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Excess Vitality and Reversible Modernity: Wyndham Lewis, Leo Strauss, and the Art of Reading

"Intelligence would be electrified by naïveté and humor."

Welcome to today’s issue of Other Life. If you received this from a friend, subscribe here.

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In this issue:

  • Leo Strauss and the Self-Reversing of Modernity

  • Wyndham Lewis and Blast Magazine (1914)

  • Discussion: How To Read Every Day (Are You? If Not, Why Not?)

Leo Strauss and the Self-Reversing of Modernity

I recently enjoyed a 2015 interview with political theorist Harvey Mansfield. Here are three lessons I learned.

  • Leo Strauss is responsible for the favorable reputation of Xenophon. “Strauss discovered Xenophon… who had always been despised as… not very intelligent… Good fellow but really not very sharp. As Strauss showed, far from that, he was a very sharp fellow pretending to be a good sort of gentlemanly type.”

  • “There’s certainly such a thing as a Straussian but never such a thing as Straussianism.”

  • Strauss sought to challenge the “irreversibility of modernity.” Listen to Mansfield closely and he’s really saying more than that—that there is a kind of self-reversing aspect to modernity.

“Once you say that it’s possible for philosophers to bring reason into politics and morality into society and provide a rational society, it’s very hard to get away from that because if you say that the rational society is not possible then it seems as if philosophy is not possible. So any difficulties that you have in society seem to extend to philosophy and so...

That tends to, in other words, erase the distinction between philosophy and non-philosophy. And it tends to, therefore, undermine the basis of reason itself.

Whereas the modern world started out as a great promotion of human reason against superstition and prejudice and custom, now at the end, it’s human reason that comes under attack, under questioning and attack, and we no longer are confident that there is such a thing as progress.”

Harvey Mansfield

One should explore a synthesis of Strauss and the Frankfurt School.

Blast Magazine

“Artists are the antennae of the race,” said Ezra Pound. One of the most eerie examples is Blast magazine, written primarily by Wyndham Lewis, and published 26 days before the outbreak of World War I.

I appreciate Blast’s simple and brutal design—the “great MAGENTA cover'd opusculus," Pound called it—and its refreshingly caustic energy.

“The psychology of Blast was that art is primitive and the modern artist is savage. Its form had been partly inspired by Marinetti’s book Zang Tumb Tuuum and Apollinaire’s manifesto Futurist Anti-Tradition. Intelligence would be electrified by naïveté and humor, the magazine promised.”

Perhaps it was a bit childish, bombastic and not particularly substantial. Nonetheless, in our age, which is even more saccharine than Victorian England—despite the ubiquity of so-called “culture war,” which is more like a playground dispute among oversocialized adults than a case of mature confrontation—I find relics such as Blast exceedingly fun and interesting.

The magazine distinguished between the blasted and the blessed. Some of it is really quite astute and funny. Cursing the British weather, but blessing Jonathan Swift and British humor as a wild MOUNTAIN RAILWAY from IDEA to IDEA.

This is no cheap signaling: Both Pound and Lewis were blacklisted from important publishing venues and social circles for Blast. It only ran for two issues, and was pretty much ignored.

Whatever were the shortcomings and errors of Pound and Lewis, these were real artists, willing to pay any price to maximally express the truth as they saw it.

Excessive vitality is far better than inadequate vitality, other things equal.

Discuss: How To Read Every Day (Are You? If Not, Why Not?)

When I realized I fell off with reading real books, I went as far as selling my TV so I'd have nothing to do other than read. That cut streaming and movies down to zero; I also stopped listening to so many podcasts, and cut Youtube videos to zero. What are you doing in this area?

Another question is: What are the best practical rules of thumb for a life of serious reading? An hour per day? 2 hours per day? 20 pages per hour, 100 pages per hour? How do you think about this?

I initiated the conversation by suggesting that members should aim to read a bare minimum of 1 hour/day and to aim for 50 pages/hour. But a few people disagreed, suggesting this is too simplistic. On second thought, I think they’re right; for more difficult texts, average readers might only do 20 pages/hour, or even 10.

After hearing some thoughtful replies in this thread, I think I’m going to plan all the readings to be doable with ~40 pages per day, and slower readers will just need to block off a bit more time each day. Even with a busy life, 40 pages/day should be possible and sustainable for everyone, though you might have to make a real sacrifice.

But it’s not official yet, and I’d like to hear from more members. What do you think? Join the conversation here.

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