This Political Moment

The United States is at a very weird moment and that is not because the President of the United States is weird, what with all his lies, rants, meanness and ignorance, a collection of vile qualities we have never before seen in a President, some of his predecessors, like Nixon, suffering from one or another fatal flaw, but not from such a collection as this one which makes Trump unfit to don the cape of tragic hero, as was true of Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy for his risk taking, Nixon for his conniving. Trump is merely contemptible and many of his followers see him that way, as a figure useful for upsetting the applecart rather than one who is very good at keeping it on a straight course.

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Johnson's "Stoicism"

Samuel Johnson was an essayist rather than a philosopher, but he was given to the contemplation of moral issues, and so perhaps thought that essays on morality were akin to what he said about pastoral poetry, which was that such poetry was the most primitive and natural because it was the result of rural people reflecting on their surroundings, and so moral essays might be considered the natural outlet for people concerned about how to live their lives and so not like what is produced by philosophers, who are concerned about the status of moral language rather than the fruits of moral speculation. Let us consider the short essay “Stoicism”, from his early periodical work in the Rambler series, in that light, while setting aside questions concerning how such taut and terse arguments would have found favor with the reading public. I don’t think the Atlantic or Harper’s would publish them today, so demanding are they of the reader.

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7/23- The Nature of Angels

Angels can be regarded as an essential part of the religious experience rather than just as some pleasing but fey images used to spell out religious experience. That is because angels can be regarded as part of the lively and continuing interchange between the supernatural and the natural, and so are on a par with the idea of the Mass or the revelations still made every once in a while to the leaders of the Mormon Church. If there are angels, then the age of miracles and miraculous creatures is not dead. Angels are just one of the ways God intervenes in the world. God sends particular supernal beings to intervene in individual lives, just as was the case in pagan myths.

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Radical Politics

Two weeks ago, I might have thought I would have to say I was wrong about what I had said two weeks earlier, which is that there was not much difference between the various candidates for the Democratic nomination for President, that they were all New Deal Democrats, and so we would make a choice on the basis of personality, which is a good or a bad thing depending on whether you think that people of real character will shine through, the alternative being that we will chose a charlatan or simply someone who has a tic or an expression that we find charming. What had gone wrong was that so many of the Progressive Democrats seemed committed to outlandish “Socialist” proposals and so there was a real division between the progressives such as Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, on the one hand, and the mainstream Democrats, such as Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown, the others not yet having chosen sides. What a difference a few weeks make.

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The Structural Underpinnings of Free Speech

Free speech is the experience of knowing that you can say anything you please without fear of governmental or other institutional authorities. You have free speech when you sound off in a high school class about politics because you know that school is a protected space where a variety of opinions are allowed even if some people may disapprove of what you say or even criticize you for those opinions but must, nonetheless and however grudgingly, admit your right to hold them. Free speech does not mean you are free to insult people, because that violates basic rules of courtesy, but it does mean that contrarian opinions or even fresh and unfamiliar points of view get a hearing, the only control being the informal ones that have to do with customs which can be so rigorous, as in a religious community, that saying unholy things can lead to ostracism or perhaps merely severe rebukes, these enough to make such a community not to be one that allows free speech. Free speech, as an experience, then, has about it the sense of liberation, individuality and democracy. Free speech is also a term that refers to the institutions which, like that high school, protect and further the activity of free speech, and this post is concerned with what are those institutions that led to the establishment of free speech as a characteristic feature of democratic regimes.

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Let us turn to the other major source of information about primitive times that is found in “Genesis”: the connective tissue of genealogy. There is, first of all, a very brief story associated with the name “Lemach”. The story acts as a commentary on the Cain story, showing that the message of God’s forbearance with the first murderer will be lost on generations of people more intent on revenge than on anything else, and so the Cain story is also a false start, because its message does not become part of human consciousness, only a message within the “consciousness” of “Genesis”, as that can be misread by the countless people who will read “Genesis” and claim to take it seriously.

