What the Germans Did


No, not that.

Although I sometimes dwell on failures of the human spirit, my thoughts today are more of a homily, in praise of several Germans who helped create the magnificent idea of the autonomous individual, worthy of dignity and capable of self-respect. They are giants in the history of ideas. Their mark on us is so indelible–they are so much a part of who we liberal democrats are–that their particular contributions to our identity likely escape our notice.

In America we tend to believe we are born fully equipped for liberal democracy. Not so. We are who we are, at our most Emersonian self-reliant, in large part because of the man-made ideas and institutions of a handful of Germans.

Martin Luther stands tallest among these heroes, for awakening the idea of individual conscience. While Luther was preceded in this by Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, it was his revolt against the Catholic Church that stuck. He was the one who defeated (or at least made it possible to escape) the Church’s claim that it alone could proffer moral instruction. By insisting instead that the individual must seek his own understanding of the gospel message without consulting a professional (and corrupt) clergy, Luther laid the foundation for the wide-ranging intellectual autonomy we take for granted today. He is, so to speak, the ur-author of that part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that lays out our religious freedoms. If you think you can, and ought to think for yourself, thank Luther. He could have burned at the stake for saying what he said when the going was tough. (Hus did in fact burn for saying much the same thing in 1417 that Luther would say 100 years later.) But he pressed forward, at great risk.

martin luther
Martin Luther (image: Tagesspiegel)

Power is created not just by ideas, but also by implements. (This observation belongs to Hannah Arendt, another German genius but not one of today’s subjects.) What gave Luther’s idea legs was Gutenberg‘s printing press, which turned out scads of Bibles (in Luther’s translation to the vernacular), to be read by the increasingly literate masses. Once the Bible became a popular book rather than an imposing collection of priestly esoterica, the reader displaced the expositor as the focal point of textual instruction. This would eventually marginalize the clergy altogether and cement the individual in the role as captain of his own soul. If you feel lucky not to have a corps of professional bullies using a book of secret doctrines to police your thoughts, you might nod in gratitude to Gutenberg’s memory. He printed the books so you could just read them for yourself.

After the priests fell, it was the turn of the Bible itself, and with it, the very idea of supernaturally-inspired texts. Beginning in the late 18th century, a handful of German scholars spurred by the work of Johann Gottfried Eichorn (on the Old Testament) and Friederich Schleiermacher (on the New) began to examine the Bible critically to work out its authorship and composition. The movement they founded, the Tübingen School, would effectively deflate the idea that the Bible was divine in origin. On inspection it turned out to be a thoroughly human book, assembled from Jewish myth and folktales and from Christian epistles written second- or thirdhand, decades or centuries after the life of Jesus (and inspired by several contemporary resurrection myths and mystery rites). Contradictions and outrages abounded in its texts but were no longer embarrassing, man-made as they were. Some variants of the Tübingen School’s conclusions are now accepted almost everywhere in the literate world except for rural parts of the United States. The Bible, of course, remains a source of inspiration, but any literate reader knows that what wisdom it contains is man-made and must be got at through skeptical inquiry. Although people tend to apply the principle selectively, almost everyone today believes that holy books are not.

Luther’s revolt and Gutenberg’s printing press put the humble reader at the center of the reading experience. The Tübingen School’s debasing of the Bible left the reader without the divine guarantee that what he was reading was true, beneficent, or even useful. This left the individual without the guiding hand of God. While the unmasking of God as the joint creation of power-seeking men and credulous serfs would eventually prove an empowering development, it was disorienting at first. Hadn’t mankind always stood in need of a higher law, an explanation of his origin, and promise of his ultimate destiny? How would he get by without the firm, divine assurance that such things existed? More than anyone else, Friederich Nietzsche, embraced the epochal challenge posed by the death of God. If you feel life remains worth living despite the wholesale displacement of sacred myths from everyday life (and we do seem to keep entirely busy chasing worthwhile things that cannot be stored up as treasure in heaven) you owe Nietzsche a debt for having stared this unsettling fact in the face and for showing that man stands on his own two feet. Humans have dignity despite lacking sacred or magical stories to explain its origin.

