Saturday, October 02, 2021

Means and Ends

 Freddie deBoer has a post looking back on The Last Jedi that is almost entirely wrong. Old hat stuff, but it's worth noting why deBoer's argument is wrong, because it sheds a light a number of problems that I think are widespread in current art-making.

One of the fundamental problems with attempts to run counter to the very common sense that The Last Jedi is worse than The Force Awakens is that so many of the attempts to argue this explicitly base themselves on two things: it "takes risks" and "has more interesting ideas". Both of these are true. But taking risks is not an artistic end; it is intrinsically a means, and only has genuine artistic value if the end achieved by the risk is greater than what you could have had without taking it. The same is true, if less obviously, with expressing interesting ideas; the purpose of a movie is not to express an interesting idea, which you could do in an essay or a lecture, but to entertain as a coherent whole. All three of the Disney sequels fail at this purpose in three distinct ways: they fail to entertain as coherent wholes individually, they fail to entertain as a coherent whole as a trilogy, and they fail to contribute to make the whole series, originals, prequels, and sequels, entertain as a coherent whole. But The Last Jedi fails much more egregiously than The Force Awakens.

The Star Wars movies are structured on what Lucas called the principle of "rhyme"; that is, clear reiteration with building variation. This is explicitly done in each of the three originals, and then the three prequels were constructed both individually and as a whole to "rhyme" with the originals. The Force Awakens is immensely clumsy and clunky about it, even clunkier than the prequels were, but it respects this principle: Rey rhymes with both Luke and Anakin, but in such a way that you can see the beginning of a progression from Anakin to Luke to Rey. It errs in exaggerating the progression -- Rey's talents should have emerged much more gradually. It also errs in the nature of much of the reiteration -- the resetting to the empire vs. rebels theme of the originals that deBoer criticizes, instead of (as the story needed) a rhyming with the prequels, which were republic vs. rebels (just different rebels). That would have been a good structural payoff, and interesting in itself: the Republic fell through a rebellion that established the Empire and turned the pro-Republic faction into the Rebellion; what happens when the Rebellion becomes the Republic and has to face rebellion against the Republic? In effect, the movie should have rhymed with the prequels in setting but rhymed with the originals in characters, and it does mostly the reverse on both, giving it an incoherent and inexplicable feel, where everyone was left wondering how the First Order managed to be such an industrial military powerhouse while the Republic were basically fighting as rebel insurgents despite the reverse supposedly being true. Almost all the flaws of The Force Awakens are tied to these two errors -- overdoing Rey's natural talent even more than Anakin's had been overdone, and forcing the story into an Empire vs. Rebellion mold again. But the story does do its duty of rhyming, and the main characters are likeable as characters, and the set-up for the quest for Luke Skywalker had a lot of people interested. That's mostly what it had to do in opening a sequel trilogy. 

The Last Jedi is not completely without its rhymes, but almost all of them are inherited from the fact that the previous movie set it up to rhyme with The Empire Strikes Back, and instead of introducing variation, it actively breaks the rhymes. Another of the signs of the problems with the movie is that its defenders repeatedly have to fall back on its "subverting of expectations". But while it can be perfectly fine to subvert expectations, this is an artistic means, not an artistic end, and it gets its value entirely from how it furthers the real ends of the work. The ends of the work included: as a sequel, building on the prior movie; as a middle movie in a trilogy, bridging to the third movie; as part of a rhyming trilogy of trilogies, building on Empire and Attack of the Clones. Its subversions do none of those things well (although it does least bad in rhyming with the prior middle movies); and, indeed, its defenders don't even try to claim that it doesn't throw over many of the things it was supposed to be doing as a sequel to The Force Awakens. The most serious problem, however, is that it subverts itself, repeatedly. The most egregious point at which it does so is when it makes such a big deal about the slaves, and then our heroes, helped by the slave children, free the animals, not the slave children. Rose, in the scene that more than any other made fans hate her, interferes with Finn's brave attempt to stop the First Order forces, says, "We're going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love", to Finn, who of all the characters is the one who least needs to be preached at in platitudes, at literally the very moment that the First Order pierces the bunker because of her action, bringing the Resistance, its final forces, and their friends into imminent danger that they only escape because of Luke ex machina. Yoda lets the books burn, but Rey saves them. The movie subverts not just the previous one but itself, as well, leading to an incoherent mess; it has the will to subvert but never the courage to follow through. Parts of it are good -- almost everything to do with Leia, except her near-death, is handled extremely well. The very tail-end is good. And there are interesting ideas, yes; Johnson is a more thoughtful director than Abrams is. Its means were much more clever. But by every standard established by its ends, it was a disaster.

DeBoer takes the tack that is all too often taken, in trying to portray critics of the movie in moralistic terms. This is a grossly bad habit. DeBoer does not like The Last Jedi because he is righteous, but because he's an idea-man and thus (as is clear from his comments) thinks of movies almost entirely in terms of their ideas; fans disliked it not because they are wicked but because it did not give them what they were hoping to get in the next Star Wars movie. But this is all of a piece with the rest: morality deals with ends, so by moralizing aesthetic judgments, you are treating means as if they were ends, which is both bad aesthetic judgment and bad moral judgment. Over and over again, means are treated as if they were not means at all but ends. And it is the explanation for much bad art and a vast amount of clueless criticism today.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Dashed Off XXI

 This starts the notebook begun in November 2020. A lot of Hume on the external world in this batch.

