Philosophy Feed

Andrew Marvell and That Chariot

Douglas Murray, in his weekly poetry column at The Free Press, pays tribute to the most famous poem of Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress." (I was told long ago that his name is pronounced "marVELL," rhyming with "bell.")

I should say "deservedly famous." The poem is a standard anthology piece, and until yesterday I don't think I had read the whole thing since I was in college. But it occupies more space in my mind than that would suggest, partly because it occupies more space in literary culture. Eliot alluded to it in "The Waste Land":

But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors....

I can think of several other references, including a well-known poem by Archibald MacLeish, "You, Andrew Marvell."

And partly, in recent years, because I'm haunted by the couplet which Eliot is echoing:

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near....

As a friend of mine who's around my age said not long ago "Time's wingèd chariot is idling in my driveway."

It seems to be a well-known fact of psychology if not of physics that the velocity of time's passage increases in inverse proportion to its remaining quantity. Almost as big a mystery is this question: Knowing that time is passing more swiftly, and that I don't have all that much of it left, why--why why why?--do I continue to waste as much of it as I do? 


Ridiculous Headline of the Week

A Scientist Has Confirmed That Humans Have No Free Will

This was in Popular Mechanics; you can read the story here. To be fair to the magazine, the tone of the article hints that the writer doesn't take the "findings" of the scientist altogether seriously. And he gives the last word to another scientist who contradicts the first.

But how many people would take it seriously? Science says so! Not surprisingly, the scientist utterly contradicts himself by recommending ways that we should, but may not, choose to think, and actions that we should, but may not, choose to take in response to his conclusion--even to the point of asserting that certain things are good, in some presumably absolute sense, and that we should therefore choose them.

It would be hard to come up with a better example of the absurdity of asserting the findings of physical science as metaphysical truths. 

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I may actually start doing this every week. I use the Brave web browser, which includes a news feed that gives me headlines and links to a great range of publications. I can cull out anything I know I'm not interested in, but a fair number of strange, irritating, or ridiculous things still appear. 


A Bit More About Those Two Movies

I don't know what I thought the actual content of a Barbie movie might be. Well, that's a little misleading right off the bat, because I didn't think about it at all. If I had, I suppose I would have expected a sort of Barbie cartoon, with a negligible story, no more substantial than an episode of The Smurfs. And that the feminists and other media women writing about it were just using the movie as an occasion to muse, positively or negatively, about the significance of the famous doll, musings that would have about as much substance as the little mannequin itself. 

But then I started coming across commentaries from serious-minded women who were finding some significance in the movie. Clearly there's more to it than just a lot of glib pop culture fluff and/or feminist cliches. I linked to several of these in comments on the previous post, but they deserve more attention than that, so here are links and a few quotes.

From Amy Welborn at Catholic World Report:

What emerges is that the actual world of actual women is difficult. The hints begin when Stereotypical Barbie—[played by Margot] Robbie—begins to experience limits and flaws, culminating in a startling admission that she’s starting to think about…dying. Off she goes, guided by the advice from Weird Barbie (the one whose chopped hair and markered-up face points to other ways Barbies are played with)—that she must find the girl who plays with her, whose angst is clearly filtering down into her up-to-now light-filled life....

Barbie might have begun her life inspiring little girls to reject real life and their unique way of being in the world, but at the end of this part of the journey, Barbie embraces that same way of being, of womanhood that is definitely not plastic, definitely not smooth and definitely not without mystery and pain—and embraces it with joy.

From Nina Power at Compact:

Gerwig’s Barbie points instead to a dialectical exit: Women can be mothers or not; they can take up any number of roles, or none; they can conform to femininity or look weird. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. But there are limits: We are past the moment of the free-floating signifier, of womanhood as a mere “identity.” The doll is born into suffering. To have a male or female body is to suffer and feel in different ways: We forget this if we reduce each other to mere signs. To be human is also to have to choose—an existential Barbie can hide this possibility from herself for a while, but facing every maiden is death, behind every Barbie, an Oppenheimer.

From Helen Andrews at The American Conservative:

Barbie is a symbol of youth, beauty, and possibility. She can be anything, and everyone is drawn to her. But it’s all meaningless because the reason she’s so beautiful and perfect is that nothing has ever happened to Barbie. All the meaning in life comes from the things that give you wrinkles.

