The Ruricolist is now available in print.


All theories of universal history, from Ibn Khaldûn to Toynbee, share the same ambiguity: to what do they apply? If history has laws, what are they laws for? Call it a civilization; where does one civilization stop, and another begin?

To be useful as objects of study the units of universal history must be smaller than the whole of history, yet larger than any form of political organization, short of empire.

Sometimes these units are obvious. Probably there is a Chinese civilization; probably there was one each for the Aztec world and the Inca; probably the Hellenistic ecumen constituted one – but should this be distinguished from the Roman imperium? Should Romani be distinguished from Rhomaioi? Or was Byzantium part of a Christian world? Is there a Christendom? Is there as a Ummah? And so on.

Sometimes we distinguish two civilizations because we study them by different means. The continuity between the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire is, I think, far more important than the latter’s adventitious Christian characteristics. But because Rome was Latin (and Greek, of course), and Byzantium was (a peculiar) Greek; because the scholarly apparatus for the study of Roman history stretches back to the Renaissance, but Byzantine studies are mostly late nineteenth century in origin; because Roman history precedes, and Byzantine history parallels, that period of history which is, in the West, called modern over against ancient – because of all this, they are studied separately; and being studied separately, they are seen as separate.

Certain kinds of difference thus force us to posit disparity. Similarly, resemblance may imply unity where none exists. Because the caliphs borrowed their statecraft from the Sassanid Empire, and adopted many of its artistic traditions, they are often taken to belong to a common line of “oriental despots” – which does the Shahnashahs too much credit for ambition, and the Caliphs too much credit for power. Ethnicity is another decoy – Hungarians are not Huns. So are titles – Tsar nor Qaisar is proper Caesar.

If neither resemblance nor difference suffice to taxonomize, how should we proceed?

Consider the relatively clear case of China. Chinese civilization as we know it is not of singular antiquity: it is speculative to speak of Chinese culture before the Qin. Presumably it was more diverse than what survived the infamy of Shi Huangdi; and the relative homogeneity of Chinese culture since may be attributed to that memetic bottleneck.

What is the substance of that continuity? The ideas of Confucius are uppermost. Does that suffice? That we admire Homer does not make us Greeks; but it might, if we looked to Homer to tell us how to live – as many Chinese still do (or do again) to Confucius. But to say Confucius implies that there has been only one, which is false; the Confucius to whom temples were built by emperors is not the Confucius whose ideas are invoked in the party conferences of Beijing. The lessons drawn are very different.

Very different; but not utterly different. Utter difference would be different answers to different questions; but here are different answers to the same question. Even the Cultural Revolution that repudiated Confucius did not propose a new question, only a new answer to the standing question: How can men be good?

Once we ask this question – How can men be good? – we will find it very difficult to decompose into smaller ideas. For instance, does it imply that men are capable of being good? Not so; the doctrines of Legalism suppose that men cannot be good unless compelled to be; but the answer, though opposite to Confucius, is still to the same question. The meaning of each term of the question changes – men as parts of essentially unitary rural families, as individual city-dwellers, as members of the bureaucracy, as members of the Party; good as benevolent, good as obedient, good as doctrinally correct – but the question itself is perfectly stable.

Can we find stable questions elsewhere? Consider the Greeks. How at the beginning, Homer arrives with an answer and a question, What is the good life? How at the end, or even after the end, Hypatia goes out onto the streets of Alexandria with a bravery the equal of any church martyr’s, to show the benighted that there could be such a thing as a good life; how Julian tried and failed, despite absolute power, to seek that good life for himself, and induce others to seek it.

Neither Hypatia nor Julian were stupid. Hypatia thought that the strength of Christianity was its willingness to seek out and teach even the lowest and most wretched; so she did the same. Julian seems to have thought that the strength of Christianity was its focus on a wonderworking man, and tried to set up Apollonius of Tyana in the place of Jesus. Neither of these analyses were simply wrong; but both were inadequate, because they missed the scope of what had happened. Christianity was not a new answer to the question of the good life; it was a new question: How can I be saved?

There are many continuities between the Christianity we know and Hellenism; but Christianity does not require Hellenism to inform it. Think of the Armenian, Coptic, and Nestorian churches. The Hellenic world formed Christianity, but the result was something that could be transplanted and flourish elsewhere.

Only the appearance of dependency and continuity between Christianity and Hellenism leads us to expect correlation. But there is no idea in Christianity that correlates with the Good Life, and there is no classical idea that correlates with Salvation.