"It is difficult to discern whether we know from appropriate principles, which alone is scientific knowing, or do not know from appropriate principles." Aquinas

Philosophy requires a double fidelity, an internal fidelity to its own principles and methods, and an external fidelity to the world as we find it.

Philosophical inquiry begins with what is shared -- with our environment, with other human beings, with God.

NB Hume's comment on challenge arguments at T (SBN 159): "This defiance we are obliged frequently to make sue of, as being almost the only means of proving a negative in philosophy."

democracy : images :: oligarchy : bodies :: timarchy : abstract objects :: kallipolis : Forms

We only recognize constancy and conjunction causally.

constant conjunction as a sign of readiness to appear

If an entire society of blind men kept insisting that the color of scarlet was the same with the sound of a trumpet, and built much of their discourse around it, we would take them to mean something intelligible by it, even if we still had to search for what it was.

[final girl reacting to discovery of killer's identity] as visual trope in slasher movies

"Imperturbable wisdom is worth everything." Democritus
"Self-control increases joyful things and makes pleasure yet greater."

alethic, temporal, and locative forms of determinism

The Christian polity is much like the Christian person: still much sin, some of it even more brazen than in the less informed and fortunate pagan; much greater gap between reality and aspiration, most of the time; in many respects similar to the pagan but here and there run through with little threads that reach toward heaven.

The eyes can show that something continues to exist even when we no longer hear it, etc. This line of thought will be blocked if the only 'somethings' we can sense are proper sensibles; but common sensibles and per accidens sensibles allow it to go through.

We need love stories that are tragedies to show the sublimity of romantic love, just as we need love stories that are comedies to show its absurdities.

All sensory perceptions have a polarity, a from-ness and to-ness, that suggests that we are receiving something beyond us, and thus suggests, but does not establish 'double existence'.

Our sense of ourselves does not need to be very fixed and determinate to convey something like a distinction between ourselves and external objects.

Our sensible impressions are not all on the same footing; those directly concerning our own bodies clearly have a primacy.

the intimacy and nonintimacy of myself and the world

Hume, T 1.2.4 on the senses
The senses cannot give us
---- [1] continued existence (.3)
---- ---- because they cannot operate beyond their sphere
---- ---- ---- this would be a contradiction in terms;
---- [2] distinct existence
---- ---- which would have to be either
---- ---- ---- (a) as represented (.4)
---- ---- ---- ---- but they are singular perceptions
---- ---- ---- (b) as original (.5)
---- ---- ---- ---- which depends on our sense of ourselves
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- which is too abstruse for the senses
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- and would require an impossible deception
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- which would have to be related to body for externality (.9)
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- (1) but this leaves unexplained the same belief about body
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- (2) and some perceptions have no such exteriority to the body (sounds, tastes, smells)
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- (3) [Berkeley] on distance or outness
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- and independency could not be an object of the senses (.10)
::: This is confirmed by the inability to differentiate primary, secondary, and tertiary qualities (.12, .13)
::: Note that Hume holds that continued and distinct existence imply each other (.2), so he has to eliminate the senses for both, since getting one gives the other.
::: The equal footing of impressions plays a significant role in this discussion.

Hume treats "consulting reason" and "weighing opinions by philosophical principles as equivalent, because his whole argument that belief in continued and independent existence can't be from reason is that the vulgar aren't doing philosophy and the latter would be paradoxical to them. (Shepherd, of course, argues that reason is broader than this, so it is found in nonphilosophers like children, peasants, etc.)

involuntary intimate
voluntary intimate
involuntary nonintimate
voluntary nonintimate
--- all cases of this last are mediated, and recognizably so.

the hypersuppositional mind

respect, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and fairness as essential principles of election law and its application

gnarus (skillful) -> gna (to know) -> narro (to tell) -> narrate (to tell a story)

Public trust in institutions can only be maintained by addressing concerns of the public.

Politics is the art of taking concerns seriously even when you think they are stupid.

identity : uninterrupted and invariable :: constancy : invariable

Hume claims that when unthinking and unphilosophical, we "never think of a double existence internal and external, representing and represented"; but no matter how unthinking and unphilosophical we may be, we all recognize the double existence 'I and that'.

While people do tend to assume that they see the very thing, it is implausible to say that they think the very thing is "intimately present to the mind" when they are seeing it from a distance or through a lens or in a mirror.

