Review of Unbroken

I recently read the book Unbroken (Amazon affiliate link), written by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken came out as a “major motion picture” a few years back, and I saw it in theaters and thought it was pretty good, but the problem with any film is that they have to choose between making things interesting and dumping a bunch of information on you.

A book, on the other hand, offers the potential to provide both information and engagement, since good writing can carry even a dry and boring subject to an amusing or fulfilling conclusion.

I’ve been meaning to read the book, written by Laura Hillenbrand, ever since I watched the movie. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian and WWII veteran, as he goes from a youth during the Great Depression to a man who overcomes some of the worst situations and harshest environments that people have ever found themselves in.

The book doesn’t pull any punches (a young-adult version is also available, aimed at students), but this helps it overcome the potential boredom that a 500 page book could descend into. A good portion of the book is dedicated to footnotes and notes, which turn Unbroken from mere story into a well-researched history and biography.

The story by itself would still be inspiring. Louis finds himself in Germany for the 1936 Olympics, joining the likes of Jesse Owens and others. Although Zamperini doesn’t directly experience or witness any persecution in Germany (which was trying to hide its crimes from the world at that point), he does see the gathering storm through a variety of signs, both subtle or otherwise.

Louis’s role as a bombardier in WWII is one of the more harrowing parts of the book. The sheer toll of the bombers on their crew and the number of airmen lost not just to the enemy but also to accidents sets a bleak precedent.

When Louis’s bomber crashes and he escapes along with two others (from a crew of around 10) to rafts, the story gets even more desperate, culminating in his eventual capture by the Japanese.

The POW experiences are captured well by the film, but the book goes into more detail about Louis’s fellow prisoners, showing them with a depth and richness that the film was incapable of replicating.

The film also ends with Louis’s freedom at the end of the war (a sequel was made, but went direct-to-disc), where Hillenbrand’s book carries through to the end of Louis’s life, with a major focus in the immediate postwar years.

It adds a level of complexity and hope to the story, showing not just what Zamperini went through but also what he accomplished.

Unbroken tells a tremendous story through its subject, but it matches the strength of its narrative with precise and deep language, the willingness to slow down to explain where necessary coupled with the skill to keep the pace flowing, and a raw and objective look at important events in history.

Unbroken may aim to tell a single person’s story, but it manages to speak to the human condition through its remarkable subject.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Reflections on Aphorisms #73

As I write more, I find myself finally starting to develop some more of the differences in form and tone that I’ve been going for. This doesn’t apply as much to this writing; these aphorism reflections are well within my comfort zone by this point, but I’m definitely making more progress on my own development as a writer.

It’s not as fruitful as I’d hoped, since I’m actually down a little on word count, but I think I’m getting ready to write better as well as more.

Aphorism 111

History is the science of what never happens twice.

Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry

Interpretation

What astounds me is that the universe is constantly in states it has never been in before. This level of distinction can apply all the way down to the most minuscule of things. By the time my finger depresses the key to type a letter I am no longer the person I was, or at least not in the same state as I was, when the impulse to press the key was formed in my brain.

I attribute this understanding of the universe with a lot of who I am as a person. I don’t like arbitrary distinctions. I don’t think they’re as useful as people think, though I do believe they’re part of the way our minds work.

As a result, I fight constantly against what I consider the default state of being.

I also believe that it is in this, as much as anything else, that I may be accused of hypocrisy. Admittedly, I tend to draw these distinctions in unreal things, rather than reality: storytelling, game design, and the like, not real things.

But at the same time I have an appreciation of the fact that even my understanding of something as ubiquitous as the human mind is drawn from, essentially, drawing mountains upon mountains of arbitrary distinctions.

I think what Valéry is getting at here is that the world never unfolds the same way twice. Despite what people think, we’re not deterministic creatures, and there’s no universal arc of history, as comforting as it might be to think that we’re at an advanced climax of our kind.

A lot of what we think we know is precisely that: what we think we know.

I think of an example from education: modes of learning. It was a great theory that asked whether people learned better when given the method of learning that they preferred best.

