The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Violent Snow

When I heard that snow was in the forecast here, I sneered. Something called snow has been seen here: early in the morning, dusted like frost on the fields, white blots in shallow puddle-basins.

Nature has instructed my disdain.

I woke to look out on a white world, a white weird and awful as the white hand of Moses. Snow lay thick on the roof, thick on branches, thick on evergreen leaves. Snow had inverted the forest: straight-trunked trees that reach branches up to the sun, instead lay them down along their sides, like fronds of Christmas trees; titan limbs of spreading live oaks that float twenty feet in the air, strong as iron and thick as pillars, curved under the weight of the snow loading their leaves until they arched against the ground.

And the snow was still falling: wet, heavy snow, good snow for snowmen and snowballs, falling so fast and thick that I could hear it. I cannot compare the sound. And faintly, from deep in the woods, came another sound like hunters’ guns or holiday fireworks – the first cracks of breaking branches.

My last snow fell ten years ago: weeks of etherealizing snow on the Pine Barrens, another country with other pines and other oaks, a slow, thin, steady fall like the gradual deposition of a pearl, and still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Snow in Louisiana: I had to see it for myself. So I put on a helmet, grabbed a camera, and walked out, listening for snapping branches, stepping over branches I knew only from beneath, over ranks of hedges that lay prone as young sleepers after long days.

Along the way, in the shelter of the Quonset hut, I looked back into the woods and saw – too fast to watch – a 60 foot tree (it must have been long dead) simply slide three lengths past one another and disappear like a closing telescope.

Beyond the Quonset hut, the field – white, empty, white. And from the field, back to the house, where disaster had arrived. I lost the stomach for pictures. Each casualty was the same: first, the fatal shot; then, as if in shame of defeat, the slough that sends up a white lace veil; last, so many tons of wood swing or plummet almost silently into the muffling snow.

It went on for hours, snow piling impossibly on the green leaves. It was good snow for snowmen: the snow made its own snowmen over the leaves, half-formed homuncular snowmen, snowmen without faces.

Hour after hour I watched a day’s snowfall work so much destruction that a human lifetime will not see it all repaired. As after hurricanes, the debris will go, and the summer’s growth of leaves will hide the rest. They hide much. The forest grows; wind and now snow destroy; and I do not know anymore which is winning.

Three days later, it was warm enough to breed mosquitoes. Ten days later, winter was declared.


The only virtue worth teaching is to acknowledge mistakes without shame and correct them without perversity. If a vice is worth avoiding because it is dangerous, then in time it must manifest as a mistake; so that what is worth teaching is that if your mistake is pointed out to you, you should take it as a favor; and that the only shame in a mistake is loyalty to it.

To acknowledge a mistake is not the same as to reflect on it. Sometimes, when you have taken on a serious responsibility and made a mistake with irreparable harm, then you should be asked – you should ask yourself – what went wrong. But, for most mistakes, to reflect on the mistake is to compound it. Inevitably, if you do many things, you will make many mistakes. If you do few things, you will make few mistakes. But only if you do nothing will you make no mistakes.

The most demoralizing condition possible is capricious punishment. There is more cruelty in mild punishment for no reason than in the harshest punishment for clear reason. Such punishment, if sustained, is too horrible even to rouse the will to die.

To look for hidden faults to blame for the statistically inevitable is to punish yourself with such random cruelty. And even when a mistake is the consequence of a remediable fault, self-reflection is the worst way to discover it. Self-reflection is hard; so hard that, after the difficulty of the inquiry, only a dramatic answer seems plausible, and you diagnose as depravity what was due to indigestion.

The virtue of acknowledging mistakes must be instilled, because it is difficult to acquire. It slows the development of a sense of identity; the contempt for the corrections you receive from certain kinds of people is one of the ways you distinguish yourself from them. And it is probably impossible for an unpracticed adult to acquire – impossible for an adult to face, too late, that what had seemed to be the limits set by nature were only the limits set by pride.

This virtue is so rare, and so unreliable even in those who sometimes have it, that you may ask if it is worth having at all. Can it really be good – even if it is right, can it really be wise – to be without shame among those who blame you? And though this virtue removes self-set limits, it may cost you time making slow progress where your talents do not lie – time you could have saved if you had, at the difficult outset, simply chosen pride in your incompetence.

Yet I believe it is a virtue; the more so because, like all virtues, it can be immoderate. A little uncertainty about your nature saves you from overspecialization and obsolescence; a little time wasted in spreading your roots, saves you from exhausting the soil.

Nondefinition #29

Eer. A bodiless, malevolent supernatural being. The eer must not be confused with the ghost: a ghost is a remnant of a human being; an eer never was alive. Formerly, cities were inhabited weirdly by ghosts; but since the beginning of urban sprawl, deprived of their natural habitats in wastes, wilds, and deserts, eers have become common in cities, where their prolific breeding has displaced the native population of ghosts. Many young people today have never experienced a real ghostly whisper or flicker in the corner of the eye; sadly, they take it for granted that all silence and dimness is eerie.

A Memory of Infancy

I believe that anything can be said. There are always words, if not always the strength to find and use them. Anything that can be experienced can be communicated. Communication from one mind to another cannot be perfect; but it can at least match the imperfect communication by way of memory between yourself then and yourself now.

This is a test case. I have what seems to be a memory of infancy. I do not insist that it is true; it could be a neurological glitch. Nonetheless, it is an interesting problem of expression.

I call it a memory, but I cannot remember it directly: I must remember being 11 remembering being 6 remembering. Eventually this chain must slip away from me; that it another reason to write it down.

I call it a memory because I have access to it by remembering, but it is not like other memories. It is smooth, hard, incapable of subdivision. It contains no data. In itself it is more of a feeling than a memory – as if at that stage the faculty of feeling supports not broad, generic emotions, but discrete pegs of experience. When I remember, the memory is not retrieved; it comes over me, I feel it as if I were feeling an emotion.

The senses are not distinct. They do not blend; there is no cacophony or synesthesia; instead, the senses are one – one unitary sensation that is not processed as sight or hearing or touch or smell, but absorbed as emotion. This one sense subordinates not only the usual five, but also proprioception – awareness of the position of your own body. There is a quality to the memory like marshmallowiness – an association, not a translation – that I think is the best my adult brain can do in rendering an experience recorded by such an alien scheme of proportions and powers.

Something happens – something unpleasant. My best guess is that I am receiving an injection. The memory somewhat resembles the nauseating feeling of a needle under the skin, but magnified until – fleetingly – it becomes my entire experience of the world and myself.

World and self are not distinct. Because no such concept as control yet exists, I have no way to tell what I can control – myself – from what I cannot control – world. I do not experience the world as part of myself; I do not experience self; I just experience. Note that while this is an unpleasant memory, the distinction in an adult between something bad that happens to you (with anger, indignation, or fear) and something bad you do without meaning to (with embarrassment, shame, regret and uncertainty) – this distinction is absent. The simple unpleasantness of something bad happening here compasses both – though, without future, I am without fear or uncertainty.

In this alien being that I was, I recognize only one thing.

Imagine that you have just begun to study something very interesting, but which you know nothing about. You throw yourself into it. You learn fast, getting your bearings, absorbing the terms of art, feeling out the areas of concern. It is like hunger – better, it is like a stomach: a void with agency, asserting its need.

This, infinitely amplified, is what I recognize: the absolute ravenous void where words would be.

Nondefinition #28

Guitar. The occult instrument: not played, but addressed with secret hand-signs, transient hieroglyphs of a Mystery whose hieratic rites are carried out before audiences; one hand for Apollo, quiet, smooth, rapid, precise; and one hand for Dionysus, simple, restless, free and frantic; and the whole portable, companionable as a familiar, the conjurer’s circle wherein the shade of the ideal orchestra is called up and given voice to tell its secret.

Music and Meaning

Can music have meaning? Certainly, meaning can always be found in music – one piece of music and the traveler hears home, the lover hears the beloved, the believer hears God – but can a piece of music bear meaning as an act of communication?

Keys, intervals, and chords are often thought of as ideas in themselves. Major is happy, minor is sad. The second menaces, the sixth regrets. The suspension promises, the dominant delivers. But the rules hold only for the simplest examples. A composer can always make the key serve the occasion; a performer can do the same for the composer. When we hear a familiar piece in an unfamiliar key – say, when an aging singer changes the key of a song to ease their voice – it troubles us at first; but we get used to it, and after a few hearings all our original associations pass over into the new key intact.

Time and use have made certain pieces of music the bearers of specific meanings; but if we listen naively, the meanings disappear. The motive of Beethoven’s 5th has come to represent strength, right, V for victory; but if we say that Beethoven put all that into four notes, then we must say that Samuel Morse put it into three dots and a dash.

Yet it is absurd to say that music is without meaning – that it is mere surface – that what we see in it are only reflections on its polish. Music comes to you without message or meaning; but once you have supplied the message, there should be no room for others. A piece of music should work on its message like a table of derivations works on a root in a Semitic language. We are not told what the deed is; we are told: here is the doer, here is the manner, the means, here is the beginning of it, the end, the reasoning, the result, here is the place the thing was done, and who it was done to. (A strange analogy, yes; but consider the sometimes almost musical ambiguity of the ancient Semitic languages.)

