Reading in Unprecedented Times

At Christmastime of 2020, I reread Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. I wanted to find out whether reading it during these “unprecedented times” would be different from just reading it or “reading it for pleasure”—not that many people regard the 18th century as the Pleasure Dome of literature. For the same reason, I reread Poe’s “Mask of the Red Death.”

The experiment was idiotic. Of course there’d be a difference. When is the reader not implicated in what he reads or the perceiver in what he perceives? There are even a few scientists here and there who get this. Time, circumstance, intellectual disposition: these and much else always impinge. I had just spent an entire semester shouting through a face diaper at students so thoroughly masked-up that they all might as well have been stagecoach robbers, each of them deprived of every necessary semantic cue that the face, of all the body’s many parts, has especially been entrusted with delivering: irony, humor, high seriousness, name it. This meant nothing for my little experiment? Of course it did.

But it is important to remember that material circumstances alone no more made my eyes move across the page than they made Defoe’s and Poe’s quills move across the paper. It may be that “Men are as the time is,” as the bastard Edmund said in King Lear. But men and women nevertheless have agency. They can refuse to let their thinking be dominated by the news cycle or by these “unprecedented times.” 

That is to say, all of us can make an effort not to be as the times are. If we cannot step outside the tyrannizing present, we can certainly resist the reach of its presumptive scepter. It is an ancient dictum attributable, I believe, to Cicero that a liberal education should help us do just this.

And it seems to me that “in these difficult times” we adults should be about as rebellious, or at least as skeptical, as we can be. I don’t mean to throw seriousness aside. We do well to cultivate both seriousness and irony and to permit the useful siege of contraries they afford us. But there should be plenty of room to subject all things to rational doubt, including the pronouncements of “experts” and the unexamined proposition that we are living in “unprecedented times.”

If we are living in unprecedented times, the reason is that all times are unprecedented. What remains constant, as near as I can tell, is our inability to “rise to the occasion” that a given moment with all its perplexities is characterized by. And the reason for this is pretty clear: the human predicament is something that we humans aren’t equal to. It is bigger than our thoughts about it; there are more things in it than are dreamt of in our philosophy. You may say, if you like, that we had 1667 and 1919 to help us prepare for 2020 and that some times clearly are precedented. Well and good. But none of us suffered London’s plague or the Spanish ’flu, and few of us have the wits to distrust the “experts” who think they did, each of them eager to step in and tell us to hole up in our domiciles until every Mom & Pop shop shutters and every teenager begins to show suicidal tendencies. The problem with us, ever and anon, is that we are neither as good nor as smart as we need to be. Certainly, very few of us are wise and courageous enough for the risks and perils of this life or for the trials that scarcely give us a moment’s reprieve. Paul Simon: 

And when they say 
That you’re not good enough 
Well, the answer is, you’re not.

One reason we can’t “rise to the occasion” is that there are no shortcuts to any such rising, and yet we are incorrigibly prone to take whatever shortcut the nearest cliché offers us: “It takes all of us.” “Together we’ll get through this.” “Science is real.”

Jolly good for science, but so are ghosts. Exactly what pressing issue does the schoolmarmish yard sign needlessly reminding everyone else of an obvious reality—or, what is worse, telling everyone else what to think—put to rest? Nothing that fits on a sign or a bumper sticker or the back of a power forward’s warm-up jersey absolves us from the unrelenting demands of careful deliberation. 

Another and more important reason we cannot “rise to the occasion” is that, like Lear, we know ourselves only slenderly. We no longer have a serviceable doctrine of Man, an anthropology at hand capable of helping us know ourselves better than slenderly. So we set about to “end racism,” as the moral philosophy elaborated on the wide receiver’s football helmet instructs us to do.     

We have handed thinking over to the keepers of prefabricated thought: that is, to the cliché mongers, the custodians of “best practices,” who can do nothing for us except identify which Lives Matter and selectively apply the My-Body, My-Choice rule.

And then what? Is racism like smallpox or salmonella? Is salmonella like salmonella? I would prefer there be no racism. But I am not for solving that problem if solving it means we’ve simply crossed something off the To Do list of history’s forward march and then moved on to the next problem that’s been scheduled for solving. To do so would mean we have utterly misunderstood ourselves and the problem, and misunderstanding a problem often has the nasty unintended consequence of exacerbating rather than solving it. What if “end racism” means “send racists to prison” or “kill racists”? If the ism you wish to put an end to exists only in the ists—as it obviously does—you’ve got yourself a problem that won’t “take all of us.” It will take only those who hold the rope that snaps the neck—that plus the racially unaffected power to decide which racist hearts should stop beating. The Deciders are never the ists guilty of isms. They’re the moral version of the political economist who, lacking a proper understanding of Man, believes that ending scarcity will put an end to war. Try that one out right now in corridors of muscovite power. Try it out in the corridors of Yankee Doodle power. 

