Saturday, August 27, 2022

Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk


Opening Passage: 

'And so they've killed our Ferdinand,' said the charwoman to Mr Švejk, who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now living by selling dogs -- ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged.

Apart from this occupation he suffered from rheumatism and was at this very moment rubbing his knees with Elliman's embrocation. (p. 3)

Summary: The Great War begins and the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire find themselves faced with a war that almost everyone is sure that they will lose. (A number of people in the course of the story indicate in one way or another that their great hope is that the Empire loses quickly enough that they can get back to their lives without much trouble.) Because people are so sure that the Empire will lose, when Švejk, who was previously discharged from the military for imbecility, tries to express an enthusiastic patriotism and support for the (not very well liked) emperor, he comes under suspicion for treason, due to having been a little too enthusiastic. Nobody can decide whether he is sincere, or sarcastic, or just stupid. He is sent to prison, then to the lunatic asylum, then to the army.

In the army, he is made the batman (the valet or personal orderly) of the chaplain, Otto Katz; Katz is Catholic, but he is chaplain mostly because of the conveniences of a job in the ministry. He is also alcoholic and a gambler, with the result that he eventually gambles Švejk off to Lieutenant Lukáš, whose batman he then becomes. Lieutenant Lukáš may have won the cards, but he will soon learn that he perhaps did not get the better prize. Švejk has a knack for innocently -- or perhaps 'innocently' -- getting people into trouble, and Lieutenant Lukáš's weaknesses -- he is a womanizer with a taste for married women and has a soft spot for dogs -- soon interact with Švejk's bland, rambling disregard for normal conventions in his enthusiastic -- or perhaps it is 'enthusiastic' -- desire to help, and Lieutenant Lukáš, who had had a fairly good thing going, finds himself ordered to the frontlines as a punishment for the theft of a superior's dog. He and Švejk head out. They are sent to České Budějovice, in southern Bohemia, as a sort of waystation on the way to the fighting, but before he gets there, Švejk gets distracted by the inevitable trouble that follows him, misses all the trains out, and then wanders around in an 'anabasis' trying in vain -- or perhaps 'trying in vain' -- to find České Budějovice. He does get to the latter, but only because he gets arrested as a deserter and possible spy and sent there to be tried for it. This, of course, does not make Lieutenant Lukáš's life any easier. The regiment moves on to Bruck an der Leitha, where Švejk gets arrested again, this time for provoking a riot between the Hungarians and the Czechs. But with his impenetrable innocence -- or 'innocence' -- he makes his way through this problem by being promoted to the position of orderly for the entire regiment.

Slowly the sheer momentum of the war pulls Švejk closer to the Eastern Front, but his progress in that direction is slowed again when he discovers an abandoned Russian soldier's uniform and runs into Austro-Hungarian patrols while trying it on. He is, of course, arrested as a Russian spy. He is scheduled to be executed, but lucks out and is returned to his regiment. At this point the book ends, never having been finished. There is some reason to think that Hašek's plan was for Švejk to get to the trenches, only to be shortly afterward captured by the Russians and spend time in a Russian POW camp. (Švejk has been in just about every other kind of prison, so completeness alone would suggest it.) But there is something fitting about Švejk never reaching Galicia and the front lines.

There are many kinds of humor in this book: slapstick, irony, barracks humor, satire, blasphemy, toilet humor, and the like. Some of it is quite hilarious -- the satire is occasionally quite funny, the book balances Švejk very nicely on that ambiguity between sincere and sarcastic enthusiasm. Some it is a bit harsher; the vulgar humor gets extremely vulgar. Hašek is famous for arguing that profanity and the like has a place due to realism, but I've known foulmouthed rednecks who would hesitate to tell some of the more vulgar stories that come up. In some cases, as well, the mockery seems to go well beyond poking fun at weaknesses and failings and seems almost motivated by hatred, so vehement it is beyond proportion to the very ordinary weaknesses of those mocked. This happens a few times, but the most obvious case is that of Cadet Biegler, the slightly pompous would-be warrior-hero whose entire knowledge of the military is from textbooks. Perhaps it's partly due to the translation, but I quickly found myself no longer finding funny the humiliations he was put through -- instead I started feeling sorry for the poor little fool. There are also numerous times when there's obviously some joke going on, but it's so weirdly structured and even garbled that it's hard to say what it is. (The translator says in the Introduction that the whole book was written quickly and that some passages were pretty clearly written while drunk, and I can believe it even through the translation.) Nonetheless, these rather unsettling parts are a small portion of a very large book, whose dark comedy is sometimes masterfully done.

