Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday

Note: This post was originally published at Thermidor on March 6, 2017, but since it recently shut down I’ve decided to republish my articles here. I plan to post one per week until they’re all back up, with only light editing.


What’s there to say about G. K. Chesterton? He’s a contender for the most-quoted man on the Right; spend some time in any broadly Right-wing community, Conservative, Reactionary, or even just moderate Christian, and it won’t be long before someone quotes one of his famous aphorisms or anecdotes. Though not a particularly rigorous thinker, and a bit light for those used to reading the Joseph de Maistres and Julius Evolas of the world, he’s among the best authors who’ve written primarily for popular audiences.

One thing that makes his work especially impressive is that, besides his innumerable essays, he wrote several deservedly popular novels. After burning myself out a bit on his non-fiction, I recently decided to revisit some of his novels, beginning with The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. It’s about poet Gabriel Syme, recruited by Scotland Yard and tasked with infiltrating a cabal of anarchists. It’s a classic setup for a spy or detective story, aside from the poet protagonist, and up until the final chapter plays out much as one would expect of a Chestertonian detective novel.…

Read More Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday

Infornography

On to more serial experiments lain. In Layer 11: Infornography, the opening changes a bit. The title screen is made of up screens from the previous episode, and the voice-over is still missing from the cityscape. Instead, we see Lain being tied up in cables. Much of the episode is essentially a recap, going through the events of the series so far in a fast edited series of clips of previous episodes and a handful of other phrases flashing on the screen, but with the largest portion, especially near the end, focusing on Alice. Eiri then appears and tells Lain that she is, essentially, software, though Lain doesn’t like him talking about her as if she’s a machine. She then appears in the street and sees Chisa and the Cyberia shooter, who have a brief discussion about dying, and Lain finds herself holding the shooter’s gun with him telling her how to shoot herself (she doesn’t).

Then, it cuts to Alice’s room, where Alice is watching a message from Julie, who wants to set her up on a date to dispel rumours about her relationship with a teacher. Lain shows up with the body of that alien from last episode, talks about the “other” Lain and how she can fix the rumours. Alice is skeptical, but of course, the next day she realises that Lain really did make everyone but her forget what had happened.

Read More Infornography

Love

Back to serial experiments lain. Layer 10: Love starts with our cityscape, but no voice-over this time. Lain and Eiri have a conversation in which they speak in each other’s voices, and Eiri explains how he put his consciousness into Protocol 7. Given his power he’s arguably a god, but to truly be a god he also needs worshippers, so he made himself a cult – the Knights. At school, Lain’s desk is gone and everyone is oblivious to her presence. As she starts to wonder if maybe she doesn’t need a body after all, Alice, or rather someone speaking through Alice, confirms this. Lain goes home, but the house is eerily empty and unkempt. Her room is messy, but none of her computer equipment is there. Mr. Iwakura appears in the doorway, says his work is done because Lain must have figured things out by now, that he loved her, assures her she’s not alone because of the type of being she is and everyone she can connect to in the Wired, and leaves.

Lain searches for information on the Knights, doxes them, and the MIBs go out and kill them. They then go to Lain’s house where she’s entangled in cables. One of them, Karl, explains that they’d assassinated the Knights as a job for a client, that the Wired can’t be a world to itself, and that they aren’t sure what sort of being Lain is. He adds as they leave that he loves her.

Back out in the street, Eiri tells Lain that she’s essentially a homunculus, that he’s “the man who loves her,” and that she should love him. Lain angrily refuses and he disappears.

Read More Love

Protocol

Another week, another episode of serial experiments lain. Layer 09: Protocol’s voice-over says, “If you want to be free of suffering, you should believe in God. Whether or not you believe in Him, God is always by your side.” Much of the rest of the episode consists of infodumps about topics such as Roswell, important figures in computer history, and concepts and inventions like Memex and hypertext. An alien in a striped sweater appears on Lain’s doorway. In Cyberia, JJ hands Lain an envelope that he says she dropped, but she doesn’t remember it and it’s stamped with the Knights’ logo. Lain has a “date” with Taro where she questions him about the processor from the envelope. Taro steals a kiss as he leaves.

Nice.

Lain sees a vision of herself being introduced to the Iwakura home, and has a brief exchange with this past version of herself. Eiri finally appears in person.…

Read More Protocol

Rumors

Ready for more serial experiments lain? Our friend the voice-over says in Layer 08: Rumors, “Do you want to be hurt, too? Do you want your heart to feel like it’s being scraped with a rasp? If you do, don’t look away, whatever you do.” Lain meets with Taro in a computer game world where he’s killing other player characters, telling Lain that nobody knows what’s fun or why. Lain speaks to an artist making models of scantily-clad women, and they speculate on Tachibana’s R&D efforts and whether they’d do anything illegal. In particular, he mentions how Protocol 6 (essentially, IPv6 in our real world) is “reaching its throughput limit,” and that whoever can control Protocol 7 can control “the economy of the Wired,” and that there are constant sabotage efforts against it.

