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A Defense of Fiction, the First Drone Airline, and an Update on Notre Dame

Happy Wednesday, everyone. First up: Emmanuel Macron launches [1] effort to reinvigorate small French towns in a very French way—by starting cafés. He’s calling it 1,000 Cafés, and it “will be run by Groupe SOS, a charity run by a Macron ally that will receive up to $220 million from the French government to complete its mission.”

UPS’s drone service is the first to receive official airline certification [2]: “The FAA has granted a Part 135 certification for the logistics giant’s drone business, propelling the little fliers closer to a commercial future.”

The art of name-dropping [3]: “Nicholas Coleridge was given sound advice as an eighteen-year-old intern at a Cornish newspaper called the Falmouth Packet. ‘Mention as many names as possible in your copy,’ the editor told him. When covering a school sports day, ‘don’t come back with fewer than a hundred names – kids, parents, teachers, all of them.’ When filing a story on Port Pendennis marina, ‘mention every boat – dinghies, yachts, tubs. Remember, every name printed is a sold copy.’ Coleridge hardly needed this reminder. Only a year or so earlier, when still a pupil at Eton, he had co-founded a contemporary arts society with the motto Lumines Nomine Noscere – ‘To get to know the stars by their Christian names’. Brian Eno, Angie Bowie and Elton John were among its first guests. The names never stop dropping in The Glossy Years. From Roman Abramovich to Catherine Zeta-Jones, from Adrenalin Village and Babington House to Wilton’s and the Wolseley, every tub is mentioned.”

A closer look at Milton’s heretical Christ [4] in Paradise Regained: “To what extent was Milton’s Christology influenced and shaped by the beliefs of Arius, and is this question of any true significance for contemporary Milton scholars? Milton’s theological opposition to include Christ within the traditional Christian Trinity carries great weight; indeed, the scholarly debate over this particular Miltonic heresy has been a lively one extending as far back as Jonathan Richardson’s 1734 defense of Milton’s orthodoxy.”

Michael Schuab reviews [5] Stephen Harrington’s history of Texas: “Big Wonderful Thing, a sprawling history of the Lone Star state, showcases Harrigan’s enthusiasm for Texas— it’s an endlessly fascinating look at how the state has evolved over the years.” Keep an eye out for David Davis’s excellent review of it in our forthcoming issue. (Not a subscriber? Here’s a fix [6].)

An update on Notre Dame [7]: “The most critical question concerns the spire. Will this be rebuilt in the form designed by Viollet-le-Duc in 1860, as internationally adopted conservation principles recommend, or will it be the object of a contemporary ‘architectural gesture’, as suggested by the master-mind of Notre Dame’s restoration, President Emmanuel Macron?”

Essay of the Day:

Zadie Smith takes a stab at defending fiction in our increasingly unimaginative and incurious age [8]:

“‘Re-examine all you have been told,’ Whitman tells us, ‘and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.’ Full disclosure: what insults my soul is the idea—popular in the culture just now, and presented in widely variant degrees of complexity—that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally. That only an intimate authorial autobiographical connection with a character can be the rightful basis of a fiction. I do not believe that. I could not have written a single one of my books if I did. But I feel no sense of triumph in my apostasy. It might well be that we simply don’t want or need novels like mine anymore, or any of the kinds of fictions that, in order to exist, must fundamentally disagree with the new theory of ‘likeness.’ It may be that the whole category of what we used to call fiction is becoming lost to us. And if enough people turn from the concept of fiction as it was once understood, then fighting this transformation will be like going to war against the neologism ‘impactful’ or mourning the loss of the modal verb ‘shall.’ As it is with language, so it goes with culture: what is not used or wanted dies. What is needed blooms and spreads.

“Consequently, my interest here is not so much prescriptive as descriptive. For me the question is not: Should we abandon fiction? (Readers will decide that—are in the process of already deciding. Many decided some time ago.) The question is: Do we know what fiction was? We think we know. In the process of turning from it, we’ve accused it of appropriation, colonization, delusion, vanity, naiveté, political and moral irresponsibility. We have found fiction wanting in myriad ways but rarely paused to wonder, or recall, what we once wanted from it—what theories of self-and-other it offered us, or why, for so long, those theories felt meaningful to so many. Embarrassed by the novel—and its mortifying habit of putting words into the mouths of others—many have moved swiftly on to what they perceive to be safer ground, namely, the supposedly unquestionable authenticity of personal experience.

“The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane. This principle permits the category of fiction, but really only to the extent that we acknowledge and confess that personal experience is inviolate and nontransferable. It concedes that personal experience may be displayed, very carefully, to the unlike-us, to the stranger, even to the enemy—but insists it can never truly be shared by them. This rule also pertains in the opposite direction: the experience of the unlike-us can never be co-opted, ventriloquized, or otherwise ‘stolen’ by us. (As the philosopher Anthony Appiah has noted, these ideas of cultural ownership share some DNA with the late-capitalist concept of brand integrity.) Only those who are like us are like us. Only those who are like us can understand us—or should even try. Which entire philosophical edifice depends on visibility and legibility, that is, on the sense that we can be certain of who is and isn’t ‘like us’ simply by looking at them and/or listening to what they have to say.

“Fiction didn’t believe any of that. Fiction suspected that there is far more to people than what they choose to make manifest. Fiction wondered what likeness between selves might even mean, given the profound mystery of consciousness itself, which so many other disciplines—most notably philosophy—have probed for millennia without reaching any definitive conclusions. Fiction was suspicious of any theory of the self that appeared to be largely founded on what can be seen with the human eye, that is, those parts of our selves that are material, manifest, and clearly visible in a crowd. Fiction—at least the kind that was any good—was full of doubt, self-doubt above all. It had grave doubts about the nature of the self.”

Read the rest. [8]

Photo: Solovetsky Islands [9] 

Poem: Stephen Kampa, “Upon Perusing a Volume of Systematic Theology” [10]

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