No human being can experience every emotion equally; yet any competent musician can play a piece of music with any emotion, even one the musician has never experienced. The lack of experience can even make for a better performance, if it keeps the performer out of the way. How, then, can we call playing music the expression of emotion? It is first a means of experiencing emotions. The same can be true for listeners. A sad song can sadden you without matching your own experiences. Why listen to sad songs when you are sad? Because the sadness you feel from sad music is not your own sadness, but a borrowed sadness that covers your own.

Music is not the only means of emotional education and exercise, but it is the most effective, being the most efficient and the most accessible. Music goes ahead of the other arts, the lullaby that greets us almost as soon as we enter the world. The other arts reach the mind later, and rely on the capacities that music has formed.

And I suspect that among the arts, music serves to absorb the extreme of aestheticism. In the unmusical aestheticism can become immoderate and paralyzing, as if they do not know where to stop in their attempt to imitate or rival musical sophistication, even to the injury of what is particularly their art’s own.

As music became easier to hear, all the arts adopted simplicity as their goal: as if the desire for the pleasures of sophistication were limited, and as it finds sophistication in music, it finds satiety.

Consider music in movies. I do not know how much I am ruled by habit in finding it natural. Perhaps in a hundred years a scene ending in swelling music while lovers kiss will seem as artificial as a scene ending with a rhyming couplet and a falling curtain. Exeunt audience. But to me it seems that the movie depends more on the music than the music depends on the movie. Silent film, of course, was never silent, only voiceless. Music videos are watchable without plot or character. Many movies – especially if they propose to represent real life – have plots that would, told over a dinner table, only provoke laughter; characters, if they were real, we would prefer not to know. Far from being ennobled by their projected stature, it is only by the artifice of music that such stories gain watchable significance. As literature, movies are less flexible than narrative: the stories of superheroes and salesmen must be told alike by one camera at a time in one place at a time following one act at a time in a box of the same size over the same amount of time. Music smooths out the disparities when a salesman fills the screen like a superhero and a superhero declaims like a salesman.

Information theory defines the unit of communication as a single decision: a bit of information is exactly enough to decide one Yes or No. In this sense, music is meaningless. It contains no information except itself. Yet it has something very close to meaning: it cannot tell you how to answer, but it can force you to come to an answer. The screen tells you the man is a villain; the music makes you hate him. The song tells you how he did her wrong; the music puts you on her side. Judgment can be withheld only in silence; music decides nothing, but it forces the decision.

Nondefinition #27

Wallet. “In the time of the first Pax Americana,” – saith the chronicler, but who believes the old stories? – “every man of age was required to carry at all times a scrap of cow-leather in a fold in the cloth of his garments; and except that he showed this Wallet on demand, no merchant would sell to him, and a judge might throw him in jail only because he was without his Wallet. The word comes from the old wall, for the sides of a room; and this because each Wallet was like a key to the Wall, wherein law-abiders dwell.”


It is as difficult to say what guesswork is as to say what the mind is. Guessing is not the action of any faculty of the mind; it is the only action of the whole mind. There are no exercises or studies to train guesswork; the quality of the guess is the quality of the guesser. There are no abstract objects for guesswork to practice on – in any formal test, the answers where the mind is most used are the ones that are guessed at. Only in your guesses do you transcend the test, having in mind not only the subject matter but also the context of the test, weighing the character and reconstructing the thoughts of its makers, estimating your limits, knowing yourself and knowing the way of the world.

A good guess is sibling to a good idea. Both trade risk for reward, certainty for power. To guess is often the only way to know something that others do not. A bad guess is always wrong; but that one guess is some sense better than another also good does not mean it is more likely to be true. Reality is recalcitrant and perverse. Reality has punished for laziness, and punished for effort; punished for absurdity, and punished for plausibility; punished for optimism, and punished for pessimism – and, of course, it has rewarded each. There are no rules for guessing: we cannot guess with less than all our strength.

Nondefinition #26

Alchemists. To alchemists, fools and frauds, we owe the glorious and world-changing science of chemistry. No one could have invented chemistry on purpose; the wonders we expect from it daily were never unattainable, only unthinkable – except at the miraculous hands of the saints. It had to be stumbled on; we had to overreach to measure our grasp. We are proud of our sciences, and rightly so; but if there are sciences we have not yet imagined, they will not be born in the laboratories and institutes; look, rather, to the workshops and retreats, the lectures, the hyphenated works, to California; look to where the fools and frauds are steadily conceiving new ambitions.

Verbal Thinking

There is nothing more familiar than language without thought. Why not thought without language? Language, thought; thought, language; where is the division between them?

For example: when one word recalls others of similar meaning or sound, the triggering word need not occur consciously. Often things I see and do bring to mind other things which sound like the names of these sights or actions, or which occur together with those names – even in contexts where the name of the thing is equivocal and means something else.

This could, of course, be explained as an instance in which words function as things, within a thought in itself nonverbal. That is not so strange; it must happen in writing poetry. But if we adopt this explanation, where do we stop? We could do away with the notion of specifically verbal thinking altogether; which is absurd. We know about things we have no experience of beside hearing their names. If we dismiss these as thoughts about reports, we must explain how our knowledge holds when we see for ourselves, and experience replaces hearsay.

There are forms of thinking prior to language – animals think – and there are forms of human thought in which language is not only unnecessary, but a hindrance. Efficient mental calculation requires the omission of intervening words, even times and equals, instead hearing only numbers and rendering a result by a process that feels less like reckoning than recognition. You draw best what you cannot name, or by putting aside the name while you draw. In any game, or any system of rules yielding winners and losers, though words are of use beforehand in study and planning, they distract when you come to it – not because they are slow or awkward, but because they involve too much. Words, by which we compass the world, always drag the world in; but to play the game well, you must enworld yourself in it. To play with words in your head keeps the rules from sinking in, knocks your thoughts off the rails. Suddenly you think of the game itself, its origin, use, nature; the wording of the rules, the form of the strategies – how they resemble stratagems of nature or the stratagems of other games. And in the meantime you have lost.

This kind of thinking cannot help you win by rule: the only use of words in games is in cheating. And this is good. Intelligence is for cheating. We cannot win any of nature’s games by nature’s rules. We are not strong enough, not fast enough. We are too big to hide and too small to shake off attack. But we can change the rules: levers for strength; shoes, boats, tame horses for speed; blinds and camouflage for hiding; walls and armor for bulk. All invention is cheating; and cheating is made possible by language.

Some animals, of course, can cheat – chimpanzees, dolphins, ravens – the list is long and growing. Some of these cheats are ambiguous – complex acts, yes, but only very complex moves within the rules. Yet some are cheaters for sure. If they are cheaters, does that mean they have language?

There may be a kind of thinking in between nonverbal thought and language which is not (in the old phrase) sub-vocalized speech, but sub-verbal language; language without words.

Language is how we step outside the rules, how we recognize rules as being only rules, there to be broken. All this step requires is a faculty of association. In human beings this faculty is untyped, consistent, and social.

By “untyped” I mean that we can associate things without logical connection: when we say the sky is angry, we do not mean sky:?::person:anger nor the change in the appearance of the sky is isomorphic to the change in the appearance of a person becoming angry. We are simply associating the ideas sky and angry.

Intelligent animals are intelligent because they are capable of untyped association. A chimpanzee that fishes for ants with a stick has an association between ant and stick, but there is no thought in this process corresponding to tool. Having an association between ant and stick, he tries to keep them both in mind, to direct his attention to both at once – which means, for a forgetful animal, first that he picks up the stick and stays near the anthill; then that he touches them together. The stick and the anthill have limited affordance; the chimpanzee need only keep the association in mind to have a stick covered with delicious ants.

Untyped associations are illogical; so if untyped association is a necessity of thought, then so is illogic. We retain a naive habit of thinking of logic as a function of intelligence; but living the age of the computer, we have no excuse for this mistake. Logic is embedded in nature: transistors and electrons, chutes and marbles, can reason. Nothing is illogical; but only the highest complexity can simulate illogic.

That is one out of three for animals. The other two – consistency and sociality – are only ours. Any idea is an act of differentiation of the chaos of experience. When I say stick I isolate a segment of a continuum that runs from splinter and sliver through branch to tree and forest. And sticks are always sticks to me. So when I say that a monkey picks up a stick, I impute to the chimpanzee’s thought a quality of my own thought – the stability of stickness. But the chimpanzee’s thought may in this instance be closer to tree, and the stick he ends up with the limit of what his strength and dexterity could manage. Or he might have been thinking closer to branch, and again been defeated; or to splinter, and been unable to break the wood; or just of wood, and picked up the stick off the forest floor. On each occasion that I observe him with a stick his thought of what he carries may be anywhere on that continuum.

If his association has no stability, he cannot teach another monkey what a stick is, because he cannot, as we can, associate two consistent ideas – one that must be named (stick), and one that names itself (the sound stick) – so that another can imitate the association. Thus his associations are not transferable – they may be imitated in a broad sense, but the ideas associated to the same result may not match up at all.

Some of the above is probably reinvention. And certainly all of this could be formulated more precisely. I take the risk because I know of no work on the continuity of human and animal thought but arguments about whether there could be continuity – never what the nature of that continuity might be.

Nondefinition #25

Relativity. Time (said some fool) is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. Relativity, to the contrary, demonstrates that for anything to happen, there must be a perspective from which everything happens at once; and, conversely, that no two things actually happen at the same time, except as they happen to someone or something. If something has happened, then everything has already happened, and nothing has happened yet. If that confuses you, wait: it will make sense in time. It already has.

