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Bob Higgs, the Man with a Smart Card

In Creativity, Economics, Law, Politics, Science on October 11, 2017 at 6:45 am

A different version of this article appeared here in the Library of Law and Liberty.

The U.S. healthcare industry is notoriously inefficient and troublesomely massive. It’s also wealthy and getting wealthier and more powerful as medical costs have exceeded, by some estimates, $10,000 per person.

What’s to be done?

Back in 2005, a group of healthcare experts asked, in a RAND Corporation study, whether electronic medical-record systems could transform healthcare by reducing costs and increasing efficiency. The answer, in short, was: it depends.

Although systematizing electronic medical records could save over $81 billion per year, these potential savings would be realized, the study concluded, only if healthcare in the United States integrated new technologies to allow for the flow of medical data between the patient and relevant parties such as doctors, hospitals, or insurers. Non-standardized record systems would result, by contrast, in inconsistent, inefficient, and incomplete data exchanges that could increase rather than decrease costs.

RAND Corporation revisited the issue in 2013, finding that healthcare expenditures had grown by $800 million since 2005 in part because systems of electronic medical records remained non-standardized. “We believe that the original promise of health IT can be met,” wrote Arthur L. Kellermann and Spencer S. Jones, the authors of the study, “if the systems are redesigned to address these flaws by creating more-standardized systems that are easier to use, are truly interoperable, and afford patients more access to and control over their health data.”

Healthcare in the United States is constitutionally fragmented: Not only does the industry consist of various entities, from doctors and hospitals and insurance providers to commercial suppliers of devices, goods, and services, but also the pricing of medical services is unreliable and unpredictable in part because the country is so large and the industry subject to different regulations from state to state.

Information integration could go a long way towards cutting medical costs and increasing medical savings. For example, it could reduce waste resulting from misdiagnoses, repetitive procedures, erroneous prescriptions, and duplicate testing and imaging.

What if there were a simple solution for this waste?

One entrepreneur believes he’s found the technology to revolutionize the way healthcare records are shared and maintained through Health Information Exchange (HIE).

Robert E. Higgs is the founder of ICUcare, a company that aims to improve technologies in the fields of telemedicine and electronic health records. He has invented a “smart” health card that can contain a patient’s complete medical history, which is stored in a cloud. His vision is that patients own their personalized smart cards, which they can voluntarily submit to healthcare providers and institutions for cheaper and more efficient services. Data on the card are easily stored and updated and exchanged only with the patient’s consent; thus, in the case of emergency, the patient’s medical records can be readily accessed and quickly reviewed.

There remains, sadly, a felt need to transition the healthcare industry from paper to electronic records. The smart card meets this need, but it does much more. It tracks your billing history, reconciles erroneous payment information, protects against fraud and identity-theft, and serves as a conveniently portable device.

One would expect such a card to have been in circulation by now, given the extensive government investment in HIEs. President George W. Bush, for example, issued an executive order in 2004 to create the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) designed to advance technology and innovation pertaining to the exchange of healthcare information. This office created eHealth Exchange, a coalition of states, federal agencies, hospitals, medical groups, pharmacies, and other such entities that’s now run by the Sequoia Project.

But the federal government and the public-private partnerships it has fostered have been unable to produce a smart card that matches Higgs’s in capability and functionality. And even if they had, government retention of sensitive medical data would, among other things, raise privacy concerns that voluntary private transactions and coordination would alleviate.

Moreover, the many spinoff organizations emanating from the ONC and DHS have only crowded the field with swollen, inefficient government and quasi-government structures and programs. Rather than helping the situation, these putative “solutions” have slowed down innovators like Higgs, forcing them to deal with politicians and bureaucrats rather than patients and hospitals.

Having heard about Higgs’s curious smart card through a friend, I decided to reach out to him to find out more. I asked him, first, about privacy implications, namely whether the smart card could increase incidents of non-consensual data transfers and disclosures.

The smart card, he said, “never sends data to the care provider—it brings the care provider to the data.” He explained that data on the smart card are encrypted using the same standards as those used by the Department of Defense for common-access cards.

“We used Advanced Encryption Standard 265, or AES-256,” he said, “the highest standardized encryption specification that’s used worldwide by entities as diverse as corporations and the U.S. government. The key size of 256 bits means that the key, which turns encrypted data into unencrypted data, is a string of 256 ones or zeros.”

I admitted that I didn’t fully understand.

“Put it this way,” he said. “The research I’ve read indicates that each character has two possibilities—one or zero—for which there are 2,256 possible combinations. If 50% of the possibilities must be exhausted to determine the correct key, then you need to guess 2,255 of them [to hack the encryption].”

Pressed about how long it would take to test all possible keys to break the encryption, Higgs, parroting a claim I’ve heard used to describe bitcoin, said, “The universe itself has existed for 14 billion years. It would take something like 1.5770813e18 longer than our universe’s full age to exhaust just half of the key-space of our encryption.”

An attempt to verify Higgs’s figures turned up a plethora of studies and blog posts about encryption and decryption, bitcoin, hacking, and computer engineering (the calculation appearing on many blogs and tech sites is ~6.7e40, which equals 235,385,265,247,008,100, which is multiplied by 6.7 to yield the 1.5770813e18 number that Higgs supplied).

These calculations can be confusing, but the point Higgs wanted to drive home is that the smart card reverses the current power imbalance: today corporations and governments store medical records that patients often can’t access or don’t know about; the smart card, however, empowers patients to store their own records that they may voluntarily release to corporations and governments. The smart card, in other words, returns agency to the consumer whose data is at stake.

It would also, Higgs alleges, reduce rates of healthcare fraud. According to estimates by the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, the United States loses tens of billions of dollars every year due to healthcare fraud. Canada, Germany, and France have each instituted some form of a smart card to successfully cut back on fraud.

