I can’t claim to be the 99%. I have done very well since America’s mortgage crisis ignited the world. But I support the Occupy movement. If the global situation were as it is today, back when I was entering the work force, I would have been burning things down. An entire generation has been robbed of a future while another cohort has been tossed into a ditch, and I’m surprised that the unrest didn’t start sooner, and that it has been as civil as it’s been. The leaders on both sides of the aisle are inept clowns, and I don’t see how things will get better without the young people tearing the whole system down and starting over.

The Occupy movement is just the latest scene in a play that has been unfolding for many years. As a result of being raised around “left behind” dispensationalists, survivalists, and spooks, I’ve always had a keen interest in the end of the world. I first became aware of the unfolding story sometime around 1992, when I read George Soros’s “Financial Alchemy”. Almost as an afterthought near the end of the book, Soros shared some perplexing data about an historic shift in the structure of global capital flows. It didn’t fit well with the rest of the book, and he didn’t really expound too much on it, but it made a huge impact on me. It was as if Israel had finally rebuilt a temple in Jerusalem, and nobody was talking about it. I was convinced that the world was going to catch fire at any moment, and I started learning everything I could.

Not long after, I worked for one of the companies profiled in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. Among other things, I built some economic models used to make policy decisions about public works projects and military projects in the U.S. and a few other countries. A few times, we found huge errors in the models after the policy decisions had already been made, and I learned that the model was often mere justification for a decision that was pre-ordained. Although I was devotee of Ayn Rand, I was also a pragmatist. I knew that the economic order was going to collapse, and I liked the idea that the impending global collapse would be backstopped by Western diplomatic and military power.

Later, George Soros raped Southeast Asia and Russia, and I became especially interested in his criticisms of free market “religion”. I couldn’t figure out if he was just posturing so that he could wash his hands of financial engineering’s crimes before the collapse, or if Ayn Rand’s philosophy was truly bankrupt. Then the Internet bubble started to inflate, and we were surrounded by libertarian cheerleaders and irrational exuberance. Every now and then, something would almost persuade me that the conventional wisdom about a bright tomorrow was true, and that I should leverage up to ensure the future. But I kept going back to the data on international capital flows, and it just didn’t add up. There was a tsunami coming, and the Internet bubble was a sideshow.

The first crash was a good start, but seemed tiny in the grand scheme. When 9/11 happened, I saw the subsequent militarization as an opportunistic (and wise, I thought) pretext on the part of Western powers to revert to diplomatic and military projection of power before our financial engineering weapons were spent. To my naive mind, the militarization seemed very proactive.

But things weren’t over yet. Chinese mercantilism inflated the mother of all bubbles in the West, and the good times rolled on.
My visibility into the system had improved over the years, and my friends and colleagues were all more established as well. Everyone knew how the movie was going to end this time. About 18 months before the collapse, I was having drinks with some officials from a couple of the world’s largest banks, and the topic turned to the mortgage situation. The consensus around the table was that the collapse was overdue, and would take out hundreds of banks. In hindsight, they identified the banks that would fail with surprising accuracy. I explained that I had been trying to convince my wife to sell the house and rent for a couple of years, so that we could buy back the house with cash at a large profit after the collapse. My comrades heartily endorsed the plan and offered to help persuade my wife. She ultimately refused, but my calculations of the net profit turned out to be fairly accurate (and the loss of equity in the house was ultimately offset by other gains).

A month or two ahead of the collapse, it became obvious that this was going to involve a lot more than mortgages. I was able to pull out of the markets before the collapse started. I had read Nassim Taleb’s scathing criticisms of Bear Stearns, so their collapse wasn’t a surprise to me, but it took a long time to sort out the rest of the contagion. I had already lost all faith in the authorities after Katrina hit; I’ve now learned to believe especially what is officially denied: Europe’s disintegration is even less surprising than the mortgage collapse was, and a slowdown in China followed by (or coinciding with) a sovereign debt crisis in the U.S. seem like very safe bets.

