The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, December 22, 2005


It seems we need a translating dictionary for the UN's diplomatic pronouncements.

"peacekeeping" = ignoring
"innocent" = S.E.P.
"situation" = slaughter
"international" = press
"law" = remonstration
"force" = remonstration
"outrage" = boredom
"talks" = permission
"condemnation" = permission

[HT: Q&O.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Kevin Drum has accurately summed up the reasons why the mumbling about "in time of war" or "wartime President" is disingenuous.
If this is how we define "wartime," it means that in the century from 1940 to 2040 the president will have had emergency wartime powers for virtually the entire time. But does that make sense? Is anyone really comfortable with the idea that three decades from now the president of the United States will have had wartime executive powers for nearly a continuous century?
Somehow we need to come to grips with this. There's "wartime" and then there's "wartime," and not all armed conflicts vest the president with emergency powers.
Read the whole thing. "Wartime" is a shibboleth aimed only at suppressing criticism of President Bush, and honest conservatives should eschew its use.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


For your favorite Europhobe.

Monday, December 19, 2005


Megan McArdle rebuts a ridiculous argument by M.A.R.Kleinman, firmly but far too gently. Mr. Kleiman writes, in part:
Could there by anything crazier, at a social level, than telling young people with the talent and determination to pursue careers in the natural sciences that doing so isn't a wise move from a personal-financial-planning perspective? It's true, of course. But think of the social waste involved in converting a potential biologist in to, say, a detail man for a pharamaceutical company....
Of course, this problem is connected to a different problem: the successful class warfare waged over the past quarter-centory by an
[sic] on behalf of the top 1% of the income distribution -- the half-a-million-dollar-a-year crowd -- against everyone else. Taxing away some of their increased share of the national income distrubution [sic] could finance measures of income security (and not just retirement income security) for everyone.
I'm not convince that doing so would reduce the rate of GDP growth; it might well increase it. (The biologist rescued from life as a detail man might discover or invent something valuable.)
This is sentimental fantasy in its rawest form. The would-be biologist could "rescue" himself, working just enough to make ends meet while he sought to discover or invent something valuable; but he has decided the odds are too poor. A university or corporation could "rescue" him by expanding its pure research division to include him; but every one of them has decided they have enough pure researchers already. So Mr. Kleiman's solution is, apparently, to get the government into the business of taking the gamble that everyone in the know has already turned down. And he blithely says that "it might well" be a winner, on average, in the long run.

You don't get rich by doing what you want to do; you get rich by doing what other people want you to do enough that they will pay you for it. Doing what you want should not enrich you, because it is unlikely to enrich society.

Mr. Kleiman sees "social waste" in the idea of people choosing useful work, and then has the arrogance to think he can guide everyone to a better solution; the dishonesty to conflate the issue with class warfare; and the pure childlike belief this can really work if we just wish really, really hard.

[Full disclosure: I am well within the "crowd" of successful class warriors Mr. Kleiman describes. The boldfaced quote is not mine -- I think it's Ms. McArdle's -- but I can't find the source.]

Friday, December 16, 2005

Was Brown Lynched?

In another anti-Rumsfeld post at Belgravia Dispatch, Greg Djerejian pauses for a bit of rote Brownie-bashing. In the comments, I wrote in part:
... is there a credible a posteriori analysis of Michael Brown's failings? He was most harshly criticized during the first days of the Katrina disaster for being unaware of the horrible happenings in New Orleans -- which, we now know, were generally not happening after all.
This elicited one reply, from Brad R. of Sadly, No:
Sammler- you're kidding, right? Check out some of Brownie's e-mails to DHS officials. The best one is [the first].

But the emails cited make only an extremely weak case against Mr. Brown. For example, the first exchange is dated Wednesday 31 August. One Marty Bahamonde writes, in part:
Evacuation in progress. Plans developing for dome evacuation but hotel situation adding to problem. We are out of food and running out of water at the dome, plans in works to address the critical need.
FEMA staff is OK and holding own. DMAT staff working in deplorable conditions. The sooner we can get the medical patients out, the sooner wecan get them out.
And Mr. Brown replied:
Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?
Here we have a somewhat confused note, informing Mr. Brown of some problems but also assuring him that his staff are "developing plans" and "holding their own". The letter contains no actionable requests, and does not indicate that the situation is beyond the local FEMA team's capabilities. Mr. Brown responds by asking if Mr. Bahamonde wants him to actually do anything. How is this evidence of incompetence?

