Saturday, November 21, 2015

Born, Not Made

A very real psychological interest, almost amounting to a psychological mystery, attaches to any early work of Jane Austen. And for that one reason, among others, which has hardly been sufficiently emphasised. Great as she was, nobody was likely to maintain that she was a poet. But she was a marked example of what is said of the poet; she was born, not made. As compared with her, indeed, some of the poets really were made. Many men who had the air of setting the world on fire have left at least a reasonable discussion about what set them on fire. Men like Coleridge or Carlyle had certainly kindled their first torches from the flambeaux of equally fantastic German mystics or Platonic speculators; they had gone through furnaces of culture where even less creative people might have been inflamed to creation. Jane Austen was not inflamed or inspired or even moved to be a genius; she simply was a genius.

G. K. Chesterton, "Jane Austen's Juvenilia" in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks

Various Jottings on Applied Ethics and Refugees

* I tend not to like teaching what goes by the label 'applied ethics' in my Ethics courses. For one reason, the label is a bit absurd, since if you are teaching ethics with any intelligence at all, it is all applied, by the very fact that it is ethics. Unapplied ethics is nothing but useless words, which is an irony given that 'applied ethics' is usually just a bunch of arguments and not any actual application itself. What people usually mean by 'applied ethics' is 'discussion of topics that are politically controversial, or that one wishes to be politically controversial'.

What is more, this discussion tends to be removed from reality, and involves teaching rather complicated and strained arguments on matters in which the real-life arguments, the ones that cause the controversy in the first place, are relatively straightforward. This is inevitable. People tend to be intellectually timid and, under the hypocritical masks of intellectual humility or of being nice or of being righteous already, or by feigning relativism (since many relativist responses in real argument are feigned as an attempt to avoid having to argue), or with a scorched-earth obnoxiousness, or simply through uncooperative silence, will in real life try to shut down rational disputation. (We all have a tendency to all of these things, and lapsing into them occasionally is merely human. But (1) what is important here is how this works out on a large scale rather than in individual cases, and (2) I think it can be argued that modern societies in particular tend to reward intellectual cowardice in the face of argument.) They will not trust complicated arguments in matters of controversy, so widely controversial matters will tend in reality to involve relatively simple points of contention; and using more complicated arguments in the course of such controversies without suffering retaliation for the mere fact of doing so is an art-form that most people do not learn and that no one learns perfectly. The evidence for both these points litters every discussion of a controversial ethical matter one ever finds. But people who teach ethics classes tend to shut down the crude, simple arguments of real life, failing to take into account properly whether the arguments might be good as first approximations or crude summations of serious ethical reflection, or, perhaps more egregiously, whether the arguments might suffer from the fact that ethical vocabulary in controversial matters tends easily to be become confused and confusing.

And this is not even getting into the fact, of course, that most people who think they are teaching controversial topics fairly, and without any hint of persuasion tactics that do not depend on the quality of arguments, are often kidding themselves.

* Some of the things that one might discuss under the label 'applied ethics' inevitably come up in ethical discussions. But there is a good reason for not treating them as stand-alone. And there are kinds of topics that should come up (and will in any properly run ethics course) that wouldn't usually be discussed in such courses, but would make more sense to discuss than many of the things that do. For instance, one of the things that happens to come up when I briefly look at ethics in business contexts is the notion of time-theft. Students always take the idea for granted; but as I point out, it's very difficult to make sense of the idea if you are utilitarian, Kantian, or an Aristotelian virtue ethicist, and they have difficulty defending the notion at all, despite almost all of them thinking it's a genuine ethical issue. (The discussion is always very fun for me, although occasionally frustrating for the students. I always ask, for instance, why 'time-theft' doesn't imply that employment is a form of slavery, in which you are selling yourself for a period of time, and the only answer that they can usually come up with is that people could just not be employed if they have a problem with it.) Here is a notion explicitly purporting to be a matter of ethics that people regularly come into contact with, and almost nobody ever examines it in an ethics class. There are lots of such things floating around. People don't know much about civil service, despite its being by its very nature an ethical reform of government; and say astounding things about medical triage, an ethical term that is regularly twisted for implications that are exactly opposite of what the whole purpose of the idea originally was; and put great weight on not harming people without putting much time or thought into how one determines what is harmful; and attribute to mere consent powers that verge on superstitious. And one doesn't even have to get into any kind of definite controversy: how much have most people thought about topics like forgiveness or mercy or patience or thoughtfulness to others or niceness or hospitality, despite the fact that these things are day to day realities of living an ethical life, involving ideas everyone uses?

