Thoughts on an encounter with Rene Girard

That encounter is through a couple of his books but mostly Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World; in grad school I started Deceit, Desire, and the Novel a couple times but could never get past some of the more ridiculous assertions in it (more on that later). Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard is the impetus for the latest bout of reading, and I find the biography more satisfying than the primary reading: it softens and contextualizes the kind of claims that make me quit a book. But it’s still suitably inscrutable and koanic as to be interesting: “For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth; it is the archive of self-knowledge.” Which is great! But I’m not entirely sure what it means or if it’s true—which is descriptive, not critical.

He is an intellectual: “I once asked Girard what the biggest events of his life were. Oh, he assured me immediately, they were all events in his head. His thoughts were what mattered.” Haven isn’t fully convinced, maybe rightly, but I’m attracted to that idea—that it’s about the mind more than the environment. Girard’s method is also unusual, among social scientists, at least:

He studied human behavior as reflected in the greatest works of literature, and found in them a recurring analytical observation of the serious consequences of mimetic behavior. This discovery opened his eyes to the hidden dynamic of group violence.

Is literature the right place to look? To me, literature is the exceptional, bizarre, and unusual; the usual is too boring to include. I wonder if Girard is suffering from selection bias. (Haven does find a fun quote from Milan Kundera: “The art of the novel is anthropology.” Is the same true of film?)

Anyway, when I read Girard, I usually have the same problem I do with most philosophers: there are some interesting passages but too many ridiculous claims that make me close the book and go read someone else. Or I think too much about what’s true. Consider this, with Chris Blattman:

The only reason I’m aware of the René Girard worldview is because I glanced at the “What should I ask Chris Blattman?” questions. [laughs] I saw that name, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know who that is.” My 10 minutes of investigation suggests that I find nothing about this idea resonates with my personal experience in particular wars.

So maybe “the greatest works of literature” are not a great guide to the real world or analyzing it. And I say this as someone who reads all the time. The great works may be more time-, technology-, class-, and culture-dependent than many of us literary types want to admit.

That said, when Girard’s ideas get in the head, one starts to see them in many places. I listened to Jon Ronson’s podcast / Audible series “The Butterfly Effect,” which is “sort of about porn, but it’s about a lot of other things. It’s sad, funny, moving and totally unlike some other nonfiction stories about porn – because it isn’t judgmental or salacious.” And that got me connecting. In Girard’s cycle of scapegoating and social cohesion, it may be that porn stars are the best examples of a modern group that are hated, loved, sacrificed—and reborn. They provide a service or set of works that are widely consumed but also widely reviled. People oscillate among extreme feelings regarding them. Most of polite society disparages what they do, even as they have a broad, though largely ignored, impact. The highly regulated, highly PR-driven healthcare, education, and government sectors largely revile people who do or make porn, but that’s in part because of a vague but pervasive social feeling about what is “appropriate.” Should we look first at what people do and want, then look at what is “appropriate?” Or should we try to imagine what’s appropriate? If we do that, we may be entering the separation and scapegoating cycle Girard posits.

That being said, to get to the point of connection, you may have to wade. Things Hidden, for example, as with most “philosophy,” is at least twice as long as it needs to be and half as clear, if that. I would’ve liked more footnotes and a style closer to Cowen or Thiel than to a style like academic philosophy. Long-time readers know that I have a certain fascination with and derision for philosophy (see here or here or here) for examples. Philosophy often seems to be a search for broad, generalizable rules that in my view don’t exist or rarely exist; I’d rather start with situations and dilemmas and attempt to reason from there, which may be why I like novels. Indeed, rather than start this essay from first principles I began from an encounter with a book and then reasoned forward.

Overall, very interesting, though Girard’s life was not, particularly. He lived in and for ideas, as near as one can tell, which is fine; my life is probably pretty boring, viewed from the outside. If exciting is World War II, boring and well-fed is pretty good. There are many problems today, and those problems are worth remembering, but many of us don’t think historically and forget what yesterday was really like.

Maybe this says something bad about me, but I feel like I’ve read enough Girard without reading much Girard.

