Mostly Stuff I'm Reading, Thinking About, or Enjoying
John Milton, “Sonnet 19”
Not every controversial political issue boils down to economics (though it’s amazing how much passion gets invested in whether the top marginal rate is 35% or 39%). The question of who controls the Supreme Courts also looms large. Yet across the board we assume that politics is about power—getting it and wielding it. The question, asked by Plato and Aristotle, as well as Augustine and Aquinas, “What is politics for?” is irrelevant, and indeed uninteresting.
This tacitly Bolshevik mentality is mistaken. Yes, of course people vote their pocketbooks. “It’s the economy, stupid,” as Bill Clinton reminded his campaign in 1992. But we also vote in order to forestall what we fear, and to achieve what we hope for. We’re only likely to put our shoulders behind political causes we believe necessary or desirable, which isn’t a matter of syllogisms, surveys, or social scientific analysis.
This is why the most potent force in political life is the human imagination, not control over the levers of state power. Utopian fantasies and exaggerated dreams of national greatness agitated millions in the twentieth century, providing legitimacy to communist and fascist regimes.
Nightmares about cancerous aliens made Nazi anti-Semitism seem plausible. And today it is the cultural imagination of the Islamic world—not its oil wealth or official foreign policies—that makes the region so volatile.
At the end of the day, elections don’t shape or influence our cultural imaginations. On the contrary, our imaginations influence our elections, as the naive nation builders who thought that bringing elections to Iraq would transform the country discovered, much to their dismay. R.R. Reno, “Culture Matters More Than Politics”
I find myself lately pretty continually dismayed by the frequency with which I have to acknowledge that I’ve lost my good habits. I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing every morning; I’ve gotten out of the habit of leaving work on time in order to make it to my yoga class. I’ve gotten out of the habit of eating well. I’ve gotten out of the habit of making slow but steady progress on a big project. And then there are the less than great habits that I’ve gotten myself in of late (which I won’t delve into here).
Part of the problem, I’m realizing this morning, is that the habits that I want to cultivate aren’t mobile friendly. They require a life in which one reliably wakes up at the same time, in the same place, pretty much every day, or at least for consistently long enough periods that changes can be managed and settled down into new routines.
But the life I’ve chosen isn’t at all consistent. It has periods of consistency that fool me into believing that I have established some good habits that can sustain me through whatever little disruptions I encounter. This, I am realizing today, is a fundamental miscalculation. My life is mobile at heart; if I go three weeks without traveling, it begins to feel a bit like a staycation, a long, luxurious lie-in at home. Every time I leave, every time things get somehow disrupted, I lose my hold on all of my good habits, and I have a miserably hard time picking them back up again.
What I need to develop is a set of habits that are as mobile as I am, habits that are disruption-tolerant. Can there be such a thing? Out of the Habit | Planned Obsolescence.
Wallace Stevens, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
Stephen Dunn, “Welcome”
If you believe nothing is always what’s left
after a while, as I did,
If you believe you have this collection
of ungiven gifts, as I do (right here
behind the silence and the averted eyes)
If you believe an afternoon can collapse
into strange privacies, which it has—
how in your backyard, for example,
the shyness of flowers can be suddenly
overwhelming, and in the distance
the clear goddamn of thunder
personal, like a voice
If you believe there’s no correct response
to death, as I do,
If you believe that in grief there are
small corners of joy (where I have sat
If your body sometimes is a light switch
in a house of insomniacs
If you can feel yourself straining
to be yourself every waking minute
If, as I am, you are almost smiling …