Thoughts on How to Travel with a Salmon and Five Moral Pieces

I recently read two short books of talks, columns, and essays by Umberto Eco, and their differences could not be greater. One is largely satirical or personal, and the other full of critical analysis of society. They do have in common Eco’s extraordinary erudition and wisdom and a consistent theme of advocating logic. Explosive flashes of epigrammatic brilliance smolder from the lines as they blister the pretensions and vacuities of modern life. Many of these columns were written from the 70’s up through the early 90’s, and likewise, the moral pieces were composed mostly before new millennium – though most of the insights and commentary remain timeless. For decades, Eco wrote columns for newspapers and the news magazine L’Espresso, and the first book is a collection of selected columns.

While his novels are often witty and satirical, like Foucault’s Pendulum, they are not often funny in the manner of provoking laughter. But reading excerpted columns from How to Travel with a Salmon[1] I laughed out loud, by myself, several times. I was, in fact, shocked at how funny some of them were. These columns are mostly on the topic of, or somehow related to, travel – and most of them are making vicious fun of bureaucracies. He also tackles common, even stereotypical, topics of travel gripes, like airplane food. Though this particular comedy cliché may remind the reader of the Seinfeldian-style of observational comedy (often stylized as “What’s the deal with airplane peanuts?”), his take is original and humorous. Many of these stories are autobiographical fictionalizations of Eco’s own extensive travel for his academic work, though some are pure fiction without the pretense of reality.

A Cellini salt cellar, I had to look it up, beautiful- uploaded to Wikipedia by user Jononmac46

Here is one that is so good, entitled “How to Go Through Customs,” I want to include the entire opening paragraph:

The other night, after an amorous tryst with one of my numerous mistresses, I did away with my partner, bludgeoning her to death with a rare Cellini saltcellar. I was inspired not only by the strict moral code instilled in me since childhood, according to which a woman who indulges in the pleasures of the senses is unworthy of mercy, but also by an esthetic motive: namely, to experience the thrill of the perfect crime. I waited, listening to a CD of English baroque water music, until the corpse was cold and the blood had congealed; then, with an electric saw, I began dismembering the body, trying at the same time to adhere to certain fundamental anatomical principles, thus paying a tribute to our culture, without which refinement and the social contract would not exist. Finally, I packed the pieces in two suitcases of oryx hide, put on a gray suit, and caught the wagon-lit for Paris. Once I had handed over my passport and a scrupulous customs declaration to the conductor, listing the few hundred francs I was carrying on my person, I slept like a log, for nothing encourages repose more than the sense of having performed one’s duty. Nor did customs venture to disturb a traveler who, merely by purchasing a private berth in first class, asserted ipso facto his membership in the hegemonic class and thus his status as a person above suspicion. (pg. 23)

There is even a column that is in the form of an epistolary sci-fi story which satirizes our foolish tribalism and nationalism, and of course, government bureaucracy. Through these columns you really get a sense of his exasperation toward the everyday foibles of Italy, while also receiving his wariness of Italian political extremism (and the vacuity of Italian politics). Eco’s character pokes through the writing: at base he was an incessant intellectual laborer. Yet for all his relentless learning, Eco remains grounded in the mundane sorrows and strivings and joys of his life and retains self-awareness. Eco pokes fun at himself and his own voluminous learning in columns like “How to Take Intelligent Vacations” where he produces a “summer vacation reading list” that includes obscure medieval treatises on subjects like optics, and makes fun of his own status as literary celebrity and public intellectual in pieces like “Editorial Revision”:

On the other hand, after I ended a novel of mine with the verse of Bernard de Morlay beginning, “Stat rosa pristina nomine,” I was informed by some philologists that certain other extant manuscripts read, on the contrary, “Stat Roma,” which, for that matter, would make more sense because the preceding verses refer to the disappearance of Babylon. What would have happened if I had in consequence entitled my novel The Name of Rome? I would have had a preface by John Paul II, who no doubt would have made me a Papal Count. Or someone would have made a movie with Sean Connery in a toga. (pg. 178)

It is interesting to see what has changed and what hasn’t. Travel has changed in significant cultural manners, if not in substance, and the most notable change is probably in the culture of train travel. In America at least, train travel is almost exclusively used in commuting now, not a method of popular travel outside of inner-city movement. This is the context in which reading Eco now resembles looking into the past. Though more significant cultural changes can be detected in how he speaks about the people of the “Third World” and the “lower classes.” Eco does not self-censor, saying what he means to say, even if it would often be considered indelicate now. He seems to disdain political correctness for having the form, but lacking the substance, of acceptance and non-discrimination.

Eco was also a keen observer of the impacts of media and technology on society, particularly in the impact of television and the press on how we view the world, often noting how these mediums have disconnected us from reality. Eco is forever concerned that we stay within the confines of the real and corporeal – the human body is ever-present in his writing and is the touchstone of his ethics and fears.

Personification of the virtue of Prudence – the ability to govern oneself by use of reason (according to Merriam-Webster) – etching from the Met by Abraham Bosse, 1636

In contrast to these columns are his serious reflections on serious topics in Five Moral Pieces[2], revealing a profound sense of fairness and an ethics grounded in those same deep-seated values of realism and inquiry.

The five moral pieces are: “Reflections on War” – written during the Gulf War, “When the Other Appears on the Scene” – Eco’s side of an epistolary debate where he defends a secular morality against a Cardinal, “On the Press” – a speech on the nature and characteristics of the modern press and its relationship with politics and television, the famous “Ur-Fascism” – a (now-famous) examination of the fundamental characteristics of Fascism, and “Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable” – an agglomeration of meditations about discrimination and fundamentalism. Eco sparkles when discussing the impacts of communications technology on the world, and on how we view the world. Fascism and war in Eco’s youth were not abstractions, but formative experiences, revealing the depth of illogic and inhumanity of which we are capable. Ethics, therefore, is no abstraction, but a tangible necessity of Eco’s conception of the life of the intellectual. And it is the life of the intellectual which is the core of all of Eco’s commitments. The embrace of rationality leads to wherever it may lead for Eco, but he is dedicated to this as the first principle of humanitarianism.

Eco’s commentary on the Gulf War acknowledges the changing nature of war in an era of global communications, and the changes in the perception and commentary on war those changes have themselves engendered. He maintains a steadfast opposition to war, no matter its perceived righteousness, as an intellectual imperative of humanity. War is now, by definition, all-encompassing in nature because of modern communications and transportation technology – it negatively impacts everyone across the entire earth, involved or not, opposed or allied to one side or the other, says Eco.

The complexity and interconnection of both modern war and the modern world ensures that clear goals can never be attained, and that, instead of war being a continuation of politics, politics is now a continuation of war. It is interesting that he should see this shift from Clausewitz’s “war as a continuation of politics” to “politics as a continuation of war” as a positive development, insisting that the morality of the Cold War, though full of its violence and injustices, was much preferable to the horrors of a hot war. This argument underscores his dedication to following the logic of his positions, and for maintaining a consistency in his anti-war view, despite the circumstances and nature of any particular war.

I cannot say that all of the essay holds up well, it is a certain reflection of the place and time of its writing and he grapples with the new realities of war appearing for the first time at scale in the Gulf War. Eco would probably be dismayed (maybe he was) by the de facto censorship in American media of the grim images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A large part of his description of modern war here involves the media being everywhere and not capable of being censored. In America the last 20 years, censorship (if not official) did exist, but perhaps more importantly, as a whole, the American people didn’t care about the wars, and they did not impact the “peaceful” economy. Burnout, which he says is the inevitable outcome of using new technology in his essay on the press later in this volume, impacted Americans in a way he did not anticipate. On the uncertainties of war, he is definitely correct, as recent events in Ukraine can attest.

The second essay, a letter to a Cardinal on the subject of the possibility of morality in a state of atheism, Eco explicitly draws a universal ethics out of universal principles that do not involve the supernatural. All global ethics can be derived, Eco argues, from merely understanding what causes pain for ourselves and our own bodies, and in the case of remorse, in our own minds. Freedom for ourselves, literal physical freedom from confinement, freedom to evacuate our waste and other basic, fundamental imperatives of being a living organism can inform how humans should act toward one another. This offers an almost mathematical axiom on the order of Euclid for human morality that perhaps a Christian would recognize: “what causes pain or discomfort to me must also cause pain and discomfort to other creatures like me.” A topic evolved in the humanism of the Renaissance, the focus on the human body, even with its unpleasant grotesqueries, is placed at the forefront of our lives and minds. This a stance almost like Rabelais, with the heightened focus on corporeality serving as a counterweight to the abstraction of the complex symbolism of modern societies. As a matter of fact, this argument could possibly be made in much the same way in a Rabelaisian voice of the early 16th century as it is here with the Cardinal. I’m not sure a civil debate involving the advocation of atheism would’ve been a cause for celebration to Martin Luther or Pope Paul III, but the form of the argument could be translated without difference. Eco’s argument is completely from logical precepts extending into a moral function, it does not require any knowledge of modernity or modern science. This has the value of displaying to us the power and force of logic, which does not need any props from scientific advances.

In Eco’s commentary on the press he delineates the impact that television has had on the newspapers, and, in turn, the impact the change in the focus of politicians to the medium of television has had on society. Television’s fight for the attention of the citizen and its tendency to be self-referential leads to more and more extreme divisions and a devaluation of intellectual discourse. The press is used as a tool of politicians instead of a tool of the citizens holding politicians to account. Any claim made by a politician gets repeated ad infinitum, until the actual substance and context is lost and the full control of content and opinion is in their hands. The delirious hunt for content and its incessant elevation of trivialities into scandals creates distrust in the reader and systematically destroys the authority of the press.

The loss of “authority” has initiated some of the most noticeable and drastic phenomenon of the internet age. If we don’t trust the news, and we don’t trust the government, and we don’t trust Church or school, where are we to find the organizing principles of mass society? Some would argue that we don’t need organizing principles, or that they can be localized, I would point to the forms of spontaneous organization swirling around us and disagree. We have to live in the context of our era, and the institution of the nation-state will not just dissolve, it will change, but it won’t disappear tomorrow. As long as we have any point of singular control (or overwhelming influence) for law, policy, wealth distribution, and the military as we do with our national governments, we will fight over the organization of society and form larger groups to achieve larger aims. Media in all its forms continues to influence social organization.

It is notable that the ever-increasing volume of printed media and television programming started to undermine authority before the internet was ubiquitous, according to Eco. As part of a natural process involving the specific types of competition that newspaper and television engaged in, the natural consequences led to devaluation of intellectual discourse and increased self-reference. At the end of this piece, after noting all these phenomena, which I think have generally held-up well, he does consider the future impact of the internet. Perhaps in this the complexity of the current situation was far too great to make predictions, but I think he makes a generally good point when mentioning the fact of information overload and how that could lead to a kind of renewal of gatekeeping by “educated elites” through the mechanism he calls the “censorship of excess.” This may be correct, except it doesn’t appear to be the “educated elites” who are curating the news so much as the complexity has created multiple, uneven centers of new authority.

