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

Why post old articles?

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.


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


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site


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

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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.    

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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.   

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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:


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

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.

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.

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site


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

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

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

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site


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. 

The Long View 2003-09-04: Twilight Phenomena

This is your regular reminder that Gordon Chang is still wrong. He may not be wrong forever. Jean Raspail ended up being extremely right 42 years later. Raspail got some of the details wrong, but the big picture is very right. 

John said a lot of things about Iraq and the Bush administration that were very, very wrong in retrospect, but here is something he got very, very right:

What we see in Islamicism is the hardening and darkening of these mistakes. It is the mark of the products of Winter that they have no capacity for growth. At best, they simply summarize the great creations of the past. At worst, they are bombs, with no power but to destroy the heritage of their civilization. Thus, there is no real hope of victory for the Jihad against the West. Even if Western armies were driven from the Middle East and a new Caliph proclaimed in Baghdad, the effort would turn ruins to rubble. This what the Taliban did to Afghanistan: just multiply it by a thousand.

John's intense interest in Spengler and macrohistory allowed him to predict that something like ISIS would be fundamentally hollow, utterly without any creative spark whatsover, doomed to spend its energies in mindless destruction.

Twilight Phenomena

Here's a headline I've been expecting to see: A Heated Chinese Economy Piles Up Debt. It appears on the frontpage of today's New York Times. While the story is not alarmist, it does point to the big economic story of the next few years: the impending bust of the last and greatest East Asian economy. There is nothing very mysterious about China's enormous recent growth statistics. If a government allocates capital on a political basis, there really is no problem generating export-driven growth of 6% to 10% every year. The problem is that the booming enterprises are literally a waste of money. The huge conglomerates of South Korea and Indonesia used to be capitalized at tens of billions of dollars, but produced returns on capital of less than one percent. The effect of all that manufacturing was just to turn the local currency into dollars. This makes a certain short-term sense, if there are tempting dollar investments to be made. That was the case in the 1990s. It is not the case today.

This is not just an Asian failing. The artificially low interest rates of the 1920s put America of the 1930s into a situation like that of Japan today, but worse. Closer to the current Chinese situation was the American savings-and-loan industry of the 1980s, when politics disabled the regulators but kept federal deposit-guarantees in place. The result was "see-through" office buildings and a lot of bankrupt institutions, for which the taxpayers were responsible. Of course, one of the lessons of the S&L collapse is that these things need not be the end of the world. The depositors got their money back, and the assets of the busted lenders were sold off, without enormous net loss to the Treasury. For that matter, the Pacific Rim countries have pretty much recovered from their own pre-millennial bust. Japan is a special case, but far from a lost cause.

There are people who say that China is a special case that is also a lost cause. So argued Gordon Chang two years ago in The Coming Collapse of China, which is the book that got me looking for those "It's later than you think" headlines about the People's Republic. His diagnosis is both ominous and persuasive. However, it is the nature of apocalypses to be averted by insightful predictions of them.

* * *

Speaking of disaster averted, I see that just a few days ago a reputable source warned that a 1.2-mile-wide asteroid could collide with Earth in 2014. I can easily imagine why there are so many warnings like this. The first observations of an asteroid will generate nothing more precise than a wide sheath of possible future positions. These sheaths are routinely big enough to hit Earth, but the relatively tiny asteroids in them are not. In any case, this latest warning was withdrawn within 24 hours.

Still, no matter how many times this happens, it's hard not to speculate about what would happen if the warning did not go away. That date, 2014, was particularly interesting. It's far enough in the future that we might be able to do something to avert the impact, but close enough that we would have to start doing it immediately. One imagines that steps would also be taken to move people out of harm's way, should deflecting the asteroid prove impossible. In any case, for some time the Rock would be what history is about.

As with nuclear weapons, which flickered in the world of science fiction long before someone actually built one, I sometimes get the sense the world is reaching for an organizing principle like this. That is part of the explanation for the genuine popularity of the idea of global warming. This is not to say that people are longing for some common challenge that would make the world one: far from it. Rather, some such global menace would make the world conceptually coherent for a while.

* * *

The controversy over Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion, continues to grow. It is hard to understand the objection that the film will incite antisemitism. No doubt it will portray the Temple priesthood unsympathetically, but the portrayal will have to be very unsympathetic indeed to be worse than that in Jesus Christ Superstar, which is one Passion Play to which millions of people know the lyrics.

