"...fear most yourself."
One slightly annoying aspect of the current state of this blog is that at least half, maybe more, of the visits to it are from people who have searched for some relatively obscure thing and gotten a link to one of my posts. Whether or not whatever they found here is useful to them or not, they don't stick around, and they don't come back, at least not soon or regularly. Well, that's fine--happy to be of help, if I was. But it means that when I look at my statistics and want to know how many people read the blog intentionally, I have to figure the number of visits by those people, as opposed to those who have been pointed to some specific post on some specific topic and are otherwise not interested, is at best half of the already small number.
One of the more frequent hits is the 2012 post called "Getting Started with Kierkegaard." A fair number of people want to do that, I guess. The post consists of little more than the question: where to start? And there are some good recommendations in the comments.
Which did I pursue? None. The last two comments there reveal the sad picture: about this time last year someone asked if I had an answer to the question. Sadly, I did not, because after eight years I had not so much as picked up one of Kierkegaard's books: it was another of my intellectual projects that failed before it really got started.
But I have resumed it, thanks to the Eighth Day Books catalog that I received some months ago. They offered a book called Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard, which is a compendium of brief excerpts intended to provide an introduction to Kierkegaard's thought. I thought that might be a good way to take up my abandoned but not forgotten plan.
Having bought the book (from Eighth Day), I was a little disappointed to find that the editor has in some cases resorted to paraphrase and abridgement in the interests of making Kierkegaard's meaning clear to the more casual reader. Perhaps I'll want to go on from here to specific works. But on the other hand this may be all the Kierkegaard I need.
At any rate I'm finding it very rich in insight, and besides that enjoying it very much. Isn't that epigram fantastic?
Here's a link to the publisher's description. And by the way it doesn't seem to be available from Eighth Day anymore.
I first read The Moviegoer sometime in the mid-1970s, and I loved it. But I was almost completely oblivious to the religious and philosophical aspects of it. I just thought it was a somewhat satirical, yet affectionate, and altogether delightful slice of a certain kind of Southern life. But that was all. After reading his other work, I could see, in retrospect, what I had missed. But as far as I can remember I didn't actually re-read it until now.
I did, clearly, browse through it a bit when I wrote about Percy in the 52 Authors series--browsed it enough to harvest the quotation I included there. That was five years ago, and I haven't changed my general view of Percy since then. On this reading, several things especially struck me:
1) It's even better than I remembered. I've long said, mainly on the strength of that first reading forty-five or so years ago, that on purely literary grounds this might well be considered his best. I say that now. All the others have their considerable merits and pleasures, but this one is the most perfectly formed.
2) All of the philosophical Percy is present here. If he'd never written anything else, this would stand as a statement (insofar as a novel can or should be a statement) of those views. Other works clarify and expand upon the basic ideas, and work them out in different situations with different characters (well, somewhat different). But the essentials are here, and I don't think they changed much over his career. And that implies a certain amount of repetition.
Percy's religious thought, the Catholic Percy, is hardly evident at all, though--only gently suggested. Binx has just realized that "a search is possible," and hardly begun it, though something has been found, or rather has found him. This was a good aesthetic choice, apart from the things Percy has written about theological questions--and answers--being best approached obliquely. For Binx and/or Kate to be converted would have required at least half again as long a book, and as this book stands it is slim and perfectly shaped.
3) I don't really have any clear idea of what's wrong with Kate. It isn't the same thing that's wrong with Binx, though there seems to be some sort of connection. Perhaps it's just that they are both rather severely "maladjusted," as psychologists used to say. I don't know whether they still say that or not, but it doesn't seem to fit with post-'60s attitudes.
4) I realized that I'm also unclear about the exact nature of the "certification" problem mentioned in that quote from Percy which caused me to re-read the book (see this post from a few weeks ago). This business of ordinary reality becoming unreal, and made real by sudden danger or catastrophe, or by being mentioned or represented in a movie, is something he brings up often, and I'm not sure exactly what its philosophical import is. In the first case--the ordinary made real at a moment of danger--is it really anything more than the fact, remarked on for ages and not particularly "modern," that we naturally grow accustomed to things and cease to pay much attention to them? And that we can be jolted into paying attention again by some out of the ordinary event? This is what Percy calls "everydayness" and is really not a strange phenomenon, or at least not one that has anything in particular to do with modern psychological dislocations.