Fasces, symbol of strength in unity, justice, and authority in Ancient Rome – created by user Viseslav on Wikipedia

“Ur-Fascism” is probably Eco’s most internationally famous work of non-fiction. In this piece he lays out what he considers to be the defining features of Fascism, the general rules of the functioning of the Fascistic society. He begins by recounting his childhood in Fascist Italy and defining Mussolini’s version of Fascism. Right in the second paragraph Eco states that “…freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric” (pg 66). Later on in the essay, it becomes clear that what he means is that the fundamental lack of meaning contained in the constant rhetoric of Fascism, with Mussolini’s version as an exemplar, is restrictive of the free and open discourse which characterizes a democratic society. If words don’t represent ideas or reality, they confuse and stultify their hearers. This foreshadows his groupings of the features of the Platonic form of Fascism, which all involve the suppression of reason. Eco says that any single item on his list can be used as a basis to form a Fascist political group, but that the presence of any of these features does not mean a political movement is Fascist. I will list them briefly here, because who doesn’t love a good list?[3]

  1. The Cult of Tradition
  2. Rejection of Modernism
  3. The Cult of Action for Action’s Sake
  4. Disdain of Critical Analysis
  5. Exploitation of the Natural Fear of Difference
  6. Direct Emotional Appeals to a Frustrated Middle Class
  7. Obsession with a Plot/Group of Plotters
  8. Viewing the Plotters as Simultaneously Powerful and Weak
  9. Pacificism as Weakness/Life as Eternal Warfare
  10. Contempt of the Weak Combined with Popular Elitism (the common adherent is viewed as a member of the elite of society, regardless of their commonality)
  11. The Cult of the Hero/Cult of Death for a Heroic Cause
  12. Selective Populism (holding a minority of adherents to be the Vox Populi and acting as if they were the majority)
  13. Reliance on Newspeak (without a complex vocabulary, people cannot discuss complex ideas) (pgs. 78-86)

As the list lengthens, the natures of the features grow more interconnected despite Eco’s caveat that any of the ideas can be a source of Fascism. Starting with the cult of tradition, the heart of these ideas is that knowledge and rationality should be rejected in favor of the basic impulses of humanity. The idea of the cult of tradition that there is a profound and hidden ancient wisdom that exists and therefore there can be no new knowledge, flows logically to the next ideas of syncretic culture (since no new wisdom can be imagined), rejection of modernism (because the Enlightenment produced moral failure), the cult of action (because thinking is a product of rational enlightenment), and disdain of critical analysis (because that threatens the cult of tradition, since it is an illogical belief). The first four items, then, are all derived from the rejection of coherent ideology. Traditionalism is used to mask the fact that there is no intellectual content in the belief system, papered over instead by an uncritical syncretism which combines various aspects of previous ideologies despite any contradictions.

Exploitation of the natural fear of difference allows for the theme which connects the next few points. Amongst humans’ most primitive instincts is distrust of those not connected to their immediate social group. Education and complex ideas and institutions are necessary to allay this fear and allow broad cooperation, but it is always lurking deep in all of our minds. This primordial instinct can be used by those seeking power by appealing to a specific audience, enunciated in point 6, where Eco writes: “Ur-Fascism springs from individual or social frustration…” (pg. 81). It is a fearful middle class that is under economic distress or perceived disenfranchisement that wants to protect itself from those above and below in the social hierarchy. This is the nexus where conspiratorial thinking becomes the connecting principle between several of these points. The plotters and amorphous groups which are a threat to the adherents of the Fascistic political movement are forever hidden and resilient, unable to be clearly defined or destroyed, they serve as a perpetual tool to describe and animate the political movement and its supporters. Conspiracy theories are not falsifiable by nature (evidence against the conspiracy existing is taken as proof of a coverup or some other aspect of the conspiracy) and innuendo and association serve the purposes of evidence, and therefore can be used to justify anything, including the delusion of a minority being the majority, or that a person can be heroic fighting against a non-existent enemy.

Instead of a guide to the explicit nature of Fascism which it is often presented as, it can be read as a type of warning of the kind of features which an intellectually-degraded society exhibits. A Fascistic society is one in which logic has failed and the moral weight of the society has sunk to the level of the meanest individuals. Force and emotion have overcome reason. As in all things with Eco, one cannot escape the topic of semiotics, and this is perhaps one of his best examples in non-fiction where he incorporates this framework. Eco believes that cultural phenomenon are also signs, and therefore social and political movements can be understood through the functions of signs and the encoding of symbols. In the Fascistic society the symbols of politics and social organization are altered from a well-functioning, tolerant society by various types of cognitive distortions, by ruptures in logic. So rather than say, “these are fundamental aspects of Fascism,” I would say that a feature of anti-democratic and intolerant political movements is that their intellectual underpinnings are hollow. When you dig there is nothing there besides rhetoric.

There is something like the tendency of medical students to diagnose themselves with illnesses in the nature of the description of Fascism here. It is easy to point to almost any political movement and observe at least some of these principles, or even many of them. I think it is almost trivial at this point to equate Trump’s MAGA movement with these principles, since it conforms to almost every entry. This essay was popularly used to point this out at the time Trump entered the public consciousness as a serious political entity (look up Ur-Fascism on Google and at least half of the early results are articles using it to diagnose Trump/MAGA as Fascistic). I will not bother with that now but would point out that the list of ideological or rhetorical features are common around the world, in dictatorships and free societies. This is not to be dismissive, because in fact, it is fearsome. The endless appeal of conspiratorial thinking is its ability to form order from chaos and to relieve the believer of responsibility for their lives. As a political tool the appeal to irrational beliefs finds success in Brazil just as it does in Thailand, and has worked when it flowed from the pen of Marat in the late 18th century as it works in the production of video segments by Alex Jones in the early 21st.

Ur-Fascism packs a lot of explanations of organized human behavior in a small space. While it is sometimes abused to point beyond its intentions (and misquoted), it is right that it is so celebrated and reproduced. It also serves as yet another defense of intellectualism and science extending to morality, this time in the political realm.

In keeping with the theme of the dangers associated with politics in the previous two pieces, he focuses on the vicious impacts of intolerance on society, and the ultimate moral duty of the intellectual to frame our decisions using logic, instead of in animalistic tribalism and violence. First, he distinguishes between immigration and migration, with immigration being a controlled process that involves assimilation and migration being an uncontrolled process where entire groupings of humans move and bring their culture with them. Intolerance is easy in a society that controls immigration, as immigrants can be confined to ghettos, but intolerance becomes an ineffective stance when dealing with the overwhelming nature of migration. And, he warns with prescience, that migration is coming to Europe whether people like it or not, and that it will probably lead to violence. After the dislocations of the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War, when migration from Africa and the Middle East caused severe social and political disruptions in the nations of Europe (and the tragedies of exploitation, internment, and the numerous instances of mass drownings visited on the migrants themselves), it is easy to place this essay in context of actual, historical events. It is no abstraction or idle musing of moral philosophy: intolerance is pervasive and harmful. Eco writes that intolerance itself can take numerous forms, and it is dangerous when it becomes a doctrine, a form of fundamentalism that will not allow dissent, and disables a logical appraisal of situations and circumstances. Combatting this intolerance with education is his solution, and also with laws where appropriate, but he warns that the expansion of intolerance into doctrine can become a political problem. No doubt the reference made here to a regime of fundamentalism in intolerance, where he says the wealthy theorize and the poor put into practice, is again referring to the danger of Fascism. Intellectuals must combat intolerance before the praxis of fundamentalism takes hold, because then it is too late.

Through Eco’s compendium of knowledge, we can almost see the ascent of humanity from ignorance and poverty to knowledge and wealth – and the errors that attended that transformation. We are still venal, and tribal, and vicious. In that aspect of humanity Eco, though an academic, is not naïve. He manages to say profound and piercing statements in every other sentence when taking up the mantle of a moralist as part of his duty as a public intellectual. In the form of the observational comedian he produces a mirror to reflect to us the absurdities and arbitrary roles and rules we’ve inflicted upon ourselves. What these pieces reveal about Eco himself is the strength of his powers of observation. His ability to distill the aspects of a thorny problem, or a feature of modern life, or a change in political communication to its most basic nature is extraordinary. Not quantitative, but based in empiricism nonetheless, these columns and essays attempt to define the boundaries of the definitions of cruel, ignorant, and foolish behaviors and actions and to place the living and breathing human in the abstract debate over the nature ethics and forms of government. While attempting these definitions there is also an exhortation to accept the incompleteness of any definition, to accept the irreducibility of the complexities of reality. There is an implicit proclamation to stop trying to systematize and categorize unnatural concepts and forcefully impose a meaning on the events and attitudes of the world. For this simple yet difficult-to-accept injunction alone it is worth reading these works.

[1] Eco, Umberto, and William Weaver. How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays. Trans. William Weaver. First edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1994. Print.

[2] Eco, Umberto. Five Moral Pieces. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

[3] Eco was obsessed by lists and their power to be greater than the sum of their parts (that would be a different post altogether) and organized this just as I have here, though with explanations of each item. I have changed some of the wording to make it simpler and clearer.

Thoughts on As I Lay Dying

Note: This book is over 90 years old…this post contains spoilers. I also mention an episode of sexual assault which happens in the book.
First edition cover of As I Lay Dying – via Heritage Auctions

William Faulkner’s famous novel begins with a set of descriptions of uncertain gravity and significance, but with an almost geometric precision (bolded lines and words mine, as well as ellipses):

…following the path in single file…The path runs straight as a plumb-line… to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again… Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path. When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window…  (1)[1]

And the novel proceeds in this manner, slipping unpredictably between abstraction and precision, asking us, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what do we know about the world around us? What do we know about one another? What do we know about how others think and how do we convey our thoughts to others? How do we make sense of our lives, and of the fact that our death waits for us? These are nothing less than the fundamental questions of our lives, especially if you stand idle, thinking too much.

Published in 1930, the book describes a family, in a rural and isolated portion of Faulkner’s invented county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, and their odyssey to bury their deceased matriarch next to her parents, grandparents, and other direct kin in the nearby town of Jefferson – pointedly not next to her husband’s family. Proceeding with horses and mules and wagons, as the world around them begins to team with cars and conveniences of modern life, this is an absurd family marooned in the rural past. The dirt-poor family with the hard life could be a source of pathos – and the novel is often dark, even depressing and maybe nihilistic, but Faulkner has us smiling at the family’s ignorance and mocking their duplicity.

Each chapter in the novel is voiced by a different character, with most of the chapters being spoken by members of the family which is the focus of the novel: the Bundrens. The family consists of the children Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Cash, the father Anse, and even the dying mother from beyond(?) the grave, Addie. As far as stream-of-consciousness goes, the label often given to the writing in this novel, it is readable, unlike Joyce’s fevered works. We do get the different perspectives of people with unusual viewpoints, levels of education, intelligence, and age all in their own unique voice.