When she comes to the real world, Barbie finds herself on a bench at a bus stop next to a grandmotherly looking old lady. She has never seen an elderly woman before. No one ages in Barbie Land. Barbie gazes at her face and says, “You’re so beautiful.” The woman smiles and says, “I know it.”

According to Gerwig, studio executives wanted her to cut the scene, because it doesn’t move the plot along. She told them, “If I cut the scene, I don’t know what this movie is about.”

I like the last line of that first paragraph.

From Carmel Richardson, also at The American Conservative:

The world [Barbie creator Ruth] Handler envisioned is, in many ways, the world we live in today. Like Barbie, American women have achieved high-level career success, especially in higher education, where their performance has notably surpassed that of American men. Like Barbie, American girls from a very young age have learned to flaunt their bodies and to call this empowerment. And like Barbie, Ken is only an accessory to female success today....

Unfortunately for those women who have followed the Barbie model, many now find themselves childless and unsatisfied. Emasculated men, apparently, don’t father many children.

Apart from commentary on the movie itself, these remarks revealed to me that I had a completely mistaken idea about how the Barbie doll came to be and what it meant. I had always assumed that it was the creation of a man or men. That was mainly because of the ridiculous and anatomically impossible (I think) physique. I imagined a male thought process something like Babies are boring. Let's make a sexy doll. And give her fun things to do. And I was always a little bit surprised that women put up with it--the sexy part, at least. 

Wrong. Well, that description of the thought process is more or less accurate, but Barbie was the creation of a woman, a proto-feminist and a pretty hard-headed businesswoman who wanted her daughter Barbie to have a doll that would give her aspirations to a more exciting life than that of a mother and homemaker. Now the whole Barbie phenomenon--the doll, not the movie--makes sense in a way that it didn't before. Especially the role played by very consciously and skillfully contrived marketing. (The physique of the doll, however, did begin in the imagination of a man: it was suggested by a sex doll.) 

Another thing I've learned over the past few days is how much my wife hates Barbie. I knew she had never played with or wanted a Barbie doll when she was little, but I had not realized that the feeling went far beyond indifference. Every time I've brought this movie up to her with remarks along the lines of what I've posted here--"You know, actually this movie sounds kind of interesting"--the response has been brief: "I hate Barbie." And that's pretty much that. 

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About Oppenheimer: not surprisingly, it has kicked off a new round of arguments about the morality of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or rather, as far as what I've seen is concerned, a new round of justifications for it. Oppenheimer developed grave reservations about what he had done, and I gather the movie is sympathetic to those reservations. Moreover, he and many others with similar reservations were leftists, which tends to make those on the right suspicious and skeptical toward their ethical arguments. 

At any rate, whenever the question comes up, American conservatives can be counted on to defend the morality of the bombing. A post by Rich Lowry at National Review, occasioned by the film, is pretty typical. The headline:  

Oppenheimer Had Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

The subhead:

Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right call. 

There's no need to go into detail about the text. It's the justification that's always used: that the use of the bomb was necessary to end the war and in fact saved millions of lives. That's a reasonable argument, and if I'd been in Truman's place I might have done the same thing. (As is also usual, Lowry notes that the atomic bomb was really no worse than the fire bombing of cities--which is probably true, but is a bizarre line of reasoning: "It's ok that we killed these civilians, because we had already killed those other ones.")

What it doesn't address, though, is the moral principle, if formulated in an elemental way, without reference to the particular situation: is it morally permissible to deliberately kill innocent people? 

If the answer to that is yes, then it's a pragmatic, utilitarian matter. It's purely a cost-benefit analysis. X people will die if we do this. X+Y people will die if we don't. Therefore we do it.

If the answer is no, then the bombings were objectively wrong, however powerful the reasons for resorting to them were. 

What most conservatives, including most of those who oppose abortion, don't see is that if the answer is yes, then there is no argument against abortion (and many other things) in principle

In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the practical calculation is very powerful, and I don't see any reason to doubt that it's correct as far as the number of casualties and the general horror are concerned. I don't dismiss it. Under the right threat we would probably all accede to things that we know to be wrong. But when, in the cold light of day, we say that it is, in principle, permissible to deliberately kill the innocent, we make a grave error. There's no good excuse for Catholics to make that mistake, because the Catechism is perfectly clear:

"Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation." A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes. (2314)

I wrote about this at more length back in 2005: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Purification of Memory. One of my better efforts, I think, and one that I considered worth including in my book.

