Philosophers have lives; saints have legends. No miracles are associated with Simone Weil (1909-43), and a glance at reference books on philosophy finds her listed alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, her classmates at the École normale supérieure. But she looks odd in their company -- in any company, really. Frail but indomitable, she was in the world but not quite of it.
French intellectuals of her generation wrote essays on Marxism and the Spanish Civil War, while she worked in a factory and went to the front as part of an antifascist militia. She had an extraordinarily acute (some would say morbid) awareness of the depths and the extent of human suffering; it made comfort seem like complicity. Combine that sensitivity with her conviction that our world is the diminished or faulty image of a realm in which truth and justice are real and absolute – a Platonic notion, flecked perhaps with Gnostic elements -- and you have someone with a vocation, rather than a career.
Weil died at the age of 34, under what seem to have been suspiciously beatific circumstances: she succumbed to tuberculosis after months of refusing to eat more than the rations available to the French compatriots under German occupation. Her collected writings, which run to several stout volumes, range from pacifist essays and interventions in trade-union debates to reflections on atheism and mysticism (not entirely antithetical terms, in her experience) and studies of classical Greek literature and philosophy. Most of this work remained unpublished during her lifetime, apart from scattered essays in journals of no wide circulation.
At a couple of points in Julia Haslett’s film “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” the camera focuses on a few lines of a manuscript, the words in French and Greek. Her handwriting appears small, precise, and highly concentrated – like Weil herself, by all accounts. “She was apparently unacquainted with doubt,” wrote Raymond Aron, a philosopher and political journalist who knew her in the 1920s, “and, although her opinions might change, they were always thoroughly categorical.” His choice of words may allude to one of Weil’s nicknames from their student days: “The Categorical Imperative in Skirts.”
“An Encounter with Simone Weil,” billed on its Facebook promotional page as “a documentary by Julia Haslett,” made the rounds of film festivals in 2011, and in the meantime the director (a visiting associate professor of cinema and comparative literature at the University of Iowa) has screened it at two dozen colleges and universities throughout the United States. It will be available on DVD and various digital platforms sometime in the next few months. Upon request, the director sent me a screener, indicating that she had just finished work on the French language version. The film is already available in Italian, with the German and Japanese translations due out this fall, and a Korean version in the works.
“Encounter” is at least as much a personal essay as a biographical portrait. Haslett’s fascination began when she came across a quotation from one of Weil’s letters: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It was an ideal point of entry, given how often Weil’s aphorisms sound like one of Pascal’s Pensées, and also how much moral and intellectual significance the word “attention” turns out to have in her work.
But it also carried a strong personal connotation. In the voiceover Haslett tells us of her father’s suicide when she was young, and in a video clip her brother discusses his struggle with anxiety and depression. “My father's death taught me that if I don't pay attention, someone might die," she says -- an enormous burden to have to carry.
Although Weil cannot be said to lighten the load, she at least understood the stakes. “The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing,” she says in another passage that Haslett quotes. “It is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”
In short order she read Francine Du Plessix Gray’s biography of Weil (published by Penguin in 2001) in a single sitting. "Here was this brilliant, deeply ethical young woman speaking truth to power, putting her body on the line for her convictions, and providing such an incisive critique of political and economic power,” she told me an in e-mail exchange. “And yet I'd never read her. That despite studying philosophy, religion, and history at Swarthmore College -- an institution that embodies the Weil-like values of rigorous intellectual inquiry and a deeply held commitment to social justice.”
In recounting Weil’s period as a left-wing militant in the early years of the Great Depression, “Encounter” shows Haslett going over film footage of mass demonstrations in the archives of the French Communist Party – searching, almost desperately, to catch a glimpse of Weil in the crowd, but with no luck. She visits the apartment building in New York where Weil lived for a few months in 1942, and interviews the (very) few remaining people who knew Weil, as well as one of the editors preparing her collected works.
The effort to establish a connection with the philosopher even extends to having Soraya Broukhim (an actress with some resemblance to Weil) read enough of Weil's work to improvise responses in a mock interview. The sequence is odd. By the end, the situation has become unmistakably awkward for both parties. When Broukhim complains that Haslett seems to want answers she can’t give, the effect is strangely revealing. For a moment, it’s not quite clear whether she’s doing so in character, as Weil, or in real life.
To call Haslett’s quest a kind of pilgrimage would be tempting, if not for the most striking thing about the film: its emphasis on her as a secular figure and an activist. Most people who become interested in Weil do so through the theological side of her work. Even her appeal for nonbelievers, such as Albert Camus, comes in large measure from an awareness of her "tortured prowling outside the doors of the Catholic Church, like a starving wild animal,” to borrow the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s apt characterization.
Weil’s spiritual writings “are certainly the reason she gets studied in this country,” Haslett acknowledged by e-mail. “For example, many of the annual meetings of the American Weil Society are held at theological seminaries and most participants are religious scholars or at least people of faith.” But for the director, “it was the way she combined such an incisive critique of power and her willingness to sacrifice everything to tell the truth as she knew it (by directly experiencing that about which she wrote) that drew me in so completely.… She became a guide for me through the very dark first decade of this century, when our politicians were dispensing with the truth and our media wasn't holding them accountable.”
The film gives due attention to Weil's religious passion, but suggests that her mystical turn came after deep disillusionment with radical politics. Haslett seems largely uninterested in the very difficult matter of Weil’s relationship to Judaism. (Her parents were so completely assimilated into French secular culture that they neglected to mention this element of her identity until she was about 10 years old). And the director treads lightly around the topic of Weil’s mental health, although she does briefly consider the possibility that the final period of self-denial may have been a kind of suicide by self-starvation.
Haslett makes her resistance to certain aspects of her subject’s life and thought explicit, saying in one voiceover that she felt “betrayed by Weil’s turn toward God.” This does not detract from the value of the film in the least.
On the contrary, ambivalence and discomfort are essential to any meaningful encounter with Weil. To borrow a remark by T.S. Eliot, whose grounds for admiration were as different from Haslett’s as they could be: “I cannot conceive of anybody agreeing with all of her views, or of not disagreeing violently with some of them. But agreement and rejection are secondary: what matters is to make contact with a great soul.”
Last week’s column began to preview the fall and winter offerings from university presses. The first batch included books on higher education, the digital and dead-tree humanities, and speculation regarding the mind and emotion.
Now we move on to race, class, gender, war, and sundry other topics of heated public interest. The very titles of certain volumes may outrage some people, which can’t be helped. I will opine a little, on the fly -- but the most interesting thing about the whole process has been looking for possible or implicit connections among the books. With luck, readers will come across a few titles of interest here they might not have noticed otherwise. Including the institutional affiliation of the authors and editors of this many books would have bogged things down too much, but for each volume there is a link to the publisher, which usually has a web page providing that information.
