Oct 7 2020

Short Story Review: “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” (2018) by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Upon first reading of Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s short story “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” (Chattahoochee Review, Spring 2018): the mythological and religious references (e.g. Rama, Buddha, Vishnu), all with origins from subcontinental Asia scattered (or carefully placed) throughout Bhuvaneswar’s story seemed forced—indeed intrusive to this reader.

Upon second reading: I could tell the mythological references weren’t simply decoration, nor did Bhuvaneswar crowbar them in to function as deus ex machina.

Upon third reading: I began to see how the mythological references explain the place Gopi (the main character in Bhuvaneswar’s story) has lost—or rather a place he probably never really had––in his conflict with coming from India to the United States. One gets a sense that if Gopi read this story, he would not see any significance in the usage and placement of the mythological tropes and nods in it.

Bhuvaneswar’s Gopi, moreover, is a terribly middling-man not unlike Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich. Both Gopi and Ilych are interested only in their own needs rather than those around them:

Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible…. At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them…. (The Death of Ivan Ilych [c. 1886] II)

Ivan Ilych, as one in whose sphere the matter did not lie, would have nothing to do with him: but if the man had some business with him in his official capacity, something that could be expressed on officially stamped paper, he would do everything, positively everything he could within the limits of such relations, and in doing so would maintain the semblance of friendly human relations, that is, would observe the courtesies of life.(ibid III)

Meanwhile for Gopi:

The cane could have belonged to a wandering Buddhist ascetic with nothing but outstretched palms and a cheerful disposition to see him through old age. In contrast, Gopi was seething, tired, resentful…

As he ate, he flipped through the newspaper she had brought, fingering each page as he read, since each proved that Lakshmi [his wife] had been thinking of him, and not of Shree [their mentally disabled daughter], when she bought the paper.

Both Ilych and Gopi are what the Christian West might refer to as “lukewarm”:

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:16, Authorised Version)

While at the end of his life, Ivan Ilyich has a realization and a route to possible redemption for his mostly wasted life, at the end of Gopi’s story, however, Bhuvaneswar shows him remaining trapped in a cycle of anger and fear.


Apr 24 2018

How Tolstoy Tells Story

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

How Tolstoy Tells Story

According to Count Tolstoy:

He [Borís] could not tell them simply that everyone went at a trot and that he fell off his horse and sprained his arm and then ran as hard as he could from a Frenchman into the wood. Besides, to tell everything as it really happened, it would have been necessary to make an effort of will to tell only what happened. It is very difficult to tell the truth, and young people are rarely capable of it. The hearers expected a story of how beside himself and all aflame with excitement, he had flown like a storm at the square, cut his way in, slashed right and left, how his saber had tasted flesh and he had fallen exhausted, and so on. And so he told them all that.

Война́ и миръ, Voyná i mir (War and Peace), trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, revised by George Gibian, (New York, W. W. Norton, 1966; second edition 1996) III, vi, 210.

 


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 04: Chris Arp’s “Gormley”

pencil shavings

Midwest Mod Squad no. 04: Chris Arp’s “Gormley”

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 03 here)

Chris Arp graduated from NYUs Creative Writing Program. His storyGormley,” is set in mid-nineteenthcentury Britain.

The essence of Chris Arp’s story “Gormley”[1] comes at a moment toward the end when the narrator recognizes the newly acquired dignity[2] of his former tutor Mr. Quentin Stirk. His dignity is apparent when he gives a speech at an abolition rally in Bournemouth in the 1840’s. The narrator appears to be completely disinterested in the topic of the speech, but, now realizes a sense of a loss of possession he once felt he had over his former tutor.

But let’s first consider the narrator:

I learned to develop my taste for the more quotidian pleasures—commerce and politics, gossip and drink—the ones that, however dull, lead to family and fine company and laughter. [3]

He doesn’t quite seem “blinded by idiotic vanity”[4] the way some have complained of members of the middleclass. Is the narrator to be interpreted as a financially prudent aristocrat who could afford a private tutor, not to mention a privileged sense of owning another human being (see the quotation below)? Or do his “quotidian pleasures” betray him as merely someone “utterly middlebrow”[5] and “terribly ordinary” like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich?[6] To me, he’s ambiguous.

