Sunday, December 21, 2008

American Gods - and Demons

The All-Father (Odin)

Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) made the New York Times bestseller list in July of that year. The events of September 11 were like a fulfillment of the author's prophetic imagination.

In this novel, the characters frequently allude to "the coming storm." I picked out six of them - and only one was a reference to the weather. Some examples: "it's not a storm of our making," "it scares me - I would do anything to get away," "if I can get away before the storm hits, away from a world in which opiates have become the religion of the masses," "the war had begun and nobody saw it. The storm was lowering and nobody knew it." The ostensible text is the coming battle between the Old Gods and the New. But the hidden text...? One is inclined to wonder: what did the author know and when did he know it? The imagination has its sources of perception and feeling, and its accuracy is far sharper and more deadly than mere news reporting. This author's imagination has tuned in to the new theory of government, stated a few years ago in a New York Times article by Ron Suskind, who was quoting one of the Bush people: "We're an empire now... we create our own reality. " The New Age has come to government. Welcome to literary theory as political creed.

Who are the Old Gods? Well, there's Mr. Wednesday - Odin - Wotan - Wotansday - Wednesday - the All-Father. Shadow, the ex-con who is the hero of our tale, runs into Mr. Wednesday after his release from prison a couple of days early because he learned that his wife was killed in a car crash. Mr. Wednesday offers him a job as an "errand boy," and Shadow, somewhat dubiously at first, accepts. Mr. Wednesday tells him, "I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die." It's not always crystal clear who the Old Gods are, or what they want, but it's clear who the New Gods are: credit cards, freeway, Internet, telephone, radio, hospital, television, plastic, cell phone, neon, bureaucracy - the gods of debt, servitude, rootlessness, Empire.

But there's this: the New Gods always give themselves away in the way they speak. Here's the Fat Kid, his eyes glinting "like an antique computer monitor," who tells Shadow: "You tell Wednesday this. You tell him he's history. He's forgotten. He's old. Tell him we are the future and we don't give a fuck about him or anyone like him. He has been consigned to the Dumpster of history while people like me ride our limos down the superhighway of tomorrow...Tell him we have fucking reprogrammed reality. Tell him that language is a virus and that religions are an operating system and that prayers are just so much fucking spam... It's all about the dominant fucking paradigm, Shadow. Nothing else is important."

The Fat Kid, Media, Town, Mr. World - they all want a "clean world," they want to "own tomorrow," they want "to write the future in Letters of Fire." Shadow begins to notice "how they seem to like to speak in cliches." The New Gods sound like robots, ever reproducing the things they have already heard. In the end it's about the word - the ability to speak, and to take responsibility for one's beliefs. As one of the Old Gods explains, "This isn't about what is... It's about what people think is. It's all imaginary anyway... People only fight over imaginary things"-- because ... "People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen."

In this novel the magic of the Old Gods meets up with history and with the techno-magic of our era. There is love and wonder too, and the border between life and death opens to reveal the common story. Shadow's wife comes back - in a sort of half-life, and becomes Shadow's protectress. But she wants to be alive again, to feel the real blood in her veins - "Make it happen, hon. You'll figure it out." Shadow almost does -- but not as a new Christ figure, although he hangs for nine days in a vigil over Wednesday, on an ash tree in Virginia. He hangs there because the stories go on, and because the stories go on, the hero as bearer of imagination is willing to be moved, to act, to believe, to stand. Only such a decision, taken in the marrow, can lead to a real future, of truth - not the cliche-ridden nightmare foisted by illusion-mongers and manipulative fakes feeding off the chaos they have created.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lost Souls

[Note: This is a re-post from November, 2006]

Vox clamato in deserto . . .

The writings of the Christian ascetics of the Orthodox tradition comprise the collection of texts known as the Philokalia, and span the 4th to the 15th centuries. The first compilation of these writings was completed in the 18th century. In our time a four-volume set was compiled, translated and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, and published in 1979 in Great Britain under the auspices of the Eling Trust.

It is a shock to encounter the Desert Fathers. Almost everything that comes to mind when we hear of them is wrong, and there are vast layers of assumption and prejudice that have to be peeled away before we can understand what they mean about the different energy levels in human nature - intellect, image, emotion, wishing, perception, thinking, voluntary and involuntary. Compared to their acuity of discernment, Western philosophy seems a dry husk, and the massive accumulations of psychology and social science following the post-philosophical age - that is, the harvest of modernity - seem like mere dust.

The shock of Christian ascesis consists in realizing how much the activity of thought depends upon or presupposes the existence of the soul. But it is precisely the existence of the soul that is at issue. As Jacob Needleman writes in Lost Christianity, referencing a modern practitioner of Christian ascesis, "... the soul is not a fixed entity. According to Father Sylvan, it is a movement that begins whenever man experiences the psychological pain of contradiction." [1]

It was a disaster for Christianity, according to Father Sylvan, when it accepted the existence of the soul already "in finished form" in human nature.

This "given-ness" of the soul in the Christian view of human nature passed out of active use several centuries ago - what modern discipline concerns itself with the soul in any meaningful way? -- and has been succeeded by the "given-ness" of reason or intellect -- the a priori assumption of reason. John McMurtry writes that the first rule of the "Group-Mind" is that it cannot adopt itself as an object of critical reflection:

"When the most self-evident line of thought has been blinkered out across a people, only an a priori thought system can account for it. As with other great problems of our era, the group-mind disconnects by stopping thought before it arises."

Christian ascesis is the practice of giving attention to thoughts as they first appear, thus it is a practice wholly at odds with a priorism and with all forms of mechanical, psychic or associative activity which masquerades as "thought." According to Father Sylvan, a hundred, a thousand times a day, thoughts that challenge or contradict assumptions and beliefs, thoughts that might provoke self-questioning or discomfort about some fact or emotion or received wisdom, thoughts that might force one to confront one's own laziness, anger, lack of love, lack of integrity -- such thoughts are continually circling the perimeter of the mind and sometimes even penetrate its arena. And yet they come to nothing, they are quickly repelled, conveniently forgotten, dispersed, and covered over by compulsive action, rationalization, explanation, or emotional reaction. Father Sylvan calls this incessant activity of covering over the Question the "First Dispersal of the Soul." It means that the force of attention is wasted, degraded by absorption into one part or another of the psycho-physical organism, and rendered useless for the growth of the soul. Man becomes trapped in an "automatism of non-redemptive experience," which he likens to St. Paul's "body of death."

The struggle of Christian ascesis is to contain the energy of the Question within oneself so that the Soul can come into being. Thus, the existence of the Soul is not a given, not an a priori assumption. It is an energy formed through the confrontation with question and contradiction, an energy that has to be sought, recognized, collected and accumulated - "pondered in the heart." This is why "God can only speak to the soul," according to Father Sylvan, "and only when the soul exists." How accurately this comment foreshadows the condition of modern man, exemplified in John Derbyshire's complaint concerning his loss of religious faith. When asked by an interviewer whether he had ever had a religious experience, Derbyshire replied, "No, and I'm miffed by this."

