The scene is grey (Stephen Crane)


There is nothing in the world worth worship (William H. Gass)

Truthful people are a big pain. That is their aim in life: to be a big pain. Because we naturally love lies. Lies are more fun, far pleasanter to hear, for the most part, and certainly more effective. In fact, they are called for. Parents pretend they want to know whether Gertie is screwing in the parlor and whether Peter is smoking pot in the barn. And if the kids tell the truth, as they are beseeched to do, they will be ragged and snagged and grounded unmercifully. So the kids learn. Lying promotes freedom. Lying guards privacy. Lying saves lives and wins elections. It describes things as they ought to be. Of course, we need to be truthful, but only on occasion.Lying is a vice that succeeds, as so many other vices do, only in an environment of truthfulness. Remember the paradox: Cretans are liars, the Cretan swore. And retell to yourself the fable about the boy who cried, “Wolf … wolf …” one too many times. Vices need virtues and vice versa. I am speaking, of course, about the little lies of daily life, not the big lies of priests and politicians, those who want to fix things and those who want things fixed. 

People who publically complain of sin so often privately enjoy it. Lutherans, for instance, don’t like lust. Catholics and Calvinists are both against it. Mormons allow us several wives but it’s not on account of lust. Baptists are not on lust’s side. If you measure a man by the quality of his enemies, Casanova figures well.

The trouble with temperate people is that they are rarely temperate. All the temperance societies I know promote abstinence. “Nothing too much yet everything a little bit” is not their motto. No. Nothing is the operative word. “Masturbation in moderation” is not their motto. A truly temperate person doesn’t play golf every day. A truly temperate person doesn’t run more than a block a week. A temperate reader won’t read all of Austen or a lot of Balzac. Temperate persons eat sensibly, which means they never diet. But those whose profession is temperance only rail against sex and alcohol, drugs and atheism. Professionally temperate people are cranks. Atheism they ought to like. Atheists admire the word nothing. But they probably don’t admire lust much. Not a single favorable vote from the Methodists. Pietists—nix.

Piety is a nasty little virtue. Reverence for Pa the father, Ra the god, and hurrah the flag. Piety is respect for power and privilege, ancestors and the dead-and-gone deities. There is nothing in the world worth worship.

From William H. Gass’s essay “Lust.” Collected in Life Sentences. 

Robert Louis Stevenson on the Ten Commandments

From Lay Morals (1879) by Robert Louis Stevenson


But, I may be told, we teach the ten commandments, where a world of morals lies condensed, the very pith and epitome of all ethics and religion; and a young man with these precepts engraved upon his mind must follow after profit with some conscience and Christianity of method.  A man cannot go very far astray who neither dishonours his parents, nor kills, nor commits adultery, nor steals, nor bears false witness; for these things, rightly thought out, cover a vast field of duty.

Alas! what is a precept?  It is at best an illustration; it is case law at the best which can be learned by precept.  The letter is not only dead, but killing; the spirit which underlies, and cannot be uttered, alone is true and helpful.  This is trite to sickness; but familiarity has a cunning disenchantment; in a day or two she can steal all beauty from the mountain tops; and the most startling words begin to fall dead upon the ear after several repetitions.  If you see a thing too often, you no longer see it; if you hear a thing too often, you no longer hear it.  Our attention requires to be surprised; and to carry a fort by assault, or to gain a thoughtful hearing from the ruck of mankind, are feats of about an equal difficulty and must be tried by not dissimilar means.  The whole Bible has thus lost its message for the common run of hearers; it has become mere words of course; and the parson may bawl himself scarlet and beat the pulpit like a thing possessed, but his hearers will continue to nod; they are strangely at peace, they know all he has to say; ring the old bell as you choose, it is still the old bell and it cannot startle their composure.  And so with this byword about the letter and the spirit.  It is quite true, no doubt; but it has no meaning in the world to any man of us.  Alas! it has just this meaning, and neither more nor less: that while the spirit is true, the letter is eternally false.

