Saturday, October 13, 2018

Jules Verne, Family Without a Name


Opening Passage:

"What a sorry sight the human race is," remarked the philosophers at the end of the eighteenth century, "cutting each other's throats for the sake of a few ice-covered acres of land." It was not their wisest observation, for they were referring to Canada, over which the British and French were then at war.

Although France was unable to maintain her hold on this splendid North American colony, its population, by and large, has remained as French as ever, despite treaties and boundary changes. (p. 13)

Summary: Simon Morgaz sold out his fellow patriots for a fortune and, when discovered, insisted on his innocence so vehemently that his wife and two young sons believed him. They went into hiding. But after his death they discover clear proof that the rumor was true. The two boys, Jean and Johann, and their mother, Bridget, repudiate the name of Morgaz. Jean and Johann each in their own way set out to make amends, Johann going into the priesthood and Jean into fighting for the independence of Quebec; but it is hard when your father has left you a debt that cannot be repaid and a stain that cannot be washed out. Jean becomes known as Jean Sans-Nom, Jean Without-Name, a freedom fighter feared by the British, public enemy number one, and the British will stop at nothing to hunt him down and execute them. Jean is clever, but it is only a matter of time before either he is unmasked as the son of the infamous traitor, thus losing the love and respect of those around him, or caught and put in front of a firing squad. Can anything other than self-sacrifice wash away the traitor's stain of blood?

Verne is not really recounting history. The early rebellion, and the Simon Morgaz who sold it out, are entirely fictional, as is, of course, Jean Sans-Nom and most of the characters in the story; Verne deliberately depicts Huron Indians fighting for the patriotes, despite the fact that they did not actually do so; several events from the real rebellion are so fictionalized as to be hardly recognizable. This is a work of storm and fire, buffoonery and melodrama, designed not to characterize the course of a rebellion but to depict, in fictional form, the hope that burns inside the fight for independence from an oppressive government. Verne wrote the book after the Franco-Prussian War, during which France had lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, and there is a real sense in which this book about an entirely different continent is about that more than anything else. It is a call to the people of Alsace-Lorraine not to surrender and not to lose hope; the sacrifices may be great but freedom from the oppressor can be obtained.

Favorite Passage:

In all the St. Lawrence Valley, Thomas Harcher could not have found a better companion than his wife Catherine. She was forty-five years old, as sturdily built as her husband and, like him, still young in mind and body. Although her face and general appearance were rather plain, she was good-hearted and not afraid of hard work. In short, she was the mother of the family, as he was the father. They made a fine couple, so hale and hearty that they looked as if they could live to be a hundred, as many do in the wholesome Canadian climate.

There was perhaps one criticism that could be made of Catherine Harcher, but it applied equally to every woman in the country, public opinion to the contrary. The fact is, Canadian women are good housekeepers because their husbands do the housework: they make the beds, set the table, pluck the chickens, milk the cows, churn the butter, peel the potatoes, light the fire, wash the dishes, dress the children, polish the furniture, hang out the laundry. Catherine, however, did not carry this domineering attitude to the point of making her husband a slave, as many Canadian housewives do. Far from it! To do her justice, it must be acknowledged that she did her share of the daily work. Yet Thomas willingly did her bidding and indulged her whims. And what a fine family Catherine had given him -- twenty-six children, from their first-born, Pierre, the skipper of the Champlain, to the youngest, only a few weeks old, whose christening was shortly to be celebrated. (pp. 130-131)

Recommendation: Recommended.

Jules Verne, Family Without a Name, Edward Baxter, tr., NC Press Limited (Toronto: 1982).

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Evening Note for Thursday, October 11

Thought for the Evening: Saturated Phenomena

Kant makes a distinction between intuition and concepts; both are thoughts present to the mind, but intuitions are singular, referring to objects as such, while concepts refer to objects indirectly by way of characteristics that they have in common. The intuition gives the object, and the concept thinks it. Thus the object cannot be linked to a concept except by intuition (which Kant associates with the senses and the imagination), but at the same time, we could not think about objects without concepts. In Kant's famous saying, "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." Kant also recognizes, however, that our concepts in some sense can be said to exceed our intuitions; we have concepts for which we have no intuitions, indeed, cannot possibly have intuitions. This raises the question: Is there some sense in which intuitions can be said to exceed concepts? And Kant gives some reason to think that this is so, as well: the aesthetic idea is one in which we have an imaginative intuition that cannot receive an adequate concept.