Things go wrong for the family from the beginning. While Addie lays dying, the family prepares for her departure and the impending travel to the town of her birth and upbringing. A storm that begins the night of her death which portends suffering and difficulty all around. All the normal routes over the river are impassable because flooding has destroyed the bridges, so they struggle, with the help of their neighbors, along their journey – sleeping in barns or being threatened out of small towns. During this journey, we also get to know the past and the various experiences and viewpoints of the family – their sins and aspirations.

Cash builds his mother’s coffin and breaks a leg, Jewel quarrels and curses, and loves and hates his horse, Vardaman dreams of buying a toy train and is convinced his mother is fish, Darl questions the nature of reality, starts a fire, and gets arrested, Dewey Dell seeks an abortion, and Anse laments his lack of teeth, and claims that if he has to work and sweat that he’ll die. He is passive and incompetent, maybe in order to manipulate everyone he meets. Anse drives the journey forward though, with his insistence that he promised Addie he would bury her in the town of Jefferson and that they must proceed no matter what.

The novel rewards deep reading as repetitions stream before your eyes to fill the pages after you orient yourself in the cataracts of the snaking chapters. In the chapter after that first one, described by Darl in mathematical terms, with its circles and squares and ones and twos, the next chapter also has many ones and twos as Cora Tull, the self-righteous, religious neighbor, counts her chickens and eggs and their output. And there’s repetitions of colors, and horizontal and vertical, and differences of perspective, and an importance attached to wood, and incessant references to characters’ eyes – windows to the soul as the cliché goes, after all. There is the confusing division between the living and dead (and the animal and human, apparently), the ill and healthy, the town and country, the educated and ignorant – all are subjective differences (to some at least) that have impact and import to the characters in the novel.

What stayed with me, after I had finished, and thought the novel curious because it was hard to categorize as a story, were the things that didn’t make sense to me. They returned to me over and over again, as I found myself wondering why Darl sets a fire, interpreting how comic the dark scenes are and the absurdity of dragging the rotting corpse in the coffin around with them, why the discussions of lineage, is the novel really about itself – the novel’s own structure revealing something about what Faulkner was hinting at without the use of inadequate words, especially in all that geometric language and repeated motifs of verticality (variously associated with living, immobility, the past…) and horizontality (associated with movement, change, and the future…)?

The primary narrator, Darl, stretches into abstraction to the point of madness throughout the novel, with early chapters lucid, if not odd, and later chapters growing increasingly bizarre. Darl also describes events in places where he is not present. He narrates early chapters about the completion of Addie’s coffin by Cash while he is on the road, attempting to bring a load of lumber into town. He seems to know things about other characters through uncertain means and his internal monologues underscore the existential questions posed by the novel, about what it means to live and die in a temporal world.

Addie turns up at the hinge of the novel, after a climactic scene just past halfway through, to narrate her own chapter from the grave (or perhaps, out of time altogether), and provides the missing context for understanding the family and adds depth to the motifs. Addie’s chapter is stunning in presenting her harshness, aloofness, and a streak of cruelty. She is presented as intelligent and educated in a way that her children and neighbors are not. Her psychological burdens and philosophical agonies load her from her youth, where she begins her chapter, telling the reader she found pleasure in whipping the children when she was a schoolmaster. Addie marries Anse and eventually cheats on him with her minister, producing the child Jewel, who, it is remarked over and over, never treated her well. Each character in some ways mirrors their mother’s experience as well. Jewel loves a horse that is ill-tempered, just as his mother loved him though he did not reciprocate. Dewey Dell is impregnated in an “immoral” manner, just as Addie was by the minister.

Faulkner’s sharpest commentary about the family comes from the mouths of his quirkiest (and least intelligent) characters, take these sentences from Dewey Dell’s first chapter:

Pa dassent sweat because he will catch his death from the sickness so everybody that comes to help us. And Jewel dont care about anything he is not kin to us in caring, not care-kin. And Cash like sawing the long hot sad yellow days up into planks and nailing them to something. And pa thinks because neighbors will always treat one another that way because he has always been too busy letting neighbors do for him to find out. And I did not think that Darl would, that sits at the supper table with his eyes gone further than the food and the lamp, full of the land dug out of his skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land. (23)

This may not be an explication of the symbology of the entire novel, but it’s a good summary of the basic characters and natures of her family members.

The most expressive and poetic prose is within the thematic confines of the characters of the novel. Take Darl’s expressions in a middle chapter and a chapter near the end, as his madness grows:

Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again. (123)

How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls. (183)

Some of the foreshadowing of the slight mysteries of the novel that keep you turning the pages is almost heavy-handed, and their revelations are not a surprise – but the ending of the novel almost made me reimagine the entire preceding length. Not just “the ending” but, literally, the final two lines of the novel makes all the earlier chapters a set-up for a punchline:

“It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,” pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. “Meet Mrs Bundren,” he says.

Addie’s psychological agony and the humiliation of the Bundren family are played for dark humor but are also so tragic as to make the reader wince. Dewey Dell is impregnated out of wedlock (certainly a social disaster in 1930), an ignorant and stupid girl being taken advantage of, and then is subjected to what would now probably be considered a form of rape by a clerk in a pharmacist’s office. Darl’s mental illness condemns him to incarceration, Cash breaks his leg and almost drowns and then, out of miserliness, has a cast for his broken bone made from concrete – causing him intense pain and suffering. Jewel is burned, and Vardaman is left confused.

Photo of marker for Faulkner’s grave – photo by Natalie Maynor

Like other great works of fiction, its plasticity and ambiguity and richness will ensure a long life amongst readers, long after most of the social circumstances familiar to readers dissipates (as it mostly already has). It is hard to say what cultural context I’m missing reading this now, I have not read Faulkner’s other novels, and I know that most of them take place in his fictional county, and even contain similar characters. I know that a doctor who shows up at the house and in Jefferson, Peabody, is a recurring character in his works, and what I would be able to glean from that, I’m unsure. The South, and the position of the former Confederacy in American culture, is something that I do know has radically changed since 1930, as well as the nature of rural poverty. There is also a brief mention of, and encounter with, black people near the end of the novel, and I do not know what to make of it or what it may signify, or signified, to American readers at the time of the book’s publication.

Isolation from washed out bridges and fording rivers with teams of mules is something that would be familiar to generations of readers up through 1930, but is in an alien past now. Physical hardship of the level described throughout the novel was banished in America decades ago, and I doubt people would even stand for it now – I know I wouldn’t. The encroachment of civilization into their rural hideaway disturbs members of the Bundren family, but that kind of hermetic atmosphere is impossible, if nothing else it is impossible in a cultural sense because of television and the internet and the pervasive saturation of mass-produced goods into every community in America.

Some things still stick though. The stigma of social isolation and mental illness, quieter and less visible now but perhaps more prevalent strike home in the presentation of Darl as unfairly treated by the community. Dewey Dell’s exploitation by both the farmer who impregnated her and by the druggist’s assistant who extorted and defrauded her into having sex with him may not be far off from the mass objectification of women we see throughout social media – and that is without mentioning her futile quest for an abortion…

In other ways too, Faulkner’s book remains relevant. A collage of perspectives and uncertainties and constructed realities is not foreign to generations stretched out inside the metaverse, on discord and Twitter, watching videos on TikTok and, like someone I know, talking to their boss about their work schedule on Snapchat.

Uncertainty, metaphysics, and a collage of geometric precision and abstraction make this short novel profound, and it remains radical in its non-traditional construction (though readable). The story of the long, perilous journey toward a distant goal is as ancient and universal as stories themselves. This southern version is a vivid transformation of that odyssey into a psychological and parochial – and almost supernatural – examination of an absurd but realistic family, struggling with the most basic questions of life and death.

Miscellaneous Quotes:

“But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant.” Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart.

  • Pg 7

The Lord can see into the heart. If it is His will that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is not my place to question His decree.

  • pg 8

Now and then a fellow gets to thinking. About all the sorrow and afflictions in this world; how it’s liable to strike anywhere, like lightning.

  • pg 70

Vardaman Chapter:

My mother is a fish.

  • pg 84

I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping.

  • pg 114

“Who’s talking about him?” she says. “Who cares about him?” she says, crying. “I just wish that you and him and all the men in the world that torture us alive and flout us dead, dragging us up and down the country——”

  •  pg 117

The land runs out of Darl’s eyes; they swim to pin points. They begin at my feet and rise along my body to my face, and then my dress is gone: I sit naked on the seat above the unhurrying mules, above the travail.

  • pg 124

It was as though, so long as the deceit ran along quiet and monotonous, all of us let ourselves be deceived, abetting it unawares or maybe through cowardice, since all people are cowards and naturally prefer any kind of treachery because it has a bland outside. But now it was like we had all—and by a kind of telepathic agreement of admitted fear—flung the whole thing back like covers on the bed and we all sitting bolt upright in our nakedness, staring at one another and saying “Now is the truth. He hasn’t come home. Something has happened to him. We let something happen to him.”

  •  pg 134

Addie’s Chapter:

I would hate my father for having ever planted me.

  • pg 169

That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.

  •  pg 171

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. Like Cora, who could never even cook.

  • pg 173

I believed that I had found it. I believed that the reason was the duty to the alive, to the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land. I would think of sin as I would think of the clothes we both wore in the world’s face, of the circumspection necessary because he was he and I was I; the sin the more utter and terrible since he was the instrument ordained by God who created the sin, to sanctify that sin He had created. While I waited for him in the woods, waiting for him before he saw me, I would think of him as dressed in sin. I would think of him as thinking of me as dressed also in sin, he the more beautiful since the garment which he had exchanged for sin was sanctified. I would think of the sin as garments which we would remove in order to shape and coerce the terrible blood to the forlorn echo of the dead word high in the air. Then I would lay with Anse again—I did not lie to him: I just refused, just as I refused my breast to Cash and Darl after their time was up—hearing the dark land talking the voiceless speech.

  • pg 174

Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.

  •  pg 233

[1] Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. First Vintage international edition. New York, Vintage Books, 1990.

PIE and a Polish King in France

What a beautiful view of a time and place that exists now only in its outward forms, bereft of the culture and society from which it was birthed. It has not vanished with time, however, and serves still as a pleasing monument and testament to human ingenuity and artistic sense.

These photos are of Place Stanislas in the city of Nancy, France. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is considered an outstanding example of 18th Century architecture which combined practical and aesthetic concerns.

How did a small city in France come to be an outstanding example of 18th Century architecture? With the help of a Polish King of course.

A Polish King (anglicized as Stanislaus I), a man crowned twice as King; actually, a man elected leader and called King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – who was elected through bribery and intimidation at the behest of a foreign power, and deposed twice, and, per agreement, who spent the last several decades of his life as the Duke of Lorraine, a province in Eastern France, the provincial capital of which was Nancy, who had a very interesting life (Oh, and his daughter married Louis XV). He commissioned this great architectural work after he settled down, far away from the politics of Poland.

