Dear Jen,

Complexity for man is fixed. There was no more complexity in the past than there is now, nor less. But the ratio of complexity changes. Technological and social complexity are inversely correlated. As the one grows, the other shrinks.

As social complexity heads to zero, we face the prospect of man’s world without man; man’s world inhabited only his creations and his creations’ creations.

There is a poetical imperative for complexity without machines.

vale bene,


Dear Esther,

I’m taken with the idea that Freud’s work is a mythical response to Nietzsche – an attempt to create a new myth of man and ward off the rising occultist mud then covering Europe. This is what the surrealists saw in him. Freud as poet and creator. Ποίησις και Μῦθος. The unconscious as great invention.

It’s a mystery why the early 20th century was a time of myth-making. Whole cities built and destroyed by myths. An impossible history. There was no history in the early 20th century. The enormity of the myth making, the frantic pace of it, the number of poets… all defy the historian, who is left talking about forces and peoples and ideologies and circumstances, all of which were for a brief moment almost non-existent (so hidden were they by words). There was no totality of circumstance. (So unlike Kojève’s poem, the EU…)

It ended in the catastrophe, of course.

vale bene,


Dear Anna,

I want to see history from the perspective of rivers. The sea and the deep are beyond my reckoning, but I would like to walk beside the Dnieper and the Danube and the Elbe and make their silent thinking a part of me. Or the humble Great Miami, which runs through the birthplace of my father and grandfather, who would raft the river on homemade boats before it was blocked by a dam.

Perhaps the underground surrealists are not under the ground but under the water. Perhaps they are not men at all anymore but have become the rivers of Europe, the living λόγος of Heraclitus, the movement that never forgets.

History from the perspective of rivers is Biblical history; the longue durée stretched back to Eden. Rivers find a historical path contrary to the left, so it is not surprising that national socialist regimes in China or Russia or FDR’s America fixated more than anything on building dams. Dams are less an ecological problem than a problem of history because in redirecting and stopping the water, they redirect time (in the USSR they even tried to reverse the flow of the Northern Dvina). I learned from Julio Cortázar’s From the Observatory that when eels migrate up the rivers, they’ll cross stretches of land to get around barriers. Nature’s insistent genius! These dams and locks will not last very long.

God let Adam name the animals, but He named the rivers:

    Pison, circling Havilah, whence gold
the good gold of that land
and amber and precious stone
Gihon, circling Kush
Hidekel, running east of Assyria
and Euphrates, the fourth

Archimboldi’s novel The Rivers of Europe might be a way out of the impasse of socialist history. Speaking of, I was surprised to learn that the old Nazi song ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ mourns the death of “comrades” shot by both “reactionaries” and communists. Not enough has been made of the socialist aspect of the Nazi party. Otto Rühle noted it early on (also pointing out the national aspect of the Bolsheviks), but nobody listened to him back then and nobody listens to him now. They can’t listen to him because once you accept that Nazism is a socialist movement, the whole fabric of leftist history falls apart. (Incidentally, Rühle moved to Mexico in the 30s and became a painter…)

I can’t play the Stalinist game of good national socialists (Bolsheviks, etc) and bad national socialists (fascists, etc). Rivers don’t abide such distinctions; neither should we.

Now, to listen and to swim.

vale bene,

ps. Don’t mention Achilles and Scamander!


Dear Eloise,

It seems the anarchists have dropped all pretenses and produced 1940s-style pro-war posters. There is no way to understand the “we” in this poster except as referring to the American, British, and Soviet militaries and their successful war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. The “’em” is harder to parse. Presumably it means Nazis, but I imagine that if the men anarchists are fighting against in Berkeley were of military age in the 1940s, they would have been drafted to fight against Germany.

At least the standard leftist history of anti-fascism admits that it’s a state and military matter. The anarchist has to reimagine the anti-fascist struggle as excluding the military forces that made up its bulk (notable anti-fascist fighting forces include the Royal Air Force and United States Marine Corps). Unlike the Marine Corps, I don’t imagine contemporary anarchists are actually capable or willing to kill their enemies with bayonets. Thank God.

Between the return of Kurdish nationalism and the embrace of the new united front, is there a single anarchist left who refuses the state? Have all the old lessons about the left been forgotten?

The warnings remain: No common cause and We are not going to war.

Bless them. Curse us.

vale pancratice,


Dear Eloise,

If someone were to ask me whether they should become an anarchist or philologist, I would tell them, “No. Save yourself the heartache and don’t do it.” But in not becoming an anarchist or philologist, one cannot leave either behind and exist in the space opened by leaving without renunciation. (Renunciation cleaves one to the renounced and makes leaving impossible; those who renounce their past maintain a neurotic attachment to it. Whatever the formal legal definition might be, divorce makes marriage permanent.)