* [ADDED LATER] Historically in aesthetics, people tend to focus on the beautiful and the sublime, although occasional other concepts, like the picturesque or the suspenseful, have become topics of interest. But there has been a recent move toward looking more closely at 'everyday aesthetics' and the concepts involved -- which will, of course, include the beautiful, etc., at times, but also includes things like the cute or the tidy -- which are in some ways interesting on their own and sometimes intersect with the big, grand concerns in unusual ways. It seems that one could easily have an 'everyday ethics' analogous to this. Why always focus on the big, controversial issues? Why not focus occasionally on the small, homely ones? They are often as rewarding, and sometimes more illuminating.

* I find much of the discussion of the refugee crisis coming out of Syria to be a good example of the tendency of modern politics always to drive the discussion to focusing on the wrong question. The question everyone seems to ask is, "Should nations let in refugees (without such-and-such tight constraints)?" But, whatever the moral importance of this question, it is not morally the most important question. The most important question, if we are actually concerned with morality at all, is "What do the nations do with the refugees they let in?" Or, as we might well put it, the single most important idea in doing justice to refugees is not 'refugee' but 'refuge'. A refuge obviously takes in refugees; but how one manages to be a refuge is the key matter of importance, and whether one really offers a refuge at all is perhaps even more important. To take people in while offering them nothing but ghettos and welfare dependence, or economic exploitation in the ever-restless pursuit of cheap labor, or an uncertain life of unjust treatment, is not really to offer refuge at all. The question that matters most is about what kind of refuge to be.

* The more political discussions I witness the more I am convinced that serious work needs to be done on what might be called the quasi-virtue ethics of national character. National character was once a minor but seriously considered topic in ethics. Hume discusses it, for instance, and that there is such a thing falls out easily from his account of moral assessment. According to Hume, when we make a moral judgment, what we are actually doing is judging character; so if we make moral judgments about societies/peoples/communities/nations/groups, we are attributing some kind of moral character to them as societies/peoples/communities/nations/groups. And Hume thinks this notion of a unified character for a people is entirely explicable in terms of "sympathy or contagion of manners" combined with social pressure, even given the variation within the population itself. Regardless, it seems clear enough that we keep talking about nations and societies and groups of people as having particular virtue-like or vice-like character traits (compassion, hypocrisy, generosity, and so such), so this is something that should at least be examined.

Entry into the Temple

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, also known as the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. Like a significant number of Marian feasts in the Roman calendar, it is Byzantine in origin, entering the Roman calendar through the Byzantine rite churches of Southern Italy, and is first documented in the Byzantine rite in the eleventh century. The day celebrates the dedication from childhood of Mary to God. In the Protevangelium of James, a very early Christian legendarium compiled in the second century, the parents of Mary, Joachim and Anne, took her to the temple at the age of three to dedicate her to God, because they had thought that they would not be able to have any children.

The following is, I believe, the earliest extant audio recording of any Pope, Pope Leo XIII praying the Ave Maria in 1903, shortly before his death:

Leo XIII, of course, was a major advocate of Marian devotion, particularly of the rosary and the scapular, so it seems fitting to post his recorded Marian prayer on this Marian holiday.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Three Mystery Comedies

I've been grading, grading, grading recently, and in the course of doing it I have watched three classic mystery comedies: A Shot in the Dark (1964), Murder by Death (1976), and Clue (1985), each of which is at least a reasonable candidate for being the best mystery comedy of its decade. I thought I might say a few things about each one, in light of having watched all three in close succession.