The shadow of a great oak lies abroad upon the ground at noon, perfect, clear, and stable like the earth.  But let a man set himself to mark out the boundary with cords and pegs, and were he never so nimble and never so exact, what with the multiplicity of the leaves and the progression of the shadow as it flees before the travelling sun, long ere he has made the circuit the whole figure will have changed.  Life may be compared, not to a single tree, but to a great and complicated forest; circumstance is more swiftly changing than a shadow, language much more inexact than the tools of a surveyor; from day to day the trees fall and are renewed; the very essences are fleeting as we look; and the whole world of leaves is swinging tempest-tossed among the winds of time.  Look now for your shadows.  O man of formulæ, is this a place for you?  Have you fitted the spirit to a single case?  Alas, in the cycle of the ages when shall such another be proposed for the judgment of man?  Now when the sun shines and the winds blow, the wood is filled with an innumerable multitude of shadows, tumultuously tossed and changing; and at every gust the whole carpet leaps and becomes new.  Can you or your heart say more?

Look back now, for a moment, on your own brief experience of life; and although you lived it feelingly in your own person, and had every step of conduct burned in by pains and joys upon your memory, tell me what definite lesson does experience hand on from youth to manhood, or from both to age?  The settled tenor which first strikes the eye is but the shadow of a delusion.  This is gone; that never truly was; and you yourself are altered beyond recognition.  Times and men and circumstances change about your changing character, with a speed of which no earthly hurricane affords an image.  What was the best yesterday, is it still the best in this changed theatre of a to-morrow?  Will your own Past truly guide you in your own violent and unexpected Future?  And if this be questionable, with what humble, with what hopeless eyes, should we not watch other men driving beside us on their unknown careers, seeing with unlike eyes, impelled by different gales, doing and suffering in another sphere of things?

And as the authentic clue to such a labyrinth and change of scene, do you offer me these two score words? these five bald prohibitions?  For the moral precepts are no more than five; the first four deal rather with matters of observance than of conduct; the tenth, Thou shalt not covet, stands upon another basis, and shall be spoken of ere long.  The Jews, to whom they were first given, in the course of years began to find these precepts insufficient; and made an addition of no less than six hundred and fifty others!  They hoped to make a pocket-book of reference on morals, which should stand to life in some such relation, say, as Hoyle stands in to the scientific game of whist.  The comparison is just, and condemns the design; for those who play by rule will never be more than tolerable players; and you and I would like to play our game in life to the noblest and the most divine advantage.  Yet if the Jews took a petty and huckstering view of conduct, what view do we take ourselves, who callously leave youth to go forth into the enchanted forest, full of spells and dire chimeras, with no guidance more complete than is afforded by these five precepts?

Honour thy father and thy mother.  Yes, but does that mean to obey? and if so, how long and how far?  Thou shall not kill.  Yet the very intention and purport of the prohibition may be best fulfilled by killing.  Thou shall not commit adultery.  But some of the ugliest adulteries are committed in the bed of marriage and under the sanction of religion and law.  Thou shalt not bear false witness.  How? by speech or by silence also? or even by a smile?  Thou shalt not steal.  Ah, that indeed!  But what is to steal? Continue reading “Robert Louis Stevenson on the Ten Commandments”

“A Free Man’s Worship” — Bertrand Russell

“A Free Man’s Worship” by Bertrand Russell

TO Dr. Faustus in his study Mephistopheles told the history of the Creation, saying:

“The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshiped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.

“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: ‘There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.

“‘Yes,’ he murmured, ‘it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'” Continue reading ““A Free Man’s Worship” — Bertrand Russell”

Henry Miller: “Meaningful Acts Require No Stir”

“Morality Is the Adjustment of Matter to Its Environment” — H.P. Lovecraft

Morality is the adjustment of matter to its environment—the natural arrangement of molecules. More especially it may be considered as dealing with organic molecules. Conventionally it is the science of reconciling the animal Homo (more or less) sapiens to the forces and conditions with which he is surrounded. It is linked with religion only so far as the natural elements it deals with are deified and personified. Morality antedated the Christian religion, and has many times risen superior to coexistent religions. It has powerful support from very non-religious human impulses. Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious. My morality can be traced to two distinct sources, scientific and aesthetic. My love of truth is outraged by the flagrant disturbance of sociological relations involved in so-called wrong; whilst my aesthetic sense is outraged and disgusted with the violations of taste and harmony thereupon attendant. But to me the question presents no ground for connexion with the grovelling instinct of religion. However—you may exclude me from the argument, if you will. I am unduly secluded though unavoidably so. We will deal only with materials that may presumably lie within my feeble reach. Only one more touch of ego. I am not at all passive or indifferent in my zeal for a high morality. But I cannot consider morality the essence of religion, as you seem to. In discussing religion, the whole fabric must bear examination before the uses or purposes are considered. We must investigate the cause as well as alleged effects if we are to define the relation between the two, and the reality of the former. And more, granting that the phenomenon of faith is indeed the true cause of the observed moral effects; the absolute basis of that phenomenon remains to be examined. The issue between theists and atheists is certainly not, as you seem to think, the mere question of whether religion is useful or detrimental.