The answer is: kinda.

On one hand, people were more likely to engage in learning activities that matched their preferences, but on the other these highly designed and cultivated activities proved little better than the ones that did not rely on different learning methods.

If something is taught best with the written word, a diagram doesn’t necessarily do it better. Combining multiple means does have an advantage, but only when the information is complicated.

However, if I were to try and present a novel using photographs of key scenes, the result would be that students would learn relatively little from the photographs. They may help foster visualization, but the actual exercise of them observing images only works if the purpose I am after links to those images.

I often taught a novel called Inside Out and Back Again, which recounts a Vietnamese refugee’s experiences fleeing her homeland in a fictional framework.

One of the things that I did before teaching it was to give a gallery of images that depicted a variety of important scenes in the Vietnam War.

The reason for this is that it gave the students a chance to engage with the part of the world that they were going to see, and stressed for them what it was like to wait in line for a ride out of Saigon while hundreds of people were being turned away ahead of you.

However, once we got into the novel it would never have occurred to me to show images of the scenes that were depicted, because it’s made up of poems with visuals. Unless students don’t know something important (like what a papaya is) to help them visualize the scenes, I’d actually be detracting from my learning goals by showing them depictions.

Not all information is created equal.

And in our lives we encounter information that is unique to us. How we hear it, how we see it, how it is passed on to us, our mood and condition when we hear it, and our immediate situation will all vary when we encounter any situation in our life that is worth noticing.

We will never repeat history.

That we look for trends in it is worthwhile, but only in the sense that it lets us understand the greater human condition, the ties that bind us together. We can search for something like Jung’s collective unconscious, but it will never deliver to us a rule that lets us predict the future.

We’re simply very good at deceiving ourselves.

Resolution

Don’t assume knowing the past means knowing the future.

Don’t teach calculus with a philosophical treatise.

Accept that every situation is unique, every response needs to be considered carefully.

Reflections on Aphorisms #71

Aphorism 109

In the city, time becomes visible.

Lewis Mumford

Interpretation

I finished a Great Courses audio-book on the history of common people today, so this aphorism seems particularly applicable to me.

One of the things about people is that we alter the entropy around us. We might temporarily stall it, intentionally hasten it, or even just modulate it, but the effect becomes stronger as we come together.

In a rural village for most of the history of humanity, life remained the same for decades or centuries at a time. People came and went, as did their structures, but the actual lifestyle stayed the same, even as regimes and beliefs changed.

I don’t think the same is true today to the same extent, but mostly because our standards of what constitutes a small settlement have changed. I think of the small town where I would visit my grandmother as a child.

Barring a visitor center, I don’t think that there has been any significant construction since the last time I visited, which was before I was an adult.

There’s no need for it. The population is small, and while the individuals and businesses may change over time the actual buildings themselves do not. The library where I spent so much of my youth remains in the same state it was when I left it last, the grocery store down the street and the hotel across town are still where they were, and will likely be there for the next decade. There’s no stimulus to change the substance of the town.

Admittedly, there were stimuli that could change the environment, but in these cases they were often not human in origin: fires, earthquakes, famines, and the like that displaced people may have changed the landscape, but people would either settle back into the same lifestyle elsewhere or move to a city.

Only where people concentrated did one see a vast amount of differences over time. Cities have a lot of people, and they concentrate resources. Building, especially the luxury of deconstruction and reconstruction, becomes a pastime and then a necessity.

Each person contributes more to the change until the chaos–or conversion of chaos into order–reaches a critical point and things are put into motion.

And just because this works on a macro-scale doesn’t mean it’s absent in smaller examples of life.

Think about how much of your time you spend actually working toward something valuable. If you represented it as a percentage, is it in the double digits? I know that for much of my life mine has been low–perhaps even as low as the single digits during my youth and college years–though it’s gone up quite a bit in my more recent years (teaching has a way of converting your free time into time spent laboring toward a goal, though not always in a way that feels productive).

As you bring that number up, you’ll find it having an increasingly great impact. I read or listen to audio-books for possibly as much as 20% of my waking hours each day. I have learned more this year than I have in my last two years combined, and not for lack of trying.

