A Year of Ordinary Time
My 2023 in Review. Plus: Nazis on Substack!
Before moving to the sublime, let me start with an urgent practical advertisement. Beginning in 2024, I will be shifting to an almost-entirely-paywalled format. I’ve tergiversated repeatedly on this matter over the past three years, but have ultimately come to believe, from long experience, that things just work better when there is a certain minimal threshold for entry. I write better, and my readers read better, when we are all literally invested in the project.
The negative way of putting this is that a barrier needs to be set up to keep the riff-raff out, but the same idea may be expressed simply by appeal to the notion of community. As I’ve said a number of times, starting this Substack in August, 2020, was one of the best things I’ve ever done. This venue is what enabled me finally, with great delay, to start speaking in my own voice. I don’t think that would have been possible if I didn’t have at least some sense of the real existence of my human hearers on the other side, of who they are and of how they respond to my missives. So it seems fitting to make this cybernetic system —in the old sense of a machine that operates on feedback loops (I stress, this doesn’t have to be actual feedback; it’s enough for me to just know you’re there)— a closed system as well.
As usual, I do not wish to exclude anyone, and if you are a devoted reader and are not in a position to pay for a subscription, just let me know, and I’ll gift you one. Otherwise, I strongly encourage you to upgrade to paid before the end of this year — if you do, as I’ve already promised, I’ll throw in a complimentary copy of The Oort Cloud Review when it appears (ETA, September 2024). I’ve also reduced the price of an annual or monthly subscription by 16.66666…% until the end of December, so, just $6 per month, or $60 a year: roughly the cost of the sort of small mistake I make pretty much every day.
In short, now is a very good time to join this community, to help sustain the quality of the work done here, and to get me and my little family into a secluded farmhouse in Ireland or Portugal or somewhere like that sooner rather than later, where I can dedicate myself to writing full-time, from here on out, unburdened by all the noise of the world, which is generated mostly in cities, and which always turns out, after just a brief step away, not to matter a whit.
While I have just called you, beloved reader, my “community”, I cannot say that I am entirely satisfied with your habits of reading, nor with the direction in which Substack seems to be tending.
Something strange is happening here, I fear, especially when it comes to fiction. As Sherman Alexie recently observed, and as my own experience confirms, most readers prefer reading autobiographical and confessional Substack posts about how fiction writers approach their “process” than reading actual fiction. Readers even seem to prefer to read posts in which the author does nothing but berate the reader for not wanting to read fiction than to read fiction! I fear all this interest in “process” is really just so much “writing fetishism”, a species of the same sickness that also gives us those horrid sculptures in American university-library foyers, made entirely out of books the librarians knew no one would ever want to read again, yet somehow imagined that by shaping them into a staircase or a dove or whatever, people who still wander into libraries by mistake or old habit might take this scrap-heap as a “celebration” of reading. I see the “reading about writing” obsession as yet another symptom of the broad phenomenon of “cultural recursion” that I have at various moments attempted to diagnose here. It’s certainly a phenomenon that has swallowed up academia, where it is now quite common to find people with Ph.D.’s who specialize in things like skill-assessment testing in higher education, or in quantitative studies of the efficacy of classroom technologies. Efficacy for what? I always want to know. For teaching the state of the art in research about the efficacy of classroom technologies? What I mean to say is that it seems to me research, inquiry, reflexion, and even creative self-expression are turning in on themselves, and losing the grip on the world that had once been the primary source of raw material for transformation into art or science.
So now here I am again, too, writing about writing. Somehow I feel like some sort of anime-inflected J-pop star who likes to come out on stage and do my little song-and-dance routine dressed up as, say, a glittery unicorn, but then I also start a YouTube channel where I show my groupies tutorials on how to apply the glitter make-up, only after a while to realize that my videos are getting millions of hits while meanwhile I’m performing that great art I thought I was born for in front of mostly empty stadiums.
I have sometimes thought the problem might be just that my fiction sucks, and doesn’t deserve to be read, but that can’t be the full story. As Susanna Forrest recently noted, not a single one of the “Top Five in Fiction” items identified by a Substack algorithm was in fact fiction — it was all just “content” that a machine could identify, for its own inscrutable reasons, as being somehow fiction-adjacent (“Adventure Snack Is Evolving Like a Pokemon”, etc.). So I can only conclude that mine is not a special case, that there is something about the emerging reading culture on Substack, and more generally in the twenty-first century that disfavors or deprioritizes fiction, perhaps especially experimental fiction.