Ivan to Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov:

“Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”

“No, I would not agree,” Alyosha said softly.


A Couple of Questions I'm Not Interested in Discussing (Anymore)

Some years back there was, in the comments here, an exchange about the tendency of political and other opinions to harden in older people. If I remember correctly, one person suggested that this was essentially a sort of ossification, with certain opinions becoming so much a mental habit as to become an unchangeable part of the person. There may also have been an implication that it was a form of fatigue or laziness; I can't remember for sure and have not been able to formulate a query that will locate the exchange for me.

But I do remember thinking--I don't know whether I said--that the mechanism is a little different. A few years before he died, when he was getting too old and infirm to sail, as he had loved to do for most of his life, William F. Buckley, Jr. published a column in which he mentioned that he had at last sold his boat, giving it up as "a prelude to giving up everything." (I put that in quotation marks because I remember the words that way, but I could be mistaken. I'm pretty sure I'm not mistaken about the meaning.)

Old age is among other things a process of giving up, willingly or not; of letting go. That, I think, is a factor in the way this  narrowing of opinion happens. You simply recognize that the limits on your remaining time and abilities force you to abandon certain things that you had once done, or wanted to do. And it applies to thought as well as to activity. Perhaps you once had enough interest in the debate about health care, insurance, and so forth to formulate and publish an opinion about it. At a certain age you may, possibly without consciously deciding to do so, put that question among those on which you no longer want to expend your time as the remaining amount of it diminishes. That opinion thus becomes "hardened," not so much because you are obstinate and ossifying but because you no longer devote mental space to it. It's like moving to a smaller house or an apartment: you no longer need or want or perhaps even are able to use and maintain the larger one. 

Here are two matters which have for me passed into that stage of abandonment:

(1) What is conservatism? And its ancillary, what does it mean to be a conservative?

Attempting to define words that are intrinsically--by definition, you might say--impossible to define with great precision can be an enjoyable pastime, and in some instances useful. Discussing these questions can lead to a clarification of one's thinking. But sometimes it's a waste of time. And in this particular case there is, lurking behind the debate, an attempt to draw a boundary which allows one to say "So-and-so is not a real conservative" or "Such-and-such is not real conservatism." Often the word "real" is dropped. A standard of orthodoxy is erected, and some attempt at enforcing it is made. 

On this subject the debate is made even more frustrating by the fact that in this country "conservatism" is usually classical liberalism. Trying to sort it out is tiresome. I've never cared very much about doing it, and now I don't care at all.

Someone once raised his main objection to the whole debate by noting that, for him, the word "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. Exactly. I'm willing to call myself, and be called, a conservative, because the word seems reasonably accurate, both abstractly and practically, as a description of my views. But debating the nature of True Conservatism? In the early days of that recognition I was mildly interested in debates about the definition. By now I think I've heard it all, and I don't care if someone says I'm not a True Conservative. (I especially don't care about the juvenile taunt from progressives who think they've won a victory when you say something that doesn't fit their idea, usually equally juvenile, of what conservatives think.)

And now it's almost crazy to have the debate at all, with the institutions that conservatives wanted to preserve being dominated by progressives who use them to destroy the principles behind them, to keep the name and facade while turning the institution into something else entirely. (Another debate in which I am rapidly losing interest: whether or not that is happening. If you don't see it, it's very unlikely that you can be persuaded to do so.)

(2) What is Catholic art? And the ancillary, what does it mean to be a Catholic artist?

This one's been abandoned for different reasons, almost the opposite reasons, from the previous one. In this case the question is not intrinsically forever unsettled, but pretty definitely settled, and the debate can only go back and forth repetitively over the same ground. Maritain, O'Connor, Percy, and many others have said what needs to be said: Catholic art is informed by Catholic belief but need not and in general should not be didactic. If you want to discuss that further, go ahead, but I'm going to go read or listen to music. 

This crochety post was prompted by an encounter with that second question. Frequently it's accompanied or prompted by a complaint that "There is no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today" or, in question form, "Why is there no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today?" 

Simon Caldwell discussed the matter at The Catholic Herald:

And in the secular culture the Catholic Faith is once again a source of scandal, viewed, in the words of Dana Gioia, the American Catholic poet, as disreputable, déclassé and retrograde. It means that it is nearly impossible today to get a “Catholic” novel published. Mainstream publishers are not well-disposed to books with religious content.

What makes a novel “Catholic”? 