Some of the other emails are lightly embarrassing to Mr. Brown and his staff; they show him overly focused on his image, joking with his staff about how great he looks when fully primped for a press conference, and the like. But if this is the best his detractors can show from that hectic week, in which it is fair to suppose that Mr. Brown sent and received thousands of emails, then the case against him is very weak indeed.

Tobacco Trust Treaty (II)

This treaty has been publicized again at The Volokh Conspiracy. In an aside to a post on Illinois's declining to retroactively criminalize the sale of low-tar cigarettes, David Kopel notes:
My personal belief though, is that the major tobacco companies, including Philip Morris, have engaged in reprehensible and immoral conduct--specifically, by entering into the multistate compact with the state attorneys general. As detailed in a lawsuit by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, currently pending in federal district court, the compact creates a cartel which protects the major companies from price competition by smaller companies--even though the smaller companies were never accused of the supposed misconduct for which the attorneys general sued the larger companies.
A decent summary. At the link provided by Mr. Kopel, an editorial against the treaty is followed by a response from Iowa's Attorney General, Tom Miller:
However, at least three courts have rejected compact clause challenges to the MSA (e.g., Star Scientific Inc. v. Beales, 4th Circuit, 2002).
Googling on Findlaw, we find the relevant portion of the Beales decision:
The court ruled that Star Scientific lacked standing to challenge the Master Settlement Agreement under the Compact Clause because Star Scientific could not allege an injury that was "concrete and particularized," nor could it show any legal prejudice caused by the Master Settlement Agreement.
So Mr. Miller's characterization of the case as a rejection of the compact clause challenge is narrowly correct, but deeply unconvincing.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Hundred Flowers

Via Google News, I found an article this morning titled "Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica" -- on Al Jazeera.

I love the Internet.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Clausewitz (On War, Chapter XII) has this to say about pursuit of a defeated enemy:
But under any conceivable circumstances the fact holds good, that without a pursuit no victory can have a great effect, and that, however short the career of a victory may be, it must always lead beyond the first steps in pursuit...
Usually victory at the moment [of its realization], even if it is certain, is still as yet small and weak in its proportions, and would not rank as an event of any great positive advantage if not completed by a pursuit on the first day. Then it is... that the trophies which give substance to the victory begin to be gathered up.
Clausewitz's reasoning, though drawing on battlefield examples from evenly matched armies of the Napoleonic Wars, is as valid today. Considering the ongoing struggle in Iraq, where recent events have the tang of victory, shows what a colossal strategic mistake is being made in drawing down our troops in response.

This is the time to redouble our effort in Iraq, to increase the pace of operations still further against a weakened enemy, and to reap the advantages for whose growth our soldiers have toiled and bled. By drawing down our forces, we are pursuing not victory, but an ugly sort of draw -- a continuation of the current violence, perhaps at a slightly lower level.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Suppose you were the benevolent government of a wealthy first-world nation, and you wanted your poorer citizens to have better access to mortgages so they would be more likely to own homes. A natural way to do this would be to create a government agency (or two) for the purpose. Since you would be sensible enough to use market interest rates, you would let these agencies run like corporations, but you would provide them with capital and with a mandate.

Actually, rather than provide them with your own capital, you could just let it be known that you will provide security for their debts. Then they could borrow the capital from willing investors. There, that wasn't hard, was it?

Now the agencies begin to grow, which of course they must in order to perform their mandated task. And as they grow, they discover something interesting. Doing something no one else is doing is hard; but doing exactly the same as every other lender is very easy indeed. Not only easy, but -- thanks to the funding advantage you have given them -- highly profitable!

