A prayer

Sojourning just outside New Orleans, I often walked on the levée by Lake Pontchartrain. Near the Causeway, there was a mass of debris washed up from the lake and jumbled together like a carpet. As I remember, driving south into New Orleans, you could see it to your left.

One day - the year was 2002 – I decided to comb the debris for any sculptural pieces of driftwood – an old New Jersey habit. These I found. And with them, I found a prayer.

It was a small wooden board, less than a foot long, and an inch and a half thick. There were holes in it as if it had been nailed to something. If it had nails still in it, I removed them. It was an ordinary pine board. Most likely, it was once a piece of building scrap.

On one side was written – marked or incised:


This object fascinated me. Where had it come from? How had it come here? The nail holes showed that it had not been ritually thrown onto the waters; it must have been mounted to something – a dock? A boat? And a storm, a slip of the hand, a contemptuous heir had given it to the lake; and the lake had discarded it here.

Whether I took it with me, I do not now remember. I felt that it would be wrong to take it; or, having taken it, I felt that I had done something wrong, and carried it back. I walked around with it for some time, looking for a place for it. At length, landward of the levée, I lay it face-down beside a locked tool shed that I had never seen open.

It stayed there for a long time. Who took it; whether they threw it away, or kept it for themselves, or returned it to the lake – I do not know.

I tried.

Nondefinition #7

Obnoxious. Adj. Persistently or incorrigibly annoying after the manner of an obnox. The obnox (from German oppnochs) is an extinct species of Bovidae. Obnoxen were quite small (the size of a small pony or large dog), and had horns which pointed, neither to the sides like modern cows, nor forwards like the aurochs, but backwards. Some scientist speculate that obnoxen originally evolved to live in tropical swamps: their size made them efficient radiators of heat, and their horns were well-adapted for backscratching and fly-swatting; but by the beginning of history they were only found in Europe. Furthermore, obnoxen were congenitally afflicted with bad eyesight. Accordingly, the defensive strategy of the obnox was an unusual one. Rather than violently charging, the obnox who detected a violation of his territory (that is, once he had been struck) emitted a series of alternating low and high-pitched moos to summon any other obnoxen in the area. It should be noted that this gathering would take some time—the soft feet of the obnox, well adapted to muddy marshes, limited them to extremely slow speeds on dry ground. Once assembled, the obnoxen would surround the intruder and begin the counterattack. As they were small, incapable of sure footing, and weaponless—even their teeth were incurved and could not take hold—the attack was limited to a soft, repeated, mass nudging, carried on in absolute silence and accompanied by a relentless cow-eyed stare. By all accounts, no animal, however fierce, having been once been attacked by obnoxen, would ever go near them again. Indeed, the original use of the word oppnochsisch was to describe, not likeness to the animals' behavior, but the glassy stares and melancholy reveries that victims of obnox attacks were thereafter wont to fall into. The obnox was systematically exterminated during the wars of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries—for the appearance of a herd of obnoxen in the midst of a battle was known to set even the most hardened warriors to flight.


Memetics is the idea that culture is parallel to biology. In memetics concepts, systems, religions, cultures, art forms, &c. – all known as memes – live and spread through populations as do viruses and parasites – which is to say, genes – making the history of human ideas the record of a kind of natural selection.

Memes and viruses are understood to be parallel, but not perfectly analogous. While bodies have immune systems to defend against viruses, the only immunity to be had against one meme is prior infection with another, stronger one.

Memetics analogizes the meme very awkwardly – the meme in the mind is at once like the fetus in the womb, the bear in its cave, a virus in a cell (or a computer), and a fire in a burning house – but that awkwardness, though doubtful, does not disprove it. Powerful analogies are often awkward when new: how is the moon like an apple? or a cannonball? or a dancer?

The appeal of the idea of memetics, as the prospectus of a science, is threefold.

