What We Read — November 2021 | Editors


RR Reno

The poet Czesław Miłosz left Soviet-dominated Poland in 1951. Two years later he published The captive mind. He had been a “man of the left” and had come to terms with the Communist regime in Poland imposed by Russian tanks. But over time, he became demoralized by the need to practice what he calls “Ketman,” the practice of external conformity to reigning orthodoxies while harboring internal heterodoxies. I read The captive mind decades ago. But I picked it up again this fall, as Miłosz describes a soft, insidious totalitarianism that is much more relevant to our current situation than the harsh gulags portrayed by Solzhenitsyn. The main chapters of the book describe different justifications for complicity, some of which spotlight the inane baby boomers in academia accompanying the Woke Revolution, punishing anyone who dares to oppose.

Mark Bauerlein
Contributing editor

John Dortmunder is one of the remarkable creations of American detective fiction. He was born in 1970 in the novel The Hot Rock, written by Donald Westlake and adapted into a feature film two years later with Robert Redford and George Segal. He appeared again, along with a regular company of other thieves, in thirteen other novels and a batch of short stories. Westlake is best known for his Parker novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, which are awesome in their own way. But while Parker is cold, shrewd, brutal, and murderous (when he has to be), Dortmunder prefers to avoid conflict, getting in and out of a robbery without violence, noise, and conspiracy against his colleagues. He is calm, brooding, pessimistic, defeatist. He is afraid of the police. He much preferred to lie and fight his way out of a difficult situation, than to fight his way. Outside of his murderous nights, he lives modestly with a waitress girlfriend (who works at Safeway), wanting nothing but peace and relaxation. Expectations are low. Human beings mistreat him and the gods put him at a disadvantage, although he loses little time in complaining.

However, he has a special talent for planning a heist, an instinct for knowing how to do it. His compatriots (a driver, muscle, safe, etc.) know this, and they patiently wait for a target to be proposed and Dortmunder goes into a reverie, visualizing space and time, plotting the leak, evaluating Security. . . until he has it, his eyes open and the plan is set.

But things never turn out accordingly. In one story, Dortmunder and a sidekick tunneled into a bank to break through the wall and find a dozen bank workers inside. They’ve been put inside by another gang of bank robbers, and they believe Dortmunder is a cop there to save them. Dortmunder awkwardly plays the role until the bank robbers open the steel door and take him hostage / messenger when the real police show up outside. As the thieves contemplate options – they’re obvious amateurs, Dortmunder judges – he begins to reject their proposals, and they want to slap him but realize what he’s saying makes sense. (Dortmunder urges them to take a bus parked on the street, board with all the hostages, run to Times Square, open the doors and order everyone to run, as the thieves join in. at them and act equally terrified, creating chaos for the cops to make it impossible for the cops to tell them apart.) It doesn’t happen that way, as nothing ever happens in Dortmunder’s escapades. He believes in cosmic irony, and Nature generally reinforces it.

I want my son to read them so he can see how to behave when the best plans fall apart, when fate seems to take hold of you, when you see the thing you worked so hard for. ‘collapse forever. Dortmunder never laughs, but we do, like when a bauble worth $ 300,000 falls into his hand and seems like a dream come true, until he sees a newspaper headline on the stones. precious (they belong to a volcanic celebrity couple – the girl was angry with the guy and dropped him out of their hotel room window, where Dortmunder was waiting until he could rob the place ). The last thing he wants is publicity, which will make the stone fence even more difficult. The more famous he is, the less he is worth to him. He’ll have to let it go for pennies on the dollar. It’s just not fair, Dortmunder thinks. “Why me?” But he doesn’t complain too much, he just accepts it, because the universe is not fair, life is not fair. . .

Francois X Maier
Editorial advisor

Since Roger Scruton’s death in January of last year, I have methodically reread his work. It’s a big job. He had an amazing range of interests: from beauty and sexual desire to politics, architecture, music, art, literature, environment, God and religion. His importance as a conservative thinker can be gleaned from the thinly veiled jealousy and resentment in the obituaries published to the left. Right-wing philosophers, according to the march of history, are meant to be retro and clumsy. Scruton did not play the role. He has committed the blasphemy of being smarter, more engaging – and also funnier, in his harsh English way – than his detractors. My current favorite text (it changes every month) is The uses of pessimism, a dismantling of the “unscrupulous optimism” at the heart of modern ideologies, seasoned with just a pinch of humor. But if you don’t read anything else, try his “Reclaiming My Religion” and “Stealing Churches” essays, collected here, and “Man’s Second Disobedience,” included here. Part of the fun of reading it is mastering the wonderfully crisp and fluent Scruton language.

Hunter McClure
Junior Fellow

In all of the courses I’ve taken in which the history of political thought was a topic of discussion, from my seventh-year American history class to the Shakespeare Seminar I took last fall, Divine Law of kings is very quickly explained. It is still presented as little more than an obscure, childish superstition that was quickly and easily eliminated once Hobbes and Locke wiped the dogmatic crust from their eyes and articulated the contract theory underlying liberalism. This caricature is not surprising – for better or for worse, we inherited the Hobbes and Locke project, and our world is still in many ways theirs. But that may not be true for much longer.

Reading by Robert Filmer patriarch (1680), I was amazed at the skill with which the author defends the divine right of kings. Filmer’s experience is vast: beyond his quick quotes from English common law, he shows extensive knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Greek and Roman historians, the Old Testament, and the works of Josephus ( although I find his quotes from Plato unconvincing, because he ignores texts like Laws); among his contemporaries, he is in constant dialogue with Roman Catholic scholars and “members of the Geneva sect”. The real strength of the text lies in the first two sections, where Filmer articulates a narrative of sovereignty which places the sovereign above and before the law. In many ways, Filmer anticipates Schmitt.

Where Filming loses me is with its scriptural quotes. His reading of Saul’s coronation ignores God’s statement that he wanted his people not to live by the law of kings (1 Samuel 8: 7). His exposition of the New Testament ignores key passages that fatally undermine the analogy between father and state (Mark 12:17; Luke 14:26). Nonetheless, it is truly unfortunate that the political tradition represented by Filmer has been taught so often as a dark footnote in our history, as something akin to the belief in witches. Filmer’s writings pose real problems to which I don’t think liberalism has easy answers, and simply ignoring these issues does the liberal project a disservice.

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