What funding advantage? Well, a national government's cost of borrowing is lower -- typically by 20-30 basis points -- than even the highest-rated bank's. Since those willing investors are so reassured by your promises of repayment, they will lend the agencies money more cheaply than they will to banks. So the agencies can compete directly with the banks, not innovating but doing exactly the average mix of business, and by doing so they can be more profitable than the banks can. How happy their executives must be!

But there's more: just by growing bigger and doing the same thing on a larger scale, your agencies can make still more profit. In fact, they can keep doing this as long as they are reasonably small compared to all the private sector banks put together. Congratulations -- you have now created big scary monsters. [Unless you have the misfortune to be Germany, whose banking sector looks like the final scenes of Pitch Black as the surviving nonstate banks blast off for foreign space.]

If you want to understand this in detail, try the Affordable Housing Institute blog [HT: Mickey Kaus], which details with links how the Big Scary Monsters have neglected their mandate and taken gigantic risks at taxpayer expense.


Capricious Leviathan

Kevin Drum is discussing secret laws and secret regulations:
I would just like to say — calmly for now — that I don't think this is right. If someone can explain to me why it is right, I'm all ears.
UPDATE: Responding to my original post, Orin Kerr points out that the secret TSA "law" in question
is actually a secret regulation. I'm not sure this is really any better, and might actually be worse, since I imagine it's a lot easier to promulgate a secret regulation than to pass a secret law.
In any case, apparently we have both secret regulations and secret laws. This does not help me to sleep easily at night.
I would urge everyone to follow this, which sounds curious as well as important. The libertarian right, and those calling for transparency from other governments, should be all over this.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Consider the following lines, spoken by Fredrickson in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [p. 64 in the paperback]:
"The Shock Shop, Mr. McMurphy, is jargon for the EST machine, the Electro Shock Therapy. A device that might be said to do the work of the sleeping pill, the electric chair, and the torture rack. It's a clever little procedure, simple, quick, nearly painless it happens so fast, but no one ever wants another one. Ever."
Does this, if true, necessarily imply that EST for nonmedical purposes is torture? I believe so. We do not need to understand the mechanism, once we know the effects.

If you had eleven "high-value" al-Qaeda operatives detained together, and you broke all their fingers one joint at a time, how many would "become cooperative"? I would guess roughly half. These are fanatical men, who may have come from privilege but have chosen hardship.

Waterboarding, because it works through terror rather than agony, has its defenders. But a look at the results should not embolden, but silence them. Ten out of ten detainees broke immediately under waterboarding; the eleventh did not experience it. That means that ten out of ten hard, experienced killers decided that it was the worst thing they had ever experienced.

Having to relinquish a tool because it works too well is a bitter pill. We should do it anyway.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hair of the Dog

The usually thoughtful Kevin Drum has put the cart before the horse and calls "giddap":
It's obvious that the "level playing field" [GM CEO Robert] Wagoner is talking about would include the government taking over healthcare costs for GM's employees. And presumably, the only way to do this would be for the government to also take over everyone else's healthcare costs as well. In other words, universal healthcare.
Yes, let's fix underfunded health benefit plans by... making them fifty times bigger! Why didn't I think of that? After all, it's worked so well for General Motors! And we, the taxpayers, will still have the additional satisfaction of extending healthcare to the unemployed, and to those already retired -- so our burden will be that much heavier than anything GM ever bore.

More generally, GM's real wages [including the value of its benefit promises] have proven to be higher than the value of the cars created. This is disastrous for those counting on those promises, and for anyone feckless enough to still own any GM stock. Of course they want to be bailed out. By the magic of government, we could possibly fund this, to save those harmed by their [mostly non-culpable] failure of foresight. For one company.

We can never do this for an entire country. What a society creates is its own to spend, and no more. [At present, we are living a couple percent in the red thanks to a flood of cheap money from China. Let us assume that this is not sustainable.] GM's system was broken: it made promises that could not be kept. But Germany's system is equally broken, and there will be no bailout for them. Why should America plunge lemming-like into the same trap?

