The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Envy is half of love. For the envier, it is the high regard without the goodwill. For the envied it is the attention, without the faith. Thus where there is the appearance of love, but no real connection – there is not love, but envy.

I say this not to diminish love, but to better understand envy. The word has a certain exoticism, a certain dramatic quality, a Biblical or Shakespearean stature. It belongs to Cain and Iago. Who in these diminished latter days is even capable of envy? Modern vices are so bloodless: not wrath, but tantrums; not greed, but CDOs. What business do we have with envy? I hear it went out with crinolines.

But envy is everywhere; envy reigns. It is the poison we live by, the dilution in our blood: watered enough to be safe, strong enough to be addictive.

Envy is not jealousy. Jealousy is as direct and solid as a bullet. When a man hates his neighbor because he wants that man’s wife, he is jealous. Envy is as diffuse and insidious as a gas. When a man hates his neighbor because that man has a wife, he is envious. Jealousy is satisfied with defeat; if our man has the wife, he is indifferent to what may become of the neighbor. Envy demands degradation; if our man accomplishes the humiliation and dispossession of the neighbor, he is indifferent to what may become of the wife.

We are not busybodies; we mind our own business. We are proud; we resent being told that our lives are pointless and our possessions contemptible. Envy – properly diluted – is the only reagent to catalyze us, we indifferent human beings, into a society bound together by commitments and aspirations. Every channel for us to preoccupy ourselves with what cannot concern us, every prize held out as the reward of labor beyond needs – all this is only envy can create and support.

But envy is not a link, not a social contraction; envy is a force. It drives the wheel of fortune. It conducts the rise of the great and smites their downfall. In between it propels their blind, scuttling epicycles. Celebrities envy politicians; politicians envy celebrities. Businessmen envy intellectuals; intellectuals envy businessmen. Celebrities pursue politics and curse Washington; politicians deploy celebrities and damn fame. Businessmen quote philosophers and mock professors. Intellectuals abuse capitalism and invest. You stake your envy to enter the game; and those without envy (if they exist) are never seen to win.

True, analogies between matter and society should always be suspect. A reagent causes matter to break down, so the bright moment of commitment and aspiration should be a singular, unrepeatable luminescence. Like a fire, it should burn out. But society is not matter; it is capable of perpetual motions, like insurance, which is a scheme that never collapses, because most of the insured die without payouts. What seemed unsustainable to our grandfathers has been sustained this long and shows no signs of weakness.

Literature and Philosophy

Philosophy needs literature more than literature needs philosophy. Of course literature does not need philosophy at all. In each of the three origins of philosophy – Greek, Indian, and Chinese – literature preceded philosophy, and the first philosophers were so concerned with literature that, in ontogeny, philosophy and literary criticism are difficult to distinguish.

But philosophy’s need for literature is more than genealogical. Philosophy is a project of discovery, not invention. A philosopher who only invents something that we could believe about the world and about our place in it is, as a philosopher, a failure. Rather, in order to live, a philosophy must show that it has always been what people believed, though they did not yet know it. For the discovery of such unknown beliefs literature is the only body of evidence.

A philosopher must also account for how false beliefs came to be; again, only literature shows the range of what it is possible to believe, records the means by which false beliefs spread and develop, and preserves the occasion and substance of their error.

Of course, philosophers in the last few centuries have more often taken mathematics or science as their starting point than literature. And I cannot call this is a decline or aberration, because more philosophy has been done in these centuries than had been done in all history before. But the question must be asked: does philosophy, in starting from mathematics or science, receive them as mathematics and science; or does it coerce the statements of mathematics to a literature of mathematics, the statements of science to a literature of science?

We know that philosophy, in relying on mathematics, has sometimes fallen apart when mathematics shifted beneath it – most infamously in Kant’s now-embarrassing reliance on Euclidean geometry. Yet philosophers are more often mathematical than scientific. Locke, philosopher, faced with Newton’s Principia, asked Huygens, mathematician, whether he could trust its proofs implicitly. On Huygens’s word Locke, founder of modern philosophy, read the foundational work of modern science by skipping the proofs. This seems representative.

Consider philosophers (and artists too) trying to digest relativity or quantum theory, declaring the advent of a new world, pledging themselves to it, raising its banner – philosophers (and artists) who could not tell Feynman’s diagrams from Agrippa’s sigils, who think a tensor belongs in a gym or a girdle.