"Whatever He gives or permits us, whether pain or illness, in whatever way, he gives and permits it with great mystery, to make us holy and to give us what we need to be saved." Catherine of Siena (to Francesco da Montalcino)

T Hume takes believe in continued existence to be prior to belief in independent existence (and it is the latter that causes the skeptical problems).

legislative power as having the proximate end of 'peace, order, and good government'

Fidelity is of immense importance to social life, and thus also the developed capacity for it. Religion is the most visible context in which this is found, which is why people (even atheists) are more likely to trust strangers who seem sincerely religious than they are to trust atheists; but it is visible elsewhere, too, which is why people will also trust atheists who are obviously devoted spouses in committed marriages, at least almost as well as they trust the religious.

All genuine intellectualism is much like mysticism, despite the difference in content.

As duplicate ideas can come from singular impressions, duplicate impressions can come from singular objects.

All our perceptions are dependent on our sensory organs only if our sensory organs have existence independent of any particular perceptions.

It is clear that the common view is that there are objects that we perceive; it is equally clear that the common view is not that our objects are perceptions.

While philosophical accounts often get their influence from vulgar accounts, it is often by explaining the incomplete and misleading character of the latter.

What Hume says of the relation between the philosophical and the vulgar systems is also true of the relation between his system and these two. By Hume's own principles, his system "is the monstrous offspring of two principles, which are contrary to each other, which are both at once embrac'd by the mind, and which are unable mutually to destroy each other." (It is recognizing this perhaps, that leads to his comments about skeptical malady.)

Much of the skill of writing free verse is writing like a child without writing childishly.

impressive : sublime :: charming : beautiful

Every election is a precedent for a future election.

conditions for customary law (Liguori)
(1) made by community, at least in its greater part
(2) reasonable so as to be consistent with natural and divine law
(3) continuous and enduring period of time involving repeated acts
(4) intention to obligate
(5) at least the general tacit consent of the principal legislator

the constancy theory of truth

T 1.4.3 explicitly assumes the falsehood of the 'antient philosophy' in the first paragraph; the purpose is not to argue for or against but to give a Humean explanation for belief in such a falsehood. NB that Hume is here doing, at a very general level, a psychological history of philosophy, and this is the case through Part IV.

The analogy to malady and health in T can only work by thinking of imagination as having ends, manifested in its permanent, irresistible, universal principles.

We can distinguish sensation and reflection only relative to the self.

SBN 233: The argument here implies that, far from eliminating substance, Hume's philosophy treats every idea and impression as 'substances'.
Hume as the anti-Spinoza

Voting is not purely a matter of getting superior numbers; that is the notion of voting had by a churl and barbarian. Voting is also an act of negotiating with other groups.

The souls in purgatory wait on behalf of the whole Church.

the Christian response to politics: Let us not sleep, as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.

There is ultimately one li, the Grand Ultimate, but its manifestations are diverse.

"Qi is metal, wood, water, and fire; li is benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom." Zhu Xi
"When humans and things are generated, they receive an endowment of li, which constitutes the Five Virtues."
"If your will fixes on the bull's-eye, soon you will occasionally hit the target."

In investigating the principle of things, we look at that in things which in us would be virtue (or the beginnings of it, the potential for it). 

"We sometimes doubt of an external thing whether it is this or that; we do not doubt 'Is this the same I who saw that?'" Shankara

"Master the self by practicing ritual propriety." Confucius

Looking to providence, the Great Ultimate, our eye is dazzled; it seems a chaotic wilderness with no orderer; but all the order of things, of motion and rest, of activity and stillness, is within it, supereminently.

"If before their actual origination all effects are equally nonexistent in any causal substance, why then should curds be produced from milk only and not from clay also, and jars from clay only and not from milk as well?" Shankara
"Origination is an action, and as such requires an agent, just as the action of walking does. To speak of an action without an agent would be a contradiction. But if you deny the pre-existence of the effect in the cause, it would have to be assumed that whenever the origination of a jar, for instance, is spoken of, the agent is not the jar (which before its origination did not exist) but something else...."
"The nonexistence of external things cannot be maintained because we are conscious of external things."

Unutterable is the utmost.

jump-scare, skincrawl-scare, cringe-scare, chill-scare, inbreath-scare

Lying doesn't harm by annihilating trust but by significantly raising its costs.

to love, seek, win, hold, and embrace Wisdom itself

violence theater

Who worships no gods
has his passions as gods;
they are gods that are felt,
that are moving and real,
impersonal and enigmatic gods.

abstraction-genius vs imagination-genius
association-skill vs systematicity-skill

"The passions are not only affected by such events as are certain and infallible, but also in an inferior degree by such as are possible and contingent." Hume, SBN 313
"In sympathy there is an evident conversion of an idea into an impression."

A possibility depends on actuality and extrapolation therefrom; it makes no sense at all to say that anything could cause anything, because this is not even remotely what we find to be actual.

The technological, social, and organizational aspects of military history use different kinds of evidence for different ends, and their unification is not trivial.

classification : professional history :: storytelling : amateur history

As resources tend to be limited, specialization sequesters resources, especially institutional resources, away from dabblers and wanderers, leaving them only what they can scrape together.

A particle is a distinct small-enough measurable; what counts as distinct depends on the measuring and what counts as small enough depends on what you are doing.