Still, this post is too negative. There are many things to admire, like this, from Haven:

Girard told me that our judicial system is the modern antidote to the mob, with its cycles of accusation and vengeance, its contagious fears and ritual denunciations—and on the whole it works. It has an authority to impose a final punishment of its own—vengeance stops at the courtroom.

The judicial system is, to use a Kahneman term, very system 2—that is, it is slow, deliberate, and often not our first choice. We’d rather make instant heuristic decisions, then allow our internal press secretary to justify those decisions. The judicial system may attempt to short-circuit that fast and unconscious process.

There are also amusing moments in Evolution of Desire that reveal historical change, as when we find this, about the University of Indiana just after World War II: “While the expenses of a sorority were normally beyond the reach of a fatherless student, the local chapters were eager to bolster their academic reputation, so she was recruited to Delta Gamma.” “Academic reputation” does not appear to be a key factor in current college fraternities or sororities.

Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America — Emily Dufton

Grass Roots is about marijuana, yes, but it’s also about what it means to live in society and what it means to be:

The battle over the drug has always been about much more than whether individuals have the right to smoke, eat, or vape it for effect. Instead, questions about marijuana have long been tied to ideas about freedom and liberty, safety and security, and the rights of an individual versus the collective good—themes that are at the core of many other historical debates.

Much of the book is new to me: I didn’t know how much decriminalization happened in the ’70s, when 11 states decriminalized weed. I didn’t realize how much anti-drug hysteria occurred in the ’80s. I didn’t know the specific mechanisms that drove drug policy back and forth. Now I do, but I’ll warn that the book is often more detailed than most readers want. There is a lot of organizational discussion (“Given his former affiliation with the NFP, Turner encouraged the first lady to work specifically with that organization. PRIDE and FIA did good work, Turner knew, but the NFP was led by social conservatives…”); be ready to skip parts, unless you are uncommonly engaged by bureaucratic jousting—you may be. You may also read the book in conjunction with Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And of course the subtitle of Grass Roots is clever.

Evidence and knowledge play small roles in the periods that see relatively legal weed and relatively illegal weed. Dufton notes:

Despite its popularity, Just Say No did little to actually decrease youth drug use. In 1988 … the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” survey found that, although rates of adolescent drug use in the United States had dropped over the past seven years, they were still “the highest in the industrialized world.”

The United States is an outlier in many respects, and this is, or was, apparently one of them. I got “Just Say No” drug education in schools and it seems to have been, at least anecdotally, not productive. It’s also not productive to lump all illegal drugs together, as many “education” programs do: drugs vary considerably in their danger and uses. Michael Pollan’s new book, for example, describes the many ways psychedelics may be therapeutic. And thinking about actual danger is important; I don’t know that there are any documented cases of overdosing on marijuana, but the opioid epidemic is well-known and is killing tens of thousands of people per year. Why do we treat weed, LSD, and morphine and heroin similarly? They’re not.

Other aspects of ignorance drove and still drive drug policy. “A 1917 report from the Treasure Department noted that in Texas, only ‘Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites’ smoked marijuana for pleasure and warned that ‘drug-crazed’ minorities could harm or assault upper-class white women.” Then, “films like Reefer Madness, released in 1936, associated marijuana use with murder, miscegenation, and suicide.” Which could only be convincing to someone who has never seen a person high on weed: they are dangerous only to pizza and other snack foods.

Money and sex play major roles in the Grass Roots story. The desire for tax revenue entices some states. And the desire to sell paraphernalia entices entreprenurs. Playboy offers some grants to marijuana-focused organizations; it exists at the nexus of sex and money. And some of the early advocates for marijuana have, uh, personal problems that retard their advocacy:

Two months after moving in with Stroup, Newman and Stroup’s wife took MDA, a powerful psychoactive amphetamine known for enhancing sex, and spent the night together while Stroup was visiting the Playboy Foundation in Chicago to solicit funds.

By 1978, we saw “a flood of additional states passing new marijuana laws and the president decriminalizing the drug at the federal level.” But “the downfall of Peter Bourne and the subsequent downfall of Keith Stroup brought the country’s first experiment with decriminalization to a close.” Sort of like Parnell and Kitty O’Shea in nineteenth-century Ireland. I wonder if anyone has yet written the definitive book on the role of sex scandals in world political history.

