The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Urban Exploration

Cities do not grow; they have to be made. Somewhere, sometime, people made all this; they made all the machines that made all the artifacts and buildings that made all the cities. And somewhere, sometime, everything made has answered to a purpose. But try this: walk, or be driven through, any section of any city – the older the better, but new will do – under the aspect of an alien or an artist. Try, if you can, to notice everything – the strange knobs and wires and pipes, the bits of metal, the shapes of concrete, which make puzzles of every structure. Who knows what every knob and lever is for? There are devices on the old buildings that are remembered only by scholars. No one comes to fix them; no one comes to check them. They gather dust, rust, verdigris, character. In neglect they pass from function to form.

It must have been bewildering for those who were part of the great world-spanning, unsleepingly active age of dawning industry – that age, in its dreams and its nightmares, so wedded to the spirit of youth and youthful strength – it must have been bewildering for them to see that the world is not, in fact, remade with every generation; to see how time has carried forward their works, made in unquestioning faith in the future, into a faithless future where they have become all they were made to supplant: not just old-fashioned and obsolete, but curious and quaint; lingering through time, artifacts, shadowy relics brought out from the strange country, the alien planet, of the past.

And it has happened. Young people armed with flashlights and cameras crawl over and among the picked bones of Leviathan-industry. This is not the archaeology of labels and measurements and excavations; not the piracy of the past that sunk shafts and cut tunnels into the buried homes of Pompeii; not the romanticism that would bring young Englishmen to Italy to watch old marble until they could fancy that a statue might drop its staff and admit it had only been pretending. They make me think instead of some medieval Italian shepherd – for such there must have been – who fell into a lost grotto dedicated to a god he never knew, never would know; who shivered and wondered at such a place, sacred to his blood though unholy to his god; who withdrew and covered it again, only having marked its ceiling with the smoke of his fuming lamp. Such there must have been; such there are.

An urban explorer seeks context, not knowledge. Among the great machines on the factory floor they only want to know what each is for, nor how they worked. They are satisfied to see the buttons and levers; they do not need to know which one does what. They are satisfied to know where to stand; they do not need to know what to do. They take the pictures for their walls or accounts; they do not need to know the names of what their pictures contain. They are not designers, planners, scientists, engineers, even artists – I do not think you could satisfactorily draw an abandonment. Only the affectless lens can capture the appeal.

I am not an urban explorer; I want to know everything. But that would be missing the point. It is not knowing, and it is not not knowing; it is not ghosts; it is not even the beauty of patination or of ruins; it is the sight, the memory of the sight, that the photograph stands in for. Our steel ruins do not reach the same part of the brain as the arts, or even the stone ruins of a farther past. They follow a different way, reach something deeper. We wander and delight in abandonments for the same reason we wander in the forest: the beauty of these gathering ruins is only the beauty of nature – another nature humanity made for itself. For the deepest part of the brain the old, abandoned factory and the dark, spooky wood have the same appeal.

When I was a child my father took me to see many old forts, too many to remember. They have run together in my mind; unilluminated tunnels branching from the lighted tourist-track; huge rooms with massive doors and the knowledge that were they to be closed you could starve or suffocate here unheard; condemned outbuildings of weather-striated concrete, darkened by late rains, overgrown and seen through screening leaves; that low fence (you know you could climb it) in front of the sight-passing vaulted tunnel, the paled and rusting sign bearing a long since indecipherable warning, the same leaves under your feet lining the floor of the tunnel – I know the urge. I was a boy, and did not climb. I am glad others have done it, grateful that they have let me share at lens distance.

The Sleep of Reason

Introspection is impossible. There is no geometry that lets the mind fold back on itself. We can know ourselves in only two ways. If we consciously re-create and re-make ourselves, then we know who we have become, because we know who we set out to be. And we can recognize ourselves, unchanged, in someone else, or in a work of art made by another. It cannot be be your own work: even after abstracting parts of yourself, you cannot get a good look at them. A song, a story, its subject or style, becomes the mirror in which you see yourself: it is assimilated and becomes part of the mental equipment, recalled or replayed as the mind’s mirror.

In my case, it was a picture. No other image, and no other phrase, haunts me like Goya’s Capricho no. 43, El sueño de la razon produce monstruos – “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” I return to it over and over like a regretful lover to a hidden photograph. They run through my head, those words, over and over, like a strain of music, like a formula of prayer.

When I first saw it, it frightened me: I had a faith in watchful reason which I had never imagined might sleep. I was a child, so it was not me, but all I wished to be that I saw slumped on that table, and in the thronging night-gaunts overhead was all the barbarism I feared in and for the world, and all the weakness to be dragged along from without or swept away from within I feared in myself.

