The Long View: Ecumenical Twilight

This is one of John's most haunting stories. When I think of Empire this is what I think of.


Ecumenical Twilight

by

John J. Reilly


 I The Barrens

 

Father Beed had often questioned the wisdom of the referendum that made the Filadelfia Republic a confessional state fifty years ago. Lately, though, he had a more specific reason to regret the decision. He wished that not all school children in the district were required to report for confession every month. He no longer minded the ones who just came for the attendance ticket. (They could not actually be compelled to receive the sacrament, of course: that was in the Constitution.) Far worse were the teenagers who got into the confessional and started to tell ghost stories. Especially since now he believed them.

"Just what was the nature of these acts?" he asked the girl on the other side of the screen.

"Father, it is too disgusting to tell you."

"You don't have to embarrass yourself, my child. Were they urging you to perform impure acts?"

"No, nothing like that Father. Well, not if by `impure' you means sex. That's not what it's about."

"So what is it about?"

"Father, I'm sorry, I just can't say. Please don't make me. I promise I did not do it, anyway. Honest."

Father Beed sighed.

"Okay, let's put it this way. Do you know that what they asked you to do was a sin? Was it unreasonably dangerous, for instance?"

"That's just it, Father. By itself, it was not bad at all, except that it was...."

"Disgusting?"

"Yes, Father, but that was not what frightened me. It was part of something else that was wrong. There was something wrong with the people who talked to us."

"These are the people who said they live in the Pine Barrens?"

"Yes, Father."

"Who are they?"

"They call themselves the Living Ones, Father Beed. They said that soon they will free us, free the whole world, from God and the Emperor. They said that we would know everything after we did it. They said we would be able to fly. Father, they said we would live forever."

"But you did not do what they asked?"

"No Father, I ran away. But I met some of my friends the next night, and they said they did it."

"And what else did they say?"

"They said it was true."

Father Beed resisted the temptation to whistle. He was just a local priest in the Parish of St. John Newman, an underpopulated place that was being slowly reclaimed by pine woods. His divinity degree, like the rest of higher education, was based on an aspect (the Anthropic Corollaries, to be precise) of the Grand Unification Theory. In principle, the GUT covered everything, from insect embryology to the Hypostatic Union, but he felt far from competent to handle this situation. He wished that this girl's story were no more than it sounded like. A faddish threat to public health might interest the provincial Health Department. Even what sounded like a sectarian attempt to organize sedition and apostasy among the young would probably not even attract a polite visit from the Ecumenical Security Ministry. The government was too secure to be spooked by a few kids playing in the woods. Unfortunately, he knew that it should be.

"Look, my child, I know I could talk to you for hours on end about the need to choose your friends wisely, but I am sure we both have things to do. So, here is your penance. I want you to ask your friends, the ones who have not yet done this thing you are talking about, to talk to me or another priest about it. Can you do that?"

"I can try, Father Beed. They may not come. They are beyond school age now, and none of them go to university, so they are not required."

"It is enough if you try. Now make a good act of contrition."

So she did. Father Beed gave her absolution, along with a ticket dated "Saturday: 24 September: AD 2270" to give to her school's Prefect of Discipline. Though he hoped otherwise, he suspected that the next time the girl came, she would not tell ghost stories. She would speak as if she were describing someone else. And she would almost certainly avoid coming in the day.

Thankfully, she was the last penitent. He told his chapel, built over a hundred years before in the Romanesque style favored by the Anglican Rite of the Universal Church, to close itself up. As he walked home, the early autumn sunset turned the ancient trees of the town square to gold.

The Township of Jenkins was carefully and tastefully maintained, thanks largely to generous preservation grants. The Pine Barrens region had never been densely populated, even during the American Centuries when it lay in the southern half of the State of New Jersey. However, the Filadelfia Republic was not willing to allow the area to revert entirely to wilderness, especially since so much of it had already been lost to the slowly rising Atlantic. So Jenkins, with a year-round population of 800, nevertheless boasted an under-used commuter rail system and an elaborately redundant communications grid. The town also had an unusually generous supply of remarkably ugly public statuary, commissioned from the family business of an enterprising provincial Secretary of Culture just a generation ago. Father Beed was a history buff, however, and by far his favorite monument was the War Memorial on the square. He usually arranged his walk home to pass by it. Today, since he needed a little time to think, he gave the stones a few minutes of his full attention.

The monument had no statues, just some stone benches and a group of steles. Over time, they had accreted like stalagmites around the rim of the rectangular granite plaza set in the grass. The original stele was just four hundred years old that autumn, a weathered column with an archaic inscription and the illegible names of a dozen dead from the American Civil War. (A discrete panel, reproducing the names and the inscription in modern spelling, had been helpfully set into a granite flagstone by the Preservation Commission.) Though erected in 1870, a plaque to the Revolutionary era had been set up at the same time, as an afterthought.

Except for the The Second World War, which had three slabs all to itself, a similar pattern repeated throughout the ensemble. Minor wars received notice only many years later, when larger wars produced casualty levels that tripped some obscure critical threshold and prompted the erection of a new stele. The Vietnam stone, erected in the 1980s and quite small, reached back thirty years to Korea. The memorial to the Third World War of 2020-2022 similarly appended nearly two generations of smaller conflicts. (That stele was unusual in listing a few local civilian dead and a significant number of female service members.)

The monument to the Armageddon War of 2075-2080 had, of course, long since been removed. Father Beed knew that it had been as large as all the others combined, and that it did not memorialize anything as sentimental as casualties. Certainly any monument built to celebrate the founding conflict of the terrible City of Man would have suffered no mention of lesser wars. The wonder was that all the older stones had not been cleared away during the Eighth Day, as the City called the time of its regime; that was what happened to so many other memorials to local patriotism all over the world. Father Beed was a little skeptical of the trend among historians these last hundred years to identify the City's first and only President as the full incarnation of the Beast of the Book of Revelation. Even so, he felt a familiar chill down his spine as he looked at the grooves that marred the flagstones where the Image had stood.

The dead of the last four-fifths of the 21st century did not get their due until its last year, in the Liberation Monument of 2100 that marked the foundation of the Ecumenical Empire. There were no later war memorials, since there had been no later wars but minor police actions. The region had apparently never felt sufficient connection to the Ecumenical Guard to erect a monument to it, though there was, predictably, one to the Space Corps. Father Beed had sometimes envied the past a little, when the conflict between good and evil could be expressed in something as simple as combat. Now he wondered whether the world might soon know that kind of clarity again.   

 

 II Cold War

 

The war between Europa and Callisto had lasted almost 4 billion years. Of the Galilean moons, Callisto was the fourth most distant from Jupiter and Europa the second. Their deep, dark Oceans had always nurtured the bulk of the organic matter in the solar system. Evolution on these relatively small bodies was powered by tidal stresses arising from their orbits around their enormous primary. This allowed for a steadier, if slower, growth in biological sophistication than had been possible in the ferocious sun-driven ecologies of the inner solar system. The biospheres of Earth or Mars or Venus were accident-prone, since they needed to mediate the climatic interaction of the land and the sea and the atmosphere. In two of these cases, the effort resulted in irreversible catastrophes of ice and fire early in the solar system's history. On Callisto and Europa, however, there was just the Ocean. Stability required only that life so influence the thermal budget of these worlds as to keep them just warm enough to allow a thin, protecting film of ice to form on the surface.

Survival, however, required that one biosphere destroy the other. Callisto and Europa were different worlds, with different histories, but they were not quite isolated. Their low escape velocities ensured that even modest meteoric impacts would splatter a significant amount of oceanic ice across the Jovian system. On a few occasions, even multicellular life-forms made the journey from one world and established themselves in the other. The constant in the evolution of both bodies, however, was the repeated invasions of microorganisms that each inflicted on the other every few hundred thousand years.

The earliest exchanges were the most catastrophic. New strains of infection more than once brought the native life of Callisto or Europa close to extinction, only to be beaten back when the indigenous biology found a way to circumvent the alien's advantages. Gradually, though, each biosphere became accustomed to the major biochemical themes in the evolution of the other. Each then modified its own evolution to take advantage of its most recent experience of infection, thus preparing a more sophisticated counterstroke for when its own biological material traveled to the other body. The escalating feedback eventually brought a kind of stability: the contenders grew too resilient to be seriously damaged even by the most sophisticated biochemical innovation. The effect of each new exchange was felt, of course, but the damage it did was usually subtle. A reasonable observer might have concluded that this struggle was actually a kind of symbiosis, a relationship destined to last as long as the Jovian system.

A reasonable observer would have been wrong. Europa finally destroyed Callisto. There was nothing altogether novel about the last infection: it expanded only incrementally on the major strategy of the last 500 million years of the conflict. This was the "translation" of the host-organism's genetic code to that of the invader, rather than any immediate gross changes in the information being translated. The effect was rarely to kill the host. In fact, it usually imparted a peculiar new vitality. It did, however, thoroughly disrupt the way that infected organisms reacted to each other, since its point of reference was the maintenance of the metabolic integrity of the individual, rather than the ecology in which it lived. In effect, it turned its hosts into counterfeits.

Though both Callisto and Europa had been evolving these mechanisms, Europa was the first to break some invisible barrier in the speed of infection. Soon after the last eruption of Europan matter arrived, Callisto was overwhelmed before it could develop countermeasures. In a matter of a few centuries, the Callistan biosphere collapsed and 60% of its Ocean froze. The residual biota was a Europan biochemical colony, "dressed" in caricatures of the extinct native life.

An so it seemed that Europa would be left in peace. In effect, its history was over. Its biosphere luxuriated in the dark, salty bliss of perfect isolation. Paradise lasted only a dozen million years, however. Then, once again, alien life intruded below the sheltering ice. This time, though, the invaders were multicellular entities whose evolution had been grossly anatomical. The biochemistry of these entities was so crude that a dozen Jovian years passed before the sophisticated life of Europa found a way to counterattack.      

         

 III The Kabbalah Klub

 

The things I do for civilization, Andros thought glumly to himself as he negotiated with the Living gatekeeper at some negligibly small hour of the morning. He did not at all mind being in Prague, though these days it was little more than a historical theme park. The fact is, there were no more than a dozen cities left on Earth worth visiting. He found this something of a mystery. The population of the planet had been gradually falling since the late 21st century, but there were still just over a billion people in it. That was as many as in the 19th century, when by most accounts the world was a various and fascinating place. Not so today, at least to his way of thinking..

When the monster megalopolises of the 20th and 21st centuries evaporated, all they left was great tracts of shabby ruins, quickly buried under scrub and forest. A school geography text from 1900 would give a tourist of the late 23rd century a better idea of where to visit than would a world guidebook from 2000 or 2100, except that all the destinations would be blander and more homogenous. Prague was little more than a small town now, but it still belonged on the short list of uncanny cities that included Buenos Aires and Victoria. Andros might actually have asked for this assignment, had it not been given him because of his special expertise. He might have asked, even had he known it might involve ingesting an unknown substance in a place like the Kabbalah Klub.

There was no set career path that led to his position as Field Agent for Occult Practices in the Ecumenical Health Ministry. He had become interested in the Black Arts, as he liked to call them, when he began to dabble in alchemy at college. It was a respectable hobby. One of the quirks of the GUT was that, while it declared almost all propositions about the world to be either certainly true or certainly false, it also created a class of propositions whose truth value was logically undecidable. The question of low-energy transmutation of elements, properly stated, happened to fall into that class. In his reading on the subject, one thing led to another, and soon he was a minor expert on topics like comparative demonology. The topic of incubi came up, how he was not sure how, when he interviewed for a job with the Ecumenical Civil Service after graduation, and one thing led to another again.

Since the world government assumed its final form in the early 22nd century, there had always been a few operatives like Andros. Both the Chinese and the Western components of world civilization had persistent "magickal" undergrounds, indeed undergrounds that persisted in staying underground even when their activities were entirely legal. Or, as under Ecumenical law, mostly legal. One point these traditions had in common was the use of consciousness-altering substances that could be lethal under certain circumstances.

With some hesitation, the Empire had decided early in its history to regulate rather than criminalize the recreational use of drugs, though of course the Subsidiary States could criminalize the possession of drugs within their own borders if they so chose. (Tolerance was made easier by the development of synaptic blockers, which made any addiction curable with a single injection.) Still, a necessary function for the central government of a planet that was only an hour across by commercial suborbital transport was to ensure that its subjects were not wantonly poisoning themselves. Therefore, new substances had to be tested and registered. If they were not, people like Andros were sent to find out the reason why. One of the paradoxes of his job, he often reflected, was that the Magick Underground, whose members prided themselves on fidelity to Traditions of various degrees of bogusness, nevertheless showed such ingenuity in finding new ways to make themselves sick.

Places like the Kabbalah Klub seemed to be the inevitable underside of what made cities like this interesting. Typically of such places, it was literally underground, two full stories in this case, with atrocious lighting and an atmosphere that reminded you of just how old the sewers in this neighborhood were. The place was packed, subdued but not silent, as if the pale and furtive patrons had been discretely planning to seize and eat the next customer to walk in. The decor of the Klub was 20th-Century Dank. The first half of that century was the most celebrated period in occult circles, where it was regarded by most as the high noon of Magickal power and knowledge. (The only important competition was offered by the cult of the First President and his era.) The rough brick walls were covered with huge posters of the maguses of the period, of Jung and Yeats and Gardiner and the rest. There were retouched photos of Hitler addressing torch-lit rallies that stretched to the horizon under a dome of brilliant stars. (The constellations were not identifiable, Andros noted).

The lack of pictures of Aleister Crowley actually emphasized his centrality, since in their stead were blown-up panels displaying texts from "The Book of the Law." The texts were in the original Traditional Orthography, the standard English spelling from 1750 to 2050. One of the few certain effects of the Underground on the larger world had been to brand this quaint but unlearnable system in the public mind as the the devil's own writing. The only contemporary pictures that Andros noted were a few of Prince Friedrich, the Emperor's only grandson, who would, probably, be elected by the Senate to replace his grandfather when old Josef died. Andros was obscurely disturbed by the following the Prince had among people like the denizens of the Kabbalah Klub, but that was not a problem for the Health Ministry. The problem he did have was intractable enough.

"No, Mr. Andros," the Living One said, "it will not be possible for you to take some of the Water with you before you have been initiated." Andros thought she had probably been very pretty when she was alive. Dark hair, black clothes, not nearly as desiccated as your average 25-year-old with these interests. He had been three months tracking down the new sect of the Living, rumors of which had spread like wildfire through occult circles. It was consciously modeled on the Gnostic initiation cults of the first few centuries AD. People were free to worship Mithras in the privacy of their own cellars, of course. His attention was drawn only when he began to run across references to an initiatory Elixir, or whatever it was, that had immediate magical effects. It was some clue to the nature of the group that, in all the time he had been trying to gain the trust of its members, no one had ever suggested that money change hands. He was dealing with a group of enthusiasts, not crooks. This was not necessarily encouraging.

"But I have told you, Miss Segur, that I am a student of comparative religions, not a seeker after enlightenment for myself. The Ocean of the Living has accepted my request to study the Elixir under those terms." (This acceptance did not altogether surprise Andros: comparative religion was looked on with much greater suspicion than alchemy in this age of the Second Religiousness, so it recommended him to the people in places like the Kabbalah Klub. All he had needed to conceal was his status as an Ecumenical agent.) "I fear that my objectivity will be ruined if I undergo a full initiation. Besides, if I simply went through the motions to obtain the Water, would that not be disrespectful of the Ocean? Surely it would be better if I attended simply as an observer, at least for now?"

"The Ocean agreed that you might take part in a ceremony, not attend a party. The Water must be received person-to-person, through an anointing. Otherwise it does no good. You have come so far. Surely you do not wish to break the protocol now?"

That, of course, was exactly what Andros wanted to do. He would be much happier if he could just walk out of here with a vial of the Water he had been tracking all around the world. Then he could have it safely analyzed. As things stood, though, it looked as if he would actually have to swallow-inject-inhale the damn stuff and then have his blood analyzed. He knew that prophylactic measures, and the fact the state of his metabolism was being continually transmitted to the nearest emergency unit, made it very unlikely he would come to any harm. Besides, the substance was probably harmless. Probably.

Andros managed not to sigh. Experience taught him that there really was no way to avoid this. The occult was 99% games and wishful thinking. If you wanted to penetrate the Underground that played by the rules of the Other World, then you had to play, too.

"Miss Segur," he said with what he hoped sounded like good grace, "you are perfectly correct. I ask only to join the Ocean of the Living on its own terms."

At that she smiled (a little perfunctorily, he thought, considering the amount of dissimulation he had just put into that submission) and rose from the little table where they had been sitting. "In that case, Mr. Andros, please follow me. The Ocean will receive you gladly."

Andros had not known whether the cult's ritual center was on-site, but he was not surprised when the young woman led him to a door lost in the shadows at the back of the Klub. Andros briefly wondered how many other sects of ultimate wisdom rented rooms in the adjoining subcellars: places like the Kabbalah Klub sometimes were as lucrative as exclusive shopping malls. Soon after he walked through the door, however, he stopped wondering about microeconomics, because the investigation began to take one strange turn after another.

He did not, as he expected, progress from a world of dank kitsch to quarters outfitted to fit some very peculiar vision of paradise. As these things went, the antechamber was something of a disappointment. There were no Hindu idols or Aztec busts. What there was looked like the scrub-room for an operating theater. Actually, it might have been a historical recreation of a theater for minor surgery itself, considering the display of scalpels and other instruments.

"We will pause here for two reasons, Mr. Andros. The first is that I have still to share the Water of the Living today. The other is so that you can see this miracle, and so understand something of the bliss of the Living. Thus, you will be better prepared to encounter the Ocean."

She directed him to go behind a screen and shower in an adjoining cubicle. Then he put on the white robe of a postulant (a common piece of secret-society costuming) and slippers that had been provided for him. When he emerged from behind the screen, he found that she was standing with her naked back to him in front of one of the instrument tables. She was not desiccated at all, he saw. Her body also revealed a bit of useful history, a tattoo of the Space Corps Medical Service on her left shoulder. The phrase, "the things I do for civilization," returned to him, in another key.

All idle thoughts collapsed in shock when he moved around to the other side of the table. She had done something to herself that he had heard of only as an admonitory instruction given to Guard recruits who might be desperate enough to attempt suicide to escape boot camp. She was committing suicide the right way. Using one of the scalpels, she had slit the major artery in her left arm from elbow to wrist, thus causing so much bleeding that death must soon follow. She was holding her arm carefully, so that most of the blood collected in a liter-sized basin. The basin was almost full.

Andros was about to leap over the table to improvise a tourniquet when she checked him with a glance. "I told you, Mr. Andros, the Elixir must be shared once a day. The Living give as well as take. Watch."

Too surprised by the steady tone of her voice to move, he stayed where he was. In a few seconds, she flexed her left arm closed and turned away from the basin. At the same time, she used a towel in her right hand to clean up the numerous spots that had fallen on her body and on the floor. Then she extended her left arm again and cleaned the blood off that. The lethal incision was gone. All that was left was a furrow, with no scar tissue, that filled itself in even as Andros watched.

"The Living of the Ocean are immortal, Mr. Andros," she said. "Please wait a moment while I dress."

When she emerged from behind her own screen, he was yet again surprised, this time by the fact she was dressed in the neat black silk suit in which she had entered. She picked up the basin, which held so much of her blood that she ought to have been at least unconscious and probably in shock. "This is for you," she said.

A appalling surmise arouse in Andros's mind. "This is the Water, isn't it!" he gasped. "You expect me to drink this!"

For the first time in their acquaintance, Miss Segur went through the motions of looking amused. "This is indeed the Water, Mr. Andros, but I do not expect you to drink it. What I ask you to do is carry it for me: getting spilled blood out of silk is the very devil."

Andros did as he was asked, cringing a little as he felt how warm the aluminum sides of the basin were. She led him across the scrub-room (which, at second thought, was probably just a re-outfitted kitchen) and out through a door on the opposite side. This led to a dark though utilitarian corridor. Many secret societies would have made a great fuss about preparing an initiatory passage like this, but the Ocean seemed to have other priorities. Andros noticed the hall had a stainless-steel floor, marred by only a few drops of freshly spilled blood. (Andros contributed a few of his own to these: Miss Segur had a perfectly pragmatic reason not to carry her own donation.) It was only when they reached the large room at the other end of the corridor that he again encountered some of the other-worldly atmosphere he had expected here.