Target Audience

For his defense, Saddam Hussein has chosen to be represented by "Ramzi" Clark, a former Attorney General [1967-8, under Lyndon Johnson]. Mr. Clark has drawn substantial criticism for this, but that is not terribly important. It is more valuable to understand why Mr. Hussein would choose Mr. Clark.

The answers can be seen in the defense strategy Mr. Clark has chosen -- namely, to deny the legitimacy of the trial court, and to assert at every turn moral equivalence between Mr. Hussein and the leaders, especially George Bush, who caused his overthrow.

As a courtroom defense, this is flatly demented. No one could believe that it minimizes the probability of a conviction. Therefore we deduce that Mr. Hussein does not aim for acquittal. He is arguing before the court of Iraqi and American public opinion.

Outreach to the latter audience partly explains the choice of Mr. Clark. As an American, and having held a post of great responsibility, he commands attention in America.

But Mr. Clark's nationality is also useful in Iraq. The spectacle of an American making claims of moral equivalence between Messrs. Hussein and Bush is far more convincing [to those willing to be convinced] than the same claims made by, say, a Belgian.

I can only surmise that Mr. Hussein's defense strategy is to attempt to prolong the trial beyond the lifetime of the prosecuting government. With Mr. Clark as his tool, he is using the trial to inveigh against the American occupation, and to sharpen any grievances Iraqis may hold.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Entitlement (II)

Back in March, I wrote [in part]:
Here is an idea whose time is, I think, fast approaching: some State will discontinue funding for university courses outside Science and Engineering.
... A supply of qualified technical graduates can be expected to be beneficial to a State's economy, encouraging insourcing of high-quality jobs (and the multiplier jobs that will accompany them). Eventually, some State will ask what societal purpose is served by other sorts of education.
It is time to revisit this idea. Via Stephen Green, we find a Washington Post editorial by Norman Augustine subtitled "Our Education System Isn't Ready for a World of Competition".
Today, high-technology firms have to be on the leading edge of scientific and technological progress to survive. Intel Corp. Chairman Craig Barrett has said that 90 percent of the products his company delivers on the final day of each year did not exist on the first day of the same year. To succeed in that kind of marketplace, U.S. firms need employees who are flexible, knowledgeable, and scientifically and mathematically literate.
But the U.S. educational system is failing in precisely those areas that underpin our competitiveness: science, engineering and mathematics. In a recent international test involving mathematical understanding, U.S. students finished 27th among the participating nations. In China and Japan, 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively, of undergraduates receive their degrees in science and engineering, compared with 32 percent in the United States.
Mr. Augustine's solution -- unsurprisingly, since he has been chosen by Congress to chair an investigative committee on the problem -- is more government promotion of science:

We recommended the recruitment of 10,000 new science and math teachers each year through the awarding of competitive scholarships. The skills of a quarter-million current teachers should be improved through enhanced training and education. We recommended establishing 25,000 competitive science, mathematics, engineering and technology undergraduate scholarships and 5,000 graduate fellowships.

To boost scientific and technological innovation, we recommended that the U.S. government increase research funding by 10 percent annually over the next several years, with primary attention devoted to the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and information sciences.

But this is not only expensive, but unnecessary. Rather than increase government funding for science and mathematics, we should first decrease our subsidy of economically unproductive pursuits. Mr. Augustine cannot or will not propose this, because his premises -- localized to science and mathematics, and focused on finding a need for more government intervention -- do not permit it.
But when the case has once been made, it will shift the terms of debate. Instead of thinking of Ward Churchill's "right" to retain his fraudulently obtained tenured sinecure, we will begin thinking of his entire department's "right" to a constant flow of State-subsidized students through its degree mill.
Neither professors nor their prospective students have any moral claim on us. There is no right, enumerated or otherwise, for anyone to be paid by society for tasks from which that society does not benefit. Let's start doing the things we all agree are necessary; and the first of these is to reward only those who are helping to move us forward.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Heresiarch

In the review I linked in my previous post, I found a link to an older review also by Kenneth Silber. Titled "Selfish Baby Universes," it describes Biocosm by James N. Gardner [a lawyer, we are told]:
The universe, in Gardner's telling, is "selfish" in the same metaphorical sense that genes are regarded as "selfish"; it is geared for self-replication. The Big Bang thus resulted from a Big Crunch in a previous universe. Our universe will end with a similar event, giving rise to one or more baby universes. Intelligent life arises in each universe, and eventually develops the ability to create new universes friendly to intelligent life.

