Mar 25 2022

Sally Rooney and Sherlock Holmes: Romance and Exhaustion

pencil shavings

SALLY ROONEY AND SHERLOCK HOLMES: ROMANCE AND EXHAUSTION

(Consider the following to be a supportive response to Mary Ann Sieghart’s “Why Are So Many Men Still Resistant to Reading Women?” at Literary Hub, March 8, 2022.)

While St. Patrick’s Day has just passed, we nonetheless remain in an Irish holiday season, with the Spring Equinox, Easter Rising, May Day, (the 100th!) Bloomsday on June 16, and the Battle of the Boyne on July 12.

In such a season, and being an American, I feel free to admit that, more than Saint Bridget, and more than the mythical figure of Deirdre, has actress Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015) served as the central icon for my ideal Irishwoman––an ethic and ethnicity which she defines in her memoir ’Tis Herself (2004):

An Irishwoman is strong and feisty. She has guts and stands up for what she believes in. She believes she is the best at whatever she does and proceeds through life with that knowledge. She can face any hazard that life throws her way and stay with it until she wins. She is loyal to her kinsmen and accepting of others. She’s not above a sock in the jaw if you have it coming. She is only on her knees before God. Yes, I am most definitely an Irishwoman. (p. 3)

Yet so much of the conversation in Irish writer Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends: a Novel (2017) comes across as mundane, moribund, university-centric banter that feels very far from being either “strong” or “feisty.” And though Rooney is said to be something of a socialist as well as a novelist—and I’m sure she could sock me in the jaw if she wanted to––no working-class Joes from Finglas show up in this novel. No sisters to hooligans from Glasgow pop up. No Shankill-type folk mucking about. Hers is instead a modern Dublin without a housing shortage.

Here I must admit to never really having understood the attraction some readers feel for reading about college-age romantic relationships, particularly in fiction. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of how romantically unwanted I felt way back when I was that age. Or maybe I followed Simone Weil’s advice too literally as when she writes in her essay “The Great Beast” how, “relationship breaks its way out of the social. It is the monopoly of the individual. Society is the cave. The way out is solitude,” (Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986), p. 142).

 Or perhaps I simply haven’t been trained to read that kind of prose properly––just as, as C. S. Lewis (native to Belfast), similarly reminds modern readers of their ineptitude for reading medieval allegory:

Young readers in the not ignoble ardours of calf-love, and elderly readers in the mood of reminiscence, whether wistful or ironic, could all find in it [the French Roman de la Rose, 1230–75 AD] the reflection of their own experience. But we are not so fortunately placed. We have to reckon not only with the unfamiliar erotic psychology, but with the unfamiliarity of allegory in general; and, to speak plainly, the art of reading allegory is as dead as the art of writing it, and more urgently in need of revival if we wish to do justice to the Middle Ages. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936), p. 116)

On the other hand, just as Sherlock Holmes once noted that the most commonplace crime can, in fact, be the most mysterious, who’s to say the most commonplace of college flings may not contain their own profound, ineffable mysteries? For as Holmes explains:

“You failed at the beginning of the inquiry to grasp the importance of the single real clue which was presented to you. I had the good fortune to seize upon that, and everything which has occurred since then has served to confirm my original supposition, and, indeed, was the logical sequence of it. Hence things which have perplexed you and made the case more obscure, have served to enlighten me and to strengthen my conclusions. It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without any of those outré and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable. These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so.” (A Study in Scarlet (1887), (I, vii) “Light in the Darkness”)

Rooney’s novel may in fact contain certain “rules of deduction” with regard to the contortions and conversations of college-age relationships:

[Said Holmes to Watson]: “I have a lot of special knowledge which I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully. Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn, are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me is second nature.” (Study in Scarlet, (I, ii) “The Science of Deduction”)

My own ineptitude, meanwhile, has probably, as Holmes would say, “aroused” “scorn” when in fact Rooney may actually be providing “invaluable,” “practical work.”

For Sally Rooney is a true artist—she isn’t just disguising passages from some diary she journaled in adolescence as authentic, literary fiction—she is capable of an occasional strange, sublime metaphor, such as when the narrator informs readers:

He hung up. I closed my eyes and felt all the furniture in my room begin to disappear, like a backward game of Tetris, lifting up toward the top of the screen and then vanishing, and the next thing that would vanish would be me. (Conversations p. 272)

As a reader, I wonder whether Rooney’s character here is, in an emotional sense, thinking backwards the way Sherlock Holmes suggests analytic thinking should proceed:

“I have already explained to you that what is out of the common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance. In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards. That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practise it much. In the every-day affairs of life it is more useful to reason forwards, and so the other comes to be neglected. There are fifty who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically…. If you told them a result, [they] would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.” (Study in Scarlet, (II, vii) “The Conclusion”)

