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“I guess a man is the only kind of varmint. that sets his own trap, baits it, and then steps in it”

John Steinbeck


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Rediscoveries

This occasional page, added in September 2019, will feature authors and fragments of writing that I have “rediscovered” by searching the odd corners and hidden places on my own dusty bookshelves, or that have been recalled to mind by something I have read, or by one of my clever friends.

These will include fiction, essays, and non-fiction works of all kinds. There is no intention to convey a ‘theme’ or a ‘message.’ Each offering is separate and self-contained, but all of them have appealed to me in a special way – sometimes intellectually, and sometimes emotionally. In each case I will try to explain, in a few words, why the author or the piece was chosen.

Below you will find the following authors, in order from the most recent posting:

Robert H. Thouless
Eric Hoffer
Neil Postman
C. Northcote Parkinson
H.L.Mencken
Richard Mitchell
Peter Laslett
Sigmund Freud
Colin Wilson

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Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert H. Thouless (1930)

This valuable and timely book is – incredibly – ninety years old, yet I have an antique Penguin paperback copy of it still on my shelves. This must mean something.

The title says it all. One of the most appealing things about Straight and Crooked Thinking is its insistent message that the goal of clear thinking and honest argument is not to score points or to win a victory, but to discover the truth. What Thouless requires of us is humility in conflict of a kind that is rarely found, certainly not on the social media era and particularly not when it comes to opinions we may feel strongly about. These are the very opinions he warns us against, because they are often justified by prejudice and rigidity of thought.

“If one is anxious to discover the truth rather than triumph over one’s opponent, one should try to discover what more moderate position is true.”

It’s hard to imagine a simple piece of advice that is more needed but less likely to be heeded in the midst of the ideological wars of 2020. When the book was published in 1930 the political situation was much the same, and we know what happened next.

***

Eric Hoffer, The True Believers

The desire for certainty is part of human nature. It’s a hangover from childhood, but some never grow out of it. Eric Hoffer, in a famous book of the 1950s, labeled the most unquestioning types “The True Believers.” They will believe in just about anything: baseball teams, flying saucers, political parties, miracle diets – it doesn’t matter what, just so long as it takes away that vertiginous feeling of doubt. Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people who are sure they are right. Very little trouble is caused by people who have doubts. That’s why true believers should worry us. They certainly worry me. When they get together in a religious cult or a political movement they scare me, the way insane peope do. True believers are not quite sane, and some of them are not even slightly sane.

As I post this in June 2020 we are thrown back into a political age where true believers seem to control everything, and anyone who reasons of thinks is excluded and demonized. This is a terrifying situation and we can hope to understand it better, if not change it, by considering Hoffer’s arguments.

Anyone can read his short book, which is entirely free from sociological and psychological jargon. It is as relevant now than it was half a century ago. Such unpopular arguments need to be reiterated and updated in every generation, which is why the wisdom of the Greeks, or Jesus, or Shakespeare, or Freud, or Marx keep coming back to haunt us in different disguises. Like the goddess Cassandra, those who point out inconvenient truths are fated not to be believed, or at least not for long.

Neil Postman (March 8, 1931 – October 5, 2003)

Postman was an American author, educator, media theorist and cultural critic, who rejected much of modern technology. The first of his books that came my way was Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he argued that television, a technology with the greatest potential in history for educating and civilizing the entire world with information, quality entertainment, music and art, had become nothing but a purveyor of mindless entertainment supported by lying advertisements.

That was in 1985. He should see us now.

Other books that followed were equally pungent and seemed equally on the mark to me, including The End of Education (1995) and The Disappearance of Childhood (1994).
But, for me, the book in which he reached the heart of the matter was Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century (1999) in which he argues, as I often have, that the philosophes of that century had grasped some enormously important truths which we have now forgotten.

What made the philosophes special was a particular open moment in history, and a particular network of men interacting via writing and intense conversation (not Tweeting). They also had time to pursue their ideas, which few modern thinkers have, a relatively uncluttered mental environment, a sense of exciting possibility, of old ideas breaking down, of new ideas taking charge, and of course progress as almost a secular religion. They had great faith in the power of lucid language, because knowledge arises from precision of expression.

I have been an amateur student of these eighteenth century debates for many years, and I believe that they still have important things to tell us in the twenty first century, whether we want to know them or not. I will boldly summarize some of the main threads of Enlightenment thought.

1. The only way we can plan the future is by knowing and understanding the past.
2. In order to think clearly and plan rationally we must first abandon the search for all kinds of gods (down to and including the worship of technologies, national flags, and celebrities). The irrational must be especially excluded from politics.
3. A rational man must question all habits and traditions, and reject all supernatural explanations, which is not to say he must be without emotions. Those are for the creative, playful, personal side of life.
4. Knowledge, not faith or tradition, is the key to a better future. In our own century, Neil Postman has suggested, we have too much knowledge and too little wisdom about using it. We never ask “What would happen if…” and answer in social, moral and economic terms. (of course our wisdom may not be very wise, but we should ask the question).
5. Technological and scientific progress is not the same as moral or social progress, and may be its opposite. We (as a society) need to be highly aware of this.
6. Education is the most important function of a society, and one of the worst performed.
7. Social conflict created by inequality is a fundamental threat to civilization. Some kind of durable social contract is the only solution.