The truly bizarre element in all this has been the behavior of the Anti-Defamation League. For months now they have been trying to alter or suppress the film: now they are complaining about the angry mail they have been getting about their attempts to alter or suppress the film. They have also, under Providence, generated more publicity, for what would otherwise have been a minor art-film, than could have been bought for any money.

I could demonstrate at length that it has never been Catholic doctrine that the Jews are collectively to blame for the Crucifixion. (The Creed says "suffered under Pontius Pilate," not "Caiphas," for one thing.) There has been a popular tradition to that effect, of course, which sometimes found expression in Passion Plays. However, even judging only by hostile accounts of the rough cut, there is no reason to suppose that Gibson's Passion was made with that intent or will have that effect. Surely the ADL has better things to do with its time than pick fights with people who don't mean it any harm?

* * *

Passion Plays provide some insight into the Exploding Martyr phase of the disintegration of Islam. Spengler said, and I think he's right about this, that Jesus was the first great figure of a Culture that reached its spiritual culmination in Islam after AD 1000, and its final political definition in Ottoman hegemony. Spengler's name for this Culture was "Magian," and it includes the ancient eastern Churches, Rabbinical Judaism, and other, smaller communities as "nations."

21st-century Islamicism stands toward the time of Jesus as deepest Winter does toward earliest Spring. There are real continuities. Islamism addresses many of the questions Jesus did: about the relation of the World to the Kingdom, about ideal and practical moral norms, and about the importance of martyrdom. The cult of martyrdom is, in some ways, a fossil form of the Passion. Islam in general gets the answers backwards: it's a Reformation that went entirely off the rails, which the Reformation in Europe never quite did.

What we see in Islamicism is the hardening and darkening of these mistakes. It is the mark of the products of Winter that they have no capacity for growth. At best, they simply summarize the great creations of the past. At worst, they are bombs, with no power but to destroy the heritage of their civilization. Thus, there is no real hope of victory for the Jihad against the West. Even if Western armies were driven from the Middle East and a new Caliph proclaimed in Baghdad, the effort would turn ruins to rubble. This what the Taliban did to Afghanistan: just multiply it by a thousand.

* * *

Visitors to the top page of my site will see that I just did a short review of John Crowley's Little, Big. This is a wonderful "autumn book," a category that does not lend itself to precise definition. It has something to do with esoteric subject matter, at least in my case, but also with woodlands and shortening days.

One of the few books with which I would compare Crowley's novel is Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. It is, of course, ridiculous to think that a small stand of woods might be a gateway to the collective unconscious. It is less ridiculous to think that a wood might be "haunted": there is evidence that some places are uncanny in a replicable, almost objective sense. One of the marks of a good autumn-book is that the author knows when to stop being plausible, however. Holdstock is particularly good at this.

There is a sequel to The Mythago Wood, by the way, even a sort of cult.

A novella that might interest some readers is William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. The story was one of the products of the Occult Revival of pre-World War One days; so, though it's fiction, it incorporates quite a lot of theosophical doctrine. The story has little in the way of spooky woods, but there is another Occult Revival stage property: an isolated mansion in the darkest West of Ireland. Anyway, I'm happy to see it's been reprinted in an anthology: All Gothic 1: The Boats of the Glen Garrig & The House on the Borderland.

Most items in this category are ambiguously related to Christianity at best, but that need not be the case. Indeed, my favorite book in the autumn-book category remains C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. As I may have mentioned once before on this site, the book antedates George Orwell's 1984, but one may read Lewis's book as an answer to Orwell's. Plus you get to meet Merlin, and there is some conversational Latin. What else could you ask for on a darkening evening?  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Little, Big

The book reviewed by John here is now old enough that its fantastical future has become alternative history.

 Little, Big
By John Crowley
Perennial (Harper Collins), 2002
First Published 1981
538 Pages, US$15.95
ISBN 0-06-093793-9

"'Paracelsus is of the opinion,' Dr. Bramble told the theosophists, "that the universe is crowded with powers, spirits, who are not quite immaterial..."

