Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Dilemma of All Human Philosophizing

It is a bold undertaking to pick out a single pair of concepts form a closed system in order to get to the bottom of them. For the "organon" of philosophy is one, and the individual concepts that we may isolate are so intertwined that each sheds light on the others and none can be treated exhaustively outside of its context.

Such is the dilemma of all human philosophizing: truth is but one, yet for us it falls into truths (plural) that we must master step by step. At some point we must plunge in to discover a greater expanse; yet when this broader horizon does appear, a new depth will open up at our point of entry.

Edith Stein, Potency and Act, Redmond, tr. ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2009) p. 5

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Two Poem Drafts and a Poem Re-Draft

Night Hours

The padding feet of night,
thudding footfall,
frighten off the light;
the owl calls
beneath a moon hot-white
with ashen face.
Soft and silken grace
melds with breeze,
struggles to keep pace
with hours as each flees,
unruly in the chase,
harried in its flight.

The Spirit Falls Like Sleep

The Spirit falls like sleep,
like waking soars
from out our heartfelt inner cores;
the radical rooted deep
intends like breath, extends like breath,
each inspiration new,
sudden storm yet silent dew,
as soft and swift as death;
inspires He, entices He,
upon the deep He broods,
expiring dreams and moods,
a living breath and free.

Tristan and Iseult

A poison sweet,
bitter to feel,
swiftly spreads,
through vein and flesh,
bewitching mind and body,
overcoming both.

but necessity is temptation,
witchery fades to treason,
youth fails,
bud withers,
blossoms fail in blight.

From love that hides springs joy that dies.

Only rot remains,
grave ghosts.
Can hope be reclaimed,
Bitter winds drive hard bargains,
black sails bring suicide.

Pope Francis the Sarcastic

I don't really expect much from popes. My attitude is that the papacy has been going on for well nigh two millennia and about 265 or so on the traditional listing (the number varies depending on whether you count pope-elects who died shortly after election and things like that), and if you set aside martyr-popes, you can still quite literally count all the truly great popes, the ones truly great as popes, on one hand -- St. Leo I, St. Gregory I, Gregory VII, Benedict XIV, and Leo XIII -- with perhaps another hand or two for popes like St. Agatho or Eugene IV or Pius IX who did very, very well with the hand they were dealt. It's a long history of mediocrity, sometimes the mediocrity of holy men and sometimes the mediocrity of not-holy men, a history of men of whom the best one can say is that they weren't too incompetent in handling the problems they faced. (In fairness, too, papal reigns historically have tended to be quite short; if you're pope for only a year or two, it's unlikely that you will do much more than fill the office.) I actually think that this is a good thing, all told. If you play chess with the devil, it is foolish to try to outmaneuver him, because you can't; you play to last, not to win, because there is a bigger checkmate being set up in the Game of Games, and your job is just not to be stupid or wicked in your part of it. Some men can't help themselves and will be great regardless; but the task of a pope is just to keep on keeping on, just preventing things from getting too unruly, and the more the pope can't do that, the more obviously something has gone very, very wrong.

Which is just a long way of saying that I don't expect much from popes; I don't think it's fair to do so, and I think that when we have to expect a lot from a pope it can only be because all the rest of us have failed miserably at something we were supposed to get right. So, equally, I don't expect much from Francis and think it dangerous and doubtful to do so. I didn't expect much from John Paul II or Benedict XVI, either; and despite their fans I think they both end up very much mid-tier popes in terms of how much overall benefit the Church: lots and lots of mistakes, but they were also dealing with some difficult problems.

In our world of image and flash, though, it's weird how some of this plays out. Pope Francis gets very different press from that which Benedict XVI got, despite the fact that Francis repeatedly refers back to the ideas of his predecessor -- the three people he quotes most are Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and almost always when he says something striking he is summarizing one of the three. Benedict XVI was an introverted academic, whose favorite thing was academic discussion; he was non-confrontational and was always talking about how we all need to talk together. This is not what really comes across in much of his press, which treats him as cold and unfriendly and authoritarian. Pope Francis, on the other hand, is an extraverted social activist, peremptory in his communication style, who constantly tells people that they are wrong, and you would think from the press about him that he was not constantly scolding people for not doing as well as they should. Pope Francis likes the idea of dialogue, but it's going to be a pretty heated dialogue. And when you look at it all more closely, there's no doubt that this is what is going on. No matter how fluffy they try to present him as, he's a bit of spitfire.

