Lisp. It Doesn’t Get In Your Way. Much ™

Recently I have been using Common Lisp’s eval function a bit. Since it’s eval that put’s the E in REPL it fair to say that it is a fairly fundamental part of Lisp. However, no code that I have seen appears to use it directly. I think I know why. To make (eval …) always work in the way you’d expect doesn’t appear to be that intuitive.

Paul Graham in On Lisp, has this to say about using eval in your own code:

Generally it is not a good idea to call eval at runtime, for two reasons:

  1. It’s inefficient: eval is handed a raw list, and either has to compile it on the spot, or evaluate it in an intepreter. Either way is slower than compiling the code beforehand, and just calling it.
  2. It’s less powerful, because the expression is evaluated with no lexical context. Among other things, this means that you can’t refer to ordinary variables outside the expression being evaluated

And so when I discovered a need in my project to persist and reload closures I decided that my needs would not violate either of Paul’s points. Firstly, because I don’t know what the code I’m going to persist is going to be, and secondly because no lexical context is needed to create my closures. Therefore, I would store them as strings and then I would use read, and eval to restore them. This worked fine so I put the code into the package and declared my work done.

It turned out that once the code was in a package it didn’t really work as I’d intended. When I tried to run it I got unknown symbol conditions raised when I tried to restore the closures. Qualifying all the symbols with the correct package name worked but it made my shiny new DSL all messy by requiring me to always prefix all my symbols. It turns out then that eval doesn’t work this way by design. The reason is because of this statement in the HyperSpec page of eval.


Evaluates form in the current dynamic environment and the null lexical environment .

I was expecting that since my eval was inside a package it would be able to see function symbols in that package. Not so, eval works in the dynamic environment, which implies then that the current package is a special variable and hence part of the dynamic environment.

This means my code could only ever work when the current package is the library package. Any other package and the code fails because eval is checking the dynamic environment to determine which symbols are visible without package qualifiers. Indeed it seems that, in SBCL to make my code work in the way that I should expect I need to wrap it in the following:

   (let ((*package* (find-package "MY-PACKAGE")))
      (eval ...))

And this works just fine. The most pleasing thing about this outcome is that it illuminated a point that I’d heard before but never been able to substantiate: Lisp, It Doesn’t Get In Your Way. eval has to work how it does otherwise Common Lisp would probably not work properly. However, because the package system is an accessible part of the language to the programmer it seems as if I can adapt any part of that system to suit my purpose.

You’d be right in thinking too much of this sort of thinking is bad for maintainability, but this single line hack allows me to safely persist executable-code at run time. Since there’s few languages that have closures to begin with, making a minor hack to make them easily persisted too (with the help of macro) seems a small price to pay.

“Lisp. It Doesn’t Get In Your Way. Much.” – I like the phrase so much I think I’m going to trade-mark it.

One reply on “Lisp. It Doesn’t Get In Your Way. Much ™”

A nitpick: eval operates on lists, which contain symbols which are already interned (or not) into a package. Symbols are interned when they are read, so you don’t have to wrap the ‘eval’ call, but the ‘read’ in *package*.

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