Les Philosophes have been dead for more than two hundred years. But they still speak to us about the human condition more clearly and directly than most of our modern commentators and intellectuals. Neil Postman was an outstanding exception.

***

C. Northcote Parkinson (1909 – 1993)

I have a faded first-edition copy of Parkinson’s Law, by C. Northcote Parkinson, which I bought in 1957 when I was a mere teenager, and which instructed me in some of the most important facts of social and sociological life just when I needed them most. The statement of Parkinson’s Law, and the evidence for it, appear boldly on the first page.

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. General recognition of this fact is shown in the proverbial phrase: ‘It’s the busiest man who has time to spare.’ Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece in Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in hunting for her spectacles, another in choosing the postcard, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the post office in the next street. The total effort that would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety, and toil.”

Parkinson’s Law explains many things: for example why retired people always seem to be in a hurry in spite of having nothing to do, and why government agencies take twice as much time and five times as many employees to accomplish almost nothing. Unlimited time means unlimited delay. In a bureaucratic organization (and this means almost any modern organization with more than a handful of workers) there is no relationship at all between the amount of work to be done an. the number of staff required to do it. Parkinson gives many examples, the most telling of which comes from the British Navy. In 1914, with 62 warships in commission the admiralty had 2,000 officials. By 1928 the number of ships had shrunk to 20, and the number of bureaucrats had swollen to 3,569. The number of admirals had increased in proportion.

Parkinson explained this, no doubt correctly, by the desire of bureaucrats to appoint subordinates and therefore to raise their own positions in the hierarchy. He also explained many other things in this valuable book: how to find exactly the right employee for a particular job (including presidents and prime ministers); how to gracefully escape a boring social occasion without giving offence; how to pension off an elderly but useless employee without generating a conflict or a lawsuit; and a great deal more.

This is a totally subversive book, and it has not dated in over sixty years. I love it.

***

H.L.Mencken (1880 – 1956)

Henry Louis Mencken was born a hundred and thirty nine years ago. If this statement leaves you completely unmoved you are not alone. Fame is an ephemeral commodity, and even the most celebrated celebrities are usually forgotten within a few years. A century is a very long time in the collective memory. But H.L.Mencken was the most famous newspaperman, critic, and political commentator of his time. He deserves to be remembered, especially now.

The remarkable thing about Mencken was that he could combine intellectual brilliance with a devastating sense of humor – a rare combination. A couple of quotes will give a sense of his style.

On politics:

“Under democracy both parties devote their chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule. Both commonly succeed, because both are right.”

On religion:

“Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Most of H.L.Mencken’s journalism and criticism would never appear in the mass media today, although you can find examples in books – it is too true, and also too funny. It’s comedy that makes you think. He had America laughing and thinking about (race, religion, patriotism, imperialism and women’s rights) when these were almost untouchable subjects

Here’s the satirical sage of Baltimore, raging about Presidential elections in the 1920s.

“When a candidate faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men (sic) whose chief distinguishing mark is that they are incapable of weighing ideas – men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. The odds are on the man who is the most devious and the most mediocre; the man who can most aptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. As democracy is perfected, the presidency represents more and more closely the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

***

Richard Mitchell (1929 – 2002)

Professor extraordinary of English and classics at Glassboro State College, N.J. and creator of a unique free newsletter about life and language called “The Underground Grammarian” from 1976 to 1992. I was honored to be one of the chosen recipients of this newsletter in the 1980s. Excerpts are published in several collections including The Graves of Academe, Less than Words Can Say, and The Gift of Fire. They may also be found on the web.

One of his readers and colleagues wrote the following appreciation, and I cannot possibly improve on it.

“There exists in every age, in every society, a small, still choir of reason emanating from a few scattered thinkers ignored by the mainstream. Their collective voices, when duly discovered a century or so too late, reveal what was wrong with that society and age, and how it could have been corrected if only people had listened and acted accordingly. Richard Mitchell’s is such a voice. It could help make a better life for you or, if it is too late for that, at least for your children. Ignore it at your and their peril.”

John Simon

And here are the first two paragraphs from The Graves of Academe. Draw your own conclusions.

“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is, as we all know, king. And across the way, in the country of the witless, the half-wit is king. And why not? It’s only natural, and considering the circumstances, not really a bad system. We do the best we can.

But it is a system with some unhappy consequences. The one-eyed man knows that he could never be king in the land of the two-eyed, and the half-wit knows that he would be small potatoes indeed in a land where most people had all or most of their wits about them. These rulers, therefore, will be inordinately selective about their social programs, which will be designed not only to protect against the rise of the witful and the sighted, but, just as important, to ensure a never-failing supply of the witless and utterly blind. Even to the half-wit and the one-eyed man, it is clear that other half-wits and one-eyed men are potential competitors and supplanters, and they invert the ancient tale in which an anxious tyrant kept watch against a one-sandaled stranger by keeping watch against wanderers with both eyes and operating minds. Uneasy lies the head.”

