Tired of the Same Trump-Era ‘Must-Reads’? Read This Instead


There’s a comical number of books we are all supposed to read in this age of Donald Trump. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and a legion of others that don’t even include all the books about Trump that are written with Trumpian nuance. Books that announce their souls with titles like Fire and Fury and Unhinged. Both sorts—the classics and the classless—risk domination by Trump’s personality. The pervasive, presidential shag has become his own hermeneutic, a maw of interpretation that reduces the loglines for classics and bestsellers alike to his own favorite paradigm: cheap relevancy.

What people need in this fractured age is a book that can accomplish two seemingly contradictory goals. The first is escape, but not your usual escape. By all means, subsume yourself in far-away worlds or cozy cottage deaths; the news shouldn’t play subtext to every waking hour. Additionally, however, is the escape of concentration, an escape that feels especially rare amidst our collective din of notifications. A friend remarked a year or so ago that she found her usual diet of novels more of a tonic than ever because nowhere else could she find as undistracted a mind in action. That perhaps romanticizes the literary experience. Good. We need brighter and more idealistic visions of reading. Concentrate, we should tell ourselves, and thereby feel a little freedom.

The second and more trumpeted goal for reading right now is that we need books that can give us context or insight into what has been (for many of us) a disorienting time. To what extent should we anticipate political dysfunction collapsing into political violence? What factors have contributed to this era of open corruption and rising tribalism, and how do we search for solutions? Here, we are told in various listicles, are books that have answers. And yet there’s one book that is missing from these types of lists, and it isn’t one of the books folks should read, it is the One Book everyone should attempt for 2019. A distraction, a challenge, a historical saga, a spiritual referee, a book so big that back-cover salesmanship and listicle logic shudder under its romping, magisterial shadow. Considered her magnum opus, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a witty and good-spirited bully, a masterpiece of honest investigation that is as irreducible to the current moment as it is relevant.

Subtitled A Journey Through Yugoslavia, the hulking paperback is often billed as a travelogue. This is technically true, in the same sense that your friend might say, “Meet my cat,” only your friend is a zookeeper. The cat is a lion and perhaps here to eat you. Meet my cat isn’t inaccurate, but neither is it sufficient to explain the situation. Along with her husband and one of Serbia’s leading poets, West tours from Croatia to Montenegro and details an array of pleasant churches, courtyards, sartorial traditions, food, and fertility rites. The book certainly could be used on a journey, or even more likely read as a substitute for one. Its first pleasure is the simplicity of getting away.

But what Black Lamb and Grey Falcon should properly be billed as is an epic of Western history and thought, a book that uses the historical development of the Balkans to investigate nationhood, human violence, spirituality, and the necessity of art. Published in 1941, the post-WWII history of the region does nothing to limit the power of the book’s truths, even when West fails to predict some of the area’s most salient developments (primarily, communism). Never simply one thing, West’s goliath is as interested in the Balkans-qua-Balkans as it is in letting the Balkans’ oppression exemplify humanity’s formal extremes of violence and hate. By formal, I mean the infrastructures that civilizations create to justify, suppress, and foment our basest instincts of annihilation and self-destruction. Caught between the hammer of Austria and the, er, bigger hammer of the Ottoman Empire for most of its history, the Balkans existed in 1937 as a mess of national biases and emergencies. Victims in recovery (one might say), the various nations that composed interwar Yugoslavia indicted at every level the great powers that wrecked them and the spirit behind those powers that wrecked Europe and the world only a few years later. Meet Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; it’s a travelogue.

A definitive hatchet job on the values of imperialism, the book unpacks empire’s fundamental lust for erasure on the part of the aggressor by reviewing three main narratives of history, all of which cover decades of struggle and strife. West begins with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; continues with the 19th-century liberation and subsequent struggles of Serbia, which climax with the assassinations of King Alexander Obrenovic and his wife Draga; and concludes with the medieval fracturing of the Serbian empire, which lost the ability to self-govern when the Ottomans beat Tsar Lazar soundly in 1389 on the Kosovo field. Duck if West turns your direction, though, because the too-ready concession to pacifism and purity virtue-signaling on the part of those who might oppose the aggressor is also lambasted. At times she sounds like segments of the current American left when it comes to her progressive pals: “Democrats don’t want to rule,” she might tweet, though only as the final punch-line to a thousand-post thread on the evils of American border camps.