This is essential. Had Christianity simply given (as did the mystery religions) a new answer to the Classical question, a new form of the good life, even one universally accessible and approachable, even one with a face and a story dividing history into before and after, it could never have displaced the weight of tradition and intellectual sophistication on the Pagan side. But by asking a new question, Christianity removed Paganism’s advantage – found the lever to move the world.

The other great religions of the historical period afford more examples in their rise. Buddhism’s question is clear: How can I escape suffering? Islam’s only seems harder because English has never absorbed the relevant vocabulary. Still, it can be approximated: What is the straight way? or the straight path? (sirat al-mustaqîm), the safe way (sharî`ah), the right direction (qiblah, sunnah).

And what of the West? Does this method allow us to characterize the West as a civilization? I have already posited a line between Classical and Christian civilization as hard as that between any other pair. What, then, is the West? A variant on Christian civilization, or a post-Christian one?

The West, I think, contains four separate civilizations: the Christian, the Enlightenment, the Modern, and the Postmodern.

This sounds extreme, too much, as if being too close magnifies distinctions that distance would smooth out. But this diversity is due to extraordinary circumstances: only about 500 years, yes; but 500 years of the greatest rate of accession of wealth in human history, 500 years of discovery and invention, 500 years of almost continuous and descendingly brutal warfare. Never anywhere else has humanity made so much progress so quickly, and never anywhere else has such instability – dynastic rivalries, balances of power, secret treaties, competing ideologies – been prolonged without collapse.

And why is the West different? Because the West discovered America. This is might be a controversial thing to say. Certainly the volume of writing about Western civilization that does not stop to consider the unique event that stands in the middle of it is astonishing. It is like reading a biography where, between chapters, the subject goes from riding the bus to driving his Lamborghini, and having to refer to outside sources to discover that, in the interim, he had won the lottery – won the lottery, and used the proceeds to fund a string of bank robberies.

This is where we run up against the limit of lawfulness in history. If history is lawful – if history has laws – shouldn’t they explain things like the discovery of America? They shouldn’t; they can’t. Every system of laws, at least every system of laws at a higher level than basic physics, has to allow for anomalies and externalities, phenomena that originate beyond its boundaries and traduce its principles. Chemistry cannot compass the splitting of the atom. The laws of history have nothing to say about the discovery of continents; it is a disruption every bit as massive and arbitrary as the fall of a comet.

Suddenly, a new world. Two golden empires in periods of political instability that yielded, as if by destiny, to bumbling adventurers. Two vast continents, infinitely rich in resources animal, vegetable, and mineral, their populations totally unprepared for European arms or European diseases. Gold and silver, yes, but also new crops, new domesticated animals, new drugs – a vast river of every kind of wealth that flowed torrentially into Europe for hundreds of years and supercharged its economy and its intellect.

Nothing like this has ever happened, before or since. And Europe did nothing special to earn it. It wasn’t science. They owe the discovery to a geographically incompetent, morally bankrupt eccentric with no other distinction than that – not unimportant – of being a superlative navigator. It wasn’t technology. Those golden empires fell not to gunpowder – gunpowder was still a curiosity – but to swords, lances, and crossbows. (In men, in means, in method, the conquest of the Americas was an extension of the Reconquista.) And, in large part, it wasn’t even on purpose. Nature waged biological warfare on their behalf long before anyone, victim or victor, understood what was happening.

Nor, once they had it, did they do anything special to deserve it. The history of European exploration, invasion, and exploitation in the Americas alternates between impractical idealism and incompetent greed, with each new doomed project building on the compacted ruins of the failure of the last. But the tide was in Europe’s favor, and though it rolled out every time, each time it rolled in, it rolled in a little higher, a little redder.

It could have happened somewhere else; it certainly could have happened to China. But it happened to Europe. And out of the tremendous and unprecedented reaction were precipitated, in quick succession, three new civilizations: the Enlightenment; the Modern; and the Postmodern.

Christianity asks: How can I be saved? The civilization of the Enlightenment asks: How can men be perfected?

Not coincidentally, this resembles the Chinese question; though their knowledge was sketchy, Europe at the time of the Enlightenment was much affected by the mere idea of China.