It is a relief to move from this world of the whining modern, who expects to be provided with spiritual experience in the full armory of modern comforts, to the writings of the Desert Fathers. St. Mark the Ascetic (5th century; sometimes known as Mark the Hermit) says "Never belittle the significance of your thoughts; for not one escapes God's notice."

Of course - for it is these very thoughts, no matter how seemingly insignificant, that must be attended to and carefully 'interrogated.' The process of interrogating the thoughts is likened in the New Testament to 'dividing the sheep from the goats.' It is an activity of continuous discernment and sifting of thoughts that can lead to the 'gathering' of what is vital in them, 'saving' them and 'saving in them' that which is possible for future development.

Then there is this astonishing passage from "No Righteousness by Works:"

"Involuntary thoughts arise from previous sin; voluntary ones from our free
will. Thus the latter are the cause of the former." [Italics mine.]

I emphasized this last sentence as underscoring the fact of 'Presence,' which is the aim of Christian ascesis - dwelling in the presence and present attention of the soul, which acts retroactively upon the 'past.' It is not the past that determines in the present, as in deterministic modern psychology; it is the present disposition of the soul that influences the kind of past that we even perceive. And again, emphasizing our responsibility for our thoughts, as for our experience, St. Mark the Hermit says: "Do not say, 'I don't want it, but it happens.' For even though you may not want the thing itself, yet you welcome what causes it."

And again, responsibility is presence: "It is the uneven quality of our thoughts that produces changes in our condition. For God assigns to our voluntary thoughts consequences which are appropriate but not necessarily of our choice."

The quality of attention: "When you find that some thought is disturbing you deeply in yourself and is breaking the stillness of your intellect with passion, you may sure it was your intellect which, taking the initiative, first activated the thought and placed it in your heart."

And finally: "He who does not choose to suffer for the sake of truth will be chastened more painfully by suffering he has not chosen."

There are many other sayings of this quality in St. Mark the Hermit's "On the Spiritual Law." And his comprise a small portion of this wonderful collection of texts. In reading these texts one can understand why the West underwent a tremendous historical development, and how the energy these Fathers discerned and elucidated in the soul later exploded into so many fields - fields seemingly quite diverse from their lucid gaze. And reading them today brings one into a renewed sense for the failures of modern Western intelligence, which now at the pinnacle of its power seems like a blind and destructive giant. The recovery of lucid intelligence in the West would be greatly assisted by a revival and study of these texts. Thinking and empathy can only arise in the soul, but if there is no basis in the soul for them to become active and conscious, these manifestations attest to the presence of energies, and these energies do not just cease to be or disappear. They must go somewhere. Instead of empathy and thinking, the energies fuel cancerous hatreds and controlling, rigidifying obsessions.

The Philokalia is our crying need -- in the twilight of our souls, it can be a lamp to hold up against our darkening minds.

[1] Simone Weil on contradiction: "God has entrusted all phenomena, without any exception, to the mechanism of this world... The contradictions which the mind is brought up against form the only realities, the only means of judging what is real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test on the part of necessity."

Compare also Richard Weaver, speaking of the liberalism in Western societies: "Its fundamental incapacity to think, arising from an inability to see contradictions, deprives it of the power to propagate." From his Ideas Have Consequences (1948).

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Shocking Event at the Kimmel Center

Last night I went to the Kimmel Center to hear a symphony concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra perform Wagner (Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde), Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 4), and an orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor by Shoenberg. An incredible experience that I had to enjoy - with my head lowered and my eyes closed.

The Kimmel Center is one of the jewels in Philadelphia's crown. For readers who may not have experienced its astonishing acoustical properties, it may be considered one of the wonders of the world, right up there with the Pyramids and Taj Mahal. Clarity and mellowness can only describe it. It is a splendid concert hall - a worthy monument to the Philadelphia Orchestra and to the city of Philadelphia - its people, its architecture, and its culture.

I had not attended a symphony concert for some years, and upon entering the hall, I was shocked - shocked, I tell you! - to find two screens mounted on either side of the upper walls behind the orchestra. They bore the mottos "Live Image Magnification." Now truly, is my shock at this innovation to be compared with the political and economic disasters that seem to pop up at every turn in our national life? No, and not exactly. It is a different kind of shock, shock on a different level - that even here, in this sacred space devoted to great music, we are to be subjected to the "Tyranny of the Eye."

My conversations with Kimmel personnel and fellow orchestra-goers left me with some uncertainty as to whether these gigantic TV screens are a permanent innovation or a temporary expedient. So now we can see the conductor's face and the pianist's hands. But this is an apocalyptic projection of image - 'apocalypse' being, in its meaning, an uncovering, and unveiling. The TV screens reveal what before was hidden. But I think it is wiser to preserve a mystery and a hiddenness. Something of this same conversation surfaced when the Catholic Church changed the direction of the Mass. Before, the priest faced the altar. In the new days the priest faces the people. I believe that the analogy, while not perhaps wholly accurate, is valid. What we gain in "seeing" we lose by distraction and the dissipation of attention. The deterioration of attention is the most serious spiritual problem of our time, and I was very sorrowful to see that the Kimmel Center had fallen for the cheap trick.

I like what architect Rafael Vinoly said in answer to a question:

"You encourage dissimilar programs to intersect; and you create their place of intersection in the most direct and transparent way. What are the implications, for you, of achieving complex, unpredictable uses through simplicity?

R.V.: To me, it's a colossal, illogical leap in thinking, the idea that to handle complexity, you have to represent it. The problem with representing complexity -- representing any interpretation -- is that you fix the scenario. I think it's better to pull back a little bit. It's an instance of elegance -- which has nothing to do with lack of engagement. You just don't attack the problem with the attitude that you alone can tell everyone how this thing should work."

"I think it's better to pull back a little bit." This is an attitude in short supply these days, as we confront the consequences of the overbuilding of our environment. Wisdom leaves an opening, it refuses the conquistadorial approach. There is nothing ascetic or understated about the Kimmel,mind you, yet it is a fullness without ostentation, a fullness for purpose. That purpose was stated by acoustical engineer Russell Johnson:

"From the beginning, they emphasized that they did not want their hall to change what they described as "the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra." This was their major concern: they wanted a hall that would support their sound as they now hear it, but not change it. A very, very challenging task..."

He goes on to say:

"As in any concert hall, the complete elimination of extraneous noise, including but not limited to exterior vehicular noise and sirens, boilers, transformers, escalators, elevators, fans pushing air into the room at too high a speed, drinking fountains, refrigerators nearby...There are literally hundreds of noises to be aware of and eliminate.... Under perfect conditions, the musicians and the conductor can hear, or sense, what the audience is hearing. There should be no distancing effect between the orchestra and the public, no harshness of sound, no echoes, no frequency imbalances. It should feel as if there is air around the music, as if the music is floating..."

I can attest that there was a "feeling of air" around the music, and that the experience was heavenly.