Yet the question of the narrator is of considerable importance when the reader encounters to the essence of this story:

Watching him [Mr. Stirk], I recalled that evening on the verandah, when the young teacher transformed before our eyes. This old man at the pulpit had captured that glimmer of dignity and cultivated it over the years, shaping and molding it, buffing it to a high polish so that now he could display his gifts before any audience, in any venue.

I do not mean that he was performative. I mean that his splendidness no longer belonged to me and Mr. Gormley Kay. It no longer belonged to the past. What I felt, watching him, was that I had lost something precious. I felt, queer as it may sound, as if I had lost a piece of myself. This was the pettiest sort of jealousy, unbecoming in the young and unthinkable in a man of my years. I strained to push this away. I strained to be more magnanimous, more mature. [7]

So the narrator seems to be older and looking back on the entire story, not just this moment within it. But also, in that moment from the past with the gathering of abolitionists, the narrator remembers being self-aware of his behavior—the self-awareness of an adolescent, not a child. Was that captured “glimmer of dignity” he speaks of akin to the line from the old sailor’s tale that mentions how “the serenity became less brilliant but more profound?”[8] I wonder.

The narrator in “Gormley” sees his own jealously in that moment as of “the pettiest sort,” as if through the jealously he might sooth the loss of perceived possession over Mr. Stirk, someone who now appears to have more dignity than he. But, as it says in the sailor’s tale, “It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing,” and perhaps the same can be said for the narrator of “Gormley” when he reflects back on that poignant moment.[9]

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 05 here)

NOTES

wood

[1] Chris Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer and Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 95–111.

[2] Compare the definition of “dignity” given by Stephens, the butler and narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (New York, Viking, 1989):

‘Dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. (pp. 36–43, quoting 42).

[3] Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 108.

[4] Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale (1907), ch. II.

[5] On the phrase “utterly middlebrow,” see D. G. Myers, “Obama and Franzen sittin’ in a tree,” A Commonplace Blog, September 12, 2010.

[6] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), ch. II.

[7] Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 110.

[8] Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899), § I.

[9] Conrad, Heart of Darkness. § III.


Jan 30 2018

Community and the Lack of Originality

porticos in Bologna, Italia

COMMUNITY AND THE LACK OF ORIGINALITY
Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part III of III

(Read Part I here, and Part II here)

If we can’t think without others, if we can’t conceive of reality without community, then it follows that there is often no such thing as originality, as Goethe once observed (via Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980)):

Goethe voiced the same insight in his own, characteristically more positive manner: “All that is clever has already been thought; one must only try to think it once more.”[1]

Director Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) used to say the same thing about each camera shot for each scene in a movie: every shot has already been done. The goal, therefore, is to make the shot a little better than what has been done before. Or, as Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.”[2]

And after we communed with the community, we should step away and contemplate what that communion accomplished. As Plutarch puts it:

[The student,] In making his examination and forming his judgement of the lecture he should begin with himself and his own state of mind, endeavouring to estimate whether any one of his emotions has become less intense, whether any one of his troubles weighs less heavily upon him, whether his confidence and his high purpose have become firmly rooted, whether he has acquired enthusiasm for virtue and goodness. As a matter of course, when he rises to leave the barber’s shop, he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming; so on his way home from a lecture or an academic exercise, it would be a shame not to direct his gaze forthwith upon himself and to note carefully his own spirit, whether it has put from it any of its encumbrances and superfluities, and has become lighter and more cheerful.[3]

And Tolstoy adds:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people. [4]

Beautiful wall of old books…📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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NOTES

wood

[1] Walter Kaufmann, “Goethe and the History of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (October, 1949): 503–16 at 503–04 quoting Goethe’s Maximen und Reflexionen.

[2] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: Dutton, 1979) 147.

[3] Plutarch, Morales. Vol. I, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1927) “On Listening to Lectures” 8, p. 227.

[4] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 100.