If you want relevancy, then Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is as interested in fascism, the exploited urban poor, the rural disaffected, and the malignant stupidity of the powers-that-be as any book I’ve ever read. It features a horrifying travel companion named Gerda, who if represented even half accurately, is a legitimate approximation for the plain-faced bigotry of Nazi Germany that was so explicit as to be easily doubted. West and her husband discuss, in fact, how no one will believe that Gerda could be so anti-Semitic (she’s married to a Jew!) or anti-Slavic (her Jewish husband is a Serbian!). It’s the banality of evil, in a certain sense, long before Arendt made the term famous. Daily life is full of dullness, and when the exceptional occurs, the dullness is often too established to be disrupted. Gerda couldn’t be that bad, part of us thinks, life is never so bald day-to-day. But for all the complications of history, West assures us that we’re wrong. Gerda’s type of hatred is what makes domination thrum. West ultimately pits imperialism against nationalism, insisting that the horrors of the former not be blindly attributed to the latter. Perhaps nationalism as a concept is beyond recovery for you; read this book and discover whether that remains a viable opinion in the face of cultures who must assert their personality as a bulwark against destruction.

So, the book’s content feels current. Yet Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is that much rarer breed, a book of big ideas whose relevancy can’t be draped over whatever fad or crisis is at hand. There are too many facts for such loose abstraction, facts giving birth to other facts at the rate of rabbits. Facts that cast shadows over other facts that all collude to blot out your easy opinions. There are enough facts you wonder if you ever attended a history course or know anything beyond the timeline of your own small life. West opens the book with a reminiscence on the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including an account of Empress Elisabeth’s 1898 assassination. Her son either killed himself or was assassinated some years before. Why does this matter? It put Franz Ferdinand in line to the throne, which might not have mattered if Alexander Obrenovic and his wife Draga—King and Queen of Serbia (remember?)—hadn’t also been assassinated, giving Serbia over to King Peter, who was a capable and intimidating leader. His rehabilitation of Serbia was feared by Austria, but especially by the blustery, hapless, and somewhat pitiable (only because he died) Franz Ferdinand. Hence why he was on the Serbian border when he was shot, which itself was only accomplished by a comedy of errors pulled directly from the imagination of Armando Ianucci.

The too-muchness of all the facts is the point of the book. In some ways, it’s a tracing of causality so complete that you realize the branching effects of any vital action become opaque in their relationship to each other. Trying to hold the accidents of history in your mind in such a way that their connections and disconnections are plain is an exercise in humility and perspective. West wants the reader to know the particulars, but not so that we can pretend to exhaustive comprehension. She wants to share how much she knows precisely because the facts overwhelm even as they illuminate.

Whatever headlines currently dominate your screens, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon transitions from the metaphysical to the historical to the personal with such grace, but also with such relentlessness, that it demands submission. The book is an uncompromising document of hard-won thought and artful intransigence, one that takes you by the hand and teaches you how to read it. History, I could hear West saying, is shorter than you think, and not neutral. Such guidance is the strength of all masterpieces, I think. They teach us a new way of reading that, if we’re lucky and receptive and not (you know) evil or anything, inaugurates a new way of seeing the world. I’ve never doubted that something like the Civil War was a cornerstone of American strife, but it was only as I was reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that such history felt recent.