Any novel with sentences like that is likely to have all kinds of remarkable things in it. Certainly "Little, Big" does. In addition to the fairies, there are Upstate New York architectural follies, the return of Frederick Barbarossa, the collapse of the United States, a theory of fiction, and that clockwork perpetual-motion machine in the attic. Perfectly sober social history joins seamlessly with talking animals and a small cottage in the woods that is unaccountably roomy once you get in the door. Like any good fairy story, the book makes the uncanny a present reality, even though the modes in which it is presented are obviously fantastic. Nobody does this better than John Crowley.

"Little, Big" has a plot, though it is obscured by its entanglement with "The Tale," the thread of fairy history that increasingly impinges on human affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries. The novel is built around the marriage and family history, past and future, of Daily Alice Drinkwater and Smokey Barnable. They wed, apparently sometime in the 1970s, at Edgewood, the Drinkwater family's rambling, indeed protean, old mansion. The house shares the name of its community, which is located somewhere in the wilds of northern New York State. There is an actual Edgewood two hours north of New York City, but this house and neighborhood are clearly on the edge of something more esoteric than a tract of the Catskills.

Edgewood was built in the late 19th century by one John Drinkwater, a prominent and ingenious architect specializing in country houses. He married Violet Bramble, the daughter of Reverend Dr. Theodore Bramble, an Anglican priest who theorized about fairies from the pulpit until he lost his rural English parish. Violet, however, really could contact faeries. The Drinkwaters' house (which, among other things, was designed to present different historical styles, depending on the angle of view) soon became the center of a woodland community of genteel mystics.

We get a good measure of fairy lore, and even more lore about the study of fairies. Fairy pictures are much in evidence, as well as speculation about whether fairies have any native form, or any inherent will, or are just occasions for projections of the human mind. Some of the researchers devise complicated descriptions of the fairy realm: Dr. Bramble, for instance, memorably describes the Otherworld as "infundibular." By that he meant, to the slight extent he was willing to be understood, that it consists of worlds nested within worlds; the more deeply a world is nested, the larger it is on the inside. Crowley does not neglect to have a character observe that this is pretty much the way that fiction relates to the common world.

In any case, it is not theory that creates Edgewood, but an attitude toward reality that is perfectly real. We see it in this portrait of two of the Drinkwaters' neighbors, well-to-do people from the City who came to Edgewood to pursue their metaphysical interests:

"They had been members with John of the Theosophical Society; they were both in love with Violet. Like John's, their lives were full of quite drama, full of vague yet thrilling signs that life was not as the common run supposed it to be; they were among those (it surprised Violet how many they were, and how many gravitated toward Edgewood) who watch life as though it were a great drab curtain which they are sure is always about to rise on some terrific and exquisite spectacle, and though it never did quite rise, they were patient, and noted excitedly every small movement of it as the actors took their places, strained to hear the unimaginable setting being lifted."

This sense of expectancy is, perhaps, closely related to what C.S. Lewis called "Joy," and to what the Welsh call the "hiraeth." Something else that is quite real is that it often eventuates in religious conversion. However, in this book Crowley displays the same dismissive distaste for Christianity that marks his later ones. (We are told that the Church has virtually ended for lack of a Second Coming). What does happen is that the teacup religion of 1900 becomes the basis of a new culture. The Mormons are not mentioned in the text, but like them, the increasingly immiserated descendants of the genteel theosophists gradually become a people. At the end of the Tale, also like the Mormons, they set out for a Promised Land.

The process of immiseration is particularly interesting, because we have here yet another instance of a novel set in the future that has become alternative history. To preview the early 21st century, the author simply extended for a generation the economic doldrums and political confusion of the time the book was written. By the time that Auberon, the son of Smokey and Alice, goes to the City to seek his fortune, the City has changed utterly from the day his father left it, because it had ceased to change. We are told that the waves of fashion had become a mere trickle, and the tides of enterprise had become a still bog. New York really was not designed for stasis, and neither was the country as a whole. Nothing works as it once did, and every attempted remedy miscarries.

The real power in the country is exercised, informally, by a group called the Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club. They often consult with the greatest magus of the age, who inevitably turns out to be another Drinkwater cousin. They do not take seriously her warnings about the persistence and resurgence of the Holy Roman Empire. We are not told in any detail about the accelerating unraveling of the wider world, but it seems reasonable that exurbanites might turn into peasants under such conditions. Well, almost reasonable.