Why, then, the TV screens? Why the visual noise of these TV screens? Why this act of desecration to something already perfect? The ethic of contemporaneity is that of not knowing when to stop. The fact that we have TV screens that can project the motions of the music being performed is not a sufficient reason to instigate them. Technological capacity - "might" -- does not make right. I felt this capitulation to multimedia as a adulteration, a violation of something virginal and pure. I don't like it in science --cloning and mixing DNA to create new creatures -- and I don't like it in music.

How subtle is the transition from enhancement to adulteration, to a kind of idolatry. What is "appropriate," what is proper, what is fitting - these are the most difficult areas of life to define, subsisting in a kind of twilight realm of good sense and manners. It is perilous indeed to step out of this twilit realm for the sake of glaring day - perilous to forsake altogether the realms of night, of reticence and of the unseen. Let us rather not see, not know, everything. Let us preserve a corner of our minds for wild, reverent, unconquered being.

Kimmel - take the screens away! - please!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Peak Decline

Are we living in an age of decline?

Czeslaw Milosz says that he detects "... a historical law, little known but of considerable moment: the process of decline affects people in ways unknown to them, beneath the threshold of their consciousness." (The Land of Ulro, 1984, p. 228) It is for this reason, he continues, that "the same law by which people are unknowingly affected complicates the task of recreating the past, because it is so hard to tell, in retrospect, what was experienced consciously and what unconsciously." All the same he finds in our age the "logic of precipitous decline," only retarded by those "minute particles of virtue residing in specific individuals, who affect the whole through a complex process whereby each particle or grain, is multiplied by others (on such a process, for example, is founded the ethics of well-executed work.)"

I had occasion to reflect on these words in light of the events of this weekend - spectacularly unremarkable, as they may be, but perhaps for that reason all the more revealing. It involved a fair amount of driving - to suburb and city respectively, the contrast between them indicative of the two-faced nature of decline.

The road to Phoenixville, formerly situated in lovely Chester County farmlands, is littered with suburban mini-mansions and housing developments. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if the houses were smaller and less ostentatious, or if they had been built in clustered developments, leaving free large swaths of open land - or better, if they had not been built at all. But there they are - these immense twinkling carbon-devouring giant hulks in the dark landscape, connected by a few old roads built half a century ago, hardly adequate to the needs of their current traffic. One wonders at the heating costs, the driving costs, and the maintenance - now not so obvious, but what about the toll of another ten years on these flimsy materials and pseudo-Tudor (is that the design?) of the jilted-up pasteboard housing stock? I shudder. No surprise that one of the largest local development companies is called Toll Brothers, whose stock has plummeted in recent months. Names are omens. The bells have been tolling on this American way of doing business - it can hardly be called a way of life. It's a way of business too disconnected from sensible existence to be called a way of life. But maybe I exaggerate. Perhaps there is some form of life there - though one never sees people outside or walking around these big houses, and the connecting roads are too narrow to permit joggers, walkers or bicyclists. How much of these do the people living there see, how much is conscious and how much unconscious? Vexing to ask, vexing to wonder.

The other end of the road is North Philadelphia, with its miles upon miles, blocks upon blocks, of row houses - many of them gutted, burned, or crumbling. Lots of people about, at least - kids biking or playing, people hanging around a few stores. Not many stores, to tell the truth. This is not the region of shopping centers and urban malls. I don't think I recall seeing a grocery store anywhere. We asked directions at an auto parts store, where some very helpful people told us where to go. But where do the people buy food? Do they have access to books or magazines? There are libraries, to be sure (I didn't see one) though the Mayor says he's cutting back on them to save Philadelphia money.

Two extreme experiences - the antisociality of the suburbs and the forced sociality of the slum. Psychologically, the slum felt better in the sense of its compactness, though "compactness" is a polite way to talk about a suffocating lack of beauty, of perspective or of prospect. The only open places were the vacant lots, choked with weeds and trash. Yet it is possible to imagine beauty in these places - that they could be renewed, re-imagined, and restored to an urbane and civilized standard. But it is hard to imagine a civic renewal in the suburban developments, which are borrowed finery in a world of borrowed time. Their styles are fake, their premise is anti-civic from the beginning - isolated yet conformist.

How have we become such a people of such monstrous and unseeing obtuseness? How have we managed to deface our landscapes with such artificial imitations of human communities?

"Peak decline" is a paradox, even a diabolic paradox. It is an engorgement for its own sake, yet it is full of human pathos. But the pathos somehow failed to make it into the suburban story, and it became the all-consuming narrative for the slum-dwellers. It's a two-faced problem: either forsaking one's humanity, as in the suburbs, pretending to rise above it; or being devoured by it, wholly submerged as in the slums - being unable to spiritualize and transcend it. It's the lack of human scale. Slum and suburb each represent, in their different ways, material or spiritual impoverishment.

Landscape is the unconscious made visible. Choice and cognition are only the end products of a long gestation of style, habits and expectations. Habits are much harder to transform than ideas, and we are conscious only momentarily of the relationship between what we see and what we expect to see. To become fully conscious in this realm demands what is termed a new "skill set." It means becoming stewards first of all of our own minds. I think this is the chief task of our time.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

National Disgrace

"And yes, the congressional bail-out of the mortgage industry was a national disgrace and patently more damaging to our nation's remaining hopes of survival than 9/11....The public, highly controlled response, whether mock-analytical or trick-or-treat evanescent, is part of that endgame, descriptive of a culture that can no longer see or think straight. There's simply too much to write about these days, and too little reason to write about it." Read John Harris' blog, The True Conservator for the rest of "On the Road to National Meltdown" today.

The Senate vote for the bailout was followed in the evening by the vice-presidential "debate," in which both candidates swore fealty to Israel.

Earlier that evening I had attended a lecture by Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at Duke University. I did not like his talk, but I got a lot out of it. What I learned about myself because of this talk is complicated and difficult to put into words, having to do with my obscure little book about the Creation story in Genesis, Consecrated Venom, published in 2000. What I tried to do, not very successfully, was to demonstrate the philosophical and epistemological implications of this sublime story, arguing that the Creation account can be viewed as the consequences following from "the metaphysical status of an original act." Everything follows from the beginning point. The story is about the act of thinking - and thinking is not "rationality." Thinking is about the spine - or maybe, having one.

I thought that Hauerwas slighted, ignored or belittled the role of the higher intellect in Christianity, and it was not accidental that he seemed to talk so much about the Jews. When a member of the audience questioned him about the people present at the original Pentecost, he replied they were "Jews of the Diaspora" - well, I walked out. I read his talk - fairly or not - as a collapse of Christianity into Judaism, omitting entirely the role of free choice, thought, and inner decision that must have been present in the souls of the early Christians. Certainly the first Christians were Jews. But somehow this fact obscures the whole argument. It ignores the place of the beginning, which is an act of thought.

Perhaps I was responding to Hauerwas as a Catholic irritated by a Protestant. I don't know. But it seemed to me that his talk slid seamlessly into the national disgrace and the "debate." Americans don't like to think, apparently. No one has the time or the intellectual energy to draw a line in the sand. No one wants to carefully consider the consequences of an action derived from an act of thought, because, obviously, actions are no longer related to thought.

