Saturday, January 27, 2024

Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat


Opening Passage:

'Julius King.'

'You speak his name as if you were meditating upon it.'

'I am meditating upon it.'

'He's not a saint.'

'He's not a saint. And yet--'

'What about him?'

'He's in England.'

'I know.' (p. 3)

Summary: A Fairly Honourable Defeat is a sort of loose re-telling of Midsummer Night's Dream; in fact, Julius King, the destructively mischievous Puck to the whole thing, at one point calls his manipulations a 'midsummer enchantment'.  Hilda and Rupert are a married couple in what seems to be the late 1960s; Rupert is writing a book on ethics and Hilda is actively involved in variously charitable concerns. They have a college-aged son, Peter, with whom they are estranged. Peter is living with Tallis, Hilda's brother-in-law; Morgan, Hilda's sister and Tallis's wife, has been away for two years, living with Julius King in South Carolina, a relationship that has recently broken up. Rupert has a brother, Simon, who is in a relationship with Axel, one of Rupert's co-workers; Axel is an old friend of Julius's. This is a pretty tightly knit cast of characters; they are all the sort of people who might end up at the same garden party or pool party, which is essential to the unfolding of the plot. 

Everything begins -- and in a way, begins deteriorating, when Morgan returns to England. Julius happens to be in England at the same time; it is never quite clear why. Morgan is still obsessed with Julius, and sees his arrival as a way to get back together with him; Julius refuses. However, they do have a discussion in which Julius criticizes the illusions of love and boasts that he could sever any relationship. Morgan, perhaps not taking him entirely seriously, bets him that he cannot break Simon's and Axel's relationship. That, at the time, seems to be that; but Julius whispers to Simon that he should visit him next Friday and not tell Axel.

 Morgan attempts to seduce her way back into a relationship with Julius by stripping in his apartment. In response, he cuts up all of her clothes into unusable pieces, locks his own wardrobe, and leaves, stranding her naked in his apartment. Simon, showing up on the assumption that Julius wants to discuss presents for Axel's upcoming birthday, finds her there. She convinces him to let her borrow his clothes until she can return with clothes for him. And thus Simon finds himself staying for an extended period of time, stripped to his underpants, in Julius's apartment, in which condition he is found when Julius returns. Simon is immensely embarrassed and is easily convinced by Julius and Morgan not to tell Axel about his hanging around nearly naked in Julius's apartment. In the meantime, Julius is stirring up trouble elsewhere, having arranged for Rupert and Morgan each to receive letters apparently from each other expressing love. Oh, what fools mortals be.

There's one thing that people often hate worse than having a problem, and that is solving the problem. Chaos spreads through all the relationships as people hope that problems go away or deliberately avoid the truth-telling that would resolve everything simply by making festering secrets no longer secrets. Despite Julius's attempt to pass off his manipulations as a mere practical joke, the consequences are quite serious, and will result in a death.

Murdoch's characters are often not very likable people in one way or another; Simon, I think, is the only one here who is mostly sympathetic. Part of this issue is that, while they are to some degree realistic, each of the characters have only a fragmentary morality. This is in great measure why Julius can play Puck, or perhaps at times Mephistopheles, so easily. Hilda and Tallis are overly immersed in action, being both more concerned with charitable activities than themselves or, at times, others; Rupert and Axel are overly immersed in reason, being overly invested in the purely intellectual and abstract; Simon and Morgan are driven excessively by feeling.  In what is almost certainly a deliberate move, each of the pairs has a figure who does better than the other; Tallis, Axel, and Simon all fare better in the face of Julius's machinations than Hilda, Rupert, and Morgan. Tallis is sometimes read as being a saintly figure; this is certainly not true objectively, and I don't think it was Murdoch's intention to suggest it. Tallis will end up resolving matters -- albeit too late -- because he is the action-focused character who faces the problem most squarely. But Murdoch at times depicts his selflessness in ways that can hardly be regarded as less than repulsive, and certainly is not to be taken as a generally viable way of living. Of all the characters, I think the relatively silly Simon fares best under Murdoch's pen; he is overemotional to the point of absurd melodrama, but he is in some ways the most honest of all the characters. One of the things that differentiates Simon from Morgan is that Simon is the only person in the entire group who doesn't give himself any airs as an intellectual. He's a bit silly and oversensitive and even at times airheaded, but he knows it. It makes him feel awkward in this apparently clever set -- but it also provides protection, incomplete but real, from Julius's twisting of the cleverness, or perhaps pseudo-cleverness (since evidences of real intellectualism are quite limited), of the rest. Having read the book, I'm not entirely sure where Murdoch was going with the title, but Simon's failure is the only 'defeat' in this book that can really be regarded as 'fairly honourable'.

