Tag: Biography

One Vicious Author

You remember the 1987 movie, Throw Mama from the Train?

I learned last night that it was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 movie, Strangers on a Train, which was in turn based on the novel by the same name.

The author of the novel?

Patricia Highsmith, a nasty woman whose biography makes Ellen Degeneres look like Maria von Trapp.

“[S]he was a predatory lesbian, in addition to being a professional homebreaker; a nasty drunk; an emotional sadist; and an equal-opportunity bigot who seems to have detested every group except the American and European gratin. Arabs, Jews, the French, Catholics, evangelicals, Latinos, blacks, Koreans, Indians both dot and feather . . . the list goes on and on.”

When I read that, I was like, “Wow. She didn’t like Catholics?! That bitch!”

So I had to keep reading.

(New TDE readers, please note: my prose occasionally lapses into irony.)

It turns out she had a rough childhood. She was an abortion survivor (her mother tried to terminate the pregnancy with turpentine) and a divorce survivor (her parents divorced when she was six months). She speculated later that she was sexually assaulted as a child but couldn’t recall, or didn’t divulge, details. For her entire life, she was filled with murderous rage.

But she could apparently write: 22 novels and numerous short stories.

And when she wasn’t writing, she was traveling and trying to get married women to have lesbian affairs with her. She loved to break-up marriages.

Like I said, she was an awful person.

Anyway, if you want to read more about this awful person, check out this review of Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires, a brand new biography about Patricia Highsmith released a few days ago.… Read the rest

Nineteen Decadents You Ought (Not?) Know

Photo by Grav on Unsplash

Both Cicero and Francis Bacon gave deformity a high place on their list of reasons for laughter.

Arthur Koestler said any behavior that deviates from the norm tends to make people laugh, though he also said such laughter is primarily the property of an “uncouth mind,” and he’s probably right (who laughs at a hunchback, except a child or jerk?).

But there’s a type of deformity most of us laugh at, and partly because the target of the laughter is laughing with us: The deformity of decadence.

Here I offer a humorous recount of nineteen decadents of western civilization. They aren’t necessarily the most decadent in western civilization and, in fact, almost certainly aren’t (though the last few on the list would make the top five on anyone’s list), but they each give decadence a different angle.

Some did decadence the old fashioned way: Excess of every sort until they burst. Others had one particular vice they took to an extreme. Others are notable because of one remarkable excursion into decadence. Some had a unique decadence or a decadence grossly out of proportion to their station in life (maybe his decadence couldn’t match Jim Morrison’s, but for a Catholic Pope . . .).


Aristippus

Listed for historical completeness. First philosopher to give intellectual mooring to hedonism, teaching that wisdom lies in the pursuit of pleasurable sensations. Also a forebear of the free sex culture. After criticized for living with a courtesan, he replied that he had no objection to living in a house or sailing a ship that other men had used before him.

Alexander the Great

Listed for the sole reason that I — and many others — can relate to him: He died of a hangover.

Julius Caesar

First Roman entry. Makes it … Read the rest

“Introducing a Person Who Needs No Introduction . . .”

My inadvertent love affair with book introductions

Plus a dozen introduction recommendations

I have a problem.

A serious, humiliating problem, one that reveals me as a man lacking fortitude, strength, energy, and determination. A man both poseur and dunce.

I don’t finish books.

Oh sure, I finish a lot of books, but if I had to guess, the number of books I have read all the way is fewer than the number of books I’ve abandoned partway through.

I see them on my bookshelves, marked with that hideous symbol of failure: the bookmark.

I use so many bookmarks, one of my young children once asked me if I collect them.  What’s even worse, I had to nod.

Father James Schall observed that no one has time in one life to read all the great books. I don’t even have enough time left in one life to finish all the great books I’ve started.


There’s virtually no type of writer that has escaped my inconstancy. I’ve abandoned them all:

The masters: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Dante, Montaigne, Pascal, Boswell. (And if you don’t think I’ve jilted Shakespeare a couple of times, you’re more naïve than me when I thought I’d get through Dostoyevsky’s two-volume, A Writer’s Diary . . . both volumes host bookmarks as of this writing).

The saints: Augustine and Aquinas, of course, but even those more modern, and therefore more accessible, holy men and women: Day, Doherty, Groeschel.

The twentieth century: Guardini, de Lubac, Gilson, Sheen, Sheed, Merton, O’Connor. Even my beloved Chesterton.

