Aug 21 2017

An Open Book Beside an Empty Plinth

An Open Book Beside an Empty Plinth.

“Every scripture is to be interpreted by the same spirit which gave it forth,” — is the fundamental law of criticism. A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause.

–Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature (1849), “Ch IV: Language.”

And:

“‘I, too,’ he said, ‘have closely studied this man’s soul; but, unlike my learned friend for the prosecution, I have found something there. Indeed, I may say that I have read the prisoner’s mind like an open book.’ What he had read there was that I was an excellent young fellow, a steady, conscientious worker who did his best by his employer; that I was popular with everyone and sympathetic in others’ troubles.”

–Camus, Albert. LÉtranger. (The Stranger.) 1942. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. NY: Vintage. 1954. p. 131.

 


Jul 5 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III)

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

Unlike his previous two books, which were coming of age, bildungsroman narratives, after reading Rod Dreher’s latest work The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017) I find that it falls under that vast genre of books (both fiction and non) that try to apprehend the spirit of the times in which they are written, those books that try to explain the zeitgeist. I mean books like:

(Forgive me for giving only white male examples; these were the ones that spontaneously popped into my head; everyone from everywhere has written about the zeitgeist.)

These books try to understand and articulate the moments in which they were written. If they contain predictions about the future (and almost all of them do), those predictions are only modest side-effects stemming from the cause for which they are written. Prophets speak of the future, but these books speak of the present, though they find things to revere from the past.

Such [as] are greedy of fame [,] as think it not foolhardy to attempt the works of Bacon, of Shakespeare, of Newton must devote themselves to the diligent study of the Spirit of the age in which they live.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson[i]

See also “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II).”

[i] Journals and miscellaneous notebooks. Vol. II: 1822–1826. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1960–82. July 8, 1824, p. 255.


Jun 17 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part I)

(Part I: pp. 1-78.)

Of all the reviews I’ve read thus far, only Joshua Rothman’s profile in The New Yorker last month of Rod Dreher and his latest book The Benedict Optiona Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017, NY: Sentinel) explained the context of the book in its relation to his previous ones.

There has been much criticism, most of it unfair, about the book. Perhaps because:

“It is the talent of our age and nation to turn things of the greatest importance into ridicule.”

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)[1]

And:

“The world is ashamed of being virtuous.”

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) [2]

Or maybe I’m being overly sympathetic toward Dreher and not enough toward the criticism of him because:

“Almost nothing is inherently miserable, unless you think it is.”

Boethius (480-524 AD) [3]

And:

“We identify ourselves with the under dog, just as we always think of ourselves as more oppressed than oppressing.”

Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) [4]

So there is no need for me to engage in a typical book review, which I have no habit and little experience of doing anyway, because, in  general, I believe:

“Every man, as a member of the commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private, without perplexing his neighbour or disturbing the public.”

–Jonathan Swift[5]

Instead I can only compare Dreher’s book to thing’s I’ve recently read, including the above-mentioned criticism.

In his summary of Christian history in the West, Dreher mentions:

“The [Protestant] Reformers quickly discovered that casting off Rome’s authority solved one problem but created another.” [6]

And I wonder: if the Benedict Option does indeed solve the problem it states in its subtitle, will solving that problem simply create other problems? For often when we think we’ve solved one of society’s problems, all we’ve done is pass the buck and given ourselves a new set of problems. Perhaps we’re enchanted by the novelty of new problems, but on the other hand, there is no such thing as a problem-free life. So an arresting question begins to emerge early in the book and it is a question of balance. It has something to do with Emersonian compensation:

For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something….

There is always some levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others….

There is a crack in every thing God has made. It would seem, there is always this vindictive circumstance stealing in at unawares, even into the wild poesy in which the human fancy attempted to make bold holiday, and to shake itself free of the old laws, — this back-stroke, this kick of the gun, certifying that the law is fatal; that in nature nothing can be given, all things are sold….

We cannot stay amid the ruins. Neither will we rely on the new.[7]

If the Benedict Option succeeds in rebelling against modernity[8] (something daring, audacious, and ambitious enough for at least some non-Christians to perhaps champion for their own interests), what will the counterbalance be? Resentment? Respect? Utter apathy? Intrigue?

