October 2016

  • Ghost tours

    “Ghost tours create a world where it’s possible to understand how the past and the present live together.” Eillie Anzilotti writes:

    We’ve formed a half-circle around the lantern, and Kate gestures behind her. The lights of Independence Hall flicker in the distance, and a statue of a man holding aloft a rolled-up copy of the Constitution towers above us. “I don’t think there’s any city in the United States that can claim quite as many historic sites or shrines as Philadelphia,” Kate says. “When you’re walking in these streets, you’re walking in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before you.”

    She adds, “the history is true; it comes from books, interviews, articles. The paranormal activity I’m going to be talking about has been consistently documented over the last several centuries.” Kate looks out at all of us, wrapping our scarves tighter against the cold. “It’s up to you to decide whether the ghosts I’m talking about are real.” …

    Occasionally, the supernatural stories get a little more tangible. Some years ago, Reeser was leading a tour though Philadelphia, and brought the group to the churchyard of St. Peter’s. As she was concluding a story about a woman who’s often seen floating through the graves, a man raised his camera, took a picture, and gasped. In the background of the photograph was a specter not unlike the woman Reeser had just described. “People were visibly shaken,” Reeser says. About half the group left the tour. …

    As Kate leads us from Library Hall, where a ghostly Ben Franklin reportedly walks the stacks, to Carpenters’ Hall, where one of the first bank robberies in the U.S. left a ghostly presence, the undead are merely a suggestion: the stories, Reeser says, are what really matter. But when we arrive at Washington Square, Kate tells us that “of all the places you might see a ghost this evening, this is probably one of the most likely spots.” The ground beneath our feet is a mass burial site: 2,000 dead came from the Revolutionary War, and the graves remained opened to accommodate thousands more when the Yellow Fever ripped through the city in 1793. …

    “Ghost tours create a world where it’s possible to understand how the past and the present live together,” Pirok says.

  • Basic social needs

    Albert Wenger writes:

    As part of my thinking about a possible World After Capital, I have been looking into human needs. A framework that is frequently mentioned in that context is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a great example of something that remains a popular reference point despite being largely a conjecture and having been superseded by subsequent research (which tends to be much less well known).

    There are two psychological needs though that appear to be quite robust across different studies: purpose and recognition. Apparently most of us do much better if we have a strong answer to why we are doing something and having someone else recognize our efforts. On this basis it makes a lot of sense why many people in the Rust Belt are suffering. We live in a society that (wrongly) equates work with purpose. So if your work goes away so does your purpose. Add to that the feeling that your plight is not being recognized and you have a toxic combination. …

    One of the most common mistakes I observe among entrepreneurs in leading their company is that they keep too much in their head. They have the whole vision, mission and strategy there and know for themselves how a particular piece of work fits with it (probably my manager knew the answer also). But instead of communicating that again and again they simply keep it locked up in their head. And it is easy to see why that happens. Communicating takes time. Time they feel they don’t have…

    Recognition is equally powerful. Even when you know why you are doing something, if your work is not recognized you will eventually become demotivated. …

    As a society as we are heading away from traditional work we need to think hard about where purpose and recognition come from. In the meantime though as entrepreneurs and investors we should help live this in companies.

    Purpose, recognition, communication.

  • Ben Novak wrote in response to recent posts in Pierre Ryckmans, and I want to share that here. Ben makes an important point worth sharing.

    I asked yesterday: “What are great stone memorials for if not conveying a sense that even though some stories have a greatness that hints at infinity, the storyteller himself was made for death?” I further suggested that without something like spiritual feelings for the physical things, the physical things alone didn’t matter. Ben’s caveat:

    I have to take a little exception to your last sentence. Sometimes the feeling goes away for a long period of human time. Then it is most necessary to preserve words or monuments or places, even though they fail to stir men’s minds, for they must be carried through such dry, stony, and desert-like times so that they will be available for when minds are needful of them, and ready once again to be stirred by them.