In any case, Laurence England has a good discussion of a feature of Pope Francis's style that you can find buried -- but only buried -- in most of the press: the fact that he is constantly insulting people.

Indeed, here's some of the names the Pope has actually called people: "pickled pepper-faced Christians," "closed, sad, trapped Christians," "defeated Christians," “liquid Christians,” "creed-reciting, parrot Christians," and, finally, those "watered-down faith, weak-hoped Christians."

Catholics who focus on church traditions are "museum mummies," the Pope says. Nuns who fail to inspire faith in the church are "old maids," and the Vatican hierarchy has at times been "the leprosy of the papacy," in Francis' words.

Indeed, men of the cloth face the brunt of Francis' fulminations. He has called some of them “vain” butterflies, “smarmy” idolators and “priest-tycoons.” He’s described some seminarians as potential “little monsters.”

Anyone who has talked with enough people from Central or South America has almost certainly come across the trait, since while not universal, it is a very common Latin American cultural characteristic. People don't just say that something is incorrect or misleading; they call it lies, and if they disagree very strongly with you, they will call you a liar. There's no malice in it at all; it's just a lot more acceptable to talk this way than it would be in most English-speaking circles, where we feel the influence of the old longstanding British tendency to criticize as indirectly as possible. (There's an old joke that the difference between an English academic and a continental European academic is that when the English academic is absolutely certain of something, he will say, "It seems to be the case that one should accept this conclusion," while the European, when he thinks that something is probably true, will say, "It is patently obvious that we should accept this conclusion." It's the same sort of difference.)

It's amusing how colorful some of Francis's insults are, and England's discussion is quite good.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hell Is Bendy Pens and No Video Games

From the Telegraph:

Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik threatened to go on hunger strike for better video games and other perks to alleviate his "torture"-like prison conditions, in a letter received by AFP Friday.

The right-wing extremist – who killed 77 people in a bombing and shooting rampage on July 22, 2011 – enclosed a typed list of 12 demands sent to prison authorities in November.

If you aren't aware, Norway has what is probably the most generous and lenient penal system in the entire world. For killing 77 people, Breivik is serving a 21-year sentence that can be extended for bad behavior. He is being held in Ila Prison, which is Norway's highest security prison. Usually, it gives prisoners access to a gym, a library, various workshops, and a considerable number of sponsored leisure activities. However, because of his crime, Breivik has to be kept away from the other prisoners, so the prison can't give him much in the way of access to the common areas. In compensation, the prison authorities gave him full run of three cells, one for sleeping, one for gym equipment, and one with a desk and laptop computer. He's allowed outside an hour every day. Because of this, he is complaining that he is subject to aggravated torture. Like this:

Norwegian tabloid VG, which said it had acquired a copy of the letter, quoted Breivik as saying he was allowed to use only a soft and bendable safety pen described by its manufacturer as "stab-resistant" because it yields at the slightest pressure and cannot be used as a weapon. Breivik was seen making avid notes with it during his 10-week trial at the Oslo District Court that ended in August.

He has said he wants to write books in prison, but claims the special pen cramps his hand, describing it as "an almost indescribable manifestation of sadism," VG reported.

Active Participation

A charming passage from Basil's homilies on the Hexaemeron (the six days of creation), which shows us a little glimpse of what it was like in the church at Caesarea in Basil's day:

Perhaps many of you ask why there is such a long silence in the middle of the rapid rush of my discourse. The more studious among my auditors will not be ignorant of the reason why words fail me. What! Have I not seen them look at each other, and make signs to make me look at them, and to remind me of what I have passed over? I have forgotten a part of the creation, and that one of the most considerable, and my discourse was almost finished without touching upon it. Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that has life and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament, of heaven. I spoke of fish as long as eventide allowed: today we have passed to the examination of terrestrial animals; between the two, birds have escaped us. We are forgetful like travellers who unmindful of some important object, are obliged, although they be far on their road, to retrace their steps, punished for their negligence by the weariness of the journey. So we have to turn back.

Basil, Hexaemeron 8.2. It reminds me a bit of a passage somewhere in Augustine's homilies in which he happens to mention that whenever his congregation strike their breasts during the Confiteor they make the church thunder (or something along those lines). Someone should really collect these kinds of passages together.

(Of course, both of these are good things. I also remember Chrysostom, somewhere, complaining about all the people leaving the church right after communion instead of waiting until the the Divine Liturgy was actually finished. Some things never change.)