— From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1918 letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe; the letter is collected in The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens).

“It was a lone tree burning on the desert” — Blood Meridian’s Moral Core

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian begins as a strange, violent picaresque bildungsroman, detailing the adventures of a teenage runaway known only as “the kid.” When the Kid falls in with John Glanton’s marauders, the narrative lens expands and pulls back; Glanton’s gang essentially envelopes the Kid’s personality. The pronoun “they” dominates the Kid’s own agency, for the most part, and the massive figure of Judge Holden usurps the narrative’s voice. The effect is that the Glanton gang’s killing, raping, and scalping spree becomes essentially de-personalized, and, to a certain extent, amoralized.

The Kid, and perhaps the ex-priest Tobin and the Kid’s erstwhile partner Toadvine, are the only major characters who bear any semblance of conventional morality in the narrative. The Kid exhibits a willingness to help others early on when he agrees to stitch one of Tobin’s wounds; later, he removes an arrowhead from a wounded man when no other member of the company will (Tobin chides him for caring, declaring that the wounded man would have killed the Kid had the Kid’s efforts been unsuccessful). For most of the central narrative though, the Kid’s individual actions are consumed into the gang’s “they.” However, at the beginning of chapter 15 the narrative focuses again on the Kid, who is charged with killing a wounded man named Shelby to “spare” him from the approaching Mexican army (this is a bizarre version of mercy in Blood Meridian). Shelby pleads to live and the Kid allows it, even giving the man some water from his own canteen. After he leaves he catches up with a man named Tate whose horse is wounded. Tate remarks on the boy’s foolishness for helping him, but the Kid does so nonetheless, sharing Tate’s burden as they try to make their way back to the rest of their party. Tate is soon killed by Mexican scouts. In both cases, the outcome of the Kid’s moral actions–the will to help, to save, to preserve life–are negated by the book’s narrative outcomes, but I would argue that his intentions in the face of violence somehow secure his humanity.

His journey alone to rejoin the Glanton gang is figured as a kind of vision quest, a strange echo of Christ in the desert, perhaps. At its core–and perhaps the moral core of the book–is the following strange passage–

It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A herladic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before the torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.

The burning tree alludes to YHWH’s appearance to Moses as a burning bush, and also the tree of smoke that led the Israelites through the desert. Significantly, all the strange, terrible creatures of the desert come to meet around it in a “precarious truce.” The burning tree inverts the natural, inescapable violence that dominates the novel and turns it into a solitary, singular moment of peace. When the Kid awakes–alone–the tree is merely a “smoldering skeleton of a blackened scrog.” God is not in the permanence of the object but rather in the witnessing of the event–Blood Meridian locates (a version of a) god in the natural violence of burning and consumption. There is a strong contrast here, I believe, with the book’s other version of god, the Judge’s proclamation that “War is god.” The Judge, a cunning, devilish trickster, wants to reduce (or enlarge) war to all contest of wills, to pure violence–to divorce it from any ideological structure. Yet the burning tree episode reveals natural violence divorced from ideology. The animals (and the man, the Kid) suspend their Darwinian animosities in order to witness the sublime. The episode is silent, outside of language, order, ideology. This silence is echoed in the novel’s final confrontation between the Judge and the Kid, who retorts simply “You ain’t nothin'” to the Judge’s barrage of grandiose language. While the rejoinder may not save the Kid, its rejection perhaps saves his soul (if such a thing exists in the novel, which I believe it does). So, while larger-than-life Judge Holden may dominate the novel, Cormac McCarthy has nonetheless given us another moral road to follow, should we choose to.