I wanted to stop reading at that point, and in fact only skimmed the rest. I agree with almost everything he says in answer to his question. But do we really need to go over it yet again? Maybe some do, but I don't. And by the way his "nearly impossible" is not true. There is surely prejudice (and more) against visibly Catholic writing in secular literary circles. But if the work is really good it has as much of a shot at publication as anything else of comparable quality. I put it that way because it's surely the case that bad or mediocre work that flatters progressives and pushes their ideas is more likely to be published than bad or mediocre work that pushes Catholic ideas. So write better, Catholic novelist.

In response to Caldwell, Katy Carl, novelist and editor of Dappled Things, wrote an exasperated response, "We still have no Catholic fiction?":

Our time is precious and tragically brief, so I will get straight to the point. The point is that I want ever so gently to suggest, in response to a recent Catholic Herald (UK) piece, that “the time for the 21st-Century Catholic novel” has not only arrived, it dropped its luggage on our metaphorical doorstep a good round number of years ago and has ever since been crashing on our collective couch. It’s time we all noticed. Maybe it would be cool if we brought it a cup of coffee or something.

Last time the Herald got worried about the state of Catholic fiction—a bit less than three years ago, now—I was invited to participate in a response piece that pointed to the actual, vibrant, flourishing state of Catholic contributions to the culture of arts and letters. Since then the picture on the ground has only grown lusher. The truth is that we are living in an explosion of high-quality Catholic fiction being produced in every quarter, by writers from around the world and around the corner.

She goes on to list a number of recent distinctly Catholic works of literature, mostly novels, some published by big-name publishers and pretty well-received. She's right. In this case it's not age, but relative youth, that should leave the debate behind. The time for fretting about the nature of Catholic literature and its current prospects is past. Time to just get on with it. 


Ronald Blythe: Akenfield

Akenfield, subtitled Portrait of an English Village, is a book I've wanted to read for thirty years or more, and have finally done so. I first heard of it in the old Common Reader catalog, a treasure killed or at least assisted toward death, I assume, by the Internet. The catalog was published by and for book lovers, and was itself an excellent read. (I first heard of Alice Thomas Ellis there as well.) I fear too many of its readers were like me, reading the catalog avidly but not ordering from it very often. In my defense, I had much less free cash in those days.

Ronald Blythe was the subject of one of the first entries in the 52 Authors series here: Week 9. Akenfield is a famous book, but I'm not sure it's Blythe's most famous. That might be Word from Wormingford, one of several collections of weekly columns he wrote for the Church of England's Church Times. (I'm just guessing about that, on the basis of which books I've seen discussed.)

I don't recall ever having heard the term "oral history" before some time in the 1970s, but the thing certainly existed, and Akenfield, which was published in 1969, is a prime example. It is in a sense slightly misleading to call Blythe its author, because most of it is the transcribed voices of the people who live in Akenfield, a pseudonym for the village in which Blythe lived.

All the facts about the economy, the population, and social life of Akenfield are drawn from a village in East Suffolk; only the names of the village and the villagers have been changed.

Blythe, then, was not a journalist who dropped in to inspect colorful rural life and went back to the city or the suburbs to write about it. He was writing about a place and people he knew intimately (though that is perhaps not the right term for his relationship with some of the very reticent people). He was in his forties in 1967 when he decided that the changing culture of the village was worth documenting--what it was changing from, what it was changing to. The former, as has been the case for more than a century now, was fast passing out of living memory, with whole trades, such as thatcher, and the knowledge and skills involved in them ceasing to exist. So he talked to, or rather listened to, dozens of people, from the elderly to teenagers, to assemble this absolutely fascinating picture of a place and a culture. His introductory commentaries on the interviews are a pleasure in themselves, rich in both perception and quality of writing. 

I wonder how many of us mentally prefix the word "quaint," or at least some unarticulated sense of that idea, to the phrase "English village." I've begun to have a grudge against the word. I hear people apply it to any place or structure that doesn't look like it was newly erected in and for suburban sprawl. By now the word is not all that far removed from "cute." It's usually, among other things, patronizing, with suggestions that the thing so described is somehow removed from "the real world."

