Author Archives: B. D. McClay

About B. D. McClay

B.D. McClay is senior editor of The Hedgehog Review.

The Art of the Possible

Detail from “The Effects of Good and Bad Government,” Caleb Ives Bach (1985).

What is “reality”? One answer: If I punch the wall, I hurt myself; if I step out the window, I fall. These are the principles I can accommodate myself to or manipulate or (for a short, inglorious period) choose to defy for some doomed reason or another.

Another answer comes from the first: Reality sets the bounds of the possible, the terms of debate, the imaginative limits we need to work under. Thus for politics, that art of the possible, reality says that there are winners and losers, that on certain issues, maybe all issues, we’re dealing with a zero sum game; your health or theirs, your safety or theirs, your children or theirs. There’s only so much space, so many chairs, so much goodwill to go around. Everybody’s hands are tied, no one is ever really responsible.

I’ll admit, in this second sense, I find I’m tired of reality, a shifting and twisting declaration of what cannot be argued with or challenged that comes down to things are as good as they can be, they stand to get worse if you agitate about that fact too much, and perceived reality is the only reality worth discussing (if you feel your hands are tied, does it matter whether or not they are?). Leibniz proposes in his Theodicy that the best of all possible worlds requires some of us to do evil, to fail, and to struggle. In the grandest understanding of space and time, if all could be encompassed and understood, that might be true enough. Politically, however, it’s a little much to swallow. Continue reading

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Monumental Woes

Unite the Right rally attendees. Picture taken by author.

No matter how ready you think you are to see an actual Klansman, you aren’t. Not that the Klansman is easy to see. Standing on tiptoe several rows back in the crowd, I can glimpse some of the white robe, which is more than enough for me. Someone else tells me that when she got close enough to see she began to cry. It sounds dramatic, she adds, apologetically.

The Klansmen—around fifty of them—are here in Charlottesville on an early July Saturday to protest the imminent removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and the renaming of the respective parks that contained them from Lee to Emancipation and from Jackson to Justice.

For them, this event is a sign of their decline. Back in 1921, a few months before the statue of Jackson that’s overlooking this whole affair was unveiled, the local paper proudly announced that “the fiery cross, symbolic of the Isvisible [sic] Empire and of the unconquerable blood of America, cast an eerie sheen upon a legion of white robed Virginians as they stood upon hallowed ground and renewed the faith of their fathers.… The Ku Klux Klan has been organized in this city.” Their members were, as the article says, “Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men.”

But what is the Klan now? An image of itself, surely. These people aren’t community leaders by any stretch. At first glance, the entire struggle now is over images: statues, white hoods, and Confederate flags. Removing the statues is as symbolic as keeping them—a gesture toward Charlottesville’s black population that seems to fall just short of actual material aid. (In fact, though it hasn’t dominated the news, the city has also passed an equity package, which, among other things, has dedicated around four million dollars to developing the African American Heritage Center, public housing, and educational opportunities.)

Still, there’s an undeniable electric shock that comes from seeing a Klansman; the image has power. There’s something real here, you think. Those white robes still have power.

There’s something real here was precisely what I didn’t think about a month later, when I first started watching a live video of Unite the Right ralliers preparing to march across UVA grounds with torches. The Unite the Right is here, like the Klan, to protest the removal of the monuments, and to agitate for “white rights.”

If anything, I expected one of the fidgeting young men—maybe the one with a tiny swastika pin on his polo shirt—to ask himself, “What am I doing here?” and take off. The situation is undeniably comic. But as they continue to march with their risibly misappropriated bamboo Tiki torches chanting, “You will not replace us” (and, sometimes, “Jews will not replace us”), they quickly become less funny. When they surround the woman who is recording the video I’m watching and my screen goes black, they’re not funny at all.

The next day, many of the Unite the Right ralliers show up at Emancipation Park carrying little wooden shields. I snap a picture of one man with a shield that says DEUS VULT in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other. When the rally is ordered to disperse practically before it can even start, one rally attendee begins to yell at white counter-protestors: “Y’all are all hypocrites!” He makes eye contact with me as he says it. Given the other options on the table, there are worse things.

These people, too, don’t seem altogether real. More dangerous, to my eyes, are the private militia members who have come to the rally heavily armed and looking ready for combat. They view themselves, as one tells me, as the self-appointed keepers of the peace. But one of the kids behind a wooden shield is James Alex Fields, and in a few hours he’ll ram a car into a crowd of people on Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall, killing one counter-protestor, thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer, and injuring nineteen others. It doesn’t get more real than that. Continue reading

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Two Cultures, At Least

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this year, connoisseurs of higher-education horror stories were introduced to Simon Newman, the erstwhile president of Mount St. Mary’s University. Descending on this small, Catholic liberal-arts college from the world of private equity, Newman made a few things clear: It was too Catholic and too “liberal arts.” He referred to some students as “Catholic jihadis” and—according to one tenured faculty member he’d fired—proclaimed that “Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.”