But the two questions are not the same. Good is one side of a balance; and the same people who are now led to be good by a good example, might in the future be led to be bad by a bad example. Perfection is different. Good is prior to evil: a good person is one uncorrupted by evil. Perfection is posterior to evil: a perfected person is one from whom evil has been removed – whether the causes of evil, the means to do evil, or even the hurt in evil – so that, by some constitution or adjustment of society, by checks or balances or an invisible hand, evil is turned to good.

The US and (loosely) the UK are still Enlightenment countries; but they are the only ones. Most countries in the world belong to a different civilization, which may be called Modern. The Modern question runs: How can we progress?

The line of descent is clear. What is progress? If we understand progress as the way from what we are now to what we can be, the Modern question is partly implicit in that of the Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment’s perfection is a thinkable, ponderable one, one in view; while the perfection at the end of progress is one we cannot now understand – a destination we cannot see until we get there, a horizon that recedes as we approach.

Modernity can be opposed to reason – witness the various systems of historical dialectic that have tried to replace reason – but, in its most common and only surviving form, Modernity does not oppose reason. Instead, after doing all that it can to cultivate reason, Modernity implicitly consents that the best use of reason is to recognize a forward movement in history which is unanswerable to reason and cannot be reasoned about – that the end of all our thinking is to climb to a perspective where we can stop thinking.

The name “Postmodern” is very unfortunate – unfortunate because it is ugly, and unfortunate because it is inaccurate. This civilization is coeval with Modernism; there was a generation or two (when Heine and Marx could dine companionably) which, having rejected the Enlightenment, contained the beginnings of both these civilizations: asking about the world, How can we progress? and about themselves – What is my story?

There seems to be a general suspicion now that before and beyond the West people do not and did not believe that the individual human being could have a story worth telling. They believed in the possibility of an ideal human being; and if there is such a thing as an ideal human being, then the value of the details of the life of any individual is only that of a case study – showing either where and why (taking warning!) they failed, or where and how (learn from it!) they succeeded.

The dubious conclusion is that the pleasure we feel in telling our own stories is a new one, one invented (by Shakespeare?) and taught to us. But human beings are not made of civilization; civilization is made of human beings. A more plausible distinction is that we contribute to the idea of having a story the idea of having our own story. We do not like to have to share our story with others – to be of a type – and we do not like those who publicly identify themselves with a story – the self-made man, the saved whore, the enlightened fanatic, the illuminated disbeliever. We think the story more plausible as it is more particularized, subverted or ironized, excused or made sympathetic. (This kind of storytelling is Romantic in form; but the Romantics were not Postmoderns – they believed in ideals, ones within view and within reach.)

Postmodernism is not simply a great rejection of all principle and belief. It uses ideas like relativism or deconstruction to clear places for itself; but within those places, Postmoderns are hardly nihilists – instead their moral sense seems to me exceptionally, even vulnerably, sensitive and delicate.

Postmodernism – though it applies to several distinct and mutually antagonistic systems of morality – has only one moral method. This method is difficult to recognize as such because it runs backward. Other civilizations teach morality by the morality play; Postmodernism teaches the morality of the play. That is, in part, an aesthetic morality – against ugliness and boredom, for beauty and diversity – and in part an emotional morality – for the sympathetic and relatable, against the pitiless and single-minded. It could be thought of as a musical morality: what is evil is the dissonant, the out of tune, and the off-key; what is good is the tempered, the resolved, and the danceable. This gives postmoderns not only an extraordinary moral susceptibility – one in which every part of life is either expected to find some moral dimension (part of the proceeds go to blank) or to serve some moral purpose (it’s not just blank, it’s a celebration of freedom/tradition/life); and a unique expectation of moral congruity – that the entirety of society should harmonize; that it is possible in this world, without hypocrisy, to be at once rich and generous, successful and kind, powerful and honest.

This idea of theatrical morality may sound strange in the context of Postmodernism. In particular, the name “postmodern” is applied in literature to writing that is suspicious of narrative, even hostile to it; writing that tries to take into account the fact of its being written; narrative that sees itself – the meta, the inter, and the recursive.

The literature of a civilization is not so much as record of its beliefs as a record of its obsessions. In the midst of the Enlightenment, Hume dedicated himself to dismantling reason not because he rejected reason, but because it obsessed him. Nothing is more natural than that the name “postmodern” should stand for an obsession with narrative. But we only break down narrative the way musicians break down a tune. We are not the enemies of narrative; we are its virtuosi.