Of the three, A Shot in the Dark is arguably the one that works best as a comedy, and it is easy enough to see why. Peter Sellers plays Inspector Clouseau, his best and most popular comic character, in the middle of an excellent cast including Burt Kwouk (Kato/Cato), Herbert Lom (Inspector Dreyfus), Elke Sommer (Maria Gambrelli), and Graham Stark (Hercule LaJoy), all in their top game. The movie is unusually rich as a comedy, being an originally independent comic script that was merged with Inspector Clouseau (because that was the condition for getting Peter Sellers in the movie) and is filled with improvisation (perhaps the best example of which is the watch synchronization theme, which was almost entirely improvised by Sellers and Stark). There are very obvious jokes, but there are also very subtle ones, and almost every character gets a genuine comic moment. As a mystery it is organized by the idea that all the evidence points to a particular suspect; but Inspector Clouseau is in love with her and therefore keeps investigating well beyond the point that anybody else would have taken her guilt to be obvious. We aren't really trying to figure how the crime happened; we're trying to figure out how Inspector Clouseau will wrap it up. The mystery is just a vehicle for the comedy. And, notably, the mystery itself is never treated as a joke.

Murder by Death, on the other hand, is entirely about mystery, since it is nothing other than a spoofing of the genre. It is easily the one that has the most all-star cast (which is extraordinary, when you consider the casts of the other two): Truman Capote (Lionel Twain), Alec Guinness (Jamesir Bensonmum, the blind butler), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Richard Narita (Willie Wang), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), James Coco (Milo Perrier), James Cromwell (Marcel Cassette, his very first movie role), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Eileen Brennan (Tess Skeffington), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), Estelle Winwood (Miss Withers, her last movie role at the age of 92), Nancy Walker (Yetta, the deaf-mute cook, also her last movie role). The screaming doorbell is no less than Fay Wray's screams from King Kong and the art of the opening was drawn by Charles Addams. The villain/victim of the piece, Lionel Twain, has invited several world-famous detectives to dinner and a murder: Sidney Wang (a spoof of Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan), Sam Diamond (a spoof of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade), Dick and Dora Charleston (a spoof of Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles), Milo Perrier (a spoof of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot), and Jessica Marbles (a spoof of Christie's Jane Marple). Each of the detectives does things and makes deductions that are simply impossible -- perhaps the best is Wang's unexplained detection of the colorless, odorless, tasteless poison in the food -- and the mystery undergoes increasingly improbable and ludicrous twists and endless red herring trails. There are constant in-jokes for anyone who has read a lot of Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie. For all that, the movie actually avoids doing any of the bad-mystery-plot things it satirizes when it comes to its own mystery plot: every major element of the solution is set up in the story leading up to it -- you'll just never see the set-up except in hindsight because there are so many other things happening.

The humor is often a bit coarse, and the jokes a bit thick. Peter Sellers actually thought it was going to flop badly, so insisted on buying back his share in the profits -- which turned out to be a mistake, because it actually became a hit and cult classic.

Of the three, Clue is the most fun as a movie, and the one that most tries to give the feel of a real mystery despite being a comedy (although it makes much less of an effort to be consistent than Murder by Death does). In some ways it is weakest as a comedy, being almost all screwball and slapstick, although it still manages to be funny. It too has an excellent cast: Tim Curry (Wadsworth the butler), Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), Martin Mull (Colonel Mustard), Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Scarlet), and Colleen Camp (Yvette the maid). The movie succeeds mostly by everyone making a real contribution to the zaniness. It also makes neat use of multiple possible endings: when it was originally shown in theaters, the movie was shown with one of three different endings, all of which began to be shown sequentially for TV and video. All three of the endings cheat, however, by changing details or remembering things that never happened, making the movie's plot exactly the kind of story mocked in Murder by Death. But, interestingly, I think that Clue ends up being a funnier movie overall than Murder by Death, despite the fact that the latter is in many ways technically superior.

Of the three, A Shot in the Dark is the only one that gives a story contemporaneous with its original audience, Murder by Death gives (apparently deliberately) very inconsistent signals as to what time it takes place in, and Clue sets itself thirty years in the past. Clue is the only one that places itself on a specific date: June 9, 1954. (All the McCarthy and Communism references in the film converge on this date, although it only explicitly states that it occurs in 1954.) A Shot in the Dark is the only one that gives itself a specific city (Paris); given its geographical hints, Clue has to take place somewhere in Connecticut or Massachusetts, although it never explicitly tells us more than that it occurs in New England. Murder by Death was the most financially successful in theaters; Clue performed very weakly at the box office, only becoming popular when it hit TV.