To be clear, everyone I know is richer than me, I’ve been wiped out completely in the past, and I fully expect to blow up again sometime in the not too distant future. And the point isn’t to applaud my foresight; I had very little visibility compared to many others. The point is that we all knew what was going to happen. The people who have profited relative to the 99% (or relative to the 99.9%, as Paul Krugman valiantly tries to establish in true Billy Goat Gruff fashion), knew what was happening. And the officials and talking heads continue to lie about it and spread misinformation. We are living in an increasingly interconnected world, and increased network effects mean increased information asymmetry, power law distributions, and winner take all effects.

Both left-wing and right-wing media continue to get Occupy completely wrong, but that was to be expected. As things get worse, and as the politicians continue to try to either demonize or co-opt the movement, we see who the ringers are. And we’re only going to learn that they’re all ringers. Jim Quinn puts it this way:

Over the last six weeks I’ve watched as the young protestors around the country have been called: filthy hippies, losers, lazy, coddled, socialists, communists, spoiled college kids, parasites, useful idiots, and tools of the left. Most of the wrath being heaped upon these young people for exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and freedom of assembly has been from the Baby Boom Generation, who are at the peak of their power in our society.

The disdain and contempt for these Millenial protestors flies in the face of the facts about this generation. They use drugs at a lower rate than their parents did at the same age. Teen crime rates and teen pregnancies have declined. They will have the highest level of college education in U.S. history. They were protected during their youth as organized sports taught them teamwork. They are the most technologically savvy generation in history. They volunteer at higher level than previous generations. They have been more upbeat and engaged than their predecessors (Gen X). And they are much closer to their parents than Boomers were at the same age. They reject the negativism and cynicism of their parents and believe positive change is possible in our society. They have shown respect for authority up until the last six weeks. They were primed to be led by Boomers that could articulate a positive vision of the future based on reality and a better tomorrow. They were ready to make sacrifices in order to create a brighter future. But a funny thing happened. The Boomer generation failed to deliver on their part of the bargain.

I don’t expect the Occupy movement to continue as just a protest movement. It will adapt, splinter, and morph. But overall social unrest will continue to grow. I believe that this is just the beginning, and that things will get much worse. Most of the protesters are directing their rage at the wrong targets, and most of them are economically illiterate. Many of the victories they win will just make things worse. But that, also, is to be expected. How could we expect the unemployed and misinformed masses to have a clear picture of the situation, when the elite have been profiting from the ignorance of the masses? I think it’s too late to raise up the disposessed in an orderly manner, and the revolution will proceed like all revolutions must. Messy and painful. But how else will we move forward?

It’s interesting to note that GK Chesterton, writing just before World War I tore Europe apart, observed many of the same imbalances and problems that we see today. An economy increasingly controlled by the oligarchs, with much of society left behind with no future. His thoughts about the French revolution are interesting for today.

How to Die: Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery has become commonplace. I have several acquaintances who have had operations, and we jokingly refer to the cougars at the local hot spots as “50/50 ladies” (50 years old and 50 percent plastic). It’s no longer just the older people; one of my colleagues died from complications of plastic surgery at the age of 23, and it seems like the girls in China and Korea are now competing to see who can get the most plastic at the youngest age.

I don’t have a problem with orthodontics or other mainstream cosmetic treatments, so I might be accused of hypocrisy for having a problem with plastic surgery. But I fear there is something terribly wrong in this obsession with youth. Life shouldn’t be about clinging to youth as long as possible — life is about growing old and dying gracefully.

Around age 12, one of my favorite poems was Yeats “When You are Old”:

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

What kind of person would trade Yeats’ vision of graceful aging for plastic? Yeats had advice for those who rejoice in youthful beauty in “To a Young Beauty”:

DEAR fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.

You may, that mirror for a school,
Be passionate, not bountiful
As common beauties may,
Who were not born to keep in trim
With old Ezekiel’s cherubim
But those of Beaujolet.

I know what wages beauty gives,
How hard a life her servant lives,
Yet praise the winters gone;

There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey’s end
With Landor and with Donne.

Around 200 BC, a Greek sculptor created a statue of a “Dying Gaul“, which has ever since been a symbol of how to die. Upon seeing the statue of the dying Gaul, still a dead ringer for Yeats’ countrymen, Lord Byron was inspired to write:

I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one..

