Saturday, December 30, 2023

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant


Opening Passage:

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby -- one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots -- might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about. How to get food out of the hard ground; how not to run out of firewood; how to stop the sickness that could kill a dozen pigs in a single day and produce green rashes on the cheeks of children. (p. 3)

Summary: Axl and Beatrice are an elderly Briton couple living in the days of peace imposed long before by King Arthur on Britons and Saxons. I say, "days of peace", but it's an unsettled time as well; the land is covered by a mist, there are ogres in the mist, and people seem often to be on edge and suspicious of strangers. More than this, however, there is a general forgetfulness lying on the land, which comes and goes, mist-like, across people's memories, and this imperfect oblivion leads to entire people being forgotten. Axl and Beatrice set off on a journey to visit their son's village after a series of events leads them to remember that they had a son and had been discussing whether to visit them. It's a dangerous journey, but in a Saxon village they fall in with Witan, who rescues a boy, Edwin, from ogres. Edwin, when recovered turns out to have a wound, which people assume to have been inflicted by the ogres in the mist; this leads the perpetually suspicious villagers to try to kill him, so Witan and Edwin join Axl and Beatrice on their journey, heading to a monastery. The monastery they find divided over how to treat strangers, but they are helped by a monk named Jonus. They also meet an aging knight of King Arthur, no less than Sir Gawain himself. Sir Gawain informs them that he is on a mission from King Arthur, given long ago, to kill the dragon, Querig, who is the source of the mist and the forgetfulness on the land; there is some tension in the company when it turns out that Witan is on a mission from Lord Brennus, the primary Saxon leader, to kill Querig also, which offends Sir Gawain. Nonetheless, there is something odd about Sir Gawain; his approach to finding and killing the dragon seems rather leisurely and even aimless, and he makes a number of comments suggesting a pacifist view in which massive bloodshed is to be avoided at all cost. There are also some hints (which turn out to be true) that both Witan and Sir Gawain have met Axl before, in a time that Axl doesn't remember at all and Witan only dimly remembers. Sir Gawain knows more about matters than he is letting on.

Some of the monks in the monastery conspire with Lord Brennus to murder the travelers, who escape with Jonus's help due to Witan's skill as a warrior. Witan turns out to be using Edwin to find the dragon -- the supposed ogre's bite is actually a dragon's bite, and gives Edwin a connection with Querig, and Axl and Beatrice become involved in a scheme to kill the dragon Querig by poison, which Sir Gawain grudgingly aids. And then all comes to a head.

King Arthur had imposed peace on Saxon and Briton alike; he had aimed at doing so by the Law of Innocents, in which treaties were established that women and children on both the Saxon and Briton side were not to be harmed. These treaties had been brokered by Axl in his youth, when he had been an ambassador for King Arthur. But the difficulties of keeping the peace had grown great and King Arthur had eventually broken his own treaties himself, massacring a number of Saxon villages. Then, with the help of Merlin, he had captured the dragon and placed it under an enchantment to make its breath the source of the mist and the forgetfulness. Thus the massacres were suppressed into oblivion, and Saxons and Britons no longer fought because they could no longer remember any reason for fighting. Sir Gawain's approach to killing the dragon was so odd because his mission was not to kill the dragon at all, but to keep it alive as long as possible. Sir Gawain, trying to preserve the dragon and the forgetfulness so as to maintain the peace of the land, fights Witan, trying to slay the dragon and end the forgetfulness so that the Saxons will rise up in vengeance and massacre the Britons. The dragon is slain and the mist and oblivion begin to lift; memory and vengeance have won. The forgetfulness begins to clear from Axl and Beatrice, as well, and they remember that their son has died; they also begin to remember things that will test their love for each other.