So push yourself. Do everything you can. Don’t forget to live a little (100% productivity is a great path to burnout), but if something you do has no meaning figure out a way to eradicate it and replace it with something that does.

Resolution

Stop doing worthless things.

Remember that change increases exponentially, not linearly.

Sleep, eat, drink. Then wake up and accomplish something.

Reflections on Aphorisms #67

Well, I’ve been on a bit of a historical kick recently, so let’s start today with an aphorism about history. My bedtime’s coming up soon, so if I only wind up with one aphorism (as has been the norm this week), please forgive me.

Aphorism 105

The major fact about history is that in large part it appears criminal.

W. E. Arnold, Jr.

Interpretation

In many cases, I like to try and look up some of the more obscure figures featured in books on aphorisms to try and integrate some parts of their biography into their picture.

Whoever W. E. Arnold, Jr. is, they’re not very good at being found, and as far as I can tell this quote is found only in a handful of selections of aphorisms (namely the Viking Book of Aphorisms and the Faber Book of Aphorisms, which are fundamentally the same text) and nobody has taken the effort to fully explain who exactly they are referring to. I’ve even seen this quote attributed to a Thomas Arnold, but I have uncovered no clue of the aphorist’s identity other than his name.

So, basically, I can’t read context into this to give a deeper background.

I will say, however, as a student of history that this generally rings true.

I think that there’s a couple elements to this:

First, the past carries traditions and ideas that are different than ours.

Second, the truth of the matter is that we’re worse than we like to think.

As much as humanity shares key core foundations, it also has expressed itself in dramatically different ways over recorded history, and doubtless for a good time before that.

Behavioral psychologists have stated that every expression is the product of stimulus and response. While this is not wholly incorrect, it’s reductive in its understanding of human minds.

Jordan Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning, which I highly recommend to anyone looking for an introduction to Jungian-style psychology, argues that the behaviorists missed one key detail: perception.

It is this which gives us the differences from our predecessors, because our perceptions have changed. We still respond to the good and the bad in fundamentally similar ways, but we have redefined what they are.

Sometimes, in the case of phenomena like religion, we even introduce new concepts that we can group stimuli into. A Christian perspective is very different from the pagan ones of the Classical world, and the Abrahamic religions came to prevalence largely because of the ways that they viewed suffering and success. By encouraging incredible degrees of sacrifice and commitment, and actively forbidding the practice of other worldviews, they were able to stamp out almost every other major worldview across a whole continent (and beyond).

Because the system is so complex, it’s difficult to categorize. Sometimes the people of the past did things that would seem barbarous to us, but which served practical and ritual purposes no more malign than the act of brushing our teeth.

At times, they did things that we can aspire to, but for motives that would disgust our sensibilities.

We don’t have to pass judgment on them, though I am convinced that the denizens of the past never achieved peak moral virtue just as we the living have not.

And this is another point: oftentimes when we look at bad people in history, they were bad by their day’s standards. We certainly have people around the world today who will go down in history as villains unless their worldview goes on to predominate all others.

Sometimes they weren’t condemned in their time. Nobody complained about Julius Caesar’s borderline genocidal war of aggression in Gaul, or at least nobody who amounts to anything (and, when they did complain, it was to oppose Caesar rather than decry his abuse of the Gauls).

However, it’s worth noting that we have the same people in our world.

Joseph Campbell once wrote that “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you.”

Now, you can say what you will about Campbell. I view him as somewhat of a flawed personality, but one who was nonetheless brilliant. He falls somewhere between Freud and Jung on the scale of “Brilliant but crippled by neurosis and brilliant but too far beyond what has come before” of tragic genius.

Campbell was definitely correct in identifying the archetypal element of consciousness, though he definitely leaned toward the New Age style of thought that there was a universal trend toward good that we don’t see played out in reality.

This quote, though, is incredibly strong, and it’s the last part that I want to look at, namely the notion that all the hells reside within a person.