But how did the cycle begin? Isn't there a gigantic chicken-and-egg problem? One might suppose the first universe containing intelligent life arose by accident, perhaps as part of an ensemble of universes that were mostly unfriendly to life. But Gardner regards this as an unsatisfying explanation. Rather, he proposes a notably strange idea. There may be a "closed timelike curve," a gravitational warping of space and time such that future events can influence the past. Thus, the universe may have been created by its own inhabitants!
Naturally, my first thought on reading this was of Stanislaw Lem. In "A New Cosmogony", the final section of the mind-altering A Perfect Vacuum, Lem describes almost the same theory:

What might a civilization that lasted millions of times longer do? The astrophysicists who dealt with such questions declared that such civilizations did nothing, seeing they did not exist.

What happened to them? The German astronomer Sebastian van Hoerner maintained they all committed suicide. And why not, if they are nowhere to be found! But no, replied Acheropolous. They are nowhere to be found? It is only that we do not perceive them, becaue they are already everywhere. That is, not they, but the fruit of their labor. [...] If one considers "artificial" that which is shaped by an active intelligence, then the entire universe that surrounds us is already articifial. [... where are] the titanic technologies of these beings who are supposed to surround us and constitute the starry firmanent? But this is a mistake caused by the inertia of the mind, since instrumental technologies are required only -- says Acheropolous -- by a civilization still in the embryonic stage, like Earth's. A billion-year-old civilization employs none. Its tools are what we call the Laws of Nature. Physics itself is the "machine" of such civilizations! [...] That "machine" is billions of years in the making...

There is the majority of Mr. Gardner's idea, planted in communist Poland in 1971. But before I could even reach my bookshelf, it occurred to me that I needed to consult His Master's Voice [1968]. This is one of Mr. Lem's most human novels, the story of a man who puzzles at an insoluble problem -- a lone indecipherable message from outer space -- until his faith in science, and even reason, founders. Towards the end, desperate theories are offered:
Thus, in this spirited picture, the stellar code was revealed to be a transmission sent into the sphere of our Universe -- from the Universe that came before it. The Senders, therefore, had not existed for at least thirty billion years. They had fashioned the "message" so well that it survived the annihilation of their cosmos; and their message, joining the processes of the succeeding creation, set in motion the evolution of life on the planets. We, too, were Their children...
Merging these two speculations, we obtain Biocosm.

Of course, these are not developed to book length. But a rich man may well spend as much on the decorations as a poor man spends on his house; and [with the possible exception of Jorge Luis Borges] no one has ever been richer in this way than Mr. Lem.

His most famous work is probably Solaris [1961], made into two movies. [Soderbergh's rendition, unappetizingly and inaccurately presented on the cover of the latest printing, is more faithful but less poetic than Tarkovsky's long dream.] In His Master's Voice, we are also treated to a brief and partial exegesis:
Let us suppose that biological evolution could take a double path: it could create separate organisms, and then, from them, intelligent beings; or it could create, on the other branch, biospheres that were "nonintelligent" but highly organized -- [...] one that in the course of a very long development would master even nuclear energy[...], not in the way that we mastered bomb or reactor technology, but in the way that our bodies "mastered" metabolism.
This is the merest fragment of Solaris, which also draws in the threads of Teilhard de Chardin's "Omega Point", of the meaning of identity [prefiguring today's science fiction puzzles about uploading], and of the process of scientific discovery.

Mr. Lem's intricate puzzles and tales of comic horror are given their freest rein in The Cyberiad, a loose collection of the adventures of the near-omnipotent "constructors" Klapaucius and Trurl. It is most famed for The Poem. Klapaucius says, of Trurl's Electronic Bard,
Have it compose a poem -- a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!!
And [a feat shared with translator Michael Kandel] it does.

