It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a new entry to this community, and I know the comments on the last one have gotten unworkably long. I’m sorry. You deserve better.
There’s been stuff. There still is stuff. I’ll explain in the comments.
But I’d just like to point out that even with my highly intermittent presence, this community has continued, and continued to be a wonderful thing.
I’ll continue to be back as I can. But it fills me with so much delight to see the egg I hatched, the hatchling I fed, grow wings, spread them, and fly.
This is part of the sequence of Dysfunctional Families discussions. We have a few special rules, specific to the needs and nature of the conversations we have here.
Previous posts (note that comments are closed on them to keep the conversation in one place):
Pretty sure we’ve all heard Tom Lehrer’s “Lobachevsky,” right? A song about plagiarism where all the bits of melody are stolen from other songs.
I just learned that even the idea for the song was stolen! Danny Kaye used to do a routine about the Russian theatrical director Konstantin Stanislavsky, and it’s the obvious basis for the Lehrer song. Lehrer credited Kaye in his intro to the song, which was left off the version on the album I listened to as a kid, but it’s on Genius.com.
Here’s something I put up on Facebook (originally as a reply to someone else’s thing) in March that I should have put here:
Hear the beating of the heart, Deadly heart! What a world of agony that music does impart! How the beating, beating, beating, Like a watch wrapped up in cotton. ’Neath the flooring, ’neath the seating, All my plans it is defeating With a pleasure misbegotten; Going thump, thump, thump, With a sort of muffled bump, Oh the tachycardiation of his disembodied part! And the beats, beats, beats, beats, beats, beats, beats— Stop the roaring! Tear the flooring! There’s his heart!
Our buzzer goes off. About 8 PM. We’re not expecting anyone.
I go downstairs. “Police,” announce the two guys outside our building front door.
WTF? I can’t think of any reason actual police should be demanding admittance to our Park Slope apartment.
(Yes, we moved since the last time I posted to Making Light, back in a long-ago geological era.)
I was suddenly very conscious of having said critical things about the NYPD on Twitter this very day.
Indeed, it tells you everything you need to know about the utter lack of democracy and freedom in 2018 America is that this is the first thing I thought. Americans used to mock the petty indignities of the Brezhnevite USSR. Now we accept them as normal.
“Do you have a warrant?” I asked. “We don’t need a warrant,” they answered.
“WE DON’T NEED A WARRANT” DING DING DING DING DING DING DING
Needless to say, we didn’t let them in.
Also needless to say, TNH phoned 911, and some perfectly nice actually-obviously-NYPD people came by and spoke with her. We didn’t let them into the building, either, but they didn’t make an issue of it.
As of 9PM tonight, we appear to be OK. But holy crap, that was a thing. If we didn’t know all of you? If we didn’t have the social capital we have?
There are people serving decades-long sentences — there are people on death row — because they didn’t have the friends and connections we do.
As it says in Ecclesiastes, of the making of books there is no end. And Seneca is (dubiously) said to have told us that errare humanum est1 (to err is human)2.
“Monster Mash,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “Jailhouse Rock” are all real songs about other, fictional songs that share the same titles as the real songs. Any other examples? And is there a name for this kind of song?
Actually, “Monster Mash” is technically about a dance, not a song, but still, it relates a story which logically presumes the existence of a fictional piece of music pre-existing the real song, and (the peculiar thing is this my friends) leaves open the possibility that the referenced fictional song might not resemble like the real one.
Oh, hey, “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror is another one.
I believe it is traditional to apologize when one hasn’t been blogging for a while, and I am indeed sorry. It’s been a tough few years, for Reasons both public and not, nor am I out of it. I can’t commit to writing with any regularity1. But I wanted to muse on something at length rather than in a Twitter thread, so hi.
Last weekend, someone on the line between “person I know of” and “person I know slightly”—Guardian columnist Andrew Brown—tweeted about Le Guin and a psalm.
