Saturday, June 02, 2018

Jules Verne, The Self-Propelled Island; A Castle in Transylvania


Opening Passages: From The Self-Propelled Island:

When a trip begins badly, it rarely ends well. At least this is an opinion that the four musicians, whose instruments were lying on the ground, would surely have a right to maintain. Indeed, the carriage they had taken at the final station of the railroad had just tipped over onto the shoulder of the road. (p. 3)

From The Castle in Transylvania:

This story is not fantastic; it is only romantic. Should we conclude that it isn't true, given its implausibility? That would be a mistake. We are living in a time when anything can happen--one can almost say, when everything has happened. If our tale is not very likely today, it can be so tomorrow, thanks to the scientific resources that are the lot of the future, so no one should take it into his head to rank it among legends. Moreover, legends have stopped being created in the decline of this practical and positive nineteenth century, even in Brittany, the country of the fierce Breton goblins, or in Scotland, the land of brownies and gnomes, or in Norway, the homeland of aesir, elves, sylphs and Valkyries, or even in Transylvania, where the setting of the Carpathians lends itself so readily to all psychogogic evocations. It should be noted, however, that Transylvania as a country is still quite attached to the superstitions of long ago. (p. 5)

Summary: In L'Île à hélice, Propeller Island, or, as it is in this translation, The Self-Propelled Island, a string quartet finds themselves on an artificial island, Standard Island, slowly traveling the Pacific; on the artificial island, there is an entire city, Milliard City, so-called because it is filled with billionaires and millionaires. They discover that the city is largely divided between Starboard and Larboard. On one side, the Tankerdon family, a Yankee family that became one of the wealthiest families in Chicago, predominates, with their industrious Calvinist mores; on the other side, the Coverleys, a Southern family scarcely less rich, are the foremost social influences, with their humanistic Catholic tastes. But Larboard or Starboard, both sides share two things: love of music, and extraordinary wealth of a thoroughly American kind. The problem, of course, with billionaires is that they ar enot practiced in deferring to other people, and a society requires a willingness to bend one's own will, and not merely the will of others. And the problem with Milliard City, of course, is that it is a purely artificial society. There are some things that unite it: the geographical proximity of being on the same island, the good management of the corporation that owns and runs Standard Island, the residue of a shared, and very American, culture. But the cracks will begin to show as the island has all the problems of an independent nation, and all the problems of an island, and all the problems of a ship at sea, and all the problems of a divided society, until it all cracks apart.

This contrasts with the quartet themselves. They are each radically different -- indeed, they are almost abstract types of completely different people, and this is explicitly emphasized by Verne himself: "So that we will not forget, let us mention once again that Zorn was irascible, Yvernés phlegmatic, Frascolin calm, and Pinchinat overflowing with joviality" (p. 9). But they are close and inseparable friends. Their little quartet is not an artificial society, but a natural one, built out of common bonds from a common love and for a common project, a true friendship. And, really, the only two things that cam make a society natural and genuinely united as one are friendship and marriage. A bunch of billionaires in the ultimate gated community have barely a society at all, despite having every technological advance known to man and every sort of prosperity any society could want.

In Le Château des Carpathes, The Castle of the Carpathians, or, as it is in this translation, The Castle in Transylvania, the backwards little village of Werst in Transylvania sits below a great ruin of a castle that it is said to be haunted by the Chort, the devil, and other malevolent spirits. The local village freethinker, Dr. Patak scoffs at their superstitions, but one day the local shepherd discovers through a telescope that there is smoke coming from the castle. What is more, as some people are discussing the matter in the local inn, a disembodied voice tells them not to investigate the castle. The brave Nic Deck and the rather less brave Dr. Patak ignore the voice and go up to the castle, and there find strange happenings that terrify them and the whole countryside. In the meantime, another, even more modern-minded man of the world, Count Franz of Telek, who is passing through, sets out to show that there is nothing to the superstitions, particularly when he learns that the castle is owned by Baron Rudolph of Gortz, whom he had met years before when they both were admirers of a great opera singer, La Stilla.

