The Age of Caligula
16 February, 2017
Since the mythical news conference, two days ago, Americans have been reeling. Behold the man, in living color, who has deposed two dynasties, one Republican and one Democratic. How was it possible?
The answer is: easily. And it is easy to blame the man. But that puts the responsibility in the wrong place. To understand how the country has reached this stage, we must look at the system that made it possible—politically. And after we understand that, we must look at the system that produced the people who within the given political system made it possible—humanly.
The antiquated American political system is ill-suited for running a modern state. Its foremost problem is the Constitution, which Americans tend to treat as a revealed text. In reality, it is a document born of reluctantly reached compromises designed to settle local issues that concerned the delegates of the 13 states, two and a quarter centuries ago. Among its many unfortunate features, the Constitution contained a self-perpetuating mechanism that made it ever more difficult to amend and update as the country expanded. In its 228 years of existence, excluding the first 10 amendments of 1789, the Constitution has been amended 17 times, or once in 13.4 years on average, less frequently in recent times. The last amendment dates from 1971, nearly two generations ago, this at a time when the world around advances at an accelerating rate, when it is more important than ever to keep up, stay current, and be able to respond to changes. But the Constitution has become a cult in the US, its rituals enacted scrupulously by its nine high priests, and its doctrines faithfully recited in temples across the land. The arrangements delineated in the Constitution and the early amendments, including the bicameral Congress and the absurd electoral college should have been done away with a long time ago to inject some measure of reason into the polity.
Even so, the obsolescence of the constitutional arrangements doesn’t seem quite sufficient to explain the results of the last elections, nor does the weakness of the Democratic candidate. The feeling is that something else went wrong. But nothing did. The problem is much deeper, and it originates in the 18th century theoretical foundation of the republic. Already then, the practical applicability of the ideas of the philosophes was questionable, as Nobel Peace Prize explains. Over the centuries, countries that manage their affairs by elected officials, have made numerous tweaks and adjustments to the original theory to make representative government work, with greater or lesser success. The American system is the only exemplar, frozen in time, that still remains true to these theories quite literally.
And still, the question remains, where do the voters who decided the last election, by free ballot, come from? To answer this question one must delve even deeper into Nobel Peace Prize and explore the exalted place where ethics and esthetics meet.
12 December, 2016
Uscolia went on sale today on Amazon, five hundred years to the day after Thomas More published Utopia. There is no pretense, however, merely coincidence.
Nabokov on poshlost (from “Strong Opinions”)
22 February, 2015
“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances… Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost’s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple—she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.
The Youngest Publisher
12 December, 2014
Today Sycorax Books has become the world’s youngest publisher. By tomorrow it probably will have lost this status, but until then, consider our five initial titles to be the last cry.
A Thousand Words
26 November, 2014
It is difficult to write about reading without preaching, and more difficult to conduct a rearguard action on behalf of a civilization in retreat before hordes armed with emoticons. Most difficult of all is using words to plead for the arcane art of their correct choice and ordering, even if it is not efficient, expedient, or economical to do so. The arguments below are loosely related but not integrated. The rant that follows is a musing, not a thesis.
A search for “a picture is worth a thousand words” (within quotation marks, so that only exact hits are counted), returns thirty six million results. “A word is worth a thousand pictures” receives only about thirteen thousand votes, but close inspection of some of these reveals that behind them there is intense belief in a strong connection between wording and thinking.
Of the attributes of reading, the one I find relevant today to quality of life is its relative slowness. Compared with images, which convey information instantaneously, reading is unabashedly consecutive. As word follows word in inexorable sequence, the mind must inspect and parse each one individually, and often go back and reevaluate an earlier one in light of a later arrival. There are no shortcuts in this process, and no lossless compression can be had, whereas a picture can be consumed and digested in an instant. The life work of Velasquez consists of some 120 paintings. At a leisurely place, albeit with some loss, one could leaf through an album containing reproductions of all of them in half an hour. By contrast, at one hour a day, and without stopping too often to look up words, it would take the better part of a year to read through Shakespeare’s work.
Somehow time is always a player in the words against images inequality. So are speed and efficiency. The one picture vs a thousand words comparison is between the efficiency of these units to communicate information to the brain. It is not a question of simply rendering the information but of making an imprint on the human brain, of producing a mental image. Pictures excel at it, so much so that in an age when generating, duplicating, and multiplying information is trivial, and disseminating it is virtually cost free, a traffic jam has formed at the gates of human consciousness, and it is quickly becoming a gridlock.
At the end of the 1980s I was collaborating with a young engineer on a book about the emerging field of desktop publishing. He was an expert on bit maps, printer controllers, and charge-coupled devices, fondly known as CCDs. Shortly after the book was published he informed me that he was moving to Simi Valley to develop a digital camera. I asked him why he would want to do such a thing – he had a successful little business in Cambridge. The answer was, “To put Kodak out of business,” with the stressed penultimate syllable that makes it sound like a question, and which later came to be conveyed by a comma and the word “stupid.” I was baffled. What could possibly be the utility of a digital camera?
Statements such as “Photos. Do not bend!” and “I’m including in the envelope the pictures we took last month at grandma’s birthday” are inconceivable today. Envelope? And who cares about pictures taken last month? “Check out the selfies I took a minute ago at the mall” is more likely.
In the space of one generation we all became information generating robots. Two decades ago, most of us were consumers of information. We generated little of it ourselves. Information in the public domain was largely subject to editorial control, so the products of our creative outbursts were confined to the bottom drawers of family and friends. After all, how many copies of grandma blowing out the birthday candles would we condescend to print? Today, every clever child with a smart phone generates masses of images that will require a new generation of phones, wise ones, to view. There are not enough waking human minutes in the day to consume even a fraction of the information generated in the course of the same day.
Some editorial gatekeeping will be necessary, otherwise the quantities alone are going to pull us down to the lowest common denominator. When a cat being tortured in a bucket of water receives several million likes, we know that the gates have been breached. Before the democratization of publication tools, a relatively small amount of controlled information was available to all, and the great mass of private data was kept away from everybody, for better or worse. Now, when all content is available to all, we are surfing on an ocean of information in which bits of data are drifting freely for all to gorge upon, and selective consumers must individually keep their gates to avoid collision with the more unseemly samples. Before, the sentries were positioned right at the entrance to the public domain, stemming the flow of personal dregs. Now we must hire our own guards to protect against ingesting the plankton that is floating around us. We use subscriptions, filters, etc. to automatically inspect the content, but after all, our last defense is still the judgment we form about each item, having checked it out individually. It is a slow process that requires the instinct we developed under the ancien régime of curated reading. Unless we learn to pass on this gene, future surfers will choke on the plankton and drown in it.
These were about a thousand words. I’m still thinking about the picture.