Democracy and its discontents are the focus of several new books on political theory and history. The most philosophical of them is by Étienne Balibar – one of Louis Althusser’s students and collaborators, as it’s impossible not to mention even after more than 40 years. Balibar sums up the deepest conflict at the heart of the constitutional nation-state by coining the neologism he uses as the title of Equaliberty: Political Essays (Duke University Press, Feb. 2014), originally published in France three years ago.
The eminent (and prolific) American political theorist William E. Connolly continues to think through the conditions and consequences of pluralism. His latest report, also from Duke, is The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Sept.). Connolly worries that making the marketplace the ultimate arbiter of institutional legitimacy leaves us with a brittle and empty polity. Nadia Urbinati reflects on the same condition in Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, Feb.), with its criticism of “technocrats wedded to procedure, demagogues who make glib appeals to ‘the people,’ and media operatives who, given their preference, would turn governance into a spectator sport and citizens into fans of opposing teams.” (As a resident of Washington, I’d say that about covers it.)
In The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Princeton University Press, Oct.), David Runciman warns that liberal democracy -- hitherto capable of managing its economic and political troubles, and even emerging from them strengthened – remains vulnerable to unforeseen developments it has no guarantee of being able to fix. Pushing the discussion in another direction is Anti-Crisis (Duke, Nov.) by Janet Roitman, who questions the reliance on the concept of crisis in narrating our social, political, and economic ordeals.
It’s been said (by whom I can’t recall) that all really serious problems now are either too big or too small, too general or too specific, for the nation-state to handle them. Perhaps that explains why the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber -- whose Jihad vs. McWorld was one of the more prominent globalization books of the 1990s – now stresses the efficacy of municipal politics with If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (Yale University Press, Nov.).
Biographer of Isaiah Berlin, champion of human rights, and erstwhile standard-bearer for liberals who rallied to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Michael Ignatieff had at last report returned to Canada to serve as leader of the Liberal Party. Non-admirers south of the border may reasonably have assumed, with relief, that they would never hear from him again. Indeed, to judge by one recent book and Inside Higher Ed's reports, some Canadians were of a like mind. But now Ignatieff returns to print – presumably invigorated from leading his party to massive, history-making defeat in the 2011 elections, when he also managed to lose his own seat in Parliament – with Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Harvard, Nov.) From lemons to lemonade -- on the double!
Scholars and warriors alike contribute to How 9/11 Changed Our Ways of War (Stanford University Press, Sept), edited by James Burk, and Jacob N. Shapiro’s new book analyzes The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, Aug.). Promising “a groundbreaking look ahead at what may happen after the war in Afghanistan ends” (which could be soon, reportedly) David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, Oct.) identifies “four megatrends” at work in shaping the future of political violence by non-state forces. His use of the term “urban guerilla” calls to mind the 1960s and ’70s, when most of the developments that Lindsey Churchill discusses in Becoming the Tupamaros: Solidarity and Transnational Revolutionaries in Uruguay and the United States (Vanderbilt University Press, Jan.) took place.
Zaid Al-Ali draws a balance sheet on The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (Yale, Feb.), while Christopher J. Fettweis offers his own diagnosis of The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, Oct.). That is perhaps the most Noam Chomsky-like title ever attached to a book written by someone other than Noam Chomsky. The linguist’s political interventions come up for assessment in Anthony F. Greco’s Chomsky's Challenge to American Power: A Guide for the Critical Reader (Vanderbilt, Jan.).
A blurb for Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, Oct.) says that its editors, Randall Amster and Elavie Ndura, have assembled writings by “a modern-day who’s who of nonviolent thinkers, bring[ing] fresh new perspectives to the urgency and practicality of alternative recourses to violent conflict.” The catalog doesn’t indicate who is on that list. It can’t be a good sign for the state of the world that the only potential contributor who comes to mind is the Dalai Lama.
Blithe as its contemporary practitioners can often be, economics was once called “the dismal science” – a characterization that now seems at least as suitable for ecology. The fields converge in William Nordhaus’s The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (Yale, Oct.).
But then they converge in life as well. Both economic and ecological issues are easy enough to infer from the subtitle of David Sedlak’s Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource (Yale, Jan.). Something else ecologists and economists share, evidently, is an itch to extrapolate. Paul Sabin’s The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale, Sept.) looks at a famous wager between a free-market optimist and an environmentalist catastrophist.
It will be interesting to see if Walter A. Friedman reports any evidence of a hybrid species, the free-market catastrophist, in Fortune Tellers: The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters (Princeton, Nov.) Analyzing the history of policy misfires in WRONG: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them (Oxford, Nov.), Richard S. Grossman argues that terrible consequences follow when a particular ideology trumps attention to “cold, hard economic analysis.” Okay, but if you can find anyone on Wall Street who admits to ignoring cold, hard economic analysis in the interest of a particular ideology, I will trade your credit default swaps for a nice, newly foreclosed home.
Meanwhile, much further down the socioeconomic spectrum, we have a few assessments of the labor movement that seem like S.O.S. messages in book form. That’s definitely the case with Save Our Unions: Dispatches from A Movement in Distress (Monthly Review, distributed by New York University Press, Nov.) by Steve Early -- a freelance contributor to The Nation, Labor Notes, and In These Times, among other journals -- who is one of the two or three labor journalists whose byline I’m always glad to find. (For a while I also thought he was a great singer and songwriter, but that turned out to be Steve Earle.)
On the other hand, Jake Rosenfeld’s What Unions No Longer Do (Harvard, Feb) sounds less like an S.O.S. than a toast at a wake. Organized labor in the middle of the 20th century "was the core institution fighting for economic and political equality in the United States," its publisher's description says. "Unions leveraged their bargaining power to deliver tangible benefits to workers while shaping cultural understandings of fairness in the workplace. The labor movement helped sustain an unprecedented period of prosperity among America’s expanding, increasingly multiethnic middle class." With the smallest percentage of workers in unions now in a century, Rosenfeld stresses the policy impact of labor’s decline: "curtailed advocacy for better working conditions, weakened support for immigrants’ economic assimilation, and ineffectiveness in addressing wage stagnation among African-Americans." In Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market (University of Minnesota Press, July), Marc Doussard describes jobs where employers routinely practice “denying safety equipment, fining workers for taking scheduled breaks, [and] requiring unpaid overtime.” It’s a fair bet that some of those workers are parents of the kids Walter J. Nicholl writes about in The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate (Stanford, Aug.).
Its publication next month timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates’s A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (MR/NYU, Aug.) revisits and updates A. Philip Randolph’s proposal for egalitarian reform. Ian Haney López proposes one explanation of the continuing and growing extremes of wealth and poverty in the U.S. in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, Jan.).
In Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes (Rutgers University Press, Feb.), Clara S. Lewis suggests that federal anti-hate-crimes laws have backfired in perverse ways, while John D. Skrentny points to the even more convoluted side-effects of anti-discrimination legislation in After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace (Princeton, Jan.).
An interesting example of argument within the ranks of the conservative intelligentsia is Richard A. Posner’s Reflections on Judging (Harvard, Oct), which criticizes Justice Anthony Scalia’s judicial philosophy from Posner’s own perspective as both legal theorist and federal judge. Donald T. Critchlow revisits a largely forgotten chapter in the history of American conservatism in When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics (Cambridge, Sept.).
Two more titles looking at the history of the U.S. right wing – focusing on activists in the trenches at least as much as the big-name strategists – are Joshua C. Wilson, The Street Politics of Abortion: Violence, and America's Culture Wars (Stanford, Aug.) and Isaac Martin’s Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford, Sept.) Taking a long-term perspective on the American right’s foreign policy is Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton, Sept.) by Henry R. Nau, who is implicitly in dialogue with Milan Babík’s Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology (Baylor, Aug.) whether either of the authors is aware of it or not.
Enough politics! Let’s talk about sex. Or about sexual politics, at least. (Sorry about the bait-and-switch.)
Actually, “asexual politics” seems closer to the mark in the case of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Duke, Nov.) by Benjamin Kahan. Decoupling celibacy (if that’s how to put it) from assumptions about religious inhibition or repressed gay identity, Kahan maintains that celibacy is “a distinct sexuality with its own practices and pleasures.” Well, to each his or her own. Perhaps the author will be celibacy’s heroic equivalent of the now almost legendary German sexologist whose life and work Ralf Dose recounts in Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement (MR/NYU, Feb.).
That said, the celibate lifestyle seems unlikely to face the kind of legal and political issues portrayed in When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars (Rutgers, Nov.) by Layane Parish Craig, or Katrina Kimport, Queering Marriage: Challenging Family Formation in the United States (Rutgers, Dec.).
The early stages of family formation typically include reading one of the pregnancy manuals that Marika Seigel studies in The Rhetoric of Pregnancy (University of Chicago Press, Dec.), teasing out the genre’s history and subtexts. Jocelyn Elise Crowley thinks about how to make parenthood and employment compatible, rather than a zero-sum trade off, in Mothers Unite: Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life (Cornell University Press, May).
Sarah S. Richardson goes in quest of Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago, Nov.) -- where we also find the coding that produces death, which is even more persistent. (Mortality has no equivalent of the option for celibacy.) Billy G. Smith offers one view of the Grim Reaper’s unrelenting determination in Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World (Yale, Nov.), his account of the yellow fever pandemic of the 1790s.
In The Thought of Death and the Memory of War (Minnesota, Oct.), Marc Crépon reflects on the desensitizing, depersonalizing effect of knowing about the mass slaughters of the 20th century. With Death and the Afterlife (Oxford, Oct.), originally delivered as the Tanner Lectures for 2012, Samuel Scheffler argues that we have a deep, even unconscious need to trust in the continuation of human life on earth long after we’ve returned to dust. He’s probably right, but I would still prefer not to think about it.
Admittedly, it’s not one of the more urgent or troubling questions raised by Edward Snowden’s revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting online communication on a massive scale. But I ask it anyway, in complete seriousness: How does PRISM deal with all the spam?
By a conservative estimate, spam makes up at least two-thirds of e-mail traffic; the figure can run as high as 90 percent. Only a little of it breaches the filters on your e-mail account, though not for want of spammer ingenuity. In addition, there are the spam blogs (splogs) and related webpages -- billions of them -- offering “content” consisting random bits of text copied from other sites, or streams of complete gibberish, with a few advertising links sprinkled throughout. Shady enterprises set them up to drive up the search engine rankings for the product or company so advertised.
So how does the NSA navigate across this bottomless, churning ocean of spam? Are there digital warehouses full of it somewhere -- systematically recorded and indexed, just in case Al Qaeda is hiding messages among the offers for online gambling, cheap term papers, and penis-related pharmaceuticals? Is there an exhaustive map of all the botnet systems out there – the networks of computers infected with software that turns them into one giant platform for distributing spam, or launching cyber-attacks? Is spam not just an irritating fact of life but a potential implement of 21st-century warfare?
Three paragraphs ending in question marks seem like enough -- and all I have are suspicions, rather than answers. A normal response to spam is to ignore it or to resent the intrusion. Thinking of it as a definitive factor in contemporary life seems … peculiar. But Finn Brunton’s unexpectedly captivating book Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (MIT Press) demonstrates that the stuff does far more than just burden or pollute the normal process of online communication.
For Brunton, an assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan, spam must be understood as a historical phenomenon – an especially dynamic nuisance, mutating almost as fast as anyone can figure out how to block it, transforming the digital environment by constantly flooding it. In a compact formulation that becomes richer as the book advances, Brunton defines spamming as the process “of leveraging information technology to exploit existing gatherings of attention.” Its history “is the negative shape of the history of people gathering on computer networks… It is defined in opposition to the equally shifting and vague value of ‘community.’ ”
That history spans at least four decades. The origins of the term in an infectious “Monty Python” skit give some indication of the community first obliged to deal with spam: the pre-Web brotherhood of techies that emerged around ARPANET and consolidated itself via the early computer bulletin boards, MUDs and MOOs, and Usenet. “Because it’s a joke whose humor relies on repetition,” Brunton writes, “and because geeks love ‘Monty Python,’ it became a rather tedious running gag in the early culture of networked computers” for a geek to cut-and-paste the word “spam” repeatedly.
The term’s application then expanded to cover various other impositions on everybody’s patience. Someone posting Star Trek fan fiction to a Lord of the Rings group, or vice versa, was spamming. So was the con man who – around this time 25 years ago – posed as an impoverished college student, asking people on scores of newsgroups to help him out by mailing a dollar to a post office box in Nebraska. This seems to have precipitated the first massive anti-spamming effort: after identifying the malefactor’s name and phone number, the offended parties made sure he received lots of hate mail, late-night phone calls, and unwanted pizza deliveries. Brunton treats this nonviolent vigilantism as a symbolic variant of the charivari, an old folk custom in which the community expressed its disapproval by surrounding someone’s house and making enough noise to raise the dead.
Early debates took place over how best to prevent or respond to spamming – by having groups come up with and self-enforce rules of conduct, for example, or a moderator serving as benign despot, or digital charivari measures administered with extreme prejudice. The strategies and tactics up for discussion were less a product of some pre-existing community spirit than improvised responses to bad behavior by obtuse newcomers. Resorting to legal or political measures in the offline world was not really an option, given the milieu’s libertarian streak.