I can imagine someone approaching this book and thinking, if not in so many words, that he is about to view a picture of something quaint. Picturesque. Charming. And so forth. Well, it may in some ways merit those terms, but not in any sense akin to that of another that sometimes goes along with them: idyllic. There was nothing idyllic about the agricultural life which was still, in 1967, the foundation of Akenfield and which not so long before had been more or less the entirety of it. It was a hard life in its nature, and was often made much harder by injustice, by landowners who held more or less life and death power over farm workers, literally working men to death at times in a condition of near-slavery. The first section of the book is called "Survivors." Here is the first voice, a seventy-one-year-old farm worker describing the situation ca. 1910:

It must seem that there was war between farmers and men in those days. I think there was, particularly in Suffolk. These employers were famous for their meanness. They took all they could from the men and boys who worked their land. They bought their life's strength for as little as they could. They wore us out without a thought because, with the big families, there was a continuous supply of labour. 

Neither Blythe's villagers, nor Blythe himself when he introduces their commentaries, shies away from these dark things. The very long hours of very hard labor were rewarded with bare-subsistence poverty. There was vast ignorance, there was stifling insularity. And there was often a great and quite understandable eagerness to escape the village which seemed defined by those things. 

I'm over-emphasizing the negatives here, in an effort to knock away any expectation that the book is anything less than clear-eyed and hard-headed about rural English life between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, that it is in the least sentimental. But that is far from the whole story. For all the hardship described, there is in fact a great deal of charm in the picture, the deep charm of stable and deeply-rooted human ways. And what comes through in one interview after another is that most of these people are or were in touch with reality, especially the reality of the human connection to the earth, in a way that few of us are now, especially younger people. And it gives them an elemental wisdom hard to find and maintain in the whirlwind of distraction that is contemporary culture.

Akenfield is not explicitly philosophical at all. There is hardly a trace of abstraction in it, but nevertheless it forces one to think about what it means to be human, and whether our luxurious culture makes us less so. How is it that the life depicted here seems to have a depth that can't be found, or at least is hard to find, in a world of advertising and sensational entertainments, that in fact seems to be mocked by them?

Flight from the real is now the single most striking feature, the most ardently pursued goal, of life in our culture, at least for certain prominent and often dominant elements of it. There seems to be a fair number of smart people--"smart" in the sense that they would score well on an intelligence test--who believe that it's possible and desirable to escape entirely from the physical by some technological means. I don't think it's at all unfair to call this insane, even if we set aside the fact that what goes on inside a computer is as physical as what goes on at a construction site. The invisibility of the electronic allows these same smart people to believe that it's something different, something disembodied, more like the mental.

Suppose it were. Suppose it were possible and desirable to live a purely mental existence. Suppose even that it could be supported by technology. We have no technology which is not directly dependent on machinery, whether mechanical or electronic, which in turn had to begin with the stuff of the earth and with physical labor, and which could not continue functioning for very long without physical maintenance. There is no path, even in theory, by which we can sever this dependence. I doubt that anyone interviewed for this book would entertain that sort of delusion for a moment. Maybe "sanity" is the most important idea here, the most essential of the things of which it reminds us.

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This very nice 2015 edition, published by New York Review Books, includes an insightful introduction by Matt Weiland which mentions a 2004 sort-of-sequel, Return to Akenfield, by Craig Taylor, in which he visits the village and interviews as many of the people from Blythe's book as he could find. It's probably interesting, at least, and maybe very good in its own right. But somehow I don't really want to read it. 


Nietzsche, The Atheist Who Didn't Flinch

...the Enlightenment effectively tore out the foundations from under the polite bourgeois morality that it wished to maintain. You cannot do this, says Nietzsche. You have unchained the earth from the sun, a move of incalculable significance. By doing so, you have taken away any basis for a metaphysics that might ground either knowledge or ethics.... The cheerful and chipper atheism of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett is not for Nietzsche because it fails to see the radical consequences of its rejection of God. To hope that, say evolution will make us moral would be to assume a meaning and order to nature that can only really be justified on a prior metaphysical basis that itself transcends nature, or simply to declare by fiat and with no objective justification that certain things we like or of which we approve are intrinsically good. 

--Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

I haven't finished this book yet, and will probably have more to say about it. But it's actually better than I expected--not that I didn't expect it to be good, but it's both wider and deeper than I thought it would be. 


Eleanor Morton Is Funny

Much of the time, anyway. She is a Scottish comedian whom I stumbled across on YouTube while looking for something else. I've watched a dozen or so of her videos and many of them made me laugh. So that makes her a successful comedian in my book. She can do English and American accents very convincingly. Here's an American:

And here's an English:

But I do love the Scottish accent, presumably her native one, especially in women. So for me the best skits are the tours of various establishments guided by the listless, bored, and frankly somewhat hostile Craig. Here he is showing you around a distillery:

"Comedy" is not among my available categories for blog posts. I could create it, but this is probably just a one-time lapse. I'll just tag it as philosophy.