Human dignity is very nice, of course, but does it get us through the night? Not on its own, obviously; love, beauty, folly and curiosity play large roles here. But my little essay is not about how Germans uncovered the whole meaning of life, but how they helped equip us to be liberal democrats, which is also pretty great. Nietzsche, once we get past his Sturm und Drang, does a wonderful thing for us in this regard: he focuses our minds on the here and now. Rather than trying to make our way along a pilgrim’s progress toward a fairytale heaven, why not do something instead for the crying shames we witness right in front of our noses among the human animals (many of them unhappy) roaming the surface of the earth? While it would be wrong to attribute the progressive spirit to any single individual, it was Karl Marx more than anyone else who focused this impulse on the plight of those left farthest behind by society’s successes. Those made wealthy by economic growth have a stake in the improvement of those impoverished or marginalized by it. (If you are paying attention, you will note this is more or less how Jesus would have us order our moral priorities, at least as far as the Sermon on the Mount can be taken as a guide. The last shall be first, and that sort of thing.)

Anyone who cares about gaps in a developed society–income gaps, education gaps, health gaps, etc.–and believes that the groups on both sides of such inequalities, but especially the “upper” group, have obligations to close the gaps–is thinking in Marxian terms.

Everything I have written here is potted and oversimplified, but then again, much of what we believe about the human situation has far less going for it than that. Better to take a foreshortened view of great thinkers who have helped make us who we are than to believe our best characteristics just fell on us from heaven or grew out of World Spirit. A handful of Germans helped make us liberal democrats. We are, thanks to them, our own law-givers, capable of acknowledging our fellow man’s dignity, and obliged by our means to reduce the suffering around us.


The Meaning of Raymond Carver


I have only read six or seven stories by Raymond Carver. I picked up his first collection, Would You Please Be Quiet, Please?, last week. The plots are skeletal, the language barren and raw. If the stories have morals, they are buried too deeply in the subconscious of the deadened, bewildered characters to bring them into the clear light of day. A married couple housesits next door and finds, separately, they would rather spend time there than at home. An out-of-work man visits his wife waitressing at a diner and discovers she is grotesque because the regulars talk about her.

Raymond Carver (Image: historythings.com)

Carver’s stories made such a strong first impression, I want to write it down. I know myself, and I will eventually fit Carver’s mood, message and ideas into a matrix of of other writers’ output. I’m sure I will also discover new things about him. He will change.

So for now, before the shock wears off, this is what Carver means to me: Even in the land of the American Dream, it is possible for anyone to feel chronically unhappy, unsuccessful, and unmoored, and to believe instinctively that he is nonetheless part of the mainstream. Carver is the prophet of the American Dream’s diminishing returns.

Ain’t That America?


What could be more American than the principle of live-and-let-live?

In America, we take it for granted that everyone may seek individual fulfilment however they wish, so long as their actions don’t threaten someone else’s right to do the same. This idea is the philosophical bedrock of our political culture, implied by our rights–laid out in the Declaration of Independence–to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course we don’t go around gushing about the greatness of our rights every day. (Charles Dickens had some cutout American characters do this in Martin Chuzzlewhit, and the effect was lame. I suspect in Dickens’ time, as now, folks didn’t actually speechify about the grandness of democracy unless it was a special occasion.)

Despite lacking a special occasion, I would like to pay tribute today to John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher who most clearly and powerfully set out the fundamentals of our political culture. If you have not read his short book On Liberty, give yourself the pleasure of doing so. You can buy it for a buck on Amazon or probably find it for free on the Internet. Although Mill’s treatment of liberty is somewhat abstract (he’s a philosopher, after all), you cannot help but feel that, writing in 1858, he concretely captures the democratic adolescence of post (1832)-reforms England, Abolitionist America and post-1848 revolutionary Europe. Like adolescence, it was an exciting time, when defining freedom felt as new and risky as falling in love.

Image: bestanimations.com

The principle underlying our basic freedoms, according to Mill, is what has come to be known as the “harm principle.” It means you can do your own thing, as noted above, so long as it dosen’t harm others (or raise a credible threat of doing so). While this idea has far-ranging legal implications, and in fact is the basis of much law, Mill’s purpose in On Liberty is to try to define the proper scope of informal social control in limiting our freedoms. The law, of course will have its say in clear cases of criminality, but Mill is asking a subtler question about how far society should take the harm principle when it comes to influencing individual behavior. Left unchecked, Mill worries that social control can turn into a tyranny of the majority.