Another pro-pot politico working for the Carter administration got in media trouble through sex, or a perceived connection with sex; he was a doctor whose secretary was “struggling emotionally,” and

To help Metsky relax, Bourne wrote her a prescription for fifteen Quaaludes, a mild tranquilizer that, though often used to treat insomnia, was also known socially to enhance sex.

This eventually got to the press. My impression, too, is that, regardless of what is “known socially,” Quaaludes just make people sleepy or lethargic, which would not seem to offer the erotic boost that they apparently did in the popular imagination—another example, maybe, of the small role played by knowledge and evidence in the marijuana saga.

Dufton also writes, “Cannabis was believed to be so safe [in the late 1800s] that the drug was marketed to women through romantic postcard campaigns that showed concerned mothers applying a cannabis salve to soothe the gums of teething babies and relieve children’s colds. As a pain reliever, marijuana worked wonderfully.” Does it work better and more safely than Tylenol (which is extremely dangerous, though not addictive)? I wonder if we know that, today: conducting the research may itself be illegal.

Two things strike me as odd or missing (or I missed them). One is the absence of any discussion of lead in gas in the rise of drug use. This may sound esoteric, but leaded gas has been implicated in “violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.” Leaded gas may also have led to higher drug use in the ’60s and ’70s. The other is the absence of any discussion of age cohorts. In the ’60s and ’70s, baby boomers were teens and young adults—ages at which drug experimentation is common and favoring drugs is common. By the ’80s, many were parents themselves—and parents are much more conservative, especially about their own children (several chapters of Grass Roots focus intelligently on the role of parent movements), than experimental 21-year olds. I don’t think and wouldn’t argue that either factor is dispositive, and both can coexist with Dufton’s other work.

Everybody Lies — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Stephens-Davidowitz is right:

One more important point that becomes clear when we zoom in: the world is complicated. Actions we take today can have distant effects, most of them unintended. Ideas spread—sometimes slowly; other times exponentially, like viruses. People respond in unpredictable ways to incentives.

Yet we seem to like simple stories and seem to believe that our actions will have simple, easy-to-understand consequences. Data complicates or invalidates many of those stories, so we ought to seek it whenever we can. Stephens-Davidowitz does just this in Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. An alternate sub-title could be, “Why most of us are full of shit.” You may suspect, intuitively, that most of us are full of shit, but it’s nice seeing it confirmed. The miracle of aggregation gives us a lot of new tools to look at human nature.

This book can be read as part of a series, as it’s congruent with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and especially Jon Birger’s Date-onomics, which doesn’t discuss data from porn, as Stephens-Davidowitz does, but it could have (albeit at the risk of making it longer and perhaps turning off some of its readers). We’re going to see a lot more books like Everybody Lies as the Internet allows us to aggregate huge amounts of data that tell us something about what we do—as opposed to what we say. What we say seems to be a very poor guide to understanding what we really think; while this has been obvious on some level for a long time, it’s useful to see the specific ways action and speech are mismatched.

Take one sensitive area:

Somewhat surprisingly, porn data is rarely utilized by sociologists, most of whom are comfortable relying on the traditional survey datasets they have built their careers on. But a moment’s reflection shows that the widespread use of porn—and the search and view data that comes with it—is the most important development in our ability to understand human sexuality in, well . . . Actually, it’s probably the most important data ever.

“Ever” might be an overstatement (what about Masters and Johnson’s live observations?), but calling it “very important” and perhaps most importantly “novel” is legitimate. While the observation is useful, it’s also useful to remember that what people want in a fantasy setting may be different from what they, or we, want in a reality setting. Many people like watching people get shot in movies without thinking we should shoot more people in real life.

Or, in the same domain, there is this, with the data from the General Social Survey:

when it comes to heterosexual sex, women say they have sex, on average, fifty-five times per year, using a condom 15 percent of the time. This adds up to about 1.1 billion condoms per year. But heterosexual men say they use 1.6 billion condoms every year. Those numbers, by definition, would have to be the same. So who is telling the truth, men or women?

Neither, it turns out. According to Nielsen, the global information and measurement company that tracks consumer behavior, fewer than 600 million condoms are sold every year. So everyone is lying; the only question is by how much.