Therese of Lisieux

 Today is the feast of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Doctor of the Church. From her work, The Story of a Soul (Chapter IX):

Let me suppose that I had been born in a land of thick fogs, and had never seen the beauties of nature, or a single ray of sunshine, although I had heard of these wonders from my early youth, and knew that the country wherein I dwelt was not my real home -- there was another land, unto which I should always look forward. Now this is not a fable, invented by an inhabitant of the land of fogs, it is the solemn truth, for the King of that sunlit country dwelt for three and thirty years in the land of darkness, and alas! -- the darkness did not understand that He was the Light of the World.

 But, dear Lord, Thy child has understood Thou art the Light Divine; she asks Thy pardon for her unbelieving brethren, and is willing to eat the bread of sorrow as long as Thou mayest wish. For love of Thee she will sit at that table of bitterness where these poor sinners take their food, and she will not stir from it until Thou givest the sign. But may she not say in her own name, and the name of her guilty brethren: "O God, be merciful to us sinners!" Send us away justified. May all those on whom Faith does not shine see the light at last! O my God, if that table which they profane can be purified by one that loves Thee, I am willing to remain there alone to eat the bread of tears, until it shall please Thee to bring me to Thy Kingdom of Light: the only favour I ask is, that I may never give Thee cause for offence.

 From the time of my childhood I felt that one day I should be set free from this land of darkness. I believed it, not only because I had been told so by others, but my heart's most secret and deepest longings assured me that there was in store for me another and more beautiful country -- an abiding dwelling-place.

This is far from being a pleasant sentimentalism, though, since she is discussing her dark night of the soul; she goes on to note that wishing and hoping that there is light outside the darkness does not of itself bring any joy or certainty in the darkness. What it does is provide means for not being dragged down by that darkness. She sits at the table of bitterness willingly until the appropriate time, even though not with ease.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Jerome of Stridon

 Today was the feast of St. Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, Doctor of the Church; in English we refer to him as St. Jerome. Born in the village of Stridon, in Dalmatia, he was in his early life what would today be called a 'cultural Christian'; his family was Christian, but his parents never baptized him; he himself had mostly Christian friends, and he occasionally participate in things like visiting the tombs of the saints when they were doing so, but he himself was skeptical of Christian doctrine as a teenager. For reasons we don't quite know, this changed was in about 18; at that time he asked to be baptized, and shortly afterward decided to become a monk. He spent part of his life as an adviser for Pope Damasus; a curmudgeon from early on, he was very popular with Christian ladies seeking advice because he would he tell them exactly what he thought. This eventually got him into trouble, since rumors developed that he was having an improper relationship with a widow and that he caused the death of a young woman by encouraging her to engage in excessive ascetic practices. He left for Syria. There he spent his time doing his most important translation and commentary work. Not that it was always quiet; a polemicist by nature, at one point he so angered the local Pelagians that they broke into the monastery where he was staying and burned it down. As someone with more than a streak of acidically sarcastic cynicism myself, I take great comfort in the life of St. Jerome, the patron saint for everyone who, looking at things piously done and said by believers and nonbelievers alike, sometimes just can't help blurting out, "That's obviously idiotic!"

From his Commentary on Matthew

13.3 And he spoke many things to them in parables, saying. The crowd is not of a single opinion; rather, there are different intentions in each person. This is why he speaks to them in many parables, that they ma receive the different teachings in accordance with their various motivations. Also to be noted is that he spoke many things, but not all things, to them in parables. For if he had spoken everything in parables, the people would have gone away without profit. Thus he intermingles clear things with obscure things, so that by means of the things that they do understand, they might be challenged to the knowledge of those things which they do not understand.

[St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, Scheck, tr., The Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC: 2008) p. 152.]

A Buying-and-Selling World

 Some people argue that capitalism has distorted our thought processes. A lot of what is said in this line is obvious nonsense and based on taking 'capitalism' to mean things they don't like, but I think it's worth noting that there are some plausible candidates for this actually happening, in which we've mostly moved from thinking about something in general to thinking about it only insofar as it is relevant to buying and selling.

(1) Property. I was reading up on some of what people say about Kant's sexual ethics. Kant takes there to be a fundamental ethical problem in sexual matters that has to be faced: namely, that in sex you are using another person and/or letting yourself be used by another person. By the End in Itself formulation of the Categorical Imperative, you cannot merely use someone; you must treat every person as having a value in and of themselves; you must treat everyone's nature as a rational being as an end in itself, not simply as a means. Kant's solution to this is an agreed formal arrangement in which you give yourself wholly as a person to another person, thereby giving them rights over what concerns your happiness, but the other person gives themselves wholly to you, thereby giving you rights over what concerns their happiness, i.e., a marriage. As Kant puts it, "But if I yield myself completely to another and obtain the person of the other in return, I win myself back; I have given myself up as the property of another, but in turn I take that other as my property, and so win myself back again in winning the person whose property I have become." 