Though it isn’t requisite for composing in an analytical style, Rooney’s prose is quite colorless. That’s not meant metaphorically. I found only two mentions of color in the book. First: “The tip of Bobbi’s cigarette glowed a spectral orange color and released tiny sparks into the air,” and, “On my first day a woman called Linda gave me a black apron and showed me how to make coffee,” (pp. 244, 277). As a reader, I almost feel that Rooney feels nothing new can be given to readers of her prose by including certain hues, just as Samuel Beckett once rewrote Ecclesiastes in the opening lines to his novel Murphy (1938) by penning that “the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

I suppose Rooney should be extended the benefit of the doubt. For some of her descriptions of relationships possess both artistic merit as well as commentary on the (literary) arts. And that commentary involves a feeling of exhaustion of “the nothing new” in the humanities––the sterile, fatigued spirit of those who engage with works of art and literature with a chronic, political gaze, as in this moment:

I’ve never worked hard at anything I said.

That must be why you study English.

Then he said that he was just joking, and actually he had won his school’s gold medal for composition. I love poetry, he said. I love Yeats.

Yeah, I said. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets. (Conversations pp. 200–01)

Similar to the exhaustion found in Rooney’s novel is a line from Irish writer Roddy Doyle’s short story “The Slave” (from his 2011 anthology Bullfighting, Viking), where the narrator reflects how “I can read, for fuck sake. I’m a two books a week man; I eat the fuckin’ things. So, yea. But I don’t remember learning how to read,” (p. 43). In this case it seems his attitude of exhaustion was produced by an overexposure to the arts, while his ignorance of how he learned to read seem rather unintentional.

But to this one might also contrast Dr. Watson’s description of Sherlock Holmes:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. (Study in Scarlet, (I, ii) “The Science of Deduction”)

And later Holmes admits aloud:

“Excuse the admiration of a connoisseur,” said he as he waved his hand towards the line of portraits which covered the opposite wall. “Watson won’t allow that I know anything of art but that is mere jealousy because our views upon the subject differ. Now, these are a really very fine series of portraits.” (The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), “XIII. Fixing the Nets”)

So regarding the above moments in Rooney’s novel and Roddy Doyle’s short story, I wager they contain cases involving an exhaustion with poetics, and possibly, unintentional ignorance; with Holmes, it’s a case of willful ignorance.

Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862), likewise, contains a passage in its eleventh chapter where a character reflects on a seemingly similar attitude of aesthetic nihilism from his son’s friend from college: “Nicholas Petrovich lowered his head and passed a hand over his face. ‘But to reject poetry?’ he asked himself again. ‘To lack all feeling for art, for nature.’” In this case, Nicholas doesn’t know whether the poetic nihilism he has encountered is a product of exhaustion or willful ignorance. It might even be both.

Though I began this piece by dismissing a certain form of literary romance, Arthur Conan Doyle has informed readers that there is always romance:

“There is one other point,” said Inspector MacDonald. “You met Mr. Douglas in a boarding house in London, did you not, and became engaged to him there? Was there any romance, anything secret or mysterious, about the wedding?”

“There was romance. There is always romance. There was nothing mysterious.”

“He had no rival?”

“No, I was quite free.” (The Valley of Fear (1915), (I, v) “The People of the Drama”)

Whether or not Rooney is as exhausted with aesthetic contemplation as I sometimes am when reading about romances occurring among a college-age demographic in a university environment, there is something “quite free” in her writing. And that means I’ll have to keep reading her. Because:

Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed. Everything without exception which is in me is absolutely valueless; and, among the gifts which have come to me from elsewhere, everything which I appropriate becomes valueless immediately as I do so.

––Simone Weil, “The Self,” Simone Weil: an Anthology, p. 103.


Jan 17 2020

Arcadia and Middle-Earth: Prose Plus Poetry in Sidney and Tolkien

After finishing C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) (1954) last autumn, I was curious to then read Sir. Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580): a strange work of mostly prose, but interspersed with much poetry. I’d read Sidney’s Apology (1580) several times and mostly understood it, but the Arcadia was more ambiguous. When reading it, sometimes (at least the older version) felt like a medieval romance (like the first part of the Roman de la Rose [c. 1230]). At other times, the Arcadia felt like an ancient epic (the Argonautica (c. 200 BC) comes to mind). Either way, Arcadia is definitely not a novel, though it is a fantasy.

And it also reminded me much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892–1973) works—another fantasy world told mostly in prose but containing much poetry. Both authors take these old literary forms and add something fresh to them by mixing them together. They are “fun,” even when their tones turn toward things serious. In this regard, they have mirth.