To focus our minds, Mill asks us to imagine someone living a life that appears errant, frivolous, corrupt, or somehow wrong to us. Before intervening with even the slightest thought of compulsion, we must consider the following about our fellow human:

He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to someone else.

This sounds good to democratic ears, of course, but where does the harm principle come from, if not thin air? Mill was no more a supernaturalist than Jefferson, Franklin or the other deists who wrote the Declarations of Independence, so he did not think of the individual’s inviolability as a magical gift sent down from the heavens. It was, rather, an indispensable feature of humanity, a way we can’t avoid of regarding one another if we wish to be taken seriously as autonomous moral agents. “Over himself, over his own body and mind,” Mill summarized, “the individual is sovereign.”

With this in mind, Mill lays out the three basic freedoms. They are:

  1. The freedom of speech. Mill actually spells out this idea a little more fully than we usually formulate it, calling it the “liberty of thought and discussion,” a useful reminder that the individual conscience is sacrosanct whether it expresses itself or remains mute. The acid test of our tolerance for the freedom of speech is how we treat it in the minority: “If all mankind minus one,” Mill writes, “were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
  2. The freedom to pursue tastes. This is an approximation of what the American Founders meant by the “pursuit of happiness.” For Mill, it means that the individual, “if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things that concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinions should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.” I will come back to this point in a future post, as I think it is one of the most vital parts of the American persona we have let wither. Our dronish consumerism has nearly ruined our capacity for individuality. Try putting down your goddamned iPhone for an hour; take a walk, read a book or create something, and see if you do not glimpse what Mill did–that human life is meant to be adventurous and many-splendored, or as he says, “There should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.” When we follow Polonius’s advice, “To thine own self be true,” it is not just good for us, it is good for the democratic experiment, which thrives on diversity and autonomy.
  3. The freedom to assemble. One of the clearest lessons we’ve learned from the history of 20th century totalitarianism is that dictators fear personal bonds between individuals and any tendency to form groups based on solidarity. The deliberate atomization of (just to take one prominent example) Romanian society under Ceaușescu was an impressively effective means of ruling individuals because it preempted even the possibility of democratic fellow feeling. Authoritarians, whether acting with the full power of the state, or merely through dominant public opinion, despise freely chosen relationships. In 1984, it is a love affair that brings the state’s death sentence; in Huckleberry Finn, a friendship is doomed by slave culture. Mill reminds us that no one is master of our freedom to assemble with others. In any properly free society, Mill says, individuals have “the freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others.”

Thus ends today’s homily. I feel like I have much more to say, though, about Mill’s second freedom, and so I hope to post something soon about that. Americans ought to know how deeply encoded in our DNA is the idea that we should think differently one from another, constantly seeking opportunities for change, novelty and variety. John Dewey philosophized about this very point, and Walt Whitman turned it into a national poem. More to follow, I hope.

Review of “Zero K” by Don Delillo


I’ve come to believe that every novel worth the name is about the meaning of life.

Usually, though, the author finds an indirect path to this large theme. Cervantes has Don Quixote charging and bumbling through chapter after chapter of highly diverting, often hilarious adventures. There are hundreds of pages of Quixote sallying forth, disembowling innocents for their own good, wearing a cheese strainer as a helmet, and so on. Then, in the last chapter, the story abruptly changes tone, and Quixote realizes, in one of literature’s most touching deathbed scenes, that he wasted his life on a folly. He had read all the wrong books. The notions of Christian gallantry his books gave him were hollow and–this is what breaks Quixotes’ heart–beneath his dignity all along. All that hijinx hilarity, which strikes the reader as so jocular, really revealed a world laughing mirthlessly at the emptiness of Quixotes’ creed. He reforms, but too late, wishing on his deathbed he had read books that would have been a “light to [his] soul” rather than the devotional claptrap he fell for. There is not enough time now. Quixote dies a tragic figure.

Zero KDon Delillo, in his latest novel, Zero K, comes straight to the point. “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” reads the brochure promoting “Convergence,” a cryonics business that forms the backdrop of the story. The business starts with a philosophy: We come into this life unbidden, suffer its slings and arrows from we know not where, and eventually die as passively as we arrive. Need it be this way?–asks the financier of Convergence and billionaire Ross Lockhart. With science promising to extend our lives beyond old boundaries, need we die as Quixote did, tragically, because there is not enough time to live an illuminated life? Or might we, shouldn’t we, re-engineer the end-of-life experience?

