Saturday, November 23, 2013

Charles Williams, Many Dimensions


Opening Passage:

"Do you mean," Sir Giles said, "that the thing never gets smaller?"

"Never," the Prince answered. "So much of its virtue has entered into its outward form that whatever may happen to it there is no change. From the beginning it was as it is now."

"Then by God, sir," Reginald Montague exclaimed, "you've got the transport of the world in your hands."

Summary: I think to understand what is going on in Many Dimensions, one must begin with organic law, a constant theme throughout the book. Organic law is law that constitutes the 'organs' or instruments of governance themselves. This may be stricter or looser, depending on the state of law. For instance, in the United States, which has a fairly stable and clearly defined organic law, organic law is constituted by four documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance, and the U. S. Constitution and its amendments (to which are added, in the case of the states, the state constitutions). Each of these set up important instruments or organs of governance, and taken together and in proper order (e.g., taking into account the fact that the Constitution revises the others) they constitute the organic law of the United States (and, although I don't know if it's actually done any more, they used to be printed as such at the beginning of every copy of the U.S. Code). Because organic law sets up the means of government themselves, the government has no legitimate action except so far as it acts consistently with organic law; and nothing the government passes can be a law if it conflicts with organic law, unless it is revising organic law in the way organic law itself provides. To have means of government at all implies some organic law, although it will often not be as straightforward as the American version, which has the simplicity of not being parliamentary. American organic law is quite rigid, whereas British organic law, to take the obvious example, is quite fluid.

The two protagonists of Many Dimensions, Christopher Arglay and Chloe Burnett, are working on a book, Survey of Organic Law. Lord Arglay is Lord Chief Justice of Britain and really knows his law, which he would have to in order to be writing a book concerned with British organic law. Chloe is his secretary and research assistant. Both of them take the task very, very seriously. One of Arglay's key character traits is that he really does see himself as serving Law and (crucially) would never manipulate it for his own purposes. Miss Burnett approaches the matter as a student, and, indeed, is referred to in one of the chapter titles as "The Pupil of Organic Law". References to organic law are found throughout the book, and the key action that resolves the problems of the book is itself called in the chapter title, "The Process of Organic Law".

This is important because it explains what is going on with the Stone of Suleiman. Having been acquired through some rather crooked dealings by Sir Giles Tumulty, it soon becomes clear that the Stone has rather miraculous properties. You can divide it without diminishing it -- split the stone and you will have the Original and its Type, perfectly identical and both looking exactly like the Original. With the Stone you can manipulate time and space to travel anywhere or anywhen, and you can even project yourself into the minds of others. The Stone also makes possible extraordinary healing. None of this is arbitrary. The reason the Stone can do these things is that it is the organic law of creation itself, miraculously contained in a stone through the power of the Ineffable Name. All of the properties of the Stone reflect features of organic law generally: organic law is one and indivisible although shareable, it constitutes the means of governance and thus all of the government is implicit in it, laws must be interpreted in light of it, and it provides remedy in particular cases. The Stone is repeatedly referred to as the First Matter, but it is the First Matter of creation in the sense that the constitution of a nation is the first matter of its government. The Stone of Suleiman is the Constitution of the Cosmos; it has absolute supremacy over the laws of time, space, and thought because it is what grounds and constitutes those laws in the first place.

This sets up the major conflict in the book, which is not merely maneuvering over a magical relic but a genuinely moral question of one's relation to organic law. The difference between Lord Arglay and Chloe Burnett on the one hand and people like Sir Giles Tumulty on the other is that for the latter the Organic Law of the Universe is merely something to be manipulated for his own ends; whereas Lord Arglay and Chloe Burnett both see it as an end in itself, indeed, the End, the End of Desire. It is Law as such, and the heroes are marked by their refusal to treat it as something merely to be used. Indeed, no less than three chapter titles highlight this point. It necessarily gives the plot a somewhat curious structure: the difference between the heroes and the villains is that the heroes repeatedly refuse to further the plot, and their heroic action consists entirely of letting the Stone determine how things should happen.

Williams also plays with the meaning of organic law, and the semi-paradoxical nature of the phrase: vital spontaneity with rigorous necessity. This serves also as a symbol of what differentiates the heroes from the rest, since Lord Arglay and especially Chloe live under law, and ultimately it is Chloe's self-sacrificially expressing Law through her life that makes possible the resolution of the problems of the book.