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Johnson's Dictionary

The importance of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is not that it was one of the first or that he had some piquant definitions but that it took a very different approach to language than is generally taken by philosophers. Samuel Johnson does something very radical in his dictionary. He posits the idea that for any word, whether simple or complex, everyday or esoteric, there is another word or string of words that can be generated in English that is its equivalent in meaning. Johnson provides some forty thousand examples as proof of his proposition. That is a remarkable thing to claim about language. However much it expands, whatever new words are added to its vocabulary, there is some other set of words it can be mapped to. Why this is the case, Johnson does not explain. He was not that kind of thinker. But he was a student of language and so could invent or find, take your pick, these equivalences which made language not a closed system in that words could only refer to other words, but an open system, in that new words could always be meaningful because they could be referred to old words. This is a characteristic of language in general, that it expands in this way, and it is not a characteristic which holds for other systems of thought.

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The Moral Lessons of "Now, Voyager"

The poor quality of the movies up for this year’s Academy Award for best motion picture reminds me of the time when movies were indeed better than ever, which was the period of the late Thirties and the early Forties, which produced not only “The Wizard of Oz” and “Stagecoach” (I am still leary of “Gone With the Wind”, another 1939 blockbuster) but also, in the early war years, such movies as “Random Harvest” and “Now, Voyager”, both from 1942, and both heavily melodramatic in that people were given psychological excuses for being out of touch with their own lives and so needed to find ways to integrate themselves back into a social life somewhat abbreviated from a normal life, all the while the characters managing to retain their self respect and not give in to feeling sorry for themselves, which is the constant risk in melodrama. In “Random Harvest” that meant Greer Garson had to settle for a sexless marriage to the man she had known as her husband before he fell into amnesia and in “Now, Voyager” that meant Bette Davis settling for a long term affair with Paul Henreid because circumstances, including themselves, stand in the way of marriage.

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5/23- Primitive Times

In “Genesis”, right after the story of the Creation, there is the story of Adam and Eve and their family. It is a story often taken as the archetypal account of the human capacity for disobedience and murder. Then, later on, there is the story of Abraham and his descendants told with such density that it contains as much material as a series of novels. That saga carries a set of families into, among other things, encounters with the world civilization of the Egyptians and thereby sets the scene for the epic of liberation provided in “Exodus”. The redactors of “Genesis” fill the time between the richly detailed close ups of Adam and Eve and their family and of Abraham and his family with the more fanciful stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, those set amidst genealogies that, like movie fadeouts, show the passage of time.

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What's Wrong With Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek is a contemporary Slovenian social thinker who is well versed in Hegelian Idealism, Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and film theory and, I am told, is very well thought of among young people. It is easy enough to see why he is appealing: his broad range of references, his graceful writing style, his willingness to bring in what would not seem apposite subject matters, but even there you have the beginning of a sense of why he is unreliable. He mentions “Gangnam style” which was a South Korean video and dance that made it into popular culture for a little while, but doesn’t have enough weight, less important than hoola hoops, for saying something about society. He reflects on the relation of North to South Korea, possibly because he had lectured in Seoul, when it would be more important to evaluate the meaning of capitalism in the United States, still its center, and so I am pressed to ask this question of his “Trouble in Paradise”, the title itself a reference to an Ernst Lubitsch film: what does he mean, really, by capitalism, other than it is the opposite of what is not yet, which is true socialism? That Hegelian opposition will not do, and so let us tease out his definition by bypassing his fascination with the Hegelian trick of turning everything into a negation or a negation of a negation, which is a philosophical parlor trick that doesn’t mean anything at all. Zizek says, with glee, that capitalism is a system which has two negatives: those in the surplus labor pool, who can’t get jobs, and those in the pool of educated persons who do not think they need jobs, and so capitalism includes both those it needs to keep the price of labor down, and those who it creates who seem surplus to the economy as a whole. All Zizek is saying in this formulation is that everything that happens in capitalism is a product of capitalism and so part of what is a combined mind set and social structure which does not have mechanisms which are either more or less essential. That holistic approach does not do justice to the complexity of what we know to be capitalism, where levels of taxation and central planning differ in, let us say, the United States and Sweden.