1​. Unlike all other systems of psychology, memetics bootstraps itself. Other systems must present themselves, at least implicitly, as the transcendental descents of reason into the human sphere of sublunary irrationality: so that the only idea a person may have which is not determined by the unconscious is the idea of the unconscious, or not serving instinct, the awareness of instinct. But memetics is proud to be a meme. It not only provides for, it demands the co-existence in one mind of the rational and the irrational, at every level.

2​. Memetics offers hope. The idea that we are only hosts to memes might be taken as our final doom to unreason; but in advocates of memetics it revives old hopes for the perfectibility of man. The psychology of the Enlightenment was powerless before the twentieth century. No one could satirize the battlefields or the camps, blame them on bad education or persistent superstition. They seemed failures of reason itself. But memetics restores the old hope: it is an idea powerful enough to account for mass insanity, and for true evil, without surrender before them; an epidemiology promising cures or inoculation against the vectors of unreason; at least a pyrology directing backfires and firebreaks.

3​. Memetics explains everything. This is a point of appeal, but also a weakness. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 may be analyzed as a meme, one which drove out old memes about theodicy; but why should it have had that effect? We may say, because it was true – the earthquake happened, when it should not have. Then why the success of the meme of, say, Spiritualism? We may only say, because it is not true – because it is agreeable and convenient. But why should truth win because it is hard to bear, then lose because it is hard to bear? This kind of paradox is basic to human nature; it is difficult to establish a consistent standard of fitness against which survival could lead to selection.

I think that memes, in some sense, probably exist. Granting, then, that elementary memes exist: are all, or even most, ideas analyzable as descendants or compositions of these elements? I see three problems: (1) ideas do not compete; (2) ideas are hard to kill; (3) ideas are more than memes.

1​. We adopt, even if we do not understand it, every new idea we encounter that we do not explicitly deny. This is only obvious to those who speak, write, or create enough to have a real-time sense of their own intellectual processes; but it happens to everyone. The bringing out of the contradictions between these ideas is an action which consciousness must undertake. If memes are not competing, they are not being selected; but what competition there is among ideas, is not inevitable (some lazy people simply hold contradictory ideas), not universal (some people can tolerate combinations of ideas which others could not), and not continuous (one can adopt an idea with the intent of examining it later). In religion syncretism is the default, which religious hierarchies exist to combat. If there is an ecosystem of ideas, its only motor is conscious human will. Even granting that a single transmissible meme could viably contain contradictory ideas, it is still unclear: what pressure drives selection? Ideas do not compete.

2​. It is nearly impossible – sometimes, it is impossible – to expunge an idea once it has been accepted. The analogy between a meme and a living thing is strong for ephemera, but weak for ideas. A complex living thing is hard to make, but easy to kill. We know how hard it is to start fashions, how quickly they die. But the effort required to cry down an idea in another, or to overcome it in yourself, is disproportionate by an order of magnitude to the effort required to spread or adopt it. True, infections and infestations are not easy to deal with; but their resistance is because of their simplicity – being simple, they are easily copied, and have leeway to mutate. But something which is both complex and difficult to destroy is unprecedented in life as such. Once again, the idea of selection is not obviously applicable. Ideas are hard to kill.

3​. It is astonishing how forcefully, how suddenly a new idea can impress itself on a person, or a whole age; how throughly and quickly it can be adopted. This is familiar from science, where a new idea – a new principle, new technique, new approach – sets a generation of scientists casting around for new ways to apply it. Consider natural selection misapplied to sociology and history, resulting in Social Darwinism, or the sudden-onset obsession of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with mathematical axiomatization.

Both ideas, of course, snapped from overextension. Evolution was parted decisively from progress, and Gödel pointed out the cliff ahead of mathematics. Memetics can explain the fire; but not the dryness of the wood – how quickly it catches, and how quickly it burns out. Memetics does not require that a meme be viable in the long term; but in these cases the meme burned out, while the idea survived it. Contrast the early nineteenth century attempt to reduce the world to so many fluids – etheric, magnetic, electric, caloric – where the idea died with the meme. There is a necessary distinction here. Ideas are more than memes.

