Saturday, February 29, 2020

Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet; The Sign of the Four


Opening Passages: From A Study in Scarlet:

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army. Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

From The Sign of the Four:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Summary: Both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four have the same generic structure, only adjusted to take into the account that the latter is a sequel presupposing the former in several key ways. Both are framed by the Baker Street flat and Watson's incredulity; in both Watson's coming along as an observer is a relatively new thing. Both have a detour into dangerous locales with strange customs, Utah in the former and India in the latter, although the locale in each case is really literary locale, a set of tropes from sensational fiction, more than a geographical one. (One of the things that this does in both cases is that it lets Doyle embed an exotic travel-adventure story in his detective fiction, which is narratively useful not only for variety but also because it means he doesn't have to work very hard to explain why Holmes in particular is necessary to the case -- it's just completely different from ordinary crime in the big city, so it's not anything the local police could have seen before.) In both it is a significant part of the investigation to find someone in the big city. The Sign of the Four gives us a more polished version of the structure, although it also doesn't labor under the burden of having to start the whole thing off.

I think the reputation of A Study in Scarlet suffers in part because it's difficult for most modern readers to think of Mormons in Utah as exotic. But pretty much everyone (who wasn't themselves Mormon) thought of them as such at the time. It wasn't just the polygamy; we forget the active hostilities that broke out occasionally between Mormons and non-Mormons, or the times when portions of the Latter-Day Saint community were involved in a sort of low-key guerilla war with federal agents. To be sure, the Mormons were never as crazily sensationalized as rumor made them, but they took some getting used to, and had to make a number of compromises over the years to make it possible for people to get used to them. In any case, I don't really have a problem with this; I think one of the charms of reading nineteenth-century European literature about America is the chance to see the United States as a dangerous, exotic, foreign realm. Even though The Sign of the Four is a better story in almost every way, A Study in Scarlet stands up well.

In reading The Sign of the Four, I was particularly struck this time around with how the sheer quantity of Romanticism in it. This is particularly ironic given Holmes's complaint about A Study in Scarlet at the beginning:

He shook his head sadly. "I glanced over it," said he. "Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid."

"But the romance was there," I remonstrated. "I could not tamper with the facts."

"Some facts should be suppressed, or at least a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes by which I succeeded in unraveling it."

Almost everybody takes Holmes at his word here, and his self-presentation as a purely rational creature as accurate. But after having made this complaint about there being too much romanticism in the previous work, he quotes Goethe twice, refers to Jean Paul, has a mini-discourse on sublimity in the middle of all of his analysis and investigation. He keeps bringing it in himself.

The mini-discourse on sublimity is particularly interesting, and worth quoting in full:

"Ah, well, there is no great mystery in that. But you will know all about it soon enough. How sweet the morning air is! See how that one little cloud floats like a pink feather from some gigantic flamingo. Now the red rim of the sun pushes itself over the London cloud-bank. It shines on a good many folk, but on none, I dare bet, who are on a stranger errand than you and I. How small we feel with our petty ambitions and strivings in the presence of the great elemental forces of nature! Are you well up in your Jean Paul?"

"Fairly so. I worked back to him through Carlyle."

"That was like following the brook to the parent lake. He makes one curious but profound remark. It is that the chief proof of man’s real greatness lies in his perception of his own smallness. It argues, you see, a power of comparison and of appreciation which is in itself a proof of nobility. There is much food for thought in Richter. You have not a pistol, have you?"

So here we have more Romanticism brought into the discussion by Holmes himself, in the aesthetic appreciation of nature, which leads him to touch on a point associated with sublimity -- our smallness in comparison to the vastness of nature. This naturally leads him to bring up Jean Paul, with whom he is obviously familiar (despite Watson's claim in A Study in Scarlet that he knew almost nothing about literature). Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, better known by his pen name, Jean Paul, is not much read today in English, but he was a noted comic writer who was also a significant contributor to the theory of the sublime, and was an influence on a number of people at the time, including Carlyle. Holmes gives a simple but entirely accurate summary of post-Kantian theory of the sublime by way of his allusion to Jean Paul. The essential idea is that in the experience of the sublime, we have the paradox that we recognize our sensible insignificance in comparison with some great thing suggestive of the infinite, but are exalted rather than humiliated by it because our ability to recognize the disparity between the two shows the significance of reason.