That’s not why Simon Newman made the news. He landed there because he’d tried to weed out students who could turn out to be low-performers—before those students had a chance to perform well or badly. Because Newman illustrated his thinking by comparing students to bunnies that needed to be killed, and because he responded to public criticism by firing tenured faculty, he found himself national news.

How does a small Catholic liberal-arts school end up with someone so unsuited to its particular mission? Why was someone from the world of private equity presumed to be so immediately suitable to the task? The answer lies in the kind of people who made up the board of Mount St. Mary’s. They, too, came from that kind of world. It is, to them, the real world of sensible people. Less important: Catholic education, the institution of tenure, the mission of a liberal-arts college, or the obligations an institution has toward struggling students.

But it’s also a truism, even to people who disapprove of Newman’s actions, that his is the real world of sensible people—that (as a friend said to me while the story was unfolding) in dismissing liberal-arts education, Newman wasn’t saying anything untrue. Even if the liberal arts (or tenure, or Catholic education, or students) are the important things, they can’t survive on their own. They require a sensible overseer. And that overseer cannot come from within the university. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: April 8, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“In Defence of Minor Poets,” Stephen Burt
“Not all the stars shine equally; not all the stars are visible all the time (there are some you can’t see from the Northern Hemisphere), and not all are equally important to young astronomers’ sense of the sky. But they are there; they are numerous, too.”

“Freedom and Intellectual Life,” Zena Hitz
“The image of the intellect as a refuge from the world is rare nowadays, but its history is distinguished.”

“The Imaginary Suicide of Mrs. Darling,” Elyse Byrnes
“The point is, yes—the Little Mermaid stabs herself in the heart after the prince marries someone else. Why would you read a child this story? Two reasons: one, because life is hard and the earlier they learn that the better for them. Two, because life is hard and the earlier you learn that the better for you.”

“Can an Outsider Ever Truly Become Amish?,” Kelsey Osgood
“The wishful Amish have dedicated internet forums (ironically) on which they write with the feverishness of the unrequited lover about their long-held desire to get close to the aloof objects of their spiritual desire.”

“What I’ve learned reciting poems in the street,” Gary Dexter
“No. 2 was Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott.’ That can’t be right. Only one person has ever asked me for ‘The Lady of Shalott.’”

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Things to Do Instead of Watching the Debate Tomorrow

Detail from John William Waterhouse’s Diogenes (1882). Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from John William Waterhouse’s Diogenes (1882). Wikimedia Commons.

It’s one of those facts that you learn when you’re young and that stick with you in some strange, character-forming way: Ancient Athenians would round up reluctant voters with a rope dipped in red paint.  What a clever way to force citizens to exercise their civic duty and, at the same time, shame them for their reluctance to do so! Citizenship is good! I would be an involved citizen (surely) when I reached my majority (I would not).

Citizenship is good, but the relationship between citizenship and, say, the theater of our seemingly endless pre-primary debates is probably a little dubious. When I asked a friend if she wanted to watch Monday’s town hall with me, she shot me down on the grounds she’d given up drinking. This was a good argument and I have taken some instruction from it.

So skip the debate! Even Donald Trump is doing it. And in that spirit, here are some things you can do instead of watching the Republican debate tomorrow:

Play a game in which you round up reluctant Athenian voters. I don’t know why this game exists, but, let me tell you, the controls are really frustrating and bad. Anyway—it’s an option.

To continue the Athens theme, read The Knights. This is a fun and delightful comedy by Aristophanes about a people wooed by a destructive demagogue. It’s relaxing to read literature about problems that are entirely in the past.

Learn a language. These debates last what? Five hours? A day? That’s surely enough time to get down the basics of German pronouns or something. Or hey, Attic Greek! People spoke that thousands of years ago, so hard could it be? πάθει μάθος, friends.

Fingerpainting. Jackson Pollock was born on January 28. Remember him.

Watch that movie, the bleak Scandinavian thing that you’ve been meaning to watch but not really because you already think about death enough and don’t need to be reminded of it at this particular time and also your glasses are bad and the subtitles are hard to read. You know the one.

Deep clean your fridge. This is a good way to spend a lot of time and gain some crucial self-knowledge.

Drink anyway. I probably will.

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Sluttery and Shakespeare

From Swynfen Jervis’s A Dictionary of the Language of Shakspeare [sic] (1868)

From Swynfen Jervis’s A Dictionary of the Language of Shakspeare [sic] (1868)

In one of my favorite novels, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952), a chic lady anthropologist declares to Mildred, the spinster heroine, “I’m such a slut.” Helena, the anthropologist in question, means that she is untidy, in the same way that the fashion writer Katharine Whitehorn would use the term about eleven years later in a column for the Observer:

Anyone in doubt, however, can ask herself the following questions. Have you ever taken anything back out of the dirty laundry basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? How many things are there, at this moment, in the wrong rooms—cups in the study, boots in the kitchen—and how many of them are on the floor of the wrong room?

Could you try on clothes in any shop, any time, without worrying about your underclothes? And how, if at all, do you clean your nails? Honest answers should tell you, once and for all, whether you are one of us: the miserable, optimistic, misunderstood race of sluts.