Lain mentions to her parents, with a nervous laugh, how she’d been recently asked if they’re her real parents, but gets no response besides a stare. At school, Alice and her friends confront Lain about spreading rumours about Alice. Lain next enters a chatroom of some kind where the participants are, of course, sharing rumours and wild speculations; “God” appears and talks about his and Lain’s nature. Now, she’d apparently been absorbed in her pocket Navi but snaps out of it to see everyone in her classroom staring at her and a message on her Navi, “Lain is a peeping tom.” She runs away and worries about what she’d done on the Wired, and we see a vision of the school exploding. We then cut to Lain of the Wired watching Alice fantasise about a teacher. Lain confronts Lain of the Wired and strangles her. Back in the chatroom, Eiri tells Lain that she’s omnipresent in the Wired, and Lain figures that she can erase people’s memories – including the memories of her double and the rumours she’d spread, which she then does.

They did indeed forget, but as Alice and the rest walk toward Lain a double, the cruel Lain, appears – and it’s this Lain that they can see and interact with.

A lot happens in this episode, so let’s go through scene by scene. First, it’s not clear whether the game Taro is playing is intended to be PvP (player vs. player) or not, but ruining other people’s day through good old-fashioned cyberbullying is the basic theme of this episode. As for the porn artist, his dialogue is expository but the setting gives us a sense that the Wired is, in multiple ways, a perverse place.

The question regarding Lain’s parents was, of course, brought up last episode, and their response to Lain here tells me that the Tachibana boss was on the right track; the Iwakuras are not Lain’s real parents. Note that Mr. Iwakura’s glasses are opaque because of a glare from an unseen source as Lain enters the room, but the glare is gone when he and his wife look to Lain, not saying anything but with an expression like they have some bad news to deliver. The effect is that he seems distant at first, but more honest at the end of the scene.

At school, and really throughout the series, Alice is very patient and forgiving with Lain. In contrast to the Wired rumourmongers, Alice always prefers to assume the best of people. The internet tends to bring out the worst in people, because the people we speak with seem less real due to pseudonyms and lack of things like tone of voice, eye contact, etc., and our own anonymity removes us from a feeling of responsibility. Alice’s good nature, then, makes her feel more like a real person as opposed to the extremely online personalities of the chatroom participants.

Who knows how much of what the chatroom participants say is true? It doesn’t matter, really, as they’re essentially voyeurs. As for “God,” it is interesting to see Eiri talk about himself a little. He at least doesn’t claim to be the creator of the world (meaning the real world, I assume), but adds that “The all-powerful ruler of the world” is “giv[ing] God too much credit.” Well, God would be all-powerful pretty much by definition, but Eiri is, I believe, mostly interested in increasing his own power, or at least the perception of his power, and one way to do so is to downplay the power of other “gods.” He does claim to be like God in that he’s omnipresent, though. He also talks about how Lain has always existed in the Wired and that the “real world” Lain is just a hologram of the Lain of the Wired, much as the apparition of Mrs. Iwakura said in Layer 05.

One confusing comment Eiri makes when Lain asks who he is, is “I am you.” Now, I don’t think that’s true, so I assume that he says this to throw Lain off-balance and make it harder for her to think through what he tells her next. If she accepts that the real world doesn’t matter, then she’s more likely to help weaken the barrier between the real world and the Wired, giving Eiri more influence over both.

Do all of the students at Lain’s school really stare at her? If rumours of what Lain’s been doing as a peeping tom get around, as they certainly could in a school, then it’s possible that most everyone would recognise and stare at her.…

Read More Rumors

Of an Estranged World: Flannery O’Connor and the Grotesque

I’ll preface this post with a brief note that it was actually written several years ago, back in 2012. I set it aside at the time because it was so different from everything else I was writing, but I was reminded of it while re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood recently. The style is a bit different than what I generally use now, but I think there’s enough material here to be of interest that I’ve decided to finally publish it with only minor revisions.


I suspect that few would associate the word “grotesque” with Christian art. Though Medieval and Renaissance depictions of demons or hell were suitably horrifying, in most cases today “Christian” is often little more than a synonym for “family-friendly.” This is one reason I enjoy Flannery O’Connor’s short stories so much; her work is thoroughly Christian, yet it draws heavily from the gothic and outright grotesque style that I’ve always been drawn to.