This serves as part of the background of Jean-Luc Marion's exploration of the saturated phenomenon, that which is experienced as being in a sort of excess of our ability to conceive it. Using Kant's categories, Marion gives an account of the saturated phenomenon as having four aspects:

(1) Quantity: It is invisable, beyond what can be pre-determined so as to be aimed at. You can reduce it to pre-established parts; there is always more to it. He gives the example of cubist painting, in which the painter tries to show you all at once all the sides of a thing, and thereby shows you that there is more to the thing than you would expect, and also that the sides proliferate perhaps uncontrollably when we try to capture a single thing from all points of view at once.

(2) Quality: It is unbearable. It is blinding or bedazzling; trying to capture it is overwhelming in some way. In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the person who stands up and turns from the shadows to the light is dazzled, confused and blinded, until he gets used to it.

(3) Relation: It is absolute, which means here that it goes beyond what can be captured by analogy to other experiences. It stands out with a sort of uniqueness, so that if we try to capture it by comparison with other experiences, we end up with an 'infinite hermeneutic' -- to capture it by its relation to other things, we in a sense have to make our comparisons in a never-ending variety of ways.

(4) Modality: It is irregardable: while we can experience it, we can't hold the experience. We can glance but not stare, so to speak.

It is important to grasp, and is often missed by Marion's critics, that Marion is not describing a kind of rare and special experience; his whole argument is that saturated phenomena are quite common. It is unsaturated phenomena that are rare, because most of them are artificial. When do our concepts completely capture the experience they cover, giving it in its parts and in such a way that it can be clearly recognized and exactly compared with other things, so that it can be carefully and thoroughly examined? Usually only in cases like mathematics, or rigorous scientific experiment, or precise taxonomic classification, where we have carefully restricted -- impoverished -- the experience so that it fits the concept exactly. Mathematics is indeed the preeminent case, in which we have attenuated experience so much that we can clearly and exactly capture it.

Saturated phenomena, on the other hand, are found throughout common experience and show up regularly in philosophy. We can touch but not comprehend the infinite, says Descartes; Kant discusses the experience of the sublime; Husserl looks at our internal consciousness of temporal flux as something eluding precise conceptualizing. Historical events, and in literature fictional events, are experienced as saturated phenomena; so are paintings and sculptures. We often experience faces this way. So too, our bodies are experienced in this way in many of our experiences, and likewise in erotic encounters the body of the other. The uncanny, the horrific, the numinous, the suspenseful, are all saturated, and so also are objects of religious experience. A common feature of all of these is that they are cases where it's not so much our acting so as to perceive things, but our being acted upon so as to be made witness to something. It is not so much that we grasp them as that we are in the grip of them, in one way or another. (Obviously, it is not all in the same way because they each exceed relation.)

Thus human thought has a sort of double superabundance: concepts going beyond intuitions and intuitions going beyond concepts. But the Kantian dictum which I noted at the start is perhaps overly simplistic. Concepts ranging beyond intuitions are perhaps not wholly empty (e.g., flickering intuitions or connections to intuitions that, while very attenuated, are nonetheless real), and intuitions exceeding concepts are perhaps not wholly blind (e.g., if they have many concepts, or if there are intuitions that we can only sometimes and briefly grasp conceptually at the utmost wavering edge of our ability to conceive).

[Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, Kosky, tr., Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA: 2002).]

Various Links of Interest

* Dean McCartney, The Problem with Reinforced Concrete

* A letter by Galileo was recently discovered, but Thony Christie notes that it probably doesn't really affect much in our interpretation of events.

* Devon Zuegel, North American vs Japanese Zoning

* A fascinating summary of the problems local campaigns in the U.S. have to face (from a Democratic perspective).

* China is having problems with young Communists. They didn't learn that they were supposed to treat it as a symbolic way of saying, "Leave things to the state."

* Laura Booth interviews Donna Strickland, who recently won a Nobel Prize in Physics for her experimental work:

There's been a lot of attention on your position as an associate professor and not a full professor. What has been your response to that.

That I'm very sorry for the university because it's not their fault.

This is what people I don't think get, a full professor although it's a different name it doesn't carry necessarily a pay raise and I don't lose my job (if I don't apply to be a full professor). So I never filled out the paper work.

* Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Case Against Pope Francis. Dougherty is a bit harsh, but I think it is true that, if reform is the standard of success (and it was the success most people have been taking him to be trying to reach), the pontificate of Pope Francis is already a failure; there were warning signs in the fact that the people he was clearly trusting in the reform were all under various levels of suspicion for wrongdoing, and it became clear during the fiasco in Chile, when Pope Francis, ignoring the highly visible protests of the laity, installed a bishop widely recognized to have covered up child abuse, then sharply scolded people for 'calumny' when they continued to protest, then was forced by events to reverse course and investigate, through which it was discovered that the laity's accusations and protests had been mild and restrained as responses to the actual corruptions in the Chilean hierarchy. The McCarrick episode has established that he learned not a single thing from Chile, and that neither he nor his advisers really listen even now, so there does not seem to be a shift of policy in the foreseeable future. It looks very much like his tenure will turn out to be an endless series of squandered opportunities. So it goes; it's far from being an unprecedented thing in the history of the papacy.

* Ed Peters, The cerberus of clerical sexual misconduct: a canonical overview

* Michael Pakaluk, On Needing God -- and the Teaching on Hell

Currently Reading

Jules Verne, Family Without a Name
John W. O'Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council
G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention
Jules Verne, The Fur Country

Music on My Mind

Speak Low, "Thriller". A bit of instrumental for your day.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Radio Greats: Mrs. Stanford's Angina Pectoris (Dr. Kildare)

Dr. James Kildare was a character invented in the mid 1930s by Max Brand. Brand was most famous for his Westerns, but the modern doctor Dr. Kildare has probably been his most enduring character. Shortly after the publication of the first Dr. Kildare short story, a movie was based on it, Internes Can't Take Money, which did well enough that a whole series of Dr. Kildare movies were made. Two characters in particular became associated with the series: the curmudgeonly Dr. Gillespie, played by Lionel Barrymore, and, of course, the idealistic Dr. Kildare himself, played by Lew Ayres.

In 1949, The Story of Dr. Kildare, often just known as Dr. Kildare, was put together by MGM, starrying both Barrymore and Ayres. It had an all-star cast, including the always-solid Virginia Gregg as Nurse Parker, with whom Dr. Gillespie has a perpetual (but still largely friendly) feud of words. The series did very, very well, but it was late in the Age of Radio, and it was cheaper and easier for radio stations to make their own radio series than to buy fancy packages from third parties, so it only lasted about two years, despite its popularity.

Each episode, Dr. Kildare handles crazy patients (or sometimes crazy administrators) while Dr. Gillespie makes curmudgeonly and sarcastic wisecracks; but he always wins through to heal the sickness or triumph over mere bureaucracy. A good one for October, as we gear up for Halloween, is "Mrs. Stanford's Angina Pectoris", from July 1950. Medicine meets love meets ghosts meets butcher knives meets shenanigans about a will and testament. But Dr. Gillespie knows human nature and will bring everything to a happy ending. Well, perhaps Dr. Kildare will suffer a bit from a bruised heart, but, as Dr. Gillespie likes to point out, he's young yet and will certainly recover.

You can listen to "Mrs. Stanford's Angina Pectoris" online at the Internet Archive (number 24).

The Power to Prevent Bad Things

Peter Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" [Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 229-243] has been subjected to a number of common criticisms, for instance that it is too demanding (which has to be formulated very carefully in order not to be question-begging, although Singer does jump too quickly from reasonable to obligatory) or that there are problems with Singer's attempt to dismiss distance as relevant (which is right, although 'distance' here has to be at least partly concerned with difficulty and uncertainty of action rather than just geographical distance). But there is a problem with his argument that I have not seen anybody point out, one which I think is fairly significant: there is a significant gap between the principle to which Singer appeals and the supposed result of the application.

Singer's principle is (in the weaker form he gives), "if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it." Now, as I noted before, this moves too quickly to obligation -- that we can prevent something very bad from happening without sacrificing anything else morally significant is obviously in and of itself a reason to do it, but it is much less obvious that it is in and of itself a reason to treat it as morally obligatory -- and, indeed, this will depend on what theory of obligation you espouse. Most people would regard a principle like Singer's as true for certain kinds of domain, namely, domains for which you have direct responsibility, but would be more skeptical for other domains (domains for which you have only indirect responsibility and domains for which you are not generally regarded as responsible at all); if that is right, we need to add some principle(s) of responsibility to get it to work, but Singer wants and needs his principle both to be absolutely general and to yield obligation immediately. This is a tall order, but let's set this aside for the moment. A question that should be asked here is about the prevention.