Jean Paul's own major contribution to the theory of the sublime was his argument that the humorous, which he also calls the romantically comic, is the inverted sublime; roughly, in the sublime we recognize our infinitude through our finitude, whereas in the comic we recognize our finitude through our infinitude. In the sublime we focus on the positive relation between the two, recognizing through insignificance of the senses the greatness of reason, whereas in the comic we focus on the disparity, recognizing through the greatness of reason the insignificance of our sensible selves. The sublime exalts, the comic annihilates, on the same ground. The fact that in the story the discussion of this is sandwiched between Holmes's poetic remarks on the sublimity of the world and one of the most comic episodes in the Holmes corpus, Toby's mistake, cannot possibly be accidental, and it's built up so carefully that the irony of this occurring given that Holmes has disparaged Watson's introduction of romanticism, cannot be accidental, either.

There are few possibilities here:

(1) Holmes himself is something of a Romantic to begin with, despite his objection. He is well read on Romantic authors like Goethe and Jean Paul, and he himself has a romantic aesthetic sense.

(2) Holmes is teasing Watson, by deliberately bringing romanticism into the story whenever he can. This fits with the fact that some of Holmes's comments seem to be hinting at various elements in the solution to the problem, a solution he has already figured out but that Watson has not. This possibility requires that (1) also be true, because Holmes can't do this unless he in fact knows Romantic literature quite well.

(3) Watson is teasing Holmes. Watson makes clear that he was very annoyed by the egotism of Holmes's objection, so one way to read all this is that he is getting back at Holmes by increasing or at least explicitly highlighting the amount of romanticism in the story, with Holmes himself depicted as a major culprit. This perhaps also fits with the fact that, despite Holmes's complaint about working a love-story into Euclid, the entire structure of The Sign of the Four (and part of what makes it more relatable than the first book, I think) is a love-story, the elements of which Watson depicts at considerable (even if understandable) length. It would be very easy to see this as a second prong of Watson's revenge in writing this book that is filled to the brim with romanticism.

Of the possibilities, (3) seems to be the one that fits the textual facts best, although it is perhaps less in the spirit of the Great Game; that is to say, I suspect that Conan Doyle himself is deliberately building the ironic contrast as an essential part of the story.

[ADDED LATER: I forgot to say something about the radio adaptations I listened to for both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, from CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Both can be found online at Internet Archive. Both are competent, and reasonably faithful. I thought the narrative work for "The Sign of the Four" was especially good; they both, and especially "A Study in Scarlet" have the problem a lot of Holmes radio adaptations have, namely, that Watson sometimes slips out of sounding like the bluff British military man type into sounding like the nearly falling down into the grave from decrepit old age type, despite the fact that, at most, he can't be more than very early thirties in these stories. ]

Favorite Passages: From A Study in Scarlet:

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

From The Sign of the Four:

Our course now ran down Nine Elms until we came to Broderick and Nelson’s large timber-yard, just past the White Eagle tavern. Here the dog, frantic with excitement, turned down through the side-gate into the enclosure, where the sawyers were already at work. On the dog raced through sawdust and shavings, down an alley, round a passage, between two wood-piles, and finally, with a triumphant yelp, sprang upon a large barrel which still stood upon the hand-trolley on which it had been brought. With lolling tongue and blinking eyes, Toby stood upon the cask, looking from one to the other of us for some sign of appreciation. The staves of the barrel and the wheels of the trolley were smeared with a dark liquid, and the whole air was heavy with the smell of creasote.

Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other, and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

Recommendation: A Study in Scarlet is Recommended, and The Sign of the Four is Highly Recommended. The latter is indeed one of the best works of detective fiction of all time, a fact which I think is sometimes hidden by its sitting in the shadow of the exceptionally memorable The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Lent IV

On the sixth day the power and wisdom of the divine Hand created man out of clay. Similarly, it was at the beginning of the sixth age of mankind--when came the fullness of time--that the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin. After she consented to his word, the Holy Spirit descended upon her in the form of a divine fire that inflamed her soul and sanctified her body in perfect purity, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, to enable her to bear such fire. Instantly, by the operation of that power, a body was formed, a soul created, and both were united to the Godhead in the Person of the Son; that this same Person was God and man, with the properties of each nature unimpaired.

Bonaventure, The Tree of Life I.3.

[Bonaventure, The Works of Bonaventure I: Mystical Opuscula, José de Vinck, tr., Martino Pulbishing (Mansfield Centre, CT: 2016), p. 105.]

