A deepening sense of foreboding

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

— Richard Rorty, Achieving America, 1998

Abandoned Places

“What I began to say was that whenever you come upon what appears to be an abandoned house—or anything of that kind— and find that it is not really abandoned, that someone is in fact living in it, you should be very suspicious of that person.”

— Gene Wolfe

The Barometer of Damocles

“I remember hearing of one man,” Sasha said, gesturing up at the ridge. “He reached the summit in and conditions, thick snow, with two others. They could see another big storm coming from the east, so they turned round straight away and followed their own tracks back along the ridge. After five minutes’ walking, he went blind in one eye. Click! Just like that — blackness. Like turning off a light. His retina had gone. A couple more paces and click! — the other one went too. Both retinas ripped off by the pressure. They led him for a while, but he would never get down with no eyes. Finally he just sat down in the now to die.”

Sasha shrugged his shoulders. “He’s still up there. That is how it is at height.”

— Quoted by Robert McFarlane, in Mountains of the Mind

Name as Destiny

We came to Tierra Blanca. The descriptive name did not describe the place. Spanish names are apt only as ironies or simplifications; they seldom fit. The argument is usually stated differently, to demonstrate how dull, how literal-minded and unimaginative the Spanish explorer or cartographer was. Seeing a dark river, the witness quickly assigned a name: Río Negro. It is a common name through Latin America; yet it never matches the color of the water. And the four Río Colorados I saw bore not the slightest hint of red. Piedras Negras was marshland, not black stones; I saw no stags at Venado Tuerto, no lizards at Lagartos. None of the Lagunas Verdes was green; my one La Dorada looked leaden; Progreso in Guatemala was backward; La Libertad in El Salvador, a stronghold of repression in a country where salvation seemed in short supply. La Paz was not peaceful, nor was La Democracia democratic. This was not literalness — it was whimsy. Place names called attention to beauty, freedom, piety, or strong colors; but the places themselves, so prettily named, were something else. Was it willful inaccuracy, or a lack of subtlety that made the map so glorious with fine attributes and praises? Latins found it hard to live with dull facts; the enchanting name, while not exactly making their town magical, at least took the curse off it. And there was always a chance that an evocative name might evoke something to make the plain town bearable.

— Paul Theroux

Theroux is a master of the semicolon.


… Sir Edward Hopeless, as guest at Lady Panmore’s ball, complained of feeling ill, took a highball, his hat, his coat, his departure, no notice of his friends, a taxi, a pistol from his pocket, and finally his life.

— Mark Forsyth

Syllepsis is the use of the same word in different ways.

Double Lives

I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.

— Cary Grant

Celebrity logic

When you look at the classical-music repertory, you can’t really complain that a bunch of mediocrities have crowded out the composers of real talent. If you have Monteverdi representing the late Renaissance and early Baroque, or Haydn and Mozart representing the Classical era, or Beethoven, Schubert, Verdi, Wagner, and Brahms standing in for the nineteenth century, you get to feast on a tremendous body of work. Posterity has been more or less right in its judgments. The problem, though, is that Mozart becomes a brand to sell tickets, and there’s an assumption that any work of Mozart is worth scrutiny. In fact, he wrote a fair amount of music that doesn’t radiate genius in every bar. Meanwhile, there are composers of his era— Luigi Boccherini, for example— who produced many fascinating and beautiful pieces, even if you can’t quite claim that they rise to Mozart’s level. Ultimately, the repertory operates on a celebrity logic. These happen to be celebrities of thundering genius, but we’re still giving in to a winner-takes-all mentality. There’s a basic human reason for this simplification: it’s difficult to cope with the infinite variety of the past, and so we apply filters, and we settle on a few famous names.

— Alex Ross

An Elvis future, a Dylan future

As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar—perhaps even identical. But it’s entirely possible that one of those people will get dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the “hero’s journey” is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.

If Elvis (minus Dylan) is the definition of rock, then rock is remebered as showbiz. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people (and like Sinatra, he did this brilliantly). But removing the essentialism of songwriting from the rock equation radically alters the context of its social value. It becomes a solely performative art form, where the meaning of a song matters less than the person singing it. It becomes personality music, and the dominant qualities of Presley’s persona—his sexuality, his masculinity, his larger-than-life charisma—become the dominant signifiers of what rock was. His physical decline and reclusive death become an allegory for the entire culture. The reminiscence of the rock genre adopts a tragic hue, punctuated by gluttony, drugs, and the conscious theft of black culture by white opportunists. But if Dylan (minus Elvis) becomes the definition of rock, everything reverses. In this contingency, lyrical authenticity becomes everything: rock is galvanized as an intellectual craft, interlocked with the folk tradition. It would be remembered as far more political than it actually was, and significantly more political than Dylan himself. The fact that Dylan does not have a conventionally “good” singing voice becomes retrospective proof that rock audiences prioritized substance over style, and the portrait of his seven-decade voyage would align with the most romantic version of how an eclectic collection of fifty autonomous states eventually became a place called “America”.

These are the two best versions of this potential process. And both are flawed.

— Chuck Klosterman

The flaw he mentions is not only with the false dichotomy we face, but that the thought experiment itself may be wrong. For example, it’s just as likely that people of the future will decide what rock and roll music ‘was’ first, and then choose a representative artist to be the archetypal rock musician.


Milton was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones.

— Samuel Johnson