The book is often said to be about the problems of collective remembering and forgetting, but I'm not sure its conception of these is sufficiently coherent for it to be effective on that ground. The essential dilemma, however, is interesting: is it better to remember wrongs so that they may be dealt with, even if horribly, or to forget them and have a sort of peace, although with nothing ever resolved. We know that the Saxons will, in fact, massacre the Britons; but the oblivion of the dragon's breath had not actually eliminated the tensions, but just generalized them (thus the general suspicion of strangers throughout the land). And in Axl and Beatrice we see an analogous problem. They approach their death, and wish to do so assured of their true love for each other. But how can you know that you have true love without memories? On the other hand, if you remember, you will remember reasons not to love just as easily as you will remember reasons to love. Memory and oblivion are both indiscriminate; they bring the bad as well as the good, and sometimes the bad is quite terrible.

The book is written well, and the story overall is interesting, but I don't think it is an entire success. Part of the problem, I think, lies with Axl and Beatrice, who have to carry a significant portion of the story, but who on their own are dull as dishwater. There is, I suppose, something realistic about them, but the result is that portions of the story are like being stuck in a car on a road trip with an elderly couple with memory problems commenting to each other on everything that is happening. The story, including that of Axl and Beatrice, picks up considerably with the entrance of Witan and Sir Gawain, both of whom are considerably more interesting. The narrative (as opposed to thematic) link between the story lines -- the love of Axl and Beatrice on their quest to find their son and the mystery of the dragon -- is also weaker than it might be; Axl is the essential bridge, but Axl doesn't actually remember anything about his connection to the latter until very late, and even then it doesn't play much of a direct role. But again, the story surrounding Sir Gawain and Witan is itself quite interesting. The Arthurian background plays a fairly minimal role in the actual story, however; the primary narrative element it really contributes that could not easily be replaced is our knowledge that King Arthur quelled the Saxons for a time but only for a time, with the Saxons eventually overruning the Britons. 

A number of reviews have said that the book is a 'fairy tale for grown-ups'; but this does not, I think, do justice to the book. The real fairy tales for grown-ups are just fairy tales. Things marketed as 'fairy tales for grown-ups' are usually quite stupid and gimmicky, and this book is very definitely neither stupid nor gimmicky. It also does sometimes have a real fairy-tale quality, down to its brutally unhappy and melancholic ending. Where it differs is not in being 'for grown-ups'but primarily in the way novels often differ from other kinds of tale, with a much weaker emphasis on objective meaning and a much stronger emphasis on the psychological. Some of this is very interesting -- but despite its many excellences, I do at times wish that the book were more fairy tale and less novel.

Favorite Passage:

"What is it you ask, Axl?"

"It's simply this, princess. Should Querig really die and the mist begin to clear. Should memories return, and among them of times I disappointed you. Or yet of dark deeds I may once have done to make you look at me and see no longer the man you do now. Promise me this at least. Promise, princess, you'll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good's a memory's returning from the mist if it's only to push away another? Will you promise me, princess? Promise to keep what you feel for me this moment always in your heart, no matter what you see once the mist's gone." (p. 258)

Recommendation: Recommended; it develops slowly, but by the end is quite interesting.


Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, Vintage Books (New York: 2015).

Friday, December 29, 2023

Fire Serpent and Water Mountain V

Beginning -- Previous.

The Tavern was full of gods, more than Tera had known in her entire life, and the blizzard of ever-shifting possibilities that came from all of them being together took her breath away. None of them even glanced their way, beyond venturing an occasional greeting for Amaethon, but she felt that when they entered, the entire disposition of the room had changed. Nobody was looking at them, but everybody was paying attention to them.

As for Uncle Llew, being in the presence of so many gods seemed to change him physically. All of the gods seemed preternaturally real, but Llew in their presence was almost overwhelming; the rapid shifting of possibilities that she always sensed around him accelerated to the point of being almost dizzying, so that the gods, so well rounded compared to the occasional Vilim servants who flitted around the room, seemed flat next to him.

They made their way to an empty table in the back and Amaethon ordered small beer from a Vilim barmaid. Then he turned to Llew. "It is good to have you back in The City of the Gods. You have been away far too long."

Llew's demeanor, already cold, became icier still. "I did not leave willingly, if you recall. We were banished."

"You were asked to leave for a hundred years," said Amaethon, "until things could settle down. Here it is, almost a millenium later, and you only now return. You should not have denied the clan your talents."

Llew's face grew darker. "What obligations do I have to people who betrayed me and my sister?"