Jan 30 2018

“We” Think; Therefore, “I” Am

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

“WE” THINK; THEREFORE, “I” AM:
Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part II of III

We have an interesting linguistic trap here, one created by centuries of human self-regard. By using a different pronoun to enquire about the identity of people rather than of things—who, instead of what—we introduce an imaginary metaphysical difference.
Why not ask “What are we? What am I
?”–Riccardo Manzotti

According to Count Tolstoy (1828–1910), we live for ourselves only when we live for others. We only learn when we serve to teach others.[1] Compare Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), who follows Peirce:

Reality in a world of appearances is first of all characterized by “standing still and remaining” the same long enough to become an object for acknowledgement and recognition by a subject. Husserl’s basic and greatest discovery takes up in exhaustive detail the intentionality of all acts of consciousness, that is, the fact that no subjective act is ever without an object: though the seen tree may be an illusion, for the act of seeing it is an object nevertheless; though the dreamt-of landscape is visible only to the dreamer, it is the object of his dream. Objectivity is built into the very subjectivity of consciousness by virtue of intentionality. Conversely and with the same justness, one may speak of the intentionality of appearances and their built-in subjectivity. All objects because they appear indicate a subject, and, just as every subjective act has its intentional object, so every appearing object has its intentional subject. In Portmann’s words, every appearance is a “conveyance for receivers” (a Sendung für Empfangsapparate). Whatever appears is meant for a perceiver, a potential subject no less inherent in all objectivity than a potential object is inherent in the subjectivity of every intentional act.

That appearance always demands spectators and thus implies an at least potential recognition and acknowledgement has far-reaching consequences for what we, appearing beings in a world of appearances, understand by reality, our own as well as that of the world. In both cases, our “perceptual faith,” as Merleau-Ponty has called it, our certainty that what we perceive has an existence independent of the act of perceiving, depends entirely on the object’s also appearing as such to others and being acknowledged by them. Without this tacit acknowledgment by others we would not even be able to put faith in the way we appear to ourselves.[2]

Compare Arendt’s line: “That appearance always demands spectators” to a pair of observations from the Elizabethan playwrights:

“For though the most be players, some must be spectators.”

––Ben Jonson

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players….”

––Will Shakespeare

More recently, Charles Taylor has observed:

To transform society according to a new principle of legitimacy, we have to have a repertory that includes ways of meeting this principle. This requirement can be broken down into two facets: (1) the actors have to know what to do, have to have practices in their repertory that put the new order into effect; and (2) the ensemble of actors have to agree on what these practices are. [3]

Tolstoy, meanwhile, goes so far to say that if the community cannot easily understand a work of creation, then it doesn’t count as a work of art:

It cannot be said that the majority of people lack the taste to appreciate the highest works of art. The majority understand and have always understood what we, too, consider the highest art: the artistically simple narratives of the Bible, the Gospel parables, folk legends, fairy tales, folk songs are understood by everyone. Why is it that the majority suddenly lost the ability to understand the highest of our art?[4]

(Read Part I here  and Part III here)

Erddig Hall Library….📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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NOTES

wood

[1] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 123.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 45–46.

[3] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) 115.

[4] Tolstoy, Что такое искусство?/Chto takoye iskusstvo? What is Art? (1897), trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1995) X, 80.


Jan 16 2017

Things Recently Read on Russia, Obama, Democracy, Christianity, & Community

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Things Recently Read on Russia, Obama, Democracy, Christianity, & Community

Reshared this week at First Things Magazine is an article where David Novak asked 21 years ago: must community exist prior to democracy? If it does, then it is possible, Novak argues, that the community, particularly the Jewish community, can be religious and its governing democracy secular.

Opposite the idea of several religious communities being collectively governed by a secular democracy is Tolstoy, who sought, in Thomas Larson’s recent words in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “spiritual self-reliance.” And Count Tolstoy finds the best examples of spiritual self-reliance in the lives and beliefs of Russian peasantry—something that espoused by someone today might lead them to later be accused of promoting an ideology of what Tim Strangleman at NewGeography.com this week called “working-class nostalgia.” But, as Strangleman points out, nostalgia tells us more about our attitude toward the present than any understanding we may have (or think we have) of the past.