More thoughts on the book to come.

UPDATE: See “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II).”

NOTES

[1] Swift, Jonathan. “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff.” 1709. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. NY: Oxford World Classics. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Angus Ross and David Woolley. 1984. p. 216.

[2] Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 1756–1767. NY: Oxford World Classics. Edited by Ian Campbell Ross. 1983. 1998.  VIII, xxvii, p. 468.

[3] Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy 524 A.D. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 2008.  II, iv, prose, (2008) p. 40.

[4] Murray, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition in Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1927. p. 61.

[5] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. p. 185.

[6] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation. NY: Sentinel. 2017. p. 32.

[7] Emerson, “Compensation,” Essays: First Series. Boston, MA. 1841.

[8] Dreher writes:

Young men taking up a tradition of prayer, liturgy, and ascetic communal life that dates back to the early church—and doing so with such evident joy? It’s not supposed to happen in these times. But here they are: a sin of contradiction to modernity. (The Benedict Option p. 76)


Apr 25 2017

Gloria: The Difference Between Northern Ireland & the Republic

Gloria: The Difference Between Northern Ireland & the Republic

*

Northern Ireland’s “Gloria” (1967):

Republic of Ireland’s “Gloria” (1981):

Compare Joseph Le Fanu (1814-1873):

And so he went on; and she was more silent and more a listener than usual. I don’t know all that was passing in pretty Lilias’s fancy—in her heart—near the hum of the waters and the spell of that musical voice. Love speaks in allegories and a language of signs; looks and tones tell his tale most truly. So Devereux’s talk held her for a while in a sort of trance, melancholy and delightful. There must be, of course, the affinity—the rapport—the what you please to call it—to begin with—it matters not how faint and slender; and then the spell steals on and grows. See how the poor little woodbine, or the jessamine, or the vine, will lean towards the rugged elm, appointed by Virgil, in his epic of husbandry (I mean no pun) for their natural support—the elm, you know it hath been said, is the gentleman of the forest:—see all the little tendrils turn his way silently, and cling, and long years after, maybe, clothe the broken and blighted tree with a fragrance and beauty not its own. Those feeble feminine plants, are, it sometimes seems to me, the strength and perfection of creation—strength perfected in weakness; the ivy, green among the snows of winter, and clasping together in its true embrace the loveless ruin; and the vine that maketh glad the heart of man amidst the miseries of life. I must not be mistaken, though, for Devereux’s talk was only a tender sort of trifling, and Lilias had said nothing to encourage him to risk more; but she now felt sure that Devereux liked her—that, indeed, he took a deep interest in her—and somehow she was happy. [1]

Compare (American) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882):

Thus long I have been in Cambridge this term (three of four weeks) & have not before this moment paid my deviors to the Gnomes to whom I dedicated this quaint & heterogeneous manuscript. Is it because matter has been wanting—no—I have written much elsewhere in prose, poetry, & miscellany—let me put the most favourable construction on the case & say that I have been better employed. Beside considerable attention however unsuccessful to college studies I have finished Bisset’s Life of Burke as well as Burke’s regicide Peace together with considerable variety of desultory reading generally speaking highly entertaining & instructive. The Pythologian Poem does not proceed very rapidly though I have experienced some poetic moments. Could I seat myself in the alcove of one of those public libraries which human pride & literary rivalship have made costly, splendid, & magnificent it would indeed be an enviable situation. I would plunge into the classic lore of chivalrous story & of the fairy-land bards & unclosing the ponderous volumes of the firmest believers in magic & in the potency of consecrated crosier or elfin ring I would let my soul sail away delighted in to their wildest phantasies. Pendragon is rising before my fancy & has given me permission to wander in his walks of Fairy-land & to present myself at the bower of Gloriana. I stand in the fair assembly of the chosen; the brave & the beautiful; honour & virtue, courage & delicacy are mingling in magnificent joy. Unstained knighthood is sheathing the successful blade in the presence of unstained chastity. And the festal jubilee of Fairy land is announced by the tinkling of its silver bells. The halls & beauty. The birds partake & magnify the happiness of the green-wood shades. & the music of the harp comes swelling on the gay breezes. Or other views more real[,] scarcely less beautiful should attract, enchain me. All the stores of Grecian & Roman literature may be unlocked & fully displayed—or with the Indian enchanters send my soul up to wander among the stars till “the twilight of the gods[.]”[2]

NOTES

[1] Le Fanu, The House by the Churchyard, “Chapter XXIV – In Which Two Young Persons Understand one another Better, perhaps, than ever They did Before, without Saying So,” 115–16.