A company called Cerner has just landed a deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) to implement an electronic health records system. The move away from the VA’s Vista system to Cerner’s electronic system suggests that at least some government officials are aware of the need to adopt interoperable and integrated measures of retaining and sharing medical records. The VA will implement the same electronic health record system used by the DOD.

So far as I can tell, however, Cerner has not created a smart card like Higgs’s. I reached out to Adam Lee, a senior communications partner at Cerner, to ask about smart cards and Cerner’s hopes and plans with the VA. Lee referred me to this press release about Cerner’s work with the VA but did not discuss smart cards.

Talking to Higgs is like talking to a computer: more engineer than salesman, he’s strikingly intelligent but has difficulty getting through to politicians. He’s monotone and meticulous, frank and unexcitable. He’s fast with facts and figures and savvy with technology, but the average politician wants to know primarily whether the smart card appeals to constituents and only secondarily whether it’s operable and efficient.

Higgs grew emotional during our phone call, however, as he told me the story of his wife, who underwent a routine procedure that went wrong. He claimed that, during this standard operation, errors were made that could have been avoided had her doctors possessed his wife’s proper medical records. She’s been subjected to numerous tests throughout her illness, he said, only to have them redone when visiting a new facility or specialist because of an inability to simply retrieve her medical history. She remains in bad shape, living at home with hired assistance.

This unfortunate situation has motivated Higgs to seek answers to save others from similar mistakes in similar circumstances.

If Higgs’s smart card is so great, you might ask, why hasn’t it been adopted? Why haven’t I heard of it? Why doesn’t it circulate widely? Why aren’t hospitals jumping at the opportunity to use it?

The answer, according to Higgs, is simple: the healthcare industry doesn’t want you to know about his smart card because it doesn’t want to reduce costs. It’s full of people getting rich off inefficiency and artificially high prices. Lobbyists for the healthcare industry have taken advantage of the fear and apathy of politicians to ensure that technological progress is delayed or stymied.

Thus, Higgs describes his job in terms of David versus Goliath.

There are numerous ideas about how to trim healthcare spending; Higgs’s smart card is not the exclusive remedy or sole fix. But it’s an encouraging development. Healthcare spending makes up about 17.8% of the nation’s economy, according to an actuary report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. And it shows no signs of decreasing. This trend is unsustainable; something must be done—and undone.

We could use more men like Higgs and less government to push us in the right direction before it’s too late.





The American Nietzsche? Fate and Power in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Pragmatism

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on February 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Seth Vannatta of Morgan State University recently coauthored a piece with me on Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The piece appeared in the fall 2016 issue of UMKC Law Review.

Richard Posner is one of the few legal minds to have noticed the affinity between the philosophies of Holmes and Nietzsche. Dr. Vannatta and I hope to expand the circles of interest in this topic.

Our article demonstrates how Holmes’s pragmatism both comports with and departs from Nietzsche’s existentialism. Holmes’s pragmatism shares with Nietzsche’s existentialism a commitment to skepticism, perspectivalism, experiential knowledge, and aesthetics, as well as an abiding awareness of the problematic nature of truth and the fallibility of the human mind.

We suggest that Holmes was familiar with Nietzsche’s writings and that the two thinkers turned away from Christian ethics and glorified the life struggle in distinctly evolutionary terms. Both men celebrated the individual capacity to exercise the will for purposes of personal autonomy, greatness, and creative or aesthetic achievement. Nietzsche, however, did not share Holmes’s belief in the pragmatic potential of meliorism, which marks the distinction between their notions of fate.

The thinking of Nietzsche and Holmes converges in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a manifest influence on both Holmes and Nietzsche and whose thinking on fate and power, inflected as it is by aesthetic pragmatism, shapes our understanding not only of Holmes and Nietzsche in isolation but also of Holmes and Nietzsche as paired, ambitious philosophers concerned about the role of fate and power in human activity.

The article is available for download here in the SSRN database for those who are interested in reading more about this curious relationship between two intellectuals whose ideas shaped society during the 20th century.

Five Poems by Selma Mann

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on December 21, 2016 at 6:45 am


Selma Mann’s first book of poetry, Mourning Cloak, was published in 2013. She has poems forthcoming in Conclave, Red Dirt Forum and elsewhere. Her second book, Whimsical Warrior, will be released in spring 2017. An attorney by trade, her practice areas include land use and ethics. She reinvented herself as a poet in 2011 following a devastating series of losses. She resides in Newport Beach, California.



I visited the large firm
where, as a fledging attorney,
I felt mercilessly forced
into the shape of a litigator,
a mold alien to my spirit.
I suspect my muse
miraculously maintained
my core,
guarding it,
until I could transform
to the person within,
urging me to seize
grief and enchantment,
as she patiently imparted
the language of the spirit,
enabling the alchemy
that translates my life
to poems.


Once upon a time

During my life as an attorney,
particularly as an ill-suited litigator,
which is not a sartorial comment,
I was repeatedly encouraged
to consider possibilities,
specters of catastrophic expectations,
labeling it risk assessment.
My outlook dwelled, quite comfortably,
in a community of like-minded colleagues and friends.
The process got a start in law school,
Socratic method sharpening analysis,
substituting questioning for assumptions,
even as it inexorably set aside my spirit,
any suggestion of miracles and magic.
Objective was to prepare for the bar exam,
tortuous final test,
orgy of ceremonial competition,
feeding frenzy of memory, analysis,
exhaustion and fear.