We make the mistake of viewing the past in the same way we view the laws of physics, as if it were immutable and stable across all time-periods. Observations of history that incline toward conceiving of the past as a more primitive version of our current reality (as having stable nation-states, far-reaching bureaucracies, and social safety nets) dislocate the events of the past from their causes. This is a fairly well-known idea that I’ve heard called “alienation from the past.”[1] Life has changed so much we cannot conceive of the motivations of people before the Industrial Revolution. The vagaries of European institutions in the age of intertwined royalism make the structures of diplomatic and international life dissimilar to our own; a naïve look into history will not suffice for explanation, but we have another way available to us to examine the past and the present: through statistical analysis.

Unfortunately there are other errors that bedevil this type of analysis (which avoids the first error of not realizing our own alienation from the past) including believing that all things are quantifiable and the manifold confusions often arising from the use of statistics. For instance, you may be able to say: “humanity spent 40% of its existence at war in the pre-modern period, and only 20% since the Enlightenment” (numbers completely made-up by me). This is a snapshot, not a trend. There is no reason to believe that these statistical facts would actually mean anything or tell us a story – but such stats may often be thought of as confirming a trend. Statistics and mathematical immutability deceive us because we will often make up a story if we are only provided with scattered facts, or we will look at the numbers and forget to connect them to the real world. All bonds of cause and effect are severed when we aggregate and taxonomize mass data. But before we look more deeply into this problem, lets briefly look at why it is the case that those bonds are severed by going back, by going way back.

A delightfully corpulent-seeming Stanislaus.

Time was born only at the Big Bang, before that, there was no time, or in any case, it was a thing unknowable. If the Universe ends in heat death, everything ceasing to move, then time becomes meaningless as it stretches into a uniform infinity. Space and time are linked and therefore time and motion are inseparable.

“Alright Einstein, thanks for the physics lesson, so what?”

So, what happens when you create an infinite and indelible universe inside of the one which we physically inhabit? How many people foresaw that we were going to build an entire parallel universe inside computer networks? Every technological revolution is tied to time, most of them have been involved in shortening latency and friction in some way, reducing the amount of time to spread complex information via the printing press, for example. The digital world disrupts our relationship with time in a novel way, and this starts to disrupt perceptions of cause and effect. Time can now be measured in zeptoseconds, an incomprehensibly small unit of division, and in our digitized existence in its immediacy (or near immediacy) there is no practical distinction between the immediate and the near future.

There is research that suggests being online distorts our personal relationship to time. But if we look deeper than this, we can see that this time disruption, though not formal (we are still capable of discerning cause and effect) can lead to gross misperceptions of the world. In the name of objectivity, we abandon common sense. There is no statistical way to explain, for example, a Polish King becoming the premier architectural patron of France. If that sounds too silly, or too obvious, or abstract, it is easy to find a case closer to home.

The NYTimes recently ran an article about a poll[2] which they say showed that 15% of Americans believe in QAnon. Setting aside any personal opinions about the The New York Times or QAnon, or any other political or pseudo-political affiliations, polling in this manner and extrapolating from it are terrible ways to interrogate the world. People are not discrete mathematical concepts, and neither are beliefs. What defines someone as “believing” in QAnon? Can they believe part of the theory, or perhaps agree with its general aims while not believing literally? Can we trust self-report as an accurate measure of belief which will lead to action? Most importantly, this tells us nothing about how the movement develops, how the beliefs manifest, or how it spreads from one person to another. Using statistics to create a taxonomy crams the world into simplified structures created by the statistical analysis itself. This is a fundamental problem of our world-building in cyberspace as well. The internet being full of generated simulacra creates a version of reality that our minds can enter and our bodies cannot, forcing us into the close-ended worlds of videogames and the formats of social media platforms. It is easy to click a link (as easy as it is to answer a poll question), and the ease distorts perceptions of preferences.

Another example of this phenomenon of statistical taxonomy being misleading is back-testing strategies in financial markets. Computational power and data allow for hypothetical implementation of trading strategies in previous time periods. These will always produce naïve results, as the assumptions that the data are the same – that the data is representing the same things over time – is incorrect. There was no VIX in 1929, we can only try to imagine or construct one, and therefore a volatility-strategy could not exist then as it exists now. Imagining and constructing the VIX for Great Depression may be possible and useful in some manner, but not in using it to calculate a profit and loss of a strategy.

Also, symptomatic of our strange new lives: there is the perfection available in the online world. Everything is measurable and we can smooth the rough edges, just as we can enter a video game world with mind but not body. You can gauge your popularity with your follower count, your avatar doesn’t have the slight hunch in your neck or your asymmetrical eyes, your conversation can be thought out beforehand making your wit evident and concealing your nervousness. And yet here we remain stuck in our imperfect bodies, unsure of our place in the world, unable to indulge the human obsession with taxonomy and platonic forms. There is no more mystery to be found on earth in the average life. Everything is instant, and everything is indelible. Our thoughts, experiences, and knowledge were once almost entirely our own. Our internal lives and external events were accessible to us through memory, or through an eyewitness account, or etched in writing, or attested to by a stray photograph or other recording in more recent years – and the first three of these accounts are of dubious veracity (see Catiline and Cicero). Now, vast troves of our thinking and doing are no longer subject to the entombment of “calumniating time.” Go talk to someone who was “canceled” for a foolish remark from their teenage years to see how this can have negative social impacts that were not considered before. Ask a question on Google, and someone has asked it before us (we have everyone’s experiences to learn from, and yet so often, none that relate to the question we asked). A perfect record of past events lends itself to misleading taxonomies and analyses, another example of mass data being similar to a paucity of data.

There is a non-mathematical way to engage in taxonomy which helps to allay these numerous false perceptions arising from distortions of time in cyberspace, and thereby to reconstruct the past and build the present. This can be learned from how linguists build proto-languages. They do this through what is called the “Comparative Method,” developed and used specifically for discovering pre-historical parent languages, it involves careful analysis of similar words and grammar from different languages and the known evolution of sound changes to build common ancestor-words. It is a method of careful observation and comparison, leading to such breakthroughs as the fable of The Sheep and the Horses:

“A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: ‘My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.’ The horses said: ‘Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.’ Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.”

Breakthrough? This little story may not mean much since it is here typed in English, but the fable originally was written in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) by a German linguist named August Schleicher in the 19th Century (click the link above on “fable” and they have the two stories spoken in PIE). PIE is the first language constructed from the comparative method and is the presumed progenitor of the Romance languages, Germanic languages, Indian languages, Slavic languages and more. Using the comparative method does not set out a series of facts, but rather provides evidence of relationships which must be analyzed in a human way, taking into account information that is not strictly numerical. Such analysis requires a deep interpretation that takes into account factors outside of the quantifiable realm.

If you want to understand QAnon (for instance), where it comes from and how it spreads, one can deconstruct the individual beliefs and try to explain the commonalities between its various interlocking theories and who is promoting those theories. It is a case where logic works better than statistical taxonomy, which tells someone little about the nature of reality and much about the abstracted, simplified forms we derive from it. Despite my depressing condemnations of the impacts of the internet and computation and social media, there is reason for optimism regarding how we examine the past. Computational methods open vistas of undiscovered knowledge and unbiased, creative interpretations. If we use our computational abilities and data in a constructive way, as a tool, as something that can help us rather than control us, we can be aided immeasurably.

The great contradiction at the heart of our information systems[3] is that they are part of us, our species, while also being utterly separate from our biological functions. Our systems of language, of code, our description of the laws and powers of the universe with mathematics, our art – all are real transmissions of information through time. And they are no less real than DNA we carry and pass on in our bodies:

“Our dataome looks like a distinct, although entirely symbiotic (even endosymbiotic), phenomenon. Homo sapiens arguably only exists as a truly unique species because of our coevolution with a wealth of externalized information; starting from languages held only in neuronal structures through many generations, to our tools and abstractions on pottery and cave walls, all the way to today’s online world.”

In order to understand things: their origins, and where they might go and why they exist, there is no substitute for chronicling the progressive evolution of causation that travels out of the past, through the present, and into the future. Cyberspace generally, and statistical analysis specifically, sever these normal progressions of ideas and beliefs from their environments and their antecedents. If we want to understand a Polish King who reigns as a Duke in France, or why a social movement roars through a community like an uncontrolled fire, we might do well to think again of Schleicher’s Fable, which serves as both a narrative (a form much more likely to explain human behaviors than a statistical analysis) and an examination of a hypothetical language. The method of construction for the language is logical, but not mathematical. It is a simulacrum of the real thing but is not a perfectible abstraction. Perhaps sometimes, if we wish to make sense of reality, it is beneficial to bring the past to the present, instead of projecting ourselves backwards into the past.

[1] I wish I had a citation for this phrase as I’m using it here, but I can’t find anything on the internet.

[2] An oft-used catalyst for stories for newspapers, “creating” news where there is none, but that’s a different post – also, the NYTimes article I’m citing here has some woeful editorial problems that are nakedly biased, but that’s also a different post.

[3] The author of the article I linked (and the quote) calls it the “dataome” – like a biome. There are a lot of interesting implications here for what we consider to be life.

Note: the first two images in the slideshow were taken by Nicolas Cornet, the final one of the square in daylight by Berthold Werner.

A Red Harvest without Context

A week ago my library card expired, so I went down to my local library to get it renewed. On my way out I noticed that they were selling old, unpopular books for a dollar. Going through the shelves, I noticed a collection of the novels of Dashiell Hammett. Hammett is the author of “The Maltese Falcon,” made into an eponymous, early, and iconic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart as tough private eye Sam Spade. I bought the collection of novels and started reading it as soon as I got home. I was about halfway through the first novel, “Red Harvest” when I was shocked by a line of dialogue by the nameless protagonist, known as the “Continental Op”:

“If I don’t get away soon I’ll go blood-simple like the natives.”[1]

The line refers to the protagonist’s growing enjoyment of murder and mayhem. The reason this struck me is because the first movie made by the filmmaking team of Ethan and Joel Coen (known colloquially as the Coen Brothers) is named “Blood Simple.” I thought nothing of the title of the movie at the time I originally saw it because the main antagonist of the film utters the phrase. It was not just this movie that I was excited by in connection with “Red Harvest” though. It was another Coen Brother’s film, “Miller’s Crossing,” that sparked a revelation. I realized that the plot of “Miller’s Crossing” is very similar to “Red Harvest.” The Coen Brothers’ cinematic art is in dialogue, not just with other films, but with these novels. I never would have known this if I hadn’t picked up this book in the library on a whim, because I had to go there to renew my library card.

This story brings to my mind the value of context in constructing a foundation of useful meaning on which action can then be built, and the ability of that meaning to shelter us from the confusion of randomness. Random chance is a force which dominates so much of our lives, so much of our universe, and all human endeavor is opposed to the entropy of reality – all meaning is predicated on rejecting randomness.