The Lilies of Our Lives

Sonnet 24 from the Portuguese
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Let the world's sharpness, like a clasping knife,
Shut in upon itself and do no harm
In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,
And let us hear no sound of human strife
After the click of the shutting. Life to life--
I lean upon thee, dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife
Are weak to injure. Very whitely still
The lilies of our lives may reassure
Their blossoms from their roots, accessible
Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer,
Growing straight, out of man's reach, on the hill.
God only, who made us rich, can make us poor.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hope and Captivity

During the last war I devoted much thought to the characteristics of hope and to the tragic state of prisoners of war. I concluded by asking myself whether in the last analysis hope might not always be looked on as an active reaction against a state of captivity. It may be that we are capable of hoping only in so far as we start by realizing that we are captives. Our slavery, moreover, may take very different forms, such as sickness or exile. (This will help us to understand why it is that in some countries where social technique is over-developed, in which a sort of ease is assured to everyone, hope fades and withers, and with it the whole of religious life. Life stands still and there is nothing that does not labour under an invincible boredom. This seems to be so in Sweden, to a large extent.) From this it would appear that at the back of hope lies some sort of tragedy. To hope is to carry within me the private assurance that however black things may seem, my present intolerable situation cannot be final; there must be some way out.

Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Volume II, Chapter IX.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Jacobs and Menippean Satire Again

Amusingly, Alan Jacobs has decided to double-down on his previous nonsense. And it's really not all that impressive. Some basic points to follow.

(By the way, I'd be willing to bet that Brandon had never heard of the genre before he took it upon himself to tell me that I don't understand it. He clearly hasn't read Bakhtin on the subject, or he would know that the “characterization of the genre” — that's precisely what it is, just look it up and you'll see — doesn't appear in a “philosophy of dialogue” but in a work of literary criticism that at that point is tracing the generic pre-history of Dostoevsky's novels. That was an especially blustery day on Brandon's blog, Pooh! )

I actually, whenever I teach Consolatio Philosophiae, teach Relihan's and Marenbon's interpretation of Boethius in terms of Menippean satire, and just given what he gives in his argument, I have probably read much more in the actual field than Jacobs shows any signs of having done. He shows no signs, for instance, of anything more than a second-hand acquaintance with the genre, whereas I've read most extant Menippean satires at one point or another. The Bakhtin point could certainly have been more clear, I will grant, but Jacobs again shows no signs of recognizing that Bakhtin's handling of the genre is in terms of a broader philosophy of dialogue; and, indeed, it presupposes Bakhtin's specific philosophical commitments on the subject. I would have expected, for instance, that his uncritical acceptance of Bakhtin as straightforward characterization rather than an adaptation for philosophical ends was a result of intense enthusiasm for Bakhtin, for instance; but it's difficult not to conclude that Jacobs has read a few works by Bakhtin and doesn't have any conception of how they fit into Bakhtin's larger projects. (This is a common danger with reading Bakhtin; he is always doing more than he looks like he's doing.)

Much of the rest of Jacobs's ill-formed argument makes an elementary logical confusion. As he says, Menippean satires unite multiple generic subelements. It does not follow that the uniting of generic subelements makes something a Menippean satire. And we see how thoroughly this elementary mistake messes up Jacobs's argument when we look at the next steps in Jacobs's arguments:

And this should be no surprise, because versions of the menippea are scattered throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The combination of dream vision and satire may be found in Piers Plowman; the insertion of long theological debates in fabulous narrative is especially characteristic of Guillame de Lorris's continuation of the Romance of the Rose; the alternation of argument and song may be found not only in The Pilgrim's Progress but also, in a very different way, in a book whose influence on CSL has not been well-enough noted, Sidney's Arcadia.

