Cheerfulness and fear

The ever-cheerful Virginia Postrel can’t understand how someone could have read her book and been horrified at the world it portrays. No doubt that’s why she’s so cheerful.

Postrel’s account of “style” as a marketing phenomenon seems to me largely accurate, but I think that “style” in that sense is in some ways the opposite of quality and integrity. But read The Substance of Style and Pattern Recognition and decide for yourself.

A thought from Meng-tse,
    whom the round-eyed barbarians
    call “Mencius”

A benevolent man

extends his benevolence

from those he loves

to those he does not love.

A ruthless man

extends his ruthlessness

from those he hates

to those he does not hate.

[VII. B. 1]

I somehow doubt Paul O’Neill has read much Meng-tse, but he will now have a chance to learn this particular lesson from that famous scholar and teacher, Karl Rove.

Pattern Recogntion

William Gibson made a huge splash with Neuromancer, and hasn’t had a second big hit. That’s too bad. People have been missing some very fine books.

I haven’t re-read Neuromancer, which I liked a lot (the scene with the engineered riot is hilarious) but which I recall as having a Big Idea and some snappy writing but not especially well-drawn characters: a gripping story, but not really a very good novel.

Idoru wasn’t nearly as exciting a tale, but I found it better-told than Neuromancer.

And now comes Pattern Recognition, which I read at a single sitting and want to read again soon. The central character is a woman who is allergic to marketing, and especially to branding, and who turns that allergy into a business.

Pattern Recognition might be thought of as the nightmare version of The Substance of Style, or perhaps one should say the exposition of the nightmare that The Substance of Style embodies: a world in which brand identity is substituted for quality rather than signaling quality, in which design is sacrificed to decoration, and in which simplicity, integrity, and aesthetic economy are made the servants of “marketing” rather than standing as alternatives to it.

If you sometimes wonder why people want to wear designer labels on the outside of their clothing, you’re ready to read this book. If, on the other hand that phenomenon never struck you as odd, maybe you need to read this book. And you get some fine dialogue, memorable characterization, and a chilling portrait of Russia under the oligarchs thrown in for good measure.

The world’s saddest poem

Hiking along (see below) I was reflecting on the rant about Ares and Athena by Enoch Root in the Cryptonomicon, of which more later perhaps.

It got me thinking about Greek religion, and when I thought of Aphrodite for some reason a poem from the Greek Anthology popped unbidden into my head and suddenly reduced me to tears. I nominate it for the saddest poem ever written, but if you know a competitor send it to me.

In form, it is a fairly standard dedication of an offering at a temple. A mirror — an expensive item in the days before glass — would have been a natural offering to Aphrodite. The poem is attributed to Plato, and he puts the dedication in the mouth of Lais, a famous courtesan. No doubt it’s even more potent in the original.

A probably more accurate (and obviouslly more complete) translation is here (XXIII), but it doesn’t move me as much as the one I remembered, from a translator whose name I have forgotten in an edition I must have lost twenty years ago.

No doubt the version below isn’t perfectly faithful even to that translation, but I’m prepared to bet it’s close.

I, Lais,

dedicate this mirror to Aphrodite.

For it will not show me as I was,

and I will not look upon myself as I am.

Stephenson and the Philosophick Mercury

I’ve now finished rereading Quicksilver, and am about halfway through my second pass at Cryptonomicon, which makes much more sense now that I have read the first third of the prequel.

It’s hard to believe that the next two volumes of “The Baroque Cycle” will live up the promise of Quicksilver, but then it was hard to believe that Quicksilver would be a worthy companion to Cryptonomicon. If Stephenson brings it off — or rather, if he has brought it off, since the next two volumes reportedly are all written and ready to publish — he will have created a truly major document.

I sense that my enthusiasm isn’t universally shared; at least, I have seen many more references to people looking forward to reading Quicksilver than to people looking back fondly on having read it. I suspect that some may find the sheer historical and intellectual scope and ambition of Stephenson’ project overwhelming.

His theme — rather, one of his themes — as announced in the epigraph to Cryptonomicon, is the isomorphism between cryptanalysis and the scientific enterprise, each attempting to extract meaning from a matrix in which it lies hidden. [Naturally, this leads Stephenson right up to, but in my view not over, the edge of the cliff at whose bottom is Umberto-Eco-style self-reference.]

Somewhat unusually for an unabashed admirer of the scientific enterprise, he insists that the alchemists were also trying to read the cypher, albeit with the wrong key. (The alchemists have gotten friendly literary treatment before, notably by Marguerite Yourcenar in The Abyss and Lindsay Clarke in The Chymical Wedding, but it’s hard to imagine Yourcenar or Clarke making Newton’s optical experiments and mathematical reasoning seem heroic.)

As Cryptonomicon flitted back and forth between WWII and the present, Quicksilver flits between the period of the Stuart Restoration (dividing attention between England and the Continent, especially Amsterdam) and Massachusetts in 1714, though the vast bulk of the book is set in sequence from 1655-1689. Some of the main characters — Waterhouses and Shaftoes — provide ancestry for the main characters in Cryptonomicon.

Quicksilver tries to tell three historical stories at once: the scientific revolution, told thematically in terms of the process by which natural philosophy split itself off from alchemy and dramatically through the development of the Royal Society; the rise of limited government and religious toleration in Britain as typified by the Revolution of 1688; and the development of the first system of more or less world-wide trade, with Amsterdam and later London, as its centers. (The “quicksilver” of the title refers both to the mercury that was the alchemists’ symbol of mind and to the circulation of money.)

