Friday, December 06, 2013

Dignity and Forbearance

You would have to be isolated from the news not to know that Nelson Mandela has died. I don't have a huge amount to add to the lauds, although I think a great many of them are secretly self-congratulatory; one of the things Mandela did very well as a politician was finding ways to let people think they had actually contributed something significant, and those of outside of South Africa have often been all too eager to jump at the idea that it was partly their doing. (I'm not an expert on the matter, by any means, but I am greatly inclined to think that, whatever Western support may have done, the crumbling of the Soviet Union and its client states did far more to tip the balance.)

It does show that in judging historical figures we have to take context and circumstance into account; people forget that Mandela was in prison for being the co-founder and head of a political organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe, inspired by Cuban guerilla warfare and actively engaged in political violence. One could well imagine a historian far in the future, or, for that matter, a random guy on the internet tomorrow, trying to correct the 'myth' of Mandela by pointing out his involvement in such things. But it's easy to see that this would miss an extraordinary amount that needs to be taken into account: Apartheid itself, the fact that Mandela's own involvement in political violence seems to have been quite reluctant, the fact that, while theoretically committed to whatever violence would work and preparing for outright warfare if necessary, in part through Mandela's influence the MK actually focused on sabotage and made considerable efforts to limit deaths; the long endurance in prison for it; more importantly, emergence from prison a leader of extraordinary clarity and power; perhaps as importantly, his patient and careful handling of a transition that could easily have resulted in civil war and his honest willingness to hand over power for the good of everyone rather than, as so many would-be liberators have, holding on to power at any cost. And when it's all taken into account, the man was no more flawed than any other true hero; and heroic he genuinely was.

The New York Times obituary is quite good, conveying a great deal of what was admirable about the man, and his ability to build a genuine moral authority, without shirking the fact that he made many errors, some of them morally serious, both before and after his imprisonment. Some tidbits:

Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and served as his country’s first black president, becoming an international emblem of dignity and forbearance, died Thursday night.
Mr. Mandela noted with some amusement in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that this congregation made him the world’s best-known political prisoner without knowing precisely who he was. Probably it was just his impish humor, but he claimed to have been told that when posters went up in London, many young supporters thought Free was his Christian name.
[Mandela recalling hotheaded student revolutionaries with exasperation:] “When you say, ‘What are you going to do?’ they say, ‘We will attack and destroy them!’ I say: ‘All right, have you analyzed how strong they are, the enemy? Have you compared their strength to your strength?’ They say, ‘No, we will just attack!’ ”
In interviews published in Mr. Gevisser’s biography, Mr. Mbeki chafed at President Mandela’s ability to rule by charm and stature, with little attention to the mechanics of governing.
“Madiba didn’t pay any attention to what the government was doing,” Mr. Mbeki said, using the clan name for his predecessor. “We had to, because somebody had to.”

Truth and Constancy

The question of truth is vital to this reading of Mansfield Park in three important ways. First, there is the pursuit of truth represented by the conversations--both internal and external-- of characters int he novel. There is the truth--or realism--of that representation itself, as manifest by specific narrative techniques (especially with dialogue) of which Austen is an innovator. Finally, there is the larger truth--as effected by a combination of the first two--that conveys itself to the reader. Constancy plays a role in all three expressions of truth. It grounds the right pursuit of truth--enacted by Fanny--whose "hermeneutical" habit and growing clarity of vision contrasts with the inflexible blindness to truth in those around her. In some instances, constancy--in particular its development--also is enacted by Austen's use of narrative techniques; the reverse--the lack of its development--may also be suggested thereby. Finally, from the process of reading and responding to the novel's truth, readers may approximate a kind of constancy that allows them to grow in self-knowledge--discovering truths about themselves that may lead to transformation.

Joyce Kerr Tarpley, Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, p. 182.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

A Poem Draft


Dance with me, lovely!
The wind in the tree
is raising the leaves
in a fine melody.
The moon's in its rising
and life's rushing by
and rivers are flowing
from tears that we cry,
but dance with me, lovely,
as it all blows away
and we shed all our cares
till the dawning of day.
Dance with me, lovely,
to a drumming heartbeat
till we cast off our worries
and laugh at defeat.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Music on My Mind

Kansas Heart Band, "Last Train from Poor Valley".

When I drive I usually have the radio stuck on the Radio Classics channel, but I was searching around today and happened to be arrested at the Bluegrass Junction channel by Richard Bennett's version of this old song, which was gorgeous. I couldn't find Bennett's version anywhere -- it's softer and sadder than most versions, including this one; but I searched for another one I liked, and this one, despite some background noise, has a lot to be said for it.