This is, of course, analogous to the Jungian shadow, the part of the psyche that we repress, but it’s also something beyond it. All people engage in conscious malice–evil–and have that within their nature. We may simply be blind to our own fault, making us unconsciously evil, but it should be self-evident if we look within ourselves as well as evident from the laws passed down to us that we engage in behaviors that are destructive with no real gain.

Of course, people are also noble, and it is worth pointing out that there can be no nobility without the opportunity for the opposite (this is, in part, the point of Job), and the conflict between nobility and evil is a struggle which is hard-fought by people throughout history.

Resolution

Rise above human nature.

Pay attention to how my perception shapes my decisions, and how my desire shapes my perception.

Don’t overlook the reality that others are complex.

Review: The Role of the Scroll

The Role of the Scroll (Amazon affiliate link) is a non-fiction book by Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard. It focuses primarily on how scrolls were used in the Middle Ages in Europe (but also covers the global use of scrolls in passing), and gives plentiful examples from a variety of contexts.

When I say that The Role of the Scroll covers a niche topic, I do not mean to say that it is strictly scientific and bland. Far from going into meaningless specifics about minutiae, it focuses on the historical significance of scrolls both as a class of document and as individual examples of manuscripts that changed or represented the world.

I generally enjoyed the book, though I have a few complaints that I’ll get to later. First I’d like to start with what I liked about it, and I’ll get to the rougher patches in a bit.

The strongest point of this whole book is that it elevates a very humble thing and dives into it in a way that to my knowledge has never been done before. As someone who likes reading quite a bit and has a connection with the written word, it’s interesting to see examples of a device that is not quite as dead as it may seem (I am typing this review in a text-box, a sort of digital scroll), and which had a tremendous value for shaping our world.

The opening chapters are strictly limited to scrolls themselves, giving examples from across world history and not just Europe (something I consider a strong point), and they’re probably the most similar to the sort of history book you’d expect.

Once you get past the opening chapters, Kelly moves into overviews of the various types of scroll used in the Middle Ages. Each overview uses examples from surviving scrolls, and the overall style is more lively and deep.

Kelly is professor of music, but he handles history fantastically well. The only hint that one gets that Kelly’s focus is in music and not history is in his deeper focus on musical works than some of the other documents, but even this is handled in a way that’s tremendously accessible.

The print edition I had was printed on thick glossy paper and had beautiful illustrations. The actual printing itself is fantastic and the book feels both good in the hand and easy to read. Some text for the captions around the illustrations of scrolls was hard to read in certain light (white text on a glossy black page background), so I might recommend the digital edition for anyone who would find this to be an issue. The scrolls themselves are not always able to be read; the reproduction is good, but often a whole scroll of several feet in length winds up on a page. Fortunately, Kelly points out interesting excerpts from the text, sometimes in captions by the illustration and sometimes in the main body text of the book, and one gets a feel for the beauty and majesty of the scrolls without necessarily being able to read them.

My only gripe is that The Role of the Scroll feels like it’s half-way between being a book for laypeople and a book for historians. On one hand, Kelly goes into a lot of detail explaining what people might need to know and establishing the human condition that led to the creation of scrolls. This is generally done in a way that even those not familiar with European history would be able to appreciate.

On the other hand, Kelly’s focus on making things immediately comprehensible to a layperson also means that basic things that would be common knowledge for people with a good knowledge of history get expanded upon greatly. This is then mirrored by an abstention from going into the most deep and complicated elements of the situations surrounding scrolls (except as pertains to music, where Kelly goes into greater detail). It may be that some of this information is not immediately available or would quickly veer off topic (for example, only a very cursory account is given of alchemical scrolls, but to give greater detail would definitely require going on a tangent).

Ultimately, this is a good book for an interesting read, and the illustrations stand out wonderfully throughout. It gives both a personal and serious look at its historical subjects, and leaves one with a greater understanding of the topic.

Writer’s note: Because The Role of the Scroll has no reviews on Amazon, I cross-posted this text there. I gave a five-star review, though if given more granularity I’d probably give it more of a 4.5 or 4.7 out of 5. It’s far from a perfect text, but it is a pioneering one.