My own favorite is a short, earlier novel, The Invincible [sadly, out of print]. The most linear of these books, it nonetheless tells a story of staggering and alien imagination. Reading anything by Mr. Lem is a voyage, propelled by intricate hypotheses, toward the outer reaches of a vast and perhaps incomprehensible universe. These are not books of science fiction, but adventures in metaphysics, dramatically humanized voyages of epistemology.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

What Do You Know?

Stanford Professor Lenny Susskind, a decent exemplar of the physicist's physicist [in the same sense as a "writer's writer"], has apparently written a mass-market book. The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design -- it sounds nice, until you gradually realize that almost none of the title's words are used with their usual meaning.

A "landscape", in the world of string theory, is a set of many universes, formed with different stable configurations of the "strings" which Mr. Susskind helped to invent -- and thus, at the level of our current observations, with different physical laws. Since many [i.e, incommensurately more than the number of atoms in our universe] such configurations are possible, it is more than likely that some would permit the development of life.

This allows Mr. Susskind to use the [widely accepted] weak anthropic principle to explain why our particular universe has physical constants which permit the formation of life. Rather than being calibrated by some Prime Mover [a process distastefully referred to as "fine-tuning" -- a distant cousin to the evolution-denying "intelligent design" of today's headlines], our cosmos is one of many, and since it happens to be observed, then it stands to reason it should be one of those where life can form.

Reviewing Mr. Susskind's book, Kenneth Silber notes, "Susskind may be right. However, he exhibits a confidence in his position that seems unwarranted, given the speculative nature of the material." This kind of confidence is apparently an occupational disease. The theory credited here to Mr. Susskind appears to have been inspired by another Stanford professor, Dmitri Linde, who in the early 1990's proposed a theory of "chaotic inflation" in which parts of the universe remain in a metastable inflationary state, while others coalesce into the relatively stationary environment of our cosmos. [In the inflating parts of the universe, space is rapidly expanding, so the extent of the inflationary domain continues to increase despite the splitting off of non-inflationary cosmoses.]

"I do not know whether the universe had a beginning," Mr. Linde famously said, "but I know it will have no end."

Guys, it's just some math, you wrote it down, you enjoyed it. I'm impressed -- but can we stop it with the knowing?

Friday, December 02, 2005

Blue Greens

The ongoing struggle over greenhouse gas emissions, as with other environmental issues, is peculiarly pernicious in that it is a struggle of ends -- between an Earth subdued by Man, and a circumscribed and earthbound Man -- masquerading as a bloodless exercise in Bayes Theory. Because neither side is honest about its desires, the battleground has spread to infect the whole fabric of science, a loss for which we are likely to pay dearly in time to come. There are other divisive environmental issues, but global warming is clearly primus inter pares, as well as being unique in this collateral damage. It's past time to show our colors.

Here are mine: First world countries represent our best chance of a cure for global warming, and it is better that they should grow wealthier to find the same. Developing countries will soon be the main source of greenhouse gases, and it is neither moral nor feasible to hold them back in the name of climate preservation. Poor countries, which are also disproportionately close to the Equator, are screwed either way; but the money spent on emissions targets would do far more if it were spent improving their lot [though of course, dragging them out of destitution would increase CO2 emissions].

It follows that in practice I am willing to do the following to prevent climate change:
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On another note, I would like to address anyone who believes that we should be acting now against global warming. I have just one question: Shall we have plentiful nuclear power?

A "yes" answer here shows a willingness to work within the constraints of the problem -- those being mostly six billion people who wish to live longer and better lives. It may be painful for those inculcated with Green thinking, but I hope many will practice saying it anyway.

A "no", conversely, means that the doctrinaire Green program is more important than the putative goal. Without nuclear power, nations will develop other sources. Wind and water power will provide a couple of drops, but the bucket will be filled with coal, then shale oil, then tar sands. [More extreme Greens will at this point start proposing punitive measures against these alternatives. It is fairly clear why this command-and-control environmentalism is undesirable.] Everyone can see these consequences -- they are far clearer than any likely climate change. Trying to wish them away simply marks you as a fantasist whom it is pointless to engage.