I conclude moreover that it would be wrong to spend too much time blaming the reader for this, that the real fault, here as almost everywhere, lies with the algorithms, and the way they are shaping our sensibilities and preferences unawares. I’ll keep doing what I want to do in any case, but I fear I might end up reminding myself all too much of an old friend I had on Facebook, circa 2011, a very prominent scholar with an interesting past in “alternative” musical subcultures, who had taken to posting nothing on that miserable site but prompts such as “Best Gang of Four b-side?” or “Best Slits bootleg?” And of course most of his academic colleagues had no idea what he was talking about, and meanwhile a younger generation was already on the rise that would soon enough take over the world with its vapid radical presentism, and would show my cool-as-hell friend how little at home he was going to feel in our new regime of technologically predetermined indifference.
All of this, to me, is a much more worrisome development at Substack than anything else that is going on at present. As you may have heard by now, a number of people have been busy this past week signing open letters on this or that side of the “Nazi question”. By this of course I don’t mean the question of whether one supports the actual NSDAP or not, as we know it from its reign in Germany between 1933 and 1945, nor even whether one supports, say, George Lincoln Rockwell and his goofy LARP as leader of the American Nazi Party. By “the Nazi question” I mean only whether Substack itself should or should not be more agressively deplatforming and demonetizing the accounts on here that display swastikas, that praise Hitler, etc.
I honestly don’t know where I stand on the particulars of this issue. I long considered myself a First Amendment absolutist, and I certainly think the ACLU did right in Skokie, back in the last century, when the Nazis wanted to march there and were supported in this effort on the basis of free speech as a bedrock principle of liberal democracy. At the same time, I do find persuasive some of the arguments to the effect that our new information technologies compel us to rethink and perhaps to redraw the boundary between protected free speech and unprotected incitement to violence. It’s an objectively tough issue, which means, of course, that it’s going to be treated by online takemongers in the most maddeningly inadequate manner imaginable.
I’m certainly not here today to talk about the particular issue that has drawn the takemongers out of the woodwork. I’m here, rather, to deplore the situation we’re now in, where whether or not Substack is crawling with Nazis, as Jonathan M. Katz fears, it is definitely crawling with takemongers! There was a time when I had wished better things for this platform.
While I don’t really know, as I’ve said, where I stand on the “Nazi question”, what I am certain of is this: the one thing Substack needs at least as little as it needs Nazis are these endless volleys of open letters, already so familiar in their pointlessness and their forgetability from all the other social-media sites that have gone to seed. As it happens, just a few weeks ago I was bemoaning this constant low-stakes pickleball that takes itself for activism, this only-slightly-glorified like-seeking whereby you seek signatures instead of likes. My thought is: leave all that stuff to the junk-sites, the ones that are supposed to be collapsing now, as Gresham’s Law could have predicted, under the weight of all the hate they tolerate. But when you’re here at Substack, for heaven’s sake just do your own thing! Miss me with your binary position-taking and your strong-arm efforts to sign other people up for public collective statements on your side of the binary.
Again, while I don’t even know which of the two sides I would join if I were to sign a letter in this particular round of letter-signing, the one conviction I have that is clear and certain is that I will not be signing any letter, not anywhere, and definitely not in this space, which continues to represent for me not Nazism, but the free and resolutely individual exploration of ideas, unpressured by the news cycle and by all the epicyclical busy-work that people make for themselves around it. As far as I can see it is not Nazis who threaten to run this site into the ground, but rather all the people who, in endless search for more opportunities to speak “statementese”, are using this site for the same endless adjudication of verbal disputes as we see in every other online venue.
This was supposed to be a platform for writers, which is to say individuals who think things through by themselves, and then share the results of this solitary process in all their ambiguity and uncertainty. Writers don’t speak statementese. If Substack were to extend its content-moderation policy beyond the porn and spam accounts, I would recommend starting not with the cornball basement-dwellers with swastikas in their banners, but with the pseudo-writers who don’t understand how completely incompatible statementese is with the writerly vocation, and who attempt to sneak on here using that debased artificial language.
Anyhow, I’m supposed to be reviewing my year here, for a new one is fast on its way. I might begin by stressing how much I hate the number 3, and how happy I am for anything that ends in it to be over. This is how much I hate 3: if you were to give me three sticks of varying lengths, I would immediately take the longest of them and break it in half, so that I could have 4 objects rather than 3. I hate 3. I love 4. I can’t wait for 2023 to be done.
