Brian Phillips has written a terrific essay for Grantland on the culture of ritualized pain and intimidation in football, and the ways that sports fans share, enable, embrace, and vicariously live out fantasies through it. It’s called “Man Up: Declaring a war on warrior culture in the wake of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.”
I love football — it’s so much fun, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s an excuse to drunk-tweet in the mid-afternoon — but it has also become the major theater of American masculine crackup. It’s as if we’re a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We’re Klingons, but only on Sundays. The Marines have a strict anti-hazing policy, but we need our fantasy warrior-avatars to be unrestrained and indestructible. We demand that they comply with an increasingly shrill and dehumanizing value set that we communicate by yelling PLAY THROUGH PAIN and THAT GUY IS A SOLDIER and THE TRENCHES and GO TO WAR WITH THESE GUYS and NEVER BACK DOWN. We love coaches who never sleep, stars who live to win, transition graphics that take out the electrical grid in Kandahar. We love pregame flyovers that culminate in actual airstrikes.
And of course this affects the players. Locker-room guy-culture is one thing; the idea that any form of perceived vulnerability is a Marxist shadow plot is something else. It’s a human inevitability that when you assemble a group of hypercompetitive young men some of them will go too far, or will get off on torturing the others — which is why it’s maybe a good idea, cf. the real-life military, to have a system in place to keep this in check. What we have instead is a cynical set of institutional fetishes that rewards unhealthy behavior. The same 110-percent-never-give-an-inch rhetoric that makes concussed players feign health on game day encourages hazing creep after practice. Don’t believe that? I’ve got a helmet-to-helmet hit here for you, and that’ll be $15,000, petunia.
But it also resonated with this story Adam Rothstein pointed me to today, about the culture of police officers and police encounters. It’s called “An Ex-Cop’s Guide To Not Getting Arrested.“
Every interaction with a police officer entails two contests: One for “psychological dominance” and one for “custody of your body.” Carson advises giving in on the first contest in order to win the second. Is that belittling? Of course. “Being questioned by police is insulting,” Carson writes. “It is, however, less insulting than being arrested. What I’m advising you to do when questioned by police is pocket the insult. This is difficult and emotionally painful.”
Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.”
Winning the psychological battle requires you to be honest with cops, polite, respectful, and resistant to incitement. “If cops lean into your space and blast you with coffee-and-stale-donut breath, ignore it,” Carson writes. Same goes for if they poke you in the chest or use racial slurs. “If you react, you’ll get busted.” Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.” Always tell the truth. “Lying is complicated, telling the truth is simple.”
He also says you should be dignified — unless it looks like you’re about to lose both the psychological contest and the one for custody of your body. In which case, you should be strategically pitiful.
I want to be clear — this is insane. This is all some real PTSD shit. These are mechanisms that make a bit of strategic sense in dealing with an abusive parent, or surviving in the Jim Crow South. They are not and must not be tools for dealing with civil servants upholding law and order, in playing a game, or dealing with your colleagues in the workplace. (Always remember, pro sports are both of the latter.)
I mean, maybe we are all suffering with a form of PTSD, after centuries of patriarchy, racial violence, labor violence, and warfare whose legitimacy suddenly (from the long view of eternity) seems suspect. And if PTSD is the wrong acronym, let’s borrow the new term of art football has made famous. What we have is chronic traumatic masculinity syndrome.
Just like NFL players suffer long-term brain damage from both hitting with and suffering damage to their heads, we as a culture are suffering from long-term damage both from and to an parodic and extremely pathological image of masculinity.
As it’s being chased out of places where it used to be welcomed — the household, the workplace, even the military — this strain of CTM pops up in a concentrated form, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, in a handful of spaces. Pro sports. The police. Wall Street. Rap music. Reddit threads. (NB: I like all of these things, at least MINUS the bullshit masculinity people feel the need to display there.)
It’s a toxic expression of our long-toxic history, that not only subjects, objectifies, and physically and emotionally abuses women, but stops seeing men as people with feelings, with internal organs other than the ones they use to hit each other, but as generators of violence, and statistics.
“Law enforcement officers now are part of the revenue gathering system,” Carson tells me in a phone interview. “The ranks of cops are young and competitive, they’re in competition with one another and intra-departmentally. It becomes a game. Policing isn’t about keeping streets safe, it’s about statistical success. The question for them is, Who can put the most people in jail?”