The opposition and similarities of the two freethinkers is interesting. They both overestimate themselves, but in different ways. Dr. Patak talks a big game, boldly scoffing at the superstitions of the ignorant peasants when nothing whatsoever is at stake; but we see quite clearly that he is not really willing to act as boldly when put to the test. The Count, on the other hand, has all the boldness required, and is in every way a superior man to Dr. Patak, but he overestimates both his rationality and his strength of mind. Neither of them really understand human nature as much as they think they do; and thinking themselves men of reason, they both show themselves to be heavily motivated by unthinking, unreasoning passions. And neither of them understand the world as much as they think they do, either; the world itself allows for phenomena, discoverable by the scientist, of which they had never conceived.

Music plays an important role in both works, chamber music in The Self-Propelled Island and opera in The Castle in Transylvania. Chamber music serves as an example of a genuine society; opera, I think, serves to capture the depth of human feeling. And both give us a picture -- a somewhat different picture in each case -- of humanity itself.

Favorite Passages: From The Self-Propelled Island:

Inside this casino, where music lovers could listen to the distant sounds that the quartet would soon add to, were also stored the art collections of Milliard City. To art lovers, the museum, rich in ancient and modern paintings, offered numerous masterpieces acquired at exorbitant prices: canvases of the Italian, Dutch, German, and French schools, which the collections of Paris, London, Munich, Rome, and Florence would envy. It contained works by Raphael, da Vinci, Giorgione, Correggio, Domenichino, Ribeira, Murillo, Ruysdael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Cuyp, Frans Hal, Hobbema, Van Dyck, Holbein, etc. It also housed many modern paintings by Fragonard, Ingres, Delacroix, Scheffer, Cabat, Delaroche, Régnant, Couture, Meissonier, Millet, Rousseau, Jules Dupré, Brascassat, Mackart, Turner, Troyon, Corot, Daubigny, Baudry, Bonnat, Carolus Duran, Jules Lefebvre, Vollon, Breton, Binet, Yon, Cabanel, etc. In order to ensure that these pictures would last forever, they were placed inside glass cases in which a vacuum had been created. It should be noted that the impressionists and the futurists had not yet cluttered this museum; but this omission would probably not last and Standard Island would not escape the invasion of this decadent plague. (pp. 72-73)

From The Castle in Transylvania:

Vast, vaulted rooms; deep cellars; multiple passageways; courtyards whose stone paving vanished beneath tall thickets of grass; underground hideaways where daylight never penetrated; stairways hidden in the thick walls; blockhouses illumined by the narrow loopholes of the outer wall; the central keep with three floors, its chambers still adequately livable, crowned by a crenelated platform, between the various constructions of the enceinte; interminable hallways capriciously intertwining, rising up to the terreplein of the bastions, and descending into the bowels of the structure; here and there a few water tanks where rainwater was collected, the overflow from which gave access to the road to the Vulkan Pass; such was the ensemble of the Castle of the Carpathians, whose geometrical layout offered a system that was as complicated as those of the labyrinths of Porsenna, Lemnos, or Crete. (pp. 173-174)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Jules Verne, The Self-Propelled Island, Noiset, tr., University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE: 2015).

Jules Verne, The Castle in Transylvania, Mandell, tr., Melville House Publishing (Brooklyn, NY: 2010).

Dashed Off XI

Every philosopher reflects the history of philosophy, but all do so under limitation and with distortion. Thus one may say figuratively that every philosopher is the history of philosophy thinking about itself from a different angle.

the neighborhood of an argument as modal (possible variations)

the three kinds of distorting influence on reasoning: neglect, excessive attachment, deliberate willfulness

The Bolzano problem for miracles as violation of laws of nature: If 'laws' is taken a priori, impossible; if 'laws' is taken empirically, merely unusual.