This freshness of song and speech also reminded somewhat of Miguel Cervantes (1547–1616) Don Quijote (1605, 1616), which contains a few handfuls of sonnets, and along these lines we might add Johanna Spyri’s (1827–1901) Heidi’s Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (1880) and Heidi Kann Brauchen, was es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (1881) as well as John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) with their Protestant hymns and songs intermixed with prose tales.

But the going-back-and-forthness between prose and poetry in Sidney’s Arcadia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mostly reminded me of classic Hollywood musicals. (I’m a South Pacific (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) kind of guy.)

Post Scriptum

Finally, with feelings more of somberness than sadness do we wish Christopher Tolkien (1924–2020) and his kin the best as he now journeys westward toward the Grey Havens. His task as steward to his father’s work is now complete. And I expect the father to soon say to all around him, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

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Jun 12 2019

Reading in the Hospital

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C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once confessed what his ideal reading situation would be:

Johnson once described the ideal happiness which he would choose if he were regardless of futurity. My own choice, with the same reservation, would be to read the Italian epic—to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936; Second Edition, 1946) 304)

Lewis is referring (I think) to Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) choice of Shakespeare:

Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, “I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings.”’

BOSWELL. ‘The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir.’ Boswell. ‘There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours [Dr. Percy] tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.’

JOHNSON. ‘This is foolish in [Percy]. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds: for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto. [‘All that is mine, I carry with me,’ Cicero, Paradoxa, i]’

BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakepeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady, whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, “The first thing you will meet with in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare’s works, presented to you.”’

Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion…. (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 69, April 1778)

But compare Lewis’s preferred hospital to those in Thomas More’s (1478–1535) Utopia (c. 1516), where:

hospital patients get first priority—oh yes, there are four hospitals in the suburbs, just outside the walls. Each of them is about the size of a small town. The idea of this is to prevent overcrowding, and facilitate the isolation of infectious cases. These hospitals are so well run, and so well supplied with all types of medical equipment, the nurses are so sympathetic and conscientious, and there are so many experienced doctors constantly available, that, though nobody’s forced to go there, practically everyone would rather be ill in hospital than at home. (Utopia (c. 1516, 1551), trans. Paul Turner, (New York: Penguin, 1965) II, 61–62)

To be a patient in Utopia is to be a king: everyone attends to you. Compare Mayra Hornbacher: “Hospital policy is to impose the least level of restriction possible,” (Madness: a Bipolar Life, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) 5).

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Feb 12 2018

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

Samuel Matlack’s essay “Quantum Poetics: Why physics can’t get rid of metaphor” in The New Atlantis (Summer/Fall 2017) covers all the right bases (via Vico, Borges, and George Steiner among others) of how science relies on language in order to explain itself.

Yet language (particularly metaphor and idiom) are abstract in the very ways science seeks to be precise. This is why, Matlack, suggests:

It is easier to translate between Chinese and English — both express human experience, the vast majority of which is shared — than it is to translate advanced mathematics into a spoken language, because the world that mathematics expresses is theoretical and for the most part not available to our lived experience.

And that reminded me of something I’d recently read from Hannah Arendt (1906–1975):

These observations on the interconnection of language and thought, which make us suspect that no speechless thought can exist, obviously do not apply to civilizations where the written sign rather than the spoken word is decisive and where, consequently, thinking itself is not soundless speech but mental dealing with images. This is notably true of China…. There “the power of words is supported by the power of the written sign, the image,” and not the other way round, as in the alphabetic languages, where script is thought of as secondary, no more than an agreed-upon set of symbols. For the Chinese, every sign makes visible what we would call a concept or an essence—Confucius is reported to have said that the Chinese sign for “dog” is the perfect image of dog as such, whereas in our understanding “no image could ever be adequate to the concept” of dog in general. “It would never attain that universality of the concept which renders it valid of all” dogs.[1]

And what I had read from Arendt reminded me of something I’d previously read in Vico:

All these observations prove that human nature determined the creation of poetic style before prose style, just as human nature determined the creation of mythical and imaginative universals before rational and philosophical universals, which were the product of discourse in prose. For after the poets had formed poetic speech by combining universal ideas, the nations formed prose speech by contracting these poetic combinations into single words, as if into general categories. Take for example the poetic sentence ‘My blood boils in my heart’, which expresses a natural, eternal, and universal property of humankind. They took the notions of blood, boiling, and heart, and formed them into a single word, or general category: anger, which is called stomachos in Greek, ira in Latin, and collera in Italian. By the same steps, hieroglyphs and heroic emblems were reduced to a few vernacular letters, as general types to which countless different articulate sounds could be assigned. This process required the utmost ingenuity; and the use of such general words and letters rendered people’s minds more agile and more capable of abstraction. This in turn prepared the way for the philosophers, who formulated intelligible general categories. This offers us a small piece of the history of human thought, from which we see the origins of letters could only be traced in the same breath with the origin of languages![2]