[2] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard UP. 1960-82. Vol. I, March 11, 1820, pp. 10–11.

 

 


Jan 25 2017

Our Reconcilable Differences with Russia

bookshelf

Our Reconcilable Differences with Russia

“It is a singular anxiety which some people have that we should all think alike.”

––Thomas Jefferson

 “We are wiser than we know.”

––Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When everybody is alike, anything different becomes shocking.”

––George Santayana[1]

I dunno, Waldo. We may not be that wise. I don’t know what to make of Lee Smith’s January 17 piece in The Tablet Magazine: “What Obama Owes Putin—and Why Donald Trump is Let Holding the Bag.” It essentially takes the position I commented on by McCrew on January 9 and turns it on its head, arguing that rather than Putin, “misdirection has been Obama’s guiding principle for seven years.”

Instead of the U.S. being on the receiving end of an information war propagated by Russia, Smith seems to argue that the U.S. and Russia are actually allied on good number of things, and that the only ones left in the dark about how reality really works are everyday American and Israeli citizens who are the targets and victims of a Russo–American disinformation campaign with regard to Syria and Ukraine. Susan Hennessey and Jordan A. Brunner’s January 25 piece of LawFareBlog.comWhat Do We Know About Investigations into Trump’s Associates’ Ties to Russia?” seems to show that while friendliness between the two counties may not exist, a certain absence of malice has started to emerge.

I agree we Westerners should not goad literature to explain the world’s problems. Reading translations of Russian nineteenth-century literature is no panacea for twenty-first century political engagement. Yes, this can become a form of so-called “orientalism”—but outside the acolytes of Edward Said, does anyone in the East or the West of 2017 even believe or act on or behave as if orientalism is something related to tangible reality?  Something tells me no. Something tells me those ideas remain trapped in the 1980s (like New Wave music).

How do we proceed? When we are actually confronted with specific answers, we soon complain of being suffocated or inhibited, of being denied the opportunity to contribute “creatively” and “freely” on our own; and we at once begin—usually with some success—to pick holes in what has been presented us. But as soon as we feel we have pushed all this aside, and at last stand free and ready to make our own contribution, the human heart shrinks at its new nakedness and its new gift of what Santayana calls “vacant liberty.” We start once again to crave specific direction, and turn reproachfully, notebook in hand, on those who are now exhorting [strongly urging] us—in the very spirit we had before demanded—to “go and do likewise….”

––Walter Jackson Bate (1918–1999)[2]

On this issue of misappropriating literature for political purposes at her Tumblr account, Sandra Afrika complains (via Alexey Kovalev) about clickbait coming from Harvardpolitics.com, as if that URL alone wasn’t enough of a warning sign not to read any further. I think her complaints are a little overblown. A little. I wouldn’t believe anything from Harvardpolitics.com, or Kremlin.com, or Breitbart.com, or the Wrap or the Onion or Rotten Tomatoes.  These sites are made for nothing but clickbait, and one cannot legitimately complain and moan at a baker for baking bread.

But that doesn’t mean old literature has no use or relation to the world’s current problems. I don’t think I was wrong to recently pull some of my favorite quotations from Russian works, again, translated into English, amid a discussion of the (non)relationship between the White House and the Kremlin. But I nonetheless need to be more careful about doing so from now on.

So perhaps we are not wiser than we know. Perhaps the world is too wise for us.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;––
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

––Wordsworth

NOTES

[1] For Jefferson and Santayana see: Kallen, Horace. M. “The Laughing Philosopher.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 61, No. 1. (January 1964.) 19–35 at 24–25. For Emerson, see “The Over-Soul.”