The central character, Daniel Waterhouse, is Isaac Newton’s college roommate, and both Newton and Leibniz — whose quarrel Stephenson portrays as the root of a great historical tragedy — figure more prominently as characters than Alan Turing did in Cryptonomicon. Waterhouse, whose father is made to have been Cromwell’s religious mentor, as at least as interesting a character as his descendants in Cryptonomicon, and gets to be close to even cooler stuff: the origins of the Royal Society and the Revolution of 1688.

Stephenson regards the scientific revolution, the Whig revolution, and the development of world trade as (in the phrase from 1066 and All That) Good Things, but he tries to show them warts and all, not only the flawed characters of Newton and William III, but at a deeper level as well: the abandonment of the alchemists’ dream that understanding nature would give self-understanding and its replacement by a dreary mechanistic worldview, the Catholic-bashing and aristocratic arrogance that marred the Whigs’ claim to represent “liberty,” and the fact that world trade meant, very prominently, the trade in slaves.

Jack Shaftoe, so unfortunate and so capable of acting badly, seems to be a refugee from a Pynchon novel, a Baroque-era Benny Profane. As a character, he is beautifully realized, but I found his well-deserved sufferings so poigniant that I didn’t much enjoy the long sections of the book in which he features. (In literature as in food, I have rather a sweet tooth.) His companion Eliza, Duchess of Qwghlm, on the other hand, is much more pleasant company, and much more intelligent.

Stephenson has brilliantly solved the problem of historical fiction by mixing real characters, who as far as I can tell aren’t depicted doing anything we know they didn’t do, with fictitious ones (marked by italics in the list of dramatis personae in the back of the book) who do any damned thing the author wants consistent with the general historical facts of the period. (He’s even invented a new cast of characters for the Cabal that served Charles II, which confused the hell out of me until I caught on.)

Among the actual figures. we get glimpses of Locke, Hooke, Huygens, Pepys, Charles II, James II, Monmouth, Jeffreys, the John Churchill who was to become Duke of Marlborough, William of Orange, Louis XIV, and a very young Ben Franklin.

Stephenson himself recommends Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism as companion reading. I find Braudel tough going, though much less tedious with Stephenson to provide a framework. As it happens, however, Stephenson has chosen a period that inspired not only Pepys’s diary but the best historical work of both Hume and (especially) Macaulay. So if by some mischance the late 17th century doesn’t happen to be your period, and Stephenson leaves you hungry for more historical fact, that hunger can be sated in a most satisfying manner.

In addition, there’s a Metaweb site that makes it easy to look up individual characters or incidents.

I wouldn’t have guessed it from Stephenson’s earlier work, but he has a first-rate historical imagination. Just as an aside, for example, he suggests that the miserable life Louis XIV inflicted on the nobility of France at Versailles wasn’t just a side-effect of his attempt to strip them of political power, but a deliberate act of revenge for his youthful sufferings at the hands of the Fronde. That’s an idea worth chewing over, and Stephenson’s picture of just how awful a place Versailles must have been to live makes it convincing.

So I have no idea why you’re wasting your time reading this weblog when you should be reading Stephenson instead. With any luck, by the end of The System of the World we’ll know not merely who Enoch Root is but what he is at the root of.


I’ve finally started it, and it’s just as great as I’d expected. Greater. A major document.

It turns out to tie into Cryptonomicon, as the first part of a three-volume prequel. The theme of the whole seems to be secret messages. Now we find that encryption and decryption, the apparent theme of Cryptonomicon turns out to be a metaphor the for the problem of interpreting the secret message contained in natural phenomena: a problem which the alchemists tried to solve in one way until the natural philosophers discovered a (partially) successful decoding algorithm.

But that of course suggests that the message in Stephenson’s own text is also at least partly hidden. Post-modern cyberpunk. Whodathunkit?

The good news is that it’s readable in bite-sized chunks. The bad news is that the project is likely to last most of a lifetime, considering that this is the first of three volumes, to which must be added both Cryptonomicon and Braudel’s Civilzation and Capitalism. (The last time I took a crack at the Braudel, I bogged down about 100 pages into the 2000 or so of the three volumes, but with Stephenson’s text as an incentive and guide, I’ll take another crack at it.)

Well, since Stephenson tends to be deliberate in composition (it’s been four years since Cryptonomicon) with any luck by the time Volume II of the Baroque Cycle is out I will have done my homework.

In the meantime, there’s a crib sheet available here, organized by the author himself but with an open invitation for anyone to contribute. I don’t know how they’re going to handle the filtering problem.

Update: Having finished Quicksilver, I still love it.

Harry Potter Update

My defense of Harry Potter against Chris Suellentrop has attracted more high-quality commentary than, perhaps, it deserved: first from Kieran Healy and now from Ampersand.

[UPDATE: Sisyphus Shrugged is also on the case. Sample: “If Harry actually existed, Fred Barnes would write nasty columns about him.”]

My original note expressed doubt about whether Suellentrop’s Slate essay wasn’t some sort of joke that I had somehow failed to get. LeanLeft thinks so, and so does one of my correspondents: Suellentrop’s intended target, they agree, was George W. Bush. That never would have occurred to me, but I believe they’re correct. My bad.

All I can say in my own defense is that Suellentrop, Kieran Healy, and Glenn Reynolds all seem to think that there’s no essential or morally relevant difference between being lucky, brave, and nice and being lucky, weaselly, and nasty. Ampersand and I disagree.

In some sense, of course, everything we are and do depends on our innate characteristics, features of the environment, and random chance, in some combination. (What else is left? Free will? Free of what? Of any determining factor whatever? Then it must be chance.) Even deliberate attempts to change character must themselves be either determined or random, with respect both to the attempt and to the extent of success.

None of that seems to me to change the fact that some people have admirable characters and some have execrable ones, just as some are physically beautiful and others aren’t. It may be unfair, but it it’s still the case.