Vita Poetica

I noted that a recording of my appeared in a Vita Poetica podcast, my poem, I Pray to You, Saint Peter, Whom No One Loves is also in the autumn 2022 edition, if you’re more of a reader.

‘The Arts Of The Beautiful’ By Etienne Gilson

I had always Gilson described as being a sort of Christian existentialist (people felt the need to add ‘Christian’ because figures like Sartre made their atheism such an important part of both their public image and the problem they attempted to solve). It took me a while to see it until I then read a bit of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, another Catholic thinker (better known as a theologian than a philosopher, though the difference feels hazy to me). Balthasar is a German and Gilson is French, but in terms of how their tendencies towards a sort of existentialism played out, Gilson is very much in the Heidegger mode, concerned with capital ‘B’ Being, whereas Von Balthasar has Sartre’s concern with freedom.

Gilson is attempting to reassert a sort of primacy for beauty. In. formulation of Being, Beauty, and Truth, many times, religious thinkers will put Beauty to use in the service of helping people experience the other two, especially Truth. Gilson seems to have Truth and Beauty emanate more or less equally from Being.

A lot of what he writes in The Arts of the Beautiful seemed to miss the point, to me. He made a mention of something resembling Stendhal Syndrome, and this helped confuse me, because he is not writing for the person who experiences art, but only about making art (in fact, his main point is that art is not a form of knowing, but or making; which doesn’t really make sense for the viewer, I would say). Once you get that, it all, more or less, makes sense.

In Which I Appear Very Briefly On A Podcast

Which is to say, here.

In The Fog

This short novel was a fun, if predictable read. A group of men in an exclusive club, improbably named The Grills, eating, drinking, and reading newspapers. Three men have connected stories around the murder of a returning aristocrat and a disreputable, larcenous Russian princess.

But any careful reader will quickly see the game: the storytellers are trying to delay a charismatic member of Parliament from going to the House of Commons and delivering a forceful speech in support of a naval bill. The MP is a fan of mysteries and they hope, like Scheherazade, to delay him by dragging out the mystery (when one man finishes, the next announces, a ah! I have more information to illuminate this mystery).

They succeed in delaying him and announce that they have saved the Empire from wasteful spending, only for the MP to say, wait, I gave my speech this morning and the bill passed – I was just going to have dinner with a friend.

‘The Imperial Presidency’ By Arthur Schlesinger

While the late great Gore Vidal almost had some choice words for the man who has been described as Camelot’s court historian, I am glad to have finally read something longer than an old New Yorker essay by Schlesinger. He’s a good, though not great stylist and enjoyed the history I learned, though part of me wishes that he had also written a more concise version, where the polemical aspect could have shown through more brightly when it comes the general thesis (his deep and understandable antipathy towards Nixon amply shines through).

Indeed, even as he charts the presidency through nearly two hundred years, even before reaching 1968, Nixon surfaces on a regular basis.

But the most interesting part was the very end. I can rightly recommend just skipping the first few hundred pages to get there, but it’s a little tempting. He criticizes those – and I have been among that number – who say that a parliamentary system could resolve many of the issues around that titular imperial presidency. He really just looks at the British model (which is very nearly a two party model) and points out that the Prime Minister is even more empowered than an American style president with even fewer guardrails and says that many British commentators look longingly at our system. And, yes, in this Trumpian world, a supine Republic parliamentary majority and a Trump PM does feel frightening, especially without any contemporary tradition of members being willing to fall on their swords to depose a rogue PM of their own party.

Why We Did It

Fascinating. Sort of. Actually, it was just interesting to return to my old world of political oppo and flacking, but from the other side of the aisle. You see, once upon a time, I had similar jobs, though I never rose as high. He makes some nice distinctions, such between a campaign guy (like himself, and, generally, me) and a Hill rat. But that’s not what this book is about, well sort of not. In some ways, it is a sort of anthropological study of a segment of Washington, DC (please note – Washingtonians pay more in tax dollars than they get back and most of the city has nothing to do with politics and government or things related to that world; most of the city works in restaurants, banks, retail shops, construction, etc; also, the last Democratic campaign bar, Stetson’s closed years ago; I’m not sure what the point of that last one is, but there you are).

But, I really could have used fewer sex-related insults. ‘Fluffer’ and ‘Trumpian cum dumpster’ felt a bit too much for me. Also, based on a relatively small sample size, the use of ‘butt hurt’ as a sort of insult, which combines implications of weak masculinity with gay panic humor, seems to be a conservative ‘thing.’ Can’t say I get the appeal.