I innocently believed spending my day
pondering imaginary outcomes
didn’t leave a permanent imprint on my soul,
until my soulmate died.
Vulnerable and bereft, I surrendered to grief.
Fear insinuated itself among my thoughts
painstakingly disguising itself as logic and prudence
constricting me until I could hear only its hiss,
proclaiming omnipresence and reality,
as it barricaded connection and light,
assailed by visions of my own illness and mortality,
or, far worse, of those I love,
oppressed by weight of a future alone.

I wallowed in that tiny cell,
my world grew smaller,
until my muse illuminated a path
away from outcomes and the past,
grounded in the moment,
the journey within.
A floodgate of other memories poured over me
allowing my spirit to heal,
recalling life once upon a time,
when I was gifted with the magic of a soulmate.
The astounding privilege of raising two daughters,
time communing with second graders
teaching them to read, spell and compute,
even as they demonstrated more important lessons,
mastery over joy,
living in the present,
uncanny abilities to share their lives fully,
though our time together was defined to end,
nourishing my muse to survive her hibernation.


Moving on

It’s almost eight years
since the nightmare night
I came upon your lifeless body.
I’ve lived a separate lifetime
since that time,
changes building upon each other,
I learn to say “no”
to unwanted relationships,
swallowing guilt
for hurt feelings,
reluctant, against my will,
turn away from my career
as an attorney,
tripping over a calling as a poet,
unexpected passion in my path,
publishing a book,
seeing my poem/children fly
in lives of their own.
I notice men noticing me,
reminding myself that I get to choose,
suddenly aware of loneliness
lurking in my solitude,
feeling disloyal to you,
as possibilities of companionship
bring equal measures
of excitement
and disquiet.


Domesticated Monarchs

During my prior attorney-life,
I would not have believed,
however briefly,
in a domesticated butterfly.
Yet a magical Monarch
emerged from its chrysalis
as Donovan and I
watched, whispering,
inches away.
We carried the planter
to the garden,
on a mission of liberation,
but she remained in place
for several days,
undisturbed by our proximity,
as we hovered over her,
hoping she could fly.
The Monarch didn’t leave
until the anniversary
of the day my Love and I
were wed.
Little wonder I feel
a profound connection
to butterflies.
From time to time,
a Monarch in the garden
gracefully flutters to eye level
and remains, unperturbed,
as I stand transfixed,
within arms’ reach.
Could this be a descendant,
of the magical Monarch,
basking in my love and admiration,
feeling secure
in the safety of my garden,
predisposed to trust?



Lives cut short
by war,
defending freedom
others’ greed for power,
gratitude mixed with tears
prayers for peace
whispers of wisdom
among leaves,
perfect order
blanketing chaos.

Part One: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 9, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.


AM:  Thank you for this interview, Mark.  Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal.  What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?

MZ:  In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.

In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.

It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.

Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.

AM:  After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive? 

MZ:  There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.

The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.

Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.

AM:  Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.

MZ:  Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.

Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.

I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.

So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.

AM:  You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.  

It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.

The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.

What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.

AM:  What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?

MZ:  I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.

Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.


Part Two coming soon….

Deidre McCloskey and the Enrichment of the World

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Economics, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Property, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 26, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following excerpt is adapted from my review of Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Equality; the original review, which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, is available here.

If it’s true that Wayne Booth inspired Deirdre McCloskey’s interest in the study of rhetoric, then it’s also true—happily, in my view—that McCloskey has refused to mimic Booth’s programmatic, formulaic methods and boorish insistence on prosaic succinctness. Bourgeois Equality is McCloskey’s third volume in a monumental trilogy that began with The Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010), each published by the University of Chicago Press. This latest volume is a Big Book, alike in kind but not in theme to Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (2000), Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (1990), or Herald Berman’s Law and Revolution (1983) and Law and Revolution II (2006). It’s meandering and personal, blending scholarship with an essayistic style that recalls Montaigne or Emerson.

McCloskey’s elastic arguments are shaped by informal narrative and enlivened by her plain and playful voice. At times humorous, rambling, and deliberately erratic, she gives the distinct impression that she’s simply telling a story, one that happens to validate a thesis. She’s having fun. Imagine Phillip Lopate articulating economic history. McCloskey is, in this regard, a latter-day Edward Gibbon, adopting a mode and persona that’s currently unfashionable among mainstream historians, except that she’s more lighthearted than Gibbon, and unashamedly optimistic.

Writing with an air of confidence, McCloskey submits, contra Thomas Piketty, that ideas and ideology—not capital accumulation or material resources—have caused widespread economic development. Since 1800, worldwide material wealth has increased and proliferated; the quality of life in poor countries has risen—even if it remains unequal to that of more prosperous countries—and the typical human being now enjoys access to the food, goods, services, medicine, and healthcare that, in earlier centuries, were available to only a select few in the richest parts of the globe. The transition from poverty to wealth was occasioned by shifting rhetoric that reflected an emerging ethical consensus. The rhetorical-ethical change involved people’s “attitudes toward other humans” (p. xxiii), namely, the recognition of shared experience and “sympathy,” as Adam Smith stated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Attributing human progress to ideas enables McCloskey to advocate the norms and principles that facilitated economic growth and social improvement (e.g., class mobility and fluidity) while generating extensive prosperity. Thus, her project is at once scholarly and tendentious: a study of the conditions and principles that, in turn, she promotes.