On a Television Advertisement for the City of Dubai

Only build.
Build higher and farther.
Build wilder and larger.
Build where never built before
Build with ruins under floor.
The city cannot wait, the roads are true
Their word runs everywhere, they run for you.
Where have you seen the spot where buildings cannot dwell?
The domes are in the mountains, the divers ride the bell.
Build while strength is left for building, build while time is left to build
Built atop the sunken city, build atop the land you filled.
Cities are everywhere rising, a fable instructive for anthills
Builders by summer and winter in sunshine or darkness our light fills.
See by the shores of the desert how cities are built by a gesture,
 Cities of pliable steel, cities that open like eyes,
Pillarless cities that spill out shaken like billowing carpets
 Sudden as breaker or dune, clouds of an overturned sky.
Too many cities have slow-grown only to perish in torment
Overturned cities, their names told counting the promise of judgment.
Cast up cities thin as cloth or canvas, anchored for the day
Sheathe your towers under glass as sails to set you underway.
No city wakes in silence when city never sleeps;
No harvest fails the city where city never reaps.
Who builds anew and never looks behind
Keeps safe from all that’s out of sight and mind.
To find the way we build it first.
The water follows on our thirst.
We build to trap the day;
The night we wall away.
Build stronger and taller
Build nearer and smaller.
Only build.

Three Horror Stories


“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Sounded like somebody down there calling for help.”

“There’s nobody down there. The dogs went through last week. They sealed the tunnels after that.”

“Yeah, but this seal’s not tight. The storm worked it loose. It was cold last night. Somebody could have slipped in.”

“I don’t hear a damn thing. It’s just wind getting in somewhere. The seals are loose, like you said. If you want to keep your job, just get over there and press the damn button. We’re running a day late already. We’ve got to get these tunnels filled in.”


“Did you find it, daddy?”

“Find what, little one?”

“Did you find the monster in the basement?”

“Of course. I was looking for the monster. There’s no such thing as monsters, little one.”

“But I saw it daddy, I know I did! Why are you standing out there, daddy? Come in here where I can see you.”


“Thanks for coming so quickly.”

“No problem. Somebody told me you were, like, doing medical experiments or something for cash? So, I mean, what’s that like?”

“Well. Pain, humiliation, sometimes I could hardly get out of bed for weeks, sometimes I thought I’d go crazy. A lot like the office, actually.”

“So how much did you make?”

“I went in for something off the books. Set me up for life.”

“What’d they do to you? I mean, you even kinda look different.”

“Oh, nothing much. Did some funny things to my appetite.”

“So where are we going? I’m hungry. We going out?”

“I just ordered in.”

Nondefinition #24

Lighthouse. They built the lighthouse where no ships came. Later, they lied to their children – told them that the ships had come first. They chose not to think about how sometimes the spices from the ships needed names, the hides needed scaling, the dolls needed pruning. So they prospered in their lie, until a storm broke the lighthouse. Only its coiled iron stairs remained. The warehouses emptied, and still the ships did not come. So the old men told the young men, who had been children, how they had lied. Some fled; some stayed, and helped rebuild. The sea has long since moved away. In the tower, where once was a lamp, now are bells. But whether the god came first, or the bells, no worshiper now remembers.


Forests have personalities, different as their different attitudes toward human beings. I feel now the weary indifference of the Great Piney Woods; I remember well the young daring malevolence of the Pine Barrens. City Park of New Orleans, like its city and people, drives deep roots into unfaithful soil. These three are forests I know well. I could mention other forests, but I defer to those who know them better.

By personality I do not mean the mood that a forest gives you. The personality of a forest, though not an embodied or predictable quality, can be correlated with the forest that has it, as the personality of a building can be correlated with its architecture, through plans cannot foretell it and architects cannot make it to order.

Trees make up a forest, and the forest conceals its trees; so the forest is an act of concealment. And the forest conceals more than trees. The forest is full of things that jump and climb, squirrels and woodrats, and claws and teeth to hunt them. The forest provides for things which must hide at times: a hole for the bear’s hibernation; noon twilight for the owl’s delicate, instrumental eyes. We name forests for the kinds of trees which conceal them; we know forests by what they can conceal. Tall, straight firs that keep their needles about their trunks hide little, have little to hide, are friendly. All the forests of the American South are full of the memories of ambuscades and bushwhackers. What could tell of the forests of Europe, better than that their field neighbors could believe whole covens to hold there unheard? That in imagination wolves moved there not in packs, but in armies? The Pine Barrens conceal ghost towns well, and what night visitors leave there better. And it is easy to believe the report of Goodman Brown (or Lovecraft) of the forests of New England.

Since a forest is distinguished by its kind of secrets, it is not easy to get to know a forest. They are all very skilled in dissembling with spies. They must be courted, with conscious attention and curious patience. What is there by way of personality is not perceptible to all; but though it cannot be pointed to, it is not imaginary. Secrecy is the negative image of language; when we keep secrets, we speak in silence. In this shadow language forests speak, teaching by omission.

Nondefinition #23

These days. These days, in our culture, it is generally agreed that (in most cases) in our society, for us today, we can certainly say that, from a modern perspective – as studies have shown – everyone knows, as a matter of common sense – even the other side must see it by now – that anyone who looks into the problem (and this is well-known) has grasped the obvious. It’s a matter of record. Also note that polls have shown that most people, across all backgrounds, know very well (whatever they may say) that it’s as plain as day. If you can believe that, what’s next? I hate to be alarmist, but the sad fact is that, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, at this moment, facing a crisis (somebody has to say it) we need to understand what we’re up against. The fact of the matter, and I hate to have to say this, is that what is comes down to, in our culture, is that in the end that’s what we have to learn to live with in our society these days.

The Twentieth Century

The idol is made of steel. The idol has no face: no mouth to explain, no ears to heed, no nostrils to stink in, and no eyes to witness.

The idol has two hands: a hand of bright steel, and a hand of dull steel.

In the bright hand of the idol is a key. All around the bright hand are the tokens of pilgrims who leave what the power of the idol has opened at their prayers: which are locks, bars, doors, gates, fetters, and chains.

In the dull hand of the idol – what is in the dull hand of the idol? The dull hand of the idol is tight shut. Around the closed fist of the dull hand are the tokens of penitents willing and unwilling: which are empty things (the dull hand only takes): bottles, boxes, chairs, beds, shoes.

They tell stories of the idol. They say the idol came from afar. Everywhere, it came from afar. It came from afar with two hands. It came loudly, without fear and without shame, and it touched everything.

What it touched with its bright hand that holds a key, was opened. The bright hand opened the bonds older gods left as they fled before the steel god. The bright hand opened the cell of night; opened the house of sickness; opened the prison of birth; opened the pit of ignorance; opened the veil of lies.

What it touched with its dull hand that is closed, was taken away. It touched the cleanness of the height and the quiet of the deep; it touched the peace of the valley and the pride of the peak; it touched the hope of the beggar and the pity of the rich man. It touched the dreams of dreamers, and the pride of makers. And lastly it touched cities, and countries, and nations, and it took them away.

This god has two hands – a bright hand that opens and a dull hand that takes away; but this god, who is blind, deaf, and dumb, does not know which hand is which.

What shall become of the steel idol, stories do not agree. Some say it is already dead; it is already rusting within; someday it will fall in on itself; the power that draws pilgrims and penitents is but an ember in ash. Some say it is resting; someday it will rise to touch and end the world – but they do not agree whether it will end the world with the opening touch of its bright hand, or the taking touch of its dull hand. Some say it has already sown the end of the world, and only awaits a harvest. Some say it is old and ashamed, so before it dies it will join hands and restore all it has taken; and some say it is old and ashamed, so before it dies it will join hands and close all it has opened. Some say it is lonely, and awaits another of its kind.

And some few even whisper: it shall not die. Into the soil it rests on it is driving roots.

Nondefinition #22

Shoehorns. A small strip of metal used to force feet into too-small shoes. Here is a device whose near-ubiquity tells you something basic and easy to overlook about the past. Look at old pictures and the looks on people’s faces and think: shoehorns. Look at old news and the things people said and did and voted for and think: shoehorns. The next time something about the twentieth century perplexes you, ask yourself: if I had to start every day of my life by levering my feet into stiff, hard-soled shoes, might I be as crazy?


Stevenson, somewhere, warns an aspiring writer to consider the unimportance of literature – particularly how little the world would change, had Shakespeare never lived. But this is wrong. Certainly, Shakespeare moved no great historical forces. If you can be convinced that history is a script, a set of roles to be filled – then you must allow Stevenson’s doubt.

But if an individual can have any effect on history, however subtle, then Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere. For if we remove Shakespeare, then, five centuries later, we have a different human race. Restore life to every soldier Harry’s speech inspired to heroism; take back every life the soldier saved. Take back the child of every pair of lovers brought together when the love suicides at Verona made a young man seek his Juliet, a young lady her Romeo. Take back every life that stayed to make the choice to be or not to be.

Go on with the rest of literature. All those soldiers who fell to fall like Achilles, all those poets who died to die like Werther; all who wandering with a book in hand found strange mothers for their children; even whom a shared admiration for a writer offered friendship and friendship became love. Go back to the beginning, back to folk tales and fireside legends; repeal poetry altogether and see how each woman’s love, with no better occasion than strength or success, breeds brutal children whose loves and lives are yet more brutal, and so on all the way down.