When I see a Coen Brothers’ movie now, I can place it into the context of hard-boiled detective pulp fiction, allowing me to appreciate the tone and mood of the film in a different aspect than I had previously, maybe even to understand its themes and ideas better. Without this context I am reliant on sources of perceived authority to make interpretations of information or data for me, or I am prone to make an error of interpretation if I persist in examining information myself.

I’ve written about loss of context in history and now I want to talk about loss of context in our culture. Without knowing the origins and history of an idea, the idea itself loses meaning. This happens with words, phrases, and symbols as well, some words are used almost exclusively as a metaphor, and over time, we lose the metaphor and just have the word itself. A prominent example is the “save” icon on computers, it is still a floppy disk, younger users of computers may not even know what that is. When this happens, it is easy to abuse words, to lack rigor and meaning when making claims, to provide false or biased interpretations of events. In this manner, having a glut of information and data is the same as having none at all, because analysis is reduced to mere interpretation. Without the ability or knowledge to interpret mass data ourselves, it can be easy to accept the analysis of others – whatever their agenda may be. Consequences of losing connection with the past in our cultural and social context are that it aids the conflation of entertainment with knowledge and conflation of randomness with patterns. Loss of context also makes meta-references easier, driving out discussion and evolution of ideas and replacing them with tribalist anger. Stereotypes and scapegoats are creatures born from intellectual haze and are killed by nuance, but there is a lot of money and power to be made from stereotypes and scapegoats.

Our new data regime has led to an evolution in public cultural and political commentators giving rise to a newer species fitted to the environment: the independent culture warrior. This is not the old peddler of conservative or liberal values, but a person filling in the cracks. These independent culture warriors can attach their personal brand to some specific aspect of the cultural zeitgeist, and therefore tap into the audiences of online cults and tribes. One political example is the new populist politician, ostensibly a Republican or Democrat, but equally opposed to the GOP and DNC. Trump is the obvious example here, someone who was able to claim, and dominate, the brand of the GOP while rejecting broad swathes of the party platform. “Make America Great Again” is a nostalgic, context-less example of disconnection from any historical meaning. When was America Great, and what were the attributes of a Great America? These questions are too vague to answer.

There is the press critic – explicitly and almost exclusively attacking the homogeneity and bias of the large, national mainstream media. Joe Rogan and Glenn Greenwald are both flavors of this species, often invoking claims of bias in the media to connect themselves with populist movements. They have developed a niche that is beyond the stale forms of “left” and “right” politics and connect with feelings of paranoia and alienation toward powerful, established institutions. Complexity in the arena of media and government allow critiques to thrive which characterize a varied industry as uniform and allow the listener or reader to conflate a specific act with a general disposition. Without context, a criticism of a specific piece of writing by a specific journalist can come to represent an entire and monolithic entity.

In a different realm exists the new business mogul – people who were once motivational speakers are now FIRE bloggers, career-growth hackers, and anodyne futurists. Finance and economics are a ripe area for such spread in that they involve large amounts of measurable data that can be interpreted different ways with and without context and it’s an area which is salient to almost everyone. People can spend a lot of time traversing ground that was already mapped by someone else. After the GME short squeeze at the beginning of the year, a r/WSB-adjacent subreddit called r/GME dedicated to pumping GME stock specifically became popular — the subreddit reminded me of something: the posts on it are a direct parallel to the conspiratorial ravings of the defunct QAnon subreddits and white-male-grievance subreddits. Financial plumbing is esoteric and complex, about which narratives without knowledge can be easily consumed. None of these examples of people or ideas which thrive on loss of context should be read as implying that these interpretations are always “wrong,” just that they are not providing the whole story.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.[2]

The best antidotes to being victimized from lack of context is skepticism and to try and do the hard of work of actually learning things. Skepticism is useful in that we should try and be careful not to believe something just because someone said it, try to spot “arguments from authority.” Just because someone is presented as an expert, it does not mean they’re right. Learning things, well, that should be obvious why it should help, but is not easy. After all, at the beginning of this post I related how I lacked the context that would help me understand some films more accurately, and I did not know what I did not know. Learning some background on a subject, especially one that is divisive, can go a long way toward seeing through attempts to steer you toward ignorance. These antidotes may seem trite, and an example of something that is “easy to say and hard to do,” but that doesn’t mean that they’re out of reach for most people with effort. Without these bulwarks against manipulation and confusion, the urge for simplicity and authority can lead people down potentially destructive paths.

Ceaseless cultural and political division of the populace into discrete units will lead people deeper into digital dungeons. The diffusion of society into cults spreads to any area where there is complexity and large amounts of data. The spread of contextless information and how it changes the worldview of people who have more contact with society in the digital world than the real world draws some people into a delusional fantasy. Delusion is a key facet of the psychology of addiction, and the symptoms of submitting to context-less belief-systems can cause harm to society. Social media is itself addicting, as many forms of overwhelming abundance are, and context-less belief will come to be seen as a form of that addiction eventually – a “Media Consumption Disorder.” Right now there is political capital (and often financial capital) generated by protecting the notions of the deluded in both of the political power centers and in the crevices inhabited by the politically independent. And who watches the watchmen? Who decides what is a delusion and what is appropriate? I do not have an easy answer, but, like other medical conditions, I think it will be largely defined by magnitude of deviation from the status quo and harm to self and others.

Currently, the reaction of authority which does not benefit from online cultism and virality is the equivalent of the “War on Drugs.” They are seeking remedies in prohibition and punitive restrictions through means of censorship and breaking up the digital cartels of big tech and social media corporations. This will probably be ineffective and damaging to those subjected to those measures. Harm-reduction will probably become a more effective method of controlling digital outbursts.

There will be action and reaction regarding the rise of context-less information and social media addiction and ecosystems and ideologies will develop according to their own flow and logic, hurried along by unpredictable events. The future is dominated by the seeming randomness that only context can dispel, but as we sink deeper into media bubbles and infinite tides of data, we may all have to stop our savaging of meaning or go “blood-simple” in the process.

[1] Hammett, Dashiell. “Red Harvest.” Five Complete Novels, by Dashiell Hammett, Avenel, 1980. (pg. 102).

[2] Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism. The “Pierian Spring” is a reference to a spring supposedly at the base of Mt. Olympus where the Muses sometimes loitered. Here it functions as a metaphor for a source of inspiration or knowledge.

Creating the World


The Conversion of St. Paul (second version), oil on canvas by Caravaggio, 1601
(Source: SCALA/Art Resource, New York)

Creating the World

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1, KJV

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:8, KJV

               Creation myths all spring the universe into existence ex nihilo (even the Big Bang Theory, ultimately, after all, everything must have a beginning). From nothing comes something, thereby producing an orderly certainty in the unknowable and random. These myths present stories which serve as explanations for the existence of all things and mark the basic scope and confines of reality. In the first verse of the Book of John in the New Testament, Christ is associated with the omniscient force in the universe, one which spoke the world into existence. In the Book of Revelation God is associated with the creation and destruction if the Universe, using the beginning and ending letters of the Greek alphabet as a metaphor. These examples display the importance of telling stories to create the intellectual structures which support Belief.

               As old myths and religions crumble in the face of ineffectiveness, and of new technologies and modes of communication, the whole world struggles to find new tribes to assuage their existential anxiety. Overwhelmed with complexity, with randomness, and with uncertainty, people need a fixed point around which a narrative of an orderly world can be created. The creation of these new narratives center in non-state-sanctioned social centers of belief: cults. A cult, as I am using the word, means an ideological system which includes moral and spiritual rules considered to be unerringly true, and constituting a minority of members of a general population who ascribe to those tenets. Further, all cults are tribes, but not all tribes are cults (but I will sometimes use the terms interchangeably). A tribal affiliation can grow to any size and may not have an object of veneration, while a cult is outside the mainstream of society and contains objects of Fetish-Worship. A cult can become a “religion” when it begins to imbed itself in society using coercive structures of organized force and attains legitimacy for its version of the Truth and becomes ubiquitous in ordering commerce and association in commonplace society.

               The path of Christianity, from a small cult of Jews to the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, is an example of the one of the most successful and impactful journeys on which any association of individuals embarked. An important feature of Christianity compared to Roman Paganism was that it offered equality and certainty in the future, even (and especially) beyond the bounds of our mortal lives. Ancient society was dominated by an elite aristocracy, and most people were slaves or otherwise shut-off from paths to self-determination by the social structures which permeated all Classical societies. The Ancient Roman Empire, in the first several centuries AD, may have had up to 15% of the total population as slaves (the numbers are understandably difficult to discern, but it is relatively certain that it was a significant amount of the population). Populist movements, through their nature of championing the prerogatives of average people, tend toward challenging hierarchies of all sorts. Justice and certainty are amply provided to new believers though new avenues – Christianity was once a tiny religion in an obscure part of the world, and it became Archimedes’ lever which moved the Earth. The early Apostles, prophets, saints, and missionaries of Christianity reveal much about its history and appeal in their extensive writings, where they both establish a story, the object of Truth, and codify the laws of the nascent religion.

               Another dramatic and history-turning social upheaval is the French Revolution. It is plausible that the French Revolution marked the beginning of mass society (as much as any line of demarcation can be pinned to one event, or series of events). Medieval hierarchies and notions of privilege and fixed caste were directly challenged and overthrown by a revolt of a mass of people. The Catholic Church, as an adjacent feature of the state, was severely damaged by the Revolution, and the cult-turned-religion of Eternal Salvation was replaced by a new cult of Reason and Science.

“Observe, however, that of man’s whole terrestrial possessions and attainments, unspeakably the noblest are his Symbols, divine or divine-seeming; under which he marches and fights, with victorious assurance, in this life-battle: what we can call his Realised Ideals. Of which realised ideals, omitting the rest, consider only these two: his Church, or spiritual Guidance; his Kingship, or temporal one. The Church: what a word was there; richer than Golconda and the treasures of the world! In the heart of the remotest mountains rises the little Kirk; the Dead all slumbering round it, under their white memorial-stones, ‘in hope of a happy resurrection:’—dull wert thou, O Reader, if never in any hour (say of moaning midnight, when such Kirk hung spectral in the sky, and Being was as if swallowed up of Darkness) it spoke to thee—things unspeakable, that went into thy soul’s soul. Strong was he that had a Church, what we can call a Church: he stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew. Such virtue was in Belief; in these words, well spoken: I believe. Well might men prize their Credo, and raise stateliest Temples for it, and reverend Hierarchies, and give it the tithe of their substance; it was worth living for and dying for.” (Chapter 1.1.II, Realised Ideals)

               The above quote is from an early chapter in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, a history of that seminal event. Carlyle (who lived in the mid-19th century) was a Scottish polymath and writer of beautiful prose-poetry, and translator of German transcendental literature. There are three notable things about this work: first, it is a rigorous history, carefully employing sources to back its recitation of events; second, it is written in an astonishing style, one that borders on poetry; third, it is a narrative told in the present tense, as if we were following the various principle characters as they lived day to day as if they were characters in a novel (for reference, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote comes to mind as a rough analogue – very rough). Carlyle is also well-known for positing “The Great Man Theory” of history, which determines that mythologized, dynamic men influence the outcomes of history by channeling the popular currents of society. Such a view of history places individuals as the inevitable catalysts for movements, providing a sense of certainty and justifying “cults of personality.”