[2] Bate, Walter Jackson. The Burden of the Past. 1970. Harvard UP, Cambridge. p. 56. Continuing with Bate:

In a very real sense, therefore, human feelings, at least potentially, work outward toward reality, hoping to re-enforce and secure themselves by the ‘stability of truth.’ To this extent, they contain their own tension upwards and outward, if only in their need for reassurance, for external justification and support. But in order to use this to advantage there must first be some sort of exposure to what will arouse or satisfy us; our desires cannot clarify themselves or find objects to satisfy them unless we know or suspect the existence of such objects. Unless we have first tasted what we desire, hunger often remains only an uneasy and painful sensation, without a clear object. Accordingly, as a contemporary of Johnson pointed out, very young babies, suffering from physical hunger, often fight against food unless they have already experienced the taste of it….

The channeling effort toward achievement, in other words, constitutes a certain limitation: to be one thing is, by definition, not to be another. It is limitation, at least, when compared with what Santayana calls ‘vacant liberty,’ even though this blank liberty to drift without purpose in the dark is meaningless until it is again channeled into specific aims and renewed efforts. The history of human achievement is strewn with compulsive by-products—and with by-products that become, if not more pronounced, at least more striking, in proportion to the degree of concentration on the end desired. Too often, of course, we find a tendency to interpret the achievement as either the flowering or else the compensation of the secondary traces that accompany it, putting the hoof-prints before the horse, and regarding them as a pre-determined path. We are never unwilling to ‘lessen our disparity.’ We all feel disturbing psychological quirks in ourselves; and it is not unpleasing to imagine that if we allowed them to be a little more pressing, the achievement we are interpreting could be our own. (The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. Oxford UP. 1955. pp. 140–41, 155)


Oct 27 2016

Throwing Heidegger for a Loop (by Not Reading Him)

PalazzoReEnzo01

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

wood-h-small

[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.


Aug 2 2016

Questions and Comments for Folks Who Like to Read

bookbread Canterbury

The eighth-century monk Bede charitably advises “good luck” to his readers,[1]  and twentieth-century bard Bruce sings that tramps are born to run: some sprinters, others marathon runners, but in all ages, the writer is a tramp who begs readers for charity. Yet what, exactly, is a charitable reader? How do readers convey caritas? And how do they express their gratitude toward writers who help them? Do readers feel in debt to such writers? Do they owe them something? Is this what Rod Dreher felt when he wrote How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015)? Is this what I do when I blog about Dreher’s work? Is that how Dante felt about Boethius’s Consolation (523 AD)?—and Boethius had felt about Plato?

How, for example, did someone like Martin Buber want to be read? And how did he read Torah and Talmud? It is an exaggeration, though only a slight one, to say that Buber begged for Jewish readers but received only Christian charity. Buber’s translator Walter Kaufmann once complained that Buber indulged in much unnecessary wordplay,[2] but do we not play and joke (most frivolously, most unnecessarily) with our intimates rather than strangers?

My collective answer to these questions is that the mind of the active reader renders an alternative present time to encounter an imitative presence of the writer.[3]

When I read Buber, a self-described philosophic anthropologist, I understand him (I think) because he was a writer who tried engaging in an I–You mode of discourse with his potential readers. It is all quite mundane and requiring nothing supernatural to understand a text as, to a certain extent, imitating the writer who wrote it—that it contains the spirit of the writer. For even an adamant atheist like Gregory Bateson (a scientific anthropologist) could admit that his thoughts would exist after death:

When you’re dead you’re dead, living on only in the sense that your molecules recycle to the maintenance of the biosphere and your ideas recycle to the maintenance of evolution. The supernatural and miracles, [Bateson] liked to say, “are a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.”[4]

Now Kafka was a writer who never begged a reader for anything. One can say that in his works he essentially communicated in an I–I mode of discourse. Nonetheless, he remains insightful, as when his character of Raban discusses the frame of mind of the reader:

Books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.[5]

Compare Emerson:

A page which is tedious to me today, tomorrow becomes precious because I read in a book that it is precious to another man… You do not doubt that the same book, the same history yields different light to a boy & to a man. Last year you were a boy[;] now you are a man. Again; today you are a boy, & next year you shall be a man.[6]

Chosen by fortune, thrown by fate, the elect reader of Kafka and Emerson passes through with ease while the others left behind—the unchosen, illiterate Egyptians in pursuit of escaped slaves––are to be engulfed in the oceania of biblioteca, falling off the cliffs of Parnassus, to be, in Bateson’s terminology, “recycled.”