He had a fun, if reductive and hackneyed list of various kinds of political strivers, from the Messiahs to Little Mixes (people who want to be – his word choice, not mine, though he acknowledges its tackiness – ‘the room where it happened), but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen something similar on Wonkette or the old (fun) Politico.

Miller’s depiction of his slow (?) descent into selling out (?) to the far right also felt rushed. He’s a better flack than he is a writer of long form non-fiction, I’d say.

I did learn one fun tidbit. After Trump had learned that he tested positive for COVID, he called up Chris Christie and asked him to play the role of Biden in debate prep. Unsurprisingly, Christie also contracted COVID and eventually ended up in the ICU, fearing for his life (his eternal soul? not sure). Trump called to make sure Christie wasn’t going to go public and blame him for getting COVID.

Overall? Well, I’m not saying it’s not fun to read Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer get their sad ambitions and wishy-washy nerdiness mocked, but I could also just watch an episode from the first season of the Big Bang Theory.

The Return Of Fu-Manchu

The racism is so bad, yet the story moves so effortlessly, actively, and thrillingly. Sufficiently exciting that, while you can hardly escape the racism (though it seems laughably transparent; however, as a white man, it is, perhaps, too easy for me to laugh, since I am not the target), you mostly overlook the question of why, if this the genius agent provocateur and herald of a new, global Chinese empire, Fu-Manchu, is so very dangerous, the bold, the brave, the fearless agent of empire (the good kind), Nayland Smith, keeps relying on the narrator, Dr. Petrie (an old college chum, if I remember from the first book)? Surely there is some proto-James Bond type he could rely on?

It’s really a series of short adventures, with Smith and Petrie (don’t say ‘dish!’) constantly running into people with knowledge of stuff happening in China (including a clergyman who was corresponding with someone whose name escapes, but which was remarkably close to Sun-Yat-Sen; I’m not sure if that was deliberate or if the redoubtable author was simply throwing together three letter sounds that combined to sound vaguely like some kind of transliteration from the Chinese). At least the hero and narrator falls in love with someone vaguely Eastern, but more of an orientalist, harem-fantasy than a real person and, despite being from exotic lands, apparently, surprising fair (read: white).

Why do I read books like this? I don’t know, except that I have a great love for these early twentieth century adventures that read so briskly and engagingly. I also feel guilt, though not enough, it seems, at things like the strange race of dog men that are somehow ‘Semitic’ (really, Mr. Sax Rohmer?).

‘Ars Poetica’ By Horace

I read this twice, which was a good thing, because the first time, I just had no time for it. Fan of his poetry, by his Ars Poetica or Art of Poetry simply didn’t speak to me.

Even on second reading, this is not going to be my go to resource, but I liked it much better. Mostly, I enjoyed his wit, which is the best part of his poetry. But it’s no Poetics (the Aristotle one; which I also read recently and am kind of over it; yes, he is arguably the greatest thinker who ever lived, but I am just not seeing anything more for me when I re-read The Poetics).

But, I appreciate his modulated advice to write what you emotionally know, to not let correctness lead your to smooth all the roughness which gives a poem emotional power, and also be sure that you know your audience when you read aloud.


Nope, not talking about particles or science, but about the minor dialogue by Plato, wherein Socrates interrogates a rhapsode name Ion on his vocation.

Generally, a rhapsode was someone who memorized an epic poem or myth and was an expert on reciting it. Ion specialized in Homer. He says that he also comments on it, but that doesn’t quite track, not in the least because Socrates’ questioning more or less positions as a sort of idiot savant who is able to recite Homer’s epic poems so well because, in the moment, he is divinely inspired. Socrates shows this by arguing that you could only speak well on, to use one Socrates’ example, horsemanship if you were also an expert horseman. He then, rather meanly, shows up Ion as a bit of dolt, which leads Socrates to conclude that Ion is divinely inspired and, by implication, all such performers who reach the highest levels of their profession.

The Spirit Of The Liturgy

I won’t write too much here, mostly because I’m thinking about doing something longer on this work, which inspired me in an unexpected way.

I was supposed to read Joseph Ratzinger’s book of the same name, but accidentally purchased this one and am very glad that I did. Especially because it feels especially relevant in light of His Holiness’ statement on the use of the Latin or Tridentine mass as a tool of division by groups that are sometimes referred to as Radical Traditionalists or ‘Rad Trads’ (which is stupid, so don’t use it).