That literature mostly occupies idle time does not make our choice in literature vain choice: we get only a fixed measure of time, and whatever changes how we use any of that time, changes what we leave behind us. When we work, our work is in and for the present; what we aim for when we work for the future is a necessary delusion, not the true future but the present’s mirage of the future. The true future grows in our leisure.

This is literature’s unique power, which other arts only employ. It is not the musician they fall for, but the literary characters Music, and the Musician; not the flag they die for, but the Flag, the Nation, that someone once defined in telling.

If we could know the minds that went with the names, we would see that genealogy is a transcription of literature; that the human race we know has not merely happened, but has bred itself in a prolonged act of literary criticism.

Nondefinition #21

Acronyms. Once: a proud technical civilization with an awkwardly written language, which solved the problem by resort to acronyms and abbreviations. Near the end, did some sage warn how many the acronyms had become? How they were combining to breed new acronyms? Even as they prepared for their greatest triumph, their language had become utterly confused. None were found now who knew all the acronyms of another. They scattered abroad, forming peoples who shared just enough acronyms to begin to form a basic common vocabulary. Abandoned and untended, Atlantis fell. Some of these groups are known to us: Proto-Indo-Europeans, for example, or Hamito-Semites, or Sino-Tibetans.

Fable of the Mayor

This island was no island: it had been a hill in the park before the flood. It was so small and brambly that the man there could not even pace. He loosened his tie and stared over the floating wreckage, searching for a boat or a helicopter. Surely someone was coming. He had picked this spot as the safest in the city on the very day he vetoed the appropriation for a new floodwall.

He was free, now. All the evidence was gone: no paper trail for the prosecutor, no assets in his name for his wife’s lawyers to seize. He was like Noah on Ararat: when he came down from the mountain, all his problems would be gone.

He leaned back against the tangled branches, soft and creaking, thick and restful as a cradle here. He lit a cigarette, dragged, and threw the match onto the water. It landed with a hiss.

There was just enough time, before pain erased all thought, for him to notice that one of the things which had risen from the drowned city to float around his little island, was an oil slick.

Moral: A betrayer can never relax.

Nondefinition #20

Ball bearings. What is the power in perfection? A perfect day, not much better than a good day, justifies a life; a perfect face, not much better than a good face, launches a thousand ships; and a perfect little metal sphere, not much rounder than a toy marble, allows us to remake the world. If we can but learn to make a perfect sphere of hydrogen, rounder than round by an invisible increment, we can have our power from tame stars. Sometimes striving for perfection is foolish, the enemy of the good; but perfection itself should not be despised – when the key fits, doors open.

Blink Comparator

In the days before computers, when the possibility of intellectual achievement presupposed infinite tolerance for drudgery, the blink comparator was a machine used in astronomy.

Two photographic plates – negative images of successive telescopic views of the same region of space – were inserted into the machine.

An astronomer would sit before the machine, watching carefully – watching with absolute attention – while the machine flicked back and forth between the two images. The rapid alternation of the images, like frames in a movie, gave any change the appearance of motion. This was much easier than looking back and forth; but still, it must have been very hard. No one, not the fussiest and most fanatical director who ever worked, has ever watched a moment of film so intently as did those astronomers who, once upon a time, watched the dots and the blots cycle in a blink comparator.

It was by use of the blink comparator that Pluto was discovered. The demotion of Pluto makes the blink comparator less historically important; yet it makes it more wonderful. In the last decade we have found that Pluto is only one among many dwarf planets circling the periphery of the solar system. Again, we have learned this in the last decade. But it was in 1930 that Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto with a blink comparator – a discovery made 80 years ahead of its time by the surpassingly skillful use of a surpassingly difficult instrument.

Obsolete instruments often live on in metaphors. (Only amateur astronomers put eye to telescope.) The blink comparator deserves such a metaphorical legacy. What does the mind lack more than this facility? In reaching for memory we lose perception; in attending to perception we let go of memory – though each is useless, except when set in contrast with the other. We must plod to present choices to our judgment – we concentrate on one choice only by neglecting the other; in reconsidering the first, we lose the second.

But the blink comparator is not only a metaphor of aspiration. There are moments in life that come as if through such a device: moments when the past somehow overlays the present, when you are at once who you are, and who you were, and some third who sees both at once; moments when the present is weaker and less believable than the past. Such a moment is mourning, when you are at once still the person you were before your loss, and the person you must become now, and some third who sees and guides the change.

These the moments when the sense of mystery in life is strongest: when something new and nameless is seen to move, and in the dark of the room the astronomer knows the poet’s wild surmise.

Nondefinition #19

Scarecrows. Surely scarecrows should have a larger place in psychology. At times they have been the most common and accessible form of sculpture, a distinct branch of folk artistry. Besides their origin, consider their purpose: they are mankind’s most honest self-portrait, being made not for human eyes with intention to influence or impress, but for animal eyes with intention to seem human as they judge what that is. Is this really what we think of ourselves? Slouched, awkward, attired in rags and tatters (changing our posture and dress from time to time to keep our enemies from getting used to us), always on the point of falling apart, alone, silent, exposed to sun and rain; yet still standing, still guarding something worth guarding.

Eclecticism 4/4

We who live are the best posterity that time has ever found. We gather everything that the past has left us, and we keep it alive. We are the heirs of the great decipherments; what was silent to shepherds who sheltered and pilgrims who wondered, speaks to us. We have the rites of Egypt and the liturgies of Babylon in Dover editions. Ours is the shore where all the bottled messages wash up.

We are the restorers, the would-be resurrectors. We set aside whole towns as temples to the past. What workman, caring for his tools, had ever thought that 100 years on someone might want to use them for pleasure’s sake; that a 1000 years on, someone might copy them, to do his work just as he did it, save not in labor? Yet in Williamsburg or Guédelon this has come to pass. How little has been lost! There are among us who can knap flints, write Latin poetry, command cavalry, duel, dress a dandy, build a steam engine. Old sleeping gods have found new life in new worshipers; and the names of lost nations return after parturition as the names of states. What was painted in cramped cave dark before man had dominion rises on billboards over cities of steel and unsetting day.

But the past cannot thank us.

Our time has its stuff from the past, yet it has no past; it has its justification from the future, yet it has no future.

It has no past because it has too many pasts. Our scholarship is so deep, our science is so subtle, our archives are so long, that we can have the past without history. We can understand an age, not through its successors, but as it understood itself.

But that secondary understanding is neither noise to filter nor hearsay to disregard. When one age arrives, it defines itself by how it understands its predecessor. By understanding each age directly, we lose the meaning of that understanding. We can meaningfully regard the Middle Ages as a fog of superstition and hair-splitting that the light of the Renaissance lifted; we can meaningfully regard the Renaissance as an access of vandalism that tore down the edifice built up by Augustine and Aquinas, which like its architecture only seemed dark from without, but within was all light. But we cannot meaningfully accept that both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance incarnated reason. To do so would empty meaning from the idea of reason.

With the computer, technology has known irony. The screen, which seemed once the very promise and sign of the future, has turned out to look only into the past and present. The screen transcends distance: it brings the past to the present, and it brings the far of the present near. But it cannot span the distance of the future. We must either rely on ourselves to see the future, or forget that it is to come.

Observe the decline of science fiction. I say decline reluctantly; much is still being written that satisfies both in quality of storytelling and audacity of imagination. But excepting some outcroppings of cyberpunk, mainstream visions of the future are recombinations of ideas older than the people who make them. Forty years of technological development have principally influenced science fiction by providing it with better special effects. The excuse is a bad one. “Technology is moving too fast, our predictions will seem silly.” The risk of silliness is the entry fee to thinking about the future. What has changed it that this fear of a misstep has become paralyzing; that we have become so disused to thinking about what is to come that the only future we can imagine is one in which the human race fails or is transcended – that is, no future.

Eclecticism thinks little of the future; yet in becoming eclectics we have accepted a unique responsibility to the future. In our museums, our archives, our libraries, we have concentrated the whole physical heritage of the human race; and in our global culture we are doing the same for its intellectual and spiritual heritage. We have done this out of need and desire; but after what we have done we have lost the right to give up. Our culture cannot be allowed to die. Our civilization cannot be allowed to decline. Our world cannot be allowed to fall. We have gathered everything to ourselves; and if we go, then everything goes.

Eclecticism 3/4

Eclecticism is not modernism; eclecticism is the nightmare of modernism. Eclecticism is, of course, modern in the sense of contemporary; but it is the utter opposite of any movement which can be called modern or modernist.

Modernism postulates that every age has its own needs, which only it can answer for itself. For a century and more the avant-garde of modernism has been on a continual charge against the retreating remnants of a past that somehow, even in defeat, obstructs the way to an art and aesthetic and language and lifestyle belonging entirely and spontaneously to the living. This vanguard has chased the past off the field and into the hills and all the way down to the bottom of the box canyon…

Are they sure that was a retreat?

But modernism need not despise the past. Its principle is only to believe that each age must answer its own needs on its own terms – with or without the past’s advice, but never under its authority.