But besides the significance of the results of science is the significance of Science itself. Its attraction for philosophers is obvious. Science can show something has always been true without having been noticed; it can show that what people always believed was simply false, and it need not qualify or blunt its disproof. Fires have always burned by binding oxygen. This is true of every fire that ever burned; it is true of fires that burned before human beings lived; it is true of every fire human beings have ever kindled or set, whatever they looked into it and saw – the fire-god, the image of hell, the liberation of elemental fire, the release of phlogiston. Every fire, always, everywhere, forever, burning. Science can deliver such eternities.

But the carcasses of philosophies based on obsolete science litter the last century. To learn from experience would be to notice that philosophy can learn from science only by expanding the phenomena it must account for – only literarily – and that the attempt to join philosophy to science is at best a balancing act – a stunt.

This is not just because science is subject to shifts – of paradigms among others – but because even subtle drifts in terminology and in the emphasis of education can break – in their natural development they must break – the link between a science and the philosophy supposedly based on it. The positivism that elides with foundations of mathematics is out of date, not because of Gödel or any other shock, but because the interesting work in foundations of mathematics is done and working mathematicians concern themselves with other things.

Philosophers are far harsher with philosophy than scientists would think to be. No would-be bicultural has ever delivered a blow to philosophy like Wittgenstein’s sledgehammer. And scientists are far harsher with science than philosophers would dare to be. No would-be deconstructor has ever flensed the scientific method with Feynman’s astringency.

For philosophical purposes, science is literature. But are other kinds of literature still relevant to philosophy? How else does philosophy need literature? Ethics is the neediest of philosophical disciplines. Ethics as the study of virtue and vice, of the good life, is inextricably literary, and thus enfeebled by the neglect of literature. Instead we find everywhere in ethics the philosophical misfeasance of the moral paradox.

Moral paradoxes are not just experiments in lesser evils; they are evil experiments. It is absolutely irrelevant how a moral paradox is answered because the idea of a moral paradox is absolutely irrelevant to human beings. A moral paradox is a crisis without room for imagination. But imagination is how human beings do good. It is the only way in which human beings do good. I do not mean that both are evil choices; I mean that choosing is evil. There is absolutely no more good in reasoning about moral paradoxes than in resolving them with dice. Of course moral paradoxes do happen. We are not always strong enough to resist or clever enough to escape them. But the proper treatment for those who would call one choice right and the other choice wrong is not to argue with them, but to beat them with sticks.

Kantian ethics, ethics practiced as pure reasoning, without consulting literature, are as vain, silly, and absurd as Aristotelian physics, physics practiced as pure reasoning, without consulting nature. The resemblance is not an analogy but an identity. Aristotelian physics refused to look outside itself to discover its real tasks, the phenomena it had to explain. Kantian ethics commits the same error.

As with physics, the phenomena for which ethics must account arrive from two sources. One is experiment; one is exploration.

Experimentation in ethics is singularly unreliable, because it must penetrate delusion; and adopting the vaunted methods of cognitive psychology is a mistake, not because there is anything wrong with experimentation or even with cognitive psychology, but because the methods of cognitive psychology are exhausted and their application has become compulsive and rhetorical.

Exploration is easier; it is already done. The reports of the explorers of the mind are stacked as high as the reports of explorers of seas and continents. Yet the map is permitted to remain blank, or it is drawn with some geometrical conceit, subs and supers, ectos and mesos, intros and extros, like old cartographers drawing pizza maps of the world with slices for continents, crust for ocean, and Jerusalem perched in the center holding up the lid.

The cartography of the mind is an empty field; the geodesy that would unravel its tectonic rind, and which would really deserve the name of evolutionary psychology, is unthought. Someday the map must be filled; but the work must start as a kind of philosophy, and it must be informed by literature with some more urgent use than illustration.


Only nature cleans the highways here. They represent every stage of decay, from the semblance of sleep through the rough dissections of crows to the painstaking harvest of ants. The proverb says, haste makes waste. The highways prove it; in every soft carcass that lies curled beside them, in every fleshpile squeezed from the split sacks of carrion that lie out upon them, in every flowered cross planted strangely beside them.

Should we hate the highways with a particular hate? Trains are armored to shatter and plow aside errant livestock, whose wet flopping dead weight would otherwise derail even the engine that batters them. Planes in flight devour birds; black humor has a word, snarge, for the product. Ships strike whales – even on the whale-roads there is roadkill. To banish the highways would save nothing.