The matter of extra-real existence being given to a person or place appearing in (for instance) a movie is a different story. If you recognize your home, or your hometown, in a movie, or your cousin as an extra in a crowd scene, you do see them as somehow made more real and significant--"certified," to use Percy's term. This is widely true, maybe universally true, and I think most of us have experienced it. I certainly recognize it. And am really quite puzzled by it. I recognize Percy's description, but I can't recall that he really explains it.
I've been thinking about it, and maybe one aspect of it--not the whole thing, but an aspect--is related to Rene Girard's ideas about mimetic desire: that we desire things because we see that others desire them. Similarly, the significance we assign to something is affected by the significance which others assign to it. It isn't desire, specifically, but it's related; it's certainly a type of valuation.
The prevalence of mass media like movies and television makes us tend to see what is represented there as having more significance than our own personal selves and surroundings, which means in a sense more ontological status: the significant is in some way more real to us than the insignificant. I and my surroundings are only significant to me; what I see on that screen is significant to many others. To that is added the vividness, selectivity, and drama with which movies and television invest everything. Few people have in real life the experience of magnificent bravery and skill shown by John Wayne's character in a scene from Stagecoach mentioned by Binx. Or the sheer power, also magnificent though evil, on display when Walter White says "I am the one who knocks." The common phrase "larger than life" says quite plainly what we feel.
Whether it's a great film or a bad film or a glimpse of the spectators at a football game or just a local news broadcast, that "larger than life" factor enters. And so if you see your town or your house or your cousin in one of these, they absorb some of the extra significance possessed by the thing as a whole. We know that others, thousands or millions of them, invest it with significance, if only by virtue of the fact that they see it. If so many think it's more significant than whatever is outside their own front doors, then it must be--you could in a certain way say it is in fact more significant--and therefore seems so to us as well. It has been certified.
Maybe that's what Percy says. I know he goes into this in more detail in Lost in the Cosmos, but I haven't read it for a while.
5) When I first read the book, I had never been to New Orleans, or for that matter to any part of Louisiana. And although I'd been to the Alabama and Florida Panhandle coasts enough to have a sense of what "spinning along the Gulf coast" is like, I didn't really know the feel of the place and its culture in the way that I do now, after living there for thirty years. I don't claim to know New Orleans well, but I've now been there often enough that Percy's descriptions of it have a flavor that they did not before. I've been on Freret Street, though I don't remember noticing a movie house there. and know that the campus which Binx and Kate walked through to get there is Loyola. It might even be possible to figure out which steps they sat on when they stopped to talk, though I'm sure the campus has changed a lot since the late '50s.
I probably wouldn't have gone to see it if I didn't have grandchildren who are very interested in it. I'm interested, too, but not all that interested; I would have waited till I could see it on Netflix or Amazon.
I haven't read many reviews, but I have the impression that most reaction, at least from people who care enough to review it or discuss it on the internet, has been on the negative side. And if you read the commentary of a true fan, you'll find all sorts of details and disputes about whether this or that aspect of it was good or bad. There seems to be a lot of discussion about whether this last trilogy is coherent, as the second film in it was directed by a different person from the one who did the first and last. And there's a lot of discussion about whether this trilogy completes or defaces the original.
(If you are not familiar with Star Wars: the main storyline is covered in three trilogies, episodes 1 through 9, which tell a story in chronological order. Discussion of these is sometimes confusing because that is not the order in which they were released, which was in sets of three: 4, 5, 6; 1, 2, 3; 7, 8, 9. Complicating the discussion are a few movies and other "product" which are not directly part of that main story.)
I don't really care very much about all that. The Star Wars movies are not great art. I don't think they will be regarded as such a hundred years from now. And the critics who complained about all the plot devices that have been recycled from the first trilogy are right. This is at least the third time that the resolution has hinged on a desperate mission (apart from the furnishings, a reprise of World War II air combat dramas) to stop the Most Evilest People Ever from using the Most Ultimatest Weapon Ever to rule the galaxy. (If I had been one of the writers, I would have tried to sneak a muttered "Yeah, that's what you said last time" into one of those conversations.)