If we wish to see what a society that had become the vehicle of an idea would look like, we will not find it anywhere in civilized history – even in the ancient theocracies of Egypt or Persia. These regimes contained the ideas which, mixing and developing freely in Greece, would return with Alexander to destroy them.

We should look, rather, to tribal societies. Anthropologists have freed themselves enough from the ideas of the nineteenth century to cease to regard such societies as primitive; but it is also the nineteenth century which gives us the notion that extant tribal societies resemble our ancestors. Colonial ethnologists looked for occupants for the lowest rung on the ladder which Europe had surmounted. They found them in tribal societies, exhibiting conservatism across millennia. But there is an obvious flaw in that reasoning – those societies do not change; the ones that gave rise to ours did so by changing. Now, we know that conservative cultures can share their descent with civilizations – the same groups of people who were ancestors of the Amazon Indians were also ancestors of the Maya, the Inca, and the Anasazi. But were the ancestors of both more like the former, or the latter? We suppose that the uncertainties and anxieties of civilized life must be the degenerate offspring of a tribal life Edenically serene. It is equally possible that the oldest, nomadic societies were relatively dynamic. Some, settling under relatively easy conditions, carried on that dynamism into the first cities (and it is a curiously underappreciated discovery of archaeology that the first cities, like Jericho, predate agriculture). Others, settling under circumstances which turned against them, or settling under hard circumstances because they had lost their best lands to settlers, under the pressures of survival, preserved their ideas only as memes.

Memetics has not been successful, either as an idea or as a meme. As an idea, its applications savor of adolescent facility in reduction; as a meme, its appeal has been too narrow, the explanations it provides too pointed and too mocking, to transcend the perspective which originated it. I stoop to kick it while down only because I think it should be woken up. Memetics is not adequate to all that has been asked of it; but though inadequate, it is not incoherent; and difficult as it would be to explain how memes work, it would be still more difficult to explain their absence.

Nondefinition #6

Mangel-wurzel. (Not to be confused with the Wurzel mangle, formerly a kind of laundry machine, or manglewurz, the condition in workers now and then emerged from the Wurzel mangle.) A kind of gigantic beet, resembling a turnip, formerly much used for livestock feed. As watermelons to bullets, so mangel-wurzels once were to swords: a vegetable stand-in for a human enemy. And as the watermelon blown to bits is a promise to our enemies, so the mangel-wurzel neatly sliced in two by a stroke (or draw cut) of the saber was (some of) our ancestors' promise to their own enemies. Which raises three questions. One: do all warlike peoples have their particular enemy fruit or vegetable? Did the Romans learn their ferocity in the fight against cabbage? Was the battle of Waterloo won in the pumpkin fields of Surrey? Two: are these fruits merely convenient objects, or do we have some inborn fear of them to work out—were our ancestors the victims of shambling, formless, boneless things—is every watermelon we execute an instinctual way of exorcising the memory of Shoggoths? Three: does every fruit have its associated weapon? Does the tomato sleep on the shelf through nightmares of the day when the raygun will find its fated victim?

Four definitions of wisdom


Consider Solomon, the two women, and the disputed child. Where is the wisdom in this story? As told, it is clever, but not wise. We must guess at the wisdom in it. We must suppose that when Solomon heard of this dispute, he did not plan to solve it with a sword. Indeed, for a king, solving problems without resort to the sword is when wisdom shows. And it was neither a repeatable solution, nor a convincing one. Courts today do not offer to cut disputed children physically in half – and when they offer to divide not a child’s body, but its life, both sides usually accept.

If Solomon was really wise, he would have known, before he brought out a sword, which woman he wanted to take the child. Perhaps he had observed that one was furious, and the other mild. Then the sword was a prop for a kind of rough equity – the furious woman might have supporters who believed the child was rightfully hers; but even they would have to see that he could not give the woman a child that she was ready to see dead for spite. Thus Solomon in the story was subtle enough to feign trickery to dissemble wisdom. But that is not to say that wisdom is subtlety, because that would be a circular definition – what was formerly called subtlety being the wisdom of the enemy; what is now called subtlety being the indirect or insignificant, to be avoided by wisdom. What is admirable in Solomon’s judgment is his imagination – the imagination to cover a difficult judgment with an easy story.