None of these are Menippean satires. (I am, incidentally, going to do Jacobs the courtesy of assuming that when he, a professor of literature, attributed the continuation of the Romance of the Rose to Guillaume de Lorris, who wrote the initial section which was continued by Jean de Meun, this was a slip of the keys or an unintended effect of an incomplete revision, and not Jacobs showing that he doesn't even know the most basic facts about such a significant piece of literary history.) For one thing, none of these things are satire in the sense that a Menippean satire is (Jacobs seems not to understand that the 'satire' in 'Menippean satire' indicates a very specific kind of indirect intellectual satire, much closer to the irony of Romantic philosophers like Schlegel than satire in the usual sense), but neither the allegory The Pilgrim's Progress nor the polyphonic romance Arcadia are very like Menippean satires at all, as anyone can see who sets them next to the works of Lucian of Samosata, who writes what are probably the best typical Menippean satires (the most widely read Menippean satire in history is the Consolation of Philosophy, but it is in many ways in a class by itself, and not all that typical). (Jean de Meun obviously draws on Boethius and other late Menippean satire; his continuation of the Romance of the Rose is the work on the list that is most like a Menippean satire.) They all have an interest in (at least some) ideas as such; they all make extensive use of the implicit dialogue of juxtaposition (which is one reason, incidentally, for Bakhtin's interest in the genre and its influences) and often explicit dialogue on abstract topics; they occasionally use allegorical elements as ways of tying different levels together; they mix generic subelements. There would certainly be a historical connection -- practically everyone writing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance would have read some genuine Menippean satires (the Consolation, if nothing else), allegorical literature is heavily indebted to Menippean satire in its origins, etc. But this is not a strong genre-connection at all. These are things that might be found anywhere in an infinite variety of forms; if we're using it this broadly, we might as well just say that the bulk of everything written is Menippean satire. We certainly get these things in blogging. Who knew that blogging was really a revival of Menippean satire? (Actually, as a figure of speech or a use of the terms in a stretched sense that wouldn't be a bad characterization. But treating this as genre classification is, indeed, nonsense.)

And when we take, as Jacobs does, to treating Kierkegaard as Menippean satire we are clearly engaging in an abuse of terms. He's clearly getting it from Bakhtin again, since it is only as colored by Bakhtin's more abstract philosophical interests that one would take Kierkegaard to be writing Menippean satire, rather than writing something that has certain loose analogies to Menippean satire. Kierkegaard, at least, is a much, much better candidate for being counted in the genre than almost any other work Jacobs has mentioned -- the continuation of the Romance of the Rose perhaps is the only better candidate. (And I can't help but notice that Jacobs has mentioned no obvious Menippean satires -- nothing at all from the era of Apocolyntosis, which, while certainly not the first Menippean satire, is the earliest extant, to the era of the Consolation, in which our ability to trace direct participation in the genre as a literary tradition begins to break down. We've gotten abstract ideas from Frye and Bakhtin -- but talk of 'menippea' is talking not about the genre but about an abstract concept derived from selecting out certain features of actual Menippean satires; we've gotten a list that is dangerously near to turning into a list of all major works of fiction prior to the novel. But nothing that's actually, unquestionably, a Menippean satire, even when defending his appeal to it. Not one. The obvious way to defend the claim that X is a Menippean satire is to do direct comparison with Menippean satires. This is what Relihan et al. have done with Boethius, for instance. But actually doing that would show that even That Hideous Strength, the Lewis work most like a Menippean satire, is not all that much like one.)

So, no, my assessment of his botching of the genre of Menippean satire not only stands; it is confirmed in spades. (Jacobs doesn't respond to what primarily led me to call his original post nonsense, namely, the putting of his own personal tastes in the place of critical taste, which must draw out the riches of the common experiences of readers. The point he actually attacks is the point that I explicitly said I wasn't going to treat in detail. So all the weight gets put on it here; it is not what I thought was most important to criticize in Jacobs's argument.)


Having read back over this post, I want to reiterate an essential point noted in my prior post: Jacobs's original argument was against Lewis's storytelling. But Menippean satires are a form of storytelling. Indeed, even if we were to look only at what Jacobs himself has explicitly committed to as menippea, we see this as a blindingly obvious truth. So if Lewis were writing Menippean satire, the standard for his storytelling would be the kind of storytelling relevant to Menippean satires. If Lewis were a good writer of Menippean satire, his work would be good storytelling in the Menippean satire form; if Lewis were a weak storyteller and a Menippean satirist, he would be a weak writer of Menippean satire. Menippean satire is not merely story, and it would suffer less from bad or weak storytelling than the novel. It also has its own storytelling standards. But storytelling is an essential part of it. This whole part of Jacobs's argument, besides being poorly built, is poorly suited for supporting his original claims.


Summa Theologiae 1.2.3 obj 1 & ad 1:
It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

-- As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Summa Theologiae 3.1.3 ad 3:
But there is no reason why human nature should not have been raised to something greater after sin. For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom; hence it is written (Romans 5:20): "Where sin abounded, grace did more abound." Hence, too, in the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: "O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!"