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Sargent's Story Pictures

John Singer Sargent is best known, of course, for his portraits of pretty society women in fancy gowns. Sargent does not use any symbolism in his painting. That would mean one image stands in place of another image or idea as when a dove represents The Holy Ghost. But, for Sargent, an orange sash is only an orange sash. So how does Sargent catch the intellectual interest of his audience without symbols? He does so by turning these hired portraits into story paintings, which means that his audience is invited to tell stories about them, a story being a narrative that gets from one place to another and has some suspense about what will come next. These stories are there in the pictures but waiting to be found, the viewer the one that has to conjure them up, though the clues for doing so have been supplied by the artist in the way he poses or dresses his subjects.

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4/23- Noah the Technologist

Noah was a good enough engineer, whether he got the plans from God or dreamed them up himself under the inspiration of God, to correctly execute these very ambitious plans. The plans are spelled out in detail. The ark is to have three levels. It is to be caulked both inside and outside. It is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. The dimensions of the ark are given so distinctly that they serve the literary purpose, of course, of concretizing the description and so make it as if it happened. But this is an interesting set of descriptors. “Genesis” could have said large or very large or as tall as a cedar of Lebanon or some other metaphor for size. “Genesis” does tend to exaggerate when it gives particular numbers, as when it gives the ages of the generations between Adam and Noah. That makes the story legendary: an exaggeration of what might have happened in the past rather than treating the past as having a very different set of processes than does the present, which is what happens when a mythology is created. There seems to be a different reason for concretizing here in the Noah story.

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Democracy and Genre Painting

Genre painting is the name given to a genre of painting that flourished, among other places and other times, in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. Genre painting in America portrayed the informal social life of a supposedly still unsophisticated  and largely rural America, this movement ending entirely with Winslow Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” (1872), that painting of boys at school recess that is perhaps better known today for its 3D effect of having its participants look as if they are on the verge of breaking out of the frame. These American genre paintings portray people grooming and selling horses, dancing, white people mixing with African Americans, and much else that could be considered informative about what life was like back then if one could trust inferences that are made from an art form, whether that is literature or painting, about what is really going on in the social life of the times. The art historian Elizabeth Johns makes such an attempt with regard to American genre painting and concludes that the paintings present a number of types so as to take a condescending and humorous view of their subject matter and are therefore not to be trusted as a serious set of pictures about the way things were because the pictures are designed to please the city swells who commissioned them. I disagree. I think it is possible, if one is careful, to draw inferences about reality from what might indeed have been painted as fanciful or stylized presentations of the life of the times. More particularly, the pictures, or at least some of them, tell the story of the emergence of democracy in the United States, a subject that historians of the time find crucial but where there is not enough of a documentary trail to explain how that remarkable event took place, something that did not arrive in Great Britain until the Reform Bill of 1886, some fifty year later.

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Cultural Mutation

Cultural mutation is a way to understand what is happening in a number of politically charged issues from race relations to foreign policy even though social scientists do not usually treat culture as something subject to spontaneous or creative change. Culture is usually regarded by anthropologists as the continuing way of life of a people, embracing customs, laws and beliefs, and so very stable and self-perpetuating and arising for unknown reasons, while sociologists emphasize the way culture reinforces the social structure that exists because it is transmitted by institutions that are answerable to the structure, as when television transmits what its advertisers will approve of, social media  a maverick in that there opinions percolate up from the people, and there is an understandable reaction by which government and other institutions of culture, such as the press, want to see the social media controlled so that they do not promulgate unpopular opinions. Culture is also taken to be a bridge or the medium through which change takes place in that culture diffuses innovations across a population, as when it spreads knowledge of vaccination, even though it is not responsible for original ideas. These theories are contrary to the perspective of humanists, which sees culture as the source of new ideas, whether in science, as when Darwin and Newton invent new perspectives because of their own ruminations while building on precedent thinkers, Darwin a mutation on Malthus and Lyell, while Newton was contemplating Copernicus and Galileo-- and vaccination was, after all, invented by a particular doctor in England on the basis of his observation of cows and the lack of smallpox among cow maids. Ingenuity and insight count. The humanist perspective can be applied to current events.