She argues that commercialism flourished in the eighteenth century under the influence of ideas—such as “human equality of liberty in law and of dignity and esteem” (p. xxix)—that were packaged in memorable rhetoric and aesthetics. “Not matter, mainly, but ideas” caused the Great Enrichment (p. 643). In other words, “[t]he original and sustaining causes of the modern world […] were ethical, not material,” and they included “the new and liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the new and democratic social idea of dignity for them” (p. xxxi). This thesis about liberty and dignity is clear and unmistakable if only because it is repetitive. McCloskey has a habit of reminding readers—in case you missed her point the first, second, or fifty-seventh time around—that the causes of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Enrichment were ideas, not “narrowly economic or political or legal changes” (p. 470). She maintains, to this end, that the Scottish Enlightenment succeeded in combining the concepts of liberty and dignity into a desirable form of equality—not equality of outcomes, of course, but of opportunity and treatment under the law. And the Scottish model, to her mind, stands in contradistinction to the French example of centralized, top-down codification, command, planning, and design.

A perennial villain lurks in the pages of her history: the “clerisy,” which is an “appendage of the bourgeoisie” (p. 597) and often dubbed “the elite” in regular parlance. McCloskey calls the clerisy “the sons of bourgeois fathers” (p. xvii) and “neo-aristocratic” (p. 440). The clerisy includes those “artists, intellectuals, journalists, professionals, and bureaucrats” who resent “the commercial and bettering bourgeoisie” (p. xvi). The clerisy seeks, in different ways at different times, to extinguish unfettered competition with exclusive, illiberal, irrevocable grants and privileges that are odious to free society and offensive to the rights of average consumers. “Early on,” says McCloskey, referring to the period in Europe after the revolutionary year 1848, “the clerisy began to declare that ordinary people are misled in trading, and so require expert protection and supervision” (p. 609). The clerisy since then has been characterized by paternalism and a sense of superiority.

Because the clerisy is shape-shifting, assuming various forms from time to time and place to place, it’s a tough concept to pin down. The word “clerisy” does not appear in the book’s index to permit further scrutiny. By contrast, McCloskey’s general arguments are easy to follow because the book is separated into parts with questions as their titles; subparts consisting of onesentence headings answer those questions.

In a massive tour de force such as this, readers are bound to take issue with certain interpretive claims. Historians will find McCloskey’s summaries to be too breezy. Even libertarians will accuse her of overlooking manifest wrongs that occurred during the periods she surveys. My complaints are few but severe. For instance, McCloskey is, I believe, either careless or mistaken to announce that, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, “under the influence of a version of science,” in a territory that’s never specifically identified, “the right seized upon social Darwinism and eugenics to devalue the liberty and dignity of ordinary people, and to elevate the nation’s mission above the mere individual person, recommending, for example, colonialism and compulsory sterilization and the cleansing power of war” (p. xviii).

Let’s hope that it’s innocent negligence rather than willful distortion that underlies this odd, unqualified, categorical assertion. Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles (2016) and Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers (2016) describe how, in the United States, social Darwinism and eugenics were adopted primarily, though not exclusively, by the Left, not the Right. These recent books come on the heels of several scholarly treatments of this subject: Thomas M. Shapiro’s Population Control Politics (1985), Philip R. Reilly’s The Surgical Solution (1991), Joel Braslow’s Mental Ills and Bodily Cures (1997), Wendy Kline’s Building a Better Race (2001), Stefan Kuhl’s The Nazi Connection (2002), Nancy Ordover’s American Eugenics (2003), Christine Rosen’s Preaching Eugenics (2004), Christina Cogdell’s Eugenic Design (2004), Gregory Michael Dorr’s Segregation’s Science (2008), Paul A. Lombardo’s edition A Century of Eugenics in America (2011), and Alexander Minna Stern’s Eugenic Nation (2016). These represent only a small sampling.

Is McCloskey unware of these texts? Probably not: she reviewed Leonard’s book for Reason, although she did so after her own book reached press. At any rate, would she have us believe that Emma Goldman, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene Debs, Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger, John Maynard Keynes, Lester Ward, and W. E. B. Du Bois were eugenicist agitators for the political Right? If so, she should supply her definition of “Right,” since it would go against commonly accepted meanings. On the matter of colonialism and war, self-identified members of the Old Right such as Albert Jay Nock, John Flynn, and Senator Robert Taft advocated precisely the opposite of what McCloskey characterizes as “Right.” These men opposed, among other things, military interventionism and adventurism. The trouble is that McCloskey’s muddying of the signifiers “Left” and “Right” comes so early in the book—in the “Exordium”— that readers may lose trust in her, question her credibility, and begin to suspect the labels and arguments in her later chapters.

Other undefined terms only make matters worse, ensuring that McCloskey will alienate many academics, who, as a class, are already inclined to reject her libertarian premises. She throws around the term “Romanticism” as if its referent were eminently clear and uncontested: “a conservative and Romantic vision” (p. xviii); “science fiction and horror fiction [are] … offshoots of Romanticism” (p. 30); “[Jane Austen] is not a Romantic novelist … [because] [s]he does not take Art as a model for life, and does not elevate the Artist to a lonely pinnacle of heroism, or worship of the Middle Ages, or adopt any of the other, antibourgeois themes of Novalis, [Franz] Brentano, Sir Walter Scott, and later Romantics” (p. 170); “Romanticism around 1800 revived talk of hope and faith and a love for Art or Nature or the Revolution as a necessary transcendent in people’s lives” (p. 171); “Romantic candor” (p. 242); “the late eighteenth-century Romantic literary critics in England had no idea what John Milton was on about [sic], because they had set aside the rigorously Calvinist theology that structured his poetry” (p. 334); “the nationalist tradition of Romantic writing of history” (p. 353); “Romantic … hostilities to … democratic rhetoric” (p. 510); “[i]n the eighteenth century … the idea of autonomy triumphed, at any rate among the progressive clerisy, and then became a leading Romantic idea, á la Victor Hugo” (p. 636); and “the Romantic conservative Thomas Carlyle” (p. 643).