Favorite Passage:

Colonel Friedrich Kraus, who bore the additional title of von Zillergut after a village in the district of Salzburg which his ancestors had already completely fleeced in the eighteenth century, was a most venerable idiot. Whenever he was relating something, he could only speak in platitudes, asking whether everybody could understand the most primitive expressions: 'And so a window, gentlemen, ye. Well, do you know what a window is?'

Or: 'A track which has a ditch on each side of it is called a road. Yes, gentlemen. Now, do you know what a ditch is? A ditch is an excavation on which several people work. It is a hollow. Yes. They work with picks. Now, do you know what a pick is?'

He suffered from a mania for explanations, which he gave with the enthusiasm of an inventor expounding his work.

'A book, gentlemen, is a number of squares of paper cut in different ways and of varying formats which are printed on and put together, bound and gummed. Yes. Well, do you know, gentlemen, what gum is? Gum is adhesive material.'

He was so colossally stupid that the officers avoided him from afar so as not to have to hear from him that the pavement divided the street from the carriage-way and that it was a raised paved strip along the façade of the house. And the façade of the house was that part of it which we see from the street or from the pavement. We cannot see the rear part of the house from the pavement, a fact we can immediately prove to ourselves by stepping into the carriage-way.

He was ready to demonstrate this interesting fact at once. Fortunately however he was run over.... (p. 201)

Recommendation: I'm not sure. Certainly the book is often extremely funny, but you have to go into it knowing that anything and everything will be ruthlessly mocked, sometimes with deliberately bad taste.


Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk, Parrot, tr., Penguin (New York: 2000).

The Secret Strength of Prayer

Today is the feast of St. Monnica, most commonly known as Monica.

 St. Augustine and Monica
by Charles Tennyson Turner 

 When Monica's young son had felt her kiss --
Her weeping kiss -- for years, her sorrow flowed
At last into his wilful blood; he owed
To her his after-life of truth and bliss:
And her own joy, what words, what thoughts could paint!
When o'er his soul, with sweet constraining force,
Came Penitence -- a fusion from remorse --
And made her boy a glorious Christian saint.
Oh ye, who tend the young through doubtful years
Along the busy path from birth to death,
Parents and friends! forget not in your fears
The secret strength of prayer, the holy breath
That swathes your darlings! think how Austin's faith
Rose like a star upon his mother's tears!

Friday, August 26, 2022

Love Came to Flora Asking for a Flower

 The Lotus
by Toru Dutt 

Love came to Flora asking for a flower
That would of flowers be undisputed queen,
The lily and the rose, long, long had been
Rivals for that high honour. Bards of power
Had sung their claims. "The rose can never tower
Like the pale lily with her Juno mien"--
"But is the lily lovelier?" Thus between
Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche's bower.
"Give me a flower delicious as the rose
And stately as the lily in her pride"--
"But of what colour?"--"Rose-red," Love first chose,
Then prayed,--"No, lily-white,--or, both provide;"
And Flora gave the lotus, "rose-red" dyed,
And "lily-white,"--the queenliest flower that blows.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Conscientious Provision

 Dov Fox has a paper, What Will Happen If Doctors Defy the Law to Provide Abortions? (PDF), in which the argument is made for conscience protections for abortion providers. I suspect similar arguments will become more common; under Roe, the common argument was that there should be no conscience protections at all in questions of abortion, and now that Roe is gone, people who would previously have argued in this way are hastily trying to build a conscience-protection shelter for their preferred positions. We should be glad, nonetheless, that there is a renewed recognition of the importance of conscience in medicine. It's certainly less morally and intellectually defective than the older line of argument, but the kind of argument given in Fox's paper is still difficult to take seriously when the argument makes so many elementary mistakes about conscientious objection.

(1) The argument confuses conscientious objection and civil disobedience. While one can appeal to conscience in the latter as well as the former, it is structurally different. Conscientious objection is something that can be potentially incorporated into laws and policies, and almost always concerns omissions; civil disobedience is by definition inconsistent with something recognized as law, and usually concerns commissions of acts that are illegal in that sense. Because of that, they require different justifications -- conscientious objectors are only asking to be accommodated, while not thereby interfering with the legal policy, and therefore their request is grounded on personal considerations; those engaged in civil disobedience are treating a law as immoral either in itself or in its application, thus implying that the law should be eliminated for everyone, and therefore their request has to be grounded on some sort of higher law or moral principle. Due to these differences, they are also not addressed in the same way.