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3/23- Noah and God

 The redactors of “Genesis” were concerned with the development of technology, something that is immediately experienced, pervasive, and stands out from the natural world as a human artifact that confounds otherwise ordinary senses of scale and distance. That is true of even the creation fable that leads off “Genesis”. The creation fable does not offer creation done instantly by a powerful god nor does it relate a story of conflicts between gods that would motivate a god to create the world. Rather, as was suggested previously, it offers the set of processes that have to be performed in a particular sequence whereby the natural world, as humankind would know it, might become established.  What is more fundamental comes earlier in the sequence. The separation between night and day had to proceed the separation of the water from the land and that had to proceed before the animals could be created. God stepped back after each day’s labor to note his accomplishment. So He made the heavens and the earth rather than simply called them into being. Joseph, at the other end of “Genesis”, offers the social technology whereby the results of a famine can be avoided. That, on a more mundane level, is also a story of how to get from here to there, the creation of an agricultural surplus a process and not simply an intrusion.

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Campaign Rhetoric

The conventional wisdom is that political parties try to correct the mistakes they have made the last time or two around. So the Democrats didn’t want to nominate another clearly Liberal and Northern candidate after Mondale and Dukakis were defeated and so turned to Bill Clinton, a Southern Centrist who might pick up some of the states that had gone to Jimmy Carter, who was from Georgia. And so the Republicans, in 2020, will alter their primary structure so as not to let the nomination go to a crazy, by then having been saved by Robert Mueller from having to renominate Trump. Democrats, for their part, are going to look for a candidate with a little more personal oomph than they got from Hillary Clinton, who they blame for having lost the race, though we still do not know whether that was the result of of Comey or Russian interference. Remember that her margin over Trump went up after each of the three presidential debates. Those who tuned in knew who was and who wasn’t Presidential.

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The Limitations of Painting

One of the things that made Sargent a great painter was that he appreciated the limitations of painting. At least for two hundred years before he did his work, painting had not carried philosophical messages or meanings encoded in symbols but rather did what it was capable of doing, which is to show what things look like. Sargent has no symbolism, no iconography, only what people, particularly, look like in their faces and in how they dress and in their presentation. What Sargent gets from accepting that limitation is an attention to detail that allows him to pick up the telling detail that gives a picture drama even if not anything that could be called meaning.

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2/23- Adam and Eve

The creation of woman should not be seen as an afterthought by a God who had previously provided each of his animals with a mate but overlooked doing it for Adam. God may have thought that Adam was a special enough creation, meant to rule over the rest of it, and so he did not need a mate. But either God changed his mind about that or always knew that he would make a special creation later. Woman was a special creation so as to emphasize that in the actual world the relation between man and woman is not like it is with the pairings of the other animals; some special kind of creation was required. Eve was as close to Adam as his own rib. As a legend might, the story of Eve’s creation suggests that woman has thereafter an ambiguous relation to man: part of him, descended from him, and yet a companion to him, and so clearly something different from what happens with some other created species no matter how much it might occur to a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve that the two sexes had different natures. We can see this more clearly if we consider the type of literary undertaking the story of the Garden of Eden is.

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Tissot's "Hide and Seek"


James Tissot was a French painter who moved to England after the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1870, and returned to Paris some ten years later. During his career, he was both prolific and well paid. He made his name as a society painter, portraying fashionable women in good clothes and in appropriate settings. Later in life,Tissot devoted himself to Biblical paintings which are noteworthy for the sculpture-like rendering of Biblical figures, though the emotions of grief or piety that accompany them seem somewhat cliched. There is, however, one picture of his, “Hide and Seek”, created in 1877, that is very different from either of his two major periods, and it stands out as worthy of attention, and makes Tissot one of those artists that produces just a few memorable paintings rather than an artist who keeps producing them throughout the course of a career. For one moment, inspiration caught up with talent.