Friday, February 28, 2020

Lent III

...[M]ay Christ help us, the Son of a virgin, and the Spouse of virgins, born after the flesh of a virgin womb, and wedded after the Spirit in virgin marriage. Whereas, therefore, the whole Church itself is a virgin espoused unto one Husband Christ, as the Apostle says, of how great honor are its members worthy, who guard this even in the flesh itself, which the whole Church guards in the faith? Which imitates the mother of her husband, and her Lord. For the Church also is both a mother and a virgin. For whose virgin purity consult we for, if she is not a virgin? Or whose children address we, if she is not a mother? Mary bare the Head of This Body after the flesh, the Church bears the members of that Body after the Spirit. In both virginity hinders not fruitfulness: in both fruitfulness takes not away virginity.

Augustine, On Holy Virginity, sect. 2.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Music on My Mind

Mean Mary, "Friend I Never Had"

Գրիգոր Նարեկացի

Today is the feast of St. Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Church.

Love dwelt among the saints with immeasurable celebration, through the coming of Christ. They who tasted the savor of that Love became insatiable; they were not satisfied with the various trials which they suffered, whether from Satan or from human beings, but they voluntarily added innumerable tribulations for themselves....Similarly, the Holy Illuminator and the great Paul and other saints like them considered the tribulations which came for Christ's sake to be gifts, like apples; thus Trdat said to Saint Gregory, 'Is that happiness?' and he responded, 'Yea, this is happiness!'

[St. Gregory of Narek, The Blessing of Blessings: Gregory of Narek's Commentary on the Song of Songs, Ervine, tr. Cistercian Publicans (Kalamazoo, MI: 2007), p. 105. The context of the exchange alluded to is that St. Gregory the Illuminator, who brought Christianity to Armenia, is said to have been tortured and beaten over the head on the order of Tiridates/Trdat for preaching Christianity.]

Lent II

Joachim then took to wife that revered and praiseworthy woman, Anna. But just as the earlier Anna, who was barren, bore Samuel by prayer and by promise, so also this Anna by supplication and promise from God bare the Mother of God in order that she might not even in this be behind the matrons of fame. Accordingly it was grace (for this is the interpretation of Anna) that bore the lady: (for she became truly the Lady of all created things in becoming the Mother of the Creator). Further, Joachim was born in the house of the Probatica , and was brought up to the temple. Then planted in the House of God and increased by the Spirit, like a fruitful olive tree, she became the home of every virtue, turning her mind away from every secular and carnal desire, and thus keeping her soul as well as her body virginal, as was meet for her who was to receive God into her bosom: for as He is holy, He finds rest among the holy. Thus, therefore, she strove after holiness, and was declared a holy and wonderful temple fit for the most high God.

John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith IV.14.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lent I

When you hear that Jesus is begotten of God, beware lest some inept form of carnal thought appear before the eyes of your mind. With the insight of both dove and eagle, believe in all simplicity and grasp with penetrating gaze that from this eternal Light, both immense and most simple, both dazzling and most hidden, there proceeds a coeternal, coequal, and consusbtantial Resplendence who is the Power and Wisdom of the generating Father, in whom the Father designed all things from eternity; by whom also He made the world, governs it, and ordains it for His own glory; partly by nature, partly by grace, partly by justice, partly by mercy, so that nothing in this world is left to chance.

Bonaventure, The Tree of Life I.1

[Bonaventure, The Works of Bonaventure I: Mystical Opuscula, José de Vinck, tr., Martino Pulbishing (Mansfield Centre, CT: 2016), p. 104.]

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Preparing for Lent

* I usually do a quotation series for Lent, usually of Doctors of the Church. Last year, I did one on the sacraments, which worked out fairly nicely, so I think I'm going to try to do another thematic series. And, having done the sacraments last year, it makes sense to do the foundation of the sacraments this year -- the Life of Christ. Both Aquinas and Bonaventure have notable, important, and often overlooked discussions of that topic specifically, and, of course, it comes up elsewhere. It's a harder topic to do in an organized way, but we'll see how it works out.

