We Haven’t Got Words for the Pain

This essay contains spoilers throughout about John LeCarré’s novel, The Constant Gardener.

He tried to remember the phrases: pain
Audible at noon, pain torturing itself,
Pain killing pain on the very point of pain.
–Wallace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal.”

When I was a young man, my life’s ambition was to join the U.S. Foreign Service and become a diplomat. Chastened by the first Gulf War (1990-91), which I opposed, I thought the better of my ambitions, and decided instead to become a dull but conscientious academic.

During my third and presumably final marriage (2018-2021), my wife Alison and I bought a small townhouse in rural New Jersey with a little garden plot out front. Alison had great hopes for the garden, and often expressed the wish that I would help her cultivate it. To her great sorrow and eventually mine, I never did. I was too busy being a dull but conscientious academic. Continue reading

Islamic Wine-Goblets and Christian Adultery

Wine and the nectar of the beloved’s mouth entail no sin or crime
Except for heretics who have swerved from our (rightful) creed.
— Ibn Rāfi’ Ra’sah (early Islamic poet; quoted in J. A. Abu-Haidar, “The Muwashshahāt and the Kharjas Tell their Own Story,” p. 57; Al-Qantara 26.1 (2005): 43-98)

Avicenna was fond of wine, and, on being reproached for his defiance of the Koran, replied: “Wine is forbidden because it excites quarrels and bad passions, but I, being preserved from excesses by my philosophy, drink wine to sharpen my wits.”
— George Henry Lewes, The History of Philosophy From Thales to Comte, vol. 2 (1867)

The Mahommedan and Christian Arabs of Asyut get on admirably together. They smile at the mistaken (as they suppose) opinions of each other; and the educated Arab smiles at both. But there is no intolerance, no ill-will, no anathematising. I remember offering a glass of wine to an Arab at Tunis, chiefly with the mischievous object of seeing how he would refuse it. Quaffing it off, to my surprise, he drank my health. “I thought,” said I, “that wine was forbidden by your religion?” “Drunkenness, not drink, is what is meant,” he replied with a smile.
— Wordsworth Donisthorpe [yes, that Wordsworth Donisthorpe], Down the Stream of Civilization (1898)

Some years ago, I attended a dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who was seated next to him. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine. Evidently troubled by this, the distinguished don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question. “Do you consider yourself a Muslim?” “Yes,” came the reply. “How come, then, you are drinking wine?” The Muslim colleague smiled gently. “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” he said, “during which time we have always been drinking wine.” An expression of distress appeared on the learned logician’s pale countenance, prompting the further clarification: “You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.”
— Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (2015)

That of which a large amount intoxicates, a small amount is forbidden.
— The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith, quoted in Ahmed, op. cit.

Reference to an ‘Islamic wine goblet’ makes about as much sense as talk of ‘Christian adultery.’
— Thomas Bauer, quoted in Ahmed, op. cit.

Islamic wine goblet (Uzbekistan, 15th century)

Drink Wine and Look at the Moon

I recently finished reading What Is Islam? (available on Amazon here, and free to read online or download here) by the late Shahab Ahmed (note: not to be confused with the Australian murderer of the same name!). I wasn’t convinced by all of it, or by the author’s slightly postmodern frame of reference (while Ahmed pokes fun, in a footnote, at another scholar’s prose style as “unnecessarily complicated and none-too-transparent,” I fear the same charge could be brought against much of Ahmed’s own book too), but I think it’s nonetheless a terrific book that makes a persuasive case, backed up by a wealth of historical detail, for, at the very least, the following important claims:
Continue reading

Convivencia, In My Dreams It Always Seems

[revised 11/16/20]

with fields full of grain
I have to see you
again and again

A Muslim and a Christian playing dueling banjos (13th century).

Mediæval Andalusia, or al-Andalus, was the region of Iberia under Muslim rule, its constantly shifting boundaries comprising, at their greatest extent, the entire territory of modern Spain and Portugal (plus a bit more), and at their smallest extent, just the area around Granada. (So, not quite the same territory as “Andalusia” today.)

This period, known for its many scientific and cultural achievements, has long been hailed as one in which (for much of the period, anyway) Muslims, Christians, and Jews were able to coexist and cooperate on peaceful and productive terms – an island of interfaith toleration and convivencia compared to the Christian kingdoms to the north and the more conservative Berber Muslim kingdoms to the south (both of which made repeated incursions into the region, bringing less tolerant policies with them).

Continue reading

Expand Your Mind


For Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire fans, now that the tv series is winding down, and neither the prequel tv series nor the next book will be here any time soon, the question is what to read and/or watch next. The answer a lot of people are recommending is the science-fiction epic The Expanse, which even gets frequently described (somewhat simplistically, but not entirely unreasonably) as “Game of Thones [and/or Song of Ice and Fire] in space.”