None of our leaders, in fact, has a spine. Congress by voting for this Wall Street robbery has just severed the last thread of accountability in our system, the power of the purse. They have already handed over the prerogatives to declare war and numerous other privileges of the legislative branch. Is there anything left for them to do except play in their sandbox of governing while the house falls down?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

America Declares Bankruptcy, Rejoins Human Race

Special Bulletin from the Land Beyond Time, or, After the Crash Revisited:
Pundits, news media and assorted visitors from outer space are scratching their heads in wonder at the sudden transformation of America to a humane and responsible civilization. Henry Paulsen, afflicted with an act of conscience, has resigned, and is donating his millions to Catholic Charities. President Bush, lying in the Oval Office, woke up from a nap, and also resigned. He and his loyal minions have taken the offer of a waiting spaceship and are now heading for parts unknown. The 228 honorable members of the House of Representatives who voted against the Bailout-Blowout of '08 are being retained; all the rest have been pitchforked. The toxic sludge wrought by the financial class has been shoveled to the Mall, where Paul Stamets and his colleagues are due to arrive momentarily with crates of mycelium. They plan to inoculate the pile with toxin-destroying mushroom fungus. Wall Street has been fenced in, and it is currently being patrolled by soldiers returning from Iraq. Citizens have taken over the offices of the news media, and a new edition of the New York Times - "All The News We Failed to Print," is now being prepared.
We will keep you posted with updates.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Opposite Day

I tuned in last night to the first presidential debate between Senators Obama and McCain, televised from Oxford, Mississippi. I was stopped in my tracks before it even began by the announcement of the Moderator (Jim Lehrer) that the audience had agreed not to respond to anything either candidate said – there would be no applause, catcalls, etc. And indeed for the small part of the debate I could bear to listen to, the audience might as well have been church-goers - that auditorium at the University of Mississippi was as quiet as a tomb.

This incident forcibly brought home to me the fact that for Americans, politics is a religion and religion is a politics. I was reminded of a game my children and I used to play when they were small, called “Opposite Day.” The rules of this game are easy – just say the opposite of what you mean. For example, “I hate you” really means the reverse. The funny thing about this game is that it actually gets harder and harder to play; lies and insincerity actually demand more energy to sustain than candor and truthfulness, and after a while one runs out of things to say. It becomes surprisingly difficult to keep finding something new to lie about.

To call the highly scripted-for-television exchanges between the two senators a “debate” is an Opposite-Day joke, just as it seems a stretch to call the dead silence of the audience anything remotely resembling attendance at a political event. Are there other examples of Opposite Day in America? Mr. Obama claims to want to run a campaign for transformation, but he appoints one of the most enduring Washington insiders as his running mate (Mr. Biden).

Mr. McCain’s Opposite Day coup de main with Ms. Palin is actually more complicated. The Opposite-Day significance here is the manipulation and exchange between Public and Private. For Sarah Palin, motherhood and Family Values are a political stance, elevated to humorless display and dogmatism at every opportunity. The fact that she is the governor of Alaska is merely incidental; the fact that she governs Alaska like a family is also incidental; the fact that she is virtually incoherent on public, social and historical issues (see her interview with Katie Couric on “foreign policy”) is also incidental. Nothing of these things actually matter, you see. What matters is that she is a Mom, and Mommyness now merits public office.

That Mr. Obama is black and Sarah Palin is female have put the Opposite-Day metaphor right at the center of American political life. In this case the “opposites” do actually express an authentic reality. But the authentic reality has little to do with politics and governance. The candidates are virtually indistinguishable in their views and they are likewise equally irrelevant because there no longer exists any meaningful framework in which to gauge the exercise of political power. That framework, the correspondence between language and reality, has been blasted out from beneath both candidates. The real holders of power are the financiers in an economy that no longer has anything to do with production. The news media also wields real influence because it has become indistinguishable from propaganda and the shaping of cultural narrative.

No wonder Mr. Putin and Mr. Ahmadinejad are continually demonized as Public Enemies One and Two. They say what they think. That is their crime; that is why they are relentlessly belittled; that is why the Opposite-Day West has been reduced to a caricature of Caligula. It is told that this insane Roman emperor rode his horse “Incitatus” into the Roman Senate, perhaps as a way of expressing his contempt for it. All that the Western “leaders” can do today is incite. They cannot rule, and above all, they cannot create.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

America's Hadron Collider Eats the World

Given the trajectory of human history, the nature of mankind, the discovery of oil, etc., something like America was inevitable - that is, the unleashing of an avalanche of prodigious appetite and destruction, along with a few precious and genuine ideals regarding human life and its purposes. Alas, the gems seem to have been devoured in the Mighty Moloch which has been building over the past few decades with the embrace of the American government and Wall Street. Not that the government didn't embrace the rich before. Only back then the embrace was more like a legal marriage -- the government's embrace at least attempted to make an honest woman out of sleazy finance. But the financial dealings of the past couple of decades resemble nothing so much as concubinage or maybe, to invert the metaphor, "gay marriage" - that is, something made-up, counterfeit and infertile.

Any decent person feels these past few days a kind of sickening dread in the pit of the stomach at the silly and degrading spectacle of American politics and finance. This nation is quite literally drowning in lies, and if not lies then pretence and if not pretence then self-deception. It seems that candidate McCain has "suspended his campaign" due to the "financial crisis" -- an indication, if one needed it, that even the pretence of politics has been abandoned. Quite evidently the Masters of the Nation feel no further need to disguise their coup d'etat. Barack Obama does not appear to be despicable and vicious in the way that McCain and Palin do, but he does not carry the conviction of political transformation that he preaches. How could he? The totalizing, totalitarian tendency of central government and finance carries all before it, a one-party state that pretends to offer choices. In today's climate it is all but impossible for anyone working in the center of that rising flood to act in a manner appropriate to adulthood, to give thought and consideration to what is happening - even to think before speaking. How can a
nation sustain itself when its polity is based upon endless flattery, reckless aggrandizement and the abandonment of of any notion of the need for truth?

Here is Herbert Butterfield, writing in what seems to be a better age - 1950:

"A civilization may be wrecked without any spectacular crimes or criminals but by constant petty breaches of faith and minor complicities on the part of men generally considered very nice people...If all men had only what we consider a reasonable degree of cupidity, politics would still be driven into dialectical jams-- into predicaments and dilemmas which the intellect has never mastered." (From "The Universal Element of Cupidity," from his book Christianity and History.)