Since the term “grotesque” is often used but seldom clearly defined beyond a synonym for something like “disgusting” a clear sense of this aesthetic is necessary for a meaningful discussion of her fiction. One study of the genre that I’ve found helpful is Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature. His book-length review of the history of the grotesque in the arts concludes that it has three primary elements common to almost all of the writers and artists who have employed the form. First, the grotesque represents the “estranged world,” second, it is “a play with the absurd,” finally, it is “an attempt to subdue the demonic aspects of the world.” Though the first two aspects are certainly applicable to O’Connor’s work, the last describes it best. Kayser wrote that a certain comfort is found in the grotesque, where “The darkness has been challenged…” In few of O’Connor’s stories is the “darkness,” the sinful or deformed aspect of human nature, really defeated, but it is at least discovered and some catharsis can be achieved from that alone.

O’Connor, though, also had her own ideas on what constitutes the grotesque. She does not write about freaks and the repulsive just for the sake of sensationalism. There is a purpose behind them, and that purpose can best be found by reference to her Catholic beliefs, because the characters she creates are not grotesque just because they are physically or spiritually ugly, but because they deviate from a natural order. Though they are freaks, O’Connor also knew that most of her readership would not find them so, or at least not for the reasons she did; therefore, she exaggerated their faults all the more, and used violence to shock her audience out of complacency. She once wrote, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” To illustrate, let’s take a look at three of her short stories, “Good Country People,” “Revelation,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”…

Read More Of an Estranged World: Flannery O’Connor and the Grotesque

Society

As we return to serial experiments lain, the voice-over for Layer 07: Society tells us, “Just between you and me, let me tell you what’s happening, what’s beginning to take place in our society without you ever even being vaguely conscious of it.” In this episode, we’re introduced to Nezumi and his rad portable computer, as well as a few of the Knights. Alice talks to Lain on the school rooftop, again about her social withdrawal. The MIBs take Lain to a Tachibana General Laboratories office; they have a discussion about the Wired and he questions Lain about her identity.

Let’s start with Lain’s progress. At the beginning of the episode she notes that “the me in the Wired is […] becoming less and less like me.” She also comments that her sister has been acting strangely, though she doesn’t seem to connect it with the apparition of Mika she saw in the doorway in Layer 05. Anyway, at school Lain says to herself “The real world isn’t real at all,” having apparently internalised the Knights’ message to her. One nice touch in the following conversation with Alice is that she actually takes Lain’s hand, as a sign of friendship but also serving as a reminder to Lain that of course the real world exists – she can feel Alice’s hand right now. It’s the common sense counter to Lain’s digital solipsism.


Not that this lasts too long. At the end of the episode the Tachibana boss asks Lain seemingly simple questions like when her parents’ birthdays are, how they met, and when and where she was born, and Lain starts to panic when she can’t answer them. Interestingly, Lain’s personality changes at this point into the aggressive, irritable Lain of the Wired that we saw in Cyberia. She said at the beginning of the episode that this online version of herself is becoming less like her, yet she’s becoming more like that Wired version of herself. What seems to be happening is that Lain doesn’t like this persona and so wants to distance herself from it, yet as the boundary between the Wired and the real world continues to dissolve her personae unite rather than separate.

We can also gather that that line is dissolving because of the news report which tells us it may arrive “tomorrow, or possibly yesterday.” Even time is affected by the Wired.

As for Nezumi, I admit that I like this character a lot, even if he only lasts this one episode. He’s apparently skilled enough to get into one of the Knights’ discussion channels, but presumably they kill him because he’s too much of a crank to let in. He has that very human desire to be recognised and applauded by high status people, and the Knights are the highest status group on the Wired. Unfortunately, he’s merely an opportunist who’ll say or do whatever he thinks the Knights want to hear, and so they rightfully don’t want him. Of course, it’s wise for any organisation to carefully filter who they let in, especially if they plan to do anything of importance. Quality over quantity!

One last thing I’d like to address is a comment from the Tachibana boss. “Some say that the Wired doesn’t have political borders like the real world. But there are far too many nonsense-spouting anarchists or idiots who think that pranks are a revolution.” He adds that the Knights are not such a group and so are more serious, but his observation was certainly true in the techno-utopian 1990s and remains true today.

One excellent source of examples is Douglas Rushkoff’s 1994 book Cyberia (yes, this is where lain’s night club takes its name). In it, Rushkoff interviews several hackers who attack major corporations, or even steal debit card information from sufficiently well-off people. What, though, have they accomplished? Not a damn thing. All they did was annoy some businessmen and keep some IT departments busy.

They also discuss the promise of open communication and access to information that the internet could provide. However, today the internet certainly has its political borders in the form of various cliques and specialised websites, and these groups even wage war against each other in the form of memes (in the broad sense, not just image macros), trolling, DDOS attacks, and the like. This is especially true if one hangs around fringe groups, though cyberian warfare does occasionally spill over into normie territory.

