Heretics (75 Books LXV)

Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton, is another book that I read back in college but decided to revisit recently since I’ll also be reading its follow-up, Orthodoxy, in the near future. That may have been unnecessary, though, because as enlightening and entertaining as Chesterton is, one always knows what to expect from him in his essays, and if you’ve read, say, Tremendous Trifles, What’s Wrong with the World, or any of his other non-fiction work, you know what you’re in for. Here, he goes through a set of erroneous modern ideas put forward by various prominent people, such as Rudyard Kipling or H.G. Wells, and demonstrates why they’re wrong typically by way of a paradox and with several asides.

For example, while discussing Thomas Carlyle’s arguments for aristocracy, he writes:

Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle’s pathetic belief (or any one else’s pathetic belief) in “the wise few.” There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob… And no oligarchies in the world’s history have ever come off so badly in practical affairs as the very proud oligarchies— the oligarchy of Poland, the oligarchy of Venice. And the armies that have most swiftly and suddenly broken their enemies in pieces have been the religious armies— the Moslem Armies, for instance, or the Puritan Armies. And a religious army may, by its nature, be defined as an army in which every man is taught not to exalt but to abase himself. Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered, with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures.

I recall an acquaintance criticising Chesterton for not being “rigorous” is his writing, and since I’ve also written about some “higher class” philosophers this year, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that he’s known as the “Apostle of Common Sense” for good reason. He wrote for a general audience, and addressed that audience perfectly. His reasoning is (almost) always sound, and he’s obviously well-read, but those expecting in-depth Socratic dialogues or Thomistic systematization will be disappointed. Chesterton’s strength, though, is bursting the bubbles of “clever sillies,” that is, the type of person who is genuinely intelligent and well-read, but has reasoned himself into something nonsensical. I don’t recall the context, but I once saw an idea criticised as something “only a philosophy grad student could believe.”

As much as I enjoy Chesterton’s writing, there are a couple small things that bother me. He’s rather too “democratic” minded at times, as in the passage above. Also, he can be a little self-indulgent, getting to his points via roundabout paths, and reveling almost too much in his own paradoxes. Which, now that I think about it, is also a complaint brought against Mencius Moldbug, though Moldbug is more systematic. In any case, neither of these are major problems, and the latter just makes his essays a little more monotonous if one reads a lot of them at once, since they all have basically the same style and structure.

As I said, I will move on to the follow-up book Orthodoxy soon, but honestly I prefer Chesterton’s fiction over his essays, even though he seems better-known for the latter. His epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse is one of my favourite books, and I’d also highly recommend The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man who was Thursday to anyone. If you haven’t read Chesterton before, I’d start with one either Ballad or Napoleon, then pick a collection of essays, because he’s one of the few authors whose fiction and non-fiction are mutually enlightening.…

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Education at the Crossroads (75 Books LXIV)

Education at the Crossroads is a revised version of a series of lectures Jacques Maritain gave at Yale University in 1943 in which the author discusses, in four parts, “The Aims of Education,” “The Dynamics of Education,” “The Humanities and Liberal Education,” and “The Trials of Present-Day Education.” In other words, what education is, where it is now, and where it will, or at least ideally should, go.

Maritain’s idea of and approach to education is one that was probably moderate or Conservative by the standards of 1943, though by today’s standards I suppose one would call him a Paleoconservative. In any case, he’s a believer in a Liberal education (not a Progressive one, in today’s confusing terminology), and he defines the aim of education early on:

It is to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person – armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues – while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations. The utilitarian aspect of education – which enables the youth to get a job and make a living – must surely not be disregarded, for the children of man are not made for aristocratic leisure. But this practical aim is best provided by the general human capacities developed. And the ulterior specialized training which may be required must never imperial the essential aim of education.

In other words, education exists to hand down a culture, provide moral training, and essentially set him up to acquire wisdom. It is not primarily technical or vocational training, though it may aid in training for one’s eventual career and can, and probably should, provide some “practical” knowledge to that end. Unfortunately, by 1943 schools had begun losing sight of this goal, and the problem has only grown worse since then. There’s no underlying philosophy or ultimate, agreed-upon goal for what an educated college graduate should look like, so university curricula are an incoherent mess of “core classes” of history, mathematics, humanities, and other components of a Liberal education, but these have no connecting tissue between them and in effect are mostly just filler for the vocational training that most students attend university for. I noticed this problem during my own university education and wrote about it near the end of my junior year and again shortly after graduation, and Maritain drives right to the heart of this problem.

Maritain’s defense of Liberal education reminded me of  Bl. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is what I’ve generally looked to in the past as the ideal of what a university education ought to look like. One difference, however, is that Maritain’s idea is much more democratic. Cardinal Newman takes for granted that many students aren’t suited for higher education, but Maritain writes in the third part, “In a social order fitted to the common dignity of man, college education should be given to all…” He also speaks elsewhere of the importance of Liberal education for all members of a democratic society. Now, it’s certainly best to offer university education to as many citizens as possible, but frankly many, if not most, people are not suited to higher education and to force them through it anyway is a waste of resources and cruel to the student. We’ve seen what happens when we try to get as many people into university as possible, and the result is a lowering of standards and the fragmentation of the curriculum just criticised above. Now, clearly, the modern university is not at all what Maritain argues for, but it’s the predictable, near-certain outcome of pursuing universal education.

That faulty assumption aside, though, Education at the Crossroads is still worth the relatively short reading time (it’s 118 pages in my edition), though I’d recommend supplementing it with Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is a more focused and thorough treatment of university education.…

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Genshiken Second Season v. 6-7 (75 Books LXII – LXIII)

Kio Shimoku’s Genshiken: Second Season is a tough comic for me to review, because I can’t help comparing it to the original run of Genshiken. Part of what I liked so much about the original, though, was that I could relate to it back in college. Since then, though, not only has the comic changed significantly, but I’ve changed as well.