Abigail Rine Favale: Into the Deep

I do not know how to pronounce the author's last name,  and for that matter am not entirely certain about her middle name. This bothered me a bit every time I picked up the book, and is, obviously, bothering me a little right now. But it didn't prevent me from reading, enjoying, and admiring the book.

Subtitled "An Unlikely Catholic Conversion," this is the memoir of a young woman (now middle-aged, I guess) who grew up in a conservative evangelical family and subculture, partly rejected and partly drifted away from it in favor of academic feminism, and in time found her way to the Catholic Church.

That is an unusual but in its broad outline not exactly unheard-of story. Conversion stories in general are hardly rare, even conversion of many initially quite hostile to the faith; the propagation of the gospel begins with them. But they are all by nature somewhat similar, and are not necessarily of great interest to anyone except the convert and those who know him, including especially God. 

I had a personal reason for reading this one. I have my own unpublished, probably never-to-be-published, memoir, and a few years ago I queried a certain Catholic publisher about it. The editor replied courteously that although they have published conversion memoirs, they did not sell very well and he doesn't expect to publish any more such. Since then I've read a few that have managed to get into print in recent years and to get at least some attention from at least the Catholic press. I wanted to see what made them worthy of note.

Into the Deep is the most recent of these (most recently read, I mean, not published), and the best. That's not because it's necessarily the most intrinsically interesting story, but because it's told so well. It's quite well-written in the micro sense that the prose is well-crafted, and in the macro sense that the narrative is vivid and brings home a real sense of the author's experience. And also because her specific struggle involves matters that are very much part of our current cultural malaise: the nature and meaning of the sexes, the role of women in the world and in the Church, especially the confrontation of feminism and the Church. 

Back in the 1970s, when feminism--what I have since learned is known as second-wave feminism--was at its height, I was mildly intrigued by it and sympathetic to it. I thought then, and still think, that women in general are pretty wonderful, and that in many ways they get a bad deal. But I don't think I have many illusions about them, and I couldn't help being skeptical of what seemed to be one of feminism's assumptions: that apart from the obvious physical things there is no significant difference between the sexes. That this was false, I thought, should be obvious to anyone who looked at actual men and women. And I thought it would be a good thing if a feminist thinker would explore those differences deeply rather than try to dismiss or erase them. 

I didn't continue paying much attention for very long. The basic feminist doctrine seemed to be twofold: (1) men and women are exactly the same, except for those ways in which women are superior; (2) men and women should be treated in exactly the same way, expect for situations where it is to the advantage of women to be treated differently. This only caused me to be amused by the way feminism confirmed the stereotype of women as illogical. It certainly didn't help my perception that feminism was (and still is) zealous in political causes, most notably advocacy of abortion, that were at the time beginning to strike me as destructive. (I long ago moved past any ambivalence about their destructiveness.)

Well, here is a feminist, or at least former feminist, who has done the exploration which I had hoped to see. And it has led her precisely into the deep, into the profundity of sexual significance. Here was an important turning point:

Most of the time life moves at such a crawl that we remain blind to its constant change, but there are some experiences, like becoming a parent, that strike like lightning and, in just a flash, we are utterly altered.

This is what happened to me. When I first became pregnant, I was comfortable settled into my own unique brand of postmodern, feminist Christianity. I remember lounging on the couch amidst waves of nausea, watching news coverage of the controversial contraception mandate, rolling my eyes in anger and disgust at those regressive Catholic priests in their prim white collars, telling women what to do with their bodies.

Yet almost exactly two years later, I would be standing before such a priest at the Easter Vigil Mass, publicly confessing my desire to be received into the largest, oldest male-helmed institution in the world, the Roman Catholic Church.

Motherhood broke me open.

That breaking-open is of course among other things quite literally physical: a sensation and an experience that men can never know. The moment occurs less than one-third of the way through the book, so there is a great deal of road left to travel from here, and a great deal of reflection. There's a nice balance of the narrative and the abstract--of, to adapt the famous feminist catch-phrase, the personal and the theological. I recommend it both as a conversion memoir, and for that matter a memoir, period--I enjoyed the recounting of her early life--and as a venture into the rich topic of Catholicism and gender. 