This play on Law is one of the strengths of the work, and it is impressive how Williams is able to show Law as itself a semi-mystical thing through the Hajji's obscure and riddling comments on the Stone. Everything the Hajji says about the Stone, however mystical it may sound, is true in some sense of law in general, including very ordinary human laws. The only difference is scope.

Favorite Passage:

He looked out, and in the sky itself there was a change. There was movement between him and the heavens; the chimneys and clouds and sky took on the appearance of the Stone. He was looking into it, and the world was there, continents and cities, seas and their ships. The Stone was not these, yet these were the Stone---only there was movement within and beyond them, and from a point infinitely far a continual vibration mingled itself with the myriad actions of men. And then, in the foreground of that vastidity, he saw rising the Types of the Stone, here and again there appearing and through all those mingled colours rushing swiftly together. Loosed from their cells and solitudes upon earth, living suddenly in conjoining motion, closing within themselves the separation which men had worked on them, those images grew into each other and were again made one. For a moment he saw the Unity of the Stone at a great distance within the Stone which was the world, and then the farther Mystery was lost in the nearer. Colour and darkness were a great background for her where she stood; they concentrated themselves upon her; through her they poured into the Stone upon her hands, and behind her again appeared but the sky and the houses of a London street.

Recommendation: This isn't Williams's strongest work, and I find Chloe Burnett a bit annoying, but as an idea novel it is marvelously constructed, and the basic story is quite readable. Recommended if it comes your way.

Protean Imagination and Pleonexia

Using his protean imagination, Henry seeks honor continuously by creating a series of beautiful moments both for himself alone and for himself and others. He becomes the object of desire for the Bertram sisters; he becomes the master improver of estates for Rushworth; he becomes Frederick to Maria's Agatha in Lover's Vows; he becomes the heroic adventurer in William's seafaring tales and then William's valiant benefactor in real life; he becomes Fanny's knight in shining armor; he becomes all the principal characters in Shakespeare's Henry VIII; he becomes the eloquent preacher in a London church; he becomes the benevolent estate-holder concerned about his tenants; he becomes the perfect gentleman caller at Portsmouth; and finally, he becomes trapped in a former beautiful moment, one that Maria cannot forget, and he suffers irreparable consequences.

Fanny aptly sums up his character when she says he "was every thing to every body, and seemed to find no one essential to him." No one is essential because Henry can never be satisfied with one; he needs an ever-changing audience of many admirers to accommodate his ego's pleonexia (insatiable drive to acquire) for honor and his imagination's pleonexia for roles. Becoming rather than being is Henry's mode.

Joyce Kerr Tarpley, Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, p. 162.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Two Poem Drafts


Twilight, the mother of thought,
above the waves of clouds
like Halcyon settles slowly down;
tranquility of mind
like oil upon the waters
slowly spreads in rings.

She wears few jewels,
no twinkling spread of gems adorn her,
no luscious silks of fire-color,
but a simple gown
in graceful folds hangs down.

    Above, a bat, with hectic wing
    begins to wheel, and distance-wise
    a nightbird haunts with music.

Finnish Seasons

I remember the forest, the hill, the sea;
with pleasure I travel in my mind.

In summer I looked at your beautiful face,
I wrote a book about a golden flower.

The autumn rain, Sunday shower,
was like to words, clear and fair.

In the gates of the north the sky grew dark;
though I played, I came to fear.

Fire came from forth a dark wind;
in the winter it danced, in January.

Links of Note

* Nice website on the evangelical (and here and there it includes some other) resistance to the Nazis.

* A Kickstarter project for a Jane Austen MMORPG. They're about halfway to their goal, but it looks like they might be stalling out a bit. They do have a prototype version available, though, with some basic functionality. And, quite frankly, this sort of thing is needed, however odd a Jane Austen MMORPG may seem: while the point of the game is entertainment, it is also trying out educational ideas.

* IEP article on Francis Hutcheson (Vandenburg and DeHart)

* The real world is stranger than fiction:

A spy whose naked, decomposing body was found in a padlocked gym bag at his apartment likely died in an accident with no one else involved, British police said Wednesday.

But that really is as implausible as it sounds
The codebreaker could not have got into the bag and locked it from the inside alone, witnesses who worked closely with the investigation have claimed after attempting the task more than 400 times. No one has ever come forward who has been able to recreate the scene.

And again:
The death of MI6 codebreaker Gareth Williams -- whose naked body was found inside an externally locked bag in his bathtub in 2010 -- was a "perfect crime," a confined spaces expert says.