I have written more than I planned, though not more than I wished.

­­––Alcuin of York (735–804 AD)[7]

NOTES

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[1] Bede, Venerabilis. “Table of Contents for Books II and V” Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.) Translated by Roger Collins. Edited by Collins and Judith McClure. NY: Oxford UP. 1994. p. 64.

[2] Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) By Martin Buber. 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. p. 19.

[3] For Buber:

What is essential is lived in the present, [dead] objects in the past…. Presence is not what is evanescent [vaporous] and passes but what confronts us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence….(Ich und Du, I § 17)

Creation is the origin, redemption is the goal; but revelation is not a datable, determinate point poised between them. The center is not the revelation at Sinai but the continual possibility of receiving it. That is why a psalm or a prophecy is not less “Torah,” teaching, than is the story of the exodus from Egypt. (“People Today and the Jewish Bible: from a Lecture Series.” Die Schrift und das Wort. (Scripture and Translation.) By Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by Lawrence Rosewald with Everett Fox. Indiana UP: Indianapolis, IN. 1994. p. 8)

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[5] Kafka, Franz. “Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande.” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. 74–75.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. V. 1835–1838. Edited by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 1965. Belknap Press, Harvard UP. November 24, 1837, Journal C, p. 435 and December 3, 1837, p. 440.

[7] Alcuin of York, “Letter 126,” Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters. Edited and Translated by Stephen Allott. York, England: William Sessions Limited. 1974. p. 133.


Jan 15 2016

A SECOND LOOK AT FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Reviewing 5 Books by 4 Authors

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Part of any spiritual discipline, however, is discovering—repeatedly—that one had it all wrong. You both knew and did not know.

––Gregory Bateson [1]

The anthropologist Bateson, an avowed atheist, was fond for chiding that supernatural things and miracles are but “a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.” [2] I’m not sophisticated enough to argue for or against that last statement, but the above quotation gives the book reviewer an apt starting point because one can apply Bateson’s words to the act of reading. Let us ask, for each of the five books under review: as a reader what did I get wrong––what did I wrongly assume to be true going into the initial reading?

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming? I assumed there would be some everyday-life sentimentality––I did not expect to encounter mysticism—and when I did I found it difficult to hold my attention. I struggled to empathize with experiences of the numinous recounted in this book, such as dreaming of conversing with ghosts. For I’ve never had a mystical moment—as occurs sometimes in this and in Dreher’s other work How Dante as well as (in passing) in the angelology and demonology of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim. Even when I was a regular churchgoer, neither in the loud churches nor quiet churches, neither in the black churches, white churches, or Latin American churches I visited—some of which were full of people with spasms, the shakes, speaking in tongues, shouting out loud like Paul Stanley, some bellowing with Bach from an organ, some full of smoke from incense and candles, I never experienced the coincidence-that-wasn’t-really-a-coincidence like Dreher relates:

Despite these very different approaches to faith, we had independently developed interest in the patterns that God uses when He communicates to us. We both believed strongly in meaningful coincidences, which the psychiatrist Carl Jung called “synchronicities.” Ruthie called them “seven-oh-nines,” after a remarkable set of coincidences that happened to her after [her husband] Mike went off to war an event that tested Ruthie faith. [3]

Yes, I am usually interested in what Jung, the godfather of Neognosticism, has to say, and I’ve listened to the Sting and the Police and still dig that tune, but on the other hand, I cannot ignore Emerson’s words:

Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false…. Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one … And the mystic must be steadily told, — All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it. [4]

