Thursday, October 30, 2014

Horror Poetry IV: Anne Bushby, "The Werewolf"

The Werewolf
by Anne S. Bushby

'Twas at the middle hour of night;
And though the moon gave her pale light,
O'er the haunted wood a thick mist hung
And the wind was howling its leaves among.
In a cart along that way so wild
A peasant was driving his wife and child.

"For the fairy folks thou need'st fear not,
They dance 'neath the moon on yon green spot.
Should the screech-owl cry from yonder marsh
Say a prayer, nor heed its voice so harsh.
Whate'er thou seest, be not afraid,
But clasp the child," the faither said.

"Forward, old horse! Behind yon tree
Our church's steeple I can see.
Get on! But hold, a moment stop--
The linch-pin is about to drop;
'Tis crack'd--I'll cut a stick, my dear;
Hold fast the child, and have no fear!"

An hour alone she might have sat,
When a noise she heard--"Oh, what is that?"
Lo! a coal-black hound! She sees and knows
The werewolf! while his teeth he shows,
And glares upon her child, she flings
Her apron o'er it as he springs.

His sharp teeth bite it; but she cries
To God for help, away he flies.
Her arms the helpless babe enfold,
She sits like a statue, pale and cold.
But soon her husband's by her side,
And onwards now they safely ride.

Arrived at home, a light is brought;
She starts, as with some horrid thought:
"What? Husband! husband! can these be
Threads hanging from thy teeth I see?
Thou art thyself a werewolf then!"
"Thy words," he said, "have set me free again!"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Scouting Troubles

CBS has an interesting discussion of the Girl Scouts (GSUSA):

For the second straight year, youth and adult membership in the Girl Scouts has dropped sharply, intensifying pressure on the 102-year-old youth organization to find ways of reversing the trend.

According to figures provided to The Associated Press, the total of youth members and adult volunteers dropped by 6 percent over the past year -- from 2,994,844 to 2,813,997. Over two years, total membership is down 11.6 percent, and it has fallen 27 percent from a peak of more than 3.8 million in 2003.

Scouting in general is in some difficulty; every major Scouting organization has been subject to some kind of politically motivated attack recently. The Girl Scouts are facing some especially serious problems, however; there's a lot of internal criticism of how the organization has been run in recent years.

The temptation is always to compare the Girl Scouts to the Boy Scouts; but the GSUSA and the BSA are, and have always been, radically different kinds of organizations. As I've mentioned before, they are rival organizations, not sister organizations; the sister organization to the Boys Scouts is Camp Fire, the always-forgotten third member of the Big Three of American Scouting. The GSUSA was the only Scouting organization that the Boy Scouts weren't able to eliminate in the Scouting Wars, the period in which the Boy Scouts actively applied litigation and political pressure to make themselves and Camp Fire the American Scouting organizations. (They did so in a typical GSUSA move, by playing politics: they got First Ladies to be presidents, thus making it impossible for the BSA to attack them directly.) And while those hostilities are arguably long past, the visions of Scouting in the organization have always been considerably different. One of the changes the GSUSA has made over the past ten years or so is de-emphasizing the outdoor aspect of the organization; they have discovered in the intense aftermath that a significant number of Girl Scouts do, in fact, think that putting outdoor activities front and center is an important aspect of Girl Scouts, and that any changes should incorporate, rather than replace this aspect of the organization. But it is simply not possible to imagine the Boy Scouts of America ever doing anything similar -- not only is it counter to the ethos, the BSA doesn't have the strongly centralized structure of the GSUSA, so organization would not be able to do much in that direction.

It will be interesting to see how it all goes. The GSUSA (unlike the BSA) is an organization that moves very quickly. But being swift at adapting is useless unless you can find the solution that is actually adaptive.

Horror Poetry III: Edgar Allan Poe, "The Haunted Palace"

The Haunted Palace
by Edgar Allan Poe

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow,
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago),
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.

Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
To a lute's well-tunëd law,
Bound about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn!—for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate !)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Horror Poetry II: John Donne, "The Apparition"

The Apparition
by John Donne

When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir’d before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.