To allege that the clerisy was “thrilled by the Romantic radicalism of books like Mein Kampf or What Is to Be Done” (p. xviii) is also recklessly to associate the philosophies of, say, Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth with the exterminatory fantasies of Hitler and Lenin. McCloskey might have guarded against this misleading conflation by distinguishing German idealism or contextualizing Hegel or by being more vigilant with diction and definition. Her loose language will leave some experts (I do not profess to be one) scratching or shaking their heads and, more problematic, some non-experts with misconceptions and misplaced targets of enmity. One imagines the overeager and well-meaning undergraduate, having read Bourgeois Equality, setting out to demonize William Blake or destroy the reputation of Percy Shelly, about whom Paul Cantor has written judiciously.2 Wouldn’t originality, imagination, creativity, and individualism—widely accepted markers of Romanticism—appeal to McCloskey? Yet her unconditionally derogatory treatment of Romanticism—which she portrays as a fixed, monolithic, self-evident thing—undermines aspects of that fluctuating movement, period, style, culture, and attitude that are, or seem to be, consistent with her Weltanschauung.

But I protest too much. These complaints should not diminish what McCloskey has accomplished. Would that we had more grand studies that mapped ideas and traced influences across cultures, communities, and eras. McCloskey takes the long view, as we all should. Her focus on rhetoric is crucial to the future of liberty if, given the technological advances we have made, the “work we do will be more and more about decisions and persuading others to agree, changing minds, and less and less about implementation by hand” (p. 498). Equally significant is her embrace of humanomics—defined as “the story [of] a complete human being, with her ethics and language and upbringing” (p. xx)—which materializes in casual references to Henrik Ibsen’s plays, challenges to the depiction of John Milton “as a lonely poet in a garret writing merely to the starry heavens” (p. 393), analyses of Jane Austen’s novels, and portrayals of Elizabethan England. Her historical and narrative arc enables us to contextualize our own moment, with all of its troubles and possibilities.

Best of all, her book is inspiring and exhilarating and brimming with rousing imperatives and moving calls to action. “Let us, then,” she says at one point, “not reject the blessings of economic growth on account of planning or pessimism, the busybody if wellintentioned rationalism of some voices of the French Enlightenment or the adolescent if charming doubts of some voices of the German Romantic movement, fashionable though both attitudes have long been among the clerisy. As rational optimists, let us celebrate the Great Enrichment, and the rhetorical changes in freer societies that caused it” (p. 146). At another point she encourages her audience to guard against “both cynicism and utopianism” (p. 540), and elsewhere to heed “trade-tested cooperation, competition, and conservation in the right mix” (p. 523). These little nudges lend her credibility insofar as they reveal her true colors, as it were, and demonstrate that she is not attempting—as is the academic wont—to hide her prejudices and conceal her beliefs behind pretended objectivities.

Poverty is relative and, hence, permanent and ineradicable, despite McCloskey’s claim that we can “end poverty” (p. 8). If, tomorrow, we woke up and the wealth of each living person were magically to multiply twentyfold—even fiftyfold—there would still be people at the bottom. The quality of life at the bottom, however, would be vastly improved. The current manifestation of global poverty shows how far we as a species have advanced in the last few centuries. McCloskey is right: We should pursue the ideas that accelerated and achieved human flourishing, that demonstrably brought people out of distress and destitution. Hard sciences and mathematical models are insufficient in themselves to convey the magnitude and splendor of these ideas and their accomplishments. Hence we should welcome and produce more books like McCloskey’s that undertake a “rhetorical-ethical Revaluation” to both examine and celebrate “a society of open inquiry,” one which not only “depends on rhetoric in its politics and in its science and in its economy,” but which also yields intellectual creativity and political freedom (p. 650). In McCloskey’s approach, economics and the humanities are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are mutually illuminating and, in fact, indispensably and inextricably tied. An economics that forsakes the dignity of the human person and his capacity for creativity and aesthetics does so at its own peril and to its own disgrace. All economics is, at its core, humanomics. We could do without the latter term if we understood the former.


Barzun, Jacques. 2000. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. New York: HarperCollins.

Berman, Harold J. 1983. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

——. 2006. Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Braslow, Joel. 1997. Mental Ills and Bodily Cures: Psychiatric Treatment in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Cantor, Paul. 1997. “The Poet as Economist: Shelley’s Critique of Paper Money and the British National Debt,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 13, no. 1: 21–44.

Cantor, Paul, and Stephen Cox, eds. 2009. Literature and the Economics of Liberty. Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Cogdell, Christina. 2004. Eugenic Design. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cohen, Adam. 2016. Imbeciles. London: Penguin Press.

Dorr, Gregory M. 2008. Segregation’s Science. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kuhl, Stefan. 2002. The Nazi Connection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leonard, Thomas C. 2016. Illiberal Reformers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lombardo, Paul A. 2011. A Century of Eugenics in America. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

McCloskey, Deirdre. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 2010. Bourgeois Dignity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ordover, Nancy. 2003. American Eugenics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Paglia, Camille. 1990. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Reilly, Philip R. 1991. The Surgical Solution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosen, Christine. 2004. Preaching Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, Thomas M. 1985. Population Control Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Stern, Alexander Minna. 2016. Eugenic Nation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Why Read? An Interview With Mark Edmundson

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Creativity, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 5, 2016 at 6:45 am

In the following C-SPAN Booknotes interview, Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia discusses books, readings, the liberal arts, and more.