Very little surprised me growing up. I figured out for myself and thus cushioned with the pride of precocity that virtue could go unrewarded, merit unnoticed; good could lose to evil, books could be burned and libraries – darkness could win – love be in vain, hard work for nothing – but this I had never thought, this came as a shock: reason could sleep. Reason could be asleep and helpless.

I remember the first time I saw it, a little thing in the margin (the words illegible, the caption reproduced beneath it), and the feeling in my mind like a hand on a hot stove, and a compulsion to come to terms with it which I have yet to exhaust.

The roots of this picture have been sought in essays of Addison’s – a sub-series of The Spectator, “The Pleasures of Imagination” – and in a frontispiece to an edition of Rousseau. But I am satisfied that there was nothing in Addison’s polish or Rousseau’s petulance capable of giving on to this depth. There was not enough rope in either of them to fathom this picture.

A contemporary glossed it: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders.” It is tempting to think of reason as the directing principle which harnesses the energies of the wild unconscious. So, in many ways, it is: but you will not harness these monsters. You cannot master them; you cannot cage them; you can only wall them out, and pace the narrow streets of reason’s city forever besieged.

As a rule, I balk at efforts to betray the overall impression of a picture by a tunneling attention to its details, but I must point out that the sleeper is not under attack. The cat poised on the back of his chair, the owl on his back screeching for his attention, indicate it; the great cat seated to his left, composed, even protective, confirms it; and the owl to his right explains it. It imperiously extends to him one of his own porta-crayons. The monsters are not the issue of the sleeper’s diseased imagination; he is not their victim and not their source; they are emissaries, come to the sleeper to compel and to guide his work.

It was made as the introduction to The Caprices, but it could make for an introduction to The Disasters of War, itself an introduction to the age of nightmares to come: the trench and the machine gun, the tank and the bomber, propaganda and secret police, stage-managed orgies of hate, idols in uniforms or suits and their political cults, revolutions and purges, the atom bomb and the world for fifty years of cold war in the throne of Damocles, frenzied to forget itself.

What reason made by day – science, industry, democracy, mass culture – became by night the instruments to realize the old nightmares of the world’s ending – but worse, because the world would not end. Through the tides of blood and the overthrown cities and the sacrificed generations and the slaughterhouses of the speaking and through one anti-Christ after another – the world would not end. The sleep of reason produces monsters. And there are more dreams to come. We declared an age of reason; we left behind the dark woods; but the open sky has its own monsters our philosophy cannot name to warn us against – and what is worth watching for out here in the open is seen too late. The sleep of reason produces monsters. I do not know if it is a warning, or a curse, or a judgment.


Fanfiction is new. It is possible to find antecedents for it only by diluting the concept. The Aeneid is not fanfiction; Hamlet is not fanfiction; Paradise Lost is not fanfiction. Not even Sherlockian pastiche is fanfiction. Fanfiction has the form and the ethos of its environment, the fandom.

Why is the Aeneid not a fanfic? The gambit of raising a minor to a main character irresistibly recalls fanfiction. Aeneas is the Blaise Zabini of classical literature. But no one writes a fanfic to prove the power of their language or to glorify their sovereign. As the proof of Latin’s equality in poetic power with Greek; as the scripture of Rome’s world-conquering and law-giving destiny; as a renewal of the Roman spirit after the end of the Republic; Virgil achieved with the Aeneid what fanfiction would never dare to aim at – not because it is new, but because it is fanfiction. The Aeneid mattered to Virgil and Virgil’s age, and it is written like it matters. Fanfiction, even the best fanfiction, does not try to matter. It always means less than its model. It is secondary entertainment, something to do between volumes or seasons.

It has been argued that Shakespeare was able to dispense with introductory exposition to Hamlet because the story’s shape was already known to his audience. The story of Amlethus was old before Shakespeare, and had been dramatized before. But this was not fanfiction. Authors of fanfiction alter and re-invent as tribute and experiment, not judgment. Hamlet is better the story of Amlethus. Hamlet throws Amlethus into shadow, but a fanfic can never overtake its model.

I cannot see that Paradise Lost fulfills any instrumentally religious purpose. Whom has Milton converted to Christianity? To Protestantism? No one mines Paradise Lost for sermon texts. Paradise Lost proves the equal literary dignity of Christianity with Paganism, but no one was asking. Those who take Christianity seriously need not take literature seriously. Those who take literature seriously, but not Christianity, will not be moved to reconsider Christianity by its exposition along Homeric lines unless Homer moves them to Zeus-worship. To those who take both literature and Christianity seriously it is a delightful confirmation of their harmony, and of the worth of maintaining a balanced position. But it is after the fact.