While many books attempt to compress the world’s timeline, few, if any, can hope to imitate the way West walks events down a ladder of meaning from the continental to the personal. A perfect moment in one of the historical passages about King Stefan Dusan makes this plain:
In the 49th year of his life, at a village so obscure that it is not now to be identified, he died, in great pain, as if he had been poisoned. Because of his death many disagreeable things happened. For example, we sat in Pristina, our elbows on a tablecloth stained brown and puce, with chicken drumsticks on our plates meagre as sparrow-bones, and there came towards us a man and a woman; and the woman was carrying on her back the better part of a plough.
Comic rather than profound, the movement in this excerpt is a microcosm of the book’s audacity. A king dying in the 14th century in a country distant from her own cannot be impersonal to West if that king’s death not only (in some labyrinth of causality) precipitated the First World War but explains the looming Second World War. Geoffrey Dyer rightly identifies the genius of this passage—and the book—as one of tone. West (the narrator, at least) doesn’t distinguish between persons living or dead, events grand or minimal. They all act upon her, and she unravels their knotted connections with unerring wit.

Perhaps West makes her own case best: “Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tested.” A goblet, a shot, a canteen—a quaff is more than the liquid. A pint of whiskey is still whiskey, but also a cry for help. West’s form is irreducible to scale, although the book’s length makes demands of the reader in and of itself. Her conversations with her husband, her friends, the locals; her forays into art history and craft categorization; her boundless self-deprecation; her insistence that history be viewed intact, every point of the present roped and knotted to leashes reaching out from the past; it’s a grandiose and ridiculous project held together by her casual intimacy with narratives small, epic, and middle-class.

The book is Platonic dialogue, political intrigue, spiritual memoir, vicarious tourism, and not least a polemical tirade aimed at Ancient Rome, Neville Chamberlain, and any idiot in-between. The political history and philosophy the book details are vital, but I can’t think of any other text I’ve either read or even read about that elevates journalism to Homeric proportions. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an argument that news cycles last hundreds of years. Our own moment will pass, but its consequences will remain recent history long after we’re dead. Read anyone else you please in the Year of Our Lord 2019, but Rebecca West is relevance immortalized.

Image: Flickr/Jo Naylor

This Is Not a Defense of the Power of Art

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If you’ve never cried while reading a book or watching a movie, this essay isn’t for you. There are only three times I remember out and out weeping in response to either: As a child on the roof of my mother’s house, in my wife’s and my first apartment, and this December, alone at the kitchen table while my wife and our three-month-old daughter slept. Each time I was surprised by the tears, and each time I welcomed them as some cleansing phenomena. I’m not talking about welling up. I put the books in question down and buried my head or stopped the movie so I could go hide in the bathroom. I was knocked off my tracks, interrupted, more than moved.

At their very best, such instances capture part of what T.S. Eliot called the “moment in and out of time.” Most people, in my experience, like to talk about the latter, the way reading transports you or how movies melt away the daily grind. But crying while you read a book or watch a movie is very much in time, an experience that is physically immediate and which necessarily reflects the context of your life during which that moment hits. What’s more, the work in question becomes tied to a time, to a period or even a day of your life that will resonate through the work on any subsequent revisit. For me, there are three art-instances that struck water, one in adolescence, another in my early marriage, and again this last year, which saw the birth of our first child, and the loss of my wife’s first pregnancy. I wish I had a fancier argument to attach to these stories. They’re three modest tales, and all of them embarrass me.

My best friend at the end of grade school was named Skyler, and when we got together any afternoon or weekend, worlds were born. He had a definitive birthmark on his cheek, beautiful eyes, and elfin features. We lived in houses on the opposite side of a small neighborhood that were the exact same build. His yard was bigger. My basement was finished. Competition was mostly friendly, though I once shoved his head into a brick wall and was called into the principal’s office. An accident, of course. I didn’t realize the wall was so close. His blood terrified me.