A Conversation Between Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, British Literature, Communication, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Civilization on September 21, 2016 at 6:45 am

In 2012, the Royal Institution of Great Britain hosted Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton for an evening of conversation and debate.  Here is the footage of that event:

Varieties of Emersonian Pragmatism: Synthesis in Justice Holmes

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship on April 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

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There is a long tradition of scholarship regarding Emerson’s pragmatism. Among those who have written about Emerson’s pragmatism are Russell B. Goodman, Giles Gunn, Poirier, Cornel West, Joan Richardson, Levin, and James M. Albrecht. Even earlier Kenneth Burke noted that “we can see the incipient pragmatism in Emerson’s idealism” and that “Emerson’s brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of an out-and-out pragmatism.”

Goodman analyzed Emerson as “America’s first Romantic philosopher,” the counterpart to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle whose idealism would influence William James and later John Dewey and Stanley Cavell.

Gunn examined while contributing to the critical renaissance of American pragmatism in the 1990s; he suggested that Emerson cast a long shadow “at the commencement of the pragmatist tradition in America” and that Emerson belonged to a family of writers that included Henry James, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

To reach this conclusion Gunn adopted a more diffuse definition of pragmatism that went beyond the philosophical tradition of Peirce, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Richard Bernstein, John McDermott, and Richard Rorty. He attended to aesthetically charged political texts presented not only by Emerson but also by W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Flannery O’ Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, Poirier, Cornel West, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Fish. Gunn left behind James’s “somewhat restricted focus on the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth” and turned instead to literary and cultural works that affected social issues.

Gunn’s focus on the social indicates a debt to Dewey, and his valuation of Emerson must be considered in a Deweyian context. That Emerson is a pragmatist is somewhat implied or tacit in Gunn’s account; his discussion is not about what elements of Emersonian thought evidence pragmatism but about how Emerson influenced Henry James Sr. and his sons William and Henry, who in turn influenced a host of other writers; how Emerson spearheaded an American tradition of strong poets and transmitted optimism to subsequent writers; and how Emerson cultivated aesthetic rhetoric and anticipated progressive sociopolitical thought.

If Gunn is a bridge between classical philosophical pragmatism and neopragmatism of the aesthetic variety, Poirier was neither classical philosophical nor neopragmatist, eschewing as he did the logics and empiricism of Pierce and James as well as the political agitating of some of Gunn’s subjects. Poirier concentrated above all on the literary and cultural aspects of pragmatism: not that these aspects are divorced from politics, only that their primary objective is aesthetic or philosophical rather than partisan or activist.

Poirier sought to “revitalize a tradition linking Emerson to, among others, Stein, and to claim that new directions can thereby be opened up for contemporary criticism.” He, like Gunn, was frank about his attempt to expand the pragmatist canon that purportedly began with Emerson. “As Emerson would have it,” he explained, “every text is a reconstruction of some previous texts of work, work that itself is always, again, work-in-progress.”

This constant, competitive process of aesthetic revision gives rise to a community of authors whose mimetic activities gradually form and reform a canon that resembles and functions like the constantly reformulating legal principles in a common-law system: “The same work gets repeated throughout history in different texts, each being a revision of past texts to meet present needs, needs which are perceived differently by each new generation.” Within this revisionary paradigm, Poirier heralded Emerson as the writer who “wants us […] to discover traces of productive energy that pass through a text or a composition or an author, pointing always beyond any one of them.”

Cornel West explored the radical implications of pragmatism to democracy in the works of Emerson, Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhur, Lionel Trilling, Roberto Unger, and Michel Foucault. Unlike the interpreters of pragmatism discussed above, West extended the pragmatist canon from America to the European continent and professed a radical preoccupation with knowledge, power, control, discourse, and politics. Like the previous interpreters, however, he acknowledged the family resemblances among disparate pragmatist thinkers and their ideas and so, in Nietzschean or Foucaultian fashion, undertook a “genealogy” of their traditions.

Recent work by Colin Koopman has run with the historicist compatibilities between genealogy and pragmatism to articulate novel approaches to cultural studies. Although the topic exceeds the scope of this short post, genealogical pragmatism might serve as a promising methodology for future studies of the common-law system.

“My emphasis on the political and moral side of pragmatism,” West explained, “permits me to make the case for the familiar, but rarely argued, claim that Emerson is the appropriate starting point for the pragmatist tradition.” West’s emphasis on pragmatism as a “new and novel form of indigenous American oppositional thought” has an interesting valence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s new and novel form of dissenting from the majority and plurality opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes’s jurisprudence was oppositional, in other words, although not radical in the sense that West means.

West credited Emerson with enacting “an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream European philosophy,” and Holmes’s dissents likewise moved American jurisprudence away from its British origins—especially from Blackstonian paradigms of the common law—and towards an oppositional paradigm modeled off theories of Darwinian struggle.

Richardson borrows a phrase from Darwin, “frontier instances,” which he borrowed from Francis Bacon, to trace the continuity of pragmatism in American life and thought. Her argument “proceeds by amplification, a gesture mimetic of Pragmatism itself, each essay illustrating what happened over time to a form of thinking brought over by the Puritans to the New World.” She treats pragmatism as a uniquely American philosophy and more impressively as an organism that develops through natural selection: “The signal, if implicit, motive of Pragmatism is the realization of thinking as a life form, subject to the same processes of growth and change as all other life forms.” Her diverse subjects signal the definitive expositors of pragmatism for their respective eras: Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, William and Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein.

Richardson’s Emerson is a visionary who retained a ministerial or spiritual philosophy but who repackaged it in less conventionally Christian terms than his Puritan, evangelical predecessors. She explains that Emerson imperfectly replicated the work of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to make it apprehensible in the rapidly changing American context. Her latest book, Pragmatism and American Experience, endeavors to untangle the knot of pragmatism and transcendentalism, searching Cavell for illumination regarding the perceived mismatch between these two prominent schools of American philosophy.