    Those who carry such things through the dry and stony times are those with sufficient imagination such that, though they and their times have no need or perhaps no capacity to respond to the words, they nevertheless can imagine times and men in the future who will. So, the word or words or monuments or places have a double function: first of inspiring men directly to respond to them in action; and second, of inspiring men to have imagination and faith.

    At any given time, certain things can seem to be without meaning. Yet then the sun brightens and new light reveals something that wasn’t seen before. A thing that might seem lost (or without purpose) can still be conserved in the hopes that light will reveal its nature to new observers.

    I’m thinking of collegiate architecture as a way to apply this point. We can’t tear down in any one generation what previous generations have built up simply because we’re not enthralled with its aesthetic or practical value. While the traditional, elegant buildings tend to have obvious worth, even the little cottages and more recently the uglier buildings of the 1950s-70s deserve conservation in some cases. Because without something glaringly different to jar a future generation out of its own fascinations, a campus can become stiflingly uniform on the one hand or saccharine on the other.

    It’s worth at least considering conserving things that consensus/common sense would instinctively reject—because in matters of taste, what’s common is more often simply common to a single generation. And the future deserves to hear and see more of reality than just one generation’s sense of what was important.

  • I wrote the other day about Pierre Ryckmans, and want to share another aspect of his New York Review of Books feature that struck me. It deals with concepts I’ve been working through for a while relating to locality, sense of place, and cultural memory:

    In one of [Ryckmans’] most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. … People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. … But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? [Ryckmans’] answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art.

    I think a worthy challenge lies in attempting to live out a reconciliation between Eastern and Western tradition—in embracing the worth and place of tradition and real tributes and monuments and markers as “timeless” symbols in the same way the written word might, while also embracing their fleeting nature.

    What are great stone memorials for if not conveying a sense that even though some stories have a greatness that hints at infinity, the storyteller himself was made for death? We have to be moving toward something, with some metaphysical basis for virtue, to understand that the sweetness of our tributes and memorials isn’t really sweet at all if those things don’t lead to a stirring in our souls, and a visibility in our own lives.

    If “the word remains” but the heart has lost its capacity for feeling, then words become worthless. We have to be moved, transported, utterly awed by history for it to matter.

  • There are so many places that take on new light and meaning when you discover their history. In Philadelphia, 4th & High Street became one of those places for me. Now thanks to Davis Shaver I can add 13th and Locust Street to my list of special places. First, look at this lost architecture:


    To the point:

    An inconspicuous corner that played a key role in Teddy Roosevelt’s winding road to the White House – Broad & Locust, blocks south of Philadelphia’s City Hall, itself still a year away from final completion when the 1900 Republican National Convention was held in town. … Kearns Goodwin details the scene in her book:

    “The moment Roosevelt arrived in Philadelphia, the stampede for his nomination began—just as Lodge and Judge Parker had predicted. Entering the crowded lobby of the Hotel Walton around 6 p.m., he was met by ‘vociferous applause’ and thunderous cries of ‘Teddy, Teddy, Teddy.’ When the raucous crowd launched into a chorus of ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,’ journalists noted, ‘Roosevelt blushed, doffed his hat and bowed his acknowledgments as he recognized the tune played after his charge up San Juan Hill.’”

    “He had scarcely finished breakfast the following morning, the New York Tribune reported, when ‘he had reason to suspect that something of importance affecting his political fortunes had happened in the course of the night’: one state delegation after another ‘invaded’ his room, announcing that he was their unanimous choice for vice president.”

    As an aside, I happened to walk past this display on the 1900 Philadelphia convention in the Philadelphia Airport last month:


    There’s something hideous at 13th & Locust today, but the intersection and the neighborhood in general will be more meaningful now that I know it’s history.

  • …or: Marginalized, but right.