Even fiction. As I go through my bookshelves, I come across Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest . . . with the bookmark on page 201 (of a 298-page book). I thought for sure I finished it (I know how the book ends, so perhaps … Read the rest

Russell Kirk: The Anti-Modernist Cerberus

The author of The Conservative Mind opposed modernity in at least three ways

view of dark hallway
Photo by Aidan Roof on Pexels.com

Russell Kirk hated modernity.

He rebelled against it his entire life. He hated the automobile, calling it a “modern Jacobin.” He wouldn’t allow a TV in his house (though he let a hobo named “Clinton” have one in his room), and once, when he found out his daughter was watching TV, hurled the set from a third-floor window. Bradley Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, 521.

He didn’t even like the radio, sharing his friend, Max Picard’s, intense dislike for “radio noise.”

But what exactly is “modernity”?

Thinkers quibble over its meaning, but I think most would agree that it was given form by the Enlightenment, reveres science, and is marked by a vague sense that the human race will have continual success in its worldly activities . . . through the exercise of reason.

Many people refer to modernity as “The Age of Reason.”

Others point out that it’s marked by “Rationalism.”

Kirk would’ve agreed.

He countered that “rationalism” is merely “defecated rationality.” Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, “Liberal Learning, Moral Worth, and Defecated Rationality,” 153.

But his dislike of modernity and its exclusive use (worship) of reason didn’t stop with funny slurs and personal idiosyncrasies. He opposed it in at least three ways:

First, he wrote The Conservative Mind and gave the whole conservative philosophical tradition a name. Prior to Kirk, no one quite knew what to call that gaggle of writers, thinkers, and politicians who battled against the rational mindset of modernity. By giving it a name and a pedigree, he gave it respect.

Second, he converted to Catholicism, albeit a bit later in life. The Church is inherently anti-modernist. It is bigger than all … Read the rest

D.H. Lawrence Taught Me a Lot about America Today

“What,” I wondered, “does that British pornographer have to say about American literature?”

In his Student’s Guide to U.S. History, Wilfred M. McClay assembled a list of 26 books and called them “An American Canon.” I was acquainted with most of them (Democracy in AmericaThe FederalistMoby Dick, etc.), but four were new to me, including D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature.

“What,” I wondered, does that British pornographer have to say about American literature?”

For decades I’ve subscribed to the doctrine of connaturality: distorted living creates distorted thinking. If a person’s life is ruled by passion, his of her thinking will be distorted by passion. For the sexually illicit, for instance, sex is king . . . or at least a queen (and maybe bishop, if you’re Episcopalian). The sexually-illicit don’t think clearly about sex because they’re ruled by sex.

So I didn’t think the Chatterley dude would have a whole lot to say about the United States, especially since he was from Britain.

I was wrong. His book is strong, filled with wise and novel (and funny . . . bonus) observations, like this: But to try to know any living being is to try to suck the life out of that being. . . It is the temptation of a vampire fiend.”

He says some stupid things, too, but he makes many observations about American life that rank with de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Chesterton’s What I Saw in America, and Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States.

Sample:

When America set out to destroy Kings and Lords and Masters, and the whole paraphernalia of European superiority, it pushed a pin right through its own body, and on that pin it still flaps

Read the rest

Thank Samuel Johnson for the Jane Austen Revival

Without his “Dictionary,” you probably wouldn’t be able to make sense of “Sense and Sensibility”

Do you like being able to read Jane Austen?

How about understanding the Declaration of Independence?

Do you like having a snowball’s chance in hell at getting to the meaning of Shakespeare?

Then thank the dictionary.

In particular, thank Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).


England first developed a literate population in the 1700s, when reading became fashionable and widespread. It had become so popular that the London Chronicle, at Johnson’s suggestion, started publishing a new genre of writing that would have been unheard just of a few decades earlier: the book review.

With this rise in reading came a movement to stabilize the English language, which had been undergoing fast and colossal changes over the past 200 years, making Elizabethan English much different than Georgian England’s:

Elizabethan English grew so fast, putting on muscle so swiftly and in such unforeseeable places, that it was both exciting and unpredictable . . . [T]here was no thing as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ spelling. Everyone spelt a word in the way he thought it ought to be spelt.” John Wain, Samuel Johnson (1974), 138.

Some, like Johnathan Swift, wanted to establish a formal academy, along French lines, to stabilize and normalize the language. If the language weren’t slowed down, their beloved Shakespeare could become indecipherable in a few generations, not to mention John Milton and the King James Version of the Bible.

Others, like Johnson, opposed Swift and the government academy approach, preferring a more relaxed one. Johnson wanted English stabilized, but not constricted. Johnson knew language by its nature changes.

So: Norms, yes. Laws, no.

A group of prosperous booksellers agreed. They came together in 1746 and offered Johnson 1,575 … Read the rest