The nation is not a community, and it is fractured - whether mortally I don't know. One of these severe deep fissures, carefully tended by the masters of destruction, is the fissure between the pro-life and anti-war movements. How carefully, how surely, it has been seen that these two movements will never join, never connect! The saddest result of all these doings is the destruction of Christianity itself -- for of all the death-agents loosed upon the American landscape, the so-called "Christians" have become among the most loathsome. The last time Christianity shone in America was during the black civil rights movement of the 1960's - and there was, of course, quite a bit of false glitter in that shine. But what it did was to teach the disinherited white Christian evangelicals a lesson about going into politics - a lesson by which they were able, later, to be harnessed by the neoconservatives. The way had been prepared before - perhaps as long ago as the Kennedy Assassination. That moment marked the beginning of the penetration of a new morality or ethic, a kind of calculated lunge from saturnine depths. Even Kennedy, the victim of it, unconsciously expressed this new ethic in a casual comment I recall that he once made - "Don't get mad, get even." That saying epitomizes the contempt powerful people feel for those who have honor and expose themselves by expressing righteous anger. On the contrary, the power-brokers like to remain invulnerable, working behind the scenes where they can manipulate people and events. Manipulation, calculation, revenge - these qualities are essentially and inherently opposed to Christian ethics - although, of course, many "Christians" practice them. But actually to espouse them, to find in them the recipe for worldly wisdom, to tout and promote them -- this is the character of the people who have been working the levers of American government and finance for half a century. Modern evangelicals had no idea of the real risks to which they were subjecting themselves, their nation and their religion, when they opened their arms to embrace the cause of power over truth.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Elementary Causation

A couple of brief thoughts. I checked out the book "Fall of Frost" by Brian Hall, purported to be a fictional rendition of the life of the poet, Robert Frost. It is interesting to see what gets published these days - interesting, when I can take a break from being depressed. It was one of these vignette type books, with vignettes dating from widely different periods of the poet's life, skipping around. Which led to the melancholy reflection: what happened to narrative? I could not and did not want to read this book, but only skimmed it - an act appropriate, it seems, to this kind of "literature."

It seems to me that if a writer intends to abandon structural narrative, he better have something pretty darn good to put in its place, otherwise he comes across as a postmodernist sneer machine. I was also irritated by the usual bookjacket blurbs "confirming Hall's status as one of the most talented novelists at work today."

An effective use of the time-shift is Russell Kirk's story, "An Encounter at Mortstone Pond" - the delineation of character is strong and the emotional linkage is prepared well in advance. But "one of our most talented novelists at work today" cannot be bothered with emotional and character delineation.

A good fiction writer has the duty of strengthening the reader's grip on reality. Life is not lived in skipped-across incidents. How can this author get away with the pretence of writing a writer's life?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Conjugal Love in Soloyvev

With due respect to friend Andrew, I will have to register some mild dissent to his comment to the previous post. While I believe that children are the blessing of a marriage, a childless marriage may also be a blessing. Solovyev in The Meaning of Love devotes some pages to this issue, saying that "Ordinarily the significance of sex love is supposed to lie in the increase of the race, to which it serves as a means. I consider this view unsound..." It is unsound because individuality possesses an independent spiritual significance in mankind, the individual being the absolute form (image) of rational consciousness. But, he continues, (I paraphrase) Each individual can become a living reflection of the absolute whole, a conscious and independent organ of the universal life. But to do this it must be in the truth. Normal man - "original and immediate" - is not in the truth. "So long as the living force of egoism in man does not encounter another living force opposed to it, knowledge of the truth is only an external illumination... The truth, as a living force, taking possession of the inward essence of the man, and effectively rescuing him from false self-assertion, is termed love. Love, the abrogator of egotism, is the justification and salvation of individuality. Which is to say that in man, individuality and egotism are not absolutely coincident, or fated to coincide - this indeed being the drama of life and love. ..
"...The meaning of human love, speaking generally, is the justification and deliverance of individuality through the sacrifice of egotism."

It is a mistake, says Soloyvev, to treat love as a merely natural process: "Such significance as speech possesses for the organization of human society and culture, love also possesses in a still greater degree, for the creation of true human individuality...As the true significance of speech consists not in the process of uttering in itself, the true significance of love consists not in the simple experience of this feeling, but in what is accomplished by means of it, in the work of love...

...the separation between the male and female elements of the human creature is already a state of disintegration and the beginning of death. Only the human being in his entirety can be immortal. But what does the true union of the sexes consist of? Ordinary sexual relations may be described as a kind of "carrion-worship," for a part (i.e. the body) is put in place of the whole. Purely physiological union does not deliver from death. Man as a social animal finds it natural to restrict the physiological function with claims of the social and moral law, which curbs and conceals the animal function and allows for the maintenance of the family. But this remedy does not really address man's divided state. "Only by actions which are the result of conscious faith do we enter into real correspondence with the realm of the truly-existent, and through it into real correlation with our 'other.' ... This is the spiritually regenerative part of the sex relation - or rather its spiritual essence, of which its material aspect is but the symbol or type. The mystery of regeneration is bound up with the mystery of the universe and the spiritualization of matter. ..

This is a very brief summary of certain portions of Soloyvev's treatise on love, a treatise almost unknown in the West. To be sure the practice of contraception was the first technological wedge separating marriage from its procreative aspect. But this technological wedge was in itself the result of decades, even centuries, of materialistic thinking. But traces of the moral understanding of male-female bond lingered much longer in literature - indeed Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a nearly perfect expression of it. The heroine has to find her way not to love but to the truth in love - and the hero, for his part, is likewise chastened by his encounter with the force of the truth in love. Both hero and heroine unleash a kind of maelstrom of moral development whose final fruit is the symbolic unity of marriage - a pinnacle earned, not merely gained.

There is something of the raw exchange of electric energy in true male-female encounter, the proving-ground of human moral life. I think it would be better to think of marriage in terms of these "electric energies," the exchange and interchange of positive and negative, than in the begetting of children. For this exchange and interchange are moral forces, and it seems to me apparent today that humanity is gravely lacking in the capacity to undergo this kind of moral training.[1] Nor do I believe that modern humanity should complacently assume that it will always have the power to procreate. [2] The materialism and coarsening of human relations are proceeding apace, and at some point - perhaps in the none too distant future - the spiritual world will call a halt to unconscious procreation and demand from humanity a grateful participation, a spiritualized understanding, a will to affirm the continuance of human life, and a humble opening to the grace that comes from above.