So are those who complain about plausibility. That's a bit like complaining about Jack and the Beanstalk because as far as we know there are no magic beans. Still, as the characters in Rise of Skywalker talked of "making the jump to lightspeed," I kept wondering if any of the writers knew what a light-year is and how many of them separate the stars from each other. If I understood the opening, most or all of the action of this movie is supposed to take place in sixteen hours.
And the space combat sequences are tiresome. And so are the light-saber duels. And after eight movies in which the storm troopers' armor protects them from nothing, and they are able to hit nothing with their blasters, there's no reason to change now. And I really don't care about the race-'n'-gender tallying that popular art today is obliged to acknowledge.
All that said, I enjoyed it, I was even touched by it, and will probably see it again. Part of the reason for that is nostalgia. Here's what I said a few years ago, after seeing Rogue One (which is not one of the nine, but fills in the narrative immediately preceding Episode 4, i.e. the original movie):
Princess Leia appears briefly at the end, and the filmmakers somehow gave her the face of the young Carrie Fisher. I was oddly and surprisingly touched by that, as I had been by her recent death. In trying to figure out why, I concluded that it was partly because the original movie had seemed such a breath of fresh air to me. I remember very well the night my wife and I had gone to see some other movie--I have no idea what it was now--and saw the Star Wars preview. We looked at each other and said "We have to see that." And we did, and it was delightful.
The '70s had been a fairly dark time in some ways, a come-down from the crisis of the '60s and at the same time a sort of consolidation and solidification of some of the more negative things, and movies especially had grown considerably darker: the Dirty Harry movies, for instance, and more artsy works like Taxi Driver. And for me personally it had been a difficult period. Star Wars was a complete departure from all that, with its young and brave heroes and heroine and its simple (or simplistic) war of good and evil. It was also witty and imaginative, which may be hard to remember now that it's become such a part of our culture. It was simple fun, but it also celebrated virtue with no irony at all.
And part of it is what is suggested by that last sentence: beneath all the often-silly trappings, there are profound truths at the heart of the whole saga: the power of love, renunciation, and sacrifice; the potent but self-destructive lure of hatred; the understanding that one must not do evil in the service of good. Those are the things that touched me in the movie, and if there are logical and narrative holes in the way these are worked out, I was not bothered by them. Maybe that's one advantage of not being a true fan.
Related: also because of the grandchildren I've watched several episodes of a Star Wars spinoff series, The Mandalorian. So far it's entertaining, but I wouldn't say much more. It was mentioned in the comments here a week or two ago, and I noted that the Mandalorian is essentially the Eastwood character from a spaghetti Western, even to the point of having Eastwood's voice. It seems I'm not the only one to notice this:
This was taken from a room in a motel at Gulf Shores over the Thanksgiving weekend. It struck me as very poignant. Where will Mike, Angie, Logan, and Blake be ten years or more from now? Will they remember each other? Will they remember Thanksgiving 2019? And where will I be? Possibly not in this world.
Perhaps a bit surprisingly for someone of my age and, um, general cultural inclinations, I've never been a serious Monty Python fan, the sort who can quote most of their stuff and finds even a mention of their celebrated skits funny. Truth is, I've never seen it all, not by a long shot. Sure, I think some of the classics, like the Dead Parrot, are very funny. (I just watched it again, and it still cracks me up.) But I always found them a very mixed bag, and have never seen Life of Brian, or all of the Flying Circus. Truth is, I think Fawlty Towers is more consistently funny. Very, very funny.
Well, I noticed recently that Flying Circus is on Netflix, so in the interests of furthering my education ("never too late!" people are always saying, which is self-evidently preposterous), I've been watching it now and then, ten or fifteen minutes at a time. As in the past, I find it a very mixed bag, veering from the hilarious to the more or less stupid. But a few nights ago there was a sketch which I think is as funny as anything else I've seen from them. I guess you probably have to have read some D.H. Lawrence to appreciate it--Sons and Lovers in particular, I think, though it's been a very long time since I read it. It's the confrontation of a tough, harsh, father and his son whom the father regards as effete, soft, and pretty much useless, as in Lawrence: only their occupations are reversed.