Montaigne counsels us that the fear of death is to be overcome by making it familiar, by not looking away from it, by looking out for it. You need not look far. To live is to kill. Just to eat food that something else might have eaten is to kill. At every level, from breakfast to the evolution of the species, life advances by a rocker arm, pushing one down as it pulls one up. To compete as a lifeform is to obstruct or be obstructed. Either what obstructs kills what is obstructed, limits, confines, and starves it, or what is obstructed kills what obstructs it, tosses it aside, beats it down, or runs it over. Life’s accounts do not balance. Life runs a perpetual deficit in the debt of death.

Plant flesh, animal flesh, human flesh, grow, spread, and die, cell by cell. We do not always treat them differently. The bullet passing through wall and occupant and wall again; the parallel logistics of sustenance and deployment, of sanitation and undertaking; the red truth that really is the same under our skins; how easily all gifts and accomplishments are undone by the severing of the narrow threads they hang from – metaphorically, a slip on the stair, a stumble in the shower – literally, the nerve and tendon threads the surgeon loosens with sharp steel; the exact delineation of acceptable and unacceptable probabilities of death or maiming, of acceptable and unacceptable rates of wearing out the body; accident victims, and roadkill.

The most original and apt image in modern fantasy is the car gods with their black gloves and chrome teeth, powerful recipients of more blood sacrifice than all the unclean temples ever sent to Huitzilopochtli. To feed that thirsty god the Aztecs waged wars by appointment and agreement, flower wars to drain the supply of hot-blooded young men. The car gods have a more efficient arrangement.

Every action of government contains a writ of execution. To govern is to uproot, unman, disabuse, starve, poison, and exile. Some people always live at the margins of any way of life. Adjust the limits and they fall off. People die for daylight savings.

There is a courtesy among predators, at least on land. We tend not to eat each other, in part because we are poor nourishment for each other, in part because nature prefers competition to warfare. Competition improves fitness. Warfare is generally won by other means. It is better for the edification of hyena and lion that they compete to kill their prey, not to kill each other. Fighting between them accomplishes nothing – evolution cannot work with winners. Victory ends competition.

Consider how animals die, and how animals react to death – not because our deaths or reactions to death are or should be anything like theirs, but because they show nakedly where and how the boundary lies. They seem to feel and recognize the difference between recoverable sickness and the approach of death, even when the former has the more severe symptoms. They seek solitude to meet it. In others they sometimes attend it with impossible patience, sometimes leave it – what a thing it is to see a cat, for example, approach another cat dying, sniff at it, then simply leave. Yet even cats show anxiety when one of their number is removed by sudden death. Learn the lesson: death has a shadow and a mark. It shadows where it has yet to arrive, it marks what it has yet to claim.

The troubling thing about a dead body is not its emptiness but that its emptiness is not complete. A dead body is never really limp or unresisting. While it is fresh its habits of movement linger until it stiffens wholly. Body language does not shut off when no one is speaking: it goes on in gibberish and static. But then I have felt animals stiffen so quickly after death that it is hard to believe they were not already mostly dead even while they were moving.

The saying goes that human is the only animal that knows it must die. This is absurd if it is understood to mean that animals die blindly. But even then, do we really know? We have a name for something we dread. But who knows what that thing is?

Dying well is no more impressive than holding liquor well. Biology has no discretion. The imperative of survival inflicts itself even on the hopeless in an endocrine frenzy. To withstand those chemicals well is no more or less a quirk of constitution than withstanding any other chemical.

It is unique to human beings to choose death – but do we choose to die, or not to live? Those who choose to die do not choose dying, but dying for, dying in, dying with, dying as – all things you do before you die.

Thinking about death is as futile as thinking about life. If death matches life, then death is as much and as various as life, in comforts and in stings – as uncertain as life, and as surprising. But though one cannot define life, one can say useful things about it. There may be useful things to say about death. But remember that the segment of life that thought can influence is a small one. The substance of life is the same for every human being, and for other animals: individual but not individuated – eating, sleeping, walking, loving, laughing, crying. Likewise most of what it is to die is unoriginal and familiar.

But human deaths are different. The last dinosaur, say, was much a dinosaur as any other had been. The last cat will be a true cat. But the last man will be no such thing. No man abridges mankind. Nature, when it kills us, does not know we are human beings, does not know we are different. It does not consult or consider us in dying any more than in being born. But nature is wrong. Its excuses are inadmissible. Its generalizations are misguided. We are not interchangeable, we cannot be replaced, we are never unjustifiable. Nature does not gather us in; nature runs us down. It ends us and dissolves us, or dissolves us to end us, and we do not slow its wheels.