All this praise I afford to balance my conclusion that the only Postmodern government that the world has yet seen was Nazi Germany. That Nazism was distinctly Postmodern does not mean that Postmodernism causes Nazism. Before Versailles and the self-destruction of the Enlightenment, the only Modern state was that of the Bolsheviks, and Communism was the only systematic Modern political philosophy; but Communism is dead (and undead), and most of the world belongs to some form of Modernity. Communism did not exhaust or characterize Modernism; Jacobinism did not exhaust or characterize the Enlightenment; Nazism did not exhaust or characterize Postmodernism.

But Nazism was entirely Postmodern. Its view of history was pure drama: the past the agon of Aryan and the rest, the present the agon of Aryan and Jew, the future the agon of civilization and Bolshevism. “What is my story?” Hitler asked himself, and answered with Mein Kampf. “What is my story?” Germany asked Hitler, who answered first with victory in the field stolen by a stab in the back from betrayers at home, then with Germantum and a German project and destiny which reached somehow back to Arminius and the Teutonic Knights and stretched ahead into Anschluß and Grossdeutschland. “What is my story?” young men and women asked Hitler, who answered with how Jewish conspiracy had stolen their pride and their opportunity, and that the time was a time for blood – enemy blood to spill, dirty blood to drain, pure blood to breed and spread – a time for blood and for iron, for sharpness and hardness – the West is in danger, forget decadent scruples and ornamental principles, forget law and mercy, get them before they get us – and generations later parts of this story live and still have power.

This fourfold division of the West is an unfamiliar one, but not difficult to construct. The harder test of the method is those ancient civilizations which had thought but not thinkers. There was certainly ancient Egyptian thought; but there were no ancient Egyptian thinkers. The same of Sumer, Babylon, Tenochtitlan, Cuzco. I can only make suggestions. In Egypt, for example, how can I survive? – and the answers develop from talismanic provisions against everyday dangers to elaborate systems for the safe approach to the afterlife. In Sumer, whose am I? – their idea of the god of the city being not the guardian but the owner of the city, the city’s workers the god’s slaves, its officials the god’s foremen. In Mesoamerica, how can the world be saved? – a precocious question, but, as we who have long lived in fear of nuclear winter and now live in fear of global warming should know, not an irrational one.

All this is doubly speculative. It is part of the speculative at best prospect of a science of universal history; and, being an essay written from memory, not a researched treatise, it is less an analysis than a riff. But I have found this way of thinking to be a useful approach to problems beside those of universal history; and, though the idea may not suffice for a system, I consider it worthwhile to oppose the commonplace that all human beings, when they begin to wonder about the world and themselves, begin by asking the same questions. It is a disservice to philosophy and anthropology alike to diffract all philosophies and all systems of thought and story through a prismal catechism of eternal questions – “Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the meaning of life?” – sundering into absurd and tortuous fragments structures of thought whose organic integrity derives from their proper niches in the ecology of possible questions.

Yet suppose that I were right? Surely there is danger in proposing a new mode of diversity to an already fractious species, and in dividing what geography, language, and culture have joined together. But when 800 years ago, in another aside to the science of universal history, Ibn Khaldûn proposed that the diversity of human physiognomies that we call race is not the result of the individual histories of the children of Noah, but of adaptation to climate – then he, by proposing that that diversity was not adventitious, distinguished the real basis for unity. So I could – must – hope that a basis for explaining the most fundamental differences in belief as differences in approach, instead of weaknesses of mind or perversities of will, could make them less bitter.

Old Textbooks

Among the prizes I hope to return with whenever I visit a secondhand bookstore are old textbooks. By old I mean at least before WWII and preferably before WWI. This sounds perverse. What good are old textbooks full of obsolete information? Leave those elegant spines to the decorators.

It is self-evident that the preponderance of textbooks now in use, at every level, are trash. They are written by the narrow, sold by the greedy, bought by the lazy, and read by the desperate and the indifferent. If they serve any purpose it is to harness students. They have such a thin and clouded connection to their subjects, and approach by such roundabout and senseless ways, that they keep nags and racehorses creeping on at the same rate – a sort of pedagogical QWERTY, slowing learning down to keep the parts from interfering. But I do them too much credit: to recognize a purpose implies a planning intelligence they lack.

I wish this was a problem to be solved; but the condition of textbooks is not even a symptom: it is an opportunistic infection – a disease of the sick. Students end up with dubious textbooks like the poor end up with dubious food. The problem to fix is not the vector of exploitation, but what allows exploitation.

