There have always been people to argue that the truth is sometimes inexpedient, counterproductive—a luxury. (This is known as thinking practically, or politically.) And on the other side, the well-intentioned are understandably reluctant to jettison commitments, views, and institutions in which much idealism has been invested. Situations do arise in which truth and justice may seem incompatible. And there may be even more resistance to perceiving the truth than there is to acknowledging the claims of justice. It seems all too easy for people not to recognize the truth, especially when it may mean having to break with, or be rejected by, a community that supplies a valued part of their identity.

– Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (2007)


When that notorious beauty-lover Oscar Wilde announced in The Decay of Lying, “Nobody of any real culture … ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned,” sunsets reeled under the blow, then recovered. Les beaux arts, when summoned to a similar call to be up to date, did not. The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

– Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (2007)

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting–because it is exceptional. If all those individuals who had no Boswell had found their numerically proportionate place in the pages of historians we should have a duller but juster view of the past and of man. Behind the red facade of war and politics, misfortune and poverty, adultery and divorce, murder and suicide, were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women kindly and affectionate, troubled and happy with children. Even in recorded history we find so many instances of goodness, even of nobility, that we can forgive, though not forget, the sins. The gifts of charity have almost equaled the cruelties of battlefields and jails. How many times, even in our sketchy narratives, we have seen men helping one another–Farinelli providing for the children of Domenico Scarlatti, divers people succoring young Haydn, Conte Litta paying for Johann Christian Bach’s studies at Bologna, Joseph Black advancing money repeatedly to James Watt, Puchberg patiently lending and lending to Mozart. Who will dare to write a history of human goodness?

– Will Durant and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)

The conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it-perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.

– Will Durant and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)

As his studies come to a close the historian faces the challenge: Of what use have your studies been? Have you found in your work only the amusement of recounting the rise and fall of nations and ideas, and retelling “sad stories of the death of kings”? Have you learned more about human nature than the man in the street can learn without so much as opening a book? Have you derived from history any illumination of our present condition, any guidance for our judgments and policies, any guard against the rebuffs of surprise or the vicissitudes of change? Have you found such regularities in the sequence of past events that you can predict the future actions of mankind or the fate of states? Is it possible that, after all, “history has no sense,”  that it teaches us nothing, and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?

– Will Durant and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)

The first thing you want to do, after catching a wild rabbit, is to calm the rabbit down. A panicked rabbit does not make for a pleasurable dining experience.

– Jack Handey, “How to Prepare a Wild-Caught Rabbit for a Meal,” What I’d Say to the Martians and Other Veiled Threats (2008)

Notes (March #8)

Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park: “Villains with whom superheroes battle are always having fun. These archenemies are frequently mad scientists bent on world domination, immortality, and other goals that never seem to lose their appeal. Villains pursue their goals with obvious relish. The Joker not only looks like a clown but also enjoys killing for its own sake, playing whimsical pranks, and matching wits with Batman. […] The enemy of Thor, his brother Loki, is the god of lies and mischief. The Black Manta (from Aquaman) seeks personal power. Captain Cold, one of the villains who battled the Flash, is motivated by money and—unusual for a comic book character—lechery. As Billy Joel sung, ‘the sinners are much more fun.'”

Kerri L. Johnson, Leah E. Lurye, and Jonathan B. Freeman: “The very nomenclature of superheroes suggests that the gender of Supers is a critical aspect of their identity. Supers’ names, for example, frequently highlight not only an exceptional talent, but also their sex. This is true for both female (e.g., Wonder-Woman, Supergirl, She-ra, Powerpuff Girls, Vampirella, Invisible Girl, and Elastigirl) and male (Superman, He-Man, Spider-Man, Mr. Fantastic, Mr. Incredible) superheroes. Granted, sex is important for identifying the non-superheroes among us too (e.g., Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.). Yet the manifestation of sex in superheroes is unique. In addition to possessing super-human powers, superheroes possess a super-human gender as well. Indeed, even the Supers whose names do not connote their gender (e.g., Storm from X-Men) remain highly gender stereotyped in form and function. (We should note that we did seek exceptions to this general rule—that whether in name or in form, Supers’ gender is noted and caricatured—to no avail. In fact, we would hazard to suggest that there is simply no such thing as an androgynous superhero.)”

If you google the topic “human goodness,” or if you look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find that it always carries the specific meaning of moral goodness. But the “goodness” in what’s “good for us” or “good for them” is not necessarily moral at all. In fact, everything we humans consider immoral or evil springs from the conflict between what’s good for us and what’s good for them; more specifically from our need to promote and defend what’s good for us against or at the expense of what’s good for them. This need is fuelled and rationalised by prejudice, by the distrust, fear, hatred, contempt and (ironically) “moral” outrage that we focus on a dehumanised, demonised “them” in order to shore up our deluded sense of an innocent and righteous “us.”

– Elio Frattaroli, “Do Psychoanalysts Know What’s Good for Them? If So, Why Are They Always Arguing about It? If Not, How Do They (and We) Know What’s Good for Us?” Human Goodness: Origins, Manifestations, and Clinical Implications (2014)

Notes (March #7)

From “The Myth Maker” by Bruce Weber:

Twenty-five years after the publication of his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, E. L. Doctorow is reminiscing about a letter from one of its readers. […] “The letter was from Texas,” Doctorow says, “and obviously from an elderly woman, written in a shaky hand. She wrote, ‘Young man, when you said that Jenks enjoyed for his dinner the roasted haunch of a prairie dog, I knew you’d never been west of the Hudson. Because the haunch of a prairie dog wouldn’t fill a teaspoon.'”

Doctorow pauses and grins, the professional storyteller timing a punch line:

“She had me. I’d never seen a prairie dog. So I did the only thing I could do. I wrote back and I said, ‘That’s true of prairie dogs today, Madam, but in the 1870’s. . . .'”

E. L. Doctorow: “I subscribe to what Henry James tries to indicate when he gives that wonderful example of a young woman who has led a sheltered life walking along beside an army barracks and hearing a snatch of soldier’s conversation coming through the window. On the basis of that, said James, if she’s a novelist she’s capable of going home and writing a perfectly accurate novel about army life. I’ve always subscribed to that idea.”

Rev 22:11: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.”

Films seen today: The Ones Below (2015), Logan (2017)

We make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us, and discover what is the straight and right way, and walk in it.

– Francis Bacon, “Of Innovations,” Essays (1597)