I wish I could ask after sanity as easily as after religion. Many have their sanity from ritual who do not believe, and many who believe have their sanity from reason. Children are another reliance: better they bury you, than you bury them.

Since as an essayist I cannot bestow belief or children on my readers, I will address reason.

Define the problem: what is reason asked? Reasoning about life tries to show us what power we have when we feel powerless, how to bear and forbear. Reasoning about death must show us how powerless we really are, even when we feel we have power. We are strangely able to think like immortals, to ignore death’s oncoming, to ignore time’s outgoing; able in looking forward to let age creep up on us, in looking backward to let death approach from behind. This is not foolish: too much awareness of death, because we cannot escape it, elides with surrender to it. It is brave to go down and joke with the gravedigger, but someday you must return from England.

And what does the gravedigger have to tell? He will not patronize you; he knows that you know you must die. He asks: do you know you can only have so much life before you die?

We have so much to say. Within ourselves we go on and on in a steady burble of language worn down to smooth unresisting kernels. To express them is a slow, hard cementation that always omits as much as it includes. No practice, no pursuit, no art, no relationship, no devotion can really empty a human being out. The greatest wit, the most indefatigable scribbler, the hack, the genius, the most passionate lover, the most kneeworn worshiper – we all die less than empty.

Some wit observed that the centipede is so called because human beings are too lazy to count to fifteen. But really we are not too lazy to count; we are afraid to count. We use names instead. We speak of character and personality as we speak of centipedes. But though we refuse to count them we die bearing these cruel secret tallies. For the most daring there are only so many victories; for the wisest only so many thoughts; for the most loving, and the most loved, only so many kisses.

The wheels of reason crush all shapes together. What am I? What lives? What is it that will die? Surely I fill out something that outlives me. I am a kind of person; I was not the first and I will not be the last. Or I am unique, I have a claim that outlives me. Draw thy breath in pain to tell my story. Either way I have a story that is mine, whether I inherit it or originate it.

This is a comfort I am willing to defend, though not to commit to. This word story has become pejorative. Stories are ways of making the inexplicable palatable (as in the neurological concept of confabulation: when the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, and the left side of the brain [governing the right hand] invents an explanation for the actions of the left, subverting memory to reshape it.) Or stories omit pertinent information from complex events to make them useful, as history told through Great Men omits almost everything that actually happened.

All this sounds very wise, has that bite of wisdom going down in phrases like we tell ourselves stories or the human need for simple stories.

But just what is it that a story is? Does it supervene on events or inhere in them? The impossibility of proving a story is not a demonstration of its vacuity, but of its irreducibility, its centrality, its coherence.

A story cannot be broken down into simple parts not because it is unreal, but because the idea of a story is perfectly simple – there are no simpler parts. The maturity of twentieth century science discovered that the world is not matter acting mathematically but mathematics acting materially. Likewise it is no more plausible that life is biology acting narratively, than that life is narrative acting biologically.

I do not commit to this because even granting that stories are real and potent there is no reason why that power must be beneficent. If stories are substantial enough to support as a reliance, then they are also substantial enough to construct as a trap. And even stories die – they can die, at least, though they do not have to. They are immortal but not indestructible.

And a story has an end; to speak of the story of a life parallels in death the story’s quality of having an end. But to run out of time is not to finish. To stop is not to be over. Even the story of a life too soon ended, or wrongly ended, only assigns the role of death a part in the masque of justice, where we conceal Death in the costume of Crime.

Instinct compels us to live toward something, some legacy of possessions or powers, some residue of belief or meaning; compels us to think of death as the occasion of it. We cannot help but live all our experiences as if we will tell about them. Even if we choose not to tell, we experience that choice as if we will tell how we never told. Even if we do not hope to be heard, we experience that hopelessness as something we will tell.

Then we look at death – we cannot help it – as if it will be the great telling. Even if what is to be told is: “I lived without illusions, without the need for neat satisfying stories.”

Story creeps in. Those who would tell God how they lived only require God to be audient to what they already had to say. Even those who would be silent in the Void have somewhere in their minds the thought of telling how the Void absorbed them.

The lapse of this instinct – the feeling, not the thought, that you might never tell – cannot be told; but it does exist.

