Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Very Stuff of Poesy

The Embankment
by T. E. Hulme

(The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night.)

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth's the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

Hulme (pronounced 'Hume') is an interesting character: extraordinarily influential in his day in the fields of poetry, philosophy, and literary criticism, we nonetheless don't have a large body of work from him. There are only six of his poems extant, but one of them, "Autumn," was one of the paradigmatic poems of the Imagist movement, with which he was associated. He had an eventful sort of life; he was thrown out of Cambridge due to a scandalous affair, once he hung Wyndham Lewis upside down from a balcony in a fight about a woman, and as an artilleryman in World War I he was killed by an artillery shell at Oostduinkerke at the age of 34. He translated Bergson and Sorel, and wrote a fair number of essays in literary criticism and philosophy of literature, which comprise the bulk of his extant prose. It is to him that we owe the famous description of Romanticism as "spilt religion."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Johnson's Response to the Committee on Doctrine

Elizabeth Johnson has given a full response to the criticisms of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (which I previously talked about here and, more briefly, here). It's interesting (as I've mentioned before, Johnson is quite good as most contemporary theologians go), but the problems with it seem to me to begin in the Introduction. There theology is seen, on the one hand, as an articulation of faith (which is certainly right, although I think Johnson's claims about what this typically has involved are rather superficial -- but this just may be an artifact of summarizing). But she thinks that "The Statement faults the book for not being in accord with church teaching because it does not repeat established doctrinal formulas." This, however, was not the bishops' criticism; the criticism was that the formulas it does put forward are in some cases apparently inconsistent with established doctrinal formulas, and thus they criticized it for failure to stick with theology's mission as an articulation of faith rather than other things.

Johnson's reply through the rest sorta-kinda provides a response to this, but not fully. I would say more on this point, but as it happens John Lyons has said some things in the comments of the post at America magazine discussing Johnson's response with which I largely (not completely, but largely) agree, enough so that I'll direct you that way. But I do want to add that the problem with identifying praxis as a source for theological reflection, rather than a culmination or even shaper of it (none of these roles are the same) is that it simply invites picking and choosing of preferred extrapolations (because extrapolating is all that such reflection really can be): you can extrapolate from the practice of Ruth Pakaluk and you can extrapolate from the practice of Joseph O'Rourke, and not only are you going to get very different extrapolations, they are going to be mutually inconsistent, and the test of how Catholic they are is simply not going to be how Catholic they were intended to be, but how they measure up against established teachings of the Church.

There are a few quibbles I could add; she conflates, again, the triplex via Aquinas derives from the Dionysian and the doctrine of analogy that he derives from Aristotle; the two are related to each other given certain Thomistic assumptions, but they are not the same. She also mischaracterizes Aquinas's doctrine of analogy as applied to the divine names, which is not that the analogical terms are 'similar' but that the analogical terms are the same in some way (but not every way). Mere similarity would just give us metaphor, which Johnson is explicitly trying to avoid. Johnson seems to have a misunderstanding of the doctrine that derives from a lack of clarity in the expositions of Kasper, who seems to be a major influence on her. There are others I could add, but I don't want to make this about details.

It should be said through all this, incidentally, that Johnson's response to the criticism, in terms of the overall response, has been in general exemplary; would that more theologians understood that the reasonable response to criticism is rational dialogue that attempts to understand the criticism.


I've recently come across some examples of one of my pet peeves. Suppose you have a description of something (a waterfall, a thrill, or whatever) and it is described as 'ineffable'. There is a certain sort of person who, faced with this, will say, "Oh, but 'ineffable' means beyond description, and you've obviously spent a lot of time describing it." Sometimes this is presented as a sort of triumph of logical reasoning, a proof that the other person is engaging in 'mental legerdemain' as one example I recently saw put it. In fact, however, it seems to me obviously to be an admission either of a tin ear or of linguistic incompetence on a fundamental level.

Setting aside the fact that the term is often used merely as an intensifier, it's clear enough that 'beyond description' does not mean 'admitting of no description whatsoever' (the oxymoronic meaning ascribed to it by the tin-eared person) but 'admitting of no direct and adequate description', or, to be more precise, 'such that any description I (you, we) could give would either be indirect or definitely inadequate'. When a Buddhist describes enlightenment as ineffable, he's not saying that you can't use the word 'enlightenment' to talk about it; he's saying either that nothing you say about it can be adequate to the experience, or that anything you say about it is only indirect and by way of other things, or both. Ditto when William James talks about ineffability as a part of religious experience. Ditto when Henry James describes Musset's verse as having an ineffable natural grace. Ditto with words like 'indescribable', 'inutterable', and the like. Ditto, ditto, ditto all over the place. This is not something any reasonable person has any difficulty with; this sort of criticism -- itself the real 'mental legerdemain' -- is only possible by an extraordinary act of self-imposed stupidity. Many things can be tolerated in this world; but it is difficult to muster any sort of patience for indescribable stupidity pretending to be clever.