The prevailing educational method is consistent at all levels. It is to approach truth by white lies: to start with over-simplifications and, over time, to gradually amend and refine them. This is not inherently bad. Better that children be lied to and told that the earth is round like a ball, than assume it flat until they can understand an oblate spheroid. But, to smooth the way, we have universalized this method and consigned all the final disabusals to specialists. Thus even the best-educated, if they leave their education to others, are left with beliefs that are not quite true; knowledge that is not quite accurate; ideas that are not quite clear.

Overall, this system works well and does little harm. But it is not harmless. We accommodate ignorance in order to dilute it; but while the dilution is temporary, the accommodation is permanent. The temporary defeat of ignorance incurs the permanent removal of the shame of ignorance. The student’s mind starts out as a small lake; rivers of knowledge swell it to a sea; but if it has no natural outlet, the end result is a salt lake of uncertainty where nothing can live.

Scholars and scientists squawk when they informally try to unfold their beloved disciplines to their students and the students balk. They blame the decadence of society outside of education; but these students, having lived on sandwich meat, choke on bones.

Relativism is not a disease that afflicts education from outside. It is the condition of success in education. To succeed in the system you must accept that the truths you are allowed know are relative to your age, and the truths you are allowed to say are relative to the subject you say them about. What do the students gain who try to compass in a single intellectual universe both, say, literature and mathematics? Burdened with contradictions to resolve and distinctions to make, they will go slower in both. In trying to make the superstructure of mathematics clearer, and the substructure of English more exact, they will alienate the teachers of both. They seem to question the character of the mathematician, and the significance of the reader. But if they separate each subject into its own intellectual universe; if they two-time the intellect, dally with sentences and equations on a schedule that ensures they never meet, then they need only learn to play each game by its own rules.

I do not indict. These evils are the evils of universal education, and universal ignorance has evils far greater. I only want to suggest, to those who are vexed by this system, that there have been other ways, ones that they can follow by themselves. You do not have to reform society to do better than society.

If you have the chance, get an old language textbook – they are the easiest to get – and place it beside a modern one for the same language. The first thing you should notice is that the old textbook is shorter. The second is that it is far more systematic. Compare the sections on pronunciation. In my experience, here even the best new textbooks are lacking; even the worse old textbooks are better both in practical guidance – how to breathe, how to articulate – and in respect for the language’s diversity – this sound is pronounced this way in this city. Modern textbooks are hobbled by trying to serve two masters. First, they fear seeming silly to linguists by supplying rules of thumb without direct physiological basis. (Formerly, books taught how to be passable in pronunciation, and correct in grammar; now they teach how to be correct in pronunciation, and passable in grammar. Formerly you succeeded if natives thought you sounded like them but wrote better; now you succeed if natives think you sound better than they do and write like them.) Second, they fear to intimidate students by qualifying their instruction. What is left is too simple to be accurate, and too diffident to be useful – just enough to mislead.

But the best comparison is simply between tables of contents. Look at the contents page of an old textbook and you learn something without reading a word of the text, because the structure of the exposition follows the structure of the subject. Often that simple glance reveals an expository structure that remains obscurely and arbitrarily implied in the modern vocabulary of the subject. What structure does a modern textbook follow? Sometimes it follows the subject – a textbook of anatomy can be expected to be structured in systems of organs. But, more often, some outside consideration decides the structure. The books show rough seams between the work of different contributors; or it duplicates and reduplicates to include everything any teacher might need in any order or from any perspective it might be needed; or it affects that certain medicine-coating cuteness – but the coating is transparent and no one is fooled; or it simply tries to be marketably novel – but the novelty is extrinsic and burdens the student with peculiarities they will have to purge before further study.

One might excuse them by pleading the necessity of a teacher’s presence. But a textbook that, to be useful, requires a good teacher, is itself useless – a sufficiently good teacher can teach from anything. (And anything, generally, is what they get.)

These textbooks, you object, are basic. What of more advanced textbooks? But my point is that there is no reason, except for educational methods, for advanced textbooks to exist. A good textbook is one which starts with ignorance and lets out into primary sources, scholarly apparatus, experiment and apprenticeship.

It is sometimes easier to start with an old textbook, learn the structure of a subject, then correct that understanding with attention to subsequent discoveries and developments, than to try to get a sense of the structure of a subject from working with modern materials – which have no reason to show it, and every reason to hide it. Old buildings are at once examples and textbooks of architecture in beam, pillar, arch, vault, buttress, and cantilever. Their appearance shows their structure. Modern buildings obey the same physics; but cheap steel allows them to hide their structures under a fraudulent simplicity. It is the same with modern textbooks and cheap paper.