Science has its particular comforts. Psychology is ready to assure you that once you have learned to live, you have learned to die, because death is not the end of life, but part of it. Neurology is ready to assure you that consciousness is a phenomenon, not a species, that once relieved of memory and embodiment, your share of it is only a repetition of the common pattern; and that you, in recorded memory and the memories of others, in the substance of your DNA, and in the generic phenomenon of consciousness, continue to exist in every sense but that of existing within an individual – you never die, only disband. Biology is ready to assure you that you are only a modification of the one continuous stream of life stretching through the years in their billions – that all you are was always possible, and all you were will remain forever possible. Chemistry is ready to assure you that you are made of starstuff, that in your death you perform a stage of a cycle grander and finer than any that human imagination has feigned to religion or philosophy. Physics is ready to assure you that time is an illusion, that before and after are obsolete, that everything that happens is still happening somewhere, that just because you have lived there will always be something in the universe to which you are still alive.

All these comforts are worth attending. All these comforts are noble and good and fill the mind with melancholy serenity and a musical sense of the harmony and fitness of things. I commend them to those who can rely on them. But I do not feel equal in life to the sum of these posthumous immortalities. Nor is death declawed for me by doctrines that teach I cannot die because I was never alive.

Not existing is as nightly-familiar as dreamless sleep. We die for a few hours before smooth and painless resurrection. If we define consciousness as something material then this death and resurrection are literal. Consciousness is a process; whether the process stops because of a temporary alteration of the state of its medium, or because of the destruction of its medium, is irrelevant. Your computer is no less inactive when it is off than when it is broken.

If we define consciousness as something spiritual and indestructible then dreamless sleep shows that experience, memory, and embodiment are not involved in consciousness, only employed by it. And if we define consciousness as something spiritual and destructible, then there is a power that destroys and resurrects us every day, in promise of doing so again.

The existence of dreamless sleep leaves only these three alternatives. There is no possible view of life in which there is any novelty to death. You have died before, and risen. Perhaps you will die again tonight.

Either life has value or it does not. If it does, then it has value in any quantity. If it does not, then to ask that it continue forever is only to ask that the charade never end. But if life has value, what kind of value does it have? A possession, a loan, a gift? Life cannot be given value by words. Words fail, not because you cannot succeed in speaking, but because you have succeeded just by speaking. The blind circle of words cannot reach life, not because life is beyond words, but because life is inside of words.

Under the laws of nature no one has the right to be born; no one has the right to live. Be grateful! Do not ask to whom; be grateful because you have the capacity for gratitude. Not grateful in principle, not observing the rites of gratitude; be panicked, paralyzed, choked with gratitude. You live, you communicate, you exist – and this infinite improbability, this absolute unjustifiability, outweighs the mere certainty of your death.

But let fear speak. “What should we be grateful for? For other people who have us, people we leave? For the beautiful things we must shut our eyes on, or the beautiful things that fall apart while we watch? For experience we cannot repeat, for joys we forget, for achievements that either embitter us in failure, or leave us jaded in success? For love we are not strong enough to stay with or save? These are not gifts. These are decoys, lures, the hooks on the lines that jerk us along – no, not even lines, the shaft we fall down. Should we be more thankful for the paintings on the sides of the shaft than we hate what dropped us down it? Don’t you know yet what they are painted with? They are painted with the gore of those who have already hit the bottom. Be grateful? What a word you trot out, what a silly little word. Is this it? Is this the word you would hold onto, here of all places, where words make no difference at all, where no words can ever be heard or spoken? Grateful? You profane!”

What can I say? I cannot teach you what to be grateful for. This is work only you can do. You have already begun. It is the reward of good taste, of deep attachment, of the discipline of delight, to know at the last with certainty that some things are good, true, fine, brave, in a way that cannot be diminished – undeniable to the last denial.


“Fashion” names three distinct systems, which have in common only that they determine what clothes are worn. For brevity I will call them fashion1, fashion2, and fashion3. In Western history they follow in periods. Fashion1 spans from the Renaissance to WWI; fashion2 spans from WWI to the 1980s; and fashion3, in the developed world, is ongoing. For each definition of fashion there is a corresponding adjective: fashionable1, that is, new; fashionable2, that is, popular; and fashionable3, that is, safe.

Fashion1 belongs to the artisan tailor. In short fashionable1 meant what tailors know how to make – reading, by the usual metonymy of the time, tailors as the best tailors, and the best tailors as the best tailors of the best cities, and the best tailors of the best cities as the king’s tailor. Fashion1 was slow to spread – from the court to the city to the country – slow in time, as the idea of fashion filtered down early in the period, and slow in space, until the tempo of technology picked up and the center was reflected everywhere.

