Writer, publisher of Sator Press, book designer, co-founder of Sweetspot for iPhone, St. John's College student, and human with Crohn's disease. Carbohydrates are my drug.
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Let’s assume that culture won’t prevent our species from killing itself.
This removes from culture the moral imperative to create a utopia.
Once this imperative is gone, what does culture busy itself with?
I sometimes think of great novels as impossibly accurate spiritual diagnoses.
Great novels grant you meaning, order, confusion, and a hollow feeling. All at once.
The meaning and order: reading, you spend time within a well-ordered system in which the world is limited and presented.
The confusion and hollow feeling: reading, you’re stripped of some common element by which you can combine with most of the world.
Simply: great novels both enliven and alienate you. Great novels are staggeringly whole and intractably anemic.
This manifold quality is the most telling symptom of a peculiar illness. This illness is culture.
(Illness, once adjusted to or beaten, can strengthen its host.)
The illness is given to us by culture, but it is also perfectly diagnosed by culture.
Great novels or great philosophies or great myths show us where and how we are sick. The why is given.
But in that it does not attempt to cure us of its illness, great culture understands that its illness cannot be beat.
There is something sublime about precisely knowing your own end.
We are Aeschylus’s Cassandra, but we are wracked by our own smoke, waste, and weather.
Cassandra is magnificent and beautiful in the face of death, as we can be.
The desire for immortality implies an audience for its achievement, but is a great feat lessened if it is done in private?
In order to live well for as long as we can, we must answer that question: we must say no.
Great novels and myths and philosophies and songs do not lie to us about our condition, and this is how they intensify our living.
And that is why they—we—are worth living for.
Any art assistants or fabricators want to be interviewed (anonymous if you like) for Artillery? email zakzsmith AT hawt mayle
PS: Please re-share this!
You heard the man.
What a lovely, brilliant, humane, weird, and dedicated group of people—both the tutors and the students.
First: St. John’s invites you to detonate your intellectual preferences and prejudices, and you would be a fool to decline. Because in order to ask questions as radically simple as “What is weight?”, or as messily human as “Is Achilles honorable?”, you have to pretend to forget what weight and honor are just long enough to realize, in inquiry, that you never actually knew what weight and honor are and that you might never know. This questioning goes beyond the Socratic reliance on logically pure, deductive definitions, because that whole method of inquiry gets questioned, too. Simply: Studying at St. John’s reinvests much of the world with its prime weirdness and enduring mysteries.
We started with the Iliad, and have since written Gregorian chants, built barometers, argued with Socrates, translated Heraclitus, examined nascent chick hearts, tried to disprove and then one-up Euclid, sung Sicut Cervus, been wrecked by the Oresteia, dissected cats, classified conifers, grabbed at a definition of biological life, bugged out at Plato’s Republic, admired Themistocles, confusedly measured heat, recreated Pascal’s water pressure experiments, studied the Greco-Persian War, boiled room temperature water within a vacuum, and mourned the death of the West’s most notorious philosopher.
The school’s pace and demands are rigorous, and the school requires you to be honest, precise, and attentive; the school wants you to learn how to learn—to deeply submerge yourself in what is unfamiliar and challenging—so a major part of that task is learning to shut the hell up and listen. Unlike big universities, this does not mean listening to a lecture, one receptacle among five hundred. At St. John’s, inquiry is communal (my tutorials contain no more than twelve people; my seminars no more than twenty), and this means that everyone has a share in the task. Curiosity is equally weighted, no matter its source. Synthesis is sought, not rhetorical victory. There is no greater thrill in a St. John’s class than seeing or understanding something—something contrary to a notion that you comfortably held while entering the room—that you could not have seen or understood alone. In other words, the more you feel challenged, unseated, and invited to change, the better.
St. John’s is designed to shake you up, and if you work hard and accept its hands on your shoulders, it succeeds.
To friends, family, and others who care: I’m having a fucking blast.
"I write with my scars, hence my thought is inseparable from autobiography."
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile
"…and thus the high organization of any animal or of man would appear a gigantic monstrosity into which the original amoeba has grown through a long history of disease."
– Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life
In another famous example: Camus strongly opposed the death penalty, but rather than simply rehearsing arguments about the proper tasks of the state and the social functions of punitive action, he travelled to some executions and wrote about them in excruciating detail in his essay “Reflections on the Guillotine.” He begins with the explanation that “When silence or verbal trickery helps to maintain an abuse that needs to be ended or suffering that needs to be soothed, there is no choice but to speak out and show the obscenity disguised by a cloak of words.” We learn, for instance, that the cheeks of one particular convict—Charlotte Corday—became blushed after her head was severed from her body. Camus’s wager is that “The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.”
"Don’t make me tell you the story of Goyo Cárdenas, the Mexican assassin! He was declared ‘cured’ following ten years of incarceration in a mental hospital, after murdering many women, then graduated as a lawyer, wrote novels, married and had several daughters. I met him one day at the café of a periodical we both worked at. I loved speaking with an ex-serial killer. I asked him what he felt. He told me that he remembered nothing, that he was now a normal and very good man. He felt redeemed. Then I thought: if this man, who has strangled many female victims, has forgotten everything, lives a quiet life and is well respected, this criminal society in which I live, this dirty, cruel and shameful period of human history, can be forgotten, thrown into the rubbish-filled waste bin of history: MURDEROUS HUMANITY CAN BE REDEEMED! From my meeting with him, Santa Sangre was born.”
"Art is by no means one ‘artistic career’. A great artist does not use ‘disciplinary structures’. A true artist shits on the idea of being a ‘Renaissance man’. If you have testicles no larger than a walnut, you can only run behind a single rabbit. But if, like me, you have three or four testicles the size of melons you can run behind 30 rabbits at once and hunt all of them. I was ahead of my time by 30 years. In the 20th century, an artist devoted himself like a slave to one label: a ‘painter’ could not be a ‘writer’ or a ‘dancer’ or a ‘shaman’. Things in the 21st century have changed. Before, a phone was only a phone. Now what was just a phone is a device that photographs, plays music, sends texts, knows the weather, gives us directions. Soon it will be a vibrator and throw poisonous darts. Why, then, can’t an artist be countless things?"