Quote of the day, by P. J. O’Rouke

PJ O’Rourke is one of our few original thinkers (Wikipedia bio).  His books provide valuable insights into our world:

  • Holidays in Hell (1989) — a look at the emerging (and unemerging) nations).
  • Parliament of Whores (1991)  — a look at America, a look at us.

Also, here’s a plug for The Atlantic — which I find a valuable source of ideas and information.  A powerful endorsement, showing that they provide non-consensus thoughts, is Prof Brad Delong  (Economics, Berkeley) slamming them — part of his curious crusade calling for an end to all media outlets that do not rigorously adhere to doctrinal liberal thought.  For examples see here, here, and here.

Excerpt from “Future Schlock“, PJ O’Rourke, The Atlantic, December 2008: 

Global imagination, like global climate, seems to have cycles-natural, man-made, or whatever. Sometimes what people imagine for the future is bogged down in the literal — call it “blogged” for short.

The last thousand years of the Roman Empire, for example, were no great shakes. The Romans had all the engineering necessary to start an industrial revolution. But they preferred to have toga parties and let slaves do all the work.

The Chinese had gunpowder but failed to arm their troops with guns. They possessed the compass but didn’t go much of anywhere. They invented paper, printing, and a written form of their language, but hardly anyone in China was taught to read.

And here we are in 2008.

  1. Name an avant-garde painter. Nope, dead. Nope, dead. Yep, Julian Schnabel is what I came up with too. But it’s been a quarter of a century since he was pasting busted plates on canvas. He’s making movies now. And movies are famously not any good anymore.
  2. Name a great living composer. Say “Andrew Lloyd Webber” and I’ll force you to sit through Cats and Starlight Express back-to-back.
  3. Theater is revivals and revivals of revivals and stuff like musicals made out of old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercials, with Nathan Lane as “Snap.”
  4. More modern poetry is written than read.
  5. Modern architecture leaks and the builders left their plumb bobs at home.
  6. The most prominent contemporary art form is one that is completely unimaginative (or is supposed to be): the memoir.


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11 thoughts on “Quote of the day, by P. J. O’Rouke”

  1. Small points re:
    “The Chinese had gunpowder but failed to arm their troops with guns. They possessed the compass but didn’t go much of anywhere. They invented paper, printing, and a written form of their language, but hardly anyone in China was taught to read.”

    The Chinese pioneered cannon, multi-stage rockets, grenades, even crude handguns. However the Europeans took the whole thing much further. It is a modern myth that they a) did not think to make guns etc. and b) did not use them. Thousands of canons were placed on the Great Wall for example.

    Printing was invented to fulfil a demand for tens of thousands of buddhist texts. Buddhism proclaimed that people of all classes could become spiritually developed, so it spread like wildfire. Although mainly the educated classes only could read, if hundreds of thousands wanted those texts…

    Compass: the circumnavigated the world many times, and the (in)famous fleet of Admiral He started off with 1,000 ship fleet, many of which destroyed in massive tsunami soon after departure, but still made it to Africa, South America, North America, Canada and so forth.

    Again, small points, but our Eurocentric version of history is not only myopic but too often factually challenged.

  2. Ironically, given the awesome academic credentials forming a vapor trail behind Brad DeLong’s official signature, it is exactly his sort of thinking (and to be non-partisan, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s) that stifles ingenuity. This, in turn, brings about the sad state of affairs mocked by PJ in the essay you’ve sighted. People intimidated by our over-credentialed and under-performing elite are not going to be creative, smart or innovative. We’ll just turn into another society where “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

  3. PJ’s historical musings are merely pluckings, without context. He’s a satirist, and not a deep one. His comments about contemporary culture — the lack of “great” artists or thinkers — may be accurate, but seem unearned. How does he know there’s not a great artist working away, in obscurity, somewhere in Iowa? No one recognized the impressionists as great in their own time. We may be an age of technocrats and specialists, the fag-ends of a dying civilization. Or we might be the beginning of a new one. Either way makes the mandarin intellectual, hoping to protect his place in the pecking order, profoundly uneasy.

  4. Also, is the imagination a good thing?

    We should consider the iconoclast position that “Thou shall make no graven images” means that that which has been imagined is delusional.

  5. I agree with the general direction of the article. Thanks to us becoming more of a self centered and short sighted society we forgot how to be imaginative. Combine this with the spread of political correctness, which restricts the flow of information, and you get what we have today. A society that has nothing to look forward too. It’s sad really, because there is many things to look forward too, space exploration is just one area, and no one see’s it.

  6. Oh, c’mon — Brad DeLong’s media smackdowns are for reportorial incompetence, not deviance from liberal dogma. As for O’Rourke’s bullet list:

    — Can it be that avant-garde art doesn’t interest people? (When I worked at DOE, down on the Mall in DC, I enjoyed escapting to the Hirschhorn Museum, where one typically found solitude, with the further benefit of bouncing my sensibilities off what was now avant-garde.)

    — Contemporary classical music has long been eclipsed by popular genres, an inevitable process once music was opened to the masses.

    — Theater? OK, it’s exhausted, thanks to… you name it — Hollywood, cable TV, again, in the 21st century who needs to go out, at great expense, to be entertained?

    — Modern poets eschew rhyme and embrace obscurantism. Who doesn’t long for something beginning “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees”?

    — Architecture? Again, astronomic labor costs. The twin towers fell because they lacked central cores; had the 9/11 terrorists flown into the Empire State Building, it would still be standing. So, we’ll give you that one.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I find your assertion about Delong of interest because two of the three examples to which I linked were explicitly ideological in nature. The third is just Delong’s narrow-mindedness at work, but part of his (and other leftists) jihad against the author (Greg Easterbrook); note the comments for additional evidence. Also, I do not consider “Oh, c’com” a powerful rebuttal (and have not since grade school).

  7. Most of our great satirists and social commentators are long in the tooth or worse. O’Rourke has cancer, Tom Wolfe is ancient and up and coming we have Kos, and Andrew Sullivan. Gawd. Spengler is old, Herb Caan is dead, George will-old, Eric Sevareid-way old, Art Buchwald-dead, George Carlin-dead, I’m too depressed to go on.

  8. Most great living composers are doing films, or rock music — and should be. Film remains the most prominent current art form of the age. (Too bad so much is so anti-American, anti-capitalist.)

    On real poetry, it’s called hip hop or rap. I don’t like most of it, but don’t like most old poetry either. At least hip hop can be danced to.

    On buildings that leak… our 7th floor, under the 8th floor terrace in a rainstorm, just had a huge leak today requiring an aisle of cubicles to relocate. Roofs should not be flat.

    Culture’s doing OK.

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