Needless to say, this talk of becoming another person's property has distressed those of delicate sensibilities. But, whatever might be said about the substance of Kant's position on marriage, a lot of the distress is due to not understanding that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the term 'property' is much broader than it is now. We think of property as real possessed commodities, the things you buy and sell. But they, unlike us, still heard the actual roots in the word, property or ownership, i.e., own-ness. And everything that you could identify as your own, in any sense, is something to which the word could apply in some context. The problem sex is dealing with is that in sex your body and yourself are being treated as someone else's to use; that is, as property. Not necessarily as commodity (Kant makes this clear), but as belonging to another for their use. Now, the End in Itself does not say that people can't be used; it says that people can't be just used. So in a sexual situation when aren't you being just used? If the other person lends themselves for your use as well. So in sex you are taken as another's "mine"; that is acceptable only if it is done in such a way that they give themselves as a "yours". We literally write love songs on this principle. Now it's a little bit trickier than that; you actually need a guarantee, and you need to give a guarantee to another, and it has to be one in which you both at least potentially and in principle have a means of recourse if something goes wrong; and that is the point of the institution of marriage for Kant, and why he thinks sex outside of marriage is always morally wrong -- in every other situation, you are failing to establish reasonable safeguards for yourself against being treated as a mere thing, and you are failing to give the other person reasonable safeguards against being treated as a mere thing. In any case, it has nothing to do with being 'owned' in the sense that we own land or cars. But people have come to think of ownership or property almost entirely in terms of property-for-buying-and-selling. 

(This causes immense confusion in other areas as well; for instance, in the libertarian doctrine of self-ownership.)

(2) Corporation. What do you think of when you think of the term 'corporation'? Chances are very good that you think of a corporate firm for buying and selling, i.e., a for-profit business corporation. In reality, a corporation was (and in many contexts still is) an organization that can act as one for the purposes of obligation and responsibility. Now, corporate firms are a very common kind of corporation. But, as Roger Scruton pointed out in his paper on corporate persons, corporate firms are not only not the only kind of corporation, they are not even the most fundamental kind. Corporate firms are almost entirely artificial corporations, existing as corporate only by law. But the fundamental corporations are natural corporations: churches, religious orders, unions, families, states, certain kinds of cooperative voluntary associations. These are corporate even if they aren't recognized as such by law. In fact, the central forms of corporation are churches, religious orders, and charitable fraternities; the artificial corporateness of corporate firms is an extension by law to firms of certain features that had already had to be recognized in churches, religious orders, and charitable fraternities. We, however, have come to take the derivative buying-and-selling sense of corporation as the paradigmatic and primary sense. And I don't think it's unfair to say that, in our first glances, at least, we don't really see churches and the like as unified agencies, despite the fact that they still do often function this way, but we do see, immediately, business corporations as unified entities.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021


 The Armenian Catholic Catholicos (or patriarch), Grégoire Pierre XX Ghabroyan, died in May. Electing his successor turned out to be something of an ordeal; the twelve or so Armenian Catholic bishops deadlocked over who was to be the successor, with no one getting the require two-thirds vote. So they turned to the Roman See, and last week they gathered in Rome under the auspices of the Pope to try again, and succeeded. Raphaël Pierre XXI Minassian is the new Armenian Catholic patriarch. He was born in Beirut, but among the many different ecclesial positions he's had, he spent an extended period in the United States as pastor.

As I've noted before, the history of Armenian Catholicism is massively tangled. But the current Armenian Catholic Patriarchate of Cilicia was formed in 1749 when Abraham Petros I Ardzivian, an Armenian Orthodox bishop who had converted to Catholicism and was eventually elected as Catholicos by a community of Armenian Catholics, was recognized as Patriarch by Pope Benedict XIV, who was faced with the difficulty of what to do with a large number of very different and independent Catholic communities of former Armenian Orthodox. For over a hundred years there had been little communities of Armenian Orthodox seeking communion with Rome, and they had begun to be difficult to keep track of. It's not a large church, as these things go; there are currently about seven hundred to eight hundred thousand Armenian Catholics in the world, with perhaps about thirty or forty thousand of those in the United States.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

An' Lammies Sport Wild on the Daisy-Gemmed Lea

 Oh, Tell Me, Dear Lassie
by William Garden 

 Oh, tell me, dear lassie! oh, tell me in sorrow!
Thou’rt gaun far awa', my sweet lassie, frae me;
Oh, sadly an' slowly will each comin' morrow
Float o'er my lone head when I'm far, far frae thee !
I'm gaun awa', laddie ; ay, gaun awa' lonely ;
Oh, think on me, laddie, when I'm far, far awa';
In my heart thou shalt live, an' I'll mind on thee only,
When tears doon my cheek flow at memory's ca’!

Thou’rt gaun awa', lassie, thou'lt tak’ my heart wi' thee;
The thocht, my dear lassie, brings mist to my e’e;
In thy presence 'tis sunshine, in darkness I'll lea' thee,
An rapture will never mair smile upon me!
Blythe Nature may smile a' aroun' in her gladness,
An' birdies may warble in ilka green shaw;
But to me their sweet strains will be naught but deep sadness,
When thou, my dear lassie, art far, far awa'!