Albrecht interrogates the term “individualism” and describes its currency within a pragmatic tradition that runs from Emerson, William James, and Dewey to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Unlike the aforementioned scholars of Emerson, who “do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the ‘pragmatic’ character of Emerson’s thought,” Albrecht comes close to a practical answer that is made more insightful and understandable in light of Holmes’s judicial writings that appear in media (opinions and dissents) that control rather than merely influence social patterns.

Albrecht strikes a balance between radical and conservative characterizations of pragmatism, “which gets accused of […] contradictory sins: it optimistically overestimates the possibilities for reform, or it succumbs to a conservative gradualism; it is too committed to a mere, contentless method of inquiry that undermines the stability of traditional meanings, or its emphasis on existing means places too much weight on the need to accommodate existing customs, truths, and institutions.” The same could be said of the common-law tradition that Holmes adored and about which he authored his only book, The Common Law, in 1881.

Albrecht never mentions the common law, but there is a mutual radiance between his analysis of Emerson and the longstanding notion of the common law as the gradual implementation and description of rules by courts, aggregated into a canon by way of innumerable cases and in response to changing social norms. Nor does Albrecht mention Holmes, whose Emersonian contributions to pragmatism only affirm Albrecht’s contention that “there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, […] but by reading Emerson pragmatically—by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson.”

One such benefit involves the sober realization that Holmes’s Emersonian pragmatism cannot be or ought not to be distorted to mean an equivalence with contemporary and coordinate signifiers such as “Left” and “Right,” “Liberal” and “Conservative,” for there are as many self-proclaimed “Conservative pragmatists,” to borrow a term from the jurist Robert H. Bork, as there are Cornel Wests: thinkers “concern[ed] with particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, tradition, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies—[which] does not qualify as a universal principle, but competes with and holds absurd the idea of a utopia achievable in this world” (Bork’s words).

Due to the long line of scholars celebrating and studying Emersonian pragmatism, Albrecht is able to remark, “The notion that Emerson is a seminal figure or precursor for American pragmatism is no longer new or controversial.” He extends and affirms a scholarly tradition by depicting “an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.”

More important than Albrecht’s being the latest link in a chain is the clarifying focus he provides for examining an Emersonian Holmes by attending to two ideas that comport with common-law theory: first, that Emerson prefigured James by walking a line between monism and pluralism and by emphasizing the contingency and complexity of natural phenomena; and second, that Emerson considered ideas as derived from past experience but open to creative revision in keeping with present circumstances.

Regarding the first, Albrecht seeks to undermine a prevailing assumption that Emerson was some kind of absolute idealist, as even William James suggested. Albrecht’s argument is based on the position that Emerson rejected essentialisms and envisioned a cosmos consisting of competing forms and ideas that grow and evolve because of their competition.

Regarding the second, Albrecht seeks to show that although Emerson imagined himself as breaking from past forms and ideas, he also regarded the past as indispensable to our understanding of the present and as necessary for generating and cultivating creative dynamism; the past is inescapable and must be utilized to shape the present, in other words. “All attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain,” Emerson preached in this vein in his Divinity School address, adding that all “attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason[.] […] Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.”

Albrecht promises an Emerson who recounts the mimetic and derivative nature of creativity and genius; yet his portrait of Emerson is incomplete without Poirier, who describes an Emersonian stream of pragmatism flowing with idiomatic, resonate, sonorous, and figurative language. Poirier’s notion of superfluity is central to understanding Holmes’s Emersonian role within a common-law system where “[e]very several result is threatened and judged by that which follows” (Emerson, “Circles”). In the common-law system according to Holmes, a “rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts” as they are permutated in case precedents (Emerson, “Divinity School Address).

Poirier’s notion of Emersonian superfluity involves a thinker’s “continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height,” and to push the syntactical and intellectual boundaries so as to avoid having “the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow” (Emerson, “Circles”). Superfluity is an attempt to realize in language the restive impulse to drive forward and reenergize, to prophesy and transcend. It characterizes language that is designed to “stir the feelings of a generation” (Holmes, “Law in Science and Science in Law”), or less grandiosely to compensate rhetorically for the inability of the written word to realize the extraordinary power of an idea or emotion.


“Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities,” by Simon Perchik

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Essays, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Writing on December 30, 2015 at 8:45 am

Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik is an American poet with published work dating from the 1960s. Perchik worked as an attorney before his retirement in 1980. Educated at New York University, Perchik now resides in East Hampton, New York. Library Journal has referred to Perchik as “the most widely published unknown poet in America.” Best known for his highly personal, non-narrative style of poetry, Perchik’s work has appeared in numerous books, websites, and print magazines, including The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry, The Nation, North American Review, Weave Magazine, Beloit, and CLUTCH.

Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple. There are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many.

It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers move back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader. To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction. Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. Thus, one of the many definitions of poetry might be: Poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. To be made whole, to heal, the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning. It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. (See Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law, edited by James R. Elkins, Editor [Pleasure Boat Studio Press]; see also Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins [The Legal Studies Forum].)

The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, M.D., who, in Brain Storms: A Study of Human Spontaneity, writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, writes:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in The Lives of a Cell, describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty. If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, 1 per cent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…

Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 a.m. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

Walker Evans     Farmer’s wife

Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth? Sorrow?

Not too bad looking. Plain dress

This description went on and on until I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled “On Various Words” from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

Words — bricks and mortar

Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,

building the ant hill,

not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished

it’s too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the aforementioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract. Abstraction and music are soulmates and poetry is nothing if not music. For each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain until it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling,” with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it.

Harold Bloom’s American Sublime

In Academia, America, American Literature, Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on August 12, 2015 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared here in the American Conservative.

What can be said about Harold Bloom that hasn’t been said already? The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake.

Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another.

Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition.

Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself.