Amaethon's mouth set in a firm line, and it seemed to Tera like all of the tables around them tensed. "We only sought peace in a feud that was quickly growing worse. And even if it were not so, your obligations to your clan are still your obligations."

"No law binds the gods," said Uncle Llew mockingly. "Is this not the saying? There is no obligation. To support one's clan is a courtesy, in exchange for benefits received from the clan."

"You are as haughty and obstinate now as you ever were. Your clan supported both you and your sister," said Amaethon.

"Yes," said Llew, "until you betrayed us. You deserve no trust, and the loyalty you will have will be commensurate with the good you do us."

Amaethon clearly bit back something he was tempted to say. Then, after looking off into the corner of the room a moment, he said, "Very well, then. Have it your way. But you are also here. And your clan is still your clan, however the past may tangle that. We are still here for you." He looked deliberately at Tera and then significantly at Llew. "Both of you."

The small beers came at this point.

"In any case," said Llew, "I am here not for anything to do with myself, but for my niece, so that she might know something of her clan and The City before she is Enrolled."

Amaethon visibly relaxed. "We are glad of it." He smiled at Tera. "You are from a family of extraordinary ability. I have no doubt that you will be the pride of the Embiadwe."

"I doubt that I am so extraordinary," said Tera, "but I am excited to be here."

They all finished their small beers in silence punctuated only by the most inoffensively bland comments. Then Amaethon said, "The Platform at Brickanbreck has been prepared, if you wish to use the public Platform here."

"No," said Llew, "I think we will take a wagon up; this is Tera's first time, and a wagon will let her see more of The City."

"Of course," said Amaethon, "I considered that possibility, so there is one ready for you." He smiled ingratiatingly at Llew, but any charm the smile might have been throwing at him bounced off Llew's impervious armor. He thanked Amaethon and they both left the Tavern.

Outside, they find the wagon waiting. Uncle Llew immediately set about examining it closely.

"That was uncomfortable," said Tera to Llew.

Llew, engrossed in his examination of the wagon, did not look up as he replied, "Oh, Amaethon is harmless; he is not intelligent enough to be a threat." He suddenly stopped, and a smile of almost mischievous delight broke over his face. He put his finger to his lips then pointed at a portion of a beam on the under side of the wagon. 

Tera did not immediately see what Uncle Llew meant, but then she caught it. It was a wooden pin or dowel set into the wood. It was in many ways entirely ordinary. It looked like a wooden pin. It was helping to hold a board in  place. But the possibilities associated with it were subtly off. Because it was actually functioning as a pin should, those possibilities were more obvious and immediate; but there were possibilities available to the pin that would not have been available to a mere wooden pin. They were the possibilities of something with a memory, something that could record what was said around it; the pin was in fact an artificial ear, set there as a spy. She would have missed it entirely if Uncle Llew had not pointed it out, but now that she saw it, it was very obvious.

"Yes," said Uncle Llew gleefully, and very loudly and deliberately. "I've always said that Amaethon is a talentless hack who has spent his entire life failing upward. One might as well feel threatened by a monkey." He climbed into one of the seats of the wagon, and tapped the seat next to him. "Let's be off. Whatever may be said of The City, it is a beautiful place, and I want you to see it while the light is still good."

to be continued

Dashed Off XXXVI

 The theoretical and the practical are united in the personal.

1 Cor 12:3, Rm 10:9, and Phil 2:11 establish that 'Lord' is not merely a courtesy title but something very substantive.

Acts 8:26-35 Scripture is only perspicuous in light of Christ and His gospel.

canonical criticism
(1) intertextual effects of textual juxtapositions
(2) redaction criticism in reverse view
(3) forms of reception in reading community
(4) genre-functions relative to other texts or within a set of texts qua anthology

Every genuine gain of historical-critical method can be reconstituted outside it as causal inference; it is scaffolding, not the thing itself.

the Scriptural text as an artifact of liberal art

What we read, we read under a relational description.

One thing that makes genres in cinema tricky is that every genre admits of camp and noncamp versions, and the camp versions are distinct from parodies.

Human relationships tend to erode because of our passibility.