The song was originally written by Norman Blake, probably the most important singer/songwriter in the bluegrass genre, for June Carter; he often played with her and Johnny Cash. Probably the most famous cover of the song, though, is Jerry Garcia's folk rock version with his band Legion of Mary.

Augustine and Wrongdoing in Dreams

Today is another student choice today for one of my classes, and this time they chose the topic of dreaming. I've had them read Eric Schwitzgebel's Why Did We Think We Dreamed in Black and White? and part of the fairly good philosophy of dreaming article in the IEP. I've been thinking about Augustine and ethics for dreaming. In the IEP article, Springett says (2a),

Saint Augustine, seeking to live a morally perfect life, was worried about some of the actions he carried out in dreams. For somebody who devoted his life to celibacy, his sexual dreams of fornication worried him. In his Confessions (Book X; Chapter 30), he writes to God. He talks of his success in quelling sexual thoughts and earlier habits from his life before his religious conversion. But he declares that in dreams he seems to have little control over committing the acts that he avoids during the waking day. He rhetorically asks “am I not myself during sleep?” believing that it really is him who is the central character of his dreams. In trying to solve the problem Augustine appeals to the apparent experiential difference between waking and dreaming life. He draws a crucial distinction between “happenings” and “actions.” Dreams fall into the former category. Augustine was not carrying out actions but was rather undergoing an experience which happened to him without choice on his part. By effectively removing agency from dreaming, we cannot be responsible for what happens in our dreams. As a result, the notion of sin or moral responsibility cannot be applied to our dreams (Flanagan, 2000: p.18; pp. 179 – 183).

Augustine's brief comments about dreaming are difficult fully to explicate, but I'm currently inclining toward thinking that Augustine's actual position is much subtler than this. In the relevant passage, Augustine notes that Christian moral teaching required him to give up concubinage, and that God's grace allowed him to do so. However, his memory still carries the past images, and, indeed, traces of the past habits, of his immoral life in his mind. When he is awake, they sometimes come to mind against his will, but when he is asleep, things are different: he sometimes consents to them, and they seem real:

Am I not myself at that time, O Lord my God? And there is yet so much difference between myself and myself, in that instant wherein I pass back from waking to sleeping, or return from sleeping to waking! Where, then, is the reason which when waking resists such suggestions?

One possibility is that we are so different in sleeping that our reason is practically shut up; but, as Augustine notes, sometimes we do resist these images and suggestions of wrongdoing in dreams, and, moreover, when our conscience evaluates our failures to resist on waking, it is not pained or grieved that we did these things but that they were done in us. It's this latter that Springett, following Flanagan, is summarizing as a distinction between action and happening, but I'm not sure this is what Augustine actually has in mind. I think rather, Augustine is saying that there are at least two morally relevant actions here: commission and consent. We do not always commit misdeeds in our dreams; but we sometimes do consent to them. These are distinct kinds of moral action, which we assess differently when we are looking at matters of moral responsibility. The former is an active choice; but the latter is more passive. One of Augustine's words for it is languor, feebleness or weakness. We are morally responsible for it, but we are not responsible for it in the way we are responsible for deliberately chosen acts but the way we are responsible for our weaknesses and failings. Another word he uses for it is visco, glue or birdlime; we find ourselves stuck in concupiscence or craving independently of any particular choice, and unable to resist as strongly in dreaming as in waking, we find ourselves not merely thinking it, not merely enjoying it, both of which may occur fully against our will, but actually consenting to it. A third thing he calls it is a rebellion or insurgency of the soul against itself.

Thus I think one should see Augustine as drawing a distinction not between action and happening but between action and some third thing that is in between action and happening, in which it is not something we do, in a proper sense, but it is also not something that merely happens to us -- it is something that is done or made in us. Likewise, I don't think we can interpret Augustine as saying that there are no actions in dreams -- he clearly thinks that we sometimes do act in dreams by resisting suggestions in it, and it seems at least plausible to interpret him as saying that we sometimes do commit sins in dreams -- it's just that the immediate point he's making is that even when we don't, we still have this languor, this feebleness from our moral illness, by which we can still sometimes consent to wrongdoing even while not actively choosing it.