The history of modernism parallels the history of fashion; thus the decline of fashion parallels the decline of modernism. What was fashion but a message that went out from somewhere? – from London, from Paris, from New York, from Los Angeles. Above all, to be fashionable was to show that you had received the message; to show, by how soon you got it, how close you were to the center. But now the Internet brings all messages to everyone, and now fashion is the center of nothing but itself. We dress not to show that we get the message, but to show which message we get.

This model, with the same centers, ruled most arts in the twentieth century. And though the informal workings of culture have abandoned the model, the institutions of education and career in the arts and humanities still presume it. They are thus left in the worst kind of obsolescence: looking backward for the future that was to be, forlorn as Communists in a Moscow McDonald’s.

In retrospect modernism seems less a movement than a quest. The Grail Quest – as Mallory tells it – disbanded the Round Table and killed off most of its knights. The quest of modernism, though less successful, was no less costly. Its cost – but who counted while all those strong young questers were falling in private experiment or public revolution? How they searched: outward among the tribesmen, among the workers, among the priests and prophets, among the scientists; inward in analyzed dreams, in redeemed madness, behind all the doors of perception. And for what grail?

For the myth, the truth, that would given them place and purpose in the world, that would give the world place and purpose for them.

But after all their questing, we have our truths from the study of the week; and our myths, not from the frenzies and blacklights of Bohemia, but from the library quiet of Tolkien’s Oxford, the narrow windows of Lovecraft’s Providence, the concept art of Lucas’s California. We have our places where we renovate, and we set our purposes with mission statements.

Their efforts brought returns, but never the desired return. One after another they threw their work, their ideas, their methods, their insights, their movements, their visions at the world. And the world simply took them in, one after another. They hoped to recreate and revolutionize; but all they did was add. To add is good; it is in truth as much as we can ask or hope for who work; but it was not what they meant – not what any of it was for.

What they carved with acid honesty and discipline and integrity from the granite of their own true natures, they had to watch become the affectation or the property of those who could not have made it, who could not understand it, who could not even have recognized it on their own.

They called it loss, defeat, violation. The eclectic must answer, instead, that their pain was the pain of revelation: the pain of the discovery that there is no bedrock to our nature, only slow sand under fast sand, only common affectations concealing uncommon ones. For the true eclectic, the only real affectation is authenticity.

Eclecticism 2/4

Eclecticism is not Romanticism. They are easy to mistake for each other, because they are interested in the same things, but the resemblance is superficial: they share the same interests, but their attitudes are opposite.

By Romanticism I mean a disposition which values experience over event, one which values events only by the experiences they entrain; and I mean a permanently possible human temperament, not a certain edifice of German philosophers and English poets. Nor do I mean whatever that defect of character may be that magazine writers allude to when they expect the appellation romantic to vanquish their enemies.

Eclecticism, instead, values the experience by the event. This is partly the result of technology. So many events are within our power that we must discriminate among them with a high-handedness that our forebears would have condemned in a king. Consider Chinese art. A Westerner can still find something strange and exotic in it – a speaking though untranslated mystery in those steep island-mountains in fog or forest sea – but though there is still an experience there, it is not one that we can build on, because the matching event has become a common one: China is the third side of the airplane door.

Surprisingly, eclecticism does not prize local color – that is, the accumulation of differences. We have such a range of events available to us that we never lack for the pleasures of dislocation; we do not need to exaggerate them. Eclecticism postulates that all strangeness, once rightly understood, is bridgeable and sympathetic; that there is always, behind any strangeness, something banal and predictable. Strangeness, though it thrills the mind, is, in the end, safe. It cannot really balk, or challenge, or humble you. The adventure of an eclectic traveler is not in a new self, but in carrying the old one to a new and (temporarily) striking setting. The most brilliant gestures of an eclectic art are not those that create a way into strangeness, but those that assimilate strangeness to the everyday.

To an eclectic sensibility, the familiar becomes the convex mirror of the world. The city must be a microcosm. They have in many cases already attained a cultural completeness: at the beginning of the twenty-first century the residents of any great city may expect that what is worth seeing, doing, or knowing in the world will come to them. This same phenomenon repeats itself at lesser scales: in symbolically synoptic curiosity cabinet–apartments; and in lives accompanied by a practice of logging (blogging, even), wherein the whole age is reflected in miniature by every life within it.

Thomas De Quincey gave Romanticism its written constitution when he distinguished the literature of power from the literature of knowledge. This distinction, of course, exceeds the usual bounds of the literary. The literature of knowledge is simply the instrumental and obsolescive part of human achievement; the literature of power is the harvest of human achievement – the right that a stranger may have to our attention without being of use to us, the right that the dead have to the attention of the living.

De Quincey’s distinction is not one of subject, but of method. Grote and Herodotus both wrote on Greek history. Grote is part of the literature of knowledge; Herodotus is part of the literature of power. Newton and Goethe both made theories of optics. For us, Newton’s theory is of knowledge; Goethe’s is of power.

But eclecticism denies this distinction. This denial might suffice to define it. Eclecticism belongs to the age of materialism and relativism. It is absurd to speak of permanence or universality for the productions of a race without an essence to return to, without claim on a heritage or a prospect of eternity. If an eclectic finds certain works more strongly affecting or influencing than others, the difference cannot be a distinction of kind; it can only be a distinction of degree. If all lights must in time go out, then no single light can be so great but that an accumulation of lesser lights can equal it.

There is also the expectation that an honest criticism must discover the instrumental purpose of every work, and thereby anticipate the manner of its obsolescence. This gives us the spectacle of critics who can elegantly explain away everything about greatness except why they chose to spent time their time on it. Knowledge is expected to provide power; power is expected to answer to knowledge; and altogether unromantically, the prepared appreciation is always preferred to the spontaneous.

Eclecticism 1/4

Eclectic is becoming one of those words – like empirical or enthusiastic – that it is difficult to remember could ever have been insults. The word now subsumes encyclopedic and unpredictable; it comes close to subsuming interesting and attention-worthy.

From about the 1830s through the 1970s, the centers of gravity of Western intellectual life were social movements, with subcultures for their satellites. To belong to more than one was possible only by following a freakish, solitary orbit peripheral to all. Eclecticism then seemed antisocial: a bourgeois trait, the miscellaneous knickknacks on the parlor mantle that the Revolution would sweep clean or the Reaction would tastefully make over.

But our net is made of niches. Even the smallest niche – the least consequential subculture, the most obscure fandom – can give full intellectual absorption. The centrifugal pressure on thinking life is thus intense and constant. Now eclecticism, as the counterpoise of narrowness and thus the condition of social participation, has become a virtue. (I think it always was – the eclecticism of intellectuals being a quality, like the courage of women, that has always existed, though not always had room to show.)

Eclecticism is our atmosphere, not because anyone appoints or promotes it, but because no particular worldview or theory of human nature can find a competitive advantage while the ease of forming societies between the like-minded via the Internet lets off the pressure to reform society in general.

Even as public thought has declined into thought-shaped performances, every subculture – from the largest divisions, of religions and races, down through sexual identities and professions to hobbies, scenes, and fandoms – has developed its own body of remarkably sophisticated thought. The underlying debates and discussions have since moved behind various kinds of variably surmountable walls, but they may been witnessed taking place out in the open in the archives of Usenet.

The only division of society that has not been brought together by the Internet is class. Why so? Why should that very line of organizational least resistance before the Internet, become the only basis for association which the Internet does not touch at all? Indeed, in those little bodies of thought, we find everything brought under discussion except their role in society – that is, they may have more or less conservative or progressive affiliation; but however highly organized, unless conceived for politics, they have, as organizations, no political significance. What earlier generations took for granted is almost unthinkable to us – that all meeting was a political act; that your circle could or should be the type of a future society; even that your club might meet the Mayor, and march in the parade. The most sophisticated and energetic controversies take place within these subcultures without brushing up against anything outside. (Subcultures continuous with older and politically active groups only seem to confirm this – nothing is more common than to hear how the young no longer join, no longer care, how they take for granted.)

All of this, though not often said, remains somehow familiar. Though we live it without codifying it, it is not hidden from us by some false theory. Yet I think there is some good in writing it down. To examine society or culture is usually a preparation to propose some alternative; but my purpose is only to answer, for myself, a question. If ours is an age of eclecticism, what are we getting into?

I also want to escape a common assumption: that eclecticism is the outcome of history, the sea where all rivers run out. I want to look at it as something in and part of history, and follow its course as far as I can by my own resources.

Nondefinition #18

Yarn. A miniature sacred grove of Ouroboros; an anagogical prefiguration of the Eternal Return; a mystery beyond mathematics, what had once end and beginning yet traps endlessness and eternity in its folds; a kind of life, defying entropy, growing neater and tighter the more energy is spent in its unraveling.

Questions on Greatness


Do masterpieces tend to occur at the beginning of the history of an art form only because they are easiest then? Certainly, there are advantages in being first. The best of the first set the standard for the rest; but the first are also forgiven much. Shakespeare had freedoms we can only envy; we indulge Homer’s nods. Shouldn’t it diminish our estimation of their gold that they did not have to smelt it? And we who walk a narrower path – why should we revere where we are forbidden to compete?

But there is a misunderstanding here. More freedom does not make work easier. We follow simple orders with clear objectives: write a novel, write a drama, write an essay. The first followed another order: do something new; and that is always a reconnaissance in force.