Reflections on Aphorisms #59

Cut back on caffeine today. Feeling a lot better (at least until the headaches start), but also really kinda drowsy and tired. Please forgive any silly spelling mistakes, because I’m typing with my eyes falling closed.

Upside: I’m not tempted to stay up late watching videos on YouTube.

I should just delete my YouTube account.

Aphorism 93

It is useless to close the gates against ideas; they overleap them.

Klemens von Metternich

Interpretation

One of the ideas of history is that there are times when certain ideas and expressions will be heard regardless of the individuals; a collective guides humanity in a certain direction and nobody can really claim to have enough control to stop changes or force things along a certain path.

I don’t know that I agree with it wholesale, because it’s a little too teleological for me to accept as a historical method, but it’s also true in a sense.

There’s a prevailing spirit of the times (not in the spiritual sense, but in the zeitgeist sense), and eventually it gets going along a certain path.

I was recently thinking about the movie V for Vendetta, and the notion that there’s something very archetypal about a rogue rising readily repelling regression (or, that is, people rebelling against tyrants).

If we buy into Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, or the more traditional notion of a fundamental nature of humanity, it goes to follow that there are times when the conditions that people are exposed to will lead them to act in certain ways.

These expressions of human volition are not necessarily predictable, but they’re nonetheless reproducible (in a scientific sense, though it is practically impossible to set up the same events twice).

This is one of the functions of the historian: they look into the past and see how people act in certain conditions.

Ideas are the most powerful expression of the zeitgeist. Actions may speak louder than words, but both flow from ideas. Without an idea, there is no action and no speech.

The great problem of ideas is that they’re contagious. We are social animals, and we spend our time trying to figure out other peoples’ ideas. At best, this is just a primal instinct, and at worst this can be deliberate sabotage or usurpation. In either case, it’s a necessary process. If we don’t look into the other, we will never fully know the self. The eye sees not its own reflection.

If you have an idea, a great idea, it cannot remain silent. There’s a Christian children’s song, familiar to me from my youth, that has the following song:

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”

I’ll spare the repetitive verses that have now come echoing back into my head, but the actual meaning here is quite sublime.

The way that cultures live and die is by ideas. The song I just mentioned carries a meme that encourages the spreading and sharing of ideas. Technically, it actually has a few separate memes in just the sentence above, but we won’t worry about that.

Von Metternich’s point is this:

An idea can penetrate anything when it’s given the chance to do so.

Resolution

Give ideas the space to grow.

Look for the idea that is common and the one that is not.

Don’t think you can control the hearts of others. That’s hubris.

Aphorism 94

All rumors about a public figure are to be deemed untrue until he threatens to sue.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I would like to think that even if I didn’t understand anything Taleb has to say I could still appreciate his pithy style.

I probably understand very little of what Taleb is saying. That’s never stopped me before and I won’t let it stop me now.

One of the best things that any good thinker keeps at their disposal is Occam’s Razor. It’s a very simple rhetorical device, and it’s been simplified to the following:

The simplest solution tends to be right.

Typically, when I look at anything said by or about public figures, the rule is: “They’re saying it to get something.”

The veracity is not significant. The truth of the matter, especially in politics, is that people say things specifically for the point of what the saying gets them.

Whether or not words have any bearing on truth is insignificant.

There’s something that Jordan Peterson once said, and I’m too tired to look it up so I’m gonna just paraphrase it and butcher it:

If you say something that you know to be true, you’re pitting your wit against the reality of a complex universe.

One of the outcomes of this is that a mature person won’t give statements which are motivated lies (or at the very least motivated stretchings of the truth) more than a moment’s notice.

So I almost fell asleep in front of the TV not too long ago, and I had the news on. I can guarantee that 80%, maybe 90% of what I heard was basically just bloviation, and about 1% of it will have any impact on my life. Not even my daily life, mind you, but my life in general.

One of the nice things about reality being so complex is that a lot of the moving pieces aren’t really moving all that much in the grand scheme of things. This is untrue in the individual’s life, but very true in the sphere of politics.