* How many days are in Lent? The answer is that there is no definite answer. The Church has more than one liturgical calendar. The Maronite calendar, for instance, begins Lent on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or else the next day, Ash Monday, depending on exactly how you count the first day; the Roman calendar on Ash Wednesday; the Ambrosian calendar (which preserves an older practice than the Roman Rite here) on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday. We often say 'forty days', but this is a round number; the Roman Lent does not have forty but forty-three or forty-four, depending on how you count the final day as Lent turns to Triduum. One of the funniest things about the whole thing is that Lent is so associated with 'forty days' people will refuse to believe it is not exactly forty days, and will continue to refuse to believe it even if you count the days with them, and come up with elaborate epicycles to get the count back to exactly forty. The most popular epicycles, of course, are counting back from Easter -- despite the fact that this mistakenly counts Triduum as part of Lent -- and skipping Sundays -- despite the fact that Sundays in Lent are in Lent; sometimes people will count Lent only to Palm Sunday even though Lent extends into Holy Week. (The latter, although less common, at least makes more sense than the former, since although Holy Week is actually split between Lent and Triduum, Holy Week itself functions more or less as if it were its own liturgical season.) It's not surprising -- even if it is really a round number, 'forty days' is integral to the conception of Lent, which is why many languages give it a name that references it in some way -- Quadragesima (lit. 'fortieth'), Tessarakoste, Sarakosti, Carême, Quaresima, Cuaresma, Korizma, Kuwaresma, Tsome Arba.

* When it's not named in reference to the forty days, Lent is usually named in terms of fasting: Velyky Pist, Fastenzeit, Fastetid, etc. An unusual case, but still related, is found in Maltese: Randan. Maltese is, of course, a descendent of Arabic, although highly latinized; the word comes from Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. Some people think Ramadan was itself an adaptation of the Christian practice of Lent, which would make it a big cycle, but in any case, 'Randan' became attached to Lent because of the fast.

English 'Lent' is unusual; it originally just meant 'spring' or 'March'.

* Ashes on Ash Wednesday is a Western practice; the only churches that have a regular Lenten imposition of Ashes are the Latin, the Maronite, and the Syro-Malabar, and the latter two (who usually do it on Monday rather than Wednesday) got it from the Latin Church and just kept it because it was popular. We finicky moderns associate ashes with dirtiness, but historically ashes are a symbol of cleanness. Cinders are dirty, ashes are pure. (Cinderella should be called Ashenella, because she is associated with the purity of ashes, not with cinders.) Ashes are what you have when fire burns all the way through; ashes are even used to make soap to clean things, since it's a natural source of lye.

* From the Hoosoyo (Prayer of Forgiveness) of the Maronite liturgy for the First Weekday Cycle of Lent (and thus celebrated on Ash Monday and, when liturgies are celebrated on Ash Wednesday in Maronite Churches, for Ash Wednesday as well):

O Christ, Lover of all people, you gave the Church the holy season of Lent as a shield of protection and a healing remedy. Your fasting and sacrifices taught us to fast, and to understand the purpose and essence of life, the meaning of the world and its existence, and the greatness of your love and compassion. Shower your mercy on all people that they may repent, and soften their hearts that they may return to you, know you, and love you.

Perpetual Foundations

Scott Alexander has an interesting review of Rob Reich's Just Giving. Along the way he notes Reich's opposition to perpetual charitable foundations and endowments, and Reich's drawing on Mill's criticism of them in the article usually now referred to as "The Right and Wrong of State Interference with Corporation and Church Property". I've read Reich's discussion of this before, and what struck me immediately was not just what Reich highlights from Mill's argument but what he glosses over.

Mill is very, very far, of course, from being the first person to criticize perpetual foundations and endowments; it was a longstanding anti-Catholic trope by Mill's day. Perpetual foundations and endowments in Europe were mostly a byproduct of the Catholic Church's management of monasteries, hospitals, and the like, and spread from there to certain civil uses (like the Bridge House Estates, founded in 1282 by the City of London to maintain bridges and still in existence maintaining London's bridges and, by cy-près, other projects beneficial to London). But even into the early modern period most of the major perpetual endowments and foundations in Europe were those of the Catholic Church, and the arguments against them were in fact justifications for the state seizure of the assets of Catholic churches, hospitals, and monasteries. Mill is, to his very great credit, completely aboveboard about this, and recognizes that his argument is in fact in this tradition; what he is doing is generalizing the principle and extending it in particular to the Church of England, and he notes that C of E protests against such state seizures would equally be a protest against its carrying off the monastic and ecclesial property of the Catholic Church in England and Wales (or, at least, all of it that the state left it). Of course, it's also the case that a reason for the argument is that the Church of England was one of the major obstacles to a number of utilitarian reform projects, and still even at that time had a considerable amount of power as a semi-independent institution; Mill is arguing for the use of state coercive power to take the resources by which it was able to exercise its opposition and apply them to projects utilitarians like himself would consider better uses. (This is one reason why Mill does make a qualified defense of foundations and endowments; he doesn't have a problem with them if they can always be turned to new utilitarian projects.) Mill puts a great deal of emphasis on the difference between the living and the dead, but, of course, it was not the dead who were his opposition, but the living clergymen who depended on the funds. And the argument was in fact an argument for a massive increase in state power by which to bring the C of E clergy to heel.

