Dog Days Edition
Agnes Callard on seeing evil, Raïssa Maritain on the paradoxes of poetry, and paintings by Kuhn and Rouault.
Hello and welcome back to the hermitage. I trust you all are, like me, frantically trying to suck the remaining marrow and salt out of summer.
Philosopher Agnes Callard has a theory of what art is for: “Art is for seeing evil.”
Hannah Arendt’s 1975 remembrance of W.H. Auden: “There was nothing more admirable in Auden than his complete sanity and his firm belief in sanity; in his eyes all kinds of madness were lack of discipline—’Naughty, naughty,’ as he used to say.”
Chris Smaje charitably critiques George Monbiot’s latest book, which completes the latter’s migration to the view that only industrial lab-produced food can save the planet: “If George’s vision comes to pass I think it will, contrary to his own aspirations, represent an alignment between progressive environmentalism and corporate-capitalist interests that will delay further, perhaps catastrophically, the need to create low-input agrarian localisms and ecological culture.”1
How Mario Draghi broke Italy. Well—it was, in terms of political economy, already broken. But the Draghi-ist approach (a Platonic form of technocracy which he did not originate but does almost perfectly embody) of an unelected national savior pursuing deeply unpopular and ultimately counterproductive policies under the guise of hard-headed centrism—alienating the various political blocs, stoking further polarization, and deepening the country’s structural problems2 all at once—probably hasn’t helped.
Addison del Mastro is always worth reading on American urbanism: here he delves into the ongoing diversification and densification of the suburbs. I like his point that we should learn from the mistakes of urban renewal and not try to wholesale raze bad land use overnight, but rather build on what works and incrementally repurpose what doesn’t. (He also writes an ornamental hermit-approved Substack.)
Del Mastro argues that Millennial suburbans are not fleeing the city qua city like many Boomers, but are mostly satisficing by seeking (relative) affordability somewhere with similar enough features—places that still “feel enough like a place.” This is a good excuse to refer back to Alexander Price’s “place vs. non-place” distinction, which is a good frame to get past the overly simplistic urban-rural culture war. Suburbs and villages3 can be full of “places” and cities can be full of “non-places” (and are, especially in America). Focusing not on abstractions like “increasing density” but on a heuristic of making more Places wherever possible can help humanize and rescue both policy (zoning, street design, etc) and personal efforts (gardens, home design, etc) from their respective cul-de-sacs (sorry).
Also on land-use, Santi Ruiz argues that Nolan Gray’s new book on zoning sidesteps one of the main concerns implicit in the YIMBY wars: “Every behavior that the right would like to see more of in younger generations—getting married, settling down, having kids, putting down roots—is out of reach for increasing numbers of Americans. Culture obviously shapes those norms, but so does lack of material availability.”
Richard Heinberg revisits peak oil in the shadow of the fracking boom.
Bohumil Hrabal and his poor cats.
Raïssa Maritain, Poetry and Mysticism. In this slim volume consisting of two short essays, re-released in 2022, the 20th century writer, wife of theologian Jacques Maritain, elaborates her views on the complex interplay of mystery and intelligibility in poetry. For her, both are crucial, and, indeed, feed off of the other. I fear I can’t do her sophisticated analysis justice in a short blurb, but I will note her argument about what differentiates the poetic from the prosaic: in prose forms, she writes, words are primarily signs, pointing beyond themselves to meaning; in poems, words are both signs and, critically, objects, which “are organized in a living and independent body; they cannot give place to synonyms without causing the sense of the poem to suffer or die.” And yet even in the most experimental or absurdist poetry they must also remain signifiers, since words “cannot be stripped of their role as signs without depriving the poetry of its essential ties with transcendental beauty… so it is that a certain intelligible signification is necessary even for entry into mystery and the unknown.”4
Cynthia L. Haven, Czesław Miłosz: A California Life. Having already read Andrzej Franaszek’s excellent Miłosz biography, the broad outlines of the poet’s time at U.C. Berkeley—where he lived for four decades before returning to Poland in his final years—were familiar to me. But Haven argues, persuasively, that Miłosz’s conflicted but deeply fertile relationship with the United States, and the landscape and culture of California in particular, has not been fully appreciated. There, he saw his original naive view of the American continent as a realm of pure natura, in contrast with the Sisyphean nightmare of Europe trapped in History, slowly unravel as he grappled with his adopted home’s complexities and contradictions. Seemingly providentially, the Californian anti-humanist poet Robinson Jeffers appeared then as a near-perfect interlocutor and foil for Miłosz’s particular fixations: his constant wrestling with the source of evil in the world and in himself; his alternating worship of and suspicion of Nature; his ambivalence over the redeemability of humanity; his hunger to locate a synthesis of change and eternity in art; and his exile from his native tongue and the political struggles of his homeland, which all at once isolated him, filled him with resentment and shame, challenged and deepened his spirituality, and ultimately elevated his work to the world stage.
“I fear you are a heretic about art generally. How is that? I should have expected you to be very sensitive to the beautiful everywhere.”
“I suppose I am dull about many things,” said Dorothea. “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then, all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.”
“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try to take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery? I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery and want to make your life a martyrdom.” Will had gone further than he intended, and checked himself.
…What have I to do with you? From footpaths in the orchards,
from an untaught choir and shimmers of a monstrance,
from flower beds of rue, hills by the rivers, books
in which a zealous Lithuanian announced brotherhood, I come.
Oh, consolations of mortals, futile creeds.
And yet you did not know what I know. The earth teaches
More than does the nakedness of elements. No one with impunity
gives to himself the eyes of a god. So brave, in a void,
you offered sacrifices to demons: there were Wotan and Thor,
the screech of Erinyes in the air, the terror of dogs
when Hekate with her retinue of the dead draws near.
Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches and firs
give feminine names. To implore protection
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.
—from “To Robinson Jeffers,” Czesław Miłosz.
The liturgical life.
May you find relief and rest in the dog days,
“Ultimately, of course, Regenesis takes land sparing to the logical conclusion of factory-fermented nourishment. As I see it, there are multiple problems with this. There’s the nitrogen and energy requirements (prodigious amounts of scarce low-carbon electrical energy will be needed to synthesize the gloop, rather than the free solar energy tapped by farmers). There’s the final surrender to corporate interests. There’s the likelihood that rich people will continue to demand proper meat, grains, coffee, tropical fruit and so on, so that the gloop becomes another poverty-entrenching technology like golden rice, with less land-sparing impact than supposed. And there’s the final alienation from nature that will probably undermine the entire point of it. Maybe the upside is that Regenesis opens all these issues up for debate. I just wish its author could have laid the implications out a bit more even-handedly.”
Noting in fairness that no eurozone parliament really retains the power to enact “structural reform” even if it wanted to, at least in any but one predetermined direction, due to the highly specific requirements of the monetary union and associated fiscal regulations. Locking in policy against the erratic impulses of the body politic was precisely the point (the so-called vincolo esterno, the external constraint).
Villages are of course an urban form, since “urban” is a pattern and not a scale, so please forgive my grouping them in a taxonomy opposed to cities, a shorthand which is maybe helpful for this example but not rigorous.
Raïssa Maritain, “Sense and Non-Sense in Poetry,” pp 2-4.