On the other hand, as Emma Green finds out in the Atlantic Monthly, there are currently some liberals who do not believe outreach toward religious conservatives will be rewarding:

I [Michael Wear, a former Obama White House staffer] think Democrats felt like their outreach [to religious conservatives] wouldn’t be rewarded. For example: The president went to Notre Dame in May of 2009 and gave a speech about reducing the number of women seeking abortions. It was literally met by protests from the pro-life community. Now, there are reasons for this—I don’t mean to say that Obama gave a great speech and the pro-life community should have [acknowledged that]. But I think there was an expectation by Obama and the White House team that there would be more eagerness to find common ground.

Cornel West, who is in some ways a religious conservative, wrote in the Guardian this week a severe critique of the Obama Presidency. More than Obama himself, West focuses his criticism on Obama’s “cheerleaders” who refuse to bear the blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat as well as the neoliberal economic failures of the Obama administration. On this latter issue West poses the question of whether commercial brands compel their consumers to shun integrity, and he suggests commonwealth of American society in the name of pure profit-seeking. On this last point, it is interesting to compare a passage from Benjamin Nathans’ “The Real Power of Putin” from back in the September New York Review of Books:

The Soviet Union from which Russia emerged in 1991 was the most purpose-driven society the world has ever seen. Yet Laqueur struggles to put his finger on what he calls “the emerging ‘Russian idea,’” partly because so many doctrines are competing for influence (Russian Orthodoxy, Eurasianism, antiglobalism, nationalism), and partly because, as he concedes, the vast majority of ordinary Russians “are not motivated by ideology; their psychology and ambitions are primarily those of members of a consumer society.”

As Alistair Roberts points out on his blog Alastair Adversaria, whether in Russia or America or elsewhere people hunger for truth, not only in purely rational terms, but hunger for truth in other people. We hunger for truth from the doctor when we ask what’s wrong and we hunger for the perceived truth in our leaders (whether or not the truth is actually there). This doubt of whether the truth is or isn’t there in that particular moment is like the wavering, lingering, roving sense of exile. And as Kate Harrison Brennan has recently written of the Western Christianity’s alleged perception of exile from rest of the participants in secular democracy, she reminds her flock that exile is a temporary condition; it should never be something one is comfortable with; on the other hand, as she expounds on Jeremiah:

The Israelites in exile were not just to tithe their cash crops, or to seek the good of their Babylonian oppressors as neighbours. Instead, they were to pray actively that the city would prosper, even before they did as a community in exile.


Jan 9 2017

A Brave New War with Russia

cross on steeple

A Brave New War with Russia

As an average American I was stirred by Molly K. McKew’s January 1 piece in PoliticoPutin’s Real Long Game”; as a foreign policy amateur, however, I can but respond by offering half-thoughts accompanied by a scattered set of quotations on things previously read. I urge everyone to please read McKew’s article before browsing anything I have to say about it below.

UPDATE: It looks like Quinta Jurecic at LawFareBlog.com beat me by a month-and-a-week on the whole Bullshit meme. Below I apply it to Russia’s disinformation campaigns, while she applies it the disinformation campaigns of President Trump.

INTRODUCTION

In a bar in Seville in April 2014, shortly after the Orange Revolution, I had a conversation with a Ukrainian who was curious about American perspectives. The point I made was my belief, then, that the majority of Americans generally supported an independent Ukraine and generally opposed Putin’s policies, but that Americans also felt no urgency or passion or enthusiasm over the issue because most Americans feel powerless over any of their government’s actions concerning foreign policy.