Seeing all three together brings out different features of each. There are, of course, the two overlaps in casting (Peter Sellers in A Shot in the Dark and Murder by Death, and Eileen Brennan in Murder by Death and Clue, although in both cases the characters are very different). Both A Shot in the Dark and Clue have an occasionally similar feel on the comedy side, since they both make extensive use of physical comedy, of which Murder by Death has relatively little. But Murder by Death and Clue have a large number of structural similarities: they both are whodunits involving a number of people drawn to a mansion by mysterious invitations; in both a murder happens and it has to be solved on the premises; both are much more ensemble-cast in their feel and rely heavily on character humor; and they both compensate for the ensemble structure by pairing characters off.

One of the things that was very noticeable was the sexual humor; all three have a lot of it. The movie with the most sexual humor, surprisingly, is Clue, in which it is almost nonstop. I say 'surprisingly' because you could easily miss it: Clue has many more sex jokes than the other two, but both of the other movies go much farther with their sexual humor -- Clue is constantly cracking wise about sex, but it always raises the joke only to drop it and move on to something else. Both A Shot in the Dark and Murder by Death, on the other hand, draw out their sexual humor extensively and call attention to it. But, of course, in many ways all three are relatively tame compared to fare served today.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Dogma and Doubt

I have been asked to explain what I meant by saying that "Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity." I have no notion when I said it or where I said it, or even whether I said it; in the sense that I do not now remember ever saying it at all. But I do know why I said it; if I ever said it at all. That is the advantage of believing in what some call dogma and others call logic. Some people seem to imagine that a man being sceptical and changing his beliefs, or even a man being cynical and disregarding his beliefs, is a sort of advantage to him in liberality and flexibility of mind. The truth is exactly the other way. By the very laws of the mind, it is more difficult to remember disconnected things than connected things; and a man is much more in control of a whole range of controversy if he has connected beliefs than if he had never had anything but disconnected doubts. Therefore I can immediately understand the sentence submitted to me, as if it were a sentence made up by somebody else; as perhaps it was.

G. K. Chesterton, "Fiction as Food," in The Spice of Life and Other Essays.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Clarity in Philosophy

Keith Frankish has an essay at Aeon on clarity in philosophy:

Great philosophy is not always easy. Some philosophers – Kant, Hegel, Heidegger – write in a way that seems almost perversely obscure. Others – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein – adopt an aphoristic style. Modern analytic philosophers can present their arguments in a compressed form that places heavy demands on the reader. Hence, there is ample scope for philosophers to interpret the work of their predecessors. These interpretations can become classics in their own right. While not all philosophers write obscurely (eg, Hume, Schopenhauer, Russell), many do. One might get the impression that obscurity is a virtue in philosophy, a mark of a certain kind of greatness – but I’m skeptical.

The problem with the essay is the problem that usually plagues discussions of clarity in philosophy -- the lack of any real account of what the distinction between clarity and obscurity actually is. One sees this in the claim that Hume writes clearly, which is not something that is clearly true -- he has often been accused of obscurity, and he certainly has a trick, which any Hume scholar comes across occasionally, of writing a sentence in such a way that it can be interpreted in at least two very different ways. And Hume himself came to think the Treatise was not as clear as it should have been, despite the fact that it is what we all study most closely. (And it's worth always reminding people that the way Hume writes was considerably different from the way he spoke -- he was laboring under a handicap, like someone who speaks only Portuguese trying to write in Spanish. Scots and English were much farther apart in the eighteenth century than they are today.)

Clarity and obscurity cannot be distinguished solely on the basis of the features of the text itself -- for instance, a highly technical treatise may in fact be quite clear to someone who understands the terminology. It's not something that's purely a matter of authorial intent, since authors can fail to communicate things they are honestly trying to make clear. It's not something that can be determined with regard to readers in general, since that would make anything technical unclear. If we try to determine it with regard to specialized readers, it's unclear how Hume gets counted as a clear writer, given the sheer variety of interpretations of Hume among Hume scholars. Frankish occasionally uses 'hard to understand' as a gloss on 'obscure', and Hume, while very rewarding to study, is at least arguably hard to understand.