Originally from Idaho, his parents threatened to move back home from almost the first summer I met Skyler. Threatened me personally, I felt. They brought it up with amazing indiscretion. Sitting at dinner with them, watching their TV, shadowing every step of their lives, I wondered if they realized that discussing the desire to leave so openly was, ahem, rude. They were going to ruin my life, and that just didn’t seem to be much of a factor. When Skyler’s dad almost got a job in Amarillo, Texas, they brought me along with Skyler and his sister for a weekend road-trip to get the lay of the land. “Three kids, huh?” everyone in Texas said. They simply nodded, unbothered to have me on a one-way, seven-hour car ride that almost, to my mind, ruined their lives. We were from Colorado. The endless flat of the horizon unnerved us.

This was the emotional atmosphere in which I read Where the Red Fern Grows the summer after fifth grade. Skyler hounded me to read the book, obsessed with the story’s two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, animals he projected onto his own mutts, Copper and Bear. Every summer, I camped in something like the Oklahoma Ozarks, where the book takes place, and encountered gummy elders who still noodled for catfish, who probably coon-hunted themselves. I saw my own grandfather set trot-lines and listened with reverence to his stories of angling audacity. Read the book? The book read me. Skyler felt the same, and liked to list the ways in which Little Ann explained Copper, or how Old Dan was as loyal as Bear.

When I was close to finishing, I climbed out my second-story window to the roof of my mother’s house. I sometimes read there. Summer evening, a bright sun, warm weather, and I sped through the story’s denouement, the mountain-lion chase that ends Old Dan’s life, and eventually Little Ann’s, too, from grief. I couldn’t believe the dogs died, and maybe my reaction was some sort of Margarét moment, crying in the setting light for my own mortality.

But what happens at the end of the book is not simply a confrontation with untimely death. The narrator must face his sudden aloneness, the fragility of his child’s community. He peers at the doghouse in the moonlight, and notes how “lonely” it looks, how he often “had lain in…bed and listened to the squeaking of the [doghouse] door.” There is a terrible isolation in growing older, when you realize the easiness of being-in-the-world, of being content with others, is going to fade because you will change, they will change, or their parents will move them to Idaho. Idaho, uh, being the universal dumping ground for everyone’s childhood friend. Skyler moved there when I was 12. He was a world-class buddy, and I was the boy left behind. That’s not some easy life lesson, but rather the source of quivering I feel every time I think of the book. It’s a happy thought, now. The book is better because of it.

I wish the second story revolved around some other tome, but this list doesn’t comprise my favorite works. I’d never hold them up as exemplary of my taste. Oh, well. In my third year of marriage I read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, and I will only read it again when I have a weekend to myself sometime in my 50s, a useful amount of scotch, and enough tissues to survive the experience.

Let me set up the moment in time: my wife and I married young (23), and we both finished grad school during the first and second year of our new life together. Facing our third Christmas, we were in new jobs, I was listless and anxious about being a university office drone, and the way forward was suddenly a little murky. Our syllabi life was now without 16-week outlines. For years, my mom had suggested that I read A Severe Mercy, a true story about a guy who knew C.S. Lewis and whose wife died young. Spoiler: the wife in fact does die young, it’s heartbreaking, and the book is essentially a grief-stricken reconciliation with how so meaningless an event might have more meaning than it first appeared. I know! The entire situation is worryingly emotional, possibly cheap.

But I kept reading because I grew up on C.S. Lewis and attended Oxford for a year, and the book had a vein of Oxford life I’d always wanted and half-experienced, and because I recognized in the love story of Vanauken and his wife, Davy, so much of what I desired. They were absolute romantics, promising not only never to marry if the other died, but to go to sea and die themselves. They were atheists, too, and the story of their love slowly becomes a revelation of their conversion, an almost Wauvian progression of romantic love giving way to ultimate, spiritual love. Stuck in an admissions desk job, swaybacked professionally by my master’s in literature, I vibrated at this literary return to Oxford.