"Little, Big" manages to bring the Tale to a close without waxing eschatological. This is harder than it sounds, since one of the qualities of fairy stories is that they flow into each other, with no absolute end. Auberon, working in what may be the last days of television, finds himself faced with a similar problem when he has to write the final scripts for a long-running soap opera:

"How does a tale end that was only a promise of no ending? In the same way as a difference comes to inhabit a world that is otherwise the same in all respects; in the same way in which a picture that shows a complex urn alters, as you stare at it, to two faces contemplating each other...He fulfilled the promise, that it wouldn't end: and that was the end. That's all."

What relevance this may have to Crowley's continuing Aegypt series remains to be seen.

"Little, Big" has a wonderful autumnal feel to it. It is infused with a relaxed, whimsical, twilight state of mind that is conducive to entertaining fairies, at least as a hypothesis. This is the kind of book one can't recommend highly enough to the people who like this sort of thing. They are surprisingly numerous, and they don't all live in the neighborhood of Edgewood.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

The reviewer would be gratified if you would also consider buying this book

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Little, Big
By John Crowley

The Long View: Daemonimania

John major emphasis was millennialism. I think he had a minor emphasis in the occult as well, insofar as these two things have a tendency to overlap. His book reviews of occult fiction are especially good.


by John Crowley

Bantam Books, 2000

451 Pages, US$24.00

ISBN 0-553-10004-1

This book is the third of the projected four in John Crowley’s major novelistic treatment of gnosticism and hermeticism. As in the two prior books, “Aegypt” (1987) and “Love & Sleep” (1994), “Daemonomania” is held together, rather loosely, through the character of Pierce Moffet, a young historian living on a publisher’s advance. We meet him in the first book as he settles down in the Upstate New York town of Blackbury Jambs in the 1970s, to write a hermetic interpretation of history. (Inevitably, the working title of the manuscript is “Aegypt.”) Through Moffet’s friends and lovers, we are introduced to a local mystery that, in this third volume, builds to a climax of universal significance. His researches link this mystery to a parallel story that encompasses Dr. John Dee (Elizabeth I’s favorite magus), Giordano Bruno and the uncanny Prague of Emperor Rudolph von Habsburg. The series makes use of the latest research about werewolves and witchhunts, ancient and modern. Readers interested in the academic study of the occult will love all this. The author is generous with bibliographical information.  

“Daemonomania” has the distinction of being one of the few books in which the world ends twice, once in 1588 and again in 1979. The author’s notion of apocalypse works like this:   

“When the world ends, it ends somewhat differently for each soul then alive to see it; the end doesn’t come all at once but passes and repasses over the world like the shivers that pass over a horse’s skin. The coming of the end might at first lift and shake just one county, one neighborhood, and not the others around it; might feelably ripple beneath the feet of these churchgoers and not of those tavern-goers down the street, shatter only the peace of this street, this family, this child of this family who at that moment lifts her eyes from the Sunday comics and knows for certain that nothing will ever be the same again.”

A recurring theme is that “there is more than one history of the world.” Each new age not only looks forward to a different future but remembers a different past. The “Aegypt” of hermetic wisdom that was known to the scholars of the Renaissance had only a few points of contact with the “Egypt” of modern archeology. The difference is not just a matter of more and better information, but of distinct conceptual universes. What seems to us to be a continuous history of ideas is really divided into “dispensations” in which people have quite different conceptions about what is reasonable and possible.

This way of looking at history is familiar to us from, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s notion of successive “scientific revolutions,” and from Michel Foucault’s proposal that different “epistemes” governed different regions of the past. At least for the purposes of this series, however, the author goes beyond intellectual history to suggest that not just the sense of the possible, but the possible itself may change as one age fades into another.

The “Aegypt” series is about an archetypical story that is enacted during such transitions. In 17th century Prague, the Emperor Rudolph hoped to begin a new golden age by acquiring the power to make gold. He subsidized a cottage industry of alchemists, one of whom, in “Daemonomania,” succeeds. In 20th century New York State, there was a wealthy old man, one Boney Rasmussen, who was terrified of death. He subsidized a writer named Fellowes Kraft to ferret out the emperor’s secret, which is also the secret of immortality. Moffet takes up their work after they become unobtrusive ghosts. The closest we come to a resolution of the story so far is this explanation:

“’Well you know the basic idea...Kraft’s idea...[t]hat the world -- you know, reality, all this -- goes through changes. Every now and then it enters a sort of period of indeterminism, anything is possible; and it stays in that passage time until, well, until...a certain thing is found. A certain thing that only exists, or comes to be, in that time. It’s the stone, or the elixir, or the thing that Boney wanted found. If it’s not found the world stops changing, or never stops changing, and dies. But it’s always found so far.”