But mostly, Matlack’s essay reminded me of ideas found in the works of Owen Barfield (1898–1997), first suggested to me in an essay by his buddy C. S. Lewis (1898–1963):

[Michel] Bréal [(1832–1915)] in his Semantics often spoke in metaphorical, that is consciously, rhetorically, metaphorical language, of language itself. Messrs. Ogden and Richards in The Meaning of Meaning took Bréal to task on the ground that “it is impossible thus to handle a scientific subject in metaphorical terms.” Barfield in his Poetic Diction retorted that Ogden and Richards were, as a matter of fact, just as metaphorical as Bréal. They had forgotten, he complained, that all language has a figurative origin and that the “scientific” terms on which they piqued themselves––words like organism, stimulus, reference—were not miraculously exempt. On the contrary, he maintained, “these authors who professed to eschew figurative expressions were really confining themselves to one very old kind of figure; they were rigid under the spell of those verbal ghosts of the physical sciences which today make up practically the whole meaning-system of so many European minds.”[3]

And let’s examine a little more from Barfield on how, whether in science or social life, we think by means of words:

We think by means of words, and we have to use the same ones for so many different thoughts that as soon as new meanings have entered into one set, they creep into all our theories and begin to mould our whole cosmos; and from the theories they pass into more words, and so into our lives and institutions.[4]

The new meaning becomes a means to distort ends, for: “the creative imagination latent in the word itself.” [5] Barfield goes on to point out that the poet makes the terms; the logician/scientist uses the terms:

Thus, the poet’s relation to terms is that of maker. And it is in this making of terms—whether the results are to be durable or fleeting—that we can divine the very poetic itself.… The use of them is left to the Logician, who, in his endeavor to keep them steady and thus fit them to his laws, is continually seeking to reduce their meaning. I say seeking to do so, because logic is essentially a compromise. He could only evolve a language, whose propositions would really obey the laws of thought by eliminating meaning altogether. But he compromises before this zero-point is reached.[6]

For Barfield science and poetry are not all that different:

It has already been emphasized that the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he as ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowing, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.[7]

NOTES

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[1] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 100.

[2] Vico, [The Third] New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, trans. David Marsh, (New York, NY: Penguin 1999), II, § 2, v, [¶ 460], p. 189.

[3] Lewis, “Bulspels and Flalansferes,” Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford UP, 1939) quoted from The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962) 36.

[4] Barfield, History in English Words, (New York, NY: George H. Doran Co., 1926) 173.

[5] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (1928), Third Edition, (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 37.

[6] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 135–36.

[7] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 145–46.


Nov 10 2017

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

porticos in Bologna, Italia

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

A metaphor is just a particular tool for mythmaking, and as C. S. Lewis points out, there are two ways in which we use metaphor: one for teachers, another for students. When a metaphor starts with a teacher attempting to teach a student, the teacher is free to choose the metaphor because the teacher already knows the meaning behind it. Here, one might say the teacher’s myth is certain. It is either true or false, and can be proven to be one or the other, because the teacher, by definition, knows the meaning of what he teaches and can, therefore, provide the evidence of the meaning behind the myth that would necessarily make it certain. [1]

On the other hand, as Descartes observed, “One cannot so well seize a thing and make it one’s own, when it has been learned from another, [but] as when one has himself discovered it.” In a state when learning has decreased, as when the teacher is unavailable or inaccessible to the student, or when communication overrules conversation, the student, suffering confusion, is left in Lewis’s words, “to the mercy of the metaphor.” She must make her a myth on her own. But the student’s metaphor is never true or false. No matter how true it “feels” it cannot be made certain. For when the student creates an original metaphor, she is bound by her subjective certainty and is not free to choose it the way the teacher did. She thinks and feels, and indeed may know it to be an appropriate metaphor but is probably unable to explain why. [2]

Metaphors are fine; but they need to be labeled says Gregory Bateson:

The conceptual models of cybernetics and the energy theories of psychoanalysis are, after all, only labeled metaphors. The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors. He has special difficulty in handling signals of that class whose members assign Logical Types to other signals.

That is to say, he must live in a universe where the sequences of events are such that his unconventional communicational habits will be in some sense appropriate. The hypothesis which we offer is that sequences of this kind in the external experience of the patient are responsible for the inner conflicts of Logical Typing. For such unresolvable sequences of experiences, we use the term “double bind….”