What crept on me, however, was the slow realization of something I thought I knew, but was only now appreciating. My relationship with my wife was the great adventure of adulthood, and needed to take the place of adolescent dreams. The romantic hopes of childhood, of living with an intensity of purpose, were most possible in the very different romance of my marriage. The quotidian as heroic is a little overstating the situation, maybe, but that was about the gist. Commitment, sacrifice, excitement, all features of healthy intimacy. And yet we weren’t (and aren’t) some heart-burned couple canoodling over poetry by the fire. We don’t live every moment planning the next backpacking adventure. She’s a reader, and has become the best reader of my work to date, but at that point in time our great overlap of interest was that we liked each other. Sometimes we went skiing.

Well, Davy dies, and Vanauken writes to Lewis and they discuss the possibility of ghosts during grieving, of there being a special presence for the mourning period that isn’t simply emotion, but is some Christ-like grace that we receive. Christ (you know, your mileage might vary on this) hung around after his death, appearing first to those who loved him. It made sense, they told each other. It hurt beyond bearing, and my own death-pact, that essential vow of marriage, became vivid. Our intention to part only at dying and the great goodness, the great grief all of this might mean fell on my stupid, mid-20s heart. Of course I cried. The best-case scenario was to have a romance that’d haunt me. Or maybe it was to die first.

My wife read the book and did not cry, for the record. She decided she’d pick the next book, and I decided that literary experience will always trump one’s pretensions about literary quality.

At the end of 2016, my wife told me she was pregnant by handing me a note. We still have the note. We have what I wrote in response, my clumsy, bursting enthusiasm. I’m a depressingly simple human at times of great feeling. We have subsequent journal entries, too, which trace my wife’s discovery of miscarriage, and the final goodbyes both of us wrote to a person we wouldn’t get to meet. We both felt tricked, as if a promise had been made and rescinded, and we both feared that maybe something was wrong, that perhaps a second chance might not come around.

Before we knew we were pregnant, a good friend from college texted me and told me she was sure we were. I had a similar premonition before my wife spilled the news, and before her period abstained for long enough to suspect anything with credibility, my wife felt sure the process was underway. We were probably reading physical signs without knowing, sensing and reacting and intuiting. Except my friend. She was in Ethiopia and the text was without precipitant. Nonsense or otherwise, there was an abundance of forward-looking that preempted the event, and once my wife handed me the announcement, our inner lives went even farther. I’d always thought we’d have a daughter first, and we knew the name we hoped to use immediately.

The night she started to bleed, but before we knew what was taking place, we went to dinner and a movie with some friends. The movie was Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Amy Adams’s character learns a language that changes her perception of time and begins to see her daughter’s life and inevitable death before her daughter is born. She looks ahead, quite literally, and mourns her child before her child is even living. The resonance of our pain with the film was almost laughably parallel. I’d pictured a daughter, and felt grief without knowing her. My wife, the same. And, I guess, also Amy Adams? We avoided the film in any form thereafter, despite enjoying it, and my wife will always avoid it, I think. But this December, a year after the whole sad experience, I couldn’t help myself.

I started the movie and skipped right to the heartbreaking moments, to Amy Adams’s character realizing that she has yet to meet the daughter she grieves in flashes. Someone else is welcome to explain my decision to me. I can only say I acted on instinct, and then fell apart. There was no breakthrough, no insight into life’s coming trials or a neat reflection the stages of aging. Instead, a memorial played across the screen for someone I didn’t get to bury. Our three-month-old daughter, conceived quickly after the miscarriage, was in the other room. Not some daughter we’d imagined, but one who we couldn’t, one too specific to grok with even prophetic foresight. Sobbing, I feared waking the baby, felt immense gratitude that she was born, and turned off the screen.

Art has the power to warp and relieve daily life, but I also believe that art isn’t reducible to a few therapeutic instances, no matter how useful the unloosening. A good poem isn’t good because it was read many times at many funerals. That simply means a poem attended some ceremonies. Art’s value, if we’re wise, will never be commensurate with its utility.