Fair Flora may roam thro' her beautiful bowers,
An' lammies sport wild on the daisy-gemmed lea;
On the saft simmer breeze may arise frae the flowers
The soul-soothin' hum o' the musical bee;
But to me, O dear lassie! they'll bring pleasure never,
When I think thochts o' thee that I'm yearnin' to tell;
For lonely thou'lt leave me -- perchance 'tis for ever;
In sorrow, dear lassie, I bid thee farewell!

Not much seems to be known about William Garden. He was born in 1848 in Auchanacie in Banffshire, the seventh child out of ten, became a baker. He joined a literary society for his free time, and spent almost all his leisure hours reading poetry and writing. In 1868 he published Meg's Wedding, and Other Poems, and it was reasonably successful. He went into business for himself eventually, and published another book of poetry, Sonnets and Poems, in 1890, and that's about all anyone seems to know about him. But his work is quite good.

Monday, September 27, 2021

J. R. R. Tolkien (with Christopher Tolkien), The Silmarillion


Opening Passage: The Silmarillion is actually four distinct works brought together to represent a complete course of narrative, but the opening of the Ainulindalë serves for the whole book:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony. (p. 3)

Summary: The Silmarillion is in its overall structure a tale of art, both its glories and temptations. The making of Arda is structured in stages. First, Ilúvatar makes the Ainur; he then teaches them to make music together, and eventually brings them all together to make a glorious music, in which they will share themes given by Ilúvatar but will adapt and adorn it as they think best. Thus begins the Great Music, the first layer of art-making, as the Ainur sing together. But one of their number, Melkor, of immense talent, is driven by a deep desire to create, and in the course of his singing, he conceives of the idea of not merely adapting and adorning but of making music that is his very own and not derived from Ilúvatar's theme. Inevitably, this creates discord where once there was harmony; some singers falter, not knowing what to do, while others shift to singing his theme. Then Ilúvatar begins a second theme in the midst of the increasing noise, one that builds on the previous but takes it in a new direction entirely. It is a theme of power and force, and Melkor attempts to override it with power and force, and Ilúvatar begins a third theme, subtle in its character but interweaving everything else. Then it is as if there are two kinds of music going on at once; Melkor's, which is repetitive and brash, ignoring all else, and Ilúvatar's which is beautiful and deep but is capable of taking and incorporating even Melkor's theme. Then Ilúvatar brings the Music to an end.

The Song, of course, is a representation of the history of Arda as it will be; but Arda is not yet made. Ilúvatar takes the Ainur to the Void where it will be and shows them a Vision of it, for which he provides them some explanations. But when you have woven the themes and seen the first, preliminary vision of the whole, you have still actually to make. Ilúvatar sends for the Flame Imperishable, his pure power of creation, and the world is; but it is formless and empty, and the Ainur must descend into it, slowly becoming part of it and one with it, actually to build it. Because of the Music and the Vision, they know more of the world, of what has been, and of what will be; but when it comes to things made, some things can only be perceived and understood in the actual making.

All of the themes of this part of the story, the Ainulindalë, will recur throughout in different variations. The Valaquenta gives us a general account of how some of the major Ainur, the Valar and Maiar, work out their making of Arda, and the Quenta Silmarillion begins with the first stages of their actual making, which begins already in a kind of war between those Valar who are faithful to the original theme and Melkor; Melkor is eventually forced to flee. Varda, the Lady of the Stars, builds two great lamps to light the work constantly, the first working light for the first rough drafting, and all seems to be going well, the Spring of Arda, the Year of the Lamps. But Melkor builds his forces and fortifications in secret and destroys the lamps in a great tumult that threatens to destroy the whole; everything becomes dark and the Valar can barely keep things from being irreparably lost, must less actually stop Melkor. The Valar then build their own fortifications, Valinor in the land of Aman in the west, and there Yavanna, the Giver of Fruits, achieves her greatest work: two mighty Trees of light, one silver in light and one golden in light, which do not shine with constant light like the lamps, but each with an oscillating light, waxing and waning in perfect coordination so that at one part of the day, Laurelin, the golden Tree, blazes forth with light, and then wanes until Telpirion, the silver Tree, begins to wax and their light mingles for a while, until soon Telpirion's light is the dominant light. Thus begins the Year of the Trees, when the Count of Time begins. But the light of the Trees is not mere light; it is living light, holy light, Light as Life. It is understanding and art in their perfect union.

The fortification of the Valar in Valinor is interesting, and in a sense already indicates a problem. Responding to Melkor, who fortified himself in Utumno, they have inadvertently imitated him. And the result is that they have not only protected many wonderful things both made and in the making, but also shut themselves off from protecting much of the rest of the world. The rest of the world sleeps in darkness, and Melkor can work freely there. The theme of Melkor is disrupting the original theme. This problem will become more acute when the Children of Ilúvatar begin to awake.