One thing I noticed is that almost everything I read about this book before reading it myself was misleading. I don't think critics and reviewers have understood it particularly well. There are amusing passages, but it's not the funny book that you would sometimes assume from descriptions, being in places quite cynical and dark; criticisms of the plot as implausible are wholly beside the point for the same reason that criticizing A Midsummer Night's Dream as implausible is beside the point. I can't guarantee that I understood it in every respect, but of all the Murdoch novels I've read, this was one of the smoothest to read. The characters and plot mesh particularly well, and while the characters are not always likable, they are very intelligibly and clearly depicted. One of Murdoch's great strengths, which is seen in full force here, is the instinct for knowing exactly how much to go into detail to show what we need to know. For instance, there is a scene in which Simon is making a cassoulet for Axel's birthday, and we practically go through the entire recipe, but this is not an extraneous detail. It says a lot about Simon's attention to detail when doing something for other people, but more than that, it sets us up perfectly for later when Axel's birthday goes wrong and Simon's meal preparations come to nothing. In the overarching scheme of things, the steps taken to make a cassoulet are not important -- but as a matter of personal relationships, sometimes it matters that you've put your heart into that cassoulet, and particularly when it ends up ruined. The whole book is filled with things like this, which added a great deal to the enjoyment of it.

Favorite Passage:

'No demonstrations please, dear boy. Sit down. Let's have some gin, we need it. Here.'

'Do you blame me terribly?' said Simon. He was feeling limp with joy. He tried to control his face and his voice. He would be quiet, dignified, sober, all that Axel would wish him to be. But whatever came next, he was home and safe.

'Of course I blame you. That you might be thoroughly confused by Julius or eve frightned of him I can understand. But I can't see how you could have gone on lying and mystifying me when you saw how bloody miserable it was making me.'

'Miserable--?' said Simon. They were sitting close to each other now drinking gin. He had been miserable. Axel had been fierce, dangerous, terrible. 

'I think I got into such a state of guilty terror worrying about myself. I just didn't see what was happening to you. I though how angry you would be with me. I though how Julius might make you see me differently. I didn't think you were miserable.'(p. 364)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Penguin (New York: 2001).

Friday, January 26, 2024

A Poem Draft and a Poem Re-Draft

 The Liturgy of the Eucharist

The Body and the Blood
nourish our praise
with the undying love
of the Ancient of Days;
there is fullness and feast
at the table of psalm
and those who have tasted
have known heaven's calm,
for love is the feast,
so sweet on the tongue,
and echoes within
like songs prayed and sung.
With ardor the heart
is thus burned in a flame,
a coal to the lips
and God's holy name,
an offering thus raised
of a spiritual kind,
more inward and noble,
on the altars of mind.
And the Priest is the Lamb
in self-sacrifice raised,
and we are the Lamb,
thus worthy to be praised;
and the Lamb is the Angel
carrying prayers on high
to the throne-room of God
where the martyr-saints sigh.
There the Lamb, our High Priest,
offers the Lamb-sacrifice
to the Throne and the Lamb
whose blood pays our price.
And below we all feast
on abundance of prayer
and draw near the Throne
as children may dare.


 Each nation has a god
that sums its thought,
 that whispers in its ear
for good or ill
and gives it force of will
for right or wrong.
And once I saw afar,
beneath a desert star,
the god of our America;
his throated song
rang out long
and brightly,
his amber eyes
looked up to desert skies
in mournful dream.
Coyote is his name,
His form the same;
his pad is soft.
Trickster god is he,
untrustworthy but free,
never what he seems;
and in his eyes
the spark of new surprise
works mischief.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

And I Was Desolate and Sick of an Old Passion

 Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae
by Ernest Dowson 

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. 

 All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. 

 I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. 

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee Cynara! in my fashion.