By the early 1990s, more and more newbies were showing up on the Internet, only to find it “governed by cliques of weird, ferocious nerds only too happy to dictate when and how outsiders could speak, but [with] no power beyond their internal consensus.” Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the advent of spamming in the form everyone knows and loathes it today: “On April 12, 1994, users of roughly 6,000 active newsgroups logged on to find a 34 line message” advertising the legal services of a couple of moderately shady lawyers in Arizona. A few months later they would publish a book called How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, although not before provoking the mother of all charivaris: automatic phone calls filling their answering machine with noise, sheets of black construction paper faxed to their office until the machine burned out, and one of the earliest denial-of-service attacks mounted against their Internet service provider... “Usenet as a whole still operated within fairly tight limits of bandwidth, memory and cost,” Brunton points out. “Two individuals in Arizona had just enormously overconsumed the pool of common resources.”
But as understandable as the rage this inspired may have been (it’s gratifying to learn that one of the lawyers was eventually disbarred) ad hoc retribution could never have much deterrent effect, given all the money to be made. Brunton goes on to trace the rise of spamming as an increasingly despised though legal aspect of e-commerce -- and its quick degeneration into reliance on dishonest and exploitive techniques such as phishing.
Between the threat of anti-spamming legislation and the development of ever more effective tools for blocking spam, it became difficult for the merely shady businessperson to make quick, dishonest buck. The field was abandoned by just about everyone but the outright criminals harvesting credit card information or planting malicious software on the unwary public’s computers. Towards the end of the narrative, Brunton discusses a less-crooked though equally mercenary practice: the use of spammy techniques to influence search-engine results. As with e-mail filtering, search-engine algorithms are constantly under development to spot and deflect spam – which in turn inspires efforts to game the system.
Spam is “the hyper-thyroidic version of existing uses of the Internet. Spammers take advantage of existing infrastructure in ways that make it difficult to extirpate them without making changes for which we would pay a high price, whether in the hobbling of our technologies or in contradicting the values that informed their design.” And Brunton ends on an unexpectedly challenging note:
“If ‘spamming’ at the most general level is a verb for wasting other people’s time online, can we imagine a contrary verb? That is, can we build media platforms that respect our attention and the finite span of our lives expended at the screen? How would all the things transacted on a computer screen look if they took our time – this existential resource of waking, living hours in a fragile body – as seriously as they could?”
This book, the author’s first, started life at the University of Aberdeen as a dissertation -- a thing difficult to believe because it is so consistently well-written. The analytical and narrative elements are joined in a cogent and seemingly organic way, rather than through the usual shotgun wedding of methodology and source material. I have not come across so absorbing and rewarding a scholarly volume on so unappetizing a topic in quite a while. As for my questions about how spam is being processed by the digital panopticon, that's something for a later historian of spam to explore. Much later, let's hope.
Clifford Lynch recently wrote a piece in which he describes the broken promises to libraries surrounding the introduction of e-books. Instead of a cornucopia of books that would be available at lower prices than print and with various new features enabled by digital technology, we have a peculiar situation where many publishers are refusing to sell books to libraries at all, and often when they do indeed sell them, the books are priced higher than their print counterparts and with various new usage restrictions imposed upon them. So the promises of e-books for libraries remain unfulfilled.
Putting aside the question of who made those promises and how they proposed to hold themselves accountable for their fulfillment, Lynch’s comments lead me to wonder if the advent of e-books has been a good or bad thing for university press publishing, a segment in which I have long had a special interest. On balance I would have to say that as dramatic as the introduction of e-books to the academic sector has been, by and large the fortunes of the press world are not appreciably better than they were four years ago -- or six years ago, to begin the count with the launch of the Amazon Kindle, with apologies to Ronald Reagan and his famous (if misleading) four-year formulation. Indeed, university presses seem to be operating under snugger strategic conditions than even a few years ago. E-books haven’t made all that much difference.
Before saying another word, I must make the qualifying remark that there is great diversity among university presses and that generalizations inevitably introduce distortions. The university presses at Cambridge and Oxford are as large as many commercial firms, possess a global footprint, and manage a broad product portfolio. American presses range from under $1 million in revenue to tens of millions; some publish journals while others do not; and some, despite their small size, are healthily profitable. My comments here put Oxford and Cambridge to the side and talk of the other presses in the aggregate -- that is, there may have been winners and losers among them, but what have their fortunes been as a whole?
University presses have a complex business model, unique in the university world as far as I know, that combines earned revenue with various forms of funding that is not derived from the market place. The earned revenue of these publishers is something of a three-legged stool: books, journals and services. Services can take many forms, but the largest service by far is in the distribution of physical goods on behalf of other, smaller presses. Let’s dig into the earned revenue one leg at a time, putting books last.
1. Services. A number of presses distribute books on behalf of other academic publishers, both domestic and international. Historically this has been a good business, as distribution is a game of scale and a small press has anything but scale. This service lowers the cost of distribution to the small-press client (that is, in comparison to having to provide this service for themselves) and provides a profit for the larger press providing the service.
Unfortunately, this activity is now under stress. Sales of printed books are not growing and in many instances are declining. This leads to excess capacity at warehouses and slow-moving inventory (partially offset by the introduction of digital SRP -- short-run printing). On top of this is the entrance into the sector of commercial players, who change the competitive landscape. It is difficult to be optimistic about the long-term prospects for this service.
Presses are also seeking to provide other services, especially digital services, but this will be a steep hill to climb. The problem here is that the competition is everywhere. Do you want to provide print-on-demand services for third parties? Well, you and a dozen other outfits. How about digital asset management, where the provider warehouses digital files that can be accessed and manipulated by clients? Well, you and two dozen other outfits. We needn’t get into file conversion, the creation of ebook apps, or pretty much anything digital. The competition is too keen.
Some presses attempt to provide publishing services to other departments within their institutions. This is a good idea (there is no point in having 20 different people trying to figure out how to convert a PDF to an EPUB file), but the scale is small. Overall, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that income from third-party services will not be an ensured source of funding for presses in the future. And this problem has intensified over the past 4 years–or 6–as print books migrate to digital formats.
2. Journals. Journal publishing over all is a very good business for certain large publishers, and it is still a good business for many university presses. By my estimate, the American presses, taken together, publish about 200 journals; adding Oxford and Cambridge to the mix would add perhaps 600 more. This is out of a universe of approximately 25,000. There is a clear hierarchy in journals publishing. The commercial firms Elsevier, Springer, and John Wiley sit at the top, followed by such firms as Taylor & Francis, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage and the major not-for-profits (e.g., ACS) — and of course Oxford and Cambridge. Below that group are many university presses and professional societies (e.g., AIP, APS). Smaller still are many other professional societies, which may have a tiny portfolio of journals.