Travails of a New Author

This little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication. It was disposed of to a bookseller, it was even advertised, and why the business proceeded no farther, the author has never been able to learn. That any bookseller should think it worth-while to purchase what he did not think it worth-while to publish seems extraordinary. But with this, neither the author nor the public have any other concern than as some observation is necessary upon those parts of the work which thirteen years have made comparatively obsolete. The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.

Jane Austen, in the Advertisement to Northanger Abbey. She was only able actually to publish the book because the publisher sold it back to her in 1816.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Horror Poetry I: Clark Ashton Smith, "The Eldritch Dark"

The Eldritch Dark
by Clark Ashton Smith

Now as the twilight's doubtful interval
Closes with night's accomplished certainty,
A wizard wind goes crying eerily,
And on the wold misshapen shadows crawl,
Miming the trees, whose voices climb and fall,
Imploring, in Sabbatic ecstacy,
The sky where vapor-mounted phantoms flee
From the scythed moon impendent over all.

Twin veils of covering cloud and silence, thrown
Across the movement and the sound of things,
Make blank the night, till in the broken west
The moon's ensanguined blade awhile is shown....
The night grows whole again....The shadows rest,
Gathered beneath a greater shadow's wings.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fortnightly Book, October 26

The fortnightly book this time around is actually a double-billing, since I'll be reading two classics of dystopian science fiction, both of which are by Russian authors, and both of which are structured as prose poems attacking collectivism: Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and Ayn Rand's Anthem.

Yevgeny Zamyatin was born in 1884 in Lebedyan, a couple hundred miles south of Moscow. After studying naval engineering, he joined the Bolsheviks, and spent some time under arrest and in exile during this period of his life. He also spent some time in England building icebreaking ships -- in fact, he was a Bolshevik who missed the Bolshevik revolution entirely. Returning to Russia in 1917, he started publishing works, but quickly became disillusioned with the increasingly intrusive censorship exercised by the new regime. By 1921 he had written We, which was banned. He smuggled copies out and the first English edition was published in 1924. This sort of activity got him blacklisted, and in 1931, he actually wrote Stalin directly, asking to be given permission to emigrate; Stalin gave him permission. Zamyatin settled in Paris, where he died in poverty in 1937.

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905 in Saint Petersburg to a secular Jewish family. The Bolshevik revolution forced the family to flee to Crimea, although they eventually did return to the newly named Petrograd, where they struggled to get by. She was granted a visa in 1925 to visit American relatives, and arrived the next year, never going back. She eventually made her way to Hollywood, where she worked in various capacities in the film industry, met her husband, Frank O'Connor, and became an American citizen in 1931. Anthem was written while Rand was also writing The Fountainhead, and an English edition was published in 1938, but it was not published in an American edition, considerably revised from the English one, until 1946. (The edition I have has both the final edition as well as a copy of the original edition marked up with Rand's extensive revisions.) She died of heart failure in 1982 in New York City.

The two works have quite a few similarities, but also quite a few differences. It is possible that We was an influence on Anthem, but it is also possible that many of their similarities may actually be due to shared background and intent. (And it is worth noting that Aldous Huxley always insisted that his Brave New World, which also shares quite a few similarities with We, was entirely independent of it.)

A song based on Rand's novella:

Rush, "Anthem". Lyrics here.

A Poem Re-Draft

Abyss and Sea

The thunder shatters air and will, the rain is cold, the lightning fierce.
The world is battered, broken, upside-down; its heart is deeply pierced;
and all our hope beneath the wave is sinking now, beyond our reach.
Not wealth nor strength nor lore can move the lands to rise; they, shattered each,
are crushed beneath the heavy sea, and nevermore will they return.
Yet I recall the shining streets, the lamps that seemed like stars to burn,
and I remember meadows, fields, and mountains like a summer dream
surrounding cities bright with lights that like the snow in sunlight gleamed.

On sandy shores we once would walk and feel the salty, sea-sent breeze,
but nevermore shall footsteps grace that sand; the roaring, angry seas
have seized it all in chilling grasp and nothing free of flood remains
save fragments made of memories, their razor edges trimmed with pain.
And I recall the winter snows on little houses, trim and neat,
where children played with shouting voices, endless games, and nimble feet,
but where are they? They too are gone. The earth and sea will spare no soul.
They spared not me, for what they left to sigh and grieve is not the whole.

