do we pretend that we’re homogenous and pure and clean? Do we want to live with that kind of illusion?

The anti-semites, the psychotic misogynists and homophobics are the Islamists.

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Martin Amis in an interview with Jon Snow in 2007.

Martin Amis and Isabel Fonseca

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