I am interested in commitments that cannot be broken.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Christ’s midrash on Genesis remakes marriage as man’s connection to creation (as Melville does with whaling).

vale bene,


Dear Jen,

Why do you assume that the set of natural numbers is infinite?

You are a Christian, so you believe in the beginning and the end of time. Let’s say that all possible computational power went about counting natural numbers. At the end of time, there would be the largest number, and no other larger number would ever be counted after it. Who’s to say that such a number – let’s call it the Ω number – is not the largest possible number? The end of the line?

Don’t say anything about Knuth’s up-arrow notation. Those arrow notations are not numbers but steps or functions to arrive at numbers. But even if they were, the same end of time problem would arise.

The best rejoinder is to say that these computational limits don’t matter because God is the actual infinite and can calculate and conceive any number or set, including so-called infinite sets. Maybe so. That’s a mystery man cannot grasp, and it doesn’t answer the first question. God’s numbers are not natural numbers.

The infinitude of God insists on the finitude of man and his numbers.

Utter failure in other projects and no sign of the surrealists. Enjoy your cave.

vale bene,


Dear Anna,

Agnon attempted to make his books canonical – that is, part of the Hebrew Bible. He wrote a modern Hebrew literature that was an extension and addition to the Bible in the same way that Virgil wrote an addition to Homer (and Dante to Virgil, &c). And he pulled it off. More than anyone, he connected the Israel of today to the Israel of David and Solomon.

Canon comes from κανών, the carpenter’s measure. Patristic writers used the word to describe the texts included in the New Testament (a story about a carpenter!), and that’s more or less how we use it today (though not how Helen uses it – don’t tell her I brought up an etymology!).

When I read the so-called Great Books, I have no doubt that they’ve become Biblical, i.e. true and perfect. The novels and poems and histories are all part of the one Book that begins with Genesis. As of yet there is no final chapter, though I gather that chapter is what the underground surrealists are writing down in their caves. When it’s finished, the world will end.

vale bene,


Dear Anna,

César Aira says the most important thing there is to say about Genesis: “If all conditions can be reduced to a single condition, it is this: Adam and Eve were real.” One of the unstated reasons for my translating Genesis as verse is that it’s true – and simply true, without qualification or testy theories of metaphor or symbolism (which is not to say that there are no metaphors). It is startling to read Genesis 16:12, for example.

Someone said the Israeli statesman Menachem Begin had a Biblical view of history. I don’t know or care if that’s true, as I’m not in the political business, but I think often about this idea of history and what it might mean.

When I think about a ‘Biblical view of history’, I recall a funeral address in honor of the classicist Seth Benardete. Sometimes small and forgotten bits of writing like this one are the most illuminating:

He was not simply learned. The gods and heroes and men, the texts and the arguments about which he kept thinking and writing, were his companions. He and they inhabited one world. He did not so much think and write about them, as he allowed us to listen in on his thinking and talking with them… He sought to see what human things might look like from the perspective of the demiurge or of the gods; from the perspective which Job ultimately adopts… He aimed high, and he reached high. Sometimes he judged people from on high, as if from a very great distance. He was perhaps less driven than any of the rest of us by moral concerns.

I wrote to Helen yesterday about the Bialik poem you showed me in which a walk in the suburbs becomes Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac. To be poets, the stories of Genesis must be as true – i.e. alive – for us, as they were for Bialik. The possibilities and dangers in Genesis, like those in Aeschylus and Sophocles, are always present, even if we’d prefer them not to be, and we have to learn to feel that presence in the marrow of our bones.

vale bene,


Dear Helen,

My favorite opening to a poem are the first three words of the first Psalm: (אַשְֽׁרֵי־הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר). No translation can capture the wonder of these words because their beauty is all in the sound. Ashrei ha-ish asher, blessed is the man who…

Psalms are the longest living poetic tradition. They’ve been recited and sung in prayer and celebration and mourning since time immemorial. When all other public poetic traditions disappeared, they remain.