               Carlyle’s history is not the most rigorous or up-to-date work on the French Revolution and is generally forgotten except amongst historians of the period or fans of 19th century literature. But Carlyle knows things which many of us do not remember. And in an era of unrest, uneasiness, and uncertainty, what could be more valuable than remembering things forgotten?

               Now, amid the Communications and Information Revolution, where we face the proliferation of voices and demands on humanity, expressed largely through digital means of communication, we have a profusion of new cults, not the least of them being Bitcoin, a new form of money (There is much debate about “what” Bitcoin actually is, some may dispute its function as a currency, but that is not my concern here). The pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, left his own thoughts on the technical and social aspects of Bitcoin in blog posts, on forums, and in emails. The impetus for its creation and founding beliefs can be derived directly from those posts and subsequent commentary.

               Secular regimes lose credibility when they suffer through economic crises. Periods of economic recession often act as vectors for claims of moral decline and create targets for assaults on the legitimacy of social institutions. Economic decline features a prominent role in the fall of the French Monarchy. Unpayable debts piled-up as taxation and economic innovation lagged. And in Ancient Rome, a period of one hundred years of currency debasement and disruption of commerce coincided with the rise of Christianity. Bitcoin was invented after the GFC. Economics, once largely concerned with issues of starvation, is now associated with issues of access to employment and personal debt. But regardless of the scale, economic failures create doubt in the continuing benefit of maintaining the current social structures. All is relative, of course. The privation faced by the worst-off groups in Ancient Rome was unconscionable compared to those disenfranchised groups in Revolutionary France, and the hardships faced by the worst-off groups in Revolutionary France are appalling compared to those of oppressed communities in present-day Europe and America.

               The narratives, the explanations, the causality, all follow from a fixed point which serves as the reference for all belief for those inducted into the mysteries of a cult. Whether your affiliation is Bitcoin, AOC’s Squad, or MAGA – the encompassing theme is present mystery, hope for the future, and rigid certainty. This certainty is fixed, and all other justifications for belief are formalities. There is no replacement of Fiat Currency, there is only King Price. There is no concern over Stolen Elections, there is only The Tribe of the Common Man. There is no Green New Deal, there is only Social Utopia. Those stated causes I just mentioned do exist, but they are mere justifications for membership, rather than the impetus for the formation of those groupings.

               What we watch every day on social media is a new society being spoken into existence. QAnon started as posts on 4Chan and now has supporters marching in the streets. Incel terrorists started by being “blackpilled” on message boards, the world watched horrified (and, tellingly, titillated) as well-produced videos of people being murdered were posted by ISIS. Belief and faith will find new outlets if their old passages are blocked. We see it in young men’s shooting rampages who, in their deranged self-styled “manifestos,” proclaim their fears of economic collapse and immigration and “white replacement.” We see it in Bitcoin maximalists who trumpet “the end is nigh!” on their digital street-corners. We see it in Extinction Rebellion, who stop-up commerce to desperately prevent the imminent doom of all human life.

               As a principle, the longer the time-period without reform, the more violent the upheaval. Traditionally, conservatism (in the sense of preserving existing social norms and institutions) is the general political condition of the world. It has often taken long periods of stagnation and ignoring problems to make new and disruptive ideas popular. Many of the so-called “Revolutions” are closer to regime change where the underlying social order is not significantly disturbed. A true Revolution overturns the bases of society.

               An oft-forgotten idea in the time of the internet-eating-the-world is the effectiveness of violence in ordering behavior. This is still a key factor in political and social life. As much as the internet allows the creation of mobs, the organization of cults of choice, as much as online communities creep into reality, they cannot compete with violence and death in the moment of the imposition of that ultimate power of physical coercion. Risk is what ties us all to reality, regardless of any other beliefs we may hold. Violence and mortal fear are a refiner of perception. No matter how deeply our distortions of the world are held when they are egged-on by online communities, few can pass the test of withstanding violence. Christianity withstood the tests of violence and conquered the world.


Estates-General, by Charles-Emmanuel Patas
(Source: Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris)

Certainty and Corruption

               Some cults have changed the world by growing into something massive and all-encompassing. Christianity is one such cult – and Christianity grew into such a formidable social force (and eventually a political and economic one) because of its ability to provide people with certainty and with a new community. What began as, perhaps, a movement against Roman occupation, or with more certainty, one of many Jewish sects in modern-day Israel, spread throughout the whole world and became the dominating social feature of all of Europe. Christianity was an innovation of thought. As an entirely new belief system it was invented and then spread by believers in order to gain adherents. The Conversion of Paul is a good place to begin the secular history of the Christianity. Paul’s conversion was the origin of the first great Christian missionary, and had the impact of reinforcing the divine nature of Christ to potential followers. The emphasis on the Truth of events and the exhortation to have Belief, to hold a non-falsifiable idea as being irrevocably true, was the beginning of the Cult of Christianity and a movement away from the contextual, secular history of the events in the life of the historical Jesus Christ. Christianity’s belief contained the object of eternal bliss at its center, containing the promise of justice, fairness, and equality for the mass of people – something sadly elusive on Earth. In the time it originated, in a deeply oppressive and unequal society and culture, it had broad appeal. A cult creates tomorrow’s history today in adherents by producing the craved certainties they lack and generating hope for justice and happiness in the future.

               We derive much knowledge of early Christian theology through the letters of Paul, his epistles to satellite churches across the Mediterranean (some of which he himself founded). In these Epistles, Paul explains the basis of the beliefs of Christianity. In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, for instance, he encourages belief in Christ as justified by faith alone and the current wickedness and decay of the moral and institutional world. Starting at Romans 1:18 Paul states that the people of Pagan religions have caused the world to be corrupted as punishment for not acknowledging the one, true God. Moral decline is a theme in these letters, as well as veneration of the Resurrection of Christ as the focus of worship. In another one of his letters, First Corinthians, Paul vigorously defends the Resurrection as the object of worship, the mystical font of certainty which promises justice at the end of life, and treats the spiritual nature of the death and resurrection of Christ as a literal fact (1 Corinthians 15). This creates a miracle, a mysterious myth, out of factual history. Making an event into a myth and then treating that myth as the Truth is a method whereby future hopes and certain outcomes can be attached to the mythologized object or event.

               A series of political and economic crises gripped Rome in the 200’s AD. This background of turmoil gave Christianity an impetus to spread – as people lost their ability to believe in their institutions, the cult of Christianity filled the void. The standard recitation of the story is that the Roman Empire stopped expanding and thereby stopped receiving plunder from its conquests and was unable to tax efficiently enough to maintain its armies which fought in endless Civil and Frontier Wars. The Roman Empire therefore resorted to currency debasement. The Roman State went bankrupt, and famines and other evils attended this collapse. Coinciding with this was the rapid spread of Christian faith. After Paul’s seeding of Christian communities himself, it continued to spread in urban centers around the fringes of the Roman Empire.

               Presently, almost all the most vital movements in the world are driven by cults and their cultist’s non-malleable beliefs. The implacability of faith and certainty attract potential members and build press and social media coverage. The internet has allowed people to communicate and congregate in any cult (or tribe) they choose, and those online identities are spilling into real life. Much the same thing happened in France on the eve of the Revolution: new ideas, new associations, salons, clubs, and pamphleteers stoked thoughts of change, of a complete rejection of the old world.

               France had long had a centralized government that was increasingly oppressive in its laws and which created ever-swelling financial crises. Also observed in this was the perceived destruction of morals, where France was overrun with lying and cheating and fraud, perpetrated by a burgeoning middle class and the aristocracy. New ideas from philosophers and writers like Voltaire and Rousseau promised to create a fair and just world for the people of France. Rousseau wrote about populism and the non-divinity of Kings and about wealth inequality. He wrote about the lack of morality pervading France (in reference to past scientific and cultural advances which brought other societies the collapse of their virtues): “It is thus that the dissolution of morals, the necessary consequence of luxury, brings with it in its turn the corruption of taste.” Voltaire was particularly incensed by the Catholic Church and what he considered their corruption and argued against treating Christian miracles as reported fact (undoing Paul’s work in his Epistles). He was a fierce opponent of the Eucharist, the object that was to become the focus of Fetish-Worship in the matured Catholic Church:

 “They say that as almost all popular opinions are built upon ambiguities and abuse of words, so the system of the Roman Catholics concerning the Eucharist and transubstantiation is founded solely on an ambiguity; that they have interpreted literally what could only have been meant figuratively; and that for the sake of mere verbal contests, for absolute misconceptions, the world has for six hundred years been drenched in blood.”

               Taking literally what was meant figuratively was the flaw that undid the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Christian Faith according to Voltaire. He argued that the construction of the tenets of Catholicism was the creation of a story, a fiction which led to repression and violence. Voltaire’s critique was one, along with other Enlightenment philosophers, which engendered hostility to the French Church and undermined belief in the story of Christianity. Decay of belief in Christianity in places which had resisted the spread of Protestantism during the Reformation was an ominous indication that the foundational institutions of the secular State were at risk.

             These cultural and philosophical changes were important, and the Revolutionary movement needed leaders, apostles, martyrs, and missionaries to do its work. But truly, the old faith was crushed by the Ancien Régime’s (a term for France’s government before the Revolution) inability to change, its sclerotic body unable (or unwilling) to work on behalf of the will of the people. A succession of ministers tried to reform and fund the State, but found no traction, and argued and schemed amongst themselves to the neglect of their objectives. In the more “mundane” causes of the French Revolution, financial collapse figures prominently. Attempts by a series of ministers to stem State spending and to broaden the tax base were refuted when they attempted to tax the nobility. Attempts by at least four different Finance Ministers to reform taxation in the 1780’s (The French Revolution “began” in 1789 but an acute preceding crisis lasted for about five years before) did not work.

“Alas, yes! a whole world to remake, if she could see it; work for another than she! For all is wrong, and gone out of joint; the inward spiritual, and the outward economical; head or heart, there is no soundness in it. As indeed, evils of all sorts are more or less of kin, and do usually go together: especially it is an old truth, that wherever huge physical evil is, there, as the parent and origin of it, has moral evil to a proportionate extent been. Before those five-and-twenty labouring Millions, for instance, could get that haggardness of face, which old Mirabeau now looks on, in a Nation calling itself Christian, and calling man the brother of man,–what unspeakable, nigh infinite Dishonesty (of seeming and not being) in all manner of Rulers, and appointed Watchers, spiritual and temporal, must there not, through long ages, have gone on accumulating! It will accumulate: moreover, it will reach a head; for the first of all Gospels is this, that a Lie cannot endure for ever.” (Chapter 1.2.III, Questionable)

               Carlyle frequently associates debt with corruption – the financial bankruptcy of France is tied directly to the moral bankruptcy of France. Here Carlyle is constructing a story, telling the reader what it is that led to the cataclysm of the French Revolution. Moral decay is an often-observed phenomenon by historians and political essayists, but it seems to be more of a feeling backed by cherry-picked examples. Subjective judgments such as this are easier to construct now with the exponential increase in decontextualized information.

