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I do not write often, even privately, about political questions. I do not feel I know enough. But I am rather interested in the idea of Western culture (and, more narrowly, American culture). Can any sense be made of it? What would it mean to consider myself a specifically American poet, in some sense that goes beyond the fact that I was born here? And sometimes the fruit hangs just low enough that even I, in my relative ignorance, feel confident I can enter the fray. Andrew McCarthy’s recent piece in The New Criterion (behind a paywall here) dangles low before me, very low, and I cannot resist.

McCarthy’s piece, part of a larger symposium on free speech and the academy (summarized: The Left is killing it), argues that we can draw a divide between the West and Islam on the following grounds: the West is characterized by reason, Islam by narrative. This is the result of Islam’s endorsement of divine voluntarism, with God as the immediate cause of everything, not bound by rules of logic outside himself.

Now one might immediately be skeptical, for it is precisely a part of this view that such reason is universal. One wonders, then, how it can be specifically Western. But let us leave that aside. The West is characterized by fealty to (universal) Reason, Islam by fealty to parochial narratives. And who else should also like narratives but the social justice warriors who are overrunning our campuses, creating a chilling environment where politically incorrect ideas are verboten. Just like Islam, they have given up peaceful persuasion in favor of insidious compulsion. The core of McCarthy’s article is this paragraph:

Appeals to reason are all well and good, for even the mind of a captive is free to reason and make choices. But those choices can be confined. That does not happen in the West, or at least it did not until recent times, because here the rule of reason avails us of infinite choices. Reason, though, is very far from the most common guide for ruling societies.

The reason why this article is low-hanging fruit is that it spells out several contrasts between Reason and Narrative, and for each such contrast the article itself possesses the characteristics of Narrative. (In this regard it is impressively un-self-conscious.) I will consider two.

First, Reason involves a commitment to challenging basic assumptions, to being willing to jettison them if they should prove wrong or unwarranted. Narrative, by contrast, is happy to bend facts to fit a pre-established pattern. How well does McCarthy do on challenging and testing his basic assumptions? Not so well, I’m afraid. At the core of his argument is the view that the “backbone” of military Islam is a commitment to radical voluntarism:

Without apology, Islam spread by military conquest because the predominant conception of Allah was defined by will, not reason.

This asserts a very strong causal claim: it is because of their conception of Allah in terms of will and not reason that Islam is spread by military conquest. Without that causal claim, the rest of the article falls apart, for the inference that we are very clearly meant to draw is that the tyranny of the social justice warrior is an inevitable result of accept the ideas of Foucault and like. McCarthy, however, provides no evidence that supports this causal claim. The one thing he does say—that reason was deliberately removed from philosophical conceptions of Islam between the 9th and 11th centuries—is clearly insufficient to establish that there is a causal connection between the two at all, let alone that this connection proceeds from voluntarism to conquest.

Moreover, McCarthy ignores the inconvenient fact that there is a long tradition of voluntarism (both about morality and about causality) in Western philosophy. Malebranche’s causal occasionalism comes to mind as the instance I have read most recently. Was Malebranche inherently non-Western? Even more ludicrous is the claim that in the West ideas have, until recently, been spread by Reason alone. He must have an enviably rosy picture of the tactics of Christian missionaries (to give but one example)—or were they all secret voluntarists?

Another example. I recently read (and very much enjoyed) General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs, which covered his pivotal role in the Civil War. At several points, Sherman scoffs at those carrying on debates over whether the Union should be preserved or the Confederate states allowed to secede. Argument, he says, has been exhausted. Ultimately only force will decide the matter. And once the South has been defeated, their ideas will start to come around. Sherman’s position is precisely that pro-Union ideas are to be spread by conquest, not persuasion. McCarthy’s position seems to commit him to the claim that the Civil War (at least as Sherman understood it) was an inherently non-Western, indeed anti-Western war. I doubt he wants to accept that claim. (Or maybe Sherman was a voluntarist.)

More generally, the issue is that McCarthy is trading in nebulous claims about essences: the essence of the West is Reason (even if the actual West often failed to live up to it), while the essence of Islam is voluntarist conquest (even though both voluntarism and conquest can be readily found in the West). Such claims about essences are curiously immune to test, for all counter-instances are of course non-essential, are the outliers. In other words, the very structure of McCarthy’s argument is more suited to Narrative as he characterizes it than it is to Reason.