I can confess to experiencing moments where I felt like was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time, but there was nothing transcendental about it—and I certainly feel I’d be lying if I labeled those experiences as mystical.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about How Dante Can Save Your Life? While not quite anticipating Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1922) or C. S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941), I mistakenly expected to encounter the same kind of rigorous writing style I’ve found on Dreher’s blog these past few years. There were no berserking blitzkrieg of quotations accompanied by Rod’s infamous “read the whole thing” blurb. Instead, I found in How Dante a restrained and simplified style––one not dumbed down, but distilled.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about La Divina Comedia? If you start to read commentary on Dante you’ll soon get engulfed by diagrams and charts and maps of the Afterlife. So what surprised me on first read was the dreamy ease of it. Much like Proust, the places and transitions from one place to another did not feel to this reader like the rigid levels, the strict layers, the definite hierarchies and inked schemata from centuries of scholars. Nor did reading the Comedia and imagining the visuals the poet supplies feel like playing a video game with stringent leveling of worlds and platforms, nor the way the audience encounters the station stopping “blocks” in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953) (a fellow Louisianian author of Dreher’s) even if Dante has rendered a systematized thought behind it all.

La Divina Comedia is, however, the first epic I’m aware of to be told entirely as a dream, which was a common medium for storytelling and poetry in the Middle Ages. In Dante there are seemless fade ins and fade outs from one place to another, but these moments are not quite as lacking in transitions as, say, Yellow Submarine (1968), or even the radical, random juxtaposition found in the work of David Lynch––Dante was certainly not a Dadaist.

Structurally, I see Dicken’s Christmas Carol (1843) as an inverted Divine Comedy: the Ghost of Christmas Past represents Paradiso, the Ghost of the Christmas Present represents Purgatorio, The Ghost of Christmas Future, Inferno—a Christian theme, a Christian dream, all told in one night.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about Why Place Matters? I expected more references to contemporary politics as well as the application of specific and emerging technologies. Overall this anthology is very studied and astute—but it contains no author imagining or proposing radical change, no deeply inspiring vision like a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley might expect to be pitched. In that sense, the book is very conservative. Most of Why Place Matters involves case histories and diagnoses for the increasing lack of relevance of place in American culture, but few (if any) prescriptions are proposed. This remains a banal charge against many modern nonfiction books. Probably the most blatant example in Why Place Matters of this pattern of theory overriding practice can be found in Mark T. Mitchell’s essay “Marking Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation.”

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about Elmer Gantry? I got two things wrong: (1) I was mistaken that Gantry has no adversaries when his co-minister Sharon Falconer does in fact function somewhat as his antagonist. He doesn’t know what motivates her. He seems to shake off or ignore her proclamations about being Joan of Arc reincarnated because he stays prostrate, in ardent awe of her. So Sharon is Elmer’s Beatrice: “Always, in every high-colored mood, she was his religion and his reason for being.”[5]

(2) I thought Elmer Gantry, as the character of the evangelical minister, wanted––as he does in the 1960 movie based on the book––a rock-n-roll lifestyle of women and whisky, but Elmer only wants the attention and influence that comes from making people feel good.

Finally, I really identified how he can’t wrap his mind around the necessity in Christian ministry for a minimal amount of mysticism. After Elmer had successfully lay-preached, and is soon to graduate from seminary, he is informed that he still needs a Call:

He saw himself as a white-browed and star-eyed young evangel, wearing a new frock coat, standing up in a pulpit and causing hundreds of beautiful women to weep with conviction and rush down to clasp his hand.

But there was one barrier, extremely serious. They all informed him that select though he was as sacred material, before he decided he must have a mystic experience known as a Call. God himself must appear and call him to service, and conscious though Elmer was now of his own powers and the excellence of the church, he saw no more of God about the place than in his worst days of unregeneracy.

He asked the president and the dean if they had had a Call. Oh, yes, certainly; but they were vague about practical tips as to how to invite a Call and recognize it when it came. He was reluctant to ask Eddie––Eddie would be only too profuse with tips, and want to kneel down and pray with him, and generally be rather damp and excitable and messy.

The Call did not come, not for weeks, with Easter past and no decision as to what he was going to do next year. [6]

Later in the chapter, Elmer has deacons and elders circle around and pray for him to have the Call. But nothing happens. So Elmer sneaks off and gets “only a very little bit drunk” before deciding himself that he’s been called to the ministry.