The problem for university presses is that the journals business is all about scale and the one thing the presses do not have is scale. Scale permits a publisher to establish a global footprint, to invest in technology, to pay large guarantees to attract professional societies to the roster, and to market the publications into every corner of the marketplace. The journals market is not growing as rapidly as it once did outside of a few notable Gold OA publishers (e.g., PLoS), which in turn has put even greater pressure on publishers to achieve a greater and greater scale, the better to dominate academic library budgets and squeeze out the publications of smaller firms (which are likely in turn to sell out to the larger publishers, thereby increasing the latter publishers’ scale still further, a cycle that is vicious or virtuous depending on which side of the table you sit on).
The race for scale has resulted in the larger publishers poaching the journals formerly handled by many university presses. Thus we have seen a collection of anthropology journals leave the Unviversity of California Press for John Wiley, and Elsevier come bidding for a journal formerly managed by Chicago. Even Oxford is big enough to act as a poacher, sometimes bidding for the publications handled by the smaller presses. Thus the journals segment for university presses (always excepting Oxford and Cambridge) is a less reliable source of income today than it was even a few years ago. Barring a bold new strategy for journals, it is difficult to make a case for growth for any but the largest publishers.
3. Books. What university presses mostly do is publish books. They publish outstanding books and they publish them well. While the book segment is still primarily a print business (about 90 percent), electronic revenue is growing rapidly. There are no presses to my knowledge that are not now publishing ebooks. This is a growth segment, and the presses are understandably proud of it.
Unfortunately, the book business, whether for print or digital works, is a tough one, especially in a segment where some titles may sell as few as 300 copies and a sale of 10,000 copies is a matter of astonishment. The fixed costs of book publishing are simply too high for the small market for scholarly books, and the introduction of ebooks does nothing to whittle away at those fixed costs. Many presses lose money on the sale of books, which in turn puts more pressure to find revenue in the already challenged segments of journals and services.
Another problem for the presses’ foray into ebooks is the dominance of Amazon, which exacts a significant toll from the presses for distribution. Amazon gets more powerful every day and the demands made on tiny scholarly publishers are becoming strident. A dollar taken from the operating margin of a university press is handed over to the shareholders of Amazon, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. While exceptional editorial talent always finds a way to punch its way through a hostile distribution environment, not all editorial work is exceptional and the energy behind every punch has a cost. Ebooks, in other words, are a good and necessary move for the university press world, but they are not likely by themselves to provide financial stability.
And so all three legs of the three-legged stool are rickety, making the prospects for university press publishing not particularly bright. On the other hand, the prospects are not bleak; the presses continue to earn the bulk of their income from the marketplace (over 90 percent of press budgets are covered by earned income). This contradicts the prevailing narrative, which suggests that university press publishing is doomed, that the presses are losing tons of money, and that only a radical overhaul of the business model can “save” university press publishing. This very point was made to me by a university librarian, who noted that her institution’s press had lost several hundred thousand dollars in the prior year. Good lord, what are we to do? But contrast this with the librarian’s own budget, which entailed a cost to the university of over $30 million. People, some perspective, please! This bringd us back to the point that presses are set up as subsidized profit centers, whereas most university functions are set up as cost centers. Which is the bigger burden to the parent institution, the small subsidy of a profit center or the large budget of a cost center?
Using a yardstick of 4 years -- or 6, or 10 -- we would have to say that the presses’ overall situation has gotten tighter; and we would conclude that the “promise” of e-books (though here again I have to ask who is making these promises) has not meaningfully changed the fortunes of the university press world. This is because electronics are not a strategy; electronics are an enabling technology that has to be put in service to a strategy. If we want to meet Clifford Lynch’s challenge, let’s stand up in front of the whiteboard and do some serious thinking.
While in Iceland a few weeks ago, I tried to work up the nerve to try hàkarl, one of the local delicacies. It is prepared by burying chunks of Greenland shark meat in the ground for a few weeks so that it can “ferment” (the nicest word possible here), after which it is unearthed and kept in a smokehouse until extra tasty. The smell goes on for miles. One tourist compared it to “a tramp’s socks soaked in urine.” The flavor, everyone says, is not nearly as bad as the aroma, although the description alone is sufficient to tickle the gag reflex.
My suspicion was that the hàkarl tradition began with one drunken Viking daring another to eat putrid seafood. On first arriving in Reykjavik, I felt up to the challenge, if only because clogged sinuses had deprived me of smell and taste for a week. But Iceland has the world’s cleanest air, and after breathing it for a couple of days, my senses were functional, even keen … and I flinched. My wife was unable to contribute to the YouTube subgenre of “tourist eats hàkarl” videos. Clearly no Viking blood flows in these veins.
Be that as it may, I could tell, by the time we left, that the city itself had a smell -- distinctive and unpleasant, like rotting eggs perhaps. It came from the sulfurous fumes emitted by Iceland’s geothermal springs. The island sits atop (or rather, was created by) the ridge or boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As they move apart from each other, heat surges up from beneath the earth’s crust – hence the volcanoes, and frequent minor earthquakes, as well as water so hot you can boil an egg in it.
Returning to my desk a few days later, I found, atop the clutter, a book showing the glowing mouth of a volcano on its cover, with the title Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld by Salomon Kroonenberg (Reaktion Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The topic had sounded intriguing before our trip. Now the title itself promised to keep the vacation mood alive just a little while longer.
Kroonenberg is emeritus professor of geology at the University of Delft, in the Netherlands – and Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur seems very much a professor emeritus’s book. It blurs the line between memoir (or travelogue) and a pedagogically compelling exposition of the author’s field. And the author wanders across that field guided by his own sui generis map. As far as I know, “the underworld” is not a contemporary geological concept. It leads him across an enormous and various range of ancient and modern literature concerning the world beneath our feet. The earth sciences become part of the humanities, and vice versa. The treatment is essayistic (comparisons to Stephen Jay Gould come to mind occasionally) yet the volume coheres as a whole. It is the work of someone who knows not only his subject but the history and sources of his own mind. This might be called full intellectual maturity, a ripening; the quality is rare.
Kroonenberg’s point of departure is the contrast between the crystalline transparency of the heavens above -- where we can see objects billions of miles away, weather permitting – and the opaque universe beneath our feet: “the most unknown part of our planet, despite the fact that the center of the Earth is no further away than London is from Chicago.” The deepest location most of us will occupy for very long is six feet under, and not out of curiosity. The association of the underworld with darkness and death comes naturally, and the heroes who travel in its realms (Orpheus, Anaes, Dante, etc.) usually go there because they’ve lost someone. In the case of Jesus – according to the pseudepigraphal Gospel of Nicodemus – the trip is a mission to subdue Satan and lead “Adam and all the saints out of hell.”