That’s not to say this has been a bad year. In fact, it is a testament to just how good it was that I managed to thrive in it, at least towards its end, notwithstanding its unfortunate numerology (if we can call it that). What did I do this year? Committed to not traveling, I still managed to end up in France, the US, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Romania, Israel, and Tunisia. My great hope is to be able to cut that list of countries at least in half in 2024. I hate traveling. I’ve seen quite enough by now.
This year I read a lot of Henry James, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and William Gaddis. I suspect 2024 will continue much in the same vein, though I’ll also add some George Sand, and I’ll also, I hope, get back to some of the works of German Romanticism that I missed the first time around in my twenties. Just now I’ve returned to Paris from Würzburg, where I picked up some lesser works of Novalis, in that funny cheap little yellow pocket edition that so enthralled me in the 1990s, and gave me such a thorough German education.
I didn’t watch many movies, though I did write an essay about Jean Renoir and John Ford, and the research for that probably constituted about 75% of my movie-watching in 2023. I also watched Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus Trilogy, and was profoundly affected by the middle film, Orphée (1950). The secret radio station broadcasting poetry from the Underworld was the coolest thing I’ve encountered in a long time, and it has my mind buzzing still about possible appropriations. I’ve also agreed to write a piece, for which I’m now doing the preparatory viewing, that reappraises all seven films treated by Stanley Cavell in his Pursuits of Happiness (1981). So I’m watching a lot of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn being directed by Howard Hawkes and George Cukor. As a recovering Europhile, this is not my usual beat, but at this point I’m always happy to learn new things, whatever they are, almost without exception. More on that piece when it appears.
Curiously, the Cavell piece is for a literary magazine recently launched by a dating app for throuples, polycules, and various other non-traditional arrangements for the social processing of eros. (I’ll write for anyone who offers me a dollar a word… unless they’re Nazis, I suppose, but of course no one from that camp will be offering me a dollar a word any time soon anyway, nor would any be in a position to do so even if I were, against all likelihood, to become convinced that being “white” is anything to be proud of (not that it’s anything to be ashamed of, either — from the point of view of eternity, or even just of time measured in centuries rather than years or decades, my “whiteness” is literally nothing, a will-o’-the-wisp, a figment).) Anyhow all this reminds me that on an airplane at some point this year I also watched Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022). It was dumb as shit. As if the most interesting thing about the discovery of interdimensional travel through the “infinite multiverse” were the opportunity it affords to come to terms with your daughter’s rejection of heteronormativity! Give me a Hays Code-era comedy of remarriage on the Philadelphia Main Line over the output of A24 any day, if you want to have me watching propaganda and writing my little book-reports about it.
I remain committed to the same hierarchy of the arts as always: music, poetry, prose literature, film, painting, sculpture, then everything else in no particular order. I remain unmoved by all the same things. To this day I am such a philistine in matters of fashion that whenever the notion of “ready-to-wear” comes up, my first thought is: “Well what the hell else would you do with the clothes you’ve just bought? Throw them in the trash?!” It’s the same with haute cuisine. If I tell someone I’ve been to some restaurant or other, and they ask me, “Was it good?” I feel like responding: “Was it good? I don’t know! I guess so. I mean it was a restaurant, so yeah, probably.” The refusal to make distinctions of “high” and “low” when it comes to certain art-forms does not necessarily reflect indifference. When it comes to music, which I value most of all, very much in contrast with literature, film, and painting, I am strongly committed to an “anything goes” principle. You start telling me about the subtle differences between von Karajan’s and Boulez’s respective interpretations of Mahler, and it will sound to me exactly as if you are reading Yelp reviews of the newest of the three upscale locavore ethically sourced restaurants in, let us say, Minneapolis. In other words, you trap me with that stuff, and I’ll retreat into my inner castle, with its inner stereo system, and I’ll revisit my old favorites.