The storm is pounding; not a sound can break its roaring, rumbling wall,
but still inside I hear the songs that honeyed voices used to call
beneath the dewy apple trees in autumn days, cool, crisp, and clear.
The trees are driftwood-dead and lost; the songs are dim in yesteryear,
but I can feel the ache inside, and I can feel that they once grew,
and I can feel the loss of glories past that you and I once knew.
But harsher still the tearing pain, suspended doubting, cold as stone,
not knowing where you are: Are you alive? Or am I now alone?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Burden of Proof

Bill Vallicella has a nice post on burden of proof:

Now we come to my tentative suggestion. There is no fact of the matter as to where the BOP lies in any dialectical context, legal, philosophical or any other: it is a matter of decision and agreement upon what has been conventionally decided. In chess, for example, the rules had to be decided and the players have to agree to accept them. No one thinks that these rules are inscribed in rerum natura. The same goes for BOP and DP. It had to be decided that in court room discourse and dialectic the accused enjoys the DP and the accuser(s) the BOP.

In philosophical discourse, however, there are no procedural rules regarding DP and BOP that we will all agree on.

This is my view, at least for burden of proof*. Some of the posts in which I've discussed this:

The Fiction of Burden of Proof
Onus Probandi
On Van Inwagen on Burden of Proof

* For BOP only, however. Unlike Vallicella, I think defeasible presumption (DP) and burden of proof (BOP) come apart. I think defeasible presumption is merely one of the things it is reasonable to take into account in negotiating burden of proof.

J. Michael Straczynski, Demon Night


Opening Passage: The novel opens with a dream about a traumatic childhood event:

It began as it always did. As it always would.

Back when his last name was Langren, not Matthews.

Summary: In "Hamlet and His Problems", T. S. Eliot famously gave us the phrase, "objective correlative", as part of his account of how art expresses his emotion. The objective correlative is "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." How far this explains anything varies, I suspect, depending on what the author is trying to do, but if there is a genre that depends crucially on something like it, horror is that genre. Excellent horror writing consists of combining a good sense of physical situation and symbol with a clear grasp of the emotional situation -- I say 'emotional situation' to avoid talking about 'feelings', which no author can guarantee, as the best an author can do is issue appropriate invitations to feel rather than force people to feel. In horror, the outer world, the physical happenings, need to correlate with the emotional situation of fear, or dread, or creepiness, or whatever else may be in view. Horror therefore depends crucially on using narrative and verbal art (and in television and cinema, visual art) to suggest that there is more to the physical situation than the mere physical happenings. There is also the mood, the atmosphere, the hint of something looming. The events must not merely happen; they must happen as the objective correlatives of the appropriate emotions.

This is the reason, I think, why so much horror writing is weak -- the task one sets before oneself in writing horror is very difficult, and the tools one has with which to achieve it are very limited -- and also why horror tropes tend to get repeated until they are practically stereotypes. People need to be able to recognize the emotional situation you are invoking by describing the physical situation, the physical situation has to remain congruent with that emotional situation, and people need to know how to put themselves into the emotional situation by way of the physical situation. Thus horror writers often have to work with very low common denominators: the ickiness of slime, the feeling of helplessness in a nightmare, the creepiness of bugs and worms, the scariness of snakes, the somehow-wrong feeling of being in the presence of corpse, the way in which we can frighten ourselves in the dark, the fear of pain, violence, and illness. Over time, however, the objective correlatives lose their effectiveness. We see this in the movie zombie. The whole point of the zombie originally that it was a shuffling corpse: it played on the wrongness of the undead. Now, movie zombies are insanely fast. Perhaps due to overexposure, perhaps due to how sheltered most of us are from actual corpses, the shuffling zombie lost its ability to convey the slow inevitability of corpse-wrongness overtaking you, no matter how far or fast you run. We've literalized the zombie, becoming less and less able to recognize, or perhaps less and less able to put ourselves in, the emotional situation they represent. (Of course, it could be that horror writers bungle these things through a failure to grasp what they are doing. We see this in the Final Destination movies, with their increasingly elaborate and implausible Rube-Goldberg deaths. But the appropriate emotion situation is bound up in the inevitability of death, and the most effective moments in every single movie are when the characters walk into a perfectly ordinary situation and it becomes chillingly clear that in this ordinary situation there are dozens of ways to die.)