The Elves, the Firstborn, first come into existence under the stars far to the east. The Valar and Melkor have, from the Song and the Vision, a rough idea of when they might enter the theme, but not much else, because the Children of Ilúvatar are made by Ilúvatar himself, not the Ainur. But Melkor is better situated and prepared for their coming, and by the time the Valar find the Elves, Melkor has already been spreading lies and perhaps experimenting on individuals he has captured. And the Valar response to discovering the Elves is to fortify them, as well, to bring them to Valinor so that they may be protected. It is clear from much of what J. R. R. Tolkien has said elsewhere that he thinks this was a grave mistake. It was a reasonable and honest one; it's just that in responding to Melkor, the Valar have played by his rules. Because it was reasonable and honest as an error, great good will come of it; but it is an error, and great tragedy will come from it, as well. Nonetheless, the Valar assault Utumno and capture Melkor, bringing him back in chains to Valinor, and the Elves are summoned to Aman, although not all of them go.

In the holy light of the Trees, under the tutelage of the Valar and Maiar, the Elves grow great and splendid in mind and will and craft, far greater than they ever could have in the twilight expanses of Middle Earth. In them something of the perfection of art and skill begins to reside. But greatest of them all is Fëanor.

Fëanor is one of the Noldor, a tribe of Elves who are especially inclined to be talented in crafts of making; they study under Aulë, the great smith of the earth, and learn skills that can only be discovered with his help. One of the things they discover is the making of gems. And Fëanor, the most talented of them all, makes three gems of incomparable excellence that hold in themselves the light of the Trees, a work so extraordinary even the Valar are impressed." And Varda hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them" (p. 73). But by the time Fëanor creates the Silmarils, Melkor has already served his punishment -- the Valar have known him from before the foundation of the world, he is one of them, and they have no reason to think that he cannot be corrected -- and now attempts to show his reformation by teaching the Elves. Being the subtlest of the Valar, he begins to poison the minds of the Elves with discontent over living in paradise, where they are in tutelage, rather than free to rule realms of their own in Middle Earth. And seeing the Silmarils, Melkor, whose 'creative' response to all great creation is to want to make it his own and in some way an expression of himself, desires them. To see something splendid in its own right and want to twist it so that it is as you yourself would wish -- this is one of the great artistic corruptions.

Melkor will eventually destroy the Trees. After the Trees are gone, they cannot bes remade from scratch. The Valar suggest using the light from the Silmarils to remake them, but Fëanor refuses. The Valar point out that Fëanor's ability to make the Silmarils depended on skills learned in Valinor and the light of the Trees, which Fëanor did not make, but while Fëanor's love for the things he has made has become possessive and greedy, it is also true that the Silmarils cannot really be remade, either. And when Melkor steals the Silmarils, Fëanor snaps; all of the Valar are kin, as far as he is concerned. He and his sons swear an unbreakable oath that should never be made to pursue and destroy anyone who takes the Silmarils for themselves, and he convinces most of the Noldor to flee Aman to Middle Earth, where they can rule. The theme of Melkor is repetitive, and the Noldor are inadvertently beginning to imitate it. The problem is that Middle Earth is across the sea. So they attempt to convince the Elves who live by the sea, the Teleri, to give them the Teleri's ships. But those ships, too, are of extraordinary craftsmanship, loved by the Teleri as if they were children, and can never fully be remade again if lost. The Noldor attempt to seize them by force, and for the first time in the history of the Elves, Elves take up arms against Elves to slay them. The whole host of the Noldor is too many for the ships that they seize, so they split into two groups, one marching on land, one (that of Fëanor and his sons) in the ships, to a place where they can be ferried across. Mandos, the Doomsayer of the Valar, speaks a prophecy that they will shed tears unnumbered and that all they do will betray them; while some Noldor turn back to ask forgiveness, most do not. And finally, Fëanor and his ships sail to Middle Earth, and Fëanor, instead of sending the ships back to ferry the rest across, burns the ships. The theme of Melkor is indeed repetitive; this is a very Melkor-like thing to do. Fëanor will die shortly after; those he left behind will take the long, hard, often deadly road of the northern ice; and the sons of Fëanor will continue their war of vengeance against Melkor, who wears the Silmarils in his crown, little understanding what it is to make war against one who has helped to shape the very world.  In the west, the Valar salvage what they can of the Trees, and make the Sun and the Moon. And with the rising of the Sun, which begins the First Age, the Secondborn Children of Ilúvatar, Men, awaken in the east.

The rest of the tale in the Quenta Silmarillion will be woven together from four threads: (1) the six great battles in the war against Melkor, each more devastating than the last, with the fifth, Nírnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Tears Unnumbered, giving him almost an insuperable advantage; (2) the interaction of Elves and Men, which will create things even Melkor cannot anticipate, and the great heroes of Men who in cooperation with the Elves will disrupt his plans: Beren, who for the love and with the aid of the Elf maid Lúthien seizes a Silmaril from Melkor's very stronghold; Túrin, under a dark fate and doomed to despair, greatest of the warriors of men; Tuor his cousin, salvaging the hope from the ashes of inevitable defeat; and Eärendil, Tuor's son, bringing salvation beyond hope; (3) the rise and fall of the great Elven kingdoms of Beleriand: Doriath, Nargothrond, Gondolin; and (4) the theme of making represented by the Silmarils themselves and the downfall that comes from pride in making. Great things will be done by Man and Elf, glorious things, for as Children of Ilúvatar they have within themselves the drive to create; but the theme of Melkor plays its repetitive notes, and all that they create falls to ruin because of the sin of pride in what they make and the sin of envy for what others make.

