Author 21 Posts

Daniel Gill

A few weeks ago, Kenyatta and I had dinner with another couple. They are old friends of ours, and like us, children of black consciousness. Kenyatta and the couple were talking about the beauty and wonder of Paris (I’ve never been.) They were contrasting that with all of the race critiques we came up on, some of which we still hold. And some point one of us said something to effect of, "You know you really gotta give it up. These white folks got done did something."

When you are a young intellectual black kid, you often find yourself in this desperate search for some sort of anti-Western tradition. That Saul Bellow quote—"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zululs"—really captures a lot of the dilemma for those of us looking for a "native" tradition. That search ends all kinds of ways for different people. But for us, I think it ended in the rejection of the premise, in the great Ralph Wiley riposte that “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”

That line was sorcery for me. It found me a black pathologist, and set me free by revealing that my own search for something “native” was an implicit acceptance of the very racism that I sought to counter. The way out was not to find my own, but to reject the notion of anyone’s "own." If you reject the very premise of racism—the idea skin color directly contributes to genius or sloth—then all of humanity becomes "native" to you. And so empowered, I could—out of my own individual identity—create my own intellectual and artistic pedigree, and I was free to have it extend from Biggie to to Wharton to Melville to Hayden.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Federalist Papers"

People write tragedies in which fatal blondes betray their paramours to ruin, in which Cressidas, Cleopatras, Delilahs, and sometimes even naughty daughters like Jessica bring their lovers or their parents to distress: but these are not the heart of tragedy. They are fripperies to the soul of man. What does it matter if Antony did fall upon his sword? It only killed him. It is the mother’s not the lover’s lust that rots the mind. It is that which condemns the tragic character to his walking death. It is Jocasta, not Juliet, who dwells in the inner chamber. It is Gertrude, not the silly Ophelia, who sends Hamlet to his madness. The heart of tragedy does not lie in stealing or taking away. Any feather-pated girl can steal a heart. It lies in giving, in putting on, in adding, in smothering without the pillows. Desdemona robbed of life or honour is nothing to a Mordred, robbed of himself—his soul stolen, overlaid, wizened, while the mother-character lives in triumph, superfluously and with stifling love endowed on him, seemingly innocent of ill-intention. Mordred was the only son of [Morgause] who never married. He, while his brothers fled to England, was the one who stayed alone with her for twenty years—her living larder. Now that she was dead, he had become her grave. She existed in him like the vampire. When he moved, when he blew his nose, he did it with her movement. When he acted he became as unreal as she had been, pretending to be a virgin for the unicorn. He dabbled in the same cruel magic. He had even begun to keep lap dogs like her—although he had always hated hers with the same bitter jealousy as that with which he had hated her lovers.

T.H. White, chapter eleven of “The Candle in the Wind”, being the fourth part of The Once and Future King.

‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, 'is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.

T.H. White, chapter twenty one of “The Sword and the Stone”, being the first part of The Once and Future King

I would suggest that what is profoundly wrong at the moment with Western democracies is that the art of politics has been replaced by the technique of politics. For some time now, democratic struggles between divergent points of view in the national and international areas has been replaced by a coalescence around an agreed-upon set of ideas. Politics becomes a wrangling about implementation rather than a competition among fundamentally different ideas. We are now asked to vote for the best managerial team to achieve a set of goals that, with minor variations, both political sides are pretty much agreed on. Both in the EU and in the UK, there is a dearth of new ideas and a complete lack of political creativity. By default, the population was asked to decide on the future, but the vote and the debate that surrounded the referendum have still left much in the dark. The public has had its say and now, more than ever, we are in need of political artistry to find a way forward.

Mihail Evans, "Brexit: Why Referenda are not the Ultimate Democratic Tests"

From Kant on, “there is a feeling that really good deeds are the ones we do with the most effort, after the biggest struggles; so our moral thinking has concentrated on the difficulties of decision-making more than on the character that develops over a lifetime.” But this really doesn’t fit our moral instincts: “if we think of those people whose moral and spiritual integrity has mattered to us and made a difference to us, we shall normally find that they are the ones whose behavior doesn’t draw attention to how difficult it all is, how hard they’re working to be good; they are people for whom, to some extent, there is a ‘naturalness’ about what they do. They have become a particular kind of person; and that personal reality has begun to change the human nature they live in and to make slightly different things seem the obvious focus of desire”.…That is the character of sainthood: “the saint isn’t someone who makes us think, ‘That looks hard; that’s a heroic achievement of will'—with the inevitable accompanying thought, ‘That’s too hard for me'—but someone who makes us think, ‘How astonishing! Human lives can be like that, behavior like that can look quite natural'—with perhaps the thought, ‘How can I find what they have?‘” Saints’ lives are made up of “incidents that make it startlingly clear how extraordinary behavior can arise in situations of extreme pressure without any apparent effort”

Peter J. Leithart, “Easy Sainthood” (2016), quoting extensively from Silence and Honey Cakes by Rowan Williams.