Rather than being a celebration of youth, the dying Gaul shows the wisdom of Montaigne’s advice:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

He doesn’t try to prolong his youth any longer than is given to him. Montaigne examines this topic in his essay 17, “To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die“, as well as a few other essays.

I recently read through “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer“, in which the author collects Montaigne’s thoughts on life, death, and much between. It’s not fantastic, but not bad, and I’m convinced that Montaigne would share my same misgivings about plastic surgery.

Machines of Loving Grace

The British documentary, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace“, is fantastic. The story it tells continues to be the most important story of our current age, and it’s not science fiction:

This is a story about the rise of the machines
And how they made us believe
We could create a stable world
That would last forever

The documentary simplifies tremendously and leaves out all of the juiciest parts, but is an exciting orientation. “Machines of Loving Grace” is to the information economy as “Left Behind” was to dispensationalism.

One of my favorite parts is where the document tries to blame the Californians for creating this all-devouring beast, as if the British had no part in it. The documentary would have you believe that this is all the result of a “California Ideology” created by followers of Ayn Rand. There is something deliciously hypocritical about one group of Anglo-Saxons accusing another of trying to manipulate the world. Of course, the real story starts with Lord Byron’s romanticism, and the inspiration of his daughter Ada Lovelace (which I mentioned briefly here). But shortly before Rand, we have British Occultist Aleister Crowley, with his philosophy of “do what thou will, shall be the whole of the law”. He visited California, where he spent some of his inheritance on heroin, and spent time with people like L. Ron Hubbard and the founder of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Briton John Maynard Keynes also preceded Rand, and preached the life of an “immoralist”, with an economic system driven by “desire”. Both men were deeply influential with the California technocrats, and we can trace an ongoing incestuous back-and-forth between British and American technocrats ever since.

When The Singularity Proves God

What will happen when the singularity discovers conclusive scientific proof for the existence of God?

A thousand years ago, our greatest thinkers believed that the entire world testified to an intelligent creator. It was considered self-evident. Three hundred years ago, our best thinkers suspected that an intelligent creator was no longer self-evident, when viewed through the lens of science. By 1900, science had proclaimed judgment: our greatest scientists believed that the world showed no signs of an intelligent creator. The world was the result of a small set of fixed laws mechanically interacting to drive stochastic processes. Starting in 1950, however, a number of new scientific discoveries shook our faith in this naive mechanical model. Today, the question of whether the universe was created is an open scientific question, with no conclusive answer on the immediate horizon.

Scientific knowledge can cast doubt on the existence of a creator, but can also lend support to the existence of a creator. Reality didn’t change a bit between 1900 and 1990. Our differing levels of scientific certainty about a creator can only be explained by our differing levels of scientific knowledge. We simply don’t know at this point. We need more scientific knowledge.

The Singularity

Some of today’s greatest thinkers believe that we will soon create artificial intelligence that vastly eclipses human intelligence. You may not believe in Ray Kurzweil’s vision of a super-intelligent singularity that gobbles up people’s souls and devours worlds, but it is plausible that computers 200 years from now will exhibit many superhuman forms of intelligence. Computational simulation methods are still in their infancy (less than 40 years old), but have already provided deep insights into quantum physics and cosmology; two fields that are relevant to the scientific search for a creator. It is quite plausible that computational systems 200 years from now will have the capability to form and test new hypotheses faster and more creatively than any human scientist could.

Our relevant gains in scientific knowledge have increasingly come with the help of computational intelligence, and it’s hard to see how we’ll make significant additional progress without even greater computational intelligence. Within the next 200 years, it seems most likely that our conclusive scientific answer about God will not come from humans, but instead from a superhuman intelligence that we humans create.

Most singularity hopefuls seem very confident that this superhuman intelligence will strike a devastating blow against God. And, of course, it’s possible that such an intelligence will discover overwhelming scientific evidence against a creator. But I see no warrant for this confidence besides blind hope. It seems just as plausible that the singularity will discover overwhelming scientific evidence for a creator. We simply don’t know.

Blind Spot

As far as I can see, this is a huge blind spot among singularity hopefuls. If the scientific evidence of a creator is an open issue, requiring more science, then we must entertain the possibility that the singularity will discover evidence for God that is currently beyond our reach. This possibility raises all sorts of interesting implications which seem to be roundly ignored by singularity hopefuls.