I. WHERE I AGREE WITH MCKEW

I agree with McKew’s article that the Russian Federation is (and has been) engaged in a hardcore information war against the United States for quite some time and that Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is a mere symptom of this much longer campaign. If war exists, then by definition, dialogue between the two sides does not exist,[1] and, as Reuters reported on December 21, “The Kremlin said on Wednesday almost all communications channels between Russia and the United States have been frozen,” although, “the U.S. State Department disputed the statement.” [2] Such an absence of dialogue has been articulated in the East by Tolstoy and in the West by Isaiah Berlin:

It used to be dreadfully difficult to talk when we were left alone. It was the labor of Sisyphus. As soon as we thought of something to say and said it, we had again to be silent, devising something else. There was nothing to talk about. All that could be said about the life that awaited us, our arrangements and plans, had been said, and what was there more? Now if we had been animals we should have known that speech was unnecessary; but here on the contrary it was necessary to speak, and there was nothing to say, because we were not occupied with what finds vent in speech.[3]

Sometimes the rot has gone too deep, and the members of the decadent society collapse into a kind of second barbarism, the ‘barbarism’ not of youth or of ‘the senses’, but of ‘reflection’––a kind of senility and impotence, when each man lives in his own egotistic, anxiety-ridden world, unable to communicate or co-operate with his fellows. This is the situation in which men, although ‘they still physically throng together, like live wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two of them able to agree, since each follows his own pleasure or caprice’.[4]

As an amateur, I believe an information war such as this calls on Americans to, among other things, rigorously study the dynamics of dialogue as theorized by Martin Buber in the West and Mikhail Bakhtin in the East.

An information war does not imply an absence of violence. Nonetheless, whether or not the current campaign is also a traditional war of blood-and-treasure, particularly with regard to the front of Eastern Europe, I agree with McKew that in this war the principle weapon of the enemy dissolves all distinctions between truth and falsity. As McKew sees it:

What both administrations fail to realize is that the West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.

Yes!––particularly “to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction,” or as McKew puts it later, “subversion rather than domination…. not about creating an alternative truth, but eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all”––this is the thesis to Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 essay “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt pointed out that bullshit is a special species of non-truth and that bullshitting is far more dangerous than lying. Why? Because a liar must have some regard for the truth––for that is the thing the liar tries to hide––while the bullshitter has absolutely no regard for the truth. The dangers of non-Russian-made bullshit were witnessed in the U. S. housing market crash of 2008. Why? Because bullshit is an acid that corrodes our social ontology—it eats away at what McKew refers to as our “security architecture”––and in this war Russia produces a lot of bullshit.[5]

In particular, Russia seeks to erode any desire we in the West may have to distinguish fact from fiction with regard to the war itself. The Russian psyche, however, is itself well adapted to such conditions, and has been for a long time. Even before phrases like “reflex control” and “multi-vector policy” became standard in the Kremlin, one finds, for example in the play The Trouble with Reason (1823), the character of Chatsky who admits: “The more you think about it, the more you’re overwhelmed.”[6] Lemontov has a character who confesses:

I lied, but I wanted to infuriate him. Contradiction is, with me, an innate passion; my entire life has been nothing but a chain of sad and frustrating contradictions to heart or reason. The presence of an enthusiast envelops me with midwinter frost, and I think that frequent commerce with an inert phlegmatic individual would have made of me a passionate dreamer. [7]

And as a young Tolstoy observed from fellow soldiers: “When we don’t think we don’t feel. When a man thinks, it is the worse for him.”[8]

II. WHERE I DISAGREE WITH MCKEW

For McKew:

“…. it haunted me, this idea that modern revolutionaries no longer felt some special affinity with the West. Was it the belief in collective defense that was weakening, or the underlying certitude that Western values would prevail? … It matters deeply that the current generation of global revolutionaries and reformers, like my Ukrainian friend, no longer see themselves as fighting for us or our ideals.”

While I agree with McKew that Russia seeks to wage war “until we are broken as they perceive themselves to be,” and that “Putin has launched a kind of global imperialist insurgency,” I do not agree that the best way to engage the enemy (besides traditional hard power) is to cheerlead “Western values”––not when there is scant historical, political, anthropological evidence or indications that Western values are valued by a substantial majority in the East.[9] Yes, much of the current war takes place on Russia’s western frontier—right where East meets West—but more often than not East does not equal West, even in peacetime. The bear knows how the handle the cold in winter:

Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty….[10]

The basis of authority is bodily violence…. Government authority, even if it does suppress private violence, always introduces into the life of men fresh forms of violence, which tend to become greater and greater in proportion to the duration and strength of the government…. That has always been necessary, and has become more and more necessary with the increased diffusion of education among the masses, with the improved communication between people of the same and of different nationalities. It has become particularly indispensable now in the face of communism, socialism, anarchism, and the labor movement generally. Governments feel that it is so, and strengthen the force of their disciplined armies.