The Latin, 'I am not what I was under the reign of the good Cynara' is from Horace. This is one of Dowson's most influential poems, having provided titles and lines to much more famous novels, songs, musicals, and films -- the most famous instance, of course, being a novel and its movie whose title derives from the the third stanza; but there are others. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Fran├žois de Sales

 Today is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church. A letter to St. Jeanne de Chantal (September 13, 1605):

My God! dear child, when will the time come that our Lady will be born in our hearts? For my part, I see that I am totally unworthy of it; you will think just the same of yourself. But her Son was born in the stable, so courage then, let us get a place prepared for this holy babeling. She loves only places made lowly by humility, common by simplicity, but large by charity; she is willingly near the crib, and at the foot of the cross; she does not mind if she goes into Egypt, far from all comfort, provided she has her dear Son with her.

No, our Lord may wrestle with us and throw us to left or to right; he may, as with other Jacobs, press us, may give us a hundred twists; may engage us, first on one side, then on the other; in short, may do us a thousand hurts :  all the same, we will not leave him till he gives us his eternal benediction. And, my child, never does our good God leave us save to hold us better; never does he let go of us save to keep us better, never does he wrestle with us save to give himself up to us and to bless us.

Let us advance, meanwhile, let us advance; let us make our way through these low valleys of the humble and little virtues; we shall see in them the roses amid the thorns, charity which shows it beauty among interior and exterior afflictions; the lilies of purity, the violets of mortification : what shall we see not? Above all, I love these three little virtues, sweetness of heart, poverty of spirit, and simplicity of life; and these substantial (grossiers) exercises, visiting the sick, serving the poor, comforting the afflicted, and the like : but the whole without eagerness, with a true liberty. No, our arms are not yet long enough to reach the cedars of Lebanon; let us content ourselves with the hyssop of the valleys.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Links of Note

 * Terence Hua Tai, Kant's Critical Objection to the Rationalists in the B-Deduction (PDF)

* Thomas Pink, The Church as Potestas for Faith, at "The Josias", reviews Kevin Vallier's All the Kingdoms of the World.

* Jason Aleksander, Faith as Poieses in Nicholas of Cusa's Pursuit of Wisdom (PDF)

* David Borkenhagen, The geometry of other people, at "Aeon"

* Ruth Boeker, Isaac Watts and Catherine Trotter Cockburn on the Power of Thinking (PDF)

* Michael Dickson, From Vexing Uncertainty to Intellectual Humility

* Paul Mayer, Principles and Philosophy of Linear Algebra: A Gentle Introduction (PDF)

* Ryan McEntush, How the Persecution of Pirates Gave Us Procedural Manipulation, at "Palladium"

* Nikolay Milkov, The History of the Concept of "Truth-Making" (PDF)

* James Hankins, An Honest Diversity Statement, at "Law & Liberty"

* Susan Brower Toland, Ockham on Memory and the Metaphysics of the Human Person (PDF)

* Kieran Setiya, Who's Afraid of Immanuel Kant?, at "Under the Net", on Kant's argument for the value of dinner parties.

* James Van Cleve, Reid on the Credit of Human Testimony (PDF)

Ho Echon ta Hepta Pneumata tou Theou

 And to the messenger of the church in Sardis, let it be written: Thus says the Possessor of the Seven Spirits of God and the Seven Stars.

I know your deeds, that in name you live and yet are a corpse. Be awake, and strengthen those who are left who are about to wither; for I have not found your works completed in the sight of My God. Remember therefore what you have received and heard, and guard it and repent. If therefore you will not be awake, I will come like a thief and you will not at all know the hour that I come upon you. But you have a few of name in Sardis who have not defiled their garments, and they will walk around with me in white, because they are worthy. 

To the victorious: Thus he will be clothed in white tunics. And I will not at all blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess His name before My Father and before His messengers.

Who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.


And to the messenger of the church in Philadelphia, let it be written: Thus says the Holy, the Truthful, the Possessor of the Key of David, the Opener Such that None Will Shut and the Closer Such that None Opens.

I know your deeds. See! I have put before you an opened door that none can shut, because you have little power and have guarded My word and have not denied My Name. See, I give out of the synagogue of Satan, those declaring themselves Ioudaians and are not but deceive; see, I will make them come and they will prostrate before your feet, and they shall know that I have been devoted to you. Because you have guarded the word of My endurance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing about to come on the whole world to test those residing on the earth. I am coming swiftly. Hold what you have so that none may take the crown from you.

To the victorious: I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall not at all go out anymore. And I will write upon him the Name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the fresh Jerusalem descending out of heaven from My God, and My fresh Name.