Among human beings we meet with a strange phenomenon—the unconscious falsification of these signals. This may occur within the self—the subject may conceal from himself his own real hostility under the guise of metaphoric play—or it may occur as an unconscious falsification of the subject’s understanding of the other person’s mode-identifying signals. He may mistake shyness for contempt, and so on. Indeed, most of the errors of self-reference fall under this head…. He may learn to learn.[3]

Compare Wittgenstein’s Investigations: we concurrently play two different games with the same word at the same time:

It can never indicate the common characteristic of two objects that we symbolize them with the same signs but by different methods of symbolizing. For the sign is arbitrary. We could therefore equally well choose two different signs and where then would be what was common in the symbolization.[4]

NOTES

wood

[1]. C. S. Lewis. “Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays, (London: Oxford University Press, 1939). Quoted from Max Black, ed., The Importance of Language, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962) 39–40.

[2] René Descartes, Discours de la Methode, § VI. For the differences in “belief” versus “certainty” versus “truth,” see: Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, (New York, NY: Viking, 1976) 108; Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958), 112–13; Plato, Meno 79C–81A, 85C–86E; John Searle, “Language and social ontology,” Theory and Society, (October 2008): 443–59 at 445.

[3] Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” (1956) in Theories of Schizophrenia, eds. Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss, (New York, NY: Atherton Press, 1969) 132, 130–31.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, Translated by C. K. Ogden, (1921) 3.322.


Mar 5 2017

You Don’t Have to be a Mathematician (to be British)

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded. –Edmund Burke

Lewis Carroll, a.k.a. Charles Dodgson, (1832-1898) is perhaps England’s best known mathematician. But many British writers were not so inclined. Consider a passage about C. S. Lewis (1899-1963) in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015):

The Latin and Greek portions of Responsions presented no problem, but Lewis failed the section on mathematics. He had a terrible head for numbers and was unable to handle even the simplest arithmetical problems—counting change was a daily ordeal—much less algebra, a prominent part of the exam. Algebra is defined by the OED as “a calculus of symbols,” and Lewis’s failure to master it is worth bearing in mind, in light of his later controversial forays into the application of logic to metaphysics and theology. Nonetheless, he was accepted into University College and returned to Oxford on April 26, 1917, enrolling as an undergraduate on April 29.[1]

Compare philosopher and Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (1848-1930):

I wish I were a mathematician. There is in the history of the mathematical sciences, as in their substance, something that strangely stirs the imagination even of the most ignorant. Its younger sister, Logic, is as abstract, and its claims are yet wider. But it has never shaken itself free from a certain pretentious futility: it always seems to be telling us, in language quite unnecessarily technical, what we understood much better before it was explained. It never helps to discover, though it may guarantee discovery; it never persuades, though it may show that persuasion has been legitimate; it never aids the work of thought, it only acts as its auditor and accountant-general. I am not referring, of course, to what I see described in recent works as “modern scientific logic.” Of this I do not presume to speak. Still less am I refer ring to so-called Inductive Logic. Of this it is scarce worth while to speak.1 I refer to their more famous predecessor, the formal logic of the schools [i.e. of John Stuart Mill].[2]

Compare Balfour’s colleague Winston Churchill (1874-1965):

All my life from time to time I have had to get up disagreeable subjects at short notice, but I consider my triumph, moral and technical, was in learning Mathematics in six months. At the first of these three ordeals I got no more than 500 marks out of 2,500 for Mathematics. At the second I got nearly 2,000. I owe this achievement not only to my own back-to-the-wall resolution for which no credit is too great but to the very kindly interest taken in my case by a much respected Harrow master, Mr. C. H. P. Mayo. He convinced me that Mathematics was not a hopeless bog of nonsense, and that there were meanings and rhythms behind the comical hieroglyphics j and that I was not incapable of catching glimpses of some of these. Of course what I call Mathematics is only what the Civil Service Commissioners expected you to know to pass a very rudimentary examination.

I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all Depth beyond depth was revealed to me the Byss and the Abyss. I saw, as one might see the transit of Venus or even the Lord Mayor’s Show, a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics. But it was after dinner and. I let it go![3]

Finally, there’s G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

A great deal is said in these days about the value or valuelessness of logic. In the main, indeed, logic is not a productive tool so much as a weapon of defence. A man building up an intellectual system has to build like Nehemiah, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The imagination, the constructive quality, is the trowel, and argument is the sword. A wide experience of actual intellectual affairs will lead most people to the conclusion that logic is mainly valuable as a weapon wherewith to exterminate logicians. [4]

NOTES

[1] Zaleski and Zaleski. The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings 75.

[2] Balfour, Theism and Humanism: Being the Gifford Lectures 176.

[3] Churchill, My Early Life: a Roving Commission. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1930. Ch. III.