And this is also, I think, the reason why most of the great classics of the horror genre draw on religious tropes, since religious traditions give pictures, ones that people can recognize, for a much wider range of things, giving us a pictorial way of imagining moral evil. Perhaps also this is why the horror genre is in decline -- the religious tropes don't grab the way they used to, so horror writers are stuck with the problem of having to work with more blood, more violence, more slime. Vampires and zombies arising from viruses do have some purchase for horrific emotional situation -- but, unless they are taken to extremes, they are mundane and manageable and limited in symbolic meaning in a way that the vampires as unfathomable demons and zombies as voodoo curses are not. The religious tropes of horror are what usually give horror its ability to go beyond the lowest, crudest emotional situations.

All of this is just a long way into saying why I think Straczynski's Demon Night is fairly successful at what it is doing. The horror tropes are the old tried-and-true tropes -- darkness, demons, the undead, blood, skeletons, ghosts -- in an almost endless procession. But, like Stephen King, whom Straczynski is imitating here, Straczysnki has a knack for constructing the story in such a way that one can get the old power of the tropes in a relatively fresh way.

Eric Matthews, born Eric Langren, was orphaned in a terrible car accident in his hometown of Dredmouth Point, and has not been back since. All his life, however, he has been followed by uncanny events that, every place he goes, end in destruction. When he feels himself called back to the Point, he goes, then, to find out who and what he is. There he meets a wide variety of people:

Sam Crawford, the anthropologist excavating the local Indian Caves, which had once been an important site for a long-extinct tribe of reclusive Algonquin Indians, who will discover the find of all time, and barely survive it;

Father Duncan Kerr, the local Catholic priest, and a friend to the atheistic Crawford, who will discover that the church building has a terrible secret hidden within it;

Liz Chasen, a novelist doing research into a non-fiction work on small-town lore, called Hidden Places: An Oral History of Maine Villages;

Tom Crandall, the no-nonsense constable of the normally quiet town, who finds himself suddenly dealing with crime after crime;

and the powers of the Night.

We also get a good slice of other townfolk, with their petty sins and occasional virtues. This, I think, is structurally much of the strength of the work; Straczynski does very well at showing us how the events of the novel affect the entire town, in specific and personal ways, and not just a small handful of people. And we get a good sense of how very ordinary people -- such as Liz or Tom or Father Kerr -- can rise to the heroic if they are only given the right chance. And by means of this very aspect of the story, Straczynski is able to avoid making the horror tropes, especially the religious horror tropes, cheap props and special effects -- he's not afraid to use them here and there as just prop and special effect, but the major tropes are always used in such a way that the emotional and moral situation is reflected in the trope itself.

Favorite Passage:
Kerr headed back upstairs, to the sacristy. He donned the vestments of his office, dressing as for Mass. The symbolism of his garments came home to him as never before, heightened by the awareness that this was as much the uniform of a soldier as military greens.

And now, like a weekend soldier pressed into regular duty, he was going to war. (p. 303)

Recommendation: Fast-paced and with some excellent snapshot-characterization, it holds one's attention. Not great literature -- it doesn't pretend to be -- but certainly a story with strengths. Recommended.


Quotations are from J. Michael Straczynski, Demon Night, ibooks (New York: 2003).

Friday, October 24, 2014

Usable Premise Norm of Assertion

There are a number of accounts of the speech act of assertion that take it to be necessarily tied to knowledge. It's widely held that in asserting something you represent yourself as knowing it. There are a number of reasons why you might think this. For instance, if I assert something, it will often be perfectly reasonable to ask, "How do you know that?" There are also Moorean paradoxes, like saying, "The sky is blue but I don't know that the sky is blue," which are perplexing on their face.