               Surrounding us on social media, and other modes of communication, are those constantly spreading their evangel and rooting-out heresy. Just as Paul reinforced specific narratives of Christianity in his letters chastising wayward Christians, we find MAGA-evangelists telling people who a “real” Republican is, or Bitcoiners telling us that “Altcoins” are false prophets, and there is no other way to salvation than through BTC.

               At the moment of creation of the first “mined block” of Bitcoin, a message imbedded in it by the inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, noted that the British government was on the verge of a second bank bailout. As the bank failures of the Great Financial Crisis continued, the disappointments which increased to calls for regulation and sanction of the financial system grew. Bitcoin’s rise in popularity was directly connected to the Great Financial Crisis and the Euro crisis (and attending banking crises). The Great Financial Crisis spawned any number of political and social movements in the United States and around the world, as the financial crisis, stock market decline, and economic recession led people to remark and act on inequality, moral decline, and the illegitimacy of governments.

               Again linking moral decline and financial decline, the online community of Bitcoiners revolves around a moral and political philosophy, particularly in attacking the banking system. Satoshi Nakamoto once wrote: “It’s very attractive to the libertarian viewpoint if we can explain it properly. I’m better with code than with words though.” The earliest mythology which grew around Bitcoin, promoted using the words of the half-mythic Satoshi, was that it appealed to a much larger group, a political group, than programmers. This is the beginning of creating a story which separates the historical Satoshi from the mythical one. Satoshi disappeared, he stopped posting or responding to emails in 2011. While speculative, he may have left because he was worried about criminal sanction from the government or a general desire for privacy. His reason for the disappearance being relatively unimportant, it allowed a mythology to be built around him without the person himself being there to refute any of it.

               In our post-modern world, where spiritual belief is consumed and destroyed by science and replaced with ravenous consumption, the sins of excess are generalized. Grave sins of inequality were in a different context in the past, one where people owned other human beings as property as a matter of routine social convention. It is not the absolute but the relative that matters in most things, as it always has, but especially in the era of mass communications. It is the distance between oppressor and oppressed that is important for social cohesion. From a panoramic view of society, one that is cold and bloodless, it could be said that the object of social reform should be to break down the barriers created by class (or any other prominent social marker) as much as possible to maintain stability. This pinions the wings of the civilizational evils of war and revolution, which harm people as they initiate change.


La Liberté guidant le peuple, painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830

 (Source: Louvre Museum, Paris)

The Paper Age

               What broke the French social system (Carlyle posits) is the lack of belief in the efficacy and justice of that social system. Inching into the ideologies of France came a creeping nihilism that seems so familiar to us now. It was not really the starvation, the taxation, the uncaring brutality of the regime that radicalized the people of France, it was the destruction of hope for the future and the simultaneous emergence of faith in new forms of hope for the future. This is not as easy to measure as many things, it is something hard to quantify, but the basic cause of the Revolution was the sins of the Ancien Régime, the moral collapse that continued until people lost faith in the leadership of the government. Many may see these same themes now in our lives, pervasive. In any story involving the great movements of the world it is axiomatic that, in an era of uncertainty and hope for the future, frauds and conmen surround the scene, becoming heroes for one forlorn group or another. Repeatedly, the concerns and condition of the great mass of people (25 million dispossessed people in the case of France, as Carlyle reminds us) were utterly ignored. Met with contempt or hangings, protests leading up to the convulsion were not enough to change the foundations of the government.

               That author called this “The Paper Age” in France, the era proceeding the Revolution which was full of fraud and perfidy. Corruption of philosophy, of finances, and Christianity pervaded the state:

“For indeed it is of apoplexy, so to speak, and a plethoric lazy habit of body, that Churches, Kingships, Social Institutions, oftenest die. Sad, when such Institution plethorically says to itself, Take thy ease, thou hast goods laid up;–like the fool of the Gospel, to whom it was answered, Fool, this night thy life shall be required of thee!

Is it the healthy peace, or the ominous unhealthy, that rests on France, for these next Ten Years? Over which the Historian can pass lightly, without call to linger: for as yet events are not, much less performances. Time of sunniest stillness;–shall we call it, what all men thought it, the new Age of God? Call it at least, of Paper; which in many ways is the succedaneum of Gold. Bank-paper, wherewith you can still buy when there is no gold left; Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies, Sensibilities,–beautiful art, not only of revealing Thought, but also of so beautifully hiding from us the want of Thought! Paper is made from the rags of things that did once exist; there are endless excellences in Paper.–What wisest Philosophe, in this halcyon uneventful period, could prophesy that there was approaching, big with darkness and confusion, the event of events? Hope ushers in a Revolution,–as earthquakes are preceded by bright weather. On the Fifth of May, fifteen years hence, old Louis will not be sending for the Sacraments; but a new Louis, his grandson, with the whole pomp of astonished intoxicated France, will be opening the States-General.” (Chapter 1.2.I. The Paper Age)

               As discontent increased, the clearly delineated objects of outrage disseminated by the pamphlet-writing evangelists fueled mob violence and the increasingly bold and public displays of antipathy toward the venerable institutions of the past. One of the prefiguring riots of the Revolution was an attack on a local factory-owner instigated by a mob’s misinterpretation of an essay he wrote about wages (Chapter 1.4.III. Grown Electric). A mob does not have an ideology, it cannot provide sustained belief, it burns out after it has expressed its rage, but the use of violence as a communal social act was an act foreshadowing the violence to come. What started as riots ended in Holy War. All of the organs of the state were ripped down one by one as false idols. In their place was founded a committee for the People, and a new national religion founded on science and rationality with the sovereign authority emanating from the “Will of the People” and not from God. An important figure in the early stages of the Revolution, Mirabeau, told a representative of the King at the meeting of the Estates General: “’Go, Monsieur, tell these who sent you that we are here by the will of the People, and that nothing shall send us hence but the force of bayonets!’” (Chapter 1.5.II, Mercury de Brézé).

               The Storming of the Bastille (a fort and prison in Paris, a symbol of the oppressive Regime) marks the “official” beginning of the French Revolution on July 14, 1789. Direct, physical attacks would henceforth occur against the State, attacks that were not countered by important military and law enforcement arms of the State. Simultaneously attacked along with the symbols of the Monarchy was the Church in France. A church was attacked a few nights before the assault on the Bastille, the mob accused the Priests of hoarding food and destroyed and burned the building (Chapter 1.5.V, Give us Arms). Many such attacks occurred all over France from citizens inspired with Revolutionary fervor. A year to the day after that first attack on the Church (Saint-Lazare) the  French National Assembly (the Revolutionary government that uneasily coexisted with the Monarchy before its destruction) promulgated the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” which stripped members of the Catholic Clergy of all their special and separate rights in France.

               After the Fall of the Bastille, pamphleteer Claude Desmoulins (who personally incited mob-violence a few days before) wrote:       

“The return of that liberty to the French people was reserved for our days. Yes, she has already been returned to us; she does not yet have a temple for the States General, like that of Delphos in Greece, for the assembly of the Amphictyons; or that of Concord in Rome, for the assembly of the Senate; but she is already adored in tones louder than a whisper, and the worship of her is public. For forty years philosophy has been undermining the foundations of despotism in all its parts; and, as Rome before Caesar was already enslaved by its vices, so France before Necker was already enfranchised by its intelligence.” (La France Libre,

               In this pamphlet the rot of the old regime and a search for an entirely new object of worship is stated plainly. All old things were dying, their deaths spurred by new ideologies and hopes which existed before the financial crises and calls for reform began under the French Finance Minister, Jacques Necker (his first term, his second term ending was the catalyst for violence of July 12, 1789). There was an attempt to sweep away all the vestigial limbs of past belief. Revolutionary government in France systematically dismantled the secular powers and wealth of the Catholic Church in France. The new French State created a calendar, the French Republican Calendar (with a “rational” ten-day week), to replace the Catholic one. Priests were placed under secular authority, the traditional role of the Church in maintaining records of births, deaths, and marriages was usurped, the wealth of the Church was seized, members of the clergy were executed and massacred, and aspects of public worship were banned. After several years, there were multiple attempts to establish a new state religion. Two of them were created and celebrated as official religions, the Cult of Reason, and Robespierre’s competing Cult of the Supreme Being. In a quite theatrical Revolution, the theatricality of the celebrations for the Revolutionary religious cults stands out. The Cult of Reason was a belief in the philosophical precepts of the Enlightenment, with an embrace of atheism. A Festival celebrating reason was conducted in none other than the Cathedral of Notre Dame, including symbolic representations of Liberty and Reason (Chapter 3.5.IV, Carmagnole complete). The famous Robespierre, leader of the political faction known as the Jacobins and the architect of the Reign of Terror, and for a time, the de facto dictator of Revolutionary France, thought the atheism of the Cult of Reason was destructive, and called for the veneration of a new religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. Quoting Carlyle (again): “Catholicism being burned out, and Reason-worship guillotined, was there not need of one? Incorruptible Robespierre, not unlike the Ancients, as Legislator of a free people will now also be Priest and Prophet” (Chapter 3.6.IV, Mumbo-Jumbo). In this manner Robespierre tried to combine both secular and spiritual authority, but these new religions failed to take hold, unable to replace Christianity’s monopoly on belief.

               The various councils and written works of Christians, starting with the Pauline Epistles and stretching to, say, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, established the “rules” of Christian belief. That process of codification and creation of the distinction between “Truth” and “heresy” allowed the Cult of Christianity to exist with a uniformity of message and institutional cohesion. The firming of a set of rules and the consequent knowledge that others believe the same things you believe potentiates the viability of conversion to non-believers. Irenaeus, a Christian who wrote a refutation of heresies and affirmation of the power and faith of the both the Early Church and the Truth of  Paul’s and the Gospel’s interpretation of the life of Christ, was an early example (in the mid-100’s AD) of the firming of rules against direct spiritual revelation (generally known as Gnosticism). The Ecumenical Councils decided the books which would be included in the Bible, and the order in which they would appear and they decreed which beliefs were heretical and which were not, creating a centralized form of governance and belief for the Christian religion. After long and trying wars, famines, and economic strife, Christianity became to be seen by secular powers as a method of instilling social unity in the people of the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, ending almost 300 years of persecution of the cult by the State. Becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire also gave the decisions of the Church’s councils the force of law. This phase of codification and consolidation of Christianity strengthened its path toward the social dominance of a religion.