To get back to the point, look for the things you can’t say, because those are the things people don’t want you to say.

If those things are true, run.

Resolution

Say the uncomfortable truth.

The tongue is the weakest muscle. This isn’t because of a lack of physical power. It’s due to a lack of character.

Never open the mouth if the tongue tastes untruth.

Reflections on Aphorisms #54

Aphorism 87

When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.

Oscar Wilde

Interpretation

Remember that Wilde is not writing as a religious man. This may have more to do with myth, fable, and literary allusions than religious matters.

There’s a common mythic motif of being careful about what one wishes for.

I think there are two forms that this takes and they’re each distinct:

The first is the folly in the request. This is what happens when someone asks for something that they wouldn’t really want.

For instance, if you ask for a fancy mansion, you’re stuck maintaining it. You might not have the means to do so, so the getting is moot.

We often overlook the steps between our position and our goal when we are filled with desire. This does us no favors.

What we truly long after is not what we desire, but the success and comfort that comes with getting the object of our affections. The best way to cultivate this is self-improvement, not pursuit of wealth.

The second is the folly in the result. Sometimes getting what we want changes us for the worse.

The best example of this can be found in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, immortalized by T.S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral.

King Henry II makes a remark about wanting to be rid “of this turbulent priest” (formerly a close friend), and the knights around him oblige the remark by killing Becket.

Henry finds this to be little recompense, however, and is forced to prostrate himself and turn to penitence. Whether his grief is authentic or false, he still is humbled by the consequences of his desire.

This is a classic tragic arc.

There’s an intersection of both types of wrong desire in the King Midas story: wanting all the gold in the world, he gets the power to turn everything he touches to gold. Quickly Midas realizes that gold is not the thing he truly wants (folly in the request) and that he’s also ruined his appreciation for what he had and created new problems for himself (folly in the result).

The stoics teach that being too close to what we desire is dangerous. It begins to control us. Getting what you want may actually be subordinating yourself to it.

Resolution

Don’t desire things; strive for discipline and all else follows.

Live so that your desires serve you, not vice versa.

Guard your desires carefully: don’t let evil join their midst.

Aphorism 88

We can do noble acts without ruling earth and sea.

Aristotle

Interpretation

One of the common fallacies about goodness is that people have to be great (in stature) to be good (in spirit). Now, I’m as much a believer as anyone that good deeds tend to be rewarded, and a lot of success can come down to making the right decisions consistently enough that they pay off.

However, there are connections to Aristotle’s point to be drawn here.

First, those people whose success is tied to their virtue must practice that virtue before they are successful, and continue to practice that virtue when their fortunes waver.

They do not have rule over their lives, but they still do the right thing precisely because it is right.

Second, there are people who are moral who never receive any tangible reward for their good lives.

The reasons for these are complex. One part of it is that I think that the external signs of success are often not tied to the internal acts of morality. Being highly moral may not lead to having more money, but it does lead to liberation from the want of money.

Another point to be made here is that anyone has the potential to choose the moral path. Even the lowest person by society’s standards has a chance to do something that would help another person. Heck, a smile and a kind word goes a long way to make things better, and that’s practically free.

One of the things that Jordan Peterson once said is that a lot of his work with young people has been to encourage them to try their best, and that a lot of them have never heard an encouraging word in their life.

My own experience confirms this. A lot of people go through life without ever experiencing the mercy of compassion. Surprisingly, they don’t always become bitter, so you can’t look at someone and see clearly whether or not they have the support they need.

I think that this is one of the best places that anyone can take a simple step toward virtue: find someone who is struggling and speak a benediction into their life. Give them a chance to appreciate themselves. Lift them up.

Resolution

Use words that build up others.

Don’t judge success by the car someone drives.

When in doubt, remember that no good act is too small to be worthy.

Reflections on Aphorisms #46

Ugh, the last couple days have been going the wrong direction. Not in terms of my life quality, but just productivity and the like. However, I’ve managed to secure some future opportunities, so there’s always a silver lining, and in the grand scheme of things I’m still better now than I was a few weeks ago, so I’m not going to let it get me down too much.