ADDED LATER: Apologies, incidentally, for the rant; but in addition to coming across the examples in question I've also been reading Bentham, and the extraordinarily bull-headed resolve of the man not to understand simple things, combined with his continual tendency to pretend that disagreement with his views is constitutive of fallacious reasoning, never fails to exasperate me.

Music on My Mind

O'Connell is very uneven; her better songs are very good and her less good songs are often a bit bland. But she's young yet, and likely to get better.

If you liked the above, you might like her I Belong to You, her cover of O Death, her cover of the Springsteen hit I'm on Fire, and possibly 1988.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


* John Wilkins has an interesting post at SciAm on the evolution of common sense.

* I liked this post about Turkish Delight. Really fancy lokum has dates and pistachios and the like, so I imagine would be somewhat better, although also somewhat harder to find.

* Kenny discusses Descartes's ontological argument.

* David Auerbach attempts to make sense of Diderot's view of the mind.

* Reindeer apparently can see ultraviolet.

* A movement to have Katharine of Aragon beatified.

* Mike Flynn has a good post on free will and Libet-style experiments.

* Mark T. Mitchell on The Lord of the Rings.

* Ninety jokes of Prince Philip, for his ninetieth birthday. They call them 'gaffes', but the master of 'dontopedalogy' (his coinage) is so consistent and is also so often obviously joking, that that seems a bit unfair, despite the extraordinary outrageousness of many of them. But there's also often a shrewdness to them that's just made more clear by the tactlessness. My favorite:

29. "Young people are the same as they always were. They are just as ignorant." At the 50th anniversary of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme.

* Alex Pruss, Lying and Speaking Your Interlocutor's Language

* Nicholas of Cusa on natural law theory.

* Tony Woodlief asks whether the poor quality of most Christian art might not be due to bad theology rather than poor skill. But the list of faults he gives are really just failures of skill, and are easily found all the way across the board, not just in the niche of Christian art. The real question is whether good theology can make you a better artist.


* American foreign policy in a nutshell:

O-SPAN Classic: CIA Accidentally Overthrows Costa Rica

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

High Standard


Rationality and Contingency

The type of universe whose investigation requires the methods of modern science must, I would suggest, have two characteristics: contingency and rationality. If rationality were absent, there would be no laws for science to discover; if contingency were absent, there would be no need for empirical observation and experiment, for every truth about the world could be deduced from first principles. The combination of the two characteristics is precisely correlative to a technique which believes that there are uniformities in nature and yet that these uniformities need to be discovered.
[E. L. Mascall, Existence and Analogy, Longmans, Green and Co(New York: 1949) p. 9.]

Of course, since either one, rationality or contingency, in the robust senses Mascall has in mind, tends to be theism-friendly and uncongenial for the more obvious kinds of naturalism, it is unsurprising that a great deal of ingenuity in the past sixty years has gone into trying to find weaker proxies (purely epistemic analogues, pragmatic analogues, and the like) and, more recently, to find less limited naturalisms. I imagine that it is this that Mascall would write a book on today.

Needless to say, Mascall isn't the only person to note the point; Max Planck made it before him, noting that it was positivism's weakness, and Jaki argued it after him in his Gifford Lectures, and many others have made the point. But it does seem to require more systematic study.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year. (Ex. 34:22)

Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn shalt thou begin to number seven weeks. And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the LORD thy God after the measure of the freewill-offering of thy hand, which thou shalt give, according as the LORD thy God blesseth thee. (Dt. 16:11)

Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto Me in the year. The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep; seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib--for in it thou camest out from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty; and the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of thy labours, which thou sowest in the field; and the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year, when thou gatherest in thy labours out of the field. Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord GOD. (Ex. 23:14-17)