People in Cambridge curious as to how you can link Psalm 18 with Ursula K le Guin might come to Emmanuel for evensong tonight when I'll explain.— Andrew Brown (@seatrout) November 11, 2018
He sent me the text of the sermon (it’s now available here) and we chatted a little. I didn’t say anything particularly smart, only partly because I was standing on a bitterly cold train platform in Antwerp, thinking, as we all were that weekend, about 1918. But one thing that struck me powerfully is how much, all unrealizing, I had built the foundations for my morality on Le Guin. Although she and I don’t overlap in terms of either religion or faith, being read her work as a child and reading it myself as an teen and adult taught me values that I try to express in my life: the importance of communities of love; how names can both create and destroy us; how dear and deep the silence is that lurks beneath and between all of our words.
And a little something about nationalism, a quote I’ve brought with me through life in three countries:
“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession… Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”
—Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, The Left Hand of Darkness
Boundaries are much in my mind right now, because I live in the Netherlands on the basis of my British passport and, like winter, Brexit is coming. It’s a division born out of Tibe’s thinking, not Estraven’s, out of a definition of us expressed in terms of not-us2. This is related to something that Patrick once quoted Samuel Delany’s thinking on: how definitional arguments, by their nature, invariably wind up quibbling over edge cases at the expense of examining the broad middle.3
Not even remotely coincidentally, my pastor also preached about Armistice Day4. The readings for the day included the widow of Zarephath and the widow’s mite. He pointed out how both passages focus on women giving away their last resources. Giving, in effect, their lives. And November 11 is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours, whose hagiography includes not only having given away half his cloak to a beggar in midwinter, but also forsaking arms in an early version of conscientious objection that nearly cost him his life. (He later became a monk, then a bishop.)
Unlike the widows in those texts, unlike Martin offered to, unlike those poor young men in the trenches and the mud, most of us don’t give our lives in a single act. But you know, we do all give our lives, day by day, in what we do and do not, what we say and don’t say. How we choose to do and say those things. And that leads me back to another quote from The Left Hand of Darkness, something else I learned so early that I don’t recall not knowing it:
In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means.
— Genly Ai
I grew up believing, and still believe, that means shape the ends they lead to. That we cannot get to good ends by bad means. That, as it says in our Commonplaces along the side of the Making Light front page, you cannot pluck safety from the arms of an evil deed. And that’s personal as well as political: I don’t just believe that good government cannot come from unfair elections; I also don’t believe that you can base your own truths on a foundation of lies. In a funny way, this circles right back to Delany…are our lives defined by our edge-case behaviors, or by the broad middle of what we do over time? Unless we have the grace or the folly to commit a single, isolated act of great good or evil, it’s usually the latter.
This goes all the way down to the core of our beings. One of the ends that the means of our lives shape is ourselves. Who we are is not just described by what we do; it’s created and formed by it. I think a lot about Harry Turtledove’s excellent short story Shtetl Days in this context: how practices and habits seep inward and recreate us in their image. That which we do often becomes easier. And the barriers to that which we do seldom (like, sigh, blogging) grow.
Another quote from The Left Hand of Darkness, in the same speech as the one above:
I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political.
— Genly Ai
Ai is talking about his mission to the planet Gethen, but we’re all on our own missions through the world. We are all, as we go through our lives, alone and vulnerable, however much we seek refuge in crowds and organizations, clans and tribes. We wake up inside our own skins and skulls, and we go to sleep there; eventually we die there too. Our relationships are personal, and we create them from who we are, and they in turn create us.
I don’t have a sweeping conclusion to this; I’m not trying to lead anyone to either mysticism or martyrdom (though the seeds of both lie here). I just wanted to say: you matter. What you do matters. What you become matters. Do your best.
And I love you. I’ll be back as and when I can.
I’ve been asked to start up a new open thread. I don’t have anything funny or interesting queued up to start off with, so here’s a photo from Montréal’s Juliette & Chocolat, of a chocolate dessert called “Le gâteau forêt noire en pot” (“Black forest cake in a jar”). It was tasty.
I’ve realized that the reason I no longer write blog posts about politics is that events taught me that I was completely full of shit. I imagined I lived in a country that doesn’t exist.
Turns out I live in a country 35-45% of which are super-happy with fascism, including the concentration-camps part. And 45-60% of the same country are insufficiently bothered by this fact to do anything to stop it.
This has me rethinking about hundreds of conversations I’ve had over the decades with people I thought meant well. I was wrong. Most of them didn’t mean well.
I’ve seen the future, baby; it is murder.