The fact that in America the abuses of authority exist in spite of the small number of their troops not only fails to disprove this position, but positively confirms it. In America there are fewer soldiers than in other states. That is why there is nowhere else so little oppression of the working classes, and no country where the end of the abuses of government and of government itself seems so near. Of late as the combinations of laborers gain in strength, one hears more and more frequently the cry raised for the increase of the army, though the United States are not threatened with any attack from without. The upper classes know that an army of fifty thousand will soon be insufficient, and no longer relying on Pinkerton’s men, they feel that the security of their position depends on the increased strength of the army….[11]

All men, then, bound together by state organization, through the responsibility of their acts on one another, the peasant soldier on the nobleman or merchant who is his officer, and the officer on the nobleman who has been appointed governor, the governor on the nobleman or son of an official who is minister, the minister on the member of the royal family who occupies the post of Tzar, and the Tzar again on all these officials, noblemen, merchants, and peasants. But that is not all. Besides the fact that men get rid of the sense of responsibility for their actions in this way, they lose their moral sense of responsibility also, by the fact that in forming themselves into a state organization they persuade themselves and each other so continually, and so indefatigably, that they are not all equal, but “as the stars apart,” that they come to believe it genuinely themselves. Thus some are persuaded that they are not simple people like everyone else, but special people who are to be specially honored. It is instilled into another set of men by every possible means that they are inferior to others, and therefore must submit without a murmur to every order given them by their superiors…. [12]

All the revolutions in history are only examples of the more wicked seizing power and oppressing the good. In declaring that if their authority did not exist the more wicked would oppress the good, the ruling authorities only show their disinclination to let other oppressors come to power who would like to snatch it from them.[13]

Yet even if people from the East believed in Western values, that doesn’t mean those values would prosper in the East. As McKew points out, a non-Soviet Russia attempting democracy since 1992 was suddenly interrupted by a coup in 1999. But should we in the West be disheartened that that democracy was overthrown by a quick three-month operation or should we be disinterestedly sober when we realize that Russia had only seven years to practice democratic principles?

After the Cold War, some in the East may have sought “some special affinity” with Western values, particularly, “the belief in collective defense,” but in 2016 most of that sounds like the jive talk of the now dissolved Project for the New American Century. There is no doubt that when we fail to distinguish truth from fiction, we must consider ourselves ignorant. And when we are ignorant we are childlike and must resort to rhetorical tropes to understand the things we are ignorant of. We rely on tropes for understanding our counterparts because dialogue between us has failed.[14] I believe in the traditional ideals (the social ontology) espoused by the United States, but those ideas may not be for everyone, and I believe in the childlike trope of Russia being part of the East and America being part of the West. Hitler harnessed the trope that socialism was the work of Jews and Russians, while today many non-Hitlers spread the trope that democracy––or the English Rule of Law, or transparency that combats corruption (take your pick)––may be the habit of Jews and Americans but is not the preferred practice of many in the East. In The Trouble with Reason Chatsky asks:

Where are the fathers of our fatherland who are
the models you insist we must acknowledge?
Surely not these who by robbery made themselves rich?
Who got around the law through family and acquaintance?[15]

Yes, as McKew points out, Russia has the second most powerful army; but its population (according to some) has also been drastically decreasing. Nonetheless, as Tolstoy once pointed out: “The strength of Russia” remains “simplicity and obstinacy.”[16] While Syria and Georgia may all be part of the same war, is it really, as McKew sees it, “subversion rather than domination,” or just the old idea that Russia is always looking for a southern port?[17] Either way we in the West, particularly my fellow Americans, need to pay more attention to the situation and thank investigators like Molly K. McKew for reporting from the front lines.