Most differences between old and new textbooks are due to bad faith or honest confusion. Some, however, are of another kind: they belong to the tendency of our education to mix the professional and the humanistic.

I do not know whether the prestige of the professional specialties pulled these concerns into their orbit, or whether the humanities’ abdication necessitated this seizure. It would be more satisfying to blame it on the humanities as the foreseeable consequence of the narcissism of Marxism and Theory, the professions learning to get along without those who, vainly thinking themselves indispensable, made no effort to be useful. But this cannot be not true. The bids of economics, sociology, and psychology to supply the vacant center have all failed. Something is exerting an overpowering centrifugal force on intellectual life – it is not that the king is dead, but that the throne is broken. What exerts this force, what broke the throne, I do not know – except to say that while it has been present throughout the twentieth century, it did not predominate until the great nameless revolution that brought in our world of think tanks, institutional investors, bourgeois bohemianism, fashion without fashions and pervasive reform-renewal-rethink-update.

However it happened, every profession has its own prosthetic complement of hyphenated ethicists, journalists, writers, and historians; and soon entirely separate camps of science artists or math musicians. Much of the steady swelling of university time expected of a professional is due to this added burden. A first rate medical school can no longer rest after teaching the doctor anatomy, epidemiology, pharmacology; they must also teach the doctor – as a doctor, not as a human being – how to think clearly, how to express their thoughts, how to relate to life, to their emotions, to other people’s emotions, how to solve ethical dilemmas. This intellectual autarky has always been possible for doctors and lawyers at least; but it has spread nearly everywhere. (If you wish to see it happening to the hard sciences, visit the Edge Foundation.)

There are, for most musical instruments, two ways to learn to read music: staff and tablature. Staff is the familiar texture of lines, dots, and dashes. It is a way of writing music which is nearly the same for all instruments: while there are usually considerations that keep a player of one instrument from sight-reading music written for another, the discrepancies of notation do not add to those inherent in the instruments’ different physical possibilities.

Tablature is much easier to learn than staff. If two people begin to learn the same instrument at the same time, there will be a long interval while the player from tablature can laugh at the slow progress of the player from staff. But in the end there are places the tablature player cannot go; worse, that player cannot talk about music with other musicians, must start over if they want to learn a second instrument, and is as far from being able to transcribe for their instrument, compose for it, or even produce individual interpretations for it, as they were before they could play anything at all.

The analogy, of course, is that new textbooks are written in tab, but old textbooks are written in staff: new textbooks give proficiency without cultivation; old textbooks, presupposing cultivation, delay proficiency to allow for excellence.

I often hear the phrase learn how to learn; but never having heard a definition of it I take it for a catchphrase. Still, it is catching because it would in fact be a good idea. Our system of education, however, has been engineered to serve an opposite end. It is not even a bad end; but if you have another end in mind you must look outside the machine, and its only outside is its before. Being old does not make a textbook good. Old textbooks are obsolete, silly, stupid, bigoted, and boring. But there is gold there that cannot be had anywhere else, if you will pan for it.

Imagination of Children

Sentimentality is often cruelty in soft focus; and the sentimental view of the imagination of little children, if sharpened, shows life as a cruel joke. Children come into the world trailing glory that they must at last forget; or they fall into this gross swaddling heap of a world as into a trap. We adults are left to the same fate whether our doom is romantic or gnostic: within, we must look to the children we were to find the springs of our selfhood and the soil of our emotions; and, without, we must heed children as oracles, and strive to shape society to children, and not children to society.

Very smart people believe this; some of the smartest and wisest who ever were. Great art has been made in this belief. Our law, our manners, our architecture all reflect it.

Nonetheless, I have no idea what any of them are talking about.

I remember what it felt like to be a child, and how much I disliked it – the pain, sometimes horror, of weakness and ignorance, of doubt and incomprehension.

And I seem to remember how my imagination worked. In those products of it that I retain I can usually recall the responsible train of thought. Certainly imagination was very different then: fluent, indefatigable, effortless, and pervasive. I would amuse myself at breakfast by dumping spoonfuls of powdered chocolate into my milk and, before each little island sank, giving it a name and a history accounting for how it had come to this woeful end – to disappear beneath the waves.