The room was as dimly lit as the Kabbalah Klub, though not so crowded, and perfectly silent. Most of the people were wearing street clothes. Some wore robes like his, but colored red. The walls were covered with images of bulls and what seemed to be the sun, though the disk was dark. The chief feature of the room was the great rectangle of black in the center. Someone took the basin from Andros's hands and emptied its contents into it. That was when Andros realized that the rectangle was full of some dark liquid, maybe 30 centimeters deep. Then a dozen of the silent people took hold of Andros and stripped him of his robe and slippers. They did not react to his desperate inquiries. They heaved him into the rectangle.

In those shallow inches, the whole Ocean was fully present. Andros flew through a world which a sense as crude as sight could never represent. Andros knew that this world was vast, vaster by orders of magnitude than the film of near vacuum that had produced his own blinkered kind. On every hand was glory beyond any music, and billions of years of wisdom for which knowledge and action were one. In contrast, mere thought was an impotent play of ghosts in his tiny skull. Andros knew that his movement through the Ocean was not purposeless, and that the purpose was not his. In rapid steps, he ceased to fight the Ocean, and experienced bliss in its embrace. Then he ceased to experience bliss and became the bliss. Then Andros the living man ceased to be anything at all. 

 

 IV Strategies

 

The Anthropic Corollaries of the GUT predicted that the basic chemistry of life must be identical wherever it appeared in the universe, just as they stipulated that consciousness cannot interact with the universe without an essentially human nervous system and a personal history. However, though the range of emergent properties that might arise in any given biosphere was quite limited, the histories of how these properties were selected could nevertheless make certain aspects of life from different worlds fundamentally alien. Thus, for instance, the Ocean simply could not interact with airborne microorganisms. There was no significant atmosphere on Europa, only the Ocean itself, and every biological system was predicated on the condition that mineral nutrients and a stable temperature environment would always be available. Life that did not assume these things was so different from that of the Ocean as to be invisible. There were other aspects of terrestrial biology, such as the development of organisms with rigid bodies and nervous systems, that were not wholly absent from the Ocean, but which on Earth had developed to such a rococo degree that the transformations the Ocean effected were often suboptimal. The rule was that major, unfamiliar systems would not be closed down, but they were usually isolated from the new imperatives that the reformed organism acquired as the result of its transformation.

Fortunately, however, the central organizing feature of the higher multicellular terrestrial organisms was perfectly familiar to the Ocean. Biological evolution, like technological progress, was fundamentally conservative. The whole point of the crude mechanical complexity of a vertebrate body was to keep sea water flowing in its veins as it moved about in an otherwise lethal environment. Indeed, the salinity of human blood was roughly that of the seas in which life had evolved, just as the high body temperatures favored by all animals that could control their own metabolisms were fossils of an ancient climate. The Ocean had no difficulty annexing the primitive seas that flowed through the bodies of organisms from Earth. Once that was achieved, the flesh quickly became that of the new dispensation.  

 

 V The New Man

 

They exchanged some small talk when he returned to the scrub-kitchen, not because there was anything in particular to communicate, but because that was what these bodies did. The Kabbalah Klub was much as before, though the dark was less of a distraction now that other senses were available. Illumination, in fact, was on the whole to be avoided. The Ocean was dark, and the life that grew from it had no experience of the light of the sun. That, however, would not be a problem for another few hours. The word-processing features of the brain of the agent from the Ecumenical Health Ministry was already composing a report as it returned to the surface. The personality it emulated was as well adapted to its environment as an insect-lure on a carnivorous plant.   

 

VI Sydney

 

Brother Diplodicus charged down the breezeway like the Wrath of God on which he had intended to lecture that morning. Although the University of Sydney was a confessional university, like most institutions of higher learning of the late 23rd century, nevertheless many of its students evinced a deplorable lack of interest in those elements of the GUT that treated of the divine sciences. That was why the Missionary Monks of St. Liebowitz, as part of the agreement under which they became the Chapter of the city’s great cathedral after the end of its first incarnation as an opera house, took it upon themselves to teach the theology requirement at the University’s more recalcitrant technical schools. Among these was invariably numbered the School of Mechanical Engineering. There it was that Brother Diplodicus, as a special act of penance, volunteered to teach systematic theology.

He knew that boys would be boys (women had their own college within the University) and that they were not at the point in their lives when the relevance of his subject would necessarily be apparent. The course was not graded, and the requirements for a pass were not onerous. He did not expect 100% attendance at his lectures. Actually, since the lectures were scheduled for 8:00 am, he did not always expect 50% attendance. What he did expect was that at least some would show up, preferably sober. The behavior of the students had declined throughout the month, but the sight of an empty lecture hall this morning was the last straw.

Pounding down a final ramp onto the quad on the north face of the School’s small dormitory building, he began by exhorting the blank glass face of the wall. That brought no response. He could not see so much as a shade flicked back to allow the groggy miscreants within to see the show. In fact, there was no movement about the building of any description. My God, he thought, they must all be seriously hung over from something or other. Enough of this, then. He ripped open the main door and repeated the same imprecations at even higher volume, this time to the small atrium around which the students’ cells were arranged. Still nothing. Brother Diplodicus was actually close to tears. He loved his subject and he was normally very good at teaching it. Hostility and laziness he could deal with, but being boycotted was new. It hurt. The least they could do was stagger out of their doors and tell him to shut up and go away.

Then Brother Diplodicus, who for all his bluster was not a cruel man, did a terrible thing. He pulled the fire alarm.

So as to ensure that the evacuees had to at least step into the open air before they realized what was going on, he left the atrium and retreated to the far side of the quad. He intended his silhouette against the morning sun as a dramatic touch.

It was not long before the students began to emerge from the doors. At first, they looked like any group of scruffy undergraduates rousted out of bed at an odd hour. Then Brother Diplodicus began to get an inkling that something was terribly wrong. They were not just scruffy, they were filthy. And they were not wearing underwear or pajamas, but everyday clothes that were caked with some filthy substances. The truly frightening thing was their skin, where it was visible. It was not just white, it was fish-belly white. Brother Diplodicus make the sign of the cross when he realized this was just as true of the African students as of the rest.

The students had fled the building because their reflexes were still in good condition. Indeed, their automatic responses were almost all that their nervous systems could produce reliably these days. The problem was that their higher levels of cognition were too erratically integrated with their motor areas to make them stop before they were halfway across the quad. By that time, the dormitory’s housekeeping system had sealed the building until the fire department arrived. This meant that, even when they were able to turn around, they could not get back into the shade of the atrium. The ones on top of the pile caught fire in the strong morning sunlight. Several of the ones underneath survived to be carefully taken away by people in biological-hazard encounter suits.

They took Brother Diplodicus, too, just to be on the safe side.  

 

 VII The End of History and the Last Bureaucrats

 

Several things that people first began to notice about Manhattan in the first half of the 20th century continued to be true in the last half of the 23rd.

One such thing was that, when a city-scape acquires a certain degree of monumental building, architecture becomes invisible. From sidewalk level, a skyscraper is just a storefront. If a whole neighborhood consists of skyscrapers, then, at least for the purposes of the city’s pedestrians, the neighborhood consists of one-story shops. However, skyscrapers had never been built primarily for the purposes of local pedestrians. This became more and more true of New York City’s central island as Manhattan changed from an American city to a global metropolis during the 21st century.

Under the Empire, New York became one of the five world capitals: “Xijing” or “West Capital.” (The name was often abbreviated in English-language texts with the Chinese characters, though they were almost universally pronounced “New York.”) The dynamic of building in the city, therefore, came to be almost wholly governed by the needs of world bureaucracies that had long ago learned the sad truth of the adage, “You can’t fax a handshake.” The process tended to plow under even some of Manhattan’s quite ancient residential districts. It was made tolerable only by the fact that New York City as a whole shrank back to its late 19th-century population of about a million, and indeed back to its late 19th-century municipal boundaries. The “outer boroughs” that had been annexed in those years were largely abandoned, becoming swampy nature preserves. (Part of the reason for the abandonment was that even the Ecumenical government was willing to spend the money for protective sea-walls against rising ocean levels only for Manhattan itself.) In the late 23rd century, Manhattanites looking out over the fen and forest that again surrounded their island still found the view a refreshing window on unspoiled nature, and not as the portent of a fate that could someday overtake their enclave, too.

Something else that had long been true of Manhattan was that any organization with the perfect headquarters was almost certainly moribund. This principle was first recognized by the great sage, Northcote Parkinson. It was most perfectly demonstrated in the 20th century by institutions like the UN, entombed at birth in International Style sarcophagouses. However, the principle also holds for all classes of organizations. Innovative technology tends to be commercialized first in dim, overcrowded workshops that take building safety codes in a metaphorical sense. The offices of publishers that bring out exciting new authors are cramped nests of disassembled manuscripts and the remains of the last month’s worth of on-the-job lunches. Effective public bureaucracies are perpetually housed in temporary quarters that are designed for something else and that are never, ever, conveniently located.

The Manhattan headquarters of the Ecumenical Security Ministry was perfect to a degree that would be described by the term “cerulean” had it been a blue sky. The structure was in fact almost that color. Located right above the most elaborate mass transportation hub on Earth, the 90-story ESM building was outfitted with the acme of the human race’s achievements in communications technology and data archiving. The building itself was forged as a single unit from composite materials in the Gothic Synthesis style that had characterized public architecture since the 22nd century. It was nearly indestructible. A fair-sized nuclear weapon might have knocked it over, but would not have destroyed it. Neither would such a disaster have destroyed the ESM as an institution. Only about half of the Ministry’s nominal headquarters employees usually put in an appearance on an average working day. Many of the rest would not have noticed an explosion in any case.

This degree of insouciance was not an option for the small circle of senior bureaucrats on the 85th floor, who were listening to the Vice Minister Strecchia read the report in her huge and impeccably functional office:

“....Agent ANDROS continued speaking about golf to Agent DELAGATO, even after swallowing approximately 50g of Agent DELGATO’s upper arm. At no point did Agent ANDROS express any hostility toward the victim, or acknowledge the fact that he just committed an act of cannibalism in the cafeteria of EHM [Ecumenical Health Ministry] London. When interrogated later (under restraints), Agent ANDROS was genuinely confused by the reaction to his behavior. At first, he apologized for violating what he supposed was a “no-meat” rule in a vegetarian-only dining hall. Possible physiological explanations for this distressing incident are contained in Appendix...”

She broke off there, taking pity at the sight of the half-dozen department heads, who were visibly regretting having eaten some of the tasty little sandwiches she invariably had made when a meeting ran into lunch hour. Not that such a thing happened very often. Whenever any organization was necessary, but rarely experienced a situation outside established routine, all its operations naturally fell into the hands of imperturbable mid-level bureaucrats. These middle-aged women and rather elderly men were usually genuine experts in their fields, but they owed their advancement to never getting excited. Problems, they knew from long experience, could be counted on to die of old age in their in-boxes.

Almost all of the 27 major Ministries and 6 independent Services of the Ecumenical Empire had come to function on this basis, and usually well enough. In a way, it was a great victory for the principles of the Empire, which had been created not by conquest, but by exhaustion. The events of the 20th and 21st centuries had caused the peoples of Earth to sicken of public affairs on every level. Mankind was well pleased to let such things be managed by unobtrusive care-taker institutions. The only flaw in this arrangement was that, on those rare occasions when unprecedented situations did arise, they fell under the purview of administrators with no demonstrated aptitude for initiative. In this case, one of the greatest threats ever experienced by the human race was in the hands of a Ministry whose primary practical function for the previous century had been tracking down stolen cars.

“And it wasn’t till we got the criminal referral from EHM that we knew any of this was happening?” asked Bob from the Subversion Department.

“Well, we had the reports,” the Vice Minister said, a little defensively. “We just had not gotten around to linking them altogether.”

The hardcopy stack of incidents from the past month did in fact make a diverse pile. There were two other acts of cannibalism, a growing number of disappearances every nightfall, reports from local clergy about the increasing correlation of impiety and photosensitivity among the young. The participants in the meeting would have been inclined to dismiss the odd incidents of the period as statistical coincidences, had it not been for the spontaneous combustions. They had tried to hand those back to EHM, but without success.

“The really decisive report was written by Andros himself,” Deputy Vice Minister Felix chimed in. “We thought we should take a look at what he had been up to in the weeks before the incident in London.”

“And what was that?” asked Carl from Terrorism.

“His job, more or less. We now know from investigating the site of his last undercover assignment pretty much what happened to him. A lot of the details are even in the report he filed. At first, in fact, we thought the only screwy thing was the ‘no action’ recommendation. Now we know better.”

“I find the conclusion hard to swallow, even now” said Bob, who had stayed late for the first time in 30 years last night to check the analysis himself.

“It is true. Agent Andros is no longer a human being, psychologically or biologically. For that matter, we don’t even think he is conscious. You can tell from his use of language after that night at the Kabbalah Klub. His grammar and syntax did not change, and the vocabulary is his. The difference is.....”

“Well?” asked Bob.

“There’s nobody home,” the Vice Minister explained. “He flunks the Turing Test. His report on the Kabbalah Klub might almost have been written by an Angel,” she said, referring to the “infinite depth” class of artificial intelligence machines with which the science of cybernetics concluded in the middle 21st-century. “He can say ‘I,’ of course, but there is no ideation behind it. What is left of his mind is just a language machine. Certainly it has little role in controlling his primal instincts: that’s why he nonchalantly took a bite out of a fellow agent.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Carl interrupted. “Psychology is very interesting, but surely the reality of the situation is a xenobiological crisis? Every long molecule in that man’s body was re-jiggered, as well as in the bodies of people taken in the other incidents. We think we know what did it: it’s a ‘factor,’ an extremely simple kind of organism of the sort found in the Callistan and Europan oceans. If the factor continues to spread, that is the end of civilization. Probably also the end of the terrestrial biosphere, for that matter.”

“Is it quite certain that this ‘factor’ is not artificial?” Bob interrupted back.

“No, that is not certain, but then it is not certain how this stuff works, either. But what would an artificial origin suggest? A terrorist underground? Doomsday fanatics? Keeping track of fringe politics is supposed to be your department, Bob. How long since there was a threat from people like that?”

Bob shrugged rather than reply. The answer was that, though many groups sought to evade or manipulate the imperial government for their own ends, the fact was that the Ecumenical Empire had had no organized enemies within living memory. Civilization without it had become literally unthinkable. Bob’s department actually spent most of its time investigating illegal lotteries and chain letters.

“Could someone tell me again just why the Security Ministry is handling this at all?” asked Mary-Jo from the Office of Administration & Budget. “If this is a biological threat, then why is Health not handling it? If it is a case of xenological contamination, then why not Space? If there is a danger of public panic, then why not the Guard? What does this ’factor’ have to do with Security?” She had had the budget for the next year nearly ready to submit. She was almost as horrified at the prospect of having to include a huge contingency request for this situation as she had been by the cannibalism.

“It has to do with Security,” the Vice Minister explained, “because groups of people, or former people, are acting to spread the factor. Apparently, they are doing it worldwide.”

“If the factor can be spread only by a blood bath, like that business at Prague, then we do not have to worry about it spreading all that fast,” Bob suggested hopefully.

“It does not take a blood bath,” Carl said. “We think the explanation is that the cult of the Living at Prague were already interested in blood baths. They became infected later. The original group had been reviving the cult of Mithras, according to Andros’s notes. That would involve a ritual bath of just that type, though with bull’s blood rather than human. The factor is absolutely opportunistic, it seems. It does not give its victims new ideas or fundamentally new behaviors. It just uses whatever behaviors they already have to propagate itself.”

“So what is the common factor?” the Deputy Vice Minister asked.

“Blood, apparently. Intravenous and oral contact are most efficient, though it can also be transmitted through the skin, if there is enough exposure. Those are actually fairly restricted means of transmission. It cannot be spread by casual contact. And, of course, the infected are restricted in their movements during the day, which makes them easier to spot. Without these limitations, I don’t know how we could have hoped to stop this thing.”

“I don’t quite see how we can hope to control it now,” Mary-Jo said. “It’s not like we’re running a real police force here. We have lots of jurisdiction and not a lot of effective personnel. We are not funded for anything beyond ordinary holding facilities, much less quarantine centers, if that is what any of you are thinking about.” Turning to the Vice Minister, she asked, “Have you informed the Minister?”

Under normal circumstances, such a query would have been meant ironically. Today, it was uncomfortably pointed. Senator Reddy was not a lazy or corrupt man, but the portfolio he held for the Security Ministry was simply a sinecure for him. (He was also the Ecumenical Fisheries Minister, even though the country he represented, the Kingdom of Rajasthan, was entirely landlocked.) The Vice Minister took the question seriously.

“A full synopsis of our research has been sent to the Minister’s office in the Southern Capital [the Chinese characters for which were usually pronounced “Johannesberg”], where he is preparing for next year’s session of the Senate. I am informed that the Minister is seeking an interview with the Speaker on the matter. We are instructed to proceed at our own discretion until we receive further guidance.”

“Well, at least we are covered,” Mary-Jo suggested brightly. Under normal circumstances, such a remark would have been meant sarcastically. That was also how it was meant now.

“Wendy,” the Deputy Vice Minister asked his boss, “have you considered approaching the Imperial Chancellery?”

She grimaced. Under the Constitution, the office of the Emperor was almost omnipotent, on the condition that it do nothing. During normal times, which had prevailed almost without interruption for the past 170 years, the effective head of state was the Speaker of the Senate. Nevertheless, past Emperors had seen to it that their chancellery kept executive control of certain resources that could be vital in the current crisis. The Space Corps had oversight of all human presence beyond geosynchronous orbit of Earth. The total population in question was no more than 200,000, most of them in isolated sectarian colonies on Mars and Earth’s Moon, but the jurisdiction did include the scientific bases on Europa and Callisto. The Ecumenical Guard was a paramilitary of modest size, but it was based on Earth and it did have some police powers. One problem with attempting to coordinate a plan with these Services directly was that it would smack of attempting to circumvent, not just the Minister, but the Senate itself. Another problem was that old Emperor Josef (he started being called “Old Emperor Josef” a quarter century ago) hated the Ministries in New York and every bureaucrat in them. He was quite capable of rejecting a request as soon as he saw the letterhead, assuming it ever got to his desk.

“I have considered contacting the Chancellery, and I have considered it again,” she answered. “Do you have an idea for a safe way to do it?”

“The trick, I think, would be to bring the matter to the Emperor’s attention in such a way that he thinks about us last.” 

 

VIII Europa

 

Some technical problems had never been solved by terrestrial engineering, even though the GUT suggested that a solution was possible. One of these was the ideal of the instantaneous transmission of information. In the 21st century, theoreticians had suggested that the apparent ban imposed by Special Relativity on this effect was actually an artifact of misdefinition. That, however, was among the last major theoretical insights of Western science before it turned its attention to the long-delayed labor of synthesis, and the existing stock of theory was insufficient to support a technical breakthrough. That was why it still took an hour, an average, to send a transmission to the neighborhood of Jupiter, and the same amount of time for the answer to return. So, with one thing and another, it required the better part of a morning for the Space Corps Command Center at Diego Garcia to determine that none of the 500 human beings at the two bases on Europa was accessible to the communications network. When they reviewed the records of recent transmissions, they discovered that they had in fact been talking to only machines for the last two weeks.

The bases themselves were in exemplary condition. Very little of them was on the surface. The availability of all that ice had allowed the early explorers to solve the micrometeorite problem by sinking the component modules into a few meters of melted water and letting it refreeze. Their most important exits were not to the surface, but to the Ocean below. There, in the warm water provided by nearby volcanic vents, were locks for small submarines and for scuba divers. The diving had originally been for the purely scientific exploration of the nearby sea floor, in the shallow parts of the Ocean where the bases were located. At first this activity had been conducted under tight restrictions, with careful attention to the possibility of xenobiological contamination. When the humans realized just how benign the Ocean was, however, all but ordinary safety restrictions were relaxed, and diving became the chief pastime of the personnel. Thus the humans and the Ocean got to know each other.

Most of the personnel continued in their human roles long after their conversion. That was how several of them happened to return to the inner solar system as part of an ordinary duty rotation. For those who remained on Europa, however, the pretense of humanity became harder and harder to maintain. The lure of the Ocean was too strong. At no point was there any conscious intent of dissimulation before the declining number of remaining humans: the Living were not conscious of anything. At some point in their internal evolution, the Living simply broke character. After the last few humans were disposed of in incidents rather like that in the EHM cafeteria, the base was deserted.