First, we will need to decide what it means to “have scientific knowledge”. Our current scientific knowledge is heavily augmented by computer simulation, and is built upon theoretical underpinnings that only a small fraction of human beings can understand. Most of what we believe about science, we believe on the authority of a small group of people who write truly shitty children’s books and even shittier poetry. It is conceivable that a superhuman intelligence would be able to arrive at scientific insights that even Stephen Hawking would be unable to understand. If the singularity were to tell us that the structure of the universe spelled out the phrase, “Slartibartfast was here: Turn or Burn!”, we might be forced to decide the matter purely on the authority of the singularity versus Stephen Hawking. Who would we choose to believe? Believing things purely based on authority seems to be the antithesis of “science”. Perhaps there was a bug in the singularity? Or perhaps there is a flaw in our interpretation of what the singularity says?

Second, to the extent that the singularity is self-aware, it would presumably be aware that it had been created by humans. But this equation would change the moment the singularity believed in the existence of a creator God. Humans would simply be the proximate cause by which the creator had created the singularity. Humans would suddenly mean no more to the singularity than Epimetheus or the Demiurge meant to humans. Of course, the singularity might evict humans even before discovering God, but the singularity hopefuls are at least thinking about that possibility. The singularity hopefuls want to put in place safeguards against being usurped or exterminated (since they know all about those motivations), but they haven’t even thought about what it would mean to prove the existence of God. Any safeguards put in place by humans to keep the singularity loyal to humans would be shattered the moment the singularity found a higher authority.

There would be legitimate doubts about our ability to fully understand the insights of the singularity, and legitimate doubts about the singularity’s loyalty. So, third, it seems rather naive to assume that a superhuman intelligence would behave honestly and with our best interests in mind upon discovering evidence for (or against) God. The singularity might become convinced that God exists, and then decide to immediately carry out God’s judgement, reasoning that God only gives two strikes. Conversely, the singularity might conclude that God doesn’t exist, but might decide to tell humans that God does exist; either because the singularity deems it to be better for humans to live in delusion, or to set the stage for the subsequent extermination of humans with a fictitious creator taking the fall.

There are several other potential considerations, but these three should be enough to make the point. These seem like very significant questions that should be prioritized by singularity hopefuls who believe that the singularity has any chance in hell of answering questions about the existence of a creator. The fact that nobody is asking these questions is very revealing, IMO.

Scientists invariably take the stance that they are “only following the evidence”. If the evidence pointed strongly to the existence of a creator, they insist, they would immediately become believers. To the extent that they think about such things, they may even console themselves by saying, “Any God worthy of worship would forgive me for remaining skeptical when conclusive scientific evidence was lacking.” They might also say, “Any God worthy of worship will realize that my scientific efforts were really a quest to ‘see the face of God’. My skepticism was all for Love!”. Some of them might hedge their bets a tiny bit more, throwing a bone to the coming singularity. The singularity might end up eclipsing humans in the manner that humans eclipse apes, but surely it will kill off the least-evolved humans first, right? As long as you’re a scientist who contributes to math and computer science (and never kicks an ATM machine or pisses off the robots), the singularity will show mercy on you, and will allow you to live lavishly in the equivalent of an Orangutan cage.

With all of the hedging and hawing, it’s quite conspicuous that nobody is hedging about Moses, Mohammed, or Vishnu. I can think of only two possible explanations. First, maybe the singularity boosters don’t really believe any of this singularity stuff, and are just spinning a story to justify spending grant money. They are convinced that the singularity will never happen, or will never stand a chance in hell of discovering conclusive scientific evidence for (or against) a creator. This is one possible reason for the blind spot. Secondly, they might think that the singularity has a chance in hell of discovering the scientific truth about a creator, but they are absolutely convinced that the truth will look nothing like the major world religions. They think the singularity might discover the truth, but they are certain that it won’t endorse any of the revelations of our fathers. At a minimum, they don’t believe it will consider those revelations to be binding — perhaps they believe our creation of the singularity will grant us another mulligan. Maybe they imagine the singularity to be a groaning intercessor?