I suppose that I am the poorer now that I see no such islands – now that the rise and fall of empires no longer attends my breakfast, now that a pile of bricks is not the stuff of castles and henges, now that decayed stumps are not mountain cities in waiting and old foundations promise no secrets.

Yet I feel no loss. I have fewer empires now, but better ones. Then empire was a word; now my empires have roads and provinces, frontiers and legions, temples and palaces, god-kings and the mandate of heaven; know how to pave stone roads and cast iron pagodas; know the aching legs of the pilgrim road and the stink the morning after the triumph rides through, the must of archives and catacombs.

Imagination was then outside of me, a thing of names and pictures to reach for and mix; and now it is a thing inside of me, ransacking my experience for new things to name. This is fair trade, and a place in a cycle. And if I do well at it, other will have those names to play with when I myself am only a name.

You say: good for you; but most people are not so lucky. What of those who grow up to lose their imagination? Who have it ground or drained out of them? Who spurn and abandon it?

But distinguish active imagination from passive. Surely the popularity of all kinds of imaginative fiction precisely among those who have no opportunities to exercise imagination – the more purely imaginative, the more popular – demonstrates that the faculty is not lost.

Words on a page, moving pictures on a screen; these are but indices and suggestions. Coleridge (which is to say, romanticism) saves the appearances by asserting that here we do not engage imagination; instead, we suspend disbelief. But this is absurd, for two reasons. First, it implies that dreaming, and not waking, is the natural activity of the mind. But our dreams rely on our waking lives for their matter. That is not to cheapen dreams, but to esteem them: dreams take work, and show the quality of the dreamer. Second, it implies that it is possible to believe without imagining – that a story, once told, contains in itself everything necessary to believe it; that the audience need only let its guard down to be possessed by another’s imagination. But communication does not work this way. You cannot tell the time of day to someone who cannot imagine a clock. You cannot tell a story to someone who cannot imagine stories. The audient imagination, though it is passive – active but only in reaction – is still there. It may even be very strong, though in an awkward, china-breaking way. But why the imbalance? What happened to the active imagination of these people?

There is something, I think, that disestablishes imagination, that destroys it – but not the darkness of the world or the cruelty of life, not the pollution of sex or the preoccupation of business. It is, however, related to the end of childhood: it is the strait of adolescence. On the one side is pettiness; on the other side, grandiosity. Both can wreck the imagination. The field where imagination is useful is in those things and events that are too great for an individual, yet small enough for humanity; if it shrinks to cunning, or inflates to philosophy, it dies; but there is a middle course, and the delight and mercy of the middle course between cunning and philosophy is that when it is held cunning and philosophy fall in beside it.


Flowers are the oldest and first religion, whose sacraments the earth itself performs; the oldest and only universal language, for they say what cannot otherwise be said, what cannot change as language changes. There are flowers for the graves of every people, as there were flowers in the graves of our extinct hominid cousins. And these last colors meant to them all that they still mean.

Our kind of creature arrived with the flowers, and we have never been without them. How flowers shape the human sense of the world can be shown by a few thought experiments.

Imagine the world of the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs ruled the world, so old in their possession that they walked on the fossils of their own kind. And there were no flowers: no flower anywhere, ever; no bloom, no wilt, no blossom, no fruit, only leaves and needles brown and green, yellow and red. No wonder that the earth had to invent the dinosaurs – just to keep itself entertained.

Imagine the world as it would be belonging to orchids, warped and dyed mirrors of flowers – a world where what is to us grotesque, barbarous, lurid, was the rule – a Gothic architecture of nature, as far from nature as we know it as the façade of Notre Dame from the portico of the Parthenon.

Look at the corpseflowers, where never bee alights, that never incense with sweet smells, that never dress up in bright colors, but wear deep reds and purples, colors veined as meat is veined, and the smell of decay for their perfume – corpseflowers that close by day, that open for beetles by night. Do not imagine the world that belongs to them.

Some flowers have resemblances, and the match of the resemblances resembles the match of the flowers: aroids of the pointed leaves. They are even welcome in homes when they have been neutered, glossy green, resilient against the rigors of indoor air, acid in all their stems – some poisonous. But they too have their blossoms, efflorescences impudent and unsheathed; they too imply their own world.

The rose, I think, is half of love; the magnolia, half of longing; the gardenia, half of contentment; the sunflower, half of joy; the lily, half of memory; the wildflowers, more than half of life.