Who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.


And to the messenger of the church in Laodikeia, let it be written: Thus says the Amen, the Trustworthy and Truthful Witness, the Source of God's Creation.

I know your works, that you are neither cold nor boiling. I wish you were cold or boiling. So because you are tepid, and neither boiling nor cold, I am about to vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, I am wealthy and I have become wealthy and I have need of nothing -- and you do not know that you are wretched and pitiable and impoverished and blind and naked. I recommend you purchase gold from me that has been refined by fire, so that you may be wealthy, and white tunics so that you may be clothed and might not reveal the shame of your nakedness, and poultice to anoint your eyes so that you may see. As many as I love, I reprove and I train, so be zealous and repent. See, I stand at the door and knock. If any should hear My voice and open the door, then I will enter into him and will dine with him, and he with Me.

To the victorious: I will give him to sit with Me on My throne, as I also was victorious and sat down with My Father on His throne. 

Who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 

[Revelation 3:1-22, my very rough translation. ]

Monday, January 22, 2024

Music on My Mind


Kate Rusby, "Philosophers, Poets, and Kings".

Ten Romphaian Ten Distomon Ten Oxeian

 And to the messenger of the church in Pergamum, let it be written: Thus says the Possessor of the Two-Edged Sharp Sword.

I know where you reside, at the seat of Satan, and you hold to My Name and you have not denied My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My trustworthy one, who was killed among you where Satan resides. But I have somewhat against you, because you have there adherents of the teaching of Balaam, who would teach Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the sons of Israel, to eat idol-sacrifices and to whore. Thus likewise you also have adherents of the teachings of the Nikolaitans. Therefore repent. But if not, I am coming to you swiftly and I will war against them with the sword of My mouth.

Who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 

To the victorious: I will give him the concealed manna; and I will give him white stone, and on the stone written a fresh name, which none know if not the receiver.


And to the messenger of the church in Thyatira, let it be written: Thus says the Son of God, the One Having His Eyes Like a Flame of Fire and His Feet like Bronze-Incense.

I know your works and devotion and trustworthiness and service, and your endurance; and your final works are greater than your first. But I have against you that you permit the woman Jezebel, she calling herself a prophetess, and teaching and deceiving My servants to whore and to eat idol-sacrifices. And I have given her time to repent and she is not willing to repent of her whoredom. See, I will throw her into bed and her adulterers into great oppression, if they shall not repent of her deeds. And her children I will destroy with death. And all the churches will know that I am the Searcher of Guts and Hearts and will give to each of you according to your works. But to you, to the rest of those in Thyatira, however many do not have this teaching, who have not known the abysses of Satan, as they say, I will not throw on you another burden. But what you have, hold until I am present. 

And to the victorious and guardian until the end of my works: I will give him authority over the peoples, and he will shepherd them with a staff of iron, as the vessels of the potter are shattered, just as I also have received from My Father. And I will give to him the star of dawn.

Who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the  churches.

[Revelation 2:12-29, my very rough translation. The word for 'two-edged' could also be translated more literally as 'two-mouthed' (the metaphor being that the sword bites the flesh), and 'sharp' could also be translated as 'swift' (as in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"'s "terrible swift sword"). We know nothing for certain about St. Antipas, although later tradition holds that he was a bishop, perhaps originally a physician, ordained by St. John the Apostle and died when he was burned alive in a bull-shaped altar. Balaam, a prophet from the book of Numbers, is regularly used in the New Testament as a symbol of a false teacher associated with sneaky subversion of doctrine (cf. Num. 31:16). In Numbers 25, the seduction of the children of Israel by the people of Moab is explicitly connected to sexual sin and idolatry. White stones (the word here literally means 'pebble') were sometimes used in trials to vote that someone was innocent, but some suggest that there is a reference to the use of white stones, with names inscribed, as a proof of having won an athletic contest. Again, it's entirely possible that both are in view here.

Nobody quite knows what the word used to describe the feet is supposed to mean; chalkolibanon literally is the word for bronze/brass/copper combined with the word for frankincense. It's usually translated as 'burnished bronze', which is the meaning of the Hebrew used in Daniel's similar vision in Daniel 10. But in context, it seems clear that the point is not that the bronze is burnished but that the bronze is burning (cf. Rev 1:15). That is to say, while the vision no doubt has reference to Daniel, the word is intended to indicate the feet are like bronze that is burning like incense. The name Jezebel suggests a reference to the queen of 1& 2 Kings, who encouraged the worship of Baal, worship that was associated with sexual immorality and eating sacrifices to idols. 'Searcher of Guts and Hearts' is literally 'the one who searches kidneys and hearts', both kidneys and hearts being associated with one's internal sense of self. The staff of iron is a reference to Psalm 2.]