I played a funny litcrit game with a very serious journalism debate. I started drawing lines and rectangles and filling in blanks. It’s a little like highbrow madlibs. And it helped me figure a few things out.
Short summary: the debate between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller in the pages of the NYT articulates a lot of the big ideas people inside and outside the profession have had about the practice of journalism. (Also, about the relative merit of David Brooks, but that’s a sideline.)
But by framing it as a back and forth between two poles, it leaves a lot out. It actually doesn’t really recognize how close Greenwald and Keller really are in their basic assumptions about what kind of journalism is important and why, in their faith in the truth and in reader’s abilities to sort out really hard questions for themselves. And they’re arguing with each other, but also past each other, to targets they can’t quite bring themselves to name: people like Rupert Murdoch, and Nick Denton.
The left side is corporate or traditional media; the right is online media. The top is “serious” journalism; the bottom is tabloid journalism. For Keller and Greenwald, journalism is a calling; for Murdoch and Denton, it is a business. And without the largesse of patrons committed to the same ideals of journalism, the New York Times and Greenwald’s untitled venture with Omidyar would be very paltry businesses indeed, while Denton’s and Murdoch’s flourish, grow, and evolve. The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, and Pro Publica, and a few others, have found a space in which they can continue to exist. But it seems to me foolish to deny that for everyone else, the business models and journalistic practices mapped by Murdoch and Denton are proving to be much more robust, repeatable, and influential.
The picture up top is called a semiotic square, and it’s a way of representing a few basic principles:
This has always felt very logical to me. Maybe it’s because it’s like a math problem. If we say, “ok, there are two kinds of numbers, whole numbers and fractions” — well, you’re forgetting about the things that are neither of those. And that’s actually MOST of the numbers. So we say, okay, there are whole numbers and fractions, and not-whole numbers, and not-fractions (irrationals). But wait — now we’re just talking about REAL numbers, and if we’re interested in NUMBERS, you’ve got to talk about imaginary numbers too. And not just imaginary but complex.
And so on. You can always, always, ALWAYS, go further down by expanding and relaxing your field of assumptions. And you can do it all with a pen and a piece of paper. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, this has always been really important for all the fields I’ve been drawn too intellectually — the only tools you need to carry them out are books, pen, and paper. Maybe a calculator, ruler and compass, and a camera.)
But because I know you can always go further down, I know that this graph of journalism is really incomplete. It’s a schema — it clarifies some things, but it obscures even more. And it makes things fixed that are really on the move. It’s like those beads-and-wire atomic models we made of elements in middle school — shit, electrons just aren’t moving around in quiet circles like that. Electrons are a MESS.
So I’d really like to get some pushback and extensions on this here. Jay Rosen was kind enough on Twitter to say that I didn’t pay enough attention to the debate over insiders vs outsiders, access vs accountability, in contemporary journalism. I talk about it a little bit in terms of complicity with the mechanisms of power. But how extensible is that to finance journalism, sports, entertainment, technology? Maybe it is, or maybe we need to blend that discussion with one of access.
And that points to another limitation: even the graph I made sort of takes investigative political journalism as being the field of discourse. And news, journalism, media is enormous! And the centrality of political accountability journalism is not at all self-evident.
Does Silicon Valley care about this shit? Does Wall Street? Does the science blogosphere? Does ESPN? Kinda. But not really. For them the field of action, of real power, of news of genuine importance, is elsewhere. It intersects with that world of electoral politics and state power, but only tangentially and accidentally.
And where do data and coding fit in? Nothing in this graph tells me whether I should learn to code, or what “learning to code” means. Which as we all know, is the most important question for journalism in human history. I mean, if I knew how to program in R, this sad-ass square could be a super-slick data visualization with crazy mouseovers and tilt-shift views and shit.
So what do you all think? If this is a place to start, how can we make it better?
An observation from Siva Vaidhyanathan:
In Holland, “media literacy” is called “media wisdom.” I love that.
The Dutch word is “Mediawijsheid.” The Dutch sometimes use “media literacy” too, to describe strict literacy, but “media wisdom” has a specific slant, similar to (but I think stronger than) the more robust sense we sometimes give literacy:
In the Netherlands media literacy is often called “media wisdom”, which refers to the skills, attitudes and mentality that citizens and organisations need to be aware, critical and active in a highly mediatised world.