NOTES

[1] This is an old idea in the East as well as the West. See Bhagavad Gita, III, xx; Caesar, Gallic Wars V, xxviii and xxxi.

[2]Kremlin says almost all dialogue with U.S. is frozen: RIA.” December 21, 2016. Reuters.

[3] Tolstoy, Leo. Крейцерова соната. (The Kreutzer Sonata.) 1889. Translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude. § X.

[4] Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. NY: Viking. 1976. p. 63.

[5] John Searle’s propositions for social ontology theory start with the premise that one cannot intend to play a language game with (or against) another if that other refuses (does not intend) to play that game, which is what the bullshitter does:

A way to come to see this point is to ask oneself, what is the difference between regarding an object as an instance of linguistic communication and not so regarding it? One crucial difference is this. When I take a noise or a mark on a piece of paper to be an instance of linguistic communication, as a message, one of the things I must assume is that the noise or mark as a natural phenomenon like the wind in the trees or a stain on the paper, I exclude it from the class of linguistic communication, even though the noise or mark may be indistinguishable from spoken or written words. Furthermore, not only must I assume the noise or mark to have been produced as a result of intentional behavior, but I must also assume that the intentions are of a very special kind peculiar to speech acts…. (Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge UP. 1969. § 1.4, pp. 16–17; see also 42–43)

Meaningful utterances are those where the speaker intentionally imposes conditions of satisfaction on the utterances. But because the utterances themselves are the conditions of satisfaction of the intention to make those utterances, we can say that speaker meaning consists of the intentional imposition of conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction. This, I argue, is the essence of speaker meaning. The condition of satisfaction of the non-meaningful intentional utterance is simply that an utterance should be produced. But if the utterance is to be meaningful it must itself have further conditions of satisfaction, such as truth conditions or fulfillment conditions. It is the intentional imposition of these further semantic conditions of satisfaction onto the conditions of satisfaction already present in the intentional utterance that constitutes speaker meaning….

We create money, government, private property, and marriage, for example, by representations that have the double direction of fit….They are the glue that holds human society together, because they carry the special type of deontology that makes society possible…. (“Language and social ontology,” Theory and Society. Vol. 37. No. 5. (October 2008.) 443–59 at 447, 451, 452)

We make something the case by representing it as being the case…. Intentionality essentially involves the representation of conditions of satisfaction….” (“Language and social ontology.” 445, 452)….

The necessary conditions of a speaker’s performing a fully consummated definite reference in the utterance of an expression are:

  1. There must exist one and only one object to which the speaker’s utterance of the expression applies (a reformulation of the axiom of existence) and

  2. The hearer must be given sufficient means to identify the object from the speaker’s utterance of the expression (a reformulation of the axiom of identification). (Speech Acts § 4.4, p. 82)

[6] Griboyedov, Aleksandr. Гope om yma. (The Trouble with Reason.) 1823. Translated by Frank R. Reeve. IV.

[7] Lermontov, Mikhail. “княжна.” (“Princess Mary.”) 1840. Translated by Vladimir Nabokov with Dmitri Nabokov.

[8] Tolstoy, Sebastopol. 1855. Translated by Frank D. Millet. § I.

[9] From Wolfgang Balzer:

It is an idealization—to put it mildly—to call coerced behavior agreement and a system an institution when the majority of relevant individuals has been removed from the system…. The majority of individuals, those occurring in the other groups, have a different perception. Usually such individuals take the institution for granted, as a part of their natural environment which they cannot influence. They do not perceive themselves as involved in the collective ascription of new statuses and power, not to speak of the “construction” of the institution. At best they can be said to participate in maintaining the institution in the sense of not actively seeking to destruct it. (“Searle on Social Institutions: A Critique.” Dialectics. Vol. 56. No. 3. (2002.) 195–211 at 206, 210)

[10] Dostoevsky, Записки из подполья. (Notes from the Underground.) 1864. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. I, vii.

[11] Tolstoy, Царство Божие внутри вас, (The Kingdom of God is within You.) 1894. Translated by Constance Garnett. 1894. VII.

