Long Night of the Soul Edition...
How are you? How is the weather where you are? What keeps you awake at night. Feel free to reply. God knows these times are lonely and alienating, and if it helps you to email your genial newsletter author then I promise not to post extracts on the TL for the amusement of my followers.
Obligatory shilling. This week I wrote an analysis of the “Intellectual Dark Web” for the Spectator USA, two years after Bari Weiss wrote her famous profile of the phenomenon.
I also wrote in praise of the Revolutionary Communist Party for paid subscribers to this platform. If that interests you – subscribe!
Things I miss about England. Family. Friends. Bath. Cider. English fields. English woods. Charity shops. Seaside towns. The sea. Taking the train (but not paying for it). Going to the pub (but not paying there). Cider. Parish churches. Cider. Ill-kept graveyards. Canals. Cider. London (but not staying there). Weird villages. Cider.
The list of things I love about Poland would be a lot longer, so do not mistake this for regret that I live abroad, but the knowledge that I will probably have no chance to visit England this year put me in a wistful mood.
Rediscovering home. Scott Beauchamp has written a nice piece about T.S. Eliot and home. Here is an extract:
This, really, is the sense of home which Eliot longed for in his earlier poems: Not simply the specific details of the St. Louis of his youth, or a depersonalized universal, but some sort of paradoxical resolution of the two into each other. Our final home is where “the fire and the rose are one.”
Bored of the Flies. Rutger Bregman, who is set to release a non-fiction book about the better angels of our nature, has uncovered an inspiring story about a group of schoolkids who were shipwrecked on an island and formed a nice little community together. Heart-warming stuff. The problem is that people are discussing it as if it somehow proves Lord of the Flies wrong. Take that William Golding, you fucking idiot! Perhaps I am wrong but I doubt that Golding intended to suggest that the descent of Piggy, Jack and friends was the inevitable outcome of any group of schoolkids being abandoned together. It was a book about an aspect of human nature, not a formal explication of an iron law. But there is only one way to settle this. We must abandon many groups of schoolchildren on desert islands. Ten? Twenty? Two hundred? Enough for a proper study, in the name of science. Some might call it callous but at least the poor souls will be safe from coronavirus.
The mundanity of sadness. George Scialabba has long been one of the finest writers and critics on the left and on discovering an essay he had penned about his struggles with depression I was all prepared for elegant literary analysis and witty social critique. What I found were modest tips about drinking water, going out for a walk and assessing antidepressants. This was almost embarrassing – as if I was eavesdropping on a private conversation – but Scialabba is evidently comfortable believing that the illness strikes a critic in much the same way as it would strike a car salesman, a cashier or a cook. Part of me resists the thought that books and poems are not more psychically effective. But in its way that reduces them to the realms of the functional.
The aftermyth of war. I can't recommend this article by Niall Gooch on the reimagining of World War Two as an idealistic more than a patriotic war enough. Among the many splendid points he makes is that the Allied alliance with the Soviet Union makes sense in the context of a war for national survival and far less so in the context of a war of liberal values. In the Soviet Union, of course, it is remembered as the Great Patriotic War.
Weird Catholic Twitter. Tara Isabella Burton profiles the phenomenon for the New York Times. It's an easy essay to poke fun at. Calling Christianity “punk” is the kind of thing I would have expected from one of my overenthusiastic evangelical youth leaders. But one thing I like about Weird Catholic Twitter is that it represents tradition without sinking into the kind of humourless historical re-enactment “trads” are liable to indulge in. If you want to represent any kind of anti-modern belief system you have to outflank modernity when it comes to being rhetorically fresh and funny. Otherwise you're weird and boring.
On being a wuss. I like to think that when it comes to writing things that might be unpopular with my audience, or potential editors, I have enough integrity to write them regardless. But I do not want to put on a front of cool insouciance. One thing sends bolts of fear through my intestines: lawyers. One mistake, I have always assumed, and their combination of arcane legalese and immense institutional resources will crash down on your life and crush it. Recently, I was prepared to cave in to a polite, if passive aggressive, request for corrections when for the most part I hadn't been incorrect because I thought the merest hint of sloppy wording would give the organisation I had insulted the chance to set a pack of lawyers onto me. Thankfully, I was talked out of doing so. I think I’m mentioning this so I have no excuse to pretend I do not know the difference between carefulness and cowardice.
Whovenalia? Speaking of corrections, some guy lurched into my DMs this evening trying to pick a fight about a two-and-a-half year old article. I’m not sure what his point was but it forced me to revisit the damn thing. There nothing to “correct” in the piece per se. I don't even really disagree with it as a whole. But I was utterly APPALLED at how stilted the prose was, sounding for all the world as if I had been writing it while sitting on a pencil. Could I have been quite this crap less than three years ago? Columnists had it easy in decades gone by. Their pieces were the next day's packaging for the fish and chip shop. Our pieces are always out there, waiting to be found and judged as if we had just written them, because to the reader we might as well have done.
Hold on, hold on. What's with all of this self-criticism? Is this Ben Sixsmith the newsletter or Ben Sixsmith the struggle session? Well, the lockdown does curious things with all our minds. Last night I convinced myself that we had only been doing this for two months. Two! Imagine that!