****
Peter Laslett (1915 – 2001)

The World We Have Lost by Peter Laslett was just the book I needed in 1965, when I was trying to live and be accepted in a bleak village in the east of England – indeed it was a revelation. Laslett’s theme is the lives of ordinary English working people before and after the industrial revolution. The book begins with a portrait of a bakery in 1619. Thirteen or fourteen people worked there, all of them clothed, housed, fed and educated by the master baker.

“The only word used at that time to describe such a group was ‘family’…not an institution, a staff, an office, or a firm.”

England was a nation of “families” in this sense. The largest that Laslett was able to trace consisted of thirty-seven people, but most were much smaller. It was certainly no paradise of freedom, but Laslett argues convincingly that it gave each family member a stable life and an emotionally satisfying role. Everything was on the human scale. There were no factories, no giant corporations, and no Facebook friends. To put it very simply, people knew each other, for better or for worse, and lived close.

“The journey to work, the lonely lodger paying his rent out of a factory wage, are the distinguishing marks of our society, not of theirs.”

I was not given to sentimentalism or nostalgia at the time, although I have suffered from both in later life. But I could feel the truth of in that Cambridgeshire village where nothing much seemed to have changed in two hundred years. Survival meant sticking together and working together, and keeping the outsiders out. It sent me back to equally revealing but less academic books like Laurie Lee’s charming Cider with Rosie, and all the way back to William Cobbet’s Rural Rides (1830). When Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield appeared and became a sensation in the late sixties, it helped to solidify a new and much more complicated vision of the old life and the old ways.

Peter Laslett was a great believer in the liberating power of knowledge, and helped to found the Open University (at which I later taught) and the University of the Third Age. But, unlike most academic historians, he wrote beautifully and with feeling.

“The word alienation is part of the cant of the mid-twentieth century and it began as an attempt to describe the separation of the worker from his world of work. We need to accept all that this expression has come to convey in order to recognize that it does point to something vital to us all in relation to our past. Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size. That time has gone forever. It makes us very different from our ancestors.”

***

Sigmund Freud(1856 – 1939)

Freud’s short book, Civilization and its Discontents, written towards the end of his career, sums up his lifelong study of psychoanalysis and applies his findings about human psychology to the wider questions of social order and civilization. It is not a reassuring book, especially if you find Freud’s portrait of human nature convincing.

The main line of argument is fairly simple, and is delivered in this book with great conviction and passion. Civilization is only made possible by human self-control and repression. The “natural” man or woman outside of society is driven entirely by fear, aggression, greed, and sexual desire. The whole purpose of culture is to control these impulses, to put prohibitions and rules on him or her by the use of guilt, punishment, and religious myths. Without this repression we can have no civilized society. When it breaks down, even locally or temporarily, we get a glimpse of the barbarism just behind the façade. Recent history has many examples.

“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [Man is a wolf to man]. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?”

Posted in Redscoveries

Colin Wilson (1931 – 1913)

When the eccentric author Colin Wilson died at the end of 2013 I felt a mild but definite sense of loss. He was 82, and I was 74, just a step or two behind. His first book The Outsider made a huge impact on me when I was a teenager. The book caught me at exactly the right age. All teenagers feel that they have been kidnapped by aliens and forced to live on a strange planet without a phrase book, and I was absolutely convinced of it. The Outsider gave my condition a name and, better still, a literary and philosophical justification. The names that echo through its pages are a catalog of creative genius: Wells, Sartre, Camus, Hesse, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Eliot – and on and on.

Wilson himself was very young when he wrote The Outsider. He led a romantically free and intellectual lifestyle outside the university, sometimes sleeping rough, and working in the library of the British Museum. I thought he was very deep, but that may have been simply a reflection of my own teenage shallowness. I’m still half-convinced that the book is a masterpiece, and that he never again wrote anything remotely up to that standard.
The true Outsider is one who comes and stays, but is always a stranger. He is Aristotle’s man without a city. He is not integrated, assimilated, acculturated or absorbed. He doesn’t feel at home in this world.
But the notion of the outsider clicked into an uneasy feeling I had about myself, and the longer I live the more appropriate it seems. I prefer not to fit in. School and the army were a particular torture for me, because fitting in was all that counted. I learned at an early age that I would rather not be assimilated, swamped and obliterated by any group, institution, or belief system. I was happy on my own. Being an only child was perfect preparation for this. It was odd that a child from such a friendly and sociable family as mine should prefer this solitary character, but there it was.
I have never been a good conformist, and have failed even to become old properly so that I feel like an outsider to my own age group. Also I love cats, who are the quintessential outsiders. Yet sometimes I feel that I am not quite living up to my chosen role. I am capable of being solitary and melancholy, but also cheerful and sociable, and even very attached to people and places. Also, I am not and never will be a serious intellectual. Being an Outsider, like being a writer, is an appealing self-image. But it’s not an easy one to keep up.

It seems scarcely fair to blame this on Colin Wilson. But what’s the alternative?