It's not on YouTube, but if you have Netflix you can see it in Series 1 Episode 2, starting around 17 minutes. I just watched it again and it was as funny as it was the first time.
A few days ago on Facebook a friend remarked, apropos Independence Day, that "We're doomed because of Ayn Rand." Then earlier today my friend Stu left a comment on this post from 2014 saying he had given up on reading Atlas Shrugged with 300 pages still to go. He mentioned that he hadn't been able to locate a previous post--posts, actually, two of them--that I'd written about it. They were written eleven years ago and I found, on re-reading them, that they still seem relevant and interesting. So I'm bringing the subject up again.
At the time I knew a little about Rand, of course; I guess everybody does. I knew her horrible reputation in the eyes of many across the philosophical and political spectrum. And I knew that she had a lot of adoring fans, and had founded a slightly cultish philosophical school called Objectivism. But apart from a couple of things which I'd read in my teens and not been much impressed by, and didn't remember very well, I didn't actually have any firsthand knowledge of her work. So I decided to read Atlas Shrugged "because it is apparently a very influential book, and I wanted to understand why and how—why people like it, and what it teaches them." The result was a review and a follow-up. Here they are:
These two pieces were the occasion of one of the liveliest discussions ever to occur in the comments here. If I remember correctly one thread passed the 200-comment mark, which probably makes it the longest ever. Apparently the first post somehow came to the attention of some zealous Objectivists, and they came looking for an argument, which they got. Unfortunately those discussions are lost, I guess forever. At the time I was on Blogger and used the old Haloscan commenting system. It shut down, and a lot of interesting discussion went with it.
Rand is a sort of extreme libertarian, which conventionally puts her on the political right, though many conservatives consider her a mortal enemy (see Whittaker Chambers's famous review of Atlas Shrugged). But many progressives hold views that are fundamentally compatible with hers: hostility to Christianity, for instance, and above all the doctrines of the sexual revolution, which are 100% compatible. Hers is a hard-nosed and explicit statement of attitudes and inclinations which are present deep in the roots of American culture. And I suppose that's part of the reason why her work remains popular.
Someone recommended this podcast to me, and I in turn recommend it to you. The topic is Hope:
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the philosophy of hope. To the ancient Greeks, hope was closer to self-deception, one of the evils left in Pandora's box or jar, in Hesiod's story. In Christian tradition, hope became one of the theological virtues, the desire for divine union and the expectation of receiving it, an action of the will rather than the intellect. To Kant, 'what may I hope' was one of the three basic questions which human reason asks, while Nietzsche echoed Hesiod, arguing that leaving hope in the box was a deception by the gods, reflecting human inability to face the demands of existence. Yet even those critical of hope, like Camus, conceded that life was nearly impossible without it.
The guests are:
Beatrice Han-Pile, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex
Robert Stern, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield
Judith Wolfe, Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of St Andrews
And they know their stuff. Or at least they were able to convince this non-philosopher that they do. I was especially impressed with Dr. (I assume) Wolfe, who, whether she's Christian or not, certainly has a deep understanding of Christianity.
Click here to listen. I guess you can also download it to your phone etc. though I did not. I don't do podcasts very often, because usually when I want to listen to something music wins out.
What struck me most about this discussion is right there in the description: that the hope left in Pandora's jar was originally considered to be a bad thing. As a child I learned of Pandora in the pages of Compton's Pictured Encylopedia, and I thought the significance of the story was that the gods did not make the opening of the jar a complete triumph for evil. I guess I thought that the presence of hope meant that there was actually some chance of its being fulfilled. It never occurred to me that it was a twisting of the knife: that we are condemned to futility while always falling into the illusion that things might be otherwise. Sisyphus will keep pushing that rock forever, but he'll also forever think "I just know it's going to work this time."
Personally I'm inclined to agree with those who consider hope of any except the Christian sort to be at very best something to treat with caution and skepticism. It's like alcohol: too much will only make you sick.