(2) A key problem with Fox's argument is that the conscientious objection side is framed in terms of "denial of care". But conscientious objectors are not denying care, any more than someone denies care if they judge that they do not have the skill or the resources to engage in a given medical intervention properly; the only difference, in fact, is that in this case they are saying that they are morally, rather than technically or materially, not the right sort of person to provide a given medical operation. The notion that doctors' moral judgments are just some extra and irrelevant thing with no business in medicine is absurd; doctors have to assess whether they can properly provide any proposed medical service on material, technical, legal, and moral grounds, and if they deem that they are not able to do so, on any of those grounds, they have a moral responsibility not to do it. 

(3) Fox says, "Forcing doctors and nurses to stand by and do nothing to help patients in need flies in the face of clinicians’ fundamental charge to heal, promote health and relieve suffering"; but it's almost universally recognized that the fundamental charge of clinicians is to do no harm, and positive charges are secondary to this. The symmetry that Fox sees between 'conscientious providers' and 'conscientious refusers' does not exist, even in other areas. If hospital policy restricts provision of a certain drug to those who have gone through a certain process, and a doctor provides the drug without the process, on the grounds that it relieves suffering, the doctor will have usually acted unprofessionally and in violation of basic responsibilities, by short-circuiting a process intended to protect patients; mere appeal to relief of suffering is not ever adequate to justify any medical treatment or intervention. But the inappropriateness of a medical treatment or intervention is usually adequate to justify not doing it. Those who take the totalitarian position that medical conscientious objection is not allowed, will not accept cases where the judgment is that the treatment or intervention is morally inappropriate, but Fox in principle accepts that a judgment of moral inappropriateness can be considered. That's all that's required for the asymmetry, though.

(4) Not all of Fox's arguments are bad. He rightly notes the importance of the patient's wishes, as well as the importance of giving a fair amount of room for conscience in a pluralistic society. These are both legitimate considerations. They do not, however, give us much guidance on this issue, precisely because of the asymmetry: patient's wishes and clinician's conscience should both weigh heavily on what should not be done; they have to be joined with a lot of other considerations to decide what should be done. (It would be legitimate to argue, however, that both patients' wishes and clinicians' consciences should at least be given consideration in forming any law or policy on a matter; these are indeed the kinds of things that legislators and policy-makers should often consider.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Beings of Reason

 An ens rationis or 'being of reason' is the traditional name for what is conceived on the model of a being but cannot actually exist as such. An obvious example of such a being of reason is a hole. Holes are things we conceived on the model of beings -- we count them as if they were beings, we can talk about them interacting as if they were beings -- but a hole, as such, is not an actually existing thing. The example of a hole gives us an important aspect of the concept that often throws people off. To say that something is a being of reason is not to say that it is illusory or simply nonexistent; quite the contrary, we treat beings of reason as existing, and we need to do so. Whether or not there is a hole in your roof is not entirely in the mind, nor is the hole an illusion, nor can it be dismissed as just nonexistent at all. You can point to holes. You can use holes. You can manipulate holes. They change the way actually existing things work. But you can also understand me entirely if I say that the hole in your roof is real but that a hole is not an actually existing thing.

Another example would be a crack. You can point to cracks, you can manipulate cracks, you can use cracks to perform some activity. There is even a branch of physics that studies the dynamics of cracks; as it happens, the physics of the motion of the leading edge of a crack in a substance is very similar to the physics of the motion of particles through a medium. But you can also make perfect sense of saying that a crack just doesn't and can't exist in the same way that the medium in which it is found exists.

Since beings of reason are conceived on the model of beings, some kind of being has to be the start of any conception of being of reason we might have. What makes these conceptions different from conceptions of the beings themselves is that beings of reason are organized by negations and rational relations. If I say, "There is a hole in the wall," I conceive the hole on the model of a section of wall, but instead of simply doing so (which would be incorrect, since a hole in a wall is not the substance of the wall), I conceived it under a negation: a section of the wall is not there, the hole is the not-section. In addition, we can think of the hole by relation to both the surrounding wall and to things that can pass through it -- it's not a bare lack-of-section-of-wall, but a lack-of-section-of-wall-such-that-through-it-something-can-pass. The wall really can have a hole in it, but the hole itself is identifiable only by negation of something (part of the wall) and by relation to other things (like the rest of the wall and moving objects).