Wisdom. What we really mean, what we have always meant, is wisdom.
This is the new Snarkmarket. I want to welcome you inside, and tell you how we got here.
Five years ago today, I joined Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson at Snarkmarket.com, a two-person site they’d built to write about media, the future, and everything else. It was the site’s fifth anniversary. (It was also the day Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States.) For five years, I’d haunted the comments at Snarkmarket, writing responses longer than the posts themselves; now I was being asked to join the show.
It may be a strange thing to wrap our minds around now, but being a member of a popular but noncommercial blog in 2008 was a very big deal. Nobody was getting paid, and nobody was doing what was recognized as “work,” but it was a platform that brought two things with it:
Snarkmarket gave me a fighting chance of writing about something besides university books for a university audience. I felt like I’d won a lottery ticket. And for the next two years, that kicked off my favorite period in the history of the site: when we made New Liberal Arts, when Robin improbably became a bestselling novelist, when Matt returned from the midwest to help reinvent blogging for NPR, when I even more improbably became a technology journalist at Wired and then The Verge.
But as the three of us were pulled into our thirties, and that decade’s corresponding commitments, and as much of the discussion around news and ideas began to shift away from user-owned blogs to new media properties and superheating social networks, Snarkmarket entered a new phase. During this time, Robin called Snarkmarket “a hardy desert ecosystem.” The site proved infinitely adaptable, but its visible flourishing diminished.
As we approached our tenth anniversary, Matt and Robin and I had an idea. We would make the Snarkmatrix — our community of readers, commenters, friends, well-wishers, lurkers, and musers — manifest. We would assemble at the Poynter Institute, where it all began, as Matt and Robin decided to start a blog. We would celebrate Snarkmarket’s tenth birthday with the people who’d made it possible.
But — and this is where the hardy desert ecosystem metaphor becomes especially useful — we also took the Snarkmatrix underground. We started doing weekly meetings — a Snarkseminar — where different members would bring to the group ideas, problems, texts, videos, questions for the group to discuss and respond to. The whole thing was Powered By Google; we’d doodle on a Google Doc each week with marginal notes, conduct a live hangout. Whoever could come was welcome; if you couldn’t make it, no harm, no foul. And it was exciting to see what we could do with those tools, in that smaller space, with two or three dozen people actively collaborating on an idea rather than two or three guys (however skilled we three might be).
And for a while, we thought that would be where it would end. A victory lap for the community we brought together, a reward to people who’d found us, whenever or however they found us. And a reward for the three of us, a big party in Florida with our best friends and biggest fans.
We thought we’d get a little Kindle single out of it — here are the products of our labors, a set of final projects for the Snarkseminar, created by the community online, hammered out face-to-face. And that was exciting.
But then we thought: what if we go bigger?
What if the point of the tenth anniversary of Snarkmarket wasn’t to present its tombstone, but to bring it back to life, bigger and stronger and bolder than ever? And what if the mechanism for its resurrection was right in front of us — the core community of Snarkmarket readers and commenters, to many of whom the site (and the ideas animating the site) meant as much as it did to us?
What if the tools we needed to create a fun, participatory, community-driven blog were available to us, and what if this time, right now — the age of social media, the age of the new, big-business online media company, driven by ads and scale and Hadoop nodes and dataviz and all that marvelous crap — was to double the fuck down on the enthusiast, curated, small-n multiuser blog? What if it was time to go full MetaFilter?
So that’s what we’re doing. Five years ago, Snarkmarket went from two editors to three. Now our community is growing by dozens. You’re going to see a lot of new writers here — but if you’ve been a long-time reader, they won’t be strangers. You’ve been seeing them in the comments for years.
We’re also building new tools and interfaces to try to take advantage of this newfound swarm of talent. We’re going to have collaborative stories, inline glosses, conversational forks. We’re going to try to reimagine (with the robust tools we already have, tweaked by some of our design geniuses) what a group blog looks like, and what it can do for the reader.
And that’s just the beginning. If we do this right, is a collective that will be continually throwing off new objects like sparks from a hammer on hot steel. Some of those will be objects you can participate in making. But for now we’re settling in, seeing what this new Snarkmarket can do.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few months as new sites have launched, also trying to do new experiments in online writing and reading in 2013. “Is ______ a platform or a media company?” is the new “Are bloggers journalists?”