1. form object on thing qua cognizable
2. react by will to thing as object
3. reflect on reaction
4. form object on thing as object for reaction = value
5. use value to guide further action

constancy of entropy as perfect irreversibility of process

Luke regularly uses unviersal indicators (all, every, the whole world) in circumstances that clearly suggest that he doesn't mean it to be taken literally, but as generality indicators.

(1) structures as residuations of actions (traces)
(2) structures as media of action
(3) structures as instrumental extensions of action

"...just as objects are what things become in experience, so signs are what objects become...." Deely
"The objective and the physical depend upon one another without being coextensive and without being articulated in the same way."
"Objective causality occurs in anture itself wherever there are instances of relationship -- that is to say, it occurs everywhere in nature. The dinosaur, long dead, is present in the fossil bone as its extrinsic specifier, which enables the scientist -- paleontologists in this case -- definitely to classify a bone as belonging to a brontosaurus rather than a pterodactyl."
"The so-called physical world exists within the world of experience, but it is not *as* experienced that the physical world is properly called physical; *as* experienced, it is properly called *objective*."
"The partial coincidence of objective structures with structures of physical being within sensation and perception is the zoosemiotic basis and ground for all studies and experimentation properly termed scientific."

Texts are not mere strings of signs but collective signs in which sign are the means by which a unifying sign signifies.

Texts too extensive to cognize all at once must be conceived as having a beginning, middle, and end. This is either a mnemonic ordering (like a dictionary organized by alphabet), or a customary access ordering (like beginning with one physical end of the book according to the custom of which direction the scroll or codex is read), or an ordering of internal plausibility, which is narrative. A text may even have multiple such orderings, in various combinations.

imaginative: object :: estimative : value
value-saliences : value-types :: concrete : abstract

plausibility as the result of profile-fitting

The actions of the Church as Church are actions with-the-Spirit; but with-the-Spirit admits of degrees of closeness and farness.

the commens as the possibility of the universe of discourse

semiotics as the general study of disciplina and its elements

Building sign-systems adequate to the uses of intellect and will is an immense task, so this gives importance to the sign-heritage that is 'traditioned' to us and that we receive as heirs.

postulation as an act of free decision

If the intellect understands B through A, the will can will, as collative power, B through A, or it can just will B, or just A, or it it can will B and not A, or A and not B. If the intellect understands B as similar to A, the will as collative power can will B with A or just A or just B.

Linnaean classification as a system of honors

"Ens ut primum cognitum is a notion sui generis, prior to all predication as that which makes predication possible, from which all other notions of being, logical scientific, or metaphysical, are derived ab intra..., and on which all other specifically intellectual notions depend." Deely

A mind-dependent relation may denominate and be verified of things in a state of independence of cognition (e.g., 'title' in law, or 'citizen' in politics). Mind-dependent relations that denominate and are verified of things insofar as it is cognized are second intentions.

The canonical gospels regularly associate events in Jesus' ministry with towns. In this they differ sharply from apocryphal gospels.

Pain and pleasure, like hot and cold or like pressure, are experienced as boundary crossings.

Human beings have no intrinsic title to the service of another human being; the extrinsic titles are:
(1) rightful authority
(2) just contract
(3) remedial repair
(4) just punishment.

The term 'patriarch' is first used in the fifth century of the bishop of Rome, and extended out from there.

A contract is the mutual formal formation of mutually beneficial right within the overlap of the freedoms of the parties involved.

To base Christianity on experiences is to base it on what is seen.

Hobbes takes ransom contracts to be valid by default, where no law prevents them; but it is clear that they are only valid due to shared customs of honor.

Covenant presupposes right, not vice versa.

All Sherlock Holmes versions have an intrinsic reference to Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, which is the primary version of the character; they are allusive of Doyle's Holmes stories, linked in a web or network.

The acts of the Church are more Christian inasmuch as they refect the Notes of the Church; and more worldly and less Christian the less they do so.

injury as right-violation vs. injury as harm

Value is not measured by appetite but by the good to which appetite is directed.

On Hobbe's account of artificial persons, an artificial person is a natural person insofar as he is representative of other persons or things.

