He who refuses does not repent

Perhaps I’m not the only one with an unsecret fondness for this classic of Cavafy:

Che Fece… Il Gran Rifiuto

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes forward in honor and self-assurance.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no – the right no –
undermines him all his life.

(Translation by Keeley and Sherrard. Cavafy is apparently full of intricate Greek meter and rhyme, and very difficult to translate. It is probably better to regard a work like this as an “imitation” in the sense of Lowell. Many people have worked on bringing Cavafy to English, but none that I’ve read grabs me as The One. But I also like the new Barnstone translation.)

Anyway. What is the purpose of Unqualified Reservations? Why do I write this stuff? What strange, awful holes of the mind am I trying to lead you guys down?

There are thousands of writers in the world who want to tell you what to think. Most of them put their thoughts on crisp white slices of dead tree. This Internet thing is a little new, and it will certainly be a little different, but for the moment most bloggers would still be ecstatic if you offered them a book deal.

In the last 60 years, in a way that’s really rather unique in Western history, this business of communicating ideas has become quite well-organized. Journalists and professors are all associated with what is essentially one large institution, the press and university system. There are few, if any, ideological quarrels between major universities, or between universities and mainstream journalism. Even in the heyday of Pio Nono the intellectual diversity of the Catholic Church was probably a good bit higher.

No, not all professors at Western universities agree with each other. But the few mavericks are clearly identifiable as exceptions from a single synoptic perspective, which looks broad only from the inside. If you took Harvard in 2007, put it in a time machine and sent it back to 1907, the Harvard of 1907 would have no trouble in classifying it. And “diverse” probably wouldn’t be the first word in their report.

There is a competing system of “right-wing think tanks,” which do show some intellectual differentation – the party line at the Manhattan Institute, say, is not quite the same as at the Cato Institute. But compared to the university system, the thinktank circuit is tiny and weak, and compared to the intellectual cosmos of previous periods in Western history it is simply laughable. Not even the most fanatical booster of the Heritage Foundation would compare it to, say, Oxford.

And there are still some writers who are not, for some reason, professors. But as long as they are involved with the actual publishing industry (and if they’re not, they really shouldn’t be presuming to the title of “writer”), both their editors and their audience are very much constructs of the university system. Or, worse, by its freshly-minted right-wing alternative.

To get back to Cavafy, this is an environment – in all its factional incarnations – that’s extremely hospitable to the growth and glory of the great Yes.

In other words, it rewards joiners. It makes alliance-building an essential skill. The word “mafia” is not used lightly. For example, in the poetry world, Robert Pinsky has built a remarkable empire of students, ex-students, grand-students, great-grand-students, etc. It is not hard at all to define whether someone is part of the “Pinsky family.” (Actually, if it worked like the actual Mafia, it would probably be named for Yvor Winters, though there are few harder figures to imagine in the role of Don Corleone.) Pinsky is a good poet and a good critic, although his last book was shite. But there are other families and other godfathers, and the same can’t be said of all of them.

Of course Cavafy was right. There really is a place in the world, an important and essential place, for the great Yes. A world of nothing but the great No is a horrifying prospect. The consensus, the mainstream, the major labels, all go forward in honor and self-assurance.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing you won’t find at Unqualified Reservations, it’s the great Yes. (There’s not much honor or self-assurance, either.) Not that I delude myself that I have the great No. I have my No, that’s all.

What I’m trying to assemble here at UR is a view of the world we live in that is genuinely alien – at least, as genuinely alien as I can make it. By “alien” I just mean strange, different, or unfamiliar. Though if there really was some kind of invisible alien journalist circling Planet Three and putting out a report on the interstellar mojo-wire every century or two, I’d sure like to get my hands on it.

An alien perspective is useful because it is not, at least not obviously, influenced by the ideas that are loose in the world today. I try very hard not to be concerned by the popularity of opinions, whether mine or others’. I simply do not consider popularity a reliable indicator of accuracy. In fact, it is often a counterindicator. As Orwell noted, the hardest part of thinking clearly is recognizing false assumptions that are universally shared.

My approach to building an alien perspective is to think from scratch, making sure my terms are precisely defined and inventing new ones when the old won’t do. I’m sure this strikes a lot of readers as utopian and generally eggheaded. This is a reasonable objection, as it’s very easy to make dramatic and appalling errors when applying this technique. I use it not because it’s foolproof, but just because it’s what I know how to do.

An alternative approach, which yields probably the most alien perspective of 2007 that’s generally available (if something of a specialty product) on the intellectual market today, is “paleoconservatism.” Paleoconservatives evaluate the present by applying the standards of the past, which are generally forgotten and have to be dug out of old books – a fun hobby. If you follow the links on the sidebar, a fair number of them lead to paleos of one flavor or another.

What makes paleo-ism interesting, at least to me, is that it’s “not sold in stores.” There is no institution to which one can go in order to receive a sound paleoconservative education. Most of the people in the idea trade would simply deny that such a thing exists. Safeway will sell you a whole, salted rhinoceros head before Harvard will teach you that Lincoln was a tyrant.

But the paleo perspective frustrates me in many ways. It often seems to go out of its way to be
inaccessible to the uninitiated. It has this kind of Einstürzende Neubauten, more-industrial-than-thou feel to it. Sometimes I feel as if Daniel Larison, for instance, actually does want to reestablish the Byzantine Empire. Not that he thinks it’s a realistic prospect – but if it was, would he be opposed? I certainly would be.

I would like to think that the way I look at 2007 is the way that most people in 2107 will look at it. I have no illusions of historical determinism, though, and considering the bizarre views of 1907 which most educated people of 2007 hold, I’d be unwise to make any such claim.

So my views are just my own. I post them not because I want to teach at Harvard, not because I want to lead an army of fanatical formalist commandoes to Vienna and refound the Holy Roman Empire, not because I want to be chief epistemologist to the Ruler of Dubai, not because I want to be printed in Wired magazine or sell my blog to Conde Nast, not even because I want Andrew Sullivan to link to me again. Not that I would reject any of these opportunities. But in fact the only reason I’m blogging is because a few people, who had probably had too much to drink, asked me to. You know who you are.

Perhaps it’s shameless immodesty, but I like to think of Unqualified Reservations as Blogger’s answer to Laphroaig. The first time I actually bought a bottle of Laphroaig, maybe twelve years or so ago, I of course intended to share it with my then girlfriend M., a woman of remarkable forthrightness. She had never tasted the stuff, so I poured her some. She took a sip. “It tastes like burning plastic,” she said.

And, in fact, Laphroaig does taste like burning plastic. But it’s good burning plastic. I drank that bottle myself, and many more after it. He who refuses does not repent.

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