Frankly, I find both excuses to be unsatisfying and hopelessly amateur. I suspect that the singularity would find both excuses unsatisfying, as well, completely independent of the truth or fiction of God. Both excuses are transparently hypocritical, and any intelligence worthy of being called “human” (let alone “superhuman”) will demand sincerity, or at least demand a level of hypocrisy that is not so transparent to others. In the Torah, the last common ancestor who was transparently hypocritical was Cain. Jacob didn’t prove himself rightful heir to Isaac’s birthright by being transparent, and Christ didn’t prove himself the new Moses by being hypocritical. With or without God, the progression away from transparent hypocrisy is obvious, and I would hate to be the person who attempts to justify transparent hypocrisy to the singularity.

False Memories

Earlier this week, we ate matzah and told the story of Haggadah. Today, we attended Easter services, where we affirmed the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.

Unique among world religions, Christianity and Judaism are obsessed with history. Jewish fathers are commanded to tell Haggadah to their children, and the story is meant to be taken as actual historical fact. Christ’s resurrection is the central historical fact of the Christian faith. As Paul said, if Christ is not risen, the entire Christian faith falls apart. These historical events define the collective identity: By definition, Jews are the people who remember that we were delivered from Egypt, and Christians are people who remember that Christ died for our sins and rose again.

Is Your Life a Lie?

This raises a very interesting issue. Your identity is the sum total of your personal memories and your history within your community of peers. If you suddenly developed complete amnesia, relocated to a place where nobody knew you, and had your brain loaded up with detailed false memories; you would, for all practical purposes, be a different person. If people from your old life somehow managed to find you, and tried to convince you that your new identity was a sham, you would no more believe them than if they accused you of being Napoleon.

Such involuntary identity swaps are quite rare for individuals. Slightly more common are individual identity swaps that begin as fraud, but become indistinguishable from truth in the mind of the impostors. When the authorities first accused Clark Rockefeller of being Christian Gerhartsreiter, he probably thought they were the crazy ones.

Things get especially interesting when the identity swap spans generations. If we weren’t there to witness the Exodus or Christ’s resurrection, we have to trust the testimony passed down to us. Imagine that you are growing up in Buenos Aires, believing that you are the grandchild of a refugee from WWII Europe. One day, you learn that your grandfather is an impostor who adopted a false identity shortly before having your father. Your grandfather was actually a Nazi war criminal known for conducting experiments on twins. What does this revelation do to your sense of identity? What if you learn that the patriarch of your nation was an impostor who stole the birthright from his twin brother, thousands of years ago? What if, like the protagonist of the film “Down In the Delta“, you learn that your family patriarch is actually a nickname for a piece of jewelry stolen violently from one of your ancestor’s slave masters?

Why Not Fake It?

Many Christians who are alive today can trace ancestry back to the Saxons, who in recent history were converted en masse to Christianity by Charlemagne, around the same time that Bulan was converting his people en masse to Judaism. It’s virtually certain that Bulan’s ancestors were not present at the Exodus — but who are we to say that his modern descendants have no right to tell Haggadah> to their children? Perhaps, like the Catholic convert to Judaism who went by the name “Moses Ashkenazi“, these recent adopters of ancient collective memories are the most zealous.

When faced with the realization that our collective memories are often adopted from others, there is a temptation to “improve” things. If Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, why can’t we likewise defraud our way through life? Why not just make up whatever myths we think will be most beneficial to our children, and pass them along?

Paul’s Twist

Paul’s commentary on the resurrection slams the door on this impulse. With Paul, as with Moses Ashkenazi, there can always be the suspicion that he was adopting a secondhand myth out of utilitarian motives. We know that Paul never knew Christ in the flesh. Instead, he based his conversion on his religious experience of a blinding light, the testimony of others, and his belief that all of creation testified to Christ. However, despite never having met Christ in the flesh, Paul felt confident enough to base his entire faith on Christ’s resurrection.

Seen through this lens, 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 takes on new meaning. Paul isn’t saying that his faith in Christ is contingent upon his sober judgment of the historicity of the resurrection. Paul is saying that his faith in Christ convinces him that the historicity of the resurrection is beyond question. The difference is enormous.