Snarkmarket is proudly neither a platform nor a media company. It is a community of friends and colleagues, allies and advocates, learners and thinkers, who have gathered together for mutual aid, support, and encouragement, and experimentation. The visible expression of that community is now, as it has been, what you see at Snarkmarket.com. We want you to join us as a commenter. We want you to cheer us on. We want to cheer you on. We want to know what you think. We’re ready to try anything. We’re ready to see what’s possible.
Let’s light this candle.
Today, it’s not just the government that’s back in business! The internet gives us two great articles about cartooning (and technology!) that go great together.
First, Mental Floss scored a huge coup and interviewed the elusive/reclusive/exclusive Bill Watterson, author and artist of Calvin and Hobbes. (As I said on Twitter, this is like ten Salingers times a Pynchon.)
Where do you think the comic strip fits in today’s culture?
Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with.
Cue up Onion A/V Club’s Todd van der Werff, who looks back at that other great grandchild of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, Mike and Matt Chapman’s pioneering web video series Homestar Runner.
Much of Homestar Runner’s animation is fairly rudimentary stuff. Arms go up and down. Mouths flap open. Characters stand in place while the background races past them to indicate movement. But all of that belies the program’s true strength: terrifically designed, perfectly written characters. The weirdos that populate Homestar’s world aren’t drawn from animated kids’ shows or even children’s books, but from another great American art form: the newspaper comic strip. As with Peanuts or Pogo, the characters may have hidden depths, but they’re largely defined by striking, singular personality traits. Homestar is the good guy, and even if he’s a bit of a nerd in the process, he’ll always return to that basic decency. Strong Bad proved too slippery for the antagonist role and ended up becoming something like a 10-year-old boy’s conception of everything that is awesome in the world. His brothers, Strong Mad and Strong Sad, were just what they sounded like. Coach Z was motivational, in his own weird way. The Cheat was basically Snoopy.
(Last week, I read Priceonomics’ “The Supersizing of American Education” on Facebook. I started to write a Facebook comment on it. Then — as you guys often know happens to me — the comment got out of hand. So I posted it on my own Facebook page, and now I’m posting it here. — TC)
The problem with the formulation “even the recession hasn’t stopped the flow of money into American higher education,” as well as the economic lesson that this article draws (the underlying problem is revealed to be federal subsidies) is that well, it’s just not thinking very hard.
First, the recession has increased economic anxiety (for both parents and kids). This leads job-seekers to seek shelter, and helps create a boom in higher ed — hey, if I can’t find a job, at least I can get MORE SCHOOL! And I’ll definitely have a better chance of finding a job in THIS economy if I have more and better education, right? (Note: this is more or less true, but in a way that’s so bound up with hidden variables that the economic logic becomes self-defeating.)
Meanwhile, the state subsidies for public higher education have fallen away, which is partly ideological, but I’ll go ahead and concede is mostly a product of the last decade-plus’s financial and economic problems. Which leaves federal subsidies and, especially, enormous amounts of federally-subsidized private debt. And it also means the gap between public and private higher ed isn’t as large as it used to be, so more kids are applying to private schools.
And last, there’s tremendous demand for American university education worldwide, and both state and private universities are rushing to fill it. Globally, American higher ed is cheap and amazing for the world’s super-rich (and even its not-so-super-rich).
So basically, over the last twenty years, American higher education has become like apartments in Manhattan: a bizarre macroeconomic experiment where a mix of public and private subsidies, huge economic anxiety and inequality, unprecedented national interest and demand, and unbelievable and wildly distorting international interest and demand all combine with genuine improvement in both the substantive quality and superficial prestige itself, creating a cost spiral that will eventually destroy the system for everyone except the people who are wealthy enough that they don’t really need it anyways.
Meanwhile, the overeducated and underemployed are everywhere, piling up on every street corner, like so many Starbucks and Duane Reades, each of them individually a good idea, each flocking to the meritocratic promise of money and success like moths to flame, collapsing under their own weight, desperately grasping upwards, trying to collect just some of the wealth and meaning and stability that is always just around the corner, always just barely out of reach.
And somewhere, too, we are all receiving what on its face seems like very persuasive advice to look down at their upraised hands and whisper, “No.” And we forget that there was ever another way.
Some of you are saying “just thirteen?” and others of you are saying “AUGHHH I’ve already seen thirty-teen opinion pieces about Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post and nobody KNOWS anythng, just make it STOPPP.” Whether you’re either of these: don’t worry. Here, we’ll just do three.