Without doing any math, I’m setting a goal of hitting 120 aphorisms by the end of July. I have no clue how well that will pan out, because I don’t know how many I’ll need to do per day, and four’s more or less an absolute limit for me.

Aphorism 74

Love does not dominate; it cultivates.

Goethe

Interpretation

Well, this is an ironic statement from the writer of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Of course, one could argue that the affliction that befell Werther was obsession and not love, and I think that’s Goethe’s point here.

There’s two sides to this: one is discerning what love is, and the other is looking at how one should respond to it.

I’ve never really been in a serious romantic relationship. Heck, I’ve never been in a romantic relationship. I’m not someone who objects to it on principle or anything (i.e. not a celibate), but I’ve just never found the right person in part because I’ve never looked and in part because I tend to lose myself in work.

That’s probably a personal flaw, come to think of it.

Gosh, I’d be fun to psychoanalyze.

Getting back to the point, though, I have loved in a platonic and familial sense. I would sacrifice quite a bit for my students (despite my occasional jokes to the contrary), and my family and close friends get that honor as well.

The great thing about love is that sacrifice doesn’t feel like a loss. There’s some sublime beauty that enters into it and makes it into something wonderful.

It’s the ability to give something up and make the world a better place.

If you have that, you have love.

And how does one respond to love?

Gratitude, for one thing. To transmute suffering to purpose is the magnum opus of the alchemists of old. The commonest of things found within dirt where it was least expected could be said to be love–people who have no love can only find themselves trapped within a cycle of destruction, but with love even tragedy becomes a thing that drives growth and rebirth.

True gratitude instills action.

I never appreciated my father much as a child. That’s not true.

For the first few years of my life, I had no gripes with my father. We were incredibly close (him, my brother, and I; I’m a twin), but as we grew circumstances changed. When I look back at early memories, the joys of those days are fragmentary, and if I could choose the memories I would keep only those.

However, at a certain point the relationship grew more distant. As an adult, I can pinpoint these things even without really discussing them with him. He changed jobs; the new job had a longer commute. My brother and I started going to school, and had more work to complete at home. We stopped reading together, because we could read independently.

There was more stress on all sides, and by the time of my adolescence my relationship with my father was strained (it would remain so until I finished college, and even at times the rift lingers in ways I have to consciously prune).

However, when I look back at the whole picture, I am struck by the love that my father has and has always had for my brother, my mother, and I. The dedication and attention that he paid us and the multitude of ways that he showed it often went unappreciated, and there’s some awkwardness in the middle, but the model itself is solid.

When you love people, you do what you know you can to make their lives better. Making their lives perfect is beyond your means, but that’s no reason not to strive.

Resolution

Let love conquer all suffering.

Never underestimate the diversity of faces love can wear.

Remember that a good sacrifice is g0od.

Aphorism 75

We are the children of our age, but children who can never know their mother.

Logan Pearsall Smith

Interpretation

I think that the prevailing spirit of our age is Chaos. That may sound trippy and New Age, but I assure you that it’s not as far out as one would believe.

Look at our society and its rate of change, the loss of familiar icons and social structures and institutions.

Life is chaos, and as close to the platonic ideal as one will find anywhere.

We stand in the midst of things we cannot change, thinking of things we cannot understand, taking actions we cannot really do.

It is the word, order, which we live by. Even the word, however, has become scattered and confused. This is the stuff of the Tower of Babel, and we should take great caution to guard against the transformation of language. This is not because language should not change, but because we should not change it.

One of the greatest challenges we have is this:

How do we put our lives into words?

This is what great poets and thinkers have attempted since humans learned that bashing the right types and shapes of rocks into each other can leave marks that can bear information. Heck, they may have even done that before they learned how to write it down, the spoken word banishing into the oceans of unremembered past.

Really, that’s kind of incredible.

The modern age is the time when we have done away with myth. We have abolished the chains that have held us down, and sailed away on a sea of blood and tears to seek fortune among burnout desires.