The novel opens in the remote Kazakhstan desert, where Convergence is located. In an underground complex of bunkers and wards, a visionary syndicate of doctors and lawyers, philosophers and theologians, and, of course, wealthy clients, seeks a future in which the sick can be cured after awaking from cryonic freezing. Jeffrey Lockhart, the protagonist, is there to witness his father Ross send off his second wife, who is dying of multiple sclerosis.

Delillo’s depiction of the cryonics complex and everything that goes on there is quietly luminous. His prose, like the voices of all the characters at Covergence, is hushed, respectful of the grave ambition it takes to push back the border of death. It is not quite immortality the clientele seek, we learn, but just more life, a chance to die on their own terms, and not just now. Ross explains the main idea to his son: “Faith-based technology. That’s what it is. Another god. Not so different, it turns out, from some of the earlier ones. Except that it’s real, it’s true, it delivers.” All the believers in Covergence are serious and calm, religiously respectful of one another’s vision.

They are also, Delillo begins to reveal, a little fake. From Jeffrey’s father, who hopes for a healthy new wife, to the project’s main ideologues, who prove over time to be more avant garde performance artists than scientists, to the quietly preoccupied staff of the Convergence complex, everyone with a stake in the project belies more pious, rhetorical hope for its success than knowledge of how it might work. Pressed (but gently) by his son to expand on Convergence’s faith-based technology, Ross offers a New Age benediction, “There’s a meaning in mathematics. There’s a meaning in biology. There’s a meaning in physiology. Let it rest.”

But Jeffrey cannot let it rest. He is not so much bothered by his feeling that his father’s business is a mirage as by a sense of the metaphysical sin it exudes. To grasp so literally for more life strikes Jeff as a betrayal of the thing that makes us human–our mortality. We learn that Ross Lockhart has a fake name, one he made up to boost his power image. He had a first wife, Jeffrey’s mother, whom he betrayed and then did his best to erase from his consciousness (before she finished the job and died). The idea behind Convergence is that all of life, not just its trappings, can be a do-over.

Jeffrey (and, we suspect, Delillo) is much more of Joseph Conrad’s frame of mind: we are gifted with a life that is superb in its uniqueness. We get this  one life, and we live it, by God. Jeffrey reflects:

Consider the words alone. Time, fate, chance, immortality. And here is my simpleminded past, my dimpled history, the moments I can’t help summoning because they’re mine, impossible not to see and feel, crawling out of every wall around me.

Jeffrey cannot help but feel that the ability to extend life indefinitely would diffuse one’s identity fatally, stretching oneself over too many moments to possibly call one’s own. If life has meaning, it must have limits.

Ross succumbs to Convergence’s darkest promise, cryonic freezing while still alive and healthy. If a client is willing, he may do this. There is a special facility for it, Zero K, named for its temperature, which approaches zero on the Kelvin scale. This chamber is no mere sci-fi device Delillo throws in to deepen the horror of what is otherwise a quietly macabre plot. It is the philosophical pivot of his novel.

The impulse to discount this world as a vale of tears from which escape is desireable lies at the dark heart of man’s lust for immortality. From established churches to death cults, you can see this attitude on display anywhere there is true faith in life after death. If the real blessed realm is the eternal one, the one set up for our everlasting peace after we slip these surly bonds, then why not just go there directly? Orwell calls this sin the avoidance of the hard work of being human.

Jeffrey slips free of his father, whose desire to abandon the world he cannot understand. He goes back to New York, where “every genotype” the world has ever seen flows past him. He gets a job, loses his girlfriend, eats only one particular kind of bread. He reflects: “All of this matters even if it’s not supposed to matter.” For Delillo, I think, Jeffrey’s life reveals the sacred world of the human individual, one that lacks any grand, meaning-imposing metaphysical scheme, one in which we create and discover meaning ourselves. It is the only world we have, and it is beautiful.


If you enjoyed my review and want to read more, here are some other reviews of Zero K I found online. As a general rule, I avoid reading other reviews before I write mine, so I can keep my thoughts fresh.

New York Times


The Atlantic

Bookchemist (video)

Also, here’s a post I wrote last year about Jorge Luis Borges that covers a similar theme. “Everyone wants to live forever. Or do they?