There is another Psalm I love, 133. I think it is the first “modernist poem” (forgive the anachronism):

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד הִנֵּה מַה טּוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם יָחַד
כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב עַל הָרֹאשׁ יֹרֵד עַל הַזָּקָן זְקַן אַהֲרֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו
כְּטַל חֶרְמוֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהֹוָה אֶת הַבְּרָכָה חַיִּים עַד הָעוֹלָם

The old Greek translation:

ᾠδὴ τῶν ἀναβαθμῶν τῷ Δαυιδ
ἰδοὺ δὴ τί καλὸν ἢ τί τερπνὸν ἀλλ᾽ ἢ τὸ κατοικεῖν ἀδελφοὺς ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό
ὡς μύρον ἐπὶ κεφαλῆς τὸ καταβαῖνον ἐπὶ πώγωνα τὸν πώγωνα τὸν Ααρων τὸ καταβαῖνον ἐπὶ τὴν ᾤαν τοῦ ἐνδύματος αὐτοῦ
ὡς δρόσος Αερμων ἡ καταβαίνουσα ἐπὶ τὰ ὄρη Σιων
ὅτι ἐκεῖ ἐνετείλατο κύριος τὴν εὐλογίαν καὶ ζωὴν ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος

A modern translation:

A song of assents. Of David.
How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.
It is like fine oil on the head running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down over the collar of his robe, like the dew of Hermon that falls upon the mountains of Zion.
There the Lord ordained blessing, everlasting life.

At first glance, it seems like a typical Psalm, but the details of it are strange. Unlike classical Latin and Greek poetry, which were distinguished from prose by meter, the poetry of the Bible lacks a clear mark of separation from prose; it has patterns and literary devices, but debates continue over whether such and such Biblical passage is poetry or not. The most important pattern and literary device that distinguishes Biblical poetry is parallelism, a device that allowed the ancient Hebrew poets to construct coherent, beautiful poetry without meter or rhyme.

Psalm 133 does not contain parallelism, but it is undoubtedly a poem. Much as the modernist poets abandoned rhyme and meter in the English tradition while continuing to produce writing that was unmistakably poetry, the Psalmist here abandons the traditional parallelism of Biblical Hebrew poetry in favor of alternative literary techniques (simile, imagery, and anadiplosis) that are nonetheless poetic.

The images and similes in the Psalm are bizarre. How is dwelling together like fine oil? Is it the dwelling or the oil that is like dew? How does the drew of Hermon fall on the mountains of Zion? Hermon and Zion are a long way apart from one another. And what are ‘the mountains of Zion’ anyway? The phrase (הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן) appears nowhere else in the Bible. My favorite moment in the poem is the anadiplosis of beard/beard of Aaron (עַל הַזָּקָן זְקַן אַהֲרֹן), which none of the translators retain. (In Arabic, Aaron becomes Harun.)

It’s a poem of katabasis, as its sister poem (Psalm 134) is a poem of anabasis. A beautiful mystery in the heart of the Psalter.

I’m very interested in the ‘turn’ of a poem. This Psalm has two turns: from the brothers dwelling to the oil and from the oil to the dew. Strange turns. Hayim Bialik has a poem that turns from a walk in the suburbs to the Akedah. I dream of writing a poem with such a turn. To write one memorable poem. One worthy poem.

When the wind fails, the sailor turns to oars.

vale bene,


Dear Margaret,

It’s not that I think anatomy and medicine are wrong. There must be something to the former or painters wouldn’t bother with it. For all I know, the current conclusions of natural science are true, but I choose to believe that the body functions as it does by magic. The intestines defy reason, never mind the brain (what’s called neuroscience is a pagan superstition – men worshiping machines and flashing lights). I’m not so sure that what we are is the same sort of creature as earlier men. Can you imagine an autopsy of Achilles?

Sometimes I imagine all of intellectual history is a struggle against Leucippus (ἔσχατ᾽ ἐσχάτων κακά) – and that it is my duty to stand against them, whatever the cost. (Aristotle turns out to be an ally in this struggle, however much it pains me to say it. There are a lot of unlikely allies.) The Marxist uxoricide Louis Althusser writes about a ‘hidden history of materialism’ as if the followers of Leucippus were a persecuted few, rather than continual victors. What Althusser means is that their victories are never total. The few opponents of materialism carry on through the centuries, despite every defeat and failure. If ever we are to prevail, we will look back in wonder at how people still believed in things like atoms more than two millennia after the death of Democritus.

Which brings me to the political question in your letter. What about a king? I have nothing to say. Suppose you’re right? Where would we find a suitable monarch? And for what country? They still have a king in Thailand, I think, and Leucippus holds sway there just as well as he does in Maryland or Kent. The sort of thing you’re talking about cannot be achieved by man.

Be patient and write to Helen. She’s written a long poem that touches on all of this. You used to write poems once. I’d say the time is right to begin again.

vale basilice,