#50 On depth

Dear Jamie,

That was my favourite letter in some time. Thank you. I also love irony, at least when I’m aware of it.

The progression of agency in the history of literature was something I never really appreciated until you said it. It makes sense given your snapshots; a deus ex machina-heavy ancient Greek play through conscious fate-addled Shakespearean contemplatorĀ up to the unrelenting conscious agency of the agent James Bond. OK the last one’s a joke, and it’s because an invincible agency is as boring as a completely yielding one, which suggests to me this isn’t teleological in the direction of pure agency. We’re lucky, stories are a mercifully enjoyable way for humans to hone in on an accurate understanding of the human condition. Would you go further? Do you see this historical narrative of narratives as not just an improved understanding but as the documentation of an actually awakening modern mind?

What is the sieve through which we prioritise our reading and reveal this progression? What is hidden beneath your word “quality”? A lack of irony is a mark against the text, yes though the Origin of Species is no zinger. Quality includes works as fictional as Hamlet, but also might require a vogueish bibliography as meaty as Pinker’s New York Times Bestseller. Is it the style, the way it is said? A cynic might say old-timey Elizabethan tones make it appear deep, but biblical language sounds grandiose too. All I can hold on to here is that those things selected by history are selected because they say something more than they state, and, being deeper than the day-to-day of the storyline, expose what’s inarticulable below, a truth. Something that has been correct for as long as the work’s survived.

As we look deeper into history the question becomes even more pronounced for me. How should I read someone like Lucretius? He lived so long ago and, cursed with the limitations of a less knowledgeable world, he’s wrong about heaps of things. That much is obvious, but the exceptions are more valuable. Let’s word it a different way. He lived so long ago, and despite being overthrown by his darker world he is still right about some things. Now thaaat’s interesting! There must be an explanation why those ideas rebuke the slings and arrows of indifference, the fate of most ideas.

I get that Hamlet’s better (higher in quality) than the bible. But how does depth relate to truth relate to quality? If Shakespeare’s magnum opus just happened to be about the crucifixion of Christ, would you be as enamoured with the idea of sacrifice and rebirth as you are with agents within a play within a play? Or turn it around. Could it have happened that a group started a religion on the play of Hamlet?* In that case would post-hoc religious credulity undermine the quality of the original play?These questions might actually be more of a distraction though. I’m mainly interested in this “quality” you speak of, what the gosh darn heck is it?


PS Yes I meant inversely proportional. And yes lobbyists do have outsized power. They’re the exact kind of thing I’m trying to avoid. Lobbyists are what you get when you assign power to people not based on something old-fashioned, physical and slow to change like where they live, but something more fuzzy like membership in a group (“industry” and “finance” are critical moral aspects of civilisation that demand representation don’t you know). Without the infrastructure for a group to dismiss their representatives these people are unaccountable. If the group is poorly defined or membership easily swapped or traded, lobbyists can stretch their jurisdictions and increase their power (sure banking is industry). A lobbyist is a “movement” leader that happens to have penetrated the halls of power. If there’s a choice between removing interest groups from the system, or welcoming into the halls more diverse group subdivisions, I’d go with removing them wholesale.

*It seems way more ripe for interpretation than, say, Dianetics.

Also published on Medium.