               Bitcoin’s technological innovation of creating a chain of trust, backed by mathematical verification, is a tool and tools are merely instruments of the will of those who wield them. New modes of trust, faith, and belief are being created and tested, the arguments about them now reverberating through to consensus. Some arguments will win, others will lose. There is a burgeoning codification, but there does not exist a uniform belief system yet. The orientation of Bitcoin-believers is toward freedom from the failed financial system of the State and cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin are in the social phase of codification. There is a struggle to define what the meaning and place of these digital innovations are or what they will be; there is a struggle to create a narrative that will place them in society as a new institution. Acknowledgement of Bitcoin’s existence and rudimentary forms of regulation hastened Bitcoin’s adoption. A Federal Judge declared Bitcoin a “form of money” which could be then regulated by the government in 2013 and the period from 2012-2014 saw a host of companies declare that they would accept Bitcoin for payment. Its first great battle, and one it is still fighting, is the war against the idea that Bitcoin is used only by criminals and for criminal activity. The adoption of BTC’s use by corporations and some regulation of exchange provided a counter to this argument. BTC won the narrative battle to become something seen as acceptable to society, but it is still a fractured community, with other prominent crypto-currencies and “forks” in the blockchain serving as opposition.


(Source: Wikimedia Commons from user – Onov3056)

Rise and Fall – from Cult to Religion

“It is thus everywhere that foolish Rumour babbles not of what was done, but of what was misdone or undone; and foolish History (ever, more or less, the written epitomised synopsis of Rumour) knows so little that were not as well unknown. Attila Invasions, Walter-the-Penniless Crusades, Sicilian Vespers, Thirty-Years Wars: mere sin and misery; not work, but hindrance of work! For the Earth, all this while, was yearly green and yellow with her kind harvests; the hand of the craftsman, the mind of the thinker rested not: and so, after all, and in spite of all, we have this so glorious high-domed blossoming World; concerning which, poor History may well ask, with wonder, Whence it came? She knows so little of it, knows so much of what obstructed it, what would have rendered it impossible. Such, nevertheless, by necessity or foolish choice, is her rule and practice; whereby that paradox, ‘Happy the people whose annals are vacant,’ is not without its true side.” (Chapter 1.2.I, Astræa Redux)

               Examination of basic cause and effect, or the imposition of a facsimile of cause and effect (for events do not travel in orderly fashion) to give us a sense of order and understanding of events is a basic feature of history. A conclusion which can be safely drawn from approximately 500 years of the process of scientific inquiry is that causality is hard to establish with any degree of certainty. Every major event or turning point in human history follows a path-dependent route with an almost infinite chain of causality.

               Creation of a narrative – especially the mirroring of nature with a “rise and fall” narrative – is the goal of Carlyle’s writing. Placing the reader in the middle of a story provides a structure where they can observe what the author thinks is important. This is ironic because we know these narratives are always untrue (if not useful); Carlyle is revealing the nature of faith and belief while advancing his own understanding of the world. Our lives are proscribed at inception, with no appeals accepted and no motions for relief granted. Of course, this is true of all things, every being, institution, and organization flashes into being and then slowly subsides. So when we tell stories about empires, or social movements, or wars, or lives there is an innate structure of rise and fall to which we are attracted and repelled. This narrative is a lie as the only certain things are beginnings and endings. Middles are messes. But, those beginnings and endings can be complex, too, often muffled and hazy – we cannot see them even though we know they exist. Birth and death, the points compassing our linear journey through life, are clouded and ineffable – inconceivable. And, like our lives, so are the beginning and endpoints of leaders and civilizations. One moment they existed and the next they did not, their forms never truly visible, but only existing in the collective minds of their participants. The seat of belief is not a trifling matter, if enough people believe the same thing, they will certainly exact change.

               There is a pattern to the adoption of novel ideas. Believers swell their ranks with other believers, and collective action begins to impress an impact on the world outside of the confines of the cultists’ minds. There is no more powerful result of belief than the ascendancy of Bitcoin in terms of its price in United States Dollars. Price increase is a measurable sign of success, it is an idea around which one can build a story, any story – if it involves Bitcoin becoming the Reserve Currency, or a replacement for Gold, or a bet against hyper-inflation. The continuous rise in price recently spurred renewed interest from important financial institutions in Bitcoin – the narrative of price increases creating a direct line to adoption enabled by the secular State. Five reasons for Bitcoin’s surge in price are enumerated in this piece: (1) “For professional investors, there’s no longer career risk in buying bitcoin,” (2) which means “institutional money is starting to pour into bitcoin,” (3) “The U.S. government is flashing a green light [that Bitcoin will not be over-regulated], (4) “Bitcoin has a breakout new evangelist,” and (5) “A lot of people are nervous about the global monetary system — especially the dollar.”  All five of those reasons are molded by sentiment based on price action and not by qualities inherent in Bitcoin, it’s part of another story being created at this instant.

               As I noted, Carlyle’s history consciously attempts to tell the story of the French Revolution as if he were narrating an action in front us. Descending into the chamber of Louis XV to recite the actions of characters milling about as that King lay on his deathbed, as if the author were an omniscient, unseen observer, for example, brings to the reader an immediacy of emotion and feeling which is lacking in a dry recitation of facts. In this immediacy lies a truth about the French Revolution: the overthrow of the monarchy and Dechristianization were not enough to satisfy the mass of people, who were, first and foremost, hungry. Carlyle’s narration highlights the struggle of regular people (while ironically following the “Great Men” who turn belief into action), who were, for one of the first times in history, and only for a short time, the master of events. With nothing viable given to replace their former beliefs, the people, and therefore the national Revolutionary movement, descended into chaos with hundreds of factions and belief-systems vying for control of the nation (Chapter 3.3.I, Cause and Effect). It is secular power that was vital and disputed as a result of the absence of the unity of Belief, leading to the Reign of Terror and the ultimate collapse of the Revolutionary government in Napoleon’s coup. The horror of so many events in the Revolution given immediacy by Carlyle’s interpretation displays the powers unleashed (or kept in check) by Belief, especially when these Beliefs can harness violence which is used or condoned by the secular State.

               Christianity was given a formal place in society by Constantine, but the Catholic Church did not have true secular power – it did not become the monumental edifice of the Middle Ages – until the “Donation of Pepin” in 756 AD. This was a grant of conquered territory by the secular French power to the Church, to control physically and rule over (what became known as the Papal States). After this point, the Catholic Church had the power to defend its own interests, beyond social and cultural impact. France became allied with the Catholic Church, intertwining their powers, though France was not yet what could be called a nation-state at this point. Give or take a hundred years, this time period marked the end of formation of Papal and spiritual authority in the cult of Christianity, and the beginning of the exercise of that authority as the Catholic Church. 700 years of increasing social, cultural, moral, and physical power ended in a catastrophe of corruption and conflict with incipient nation-states and the forces of populism unleashed by increased literacy and communications technology during the Reformation. The ability to impose law by physical force is the last marker of the transition from cult to religion. It was only through a grant of power by another regional force that finally secured the place of Christianity as a world power.


Creation of Adam, Fresco, by Michelangelo
(Source: Sistine Chapel)

The Past is not the Future

               The relationship between the present world and the examination and construction of history is as a person walking forward and looking backwards. The only thing you can learn from history is what types of obstacles may be in your path after you’ve already passed them, but it does not predict when and how those obstacles will be encountered.

               If modern tools can reveal to us the hidden worlds and movements of the past, can their use also conceal obvious truths? The matchless abundance of computational power which defines our modern world is also its most disorienting feature. In gathering enormous amounts of data, we are easily drowned instead of buoyantly uplifted. History was once clouded by lack of information, by an inability to see an entire scene or sequence, by limited records and facts. Now even recent history is clouded by an abundance of these same features. We must make peace with the fact that history is not the Truth, it is a story, as all human institutions and ideas are. They are stories-in-motion or they are dead and hollow. We cannot make sense of the immensity that is “everything” – we must simplify if we are to act and to attempt to understand how we got to where we are standing now. Is it all random? At times, yes, at others, no. Careful examination of data may sometimes find things that are deeper than the incorrect assumptions we often make about the world, but we may also conceal obvious truths. The three stories I just outlined (of the rise of Christianity, the convulsion of the French Revolution, and the rise of Bitcoin) are all narratives, wherein we take events and imbue them with meaning based on what happened following each action.

               All cults exist as a refutation of state power, as a well-spring from which discontent flows toward the dominant social institutions. But not all cults succeed in becoming the new social institutions. There is always a tension between our knowledge of events and our knowledge of their causes and the past is not a blueprint which can be used to construct the future. A series of beliefs, held and acted on by enough people, can construct the future, however. The Catholic Church’s dominant grip over Europe eventually collapsed under the weight of its own corruption. Emperor Napoleon outlawed the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being, restoring Catholicism as the official religion of France. Bitcoin may be co-opted by the State, outlawed, fail completely, or become the international reserve currency. The future is not predetermined by the past.

               If one wanted to make a rule out of these stories, it could be: (1) cults arise in eras of perceived moral and financial decline, which (2) cause people to lose faith in the primary institutions of the day, (3) the downfall of old orders are mythologized through stories of decay and the founding of the cult is mythologized by modified interpretations of the founder – who often is the object of worship, cults then go through a phase of (4) strengthening their message of salvation and certainty for the future through codification and elimination of heresies and spread as faith in present institutions continues to decline, and finally, (5) successful cults become religions intertwined with, or possessing on their own accord, the secular powers of the State and become part of the ruling institutions.

               No two stories are alike, however, but processing the general paths of cults as they are born and then spread can restore clarity to the mass-mobilization of ideas. Ideas become actions and the link between those two points are the forge of social change. Dissemination of ideas becoming ever-more ubiquitous and rapid accelerates and decentralizes this process and causes an eruption of cults, each a possible source of foundational change. Everything told between birth and death, and as obscured as those two encompassing moments might be by myths – they are indisputable, is pure fiction. The fiction of the “rise and fall” has a tight hold on the imagination of people, and ultimately of their opinion. These stories, themselves, create the momentum of change by bending people’s beliefs.

               Belief itself is sovereign. Near the end of the Gospel of John, there is a line that sums the purpose of the book and highlights the power of constructed belief, the object of worship, and of certainty and hope in the future:

“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” – John 20:31, KJV

[NOTE] There exist the lesser cults of celebrity worship, a facet of mass media being that anyone in front of a camera enough times will become globally known, regardless of their achievements or merits. Insult Beyonce or Kanye West online and you will feel the wrath of their supporters. Celebrity worship lacks the all-encompassing simplicity of “One Big Idea” which successful cults provide, and therefore does not generate the strength of belief that the other cults do. Celebrity-worship may be intense, but there must be an object of faith and certainty beyond mere admiration and reason to create the types of cults which may yet become religions. Other modern cults that will never become religions include QAnon, belief in which can be falsified by the mere passage of time, and Scientology, which is too exposed by media to become more successful (it’s founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, supposedly once said “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” h/t @valuestockgeek via Twitter).