Shadows are another example of how this works. A shadow is conceived as a shadow by relation to something -- a shadow is a shadow of something -- and by negation -- of the surrounding light. Actually, a shadow is conceived in relation to three different things -- a light source, a light-blocker, and a surface to which the shadow is attributed. A shadow is thus a negation on a surface of light from a light source due to something that intervenes between the light source and the surface. But we can point to shadows, and we can use them (as when find shade), and we can manipulate them (as when we do shadow-puppets). They are in some sense real, and you cannot develop an accurate understanding of the world without understanding them to be in some sense real. But they are beings of reason, things conceived with negations and relations on the model of beings that nonetheless cannot be actual things existing in their own right.

This easily missed because as a matter of technical terms, the opposite of 'being of reason' is 'real being'; but the 'real' here means 'as a thing in its own right', and not real in a more expansive thing. Beings of reason are broadly real, but they are not things in their own right -- indeed, they couldn't be, because they always inherently involve negations of and relations to other things. At the level of objects of understanding, however, there is no fundamental difference between beings of reason and real beings. As noted above, we can do a physics of particle trajectories or a physics of crack movements in much the same way; that particles are real beings and leading edges of cracks are beings of reason doesn't actually affect much, beyond the fact that a leading edge of a crack can only ever be understood in terms of negations and relations. A hole or a center of gravity is a being of reason, but it has objective reality. 

In fact, beings of reason end up being quite important because a vast portion of our understanding of the world is based on them. Indeed, I think one can argue that physicists, for instance, almost exclusively study beings of reason. This does not imply idealism or anything like it; it mostly just indicates that physicists spend a lot of their investigations studying things wholly insofar as they are related to other things. And physicists are not particularly shy about use of beings of reasons; they will explain behavior of actual systems by idealized models that can't exist as such in the actual world, for instance. The ideal structures that are doing the explaining are beings of reason. But physics is in no way unique here. Objective reality is not as straightforward as one might have thought.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Out of a Mane of Tawny Clouds

 La Mer
by Oscar Wilde

A white mist drifts across the shrouds,
A wild moon in this wintry sky
Gleams like an angry lion's eye
Out of a mane of tawny clouds. 

 The muffled steersman at the wheel
Is but a shadow in the gloom;--
And in the throbbing engine-room
Leap the long rods of polished steel. 

 The shattered storm has left its trace
Upon this huge and heaving dome,
For the thin threads of yellow foam
Float on the waves like ravelled lace.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Simultaneous and Instantaneous

 I've noticed recently some people struggling with the difference between 'simultaneous' and 'instantaneous', so I thought I would point out how they are different.

(1) Simultaneity is a two-place relation; instantaneity is a one-place predicate. That is, an event may be instantaneous on its own; that means it occurs, by some measure, at an instant, the equivalent of a single point in the measurement. An event can only be simultaneous with something else: A is simultaneous with B. (The relation is reflexive, so we can say that A is simultaneous with A, but we need to fill both places.)

(2) For events to be simultaneous implies that their measurements overlap; sometimes it's used in a strict sense to mean that their measurements overlap exactly, but in either case it's overlap that matters. Because of this, two things can be simultaneous for a short or for a very extended period of time. It is conceptually possible for two things to be simultaneous forever -- all this means is that they share the same clock-measurements for every clock-measurement, so it would just be a matter of whether there are actually things measurable by a clock that have this relation to each other. By definition, nothing can be instantaneous for an extended period of time.

(3) Something would be instantaneous in terms of a single measurement. It's often the case, however, the simultaneity requires coordinating different measurements. (The primary case where you don't have to do this is when we say something is simultaneous with itself, and it's unclear whether there's any other case.) This is sometimes easy, but it is also sometimes not straightforward at all.

(4) It is extremely evident that there are simultaneous things. For instance, I am typing this simultaneously with the fan going above me and the refrigerator running in the next room. This is something we recognize in ordinary experience. I am thinking of what to type simultaneously with typing it -- there's a tiny delay, of course, between the words being thought and their showing up on the screen, but this is irrelevant because the thinking and the typing are two ongoing events that overlap by clock-measurement. It is not evident at all whether anything ever happens instantaneously -- this claim is something that requires a particular theory of time, and if we're speaking strictly, we never in ordinary experience find anything that literally occurs at a single instant, simply because our ordinary ways of experiencing the world are simply not that precise.

Music on My Mind


Elastinen (ft. Jenni Vartiainen), "Epäröimättä hetkeekään".