Peter Faulding said he disagreed with Scotland Yard's conclusion that Williams most likely locked himself in the bag, saying it was his belief that the MI6 worker was murdered.

* Sandrine Berges on epistemic injustice and the history of philosophy.

* Charles K. Fink, The Cultivation of Virtue in Buddhist Ethics (PDF)

* An interesting charity in Virginia: Hunters for the Hungry helps deer hunters donate venison to foodbanks and similar organizations (donating game is often extremely difficult -- lots of paperwork and distributions requirements, oftentimes there are testing requirements, and so forth -- so it's the sort of thing people will tend not to do unless someone gives them a way to navigate the system and the regulations).

* As you do your online Christmas shopping, you might consider using it as a way to donate to the Africa Windmill Project, which helps farmers in Malawi who are developing more sustainable farming methods.


* On C. S. Lewis -- it is, of course, the anniversary of his death.

* The viola organista: part piano, part viola, designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It makes sense if you think about it: pianos hit strings, harpsichords pluck them, so why not do other things with the strings, like apply them to something like a bow, or, more practically, something a bit like a hurdy-gurdy mechanism (you can definitely get a richer sound than a hurdy-gurdy could possibly produce)? (ht)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Prince Rupert of the Rhine

I'm teaching Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia today, and started wondering a bit about some of her family. Her youngest sister, the Electress Sophie, I knew, because she was a patron and correspondent of Leibniz. But much of the rest of the family was involved in interesting occupations. One of her younger brothers, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, is a case in point. He spent most of his early life fighting as a soldier, first in the Eighty Years' War, then in the Thirty Years' War, then in the English Civil War. He was captured and imprisoned as a result of the English Civil War and Princess Elisabeth had to negotiate his release. He was banished from England, but after more soldier gigs, he returned under the Restoration and served as a naval commander in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars. He became actively involved in various entrepreneurial endeavors, the most successful of which was receiving a charter for "The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay", which became known as the Hudson's Bay Company. Rupert's Land is named after him; it was the area in which the Hudson's Bay Company was granted a monopoly; there are a number of other places in Canada named after him. He was also one of the founding members of the Royal Society and was an active inventor and experimentalist. Prince Rupert's Drops, also known as Dutch Drops, are named after him (although he did not actually invent them), as is Prince Rupert's Cube, as is Prince Rupert's Metal (a variety of brass used for ornament).

All quite interesting.

Marian Presentation

Presentation titian
Titian, Presentation of the Virgin Mary.

Today is the feast of the Presentation of Mary, of course; the Gospel reading is interesting, and underlines the point that it could also be called the feast of the preparation of Mary, or the education of Mary:

And it came to pass, as He spoke these things, a certain woman from the crowd lifting up her voice said to Him: Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the paps that gave Thee suck. But He said: Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Pope Reads Science Fiction

In the news recently:

Calling attention to the 20th century novel “Lord of the World” which focuses on this spirit of worldliness which leads to apostasy, Pope Francis cautioned against the attitude of wanting “be like everyone else,” which he referred to as an “adolescent progressivism.”

Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World is one of the great science fiction classics. It was published in 1907, so it's quite early; because a lot of the ideas it is dealing with are long since out of date, some of its picture of the future can look a little odd at times. But it was something of a tour de force -- Benson took a number of science fiction tropes that were popular at the time and turned them into the apocalypse: the Forces of Progress achieve their goals, which involves among other things systematically destroying the Catholic Church, at which they succeed, with the brilliant closing image of the last of all Popes, left with no means of resistance but martyrdom and prayer, standing on the Mount of Olives as the air fleets of the entire world prepare to bomb him and the last surviving Catholic remnant out of existence, and through it all the careful, consistent build-up to that last perfect sentence:

Then this world passed, and the glory of it.

After he wrote it, people kept insisting that now that he'd written a pessimistic Catholic science fiction novel he should write an optimistic one. Finally he gave in, and wrote another science fiction novel, Dawn of All, which is a sort of utopian novel. It's a much less interesting story, but in some ways it's an even greater science fiction tour de force -- Benson takes all the science fiction utopia themes that were bandied about at the time, enlightenment overcoming superstition and everything, and showed that you could keep them all and do a completely Catholic version. But it's Lord of the World that really makes it into the top tier of great science fiction. It's a lot like Chesterton's Father Brown stories -- it really doesn't matter whether you are Catholic or not, or whether you particularly like Chesterton's thoroughly Catholic perspective, because they are, regardless, some of the great classics of detective fiction. Benson's Lord of the World was decades ahead of its time, science-fiction-wise, pioneering new tropes and ideas, creating twists and variations on old tropes and ideas, and showing that one could use these things to tell a powerfully human story.

