Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reflections: Antlers in the Treetop

Moose is a guy I know from the blog, Ragged Thots. Although I’ve never had any indication that Moose visits this site, when I came across the following thought in Richard Ford’s excellent novel, The Sportswriter, I thought of Moose and decided to post it here:

Mystery is the attractive condition a thing (an object, an action, a person) possesses which you know a little about but don’t know about completely. It is the twiney promise of unknown things (effects, interworkings, suspicions) which you must be wise enough to explore not too, deeply, for fear you will dead-end in nothing but facts.

Perhaps Moose will somehow find his way here and read it. Perhaps not.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Reflections: Socrates as Rock Star

As a lover of art – especially the art of prose fiction – I have always been somewhat put off and confused by Plato’s banishment of the poets from his ideal Republic. Poetry, words, it seemed to me, were the wheels on which we might hope to be carried towards the truth. Fiction had the capability of embodying myth; myth had the capability of embodying eternal Truth. Not much of what is written rises to that level, as I well understood. But still it seemed to me that, at the very least, the poets should be exiled on a case-by-case basis, and not across the board.

Although it is a very long essay, and she is unfolding her thesis slowly and carefully, I believe that I can confidently assume from the point I’m now at, that the “fire” of Iris Murdoch’s piece “The Fire and the Sun”—that is, the lesser light in Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” – represents the upper limit of what art can achieve. She writes:

The Good (truth, reality) is absent from us and hard of access, but it is there and only the Good will satisfy. This fact is concealed by the consoling image-making ego in the guise of the artist whom every one of us to some extent is. Art with its secret claim to supreme power blurs the distinction between the presence and the absence of reality, and tries to cover up with charming imagery the harsh but inspiring truth of the distance between man and God.

She discusses this not only in terms of “poetry” in the broadest sense of the word, but also with reference to other arts, such as painting. Even philosophy itself is apparently suspect:

The strongest motive to philosophy is probably the same as the strongest motive to art; the desire to become the Demiurge and reorganize chaos in accordance with one’s own excellent plan.

Wow. I mean, I was aware that many a rock star first picked up a guitar more in the hope of one day getting "access" to most any chick that caught his fancy, than of making great music. But philosophers with ulterior motives? Who knew?

I am hopeful that Murdoch, herself being the author of some really kick-ass novels, will pull art's fat out of Plato's fire by the end of the essay.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Quote du Jour

The Problem of Evil elucidated:

How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don't know how the can opener works.

~ Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters

Friday, July 25, 2008

Readings: Consequentialism...

...lifts its lovely head again.

Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence.

This is certainly a topic on which reasonable persons can differ. Unfortunately, it is children who suffer most, while stiff-necked adults quarrel.

Reflections: On the Imperfection of Existence

From the ridiculousness of my last two posts, back to the sublime of Plato. Here, through the agency of the character Timaeus, Plato contemplates the origins of the physical universe:

Timaeus: Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable.

Monotheists in the tradition of Abraham will note that Plato's creator—the Demiurge—is good, but is not omnipotent. Everything that he constructs, using the raw materials available to him, is good only so far as good things can be made of imperfect material. He is making beautiful, but essentially imperfect, copies, modeled on the Ideas of the Intellect or Mind Most High. So our world is neither created ex nihilo, nor is there any need of a Fall to explain the presence in our world of that which is less-than-good.

As for the situation in which we find ourselves relative to existence, Iris Murdoch notes in her essay “The Fire and the Sun” that:

Order is obviously more beautiful and good than disorder… Our participation in [this joy] must, however, be seen as modest. The contact with changeless truth brought about through insight into pure living mind can only for incarnate beings be limited and occasional, and we are likely to see more of necessary causes than of divine causes. The truth which we can grasp is something quiet, small in extent (Philebus, 52 C), and to be found only in the lived real moment of direct apprehension out of which the indirectness of mimetic art and writing and perhaps language and discursive thought itself always tends to remove us. Those who want to be saved should look at the stars and talk philosophy, not write or go to the theater.

Necessary causes that bind us to the material, to contingency—expressed by Simone Weil as that “gravity” of downward motion which impedes the upward-tending desire for grace—keeps us trapped, and moving horizontally, in a linear motion across time; time which is the created ape of eternity. Circular motion around an axis being infinitely more perfect than progress from point A to point B, the best we can hope for is to keep to the straight and narrow path on our journey—avoiding as best we can the many temptations gesturing from the shadows beneath the glittering lights of the broad way to perdition.