There was no need of scuba gear, since there was no longer any need to maintain the grotesque fiction of mammalian life. They breathed the water as long as the bodies felt the need to continue the drill, and then they forgot about it. A few minutes after entering the Ocean, the nervous systems of all 497 personnel (the uneaten remains of the other three were neatly packed in kitchen freezers) had permanently shut down. The bodies did not decay, but began to blossom into their true forms. The rigid structures of the organisms exploded into clouds of single cells, with only the teeth and skeletons falling into the abyss. In each of these cells, all the resources of terrestrial history were available for assimilation into the wisdom of the Ocean. As in the long conflict with Callisto, Europan life began to take a new turn in order to meet the new enemy.   

 

 

 

 IX Chungjing

 

Of all the world capitals, only Center Capital was truly beautiful. The Chinese characters spelled "Chungjing," and they were always pronounced that way, because the city was new and not merely renamed. The city fit gracefully into a former forest preserve on the Big Island in the Hawaiian chain. (The early Empire had been a bit cavalier about such things, since most of the world's organized naturalists had been executed during the Eighth Day.) With a population of only about 40,000, it was really a sort of campus that reminded most visitors of Oxford.

A better analogy was Vatican City. Center Capital was essentially a ceremonial center. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, the city managed not to be overwhelmed. Its chief purpose was to support the unhurried routine of the Imperial Chancellery and the Court. Most Emperors had the sense to realize that their absence from the public view enhanced their prestige on the few occasions when they intervened in government, so they were usually in quiet residence. Security after the 22nd century was relaxed enough that lucky visitors sometimes got to shake the Emperor's hand. Those who attempted to discuss public policy with him, however, were led politely away by hovering aides.

There were no tourists in the palace complex the morning after the Senator from the Comensality of New South Wales spoke with Josef. The staff, except for the guards, were told to take the day off. The old man stood behind the rattan blinds of a balcony window with a little group of advisors, overlooking the brightly sunlit court that fronted Prince Friedrich's quarters. He had often feared that his line would end with him: his grandson's behavior had always been such that Josef had prepared a codicil to his will, commending one of his nephews to the Senate instead of his direct heir. The prince was a brilliant boy, and then a charming young man, but Josef's blood ran cold at the thought of a diabolist on the throne of all mankind, even if the throne was largely a prop. The document had been in his desk for ten years, but he could never bring himself to have it witnessed. Then, just last night, the Senator had shown him the terrible reports from Sydney and Filadelfia and other places around the world. Worst of all, he had seen the foggy shots, carelessly undated by the ESM, of Friedrich entering the Kabbalah Klub. The Emperor now dreaded that having the codicil witnessed might never be necessary.

Friedrich's fine operatic voice was audible, shouting unoperatic things, long before he appeared on the court between two very large Treasury Ministry guards. (The explanation for why the Treasury Ministry was responsible for imperial security was lost in the mists of legislative history.) As usual, he had been up late, doing God-knows-what, and the guards frog-marched him into the sunlight wearing just a bathrobe. Rather as happened to Agent Andros, Prince Friedrich found himself suddenly stripped of his robe, though in his case he was still wearing boxer shorts. The guards stood back. Nothing happened. Friedrich recovered himself a little and started to yell at them some more.

"He is not catching fire, Your Majesty," the Chamberlain observed evenly.

"That is all to the good, I suppose," the Emperor said, turning away from the window. "Still, we do have a real crisis on our hands, the worst of my time. Arrange a conference hookup within the hour with the Commandant of the Space Corps and the Chief of Staff of the Ecumenical Guard."

"Will there be anything else, Your Majesty?"

"Yes. Please find out who the Vice Minister for Security in New York is. We don't have time to deal with that idiot fishmonger in the Senate." 

 

 

 

 X The New Memorial

 

A year later, Father Beed was again reading the new stele at the memorial in the town square:

"In memory of friends and family, who made the sacrifice to leave our beloved Earth in order to protect us all from a terrible plague, we the people of Jenkins Township dedicate..."

There followed a brief list of the names of the exiles to Europa. Since he never knew the name of the girl who had come to him last September 24, he was not sure whether she was on the list. He thought not.

Most of the local people believed that the emigration had been voluntary, and for all he knew they were right. None of the infected had tried to run when the roundup started. As far as he knew, none of them had actually objected when they were told what was going to happen to them. As for the uninfected, all they knew for sure was that some of their younger neighbors had developed a fatal sensitivity to sunlight. They had welcomed the Guard unit and the agents from the Ecumenical Security Ministry.

Fr. Beed had not. They had bluntly asked him for a list of those whom he believed to be infected. He refused, pointing out that such an assessment touched on the seal of the confessional. They argued that the seal did not apply to non-human penitents. He replied that putting someone on a list of possible non-humans would still infringe on the confidentiality of humans, because he would sometimes be wrong. They growled some threats at him, but finally satisfied themselves with his record of the attendance tickets he had given out. In the Filadelfia Republic, after all, they were public records.

On the surface, life was no different this year from last. The weather was a little warmer and a little wetter, but that trend had begun even before the Empire. The world was still effortlessly prosperous and unshakably peaceful. The people's respect for their public officials had actually been strengthened (particularly for Prince Friedrich, who had played such a conspicuous role in the emigration program). Still, the whole world was now tinged with that sense of the uncanny that Agent Andros had so savored. Something really new and strange had happened for the first time in generations. Moreover, well-informed people understood just how serious the crisis could have been. The sense of the possible was beginning to expand, but it was expanding into the dark.

These days, Father Beed meditated more and more on two of the Anthropic Corollaries. Both fell into the category of certain statements about the world. One was that mankind, as the image of God in the created world, could not be destroyed by accident. The other was that every strong thing, no matter how firmly established, is ultimately ephemeral. He knew there was no formal contradiction between these statements, but he also recognized that the tension between them was not always latent.    

 

 

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reill

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The Long View: Incubus

I read this particular book based upon John's review. I think the review is more interesting than the book was, which is why I read John's blog.


 Incubus: A Novel
by Ann Arensberg
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999
322 Pages, $24.00 (US)
ISBN: 0-394-55696-8

 

Dr. Henry W. Lieber
Center for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena
Box 608
Dry Falls, Maine
04071

 

April 19, 1999

 

Dear Reverend Lieber,

 

It was with the greatest relief that I encountered the memoir by your wife, Cora Whitman, which she entitled "Incubus." In that book, she describes the strange events that occurred in the summer of 1974 at Dry Falls, Maine, when you were an Episcopal pastor there. Her skeptical and measured account makes the episode remarkably plausible, right up to (but not quite including) the final attack by the otherworldly entities on the huddled congregation of St. Anthony the Hermit. Her book will be a great morale-booster for everyone who has ever given psychical research a serious thought. (It will especially delight that more select group who are familiar with the works and speculations of the old chronicler of the paranormal, Charles Fort.)

My relief in finding this book is not based solely on the general contributions of you and your wife to the scientific study of the paranormal. Your wife also positively invites correspondence dealing with anomalous phenomena to be sent to the mailing address set out above. That makes two strokes of luck, since "Incubus" contains the first mention I have ever encountered in print of a phenomenon that, I believe, represents a serious threat to public safety. Before turning to that matter, however, please let me make a few comments about your wife's tale of what happened when a peaceful New England farming community was struck with an infestation of sexual demons.

To begin with, the term "sexual demons" may make this book sound randier than it actually is. The female characters are, for the most part, respectable middle-aged women who do nothing out of character. Some of the descriptions in the book are appallingly gynecological. However, even the most flagrant paranormal outrages, which occur at the local girls' academy, are described in a medical way. The plot is based on nothing more provocative than a sexual dry-spell in the marriages of the local matrons. The situation is mysterious only because it is collective. Until late in the book, the manifestations of the supernatural are not readily distinguishable from ordinary phenomena familiar from dream-research: dreams of being awake but paralyzed, and a feeling of pressure on the body associated with dreams involving sexual content.

The latter is nearly all an "incubus" was supposed to be. In the High Middle Ages, educated people thought that these incubi were almost certainly purely psychological, so women who complained of incubi to their confessors were not given severe penances. Later in the Middle Ages, of course, these incubi (and their female counterparts, succubi) were believed to have an independent existence. The people who reported dreams involving these creatures were therefore suspected of actively consorting with demons. This provided the gravamen for witchcraft trials, and all Hell duly broke loose.

Events in the novel follow a similar pattern, even including the increasingly suspicious pastoral counseling, except that the demons turn out to be real. The really interesting thing about a story like this, at least to my mind, is not the accounts of supernatural events, but the "theories" that support the accounts. The events themselves can be dismissed as fiction. The ideas about the supernatural in a story, however, may persist longer in the imagination, even if they have little appeal on their merits. The author of "Incubus" spins metaphysical speculation at least as well as Arthur Machen or Charles Williams. This one paragraph captures whole volumes of the science of demonology:

"Just as human beings long for union with the spirit, so incorporeal beings, both angels and demons, yearned for contact with matter. Angels contented themselves with exerting a benign influence over men's bodies -- snatching them out of the path of a boulder during an avalanche, guiding the surgeon's hand during a long and difficult operation -- but demons had no such ability to hold their natures in check. Their desire to be familiar with flesh was ravenous, insatiable, the more urgent because they possessed no generative powers."

This makes perfect sense in terms of Thomistic anthropology. The soul, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is itself incorporeal, but "destined" for matter. It is the "form" of the body. Like the angels, it is pure information, but unlike them it is information that is about matter. Angels, in contrast, are pure ideas, like numbers or algorithms. Thus, for angels to seek to become enmeshed in matter violates their nature. It is an act of evil for which, being homogeneous entities, they have no capacity to repent. And, though "Incubus" just touches on this point, there is some support for the proposition that wayward angels did not begin to get ideas along these lines only recently. Regarding the world before the Flood, the Book of Genesis tells us:

"[T]he sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair, and they took wives for themselves, as many as they wished.....There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God had relations with the daughters of men, who bore children to them." [Gen. 6: 2, 4]

This is, by the way, one explanation for why God, who normally seems willing enough to put up with quite a lot of human delinquency, took the trouble to destroy the early world. Something radically wrong had entered into the human race, something that went beyond mere misbehavior. This notion has found favor with some modern apocalyptic groups who are also interested in flying saucers. The flying saucers, it seems, are not piloted by extraterrestrials, but by demons pretending to be extraterrestrials. Once again, they are interfering with human history, which is part of the reason why, once again, human history needs to be ended.

Some of this does not even make for very good science fiction. On the other hand, the idea that a lot of the physical world is driven by self-organizing "principles" has been given a boost in recent years by chaos and complexity theory. Mathematical entities can behave in ways that are uncannily reminiscent of biological entities. Indeed, the former are now sometimes being adduced as the causes for the latter. As several books have noted recently, there is so much information in the genetics of even the simplest organism that it is hard to see how life could have appeared on Earth as quickly as it did, practically as soon as the surface ceased to be molten. It is almost as it the information were an accident looking for a place to happen.

Many scientists don't like this idea, perhaps for good reason. Consider, for instance, these remarks which appeared in the New York Times Book Review of April 18, 1999, in a review by the physicist Lee Smolin of Paul Davies' new book, "The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life":

"[I]t is far from obvious how there can be a concept of information without a context that makes it useful or meaningful. The information coded in the DNA of a cell is about how the cell can best survive. Such information could not have existed before there was a biosphere, for the same reason there could not have been gossip before there were human beings. In any case, Davies is not the only physicist who seems to believe that information has an objective meaning independent of context, and I am not the only one who cannot understand what that could be."

Perhaps there is nothing to be added to these observations, except to note that atoms are pretty complicated critters, too, and they seem to have appeared with the spontaneity of snowflakes on a cold day. In any case, the point of this discussion is not to argue for the existence of demons, or at any rate for the would-be anthropomorphic demons in this novel. I am simply suggesting that the existence of non-material entities that can nevertheless affect matter is plausible enough to raise supernatural fiction from the realm of pure fantasy to that of unfounded speculation, as in science fiction.

"Incubus" also raises questions that have nothing to do with sex and very little to do with demons. What is the relation of the paranormal to the theological, for instance? The study of the paranormal at least seeks to be scientific in the empirical sense, while theology is supposed to be an attempt to organize and examine a body of information that has already been determined. To some extent, of course, they can be reinforcing. For instance, the growing realization on Cora Whitman's part that disembodied entities may be after the women of her village causes her to reflect anew on these word's of St. Paul:

"But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered disgraces her head....For man was not created for woman, but woman for man. This is why the woman ought to have a sign of authority over her head, because of the angels." [1 Cor. 11: 5, 8 - 10].

Conventional exegesis holds that "the angels" mentioned in this passage were simply a rhetorical device. Cora's own experience suggests that these words are a safety measure to protect the congregation against dangers that are far more than rhetorical. However, while this might induce her to take some passages of scripture more literally, the encounter with he uncanny does not have the effect of reinforcing the Christian faith of anyone involved, including that of her priest-husband. The problem is that they are encountering the supernatural in its raw, undiluted form. Presumably, people in ancient times encountered it, too, and created religions to deal with it. "Incubus" suggests that modern people, lacking either the will or the poetic imagination to perform another such work of synthesis, are likely to see their traditional faiths corrode under an onslaught from the other world.

This is not to say that "Incubus" is a tirade against the inflexible dogmas and practices of Anglicanism. In the final crisis, the forces of evil are in fact repulsed with prayer, lightening and holy-hardware. (Well, candles and crosses are much in evidence.) Certainly it does not abandon the numinous aspects of religion in favor of Charles Fort's hypothesis that the human race are the cattle of creatures that are not supernatural but just different. What chiefly struck me about the religion in this book is that there is very little left to it but the numinous. The acme of Cora's experience throughout the whole summer of 1974 is expressed in this description of St. Anthony's:

"At a service in a crowded church I felt estranged, unconnected. In an empty church I experienced a sense of relaxation and a quickening of the spirit, as if the curtain were about to go up in a dimming theater. It was a friendly little building, well worn but well kept, hymnals faded and loose at the spine, brasses gleaming and altar linen spotless. Something resided in this vaulted space, however mankind had misportrayed it."

No more spiritual perception than this has gotten many an ordinary parishioner through a lifetime of church-going. Actually, the idea that churches should be so designed as to invite visits, even when a congregation is not present, is an idea to which modern church architects are finally returning. Nevertheless, such a "religion" is small support in times of trouble, even of trouble less taxing to the spirit than an invasion of summer demons. Just as important, intuition is a pale substitute for inspiration. It is hard to imagine anyone being inspired to write notable music for a Mass dedicated to "The Historically Misrepresented Something in the Vaulted Space." It is also hard to see why the corporal works of mercy done by church members should not be turned over to social workers and, eventually, to the police.

In any case, these points do not represent flaws in the novel: they are just questions that it raises for me. The book is as congenial as the Church of St. Andrew and, one suspects, a prime candidate for being turned into a television screenplay. The logical way to organize the story would be through the investigation conducted at the behest of the air-head Social Gospel bishop after the incident is over. An Episcopalian Inquisitor: surely that would be a novelty even among paranormal phenomena.

This brings us, Reverend Lieber, to the reason for my letter. At one point during the summer of 1974, the book says that you noticed certain new maintenance problems with the rectory. Cracks appeared in the basement floor, soot was dislodged down the chimney and a great proliferation of mole-hills sprang up in the backyard. When you drew all these facts together, you deduced that there was a general pattern of attempts to invade the house. Cora, perceptibly, suggested that the invaders were probably were-moles, but you unwisely dismissed this suggestion as sarcasm. Think again, I tell you. I know for a fact that there are were-moles, and that they are actively undermining civilization as we know it.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

 

Sincerely,

 

John J. Reilly  

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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Incubus: A Novel
By Ann Arensberg

The Long View: The Hour of the Laity

One of John's talents was illustrating his ideas with short stories.  Some of his most evocative ideas are to be found in these stories, although I cannot say for certain how seriously he intended them to be taken. My best guess is "not very", but said with a twinkle in his eye.

This particular story of St. Christopher's parish is uncanny. I cannot quite put my finger on what John was trying to say here, but the imagery is unforgettable.

Nota bene: this is unrelated to the article of the same name published in First Things in 2002.


"They are getting off easy, Mike. If they were getting what they deserve, we would just make a bonfire on the lawn. This way at least we can defray the cost of the renovation.”

They had been having this argument since the new pastor arrived at the beginning of September. The Second Vatican Council had ended nine years ago, in 1965. All that time, old Father Mike had gone along with the reforms, the ones he thought were safe. Now, on the verge of retirement, he was standing in the chill sun of late October and watching movers from an antiques dealer haul away all the fixtures from the inside of his church. It was like a Puritan raid in 17th century England. They did not do things like this when he was assigned to this parish. He tried and tried to explain how vitally important it was to never make changes in a place like this until you know the people really well. He might as well have saved his breath. Father Bob was infallibly progressive.

"I swear to God, Bob, sometimes I think that you young priests are in the pay of the Baptists!”

“We have talked this all through, Mike. You have delivered most of the catechesis yourself. A new liturgy demands a new worship environment, an uncluttered space where the People of God can be community. That also means downplaying the special devotions that too many Catholics are wrapped up in. The Baptists call that kind of thing idolatry, and I think they're onto something. Would you look at those things, Mike? They look like fetish objects from Haiti!”

Those Things now covered half the floor of a pickup truck; a sign on the side read “Neubedburg: Moving and Towing.” They stood like illegal aliens waiting to be driven to the vineyard to pick grapes. Some of the figures had not been in direct sunlight since the church was built over a century ago. The light did not flatter them. All in all, they were as ugly a collection of devotional art as could be found in western New York State: a Pieta with protuberant bellies on both the principals, a Saint Michael with wings like a bat, a Saint Francis in Apparent Delirium, two Infants of Prague (probably: one might have been a cherub), and several dingy French Jesuits whom canonization had rendered no less obscure. All these refugees would soon find new homes, however. Clubs in Manhattan, and a few occultists, snapped them up as fast as the Church could rip them out. The term for the merchandise was “Holy Hardware.”

Then there was the last and largest of the statues, the one that the movers were wrestling out of the church when Father Mike tried to intervene. That was St. Christopher himself, carrying a tiny Christ Child on his shoulder. Of all the pieces that had stood in the church, only the image of that saint might have had artistic merit. The artist had plainly been trying to portray something not entirely human, however, so it was hard to tell whether he had succeeded. The saint's face was covered with hair, and the hands had claws, like a bear. Only the ragged clothing, and the fact he leaned on a staff, showed that he was not simply a fantastic animal.

“Bob, this is Saint Christopher's Parish! Neubedburg was literally built around the Saint Christopher Shrine. If you remove that statue, you remove the reason for this town's existence.”

This was such an easy pitch that Father Bob was embarrassed to hit it out of the park.

“You know as well as I do that Saint Christopher is a legend. He was taken off the liturgical calendar four years ago. I know that this faith community has a rich history, Mike. It was a good history. But if we keep trying to treat Christopher as a historical person now, we will be perpetuating a pious fraud. The People of God have to grow up, Mike, and we have to help them do it. In fact, I have already spoken to a few people on the Parish Council about changing the name of the parish. They are less wedded to the past than you think, Mike.”

“Change the name? Change the name to what?!?”

“I was thinking along the lines of 'The Parish of the Lord's Supper.'”

God knows I tried, Mike thought to himself. I really did.

* * *

A dozen families had settled Neubedburg in 1820. They came as a group from a single village at the German-speaking edge of the Czech lands, which had in turn been settled by refugees from some war or persecution in the west. The village had been a very isolated place, so much so that it survived the Thirty Years' War in a region that had otherwise been largely depopulated. Then the tumults of the 18th century repeatedly threatened to plunge the village into a wider world. Most of its people took advantage of the end of the Napoleonic Wars to join the Other Immigration. Little remarked except by much later social historians, that influx of religious dissidents and eccentrics landed in Maine and spread across northern New Hampshire and Vermont into New York State. There it gave the famous Burned Over District something of its special spiritual flavor.

The people of Neubedburg were never as flamboyant as some of their better-known neighbors. Unlike the Mormons, they never set out to conquer the world. If the spirits who spoke to the Fox Sisters spoke to them, they did not answer. Unlike the Millerites, they kept to themselves whatever thoughts they had about the length of time before the Second Coming. They also kept their ancestral peasant-version of Catholicism, distinguished in their case only by an intense cult of St. Christopher.