Lord of the World is, of course, by this point a public domain book, and it's not hard to find free electronic copies.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Limpid Blue, or Evanescent Green

The Sea in Calm
by George Crabbe

Various and vast, sublime in all its forms,
When lulled by zephyrs, or when roused by storms,
Its colours changing, when from clouds and sun,
Shades after shades upon the surface run;
Embrowned and horrid now, and now serene,
In limpid blue, or evanescent green;
And oft the foggy banks in ocean lie,
Lift the fair sail, and cheat th' experienced eye.

Be it the summer noon: a sandy space
The ebbing tide has left upon its place;
Then just the hot and stony beach above,
Light-twinkling streams in bright confusion move;
Then the broad bosom of the ocean keeps
An equal motion, swelling as it sleeps,
Then slowly sinking; curling to the strand,
Faint, lazy waves o'ercreep the ridgy sand,
Or tap the tarry boat with gentle blow,
And back return in silence, smooth and slow.
Ships in the calm seem anchored; for they glide
On the still sea, urged solely by the tide.

Crabbe is one of those poets whose lack of renown is somewhat surprising. He was very highly respected as a poet in his day, by many of the best writers of the time (Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen were all fans, just to name a few). His poetry is clear, clean, and vivid (his work from the very beginning has often been compared to painting), devoid of any pompousness: Crabbe comes at least very near to writing the highest quality realistic descriptive and narrative poetry in English.


It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

James Madison (probably; there's a bare possibility that it's Alexander Hamilton), Federalist #62

Monday, November 18, 2013

Radio Greats: Gracie Allen's 1940 Presidential Campaign (Burns and Allen, and Various)

Down with Common Sense -- Vote for Gracie!

George Burns used to say that he married the only woman smart enough to play the dumbest woman in Hollywood. Gracie Allen was undeniably one of the twentieth century's greatest comedians -- arguably her only serious rival for the title of the greatest comedienne is Lucille Ball -- and her ability to play amiable stupidity has a great deal to do with it. With Burns playing straight to her ability to deliver hilarious absurd lines with total sincerity, the duo managed to make the Burns and Allen Show one of the staples of comic radio. It is perhaps a sign of their ability that not only is their sitcom consistently funny, even the product placement for sponsors is funny, as they often had people hawking Swan's Soap or Maxwell House Coffee at the most inappropriate times in the story.

Perhaps the single greatest move they ever made, however, began with a tiny little joke that became an avalanche. Trying to get ratings up, they had Gracie run on the Surprise Party ticket. It was supposed to be two-week gag. It played well enough, though, that Allen just started running with it. Not only were a number of episodes of the Burns and Allen devoted to it, but Allen managed to pull some favors (as she had done for a previous stunt, a search for her 'lost brother') and started appearing in almost all the major comic radio shows of the day, suddenly bursting into the story in random ways to declare her positions issues of the day. (One that people especially remember is her political position on the nation's $43 billion debt: we should be proud of it because it's the biggest in the world. Another: she refused to suggest someone to run for Vice President because she would tolerate no vice at all in her administration. A third: she advocated changing Washington's name from DC to AC, for electrical reasons.)

The campaign picked up momentum; people loved watching Allen spoof the campaigns of FDR and Wendell Willkie. The campaign took on a life of its own; she even held a Surprise Party convention.

It's difficult to pin down all the episodes on which Allen ran the campaign. You can easily find all the episodes that ran on the Burns and Allen Show at the Internet Archive. But other episodes in other series were also involved. At least two of these episodes are worth adding to the cue, both of which have Allen interacting with comic legends of the day.

The first was on Fibber McGee and Molly, "Cleaning the Hall Closet," which also has the distinction of showing the birth of radio's most famous joke, one that passed into a proverb: Fibber McGee's closet. You can listen to it at My Old Radio.

The second was on The Jack Benny Show, "Gracie Allen for President," which you can also listen to at My Old Radio.

NPR's All Things Considered also has a good sum-up of the whole campaign, if you're on a schedule.