So where does that leave my above emoting? While fiction and movies offer pleasurable reprieves, I sometimes get the same kind of jolt from a good airline magazine, or lunch. People cry at commercials all the time. As such, a book’s use in my life says only so much about whether it is in fact an interesting art project or even whether it’d be a welcome addition to your life. But as a reader, I’m fundamentally left not with a bunch of premises, but with several anecdotes about when a story anticipated my epiphanies, reflected my numb-nuttery, or broadened my sense of wonder. Every now and then, we should try and let them speak for themselves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Being Bad Is Sad: Bojack Horseman & Boethius

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“You were born broken. That’s your birthright.” BoJack Horseman is an unlikely critical darling. A lewd, animated comedy about a talking horse, critics have heralded its “earned tragedy” and “hypnotic, often horrifying” pull. One simply called it “an unblinking, incredibly empathetic portrait of middle-aged melancholy.” So, not comedy as usual. But BoJack Horseman is more than a surprising treatise on depression. The show operates with philosophical heft, stumbling on big truths through bad behavior, felt observation, and anthropomorphic slapstick. There is no escape from despair for our eponymous equine. He brings it on himself and he firebombs it onto others. But BoJack Horseman isn’t a nihilistic show, however hard it sometimes insists on a meaningless universe. That’s not its final message or the most powerful truths it unearths (through season three, at least). Instead, along with self-destruction, the show features a pathology of hobbling regret, and the doggedness with which BoJack cycles through both gives rise to a curious philosophical correlate: We’re born broken, and yet our wicked choices punish us. Somehow, BoJack the alcoholic, humanoid horse has bumped into Boethius the 6th-century Christian philosopher.

A former Roman senator jailed by Theodoric the Great around 524 AD, Boethius produced a treatise called the Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned. And what an apt figure for gross-out animation! In the Consolation, however, Boethius attempts to explain how justice, despite all appearances, is carried out even when evil men seem to prosper and good men to suffer. This is an urgent idea for a guy who thinks he doesn’t deserve to be executed. The explanation isn’t satisfying in total — almost no defense of the problem of evil is — but it’s enlightening all the same. C.S. Lewis summed up the concept this way: “The good are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished, by the mere fact of being what they are. Evil power and evil performance are the punishment of evil will” (The Discarded Image, emphasis mine).

A simpler way to understand the argument is a blunt, distasteful thought experiment. If you are a good person who has never murdered anyone, would you rather become a person who murdered someone, or become the victim of a murder? A crude hypothetical, yes, but being evil carries with it some harm, some tragedy, some awfulness which is recognizable from a general instinct to recoil. We don’t want to be bad, because that’s a hell in itself.

Interestingly, BoJack Horseman builds to this idea by first establishing a personal take on original sin. BoJack can’t re-route a glitch in his system. A former sitcom star, he retains the immortal glow of 1990s success, but is a novelty more than a celebrity. The depression he feels, however, runs deeper than his superficial career or cultural irrelevance. We see how BoJack’s cruelty and narcissism inflict real consequences on others, and we also see that BoJack genuinely regrets these fallouts. His dying mentor and one-time best friend — estranged by the horse’s overwhelming selfishness — cuts to the quick on this front:
You want to think of yourself as the good guy. Well I know you better than anyone and I can tell you that you’re not. In fact, you’d probably sleep a lot better at night if you just admitted to yourself that you’re a selfish, goddamned coward who takes whatever he wants and doesn’t give a shit about who he hurts. That’s you. That’s Bojack Horseman.
BoJack drives home from this conflict in shellshock. His ghostwriter Diane is with him and unsure what to say. They stop, and in the midst of his self-loathing, his genuine ache of remorse, he kisses her. The problem is she’s dating a close colleague, and at the moment he wishes he could change, he just screws up again and regrets that, too.

