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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This is the argument that I always feel like never gets as much traction as the ‘tortured artist’ argument, [which] is that artists actually have it a little easier because everybody fucking suffers but artists have something to do with it.
No coffee, booze, soda, juices. No cigarettes, cigars, weed, cocaine, heroin, pills; no recreational drugs. No cable, no CNN, no FOX, no MSNBC, no NPR, no New York Times. No newspapers. No ESPN, no UFC, no Speed Channel, no Pay-per-view. No fast food, no candy bars, no Cheetos, Doritos, Lay’s, etc. A few summer blockbusters. No James Patterson, no Dan Brown; no books sold in grocery stores. No People, no Cosmopolitan; no Maxim or GQ; no magazines. Almost no cars. Basically no mortgage. No political party, no red or blue or Left or Right. No big dreams—well, yes not becoming very sick again, and yes, maybe, sadly, writing one great long book. Almost no stocks; almost no gambling. No casinos. No guns. No explicit racism, though yes you might find some. Sadly, ambition. Sadly, investment in common terms. Sadly, “hustling.” Almost no chocolate; no pizza. Yes free porn. No haircuts from barbers. No shopping for pleasure except bookstores. Almost no air conditioning. Almost no visible logos on clothing. No fucking bumper stickers. Sadly, tattoos. Wife, though: no tattoos, no piercings. Married, yes. No religion. No church. No one holy god, no one holy text. Almost no board games. Yes pets. Yes Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram. Yes five email accounts. (Sadly. Sadly.) No pet war, though yes taxes, so yes pet war. Yes college, though late. Yes many books; many, many books. No ideal outer country that I work towards. Unless:
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
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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