Neubedburg was far enough off the beaten track to keep the ethnic character of its founders, but it was not Shangri-La. The first Neubedburgers made the discovery that all settlers in the region did: the best the land could do for then was dairy farming, and that best was not very good. They experimented with the softwood lumber business, with mixed success. In the 20th century, the roads got better, and some light manufacturing came and went. By 1970, the town was little different from hundreds of other little municipalities that were no longer country towns but not quite suburbs.

Father Bob saw immediately how much his new assignment needed renewal. He was surprised, and genuinely puzzled, by how little resistance he encountered.

The people were visibly relieved by the changes to the interior of the wooden firetrap church. The congregation had been literally penned into narrow pews with actual gates on their ends. The rail separating the altar area from the main body of the building was a low fence of black iron and wire mesh, almost like something you might see around a sheepfold. On the north side of the building was the big St. Christopher Shrine. The saint had stood in a large alcove, apparently in mid-stride of a running assault on the congregation. Removing the monstrosity immediately freed the room of its atmosphere of impending menace.

Soon the whole interior was cleared and brightly lit. The walls were painted a cheerful beige, and sound-deadening carpets covered the floor. Comfortable, portable chairs replaced the pews. They were arranged about the new altar, which was a simple table on a low dais in the middle of the room, flanked by an unpretentious podium. Christopher's alcove became a hospitality space, where coffee could be smelled brewing during every church service. The people, whom Father Bob saw had stood in the pews like suffering inmates in the final weeks of Father Mike's tenure, now became frisky. The Christmas party, which he insisted on holding in the church itself, was positively raucous.

Care of the physical plant was the smallest part of a priest's job, of course. Father Bob had to marry people and bury people, both of which he did with the same studied informality. He managed to reduce the schedule for confessions to “By Appointment,” thus freeing up what would otherwise have been wasted Saturday afternoons. He also reduced the number of Masses; he really had better things to do than cater to a handful of daily communicants.

The parish had never boasted a school. The faculty and student body of the Neubedburg public school were so overwhelmingly Catholic that a private alternative would have been superfluous. However, the parish did have well-attended Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes for Catholic children. Father Bob made modernizing their curriculum among the first items on their agenda. Dogma nearly disappeared from the classes. Instead, using guided discussion, the students were encouraged to discover their moral intuitions. They ate it up.

Their parents and grandparents were of a similar way of thinking, so much so that Father Bob was confident enough to probe their indifference to the name change of the old parish. (The diocese felt that “Parish of the Lord's Supper” was a little too progressive, though the bishop's liturgical advisors let him know they wished they could get away with it. He settled for “Parish of the Eucharist,” which was generic enough for the new departures he planned.)

“We had a great devotion to Saint Christopher these many years,” one of the older women of the parish told him one day, “but to tell you the truth, it was always something the priests wanted. We're not so sad about the changes.”

“You don't miss the old shrine, then?”

“Miss it? Do you know what we used to call that horrible thing? 'Top Dog': I've been terrified of it since I was a girl. We all were.”

 

Father Bob was really enjoying this. Old ladies were supposed to be conservative. He would wow them at the next pastoral conference with reactions like hers.

“But didn't anyone ever complain? Or even ask to get a less horrible statue?

“A new statue? Father, for as long as I can remember, every priest who served here made that statue the touchstone of the spiritual life. When we were little, we were told that Top Dog would get us if we were bad. When we were older, were told that if even a dog-headed man can turn to Christ, then we can do no less. Not 'we should do no less.' It was always an order.”

 

Father Bob was taken aback. “Dog-headed man? Did the priests actually use that expression?”

“Well, not in church, but it's common knowledge. You know the story, I'm sure.”

Then something clicked in Father Bob's memory. There was more than one version of the origin of Saint Christopher. There may actually have been a martyred Roman soldier of the third century behind the legends, but in the Latin Church, Saint Christopher was often depicted as a monstrous, half-human creature, from beyond the pale of civilization. Sometimes he was said to have been a giant. He was also said to have been one of the “dog-headed men.” Father Bob could just barely remember the Greek word: cynocephali. Saint Christopher was supposed to have been one of the cynocephali. That's why the horrible statue had such a hairy head.

The thought that such a monstrosity had been central to the lives of the people of Neubedburg for a century and a half stunned him to silence for a moment. Then he began to try to make a tactful apology.

“Well, in the old days, I suppose, it made sense for people to think like that, but today…”

“Oh, cut it out, Father. Everyone in this town has hated Top Dog since Homer was a pup. No one ever did us a greater favor than getting rid of him.”

Father Bob would never be more gratified in his pastoral career.

* * *

By the time October rolled around again, it had certainly been a busy year at the re-christened Parish of the Eucharist. There was a new pastor, a new church, and a palpably new spirit. For that matter, President Richard Nixon had recently resigned; perhaps the only person in the world Father Bob thought was uglier than Saint Christopher. Certainly there was a lot to celebrate. Father Bob planned to fold the one-year anniversary celebration into a big Halloween party. The party would be on Halloween evening, right after Mass, which would be celebrated in anticipation of All Saints' Day, November 1. In fact, Father Bob planned to make the Lord's Supper flow seamlessly into the Halloween Party, as they told him in seminary had been the practice in the early Church. Well, more or less.

Father Bob hurried across the now brown lawn between the rectory and the church. It was a perfect Halloween: chill moaning winds under a sky that was clear, except for some scurrying wisps of cloud. There was even a full moon, something he had not realized would be there before he looked up and saw it. If he had been a bit more attuned to the supernatural, the young night might have made him uneasy. As it was, he was very pleased when he opened the front door and found the congregation was so big and animated.

Actually, animated was not the word for it. He had seen high school cafeterias on the last day of school that were quieter than this. Many of the parishioners had plainly been drinking something besides the coffee available in Top Dog's Niche (everybody used the term now). For that matter, everybody looked a bit scruffier than usual. Well, it was Thursday evening, not Sunday morning.

Everyone was very glad to see him. In fact, he was so pawed and backslapped as he moved through the crowd (the chairs had mostly been moved to the sides of the room) that he gave up the idea of processing to the altar. Finally, he was able to make his way to the podium. Someone had spilled a yellowish liquid on the carpet around it. He managed to get a hymn started (“Sons of God,” whose message of communal eucharist he liked), but the “alleluias” tended to fade into energetic yodels. He tried, without much success, to quiet the dense circle of people standing around the dais. The best he could do was to make himself heard in snatches.

“…Spirit of renewal…”

“Mumble-giggle-growl-mumble giggle-giggle…!”

“…embodied in our community...”

“Gargle-Yelp! Yelp!-Har-de-Har-giggle…”

“…New Pentecost…Yeeeoow!”

Father Bob finally stopped trying to talk when the pain shot up from his left calf. Looking down, he realized two things. The first was that the yellowish liquid around the podium was urine. The other was that a child with a brightly bloody face had begun to eat his leg.

This sort of situation had not been covered in seminary, before or after the Second Vatican Council. Father Bob started to collapse, and hands reach out from the congregation to grab him. Though he was beyond surprise at this point, Father Bob was confused at how widely the people around him were smiling. Then he saw the length of their teeth.

Before the pack closed over him, another bit of relevant information floated into his mind. Cynocephali: didn't that also mean “werewolves”?

* * *

The people of the Parish of the Eucharist had genuinely liked Father Bob. For a while, some of them attended churches in neighboring towns. The rest, like many Catholics of those days, simply became less observant. Nonetheless, they all agreed they wanted to have a priest now and then, especially on the principal holy days. The temporary substitutes that the diocese assigned were not completely satisfactory. Finally, one moonlit evening in Advent, the bishop himself came for a dialogue and a church supper. 

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Archetype of the Apocalypse

Edward F. Edinger

Edward F. Edinger

I've always been impressed that John could wade his way through a book like this and find something interesting to say about it. I am not sure I could have managed to finish it. John, and others of my favorite authors like Tim Powers have managed to make some interesting stories using Jungian ideas, but actual Jungians always seem a bit cracked to me.


Archetype of the Apocalypse:
A Jungian Study of the Book of Revelation
by Edward F. Edinger
Edited by George R. Elder
Open Court Publishing Company, 1999
222 Pages, US$26.95
ISBN: 0-8126-9395-7

Once upon a time, there was a film producer who said that the kind of movie he liked was one that started with an earthquake and then built to a climax. In a similar spirit, the editor of "Archetype of the Apocalypse" prefaces it with the warning that the "book will challenge the reader to accept a disturbing premise: namely, that *the world as we know it* is coming to an end in the very near future." "Archetype of the Apocalypse" examines most of the "Book of Revelation" verse by verse, but the basis for this prophecy is not the authority of scripture. Rather, the future is proclaimed by the voice of the collective unconscious, as manifested in the culture of the late 20th century and in the psychology of the author's own patients.

Objections to this thesis quickly present themselves. For one thing, just once I would like to hear a prophecy about the end of the world as we don't know it. More generally, it is hard to take any school of analytical psychology altogether seriously these days. Nonetheless, I urge readers to suspend their disbelief for a few hours. This is a fascinating little book, filled with provocative observations that transcend theory. Moreover, aside from the analytical psychology, "Archetype of the Apocalypse" is a surprisingly useful introduction to the parallel apocalyptic texts that pepper the biblical canon and the apocrypha. "The Book of Revelation" is in some ways irreducibly obscure, but even a passing familiarity with its literary allusions makes it much less so.

The book's author, Edward F. Edinger, was a noted Jungian analyst and a founder of the C.G. Jung Foundation of New York. The series of lectures that became "Archetype of the Apocalypse" were delivered in 1995. They were edited by George R. Elder, a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist, who worked on the text with Dr. Edinger before the latter's death in 1998. The result is more coherent than are most lecture compilations. Another merit of the book is the use of classic black-and-white illustrations, notably from William Blake and Albrecht Duerer, to help to explicate the biblical text.

It is not surprising that a follower of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the famous Swiss depth-psychologist, should take an interest in the notion of the "apocalypse" in general and in the "Book of Revelation" in particular. Jung himself viewed history in much the way Hegel did: it is a process that began in unselfconscious animality, passes through ages of division and strife, and will culminate when mankind finally understands itself and the world. Jung posited that this process was mirrored in the development of the psychology of individuals as they matured through life. The goal of personal psychic development was the integration of the personal, conscious ego with the Self. Jung held that the Self is "transpersonal." It contains an individual's memories, drives and desires, but also, in some way, those of the individual's culture, and even of the human race as a whole. The Self is the repository of Jung's famous "collective unconscious." The purpose of Jungian psychoanalysis is to bring this collective unconscious to consciousness. The patient will then understand himself as he really is, which includes some appreciation of how the Self surpasses the ego's understanding.

Jung gave this process of integrating the psyche the name "individuation," but did not claim to have invented it. Cultures throughout history have aided integration by generating symbols, or archetypes, that represent features of the collective unconscious, or stages in the process of individuation. These archetypes are the common possession of the whole species; they are why similar myths appear in distant societies that have never had even indirect contact.

A symbol system that particularly interested Jung was alchemy. He believed that the transformations that occurred in the alchemists' alembic, or that they believed to be taking place there, reflected the processes taking place in the alchemists' own psyches. The real goal of alchemy was not to make ordinary gold, but "the philosopher's stone," the symbol of the individuated Self. He also believed that the stages in the alchemical processes corresponded to the great phases in the cultural history of the world. The human race, therefore, went through a pattern of crises and discoveries similar to that experienced by patients undergoing analysis.

Jung discussed these topics chiefly in his books "Mysterium Coniunctionis" and "Aion," and Dr. Edinger applies aspects of the analysis in those books here. (There is a brief discussion of Jung's alchemical model of history in my own book, The Perennial Apocalypse.) Another symbol system that reflects the process of individuation is to be found in apocalyptic literature. While writing of this type is not confined to the biblical tradition, it was chiefly biblical apocalyptic literature (literally, the literature of "revelation") that interested Jung. He discussed the matter at length in "Answer to Job." Dr. Edinger insists that "Answer to Job" is of great significance for the future of the world, and so "Archetype of the Apocalypse" is largely a systematic application of insights from that book.

For Dr. Edinger, as for the Jungians in general, the personal is the historical. Regarding the notion of the end of the age, he says: "[T]he essential psychological meaning of the Apocalypse [is] the coming into consciousness of the Self -- and anxiety is a harbinger of that phenomenon." While archetypes are, by their nature, ubiquitous in time and space, the fact is that some archetypes are more relevant to some times and places than to others. That was why he delivered these lectures when he did. "I think it is evident to perceptive people," he says, "that the Apocalypse archetype is now highly activated in the collective psyche and is living itself out in human history."

This roiling of the transpersonal is not arbitrary; it reflects events in the outer world, just as it causes them: "One way or another, the world is going to be made a single whole entity. But it will be unified either in mutual mass destruction or by means of mutual human consciousness." The choice between the unity of fulfillment and the unity of death turns, however, on the way that individuals manage their own psychic lives. The choice thus really depends on whether we can distinguish the real nature of events in the outer world from our own psychic projections. We have not been doing such a good job so far, with the result that psychic processes are being externalized:

"The Self is coming, and the phenomena that ought to be *experienced consciously and integrated by the individual in the course of the individuation process* are occurring unconsciously and collectively in society as a whole."

The idea that inner conflict can be projected onto external enemies is not particularly mysterious. In fact, this is one context in which the Jungian terminology is helpful:

"The Self is projected into one's national community and is the basis of national and ethnic identity....Collective exteriorized manifestations of the Self lead to the constellation of the opposites in the Self; and those opposites generate conflict."

Edinger was very interested in messianic figures, who have a strange way of being "saviors and beasts" at the same time. According to Edinger, Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick" is a literary example of an ego that has activated an archetype and been devoured by it: that is what makes Ahab such a compelling character. Jung once made much the same assessment of Hitler after seeing him in person. "Archetype of the Apocalypse" contains two appendices, one dealing with David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, the other with Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite of Heaven's Gate. About David Koresh the author says:

"This man represents...a new phenomenon that is quasi-criminal, quasi psychotic due to possession by the archetype of the Apocalypse. And that means, since a human ego has been bypassed, that the possessed individual is functioning `inhumanly.' It is by that very fact a psychological state that generates charisma with tremendous energy in it!"

To some extent, the activation of certain archetypes at certain points in history is foreordained. The Jungian system assumes that there is an entelechy, a natural organic destiny, in the evolution of the mind of the race. The impending apocalyptic era, according to Edinger, will finish up the process that was advanced but not completed around the beginning of the Christian era. The psychic struggle that produced the classic apocalyptic literature, and that eventuated in the Christianization of late antiquity, had its own task:

"[T]he vast, collective, individuation process which lies behind history required at the beginning of our era the creation of a powerful `spiritual' counterpole to the `instinctual' degradation and excesses that accompanied the decadence of the ancient world."

Thus, the drama in the "Book of Revelation" is very much about sorting out the good from the bad and simply rejecting the latter. There are hints of apocatastasis, of the renewal of all things, in the "Book of Revelation." This is particularly the case with the vision at the very end of the Bible of the New Jerusalem, the perfectly integrated city where the human race at last has access to the Tree of Life that was withheld from it in Genesis. This image of wholeness, however, overlays a text about separation and judgment. At the time, though, this was just what the world needed:

"[T]he meaning of this double-layered structure is this: at certain levels of development a decisive *separatio* is, in fact, a state of wholeness -- even if not what we, with modern psyches, would define as a state of wholeness."

The coming apocalyptic age, however, must move on to a higher level of integration. Otherwise, the human race will destroy itself in pursuit of a phantom Enemy. This time, the shadow must be assimilated. This will require, frankly, a spiritual revolution:

"The image of a totally good God -- albeit pestered by a dissociated evil Satan -- is no longer viable. Instead, the new God-image coming into conscious realization is that of a paradoxical union of opposites; and with it comes a healing of the metaphysical split that has characterized the entire Christian aeon."

We may note in passing that there are formal reasons why only a totally good God is conceivable, much less "viable," but that is another story. In any case, Jung was quite capable of giving some specifics about the spiritual regime that would follow Christianity, even down to the schedule for its appearance. When told of a dream about a vast temple in the early stages of construction, Jung said (as Edinger quotes):

"Yes, you know, that is the temple we all build on. We don't know the [other people in the dream] because, believe me, they build in India and China and in Russia and all over the world. This is the new religion. You know how long it will take until it is built?...about six hundred years."

Edinger himself suggests this about the theology, or possibly anthroposophy, of the post-apocalyptic age:

"God is going to incarnate in humanity as a whole and in that incarnated form offer himself as a self-sacrifice to bring about his own transformation, just as he did with the individual Christ."

Jung's comment was probably made around the middle of the 20th century, so the time of fulfillment would appear to be sometime in the 26th century. That puts it about 500 years after the year 2000, the conventional length of a world age. Jung, perhaps, conceived himself to be living in a time like the intertestamental period, when classic apocalyptic was born, and it is not too much to say that he believed himself to be planting the seed of a new revelation. At least in Edinger's estimation, however, the new revelation would not fulfill but defang the old:

"By understanding the psychological reality that stands behind them, we are `impoverishing' the scriptures of their content or `relieving' them of the weight of their content...while at the same time augmenting the weight and magnitude of the psyche. That operation is going on in this book."

The notion of deliberately "impoverishing the scriptures" will sound a bit diabolical to many readers; certainly it does to me. For that matter, so is Edinger's transpersonal Messianic Age. In fact, I might be outraged by all this, were it not for the fact that true diabolism is beyond the reach of Jung's system. The attempt to reduce religion to collective psychology is not so manifestly foolish as trying to reduce it to, say, neurobiology. Still, it is a form of reductionism nonetheless, an attempt to get a very big thing into a smaller thing. It's not going to work, so there is no point in getting upset about it.

Moreover, though the insight is beyond the power of his philosophy to understand, Edinger has succeeded in highlighting the provisional nature of Christian eschatology. In the old formula, the salvation of the world is "already but not yet." This is reflected not least in the text of "Revelation." He is right: the images don't quite gel, however much they may sometimes illuminate history. The notion of a schizophrenic God was one of Jung's poorer notions, and it boobytrapped the whole Jungian enterprise: Jungians are always in danger of confusing the divine with the merely uncanny. On the other hand, history really is both progressive and uncanny, just as Jung imagined it to be. "Archetype of the Apocalypse" illustrates this paradox very well. 

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

LinkFest 2016-02-05

Caesar was Blonde

Caesar was Blonde

This session of LinkFest is a week delayed, so I have included a double dose of love.

Why Hilary's EmailGate Matters

John Schindler continues to do yeoman's work on the true cost of Hillary Clinton's negligent handling of classified material on email.

EMA will Assess ANSM review of botched clinical trial in France

There have been a number of scandals related to healthcare in France. This should probably give pause to anyone who holds up France an exemplar of how to do modern healthcare. Understandably, the French government agency charged with pharmaceutical and medical device safety, ANSM, has tightened up its requirements of late.

Columbia

My re-post of John Reilly's reflections on the Columbia disaster in 2003 has been a pretty popular piece. Greg Cochran recently published a scathing accusation against NASA that I cannot fault: they just gave up instead of trying to do something. As John pointed out in his followup piece, any sort of rescue would have been difficult, and there was a lot of ignorant pontification at the time, but Greg knows enough about orbital mechanics and the state of American space technology to know what was actually possible. This is no longer the NASA of Apollo 13.

Staying Classy

Class is real in America, even if we don't want to talk about it. Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex decided to talk about it after reading an essay about Class in America, and then he noticed that people who have decided to think about class in America tend to have pretty similar insights about it even when coming from different perspectives. I read Paul Fussell's Class, so this isn't surprising to me. It probably helps that my wife really, really likes English period drams, which are all about class.

More than 3 million US women at risk for alcohol-exposed pregnancy

The CDC pushed on an open door regarding alcohol use during pregnancy, since popular opinion in America has long since turned against drinking during while pregnant. Since I assess medical risks for a living, I feel like I am entitled to an opinion on this. Frankly, I think the CDC is nuts, and so are most Americans. The absolute risk of FAS, or FAS spectrum, or whatever the hell you want to call it, is really low. The relative risks are higher [a lot higher] if your ancestors didn't drink much. Also if you drink a lot, but you would be surprised how shitty the relationship is between drinking a lot and giving your baby fetal alcohol syndrome. There are sound evolutionary reasons to think this isn't surprising. Unfortunately, this scientific fact makes heads explode, so we have to make blanket recommendations that probably won't work, in my opinion.