This discussion of hope is part of a BBC radio series called "In Our Time," and judging by this program, and by the titles of others in the series, a great deal of it would be worth hearing: see this list of episodes. "Eclectic" is an understatement: in recent weeks consecutive programs dealt with Samuel Beckett, Papal Infallibility, and Venus (the planet, not the goddess).
Somehow or other I've become Facebook friends with half a dozen or so people who know a lot of theology. Some are professional theologians (i.e. they are theology professors) or just have studied it extensively. Several of them seem to be very excited about René Girard. I'd never read anything by him and really only vaguely recalled having heard of him, so I decided to read one of his books. I chose I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, I think on the recommendation of one of those Facebook people.
I finished it a few days ago and...well, I'm not sure what I think, though I can certainly say it was interesting. One of the blurbs is from the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who advises the reader to "prepare to be changed" by this book. My reaction to that was, approximately, Yeah right. But having read the book, I could almost say the same thing. Only almost--I'm not exactly a disciple, but I think the book is going to stick with me, and Girard does show us a way of looking at things unlike anything else I've ever encountered in the theological line. That of course isn't saying a whole lot, as I haven't read very much theology, but a number of people who have seem to think it's true.
There's an overview of his life and thought in his Wikipedia entry. Sometimes those are questionable, of course, but having read this book I'll vouch for the accuracy of this description:
Girard's fundamental ideas, which he had developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e. all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.
Girard's thought seems to have puzzled some readers, not only in the sense of being puzzled by his ideas but of being puzzled as to what exactly those ideas are. For that reason, I assume, the translator of this book (originally published in French) provides a foreword in which he these ideas explicitly in a numbered list (1-10). (Not a "forward" (!) as I see more and more often in discussions of books.)
That first idea, that all our desires are borrowed from other people--we want what others want, and learn those wants from models, beginning with our parents--seems so obviously wrong, so obviously at best a partial truth, that I keep thinking I misunderstand it. All these very intelligent, very knowledgeable people who esteem Girard so highly seem to understand and accept it; if I don't, it must be my error. Or at least there's a good chance that it's my error. Note that these are all people whom I have reason to respect intellectually; that is, it's not just their academic credentials that I respect, as those lost their association with good sense in my mind a long, long time ago.
Obviously this mimetic desire operates in some cases: we only want the blue ribbon in a contest because we want the prestige it symbolizes, and we absorb the whole idea of prestige, and attach value to it, by the influence and example of others. We learn manners and to a great extent virtues and vices from others, and rivalries involving them can easily arise. But surely there are many desires that are not mimetic, and Girard does not seem to limit his claim very much. The translator seems to say that Gerard asserts this for all desires except the instinctive, but he doesn't go into much detail. So perhaps the range of desires which he counts as instinctive is much greater than I think.
Take the desire of a child for ice cream, for instance. Most of us learn this desire the moment we taste the marvelous substance. No one has to tell us that it's something we should like. We don't have to observe our parents enjoying it in order to desire it for ourselves. I could multiply instances of this sort a great length, and so could you. Men don't desire beautiful women primarily because other men do, but because they are beautiful, and a man's immediate spontaneous reaction to the sight of them is to desire them. That desire begins with instinct, certainly, but goes well beyond it.
And "mimetic rivalry"? Yes, certainly, rivalry for a desired woman (to continue the last example) can certainly produce conflict, and envy and prestige play a part in increasing the conflict. But they aren't its root. I would think that in a great many cases, including both my examples, scarcity is at least as much a contributor to conflict as rivalry. Ice cream usually has to be shared, and every bite that my siblings eat is one that I don't get. Not all women are beautiful, and any one beautiful woman is desired by more than one man; they can't all have her. Or consider the desire for wealth: it is in part a means toward the satisfaction of desires that are thwarted more by scarcity than by rivalry as such.
So before I'd read a single word of Girard himself, I seemed to disagree with him. I'm going to stick with "seemed" there because I'm still allowing for the possibility that I'm misunderstanding. Like I said, the objections seem to me so obvious that they must not apply to what Girard actually means. Perhaps the examples of desire I've given are ones which he would count as instinctive, and therefore outside his sweeping assertion. If so, it would help if he made that clear. And perhaps he does in other books. (And if any Girardians read this and can straighten me out, please do so.)