A meta lesson may be, be very wary of survey data.

(If you recognize some of these ideas, you’ve probably read A Billion Wicked Thoughts or my essay on it.)

Other problems, this time outside the realm of sexuality, include estimation:

When relying on our gut, we can also be thrown off by the basic human fascination with the dramatic. We tend to overestimate the prevalence of anything that makes for a memorable story. For example, when asked in a survey, people consistently rank tornadoes as a more common cause of death than asthma. In fact, asthma causes about seventy times more death. Deaths by asthma don’t stand out—and don’t make the news.

Still, I wonder what would happen if researchers paid survey respondents for right answers. In surveys, people have little incentive to try to be right. In some other parts of life, they do.

Much of the data comes from Google, and we should remember something important: “Google can display a bias toward unseemly thoughts, thoughts people feel they can’t discuss with anyone else.” Which makes sense: before Google or the Internet more generally, many of those thoughts would never have left the mind in a way that in turn left a residue on the rest of the world. Now they do. Perhaps one lesson of Everybody Lies is that more of us should use Duck Duck Go, the search engine that famously doesn’t record its users’ search terms. I infer, from the prevalence of Google search and Gmail, that most people don’t give a damn about privacy—regardless of the numerous article about privacy one sees in the media. People’s revealed preferences seem to indicate they want convenience and familiarity far more than privacy.

Then there is this, which may be most useful for people doing Internet marketing:

The lesson of A/B testing, to a large degree, is to be wary of general lessons. Clark Benson is the CEO of ranker.com, a news and entertainment site that relies heavily on A/B testing to choose headlines and site designs. “At the end of the day, you can’t assume anything,” Benson says. “Test literally everything.”

By the way, the school(s) you attend also seems to matter little for any measurable life outcomes. The money spent on expensive private schools seems to be largely wasted, or, if not wasted, then at least should be considered a consumption expense, rather than an investment expense. The entire education industry has worked hard to convince you otherwise, but the papers Stephens-Davidowitz cites are convincing and congruent with similar research I’ve seen on the issue.

Stephens-Davidowitz ends by saying that data from the Amazon Kindle indicates that few people read to the end of books. This one is worth reading in full.

Skin in the Game – Nassim Taleb

Skin in the Game is congruent with Tom Ricks’ book The Generals. Almost all generals and high-ranking officers in the U.S. military are now exempt from real risk, as Ricks argues—they are exempt even the risk of being fired or reassigned for simple incompetence (or being ill-suited to a role). Almost all enlisted men and junior officers, however, are heavily exposed to real risk, like being killed. That risk asymmetry should give pause to someone contemplating joining. The risk profile for generals prior to the Korean war, while not as a great as the risk profile for regular soldiers, was more reasonable than it is today. Military contractors are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the military today. If more people knew (and acted like they knew) this, we might see changes.

In Skin in the Game Taleb has many, many unusual examples, many of them good; he reads more like an old-fashioned philosopher (that is: one who wants to be read, heard, and understood, as opposed to one who wants tenure), and I mean that as a compliment. One of his rules is, “No person in a transaction should have certainty about the outcomes while the other one has uncertainty.” I wonder how this rule could be applied to colleges, especially under a student-loan system, in which the college is certain to be paid by the student, the student’s family, or the student’s bank (which is really to say, the bank’s student), while the student may see a variable return on investment—especially if the student is ill-equipped in the first place. Colleges may be selling credentials more than skills. But almost no one thinks about those things in advance.

Skin in the Game will, like Antifragile, frustrate you if you demand that every single sentence be true and useful. Some of Taleb’s micro-examples are bad, like his thing against GMOs:

In my war with the Monsanto machine, the advocates of genetically modified organisms (transgenics) kept countering me with benefit analyses (which were often bogus and doctored up), not tail risk analyses for repeated exposures

This view is incoherent because virtually every food eaten today has been “genetically modified,” inefficiently, through selective breeding. If you wish to learn just how hard this is, see The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. Transgenics speed the process. See this sad tale, and the links, for one researcher in the field who is giving up due to widespread opposition. He points out that, over and over again, transgenic have been shown to be safe.