Williamson more recently takes a strong version of this, the Knowledge Norm of Assertion, which holds that one ought to assert something only if one knows it. (This is stronger because you could hold that there are cases in which one can represent yourself as knowing when nobody would think you actually know it.) Williamson links this to authority: to assert is to give on your authority and this, he thinks, requires knowledge. Another reason one might hold the position is related to lottery paradoxes: if I have a lottery ticket with an immensely low probability of winning, we would still perhaps think it odd if we went around asserting that it was a loser before it was actually determined to be.

I doubt both the weaker and stronger forms. If I assert something, and someone asks, "How do you know that?", it is often entirely reasonable to respond, "I don't, but it does make sense, don't you think?" Moore's Paradox and lottery paradoxes seem to me to be more about implicature than assertion. And while authority is one element in our evaluation of whether to accept other people's assertions, I am unconvinced that it is usually involved in the actual asserting; nor does it seem to be such an integrally important element that we must consider it, since we seem to have situations in which authority really doesn't matter much.

Other norms have been suggested. For instance, most Knowledge Norm people have argued against the Truth Norm, that we ought to assert something only if it is true. I confess that I find the Truth Norm of Assertion to be even less plausible than the Knowledge Norm. There are also different versions of what might be called a Reasonable Belief Norm, that we ought to assert something only if it is reasonable to accept or believe, for some particular account of what it is to be reasonable. I think all three, Knowledge, Truth, and Reasonable Belief, fail to take into account the sheer variety of assertions, ranging from assertions-from-a-point-of-view (as in Hume's four essays on happiness) to jokes to lies to complicated explanations to best estimates. (It is perhaps also worth noting that since we can apparently make highly figurative assertions, Knowledge and Truth Norms both require that figurative and heavily metaphorical assertions can be true. This isn't an issue for me, since I think it is obvious that metaphorical and figurative claims can be true, but there are quite a few people who don't think that they can. This is one of the reasons why one can't handle this kind of question only by looking at a narrow range of examples, but must follow through the implications of one's suggestion all the way across the board to discover its more marginal implications.)

I think a possible problem is that all these norms make assertion itself intrinsically an assignment of modalities -- Knowledge, Truth, or Belief, usually. But if I assert P, I don't think I'm saying that I hold P with such-and-such modality, where that modality is the same everywhere.

I don't really have a rigorous alternative, but I think one candidate more promising than these is what might be called a Usable Premise Norm of Assertion. This idea is that one ought to assert things that can function as premises in reasoning. After all, logically speaking, assertion does not have the function of showing knowledge, reasonableness, or even truth. What it does have the function of doing is indicating that something can function as a premise for reasoning. Thus I think one could at least plausibly say that the appropriate norm for assertion, the appropriate rule, is that one should assert things that are appropriate for being premises in reasoning. This is different from the Knowledge Norm, since premises don't necessarily need to be known, and from the Truth Norm, since premises only need to be such that they can be posited as true in order to see what follows from them, and it is different from any of the Reasonable Belief Norms, since you don't have to believe or accept the premise for it to be useful as a premise.

In particular cases, of course, it may be the reason that something is acceptable as a premise is that one knows it, or believes it, or that it is true. And I think there are fairly obviously particular cases in which the requirements on premises are heightened for various reasons, so that in those circumstances the only acceptable premises will be those that meet a norm of knowledge or reasonable belief, or what have you. But these all seem to be a matter of additional norms arising in particular cases that affects what premises are usable, not of assertion as such.

Of course, the obvious objection that comes to mind is that this might be too weak in several ways. And that's possible, although we do have to take additional circumstance-relative norms into account before we can really say whether the objection has any bite. I also haven't considered all the other variations of all the other norms of assertion that have been proposed. But I think it has the advantages of both staying true to the reason why we have a concept of assertion at all (since it only has general importance because of its logical role) and to the sheer variety of ways in which we assert things.

Living in Interesting Times

Today (yesterday on traditional calendars) is the feast of St. Antoni Maria Claret i Clarà, or Anthony Mary Claret. I don't really have much to say about him, but it's perhaps worth noting that when he died at the age of 63, he had survived at least fifteen assassination attempts.

So perhaps we can file this under 'Yet More Reasons to Appreciate How Easy Most of Us Have It'.