And, of course, Augustine trusts that God through grace is reshaping him so that even this visco concupsicentiae will no longer mire him down, and in the meantime he confesses it to God:

Is not Your hand able, O Almighty God, to heal all the diseases of my soul, and by Your more abundant grace to quench even the lascivious motions of my sleep? You will increase in me, O Lord, Your gifts more and more, that my soul may follow me to You, disengaged from the bird-lime of concupiscence; that it may not be in rebellion against itself, and even in dreams not simply not, through sensual images, commit those deformities of corruption, even to the pollution of the flesh, but that it may not even consent unto them. For it is no great thing for the Almighty, who is “able to do . . . above all that we ask or think,” to bring it about that no such influence— not even so slight a one as a sign might restrain— should afford gratification to the chaste affection even of one sleeping; and that not only in this life, but at my present age. But what I still am in this species of my ill, have I confessed unto my good Lord; rejoicing with trembling in that which You have given me, and bewailing myself for that wherein I am still imperfect; trusting that You will perfect Your mercies in me, even to the fullness of peace, which both that which is within and that which is without shall have with You, when death is swallowed up in victory.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Austen, Sacraments, and Juvenile High Jinks

Communion was not the only important sacrament Austen experienced regularly; she attended weddings, baptisms, and ordinations. She did not go to funerals, however; it was customary for only men to attend, presumably to protect women from the emotional hardship of the occasion (for this reason, Cassandra did not attend Jane's funeral in 1817). Austen would have, however, witnessed the sacrament of final unction, a ceremony intended for the sick in preparation for death. As a teenager, Jane Austen acted as a witness for several of the Steventon weddings officiated by her father. Her role as matrimonial witness must have provoked her, sometime when she was about 16, into a piece of juvenile high jinks: the fictional entries into the marriage register at Steventon, announcing the banns of marriage between herself and Frederick Howard Fitzwilliam of London, then between herself and Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool, and then between herself and Jack Smith, place unmentioned (Jarvis 12). She attended weddings often herself, though never, of course, as a bride. Her knowledge of the service is evidenced by the joke at the end of Pride and Prejudice, when the reader is informed that Mr. and Mrs. Collins are expecting "a young olive branch," olive branch being a term Mr. Collins had used earlier in his rhetorically inept letter of introduction to the Bennet family (PP 403). Austen certainly knew that one of the two Psalms ordained for the marriage service suggests that the bearing of children is the first goal of matrimony: "The wife shall be as the fruitful vine : upon the walls of thine house;/ Thy children like the olive branches : round about thy table" (Psalms 128:3-4).

Laura Mooneyham White, Jane Austen's Anglicanism, Ashgate (Burlington, VT: 2011) p. 53. As White notes in a footnote, the names Frederick, Howard, Fitzwilliam, Edmund, Arthur, and William all show up in Austen's novels as names of Austen heroes of one sort or another (although Arthur and William also show up as names of cads). And, of course, she also notes that we see Austen at age 16 already perfecting a technique she uses in her novels, that of comic descent from the high to the low. That women did not attend funerals is an interesting fact that I did not know before.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Notable Links

* Wittes and Singh on James Madison

* Classic papers in philosophy by women

* James Michael Greer considers Spengler's Second Religiosity at "The Archdruid Report"

* A Clerk of Oxford on C. S. Lewis as a medievalist

* Laura C. Mallonee on C. S. Lewis's poetry

* Thony Christie on the story of Isaac Newton and the apple

* Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson and Hanukkah

* Rebecca Stark re-posts a good discussion of Beatrix Potter

* Michael Trotten discusses the deterioration of Cuba

* Kenny Pearce on historical context for Locke on faith and reason

* And if those aren't enough links for you, John Wilkins is hosting the 66th Carnival of Evolution, with a Whovian theme.

I Love Thee Winter! Well

Ode Written On The First Of December
by Robert Southey

Tho' now no more the musing ear
Delights to listen to the breeze
That lingers o'er the green wood shade,
I love thee Winter! well.

Sweet are the harmonies of Spring,
Sweet is the summer's evening gale,
Pleasant the autumnal winds that shake
The many-colour'd grove.

And pleasant to the sober'd soul
The silence of the wintry scene,
When Nature shrouds her in her trance.

Not undelightful now to roam
The wild heath sparkling on the sight;
Not undelightful now to pace
The forest's ample rounds;

And see the spangled branches shine,
And mark the moss of many a hue
That varies the old tree's brown bark,
Or o'er the grey stone spreads.

The cluster'd berries claim the eye
O'er the bright hollies gay green leaves,
The ivy round the leafless oak
Clasps its full foliage close.

So VIRTUE diffident of strength
Clings to RELIGION'S firmer aid,
And by RELIGION'S aid upheld
Endures calamity.

Nor void of beauties now the spring,
Whose waters hid from summer sun
Have sooth'd the thirsty pilgrim's ear
With more than melody.

The green moss shines with icey glare,
The long grass bends its spear-like form,
And lovely is the silvery scene
When faint the sunbeams smile.

Reflection too may love the hour
When Nature, hid in Winter's grave,
No more expands the bursting bud
Or bids the flowret bloom.

For Nature soon in Spring's best charms
Shall rise reviv'd from Winter's grave.
Again expand the bursting bud,
And bid the flowret bloom.