Cruel to be kind

“Random Facts of Kindness,” my review of On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor (available now in the U.K.), is published in this weekend’s books section of The National (Abu Dhabi). Though I don’t mention it in my review, the design of the British edition is charming and features a black-and-white collage of Nietzsche, Freud, orphans, ladies, ministers, and other Victorian figures that runs not only across the front and back covers but also continues on both sets of the book’s end pages.

Rameau’s nephew on the ethics of snark

In his dialogue Rameau's Nephew, first published in 1798, Diderot can't quite believe that the younger Rameau is willing to badmouth the people he sponges on. Explaining himself, Rameau anticipates the modern apologists of snark.

HIM: . . . Mademoiselle is starting to become tiresome; the stories they're telling about her are not to be missed.

ME: You're not one of those people?

HIM: Why not?

ME: Because to put it mildly it's indecent to make fun of one's patrons.

HIM: But isn't it even worse to make patronage a justification for degrading one's protégé?

ME: But if the protégé wasn't in himself degraded, nothing would give the patron that power.

HIM: But if the patrons were not in themselves ridiculous, one wouldn't be able to tell such good stories about them. And is it my fault if they socialize with trash? Is it my fault if, having socialized with trash, they are betrayed and mocked? When one chooses to live with people like us, and one has a little common sense, there are I don't know how many blacknesses one ought to expect. When one takes us up, doesn't one know us for what we are, for venal, degraded, and treacherous souls? If one knows us, it's all right. There is a tacit pact that one will do us good, and that sooner or later, we will return evil for the good that has been done us. Doesn't the same pact link a man and his monkey, or his parrot? . . . If one brings a young provincial to the zoo at Versailles, and he takes it into his stupid head to put a hand through the bars of the tiger's or the panther's cage; if the young man leaves his arm in the maw of the wild animal; who's in the wrong? It's all written in the tacit pact. Too bad for anyone who doesn't know about it or has forgotten it.

Theodore Parker, resurrected

I had a bad year. The year in question wasn’t the most recent one, as it happens, and the twelve months in question weren’t all consecutive. But since the year 2000 or so, I’ve managed to expend about a year’s worth of effort on articles that never saw the light of day. They were, to use the literary industrial complex’s term of art, "killed." Incredible as it sounds, editors decided they had better things to publish. For some (but not all) of these articles, I was even paid a kill fee.

Now, I’m not complaining. This is how it is in the cutthroat world of journalism. And yet every so often one’s eye strays to the folder in one’s hard drive where these articles abide, and one glances over the pages and one finds oneself wondering, If one does not feel at liberty to post to one’s blog the killed articles of yesteryear, why does one bother to have a blog? And so a four-and-a-half-year-old book review of volume one of Dean Grodzins’s biography of Theodore Parker is at last available:

"OH DON’T!" CRIED the one-and-a-half-year-old Theodore Parker, when they went to baptize him. He was sprinkled anyway. It was the start of a lifelong struggle with religious convention. As an adult he would declare baptism to have been one of Jesus’ mistakes. "Did he lay any stress on this watery dispensation; count it valuable of itself?" Parker asked in his summa, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (1842). "Then we must drop a tear for the weakness." [Click for more]

Worthy causes

This, a somewhat large file, is my new desktop: a boxer, a terrier, a borzoi, a dachsund, and something else (as a lifelong mutt owner, I’m terrible at identifying breeds), seated before a fire hydrant outside the United Nations, in protest of the fatal 1957 launching of Laika into outer space (via the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s online exhibit, “Animals as Cold Warriors”).

And while on the topic of embracing worthy causes, there’s a new magazine with the alarming name Good, which proposes to give a glossy, four-color treatment to the cause of pragmatic benefaction. If you buy a subscription, the entire $20 that you pay will be passed on by them to one of twelve charities (you choose which one). I know, I know, but actually the articles look entertaining. There’s a very well written piece by Michael Silverman, for instance, on why no one reads any more; he pins the tail on the wrong donkey, I think, but all praise to him for asking the question.