Preventing evils requires making it so that they do not happen. Singer seems to hold that a lot of things count as prevention. Some of his examples are cases in which anyone could agree that you are preventing an evil -- for instance, saving a child from drowning in a pond. But for other examples (and, indeed, the cases to which Singer wants actually to apply his principle), the matter is not so clear, and sometimes it is not clear that there is any sort of power-to-prevent at all. Take the most obvious case: people starving to death in East Bengal is very bad. The action for which Singer argues is donating to the Bengal Relief Fund. But donating to the Bengal Fund is not, in fact, preventing people from starving in East Bengal. To be sure, some of the actions supported by money from the Bengal Relief Fund do (one hopes), but if I support the Bengal Relief Fund, I am not doing any of those things at all; I'm just giving the Bengal Relief Fund a bit of money so that (I am trusting) they will give it to people who (I am trusting) will do those things. Singer's principle is irrelevant to the case: the reason I'd be giving money to the Bengal Relief Fund (one would usually think) is that it is not, in fact, in my power to prevent the very bad thing at all; so I am transferring some of my power (buying power, in this case) to other people in the hope that, when it pools with power provided by other people, someone else will then have the power to prevent it. When you donate to prevent an evil, you are not, in general, preventing the evil; while there are exceptions, when you donate you are usually doing so precisely because you yourself don't have the power to prevent the evil; and the most common point of donation (besides, perhaps, showy appearance, which can be set aside here as irrelevant) is that we, lacking individually the power to prevent the evil, are trying collectively to create the power to prevent the evil.

Singer's argument proceeds as if the power to prevent bad things were an easy thing to find in the world and easy to use when you had it. But neither of these is true. Even for things within our immediate and ordinary sphere of action, for instance, many bad things are hard to prevent. A good example is keeping young children out of trouble, since a lot of things that for older children and adults would not be a problem can turn very bad for very young children; parents and caretakers have to put a lot of time and investment to preventing bad things from happening. While it is very difficult for us to accept it, a lot of bad things that happen to young children were not preventable given what was actually known and feasible at the time. And the more people we end up having to watch over, and the more evils we end up having to prevent, the less and less we ourselves could actually prevent. To be sure, there might always hypothetically have been someone who could have known the right things, or someone who could have been in the right place at the right time to prevent it, but hypothetically is sometimes merely hypothetically. If we are talking about ourselves, we are remarkably limited in the range of evils we have the actual power to prevent.

And even when we have the power, we might only just barely have the power, or might have it only maybe. Even if we might technically in fact have the power to prevent an evil, it might be close enough to the boundaries of what we know that we can do that it might be more reasonable to say that we have the power to do something that would be worth trying, which might prevent it.

Most of the time when we deal with bad things, we do not have the power to prevent them. Indeed, an immense amount of our time, money, and effort goes into just trying to create the power to prevent bad things, because we don't have it in the first place. Donating to a charity is not usually preventing bad things; it is trying to work with other people to create a power to prevent bad things. Volunteering time and effort is often the same. Most bad things are not like the child in the pond; the power to prevent them is not already in place to use. It has to be made, and that itself is not always easy.

Because of this, Singer's principle has a far narrower scope than he assumes (and, for that matter, than most of those reading him have tended to assume).

Tuesday, October 09, 2018


Today is the memorial for Bl. John Henry Newman, and the anniversary of his conversion from Anglicanism. A few brief passages from An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent to celebrate:

(Chapter 5)

Religion has to do with the real, and the real is the particular; theology has to do with what is notional, and the notional is the general and systematic. Hence theology has to do with the Dogma of the Holy Trinity as a whole made up of many propositions; but Religion has to do with each of those separate propositions which compose it, and lives and thrives in the contemplation of them. In them it finds the motives for devotion and faithful obedience; while theology on the other hand forms and protects them by virtue of its function of regarding them, not merely one by one, but as a system of truth.

(Chapter 9)

There are those, who, arguing à priori, maintain, that, since experience leads by syllogism only to probabilities, certitude is ever a mistake. There are others, who, while they deny this conclusion, grant the à priori principle assumed in the argument, and in consequence are obliged, in order to vindicate the certainty of our knowledge, to have recourse to the hypothesis of intuitions, intellectual forms, and the like, which belong to us by nature, and may be considered to elevate our experience into something more than it is in itself. Earnestly maintaining, as I would, with this latter school of philosophers, the certainty of knowledge, I think it enough to appeal to the common voice of mankind in proof of it. That is to be accounted a normal operation of our nature, which men in general do actually instance. That is a law of our minds, which is exemplified in action on a large scale, whether à priori it ought to be a law or no. Our hoping is a proof that hope, as such, is not an extravagance; and our possession of certitude is a proof that it is not a weakness or an absurdity to be certain.