[1] A whole essay needs to be written on the abdication of modern womanhood from the tasks of moral guardianship. Modern men are as a result lost and society is profoundly unbalanced. The cancerous growth of the State, which now openly practices torture, violates international standards with impunity, and so forth, are the result of the profound loss of moral energy in society brought on by the levelling of the two sexes into some kind of "uni-mass." The Sexual Revolution serves one entity, and one entity only: the Mammonist State.
[2] And I mean something quite different here from the resort to technology as a means to propagate. This is but a further symptom of disintegrative materialism. Besides, human beings do not "propagate" and only an animalization of man can proceed under this false notion. Human beings "procreate" - that is, open themselves to the emergence of new human life in partnership with the Divine. "As husband I have gained Jehovah," said Eve on the birth of Cain - or in more standard translation, "I have gotten a man from the Lord." (Gen 4:1) The procreative and the "thinking" function (i.e. the opening to the channel of grace by means of intellectual subtilization and moral practice) are in essence one.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Considering Marriage

The gay marriage issue has surfaced once again with the recent decision of the California Supreme Court. I am thinking of initiating a series of posts considering marriage, womanhood, and related issues. Whether I actually do so, given my sporadic posts lately, is a question, but I thought to initiate this series with some reflections I had made about ten years ago on a related topic. I am writing and revising from a draft of an article I never completed:

It is 1987 and I have returned to Birmingham. On a visit to my aunt I chanced to pick up an old issue of the New York Review of Books, a periodical to which my aunt subscribed. I was glancing through the "personals" in the back section, where people advertise in search of romantic partners of one kind or another through cleverly-phrased ads. My eye happened to fall on one of these ads.
I was struck, for this particular ad was written by an acquaintance of mine. She had told me of it at the time, and I knew as well what happened as a result of her placing the ad.
I had met Susan, as I will call her, in the Berkshires, where I lived for about a decade. Shortly before I left, in the mid-1980's, I ran into her by chance one afternoon. She had her two-year-old daughter with her, a child who, at that moment at least, seemed unusually fretful and whining.
This child was the result of the relationship that had come about through Susan's ad. Susan refused to marry the father of the child - I will call him Bill - not through any personal dislike for him - or at least, so she said - but because of her long-standing opposition to the institution of marriage. She was absolutely opposed to it, and had been for as long as I had known her. Bill, I had heard, was devoted to the child and was having a very hard time with Susan's refusal to marry him.
Somewhat obliquely, I asked Susan what had become of him. "Oh, he moved back to Boston," she said. She indicated that her anti-marriage stand had upset him, and that he had tried to change her mind.
It was one of those warm, clear, late-summer Berkshire days, and I do not know with what sudden, direct conviction of my own that I said to her, "You used him." She protested that she had not - that "she had made it clear to him from the beginning what she intended in the relationship," and that she had no intention to marry, ever. But it seemed to me to be true, that a cause is not necessarily made right through being made honest. I felt something forming, in the aura of the unseen; I felt something of Bill's bitter thoughts, that he had been made not only an object, but a fool.
Who is to be blamed, if anyone, for this situation? If Susan was adhering to a piece of folk wisdom, "Honesty is the best policy," Bill might have benefited from another - "Look before you leap." Susan's honesty led Bill to make a very human mistake. He assumed that because she possessed the virtue of honesty, it was likely that she possessed other virtues as well, such as openness to being persuaded of an alternate course and consideration for the needs and rights of others. Had this been the case, honesty would have merited first place in the series of virtues, for it presupposes the existence of others by the very nature of one's policy in dealing with them. Yet this presupposition of the existence of others stopped curiously short of the actual granting to them of legitimate rights and needs in conflict with one's assumed honesty. Others exist - but their existence has no claims; the others have no rights. Their existence is somehow truncated or shadowy or unreal. And in fact, honesty became for Susan a way to win motherhood at low moral cost to herself.
As for Bill, he could have elected to remain in the same town just for the sake of being near his daughter. He would have had to swallow his pride and a large chunk of parental rights, but at least his daughter would have known him. Susan would have been obliged, by the very terms of her self-professed honesty, to acknowledge his role in co-parenting, and Bill, through continuing involvement, would have had some of the sting removed from the bitterness of the whole situation.
As it was, all three persons in this drama seems to have been losers. That fretful little girl already at age two was showing signs of having to negotiate a life so precariously launched on the seas of egotism and disillusion.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Alas, poor Yorick!

God Is Not Great. Christopher Hitchens. Hachette (!) Press, N.Y. 2007.
The God Delusion. Richard Dawkins. Houghton-Mifflin, 2007.
And, in rebuttal: The Devil's Delusion. David Berlinski. Crown Forum, 2008.

I've been dipping into the atheists recently, and I must say, it's quite an experience. In the old days our forebears meditated on how everything passes by contemplating a skull - Alas, poor Yorick! But today the image of the skull is appropriate in a new way. It is for us to contemplate the passing of reason, the death of reason in a long whine of offended pride: God, how dare you!

Mr. Christopher Hitchens' book, a hatchet job published by a press suitably titled (names are omens) subtitled, "How religion poisons everything," is certainly not worth reading. I predict, in fact, that in the not too distant future, Mr. Hitchens will go mad, although the disease may be diagnosed as premature senility and the once-famous author will be retired to some expensive nursing home, there to dribble away his miserable hours in fretful complaint.

After disposing of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides and Newman, e.g., "These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things, and been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow... We shall have no more prophets and sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes racheted up to the screaming point to ward off the terrible emptiness."

That was only on page seven, after which I felt little inclination to continue to read every word of this treatise. It is odd the way he frames this little paragraph: did these thinkers write evil and foolish things or did they not? The construction, "may have," is most confusing, and leads the reader to expect that the author might put in a good word for them in the end. This little grammatical point may seem to be a minor issue, but it puts me in mind of those words -"Qui verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis" -- They that despise the Word of God, then shall the word of man also be taken away -- words flung out by the departing Merlin in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. Recall this was the last moment of coherent speech in that room, the prelude to incoherent babble.

Mr. Hitchens' hatred is indeed impossible to distinguish from incoherence. His main beef against religion is that it is "man-made." How is it possible to analyze this complaint? There is simply no analytical tool in his repertoire; it is the cry of a man outraged to find himself forced to live in history, along with so many undesirable and gullible people. Does he expect God to reveal himself to him? - a point brought up by the more civilized John Derbyshire, who once complained that he had had no personal attestation as to the validity of religion, and it might be nice if God would condescend to speak with him.

Modern men expect God to do everything for them, including being saved without effort. That this is a perversion of a Christian theology that was already corrupted, I will agree. And if Christopher Hitchens had written about this corruption of theology, he might have written something of a valuable book. On the contrary, he revels in the very corruption he thinks he is exposing.

God Is Not Great in this sense doesn't have anything to do with religion. What it exposes is modern man's touching faith that to revel in corruption is to reveal it.


Mr. Richard Dawkins presents a more highly polished facade, a more educated, at least stylistically competent surface, along with an impenetrable glassy and gassy self-belief in his own righteousness. (To jump ahead, Berlinski comments somewhere that Dawkins has as much openness to criticism as a black hole.) Like Hitchens, he is a cultural Marxist, in that he has an implacable hatred for history and the human past, although Dawkins at least tries to discuss Thomas Aquinas, whereas Hitchens is too busy sneering to bother with discussing anything. Dawkins, while attempting to dismiss the various Thomist arguments for the existence of God, manages to miss the supreme achievement. The demarcation of the spheres of Faith and Reason as elucidated by Aquinas was inherently non-totalitarian. It left a free space for society and liberty to unfold - unlike our modern scientistic overlords, for whom Science (as they define it) is the Only Way to Be. One Ring to Bind them all...