A second contrast between Reason and Narrative is that Reason attempts to sort out which ideas are right and which ideas are wrong, while Narrative instead favors setting up a contrast between “us” and “them.” Central to Narrative, on this conception, is the practice of condemning a view not because it is wrong, but because it has unwanted consequences. (This is the epitome of McCarthy’s caricature of political correctness.) Now there is an easy way and a serious way to mock McCarthy’s article for hypocrisy here. The frivolous way is to point out that the simplest way to state McCarthy’s thesis is that the unsullied West is under threat from within by leftists who have adopted the inherently non-Western ideas and tactics of Islam. Or, in short, us vs. them.

That is a nice little jest at his expense, but it lies on top of a much more serious criticism. McCarthy is ultimately defending the idea that there is objective truth independent of all power struggles against the idea that everything we call ‘true’ is inextricably linked to (potentially insidious) motives in such a struggle. (You will note, by the by, that these positions are obviously not incompatible.) He does so in a way that sets up an us vs. them dynamic, but that hardly is hypocritical, provided he gives us reason to think that the one is right and the other wrong. That is why I claim that it is frivolous, though amusing.

The trouble, however, is that throughout his article McCarthy provides exactly one reason to favor Reason over Narrative. Narrative has as its consequence the spread of ideas by conquest—military conquest in the case of Islam, Title IX conquest in the case of SJWs. Reason does not. So we should favor Reason. This provides no reason whatsoever to think that Narrative (or its supposed voluntarist underpinning) is wrong. It simply has unsavory consequences.

I hope it is clear that I have no general objection to this style of argument. Philosophical and factual claims may be right or wrong, but they may also be connected to concrete action and systemic structures, and it seems worthwhile to me to investigate both. As I noted above, the core claims of Reason and Narrative are just straightforwardly compatible. So perhaps McCarthy is right that voluntarism is connected to conquest, and that this should lead us to be wary of it where we find it (obviously, I don’t think McCarthy has made a good case, but my commitment to Reason, as it were, forbids me from inferring an idea’s inadequacy from its advocate’s incompetence). But for him to pretend that his argument conforms to the commands of Reason (as he characterizes it) is sheer cant.

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I flatter myself that there might be some interest in those books that made an impression on me this past year. I read seventy-four books in total. Recreational reading primarily consisted of poetry and philosophy, while my academic life led me to read a number of books ranging over history of science, philosophy of science, and biology. These latter I do not include here, though many were excellent. I offer below only those about which I have something to say, focusing on books of poetry, though I include some others of interest. Many are left out simply because I had no particular comments to make about them, even though I enjoyed them very much. Within the sub-categories, books are listed in the order read.

Poetry

Omar Khayyam, Ruba’iyat (trans. Avery and Heath-Stubbs) — For a time after reading this, I wrote ruba’iyat of my own, which are published on this blog here (the thirteenth is, in my view, the strongest). That it encouraged me to such activity is the highest recommendation I can give it. The translation is literal, which means that occasionally the poetry is lost, but the irreverent joy of the poems comes through as clearly as one could wish.

Pindar, Odes (trans. Bowra) — This book gave me great pleasure, and I will likely read it again in 2017. Pindar’s victory odes begin with the athletes whose immortality they ensure, but they expand to cover the entirety of that great question of being human. They celebrate human achievements, offer moral caution as to our limits (they are didactic with none of the flaws of didactic poetry), and question our place in the universe. Bowra’s translation offers to the reader such fine English wordcraft that I could read it, not as a degraded copy of an inaccessible original, but as I would any English poem, delighting in vivid descriptions and striking turns of phrase. In my own poetic work, Pindar ranks among my strongest influences.

Virgil, Aeneid (trans. Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald) — I need not say too much about this, as I have already written about it at length on this blog. Here I will only express my approval of both the Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald translations, both of which I prefer to the Fagles (the first translation I read). In reading each, I routinely had the following experience. While reading Mandelbaum, I came across an especially wonderful passage, went to check the corresponding passage in Fitzgerald, and thought, “Mandelbaum is clearly superior.” While reading Fitzgerald, precisely the same happened, only now Fitzgerald seemed the superior. (This may have even happened for the same passages.) Both are full of delights.

Virgil, Georgics (trans. Wilkinson) and Eclogues (trans. Ferry) — While I very much enjoyed both of these works (as evidenced here), I will want to read these works in other translations to get to know them better (I own the Ferry translation of the Georgics). Until then my relationship to them will remain subsidiary to my love for the Aeneid. At the same time, they capture aspects of life that the Aeneid does not, and so round out Virgil’s output nicely.