Why, then, do I say that Neuhaus's prediction of the book's effect might be true for me? Why did I proceed from skepticism to excitement about the book? Because, having mentally registered my objection to at least part of Girard's premise, having placed some limits on its applicable scope, I found that it does shed a great deal of useful light on the relationship of Judeo-Christian religion to human culture. The "Judeo" part of that is not a formality, as Girard very explicitly includes both the Old and New testaments in his analysis. Let me see if I can briefly sum up this relationship:
Human culture, Girard believes, is produced by the efforts of a community to mitigate the effect of intra-group violence caused by mimetic rivalry. Conflict intensifies and if not somehow resolved and dissipated will destroy the community. The mechanism for doing this is the scapegoat: the community unites in blaming one person, kills him or her, and is restored, at least for a time. The cycle repeats itself. The release of collective violence against a single victim makes the continuation of a culture possible, i.e. prevents its self-destruction. Often the victim is, after the fact, accorded a god or god-like status by the (unconscious?) conviction of the community that the sacrifice of the victim is the direct cause of the restoration.
In order for this mechanism to work, the community has to believe, at the time of the killing, that the victim is in fact guilty and deserves to die. The victim must truly be, in the eyes of the group, responsible for the trouble which it is experiencing. This conviction is the work of Satan, who was also responsible for the trouble in the first place. By the victim/scapegoat mechanism, Satan casts out Satan. But the casting-out is temporary. It is based on a lie about the victim, and the violence of mimetic rivalry sooner or later returns.
What Judeo-Christian religion does--uniquely, according to Girard--is to unmask this cycle, to reveal the actual innocence of the victim, and thus to expose the Satanic power of the scapegoating mechanism. And to expose it is to end its power.
Girard elaborates all this in some detail, though perhaps still not enough, which may cause me to read more of his work. Is he really accurate, for instance, when he grounds all of non-Judeo-Christian mythology in the single-victim process? I'm not knowledgeable enough either to agree or disagree with this.
Through most of the book I tended to applaud Girard's passing observations more than his principal thesis. It is in the latter part that he really makes his mark on me. He winds up his story with an explication of the place of the victim in contemporary secular culture, and it was there that I most often found myself getting excited, saying Yes!, and marking passages. I just counted and I've placed thirteen book darts (what?) in this book. That's a good many for a relatively short book (193 pages). One of them marks the entirety of Chapter 13, "The Modern Concern for Victims." Here he makes the case that such a concern is almost unheard of in pre-Christian cultures (I think in fact he would remove the "almost.")
This is, as usual, going on a bit too long for a blog post. I'm skimming Chapter 13 in search of a quote that will serve as an example of Girard's insight. It's hard to isolate one bit, but I'll make do with this:
There is just one rubric that gathers together everything I am summarizing in no particular order and without concern for completeness: the concern for victims. This concern sometimes is so exaggerated and in a fashion so subject to caricature that it arouses laughter, but we should guard against seeing it as only one thing, as nothing but twaddle that's always ineffective. It is more than a hypocritical comedy. Through the ages it has created a society incomparable to all the others. It is unifying the world for the first time in history.
To some extent this is a variation on the oft-made point that our society is living on the moral capital of Christianity. Girard seems to be a little hopeful that universal concern for victims is a sign that Christianity is still very much alive and well. But he also wonders (I think) how this will play out when separated from its foundation. At any rate I wonder that. Right now I'd say that the signs are not encouraging, that the secularized community of concern for victims is now characterized by mimetic rivalry in victimhood, is tearing at itself, is therefore in search of a scapegoat, and is looking toward Christianity as a candidate for that role.
It's probably inaccurate to classify this book as theology. It's more a species of anthropology--religious anthropology, maybe. Whatever it is, it's worth reading. If the list of things I really, really want to read were not so long I think I'd immediately re-read it.
This afternoon I went Christmas shopping with my wife at the local Barnes and Noble store. I had not been in one of those for a long time, some years at least. Browsing the shelves there made me actively question the notion that reading is in itself a good thing. What a lot of drivel, some harmless and some not at all harmless, is on display there. You would be better occupied in staring at a tree then reading most of it.