What Milton produced was not an apology or a tract, but a statement of his own faith as a learned man, an (idiosyncratically) religious man, and a poet, who believed that these plainly good things went together and did each other good. Fanfiction makes no statements at all. It is as ephemeral as a mood; it is easily found and easily lost; and it always obeys the literary democracy of a fandom. To make statements a writer must be a despot. Nothing forbids such despotism over borrowed characters, but the result would not be fanfiction.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the first modern characters. A generation earlier his coolness and calculation would have made him a fine villain; he is modern because he is the hero. Why can’t new adventures for Sherlock Holmes be fanfiction? Many are: stories of Holmes time-traveling or displaced through time, or slashed, or crossing over into Yog-Sothothery may be fanfiction. (I think that the first Mythos story I ever encountered was a Lovecraftian Giant Rat of Sumatra.) But The Case of the Man Who was Wanted, or Rathbone’s World War II Holmes, or Edith Meiser’s radio plays, are not fanfiction: not only because they were written for profit, but also because they were written to stand alone. You could, without prior knowledge of Sherlock Holmes, go see Terror by Night or tune into Death is a Golden Arrow and come away with a sense of Sherlock Holmes. But fanfiction is written to expect knowledge of the original work. The original is less a model than a shared vocabulary of allusions (as classical mythology has been to all Western literature).

Fanfiction is not folklore. Fanfiction is democratic; folklore is the people’s. The changes of folklore are like the changes of unwritten languages and dialects. No one decrees or enforces them, but they do not express popular consent. They have their own laws which indifferently roll the masses along. Illiterate or isolated individuals cannot be truly creative because, having nothing to compare their stories to, they cannot know that they could have been different, and might be changed. There is an adventitious fanon for every fandom; but there is also a stand against plagiarism between authors of fanfiction. Writers of fanfiction observe the idea of authorship that printing formed.

The phenomenon of fanfiction says something good about the modern world. To me it seems to be rearing a generation of good readers, at once hungry and discriminating.

Most fanfiction is bad; but it is gainfully bad. It is badly constructed, badly thought out or not thought out at all. The characterization is flat or inconsistent. When the plot moves, you can see the strings. Of course. These are first attempts. These are young minds finding their legs, or old minds stretching atrophied limbs.

If they do no more than try, they still gain, and where there is a small gain for some there is gain for all. A mind that has failed in the rigor and endurance writing requires is superior to the untried but confident mind – “I could write, if I could just find the time” – because it respects what it cannot do.

But some succeed by rising steps. They begin to learn the art of writing, along with the practical, writerly side of criticism, not acquired from precepts but burned in by trial and error. This will not multiply masterpieces; they have their own law that keeps them rare. But even an apprentice or journeyman writer becomes, in literature at least, impatient with affectation and intolerant of bullshit.

Fanfiction shows that there is still blood in civilization. As it is a rude, raucous, lawless thing, as it is grotesque and rantipole, it proves that it grows in good soil. The roots it is growing may yet keep that untended soil from washing away.


Beauty is, of course, subjective. Beauty is never proved, only recognized; never earned, only achieved. No one thing is beauty. Symmetry may be beauty or boredom. Ruins may thrill or disgust. In this sense only beauty is in the eye of the beholder – it has no table of recombining elements.

Beauty is subjective, but not a matter of taste. It is always recognized, if not always enjoyed. Beauty that is to your taste is sweet; beauty revolting or exceeding your taste is disgusting; but the phenomenon is something beside taste: something is beautiful, whether it appeals to you or not, not as something is tasty, but as something is edible.

Beauty is subjective, but not a matter of taste. The experience of beauty has two parts. What is beautiful has a certain power to provoke a reaction; and that power affects us, subjectively, as beauty – or as ugliness. Classical beauty may make harmony to the eye of one, or slip like a razor on the flesh of another. Romantic beauty may demand the enthusiasm of one, and bewilder another. But no one, who is not afflicted with inattention or arrogance, is insensible to beauty. They may be unmoved, but not untouched. What can be experienced as beautiful can be experienced as ugly; what can be experienced as ugly can be experienced as beautiful. The only thing that cannot be experienced as beautiful is not what is ugly, but what is indifferent.

And beauty is always individual. Things are beautiful only when each is beautiful in and of itself. Paintings flock in museums and churches; buildings are passed on tours or captured on postcards or in photostreams; faces succeed each other in crowds, on the big screen, on the small screen; and weak habit makes us think, “That is a beautiful painting, or building, or face.” But it is only proper to say – when we trouble ourselves to mean what we say – “That painting, that building, that face, is beautiful.”