(Chapter 10, Section 1)

Conscience is a personal guide, and I use it because I must use myself; I am as little able to think by any mind but my own as to breathe with another's lungs. Conscience is nearer to me than any other means of knowledge. And as it is given to me, so also is it given to others; and being carried about by every individual in his own breast, and requiring nothing besides itself, it is thus adapted for the communication to each separately of that knowledge which is most momentous to him individually,—adapted for the use of all classes and conditions of men, for high and low, young and old, men and women, independently of books, of educated reasoning, of physical knowledge, or of philosophy. Conscience, too, teaches us, not only that God is, but what He is; it provides for the mind a real image of Him, as a medium of worship; it gives us a rule of right and wrong, as being His rule, and a code of moral duties. Moreover, it is so constituted that, if obeyed, it becomes clearer in its injunctions, and wider in their range, and corrects and completes the accidental feebleness of its initial teachings. Conscience, then, considered as our guide, is fully furnished for its office. I say all this without entering into the question how far external assistances are in all cases necessary to the action of the mind, because in fact man does not live in isolation, but is everywhere found as a member of society; I am not concerned here with abstract questions.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Thou Seest the Gardener of the Stars

A Dead Astronomer
(Father Perry, S.J.)
by Francis Thompson

Starry amorist, starward gone,
Thou art—what thou didst gaze upon!
Passed through thy golden garden’s bars,
Thou seest the Gardener of the Stars.

She, about whose moonèd brows
Seven stars make seven glows,
Seven lights for seven woes;
She, like thine own Galaxy,
All lustres in one purity:—
What said’st thou, Astronomer,
When thou did’st discover her?
When thy hand its tube let fall,
Thou found’st the fairest Star of all!

Protector de Indios

Helen Andrews has an interesting article on Bartolomé de las Casas, at "First Things":

The Controversy of Valladolid of 1550 was one of the great dramatic set pieces of the Spanish Conquest. For six days straight, two men debated the morality of Spain’s treatment of the Indians in the New World. On one side was Bartolomé de las Casas, age sixty-five, then at the climax of a lifetime of humanitarian advocacy on behalf of the Indians. On the other was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, former history tutor to the heir to the throne and a staunch defender of the conquistadors. Judging their arguments was a panel of Spain’s most distinguished minds, and behind them loomed the figure of Charles V, ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The emperor had put a moratorium on all new expeditions in America while the morality of the conquest was being settled. Whether that moratorium would be lifted, and under what terms, was to be decided by this titanic battle.

Amazingly, the outcome of the debate is unknown....

As Andrews notes, Las Casas was a complicated man in a complicated situation, and, an immensely and sometimes irrationally stubborn man, did not always show himself a shining paragon; but he is a fascinating figure, for all that.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

This Deed of Peerless Valor's Highest Strain

Sonnet on Lepanto
by Fernando de Herrera
tr. by E. Churton

Deep sea, whose thundering waves in tumult roar,
Call forth thy troubled spirit, — bid him rise,
And gaze, with terror pale, and hollow eyes,
On floods all flashing fire, and red with gore.
Lo! as in lists enclosed, on battle-floor
Christian and Sarzan, life and death the prize,
Join conflict: lo! the battered Paynim flies;
The din, the smouldering flames, he braves no more.
Go, bid thy deep-toned bass with voice of power
Tell of this mightiest victory under sky,
This deed of peerless valor's highest strain;
And say a youth achieved the glorious hour,
Hallowing thy gulf with praise that ne'er shall die, —
The youth of Austria, and the might of Spain.

So Winged, So Vortical

To A Modern Poet
by G. K. Chesterton

about it?

I am sorry
if you have
a green pain
gnawing your brain away.
I suppose
quite a lot of it is
gnawed away
by this time.

I did not give you
a green pain
or even
a grey powder.
It is rather you, so winged, so vortical,
Who give me a pain.

When I have a pain
I never notice
the colour.

But I am very unobservant.
I cannot say
I ever noticed that the pillar-box
was like a baby
skinned alive and screaming.
I have not
a Poet's
which can see Beauty

Now you mention it,
Of course, the sky
is like a large mouth
shown to a dentist,
and I never noticed
a little thing
like that.

But I can't help wishing
You got more fun out of it;
you seem to have taken
quite a dislike
to things
They seem to make you jump
And double up unexpectedly -

And when you write
like other poets,
on subjects
not entirely
such as, for instance,
the Sea,
it is mostly about
As you say -
It is the New Movement,
The Emetic Ecstasy.

A relatively rare bit of Chestertonian free verse -- to make fun of free-versifiers, of course. 'Vortical' is a mocking reference to Vorticism, an artistic movement that in poetry is most closely associated with Ezra Pound.