I got a little farther in The God Delusion (p. 31) than God Is Not Great (p.7) before being stumped. Mr. Dawkins writes on page 31 that there could not be a Creator God because "any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. ... [These words are italicized to make sure we get it.] Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it."

I imagine to myself what pride Mr. Dawkins felt when he came up with this stellar piece of question-begging (petitio principii). I can just feel the gloating in those italicized words, the shimmers of heat lifting from the page. What a marvelous idea, and to think that nobody before Richard Dawkins had ever thought it before! One may note a somewhat anthropomorposizing tendency to equate the creative intelligence of mankind with the creative intelligence of godkind - however, we will let this pass, although both Dawkins and Hitchens are vehement on the anthropomorphosing tendencies of religion. Likewise, although fulsome in their praise for Modern Science ("the germ theory of disease," etc.) it has apparently never occurred to either of them that religion might be an antidote to the chief infection of human beings, the tendency toward pride. Like any antidote, it can be over-used, mis-used, or not used at all. But I doubt that either Dawkins or Hitchens has ever worked himself up to a pondering of human nature sufficient to weigh in the factor of pride. I suppose Darwinian evolution has rendered thoughts of pride superfluous, along with every other term in the moral or intellectual vocabulary of man.
The impoverishment of human thinking is certainly evident in these two books. It used to be that the rules, forms, and evidences applied to the cognitive process carried some constraints to the expression of human egotism, some brake upon sweeping generalizations, logical fallacies, historical errors, and the like. In our day even that fragile barrier has been swept away. For us, the melancholy replacement to contemplation of thoughts of mortality is the shrill babble of Egotism Unbound.

P.S. There was a touching footnote in Dawkins' book on p.215: "I was mortified to read in the Guardian ('Animal Instincts,' 27 May 2006) that The Selfish Gene is the favorite book of Jeff Skilling, CEO of the infamous Enron Corporation, and that he derived inspiration of a Social Darwinist character from it...I have tried to forestall similar misunderstandings in my new preface to the thirtieth-anniversary edition..." It's certainly amazing that it took twenty-nine editions for Dawkins to get an inkling of the idea of intellectual responsibility.

For the record, I also want to recount a little story in Dawkins (p. 367) about Wittgenstein. Dawkins has just been making an extended paean to Darwinism, how it "let in a flood of understanding, whose dazzling novelty, and power to uplift the human spirit, perhaps had no precedent - unless it was the Copernican realization that the Earth was not the centre of the universe." Then he writes: "'Tell me,' the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked a friend, 'why do people always say it was natural to assume that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?' His friend replied, 'Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth.' Wittgenstein responded, 'Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?' " Dawkins comments: "I sometimes quote this remark of Wittgenstein in lectures, expecting the audience to laugh. Instead, they seem stunned into silence." I find this anecdote, and Dawkins' comment on it, very revealing. Wittgenstein was a real thinker. The audience, at least, in their reaction of "stunned silence," showed an appropriate reaction to a genuine thought. Dawkins, whose complacent self-assurance is as apparently immobile as the formerly immobile Earth of classical astronomy, was surprised. Which leads one to suspect that Mr. Dawkins has never encountered a genuine thought, but only reflections of himself.


David Berlinski's book is a very witty account of "atheism and its scientific pretensions" (the subtitle). He is quite right to chide the atheists Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al (why do these names all sound like the names of butlers?) for remaining stuck in the materialism of the 19th century. "The advantages of materialism as a doctrine is that it sanctions an easy argument for atheism...[But] whatever the merits of this argument, the world of matter revealed by the physical sciences does not serve to endow materialism with a familiar face...Depending on how things are counted, matter has as its fundamental constituents twenty-four elementary particles, together with a great many fields, symmetries, strange geometrical spaces, and forces that are disconnected at one level of energy and fused at another, together with at least a dozen forms of energy, all of them active." (p. 54) And this is only to start. The two greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, general gravitation and quantum mechanics, are irreconciliable -- "They invoke different languages, different ideas, and different techniques of calculation." (p. 115)

Mr. Berlinski does a great job in demolishing the "scientific pretensions" of atheism. Remarking on the promiscuous nature of modern theory - megauniverses, string theory, Anthropic Principle, etc., he comments suggestively that "The willingness of physical scientists to explore such strategies in thought might suggest to a perceptive psychoanalyst a desire not so much to discover a new idea as to avoid an old one." That old idea - In the beginning God created heaven and earth -- is utterly distasteful to the modern bunch, although they can propose with a straight face that the appearance of life on earth - a "near miracle," as one of them admitted, might be due to Aliens (I believe Dr. Watson, of Watson & Crick, once proposed this idea), and that the world we know, being hospitable to life, has every appearance of being a "put-up job."

At the end of the day it is the triviality of the moral ideas of the modern scientists that has cast a long shadow over science and which ultimately threatens it. Mr. Berlinski does not go into this with the penetration that he has or with the force that he should - or could. He only remarks that "The long Galilean moment in the history of thought is coming to an end." The irony is that the suffocation of genuine religion, a sense of humility in face of the wonders of the universe, seems to be suffocating genuine thought as well. The real defense of religion against atheism has yet to be made.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Thoughts - Old and New

[January 12, 2002] ... re-read The Brothers Karamazov again, after many years. I had forgotten what a great, amazing book it is -- an epic! It also seemed to me not so long or tedious, and, being older now, I saw his characters in a much clearer way than I had before. Alyosha is crystal-clear and good, and actually occupies much more of the book than I had remembered. The passionate unclarity of Mitya is set against the deliberate and malicious unclarity of Smerdyakov. Actually Mitya's is not so much unclarity as complications wound upon spools of honor - complications of honor so thick he can barely know himself as himself. Ivan - what to say about this character, who in many ways is the least appealing of the Karamazovs? The man in the middle in every sense of the word, torn between his brothers and particularly susceptible to the malice of Smerdyakov and suggesions of the Devil. Yes - it was moving to me to read this book in the light of biblical epistemology - to see so much in it interpreted in terms of religious faith - God and immortality - and yet to realize there is so much in it apart from faith. That is, so much that has to do with one's relation to Ideas, to the Tree of Knowledge. It is Ivan, the man of ideas who meets the Devil, or the Anti-Christ, who tells him -- "What I dream of is becoming incarnate once and for all irrevocably..." For the Devil "stays with" Ivan "from time to time" and in that way "gains a kind of reality." Otherwise, "I am X in an indeterminate equation, I am a sort of phantom in life who has lost all beginning and end, and who has even forgotten his own name." The Devil even knows his philosophy - he can quote Descartes, Je pense, donc je suis - but it is Mitya who suffers the consequences of ideas: "You seem" he tells his brother Alyosha, "I never had any of these doubts before, but it was all hidden away in me. It was perhaps just because ideas I did not understand were surging up in me, that I used to fight and drink and rage. It was to stifle them in myself, to still them, to smother them."