The sixth great battle against Melkor consists of the Valar themselves raising the standard of war against him at the plea of Eärendil. After many devastating years of battle, Melkor is seized and thrust out of the world. Those Elves who aid the Valar are rewarded by being allowed to return to Aman if they wish, which some do and some do not; the Men who aid the Valar are rewarded by being given a great island in the sea, as close to the Undying Lands as is possible for mortal men. Thus begins the Second Age we come to the Akallabêth, the story of Númenor and the golden age of Men, when they become most like the Elves in greatest of making. But while Melkor may be gone, his theme continues; some of his followers had escaped, including Sauron, the greatest of his lieutenants. The Melkorian theme will play over again, allowing for the difference in circumstances. Sauron will dominate the Middle Earth in darkness, but will be made prisoner by the glory of Númenor; but he will by distortions of truth bring a restlessness to the Men of Westernesse through their desire not to die, and corrupt this desire into a thirst for domination, one that leads them to go to war even against the Valar. Then Númenor will be lost, the world made round, and the Third Age shall begin.

Sauron's will be destroyed in the destruction of Númenor, but he is a Maia and cannot die. Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age tells how in the Middle Earth the remnants of the Númenoreans make their kingdoms and how he remnants of the Noldor in Region, especially Celebrimbor, the grandson of Fëanor, receive the help of one who calls himself Annatar, Lord of Gifts, and make the Rings of power, by which they may increase the power of their making and undo some of the weariness of time. But we know this story, as the Melkorian theme plays in another variation: Annatar is Sauron and he makes a single Ring to rule them all, by which he may dominate even the minds of those who use the others.

No creature has in themselves the original power of creation, but we have in ourselves something like it. By means of it, we create in a secondary sense, in cooperation with primary creation, and it is part of what we are meant to do and be. But there are temptations on the way. Melkor falls by wanting his secondary power of creation to be a primary power of creation; to create is to make from your will as you will, but there is something else that is like this and yet not like this, since to dominate is to make what you will to be as you will, and spoiled will to create is the corrupt will to dominate both what you yourself create and what others create. Fëanor and the Noldorins, loving the things they make, have a desire to rule; this, and the greediness of Fëanor's possessiveness of the Silmarils, leads to the Kinslaying and the flight of the Noldor. The great kingdoms of Beleriand are undermined by possessive envy and fall through pride associated with making. The Men of Númenor wish their power to make the world to be free of the limit of death, and the more they rebel agains the latter, the more they become corrupted with the desire for domination. It is the theme of Melkor and none of us are entirely free of it.

The Silmarillion is one of the great works of the twentieth century, but the circumstances of its writing meant that it was in considerable disarray at Tolkien's death. Much of it was early and Tolkien had changed his ideas about a number of things in the meantime (e.g., he eventually decided that having the Sun and Moon created after the Trees as more trouble than it was worth, but never came to a satisfactory way to rearrange it). Christopher Tolkien was in general quite careful never to stray very far from some draft or other of his father's, constrained only by the need to have a coherent and continuous narrative, and the one situation where he had to do some major reworking on his own authority, "Of the Ruin of Doriath", it is as minimum as can be and still make the story work. Christopher Tolkien eventually regretted some of this, as it required him to diverge from where his father clearly intended the story to go -- but the fact of the matter is, whatever course his father may have been coming to, much of that was never actually written up in more than note and outline. The result, while a mish-mash of J. R. R. Tolkien's intentions at various stages in creation, is nonetheless quite faithful to the whole vision. There are a few limitations due to the circumstances, though. Every time I read The Silmarillion it's just very obvious that the last half of the Quenta Silmarillion is unbalanced. Ideally, and structurally, the very, very dark story of Túrin, the noble man of pride and despair, should be balanced out by the story of his cousin Tuor, the noble man of humility and hope, who serves as the bridge from the darkest point to the hope beyond hope that is found in Eärendil. But this is no really how it reads, because the Túrin part of the story was very fully developed, while much of the Tuor part of the story was still in relatively primitive form. But this is minor, and The Silmarillion is one of the greatest achievements of art, and one of the greatest statements of the nature of art and its temptations, in the past hundred years at least.

Favorite Passage: There are many good passages, of course, but I am always struck by Aulë's making of the dwarves, which serves in the narrative to highlight the difference between a mistake made by an honest desire to create what is good and Melkor's corruption of creating to extend what is his, and likewise the difference between a willingness to subordinate one's love of what one makes to the greater good and Fëanor's refusal to do so:

Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from his hammer and were afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: 'Thy offer I have accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will. Then Aulë cast down his hammer and was glad, and he gave thanks to Ilúvatar, saying, 'May Eru bless my work and amend it!' (p. 41)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended


J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien, ed.,  Ballantine Books (New York: 1993).