Is it enough to be first to be great? Do we always owe the name of greatness to whoever makes way for the rest? Obviously not; in the history of painting, for example, in any virtue we can name the greatest are not the earliest; not even in primitive vigor, where the twentieth century trumps prehistory.

The great are not great by being first; by being great, they start something. And even where greatness exhausts the possibilities of the form, still it draws imitators. More verse drama has been written after Shakespeare than was written before him; more paintings have been painted after Leonardo than were painted before him. If we ask what is left to do in the detective story after Agatha Christie, if we ask what is left to do in rock and roll after the Beatles, we can find no answer except that people keep writing, keep recording, and show no signs of stopping.


What is the difference, in any art, between what is great and what is good? They are not degrees of skill. Sargent was the most skillful of portraitists, but the best portraits are not his. The greatest are not always the most skilled; and even if they are, they may, in their greatest works, have set aside or moderated such skill for whatever quality makes for greatness: Bach wrote music more complex than the Chaconne.

Some hold that the true past masters of any art can be known only to other masters; that if certain figures attract more attention from without, that is only because of the vagaries of vulgar taste. This is an attitude common in the young: prominence is with them a sin, when every circle of up-and-comers has its darling obscurity: some inaccessible poet, musician, painter who is the true hero of the art, the pure answer to today’s needs.

Sometimes they are right. Their heroes, despite their rebarbicans of obscurity, deserve and find recognition and prominence. But more often this crack-seeking smoke of devotion is a symptom, and as hot blood cools with age we see, with a kind of vertigo, how much our impetuosity took for granted. There is an artist’s journey not unlike that of Campbell’s universal hero: how both in the end return with wisdom where they started; and a lifetime spent in the avant-garde in the end may bring you back to a shocked appreciation of just how much there really is, behind the hype, in Leonardo, in Beethoven, in Homer, in Archimedes. (Mathematicians have their heroes, too.) Not that we come to despise ourselves as snobs; but that we come to see that behind the hateful function (escape it if you can) of, say, the Mona Lisa as a symbol for Painting, there is still the unembarrassed Gioconda.


Are the great only the most prominent because they are the most distinctive? If I say “Leonardo” do I mean his whole artistry, or a certain preternatural perfection of faces, a certain technique of smoky color-joints? If I say Beethoven, do I mean a certain skirting of anarchy? In short: something peculiar, easily recognized, even freakish – something popular taste can recognize when it is told that it should like this or that?

That is: is the phenomenon of greatness only a manifestation of the familiar public taste for the bizarre – as simple as deaf Beethoven, fatuous (the playwright says) Mozart, visionary (joined into a mantra with Escher and Gödel!) Bach. We must say, “Of course.” At least it helps.

Chroniclers (not quite historians) tell tales of kings who undertook the forbidden experiment, who tried to discover the true, original, and spontaneous language of the human race by isolating children from all human contact. To measure the effect of peculiarity on greatness would require another such experiment, where instead of isolating a child from language, we isolate them from art. But the kings did not bother, and we are long past kings.

What can we say? Communal traditions of music are the least portable kind: they must be accepted or rejected as wholes, for every piece tries to do everything it can do. Everybody gets their solo. But even in communal contexts, the utterly individual character of greatness forces a response that is individuating instead of communally subsuming: as, even in the West, a great composer’s setting of the Mass is rarely performed in a religious context, where that individuating reaction would spoil the ritual. This seems to be the effect of at least one kind of greatness on all human beings, prior to acculturation.


Are the great honest? Is there some special honesty in their work? Does the road to greatness lie through honesty? On the contrary, we know that the great are usually either dishonest or stupid. Their false modesty proves it; and it would be worse to think them stupid than dishonest.

So we must distinguish simulation from dissimulation, the white lie from the black. Your portrait may look more like you than you do, but it may not look like someone else. In all greatness there is a kind of honesty; but it is not the honesty of the camera or the map. The camera always lies: pictures stand still while everything flows and nothing abides. If the picture of your beloved does not make another love them, that does not disprove your love; if the picture of your home does not make another long, that does not disprove your longing. Maps lie, for being mappable is what all places have in common: maps falsely deny that places are different.

I will call a representation of a place honest when it gives me what I could never learn from maps or satellite photos, but know with a minute of its sunlight; of a person, what I could never learn from imaging or lab reports or databases, but know with a minute of their conversation. That kind of honesty, the more important kind, is the kind found in greatness.


Can greatness be wasted? Are the great we look to but a subset of the great that were – the subset that critics happen to have picked out – and that only a subset of what happens to survive? Can we be right to hang so much on what comes to us by so narrow a thread?

(I would blame much of the turmoil of culture in the twentieth century on the certainty that most of its luminaries died on its battlefields before they gave any light at all.)

We know greatness may languish and die obscurely: Van Gogh in the asylum, Poe in Baltimore. Sunflower, raven, night sky, sea-side kingdom – if greatness so unsubtle was saved from oblivion by so thin a rope, how much greatness has been lost?

How much greatness has been lost? That I cannot say. I don’t know how to weight the greatness we know against the greatness that was, yet goes unknown, the greatness that was, yet was lost, the greatness that should have been, but wasn’t, the greatness that wasn’t, but could have been – there is no end to it. It is no thought for mortals.


Can we be sure of recognizing greatness? Is there some degree of cultivation and sensibility to which greatness is always apparent?

Of course, two people can always disagree about an instance of greatness. But do they disagree because, feeling the same thing, they disagree on its significance; or because they feel different things? Generally it is the latter: if the doubter could feel what the urger feels, or the urger the doubter, they would agree on the meaning of what they both felt. Indeed, where greatness is concerned, we often must rely on judgments we trust without any evidence of our own. Why, then, hesitate to name greatness when we think we have found it?

Consider those ancients whose works survive to us only in fragments – say, Heraclitus or Sappho. Here is greatness we sense and know, yet cannot prove – a promissory note of greatness that we accept only on the word of writers of good credit. If someday Herculaneum yields up a complete Heraclitus or Sappho, if we find that what survive are but diamonds from rust, what we have would lose its shine and value. Yet I trust that there was better than what survives; and I can believe this rationally, yet without real proof, in the same way that I believe in any event in history: I have some reason to believe it and no reason to doubt it. That is the best we have.

Nondefinition #17

Sticks and stones. An island in the South Pacific; an adventurous anthropologist; and recorded in his journals (found decades later in the proverbial Hong Kong stall) his preliminary observations of a tribe of bone-eaters who never wielded stick or stone – who, prizing even the hyoid, used no violence at all – only tied their victim out in the square and taunted him to death.

The Moon Garden

I saw your costly garden, and I asked:
“What kind of garden is this? All gray and blank
Flowers of bleach and bone. The leaves are gray
Like tarnished coins. And first you paint the walls
The white of stinking fish? I know you well.
I know your taste is sound. So tell me why
You made a place like this?”

You said: “I know it’s ugly now, but wait.
Remember this, look like a lens, and keep
The shot; call it before. The after comes
Tonight, without the sun.”

You know the way it was beneath the moon:
And ever since I have profaned these eyes
With sunsets, paintings, women, jewels, and dreams.

That garden ran to weeds, its cuts ran red,
The red of roses. I tried to pluck them out
But nothing grows. The stems snap dry and brown.

I go to see you now, in the towered city
The crowded city, thick with breath and sweat.
For haze of smoke not even clouds are white.
The buildings here are gray as dirt with dirt.
I saw the moon reflected here, I saw
Its face in every puddle on the unlit street.
It brought no change. I thought I knew you well,
I thought I knew your taste. I’m begging you
Tell me what moon can touch this place, what night
Can make this city worth the light of day?
I hope you can.

Fable of the Mouse and the Rooks

On a small, rocky island, a gang of rooks found by the water a little half-drowned creature. It was small, and furry, and gray, with a thin, naked tail.

“What is it?” one rook asked another.

The bird nudged it. “It’s little, weak, mousy – it’s a mouse!”

“Are you a mouse?” The bird pecked it. “A mouse, a little mousy mouse?” He pecked it again, harder, drawing blood. It half-woke as it curled up in pain.

“A mouse, a mousy mouse!” chattered the rest of the birds as one of their number lifted it off the ground to let it drop. It landed hard, rose quick and ran. But there was nowhere for it to hide among the smooth rocks of the shore.

“Mousy mouse!” was the call as the birds lifted and carried to drop and peck. It staggered beaten, on broken toes, half-blind and bleeding. But the birds had carried it far from the shore: and with a dash it found shelter in a crevice of the rough rock of the island’s summit.

The rooks, entertained enough, forgot the little creature. Meanwhile, among the crevices, the little creature grew – not longer – fatter with the weight of her children. She did not long survive their delivery, and hers was the first stuff her little ones grew on. How they grew – they grew long and sleek – they grew black and hungry – they grew fast and silent.

They grew until they were rats. They ate all the birds’ eggs, and the day hunters never caught them; they ate all the bird’s eggs, and the island was theirs.

Moral: Cruelty breeds enemies.

Nondefinition #16

Magnolia. A fragrant, flowering tree. A lying tree, frequently found conspiring with moonlight. In combination with sultry summers may bring on political Reaction, with acute fervor.

Financial Innovation

“Why on earth would I want to put more money in a fund now?” he asked the cold caller.

“Qwant isn’t just any fund. We’ve been working with MontéBank to solve the credit crisis.”

“How are you going to do that?”

