What to Riff On; Or, The Bar Jester and a Certain Political Theorist Take on the Big Dogs


Rock Island, IL

The following quotations are kept in a folder marked Also Sprach Bar Jester.

(N.B. These are not “quotes” but “quotations.” “Quotes” is a verb.)

Each quotation (not quote) is riffable in its way, which is to say there’s much to say about it. Each is also true. Some are more true than others, some more elegant than others, and some hit home in ways that others don’t.

Hitting home: now that invariably owes to the reader’s condition, not the writer’s. We are all of us sometimes ready for a given line and sometimes not. Not everyone will laugh at the joke about the bulimic stag party (the cake came out of the girl). Not everyone is psychically prepared for “Marriage is a long tedious seven-course meal with the dessert first.” (And some will be in trouble for repeating it.)

But some are. And so that particular quotation, were it included here, might, for some, rank high among the most riffable on offer.

Now to assume that “riffable” means “useable for a Tuesday night act of desperation” is perfectly reasonable. But the Bar Jester does not count himself among the desperate. Tomorrow’s lecture is pretty much in the noggin. The dishes are pretty much done. The children are medicated into docility and draped over the bannister. Their mother is at work keeping the Bar Jester in gambling and heroin money. And lo! Also Sprach Bar Jester, a long-lost folder, at last is found. Material at hand! God, you might say, is in his heaven. Kill the fatted calf!

I’ll grant you that Eliot, Chesterton, Berry, Lasch, and all the others here quoted (not quotationed) are good in their own way, but—really—who would you rather riff on?

We will extract everything we possibly can, even transforming the face of the earth into a living hell, if it means we can continue to run a civilization of Dunkin Donuts, TGIFs, and leaf blowers.

— Patrick Deneen

Contemporary Christian music is what you get nine months after bad art and worse theology fornicate.

— Bar Jester

We are being made aware that the organisation of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and to the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly. I need only mention, as an instance now very much before the public eye, the results of ‘soil-erosion’—the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale for two generations, for commercial profit: immediate benefits leading to dearth and desert. . . . [A] wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and . . . the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanised, commercialised, urbanised way of life: it would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Idea of a Christian Society”

Technology is of no use to us if it is used without respect for the Earth and its processes.

— Aldo Leopold

Most people, Horace concluded, were selfish, greedy, unprincipled, venal, utterly irredeemable shit-eaters, but he’d also observed that these same people were highly sensitive to criticism.

—Richard Russo, Empire Falls

Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. . . . Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.

—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

. . . in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.

— Don DeLillo, White Noise

Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so, and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.

—Wendell Berry, “Compromise, Hell!” (from The Way of Ignorance)

Leadership passes into empire; empire begets insolence; insolence brings ruin.

— William Carlos Williams, Paterson I

Republicans honestly tell the world: “Listen in on my phone calls, piss-test me until I’m blind, kill and eat all of my neighbors right in front of my eyes, but show me the money! Let me escape with every cent I can kick out of the suckers, the taxpayers, and anybody else I can get a headlock on, legally or otherwise.”

—Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus

Robert was brought up a Catholic but left the Church when he was about eighteen to become an intellectual.

— Flannery O’Connor (letter to ‘A,’ 1956)

There is a cloud on my horizon. A small dark cloud no bigger than my hand. Its name is Progress.

— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

The fact remains: the earth’s finite resources will not support an indefinite expansion of industrial civilization. The right proposes, in effect, to maintain our riotous standard of living, as it has been maintained in the past, at the expense of the rest of the world. . . . This program is self-defeating, not only because it will produce environmental effects from which even the rich cannot escape, but because it will widen the gap between rich and poor nations, generate more violent movements of insurrection and terrorism against the West, and bring about a deterioration of the world’s political climate as threatening as the deterioration of its physical climate.

—Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven

A city that outdistances man’s walking powers is a trap for man.

— Arnold Toynbee

The most significant characteristic of modern civilization is the sacrifice of the future for the present, and all the power of science has been prostituted to this purpose.

—William James

Well, there you have it. Material for riffing from the folder of quotations. Time to toss the children into their beds and recline with a little John Muir and a finger or two of Old Cordwood. That splendid piece on the water-ouzel will do nicely, I think. Ah, yes, the water-ouzel: a creature that, more than any of us, knows how to be at home and wouldn’t think of living without a front porch.

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