But here we are anyway: whatever razor-sharp cliché that fits on the placard has cut from our stooped shoulders the very burden of thought by which we understand ourselves to be creatures who do more than eat, sleep, and die. We have handed thinking over to the keepers of prefabricated thought: that is, to the cliché mongers, the custodians of “best practices,” who can do nothing for us except identify which Lives Matter and selectively apply the My-Body, My-Choice rule—a rule, it should be noted, according to which a “pregnant person” afraid of having to become a “chest feeder” can order up an abortion, but a kid who just wants to play Little League baseball can’t spit into the pocket of his glove unless he submits to the “public health expert” wielding a “vaccine” for which there are no long-term data. What the aborning shortstop gets from the “expert” isn’t thought but a substitute for it: approved phrases looping continuously, as in our Paper of Record: “life-saving”; “safe and effective.” This poor child of God has been turned into a lab rat in stirrups. For all the subtlety around him, he might as well be designing flyers in some DEI office. Is it any wonder that in short order he’ll be a sociology major unable to distinguish between Scheiß and shinola?


Not long after the reading experiment of 2020, I embarked upon what proved to be another, this one less idiotic. I re-read three American novels and, being at least to some extent as the times are, I was naturally thinking about their relevance “during these difficult times” when we “face many challenges” and therefore really need to “pull together.”

One was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887), a novel that, if it went away tomorrow, would give us that tremendous sensation that comes from addition by subtraction, like when a horrible colleague retires or dies. Bellamy did not intend this utopian novel to be dystopian (or a script for a horror flick), but a dystopian novel is what it is. It is also a bad one that in its day inexplicably sold like Norelco razors on Black Friday. 

Reading Quote
Human nature will follow a man to the very locked and padded chambers of rehab.

The year is 2000, the place Boston, and there aren’t any problems left to solve. Not even the weather is a problem. The stupid (and diverse!) inefficiency of 3,000 umbrellas has been remedied: now there’s one big umbrella that, when necessary, covers the sidewalks like the retractable roof on a football stadium—for it ill-befits creatures of progress to be inconvenienced by something as impertinent as Nature. It is “considered an extraordinary imbecility,” a badly imagined silly young woman intimates, “to permit the weather to have any effect on the social movements of the people.” So in Bellamy’s Boston, you needn’t worry that you forgot your umbrella. Phone chargers weren’t around then, but rest assured that Boston would have solved the problem of the forgotten phone charger as well, which some of us solve by the less expensive and more elegant strategy of not having a phone in the first place, thereby saving Boston the trouble.

Labor and production? Solved. Consumption? Solved. Crime? Solved. Facing the bother of having to leave your house to attend church (which has been reduced to preaching only)? Solved. Scarcity has also been solved—by conveniently being unimagined and therefore kept off the table. And some bad things are good—eugenics, for example, which would be acceptable in America for many decades to come. Social comity has reached the height of a new low: The family around which the story revolves has no neighbors, no relatives, and no nieces or nephews or grandchildren that we know of, such being the general circumstances of so atomistic a world as Bellamy imagines. But we may be certain that in the social as in the domestic sphere there is no strife. 

Contrast this sunny depiction with Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852), the second novel I reread. It is not so sanguine on these or any matters. Its narrator, Miles Coverdale, says that “persons of marked individuality—crooked sticks, as some of us might be called—are not exactly the easiest to bind up into a faggot.” In Blithedale “young or old, in play or in earnest, man is prone to be a brute.” But then in his own ironic bid at a utopian novel Hawthorne had not anticipated Bellamy’s well-regulated Boston, where, as Eliot would later put it, man had at last escaped

From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Blithedale, you might say, doesn’t assume that a drunk can get sober simply by moving to a dry county run by a confederacy of Carrie Nations. Human nature will follow a man to the very locked and padded chambers of rehab.