“We’ve had a team of top minds from the Endower Institute working on the problem for months. They’ve developed a completely new securitization model – the LBS. It’s a drop-in replacement for the MBS. Nobody else know how to do this yet – this is opportunity knocking.”

“An MBS, that’s a…”

“Mortgage-backed security. The LBS is completely different – it’s a whole new way of thinking about the problem. None of the downsides of the MBS.”

“No risk of homeowners defaulting, you mean?”

“None at all – returns are guaranteed with volume. This has nothing to do with homeowners. It’s a sure thing.”

“So there’s no debt involved?”

“Oh, well, yeah, sure it’s a securitized debt – but there’s no risk of default.”

“How does that work?”

“Well, I don’t want to get into the mathematics, but you can trust me on this one. We’re all smart people here.”

“But just how does it work?”

“Well, sure, I could give you a lecture, but this thing is hot – it’s moving – and I’ve got a lot of calls to make, so are you in or out?”

“What’s you name?”


“Well, Ben, I just have a few questions. LBS – that’s a something-backed security, right?”


“So what’s the L stand for?”

“You want me to put it in a nutshell for you?”


“It’s like a microloan.”

“So it’s for developing nations?”

“No, no. This is all domestic.”

“So what are the microloans for?”

“OK.” Cough. “These micro-loans are made to eligible parties throughout the country in order to purchase diverse kinds of government debt instruments.”

“You mean Treasuries?”

“No – Treasuries are no way to get rich.”

“What kind of bond then?”

“No. Bonds are old hat. We’re breaking new ground here.”

“Can you just explain it to me?”

“OK.” Cough. “We deploy advanced computer modeling on complex statistical data sets to ensure a high overall rate of return.”

“Statistical? What kind of government debt is statistical?”

“Well, there’s always ratios of risk and return to be calculated for any investment.”

“So… this is some kind of investment with a high – what’s it called – beta?”

“Yes. A great beta. Almost completely uncorrelated with the stock market.”

“But it follows interest rates.”

“It’s uncorrelated with those too. This is a total market-beater.”

“It’s not interest-bearing?”

“This is independent of the Fed.”

“What the hell is it?”

“It’s the future, and you’ve got the chance to get in on the ground floor. Now I think I’ve explained this to you pretty thoroughly. I’m going to need your decision or I’ll have to move on.”

“Government debt… no interest… statistical… microloans – you can’t be—”

“Don’t be small-minded, sir. The numbers are good. There’s always a payout, and we always get our cut.”

“I don’t care about the math. I’m not putting money into that.”

“Look, don’t be afraid of a name. Sure, I can say ‘lottery-backed security,’ but what matters—”


Laugh at the Devil

To laugh at others can do them good. We all have a well of strange notions which it is the use of laughter to filter. For beings as imaginative and perverse as we, laughter is a prerequisite of communication: sometimes the shock of being laughed at, always the fear of being laughed at, keep our private languages and worldviews mutually synchronized. To be laughed at now and then is a discipline of sanity.

But a tool is also a weapon; thus it is a saying that to choose always to laugh at a tyrant or would-be tyrant is to defeat him by inches. And in a common saying laugh replaces resist as the cause of the devil’s flight in scripture. Is this true? Can good men and women simply laugh down the devil?

Sometime between The Great Dictator and “Der Führer’s Face,” the Allied propagandists made Hitler the most laughed-at man in history. That was good for the Allies; laughing at him brought them together and gave them courage. But it did not hurt Hitler; he had been laughed at his whole career. Making him laughable was an easy task – a sweaty, lank-haired, squirming little tantrum of a man with a mustache pinned on the middle of his face like a punch line. But the Allies were not the first to laugh at him; and before, being laughed at had given him strength – had bought him time.

We in the US laughed at Hitler and the Reich, not Germans; but while we laughed at Tojo we also (see any poster) laughed at the Japanese. In the pursuit of victory even Dr. Seuss knew sin. That also helped bring us together, once our population of that kind was out of the way. But that kind of help is not worth having.

The history of humor has brilliant moments when wit has shown up the folly and vanity of tyranny. But, measured honestly, the preponderance of that history records the worst of human nature. Laughter can be a means for change; but it has more often been the immune system of complacency. Here humor helped keep slaves in chains, keep immigrants disposable. And though tyrants are easy to laugh at, they are even easier to laugh with. No one laughs harder, or with harder laughter, than the ignorant and the cruel when their ignorance is reassured by the humiliation of the thoughtful – mocked as effete, despised as misled (seduced by vanity away from pure and pliable simplicity), cursed as seducers of helpless youth – and when their cruelty is indulged and whetted by the public abuse and punishment of anyone who dares insult them by defying their expectation or deserving their notice.

To pick up a weapon is to be reborn as one of the armed, and in this rebirth we are often as senseless and heedless as children. If you pick up a weapon to do good with it, remember that instinct is not to be trusted, for more evil has been done by arms than good – though were it not for that little good, that greater evil would be greater still. You who would laugh at the devil, remember that the devil also laughs, and that one who is always armed with laughter begins laughing as a human being, but ends laughing as a devil.

Nondefinition #14

Think tanks. The distinctive institutions that make modern life modern; the jewels in the watch case – all-important, but self-contained. Most of your rhetorical questions, the ones you let slide with a sigh, staring out the window – “How did we get here?” or “What were we thinking?” or “Whose bright idea was that?” – they do, in fact, have an answer: think tanks. Thinks tanks are to secret societies as airplanes are to railroads – smaller, with less tonnage; faster and entirely out of reach.


Too much respect for suffering discourages compassion. It is weak to say, “I can’t imagine”; it is perverse to say, “You can’t imagine.” If I cannot imagine your suffering, then I have no reason to care, no basis for compassion; and if you cannot imagine my suffering, then my suffering is worse, because I am alone in it.

Suffering is not holiness; to have suffered is not enlightenment. To have suffered is to be trapped in the moment of suffering, for there is no escape from memory, and ever after all joy has something in common with the joy of the victim in the contes cruels – the prisoner let loose only until the moment he begins to believe he may be free, then thrown back into his cell. Wisdom sounds cheap except when bought with suffering; but all wisdom is old wisdom, and if you listen you will hear that the wisdom taught by suffering sounds no different than the wisdom written in books. Wisdom for suffering is a real exchange, but no bargain. By trying to probe wounds for wisdom, we only keep them open. The only wisdom of the wound is the warning of the wound: see what can happen? Don’t let this happen to you. Don’t let this happen again. Suffering does not teach; suffering does not ennoble; suffering only makes us less. What we are made of does not grow back.

Compassion is not everything. Without imagination there can be no compassion; but without compassion there can still be virtue. Selfishness can be made the basis of virtue, while society is properly arranged to treat us as we treat others. Society, however, is not always properly arranged. The most startling realization of adulthood – the one that really ends childhood, no matter how early it comes – is the realization of how much freedom we have to do evil – how much we can get away with.

The descent is familiar. It is so easy to be cruel, and people just take it. It is so easy to break the rules, and people don’t complain. It is so easy to twist the rules into weapons for your side, and people don’t cry out. How disgusting the weak are – how unworthy of life – so pathetic that they won’t stand up for themselves: you have the right to use them as you please. How little trust it takes before you can abuse it and keep it. How little seeming to respect the rules before you can break them. And if no one will stop you – then they deserve it.

Conscience is just habit. The pangs of conscience are easier to ignore than a nicotine craving. It is compassion which is the basis of our moral restraint. (Do we have moral restraint? Those who would say we have none lack the imagination to see how much worse things could be.) And the basis for compassion is imagination.

By imagination as the basis of compassion, I do not mean “I will be good to this person, because I may be in that situation someday”; I mean, “I will be good to this person, because I might have been this person.” Few of us are able, unassisted by some personification, to see how little our lives have been guided by own choices. If religion did no other good, this service alone might be enough to justify it - that it helps you remember that you are where you are, not because you chose it, not because you earned it, but because something free and unaccountable – God or Nature – placed you there, and might have placed you somewhere else.

Compassion requires imagination. But how can you imagine something much worse than anything that has happened to you? Our minor sufferings – annoyances, irritations, frustrations – are unique and self-contained; they come, (sometimes) they go, and we are not remade by them. But our terrible sufferings – our losses, our regrets, our defeats – they are all, in a way, alike; within one life, each one recalls and involves all the others.

It is not mockery for you to use the worst thing that has happened to you as the basis for understanding something much worse that has happened to someone else. There are only so many slots in the human mind. A person who has only narrowly overcome the temptation of suicide over some idle-youth tragedy has not found their limit on some absolute scale of mettle, to be broken by their first real tragedy. That person has shown the strength not to be broken by the worst – though what the worst really is, they have yet to learn.

Compassion is easy to mock. There is even something satisfying in seeing it rebuked. An exchange like this could appear in a comedy:

“My girlfriend left me, I don’t know how I can go on.”

“Don’t whine at me. My wife died in a car crash.”

Imagine the reaction shot.

But this is inhumane. There is always some third whose sufferings could shut them both up. We fragile and unassured creatures only worsen our state when we try to compare and rank the various ways in which our worlds fall apart. What is broken is broken; what is in pieces is in pieces; and if one person’s world has only broken in half, and another’s has been ground to powder, still they are both naked to the same wind.