In the 20th century part of the series, the myth takes the form of the rescue of a little girl with the ability to see dead people. (At the risk of stating the obvious, this rescue recapitulates the gnostic myth of the rescue of the Divine Sophia from the world of matter.) The people the little girl needs to be rescued from belong to a Christian cult called “The Powerhouse,” which specializes in therapy through exorcism.

The whole “Aegypt” series is anti-Christian, but anti-Christian in a way that I have never seen in fiction before. Consider this remarkable passage from “Love and Sleep”:

“Where was it ...said...that in the religious history of the West the old gods are always turning into devils, cast from their thrones into dark undergrounds, to be lords over the dead and the wicked? It had happened to..the Northern gods...who became horned devils for Christians to fear...And now look, the wheel turns, Jehovah becomes the devil. Old Nobadaddy, liver-spotted greasy-bearded jealous God, spread over his hoard of blessings like the Dragon, surrounded by his sycophants singing praises, never enough though...”

In a way, this is an argument from process theology: Christianity may have been true in the past, or at least effective. However, it will not be so in the coming age.

That insight is far from the final truth. In a book as relentlessly post-modern as “Daemonomania,” it is hard to know exactly what we should take as a joke, as metaphor or as the author’s considered opinion. Still, it is fairly clear that the author does take seriously the gnostic hypothesis that the world is a hoax. We come from beyond the world, but are trapped in it by a succession of frauds perpetrated by powers that do not have our best interest at heart:

“O the traps the gods have prepared for us, their worshippers; how long and well they’ve worked. We are older than they, far older than the oldest of them; we have come from farther away, way back beyond where they were born: but we don’t know that, we have forgotten it -- and they know we have forgotten it. And that’s why they can do with us what they like most of the time, especially when we think we have escaped them. That’s why, in other words, the world has lasted so long, and why we are still here.”

Despite the commercials for the Old Time Gnosis, however, the “Aegypt” series is not primarily an indictment of Christianity or an exercise in cosmic paranoia. The Moffet character, a ferociously lapsed Catholic, is suspicious of Christianity in general. However, Crowley uses what he depicts as the provincialism and self-regard of the Powerhouse chiefly as a way to indict Moffet’s own sense of spiritual superiority. Moffet knows that the Powerhouse is right about the nature of magic, because he is a magician himself, in his own small way. (He uses it chiefly on his girl friend.) When this brings disaster, he realizes that “the greater error was the one that had tempted Pierce himself, to believe that we ourselves are the authors of the tales we live within. That’s the ultimate arrogance of power, the arrogance of the gods: for all gods believe themselves self-created, and believe themselves to be issuing their own strong stories, news to us.”

There are some self-referential gimmicks in the series that are more ingenious than entertaining. We have seen, for instance, that the “Aegypt” series is nominally about the writing of a book called “Aegypt.” Crowley even allows himself this authorial soliloquy, put in the mouth of the producer of a failed amateur production of “Faust”:

“I so much wanted to *knit*...[p]ast and present, then and now. The story of the thing lost, and how it was found. More than anything I wanted it to *resolve*. And all it does is *ramify*.”

Indeed it does, so much so that it is not obvious that anything remains to be said after this third volume. The world has already ended twice, after all. Nonetheless, the publisher assures me that a fourth book is planned. Some hints in “Daemonomania” suggest that a further book might deal with the near future, as did Crowley’s novella, “Beasts” (1976).

Despite these criticisms, Crowley’s blend of magic, blasphemy and postmodernism works very well as fiction. He can create uncanny affect better than anyone since Arthur Machen. Unlike Machen, he also has the sense to confine most manifestations of the supernatural to dreams and coincidences. The hermetic twilight has rarely been made to seem so plausible.

Will the series persuade many people to its view of the world? Probably not, but that may be the measure of its success. The merit of these books is that they express the indeterminacy of a time of transition. The nature of twilight, however, is to resolve into either day or night.

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

This review originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of First Things

Nota bene: John reviewed the fourth book in this series, Endless Things, in 2007


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site