Trump, Sanders, and the Revolt against Decadence

Ross Douthat revives Jacques Barzun's definition of decadence: when a society wills ends for which it cannot will the means. Almost everyone forgets that Caesar was one of the populares, a man of the people. We should expect populism to increase as democracy wanes, and Trump and Sanders are symptoms, not causes of this. On a side note, history records that Julius Caesar was blonde-haired. Remember that before you complain about the actors used to portray either ancient Romans or Greeks, who differed somewhat in phenotype from their descendants.

Walgreens cracks down on Theranos

I find it hard to avoid morose delectation on this subject. I am unusually immune to the reality distortion field that sells in Silicon Valley, so maybe that isn't fair, but I never bought Holmes' line.

The Arab Spring, Five Years On

This was entirely predictable.

 

The Long View 2003-10-24: The War of Ideas

Walter Duranty: Useful Idiot

Walter Duranty: Useful Idiot

I'm not sure what it was about the Soviet Union that inspired so many bright people to love it, but are no lack of examples. At least Duranty didn't have to live in USSR like Kim Philby did.


The War of Ideas

Donald Rumsfeld has been thinking about the need to deepen the war on terror by giving increasing attention to the ideological dimension. It is interesting to see this point raised while the furor continues over the remarks of General William Boykin. As readers will recall, General Boykin said to a church audience that the war on terror is a war against Satan, which he did not clearly distinguish from a war against Islam. Am I the only person to suspect that maybe the general's take on the subject would be more effective against Islamists than, say, Richard Rorty's?

There is one thing Boykin was quite wrong about. The Islamists did not launch the war against the United States because they think the United States is a Christian nation. They launched the war because they think the United States is a secular and hedonistic nation. That is why they hope for so much from their tactic of terrorist suicide: the utilitarian calculus of modernity has no answer to an opponent with no interest in his own self-preservation. If the Islamists really thought they were up against Crusaders, however, they would think twice.

Here's a puzzle about the reception of General Boykin's remarks: why can't I find anything about them on MEMRI?

* * *

Speaking of applied theology, there is an illuminating piece by James Pierson in the Weekly Standard (October 27) on the origins of the phrase, "Under God." The constitutionality of that phrase, at least in the version of the Pledge of Allegiance recited by school children, is now under review by the Supreme Court.

In the Pledge, the phrase is a bit cryptic: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." By tracing the phrase to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, to Parson Weems's biography of George Washington, and indeed to Washington himself, Pierson shows that "under God" was once a reference to the sovereignty of God. For instance, on July 2, 1776, Washington issued a General Order with this sentence:

The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.

Washington was using "under God" in the way that Muslims use "inshallah," to mean "God willing," or "understanding that God is the final cause of everything." Lincoln used the phrase is much the same sense at Gettysburg, when he expressed the hope that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." Pierson suggests that Lincoln was consciously promoting a civil religion, one that would give the Union a transcendent dimension that is not apparent in the text of the Constitution.

Here's a puzzler for you. Everyone knows that the Constitution forbids the government to establish a religion, but here is what the First Amendment to the Constitution actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Nowhere does the Constitution give the chief executive the authority to establish a church, but is it irrelevant that the drafters of the Bill of Rights specifically forbade power in this area only to Congress? Might there be more leeway for the president to promote religion? As we see with Lincoln, this has in fact been the practice: God is more likely to be alluded to in a presidential proclamation than in a statute. I am not aware that anyone has tried to formulate a principle about this. In any case, however, such a principle would not help the "under God" in the Pledge, which was inserted by an act of Congress.

Here is a distinction that might be more helpful to the defenders of the Pledge: a metaphysics is not a religion. It is entirely possible to have a theory of knowledge, and even of politics, that has theistic implications, and yet be in no way religious. (Indeed, we know this from scripture: James 2:19.) One could make a compelling argument that the Constitution does in fact assume just such a frame of reference. This is particularly true of the First Amendment, whose religion clauses make no sense outside the context of a theistic regard for the private conscience.

Were the Supreme Court to hold otherwise, it would nullify its own metaphysical underpinnings. The clock would strike midnight, and there would be nothing left but a pumpkin and six white mice.

* * *

Walter Duranty is in danger of being postumously stripped of his 1932 Pulitzer prize. Long before Jayson Blair or Steven Glass, Duranty's reporting for the New York Times from the Soviet Union set a standard for journalistic turpitude that has yet to be equaled. He systematically deceived the West about the government-engineered famine, one of the most appalling events in a century notable for appalling events, and about the nature of the Soviet Union in general. And he got a prize for it. It was like something Bertold Brecht might have made up.

One of the most interesting books in this connection is Malcolm Muggeridge's lightly fictionalized memoir, Winter in Moscow, first published in 1934. Readers may be put off by Muggeridge's pukka-sahib muttering about "all these beastly Jews," but the book remains valuable because he does not try to interpret the Soviet Union through an antisemitic lens. In any case, here is what he has to say about an American reporter named "Jefferson":

He'd been asked to write something about the food shortage, and was trying to put together a thousand words which, if the famine got worse and known outside Russia, would suggest that he'd foreseen and foretold it, but which, if it got better and wasn't known outside Russia, would suggest that all along he'd pooh-poohed the possibility of there being a famine. He was a little gymnast, always balancing himself between two extremes -- English gentleman and American newsman; scholar and smart guy. He trod his tightrope daintily and charmingly. At the very core of his nature there was something fresh and uncorrupt and sensitive; an original goodness that kept him innocent despite the trials and tribulations of his circus life.

----

His mind turned back to life in Paris during [World War I]. It was there that he had formed his basic impression of the world -- a place where men, in their unutterable folly, tore each other's hearts and probed cruelly into each other's souls; but where an intelligent minority, standing apart, directing, controlling, orating, buying and selling, writing, was able, not merely to be immune from, but even to profit from, these disasters. He had made up his mind that he must belong to this minority, and so, when the war was over, he had attached himself to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which was composed of big boys with big ideas and a big army. He felt safer attached to the skirts of big boys. The bigger they were the better. If one or the other for any reason got liquidated or bumped off, disappeared, Jefferson skillfully detached himself. The big boy of today was not necessarily the big boy of tomorrow. He kept up-to-date in his allegiances. When Bukharin was in favor he was one of the great intellects of the age; when he fell into disgrace he was an opportunistic humbug. The first sign of the final collapse of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat will be Jefferson's quietly transferring himself to other skirts, browsing in other pastures.

We know that Muggeridge was too cynical. The remarkable thing about the collapse of the Soviet Union was the number of people who never ceased to believe that it was a good idea gone wrong.

* * *

Speaking of pukka sahibs, the invaluable Mark Steyn has some apt things to say about the role of Arnold Schwazenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, in her husband's victory in the California gubernatorial recall election. The Shrivers, of course, married into the Kennedy family: (Robert) Sargent Shriver, Maria's father, was President Kennedy's brother-in-law. Words like "dutiful" were often applied to Sargent Shriver, as the Kennedys repeatedly persuaded him to forego public offices for which he was eminently qualified, so that some hapless Kennedy could have it for himself. But now:

Forty years on, the Shrivers are having the last laugh. The third generation of Kennedys is mostly a disaster.

One wonders, though, whether the Shriver connection might yet serve the Kennedys. Surely some of the younger cousins could have their records expunged and try their luck in Schwarzenegger's California. Perhaps, as with the Roosevelts, we might see a Republican and Democratic wing of the family. Picture them forming a colony, like the British expatriate screenwriters who congregated in Hollywood in the 1930s. I can see the lawn parties now.

* * *

On the subject of writing in search of an outlet, for many years now I have been writing a column called "The Federal Papers," for a magazine called Business Travel Executive. Most of it had to do with the federal regulation of the travel industry, but I did an occasional speculative piece: that January 2001 column I keep linking to is an example.

Anyway, the column is about to be canceled. The problem is not the writing, apparently: it's that no product or service dovetails with the subject matter, so it's hard to sell advertising space on the opposite page. Trade magazines are as driven by their advertisers as are fashion magazines.

So, there's a hole in my time. If you know of anyone who needs a columnist or editor, please let me know. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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The Long View 2003-10-20: Real Reasons

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

This reminder of Pope John Paul II in his declining years makes for an interesting counterpoint to his successor, Benedict XVI. Each faced increasing age and debility; each selected a different way of responding to it. I think each way has its merits. 

The argument John makes here that the Papacy is best thought of as the still center around which the Church turns has something going for it.  I think is true in a long term sense, and perhaps less true in the short term sense. The reason for this is something John himself said in 1998

[...] the papacy has never existed in a vacuum. The mutations it has undergone in the past 2000 years are only partly the result of the logic of its own development. The short explanation for these changes is that the papacy was simply mirroring the political evolution of the societies in which it lived. The pope was once a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

The reigning Pope currently is an executive, even if he lacks a nuclear football. This seems to be the reason why Benedict chose resignation: to allow a more vigorous man to try to fix the many messes in the Vatican. Whether Pope Francis is successful at reigning in the power and influence of the curia is a matter yet to be settled.

As for the Iraq War, John mentions the five-year seven-country plan that widely circulated at the time. General Wesley Clark mentioned that plan too, in an interview in 2007.

So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” — meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” I said, “Is it classified?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me.” And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, “You remember that?” He said, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”

By now, we have managed to make a mess of Syria and Libya. We negotiated a deal with Iran, although Clark was right about the kind of influence Iran was and is wielding in Iraq. Sudan and Somalia are still hellholes. Lebanon has quieted down some. I suppose I should be grateful our reach exceeded our grasp here?


Real Reasons

John Paul II was clearly not well at yesterday's beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He confined himself to reading the brief Latin formula declaring her blessed; he delivered none of his own homily. He slumped in his seat in such a way that he seemed to disappear into his ceremonial robes. Seeing his obvious debility, many people are asking why the pope continues to appear regularly in public. For that matter, they ask, why does he not just abdicate? John Paul II knows his own reasons, but I would suggest two points.

The first is that, by showing himself in public, he demonstrates to a increasingly rumor-prone world that he is still alive. Moreover, he has enough good days to prove that he has his wits about him. Still, it is reasonably clear that his staff must be managing almost everything by now. Why does he stay in office? I suspect he does it to demonstrate that the papacy is not just an executive. The pope is not followed around by a Swiss Guard with a nuclear football; he does not have to be alert and fully briefed at every moment. Popes reign. They rule only incidentally.

Speaking of Mother Teresa, I recently heard a homily by a priest who knew her slightly. In his presence, he said, another priest patted her on her head and said, "Mother, you are getting shorter every year!" To that she is said to have replied, "I become smaller, Father, so that I can better fit into the heart of Jesus."

Given a straight-line like that, someone else might have said, "I'm not getting smaller, Father. I just look smaller to you because every time I see you you are more full of it." She said no such thing, however. That's why she is up for sainthood.

* * *

An opinion piece appeared in yesterday's New York Times by the president of Iraq's Governing Council, Ilad Alawi. (The first name is "Ilad" online, but "Iyad" in the print edition.) The article, entitled America Must Let Iraq Rebuild Itself, makes a reasonable argument that Iraq's regular army and pre-war police should be recalled to duty. The officer corps of both must be vetted for Baathist sympathies and human rights violations, of course, but the rank-and-file can be counted on to devote their attention to keeping the peace. Such a move would relieve Coalition troops of most ground-level security duties, and would greatly enhance the legitimacy of the coming Iraqi government in the Arab world.

The fact that this proposal has appeared at all is perhaps more important than its specifics. When the Governing Council was organized, it was said that no one would take it seriously unless it publicly opposed the US occupation authority on some major issues. It has been doing that frequently, so much so that one wonders whether some of the disputes may have been exaggerated simply to demonstrate the Council's independence. This proposal to revive the army and police is just the biggest initiative to come from the Council so far.

And what of the merits? The Coalition dissolved the army and police for the excellent reason that it would not have been able to trust them. Moreover, institutions like the Iraqi army often have a debilitating effect on the political life of developing countries. They are not really militaries, but a combination of police force and political party. Such armies become the single largest interest group. They offer a measure of stability, but often at the expense of occupying political space that ought to be filled by civilian associations. Certainly the Iraqi Governing Council would have been a negligible institution, if the Coalition had kept the army in being and worked through a committee of anti-Baathist generals.

These things are a matter of degree, however. The plan had always been to recruit police and military officers from the institutions of the old regime. The question remains how much use can safely be made of the old institutions themselves. One suspects that the Governing Council will eventually get at least part of its wish, now that there is a core of personnel committed to the new order of things.

* * *

On a different but not wholly unconnected topic, we should be giving some thought to the likelihood that laser weapons could soon make the recent revolution in military affairs obsolete. Writing in The Oakland Tribune, Ian Hoffman points out in an article entitled Warfare at the speed of light that even today's superduper smart weapons are still bound by the limits of Newtonian ballistics. Not so the laser weapons now under development, which have passed beyond gas lasers to chemical combustion and now to solid state. Once deployed and married with computer guidance, they could clear the skies of everything from ballistic missiles to mortar shells. Hitting a bullet with a bullet is problematical. Hitting a bullet with a beam of light is not.

There are problems, of course. Lasers are fair-weather weapons. The chemical lasers closest to deployment, as air-to-air canon, sound a little like the steam-driven computers in The Difference Engine. Nonetheless, it is likely that they will turn warfare into something new by midcentury. Note that the evolution continues away from unconscionable mass destruction, and toward precision and ubiquity.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the current war, readers might want to compare two recent assessments of the next step.

I can't remember the last time I actually touched a copy of the The Village Voice. However, when I saw that its current issue had a picture of President Bush as a crusader on its cover, and not as a moron or a cowboy, I took the trouble to view the cover-story online. The piece is called Bush's War Plan Is Scarier Than He's Saying: The Widening Crusade, by Sydney H. Schanberg. He tells us in the first paragraph:

If some wishful Americans are still hoping President Bush will acknowledge that his imperial foreign policy has stumbled in Iraq and needs fixing or reining in, they should put aside those reveries. He's going all the way-and taking us with him.

Part of the reason I found this interesting was because it contrasted so strongly with a the opening paragraph of a recent analysis by Dr. George Friedman of Stratfor. His article, entitled "The Next Phase of the War," begins thus:

Washington is reformulating its war plans in Iraq -- something critics of the Bush administration might view as a sign of weakness. The real weakness lies not in that the United States is shifting strategies, but rather that it has taken so long to make adjustments. However, even with a new strategy, it is unclear whether the United States will succeed.

The important point is that these two views of what is going on are not essentially different. Friedman says that the Iraq War had two objectives:

1. Seizing the most strategic country in the region as a base of operations from which to mount follow-on operations against countries that collaborate or permit collaboration with al Qaeda.
2. Transforming the psychological perception of the United States in the Islamic world from a hated and impotent power to a hated but feared power.

Schanberg fleshes this out with the increasingly famous five-year, seven-nation to-do list that has supposedly been circulating in the Pentagon since 911, but his article makes the same point: It's All Part of a Big Plan. The difference is that he finds this shocking:

A five-year military campaign. Seven countries. How far has the White House taken this plan? And how long can the president keep the nation in the dark, emerging from his White House cocoon only to speak to us in slogans and the sterile language of pep rallies?

May I in turn express my surprise that people continue to say they have been surprised by the Bush Administration? The president has repeatedly said pretty much what he was going to do: just look at his State of the Union speech in 2002. For rhetorical purposes, the president's opponents have named him Liar. In fact, few presidents have been clearer about what they intend to do and why they intend to do it.

Please pay attention. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-10-15: Irrealistic Adventures

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

Since it is primary season in the US, you can form your own opinions as to whether any of the current candidates are likely to pursue 'irrealistic' adventures in the Middle East.


Irrealistic Adventures

 

Harold Bloom himself has made an appropriately autumnal endorsement of Wesley Clark for president. In an essay entitled Cometh the Hour... that appeared in yesterday's Opinion Journal, he put the presidential election of 2004 in this perspective:

I have been rereading Edmund Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," which I recommend to anyone in search of wisdom relevant at this moment. Gibbon attributes decline and fall to many varied factors, but the characters of specific Roman emperors--good, bad and indifferent--are viewed by him as crucial in the self-destructiveness of Rome. It is not at all clear whether we are already in decline: bread is still available for most and circuses for all. Still, there are troubling omens, economic and diplomatic, and a hint or two from Gibbon may be of considerable use. I trust it is clear that I am not deploring our deposing of Saddam Hussein, though its motivations remain obscure. Our decimation of the Taliban, and continued pursuit of bin Laden, are inevitable responses to Islamic terrorism. But our wars with fundamentalist Islam will continue, and will broaden; others will be attacked. We have no option except imposing a Roman peace. The question I bring forward is: What is the proper training for our imperial presidents?

For my part, I would suggest that Gibbon will not be relevant to our condition for a good 300 years, even assuming that you think this kind of analogy is useful. Be that as it may, there is a fair likelihood that universal peace will not break out anytime soon. Bloom argues that, if the presidents for the foreseeable future are going to be spending most of their time on military issues, then we should at least elect presidents who know something about the subject. As he points out, fairly enough, war is not George W. Bush's area of expertise. Bloom characterizes the current deployments of US forces around the world as "irrealistic adventures." That assessment may be more notable for the use of the word "irrealistic" than for its merits, but it's not an unusual opinion.

The real problem with this argument is the assumption that Clark's brand of diplomatic generalship is just what we need right now. I have recently reviewed Clark's latest campaign book, Winning Modern Wars. Though a slight work, it's not the sort of extended greeting card that most presidential candidates allow to be published under their names. Indeed, it has enough content to raise questions about whether we really want someone with Clark's views running the Pentagon. He seems more interested in institutions than in strategy, or indeed in victory. He's quite right that the international system needs reform. The problem is that the kind of reforms he's ready to endorse would stop it from working at all. If you want details, just click the link to the review.

What Wesley Clark thinks now need not reflect what he would do in office. The same is true of all but the most exotic contenders for the Democratic nomination. This is the kind of era where realistic policy options are likely to be convergent. Whatever Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have planned when he was running for office in 1932, his policies after his election were not so different from those of Herbert Hoover. The difference was that FDR had Congress behind him, whereas Hoover lost control of the situation after 1930. The convergence will go both ways, of course. If President Bush is reelected, he will find himself under irresistible pressure to repeal the prospective elements of his tax cuts, particularly if the economy continues to improve. The Republicans have yet to take on board the fact that it is possible to lose an election for refusing to raise necessary revenues.

The real value of a Clark presidency would be that he could charm the European publics in a way that no American president since John Kennedy has been able to do. There would be more than a little irony here. Some Western Europeans, and Clark himself, look on his candidacy as an opportunity to turn the United States into just another country in the Western fold. In fact, a sufficiently attractive American president would be in a position to appeal over the heads of the sclerotic political institutions of the European Union directly to the people. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done this. Can it be so hard?

* * *

Speaking of Arnold Schwarzenegger, as governor of California his chief problem will be that the bulk of the state's revenues are constitutionally earmarked for specific functions, making it almost impossible to balance the operating budget. Other states, particularly in the south, have similar systems. The people in those states have decided they would rather have no government than to give the legislature the unfettered power to raise and spend taxes.

My favorite example of this kind of system, however, is a bit more exotic: late Ming China. My source for this is Ray Huang's 1587, A Year of No Significance. The book was published in 1981, and it's still one of the best treatments of Chinese history for the general public.

Now the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) came to power on a "Contract with China" platform. They did away with all that fancy paper-money finance of the Sung and Mongol periods. Wherever possible, they arranged for government functions to be financed locally, as near as possible to the places where the functions were performed. Much of the economy was demonetized. Imperial magistrates were forbidden to go outside the cities, so as not to interfere with village government. The dynasty approached the Confucian ideal of ecumenical order and local control.

The Ming were in power longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history, so they must have been doing something right. The problem was that, as the country went to seed, there were no national resources to fix it. Roads went unrepaired and unpoliced, while the local taxes to support these functions just disappeared. China's military was underfunded and almost immobile, so perforce the country's strategic posture was inflexible. Early on, the government closed down the merchant marine, because that was the easiest way to suppress the piracy that had grown up with it. Eventually, of course, the Manchus bribed their way over the Great Wall, and found the country essentially defenseless. The new dynasty had no trouble raising all the taxes it needed.

Didn't Conan do something like this?

* * *

I note with interest that the Supreme Court has decided that it will be less trouble to hear the case about the Pledge of Allegiance than to allow the circuit courts to fall into disagreement about it. As you no doubt know, the case is about whether the words "Under God" in the Pledge constitute an unconstitutional establishment of religion, at least when the Pledge is recited by children in public schools.