 

 To be continued….

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NOTES

[1] Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005. 105–06

[2] Nachmanovitch Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. 72.

[4] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Essays Second Series. 1844.

[5] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter XIII,” 190.

[6] Ibid, “Chapter IV,” 62-66.

 


Jan 8 2016

5 Books by 4 Authors to be reviewed in 2016

bookbread pencil shavings

As a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 1999, I acquired and have since retained a chip on my shoulder: that I will forever be an under-read individual. It’s silly how often I’ve imagined myself: as a Texan I’m less read than most Americans from other states; as an American I’m less literary compared to most Europeans. It’s all very neurotic—as if I could somehow read a bunch of books, “play catch up,” and become a better writer. Ha!

Made As and Bs in middle and high school, but when I got accepted to Longhorn Land––an acceptance probably based on socio-economic grounds, for I was neither in the top ten percent of my class nor an ethnic minority––I was soon stung by the realization of my lack of acquired mental rigor. ‘Twas only later that I learned that, although I was homeschooled for third and fourth grades, such a feeling of the absence of knowledge is a common part of being a product of the Texas public education system.

Though an arbitrary measurement (because page count varies wildly), these days I read about a hundred books a year (87 in 2015), take notes, and try to continually study them. But this chip on my shoulder––this thorn in my side––refuses to leave. Moreover, whenever I discuss something I’ve read, I tend to over-cite and elaborately quote it chapter and verse, and this, I suspect, seems to have given some of my writings a pseudo-medieval flavor which modern readers generally detest.

Nonetheless, 2016 is a new year for book blogging…. so Bookbread begins with some meditations on:

While it seems a little clumsy (if not quite naive) the way the young Count Tolstoy once said he wanted Truth to be the hero of his written sketches of Sebastopol (1855), today in 2016 I too aim for truth to be the leading character on this blog; although, the requirements for achieving that aim will be, in Dreher’s words, “hard, big, real, and dirty.” [1]

What kind of book is Dreher’s Little Way of Ruthie Leming? It’s a memorial biography of Dreher’s dying sister; a portrait of an ideal community (of the author’s home town) in the American South experienced from a Christian perspective. The book also functions as a requiem, a dirge on the life of the title character. As I told some family members after giving them copies of the book last Christmas, “it’s like Steel Magnolias (1989), but with spiritual grit.”

What kind of book is How Dante Can Save Your Life? In addition to being a sequel to the above work, this is a how-to book, a spiritual confessional, and a portrait of a flawed individual (as are we all), who is part of a normal, white, middleclass family living in a perceived (at least by the author) ideal, small community in the American South. Themes include fitting in (or not) and forgiving others (or not) in that small community. The book is also a work of reader-response criticism as the author describes how reading a particular book revolutionized both his outlook and insight on life. Both of Dreher’s books include bildung: spiritual journeys, coming-of-age narratives.

What kind of book is the Divine Comedy?

Each shade displayed no less astonishment
or less confusion than a mountaineer,
who, even as he stares about, falls silent
when, rough and rustic, he comes to the city

––Purgatorio XXVI, 67–69 [2]

I fear I have nothing meaningful to say about La Divina Comedia. Nonetheless: if the text is an Everest—I feel, now as a reader of Dante, like one of those perfectly preserved, frozen bodies splayed about Everest’s mountainside—although mine is the body of one who reached the summit before dying on the way back down. Plato affirms it’s more difficult to reenter the cave than initially exiting it, and why should mountain climbing for Beatrice in Dante be any easier than spelunking for Sophia in Plato? [3] But no doubt after a first reading of Dante I now feel as exasperated as the dying Ivan Ilyich:

It is as if I 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. [4]

What kind of book is Why Place Matters? This is an academic anthology that includes various essays on the concept of place and community in present-day America—it covers many perspectives and topics and (often conflicting) suggestions and solutions to an agreed upon premise: that the importance of Place has waned in modern American life.