Following the geographical references and descriptions in these and other accounts of subterranean visits, Kroonenberg goes in search of the real-world sources of how the underworld has been depicted – the original river that becomes mythologized as Styx, for example. Kroonenberg is often pursuing suggestions left by explorers and scholars over the centuries. Their lives and writings become part of the narrative, along with the author’s own travels and his explanations of geological phenomena.
The author moves through history in a crablike fashion -- from ancient and medieval stories to recent knowledge of the earth’s structure, but never through the shortest possible route of compare-and-contrast exposition. Alongside the fictional or legendary figures, more and more historical figures appear as the chapters proceed, bringing their speculations on stage. (Leonardo da Vinci drew a reasonably good cross-section of the Earth, showing the layers beneath its crust. René Descartes “was the first to assume that the core of the Earth was hot.”)
All the while, Kroonenberg’s personal recollections weave in and out of the text, from his childhood scientific interests to aspects his career, such a collaborating with specialists in pedology, the study of dirt, while working at an agricultural school:
“Experienced soil surveyors roll a small clump of soil into a sausage and stick it into their mouths, chew it, ponder it for a while, and then pronounce their verdict: light loam, 15 percent clay. And then it starts, as there is always more than one pedologist around the pit at any one time. They take turns to jump in, pick at the wall, and taste the soil: ‘I think it’s heavy loam, 20 percent clay.’ … There are endless discussions on the basis of qualitative, subjective observations, where the lack of statistical evidence is compensated for by years of experience in hundreds of pits. Bullshit around the pit, that’s what we call it.”
Not surprisingly, one of the author’s favorite books as a child was Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne, in which the narrator and his uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, gain access to the subterranean world through a volcano in Iceland. Kroonenberg recalls that the uncle was “an irritable and conceited scholar who gave a not particularly popular course on mineralogy” and gathered knowledge “for himself and not for others.”
In the Scholastic Books edition of Verne’s novel that I read constantly as a kid, that little bit of characterization was left out. Perhaps the editors worried that it was too unflattering a picture of a teacher. In any case, Kroonenberg himself is nothing like the uncle, if his book is anything to go by. It makes me want to go back to Iceland to have a look at that volcano. Next time, I might also sample a bit of hàkarl, or, failing that, chew some dirt.
When I was young I trained as an actor and as a reader of poetry, particularly metered verse. I’m accustomed to delivering keynotes and making other kinds of presentations. I also have experience as a singer — I was in a reggae band in Britain when I was young, though perhaps this isn’t the best testament to my abilities. As soon as I left the band had two top-20 hits in a row.
I felt passionate about narrating this book because it is not only an analysis of such things as the vulnerability of the education system and the easy accessibility of guns, it is also a deeply personal account of my experience before, during, and after the rampage attack on the campus. Though I reported the English department’s concerns about Seung-Hui Cho to many units on campus, and though he did eventually seek help from campus counseling, at his hands, we still experienced the worst college shooting in history. I wrote the book because it seemed inevitable that other attacks would occur, especially if we as a nation didn’t learn from the errors and missteps of the past.
It was my responsibility to utter the words I had written. Honest, open communication is the only meaningful gift we have to give to those who lost loved ones in the attack. At the end of the book I apologize to the victims' families for not being able to prevent this horror. How could someone say these words on my behalf? It’s not the kind of responsibility you can delegate.
It wasn’t until it was confirmed I could narrate the book that I realized I didn’t know if I could do it. Although I had read excerpts from it during readings and keynotes, reading the book aloud all the way through was a different matter altogether. What would I do when I reached the part about how I learned the perpetrator was an English major with whom I had worked? How would I get through the chapter "A Boy Named Loser," ("Loser" was Cho’s own name for himself) — a chapter in which I describe Cho’s agonized, menacing silence as he sat in my office, wearing his reflective sunglasses indoors?
But there was no point in focusing on what ifs. Best take the bull by the horns, my late mother would have said, her remembered voice always a source of consolation. We would be recording for six hours a day for about a week. In readiness, I bought honey-and-lemon throat lozenges and made a strong flask of mint tea. To warm up my voice on the 10-minute drive to the studio, I sang songs from The Sound of Music: "Edelweiss," "My Favorite Things" and "I Have Confidence in Me" — which I didn’t. Nevertheless, I sang with gusto, trusting in the power of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the fact that my car was soundproof.
I must have looked more eccentric than usual as I drove along Blacksburg’s winding country roads doing an impersonation of Fraulein Maria. But it made the process less daunting — as if I were still the homely-looking Anglo-Jamaican girl who used to belt out songs like "Singin’ in the Rain" as she trudged through a downpour on the way home from convent school; as if I were still the person I was before tragedy almost felled me like a tree, and, for a time at least, robbed me of the ability to sing at all.
Originally, I was supposed to travel to Maryland or DC to do the recording — a four-and-a-half hour drive from Blacksburg. It would mean staying in a hotel far from the comforts of home. I didn’t look forward to it. But Bruce Kitovich, the producer Audible assigned me, went out of his way to find a studio here in Blacksburg. It was a thoughtful thing to do, and it allowed me to meet Earl Norris, musician, owner, and operator of Four Loud Barks studio. As it turned out, Earl’s wife and my husband knew each other from way back. As soon as I entered Earl’s studio I felt at ease.
Apparently, according to Bruce, it’s not as unusual as it used to be to have authors read their own work. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is especially true for memoir. If the recording is straightforward — and it often is for nonfiction — Audible’s in-house team checks the finished recording for quality control and decides which sentences need to be re-recorded. It’s a relatively speedy and efficient process that takes a matter of weeks.
We began recording the book on Sunday January 13, a mere three weeks after the heartbreaking attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Early the next morning, my husband’s mother died. Mama Edna was a lovely woman — the kind of mother-in-law you hope you will be blessed with. I was even more concerned I wouldn’t be able to get through the recording without becoming emotional. Surprisingly, however, the process was one of the most calming experiences I have ever had.
Something strange happens when you record your own book. The relationship you have to your own words shifts and alters. You deliver a sentence in a particular way, stumble, then reread it with a completely different emphasis, one that can catch you by surprise. You hadn’t realized that was what you meant when you wrote the sentence, but it’s suddenly clear that of course that’s what you were trying to say. You are speaker and auditor, author and interpreter. You hear words anew.