BoJack’s mishaps and self-induced mayhem escalate. At the end of season one he burns down his relationship with Diane, a confidant as well as his ghostwriter, and then begs her to tell him if he’s a good person deep down. She says nothing as he pleads. In season two, he wins a Golden Globe for a book he didn’t write and is replaced by first-rate CGI for a movie. The situations are as whacky as they sound, only they’re paired with BoJack’s self-hatred and crippling need to find something that lasts, a success that will validate his existence. It’s almost too easy to note the parallels to Boethius’s take on Fortuna’s Wheel, wherein the blind mechanism of nature meets out worldly goods without considering moral conditions. BoJack is awarded and punished in terms of societal well-being arbitrarily, which tells us (and him) nothing of his goodness, happiness, or ultimate punishment. He seems to accept this reality, only to fall so far down a hole of cynicism and escapism that he nearly seduces an old friend’s 17-year old daughter. This occurs after months of receiving the same family’s charity and comfort. He’s a wreck, and feels every splinter of self-devastation.

BoJack decides he needs a friend, one friend, and he might be okay despite the hollowness of success. Season three ruptures even this possibility as he betrays his only intimates again and again, and receives the broad side of a sermon truth: “You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or all the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you.” At some point, amidst all the mistakes of our lives, however much we’ve been caught in someone else’s crossfire, we’re left with the ugly truth of our own shame. We are shameful, and we can’t seem to shed the slick of it from our bodies. This is the emotional core of the doctrine of original sin. Which, wow. Heavy, right? BoJack Horseman: like The Simpsons, but depressing.

BoJack, in this light, is Boethius’s successful evildoer, well-paid for bad behavior and unpunished by society for cruel decisions. Yet he can’t escape his self-made pain, whereby the whims of fortune — money, fame, and even friendship — seem as nothing compared with the stings of wickedness. He wants to know if he’s a good person deep down because he can’t live with himself, can’t stand himself, and feels punished by the very fact of his own behavior. And then by the end of season three he might even be a killer. Not a murderer, if such a distinction is possible, but an accessory to a former cast-mate’s overdose. Sarah Lynn, who played one of the children on his old sitcom, becomes his bender buddy, and after they scream across America in a haze of blackouts, they sit together in an illuminated planetarium. BoJack rhapsodizes about the beauty of the moment, and then realizes she’s dead. Even if she was courting disaster on her own, maybe she wouldn’t have died without someone pushing her, a father figure, a horse with drug stamina with whom a skinny former child star could never compete. The zaniness of the show — the fact that its lead is a horse — bleeds directly into its tragedy. BoJack is the problem. “I don’t know how to be,” he says. “It doesn’t get better and it doesn’t get easier… I’m poison.” Boethius’s argument is more nuanced than “bad people feel bad about being bad,” but BoJack’s behavior and subsequent unraveling serve as an emotional outline wherein his selfishness punishes itself.

All of these specific theological and philosophical ideas are no doubt alien to the explicit vision of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman. For all the moralizing, pseudo-psychology, and downright pontification of its characters, the show is written by comedians struggling with felt truths. The pain of depression, of repetitive and lasting self-deprecation, is their entry into all larger statements. The regret of a hangover, of months of hangovers, of breaking trust with everyone you know and love, is the moral center of this weird, cartoon universe. But the moral center is there, however undercut by the jokes, and the larger truths are there as well. Other dramas dabbling in nihilism lack such a vulnerable heart of regret either because they don’t show enough fallout or because they don’t show enough compunction. Other satires, meanwhile, might match BoJack Horseman joke for joke but rarely plumb the depths of the darkness they acknowledge.

Yet, importantly for any parallels to Boethius, the show retains a concealed romanticism through all this tragic contemplation. The latest season finale shows BoJack Horseman driving into the heart of the West, into big-sky hopelessness, closing his eyes and preparing to die. He can let the car veer. He can be done. But he sees a herd of horses in the distance. He sees them sweating, and he doesn’t kill himself. They look free, and even though he deserves all the pain he’s brought upon himself, BoJack keeps control of his car. This is the hope of something beyond justice, but that only a justice like Boethius’s could allow: some sense of purpose, a whiff of a plan, in the midst of a desert. The tale of BoJack’s brokenness is powerful because he doesn’t want to be broken; while he can’t seem to fix himself, nor can he resist hoping that someone, or something, might.