[4] Chesterton, Twelve Types. 1906. “Thomas Carlyle” p. 125.


Oct 27 2016

Throwing Heidegger for a Loop (by Not Reading Him)

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Throwing Heidegger for a Loop (by Not Reading Him)

The Younger Seneca (4 BC–65 AD) writes that, “the fall of anything great generally takes time,” for this is the nature of Fortune.[1] Fortune juggles us from her felly—because she is a jester performing before the Court of Zeus—Seneca, therefore, advised his fellow ancients to accept Fortune; for they cannot resent her.[2] They must adopt a noble spirit (wherever she throws them).[3]

I have yet to read Being and Time (1927). But I’ve heard things about it. I’ve heard it discusses a concept called “thrown-ness” (Geworfenheit) that seems to be basically the same as the ancient idea of the goddess Fortune. And moderns, even before Heidegger (1889–1976), have tossed around this same idea––that the condition of being is analogous to the sense of being thrown by Fate/Fortune. Emerson (1803–1882), writing 80+ years before Heidegger, believed that while we are thrown into our immediate conditions without whim or warning, we must choose not to passively fall like Milton’s Satan, but instead soar like a Hellenic Icarus:

The man who bates no jot of courage when oppressed by fate[,] who miss ed ing of his design lays hold with ready hand on the unexpected event & turns it to his own account & in the cruelest suffering has that generosity of perception that he is sensible of a secret joy in the addition this event makes to his knowledge––that man is truly independent,––“he takes his revenge on fortune”* is independent of time & chance; fortune may rule his circumstances but he overrules fortune. The stars cannot thwart with evil influences the progress of such a soul to grandeur….[4]

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.[5]

This thrown feeling was not limited to American transcendentalists. Take the Scottish bookman Andrew Lang (1844–1912):

So he brings us no news
From the stars we peruse,
Or in hope, or in terror survey;
He is only a stone
From the world that was thrown
When the Earth was an infant at play.[6]

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of anthroposophy, once defined free will as being “conscious” of our “desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.” For Steiner, the fact that we prioritize our desires gives the illusion of free will. Being human, we cannot free ourselves from our free will. We cannot help that we’ve been thrown. For Steiner:

[A thrown] stone, for example, receives from an external cause acting upon it a certain quantity of motion, by reason of which it necessarily continues to move, after the impact of the external cause has ceased. The continued motion of the stone is due to compulsion, not to the necessity of its own nature, because it requires to be defined by the impact of an external cause. What is true here for the stone is true also for every other particular thing, however complicated and many-sided it may be, namely, that everything is necessarily determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite manner.

Now, pray, assume that this stone during its motion thinks and knows that it is striving to the best of its power to continue in motion. This stone which is conscious only of its striving and is by no means indifferent, will believe that it is absolutely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than its own will to continue. Now this is that human freedom which everybody claims to possess and which consists in nothing but this, that men are conscious of their desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. Thus the child believes that he desires milk of his own free will, the angry boy regards his desire for vengeance as free, and the coward his desire for flight. Again, the drunken man believes that he says of his own free will what, sober again, he would fain have left unsaid, and as this prejudice is innate in all men, it is difficult to free oneself from it. For, although experience teaches us often enough that man least of all can temper his desires, and that, moved by conflicting passions, he perceives the better and pursues the worse, yet he considers himself free because there are some things which he desires less strongly, and some desires which he can easily inhibit through the recollection of something else which it is often possible to recall.[7]

C. S. Lewis (1899–1963) warned that even if an individual is competent enough to realize their condition of being thrown into the world arbitrarily, that realization often further throws that individual into the habit of mistaking the map for the territory it marks:

The truth is that [the  medieval] language about inanimate bodies was the same kind of language that the modern man uses—I mean, the modern “plain” man, not the modern scientist or philosopher. When a modern says that the stone fell “in obedience to the law of gravitation,” he does not really think there is literally a law or literal obedience; that the stone, on being released, whips out a little book of statutes, finds the chapter and paragraph relevant to its predicament, and decides it had better be a law-abiding stone and “come quiet.” Nor did the medieval man believe that the stone really felt homesick, or felt at all. Both ways of putting it are analogical; neither speaker would usually know any way of expressing the facts except by an analogy.[8]

For Lewis, the analogy of the stone (or thrownness for that matter) is only a tool used to finish the product the job calls for, nothing more.