First, Nieman Lab let me write my take on the Bezos purchase. This is very Snarkmarket-y insofar as it’s:
Second is Rusty Foster’s story at The Awl, which foregos traditional analysis for a full-on science-fiction phantasia peppered with philosophical ruminations:
I lay out Mr. Bezos’s single-use titanium microfiber undergarment and jumpsuit for the day. The truth is there isn’t much for a robot butler to actually do here in the Flying Dragon Lair. Ever since Mr. Bezos moved his home and business headquarters to the cloud, above Mt. Rainier, everything has pretty much run itself. Even laying out his clothing is largely a ceremonial duty. We used to work much more closely together, Mr. Bezos and I. I have been with him nearly since the beginning, and he relied on me for everything back then. But now, sometimes weeks go by and I don’t even see him.
Then our rockets descend from the cloud back to earth, with Dave Pell’s is-he-or-isn’t-he serious tweet, posted just now:
The best thing Jeff Bezos can do for The Washington Post is to figure out how to bring classifieds back.
— Dave Pell (@davepell) August 15, 2013
@davepell Actually, an Amazon-driven Craigslist alternative would be pretty sweet.
— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) August 15, 2013
@davepell How do you take classifieds FORWARD? Beyond Craigslist, beyond eBay. How do you create a total, evolving peer-to-peer marketplace?
— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) August 15, 2013
@tcarmody Get closer to the transaction. That's the name of the game in the Internet business.
— Dave Pell (@davepell) August 15, 2013
I don’t know how exactly that’s a viable evolutionary strategy for the Bezos-owned Post (and as you see if you read my longer post, I think it’s actually pretty important that the Post business is separate for Bezos from Amazon rather than some enchanting yet-unborn hybrid) but… come on, that kind of totally technology-driven personalized market is clearly the game-theoretically dominant strategy for Amazon, right? And when you scratch the surface, it’s just dark and thrilling and Ned-Beatty-toward-the-end-of-Network-updated-for-the-21st-century enough to be true, isn’t it?
Tim Maly writes about the true architectural marvels of New York, not the skyscrapers, the low-slung brownstones, or the magnificent suspension bridges, but the rivers and islands and shorelines of the city itself:
In 1660, Pearl Street ran along the shore. Captain Kidd had a waterfront property at the corner of Pearl and Wall. Today, that site lies three blocks inland. In the 1690s, the City sold water lots to private would-be landowners, each forty feet wide. Purchasers agreed to infill forty feet into the river, leaving space for public access wharves on the far side. These wharves became Water Street, which is itself two blocks away from the shore today, thanks to subsequent infill.
When these areas were built up, landscapers didn’t build very high. As sea levels rise and the climate becomes increasingly wild, we now have a series of artificial flood plains populated by people who did not sign up to be residents of a flood plain.
You can roughly trace Manhattan and Brooklyn’s original shorelines by looking at a map of the flood zones. Take away Zone A, and you get a pretty good picture of the ancient boundary between water and land. Some of that territory didn’t use to be land at all. Much of it was marsh and wetland.
“The High Line,” Tim writes, “is an architectural marvel made possible by the dredging of Newark Bay.”
Tim’s essay reminds me of two of my favorite pieces of writing. The first, “Atchafalaya,” by the great John McPhee, is probably the classic account of human’s semi-tragic, quasi-doomed, but all-too-real attempts to remake and restabilize the relentless natural wonders on which we’re precipitously perched.
The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah… The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.
The second is from Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika (also called The Man Who Disappeared). In the original draft of the book, Kafka gets key details of New York City’s geography “wrong,” so his editor Max Brod “corrected” them in the early published version. But I think Kafka’s absurd, imaginary architecture (restored in this translation) was entirely deliberate and from the standpoint of literature is actually far superior:
The bridge connecting New York to Boston hung delicately over the Hudson, and it trembled when you squinted to see it. It seemed entirely without traffic and underneath it ran an inanimate, smooth belt of water. Everything in both of these giant cities seemed empty and pointlessly displayed. As for the buildings, there was barely any difference between the large ones and the small. In the invisible deep of the streets, the bustle went on after its own manner, but nothing moved above it except for a light haze which wouldn’t be pushed away, but it was as if you could chase it away without any effort. Even in the harbor, the largest in the world, it was quiet, and only here and there, influenced by your memory of seeing it up close, you might believe you saw a ship pushing on for a short stretch. But you couldn’t follow it for long, it escaped from your eyes and couldn’t be found anymore.