Allen also wrote a book connected with the campaign, How to Become President, part of which can be read online:

Presidents are made, not born. That’s a good thing to remember. It’s silly to think that Presidents are born, because very few people are 35 years old at birth, and those who are won’t admit it. So if you’re only 16 don’t be discouraged, because it’s only a phase and there’s nothing wrong with you that you won’t outgrow.

Vaunted Grandeur and Eternised Fame

On a Picture of Tyre
Painted by Mr. T. Creswick
by Louisa Anne Twamley

And such thou wert, proud city of the East!
When, 'midst the mightiest of the earth, thy name
Was blazoned in the dazzling scroll of Fame;
And men gazed on thee, as thy pomp increased,
Deeming thy grandeur must be aye the same:
I see thee now, as they beheld thee, in thy "pride
Of place," with thy high, frowning, and majestic fanes
Of idol-worship; with thy fertile, sunlit plains,
And glorious Ocean,—like an Eastern bride,
Gemmed with the wealth that proudly she sustains—
But where are now thine empire, wealth, and power?
Thy vaunted grandeur and eternised fame?—
Oblivion claims them—like the transient flower
That dies, and whispers—beauty's but a name.

Louisa Anne Twamley later became Louisa Anne Meredith. While born in England, she lived most of her life in Australia and Tasmania, and published a number of remarkable books, illustrated by herself with state of the art means, on Tasmanian wildlife.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Moral Disposition and Love for Natural Beauty

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, section 42:

Now I admit at once that the interest in the Beautiful of Art (under which I include the artificial use of natural beauties for adornment and so for vanity) furnishes no proof whatever of a disposition attached to the morally good or even inclined thereto. But on the other hand, I maintain that to take an immediate interest in the Beauty of Nature (not merely to have taste in judging it) is always a mark of a good soul; and that when this interest is habitual it at least indicates a frame of mind favourable to the moral feeling, if it is voluntarily bound up with the contemplation of nature. It is to be remembered, however, that I here speak strictly of the beautiful forms of Nature, and I set aside the charms, that she is wont to combine so abundantly with them; because, though the interest in the latter is indeed immediate, it is only empirical.

He who by himself (and without any design of communicating his observations to others) regards the beautiful figure of a wild flower, a bird, an insect, etc., with admiration and love—who would not willingly miss it in Nature, although it may bring him some hurt, who still less wants any advantage from it—he takes an immediate and also an intellectual interest in the beauty of Nature. I.e. it is not merely the form of the product of nature which pleases him, but its very presence pleases him, the charms of sense having no share in this pleasure and no purpose whatever being combined with it.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Chapter 22;

Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say; and Fanny, perceiving it, brought back her own mind to what she thought must interest.

"It may seem impertinent in me to praise, but I must admire the taste Mrs. Grant has shewn in all this. There is such a quiet simplicity in the plan of the walk! Not too much attempted!"

"Yes," replied Miss Crawford carelessly, "it does very well for a place of this sort. One does not think of extent here; and between ourselves, till I came to Mansfield, I had not imagined a country parson ever aspired to a shrubbery, or anything of the kind."

"I am so glad to see the evergreens thrive!" said Fanny, in reply. "My uncle's gardener always says the soil here is better than his own, and so it appears from the growth of the laurels and evergreens in general. The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature! In some countries we know the tree that sheds its leaf is the variety, but that does not make it less amazing that the same soil and the same sun should nurture plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence. You will think me rhapsodising; but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one's eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy."

"To say the truth," replied Miss Crawford, "I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV.; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it. If anybody had told me a year ago that this place would be my home, that I should be spending month after month here, as I have done, I certainly should not have believed them. I have now been here nearly five months; and, moreover, the quietest five months I ever passed."

(The Doge of Genoa, asked what he thought most wonderful about Versailles after visiting in order to beg Louis XIV for peace, responded, "To see myself here." It was an answer that the French could hardly avoid celebrating, even in a humiliated enemy. Or, given that we are talking about early modern France, perhaps especially in a humiliated enemy.)

The liking for natural beauty is indeed related to a moral disposition in Austen; and liking for the beautiful in art is at least more ambiguous. We get something like this in MP, since Fanny's preference for the natural, contrasted with the preference for the artificial in some of the other characters (as seen in the earlier scene when everyone discusses 'improvements'), is an indication of character.

There is an old idea that the virtue of temperance involves a love for the beauty of restraint and proportion; so that it should have at least an analogy, and perhaps a shared foundation, with love for natural beauty makes a certain amount of sense. It's certainly the case that the link between the two comes up again and again in the history of the subject.