We Like It Here


BBC: Is there any one thing about British life which you really admire?

Kingsley Amis: Yes, there is. I like the fact that in Great Britain, by and large, people don’t beat each other up or shoot each other for holding certain opinions, or belonging to certain churches, or having a certain color skin. I feel very much at home because of that fact.

– BBC interview with Amis on his latest novel, I like It Here, 1958

I’m reading The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. It’s a true story, and you may already know its outline: ex-con Gary Gilmore shoots and kills two people in Utah, is caught, sentenced to death, and insists on being executed by firing squad. He gets his wish. It’s an all-American story of gun violence come full circle.

America has a love affair with gun violence. Or it might be better to call it a common-law marriage: we have kept and used guns so long, they have become inseparable from us. We should admit that we like our lives this way, and we have no interest in changing.  Acknowledging our love of guns would save us the hypocrisy of feigning dread the next time there is a mass shooting. We like it here.

While it might be going too far to say we have gun violence in the bones of our nation, it certainly seems to be a dominant gene. We’ve shot and killed four of our 45 presidents and taken shots at nine more, scoring non-lethal hits on two of them, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. That’s a quarter of our presidents we’ve shot or tried to. I am not counting the three (known) instances of gunmen firing shots at the Whitehouse (Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama), which may have been sincere assassination attempts or merely  propaganda of the gun. We note in passing that Andrew Jackson shot and killed a man in a duel before becoming president, and Vice President Aaron Burr killed presidential hopeful Alexander Hamilton in a duel while in office.

We have a fundamentally positive relationship with guns in America: guns have been good for us. The earliest settlers used guns to kill game and suppress the natives, both useful for surviving and  conquering a wild new territory. The Minute Men used (their own) guns to rebel against tyranny, setting the stage for our country’s independence. And let us not forget that, while whips and chains helped control our African slave workforce, it was the gun that gave planters their real authority. The growth of our early mercantilist economy depended crucially on the competitive advantage afforded by slave labor. Love guns or hate them, they put America where it is today.

vegas shooting
There have been 150 mass shootings in America since Sandyhook in 2012, but they account for a statistically negligible number of homicides

Gun atrocities in America are regarded the same way Christian philosophers regard the age-old problem of evil. (If God is all-powerful and all-good, how do bad things like childhood cancer happen? He must either be not all-good or not all-powerful; otherwise he would stop bad things from happening.) There are a handful of standard responses to this argument, and they all hinge on humans’ inability to see the big picture. One such defense is known as the “tapestry” argument: life is a rich tapestry of triumph and grief, bright patches and dark. Life’s overall magnificence is the predominant good, however, and that goodness depends on the existence of the tapestry’s dark patches, even if they appear tragic in isolation. It’s very limp stuff as theology goes, but it does capture the way many people view life–a patchwork of joy and sorrow that is ultimately preferable to non-life and therefore, “good.”

Now I don’t mean for a second that anyone literally invokes these terms when they think about guns in America. But the pattern we are asked to accept as normal has striking similarities to the tapestry argument. The 12,000 gun homicides, 33,000 suicides and handful of mass-shootings that happen each year in America are simply the fixed costs we pay for enjoying the greater good of a freewheeling life underwritten by a lasting and legal bond with guns.

My point today is not to argue the merits of gun control, a vast topic covered in detail by finer minds than mine. Although I would be remiss not to point out that, as usual, the most recent mass shooting in America has produced some trechant analyses that are important for understanding the issues. Reason magazine argues that controlling automatic weapons can yield very diminishing returns compared with reinforcing the social factors that have clearly reduced overall violent crime over the last several decades. Vox points out that, across U.S. states, gun ownership does correllate positively with gun deaths, but there is no increased support for gun control even after a mass shooting.

This last observation is a telling one. On the issue of gun control, our democracy is a coldly well-informed one. We have enough information to make reasonable decisions about guns, and we choose not to restrict gun ownership. I am not saying the debate is over, but I am highly skeptical it will move during my lifetime.

Gun culture controls gun law. That makes for a certain number of gun deaths each year, yes, but we should at least have the courage to embrace that fact. Or to paraphrase Amis in his 1958 interview, we should admit we feel very much at home with our pro-gun culture. The next time you shudder because six year old children are subjected to active shooter drills in their classrooms, remember, we like it here.