Bellamy, by contrast, has no patience for anything as recalcitrant as human nature, so he scraps it. We are told in a famous passage predicated on a whopping logical fallacy that that moral agent, man, is actually no more than an insensate rosebush: in “olden times” he was “planted in a swamp, watered with black bog water, breathing miasmic fogs by day, and chilled with poison dews at night.” The fix for this circumstance, this darkness outside that admits of none within, is articulated, interestingly enough, by a preacher, Dr. Barton: “So it came about that the rosebush of humanity was transplanted, and set in sweet, warm, dry earth, where the sun bathed it, the stars wooed it, and the south wind caressed it. Then it appeared that it was indeed a rosebush.” 

In such a manner has the expert—not pastor, not mister but Dr. Barton—spoken. He is as well-meaning as Hawthorne’s expert philanthropist, Mr. Hollingsworth, who thinks he can rehabilitate criminals—and whom Hawthorne depicts as intolerable: a man with a “heart on fire with his own purpose, but icy for all human affection.” The Do-Gooder, Hawthorne suggests, forgetting human nature, will more often than not turn out to be a wrecking ball. The difference between these two novelists is that Hawthorne recognizes the wreckage; Bellamy regards the pile of rubble as a monument of Progress.

The third novel I reread was Moby Dick (1851), in which Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, confesses that aboard the doomed Pequod he was a pretty uninspired whale spotter. “Let me make a clean breast of it here,” he says, “and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I—being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude,—how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders, ‘Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.’” 

The “problem of the universe”—interestingly cast in the singular—calls to mind William James’ distinction in The Varieties of Religious Experience between Sin and sins. Whereas “sins” in the plural can be squared like items on a ledger or cleared away like clutter on a desk, “Sin” in the singular and spelled with an upper-case S is of a different order. It is a metaphysical problem; it is a condition of the soul (what James calls the “sick soul”) that isn’t susceptible of balancing or tidying-up.

Let Bellamy again provide the contrast. For Bellamy, who forgot his Calvinism, there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as “the problem of the universe,” for admitting of a Problem would shut down all attempts to solve anything. In Bellamy’s technocratic utopia there are only “problems,” and man, being the problem-solving animal he is, solves them. He is corrigible. He lives in precedented times. He is not depraved, as his distant Puritan forebears thought, but perfectible, as his more recent forebears believed and were inexplicably certain of. And it doesn’t “take all of us.” It takes only the planners—who, by the way, plan to be in charge. 

The news gets better for those who have abandoned the depravity that Hawthorne and Melville took for granted. It turns out that for Bellamy man solves his problems quite easily: “nothing could be more simple,” Bellamy’s mouthpiece, Dr. Leete, keeps saying whenever asked how he and his expert co-planners cleared this or that social hurdle. Find those parts in the machinery of society that need adjusting and make the necessary adjustments, as if life is a chainsaw that runs poorly because the high screw on the carburetor is off by a quarter turn. Nothing could be more simple than turning a screw.


One of the really happy coincidences in American literature is how uncannily Dr. Leete and his fellow planners anticipate a man who was just around the corner in American history: In the first decade of the 20th century that dark wry soul who wrote The Education of Henry Adams would say—without any reference to Bellamy, mind you—that “Boston had solved the universe; or had offered and realized the best solution yet tried. The problem was worked out.”

But then Adams was an ironist of the first water. If Hawthorne could have opined to Adams over cigars that we are all crooked sticks not easily bound together into a faggot, Adams would certainly have agreed. But he might have gone further and insisted that all the sticks had fallen off a corkscrew willow. Remember that Adams, notwithstanding his manifest successes, is our great exemplar of failure, the skeptic who couldn’t manage to find anything in his Harvard education to be bubbly about. The men of his generation, he said, within ten years of their commencement had “killed one another by scores in the act of testing their college conclusions.” Adams was dubious about “the facts of moral evolution”; “with Heaven knew how many Puritans and Patriots behind him” he had “an education that had cost a civil war.”

How interesting, then, that Bellamy’s Boston of 2000, all chesty and self-assured, had forgotten that Winthrop’s City Upon A Hill, to its great and everlasting shame, couldn’t light upon a way to end slavery without bloodshed. You expect Dr. Leete (“Dr. Elite” would not be an inappropriate nickname) to step in and say that “nothing could be more simple” than to outlaw chattel slavery and end racism. Those two problems couldn’t be any more difficult than turning a screw or milling a faggot of crooked sticks into two-by-fours. 