When during an election year a journalist asks, “Where are we headed in this country?”  what they mean, as John Searle (1932–) points out, is that, amid the flux of consciousness, the thrown-ness of being, Searle realizes we are thrown both collectively as well as individually. In other words, while the individual kamikaze pilot found himself thrown into the immediate situation of the cockpit, the many individuals on the ground who were attacked at Pearl Harbor suddenly found themselves collectively “thrown” into a world war:

To illustrate the relationships between higher-level or system features, on the one hand, and micro level phenomena, on the other, I want to borrow an example from Roger Sperry. Consider a wheel rolling down hill. The wheel is entirely made of molecules. The behavior of the molecules causes the higher-level, or system feature of solidity. Notice that the solidity affects the behavior of the individual molecules. The trajectory of each molecule is affected by the behavior of the entire solid wheel. But of course there is nothing there but molecules. The wheel consists entirely of molecules. So when we say the solidity functions causally in the behavior of the wheel and in the behavior of the individual molecules that compose the wheel, we are not saying that the solidity is something in addition to the molecules; rather, it is just the condition that the molecules are in. But the feature of solidity is nonetheless a real feature, and it has real causal effects.[9]

Finally, let us not forget Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) critique in Discovering the Mind Vol. II: Nietzsche, Heidegger and Buber (1980) that all the ideas in Heidegger’s great Book of the Blackforest can already be found in Leo Tolstoy’s (1828–1910) novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) where passages like––

“It is as if I [Ivan] had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death….”

Suddenly some force struck [Ivan] in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light. What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.[10]

––do seem to be echoed by Heidegger 40 years after Tolstoy penned them. But Tolstoy had been writing about being and time and death for a while. He had realized very early on that, “When we don’t think we don’t feel. When a man thinks, it is the worse for him.”[11] Moreover:

It happened with me as it happens with everyone who contracts a fatal internal disease. At first there were the insignificant symptoms of an ailment, which the patient ignores; then these symptoms recur more and more frequently, until they merge into one continuous duration of suffering. The suffering increases, and before he can turn around the patient discovers what he already knew: the thing he had taken for a mere indisposition is in fact the most important thing on earth to him, is in fact death…. We cannot cease to know what we know.[12]

So we know we’ve been thrown. And we know it without ever having read Heidegger. Let us end with Emerson:

Be a football to time & chance [,] the more kicks the better so that you inspect the whole game & know its uttermost law. As true is this ethics for trivial as for calamitous days.[13]

NOTES

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[1] Seneca, Epistle XCI.

[2] Seneca, Epistle XCI.

[3] Seneca, Epistle CVII.

[4] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks [JMN], Vol. III, June 29, 1827, pp. 92–93. *“[Editor’s note:] See Taylor’s Holy Living p. 128 Phil. Ed…. The edition to which Emerson refers is uncertain. The earliest listed Philadelphia edition of Holy Living is 1835.”

[5] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” (1841) last paragraph. See also from Emerson’s journals:

What is the matter with the world that men do not rule themselves but let circumstances rule them. They lay no plan of life but are guided by the gale that haps to blow. Should we not think it strange that an architect should begin to build a house without having determined upon any measurement for the front or the height or the disposal for the room within but left himself to be governed by the shape or the quantity of the materials he might chance to collect? Would you not call the mariner mad who left the port with the first wind that blew & as the wind changed loosened his sheets & still stood before it the wind let it blow from what quarter it would. What does he do? He With an anxious face he pulls sits down to his charts, he consults his chronometer, he takes the altitude of the sun, he heaves the log into the deep & so painfully determines from hour to hour the steadfast course he would keep through the sea. (JMN, Vol. III, June 25, 1828, pp. 132–33.)

[6] Lang, “Disillusions from Astronomy.” Grass of Parnassus: First and Last Rhymes. London: Longman’s, Green, and Co. 1892. p. 146.

[7] Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. Revised edition of The Philosophy of Freedom. Translated by Mrs. R. F. Alfred Hoernle. 1922. Putnam: NY. p. 4.

[8] Lewis, “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 54.

[9] Searle, “Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology.” Freedom and Neurobiology. pp. 48–49.

[10] Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, IX, XII.

[11] Tolstoy, Sebastopol (1855), I.

[12] Tolstoy, A Confession (1880), III, VI.

[13] Emerson, JMN, Vol. V, October 8, 1837, Journal C, p. 391.


Oct 11 2016

A Non-list of Books to Read This Fall

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

A Non-list of Books to Read This Fall

From Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), who taught, among others, Robert Graves (1895-1985) and C. S. Lewis (1898-1963):

Nor, lastly, do I urge you to try to be learned, or to read everything that anyone else has read. That way lies despair. Try to read good things. Read them over and over. Make them a part of you: and do not imagine you are wasting time, because you are not. Read the books that you like best. And if there are famous books, generally praised by good judges, which you do not appreciate, give them a fair chance. Try them from time to time, to see if you enjoy them or understand them better. For remember that in that inner world to which great literature belongs, a man may go on all his life learning to see, but he can never see all that is there; he can only hope to see deeper and deeper, more and more, and as he sees, to understand and to love.