I want to add my own enthusiastic recommendation to that throng; The Expanse isn’t as popular as Game of Thrones, but it deserves to be, because it’s good in many of the same ways (complex politics viewed with a cynical eye; engaging but flawed characters; redemption arcs successful and otherwise; exciting action; willingness to kill off major characters; and a creepy menace growing on the periphery of the known world, to which the main players are initially oblivious). Moreover, while I don’t believe that the authors are either libertarians or anarchists, the series offers a great deal to interest libertarians (especially left-libertarians) and anarchists alike. Continue reading

Review: New York 2140

Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. (Orbit Books, 2017).
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the best science-fiction writers working today. Recurring themes in his stories include ecology, archeological exploration, anti-capitalist politics, and the ineluctable passage of time – all of which feature in New York 2140, which, like much of his work (including Icehenge, The Martians, 2312, Galileo’s Dream, and Aurora) fits almost-but-not-quite into the future history established in the Mars trilogy, his best-known work. (The inconsistencies are explained in Galileo’s Dream, where we learn that these various narratives belong to distinct but closely adjacent timelines.)

New York 2140 is a sprawling, magnificent tour de force. In its pages, the half-sunken (owing to global warming and consequent rising sea levels) but still-vibrant future Manhattan, criss-crossed by skybridges and streets-turned-canals, that figures peripherally in some of Robinson’s other works, here takes center stage, as average people eking out a precarious existence in the more sunken parts of the city band together to resist the twin threats of storm surges on the one hand and wealthy, predatory speculators from the higher and drier sections of the city on the other.

Like many of Robinson’s books, New York 2140 divides its attention among many characters rather than focusing on one or two protagonists. The chapters devoted to different characters’ viewpoints also vary in style, with some being told in first-person, some in third; some in present-tense, some in past; and so on. Periodic expository chapters, leavening their infodumps with sardonic commentary from an anonymous “citizen,” give the novel simultaneously a 19th-century and a postmodern tone.

A subplot, only tangentially related to the Manhattan storyline, involving an alternately zany and harrowing attempt to save polar bears from extinction by relocating them to Antarctica via airship (because science fiction writers love airships!) as part of an eccentric reality show, resurrects one of the central themes of Robinson’s Mars trilogy, namely the conflict between versions of environmentalism that favor active human intervention to create or preserve sustainable habitats and versions that valorize the natural, untouched landscape.

Predictably (for the same praise and criticism applies to the Mars trilogy), New York 2140 is terrific from a literary perspective, but a frustratingly mixed bag from an economic and political perspective. In many ways the book, and Robinson’s work more generally, epitomizes the tragedy of the Left: one foot in vital, grassroots, quasi-anarchist radicalism, the other in dreary, top-down, paternalistic authoritarianism (or “social democracy”), with this unstable union of opposites being held together by what I’ve come to call left-conflationism, i.e., the error of taking the perversities of corporate capitalism to be the result of, and so to be reasons to oppose, genuinely freed markets – and, relatedly, of seeing government as a check against, rather than a crucial enabler of, the power of economic elites: a safe and benign tool if we can only put the right people in charge of it. (Gary Chartier and I gave Robinson a copy of Markets Not Capitalism back in 2013, when, as he told us, he was just beginning to plan this “novel about markets,” but obviously we did not make a convert.)

Hence we’re treated to the spectacle of a purportedly egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist revolution whose guiding stars are Lord Keynes and the two Presidents Roosevelt, and whose ultimate payoff is to get one of the protagonists elected to Congress – a revolution that begins as bottom-up mutual-aid direct action via “dual power alternative networking,” only to fizzle out into the stale message that government is the heroic force that will save us all from the rapacious capitalists if we only just vote harder.

Robinson almost falls into self-parody when he describes the “private security firms” in his future New York as “play[ing] Snidely Whiplash to the NYPD’s Dudley Do-Right” – an absurdly kind evaluation of the NYPD, given its actual record. (I looked desperately for evidence that Robinson was being ironic here, but couldn’t see any.) Regrettably, Robinson’s view is simply a mirror image of Ayn Rand’s vision of corporate capitalists as the heroic force that will save us all from rapacious government, and is no more convincing. (Robinson likewise treats anthropogenic climate change as a product of unregulated markets, with no recognition of the ways in which it’s been fueled by corporate socialization of costs enabled by government intervention.)

Most disturbing is the disappointingly reactionary political program enacted by the novel’s victorious lefty radicals, which includes bank bailouts via nationalization, immigration restrictions into New York (“morally defensible” because those coming in “often had bad intentions” – a line that disturbingly echoes Donald Trump’s 2015 campaign rhetoric), mandatory national service (i.e., temporary slavery), and what amounts to martial law. Toward the novel’s end one protagonist responsible for much of this program briefly “pause[s] to wonder what it meant when a police state was aspirational, a staving off of a worse fate” – but quickly dismisses such worries to immerse herself in the minutiae of day-to-day policy. (Again, I’d like to think Robinson is offering an implicit critique here, but I see no signs that he is doing so.)

I highly recommend New York 2140 as a beautifully written, richly allusive, perpetually engaging and provocative novel. But I cannot recommend it as a lens through which to view the causes and likely cures of the social ills that beset us.