[12] Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is within You. XII.

[13] Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is within You. X.

[14] Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas 103–08; Vico, Giambattista. Vico: the First New Science. 1725. Translated by Leon Pompa. Cambridge UK: Cambridge UP. 2002. I, xiii, [¶ 42–43] pp. 33–34; [The Third] New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. Third Edition. Translated by David Marsh. NY: Penguin. 1999. “Idea of the Work” [¶ 4] 3; I, § 2, xxxvii, [¶ 186], p. 89; I, § 2, lxviii, [¶ 206], p. 92; II, § 2, iv, [¶ 408], p. 162.

[15] Griboyedov, The Trouble with Reason. II.

[16] Tolstoy, Sebastopol. § I.

[17] “The drive of the Russians for a warm-water port, whether under the Tsarists or the Communists, is a fundamental geographic expression of Russian foreign policy.” (Russell H. Fifield and G. Etzel Pearcy. Geopolitics in Principle and Practice. NY: Ginn & Co. 1944. p. 5)


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.


Sep 14 2016

11 Thoughts on Kaepernick & the Election

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

11 Thoughts on Kaepernick & the Election

  1. In the Marines, “you’re not allowed to say ‘I’ because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality….”[i] But for the rest of us outside the military, does this mean we ought to always rely on the herd, run with the rabble, riot with the mob, keep camouflaged within the crowd?
  1. When I played football, it was more sacrilegious to sit on your ass––or worse, your helmet––than to take a knee. Taking a knee used to be considered basic protocol.
  1. No one ever fought a war just to fly a flag and sing a song.
  1. Think of how many GIs got enemy kill shots in Iraq simply by kneeling?
  1. Rodney King did a lot of kneeling in 1991:

  1. What is this ritual of the national anthem but “nostalgia driven blindness?”[ii] Nostalgia blinds us from the bad old days, and lets us get away from them by thinking that they were good; but those days were so bad we purposely forgot all about them.
  1. Nostalgia allows citizens go through the motions to keep up appearances:

Most people act, not according to their meditations, and not according to their feelings, but as if hypnotized, based on some senseless repetition of patterns.[iii]

  1. If the regime were to mold voting booths into the shape of slot machines, might I have more enthusiasm about this election?
  1. The choice matters not; the tuna salad in the fridge will taste the same after Election Day as it did the day before.
  1. But when will Elation Day arrive? Shouldn’t we instead dread that mark on the calends?
  1. I see myself in the voting booth and know that I am not that voter:

Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I acknowledge him? Admit that it is me? Or should I pretend I’m someone else, someone strikingly resembling me, and look completely indifferent?” Golyadkin asked himself in indescribable anguish. “Yes, that’s it: I’m not me and that’s all there is to it,” he thought, his eyes fixed on Andrei Filipovich as he took off his hat to him….[iv]

 

NOTES

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[i] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Nation: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 163.

[ii] Levin, Yuval. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. NY: Basic Books. 2016. p. 103.

[iii] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. 1997. “September 28,” p. 284. Compare Milton, John. Paradise Lost, VIII, 79–84:

when they come to model Heaven
And calculate the stars, how they will wield
The mighty frame; how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances; how gird the sphere
With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er,
Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb

See also Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry. Second Edition. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP. 1988. pp. 62–64, 123–24.

[iv] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Double. 1846. In Dostoyevsky Notes from the Underground. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Signet Classics 1961. pp. 151–52.


Jun 17 2016

Count Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis on Writing

IMAG0018b

Count Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis on Writing

Starting with Count Tolstoy:

From the first lines you see the intention behind the writing, and all the details become superfluous—you feel bored. Above all, you know that the author never had any other feeling than the desire to write a story or a novel. [1]

Now compare Lewis:

When every one feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.[2]

 

NOTES

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[1] Tolstoy, Leo. Что такое искусство? Chto takoye iskusstvo?  (What is Art?) 1897. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. NY: Penguin. 1995 . XIV, 117.

[2] Lewis, Clive Staples. The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford, UK: Clarendon. 1936. Second Edition. 1946.  232.