(Of course there were court fashions before this – tall pointy hats and long pointy shoes – but we are only concerned with clothing styles after the decay of sumptuary class distinctions.)

The transition from fashion1 to fashion2 was due to mechanical reproduction, but not directly. Fashion is the only art that could embrace mechanical reproduction without a change in its system of values. It succeeded in subordinating mechanical reproduction for centuries. Fashion was, after all, the only art openly aspirational – “the clothes make the man” was an old saying while others arts still served patrons – and fashion was the only art no philosopher, ancient or modern, had bothered to establish standards for, or attributed any metaphysical or spiritual significance to – the only art (beside gourmandise) whose neglect, among those friendly to art in general, had been judged spiritually improving. And it was the first art to be industrialized – the textile mills were the first factories. Fashion had centuries to adjust to the conditions which overwhelmed other arts.

(Since fashion has always been the least self-consciously artistic of all the arts, if one is in search of the influence of industry on culture in general, fashion is not the anomaly but the control – the one area of study almost unpolluted by contemporary reflection.)

Even so, the balance of power between artisanship and reproduction was eventually upset. The shocks of WWI – textile shortages, government regulation of collar widths and skirt lengths – delivered fashion utterly to industry. This is fashion2, with the ascendancy of reproduction.

The interest of this change is that, even in its ascendancy, the effect of mechanical reproduction on fashion was paradoxical – the opposite of its effect on all other arts. Other arts became reducible (though of course they were not always reduced) to signs and tokens: the art on the wall; the music on the roll, the platter, the disk; the very buildings on the street. All came to be employed, at times, as instruments, as impersonal expressions of the kind of person that one was or meant to be.

But fashion2 was not about wanting to be a kind of person; fashion2 was about wanting to be a specific person. Fashion came to be dominated by vital personalities just as other arts ceased to be.

The phrase “mechanical reproduction” comes from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The essay does not live up to its reputation – it is really an essay about portraiture, to the exclusion of non-visual arts, or even forms of visual art essentially public – but its idea of an aura to the handmade work of the artist, something inherent in the original work and accessible only in person, something lost in reproduction – aura has become a byword for everything we have lost. But it was in mass reproduction that fashion gained, for the first time, an aura of its own. Where there was national costume, now there was aura – you know who – not a jacket, but you–know-who’s jacket, not jeans, but you–know-who’s jeans.

Fashion3 – the kind called post-industrial – is of interest as the most accessible member of the class of phenomena that can be prefixed with post-. In fashion we may observe and judge its real salience: first, that it was a real change; second, that it was shocking to those who lived through it; and third, that it was not, in the long run, particularly important.

But what was the change? Suddenly everything became cheaper; suddenly cheap became chic; suddenly the urgency of investing the clothes dollar in something fashionable was relaxed; suddenly, after a long suspension, the personal principles of choice and taste were restored. It is understandable that the first generation that had the chance to exercise that freedom would be very far out of practice: how variously and persistently they overdid, and underthought, does not need to be repeated.

But consider the years since; and ask what it means for fashionable3 to mean “safe.” Safety in fashion is safety from costume. In the presence of limitless choice costume is the one limit, the one failure. You may wear whatever you like as long as you do not go through with it. “A is a great look, try wearing it with B.” “X is a classic, but bring it up to date with Y.”

Fashion is never just a matter of personal expression. When you dress, you judge. A suit among T-shirts says “slobs”; a T-shirt among suits says “stiffs.” To favor a look is one thing; to commit to it is another. Mere favor retains free choice; commitment exercises choice only to renounce it. And to renounce choice is to demean those who have it – is to say “cowardly,” to say “soft,” to say “weak.”

(This analysis is easily extended if costume is replaced with religious conversion or political commitment or artistic style. But fashion is the perspicuous case.)

It may seem absurd to pay so much attention to clothing. Who thinks about clothes except people who are only fit to think about clothes? But dressing is the one art everyone practices, the one branch of criticism in which everyone is qualified. It is civilization in its most urgent, personal, and portable form. Certainly no philistinism meets quite so much resistance as going naked. And no other art shares clothing’s power to encapsulate civilization. Consider C.D. Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” where the frock coat stands for all that civilization can contribute to the education of a human mind.