Reich very briefly gestures at the anti-Catholic character of the background, in talking about Turgot, but mostly writes his discussion of perpetual foundations and endowments in a way that, it seems fairly clear, deliberately skips around most of it.

While the Catholic Church and other religious bodies are still major sources of perpetual endowments and foundations, the disappearance of so many longstanding ones down the insatiable maw of the European nation-state before the colonial empires became developed enough to devour the resources of colonies instead, as well as various anti-clerical surges and shifting property laws, has had the result that a lot of resources flow through other channels. But the point is still of significance today, because the power to reorganize foundations and endowments to new purposes is, by its very nature, a power to raid not the dead but nonprofits of all kinds. And, indeed, this is precisely what Reich is really arguing: not that dead hands are ruling but that power is in the wrong living hands. And, like Mill, he thinks that power should be in other living hands. To his credit, Reich is fairly aboveboard about this aspect of his argument (see this interview, for instance). But it's worth recognizing that the argument is in fact a partisan contribution to a complex struggle over how power works, and that the assessment of the argument will really depend on one's assessment of that overall power struggle (including whether Reich's argument is really pro-democracy despite such arguments having a history of being statist, and whether he's really just arguing for the supremacy of politicians rather than donors, and whether it is really acceptable to give politicians the new power to seize, say, the endowment of Harvard and turn it to whatever ends the party in control deems suitable).

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Nature of Human Rights

A right is something you are specifically owed by virtue of an obligation. The obligations differ, and as the obligations differ, the rights differ, so that, for instance, some rights are the correlatives of obligations to do something to or for you, others the correlatives of obligations for others not to do something to you or for you, others the correlatives of obligations not to prohibit you, etc.* Since obligations don't float free of everything else, but have to have some reason for why they are obligations (which we might call the principle of sufficient reason for obligations, the PSR-O), any right has to be due to the person having it being really classifiable (not necessarily being in fact classified) in a certain way. Thus, for instance, human rights are due to being human, civil rights are due to being a citizen, contractual rights are due to being a party to a contract, etc.

Human rights are in many ways the most interesting, because rights arising due to being human have a sort of priority over most other rights. To generate an obligation, though, being human has to impose some kind of requirement on other human beings. It seems that there are only two ways this can be done, either because it is required for the full humanity of the human person qua human, and thus is shared among all human persons, or because it is required for the full humanity of the human race qua human, and thus, while not necessarily directly shared, is essential for the common good of the whole. Thus, for instance, rights of conscience are examples of the former; many rights protecting children or the elderly, like the right of a child to the protection of its parent or guardian, or the right of the elderly to care, are examples of the latter.

Unfortunately, because rights have a rhetorical as well as jural function, people have a tendency to muddle these together as it suits them; this is common with a lot of rights-sloganeering, that is, cases where, instead of actually making a case, people instead use an advertising slogan whose actual relevance is not developed properly. A recent one that has been common is the slogan 'Trans Rights are Human Rights'. Like many of the slogans that have been used in recent times in place of real ethical positions, this slogan admits of a possible and obviously true sense, and also of a more apparent but controversial, false, or incoherent sense. It could, on the one hand, just be a misleading way to say, "People classified as trans have the same human rights as everyone else," in which case it is certainly true, but doesn't actually get anyone very far, because there is nothing specifically trans-related about any of this; it applies to any group of human beings, however arbitrary. It is also not the most natural way to read it. The most natural way to read it is to take it to mean that rights specifically concerned with gender transitioning are human rights. And then we run into the problem that human rights are not themselves concerned with any specific group of human beings at all; they are common to humanity, either in that everyone has exactly that right, or the community of everyone depends on that right existing.

If X is a human right, in order to know how to recognize it properly as such, we need to know the reason for it so that we can use the appropriate classification (by PSR-O), and tailor our actions accordingly. But a human right has to be something that is either specifically due to some feature of human nature as such, like reason or needs for physical survival and thus shared by all human beings, or derives from some feature required for the humanity of the human race itself, like the need to have societies or to reproduce in a way that makes it possible to live as human beings. Those are the only two things we could actually mean by the 'human' part. It is entirely contrary to the point of the label to take 'human' to mean less than what belongs to all human beings. Now rights specifically concerned with gender transitioning, like the right to transition, are not based on something shared by all human individuals; it is not like (say) the right to speak your mind honestly and in a reasonable way, which is based on something required for literally every human being to live a human life. So it's by definition not an example of the first kind.