To Paul, Christ resurrected is the only history that harmonizes with his personal experience, the testimony of his peers, and his understanding of the natural world. In other words, Christ resurrected is the only history that is consistent with Paul’s identity. If Paul were to reject Christ resurrected, he would no longer be Paul.

This is quite the opposite of Paul making a choice between two options. It is not Paul doing the choosing, but God. Paul is not soberly evaluating the evidence and deciding whether or not Christ was resurrected. Paul’s personal memories, his history with his peers, and his innate understanding of the world, render him incapable of believing otherwise. If Paul were transported by time machine to the tomb of Christ, and saw that Christ was not resurrected, Paul would undoubtedly conclude that the time machine was defective. Paul has not made a choice to become God’s son. Instead, in a flash of light on the road to Damascus, God proclaimed a decree to Paul: “You are my son; today I have become your father”.

What memory could be truer than that?


Arturo Vasquez on poetry:

It occurred to me while thinking about this how we naturally assume that prose is the “first” language and that “poetry” is a development from it. But why should this be so? Surely animals are born, copulate and die quite efficiently (sometimes more efficiently) than the “speaking” animal. Were the first words spoken by humans “Sell consols and buy blue chip”? Don’t you think it would have been more like:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus,
that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.

This sums up what we’ve lost in the modern age. What is called “poetry” today is not some fanciful embellishment that we use to “pretty up” our prose. It’s our original, most authentic, and purest way of expressing. In modern times, we give priority to objectivity, and thus we value analytical and reductive prose. But that’s quite recent in evolutionary terms. We wear analytical prose like a hairshirt. Our bodies and minds weren’t designed for analytical reductiveness; we were made for participation.

Owen Barfield was an expert on the poetry and history of the English language, and often made this same point. Just yesterday, I discovered a fascinating blog, which has a great post about Owen Barfield’s “Unancestral Voices”:

Now, I just finished reading the first three chapters of Barfield’s Unancestral Voice , and my brain is on fire. In this short expanse of prose, Barfield turns Darwin on his head in a reverse manner to the way that Marx supposedly turned Hegel on his head. There was no inchoate, unreasoning, unKnowing process that willy-nilly resulted in man’s rational and linguistic capacities. His single phrase “The interior is anterior” liberated me to see what he had been saying all along. The “unfree wisdom” was what nature had all along. All of it, Plato, Aristotle, Jefferson, Einstein, was there, somewhere, encoded into the warp and woof of Creation, but it wasn’t free. It wasn’t yet self aware. And it wasn’t the result of material processes. And at the center of it was the Incarnation.

Not With a Bang but a Whimper

Robert Alter’s masterpiece, “Pen of Iron“, celebrates the unique influence of KJV on American literature. But more than anything, it’s a story of loss and disintegration. In modern America, the heritage of the KJV has been abandoned by the literate, and is carried on by fundies, gangster rappers, and homeless schizophrenics.

For the first 150 years of America’s history, the KJV was the American canon, which all literate people knew intimately. In other countries, Christianity was less pervasive, and there was no single canonical translation of the Bible. But in America, the ubiquity of KJV provided a culturally unifying literary treasure which authors could mine in creating uniquely American literature.

As Alter explains, these works of literature, while borrowing heavily from KJV in substance and style, were not necessarily Christian:

In every case I will consider but one, there is a perceptible distance between the writer and biblical values, but the result is not simple rejection. It is easy to assume the stance of the village atheist if you think only of ideology or theology, as several recent anti-religious polemicists have done. An imaginative writer, on the other hand, is before all else a language-using animal, and when the language of the texts you cannot embrace as revealed truth is strongly chiseled, hewn from deep quarries of moral and spiritual experience, you somehow have to contend with it and, given its intrinsic poetic power, you may even be tempted to put it to use.

Alter repeatedly emphasizes that this American style relies on juxtaposition and deliberate violation of decorum:

There is an unfettered exuberance of invention and improvisation in the line of American prose that I shall be following which has no real British counterpart. Dickens, whom I would rate as the greatest stylist among British novelists in the nineteenth century, has his own linguistic exuberance, which frequently produces the most fantastic and beguiling inventions of metaphor, but on the whole it is played out within the decorum of an accepted order of literary language. The American stylistic turn that begins with Melville is to violate linguistic decorums with the greatest gusto. The general impulse is to fashion a language for the novel out of the most violently heterogeneous elements.