The multitude is naturally one as well as many, because everything identifiable as a many is in another way identified as one.

Personation is always personation *to* another.

The Son personates the Father ontically,  morally, jurally, and sacrally; this is recognized at the Annunciation, at the Baptism, at the Transfiguration, and is sealed by the Resurrection and recognized as permanent by the Ascension and Session.

powers of bishops as to office
(1) supervisory (properly episcopal, the root power)
(2) synodal
(3) custodial
(4) incidental
-- (1) is concerned with sacraments and proclamation; (2) with cooperation with other bishops; (3) with the inheritance of the see, as in custody of saints, of physical instruments, and of spiritual practices; (4) arise by secular customs or customs of Christendom that extend particular powers for various conveniences.

History shows that even schismatic sees, when the vehemence of the schismatic acts abates or the cause of the schism vanishes, tend to fall back toward communion with the Chruch, tend to assimilate to the nonschismatic sees. This tendency may be disrupated by new refreshments of the schism, by other resentments that take up the schism as a rationalization, by external meddling, by isolation, or by catastrophic preventing acts of reunion, but the tendency remains, nonetheless.

The universal Church wells up from inside the particular church.

An episcopal conference is the instrument of its synod.

the most central see

In beautiful things we learn something of our own beauty; in sublime things, we learn something of our own sublimity.

Nothing fails to work like a riot.

It takes centuries to refine a good concept properly.

Rights are expressions of the right within a community.

Every intact manuscript of the canonical gospels attributes them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Christ on the Cross personates us all.

"Rights are made Realities in human Society by its conduct as a Society." Whewell

the Decalogue as indicating the essential institutions of civil society: religion, marriage, family, property

Gal 6:10 "the household of faith"

and we who once were of the household of fate
are now become of the household of faith

"The parts of the body which seem weaker are indispensable." 1 Cor 12:22

peace as the opposite of confusion (1 Cor 14:33)

Conscience is judicative and only incidentally legislative.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Contingency and Rationality

 The type of universe whose investigation requires the methods of modern science must, I would suggest, have two characteristics: contingency and rationality. If rationality were absent, there would be no laws for science to discover; if contingency were absent, there would be no need for empirical observation and experiment, for every truth about the world could be deduced from first principles. The combination of the two characteristics is precisely correlative to a technique which believes that there are uniformities in nature and yet that these uniformities need to be discovered. 

[E. L. Mascall, Existence and Analogy, Longmans, Green and Co. (New York: 1949) p. 9.]

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Epistemology and Metaphysics

NIECE: Elsa has magical powers.

ME: Yes, she can cover everything with snow and ice.

NIECE: Yeah, but we don't know HOW she does it, because Elsa is NOT real!

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Monday, December 25, 2023

Sunday, December 24, 2023

O Christmas Tree (Re-Post)

This is a re-post from 2021.

  As we approach Christmas, we enter one of the two (the other is Easter) periods of the year in which large numbers of people claim that all popular Christian things are really pagan things. Some of this is perhaps Puritan hangover; some early Protestants refused to celebrate Christmas because they read the symbolism as Catholics acting like pagans. If you have a religion of almost pure text and moral discipline, you naturally read any substantive symbolism as a sort of heathenry. Some of it is out-of-date anthropology still floating around. It's this that gives us the entirely unsubstantiated notion that the eggs and bunnies of Easter trace back to pagan fertility celebrations. And some of it is just an irrational taste for pissing on other people's customs; one often recognizes these people by the fact that the insist so vehemently that this or that custom is really some other prior custom, even if it is quite clear that the current custom is not practiced as a continuation of the prior custom, based entirely on superficial resemblances. And, of course, there is an enjoyment in feeling oneself more knowing than the masses, even if the feeling is entirely founded on illusion.