But the idea of milling wood brings up yet another problem. If you read  Looking Backward you can’t help but notice that in Bellamy’s Boston no one seems to know anything about anything, including which trees are best suited for the mill. There are many regrettable features of this utopia—no children, no old people, no sense of natural limits, no lazy people, not a one who is poor by choice (everyone makes the same income, which of course is determined by the State)—but the greatest idiocy that Boston of 2000 is guilty of is state-mandated specialization. From each according to his assignment, to each according to his predetermined need. 

But in a division of labor so highly reticulated as Boston’s no one can be free because no one can be equal to his own needs—unless his needs can be reduced to the one thing he’s been appointed to do. This is fine for the cobbler who needs nothing but soles and heels, but even a shoemaker needs beer and pretzels on a Friday night. Bostonians in AD 2000, however, don’t even feed themselves. The apparent drudgery of preparing your own dinner, like all other “labor problems,” has been solved—that is, handed over to specialists who cook for everyone but for no one in particular. 

And so what bliss it must be in the aborning Taylorized world not to have to stand in your own kitchen and smell an onion sautéing in butter or season and smoke a brisket in the precise way that you in particular like it. 

No: Adams could in no wise be sanguine about Boston’s—his or Bellamy’s or anyone’s—solving the universe. The universe consists of people more like crooked sticks than moveable rosebushes; they are perpetually bedeviled by rather than exempted from human nature. It stalks them as much to Boston as to Blithedale. And lo! there it is again on the Pequod.


Romance broadly understood was out of favor by the time Bellamy set about to dramatize that apparently deathless impulse of the Progressive, which is to assume proprietorship of the future—and to do so without asking permission of those who will share it with him. And so it can’t come as much of a surprise that the likes of Hawthorne and Melville, forebears both, didn’t even make a dent in Bellamy. Who, planting his flag in a chimerical future and claiming it for himself, could have much use for the prescience of, say, a Captain Ahab, who, having contemplated the nature of Man and the cannibalism of the sea, could do aught but despair of the grand schemes that The Planners put on offer? 

There is no steady unretracing progress in this life [Ahab soliloquized]; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: —through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then skepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.

So says that “ungodly godlike man” who, if he admitted of anything in this life, admitted of mystery. What a shame that Boston couldn’t have had a crack at him. What a shame that Boston couldn’t have had a crack at the uncooperative because improperly managed sea that in the end, old Ahab was snatched into in an instant—the mysterious and unknowable sea that then “rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

In our own day, as with good reason some of us rebel against the tyranny of the news cycle with its Great Resets and its schemes to Build Back Better—when most of us understand (at least those of us with onions and kitchens) that it’s already difficult enough to save split buttercream or a separated aioli sauce, much less solve the universe in good Bostonian fashion—we do well to consider the implications of a totally Bellamized world. Its end game, the telos of that future that the powerful maniacs are attempting to usher in, is nothing less than despair, which our older writers depicted as a giant. “To reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever ‘model’ we use),” said Wendell Berry some time ago, “is to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale.” This, he said, “is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.” And let us not forget John Crowe Ransom, who put his finger on the contradiction at the heart of those schemes that would carry us beyond change: if the progressivist’s Utopia “were practicable, really,” he wrote, “and if the progressivist should secure it, he would then have to defend it from further progress, which would mean his transformation from a progressivist into a conservative. Which is unthinkable.” 

Life carried beyond change is dull; life carried beyond redemption is horrifying. It is not life at all but its opposite. Berry again: “To treat life as less than a miracle”—as Hawthorne and certainly Melville manifestly did not—“is to give up on it.” 

In these “unprecedented times” during which we propose (among many other schemes) to dam up a ’flu behind masks, we reenact a farce of the recent past when it was assumed that the AIDS virus could be contained in a sheepskin sock. Not with crooked sticks it can’t. Man, then as now, is not a carburetor but a conundrum. He may have problems, and some of those problems—the ones that require a quarter-turn of the screw with a special tool—may be solvable, but he remains a Problem. The distinction and indeed the difference between “problems” and “Problem” brook no technocratic scheme. Technique can do nothing about a metaphysical condition. Better to think of yourself as Ishmael on the masthead than as Dr. Leete in the planning room, lest in the name of science and progress you fall into a superstition more damaging than the snake-handler who takes a pair of fangs to the forearm. “We have assumed that all problems merely lead to solutions,” said Berry. That assumption is “an article of pathological faith.”