This year, without doubt, my most-watched video on YouTube was Al Green’s 1978 performance of “Belle” on a local Chicago television network. There is so much I could say about this. I’ve often noted that my kind of music, unlike, say, Pierre Boulez’s, is the kind where the performer can move from the terrible to the great without even passing through the good. This is sublimity in the literal chemical sense: as when a substance moves from solid to gas without passing through its fluid phase. No one goes from terrible to great as fluidly as Al Green, which is to say no one is more sublime than he. There is a moment at around 1’14’’ in the video where our man hits the mic by accident, says “shhh” to someone behind him, and you get the sense that things have gone so wrong that he’s about to call off the performance and start over again. But then you realize the “shhh” is just part of his routine, and by 1’18’’ he is so solidly back in his angelic bel canto groove as to induce immediate and total amnesia about what happened just seconds before.
This is what many of the commenters have rightly identified as “Holy Ghost R&B”. I take that as a literal designation: he’s got the spirit moving through him, and he perfectly sublates its apparent opposition to the sensual and the erotic affect that otherwise characterizes that genre. His entire career is a masterful demonstration of the possibility of such sublation, but it comes through at its very strongest in this song, and most of all in the prima facie hilarious, but utterly courageous and untimely, line: “It’s you that I want / But it’s Him that I need”. Just wonderful! I’m going to go listen to it again a few more times right now.
I spent the first part of 2023 teaching at Princeton and living right next to campus, and then the better part of the summer in my hometown in California. In August I returned to Europe, and gashed up my leg by failing to “mind the gap” in the Bucharest metro. I returned to Paris in a wheelchair, then used crutches for a few weeks. This set me back significantly, having become such a vigorous and constant gym-goer while in the US. I was really down on Paris during that time, wrote some astoundingly bleak Substack pieces, and in general felt like giving up on pretty much everything.
My leg got better, though it still shows its wounds; and so did my soul, though it still shows its. Earlier this month I marked the three-year anniversary of my last sip of alcohol, on December 3, 2020. It passed without much notice, unlike the previous two anniversaries, which makes me think this really is a permanent way of being for me now. As regular readers will know, my renunciation of alcohol has not gone together with a wholesale rejection of mind-altering substances. In fact I’m writing a book about some of these substances right now, and I suppose one of my great accomplishments of 2023 was to land the contract for it.
I’m sure my interest in personal experimentation with such substances is already behind me as well, but in this case it’s not so much a renunciation as it is a simple growing-away. One doesn’t grow with alcohol, and conversely one never “hits bottom” with psychedelics. As R. C. Zaehner nicely put it, mescaline —which was the psychedelic of choice when he was writing in the 1950s— awakens capacities, while alcohol draws out instincts. I’m certain now that these are two categorically different kinds of experience, and I consider it a great tragedy that the society we were all born into only has a legitimate place for what I take to be the far more destructive and the far less edifying of the two. Anyhow, more on all this in early 2025, when On Drugs: Psychedelics, Philosophy, and the Nature of Reality appears from Norton/Liveright. I’m advancing on it every day, and enjoying the work immensely. If I may say, and I hope I won’t sound like a dork, it is truly “better than drugs”.
Another thing that’s better than drugs: that old-time religion! Sometimes I feel a bit of shame at the thought that my presumably late-life conversion to Catholicism, or reversion depending on how you see things, amounts to a request to jump the line, so to speak: I get to spend decades as an unrepentant hedonist and individualist and materialist, and only when it becomes painfully clear that that strategy is paying diminishing returns do I declare that, whoops, in fact life is really all about faith, hope, and love (and the greatest of these is love). What if I had died when I was 25, in the middle of that non-stop drunken orgy of my silly life — basically Pierre Bezukhov hauling a bear cub around on my back, just for laughs, all the time? Quite apart from what that might have meant for the fate of my immortal soul, I’m just so thankful, now, that I’ve been able to live long enough to affirm, explicitly and assuredly, that that was never the way. If I appear to be cutting in line, it may be worth insisting that I only ever had one place in it, and abandoning it for several decades of horse-play was surely rougher on me than if I had just stood there all that time, inching along with all the good and pious folk who figured things out long before me.
I’m resolved to continue writing this Substack in a way that does not alienate secular readers, who are certainly in the majority. I’ll admit I’m feeling a bit more like Nicolaus Steno these days than like G. W. Leibniz: the two of them used to love to talk about shark’s teeth and the seashells at the summits of the Dolomites and stuff like that, but then Steno went all Catholic and refused even to talk to Leibniz at all, insisting that everything but faith means nothing to him now. I’ll acknowledge I’m having a Stenonian moment, but I’m aware that I need to resist that feeling. My spiritual guide, an accomplished Thomist scholar, is insistent on that point: far from alienating us, faith can, he says, when channeled productively, cast the accomplishments of the secular intellect in a far richer light. I’ll continue to dwell in that light here, though I can’t promise I’ll never acknowledge the source of the light, even if not everyone can acknowledge it with me.