As nothing comes from nothing, all progress is through the destroying of something, and what one destroys to make progress can set limits to how much progress one can make. Modern European nations arose and fed their political improvements by devouring the infrastructure of the Church, then the resources of the colonies, and all throughout the resources of enemies. This is fact, not itself a moral matter (that requires a finer-grained determination). But progress, however defined, is a devouring in order to grow, a destroying in order to produce, whether that is like drawing elements from ore, or like predator eating prey, or like theft. And, even independently of the morality of it, that is why one can always find reasonable people who oppose it.

"Man lives, and can live, only by communion with that which is not himself." Brownson

"When the mind is in its normal state, nothing more is ever needed for belief than the removal of the obstacles interposed to believing; for, if we consider it, the mind was created for truth." Brownson

consensus gentium -> providential men -> special providence -> divine care for the human race

the pursuit of nirvana as a pursuit of openness to the infinite intelligible

"What is not actual cannot act, and therefore both subject and object must be actualities prior to thought, and therefore when unthought." Brownson

what is necessary, what tends to be, what happens to be

'No Ought from Is' implies (with only some basic assumptions added) that there is no synthetic a priori.

reading for improvement, reading for challenge, reading for benefit, reading for mere pleasure

"Number (positive integer) cannot be defined (seeing that the ideas of order, succession, aggregate, etc., are as complex as that of number." Peano

negotiation, benefaction, donation, oblation, and association as economic relations

The swifter the news process, the less accurate it is. The more accurate it is, the more it has had to take time for sifting.

Mt 4:3 // Mt 27:40
cp Wis 2:18 (Benedict XVI)
- Note link between Ex 17:7 and Dt 6:16, and how it reflects on the Temptation
- contrast with Mt 28:16-18

Imaginative geniuses have imaginations different from non-geniuses in quality, not merely quantity; but the qualitiative superiorities reveal us to ourselves by means of exemplars. What we have is in them transfigured, and yet, when expressed, we may imitate the expression and learn what we previously had not.

"The belief that a picture yields only visual impressions is a curious illusion." Croce

"The principle of contradiction itself, is at bottom nothing but the aesthetic principle of coherence." Croce
-- This is backwards, of course, but the connection is real.

In choosing what to sculpt, the sculptor chooses his motivations in sculpting.

Art dies; sometimes it dies slowly, but it dies.

Gentile's fundamental antinomy of education
(1) Man as object of education is and must be free. (Education presupposes freedom and tries to increase it.)
(2) Education denies man's freedom. (Education treats man by ignoring freedom and acting so as to strip him of it through discipline.)
-- (2), of course, is obviously wrong in reality. But notably Gentile's argumetn for it works under the modern notion of "full and absolute liberty" i.e., autonomous agency that is unconstrained. In this sense, however, (1) is wrong.

Culture is in us and in the world, and it is concerned with things beyond itself as well as with itself.

There is nothing wrong with reading books that do not fundamentally change us or our views; such things are the roughage in our nourishment.

The first impulse to art is crude, inept, and does not draw admiration; the goodness, adeptness, and admirableness is had through work. Acting simply from first impulse, art is chaos. To reduce this chaos, we have formed techniques applied with good sense, which cultivate artistic desires in particular directions and provide for their satisfaction.
The first impulse to art is given by nature; it cannot be learned, nor acquired by work.
Technique is that by which one's person is adjusted and moderated.
If the first impulse to art were adept, we could cast aside artistic geniuses and ignore technique with good sense.
The first impulse to art is root and beginning, the unornamented material. Work is the flourishing fruitfulness of technique. Without first impulse, work would have nothing to extend. Without work, first impulse would not become beautiful.
If an honest mind applies good sense, there will be technique.
The facets of genius are rooted in categories arising from good sense.
Geniuses are valued for being able to transfigure their first impulse and being able to work. As they work, technique with good sense is formed as the product of genius, and it is then what people become capable of through work.
The great artist influences by exemplarity, the poor by dictation of rules. Great artists become exemplary. Silent, they serve as grounds for analogies; not giving anything, others still receive.
Technique according to standard, expression appropriate: this is technique with good sense. One who is concerned with good sense follows reason.
An artist must not abandon technique with good sense even for a moment.
Techniques are established reason. Techniques are caution in matters of import. Technique with good sense cuts short the over-long and extends the over-short. It adorns values and is a sort of beauty of accomplishment.