The distinction between clarity and obscurity can certainly do some genuine work in assessment; but if it's not simply a personal assessment (what's clear or obscure for me at this time given my background) it is best if we not assume that everyone knows already how the distinction is to be made.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Music on My Mind

Josh White, "One Meat Ball". It's an odd classic, but a catchy one.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Fortnightly Book, November 15

I started reading Robert Louis Stevenson quite early. In fifth grade, my grandparents had given me a single volume set that included Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped, and The Master of Ballantrae. The first three I devoured, but it took me quite a bit longer to get into the last one. It's perhaps not surprising that the deviousness of the Master takes a bit more to grasp. In a letter (noted in the Introduction to the edition below), Robertson tells a friend:

The Master is all I know of the devil. I have known hints of him, in the world, but always cowards; he is as bold as a lion, but with the same deadly, causeless duplicity.

I did eventually get through it, and enjoyed it, but it did take a while to get the hang of the cool-headed and ruthless plots that make up the plot. Spring tales and summer tales, and even autumn tales, are the tales of youth; but the subtitle of the book is A Winter's Tale.

I still have that single-volume book, but I will be re-reading The Master of Ballantrae in a different edition, the 1965 Heritage Press edition, with an introduction by G. B. Stern and color lithographs by Lynd Ward. It is quite a handsome book, with dark blue binding and silver lettering, and a pattern of silver thistles, appropriate to Scotland, stamped on the front and back covers.

How much time I will have in the next two weeks, I am not at all sure, but I notice that the old time radio program This Is My Best had a radio version of it after Orson Welles took it over; the episode stars Orson Welles and Agnes Moorehead, both of whom were among the best radio actors who ever lived. In combination that means it would be a great and unforgivable wrong if I did not at least try to listen to it at some point, so I hope to discuss how they handled the radio adaptation, as well.

Universal Teacher

Today is the memorial of St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church, although, of course, his feast is liturgically superseded by Sunday.

* Markus F├╝hrer's SEP article on Albert the Great

* Clifford Stevens summarizes his life

* Katje Krause, Albert the Great on Animal and Human Origin in His Early Works

* Enrico Donato, Albert the Great on Mystical Experience

* Leen Spruit, Albert the Great on the Epistemology of Natural Science

* Adam Takahashi, Nature, Formative Power, and Intellect in the Natural Philosophy of Albert the Great

The Maronite Year III

The Season of Announcement, which is the Maronite Advent, is structured on the nativity story of Luke, the Gospel of announcement. It thus begins in the same place.

Sunday of the Announcement to Zechariah
Romans 4:13-25; Luke 1:1-25

To Jeremiah the Lord spoke:
"Before you were formed in the womb,
before you were birthed into light,
I made you holy, a prophet."
"Ah, Lord, ah," said Jeremiah,
"I have no voice; I am too young."
The Lord put forth His mighty hand
and said, "I give words to your mouth."

Zechariah, Elizabeth,
were righteous in the sight of God,
but they could not conceive a child;
barren was Elizabeth's womb.
The lot fell to Zechariah
to offer incense to the Lord
in the temple of God Most High.
The incense went up in prayer.

From on high the great angel came,
amid the incense, clothed with light,
and said his prayer had been heard.
Elizabeth would bear a son
who would be great before the Lord,
Spirit-filled while yet in the womb,
a voice to ready the people
before the coming of the Lord.

But Zechariah was afraid
and could not make his heart believe.
Then said the angel Gabriel,
"Then take this sign: you have no voice.
As your mind was barren of faith,
so of words you shall barren be,
until the time you see the truth
and know the power of the sign."

To Abraham the promise came;
God's voice gave to him a new home
and promised barren Sarah joy,
with nations shining like great stars.
No wavering was in his faith,
the word of God he took on trust;
no law did he have to fulfill,
for grace alone restores all hope.

The incense of our prayers, Lord,
is rising upward to the heights;
the barrenness of human life
undo, O Lord, with your great voice.
As You, O Father, sent the sign
by which, O Son, You show Yourself,
in which You grant, O Spirit, faith,
give us Your truth, Your word, Your life.