(The Classical Tradition in Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1927. p. 146)


Sep 7 2016

All Religions, No Religion, And Beyond All That

Texas wildflowers

All Religions, No Religion, And Beyond All That

RELIGION FOR ALL

As Freddie Nacho once put it:

“All religions are at the lowest bottom systems of cruelties,” [i]

RELIGION FOR NONE

Irish Clive once quipped that:

“Atheism is too easy.”[ii]

BEYOND ALL AND NONE

Suzy Sunday holds:

My own view is that one cannot be religious in general any more than one can speak language in general; at any given moment one speaks French or English of Swahili or Japanese, but not “language.” [iii]

NOTES

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[i] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Toward a Genealogy of Morality, II, iii.

[ii] Lewis, C. S. [Clive Staples]. Mere Christianity. 1944. Macmillan, NY. 1952. pp. 46–48.

[iii] Sontag, Susan. “Piety without content.” 1961. In Against Interpretation: and Other Essays. NY: Delta Books. 1966. p. 253.


Sep 6 2016

Advice for Voters: Politics in Fugue Form

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PRELUDE

In a democracy, the prisoners pick their wardens. While we are told this is an important election for Americans, the old standbys of political philosophy appear to not be as effective as once before. For example, Texas, recently voted for a multiple-alleged criminal to oversee and uphold the laws of the state.

Perhaps we should turn away (at least temporarily) from the usual suspects, away from Philadelphia 1787, away from the idolatry of forefathers and their slave exemptions. But then who will counsel meager citizen me? Who can help me choose the best politician—the best person to make me do what I don’t want to do?

I will try to find my answer by listening to a fugue, that is, “the orderly and varied reiteration of the same ‘subject’.”[1] I will harken to points and counterpoints.

ITALIAN CANZONI

Caesar: “All folks strive toward freedom while despising all forms of slavery.”[2]

Machiavelli: “Citizens of a republic want only not to be oppressed … only its nobles want to oppress others.”[3]

Vico: “If people were left to pursue their private interests, they would live in solitude like wild beasts….  We defend our natural liberty most fiercely to preserve the goods most essential to our survival. By contrast, we submit to the chains of civil servitude to obtain external goods which are not necessary to life. [4]

ANGLOIRISH BALLADS

Burke: “Liberty, when men [and women] act in bodies, is power…. In all bodies, those who will lead must also, in a considerable degree, follow… In this political traffic, the leaders will be obliged to bow to the ignorance of their followers, and the followers to become subservient to the worst designs of their leaders.”[5]

Anscombe: “What is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.[6] This is why ‘possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.’[7] So to attain your goal, you’ve got to give up what you’ve already got.”

AMERICAN JAZZ

Rawls: “To be at liberty and free from oppression is, in some sense, to be disinterested, and therefore detached, as it is written: ‘one feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested’.”[8]

Searle: “Roughly speaking, power is the ability to make people do something whether they want to do it or not.”[9]

Wilkerson: “The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘You have to stoop to conquer’.” [10]

NOTES

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[1] Lewis, C. S. “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 61. Compare Lewis later: “The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one,” (64). And compare C. S. Peirce:

Every thought, however artificial and complex, is, so far as it is immediately present, a mere sensation without parts, and therefore, in itself, without similarity to any other, but incomparable with any other and absolutely sui generis [its own kind]. Whatever is wholly incomparable with anything else is wholly inexplicable, because explanation consists in bringing things under general laws or under natural classes. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. No. 2. 1868. 140–57.)

And compare Paul Valéry:

Do not search for ‘truth’*—But seek to develop those forces which make and unmake truths. Seek to think of a greater number of simultaneous things,—to think longer and more rigorously of the same one—to catch yourself in the very act—to suspend your hesitations,—to give new momentum to what is clogged up. Suggest co-ordinations to yourself. Try out your ideas as functions and means…. [Editor’s note:] *Cf. the later comment of 1940, ‘I am searching for the truth of thought and not for truth by thought.’ Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1912, I 12, IV, 783.) [pp. 264-65] and (C, XXIV, 168) [p. 617])

[2] Caesar, Gallic War, III, x.

[3] Machiavelli, Il Principe, IX.

[4] Vico, The Third New Science, “Idea of the Work” [¶ 2] 2 and I, § 2, xciv, [¶ 290], p. 109.

[5] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[6] Anscombe, G. E. M. “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. 1981. p. 131.

[7] Anscombe, “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics p. 82.

[8] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. (Revised Edition.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1999. § 3, p. 12.

[9] Searle, John. Freedom and Neurobiology. NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p.104.

[10] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 117.