Postmodernism is no better; the only difference is that they choose not to sail, or recognize that they are on a sea at all.

The problem is this:

The myth is the sum of all the gods and all the heroes.

Carl Jung had an interesting conception of the unconscious leading to the myth, and the unconscious being that thing which winds up being called God, the daemon of Socrates, spirits, and so forth.

I don’t know that I agree with him here.

However, there is a truth to the notion that the myth gave us bearing on the world, and that we have shut off part of our inner lives when we denied the myth the chance to blossom.

That is not necessarily wrong. It may lead us into a new golden age.

However, it has also cast us into the odious sea, and we will not be the same when we find shore.

Resolution

Do what you have to do to change the unknown into the known.

Embrace the myth, but don’t get lost in it.

Don’t stray too far from shore; here there are dragons.

Aphorism 76

The middle sort of historians… spoil all; they will chew our meat for us.

Montaigne

Interpretation

Ah, some good stuff.

So, I actually wanted to teach history. Like, a lot. My favorite teachers in school were always my English teachers and my History teachers, and of the subjects I probably had more of an interest in the latter.

Then I learned something.

When you teach history, you don’t teach history. You teach an interpretation. You regurgitate the sludge that is currently believed by some stuffy professor who wouldn’t know what the sunlight was if it turned his bloodsucking body to dust.

If part of the price of education is selling yourself into wage slavery at the altar of educational standards (which is an oxymoron in some ways), at the very least you should feel good about what you teach.

I no longer wish to teach history. Preparing to teach it has taught me that what we call “teaching history” is indeed teaching an interpretation. This is perhaps more true at the elementary and secondary levels (my own college-level history courses were phenomenal and gave facts and context rather than interpretations), but I have never really been close to teaching history at a higher level.

It is a relief, then, to see that the wise Montaigne sees this same path that I detest as a mark of a bad historian.

The reason for this is simple.

The whole point to learn the past is so that we don’t repeat it.

However, if we had actually learned from the past, we wouldn’t be in danger of repeating it anyway.

Yet, time and again, despite historians’ efforts the world keeps going awry.

Now, you could say that it’s not the historians’ fault, or at least not the fault of their concept of history, since other people don’t listen to them.

However, there’s something interesting that you can find in the history of history. I’m something of a scholar of the 20th century, though I still can’t decide why because it always leads me down morose paths (see the previous reflection).

At the start of the 20th century, in the 00’s and 10’s, historians were making their predictions and it looked a lot like the predictions they made in the 20’s and 30’s. In the 40’s and 50’s, they made predictions that looked a lot like their predecessors.

They actually were listened to, at least the ones in mainstream academia, and yet the counsel they gave wound up making things worse.

So where’s the problem here? Where’s the disconnect?

They had top-down central planner hubris. They had the guts to believe that they knew the inscrutable secrets of the universe. They had schemas and heuristics and traditions and citations and expert testimony and blood on their hands.

And we teach the same “history” today.

Resolution

Teach only if you put your skin in the game.

Remember that the greatest judgment is reserved for those who lead others away from the right path.

If you think you see, remember that you could be wearing crummy glasses.

Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

I have a tendency to read books which make me deeply uncomfortable with the world. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to this, but Ordinary Men (affiliate link) is one of these books.

It would be both fair and unfair to call my thoughts on this book a review. I am not qualified to critique the historical methods, factual accuracy, or mass appeal of such a book, but I can say that it is a compelling, necessary read, in the vein of Solzhenitsyn’s work.

Continue reading “Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”

Living in History

Life does not exist in a vacuum. Every living organism is the product of complex chemical and biological mechanisms that we are just beginning to truly understand.

Minds, likewise, do not exist in a vacuum. Our days do not unfold in a vacuum: they are not sequences of events disconnected and disengaged from each other.

Yet we live, for the most part, like our actions do not connect to reality. We pretend that the events that unfold around us are something that we have no control over.

We pretend that we have no history and no past, because it lets us shape our future according to our whims and our fantasies.

Continue reading “Living in History”