rites as moral techniques

some key principles of journalistic ethics
(1) Claims should be sourced.
(2) Claims should be supported with independent confirmation.
(3) Where relevant differences exist among possible sources, this should be shown.
'Actually have the evidence adequate to your own claim' is perhaps the key principle of journalistic ethics.

matrimony as the sacrament of the union of the Word and human nature (Aquinas Comm in Rom c7.L1, sect. 522)

Vico and the Latin language as sage philosophy

Rational discourse is the breath of the body politic.

The rule of review in Descartes's method requires a topics. (cp. Vico)

The Faith does not serve your political convenience.

Some of what people call freedom is merely treacherousness.

Without some form of tradition on which it can draw, historical interpretation is impossible.

levels of ethics of governance
(1) internal (what is usually called government ethics)
(2) political (the ethics of political means)
(3) moral (universal & end-governing)

"Action is the revelation of being." W. Norris Clarke

When people will not work for common good, disagreement leads to escalation leads to collapse.

Scottish Poetry II

Address to the Unco Guid, Or the Rigidly Righteous
by Robert Burns

        My Son, these maxims make a rule,
        An' lump them aye thegither;
        The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
        The Rigid Wise anither:
        The cleanest corn that ere was dight
        May hae some pyles o' caff in;
        So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
        For random fits o' daffin.
        Solomon.-Eccles. ch. vii. verse 16.

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel',
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours' fauts and folly!
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi' store o' water;
The heaped happer's ebbing still,
An' still the clap plays clatter.

Hear me, ye venerable core,
As counsel for poor mortals
That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door
For glaikit Folly's portals:
I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes,
Would here propone defences-
Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,
Their failings and mischances.

Ye see your state wi' theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer;
But cast a moment's fair regard,
What maks the mighty differ;
Discount what scant occasion gave,
That purity ye pride in;
And (what's aft mair than a' the lave),
Your better art o' hidin.

Think, when your castigated pulse
Gies now and then a wallop!
What ragings must his veins convulse,
That still eternal gallop!
Wi' wind and tide fair i' your tail,
Right on ye scud your sea-way;
But in the teeth o' baith to sail,
It maks an unco lee-way.

See Social Life and Glee sit down,
All joyous and unthinking,
Till, quite transmugrified, they're grown
Debauchery and Drinking:
O would they stay to calculate
Th' eternal consequences;
Or your more dreaded hell to state,
Damnation of expenses!

Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names,
Suppose a change o' cases;
A dear-lov'd lad, convenience snug,
A treach'rous inclination-
But let me whisper i' your lug,
Ye're aiblins nae temptation.

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, -
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Whatever Things Were Rightly Said

Today is the feast of St. Justin Martyr, patron saint of philosophers and also in a sense of this blog. From his Second Apology:

For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself, and at popular opinion; and I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians. For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word, seeing what was related to it. But they who contradict themselves on the more important points appear not to have possessed the heavenly wisdom, and the knowledge which cannot be spoken against. Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that, becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them. For the seed and imitation imparted according to capacity is one thing, and quite another is the thing itself, of which there is the participation and imitation according to the grace which is from Him.

Fully to understand this, you have to recognize that 'word' here is Logos, which can of course also be translated as 'reason'. Spermatikos logos here is related to the Stoic idea (more or less) that there is in everything a participation in Divine Reason that makes it unfold rationally in the way appropriate to it; it could also be translated as 'germinal reason' or 'seminal reason'.