Also in the day of the first-fruits, when ye bring a new meal-offering unto the LORD in your feast of weeks, ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work; but ye shall present a burnt-offering for a sweet savour unto the LORD: two young bullocks, one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year; and their meal-offering, fine flour mingled with oil, three tenth parts for each bullock, two tenth parts for the one ram, a several tenth part for every lamb of the seven lambs; one he-goat, to make atonement for you. Beside the continual burnt-offering, and the meal-offering thereof, ye shall offer them--they shall be unto you without blemish--and their drink-offerings. (Nm. 28:26-31)

This evening, if I'm not mistaken, begins Shavuot, with Sukkot one of the two major harvest festivals of the Jewish calendar (Shavuot is to grain harvest as Sukkot is to fruit harvest). The most common name in English is the Feast of Weeks; it was one of the three pilgrimage holy days of the calendar (the other two being Passover and Sukkot, mentioned above). It's somewhat unusual out of Jewish holy days, though, in that it has only ceremonial commandments associated with it; but this is perhaps fitting insofar as it is traditionally the day God gave Moses the whole covenant at Sinai. The book of the Bible that is associated with it is the book of Ruth, and the feast is also by later tradition associated with King David, being a commemoration of his birth and death. Harvest, Covenant, Redemption, Throne -- there are more important Jewish holy days, but none that sum up so many of the hopeful and joyful features of Jewish history.

It is from Shavuot that Christians get the name 'Pentecost'. Shavuot is calculated by counting seven weeks from the second day of Passover (hence the name 'Feast of Weeks'). Because of this Hellenistic Jews called it Pentecost, i.e., the Fiftieth, and Christianity, which in its ritual roots is nothing other than Messianic Hellenistic Judaism opened to Gentiles, carried over the holiday and name, associated now with the Descent of the Spirit on the Church; but as the calendars diverged, so did the holidays.

Two New Poem Drafts


Each nation has a god
that sums its thought
that whispers in its ear
for good or ill
and gives it force of will
for right or wrong.
And once I saw afar,
beneath a desert star,
the god of our America;
his throated song
rang out long,
his amber eyes
looked up to desert skies
in mournful dream.
Coyote is his name;
his pad is soft.
His form shirks the same:
a Trickster god is he,
never what he seems,
untrustworthy but free;
and in his eyes
the spark of new surprise
works mischief.

St. Joseph

St. Joseph, build now to the sky
an unnailed staircase spiralled round
of prayers interlocked that cry,
of psalms whose echoes never die,
but through angelic halls resound.
We cannot build; our lilied hands
are scratched by boards so roughly hewn,
and nails we use, and iron bands,
or else our words will not keep tune.
No bridges built up to the height,
but only piecemeal stairways, rise;
but, pontifex, you fair and light,
with grace of balance, will build aright,
of cross-like truths, and never lies.
So take our prayers, each heartlike beat,
and raise them up to heaven's choir
to be a stair for stumbling feet,
a pathway fit for heart's desire!

Monday, June 06, 2011

P4CM and Didactic Poetry

One of the more interesting Evangelical movements of recent times is the Passion for Christ Movement, more often known as P4CM, in Los Angeles, which adapts the old activity of giving testimony to new verbal forms -- whether by song, speech, and poetry. One of the main ways in which they do this is through their Lyricists' Lounge, which is essentially what we usually think of as coffeehouse-style poetry. But it's generally less pretentious than coffeehouse poetry, and more passionate; and the testimonial character of it brings out the didacticism that is often found in muted form in coffeehouse poetry. It is performed didactic testimonial poetry: it sets out not just to play with words (although it does that) nor to set out images (although it does that) but to teach, and, what is more, to teach Christ through personal testimonies that are performed. But as performances they are almost more conversations with the audience than mere performances. But, really, all these descriptions are very loose analogies for what P4CM does.

I'm not a huge fan of coffeehouse-style performed poetry, by any means, and but I do like decent didactic poetry, and the young people collected together as Official Poets of P4CM have a lot of talent. It's an acquired taste, but there is much to be said for it. Here is a piece by Janette...ikz (pronounced 'genetics'), one of the stronger talents in the talented bunch, about the difference between Deception and Mystery (some intense things, be forewarned):

Her most popular piece so far, though, is I Will Wait for You, about the trials and tribulations of a woman not settling for the sort of man who "sorta kinda right, sorta kinda wrong, his first name Luke, his last name Warm".

Eagleton on NCHum

I'm not really convinced by most of it as a matter of general principle, but anyone interested in the subject of Grayling's New College of the Humanities project really should read Eagleton's take-down of the idea. This is pretty much the way to make the argument against it.