The Court could dispose of the matter with a minimum of trouble by deciding the case on a standing issue. The plaintiff is a non-custodial parent, who probably had no right to bring the case at all. If the Court does decide the case on the merits, it will almost certainly hold that the reference in the Pledge to God is a ceremonial trifle, like the words "In God We Trust" on American money. On the other hand, it is just barely possible that the Court will find for the plaintiff.

Should that happen, the decision will be handed down during a presidential election, and the Court will be endangering itself as an institution. Oddly enough, this could be the issue that finally breaks the power of constitutional judicial review, even though such a holding would not obviously be wrong. Unlike Griswald v. Connecticut or Roe v. Wade or Lawrence v. Texas, the case obviously presents a federal constitutional issue, and a holding for the plaintiff could be grounded in the text and history of the Constitution. Understand me: I think that such a decision would be wrong, but it would be legitimately wrong. The lethal peril, which the Court does not see, is that it has trained the nation to be indifferent to the legitimacy of its decisions.

What a joke for the history books: the guilty man hanged for the wrong crime.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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The Long View: Winning Modern Wars

General Wesley Clark

General Wesley Clark

I might have said General Wesley Clark dropped out of the public eye because he is a throwback to a bygone era, but the popularity of Bernie Sanders belies that idea. Maybe he is just the wrong kind of throwback, the militaristic liberal of the mid twentieth century that complicates the narrative.


 Winning Modern Wars:
Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire
By General Wesley K. Clark, U.S. Army (Retired)
PublicAffairs, 2003
218 Pages, US$25.00
ISBN 1-58648-218-1

Books by presidential candidates usually consist of slogans and heart-warming anecdotes. This one, by the commander of NATO during the Kosovo War, at least has arguments to engage. That is not to say that the bulk of it is very substantial. Half of the 200 pages of text is a narrative and critique of the Iraq War of 2003, with some attention to the preceding Afghan campaign: interesting but not particularly original. (Speaking of originality, readers should not confuse this book with the almost identically titled Waging Modern War, which the author published in the spring of 2001.) The important sections of “Winning Modern Wars” are the last two: “Flawed Arguments, Flawed Strategy,” and “Beyond Empire: A New America.” These state arguments that link domestic and international politics in a way that has not happened since the earliest days of the republic.

For most of the 20th century, candidate Clark explains, American politics had been evolving toward a mildly redistributive welfare state. However, for the last thirty years, many Americans have believed their values to be under assault, on matters ranging from affirmative action to the perceived coddling of criminals. As a result, “the last third of the twentieth century saw a reaction – a sustained effort to reorder public and private power and responsibilities, reduce the reach of the federal government, and link the interests of the very wealthy to the sympathies of Middle America through tax cuts and the culture war.” The culture war at home spilled over into foreign affairs, merging with a “fierce nostalgia for visible battlefield success abroad.”

That link between foreign and domestic politics is Clark's general theory of why the Iraq War happened. However, unlike almost every other politician in American history who has perceived military adventure being driven by misguided domestic considerations, his solution is not isolationist: quite the opposite. “We should turn upside down nineteenth-century Britain's view that Britain has no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” he tells us. “In the West we must have permanent friends and allies and work to ensure our interests converge.” The point of his campaign is to reintegrate the United States into the international system in general, and with Europe in particular.

Wesley Clark is the transnational candidate. This scarcely makes him the tool of foreign interests. Like the Internet, the transnational class to which he belongs reaches across the globe; but also like the Internet, it remains anchored in the United States. Indeed, Clark's transnationalism is, in effect, the American progressive politics that emerged from the 1960s, repackaged as a global ideology.

In order for Clark's project to succeed, it is necessary that the Iraq War be seen as an unrepeatable mistake. Nonetheless, his account of the war itself is not altogether damning to the Bush Administration. His major point is that the planning left too little force on the ground to provide security in the postwar situation. This, he argues, was one of the fruits of the Bush Administration's unilateralism: “In attempting to retain full control, the Administration raised the costs and risks of the mission by preventing our use of the full array of tools available to win a modern war.”

The most important of these tools were the legitimacy and material support available from allies and multilateral organizations, such as Clark enjoyed while directing the campaign in Kosovo. The Kosovo War, in fact, is his paradigm for the new model of warfare. It's true that, except for the British, the allies in that campaign could not contribute much of the air power with which the war was almost exclusively fought. However, they were able to flood the Balkans with a gendarmerie in the aftermath. Even tiny Kosovo, with a population of four million, is policed by 60,000 peacekeepers.

One does not quite know what to say about Clark's use of NATO's Balkan endeavors as a model for the future. The region remains politically sullen and economically comatose. Kosovo still does not have a working system of commercial law; it also does not have a reliable electricity grid. Ethnic violence continues in a modest way, though now the perpetrators and victims are reversed. NATO's politically dictated inability to use ground troops required a cavalier attitude toward aerial attacks on civilian infrastructure. Kosovo is more peaceful than it was, of course. Clark did a good job, considering the constraints of the mission. However, we should remember that the peacekeepers did not create the peace; the exit of the Serbian Army did that. In effect, the outcome in the Balkans was based on finding a goal small enough to fit NATO's internal politics.

The same was true of the magnificent multilateral coalition that George W. Bush's father put together for the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Brimming with international legitimacy, it ensured that one of the most lopsided military victories in modern times would result in a political draw. This is not to say that Bush Senior was very keen to push on to Baghdad after the Iraqis were expelled from Kuwait. Nonetheless, the obvious preoccupation of the US with placating allies did make it possible for the Baathist regime to survive and reassert itself.

Clark does argue that the most recent Iraq War was unnecessary and improvident, even a distraction from America's real security needs. He suggests that, if some people in the Pentagon had their druthers, “every hour spent planning operations against Saddam would have been used against Al Qaeda.” Every hour? Somehow one doubts that the pursuit of a terrorist network requires the same amount or kind of effort as the prosecution of a middle-sized war. Clark has critical things to say about anti-terrorist measures in the United States. In some mysterious way, he finds them to be simultaneously too harsh and not serious enough. His chief complaint, though, is that the Administration was “seeking to use 9/11 as the basis for working another agenda, an agenda perhaps defined several years earlier, calling for the U.S. to use its military power to rearrange the Middle East, starting with Iraq.”

Well...yes. One might say the Bush Administration used 911 in much the way that Franklin Roosevelt's Administration used Pearl Harbor. The difference is that the Roosevelt Administration did have a plan that it had been looking for a way to implement, whereas all George W. Bush's Administration had were some policy options that had previously been regarded as too radical. In both cases, public disaster made it possible to deal with a growing constellation of threats that had been belittled or deferred for over a decade.

Clark is as aware of this as anyone else: “[D]uring the early 1990s, a witches' brew of Middle East and international groups emerged to shadow and threaten Americans...” One could say, though Clark does not put it this way, that Al Qaeda was not the worst of the dangers threatening the United States; it was just the first to strike. Clark says of these new threats that they “fell outside the mold to which the United States had become accustomed.” That's perfectly true. What Clark never seems to take on board is that the multilateral security system that grew up in the 20th century may also require fundamental rethinking.

That system had failed with respect to Iraq. We know now that Iraq had continuing programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, as well as to develop the means to deliver them. Some of these projects, particularly those to develop nuclear weapons, had been mothballed. Weapons stocks have not been found. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Iraq was in substantial violation of the UN weapons-control regime, and that mere inspections would never have discovered the violations. The Baathist government was just waiting for the inspectors to go away.

Pretty much everybody knew this. Certainly the world's would-be proliferators of mass destruction knew it. They also knew that everyone else knew it, and were disposed to do nothing. The UN non-proliferation regime had become less than a scarecrow.

Clark runs through a list of criteria that should have been met before military action in Iraq began, but he emphasizes this one: “Imminence was the key.” Actually, the Bush Administration made clear before the war that imminence was precisely what it was trying to avoid, but suppose Clark is right, and that imminence was essential. Is it clear that imminence was lacking? Iran is within a year or two, maybe just months, of having nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. The stability of Saudi Arabia was being progressively undermined by the presence of American troops in the land of the Two Holy Places; the troops were there because the fragile Saudi regime was threatened even by the diminished military capacity of late Baathist Iraq. Either an Islamist revolution in Saudi Arabia, or the advent of Iran as a nuclear state, would have made the sanctions regime in Iraq unenforceable and irrelevant.

The problem with arguing that the Iraq War destabilized the region is that the region was not stable to begin with. The real question may not be whether the American attempt to reconstruct Iraq was precipitous, but whether it may already have been too late.

All this is by the way. The Clark campaign is not about Iraq. It is about the relationship of US domestic politics to the international system. Some of what he has to say is well taken. He characterizes the U.S. military as a “Clausewitzian” force, designed for “big battles and maximum violence.” It is not a garrison military, and historically has had little staying power abroad. For a volunteer force in particular, occupation duty can be unbearable and unsustainable. Moreover, he is quite right about maintaining the solidarity of the West, and of the need for the United States to participate collegially in international forums. Clark disparagingly compares the the idea of a “New American Empire,” an empire like the British Raj that he asserts the neoconservatives are conspiring to establish, with the “Virtual American Empire,” another name for which is globalization. The United States, he points out, is the greatest beneficiary of the network of treaties and international institutions that grew up after the Second World War. It would be folly to repudiate them now.

This is all perfectly true, but no one has seriously proposed doing any such thing. Not even William Kristol in a fever dream has advocated that the US found a “classic empire.” The Bush Administration's difficulty with international forums does not arise from Texan imperialism, but from the fact that large parts of the international system have shown themselves to be decadent, in the narrow sense of Jacques Barzun's formula: to will the end without being able to will the means.

Clark tells us: “The administration's resistance to fully engaging other states through NATO reflected a certain American 'attitude,' a lack of respect for the constitutional and political processes of other states...The United States was left wrestling with a hundred governments bilaterally...” In point of fact, the Bush Administration resisted engaging other states through NATO because of experience. Probably no experience was more relevant than Clark's own compromise settlement in Kosovo. We already got one of those for Iraq in 1991, and it was not good enough.

As a general matter, the author often seems more interested in preserving institutions than with achieving the goals for which the institutions were created. He says that, should the US military need to maintain a long occupation of Iraq, “we might lose the essence of the Army that fought its way so valiantly into Iraq.” Well, maybe, but is that how one should formulate the problem? When one speaks of a force as “Clausewitzian,” one usually means a force capable of carrying out the policies set by its government. In Clark's scheme of things, in contrast, it is the duty of government to set policy consistent with the institutional imperatives of the military. If some form of war is necessary, and the military can't do it, then is it necessity or the military that should change?

This brings us back to the culture-war issue. In this regard, Clark is simply reflecting common European misperceptions. The people who think of themselves as culture warriors, such as Patrick J. Buchanan, have little “nostalgia” for military glory. Like most real unilateralists, they are also isolationists. The other major ideological wing of contemporary conservatism, the Libertarians, dislike the military almost as much as they dislike taxes. In 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush promised a more modest American foreign policy. That's what his constituents wanted. When 911 occurred, there were many people in the world who thought it was more or less what they had been waiting for or warning about. The culture warriors were not among them.

There is a way in which the author's sociological explanation of support for the war is more acute than he knows. Terms like “culture war” and “neoconservative” are usually bandied about as terms of disapprobation for the reaction against the liberalism of the 1960s. “Liberalism” has meant different things, some of them noble, in different times and places. Four decades ago in America, however, it came to mean a progressive politics that supports a confiscatory welfare state and is contemptuously indifferent to public safety. The “reaction” that Clark describes of the past 30 years generally took the form of renewed insistence on safe streets and working public institutions.

This progressive spirit lingers over the European Union. It also haunts many of the major international institutions. Its complaints against the Bush Administration are transnational forms of the complaints against the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York City. Giuliani was, in effect, accused of distracting attention from the root causes of crime by actually reducing it. That is transnationalism today. That is what Wesley Clark is campaigning to defend.    

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The Long View 2003-10-06: Bad Timing

Here is a pretty good prediction John made about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not that it was very hard.


Bad Timing

 

Here is what California Governor Gray Davis had to say about the pre-election-day blizzard of sexual-harassment allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger:

"Taken together, I believe those stories do raise serious questions about his ability to lead this state," Davis said, adding that it's up to the authorities to decide whether to investigate or prosecute the sexual misconduct allegations.

These things are much better managed in New Jersey. When the classic party machines were still working, you could be sure the county prosecutor would be convening a grand jury on the day before election day, to look into the challenger's newly discovered malefactions. Etiquette dictated that an indictment not actually be brought; it was enough that an insurgent candidate's name appear in the same story as speculation about the length of a possible prison sentence. Even in these degenerate days, the party in power generally has the sense to pace its revelations of the opposition's atrocities.

In the case of the California recall election, it might have been very damaging to broadcast, in the last week before the voting, that Schwarzenegger was a lecher, or that he was a crypto-Nazi, or that he was a Robert Mapplethorpe pinup. To broadcast these things almost simultaneously (the Mapplethorpe allegations surfaced a bit earlier) smacks of wretched excess. The Davis people were constrained by the brief length of the campaign, of course. Still, by launching so many accusations at once, they may have committed the public-relations equivalent of "fratricide," which is what happens when you throw multiple bombs against a target and one bomb destroys the rest before they can explode properly. We will know tomorrow whether the error was fatal.

As for the sexual harassment allegations against Schwarzenegger, I have no reason to doubt they are true. (The Nazi allegations imploded when John Butler, the producer to whom Schwarzenegger made the comments, found his notes and reported that he had misquoted Schwarzenegger earlier.) Long before the recall campaign, the word on Schwarzenegger was that he was a very bright man with a penchant for cruel practical jokes, and that he did tend to get physical with women who had not asked him to. Whatever he did to them, however, none of them thought it outrageous enough to bring charges. It sounds as if he is not a misogynist, but a bully. In this he is different from Bill Clinton, who apparently confined his abusive behavior to women.

In any case, one thing we may know tomorrow is whether we will finally be shut of sexual harassment allegations as a political tool.

* * *

Writing in the Fall issue of The National Interest, the strangely inescapable Niall Ferguson argues, in an article with Laurence J. Kotlikoff, that the United States is cosmically bankrupt, and that this condition could manifest itself very quickly.

The piece in question is entitled "Going Critical." The summary line says, "Long before the American Empire becomes overstretched abroad, it will implode economically at home." To some extent, the authors just rehash familiar complaints about unfunded entitlements. Citing a study by two other economists, Jagadeesh Gokhale and Kent Smetters, they say this about the next 30 years:

Suppose the government could, today, get its hands on all the revenue it can expect to collect in the future, but had to use it, today, to pay off all its future expenditure commitments, including debt service. Would the present value (the discounted value today) of the future revenues cover the present value of the future expenditures? The answer was a decided no: according to their calculations, the shortfall amounts to $45 trillion.

Reasoning like this is why no one talks to economists. I have not seen the study in question, but I suppose it's subject to the same "butterfly effect" that characterizes every other calculation that involves long-term compounding. Very small changes, in either the base numbers or the assumed rates of return, will provide wildly different answers. That's how huge projected fiscal surpluses can turn into huge projected deficits in the wink of an eye. Of course, the projections for the federal budget are a model of certainty compared to the liabilities at issue here. Off-balance-sheet liabilities are off the balance sheet in part because they are harder to quantify. Federal revenues are just as speculative. The situation could be worse than Ferguson & Kotlikoff say, but a 30-year projection will tell us little either way.

They seem to know this, too. The point of the article is that the dollar could collapse simply on the perception that the fiscal condition of the United States government is unmanageable. The collapse could be occasioned by a political incident as easily as by bad economic news:

In Germany in May 1921 -- to give an extreme example -- it was the announcement of a staggering postwar reparations burden of 132 billion deutschmarks that convinced investors the government's fiscal position was incompatible with currency stability. The assassination of the liberal foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, in July of the following year delivered the coup de grace, sending both interest rates and exchange rates skyrocketing.

Supposedly, the peculiar vulnerability that the US faces is that its budget deficit is being funded by foreign lenders, who might all take it into their heads to sell those US bonds for euro-denominated instruments. This seems to me to be unlikely on several counts. Sell them to whom? Replace them with what? Nonetheless, some such scenario is often met with these days. The political crisis of the Clinton impeachment did not spark a financial crisis, but one must wonder whether this would be true today in the face of another event of that sort.

* * *

In its Sunday edition, The New York Times did not neglect presidential candidate Wesley Clark's caution against taking special relativity too literally. Aside from the title of the piece, Beam Us Up, General Clark, the Times resisted the temptation to wax merry over the incident. At any rate, it resisted the temptation to be funny on purpose. The paper's willingness to take a broad view of physics in no way implied any willingness to suspend gender-blender language policy. In the course of a discussion about worm holes as a possible way around special relativity, the article observes:

Nobody knows whether such things are actually possible in the real world. One obstacle is the "grandmother paradox," which raises the theoretical possibility of going back in time and killing your own grandmother.

Ah yes: the "Grandmother Paradox." The interesting question is whether this distortion of common usage comes from the author, Dennis Overbye, or some zealous copyeditor. 

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LinkFest 2016-01-22

Source Criticism is not Credible

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is one of my recent follows on Twitter. Here, Gobry discusses one of the roots of the recent argument between Ross Douthat and members of the Catholic academy: source criticism. One of the most popular theories in the academy is that a hypothetical lost source document, known as Q for Quelle, was used to compose the Gospels. This theory was advanced in the 19th century to explain the similarities in the Gospels, which at the time were thought to have been composed in the second or third centuries. Present biblical scholarship estimates much earlier dates of composition, so the original reason for proposing the source theory is no longer pertinent. The theory, however, persists. Part of the reason for this seems to be is that it allows for an essential flexibility in biblical exegesis. Unfortunately, source criticism doesn't seem useful or correct on its own terms, so the current popularity of the theory seems to be an exercise in special pleading.

Everything Aristotle Said is Wrong

This essay was mentioned in passing by Gobry when he was discussing Source Criticism. In part, this essay is about modern philosophy, but it is also a fascinating history of Great Books programs in the United States.

The decline of deaths from Coronary Heart Disease worldwide

I've seen this paper before, and this graph is the most dramatic image contained within. Other papers on the same subject do not have quite as sharp of a peak in the data, and the ending and starting rates seem too low as well, it is pretty clear that CHD deaths in the Western countries peaked in the 1970s, and have steadily declined since. Compare this image from the NIH:

 

 What is a lot less clear is exactly why this is. There have been many, many changes in treatments for CHD over this time period, and big changes in diet and smoking rates. It is pretty hard to tease out these things all together, but looking at dietary cholesterol in particular, the amount of cholesterol people in Western countries eat has steadily increased over the time period in question, which is part of reason why dietary cholesterol is no longer seen as so critical to heart disease.

The Long View 2003-10-03: Unusual Views

John Reilly mentions Gen. Wesley Clark in passing here. Clark has dropped out of the public eye, but it is probably worth remembering that Clark probably helped bring about one of the great, but unheralded successes of the United States in the Balkans in the 1990s, Operation Storm. Others were involved of course, but this is the sort of thing that probably is in institutional memory of the Deep State still, encouraging us to bait the Russian bear.

On the subject of the Balkans, I have an upcoming review on the development of the Predator drone. The first combat deployment of that drone was in the Balkans in the 1990s as well, so it behooves us to think about what we did back then, and how it influences us now.


Unusual Views

 

I am pleased to see that even people, like Instapundit, who are inclined to view Wesley Clark's policy ideas skeptically have nonetheless warmed to his recent expressions of doubt about Special Relativity. Too few presidential candidates have any views about physics at all, so this sort of thing should be encouraged. One can only contrast Clark's pure curiosity to Al Gore's views about global warming. Gore may or may not be sincere, but it's hard not to notice that his ecological notions seem tailored for the electorate. This is much harder to do with cosmology.

Now that I come to think of it, presidents and major presidential candidates have been pretty good about keeping their exotic enthusiasms to themselves. There was Henry Wallace and his interest in astrology, of course, but I would not class that with Clark's remarks. The closest parallel I can think of is Theodore Roosevelt's promotion of spelling reform, which he actually managed to turn into a public controversy. Even Theodore Roosevelt did not mention the matter during his campaigns, however, at least as far as I know.

* * *

Speaking of Wesley Clark, I have every intention of doing a review of his new book, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire, as soon as it becomes available. A warning to people who also intend to read it, however. It should not be confused with Clark's other recent book, Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat, which was released in August 2002. Waging Modern War was in the high 600s on Amazon's sales ranking this morning. Winning Modern Wars was in the mid-200s, despite the fact the book has not yet been released.