Scottish Poetry I

by James Beattie

O how canst thou renounce the boundless store
Of charms which Nature to her votary yields!
The warbling woodland, the resounding shore,
The pomp of groves, and garniture of fields;
All that the genial ray of morning gilds,
And all that echoes to the song of even,
All that the mountain's sheltering bosom shields,
And all the dread magnificence of heaven,
O how canst thou renounce and hope to be forgiven!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Maid of Orleans

Today is the feast of St. Joan of Arc, or St. Jehanne D'Arc, the Maid of Orleans. I have a summary of the battles in which St. Joan was involved here.

Jehanne D'Arc

A quiet garden path
        (St. Michael be our guide)
a scent of spring and day,
a field both green and wide,
and a girl--

and beauty bright and bold
        (St. Catherine, for us pray)
and fierce but calm resolve
(with militance like May)
of a girl--

the hope that step by step
        (St. Margaret, lend your aid)
will charge the raging host
and face the swinging blade
as a girl--

by one bright thread are bound
        (Lord Jesus, give us grace)
with frame of twining flame
and eyes set in the face
of a girl....

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dont suis de bien et de joye separée

On May 29, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II defeated Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos to capture Constantinople, by ingenious strategy, and overwhelming army, and an innovative use of gunpowder to nullify Constantinople's extraordinary fortifications. Emperor Constantine's dwindling army was aided by a few hundred men from the Papal States and Genoa, as well as a handful of ships from Venice that were already in Constantinople, which, except for a further fleet sent from Venice that failed to arrive in time, was the most that the West would volunteer at that period of increasing hostility between East and West. It was, for all that, a closer thing than is sometimes admitted; attempts to treat the fall of Constantinople as inevitable tend to overlook both how extraordinary Constantinople's fortifications were, and also how much in the way of military talent and resources the Sultan had to bring to bear in order to accomplish it. The Ottoman army had heavy losses; their victory was hard-won. In the confusion, nobody knows for sure what happened to the Emperor.

And so fell, once and for all, the Roman Empire. Thousands of Christians were killed in the aftermath, and thousands sold into slavery. The Ottomans looted the city for three days -- Mehmed II could not deny them the right because it was part of their pay. But it is said at the end of it that he wept, saying, "And see what a city we have submitted to plunder and destruction."

Cappella Romana and Alexander Lingas perform Guillaume Du Fay's Lamentatio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae:

Du Fay (or Dufay) was a Flemish composer who made his way to Italy in the fifteenth century; his most famous work is probably the motet, Nuper rosarum flores, which was written for the consecration of the Cathedral in Florence, but this one, reflecting on the loss of Hagia Sophia, is in some ways more haunting. It is in content a lament of the Holy Virgin seeing her Son crucified, which also represents the lament of the Church.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

St. Melangell's Lambs

There's a rabbit that keeps hanging around my yard in the late afternoons to cool off; he makes the world more interesting, so it seems fitting to mark today, the feast day of the patron saint of rabbits, hares, and those who raise them, St. Monacella, also known as St. Melangell.

The tale of the saint is this. St. Melangell was an Irish princess who fled Ireland as a teenager so that she would not have to marry; she ended up in Wales, where she lived for about fifteen years as a hermit. One day the Prince of Powys was out hunting hares, and while in pursuit he came suddenly into a thicket and saw an unexpected sight that stopped him short: a beautiful young woman in prayer, holding the hare, while his hunting dogs were whining and barking a few feet away. The prince heard her story, and gave her the land where he had discovered her, so that she might found an abbey there. She lived to a pious old age, and was buried in the small church in the village that had sprung up near the abbey; the village, Pennant, became known as Pennant Melangell, and the church became known as St. Melangell's. The hares in the parish were sometimes called 'St. Melangell's lambs', and for a very long time it was considered wrong to harm any hare within the borders of the parish, because in it they had the right of sanctuary.

Shrine of St. Monacella in Pennant Melangel Church, 1795