The master of the college will be public sage and identikit Islington Man, AC Grayling. Many observers, he comments, will be surprised to see a group of "almost pinko" academics pitching in to the project. If Dawkins, Colley, Ricks and Ferguson are pinko, I'm a deep shade of indigo. Anyway, why should anyone be surprised at the prospect of academics signing on for a cushy job at 25% more than the average university salary, with shares in the enterprise to boot?

Each in His Separate Book

The Logical Conclusion
by Ezra Pound

When earth's last thesis is copied
From the theses that went before,
When idea from fact has departed
And bare-boned factlets shall bore,
When all joy shall have fled from study
And scholarship reign supreme;
When truth shall "baaa" on the hill crests
And no one shall dare to dream;

When all the good poems have been buried
With comment annoted in full
And art shall bow down in homage
To scholarship's zinc-plated bull,
When there shall be nothing to research
But the notes of annoted notes,
And Baalam's ass shall inquire
The price of imported oats;

Then no one shall tell him the answer
For each shall know the one fact
That lies in the special ass-ignment
From which he is making his tract.
So the ass shall sigh uninstructed
While each in his separate book
Shall grind for the love of grinding
And only the devil shall look.

Against the "germanic" system of graduate study and insane specialization in the Inanities.

Sunday, June 05, 2011


There's recently been the beginnings of a fuss about a new initiative in British education, the New College of the Humanities. A roster of names that are fairly well known are involved in it: A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins (Biology), Simon Blackburn (Philosophy), Ronald Dworkin (Law), Sir David Cannadine (History), Steve Jones (Biology), Lawrence Krauss (Cosmology), Sir Christopher Ricks (Literature), Peter Singer (Applied Ethics), Adrian Zuckerman (Law), Linda Colley (History), Sir Partha Dasgupta (Economics), and for visiting professors, Niall Ferguson and Steven Pinker. Grayling is the one spearheading it. What makes it controversial is that it's a private tuition model, and thus expensive for a British university (18000 pounds a term year -- not as expensive as high-end American universities, but well above anything you'd usually pay for in Britain).

One thing spending several years in Canada taught me is that education is an area in which the issues differ much more than one would expect, and that therefore one must be cautious about cross-comparisons. This is especially true with how education funding is viewed from nation to nation. Much of this problem is, I think, a purely British one: the proposal would barely be noticed in the United States, I think, because it's pretty much an American approach with some British modifications, and while Canadians might talk about selling out, I'm not sure that they would take it quite so personally as the British seem to take it -- some people are talking about boycotting all the academics involved. Setting aside the fact that academic boycotts are usually useless and ill-conceived even when they can be organized properly, it at least tells you how seriously people are taking it. Or if you're less interested in serious than in passionate, you could look at comments to the Guardian's article on the project.

I confess, though, that even trying to compensate for cultural differences I see very little more than a teapot tempest here. The basic points of Grayling's defense of the model -- there needs to be a more sustainable model for humanities education, this sustainable model is unlikely to arise if one attempts to hang its sustainability on government funding, the high cost will be offset in many cases by scholarships and bursaries, the rest will allow for educational innovation and experimentation that could benefit humanities education generally by serving as a model for less expensive programs later -- are all entirely good points. To be sure, it would be a bad thing to do all or most of one's educational system along these lines, but there's a great deal to be said for trying things out, and trying things out in education is expensive, which is one reason why government dependence (which is not a bottomless purse, and tends to restrict programs to basics with criteria for success that are easy to identify in the short term) tends to choke out innovation unless you take steps to compensate. And the arguments to the contrary are mostly not convincing unless you think it obvious that everything will eventually go this way, which, given Britain's educational culture, seems unlikely. The only one that I think has any bite is that this project is heavily piggybacking on public education resources; but I know for a fact that the British do this sort of thing to foreign students all the time, and that seems to me to make the argument run dangerously close to hypocrisy.

The real question is whether this model really can be made sustainable in Britain; in the U.S. it would at least have a chance of succeeding, if it got philanthropic support (which it likely would), but in a nation in which the very idea of it results in a palpable distaste, I'm not sure that this is really going to be forthcoming. Looking at the roster, I'm also not actually sure that this is the group that could manage it if it could be made to succeed; they are mostly senior academics with a lot on their plates already, and unlikely to make, or even to be able to make, the long-term and intensive commitment it would require.

But, again, talk about education across national borders is harder than most people realize; there are always many subtle differences that make for big differences elsewhere; what works here does not always work there, and what people expect, of course, has an effect and differs widely from place to place.