One point I would like to clarify is the publication history. Both books are published by "Public Affairs," an entity with no Web presence. All I could find was a distributor. So, both books are apparently self-published. Self-publishing is a laudable institution, even for people who are not running for public office.

* * *

On the subject of unusual views, I recently bought my first copy of Weird New Jersey. This excellent semi-annual is best known for its paparazzi-like coverage of the Jersey Devil, and for printing with a straight face the sort of sex-and-death ghost stories beloved by teenagers. Weird New Jersey is not a tabloid: it's primary folklore research. If the lore sometimes seems a little tawdry, the explanation is that so are the folk.

Perhaps the most important feature of Weird New Jersey is the many articles they run on the abandoned commercial and military sites that litter New Jersey. New Jersey has been through two industrial revolutions and is working on a third. The obsolete facilities are often simply abandoned. They are also frequently located in out-of-the way places that quickly become reforested. The function and even the names of some of these structures pass out of local knowledge. Gruesome and improbable legends spring up.

I myself have a story that could have gone into Weird New Jersey. I recorded it in my journal for Saturday, September 8, 2001. Well, some of it:

My sister, my brother-in-law, and I went to visit the Gateway National Recreation Area at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Sandy Hook is just outside lower New York Bay, so the area was pivotal to the coastal defense of New York City. The idea was that, when the Kaiser invaded the United States, German troops would land there and in Connecticut, in order to encircle the city. To forestall this event, the Army built gun emplacements looking out onto the Bay. During the Cold War, when the facility was known as Fort Hannock, the canons were replaced by Nike anti-aircraft missiles. Much of the facility is now a ruin, with the notable exception of some rows of rather fine officer-housing.

I did not appreciate just how large a ruin it was until we walked around it along the beach. The fort had been built into a low cliff, but "low" is relative. Great slaps of creeper-covered concrete loomed to our left as we tried to make our way along the ever-narrowing beach. The way was blocked by stone slabs that had fallen or been dislodged into the water, so we had to climb over them. When we reached firm ground, we passed locked doors as high as four-story buildings. Sometimes, there were small, rusted signs, which threatened the most dire consequences to anyone attempting to enter.

Then we came to the Village. It looked like a film producer had wanted to build a set for a suburban neighborhood but had needed to economize on scale. All the buildings were variations on two or three models. The houses were brightly painted and generally two stories tall, but I can't see how anyone could have stood up straight in them. They were no more than ten feet apart. Each was set in a postage-stamp-size lawn, with grass as neatly trimmed as a crew cut. There were low white-picket fences, and narrow, flawless sidewalks.

The Village was deserted. Toys were scattered on some of the lawns. A tricycle waited in the street. One or two garages were opened and tools were set up in the driveway for some weekend project. Doors were open, and music played. Nobody was there.

Then there was the gargoyle. It was four feet high and black. Its eyes were made of some reflective material. The gargoyle stood on one of the perfect little lawns, at the side of one of the impeccable little houses.

This walk got more and more disconcerting, not just because we did not meet anyone, but because we were lost. The streets seemed laid out so as to lead us away from the lot where we had left our car. Still, there was a way out, and we found it.

We also found a few hundred people at a picnic, in a park adjacent to what was no doubt their neighborhood. We surmised that the tidy houses were for Coast Guard personnel. We were too embarrassed to ask.

* * *

Speaking of requests, I see that The Perfection of the West is still selling a copy now and again: thank you very much. I wonder, though, whether anyone who read it might be interested in contributing a review to the Amazon page? This assumes you liked it, of course, or that you disliked it so much that you can make it sound hateful in an interesting way. 

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The Long View 2003-09-24: Whose Quagmire?

At the time, you could actually rely on the news to paint a rosy picture of Iraq. The fundamental problem, then as now, is that the English-language media have too much dependence on people they can talk to. Reporting on the Arab Spring had the same problem.  John brings up Vietnam. That is a pretty good example of the problem, but not in the way John meant.


Whose Quagmire?

 

President Bush's frostily received address to the UN General Assembly yesterday resembled nothing so much as a State of the Union Address to a hostile Congress. That was the kind of speech that Bill Clinton gave to the Gingrich Congress, and that Bush's own father gave in 1992: a small number of very specific legislative proposals, including one conspicuous measure for the benefit of children. The bulk of yesterday's address was about Iraq, more or less, but that part sounded like Bush's recent funding request to Congress. In both cases, he was asking for money to support the occupation and reconstruction. What chiefly struck me about yesterday's address was that the president asked for laws:

Today, I ask the U.N. Security Council to adopt a new antiproliferation resolution. This resolution should call on all members of the U.N. to criminalize the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Today, some nations make it a crime to sexually abuse children abroad. Such conduct should be a crime in all nations.

The president's remarks and those of the other principal speakers were different in kind. Secretary General Annan, President Chirac of France, and President da Silva of Brazil, seemed most concerned with the structure and authority of the United Nations as an institution. The chief effect of the Terror War on such people, in fact, has been to increase enthusiasm for the reforms of the U.N. system recommended in Our Global Neighborhood. The strange thing about this development is that, though the Global Neighborhood reforms are supposed to facilitate global governance, the people who support them are singularly uninterested in actual governance. One is reminded of nothing so much as the parliament of Congo-Zaire after Mobutu fell, which spent its first session arguing about parliament members' salaries and perks.

There is a twain here: the desire for legitimate governance and the ability to govern. They will meet eventually, but not now.

* * *

As for the situation in Iraq, as we approach five months since President Bush declared an end to major combat, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the media to maintain the quagmire story. It's a bad sign when you start quoting Ann Coulter, but she hit the nail on the head when she asked in a recent column, "Have you noticed that we started to lose only when the embedded reporters went home?" Maybe this is just an illusion created by listening to NPR regularly, but all those reports about the patience of Iraqi civilians wearing thin seem to have grown awfully formulaic. Iraqi patience must have been very thick to begin with, since apparently good polls show that the occupation is popular even in chaotic Baghdad.

Popularity is not the point, of course. Quite likely a majority of South Vietnamese did not want a Communist victory in 1975, but the US tired of the war of attrition anyway. There are two differences in Iraq. First, there is a quite clear strategy, and not particularly long-term one, for turning what is really a police problem over to a democratic Iraqi government. The recent attempts by the interim Governing Council to assert itself against Paul Bremer's administration are actually part of the program. Just as important, there is no state nearby waiting for the US to leave so it can invade. Neighboring states are more likely to be undermined by the new Iraq than the other way around.

Instapundit does a pretty good job of reporting the incremental good news, punctuated by disasters. Most intriguing of all are the reports, which began circulating last week, that Saddam Hussein may be close to capture or exile. Such an event could create a crisis for the liberal media and the foreign policy establishment, particularly if it shed light on the WMD question.

* * *

No one should suppose that the liberal media, or the foreign policy establishment, or even Howard Dean want the US to lose in Iraq. What they do want is to "contain the damage." 911 and the quick military victories were a trauma to the worldview of progressives, an increasingly transnational group. Those events made the agenda that transnationalists had been promoting seem secondary, and their solutions to the world's problems fatuous. They would be perfectly happy if Iraq could just be bracketed as a "failed state" (which a UN administration might reasonably be expected to produce). They believe that the US intervention can eventually be classed with the small, unsuccessful interventions in Beirut in 1986 and in Somalia in 1992-93.

This is deeply delusional. A US failure in Iraq, which would probably entail return of a Baathist government, perhaps headed by Saddam Hussein himself, would mean the end of conventional military deterrence as an instrument of world order. That leaves nukes.

* * *

Here is an update regarding on the progress of library science. When I was doing research for cataloging my library, I had gathered that libraries subscribed to a service that updated the Dewey Decimal System, but I had not quite taken on board the fact the system is a trade-marked product.

Imagine my innocence.

Now I see that the Online Computer Library Center is suing Manhattan's Library Hotel for arranging its rooms according to Dewey categories. The idea is that each room has decor and some books corresponding to the category subjects. The Center wants a fee, or at least an acknowledgement.

I hope they settle the suit. The concept appeals to me.   

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The Long View 2003-09-2003: Gödel Incarnate

John's prediction here that the Supreme Court would find itself stripped of some of its powers by the other branches of government has not yet come to pass. At present, the highest court is still seen as a political prize to be won, rather than an impediment to be overcome.

The speculation about Hiliary Clinton running for President in 2008 was a pretty good guess, especially since in 2003 Barack Obama was still a member of the Illinois State Senate.


Gödel Incarnate

 

Can there be Gödel sentences in real life? Those are the kind of statements that crazy old Kurt Gödel identified, the ones whose truth value cannot be determined within the system in which they are expressed. I see that the character Neo in the Matrix series has been identified as a Gödel sentence in the Matrix system, but that's a movie. Reality is not nearly so pretentious. Nonetheless, it does sometimes do similar tricks.

* * *

Consider, for instance, the recent opinion by a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that California's gubernatorial recall election would have to be postponed until next March, so that some counties in that state could replace their paper-punch ballot machines with more modern ones. That decision, perhaps mischievously, relied in part on Bush v. Gore, the US Supreme Court decision that ended the presidential election of 2000. (We now know that the opinion did not decide the election: the recount the Florida Supreme Court had ordered, and which the US Supreme Court stopped, would still have produced a win for Bush; but that's another story.)

The interesting thing about using Bush v. Gore is that the per curiam opinion says you're not supposed to. The majority said:

The recount process, in its features here described, is inconsistent with the minimum procedures necessary to protect the fundamental right of each voter in the special instance of a statewide recount under the authority of a single state judicial officer. Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.

Indeed it does, not the least of which is how to read a holding that says not to read it. Of course, it's not unusual for appeals court opinions to lack precidential value. There are so many that only a fraction are selected for the official case reports, because they deal with issues of general importance. The other opinions just decide the issue between the parties. Lawyers can cite unreported opinions, if they can find them. However, like articles in legal journals, those opinions are presented merely for their persuasive value; they are not precedents. The odd thing about Bush v. Gore is that the text seems to suggest the opinion should not be used even for that purpose in the future.

An expanded panel of the 9th Circuit is going to rehear the recall case in a few days. Maybe they will make the logical problem go away. If not, California could disappear into a Mobius strip.

* * *

Speaking of the US Supreme Court, the October issue of First Things has several pieces on that eminent tribunal and its wicked ways. The keynote article, "The Supreme Court Rules," by Michael M. Uhlmann of Claremont Graduate University, usefully highlights the fundamentally arbitrary nature of the Court's practice of according different levels of scrutiny to different classes of Constitutional questions; since the Court took to defining rights out of thin air, the "Scrutiny Game" has become wholly capricious. For our purposes, though, the relevant bit comes in the summary at the end:

The second flaw in living constitutionalism is that, if the Constitution is an endlessly changing document, it is unclear why its provisions authorizing judicial power should be considered sacred and permanent. In its aggressive assertions on behalf of a living Constitution, the Court runs the risk of undermining the principle basis of its own authority. It may find, as Professor [Alexander] Bickel warned long ago, that it has no ground on which to stand.

There is a bit of magic in this kind of analysis. The heroine defeats Rumpelstiltskin by identifying him. Captain Kirk unhinges misguided computers by proving that they are the sort of thing they were designed to destroy. Of course, we find these motifs in stories because we also meet them in the light of day. The Supreme Court has lost its supremacy more than once in American history. Once again, as in the days before the Civil War and during the Depression, the Court has become a June bug in search of a windshield.

* * *

Then there are sentences that generate all the confusion of Gödel sentences, but without the logical rigor. Consider this one from another First Things piece, "Scandal and the Constitution," by L. Marin Nussbaum. It appears in a grand jury's report on the affairs of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York State. The grand jury failed to find anything indictable, but it did opine "that the conduct of certain diocesan officials would have warranted criminal prosecution but for the fact that existing statutes are inadequate." In other words, the officials would have been criminals but for the fact they committed no crimes. This is very close to what is called "an Irish bull," of which a fair sample is this: "And now the only animals that live on the farm are the birds that fly over it." Yogi Berra is the master of this sort of expression, except that, unlike the grand jury, Berra isn't stupid.

There a couple of points in the Nussbaum article I'm not altogether happy about. For one thing, I don't think that grand jury went beyond its authority by investigating the diocese. On the other hand, I would agree that the investigation was probably an instance of prosecutorial abuse. I was on a grand jury once, and I think everything they do is prosecutorial abuse.

* * *

Finally, we come to the significance of the newly announced candidacy of retired NATO commander, General Wesley Clark, for the Democratic presidential nomination. The timing of the announcement, and the fact that so many of Clark's campaign staff are members of the Clinton machine, have led to some very entertaining speculation.

Some say Clark is really running for vice president, anybody's vice president. In other versions, Clark is just the last in a series of no-hope candidates whom Bill Clinton has encouraged to run. The idea is to ensure the Democrats lose in 2004, thus leaving Hillary Clinton the obvious candidate for 2008. The more elaborate scenarios make Clark a "stalking horse" for Hillary. She will announce in due course; then Clark will turn over his campaign to her, with himself as her running mate.

There is a story about Charles DeGaulle and stalking horses. During the 1950s, if you were writing about French politics, you could make a modest living by speculating about when DeGaulle was coming back to power. Fourth Republic governments changed every few months, and every new government had one or more members who could plausibly be characterized as a stalking horse for him. DeGaulle did come back, in 1959. Then one wire-service reporter, who had been filing stalking-horse stories in a robotic fashion for years, filed a story speculating that DeGaulle was a stalking horse for DeGaulle.

The reporter was fired immediately. DeGaulle was fired in 1969.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-09-16: Why Alexandria Burned

I too have a problem with books. According to my LibraryThing account, I have 729 books shelved in the library, with another 117 kids books in the house. I have re-shelved my entire library recently too, so I know exactly what John was talking about here. I ended up mostly trying broad themes, and trying to keep all of an author's works together no matter what genre they were.


Why Alexandria Burned

Many of us have been buying books for years. The collection suffers from changes of residence and basement floods, but we learn that the number of books is a measure of entropy: it either stays the same or increases. Eventually, we start calling the collection a library. Later, some of us reach a point where we think about organizing the collection. At any rate, I did. An otherwise worthy professor of communications advised me that the only sane way to do it is by hiring a cataloging service

To that I say Ha.

It was just a weekend project, almost. At sunset last Friday, all the shelves in my apartment were bare, but every other flat space was covered by books, often to some depth. By Sunday morning, the unshelved books were reduced to two rows, each 25 feet long, along the walls in the hall. Monday took no more than a bit of clean-up work. You can do it in two or three days. You bet.

Because of this exercise, I have gained new insight into the dark art of library science. I now appreciate that librarians must grapple with the most profound questions of epistemology. More important, the physical aspect of shelving made me suspect that librarians must all be Clark Kents: people who do deep knee-bends for a living should be approached with respect.

* * *

I should not exaggerate the problem; I had only about 1,200 books, after all. That's a third more than I thought I had, before I did the math, but they would fit easily into a single room (I have them in two). What surprised me was that I could not find anything online about organizing a home library. There is some assistance for professional librarians, of course. Predictably, there are many expositions of the Dewey Decimal System. However, although the Dewey categories are helpful and intuitive, they are more than you need. More important, the system does not easily accommodate the special subjects for which people accumulate private libraries in the first place.

I also took a look at the system used by the Library of Congress. It is too cunning to be understood. Naturally, there are more specialized systems, but none of much use to me.

* * *

You will find it helpful to draft a floorplan long before you touch actual books, with descriptions of the subject categories set out by the places the books will go. As you amplify and correct this chart at odd moments, it will quickly become a veritable Memory Palace, a map of the whole intelligible world as you understand it. Run off elaborate hardcopy of the plan just before you begin reshelving. You will find this beautiful document comforting as you gradually cross out all the super-fine distinctions, leaving general subject-areas you can actually use. Getting books by the same author next to each other on the shelf is half the battle.

These are the categories I came up with. Within each category, everything is alphabetical by author unless otherwise indicated, or unless I could not read the author's name on the spine:

NORTH ROOM

Reference
Includes atlases, chronologies, dictionaries & grammars (all languages) oversized books, literary theory, stuff about spelling reform, graphic novels if I had any, and personal journals.

Metahistory
Models of history, theories of history, eschatology, future studies, books with titles like "The End of X" unless they are obviously Fiction, and histories of whole civilizations.

Biography
In addition to biographies, this includes autobiographies, memoirs, letters, and Classical histories that are written as biographies. Wherever possible, this category is alphabetical by subject.

Politics & Art
Political science, polemics, aesthetics, culture-wars stuff, conspiracy, and art, unless the art is very graphics-heavy, in which it is Reference.

Science
The physical sciences, mathematics, programming, actual program disks, parapsychology (theoretical), manuals, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, folklore; if the last three are influenced by Jung, they are Occult.

Religion
Holy texts, texts about holy texts, theology, apologetics, stuff by C.S. Lewis that is not a novel, atheism.

SOUTH ROOM

General History
National histories, particular wars, intellectual history, everything Paul Johnson ever wrote except Intellectuals, which is Biography.

Occult
Magic, mythology, New Age, parapsychology (practical), evil Nazis, except Francis Parker Yockey, who is Metahistory, under the name Ulrick Varange.

Anthologies
Collections of short works by various authors. Lots of very old science fiction.

Poetry & Plays
Includes verse novels. Well, one verse novel.

Fiction
Novels, short stories by individual authors, non-fiction essays by individual authors that are not about anything in particular.

* * *

The wonder is that, in the midst of all this reorganizing, I seem to have lost only a single book. Indeed, the most disconcerting aspect of the project is just the opposite. Before I started, I had very little extra shelf space, so I cleared off the tops of all but one bookcase to use as shelves, and relocated some periodicals I had been keeping on shelves. Despite the addition of linear footage, however, there are now only a few inches of spare space in both rooms combined. It was like the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

I have no explanation for that, as for so many other things. At least now, however, if I find an explanation, I will know where to put it. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Fredy Neptune

I haven't read this book, but I admit I'm intrigued by John's description of it.


Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse
by Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999
255 Pages, $27.50 (US)
ISBN: 0-374-15854-1

 

In "The Devil's Dictionary," Ambrose Bierce defines "blank verse" thus:

"Unrhymed iambic pentameters -- the most difficult kind of English verse to write acceptably; a kind, therefore, much affected by those who cannot acceptably write any kind."

Les Murray's "Fredy Neptune," a novel about the life and adventures of a German-Australian seaman in the first half of the 20th century, is 255 pages of blank verse. Furthermore, it is blank verse in the service of a theodicy that makes use of ground-level descriptions of just about every major bad thing that happened from 1914 to 1945. Bierce would have approached such a work with understandable trepidation.

The wonder is that this is an excellent book, one that revealed to me things I did not know about the narrative uses of poetry. (You can get an amazing amount of action into a very few lines, for one thing.) The only drawback to "Fredy Neptune" is that it may tempt lesser writers to produce verse novels of their own; they might do themselves an injury in the attempt.

All I know about Les Murray is that he is a noted Australian poet who grew up on a farm. Except for the poet part, the same applies to his hero, Frederick (or is it Friedrich?) Boettcher. The protean instability of Fredy's name is one of the book's running gags. "Butcher, "Beecher," "Bircher" are all mispronunciations of his surname that Fredy lives with at different points in the story. (The "Neptune" of the title is a legacy from a brief stint as a strong-man in the circus.)

In addition to his name, Fredy has two chronic problems. The first is that, as the son of a German family in the era of what some English historians persist in calling "the German Wars," he and his loved ones are frequently ostracized from Australian society. His other chronic problem is that, because of a temporary case of leprosy contracted in the merchant marine, he is almost wholly without sensation in his skin. His inability to feel pain permits him to appear to be enormously strong, though in fact he simply cannot feel the damage his feats do to himself.

Though there is nothing forced about the historical scope of "Fredy Neptune," it does seem to be designed to cover as much ground as possible. Fredy's ability to speak German gets him a berth on a German freighter just before the First World War begins, which gets him drafted into the German Navy, which gets him to Germany. Another berth from neutral Holland begins a complicated sequence of events that land him in the Middle East, working as a cavalry stockman for the British Army. By war's end, however, Fredy is moving north, through the disintegrating Ottoman empire. Murray addresses the obligatory Gallipoli issue by having Fredy accept the forgiveness of a Turkish mother whose son was killed there. Thereafter he returns to Australia and, eventually, starts a family. (How does a man with no tactile sensation father children? Well, it's complicated.)