Support of nuclear power is a break with Green orthodoxy, and a blow to those who have spent the last twenty years demonizing it. [Do they still have regular summer brownouts on Long Island, by the way?] But it establishes a defensible position for you, showing a willingness to use the tools at hand for the problem you claim needs solving.

I imagine that there must be some plank of the anti-Green [magenta?] platform which Greens consider indefensible. I don't immediately see it myself.

[Update 5 December: in the comments, "longtime nuclear energy worker" James Aach points to a novel he has written and is making available for free, at]

Thursday, December 01, 2005

All in Your Graves

Is William T. Vollmann a major writer?

This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question. He has not shaped the art of fiction, like Pynchon or Gibson, or helped to define the terms of discourse for our times, like DeLillo. But he is not easily written off.

His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, is clearly dispensable -- a student work. Its pattern is reminiscent of the great Catch-22, which climbs recklessly through an ascending spiral of farce, tinged with madness and with tragedy. Mr. Vollmann attempts a darker and more pessimistic spiral, a descent into reasonless cruelty and waste; but he succeeds only in alienating the reader from his own words. The result a story without heroes, without motivations, without causes and effects, and most damningly, without relevance to the world we see around us daily. We gaze unflinchingly and unmoved on Mr. Vollmann's hideous vision.

The most worthwhile section of this novel is the brief allegory "World in a Jar", which is nearly self-contained and shares little with the rest of the novel. It may have been the nucleus around which You Bright and Risen Angels crystallized.

After this unpromising start, Mr. Vollmann seems to have improved. His "Seven Dreams", on the history of the European settlement of North America, are obsessively researched attempts to capture the alien thoughts and experiences of that long-ago collision. The difficulty for the modern reader is in determining whether Mr. Vollmann's speculations are accurate.

The main exemplar of this series (and the only one I have read) is the massive Fathers and Crows. This is, to a first approximation, the story of Father Jean Brebeuf's attempts to convert the Huron to Christianity; but that novel, told from both French and Indian perspectives, is embedded in the stories of Samuel de Champlain's explorations, and of the French settlement of Acadia in Newfoundland, and of the founding of the Jesuit order, and so on.

For a unifying presence, an anti-God, Mr Vollman uses the mythical monster GOUGOU [sic]:
GOUGOU waited at the bottom as GOUGOU had always been waiting, snapping His bloody beak, insinuating His stinging tentacles through the water like a net, peering unwinking through the greenish pillars of a bell cupola rising from the back of a greenish seashell...
His writing is compellingly physical -- he spares no detail on the sufferings of scurvy, of cold and hunger, and most memorably, of the interminable tortures in which Huron and Haudenosaunee alike delighted. Certainly this brings the past to life, but in a circumscribed way.

It could be complained that Mr. Vollmann is unfairly dismissive of the Europeans, who are often depicted as ineffectual dreamers, victorious only through their firepower (and with no mention of the civilization which made that possible, and the values and constraints by which it prospered). De Poutrincourt [founder of Acadia] is certainly portrayed as a buffoon, de Champlain nearly so.

But it cannot be said that Mr. Vollmann favors the natives. As narrator, he passes no judgement on the events he depicts; but his stark portrayal of unremitting savagery, worse than anything to which beasts might aspire, fills the reader with relief and joy at the death of that culture. Whether this response is historically accurate, only those who have achieved an expertise comparable to Mr. Vollmann's can tell.

C. S. Lewis's Screwtape advises that a "patient",
... if properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
This lopsided sort of reality has to date been Mr. Vollmann's crippling weakness, keeping him earthbound. Perhaps he has improved: Europe Central [twenty blessed percent lighter than Fathers and Crows] has won the National Book Award. Unfortunately, the judges may simply limp on the same side as Mr. Vollmann, so I suppose I am 800 pages away from knowing.

[Extended after first posting. HT: Tyler Cowen.]