Sunday, November 19, 2006

Gadflies and Angry Hornets

I have been upsetting the hive of the web-based magazine, New English Review, and some of the angry bees have been buzzing around this website, although no one has yet, to my knowledge, left a comment. Some of their writers have been engaging in a form of dialogue with me on their website (in their favor, I should add that the New English Review allows for reader comments) and one of them remarked that my interpretation of Jane Austen's Persuasion was "topsy-turvy."

While I will grant that my analogy between "persuasion" and Islamic "surrender" or "submission" was probably far-fetched - the former a secular, the latter a religious sensibility - I don't think my actual interpretation of the novel was incorrect. It would do well for Westerners to recall that Persuasion was a Greek goddess, yet Empedocles (ca. 450 BC) reminds us that : "It is not possible to bring God near within reach of our eyes, nor to grasp him with our hands, by which route the broadest road of Persuasion runs into the human mind." [1]

His next verse recalls that it is the Mind, "holy and ineffable, which darts through the whole universe with its swift thoughts" - and yet, what is this Mind? This is hardly the intellectualized rationalism we have come to identify as the leading characteristic of Western thought, and which is trumpeted by Rebecca Bynum in one of her anti-Islam screeds [2]-- "And reason cannot compromise with unreason without destroying the basis for its existence. By the same token, unreason cannot become reasonable without destroying itself as well."

I have thought a lot about this comment. Bynum's view of reason is the Kantian "pure reason" exaggerated to the point of caricature. I don't know on what plane of Olympianism she pronounces that "reason cannot compromise with unreason," but it is certainly not the plane of history or reality, or even the meaning of the word.

First of all, reason, ratio, implies relation, or the relation of one thing to another, hence the strict opposition between "reason vs. unreason" is misleading, if not false. To remove reason from the nexus of relations is to "idolize" it, to turn it into a mere abstraction that has no more practical or meaningful dimension of energy or work. (In this regard, I note that the message I left in Bynum's Comment box was to the effect that "Reason has to compromise with unreason all the time - that is why it is called reason!)

Reason then just becomes another achievement, another "accomplishment," with which Westerners endlessly congratulate themselves for possessing. And because they already possess it, they never have to question what the use of it presumably entails. This is the a priori assumption of the reasonableness of the Western mind which fosters irredeemable pride. I am reminded once again of Simone Weil's comments on the Western reason - noted in 1937 - in her essay "The Power of Words"--

She writes: ". . . the glossy surface of our civilization hides a real intellectual decadence . . . . " In our speaking and writing we hardly ever use the words (or concepts denoting) limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. The result is the "lethal absurdity" of our political universe which is peopled exclusively by" myths and monsters."

She concludes thus: "The whole intellectual climate of our age favors the growth and multiplication of vacuous entities." [3]

It is my contention that a hothouse display of "vacuous entities" can be seen to proliferate in the digital pages of the New English Review, which, I think, consists of a panel of young and wet-behind-the-ears writers that have latched on to the luminous Theodore Dalrymple as a way of providing themselves with some legitimacy. That these writers come across as insufferably arrogant Brits is the least of it. No, the worst is the pretence of thinking - to put forth articles and opinions in the guise of rational language but without a glimmer of intellectual charity.

The New English Review is a good example of Chesterton's point about the peril against which, rightly or wrongly, religious authority was reared as a barrier: "That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself."

"Religious authority" is perhaps not the only way one can protect oneself from this peril, but it has been proven to be a sure and lasting one. The other way is deeper and more difficult, and perhaps I will try to sketch out some of the lineaments of this "Way" in future posts dealing with the theme of the Soul. But I think it has something to do with what Empedocles, considered one of the "fathers of Western rationalism" said about the heart -- "[It is] nourished in the seas of blood which courses in two opposite directions; this is the place where is found for the most part what men call Thought; for the blood round the heart is Thought for mankind."

[1] Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. ed. Kathleen Freeman, Harvard University Press, 1971.

[2] Rebecca Bynum, "Islam, Predestination and Free Will" - November, 2006, New English Review

[3] From Simone Weil's Selected Essays, Oxford University Press, 1962.

[Reposted and slightly edited]

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