“Hide and Seek” is set in a large living room. On the right there is a door which opens onto a garden, but this is not a picture of the outdoors as seen from the indoors. Another widow with a view of the outside has a white window shade drawn down on it so that the outside is not visible, which helps the viewer return to the interior of the room as the painting’s subject matter. The room is furnished in Victorian style: overstuffed sofas, tables, ornamented carpets, all set far away from one another so that the room does not seem at all cramped while remaining quite homey. Critics have emphasized that this was a time in his life when Tissot was quite happy, having settled down with the mistress who gave him a son. She may be the person who is leisurely occupying a sofa with her feet up, reading a newspaper, the moment a sad one because she would die within a few years. So this is a bourgeois domestic idyll and so to be savored for how charming and pleasant bourgeois life can be.

There is more to the picture, though, and it refers to a paradox of bourgeois life not easily fathomed. There are four children in the picture, all similar and cherub like. The one at the center  and the main focus of the picture is sitting on the floor and looking at a ball that is a bit removed from her, it also a strategic object in the painting. Why is she looking so carefully at the ball? This, the grown woman neglects to do so, perhaps because it is only a toy there for the amusement of the children. But there is something about the ball that perhaps only children, or the naive, or else the very perceptive, will notice. The ball is geometrically round and it is unadorned. That is different from the furniture, which is plushly upholstered and has numerous cushions, and from the rugs, which have elaborate floral designs. The starkness of the ball makes it something from another world. It is a geometric form not in the abstract, as in a geometry textbook, but actualized as a concrete thing out of keeping with its surroundings, and so is a symbol as well as a representation of what is ultimate and universal in the midst of the everchanging. The girl notices this about the ball the people around her do not. The ball serves as a critique of the pleasures and comforts of the bourgeois world, which will inevitably fade, while what the ball is and represents will not fade, and yet, ironically, the ball is just a plaything on the floor, however much it takes over the picture, that now focussed on its right hand lower quadrant where the ball lies. The ball as an abstract and yet present object, a part of the natural rather than the socially created world because it is a part of geometry which rules, in its way, aside from what people do, is therefore a challenge to the world in which the child is immersed, and the child knows that, and the problem set up by the painting is what the child as well as the viewer will make of that.

The ball constitutes such a challenge because it is so different from the clutter of ostentatious decoration that dominates the Victorian Age and which serves to remove civilization from its underpinnings in reality. In the Victorian era, civilization is understood as an imposition upon nature, and human society a construction that keeps people from being, as an image of the age that endures has it, in a constant evolutionary struggle where the strong defeat the weak. Society is a product of history and takes on its own representations that are not obliged to or reflective of the pre-social or primitive social forces that may underlie them. That is what makes society so comfortable and comforting. To do this, everything from architecture to household furnishings to dress indicate an artificiality that contrasts with the natural and even goes so far as to appropriate what might seem to be the natural to its own purposes, as when flowers are adopted to decorate rugs and so become part of human life rather than natural life.

The ball as an abstract object and yet a real object is an image that could not be used for much longer as an image of the universal inhabiting the historical world. In the  Eighties, Lewis Carroll introduces a wonderland where the laws of logic stand out in high relief. Alice becomes smaller and then bigger contrary to physical law; the Cheshire Cat ceases to take up space, in violation of biological law; and, to top it off, the Queen demands a verdict before a trial, which is a violation of social law. And after that would come Freud’s cluttered office, opulent and busy in the Victorian style, but with the addition of statues and artifacts from primitive societies to add credence to the idea that there are levels of consciousness and experience that go beyond and are coexistent with the normality of bourgeois life. Nor will it be long before geometrical shapes take over painting and architecture and room decoration, however much the rectangles of Sullivan office buildings still use decorative motifs. But Tissot is not yet in that period and so geometry is an intrusion into bourgeois life, which raises the question of why bourgeois life was so committed to plush and over-elaborate decoration.

But this one picture should not lead to neglecting the paintings on which Tissot’s fame was based. Tissot’s portraits are not bad even though they never take a grip on the viewer the way that the portraits of John Singer Sargent do, whether that is because Tissot does not have Sargent’s mastery of color or because Tissot’s faces are too realistic and so do not have the mystery and individuality that Sargent’s do, or because they look too much alike, with pert noses and small lips, his women dressed more often than not in white, or simply because current taste for some reason does not favor him. But a more limited case can be made for them. Tissot sets his portraits in interesting places: outdoors, in parks, in living rooms, on ships, and so they constituted a record of what fashionable (and not so fashionable) women did with their time. In some cases, the clothes of the women he portrays are carefully represented and complex and their faces are distinctive. Moreover, the women are shown to be poised, comfortable in themselves, and so a match for the stagey men who accompany them. That provides evidence that should unsettle the view that the women of the Victorian Age are prim and oppressed. They seem very much in command of their surroundings even if they do not have seats in Parliament.