Thus the only kind of human right that could be in view are rights that are required for the existence, as human, of the human race. This foundation does give us rights that, while the foundation is something shared by all human beings, specifically regard particular groups. But, in contrast to rights that have to do with children or relations between the sexes, it's difficult to point to anything specifically trans-related that is necessary for the human race itself. There does not seem to be any sense at all in which gender transitioning is necessary for the survival or coherence of all humanity; outside of drag, which by its very nature is based purely on cultural norms, and eunuchry, which despite occasional cultural importance plays no essential role to humanity at large (and the imposition of which has usually been considered a violation of human rights, even when done consensually), most of the things associated with it -- hormone treatment, surgery, and their effects -- are relatively recent phenomena or are obviously culture-dependent. The human race does not degrade into chaos without it.

One could perhaps argue for a synecdoche here: the actual human right is some more general right, of which trans cases are just particular cases that sometimes arise under particular conditions. But this means that we need to know what the general human right is, and we are still going to run into the same problem: it would have to be a right essential to the human race qua human, and there would have to be some reason to think that this particular case is sometimes necessitated by that right. There doesn't seem to be anything that fits the bill.

Sometimes we use 'human rights' not in a synecdoche but in a metonymy, and we take it to cover things that are not required by the human race but valuable for its well-being. In this sense, for instance, one might say that there is a human right to literacy; this is not literally a human right, but general literacy is something that greatly enriches the whole human race, being an assistance to social relations and a source and perservative of good things that all can enjoy, like literature. This is probably the best ground on which to defend the slogan, although I've yet to see anyone use it in a way that would make sense of this interpretation.

But the fundamental problem is that ethics cannot be done by slogan. Even if the slogan is right, by simply repeating it, you have not done anything just, you have not actually helped anyone act with deeper understanding; you have substituted an advertisement for the actual communication by which we help each other to be ethical. One might as well be doing ethics by football chants. What people need are reasons, not your enthusiasm for a hashtag. And in the case of human rights, what is relevant is not the label 'human right' but the reason why it is supposed to be a right grounded in what all human beings share.

* Sometimes in the Hohfeldian system of rights analysis, 'privileges' or 'liberties' are defined as A has a privilege or liberty to do X if and only if A has no duty not to do X, which attempts to identify an 'incident' of right entirely in terms of nonduty; but this is in fact illusory, because the domain here can't be unlimited. It makes no sense to say that I have a privilege or liberty to fly to Alpha Centauri, for instance. It is true that I don't have any identifiable duty not to do it, but I have no right to do it, either. It's just not on the table as a possible action. And this problem extends to things that are not strictly impossible but nonetheless just not in view in any relevant decision-making. The only reason a nonduty becomes relevant to rights is if it is a nonduty specifically designated by some sort of obligation. To be considered relevant to rights, privileges or liberties cannot be taken formlessly, but only specifically, and something must be constructing the relevant kind of nonduty. Not only is this just common sense, it follows directly from the standard Hohfeldian view of the incidents combining to form complex rights, which means that each incident has to be picking out something definite rather than indefinite.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Dans la forêt étrange, c'est la nuit

In the Forest
by Germain Nouveau

Night in the uncanny forest falls;
with a deepest black silence it calls;

In the forest, here brown and there white,
In milky tears sifts down the moon's light.

A summer wind, blowing who knows whence,
Wanders in dream like soul without sense

And, under the eyes of starry beam,
The forest sings as the rain-sounds teem.

At times there arrives the sighful moan
From far blue of bird or wolf alone.

At others there comes the scent of lair
At the hour asps sleep in the cold air,

The hour when love shivers in its nest,
The hour wolfsbane in secret is dressed,

Where the one who hides a cherished sin
Thinks and feels alone, far from all men.

-- Yet in the high sky the good moon gleams
And is pouring with her honeyed beams

Her calm soul and kind pallor on heaps,
A red-roan herd, of stones as they sleep.

My translation. A trickier poem to translate than it at first looks. You can find the French and another English translation here. Germain Nouveau was a Symbolist poet of the late nineteenth century; he was an acquaintance of Rimbaud, and is perhaps the only one in Rimbaud's circle who was really his equal in the ability to combine poetic technique with originality. Most of his work was published posthumously, though, and what he did publish in his lifetime was usually under various pseudonyms, and, being also much less wild than Rimbaud, he is not as well known.