But is Helena also being a little cute about this, and deliberately using “slut” in a somewhat archaic way? Re-reading the novel, I found it hard to tell. She certainly spends a lot of her time in the scene sharply distinguishing herself from Mildred—that while Mildred is frumpy, probably stupid, unmarried, and probably taking up more than her fair share of space, Helena is glamorous, intellectual, married, and can’t be expected to buy her own toilet paper (she uses Mildred’s instead). She will mention in their next conversation that she is thinking of leaving her husband for another man—so she wants Mildred to think of her as someone at least slightly above conventional sexual mores.

There are ways to get closer to answering this question, like studying the newspapers around 1952 for uses of “slut,” consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, or looking through other Pym novels to see if other characters use it. Wikipedia also informs me that “slut” in the untidy sense pops up in Bridget Jones’s Diary—so to problems of temporal shifts in meaning, we can add the differences between American English and British English.

What we can tell is that it has always meant both things. Even Katharine Whitehorn uses it both ways. (And many words for an untidy woman also imply promiscuity: See “slattern.”) So it will depend a little on what you want to think of Helena—if she is an intentionally malicious person, or just a careless one. Since I dislike Helena, toilet-paper leech that she is, I suspect her of cuteness; but I can admit that the evidence is thin, and that perhaps after this blog post comes up I will get a nice email informing me that this question is not really ambiguous at all if you, like the email writer, are a scholar of mid-twentieth-century English spinster literature. Continue reading

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The Critical Fate of the Major Novel

9780374239213I read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity in one sitting: It came in the mail, I opened it up, and despite frequent breaks and every intention of doing something else with my time, I ended up finishing the novel before the next day broke.

This isn’t a ringing endorsement of Purity as a book. It is, I would say, an interesting mess. It has a huge plot in which everyone ends up connected to everyone else, but when the pieces come together, it’s not exciting—just over-determined. Franzen has continued his commitment to “transparent access” (i.e. uninteresting prose). The result is a certain predictability and a sentence-by-sentence flatness.

The Franzen news cycle has, by this point, come and gone, at least until Franzen himself gives another press interview and (inevitably) says something a little ill-considered (or at least easily misrepresented). But it reminded me of the cycle of coverage that surrounded another “big” novel this year—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There, too, the coverage ended up being linked to Ishiguro’s biography and to a remark he made in an interview about concerns that the book would be viewed as “fantasy.”

And, much like Purity, The Buried Giant was not a book that lent itself to an easy “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” It, too, was an interesting mess. It attempted a lot of things and failed at some of them. The best reviews were those that set aside the task of delivering some sort of definitive verdict to consider the novel as a complex whole. And this has been the case, too, with Purity. (For good reviews in the sense I mean, I would recommend Lydia Kiesling at the Millions and Elaine Blair at Harper’s, along with James Meek at the London Review of Books.)

An “interesting mess”–type book is a challenge for a reviewer because, as a category, it resists the somewhat more headline-friendly declaration that the novel is the “best yet,” the “worst yet,“ the “most challenging yet,” or the “most disappointing yet.”  Or you can sidestep this kind of difficulty in order to talk about the author. Or you can simply make your declaration anyway. Continue reading

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With Friends Like These

Students at work and at play, from the 1960 Shimer College student handbook. Wikimedia Commons.

Students at work and at play. From the 1960 Shimer College student handbook. Wikimedia Commons.

Here are a few things we all know to be true. The liberal arts and liberal education are in peril and require defending. The liberal arts are useful, but no one will say it. The liberal arts, defined loosely as something that is neither STEM nor vocational training, are relevant, necessary for the job of life, but need to be repackaged and loosened from the death grip of academics. Academics are afraid of change, the real world, and spend their time doing stupid tasks—slaves, depending on whom you ask, to critical theory or to tedious scholarly endeavors. They are all, in this story, Middlemarch’s Edward Casaubon, except some of them also hate white men.

We know these things to be true because they are told to us by the many, many professional defenders of liberal arts education. “How can liberal education be saved? By becoming truly, enduringly useful,” says Damon Linker at The Week. Liberal education teaches you how to write, speak, and learn, says Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of Liberal Education. Writing back in 2008, Alain de Botton dreamed a dream of a useful liberal education: “I dream of an ideal new sort of institution which could welcome Montaigne, or indeed Nietzsche, Goethe, or Kierkegaard—a University of Life that would give students the tools to master their lives through the study of culture rather than using culture just for the sake of passing an exam.” Then he made this dream a terrible reality.

Each of these writers is a voice crying out in the wilderness, but apparently remains unable to hear all of the others. But their appeals to the language of usefulness and of work are not as rare as they think. Very few people would argue that a liberal education is valuable because it is useless. So they are really affirming a fairly popular view.

More curious, however, is that none of these defenders of the liberal arts appears to look at a pamphlet or an advertisement produced by a marketing campaign at a college. Every one of these I have ever seen emphasize precisely the sort of things that the above defenders of liberal education view as necessary. The usefulness of a liberal education is everywhere proclaimed. Yet, the liberal arts are still in peril. One is tempted to think their advice is not very good. Continue reading

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