Taleb is right that there are tail risks to transgenics… but that’s also theoretically true of traditional cross-breeding, and it’s also true of not engaging in transgenics. The alternative to high-efficiency transgenics is environmental degradation and, in many places, starvation. That’s pretty bad, and there’s a serious, usually unstated, environmental trade-off between signaling environmental caring and opposite transgenics (nuclear energy is the same).

Despite incorrect micro-examples, Skin in the Game is great and you should read it. It is less uneven than Antifragile. It’s also an excellent book to re-read (don’t expect to get everything the first time through) because Taleb gives so many examples and is overflowing with ideas.

Like: “If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life.” Something easily and frequently forgotten, or never considered in the first place. Look at what people do, not what they say. One of the many charming parts of Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy is the apparently wide gap between what many philosophers wrote and how they appeared to live. Maybe the truest philosophers don’t write but do.

Or consider:

the highest form of virtue is unpopular. This does not mean that virtue is inherently unpopular, or correlates with unpopularity, only that unpopular acts signal some risk taking and genuine behavior.

A very Peter Thiel point: he asks what popular view is wrong and what unpopular views a given person holds.

Or consider:

The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival.

This may be true, but most of us in the West now survive, unless we do something truly stupid, dangerous, or brave. So our wealth and comfort may enable us to be irrational, because we’re much less likely to pay the ultimate penalty than we once were. Darwin Awards aside, we mostly make it. We can worry more about terrorism than the much more immediate and likely specter of death in the form of the car, which kills far more people every year in the United States than terrorism.

To his credit, though, Taleb does write:

The Chernoff bound can be explained as follows. The probability that the number of people who drown in their bathtubs in the United States doubles next year [. . .] is one per several trillions lifetimes of the universe. This cannot be said about the doubling of the number of people killed by terrorism over the same period.

He’s right that the number who could be killed by terrorism is massive, especially given the risk of nuclear and biological weapons. But the disproportionate focus on terrorism takes too much attention from risks that seem mundane, like getting into cars. Everyone expects to get into car crashes. Perhaps we should be thinking more seriously about that. Too bad almost no one is.

Junkyard Planet — Adam Minter

I wish I’d read Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade when it came out: it’s both informative and, sometimes, strangely lyrical, which I wasn’t expecting in a book about the scrap metal business. You may think a book titled “Junkyard Planet” is boring, and I anticipated precisely that and was proved wrong. For Minter the scrap business is tied up with his family: he grew up in in the industry, so, like a writer from a restaurant family, he gets things most journalists don’t, or wouldn’t (“Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of wandering among the family junk inventory, often with my grandmother, finding treasures:” a sentence few of us can utter).

He’s also refreshingly direct about costs and benefits; many writers want to condemn the global recycling trade because of the obvious pollution produced in China. But Minter goes the extra step and asks: why do things exist as they do? Will exist this way in the future?

This book aims to explain why the hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation is the most logical (and greenest) endpoint in a long chain that begins with the harvest in your home recycling bin, or down at the local junkyard. There are few moral certainties here, but there is a guarantee: if what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.

It turns out that “Huge, mind-bending, Silicon Valley-scale fortunes have been built by figuring out how to move the scrap newspapers in your recycling bin to the country where they’re most in demand.” Did you know that? Me neither. I learned from every page. It also turns out that for a couple decades following World War II, most dead cars were simply discarded in vast junkyards or chucked wherever they could be concealed. It took China decades in turn to go through all that American scrap (“the world’s most recycled product (by weight) isn’t a newspaper, a notebook computer, or a plastic water bottle—it’s an American automobile, most of which is metal”).

By the way, there are many important reasons to choose electric or plug-in electric cars, but one of them is the car’s valuable battery. Even in a decade or two, when the battery is likely to be too depleted for automotive use, it’s still likely to be valuable as grid storage. Seriously: “
Why Used Electric Car Batteries Could Be Crucial To A Clean Energy Future
.” Individual choices today are going to matter a decade or two from now.