Obviously, wisdom is imagination.


Wisdom is more than thinking. Everyone thinks, and there is no wisdom is thoughtlessness, but we are not wise in proportion to our thinking. The difference is that, confronted with a problem, most of us only think harder; but a wise person both thinks hard, and thinks over their thinking. Most people, of ordinary intelligence, know how to exhaust a line of thought; fewer know how to conduct several at once, holding them in tension. This is most obvious in the misapplication of sound principles – how a good idea can be carried too far, if it is not applied to itself – as it is sometimes good and sometimes bad to be prudent – prudence is folly when little is at risk. Wisdom in that case is prudence about prudence. Such iterative virtues often have names: loving to love is benevolence, fearing to fear is courage, daring to dare is audacity. And these can be applied to themselves as well: benevolence in benevolence makes philanthropy, courage in courage makes discretion, audacity in audacity makes enterprise.

Obviously, wisdom is iteration.


The brilliant general Hannibal was beaten by the even more brilliant general Scipio; but he was defeated first by the wise general Fabius, called Cunctator, Delayer. Fabius could never have beaten Hannibal in battle, but he defeated Hannibal in war, simply by never giving battle. Hannibal provoked him; the Senate pressured him; but Fabius never fought Hannibal, only haunted him, the ghost of the Romans dead at Cannae, an omen of bad fortune, denying him allies, denying him provisions, receding from his challenges like water before Tantalus. Fabius became a great general simply by never making a mistake. Carthage had Hannibal’s brilliance; Rome had Fabius’s wisdom; and though Scipio won the war for Rome, Fabius lost the war for Carthage.

Obviously, wisdom is restraint.


The worst mistakes happen when we believe a mistake is impossible. Doubt is to thought as air is to life. Of course too much doubt risks over-anxiety; but then too much breathing risks hyperventilation. A mistake is most condemnable when it is made despite warnings. This is worth dwelling on: how the same mistake, with the same consequences, is worse if it has been warned against than if it happens unexpectedly; how there is more shame in failing to heed a warning, than in failing to see ahead. What makes tragedy of Caesar’s death is not the death itself – it is, “Beware the Ides of March.” Emperors would die by worse betrayals; but those were unexpected. Caesar was warned.

Even vague warnings seem prescient after disaster; and that makes disasters tragedy. Attention to warnings seems more important than foresight. In life as in weather, a clear horizon is not to be counted on; and for a fresh illustration, note that it is thought better to say “no one knew the levées could break” – admitting blindness to danger – than to admit that, knowing it could happen, no one got around to doing anything about it. It is the same for other disasters, as if lack of foresight is always excusable mischance, but failing to heed warnings is always hubris.

Obviously, wisdom is humility.

Nondefinition #5

Clouds. Going south from the land of the Yankees, the first thing you notice (if you look up) is that the clouds are growing. Even the smallest southern clouds, on the clearest days, are piled up like northern stormheads. Near the Gulf, there is a constant traffic of mountains overhead. Majestic as these are, they make me worry for children and lovers. They are big, but dumb—mute—I cannot see anything at all in them.

Nondefinition #4

Mandarin. A kind of orange. In Imperial China these oranges, planted at the proper time of year, under special conditions including a constant supply of cool dry, air and the absence of sunlight, were used to grow bureaucrats. Within a week of proper planting the orange splits open to reveal a small, correctly proportioned man (a trade was carried on in "figurines" of this kind), with roots growing from the soles of his feet. Mandarin farms would allow the bureaucrat to reach an approximately human size before cutting it free. Bureaucrats grown in this way have an affinity for conditions resembling those they were grown under. Apparently the Portuguese who used the same name for the oranges and the bureaucrats had heard some hint of this; otherwise, it was a well-kept secret, until acquired by other European invaders. This technique is still in extensive use around the world. The roots remain tender; beware bureaucrats in sensible shoes, and never try to reason with one who seems to be having foot trouble.