    A fascinating piece in the New York Review of Books on Pierre Ryckmans and his book The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. Ryckmans demonstrated an understanding of the scale of human and cultural destruction happening in China since the Cultural Revolution far better than his academic colleagues.

    Yet his insight into the brutality of the revolution and tens of millions starved or otherwise killed wasn’t due to any particular insider knowledge so much as what could be called a willingness to see. Whereas Western academics dealt with China and her people as an intellectual abstraction, Ryckmans would read the China News Analysis newspaper and thereby learn about the life of the people.

    Ryckmans explains the failure of Western academics to admit what was happening to China’s people and culture this way: “What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe. They cultivate illusions out of idealism—and also out of cynicism.”

    In this context George Orwell’s alleged observation that “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” In other words, we tend to become invested in what we wish to believe—whether in petty personal grievances or in sweeping cultural appraisals.

    Thus did Ryckmans willingness to see (or as the Review of Books put it, his “getting it right”), represent something revolutionary. Yet “getting it right” put him on the margins of the academic consensus when it really mattered, when Western elites could have perhaps worked to meaningfully disgrace Mao’s endeavors.

    I have a tendency to place greater trust in those on the margins of consensus (in people like Ryckmans) because those are almost always the people with the least to gain and the most to lose—and yet they’re risking their reputations anyway. Which indicates, Hey, maybe there’s something there…

    Consensus often doesn’t seem to ask much of those expected to embrace it. In the China/Ryckmans case, the Western elite could comfortably dismiss his perspective in the 1950s-70s when real people were suffering because an ideal divorced from its consequences was popular, and the same elite can now comfortably embrace his having “gotten it right” by admitting the truth about Mao’s revolution years after the point at which such insights had the chance to impact history.

    At minimum, it helps to intentionally escape the illusions we cultivate for ourselves—to touch reality through a willingness to see. The ultimate point of life isn’t simply to be comfortable.

  • Brandon McGinley writes:

    John Adams famously wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” We seem to be hell-bent on testing his prescience.

    Adams’s admonition is often quoted as proof that the American founders desired to form a government based on Christian principles, but this gets it exactly wrong. Rather, our second president realized that a government founded on liberal principles would require the perpetuation of the pre-liberal or non-liberal norms extant among the people to be sustainable. The preceding but less-well-known lines of Adams’s letter make this clearer: “[W]e have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.

    Patrick Deneen argued in “Unsustainable Liberalism” that liberalism itself corrodes the pre-liberal norms and institutions that sustain and structure liberal societies. We need not accept the inevitability of this corrosion to observe that it has in fact occurred.

    Rod Dreher writes in a similar vein:

    For orthodox Christians, Christianity is not simply a construal, that is, a complex set of opinions about how the world should be ordered. It is a revelation of how the world really is orderedFor example, to say that God created man and woman in His image is not simply a poetic expression. It is a poetic expression that embodies a profound anthropological and theological truth. Any laws based on a contrary point of view is false, literally. And if those laws end up justifying practices (e.g., trade in human embryos) it might be evil.

    Yesterday at the Tradition conference, a participant brought up Tocqueville’s position that liberal democracy depends on religion to form the character of the people, so that they are capable of self-rule. …

    Anyway, the participant said that liberalism is not producing the kinds of people it needs to perpetuate itself.

    Dreher has written before that those who do not consciously construct their lives to be distinct from secular culture will live to see themselves (or their family) “colonized” by that culture. I think that’s basically right.

    At this point, we continue to dress up some of our public life in the clothing of Christianity, and we speak to the abstract value of diverse religious faith on some occasions, but we’re operating in the context of a de facto secular atheism. So it does seem correct to say that we’re truly testing the strengths of the Constitution’s “cords” in anchoring our society to something besides power.

