Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

Monthly Archives: July 2012

“[T]he basest of all things is to be afraid…”: Faulkner’s Nobel Speech

This is Faulkner’s short Nobel Prize speech, as written.  Stockholm, December 10, 1950.

I had not read this speech in a while.  Upon reflection, it is probably something I should regularly re-read.  You should too.  Enjoy.


I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.


PS–I’m still plodding through the Sound and the Fury, which is as excruciating as it is good .


Thank you note to Eliot Cohen — Beware of Rashness

I wrote the thank you note below to professor Eliot Cohen, who accepted my application to attend a teaching conference this June in Vermont.  His book, Supreme Command, was a big inspiration to me.  I learned much from it and had success teaching it in the classroom at Chico State.  The letter below is very subdued, actually.  I very much loved his book and think he is a brilliant teacher.


Dear Eliot,

At our Teachers’ Workshop this June I asserted that Joe Hooker very much
admired Lincoln’s “Beware of Rashness” letter [see below].  Attached is the proof from
Foote’s Civil War: A Narrative, Volume II.  This is the key line: “That is
just such a letter as a father might write to his son.”  I believe you will
enjoy the entire section that I have attached.  More generally, I should
add, Lincoln emerges as a master politician and statesman in Foote’s
precious volumes, which in my view should be required reading for the work
is something of a Plutarch’s Lives of our Civil War. The prose, moreover, is
exquisite throughout.  I believe he wrote 2-3 pages per day for 20 years.

Also, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for writing Supreme
Command.  I used it in my classes nearly every semester at Chico State for
four years. Your work made me a better and more dedicated teacher, and more
than a few of my students more ambitious young adults.  I believe you would
have appreciated the readings I assigned in that course: Inter alia, The
Prince, Henry V, selected Plutarch’s Lives including that of Themistocles,
which might be my favorite.  Drawing on your book’s thesis and the readings,
I made them write a long essay on Barack Obama as war leader during the
Afghan surge early in his presidency.

Thank you again for inviting me to attend the Teachers Seminar. I hope to
have the opportunity to attend again.  Nearly everything was excellent.
Really, my only suggestion has to do with elective schedule. I would suggest
keeping to the original plan to have workshops on teaching topics in
international security.  Civil Military, counterinsurgency, etc.

Very respectfully,



Beware of Rashness Letter from Lincoln to General Hooker:

Executive Mansion
Washington, January 26, 1863

Major General Hooker:

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of it’s ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.

And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly
A. Lincoln


On the Origins of “Hooker”

On the origins of “Hooker”

From Shelby Foote:

“According to this son of the ambassador to England, the new commander was “a noisy, low-toned intriguer under whose influence army headquarters became “a place to which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go. It was a combination of barroom and brothel.” Young Adams’ own “tone” was exceptionally high, which made him something less than tolerant of the weakness of others- particularly the weaknesses of the flesh, from which he himself apparently was exempt – but in support of at least a part of the accusation was the fact that, from this time on, the general’s surname entered the language as one of the many lowercase slang words for prostitute.”

The Dark Knight

Saw The Dark Knight Rises  yesterday.  You should too while it’s in the theaters.  It’s gotten mixed reviews, both in the papers as well as from friends.  I enjoyed it. It was the most visually stunning of the three.  It is not, however, as good as the first two in the trilogy.

The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger as Joker is peerless among the comic book genre of films. That movie gets the “dirty hands” problem spot on, with all of its complexity.  Our public officials must operate under the rule of law.  But there are also extraordinary times that require them to operate outside of the law and institutions.  The issue, to my mind, is not whether officials should ever scrap the law.  Necessity requires them to do so at times. (See Lincoln during the Civil War and great leaders during wartime more generally).  The issue is whether or not we have chosen our state-persons with the intelligence, leadership skills, and moral authority to bend laws and institutions in ways that will preserve and strengthen them and our way of life.

The Dark Knight operates in the shadows.  We doubt until the end whether he is up to the task or whether the Joker is right when he asserts that he and the Dark Knight are the same.  In the end Batman rises but does not do so alone.  Buoyed by his friends and associates he discovers that Gotham is redeemable and by saving it he saves himself.


On Higgs-Boson: (My Favorite FB post ever)

Rainer Wallney just blew my mind with this Facebook post, the single coolest thing anyone has ever shared.  He is explaining the Higgs-Boson stuff:

“Brother Gabe, over the 13.8 billion years the universe is old, it went from the big bang to present day through a series of “phase transitions” and massive epochs of expansion. A phase transition is when matter finds another arrangement which is energetically more favorable building certain structures, like condensing and finally freezing water with falling temperature (you asked for metaphor). Now, a crucial step is when the universe developed from a “hot soup” of massless particles zipping around at the speed of light, interacting in one unified way (we call that :”grand unification”) into the dynamics we know today described by the Standard Model – i.e. differentiated in three interactions (we for now have to punt about gravitation which is the odd man out) with different ranges and strengths. These interactions govern e.g. chemistry and radioactive decays responsible for fusion processes in the sun, i.e. stuff quite relevant for our every day life. In this crucial step, about a trillionth second after the big bang, some particles (not all) acquired mass, i.e. inertia, by coupling to the Higgs field, a special energy field postulated to permeat the universe. This has profound consequences for the ensuing phase transitions/structure formation which perhaps is plausible – structure formation, i.e. quarks coalescing into protons and neutrons looks, if at all possible, quite different if particles zip around at the speed of light or at slower speeds. But since they acquired mass, they now slow down and hence can “find each other” to produce what ultimately is the ordinary matter (and other) we know and love. Now, one crucial prediction of this “Higgs mechanism” is that there is (at least) one special particle, a Spin 0 particle called sometimes the Higgs boson – and we have come very close to claiming that we have found such particle. We have found _a_ particle not inconsistent with the H-Particle, but we need to be sure and measure a bit more until we can declare victory. But the fact that there is something beyond doubt, i.e. a new boson particle, is a sensation by itself. Crucial for this Higgs mechanism idea is, like is true already in quantum field theory, that “empty space” isn’t quite empty – the vacuum, the very fabric of space time, has a certain structure. Does this make sense a bit ? I would love to have a few negra modelo with you to elaborate if needed if it wasn’t for this big pond …”

I have some freakishly smart friends.

Aside from his physics, this is what Rainer loves best :

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