The Depression was a Bad Thing, too, so Fredy, blackmailed by a criminal syndicate into doing a bit of kidnapping for them, goes to America to get a good look. This was the only part of the book that struck me as blatantly literary. A string of Fitzgerald adventures, Faulkner adventures and Steinbeck adventures bring Fredy from a nest of gangsters in Appalachia, though the hobo-jungles of the West and on to what might in other circumstances have been the beginning of a promising career in Hollywood. A minor miracle (not the only one in the story) promotes Fredy from movie-crew best-boy to a zeppelin crewman. This gets him back to the Fatherland, where he has various fallings-out with the Nazis. He also acquires an adopted son when a retarded boy asks him for directions to his place of sterilization.

Back in the southwest Pacific for World War II, Fredy sees more than his share of pillage and atrocity from Shanghai to New Guinea. Still, by the end of the war, his life falls into a welcome routine, eventually achieving as much respectability as is consistent with running a trucking business founded on the shipment of black-market gasoline. He even achieves inner peace, getting his outer sensation back in the process.

There is a fair amount of showing off in "Fredy Neptune," particularly with languages. There are not many other books that have snatches of dialogue in both Turkish and Welsh. For the most part, this feature is put to good effect. The strongest line in the book is in German, when Fredy tells his gravely-wounded natural son that the boy's 71-year-old grandmother has just burned to death in the bombing of Dresden. Still, while "Fredy Neptune" is never willfully obscure, readers may have trouble distinguishing the historical personalities from the fictional ones. Certainly I did. It is hard to mistake the walk-ons by Marlene Dietrich and Lawrence of Arabia, but who was the villainous Sir Peter, minister of something or other at Brisbane, who coerced Fredy to take ship for New Orleans? And was there ever really a Dowager Countess Chlodwig-Wahnfriede von Rauschnitz zu Knull, who ruled a vestigial Ordensstaat in the Baltic and had a soft-spot for shipwrecked mariners? History is as full of mysteries as fiction.

All in all, Fredy sees an appalling amount of unhappiness, so much that he describes all of Eurasia as a great execution trench. A helpful Jewish friend, successfully escaping with his family from the Vichy-French concession at Shanghai, nevertheless drowns himself before his ship reaches Australia. He sends Fredy the explanation: "Noah couldn't bear to look at the drowned." This brings us to Murray's own outline of a theodicy for the first half of the 20th century.

Fredy is an ordinary Catholic. He even goes to confession once or twice in the novel; the descriptions are models of how it should be done. What worries him is not the existence, but the sanity of God. Fredy knows from his own experience that the only way to survive a beating is to pretend he is being hurt, since even a very cruel human being will eventually recoil from inflicting pain. God, however, does not. Whatever His purposes may be in allowing suffering in the world, they override every other consideration. Fredy's numbness is a way of dealing, not with his own suffering, but with the suffering of the victims.

Fredy's solution to the problem is to forgive the victims. Forgive the trapped Turkish troops being strafed day after day, forgive the Jews in the concentration camps, forgive his own mother in Dresden. Fredy also forgives God, who in Christian theology will never cease to suffer for our sins.

Is this a self-indulgence, a proposal that we need not trouble to have other people's misfortune on our conscience? Or is it a recognition that it is wrong for individual human beings to try to take the whole world on their shoulders, that this is not what compassion is for? Murray, wisely, does not try to develop a philosophical case for Fredy's solution. Maybe someone should, though. 

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-09-11: There is Progress

In my re-posting of John Reilly's book review of Robin Wright's Nonzero, I criticized Wright's terminology when talking about causation. If Wright combined his high level final causes with something like the article in Evolution linked below, I would have been happy. It is not that there is nothing to Wright's ideas, it is that you need to understand the details to get it right. 


There is Progress

 

Perhaps the most interesting take on the significance of 911 on this second anniversary came from Robert Wright. In an Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times, entitled Two Years Later, a Thousand Years Ago, he points out that 911 and subsequent events are entirely consistent with the model of history that he advanced in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny in the year 2000. In that book, he argued that cooperative behavior has a Darwinian advantage, in the broad sense that mutually advantageous relationships will generally last longer than winner-take-all ones.

Though the general trend in history, Wright cautions, is toward larger networks of trade and governance, this trend is necessarily punctuated by crashes. This is because any given network provides opportunities for cheating and looting. That is what happened when the barbarians used the Roman roads to overrun civilization. It is also what happened on 911, when aircraft designed as instruments of global commerce were turned into cruise missiles. However, these crashes are also the occasions of progress. The old networks are eventually improved or replaced by new ones, which are larger and more resilient.

There is more to history than this, of course. Even in the case of the Roman Empire, the collapse had as much to do with the hollowing out of the body politic as with the invasions. Still, there is little I would add to Wright's piece today.

There are, however, some things I would subtract. While not unreservedly critical of the US response to 911, Wright does say this:

"Still, only if we see the growing power of grassroots sentiment will we give due attention to the subject that hawks so disdain: 'root causes.' With hatred becoming Public Emeny No. 1, a successful war on terrorism demands an understanding of how so much of the world has come to dislike America. When people who are born with the same human nature as you and I grow up to commit suicide bombings -- or applaud them -- there must be a reason. And it's at least conceivable that their fanaticism is needlessly encouraged by American policy and rhetoric."

That's perfectly true, and the root cause is suggested by Wright's own theory. Globalization created immense opportunities for plunder, at just the time when US policy and rhetoric showed that the US would retreat when challenged. US rhetoric got softer and softer through the 1990s, as the terrorist attacks got bigger and bigger. There is a lesson here.

* * *

I stayed up way past my bedtime on Monday night to watch Ric Burns' three-hour documentary about the World Trade Center, The Center of the World. This was actually an addendum to his series on the history of New York City: New York: A Documentary Film, which antedates 911. The series has its merits, though it's much too long, maybe because it was grasping for closure and not never quite finding it. The series wanted to end in the 1970s, when whole neighborhoods were burned down or abandoned, and municipal finances collapsed. However, the filmmakers could not quite hide the fact the city survived to the 21st century, and underwent a spectacular revival in the 1990s. What they could do was refuse to acknowledge that the revival was largely the result of no-nonsense policing, lower taxes, and the dismantlement of the welfare state. Instead, they chalked it up to "commerce" and hip-hop music.

That attitude necessitated the extra episode. In the last episode of the original series, the filmmakers could not bring themselves to actually mention the World Trade Center, which was immensely unpopular in artistic circles. Instead, when they got to the late 1960s and early '70s when the Towers were built, they just showed shots of the buildings under construction, while the narrator talked about the disastrous effects of blockbuster urban renewal. The new episode recites all the early criticism the World Trade Center, but it goes on to concede the Towers eventually worked very much as the original planners had hoped.

There was one strange omission, though. The filmmakers talked to the architects. They talked to that French guy who walked between the Towers on a highwire. They talked to the construction workers. What they did not do was talk to people who had worked in the buildings about what it was like to work there. Instead, they talked to one architect who was still cranky about the project, who said "of course everyone hated to work in the Towers." I had always heard the opposite, but maybe I speak to the wrong selection of people.

* * *

Readers will have noted that, while I am not the most partisan writer on the Web, I am a registered Republican, and I am not altogether averse to spouting the party line. Nonetheless, every so often I come across items that make me reconsider whether the Democrats are really unsalvageable. One such piece of information was the news that Congressman Ernest Istook (R-OK) has reintroduced the Balanced Budget Amendment (H.J. Res. 22). The idea seems to be that, after two years of cutting taxes and pushing military spending through the roof, the way to reduce next year's half-billion-dollar deficit will be for Congress to approve a constitutional amendment telling it to do so.

This was crooked when it was part of the Republican platform in the 1990s, and it's crooked today. The proposed amendment served to allow politicians to put themselves on record as favoring fiscal responsibility while absolving them of the need to actually do anything about it. There are good reasons for running big deficits now, and keeping the Democrats out of the White House may be necessary for national security. However, if the Republican Party adopts this bit of nonsense again, we will know that it is a decadent organization.

* * *

The enemy is not decadent, whatever their other failings. A sample of them recently assembled at Assisi to plot against civilization. Old-style Marxists, new style anarchists, and equally new-style Islamists: surely this was an attempt to constitute the transnational multitude that Hardt and Negri talked about in Empire? Even the meeting at Assisi is significant, since Negri has used the Franciscan Order as a metaphor for the new forms of post-political direct-action he hopes to see arise.

It has frequently been argued that the Terror War differs from the Cold War in that the new enemy could have no support in the West, except perhaps in Muslim communities. Guess again.

* * *

Speaking of movements that could damn a world, I see that some new work has been done on the development of the Greenhouse atmosphere on Venus. According to David Greenspoon of the Southwest Research Institute at Boulder, Colorado, Venus may have had habitable surface temperatures for at least 2 billion years, far longer than has usually been thought. This could actually explain why the surface of the planet is relatively new. In this scenario, the drying up of the oceans halted plate tectonics, which deprived the planet of its chief way of venting heat. The result was that vulcanism erupted suddenly and catastrophically about 700 million years ago, creating the surface we see today.

I might note that, though this would have given Venus more than enough time to develop life, it would not have been very interesting life, if the pace of development on the contemporary Earth is any guide. In any case, where was the famous Gaia Effect when the planet needed it? Or did the biosphere decamp to the stratosphere, where it now creates those hydrochloric-acid anomalies that trouble some planetologists?

Some days, I find the thought of flocks of huge acid-breathing airborne stingrays oddly comforting.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Nonzero

I'm not any sort of a biologist, but describing the rise of multicellular life as "altruistic" seems a bit off to me. Maybe it is just because I have been reading so much of Greg Cochran's acerbic wit recently, but I think you get a lot more out of evolution and genetics if you take the time to understand the mechanisms by which they work before you write a book on it. Obviously, it didn't hurt Wright's career to speak loosely in this fashion.

It is in fact correct to say that:

Properties, then, tend to be imitated or circumvented by competing organisms over the long run, even though the particular species, lineages and cultures that developed them may die out. Die-offs sprinkle the fossil record, but none yet has sent life back to the primordial soup. Civilizations may rise and fall, but technologies like metallurgy and literacy persist even through dark ages.

I just think you get more out of the idea once you that in some cases the genes that cause certain adaptations can outlive the species in which they originate, sometimes ending up in truly strange places, and also that convergent evolution can come up with the same solution more than once if the payoff is big enough.

Since in a sense genes are information, it probably is interesting and useful to compare this mechanism to the ways technologies and cultural behaviors sometimes outlive the cultures the created them. It is probably also easy to go too far here.

I had clearly read this before, but it is interesting to be reminded that the mid-twentieth century turn against teleology and final causes was initially primarily directed against Marxists. 


 Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
by Robert Wright
Pantheon, 2000
435 Pages, US $27.50
ISBN: 0-679-44252-9

The Return of Teleology

 

If this book is a harbinger of things to come, Teilhard de Chardin and Arnold Toynbee are back. So, perhaps, are many other features of the universalizing historical optimism of the middle 20th century. Once again, people will think of cultural history as the culmination of biological history. Societies will be ranked as lower and higher, and the latter will be preferred to the former. Morality will be grounded in ontology. World government will be seen to be inevitable. Maybe SUVs will start to sprout 1950s-style tailfins. Even historical determinism allows for some surprises.

Robert Wright is the author of "The Moral Animal" and "Three Scientists and Their Gods." He has been trying for some years to tie together popular genetics, moral theory and public policy, usually to provocative effect. In "Nonzero," Wright provides a witty critique of the "relativism," for lack of a better term, that came to dominate so much of the last century's anthropology and even evolutionary theory. He does this in the context of explaining the implications of a simple mechanism that makes progress (no skeptical quotation marks needed) both largely linear and fairly inevitable. The critique is pretty persuasive. The universal model of history needs work.

By his own account, Wright is in effect trying to rephrase Teilhard's philosophy in mechanistic terms, thus saving it from the mystical vitalism that has made it such a fat target for metaphysical materialists these past forty years. Wright's chosen mechanism is the principle of non-zero-sum interaction, a notion that comes from game theory.

Interactions are said to be non-zero-sum when both parties benefit. Zero-sum interactions, in contrast, are those in which one party wins everything and the other party simply loses. The same interaction can have both zero-sum and non-zero-sum elements. In a negotiated sale from which both parties benefit, for instance, it is still possible for one party to get a better-than-necessary price at the other party's expense. In any case, an effect of non-zero-sum interactions is that the parties tend to prosper and interact again, while zero-sum parties tend to destroy or drive each other away. Thus, says Wright, the key to history is that the area of non-zero-sumness tends to increase over time.

This is just as simple-minded as it sounds, but it is hard to believe there is not something to it. It is obvious enough how this kind of logic applies to the growth of trading networks and political entities. It applies even to war. Two different tribes that are seeking to occupy the same territory might have a zero-sum relationship to each other, but the exigencies of conflict tend to increase the level of non-zero-sumness within each group as it organizes to defeat its rival.

The same principle applies to biological evolution, according to Wright. He says he has no idea how life started. However, once it got off the ground, it benefited organisms with the same DNA to act "altruistically" toward each other, thus forming the basis for the assembly of multicellular organisms and, later, of mutual support among kin groups. The point Wright wishes to emphasize is that biology is a matter of information transfer and feedback, in a sense that is more than trivially analogous to, say, a financial system or the interaction that goes on over time among scientists and inventors.

The means by which non-zero-sumness advances is the discovery, by internally altruistic units, of new "properties" that advance their interests. In biology, these properties include abilities that range from endothermy to flight to the various sorts and levels of intelligence. In cultural evolution, they are "memes," skills and ideas from basket weaving to literacy to the Nicene Creed. These properties are only in part adaptations to a nonliving environment. The environment for organisms consists for the most part of other organisms, just as society is other people. Properties, then, tend to be imitated or circumvented by competing organisms over the long run, even though the particular species, lineages and cultures that developed them may die out. Die-offs sprinkle the fossil record, but none yet has sent life back to the primordial soup. Civilizations may rise and fall, but technologies like metallurgy and literacy persist even through dark ages.

"Nonzero" repeats the critique that Wright has recently made of Stephen Jay Gould's persistent efforts to cast biological history as a pure "random walk," a process with no particular direction that certainly was not likely to produce tool-and-language using entities like ourselves. It may be a rhetorical flourish on Wright's part to say that he, too, would be a creationist if Gould's ideas really represented the best that evolutionary science could do. Still, by marshaling both the factual problems that Gould's interpretations have encountered in recent years, alongside a catalogue of familiar objections that Gould has studiously declined to address, Wright does make the popular-science relativism that Gould has been promoting look very flimsy indeed.

Wright, for his part, does think that evolution was very likely to produce creatures like ourselves. He further thinks that cultural evolution was bound to be a story in which, after a slow start, technology would grow ever more powerful and the size of social organizations would tend to increase. Additionally, patterns of non-zero-sum cooperation would tend to win out against zero-sum oppression within societies and against zero-sum predation between societies. The latest evolutionary property that Wright sees emerging in the world is the incarnation of Teilhard's "noosphere," the global community of mind, in the form of the Internet. We are now, he says, in "the storm before the calm." Patterns of cultural and economic exchange have become planet-wide, while governments are still national or regional. It is one of the laws of history, he tells us, that systems of governance tend to expand to cover economic systems. Thus, though we may be in for some "instabilities of transition," a unified world is not very far in the future, and non-zero-sumness will be all in all.

It is, perhaps, some argument against the hypothesis of history as a perfectly progressive process that universal optimism seems to have grown coarser since the last time Teilhard and Toynbee were in flower. Whatever their other failings, they at least expected some historical sense in their readers, and their theories were informed by an ancient philosophical tradition. Wright, in contrast, has no other resource but to rattle Richard Dawkin's dinky little memes around in an algorithmic tin can. This restriction of the argument to reductionist premises is deliberate. Wright is trying to show that, even assuming a world wholly devoid of spirit or the supernatural, history would still have direction and even meaning. He wraps up his mechanistic model of history with the acknowledgment that the real world is clearly not as threadbare as the behaviorists would have it, and indulges in some theological speculation about what a world that is only potentially good might tell us about God.

Even within the limits that Wright has set himself, there are problems with his model of history as an information processing system. The chief of these is that the book has no sense of non-linearity (or, in older terms, of the dialectic). There are in fact some eras when human beings become more numerous, freer and richer. We are living in such an era now. However, history does not show a smoothly rising graph of any of these things (population included). In fact, setbacks, reversals and long periods of stasis seem to be inherent in history, both human and biological. This is one area in which Wright might have been more patient with the heresiarch Gould, whose idea of punctuated equilibrium really does tell us quite a lot about how the world works.

Though one could add many other reservations about "Nonzero," and even wish that Wright had written the book from a broader perspective, reasonable people may nonetheless conclude that the book's basic thesis is more correct than otherwise. In any case, there is some reason to suppose that this may be a thesis whose time has come.

Wright notes the liberal politics of the 1920s made cultural anthropology skittish about the idea of progressive cultural evolution, and that the revolt that began at midcentury against teleology in all its forms had an anti-Marxist inspiration. (Gould's ideas seem to have been inspired by a fear of religion, but that's another story.) Today, after the recoil into state control that characterized the 20th century, the process of global economic and cultural integration is once again reaching deep into the domestic life of the world's societies. Even people who say they oppose "globalization" usually mean that they want the process to be controlled by universal regulators of one kind or another. Though the sides in world politics are becoming more distinct, they still lack coherent theories. The chance that the politics of globalization will incorporate ideas like Wright's is distinctly nonzero.  

This review appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of the Comparative Civilizations Review, after first appearing on this website. Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-01-10

Jane Jacobs on Cities

Jerry Pournelle recommended reading Jane Jacobs, so I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It was an absolutely fascinating book. In retrospect, I'm not surprised that Jerry recommended it. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a masterwork from the era of the Kennedy Enlightenment. It represents the best that post-WWII American liberalism had to offer, which was in fact pretty good. However, it also represented a certain amount of hubris, and an over-quantification of things that cannot necessarily be quantified. Jacobs saw something true and good about American cities, and then her disciples tried to enshrine that insight in zoning laws and the results were not uniformly pretty.

The increased risk of death at out of hospital birth isn’t small after all

This was a pretty interesting study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The headline for this study is: out-of-hospital birth more risky than in-hospital. That was intriguing, and after reading the study the best I can say is: maybe. The study used a nice data set from Oregon that allowed the authors to tease out a distinction between births that actually happened out of the hospital, compared with births that were intended to out of the hospital but ended up in the hospital. If you only look at births that happened outside hospitals, the overall risk of perinatal death [stillbirths plus deaths during or shortly after childbirth] is the same as in the hospital. However, if you include women who transfer sometime during labor from outside the hospital to inside, the risk goes up to something like double. This is a tricky study, because the patient populations are way different in these two cases. For one, only something like 4% of all births in Oregon aren't in the hospital, which is among the highest rate in the nation. Also, out-of-hospital births are among women older, whiter, and richer than average. Those things matter. I think the most important sentence in the study is this one from the results section: 

In post hoc analyses that assessed the risk of a composite neonatal outcome (fetal death, infant death, a 5-minute Apgar score of less than 4, or neonatal seizures) and the risk of cesarean delivery in subgroups defined according to parity, maternal age, maternal education, and maternal risk profile, we found a significant interaction of maternal age with the planned birth setting for the neonatal composite outcome (P=0.02 for interaction) and of parity and maternal education with planned birth location for the outcome of cesarean section (P<0.001 for interaction for both). 

There is a lot to parse here, but when I was trained in statistics, finding an interaction means you don't report on the main effect at all. What do I mean by this? I'll show you a picture from the article to illustrate:

Two of the risk factors really stand out from the rest. Maternal age [meaning 35+] and high-risk [meaning gestational diabetes and/or eclampsia]. Either of those things in isolation increases risk for childbirth. Both together are pretty bad news. I think the real story here is that women over 35 with high-risk pregnancies [diabetes, eclampsia] shouldn't deliver outside of a hospital, but I would have said that without reading this study. To really answer the question, the authors should have compared the risk in the same higher risk population from their in-hospital dataset. Unfortunately, they didn't. I know why the results got spun the way they did. In an era of social media, that is the best way to get attention. I read about this on Twitter [on my phone, no less]. Unfortunately, that carries some risk too.

Germany on the Brink

The New Year's Eve mass sexual assault/riot in Cologne looks really, really bad for Angela Merkel. 

Hillary's Emailgate goes Nuclear

John Schindler, current historian, former NSA, wonders about the real source of Sid Blumenthal's email to Hillary Clinton.