I first read Genshiken early in college, and loved it right away. The setting, a college anime club, doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it has a few things going for it. At the time, anime was just starting to take over as my primary hobby, and I was also getting very involved in one of the student organisations at my university. Furthermore, I could see a lot of myself in two of the main characters, Sasahara and Madarame, and the whole cast seemed like a group I could see myself hanging out with.

Now, Genshiken is rather open-ended, and doesn’t really have an overarching story, and since it’s basically about the club it could conceivably just go on forever, with new characters being introduced at the beginning of each school year. However, it started with Sasahara at the beginning of his freshman year, and we follow him over the next four years as he grows from a being a socially awkward nerd not quite comfortable with his own hobby to him graduating having become fairly self-confident and getting a job within the comics industry. It sounds simple, but I can’t help but think back on my university years while thinking about it, the people I met, how I changed over those four years, and the Genshiken cast feels like they were a part of it. Beginning and ending with Sasahara lets us see a full “generation” of members, giving it a feeling of closure and mirroring the experience one has with a real university club, where by the time one graduates it’s a mostly different group of people from one’s freshman year.

However, a few years after Genshiken ended, Kio decided to continue the comic, picking up where the original run ended. At this point, he could either basically do the same comic again, or take it in a new direction. The former would probably be enjoyable but a bit pointless, so he changed it. That’s probably for the best since otaku culture has changed, and it makes sense for a comic about that scene to change with it. For me, though, this presents a couple of problems. First, I’m several years out of college by now, and secondly my interest in anime and that whole fandom has severely dwindled. Furthermore, the Genshiken members are now almost all women, which is in keeping with trends in both Japan and the United States, but makes for a completely different dynamic, and one that’s much more difficult for me to relate to.

So already, from a purely subjective standpoint, this is no longer the comic I enjoyed back at college. There are also a few changes in tone, I think. Previously, especially after the first volume or two, the characters were relatively realistic; I could see most of these guys existing in the real world. Now there are two major characters, Sue and Kuchiki, who come across as much more off-the-wall than anyone else. They were introduced late in the original run, but receive much more attention now. The plot has also, as of these two volumes, taken a turn where Madarame, the nerdiest nerd of all of them, has built up a small harem. Now, Genshiken as a harem comedy isn’t totally out of left field, I suppose; Madarame isn’t really more implausible of a chick magnet than a lot of harem protagonists, and Kio is doubtlessly aware of this and knows what he’s doing. It’s just an odd development.

Honestly, Madarame is almost the only reason I’m still following Genshiken. The comic is fine, I suppose, but not a must-read at this point, and I just don’t care about any of the new characters. Besides, I’ve been following this story for so long now that the sunk-cost fallacy has taken hold, so I suppose I’ll just keep tagging along for as long as Kio wants to keep writing it.…

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The Man in the High Castle (75 Books LXI)

I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle back in college, and at the time I loved it. The recent hype around Amazon’s adaptation of the novel made me think of it again, and I decided to re-read it to see how it holds up.

Overall, it’s still very good. The setting is 1962 with an obvious alternate history premise where the Axis Powers won the Second World War, with Germany occupying the Eastern United States, Japan the Western, with a more-or-less autonomous zone between them. How this apparently came about is plausible enough, though I must say that some of the things the Nazis have been up to are rather far-fetched. They apparently have a space programme going to Mars, have drained the Mediterranean, and have wiped out most of Africa (though something apparently went wrong with this project, but details are never explained). They’ve only just invented television, though, so reality has the advantage in idiot box technology.

Anyway, most of the story takes place in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Dick could’ve turned this into a propaganda novel and made it an outright dystopia, but the main problem for white Americans is the loss of confidence accompanying being an occupied nation; blacks and Jews do, however, have bigger problems, though much less so in Japanese territory than German. One sees this most in Robert Childan, who runs a shop selling American antiques and collectibles to Japanese clients. He’s constantly fretting about how to deal with his customers, how to show proper respect, and so on, and at one point feels guilty for selling his country’s art as curiosities to foreigners. In one interesting scene, he goes to visit a prospective client, and even speaks in a noticeably Japanified manner. When he offers this customer and his wife a gift, for example, he says, “Bagatelle for you. To display fragment of the relaxation and enjoyment I feel in being here.” This sounds like a student’s understandable-but-awkward attempts at conversing in a new language, not the speech of a native-born American.

One major theme of the book is uncertainty about what’s real and what’s not, which Dick also covered in other works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but it’s more fully developed here. Childan discovers that many of his products are counterfeits, two different characters have secret identities, not counting a Jewish character who’s had surgery and a name change to pass as white, and most importantly the ending, which I won’t spoil, calls the reality of everything else in the novel into question in an extremely metafictional way.

It was that ending that really sold me on the novel back in college, though it’s so out of left field that it’s more clever than satisfying as a conclusion to the story. In fact, one possible criticism of the novel is that this conclusion is only known to one character, Juliana, and the story could probably have starred only her. If Dick had written the story only about Juliana, completely writing out the other characters except for some references to her ex-husband, the story would still be complete and thematically coherent. I’m glad the other characters are there because I enjoy their stories a lot and they do expand on the themes, but strictly speaking they could be considered almost as an “expanded universe” for the novel. I don’t consider this a problem, really, it just means that the plot isn’t as tightly constructed as it could be. The only other problem is that I don’t buy Juliana’s behaviour near the climax of the novel with Joe Cinnadella, but this is only one scene in an otherwise-excellent book.

So, High Castle is just solid, A-level fiction, and it’s still one of my favourite novels. Even if you’re not generally interested in alternate history stories, this one is well worth the time to read.…

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