  • Aesthetic > forensic

    I’ve been watching Westworld. David Roark writes on a valuable distinction that Westworld raised in his life:

    I started paying attention on the internet, only to find a whole series of pieces, big and small, regarding not only fan theories but critical theories on Westworld. It was like Lost all over again. And back then, wasn’t it the fans wrapped up in “theories” who were ultimately disappointed when they found out that Lost wasn’t really concerned with answering the thousands of questions it had raised—that it was less a heady show about theology and science and more an emotional show about its characters and the human experience? …

    Examining absurd theories around Mad Men and True Detective, Julia Yost characterizes this phenomenon as a shift from the aesthetic to the forensic: “Everything on screen and soundtrack is a clue, and the viewer’s challenge is to suss out the secrets encoded by the creators’ choices in writing, casting, wardrobe, and art direction. If this is the new way of watching, then every prestige drama is now a detective series—for what reasons, and with what consequences, will soon be seen.”

    Given the scientific nature of our modern minds, our engagement with the arts is no longer guided by emotion and imagination, but by reason. It’s why we walk away from a show like Westworld concerned with and moved by logos—“theories”—rather than ethos and pathos. …

    This methodical, forensic approach to film, however, no trivial artifact of our times. … In this, we diminish and undercut both the art and the artist. We miss what they want to say and do to us as viewers. We miss transcendence. We miss the mystery.

    We miss the whole thing.

    I remember watching Lost along with everyone else and thinking along those same forensic lines that Roark criticizes. I still consider the series fascinating, despite (the forensic side of me says) its inconclusive ending. But what I really remember is how it made me feel (this is its aethetic), which was transported to a place of boyish mystery and wonder, and later nightmare, terror, and ultimately back to mystery.

    So in talking about Lost today I would talk about the nature and character of the show and its people, not the specific theories of Oceanic 815, the origin of the island, or whatever. We would talk about what it told us about ourselves.

    This is why I’m watching Westworld, though it seems to offer nihilism rather than depth.

  • Signature win

    Signature win

    Amazing game last night. Penn State v. Ohio State is my favorite rivalry, and last night way exceeded my expectations. I had expected us to lose.

    Entering the fourth quarter down 21-7, I was finishing a stout, working on my MacBook, only semi-watching the game. There was that feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me “just don’t watch.” It would’ve been too painful to see us sputter and fail in what had initially looked like a competitive game. There’s been too much of that for us in the past few years—losing seemingly winnable games. Instead Penn State came alive in the end in what was overall a strange, messy game.

    James Franklin got his “signature win,” his first win against a ranked opponent. Ohio State’s 20 game road streak was snapped. Trace McSorley showed great poise. Beaver Stadium was loud. Chance, momentum, and errors on both sides defined this game. This was fun.

  • No-whe-ahhh

    William Eggleston was recently profiled in the New York Times, which is how I discovered him. He is more interesting to me than his work, which is probably the root cause of every great creator’s uncomfortable relationship with the public. “The supreme colourist of American photography” is how he’s described in a separate piece I’m excerpting:

    When we are seated in a dark corner of the bar, I begin by asking Eggleston where he comes from, exactly. He stares straight ahead, as if deep in thought, then, after about 30 seconds, answers softly, ‘Nowhere,’ except the word comes out as three syllables – ‘No-whe-ahhh’ – each one enunciated in a soft southern lilt. It is not an auspicious start, but it is followed by a sly smile, then another equally long pause, after which he elaborates in what I will soon come to recognise as a typically vague manner. ‘I was born on the Mississippi delta. Cotton country. Married a gal from Mississippi, too, but I’ve been living in or around Memphis since about 1960.’

    Eggleston is the slowest and most softly spoken person I have ever met, and the silence while he considers a question is so deep and long that I find myself wondering if he has simply chosen to ignore my fumbling attempts at elucidation. His thoughts, when they emerge into speech, are expressed succinctly and in oddly illuminating phrases that, like his work, are both simple and complex. I imagine Samuel Beckett and himself would have got on famously. ‘A picture is what it is,’ he says when I ask him why he no longer wishes to talk about individual photographs, ‘and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them. People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.’