So let's take the Christmas tree. Decoration of trees happens occasionally in various cultures. They are easy to decorate, so that's not surprising, and this fact does not actually help us to determine how Christmas trees originated. The earliest independent confirmations we have of actual Christmas trees are from the sixteenth century in Alsace and Bremen, but these are presented as if it is obvious what they were, which strongly suggests that it was not a new custom. Prior to this, we do have occasional references to the decoration of branches or boughs for Christmas, references that go back a few centuries further, and while some of these seem to have just been hung up by rope (like we do with mistletoe, but probably in a larger display). It's unclear whether this practice is really the precursor of Christmas trees, or Christmas wreaths (which is likely), or both. There are cultures that currently today display decorated branches in a fashion somewhat like the modern Christmas tree. The most commonly noted is the chichilaki, or St. Basil's Beard, a custom that grew up along the Black Sea. As far as I know, we don't actually know the origin of this practice, but it's not impossible that it goes back quite far. Current Georgians will often have both Christmas trees and chichilaki, so they don't see them as the same thing, but that doesn't eliminate the possibility that they may be two different branches of earlier bough-decorating customs.

Actually setting up trees for the holidays seems to have developed in Germany (like a lot of our modern Chrismas customs). Usually these seem to have been used as dancing poles or as the heart of a bonfire, but we know that in the sixteenth century they were sometimes decorated and sometimes were instead decorated with candies and fruits which were then given out to children. The practice seems to have become popular among Lutherans in some German towns and cities as an alternative to the nativity scenes popular among Catholics; for this reason, Catholics in German regions only slowly started setting up Christmas trees, since it was often seen as a Protestant custom. As it spread, however, Reformed Protestants also tended not to have them, seeing them as Lutheran thing. And, indeed, it was seen as a Lutheran practice by Lutherans, as well, which is perhaps why the legend sprang up that the Christmas tree (or sometimes Christmas tree lights) was invented by Martin Luther. The legend is hard to trace, as well, but it may have done some work later in a more ecumenical time by making it easy for non-Lutheran Protestants to accept it as a generic Protestant practice rather than (as it often originally seems to have been seen) as the Lutherans misdrawing the line between Christianity and Catholic paganism again.

It's usually thought that the custom started spreading in the Franco-Prussian war, in 1870, when one of the morale-building things done by the Prussian army was to set up Christmas trees for those of its soldiers who had the custom; thus a very large number of German men had their Christmas celebrations with a Christmas tree that year. In any case, the custom did spread in Germany. In Britain, Queen Charlotte (who was German) had occasionally set up a tree for Christmas parties; Queen Victoria had liked the trees so much that she had one every year, and the custom spread in Britain the way customs like wedding dresses spread -- middle-class and upper-class women imitating Victoria. The Christmas tree was spreading in the United States as a cultural practice among German immigrants, even those who did not come from regions in Germany that practiced it. This is a common phenomenon, in which highly distinctive and noticeable cultural traditions spread among immigrants even if it was not their practice in the homeland, like Scottish immigrants with tartan, as a sort of heritage-marker. Thus it was largely practiced in Pennsylvania and New York, and it's thought that it may have started spilling outside the German immigrant communities in part due to imitation of Queen Victoria again -- at least, wealthy Americans in areas that already had Germans putting up Christmas trees may have taken Victoria's tree as a sign that this was a respectable thing to do, and thus followed along. The practiced solidified and became universal in the twentieth century in the most American fashion possible -- department stores and businesses started putting them up. From the US it has been spreading throughout the world, as everything that ends up in American movies spreads throughout the world.

Ironically, the song most closely associated with Christmas trees -- "O Tannenbaum" -- which was written in 1824, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas trees or Christmas. It's an adaptation of an older folk song about an evergreen fir tree. As far as I know, we don't know the exact path by which it became associated with Christmas trees, but as the standard English translations eventually all started mistranslating 'Tannenbaum' as 'Christmas tree', the association was locked in.

In any case, unless you think dancing, or bonfires, or decorating branches are intrinsically pagan, there's no evidence whatsoever that any customs pertaining to the Christmas tree are of any pagan origin whatsoever. All our earliest evidence about any specific meaning it has associates it with Christmas. All our best evidence is that it's a late medieval or early modern practice, and it spread because it is a very distinctive and visually appealing practice and the ease with which it allowed guilds, businesses, and wealthy families to mark a celebratory season.

Adeste Fidelis


Dan Vasc, "Adeste Fidelis".