Beauty is not a religion. Beauty is not obeyed, only found or made. There is no secret law in beauty, not of art, not of music, not of face, no secret truth. Truth is always ugly to some, because it comes to the table like a fish with eyes: it does not let you forget, or take for granted. Beauty may lie or be true, but beauty has no secrets; no sanctuaries; beauty is cheap and easy as a leaf, as the patina of a wall, as the elementally fragile yet powerful machinery of the hands before you. Finding beauty is only a habit, making beauty – or drawing the attention of others to the beauty you have discovered – is but a task.

Photography has made this obvious vision, but it is true for the other senses. There are fine, subtle, beautiful sounds in the world, every day, which only compilers of sound libraries trouble to note. In nature’s surfeit of visual beauty, in leaf or cloud, we may lose ourselves as long as we wish; but a single sound, whatever pleasure or interest it brings, does not last. It required the appearance of intelligence, the songbird’s brain, to make sound another vision; and we who are born with speech, its tones and rhythms, have perfected melody with harmony and satisfied the ear with beauty not merely broad enough to become lost in, but actively transporting.

And the other senses? The chef and the perfumer concert smells and tastes (every strong smell has an element of taste). The sense of touch is more neglected, though certainly there are harmonies of physical sensation, and they are the strongest part of memory, though neglected in favor of smell because harder to recreate.

Truth may or may not be relative; honesty is absolute. Beauty is subject to confusion, has been fought over and abandoned as unwinnable, because there is no distinction in aesthetics parallel to that of truth and honesty. It is obvious that one may be honestly wrong; but our vocabulary only gives us a contradiction, not a distinction, when we say that something is beautifully ugly or ugly-beautiful.

Sometimes critics borrow the word and call a work of art honest. But they mean honest in the sense that has to do with truth. This confuses the question, by entangling aesthetics with concerns not its own. We hear the word honest and create a standard of judgment for art based on truthfulness – which, by subjecting beauty to truth, becomes the straight road to dishonesty in the aesthetic sense.

The honestly ugly, or the dishonestly ugly, does not correspond to the acquired taste or the personally distasteful. Guqin music, for example, is very beautiful and very hard on Western minds; gamelan music on Western ears. That is not what I mean; that is something outside my experience, a distant speciality, an unmapped land. I can no more like or dislike it, on the first encounter, than some newly discovered alien race or planet. My reaction to it is only the index of my attitude toward any novelty.

The eye for beauty, we discover in the training of the artist, is capable of indefinite refinement. With sufficient discrimination anything, it would appear, may be found beautiful; with sufficient skill anything may be presented so as to appear beautiful. Ruskin to the drawing student: “In general, everything that you think very ugly will be good for you to draw.”

Still, we are revolted by the idea that everything is beautiful. The problem of aesthetics resembles the problem of theodicy. We are revolted by the idea of beauty everywhere as we are revolted by the idea that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Any serious venture in theodicy begins with Anselm’s observation that given that all things are good, and pursue their own good, it is not therefore necessary that all the goods they pursue are compatible. It may be found likewise with beauty.

In experience not all beauty is compatible: city or wild wood or desert, sun or night. It is the same with taste. The slightest preference in taste, conceived innately, implanted by education, or arrived at arbitrarily, by placing one beauty before another, creates the perception and the fact of ugliness in the beauty it casts into shadow. To see beauty here is to see ugliness there; to love this beauty is to hate that ugliness. This is not naivety. We must choose among kinds of beauty, as we much choose among kinds of good. If we cannot choose which kinds of good are our own, and where we stand, if we cannot say that this kinds of good is more important than that one, we end as cowards. And there is a like quality, another courage, conditional to aesthetic experience. Everywhere, always, in everything – we must choose.

We sink; sinking, we enter the sea. The sea is the model and measure of all beauty. It would be no loss to take beauty as another name for the sea, beautiful for sea-like or sea-recalling. It is not that every beauty is first the sea’s. Its waves’ rhythm is not the origin of music. Its wave-jagged reflections are not the first images. Not everything is beautiful which comes from the sea, nor is everything made beautiful which goes into the sea. But the love of beauty is the same as the love of the sea. There is no love of or experience of beauty which does not begin in or come to sea – or at least, unknowing, to a space for the unmet sea. If beauty is the Creator’s concern, the sea embodies it; if beauty is an adapted and adaptive instrument of life, the sea taught it. Aesthetics is not a subject for philosophical debate, sociobiological fantasy, or critical caviling or febrility. The sea is not the answer to every problem of aesthetics. But as there is a scientific method where the answer is not nature but the way to the answer is go to nature – so I would instore an aesthetic method: go to the sea.