For now, though, there are two major ways to get raw materials for new goods:

Digging mines was one way to obtain those raw materials; the other was to go to the United States, the place that many scrap traders call the Saudi Arabia of Scrap, the land where there’s more scrap than the people can handle on their own. It’s a funny nickname, Saudi Arabia of Scrap, but it’s not meant as a compliment. Rather, it’s an opportunity to exploit.

Think about this quote, too, every time you hear about a “shortage” of some commodity (nickel, cobalt, poorly named “rare earth” metals). A “shortage” usually means that someone doesn’t want to buy at a given price. You’ll know there’s really a shortage of something when you can sell old laptops, phones, or computers to Best Buy for a couple bucks. Right now, it’s not profitably enough to pay for out-of-date electronics. If and when it is profitable enough, you’ll be able to sell them—and profit will likely motivate more than green signaling.

By the way, what China is doing now is what the U.S. did more than a century ago; in the nineteenth century,

The U.S. was not yet scrapping its old infrastructure, [. . .] so it looked abroad to Europe [. . .] for raw materials. According to data culled by Carl Zimring, U.S. imports of scrap iron and steel grew from 38,580 tons in 1884 to 380,744 tons in 1887—a tenfold increase during, not coincidentally, a railroad building binge.

There are many more points of interest in the book. The total amount of recycling going on is much greater than I imagined, but it’s primarily happening behind the scenes and far behind the headlines.

In some ways, Junkyard Planet tells a circular story: each developing country goes from poor and a tremendous importer of “junk” (which is not actually junk), then moves up the value chain towards wealth and producing more apparent junk than it consumes. The obvious question is, “When will the world run out of poor, developing countries?” One hopes the answer is, “Soon.”

The Likeness — Tana French

If you don’t mind the crazy, improbable plot—and it’s crazy and improbable even by murder mystery standards, where authors strain relentlessly to think up new plots—The Likeness is an okay, functional book of its type. In the novel, Cassie Maddox is a cop who, prior to the novel’s start, developed a fake identity to go undercover in order to crack some victimless crime related to drugs. That assignment ends, and as the novel begins, police discover a dead woman who has an ID saying she is Cassie’s old identity—that is, the dead woman had enrolled in grad school under that name and developed a life using that name. But how’d the dead woman get the ID in the first place? Why would she use or need it?

So far, we’re in the land of extreme improbability. Then—and this is where “improbable” moves to “ridiculous”—Cassie and her boss decide to pretend the dead girl actually lived, but suffers from amnesia, and Cassie is going to pretend to be the dead girl, who was pretending to be one of Cassie’s old IDs, because Cassie so closely resembles the dead girl. Who had been living with four of her grad school friends in a big house, where they all see each other every day.

It’s not bad, but it’s also one of these doppelgänger books—books that are like another book, but often not quite as good. If you want a bunch of surprises among a band of tightly-knit college students who are hiding a shocking secret, start with The Secret History, in which an outsider joins a band of four other students who have a dark secret (besides their facility in Latin). Reading a book that’s similar but not quite as good just makes me want to go read the real thing. The Weight of Ink suffered from the same problem: it was like Possession, but without the wit.

When Cassie first hears from the gang she lives with, one says:

We were wrecks. Not Daniel, obviously, he would never do anything as undignified as get upset, he just stuck his head in a book and occasionally came out with some fucking Old Norse quote about arms that remain strong in times of trial, or something.

Daniel plays the role of Henry in The Secret History. The Likeness asks how well we can ever really know a person (answer: not very), and that makes it more interesting than many mysteries, but I flip through it, hunting for some bit of evocative writing, and I’m struggling. There is this, at the end:

I wanted to tell her that being loved is a talent too, that it takes as much guts and as much work as loving; that some people, for whatever reason, never learn the knack.

It’s beautiful, not commonplace, but not inaccurate, either. But more often the sentences can be dropped into any other cop novel: “This case had been different from the first moment.” Which is not a criticism, exactly (not every sentence in every novel is an original), though one does yearn for novelty or at least great precision. Or: “The possibility hit me like a wrecking ball: suicide.” But we know it won’t be suicide; that would deprive us of the pleasure of discovery.

Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules — Helen Dale

Kingdom of the Wicked is one of the best, weirdest, and most fascinating novels I’ve read in recent memory; I’m amazed that it hasn’t garnered more reviews, both from Amazon and the press. It takes a seemingly simple premise—what happens if the Industrial Revolution occurred in ancient Rome?—and combines it with an insurgent campaign against an occupying power in the Middle East and the appearance of Jesus. Is the occupying power good, evil, neither, or both? Kingdom refuses to yield simple answers, which is part of what makes it addicting.

Many sections resonate with very current events: “These men really do believe a ragtag army of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen. The result will be a bloodbath, you know that better than me” could easily be taken from a news story about contemporary Afghanistan. Yet in the context of the novel, it defamiliarizes the tropes that appear so readily in the news.* We also know from the last 50 years of real history that ragtag armies of insurgents can defeat the greatest military power the world has ever seen, at least by some measures of “defeat.” But in Kingdom, that power isn’t the United States; it’s the Roman Empire in the period Jesus lived.

I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s prediction that The Name of the Rose would be read in at least three different ways; Kingdom can perhaps be read similarly:

The first category of readers will be taken by the plot and the coups de scène, and will accept even the long bookish discussions and the philosophical dialogues, because it will sense that the signs, the traces and revelatory symptoms are nesting precisely in those inattentive pages. The second category will be impassioned by the debate of ideas, and will attempt to establish connections (which the author refuses to authorize) with the present. The third will realize that this text is a textile of other texts, a ‘whodunit’ of quotations, a book built of books.

Kingdom is not a whodunit, and if it is a “textile of other texts,” I do not know those other texts well enough to detect their presence. But I do think Kingdom is a kind of textile of history, though I don’t enough Roman or Biblical history to perceive those patterns, either. David Lodge suggests regarding Eco’s categories that “there is an implied hierarchy in the listing of these kinds of reading, the most approved being the last. A fully appreciative reading must, however, combine all three.” So while I can speak to the plot and coups de scène, as well as the many resonances between imaginary past and actual present, I cannot grasp what may be the deepest level.

That being said, the first two levels offer much material. I will caution, though, that the book may feel slow and strange to start: many odd (to my American background) names appear in rapid succession and are hard to keep straight. Some, like Pontius Pilate, are familiar even to me from history. Many others are not familiar or not from history, and it is not always easy to keep Camilla, Claudia, Caiaphas, Cornelius (whose last name is Getorex, and he is referred to by the one or the other depending on context) and many others straight.

Yet I kept reading, and about halfway through I could not or would not stop. I wasn’t wholly attentive at the beginning, either, maybe due to reading on a bus—or because I couldn’t make up my mind about the book’s quality immediately. Then I finished and immediately began again, to see all that I’d missed or not understood. And there was much to find in a second reading. This reaction might be idiosyncratic, but I forced the book on a friend who had the same reaction: caught halfway through, she finished and turned back to page one.

She also observed that there are a lot of “really hot sex scenes.” That’s true, and they intersect with the political and military contexts beautifully. To say more would be to give away too much of the novel.

Beyond the plot and the correspondences between imagined world and present, many individual sentences are beautiful: “[Caiaphas’s] mind ran like a rodent on a wheel as he tried to think how he was to explain himself to Pilate.” “Like a rodent on a wheel:” that is sometimes how one feels when preparing to explain the inexplicable. This novel combines a turbulent plot with beautiful sentences, as too few novels do. The word “combines” features prominently in this review, for good reason. This book is a combination of many ideas in an unusual way. Unlike most novels, it feels very novel.

In this world, Christianity hasn’t happened yet, so there are no Christians. Islam comes many centuries later, so there are no Muslims; this allows Kingdom to deftly sidestep many current controversies. There are Jews and we’re in a land that corresponds geographically to the modern Middle East, here called Judaea, where the Roman soldiers are unhappy to be living amid cultural aliens. Most of the novel’s narrative perspective happens within Romans, but sometimes we get Jews, who see the Romans a little like modern Palestinians might see Israelis, or as Afghans might see Americans. One senses, perhaps wrongly, that the author sides with the Romans, just as one senses that Umberto Eco sides with William of Baskerville, but everyone gets a hearing. Courtrooms and lawyers frequently appear in Kingdom, so the notion of a “hearing” is not purely metaphorical.

