Bradley J. Birzer, scholar-at-large: There’s always something gloriously pretentious about proclaiming, “Yes, I’ve been reading a lot of Nietzsche lately.” And, it’s true. I’ve been reading a lot of Nietzsche lately. In the context of preparing for a C.S. Lewis seminar I’m teaching this semester, I had the pleasure of re-reading the ultimate “Un-man,” specifically re-reading Beyond Good and Evil, The Birth of Tragedy, and Ecce Homo (Penguin versions). From my perspective, Nietzsche is far more important for understanding modernity and post-modernity than Darwin, Marx, or Freud. Critically, Nietzsche understands the necessity of spirit and the spiritual in the way the other three men simply ignored or explained away in their materialist longings and ecstasies. Yet, reading Nietzsche is also nothing less than a perverse pleasure, akin to rubbernecking when encountering a horrific accident on the interstate. No matter how great a writer Nietzsche was, his spirit was unclean, uncouth, and outrageously hubristic.
On a much happier note, I’ve also been reading What Do You Call That Noise? An XTC Discovery Book, edited by Mark Fisher, and published very recently. For those who remember the rock and pop scene of the late 1970s through 1990s, it would be impossible to forget one of the greatest bands of that era, XTC. From Drums and Wires through Nonesuch, XTC proved that pop did not mean banal or mediocre. XTC was as clever as pop culture comes, with lyrics that reached the heights of late 20th-century cultural criticism achieved only by a few others, such as William F. Buckley and Jack Kerouac. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding provided the flash of the band, while gentleman and guitarist Dave Gregory held it altogether with a steady and good soul. What Do You Call That Noise? is a retrospective appreciation by fans and musicians of what XTC so wonderfully accomplished over almost two decades. The highlight of the book—considerations by Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton and Danny Manners as well as an extended interview with Gregory, arguably one of the best guitarists (in any style) of the last half century.
Along with lots and lots of C.S. Lewis and Shelby Foote (again, for classes), I’ve also been reading about the life of Jack Kirby, comic book artist and writer extraordinaire, creator of such mythic “Fourth World” heroes and villains as Darkseid, Mister Miracle, Orion, Desaad, and Steppenwolf. Reworking the Icelandic Ragnorak, Kirby brilliant offered a Manichaean vision of good and evil, mixed with some utterly Hebraic ethics and morality. I’ve been especially taken with Tom King’s stunning reworking of escape artist Scott Free as a survivor of post-traumatic stress syndrome in Mister Miracle (DC Comics).
Grayson Quay, contributor: I’m currently in my final semester of grad school, and my final class is on Charles Dickens. The professor, a kindly dinosaur (I mean that in the best possible way) who has been on Georgetown’s faculty for over three decades, has been a godsend for me. He assigns manageable amounts of reading and sticks to old-school formal and historical criticism while avoiding the increasingly radical identitarianism currently in vogue throughout much of the department (nay, much of the field; nay, much of the academy). For his Dickens class, we’ve been assigned three novels: Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.
It was my first time reading Bleak House, and despite its thousand-page bulk, I read it eagerly.
Some of the book’s charm came from Dickens’s characteristically colorful cast of characters, including the oily and pedantic Rev. Chadband, the childish parasite Harold Skimpole, and the seemingly omniscient Inspector Bucket.
More than the characters, though, it was Dickens’s skillful juxtaposition of different types of time that held my attention. First, there is human time, which takes place on the level of human experience and is associated with lower-class characters. Institutional time takes place on a non-human scale that spans centuries, is associated with the law and the aristocracy, and is recursive—meaning that it has no purpose beyond perpetuating itself and preserving the status quo. Eschatological time is associated with the end of history (and often with the Last Judgment) and is teleological rather than recursive.
Jarndyce & Jarndyce, the interminable lawsuit that drives the plot of Bleak House and ruins the lives of everyone who touches it, and the Court of Chancery in which the case is heard are the perfect examples of institutional time. Characters who allow themselves to be drawn into such affairs quickly lose their humanity, having become incapable of normal relations with their fellow man.
Miss Flite, one of these institutional idolaters, allows herself to hope that institutions might actually lead to some end beyond their own perpetuation. She conflates the institutional and the eschatological to the point that it’s often hard to tell if she’s talking about the Judgement described in the Book of Revelation or the judgement she hopes to receive in her court case.
Dickens rails against the inhumanity and inefficiency of bureaucracies better than most authors, but despite his passion for social reform, he never indulges in revolutionary, utopian daydreams. Instead of insisting that we could create an earthly paradise by replacing our institutions with better ones, he urges us to humanize our present institutions.
Conservatives do well to preserve the functioning institutions we have inherited, but we would also do well to remember that people, not institutions, possess souls.