But still, I hope it doesn’t sound too much like born-againism, which I gather is something Catholics are not into, to confess that one of the most significant passages of the Gospels for me comes at Matthew 18:2-4, when Jesus declares that you will not be entering the kingdom of heaven unless you “become as a little child”. What this means for me, in autobiographical terms, is this: I spent the first years of my conscious life basically being taken as stupid by most people around me, then spent many years of my adulthood, from, say eighteen to fifty, working painfully hard to convince them that that was not the case, that I’m really smart, that I’ve mastered many big words and massive corpora of knowledge. And now, I find, there is nothing more urgent for me than to spend the rest of my life reversing that strategy, admitting that yes, in fact, I am really, really dumb as shit. I don’t know a damned thing. Every time I tried to convince you otherwise, it was all just posturing and dissimulation.
My ignorance extends, I rush to add, to dogmata of the church, many of which I believe only “work” to the extent that they are charged up with paradox and impossibility. So if I’m not rushing to join the Thomists, or some other millennia-long project to mobilize reason as an ancillary to faith, this is mostly because I find reason is of no use at all in these matters. Sometimes I find myself thinking, at mass, when kneeling, that it is mostly only my knees that believe. It is the rhythmic motions of my body, in accordance with the ancient rites, that places me in a relation to the divine. It is not anything I am thinking or failing to think.
Of course there is a great part of me that thinks I’m more sophisticated than the one-size-fits-all grid by which sins are tabulated at confession. But that’s the ancient genius of it all: if it’s good enough for some illiterate twelfth-century peasant, it’s good enough for me. To make special adjustments for the unique sensibilities of individuals is to set down that path towards a metaphysical and moral picture in which the notion of sin has no purchase at all. And of course I’m aware that while I call it “ancient”, the history of Christianity only goes back about 1/100th of the entire history of the human species. Knowing this, and loving humanity, one cannot but continue to love what Marc Augé called Le génie du paganisme. Still, depending on how you define “institution” and how you define “continuous”, there is some sense in noting that the Catholic Church is one of the oldest continuous institutions around, and it is a real revelation for me to be awakened to the fact that only the oldest of institutions are able to speak with any authenticity about love, about the transcendent, about the eternal. In speaking of these, they seem to me to tap into a dimension of human existence that is far older than 2000 years, that has simply always been there. We can turn to institutions that began to emerge only 500 or so years ago when we need our fix of talk of equality and freedom (of speech, for example), and these are great, but, as I see things now, they do not exactly make a full meal.
2023, in sum, though I’d been milling around in the antechambers for at least a decade prior, is the year I really got faith. Likely not unrelatedly, 2023 is also the year I redoubled my commitment to the idea that, in the human sphere, there is nothing more excellent than art.
These are not very sophisticated developments, I am aware, and I could have come to the same realizations decades earlier. But this is just how long it took me. Music, poetry, story-telling, ritual: that is where it’s at, my brothers and sisters!
2023 is also the year I did another very conventional thing, and finally became a full-fledged “wife guy”. I began to experience a deep, warm, slow-rising sense of gratefulness these past several months, at having been fated to meet my wife in particular, and at having been given the opportunity to learn from my life with her what it is truly to love someone. And what a miracle, too, that the person in question just happens to be able to tolerate this raving and vicissitudinous fool!
In recognition of this great shift within me, 2023 is also the year I changed my name, from Justin E. H. Smith (RIP), to Justin Smith-Ruiu. That’s me now, from here on out.
I really hope some of you, in or around Paris, will be able to join the workshop I’ll be leading at the American Library in Paris in February, on “Experimental Fiction as Philosophical Experiment”. We’ll be learning by doing, looking at some of my own recent attempts at contributions to this genre, and also considering its long and venerable history, in OuLiPo, Borges, and many other authors you likely have not yet heard of. I would be thrilled to see you there!
I’ll probably go silent for the next few weeks, and reappear in early 2024 with, as I explained above, some new work for paid subscribers only. I will be very happy to have you reading me for another year, and I will be very grateful for your subscription.
I wish you all a tremendous 2024, and I thank you again, from the depths of my heart, for your ongoing readership. It means the world to me.