Bloom’s latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, examines ambitious and representative American authors, its chapters organized by curious pairings: Whitman with Melville (the “Giant Forms” of American literature), Emerson with Dickinson (the Sage of Concord is Dickinson’s “closest imaginative father”), Hawthorne with Henry James (a relation “of direct influence”), Twain with Frost (“our only great masters with popular audiences”), Stevens with Eliot (“an intricate interlocking” developed through antithetical competition), and Faulkner with Crane (“each forces the American language to its limits”). This mostly male cast, a dozen progenitors of the American sublime, is not meant to constitute a national canon. For that, Bloom avers in his introduction, he envisions alternative selections, including more women: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Flannery O’Connor. Bloom’s chosen 12 represent, instead, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” These writers have in common a “receptivity to daemonic influx.” “What lies beyond the human for nearly all of these writers,” Bloom explains, “is the daemon.”

What is this daemon, you ask. As always, Bloom is short on definition, embracing the constructive obscurity—the aesthetic vagueness—that Richard Poirier celebrated in Emerson and William James and Robert Frost, Bloom’s predecessors. Bloom implies that calling the “daemon” an idea is too limiting; the word defies ready explanation or summation.

The daemon, as I read it, is an amorphous and spiritual source of quasi-divine inspiration and influence, the spark of transitional creative powers; it’s akin to shamanism, and endeavors to transcend, move beyond, and surpass. Its opposite is stasis, repose. “Daemons divide up divine power and are in perpetual movement from their supernal heights to us,” Bloom remarks in one of his more superlative moments. “They bring down messages,” he intones, “each day’s news of the metamorphic meanings of the division between our mundane shell and the upper world.”

What, you might ask in follow up, is the American sublime that it should stand in marked contrast to the European tradition, rupturing the great chain of influence, revealing troublesome textual discontinuities and making gaps of influence that even two poets can pass abreast? “Simplistically,” Bloom submits, “the sublime in literature has been associated with peak experiences that render a secular version of a theophany: a sense of something interfused that transforms a natural moment, landscape, action, or countenance.” This isn’t quite Edmund Burke’s definition, but it does evoke the numinous, what Bloom calls, following Burke, “an excursion into the psychological origins of aesthetic magnificence.”

The Daemon Knows is part memoir, a recounting of a lifetime spent with books. There are accounts of Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Fiedler, and Cleanth Brooks. Bloom’s former students and mentors also make brief appearances: Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Camille Paglia. And Bloom doesn’t just analyze, say, Moby Dick—he narrates about his first encounter with that book back in the summer of 1940. He later asserts, “I began reading Hart Crane in the library on my tenth birthday.” That he remembers these experiences at all speaks volumes to Melville’s and Crane’s bewitching facility and to Bloom’s remarkable receptivity.

Bloom has not shied away from his signature and grandiose ahistorical pronouncements, perhaps because they’re right. Melville, for instance, is “the most Shakespearean of our authors,” an “American High Romantic, a Shelleyan divided between head and heart, who held against Emerson the sage’s supposed deficiency in the region of the heart.” Or, “Emersonian idealism was rejected by Whitman in favor of Lucretian materialism, itself not compatible with Indian speculations.” Or, “Stevens received from Whitman the Emersonian conviction that poetry imparts wisdom as well as pleasure.” These generalizations would seem to service hagiography, but even if they’re overstatement, are they wrong?

My professors in graduate school, many of them anyway, chastised Bloom and dubbed him variously a reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, or a simpleton; they discouraged his presence in my essays and papers, laughing him out of classroom conversation and dismissing his theories out-of-hand. Or else, stubbornly refusing to assess his theories on their own terms, they judged the theories in the light of their results: the theories were bad because certain authors, the allegedly privileged ones, came out on top, as they always have. This left little room for newcomers, for egalitarian fads and fashions, and discredited (or at least undermined) the supposedly noble project of literary affirmative action.

They will be forgotten, these dismissive pedants of the academy, having contributed nothing of lasting value to the economy of letters, while Bloom will live on, continuing to shock and upset his readers, forcing them to second-guess their judgments and tastes, their criteria for aesthetic value, challenging their received assumptions and thumping them over the head with inconvenient facts and radical common sense. The school of resentment and amateurish cultural studies, appropriate targets of Bloom’s learned animus, will die an inglorious death, as dogmatic political hermeneutics cannot withstand the test of time.

Bloom, on the other hand, like his subjects, taps his inner daemon, invokes it and rides it where it travels, struggles against the anxiety of influence and displays all of the rhetorical power and play of the strong poets he worships. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye reverberate throughout his capacious tome, and for that matter his entire oeuvre. Bloom’s psychic brooding becomes our own, if we read him pensively, and we are better off for it.

Those who view literary study as a profession requiring specialized and technical training, who chase tenure and peer approval, publishing in academic journals and gaining no wider audience than groveling colleagues, do not possess the originality, the foresight, or the brute imagination necessary to achieve enduring appeal. Reading, done right, is a profoundly personal activity, an exercise in solitary contemplation and possible revelation; writing, done right, is transference: the redirection of complex states of consciousness and knowing from one person to another. A few sentences of Bloom’s contemplative questioning, such as the following, are worth the weight of whole academic articles: “At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an overemotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.” Here Bloom invites Freudian investigation of himself, summoning the psychoanalytic models he uses on others.

Bloom is now 85. He claims to have another book left in him, making this one his penultimate. His awesome and dedicated engagement with the best that has been thought and known in the world appears to have left him unafraid of the finish, of what comes next, as though literary intimacy and understanding have prepared him, equipped him, for the ultimate. It seems fitting, then, to quote him on this score and to end with a musing on the end: “We are at least bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.”

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