I sat alone in Earl’s room-sized studio, a ribbon microphone a few inches from my mouth. I had been experiencing severe back pain for several weeks, so I sat in a chair with my elbows propped up by fat green pillows. This brought the book closer to me and meant I didn’t have to bear its physical weight while I read. Through the headphones my voice came back to me as not quite mine, as if someone else — a close relative, my mother, perhaps?— was speaking. It’s a strange sensation. Having done many radio interviews, I was accustomed to the aural intimacy of exceptionally sensitive headphones, but it was different this time. I was able to read the book out loud all the way through because it was a disembodied voice doing the reading — a projection and personification of sorts.
It occurs to me now that this process is much like the writing process we engage in as poets and novelists. When we teach creative writing, we talk about finding our voices, not simply because we want to assert our own identities, but because the voice is the guide leading us to the next place. It finds us when we’re lost and puts us back on the path towards revelation. Or at least we hope it does. Though I was in the Four Loud Barks studio on the other side of Earl’s garage while Earl was in the basement of his house several rooms away, I wasn’t alone. Not only did I have my own voice to keep me company, I had Earl’s voice, too, coming through the headphones. He listened intently to what I read and made sure it sounded O.K.
Today -- April 16, 2013 -- marks the six-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. In interviews I am often asked whether or not I have been able to move on from what happened. I try to explain that you don’t move on completely from calamities like this. What you can do with the help of friends and loved ones, however, is find a way to reconcile yourself to what has happened — or maybe, if you’re lucky, a way back to laughter again. In my case, I had to find a path toward forgiveness not only of the perpetrator but also of myself for not being able to prevent such a terrible tragedy from occurring in my beloved community. It is a long arduous journey — one I have to admit I am still on. I am grateful for the voices that accompany us, grateful that they serve to remind us of the world’s steadfast, indestructible beauty.
So henceforth we have a whole new category of eminent religious figure: Pope Emeritus. I don’t know if the expression will catch on, but at least it’s less irreverent than the meme describing the current situation as Popus interruptus. (That’s proper cod-Latin, by the way. Please don’t feel obliged to correct the grammar.)
It can’t continue this way for long. Easter falls on the last day of this month; as a Catholic friend puts it, “The show must go on.” Those of us who are neither believers nor gamblers have no real investment in the outcome, of course. But the office and its claim to authority are intriguing, even so, and I spent part of the weekend reading a couple of dialogues between Vatican dignitaries and eminent secular thinkers.
The most recently published of them, Belief or Unbelief: A Confrontation (Helios Press, 2012), is also, oddly enough, the earlier of the two. It consists of a series of open letters exchanged, in the pages of a newspaper, between Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, who at the time of his death last year was a cardinal. In his introduction to Belief or Nonbelief?, the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox notes that Martini -- besides being a prominent scholar of the New Testament and the organizer of an annual standing-room-only lecture series for nonbelievers -- had been spoken of “as a possible future pontiff.”
The occasional reference in their dialogue suggests that it originally took place circa 2000 as part of what Florian Schuller, the director of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, calls “a very intensive, open, and committed discussion” under way in Italy “between intellectual representatives of the credenti (‘believers’) and the laici (‘secular persons’).” The colloquy between Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger making up The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (Ignatius, 2006) was held at the Academy in early 2004, about 15 months before the cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI.
From Schuller’s introduction to The Dialectics of Secularization, it’s clear that the exchange between the philosopher and the pontiff-to-be was arranged with the example of the Italian discussions in mind. Schuller sounds an almost diffident note. “We in Germany,” he writes, “seem to lack a common philosophical dialogue on the basis of different positions that are interested in each other (as in Italy) or structures that permit a plurality of world views to engage in a societally institutionalized yet completely free conversation on a high level of reflection (as in France).”
On the other hand, Habermas can engage in a public dialogue on religion and secularity without anyone expecting him to clarify whether or not he believes that Adam and Eve shared Eden with the dinosaurs (as in America). No doubt Schuller’s chagrin is heartfelt, but from this side of the water it can be difficult to credit.
Max Weber once referred to himself as “religiously unmusical” – not hostile to religion, that is, but temperamentally unable to respond to whatever it is that inspires or motivates faith. To judge by his writings on religion over the past decade or so, Habermas is a religiously unmusical person trying very, very hard to feel the rhythm. By contrast, Eco can actually carry a tune (he cites Thomas Aquinas with an evident passion for nuance and implication) even if he says he lost his faith in his early 20s and addresses Cardinal Martini from the standpoint of a nonbeliever.
In his exchange with Ratzinger, as elsewhere, Habermas maintains that (1) the modern, democratic, constitutional state does not require metaphysical legitimation, but (2) religious traditions, which do involve large claims about the nature and meaning of the universe, provide something crucial to making society livable, since they transmit and sustain values that otherwise would be pretty scarce.
All citizens may be equal in the eyes of the law, at least in principle. But recognizing formal equality is one thing, and respecting the dignity of others, or feeling an imperative to reduce their suffering, is quite another. It is, in short, a careful if rather vigorless effort by an adherent of “methodological atheism” (as Habermas describes himself elsewhere) to acknowledge that religious faith is not just the un-integrated remnant of pre-modern culture.
Nothing in Eco’s open letters to Martini is incompatible with what Habermas has to say, but they strain less to make room for the idea that believers and non-believers might be sharing a world together, rather than just putting up with each other. He begins with the point that even the most secular-minded people may find something fascinating about the biblical notion of an apocalyptic end of the world. And in the book’s closing pages he writes, “I’m not in favor of instituting a clear-cut opposition between believers in a transcendental God and those who don’t believe in any notion of a superior being.”
Eco and Habermas, then, are Unitarian Universalists, in the sense of the old joke that UUs believe in one God at the most. And their opposite numbers from the Vatican are as patient and indulgent of them as possible. It is the appropriate response to dealing with thinkers who are stumbling in the general direction of absolute Truth. (Lest my Catholic mother-in-law read this and take it the wrong way, let me make clear that it’s Martini and Ratzinger who regard the church as possessing absolute Truth. Indeed, they both spell it with the capital T.)
The worldly philosophers struggle valiantly to make some accommodation between the pious and the profane. The cardinals respond in kind. But in the end, each poses what is essentially the same question to their interlocutors. “It’s difficult for me to see,” Martini admits, “how an existence inspired by” the standards of “altruism, sincerity, justice, solidarity, [and] forgiveness” can be upheld universally “when their absolute value is not founded on metaphysical principles or a personal God.” Ratzinger warns of “the hubris of reason that is no less dangerous” than blind faith. The atomic bomb is preeminently the product of human intelligence exercising itself. And what guidance will keep us from succumbing to that hubris? It can only come from Whoever created reason in the first place.