Besides, it’s not as if the geography of New York is fixed and immutable anyways. We’ve built things nearly as flabbergasting as this.
So I’m hand-coding an EPUB file to salvage a badly-OCRed and not-much-better auto-converted PDF, because these are the things I do when I can’t sleep or write and I decide it’s better to do something constructive and thoughtful rather than brainless but I only have the firepower to, like, delete a whole bunch of excessive line breaks one after the other while I read the text.
The book is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which you might or might not remember I wrote about a couple years ago in a Longshot essay called “Hero’s Welcome.” It’s a favorite of mine. I’m cleaning up the introduction, written by the great and now-late Palestinian scholar of comparative literature Edward Said. Then Said pulls this long quote from Auerbach’s book, taken from a little chapter on Schiller’s 1780s play Luise Millerin, a petit-bourgeois tragedy you’ve probably never heard of.
And b’gosh, for Auerbach, writing a book on the history of European literature, from exile in Istanbul, as World War 2 is crashing all around him, the quote is everything:
Basically, the way in which we view human life and society is the same whether we are concerned with things of the past or things of the present. A change in our manner of viewing history will of necessity soon be transferred to our manner of viewing current conditions. When people realize that epochs and societies are not to be judged in terms of a pattern concept of what is desirable absolutely speaking but rather in every case in terms of their own premises; when people reckon among such premises not only natural factors like climate and soil but also the intellectual and historical factors; when, in other words, they come to develop a sense of historical dynamics, of the incomparability of historical phenomena and of their constant inner mobility; when they come to appreciate the vital unity of individual epochs, so that each epoch appears as a whole whose character is reflected in each of its manifestations; when, finally, they accept the conviction that the meaning of events cannot be grasped in abstract and general forms of cognition and that the material needed to understand it must not be sought exclusively in the upper strata of society and in major political events but also in art, economy, material and intellectual culture, in the depths of the workaday world and its men and women, because it is only there that one can grasp what is unique, what is animated by inner forces, and what, in both a more concrete and a more profound sense, is universally valid: then it is to be expected that those insights will also be transferred to the present and that, in consequence, the present too will be seen as incomparable and unique, as animated by inner forces and in a constant state of development; in other words, as a piece of history whose everyday depths and total inner structure lay claim to our interest both in their origins and in the direction taken by their development (443-444).
Now this in turn reminds me of a lovingly-written and well-thought essay by Joshua Rothman on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina appearing a week ago at The New Yorker’s website. This, too, digs into something similarly human and inspiring, both bounded and boundless:
Tolstoy, when he wrote the novel, was thinking about love in a different way [from a typical love story]: as a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment, and as a vector by which the universe distributes happiness and unhappiness, unfairly and apparently at random.
Those thoughts aren’t very romantic, but they are Tolstoyan. When he turned to “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy didn’t simply leave behind the themes of “War and Peace.” Instead, he found a way of thinking about many of same issues that had always interested him—fate, chance, our powerlessness against circumstances and our determination to change them—in a different context.
For the titular Anna, love is a disaster. She runs smack into the limits of what is possible specific to her time and place. She struggles against them, but the universe is indifferent to her heroism. Her limits are just as real as the prohibitions laid down by the gods of Ancient Greece, but there’s no oracle to announce them, with or without room for irony. These gods roll dice; these gods leave seams. Rothman:
In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin writes that, for Tolstoy, wisdom consists in the ability “to grasp what human will and human reason can do, and what they cannot.” The only way to find those limits is to struggle against them, but gently, with the goal of finding and accepting them. You can’t think your way to the limits. You have to feel your way, learning through experience and suffering. And there is a risk in experimenting with what will and will not work in life, which is that it might not work. You might move to New York to pursue your dreams, and end up with no career to speak of. You might think you can wait to find the perfect spouse, but wait too long, and end up alone. You might think you can have that affair and still have the love of your spouse and children—but you may be mistaken about what’s possible, and lose everything.
Can you think your way through time and recognize yourself on the other side, not through a false sense of universal humanity but through the textures of lived experience? Can you encounter the dark miracle we have chosen to christen “literature”?