Have these newer would-be revolutionaries, though, been any more successful than the people Rushkoff interviewed? Well, it’s actually hard to say. Dunking on someone on Twitter or getting a web host to drop service for an enemy site may not accomplish much on its own, but the internet is mature and widespread enough that it’s likely had some effect. For example, there was a lot of excitement around the alt-Right and how they supposedly helped elect Donald Trump in 2016 but this seems to me dubious, and the large majority of normies are only vaguely aware of any of the tribal warfare happening on Twitter, blog comboxes, and other places. However, there are also people who first became aware of non-mainstream political ideas through meme warfare. As entertaining as it is to watch someone have xir day ruined by some troll with an anime avatar (appropriately, sometimes even with a Lain avatar), whether that’s enough to make a long-term difference is still impossible to say.…

Read More Society

Plato’s Dialogues: Menexenus

If you’re wondering how I managed to write up another post on Plato’s dialogues so quickly after the last one, the answer is that this is Menexenus, which is both very short (twelve pages in the Bollingen Series edition), and because it’s not quite like Plato’s other work. It begins with Socrates meeting an acquaintance, Menexenus, who is on his way back from the Agora. There is to be a public funeral soon, so a speaker must be chosen for the occasion. Menexenus mentions the short amount of time speakers have to prepare for these things, but Socrates points out that such speeches are often ready-made and easy for a decent orator to compose quickly. It’s also not difficult to win the audience’s approval, since this genre of speech typically involves praising the deceased and the city he came from. As Socrates puts it:

SOCRATES: The speakers praise [the deceased] for what he has done and for what he has not done—that is the beauty of them—and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. […]

MENEXENUS: You are always making fun of the rhetoricians, Socrates; this time, however, I am inclined to think that the speaker who is chosen will not have much to say, for he has been called upon to speak at a moment’s notice, and he will be compelled almost to improvise.

SOCRATES: But why, my friend, should he not have plenty to say? Every rhetorician has speeches ready made; nor is there any difficulty in improvising that sort of stuff. Had the orator to praise Athenians among Peloponnesians, or Peloponnesians among Athenians, he must be a good rhetorician who could succeed and gain credit. But there is no difficulty in a man’s winning applause when he is contending for fame among the persons whom he is praising.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Menexenus

Kids

Time for another episode of serial experiments lain. The voice-over for Layer 06: Kids tells us, “If people can connect to one another, even the smallest of voices will grow loud. If people can connect to one another, even their lives will grow longer. So…” The episode proper begins with Mr. Iwakura watching Lain stare blankly into a monitor, but we then switch to Lain’s point-of-view in the Wired, where she’s having a nice chat with the Knights, though only her side of the conversation is audible. At school, Alice expresses concern that Lain is regressing to her old self, so they hang out after class. A few times in the episode we see children looking up to the sky with arms outstretched, and at one point see a figure of Lain in the sky.

Lain tracks down Prof. Hodgson, who she finds in a nice villa somewhere in the Wired. He explains the K.I.D.S. system, and that someone has figured out a way to use it to harness psi energy even without the need for K.I.D.S. hardware. Back in her room, Lain asks out loud to no visible audience what the point of it all is, believing it must be the Knights behind this. The MIBs return and when Lain goes out to confront them, there’s an explosion in her room, which they tell her was the work of the Knights.…

Read More Kids

Plato’s Dialogues: Euthydemus

I’ve been ignoring our friend Socrates lately, offering the excuse that I’m just too busy. That’s no way to treat a friend, though, so I’ve made some time to catch up with him and Plato, this time with the dialogue Euthydemus. It may not be Plato’s most insightful dialogue, but I do think it’s his most entertaining. Translator Benjamin Jowett even says that it’s “apt to be regarded by us only as an elaborate jest.” If you’re a fan of rhetorical gymnastics and watching people get verbally dunked on, then this is the dialogue for you.

Euthydemus is another work with a framing device, this time beginning with our old friend Crito asking Socrates who he’d been speaking with earlier that day; there’d been such a crowd gathered around that Crito couldn’t even get close enough to hear the conversation. Socrates had, it seems, met with the Sophists Euthydemus and his older brother Dionysodorus. After hearing them brag of their own wisdom, he, not quite seriously, I’m sure, asks them to teach his young friends Cleinias and Ctesippus, who were there with him. As Euthydemus begins to question Cleinias, though, Dionysodorus whispers to Socrates, “Whichever he answers, I prophesy that he will be refuted, Socrates.”

Say it with me, everyone:

It’s a trap!

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Euthydemus