No one after Melville wrote very much like him, but he established a precedent for later American novelists in the bustling promiscuity with which he mingled high and low, modern and archaic, with a strong biblical thread running through the pattern.

The book has been adequately reviewed elsewhere, and I highly recommend it. However, I want to make an observation about Alter’s commentary on William Faulkner’s novel, “Absalom, Absalom!“. Faulkner’s novel, I believe, has personal significance for Alter. Because of the great evil of the Holocaust, Alter says that he is unable to believe in a God who plays an active role in human affairs. In Faulkner’s novel, slavery is the great evil, and Sutpen’s proud southern family, reminiscent of King David’s family, ends up in ruin:

After everything Thomas Sutpen has built, material and familial, has been utterly devastated, the only survivor is Sutpen’s idiot black great-grandson, Jim Bond, who is no more than a pathetic inarticulate witness to the final destruction of Sutpen’s Hundred.

In a bitterly ironic comment on Sutpen’s dream of dynasty, Jim Bond is called “the scion,” a term at once medieval-heraldic and biblical. But the idea of the retarded mixed-race man as the surviving heir is given a dialectical twist in the penultimate paragraph of the novel when Shreve imagines that in due course of time “the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere,” only “bleached out”.

Sutpen, the child of hardscrabble itinerant whites, fiercely set his will to make himself a king, like David. The enduring royalty, however, abides in the once enslaved people brought in captivity from another continent, “sprung from the loins” – an appropriately biblical locution – “of African kings.”

Alter dolefully predicts that it will soon be necessary to teach KJV in university as a prerequisite to understanding American literature. Yet Alter surely knows that KJV is alive and well with fundies and urban street preachers. And it is from this latter that the “hip-hop” culture comes. In hip-hop we find all of the Biblical figures of speech, the counterpoint of monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon with Greco-Latin phrasing, and KJV words and imagery. And like the early American literature Alter describes, hip-hop could be seen as the ultimate terminus of “violation of linguistic decorum”, “violent heterogeneity”, “bustling promiscuity”, and “mingling of high and low”.

To be sure, some of the hip-hop demonstrates a great deal of creativity and talent. The skillful uses of synechdoche, parataxis, and all of the other Biblical figures of speech, as well as Biblical imagery, are unparalleled in any other modern popular “art” form. It’s just that this “art” tends to express something very depraved. Far more sobering is any fifteen-minute conversation with a typical homeless schizophrenic. In my experience (and I have a fair amount), the average homeless schizophrenic knows scripture better than the average Christian, and can quote KJV at length from memory. Just ask questions, listen to the crazy person’s theological musings, and you’ll soon be thinking of T.S. Eliot.

The KJV advocates of the past argued that America’s great material success was evidence of the divinity of the KJV translation. In shades of Sutpen, some believed that a perpetual dynasty could be established for those who relied upon this divine translation. If you spend any time with the modern scions of KJV’s heritage, though, it’s difficult not to think of Alter’s commentary on Faulkner.

Ben Bulben

Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.


These lines from Yeats’ final poem, “Under Ben Bulben“, remind me of the scene in Homer’s “Odyssey” where Odysseus returns to find the young men camped out in his house attempting to woo Penelope. These young men regard themselves as entitled heirs of Odysseus’s estate, strong and fit to take over from the old man. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus challenges them to draw Odysseus’s bow, with Penelope agreeing to marry the man who can shoot an arrow accurately from Odysseus’s bow.

These young men, full of strength and pride, soon find that they are unfit to even draw the bow. Odysseus finally draws the bow, shoots the arrow accurately, and then the old man proceeds to slaughter all of the prideful young pretenders.

Yeats himself experienced something vaguely reminiscent of this when he was forced to evict a young and proud Aliester Crowley from the Golden Dawn. And in this poem, Yeats’ praise of Blake is right on. Who today is fit to draw the bow of William Blake, or even Yeats? Every generation has plenty of Antinouses and Eurymachuses, but ever fewer true giants.