It's almost the end of the year. Does anybody want to do 52 Things next year? I think we considered 52 Poems. I would be willing to do that. However: as I've said before in this context, if I say it's going to be 52 Things, I want it really to be 52. It will really bother me to miss a week. I know I can't count on other people delivering something every single week, so I have to be prepared to do it, and I'm finding that to be more of a distraction that I can really afford (my book is not going well at all). It shouldn't be, but I have trouble concentrating under the best conditions. So if we do something this year it will have to be something for which I can do a post without actually writing anything. Poems would work, as I could just copy-paste the poem into a post, or link to it, without necessarily writing any commentary beyond "Here's one I like."
If we should decide to do poems, I would have some specifications for how they're submitted to me. Nothing too complicated, but formatting poems for the web can be time-consuming, so I'd like to have them in a form where they can just be copied and pasted. Details if we decide to do it.
This picture was taken a few minutes before 11pm Friday night. I was on my way to Christ the King church in Daphne for my hour of Adoration. Yes, it was taken from the driver's seat of a car in motion. No, I should not have done it. But snow is so very, very rare here that I wanted to capture the image. It was really much thicker than this. I guess a lot of it just wasn't bright enough for the camera to catch.
I've been living in this general area since 1990, and I think this is only the third time that there's been enough snow to leave a visible accumulation, though only for a few hours. This is midnight at Christ the King.
One of the milder vexations of getting old is that I find my hands and feet, especially my feet, feeling cold at times when they would not have in the past. It seems disconcertingly old-man-like. It's especially noticeable when I spend several hours sitting at the computer, which I do almost every day. In summer I turn up the thermostat as soon as my wife, who is still going off to work every day, leaves the house, and let the temperature get into the upper 70s. In winter I sometimes bring a little electric space heater into my office, just like those women in offices whom I've teased for many years. All this annoys me, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it. The only good thing about it is that getting those feet and fingers warm when they're chilled feels pretty good.
This morning, for instance, it was a little cool--the outside temperature was 50-ish, not exactly cold, but there was a strong and chilly north wind. I went out to walk the dog wearing a light jacket over a t-shirt, and when we got out onto the beach where there's nothing to get in the way of the wind I was quickly cold enough to be uncomfortable, especially as I spent a few minutes dragging some newly-washed-up pieces of Hurricane Nate debris away from the water's edge, thus getting my hands wet and well-chilled.
Back at the house it was time to have a shower, and that warm water felt really good on my hands, and started me reflecting on what a luxury the hot shower is. I remember a conversation with my father some years ago when I was talking about people voluntarily giving up the conveniences of modern life in order to be more self-sufficient or environmentally conscious, or something--I don't remember exactly what the context was, but he remarked that "Not many people are not going to want to give up their hot shower."
Well, that's certainly true. I certainly don't. And this morning was one of those moments when I realize just how soft life is for most of us in the industrialized world compared to what it has been for most people in most times and places throughout human history. We take it for granted most of the time, and we tend to assume that what has now been invented and produced and widely distributed will remain available. Not all of us by any means: the post-apocalyptic return to pre-industrial conditions is a staple of fiction and film, and often the subject of very serious and dire warnings from environmentalists. We may deplore this or that aspect of technological civilization--I deplore a number of them, for instance the dominance of the automobile. But almost nobody wants to give it all up. And most of us most of the time don't anticipate that we--humanity at large if not ourselves--will lose it, that what we now regard as basic necessities will disappear.
That's partly because we don't really appreciate the expenditure of time, effort, intelligence, and labor that produced our material way of life, and, more importantly, sustains it. All over the world millions of people are doing millions of things that keep this whole machine operating. Now and then I run across some small business that makes a living by supplying some little thing or service--some type of fastener, maybe--that's a component of some bigger thing and that in the normal course of events no one apart from the people who provide it and the people who make the bigger thing ever give a second's thought to. And yet the bigger thing, and the bigger thing or things which depend on it, may be something which the rest of us expect to be there whenever we need it, and would be sorely missed if it didn't exist, which it wouldn't do without that little thing and many other little things.