Another big theme is that of responsibility and the power of wishes. The saying of Christ, "If any man looketh upon a woman and lusteth after her, he is an adulterer," is taken to be a case of strenuous morality - over-strenuous perhaps, for after all it is one thing to look and another to act. Yet Ivan "looked on" as the plots of Smerdyakov - deliberately guileful and obfuscating as they were - swirled about him. So that it is in a way correct to hold the blame for the parricide upon Ivan. And it is this strenuous morality that informs this novel. For one is responsible, indeed, for one's own soul - for each is in all, and all are in each.

From Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Writer's Life by Geir Kjetsaa: [quote] Dostoevsky's novels are about what questions are worth asking...[He] wrote, in his younger days: "You know that the artist in the moment of inspiration comprehends God. It follows then that poetic inspiration is in reality a philosophical inspiration; and philosophy is in reality nothing but poetry, a peculiar, higher form of poetry!"

[quote or paraphrase] Dostoevsky's chief interest - the individual's attitude toward his neighbor. Action is of less significance than attitude - sinful actions are more forgivable than sinful states of mind. This is to get away from a formalistic concept of sin (transgression) to one in which sin is viewed as the absence of compassion - the refusal to affirm suffering.

"Freud's essay on Dostoevsky and its emphasis on patricide have given nourishment to innumerable attacks on the writer... and the source of the most hopelessly mistaken biographical interpretation of the author's work...[quote or paraphrase continuing] some biographers speculated that D's father was murdered by his serfs (despite the fact that the doctor's certificate existed testifying that Dostoevsky's father died of natural causes) -- "The traditional portrayal [of Dostoevsky's father] as a cruel, punishing father, with the murder, and finally of his self-inflicted punishment in the form of an epileptic attack -- all of this fits perfectly within a psychoanalytic hypothesis. But the biographical foundation for this theory is more than questionable." Indeed - it is outrageous. This is not the first time that a cavalier attitude toward the facts and dimensions of a story is discernible in that Founder of Psychoanalysis.

Sometime, I think, when the real history of the 20th century is ever written, it will be seen that psychoanalysis was a trap sprung by the Devil to strangle historical consciousness in its cradle. A kind of spiritual infanticide. I base this judgment on three things: the interpretation of Oedipus; the interpretation of Dostoevsky; and the "false-memory" craze which swept through this country, causing unparalleled woe and destruction. It was an attitude which fostered a licentious
attitude toward the truth, toward what happened -- hence a disparaging attitude toward history. [Close of journal passage]

Speaking of Freud, the writer Anthony Daniels (whose real name is Theodore Dalrymple) writes in the March, 2008, issue of The New Criterion an article, "At the forest's edge," linking Freud and Ortega y Gasset. A more inappropriate linkage can hardly be imagined. He does it because Ortega's Revolt of the Masses and Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, happened to appear in the same year (1930). But mere conjunction in time or proximity in space does not for kinship make - though it is owing to the insufferable materialism of the modern mind that such kinships are gleefully proclaimed from the intellectual gutter press with all due orotund profundity. But I think Mr. Daniels has defamed Ortega by calling him an atheist: "...because Ortega, like Freud, was an atheist, he could not suggest a religious solution to the problem..."

I ask you, dear Reader, does a thinker have to propose a religious solution to a problem in order to be exempt from the charge of atheism? This is neither logical nor true. What the truth of this matter is, is that Mr. Dalrymple himself is an atheist - he has admitted as much, and somewhere, in the bowels of this website, I have addressed the issue of Mr. Dalrymple's atheism ("Atheism Lite" Nov. 30, 2007- See From the Catacombs-Archives). So that the writer, being an atheist, finds atheism wherever he looks -- there is a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas about how everything is received according to the mode of the receiver - unfortunately, I cannot dig it up the Latin out of my haphazard pile of notebooks-- but in the case of Ortega y Gasset, I consider the charge unconscionable. And this too is characteristic of materialism, taking religious belief for a matter of verbal professions only, and ignoring the soul.

As a final note, Russell Seitz also discovered the article on Ortega y Gasset, and posted a squib on Taki's Top Drawer, "Hunting for Jose" (March 28). For some reason the Taki editors are censoring my comments. I therefore reproduce it below. I should also add that I was formerly slightly acquainted with Mr. Seitz, having met him in Cambridge in the early 70's. He, as my father had been before him, was a member of the Fly Club of Harvard; Mr. Seitz was evidently eager to meet ladies descended from such impeccable lines. Our acquaintance was no particular success, and I hastened to introduce the gentleman to a friend of mine, who likewise reported a similar dismal outcome. Perhaps Mr. Seitz has improved with time, as I hope I have; although I have to confess that I find his writings on Taki's Top Drawer difficult to decipher, if not bordering on incoherence.

Anyway, here's what I wrote:

I thought it a disappointing article on Ortega y Gasset in several respects - also surprising, as Theodore Dalyrymple is in general a very fine writer. First of all, he linked Ortega to Freud, which I thought extremely unfortunate. And was it quite correct to call the Jesuit-trained Ortega an atheist? I have my doubts.
It seems to me that Ortega and Freud had diametrically opposing views about the nature of the instincts. Ortega wrote in "The Sportive Origins of the State" that "... in every vital process the first impulse is given by an energy of supremely free and exuberant character..." Ortega could write in that fashion because he possessed in his soul the animating ideas of Catholic civilization - which Freud loathed and did everything he could to destroy.
Anthony Daniels was right to assert that Ortega's idea of a European Union was mistaken. Yet he missed noting Ortega's real error in The Revolt of the Masses - which was, he thought that science would disappear because mass man would no longer apply himself to such a discipline. Alas, the situation is quite otherwise - as John Lukacs has pointed out with his phrase, techno-barbarism: "We know something that people at the beginning of the 20th century could not even imagine: that the advance of technology and barbarism are no longer irreconciliable." From "The End of the Twentieth Century and the and of the Modern Age." I believe that John Lukacs may have had Ortega in mind with that statement.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Outrage of the Day

Since I cannot begin to apologize for my long silence, I will only report the outrage of the day: in a report in today's New York Times on Bill Richardson's endorsement of Barack Obama, James Carville was led to opine that it was significant that this endorsement occurred during Holy Week, when Judas betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. The Messianic pretensions of Hillary Clinton have long been noted, but this remark is sheer blasphemy.

We simply live in an environment here in the USA where thinking in any sense of the term has become impossible. Political correctness forms one sort of straitjacket; the other phenomenon to be noted is the total absence of constraint of any kind, when people will say anything they like about anything at any time with no sense of propriety and, of course, no sense of shame. Here is a perfect example of "diabolism" at work: rigidity versus self-indulgence, Satan vs. Lucifer. The devil is the "split-into-two" (dia+ballein) and if people think I am being mighty fundamentalist here, seeming to believe in the Devil, I'll tell them that the Devil is no more (and no less) than an equation for symbolic and real facts. And science uses equations all the time. So there!

In other news: my post-peak-oil novel, After the Crash, is being reissued and can be ordered for $14.95 through Anyone in the Philadelphia area is invited to attend the book signing event at Henry George Institute (413 S. 10th Street) on Friday, April 25, at 6:30 PM.