Geoffrey Hill, Without Title — This was my first exposure to Geoffrey Hill (who died while I was reading it), and thus far still my only serious engagement with his work (though I hope to dig much deeper in 2017). It was an often rewarding, often frustrating experience, but on the whole I felt that his poetry justified the difficulty. Behind the verbal wizardry and knotty syntax is real feeling, worth the effort of excavation. My thoughts on individual poems in the volume can be found here.

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red — I read this, took a week to recover, and immediately read it again. The only reason I haven’t read it a third time is that my copy is currently on loan to a friend. I had previously read Plainwater and more or less enjoyed it, but largely felt that it escaped me. Autobiography of Red convinces me I will have to revisit it, for this “novel in verse” fairly explodes with descriptions that are both startlingly unexpected and perfectly precise. (No easy feat: much of the early American poetry I have been reading is reasonably precise, but only because tame, while much of the contemporary poetry I read manages to be unexpected—or at least to convince me that it wanted to be unexpected—at the cost of failing to convey much of anything at all.)

Other

Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena — Kafka was a strange, wonderful man, and I delighted in being made privy to the oddball intensity of his relationship with Milena. Reading this book is like watching a Wong Kar-Wai film: Franz and Milena’s relationship is full of the kind of unique rituals and concerns that characterize relationships in Wong’s films (especially Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). For my own part, little gives me more pleasure, makes me feel more deeply that there is life to be found among humans, and that this life is good.

Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn — Literary criticism, in my view, has two aims: to make us better readers, and to make us better writers. This is a book that helped me to become a better reader. Brooks is an admirable close reader of poems, and that is what this book is, first and foremost. It is also, somewhat more incidentally, a polemic in favor of the view that what the poem says cannot be captured without loss in any other form than the poem itself. As a general defense of the “new criticism,” the book is not persuasive: the position it stakes out is obviously correct, but only because it is not very bold, and the position it attacks as its contrast is very nearly a strawman (though perhaps accurate enough at the time). But what does that matter? The criticism in this book is what determines its value, and the criticism is remarkable.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity — I read this with a friend (who for her part read some of Emerson’s essays on my recommendation). Both of us noticed the similarities between Emerson’s and de Beauvoir’s ideas, only where Emerson spoke of self-reliance and conformity, de Beauvoir preferred to use the language of freeing oneself from oppression. Our discussion of this was interesting: I preferred Emerson, her de Beauvoir. She suggested, I think correctly, that this likely stemmed from certain differences in our experiences: my life has been relatively privileged and comfortable, allowing conformity in various forms to stand as one of my greatest obstacles, while she has very recently freed herself from a much more material form of oppression.

Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861 — It is often said that Emerson’s notebooks are his true masterpiece. I do not think this is correct: the composition of his essays brings the scattered moods of his notebook entries into striking juxtapositions that the notebooks alone cannot match. But it might be fairly said of Thoreau, whose deliberately composed works I enjoy only from a distance. The notebooks, by contrast, bring me close to the man and his enviable solitude. With Thoreau (and Emerson), I share a faith that this solitude can be mitigated by friendships that span centuries, between people who have never met. To facilitate such friendship is one of the highest purposes of writing, and Thoreau’s journal (at least, the selection presented here) serves precisely that noble end.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World — My stated purpose, on beginning to read this, was to mine it for poetic material. It has certainly furnished that: I can think of at least three poems I wrote this year that would have been impossible without this book. But leaving such selfish uses aside, the book documents a journey through an environment harsh beyond measure. As a picture of human life in such an environment, it is valuable even to those who do not see it as a quarry to be mined.

Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness — The opinions of a miscellaneous man who lived half a world away several centuries ago, well expressed. This book is a treasure trove, by turns funny and wise. No more needs to be said.

Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki — Imagine Thoreau’s Walden, only dramatically condensed (my copy is but 18 pages), and, instead of presenting a definite vision of how life ought to be, rather turning inward to frank self-criticism: Chōmei sought to lose his worldly attachments by living a simpler, more isolated life, only to find himself attached to that very simplicity and isolation itself.

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop — My experience of this book, and the high regard in which I hold it, are well expressed in this post I wrote about it. Cather conjures up a world with this book, and that feat, more than any particular story told (though there is a story), lies at its heart.

William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs — I know little about the civil war or about the controversies that attached to Sherman’s policies. I do not know if, considering his actions by their consequences, he should be thought a good man or a bad. But, reading his memoirs, I grew greatly attached to him, the way he carried himself. In great events, one must choose, one way or the other—thus he says, and so he does. In one of the passages that most struck me in Thoreau’s journal, Thoreau condemns the one who fails to occupy any ground. Sherman occupied ground in every sense, and was willing to defend it.