A complex web of law and custom is an equally essential part of this apparatus. And so my train of thought about material progress soon switched toward the question of moral and spiritual progress, and to that "arc of history" which is "long, but bends toward justice" and is sometimes invoked as a guarantor that in the long run progress, as conceived by the person invoking the principle, will prevail. Maybe it will. Christians believe that it will, though the trajectory runs right out of the far end of history into another realm. But Christians have a pretty clear and definite explanation for this movement, and for its source. What's striking about many of those who seem to take it as an article of faith is that they don't seem to ask the obvious questions it raises. It's a faith, but a very vague one: toward what is it directed? What is it faith in? The Force? What? Those of us who have a more traditional faith and, after two thousand years, a very well-thought-out one, but which is frequently treated as irrational, are entitled to question this one; to interrogate it, as the post-modernists like to say.
To say that history has a moral arc implies that it is being directed by something or someone. Who or what is this? The direction must be conscious--surely no one can seriously maintain that matter and energy alone are imbued with moral convictions and the power to impose them. There is certainly no evidence anywhere outside of human affairs that life is cognizant of justice or aspires to it, much less that the concept of justice even has any meaning to the cosmos at large.
And what is that thing called "justice" anyway? Does it exist in some abstract but nevertheless objectively real sense? Is it an absolute and intrinsic good, and its opposite, injustice, an absolute and intrinsic wrong? If so, there is at least one moral absolute, and there may be others. But if not, if it is not an absolute, and can change, how can history be aiming for it?
The whole idea seems to point necessarily to a moral intelligence that guides, if not the entire cosmos, then at least human history. But my impression is that most of those who cite this inevitable direction of history don't inquire about its source. If you press them on how they know what justice is and why it's a good thing, they scoff and say that it's obviously good, and they don't need anyone to tell them that. And they don't see that the very fact that they hold that belief is in itself a very interesting phenomenon and one that does not, in fact, explain itself, at least not very satisfactorily. What is conscience? Why do we have one and where does it come from, and where does it get its principles? The answers are not obvious. If you don't want to dig for them, that's fine; not everyone is obliged to. But if you shrug off the questions you shouldn't strike a pose of intellectual superiority, and act as if you have the answers.
At any rate, I don't see that the moral structure of our civilization is any more necessary and inevitable and permanent than its material structure, and any less dependent on a complex web of small but significant things, in this case principles, and prejudices in favor of those principles. Contemporary developments pretty well confirm that, in fact. Christian writers have been saying for more than a hundred years that modern civilization is far more indebted to Christian and Judeo-Christian morality than it knows. Those who like the "arc of history" figure also tend to think that the progress it describes will include the abandonment of primitive delusions such as Christianity. It may, at least for some time, but if it does the arc may bend in a direction rather different from the one expected by contemporary progressives. Concern for the weak and vulnerable is hardly an historical constant.
The idea, by the way, seems to have originated with a New England Transcendentalist, Theodore Parker. That's fitting. Matthew Rose, writing at First Things, has an extensive and interesting piece on all this, "Our Secular Theodicy." Also by the way, on the question of moral progress, I lean toward C.S. Lewis's idea that good and evil progress simultaneously.
Well, once again I've gone on about one thing rather longer than I had intended, and now I don't have time to say much about the other thing I had meant to write about: Stranger Things 2. I'll just say that I have watched it, and I liked it. Neither my wife nor I could remember very much about the first series, so we watched it again before the new one. I liked it better this time, and as of now I'd say I like the first one a little better, but they're both good. The second one is more spectacular, has more and more disturbing monsters, and more gore. It's closer to being a horror film than the first, I think. What makes them both so engaging is the principal characters, most of all "the kids," the middle-school group who are the main characters, and some of the adult characters, especially Winona Ryder's portrayal of the slightly nutty but passionately devoted mother, and David Harbour as the sheriff. And in spite of all the terror and violence, there is an underlying sweetness about both series, with love playing a major role. That makes them very different from some other popular series, such as Breaking Bad, or the dark detective shows like The Killing.
I hereby open Janet's Undead Thread v3.0 for spoilers-allowed discussion of Stranger Things.