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I'm not keen on this cover. Apart from the fact that it's not especially appealing as a graphic, it suggests to me not conversion but a woman falling in love with a priest.

The venture continues with her new book, The Genesis of Gender, "a crash course of sorts, an insider’s look at the implicit worldview of gender theory, so people are better able to recognize the underlying claims that are being made." Here is an interview at Catholic World Report in which she discusses it.  Also at Catholic World Report, she demonstrates that she has by no means compromised her objections to some notions of feminine submission to male authoritarianism: she excoriates a book called Ask Your Husband, which seems to be an unwitting confirmation of secular feminism's view of Catholic thinking on this subject.

It seems to me that the current crisis in which enlightened opinion is no longer willing to say that a woman is an adult female human being is a fairly natural development from certain aspects of feminist thought. To their credit some feminists are willing to oppose it, which is hardly the first time that ideological revolutionaries have been horrified by some of the conclusions, theoretical and practical, drawn from their premises. It's going to be a long time before we settle down, culturally, but in the meantime Abigail Favale and others are doing very valuable work toward clearing up the very clouded waters.


Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 


Happy New Year

You'll notice that there's no cheery exclamation mark after that title. I bring you this appropriate counsel from St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373):

God has determined the measure of man’s life, and the days divide this appointed measure into parts. Each day imperceptibly takes its part away from your life and each hour unrestrainedly runs along its course with its little share. The days destroy your life, the hours subvert its edifice, and you rush to your end, for you are but a vapor.

The days and hours, like thieves and robbers, rob and steal from you. The thread of your life is gradually torn and shortened. The days deliver your life up to burial, the hours lay it in the grave, and together with the days and the hours does your life on earth disappear.

I hope to make good use of some large part of the days and hours that will make up the coming year. That's as far as I'll go toward a New Year's resolution. And I wish you success in the same endeavor.

This and a good deal more from St. Ephrem was quoted in a weekly email from the editor(s) of Touchstone. You can sign up for it here

 


"Of all deceivers...

"...fear most yourself."

      --Kierkegaard

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? 

Kierkegaard-Provocations

Here's a link to the publisher's description. And by the way it doesn't seem to be available from Eighth Day anymore. 


Re-reading The Moviegoer

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. 


The Rise of Skywalker

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:

 


Written In Sand

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.

This message was well above the waterline, but would have been blown away, or mostly blown away, by now, as we've had some windy days since then. WrittenInSand


The Funniest Monty Python Bit (?)

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. 


Atlas Shrugged Revisited

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:

Ayn Rand, Crank

A Few More Notes on Ayn Rand

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. 

WhoIsJohnGaltA guy who really likes the sound of his own voice, for one thing.


Three Philosophers Discuss Hope

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). 

 


Sunday Night Journal, December 10, 2017

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

SnowWhileDriving

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.

SnowAtChristTheKing


Sunday Night Journal, November 19, 2017

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. 

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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.

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SunBehindTree


Two Posts Worth Reading (not mine)

Possibly most people who read this blog also read these other two, but just in case:

Craig Burrell describes his initial investigation of Heidegger

As part of Janet Cupo's 52 Saints series, Grumpy writes about St. Bonaventure

I have to face the fact that though I'm pretty interested in theology and philosophy, I'm never going to become very knowledgeable about them. It has a lot to do with being 67 years old. Supposing I live another ten years or more, I could possibly read a lot on these topics, but only at the cost of giving up some of my other interests, and I have to choose. So overviews like these are of great interest to me. I have some notion, for instance, of what Aquinas is all about, but Bonaventure was not much more than a name to me.

Oh, and while I'm at it: here's an interesting news story about a couple of cosmologists who seem to think that life is based on information...or something...I don't think I understand just what they're saying, but the story is interesting for what it reveals about the way cosmology seems (inevitably?) to walk up to and sometimes cross the boundary between physical science and philosophy-theology. I was amused by this:

Self-awareness, he said, is not an obvious product of the electrical activity inside your head.

Indeed. In fact I'd say the idea that it is so is a sheer act of materialistic faith. And:

For many in the physics and astrophysics games, however, even the simplest suggestion that hard science can't ultimately account for the entire universe and everything in it – alive or not – sets off warning bells.

I'd say that fact is itself a sort of warning bell--a warning that there's more going on there than disinterested inquiry.