Early in Kingdom, a Jewish cabbie is driving a Roman lawyer and notices the environment:

Whenever he saw Roman soldiers in dress uniform, he always had the same struggle to prevent himself from admiring them. When they were in the streets wearing their desert battle dress and coalscuttle helmets and heavy boots, one could despite them—the body armour even made them look non-human—but not when they wee preening like peacocks and charming the women who wished to reward the Empire’s warriors for their protective efforts.

“Body armour” can make modern soldiers “look non-human.” Many have argued that in the United States, “We Are The Empire” of the Star Wars films: culturally and militarily hegemonic, builder of massive war machines, masters of the physical world. In Kingdom we are Rome—yet we’re also the product of monotheistic religions. Yet even those monotheistic religions haven’t been sufficient to keep a libertine culture from growing; in Kingdom, the libertine culture is the majority culture and thrives in the mainstream; people want what they want and do what they do. In American culture, we often deny wanting what we want, and the next morning we deny what we did. We’re schizophrenic: simultaneously partaking and rebelling, affirming and denying, at war with ourselves, with self-denying, right-wing religious culture circling back around and sometimes combining with self-denying, fear-based left-wing feminist culture. It’s an odd world, if you really think about.

Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us don’t. Not actively. You don’t have to think too hard about the correspondences between our world and Kingdom if you don’t want to: the story itself keeps one’s interest. Speculative fiction readers may have an advantage here, because the world is extremely disorienting at first. Historical figures like Saul of Tarsus and Pontius Pilate appear, but people who don’t know the New Testament won’t necessarily see how strangely these figures are changed. And lots of people don’t know it: I was recently teaching Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and asked students about the famous historical-mythic figure who died at age 33. No one knew.

The novel switches perspectives often at first, but the narrative voice remains similar. It took me till about halfway through to get the characters straight and begin to piece together who everyone was and the main things that most characters might want. But the disorientation is the pleasant sense of being in a foreign place, much like Peter Watt’s novel Blindsight.

I mentioned the novel’s sex scenes. They’re tied to the Roman celebration of sensuality. Many characters notice each other in a way that real people do and fictional characters often don’t. Mary Magdalena, for example, is “a newsreader on JTN” and she is “bar none, the most beautiful woman” one character has ever seen. She is like Ben Yusuf in that she has something of the supernatural about her, so much so that “He could imagine her telling him to do something ridiculous and complying without hesitation.” In the Roman world, sexuality is highlighted rather than sublimated, and when Linnaeus is too intent on her, he says, “Please accept my apologies for staring at you like that.” She replies, “That is the best of Rome . . . You do not pretend.” A world where, if not everybody, then many people have such an attitude is a cultural change.

In the real world, the second-best-known pornographic movie is probably Debbie Does Dallas, which even has its own Wikipedia page (the first is of course Deep Throat, which is immortalized by its role in Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, and the taking down of Nixon). In Kingdom, a movie called Deborah Does Damascus plays a similar role.

The sly winking to Deborah Does Damascus also reminds one of the novel’s frequent humor. Though that humor is hard to take from its context, I laughed out loud reading it and so did a friend. When the disorientation from entering Kingdom’s world subsides, be ready to laugh.

In the novel; there is a lot of argument about how “women are not free in their country;” maybe the novel is also an experiment asking what freedom, or some definitions of freedom, actually look like. “Freedom” means a lot of things, and it does seem like few people are actually free, or want to be. Even people who want freedom for themselves would often deny it to others; politically salient examples of this seem too obvious and numerous to cite.

If there is a single lesson from the novel it may be that governing is hard, culture is hard, and there is no way to make those problems not-hard.


* Here is Dale’s essay, “What if the Industrial Revolution happened in Rome?” and she is also on Twitter. Here is Mark Koyama, “Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution?” I’ve seen very few American reviews of Kingdom, which is odd considering how good the book is. The next book is supposed to be out soon in “Early 2018,” but from what I can tell it isn’t yet available for pre-order.

I know almost nothing about Roman history but am now reading Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which is readable, fascinating, and thus far recommended (although I can’t speak to its accuracy because I lack sufficient knowledge to do so).

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