Tissot’s “Richmond Bridge”, for example, shows a self-possessed pretty lady, accompanied by an admirer, posed in an interesting place, near a river (the Thames) with an arched bridge, and wearing an elaborate plaid dress. Her face is fuller than it is in many Tissot portraits, and she seems preoccupied, as if her companion cannot keep her interest, something also indicated by his showboat moustache and cane, which make him something of a cliche gallant. So there is a story here, though the high point of the painting is her plaid dress, closely hugging her body, its material seeming thin though elegantly cut and so making a fashion statement even if the painting deliberately underplays that.

Then there is Tissot’s “Waiting for the Ferry” or, as it is sometimes called “the Art of Waiting”, where an equally formidable woman is waiting, slouched over in a chair, for the time to move on, and also has a companion who can not stop looking at her but whom she does not acknowledge. The background of buildings leaning over or near the river are interesting for their shapes and the bustle of activity within and near them, their white and grey textures and the life within them made more interesting by the intervention of horizontal and vertical lines between the buildings and the woman who is dressed, this time appropriately, in an unornamented white that becomes glamorous because it is so well cut. The viewer is left wanting to see more rather than less of the background, while the posed young woman challenges the background for the viewer’s interest, the viewer wondering whether she is bored rather than merely self-possessed, and how her personality plays into its physical context. She too has a male companion who is just an ornament.

Then there is Tissot’s “Ball on Board” where, indeed, the whiteness of the gowns seems overdone even as the picture portrays how social occasions such as this shipboard party go. One interest a modern viewer takes is in the social fact that women are coming on board where they are not ordinarily welcome, and the deeper question of how it is women of the period would have felt about having to be so elaborately dressed even if they were just getting on a ship where more comfortable clothes would seem appropriate. The women do not seem diminished by their elaborate “uniforms”, anymore than contemporary women are diminished by dressing in short skirts and long legs when going to the office. So there is something about how dress sets off women whatever the era of social enlightenment in which they live.

It is difficult not to find something of interest in portraits of woman. This fascination with how women look, women looked at and men doing the looking, has been going on at least since Pompeii, and is intensified in Christian art, which is so preoccupied with the Virgin Mary. This preoccupation with portraits of women rather than of men reaches its highpoint, perhaps, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, with the society portraitists, though we would be remiss not to notice that the layouts in Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein ads are as elaborate as they are in a Tissot painting. The way Tissot catches hold of the male interest in staring at women is therefore of significance even though, as I say, his major claim on us is as someone who caught onto something metaphysical about Victorian life.

1/23- The Creation Fable

This is the first of a twenty-three part series on the Bible. The general theme is that the Bible is for the most part in the vanguard of those who want to secularize history. That means that the authors of the Old Testament, and even of the New, are interested in dispensing with mythology, reducing the number of supernatural interventions in history, and moving the center of religious concern away from magical moments to moral questions.

The creation story in “Genesis” is a far more modern thing than it is usually credited with being  It is a kind of philosophical presentation and so very different from mythology which, as Ovid, that great student of mythology, noted, there are always biological transformations of things even while the gods remain subject to the forces of nature and the raging of human passions. Narcissus becomes his image but only symbolically, and not all narcissists become their images, which is what happens in a fable. The creation story is best explained as a fable, which is a story that explain a set of circumstances that do not seem to be created but which somehow were at a point in time and have become part of nature. Tigers have stripes and the Red Man got baked right, neither too much or too little.. Fables suggest that there is a history for what seems natural, a sometimes serious, sometimes fey attempt to make explicable what seems not to need explanation or else to make explicable something which seems paradoxical: how something could come into existence when it already had to be there.

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