 What kind of book is Elmer Gantry? It’s a novel set at the turn of the twentieth-century in the American Midwest; it too is a coming-of-age tale, but also a tale about a spiritually aloof Protestant, evangelical American minister. Elmer is a rambler, he never settles, not even in the fictitious Midwestern metropolis of Zenith. The Midwest is in fact emphasized throughout the novel as a place. The book also satirizes a good ole boy who chose Christian ministry as a career because he found it the best way to attain power, attention, and influence. Elmer is not so much a charlatan seeking material riches but a football player who wants to be Christ’s number one cheerleader.

Why did you read these books? I read these books initially because they had to do with topics I am experienced and interested in such as: small town life, the dynamics of modern Christian belief, Southern communities (and escape and exile from them)—but also because, even though I often disagree with his premises and conclusions, Dreher is a particularly a good writer, a deep thinker, someone who writes honestly—which is the most difficult thing a writer can achieve. I identify and empathize with him when he writes things like:

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest. [5]

The theme of being different versus fitting in was one of the central socio-psychological dilemmas C. S. Lewis faced in adult life. [6]

 

And throughout the upcoming explorations of these texts, I will try to keep the below maxims in mind as I ask the following questions:

Part of any spiritual discipline, however, is discovering—repeatedly—that one had it all wrong. You both knew and did not know.

––Gregory Bateson [7]

Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion?

––William James [8]

We must avail ourselves of every means in our power to see the situation exactly as it is. What, in short, is the real strength of religion in the community? And here we have a right to look for assistance to the psychology of religion. As yet, indeed, but little has been done toward answering this question; but the task of feeling the pulse of the religious community and investigating the real nature and strength of its religious belief naturally belongs to religious psychology, and, though vast, is well worth its while.

––James Bissett Pratt [9]

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NOTES

[1] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p.  216; Tolstoy,  Sebastopol, last lines of Section II.

[2]Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Comedia. (The Divine Comedy.) Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Introduction by Eugenio Montale. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[3] Plato, Republic, VII 517C–519C.

[4] Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (1886.) Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. “Chapter 09.” But compare also another passage from this story:

Suddenly some force struck him 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. (“Chapter 12”)

[5] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 32.

[6] Lewis, Clive Stapes. “The Inner Ring.” They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: G. Bles. 1962. Lewis’ essay should be compared alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles,” for there is much overlap among them.

[7] Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005.  pp. 105–06.

[8] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. NY: Modern Library Classics. 2002. “Lecture II,” p. 40.

[9] Pratt, The Psychology of Religion.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 1. No. 4. (October 1908.) pp. 435–54 at 448–49.

 

 

 


Mar 28 2011

Third of Three Proposals: Toward Reconciling a Poetics of Ignorance with a Frankenstein-like Poetics

Continued from:

First of Three Proposals: Toward a Poetics of Ignorance

Second of Three Proposals: Toward a Frankenstein-like Poetics

1.0 The advent of the Internet is itself a kind of Frankenstein—it tore the curtain to the temple of knowledge. The web is the New Tower of Babel, and in effect, the ultimate (the final and most foreboding) Frankenstein for literature and language.

1.1 This ultimate Frankenstein ended the monopoly of access and acquisitions of information formerly dominated by such archons (archangels) as government, bureaucracy, academe, mass media. Now that the literary Holy of Holies is transparent––light shines in and out of its temple and altar.[1]

2.0 Because the writer cannot convey pure doubt, he must instead convey pure ignorance (a kind of “unknown unknown”) about certain book-parts.

2.1 A book made of other books implies that the writer possessed some amount of prior innate knowledge (gnosis) of those book-parts which constitute the final book as a whole.

2.2 A writer does (must) doubt the book-parts before him are yet alive and have yet to exist as a whole––hence the writer has no doubt that he is the one obligated to vitalize the book-parts sitting before him into a whole “new book.” Hence the writer has no doubt that he must quicken, reanimate these book-parts.

2.3 Were our three proposals already accepted and implemented, David Foster Wallace would’ve written a 300-page novel with 900 pages of notes (accessible only electronically), instead of the vise versa found in his Infinite Jest (1997).

 

[1] Is it so crazy to imagine we as a civilization are slowly progressing toward a what Emerson plotted out for the individual in his famous passage at ¶ 4 in Nature (1836)?

There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,––no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,––my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,––all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.