Not a new thesis, by any means. It's one of the oldest strategems of Christian apologetics: You value compassion, charity, forgiveness, etc. Those values must have a basis, or else they are arbitrary. And if you don't think they are arbitrary (if you don't think that the difference between empathy and viciousness is simply one of taste), then you implicitly believe they have a source, hence a creator, hence God. The merits of the argument have been debated in dormitories for ages, and in the Vatican for even longer. But Eco insists on a reality that can't be reasoned away:
"It seems evident to me that someone who has never experienced transcendence, or who has lost it, can make sense of his own life and death, can be comforted simply by his live for others, by his attempt to guarantee someone else a livable life even after he himself has disappeared. Certainly, there are those nonbelievers who are not at all worried about giving meaning to their own death. There are also those who claim to be faithful but would be willing to rip the heart from a living baby in order to preserve their own lives. The power of an ethical system is judged by the behavior of the saints, not by the benighted cuius deus venter est [whose god is the belly]."
Eco is suggesting, then, that there are unbelieving saints, just as there are pious psychopaths. I have no idea how they would get canonized, but it's an uplifting idea.
Given its history of losing faculty members in bizarre and distressing ways – amidst circumstances only whispered about in dread and confusion, the details never to be gleaned from the public affairs office’s laconic press releases -- Miskatonic University has never been a magnet for outside research funding. Observers have long wondered how the institution keeps its Arkham, Mass., campus open, much less populated.
The answer may be found, as it happens, as close as the shelves of any bookstore dedicated to marketing wares to the undiscriminating reader. More than 30 years ago, in a transaction conducted with its usual aversion for publicity, the Miskatonic administration contracted with a New York publisher to issue a mass-market edition of the jewel of its library’s rare-books collection. This was the sole known copy of the Necronomicon, a grimoire compiled in the 8th century C.E. by Abdul Alhazred and translated by the polymath John Dee, official astrologer to Queen Elizabeth.
The book’s reputation with nonspecialist readers has come primarily from a handful of references by the American speculative fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, in short stories concerning the ancient beings who lurk beneath the sea and in higher dimensions, waiting to reclaim Earth and to continue their pursuit of cosmic ends that are incomprehensible to the blinkered human intellect, though no doubt unspeakably horrific.
One may well doubt the wisdom of Miskatonic’s licensing arrangement. To publish a guide to the blasphemous necromancy that would summon creatures both pestilen and cyclopean to manifest themselves on the plane of an all-too-fragile reality would be a questionable decision even if the text were only available in an Elsevier journal, rendering access too expensive for most of mankind. How much more irresponsible, then, for it to be released in paperback edition readily shoplifted by teenage Satanists who perform the rituals after huffing paint thinner. (They account for roughly 67 percent of The Necronomicon’s current readership.)
But given Miskatonic’s difficulty in attracting donations from alumni – or, in many cases, even finding them – the Necronomicon royalties have been a godsend, if that is the word one wants. Certainly the venture has gone better than the institution’s recent experiment in distance learning, a mere hinting reference to which, it is said, drives survivors into a fury of shrieking madness.
Now, only a little of the above is, strictly speaking true. Miskatonic University does not actually exist. (It does have a website, however.) John Dee was indeed a formidable man of learning and Her Majesty’s sometime astrologer, but he did not translate the Necronomicon in the 16th century for the very good reason that Lovecraft only made it up in the 20th. That a paperback edition of what purports to be the cursed book has been published is true, though not the statistic about two-thirds of its enthusiasts being inhalant abusers. There, I’m just guessing.
The significant thing about the Necronomicon isn’t just that a nonexistent book can generate so much fascination that someone decides to write it; that’s just the sign of a publisher savvy enough to follow up a good tip. No, the interesting thing is to trace the subsequent history of the manifestly bogus paperback. Enough people have convinced themselves is an authentic work of occult knowledge that there is now a milieu dedicated to practicing its rituals, and to defending its integrity as an ancient document. Lovecraft only thought he was writing fiction, you see, because the Old Gods were using him as a mouthpiece. Prove they weren’t!
A paper appearing in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies covers the phenomenon in sufficient detail for most readers, though it looks like the tip of the iceberg next to The Necronomicon Files, a study of the whole murky saga that debunks the cultists’ claims and rationalizations with great thoroughness. Which won’t make much difference, of course: the will to believe is a hardy vine, with deep roots. But The Necronomicon Files is a more serious work of scholarly detective work than might have seemed possible, given the topic, and I’ve been meaning to bring it up in this column since discovering the book.
Shorter and less outré, but tackling another case of imagination and reality getting tangled up, is Georges Minois’s The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed, published in France three years ago and now available in translation from the University of Chicago Press. In broad outline, the stories look analogous. The condensed version has it that in the course of a 13th-century test of strength between sacred and secular authority, Pope Gregory IX claimed that, among countless other sins and blasphemies, Frederick II had either written or caused to be written a work called De tribus impostoribus -- “On the Three Imposters” -- referring to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Something to offend everyone, in every place the Crusades had reached, as if that hadn't been enough.
The title was so appalling that church authorities naturally wanted to make sure it was destroyed, once they’d read it themselves, just to see how great a danger it posed to others who might be lead astray. And they surely would have held quite a bonfire, had anyone actually published the work -- or, indeed, written it. The fact that the book did not exist made it difficult to find, of course, while also firing the imagination in transgressive ways.
“Repeatedly,” Minois writes, “people would think they were on the point of uncovering it, of knowing who was the author, and each time it was only an illusion. It was an effective scarecrow, because its title alone created fear…. [yet] people were curious to know the contents: what revelation would it contain? what arguments might it develop? The church tracked it to destroy it, while heretics and atheists chased after it to read and make use of it, and still others sought it out of simple curiosity. Every time hope was dashed, curiosity grew.”
Something like a prototype of the Necronomicon phenomenon, then -- if more historically consequential, and altogether less silly. (I love Lovecraft, but the thought of living within a belief system extracted from his fiction is ghastlier than anything in it, and he almost certainly would have agreed.)
Once established in the public's imagination, Imposters became a reality. It took longer -- centuries rather than decades -- but a couple of books purporting to be the unholy treatise were eventually published. The one that appeared in France in 1768 was, for a while, in as much demand as a couple of pornographic novels of the day. (The titles of the novels were fair advertisement of the contents, and would set off every web blocker ever invented.)
Success, of a kind, then, but fleeting. By the 18th century the arguments for agnosticism or atheism were well-established (as were the responses from the faithful, and the replies of the doubters) and it’s not surprising to learn that the fascination wore off after that. But for more than five hundred years, The Three Imposters menaced the faithful and inspired the skeptics, and earned its modest place in history. We should all be lucky enough to write a nonexistent book with so long a shelf life.