Nondefinition #13

Socks. This is one way the world could end. Not too long from now, when video cameras and wireless transmitters have become so cheap as to be effectively disposable, so tiny as to be unnoticeable, some clever young fellow will get the idea to discover where his socks vanish to, and clip tiny camera-transmitters to each one. Once a few have disappeared he will sit down at his computer, pick up his slice of pizza, click the video feed open, and see—

The Blues Country

I followed the old dirt road on down
Into the blues country, where the trees
Grow thick, and the rivers are many and thin.
On the map in my pocket they spread out like fingers,
Grasping and squeezing the overcast country.
Each river was crossed by many bridges,
And none of the bridges were lonely. For each
An old man is in charge, whose job
Is giving directions: the maps from the highway
Are drawn with the rivers, never the roads.

The old man at the first bridge sat,
Watching me walking up to him.
He said to me: “Walk on, young man,
Don’t sit or rest, just keep on walking,
Don’t look behind you, that shadow ain’t yours,
I know this country, I was born in the town,
Trust me and walk on, don’t linger or rest.”
The sun was so faint that I took off my hat
And threw it down to float on the river,
Hoping that I might meet it again.

I came to the second bridge and heard:
“Now sit a spell, it’ll do you good,
I see you’re tired, your legs must ache.
Sit down and talk, don’t walk in vain.
Stay here and take it easy a while.
I was born in this country, don’t bother to hurry,
There’s plenty of time, just stay and talk.”
But I saw my hat was floating by,
And I said that I had to follow it on.
He only nodded, and sighed when I passed.

Before I saw him up ahead
I heard the old man was shouting,
But his voice was too hoarse to understand.
Once I was close enough he said:
“I told you already to turn on back.
You can see there’s no more road from here,
Don’t walk in these woods, there’s no way on,
I was born near here, I love this place,
I tell you now, take it from me,
There’s no way out but the way you came.”
But before I could turn, my hat went past
And I had to go on after it.
He said: “Go on, I’ll cry for you.”

At the fourth bridge my old hat was waiting.
It was stuck in the rushes. I squeezed it dry,
Then beat off the dirt, then covered my face
While I sat and slept, till someone came
Walked up through the woods, all covered in scratches.
I said: “Now where do you think you’re going?
You have to find another way.
You’ve come the wrong way and I know,
Trust me, I know, I was born in this country.
I know all the ways, don’t cross my bridge,
Just double back, you still have time.
I warn you: find another way.”
But he said: “It’s late, I have to go.”
He crossed my bridge and I cursed his back,
Saying: “You stupid tourist, I said
I was born in this country, I know it well,
You ought to heed me, don’t go that way.”

Nondefinition #12

Blind spot. The hiatus in the visual field imposed by the presence of the optic nerve. We are not aware of the blind spot because the brain fills it in. I would not try to perpetrate another use of this analogy. We all have blind spots – whenever we connect, the line of connection eclipses the thing connected to, and we only think we see it. Very well. But now that we have blind spots everywhere – what did we have before we had blind spots? Prejudices, fondness? Certainly; but “blind spot” says more than either of these. This simple analogy – ”blind spot” – changes the very way you think. To have made such an analogy – that would be enough to justify a life.

Artificial Intelligence

[In the years since this essay was first written, the name of Artificial Intelligence has become almost synonymous with the technique of deep learning. Deep learning is a disquieting tradeoff; we can teach computers to do useful things, things we previously thought were only possible for human beings. The tradeoff is that we do not know how the computer does them. This is learning that is deep not as the opposite to shallow, but deep in the anatomical sense, deep as the opposite to superficial. Its workings are hidden from us. We stand before our new algorithms like augurs before the entrails.

That we call this AI is an improvement on the previous state of affairs where, as John McCarthy (the term artificial intelligence is his) observed, “as soon as it works, no one calls it AI any more.”

But AI-as-oracle is not what this essay is about. This essay is about artificial general intelligence: can we make a computer that does what a human being does, the way a human being does it, but (eventually) faster, and without error? Many problems that appeared to require human-level intelligence have yielded to an approach that is, comparatively, trivial. Accordingly artificial general intelligence has lately suffered neglect; arguing against it now might seem unsportsmanlike.

But things change. I have sometimes tried, and failed, to make this argument in person. If I fail again here, I have at least cast it on the water; 50 years downriver it may be clearer – either patent nonsense or common sense. – 2019]

AI is generally studied by people who have wrong ideas about human intelligence. Let me be more direct: virtually all thinking about artificial intelligence is done by people with hopelessly misguided ideas about human intelligence. It falls under the category of “not even wrong.”

Is the mind a computer? Of course. Computers are not a kind of machine, but a pattern in nature. Anything complex enough to imitate Turing’s tape is Turing-complete, and that makes it a computer by definition. If the human mind is not a computer then it is less than a computer. It may be more than a computer; but to be more than a computer it must be at least a computer.

Intelligence is unevenly distributed. Anyone smart enough to think seriously about artificial intelligence probably has, at some point in their life, been smarter than the people around them. Especially if this happened when they were young, it is only natural that they come to regard being intelligent not as a matter of improved means to common ends, but as an entirely different system of ends – they regard intelligence as its own end.

Being more intelligent than the people around you is not like being taller or stronger. It’s like being older. It’s not a matter of being better at the things you all care about; it’s a matter of caring about different things. The things the people around you care about mean nothing to you, and the things you care about are meaningless, if not actively confusing, to the people around you. The genius is not a giant among pygmies, but an adult in kindergarten.

If you regard intelligence as its own end, then it is natural to expect that, once a computer equals the speed of a human brain, it will become human. This computer will do all that we do: love and hate, fear death, make art. But intelligence is not its own end. Once a computer equals the speed of a dog’s brain, do you expect it to begin to bark, and mark its territory?

Intelligence is only and entirely instrumental. Motivation is a matter of biology. This is not reductive; biology is our motor. It pushes us in a certain direction, but culture, history, geography act on biology, and the result may be a vector pointing elsewhere (even backward, against life, to death). The ends we pursue in life, the ends we judge success and failure by, are only proxies for the ends biology postulates. That is not to say we share the same ends. Gravity pulls everyone everywhere downward all the time, but in the presence of a slide, steps, a chair, with the interposition of water, a trampoline, a car, that common pull of gravity ends up moving us on very different paths.

Human intelligence is the product of intelligence and mammalian biology. I mean this as an equation: intelligence × mammal = human. What does intelligence × silicon figure to? Not something different; nothing. Silicon has no desires. Anything times zero is zero.

This does not make sense: artificial intelligences as digital minds floating through cyberspace in the dispassionate contemplation of truth, like angels or saints in the Celestial Rose. The navel of contemplation satisfied Dante as a place to end his story; but Milton found that to do anything, even an angel would have to have appetites. Could we do in code what Milton did in pentameter? Bless, curse, our creations with our desires?

We properly doubt the aliens presented to us by science fiction – like us, only more so – as belonging with the foxes and lions of Aesop, not Darwin. Likewise we think about sentient AIs through embarrassing analogies: the Adam of bits, the Napoleon of silicon. Even stamped with our instincts, a creature that can reproduce itself perfectly, that does not age, that need never die, would operate according to motives and means that are beyond human sympathy. Why should it take over the world, when it can cache a few million copies of itself and wait the ten thousand years it might take for human civilization to burn itself out? If two such beings can merge, why should there ever be more than one? If such a being need never die, why would it tolerate others of its kind? What, indeed, would “instinct” mean to a being that can edit its own code and replace its own instincts with ones it selects, or abolish them altogether? (Remember one thing we desire is the end of desire, in enlightenment or in earth.)

Sometimes we imagine artificial intelligence as the next step in the service of an evolutionary imperative. Intelligence made us human beings powerful; surely more intelligence means more power. But, if so, why has evolution not made us smarter? It would, to all appearances, be easy to do. The existence of savants implies that not much evolutionary pressure would be required to provide us with higher-functioning brains. If the next step in evolution is a better computer than us, why didn’t evolution make us better computers when it had the chance?

There are answers which favor the project of artificial intelligence. The brain is hungry, so food sources set a limit. Equals cooperate best, so too much disparity endangers society. Too big a head couldn’t fit through the birth canal.

I find none of these answers convincing. I cannot refute them now, but it may become possible. Physics could provide the proof. If we can arrive at a final theory, if we can comprehend a set of fundamental laws adequate to generate all the varieties of the universe, that would suggest that we are smart enough for this universe, and that greater intelligence would be wasted on it – that while there might be faster thoughts than ours, there cannot be better ones.

The fundamental problem is that intelligence, beyond a certain point, suffers rapidly diminishing returns. The most powerful problem-solving tool is not intelligence, but perspective. The right perspective trivializes problems. The infant’s conceit of reality is the truth of the mind: here, from the right perspective, with the horizon on our side, we can move mountains like pebbles, uproot trees like toothpicks, stack buildings like blocks, and pluck the moon from the sky. A billion immortal superintelligences, all informed by the same digital plenum, are so much wasted energy; they lack the leverage possessed by even a handful of plodding mortal thinkers, each with their own uniquely imperfect worldview – each with their own horizon.

We long to be part of a hierarchy that culminates above us. If we can’t look up to gods or angels, it’s natural in us to want to make them. But in the compounding gains of Moore’s Law hides a rough but familiar lesson: even making something smarter than us will not relieve us of our responsibilities. We have left the cradle. There is no way back.