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Ho Kraton tous Hepta Asteras

 To the messenger of the church in Ephesus, let it be written: Thus says the Holder of the Seven Stars in His Right Hand, the Walker in the Middle of the Seven Lampstands of Gold.

I know your deeds and your toil and endurance, and that you are not able to bear the evil ones. And you have tested those calling themselves apostles but are not, and you have found them false. And you have endurance and have borne for the sake of My Name and have not grown fatigued. 

But I have against you that you have let go your first devotion. Remember therefore whence you have fallen and do the first deeds. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, should you not repent. But you have this, that you detest the deeds of the Nikolaitans, which I also detest. 

Who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

To the victorious: I will give him to eat from the wood of life that is in God's Paradise.


To the messenger of the church in Smyrna, let it be written: Thus says the Foremost and the Final, Who Became Corpse and Lived.

I know your oppression and your destitution -- but you are wealthy -- and the vilification of those calling themselves Ioudaians and are not, rather a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to endure. See! The slanderer is about to cast some of you into prison so that you might be tested, so that you shall have oppression ten days. Be trustworthy unto death and I will give you the crown of life. 

Who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

To the victorious: He shall not be wronged by the second death.

[Revelation 2:1-11, my very rough translation. 'Messenger' pretty clearly means the representative  of one church to another, serving as a sort of liaison or courier between them, but thinking of this messenger as an angel, which it can also mean, is natural here. My suspicion is that this kind of correspondence was fairly common among the very early churches and the book is here making use of this already-recognized genre to relate the churches in Asia Minor to the heavenly church. Each begins with a command to write, then has an attribution of a title to the sender, then an official record of the state of the church, then an encouragement to hear, then a final note, "to the one who overcomes", providing a promise of action. (Although there is some variation on this, particularly with regard to order.)

All of our knowledge of the Nicolaitans comes from the brief mentions in the book of Revelation in the letters to Ephesus and Pergamum. The consistent later tradition is that they were followers of Nikolaos, one of the original seven Hellenistic Jewish disciples in Acts 6 who were selected to make sure that the disciples of Hellenistic Jewish background were not discriminated against by those of Hebraic Jewish background. In some stories, he is himself the founder of the sect, either because of his general laxity or his divorcing of his wife; in others, he was himself entirely innocent, but other people twisted his preaching in a libertine direction. Revelation does not directly say what the problem with the Nicolaitans was, but they are associated with other groups that ate food sacrificed to idols and engaged in sexual morality, and the almost universal tradition is that they believed that Christians could indulge themselves in sexual acts without proper regard for marriage.

Xylou is most naturally translated 'tree', but it literally means any wooden thing, and elsewhere in the New Testament specifically refers to the cross. I find the promise to the victorious of Smyrna to be interesting; it says that he shall not be adikethe, which means 'injured' in the literal sense of the term -- acted unjustly toward, having one's right violated, having wrong done to one. One could translate the title in the second letter as 'Died and Lived' and that would be perfectly fine; I have deliberately chosen to translate it literally. Ioudaious could be translated 'Jews' or 'Judeans' (which are originally the same word), but I actually wonder if there is a deliberate contrast with the Nicolaitans. If any of the traditional attribution is true, the Nicolaitans would have been a heretical and disruptive group in the Church who were of Hellenistic background; it's possible to interpret the Ioudaians as a heretical and disruptive group in the Church who were from a Hebraic background, and thus associated with the Jewish Temple in Judea. A lot depends in interpretation on how late one takes this terminology; the later it is, the more likely it means 'Jews as opposed to Christians', while the earlier it is, the more likely it means 'Those of Judean background as opposed to those of Hellenistic background'. Diabolos can be translated as 'devil' or 'slanderer'; either would make sense here -- the letter has mentioned both Satan and the vilification of the Ioudaians, so one could take it to mean either a supernatural action by the devil moving society to persecution or human lies leading to unjust imprisonment. Indeed, it's entirely possible that both are intended simultaneously.]