The conservative, then, as symbolized by circular motion, should be more perfect than the progressive. What is the cause of conservatism’s failure to partake of a larger portion of the grace offered by the beauty and the goodness of existence? Why does conservatism fail so badly in the service of love?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #18: Darwin's Revenge

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

This just in:

In a new post that is just too good to pass over without comment, WWWtW doyenne, Lydia, expresses her secret fear of being taken for one of the Pongidae, or even, perhaps, in a certain light, for vegetable salad makings. Expressing her disdain for chimpanzee tool-making skills, Lydia shrills:

“I don't consider learning termite fishing to be sort of "on the way to" having a fully developed language and arts, a la Watership Down. Or New York City.”

Judging from her attempt at spelling “radicchio,” termite fishing is no certain indicator of the eventual development of that skill, either. A mostly liquid, reddish, vegetable existence does, however, seem well within reach.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #17: Fair and Balanced

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

While I continue to be banned from What’s Wrong With the World for commenting while (allegedly) trollish, I do check in on those folks from time to time to see what kind of progress they have made towards the resuscitation of Western civilization. I’m sorry to say that I can’t give a particularly glowing report on the progress of their project to-date. They continue to post along frequencies in the cyber-spectrum ranging from disheartened grumbling to shrill invective; never yet the blaring brass of a trumpeted triumph.

Meanwhile, dissent is still being answered with their patented “good cop, bad cop-hit ‘em high, hit ‘em low” routine as seen in the comments section following this post on gun control. The loyal opposition on this thread is primarily provided by a blogger calling himself “Morning’s Minion”. Mr. Minion is visiting from a site that is apparently universally scorned by the WWWtW cabal. Here we see self-appointed WWWtW enforcer, William Luse, reacting in his characteristic, intellectually impotent, manner to Mr. Minion’s refusal to back away from his eminently sensible argument:

Lydia, this is the second or third time I've seen him accuse you of wanting to execute prisoners to relieve prison overcrowding, even after you've retracted it more than once. If he does it again, I hope you'll delete his comment.

And here we see the economically dismissive “thebyronicman” addressing the earnest attempt to communicate in a civil manner of another commentor according to his usual m.o.:

You could have said absolutely nothing whatsoever in far fewer words. Next time, give it a try.

Sweet charity. But, lest I stand rightfully accused of lacking fairness-and-balance, I am now going to recommend and endorse a recent post by WWWtW author, Jeff Martin (Maximos). Here is the link. I encourage any person who is interested in the current plight of the conservative movement to read it and give it some thought. It is replete with trenchant rhetoric such as:

The Republican party has strangled the small-government policy program in its crib, replacing it with a tawdry emphasis upon a select blend of upper-bracket tax reductions, coupling this program with a world-historical deficit-spending bender; identified economic conservatism with a regressive and debilitating package of corporatist and neoliberal economic policies that threaten to render trade imbalances and deficits permanent and structural; papered over the instabilities with a profligate monetary policy, which itself reinforced the other insalubrious trends; established as a principle of American governance that any profits accruing to financiers in consequence of these policies would be valorized as the triumph of the American way, while any losses would be socialized, so that avarice need never receive its recompense; embarked upon a foreign policy that even Woodrow Wilson might find audacious and hubristic, in the process ordaining unjust war and torture as central precepts in the right-wing catechism; sought to legitimize an unprecedented demographic and economic experiment upon the American body politic, all at the behest of the narrow coterie of corporate interests who cut the campaign finance checks; cynically deployed "social issues" as instruments of voter mobilization, then snickered behind the backs of the salt-of-the-earth folks who voted for them on the basis of those issues (revealing that they really do think as they were portrayed by Thomas Frank), dropping those initiatives in favour of grand schemes of policy reform that hadn't a snowball's chance of seeing enactment; formed ranks behind a President poised to violate campaign pledges regarding judicial nominations, when he wished to nominate his incompetent cronies and lickspittles to the Supreme Court - need I continue?

As impressive as the righteousness of the above is the fact that it is all one magnificently Teutonic sentence!

I greatly fear that the scorn displayed by Maximos is the result of his perception that America is moving ever further away from the allegedly benign form of totalitarianism favored by the WWWtW faithful, towards a neocon mode of liberalism that is neither New Deal fish, nor Morning in America fowl. But, let us, nonetheless, not look this gift horse in the mouth.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Readings: from the Timaeus

Check it out:

What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is. Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. The work of the creator, whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern, must necessarily be made fair and perfect; but when he looks to the created only, and uses a created pattern, it is not fair or perfect.


As being is to becoming, so is truth to belief.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Quote(s) du Jour

Kerouac on writing as riffing:

...You'll never know what you wanted to say about something till you're scribbling furiously into it, reaching the center, then scribbling out again. This is BLOWING, accidentally and actually finding your center.

~ Some of the Dharma

Orwell on Western Civilization:

It was what he had chosen when he declared war on money. Serve the money-god or go under; there is no other rule.

...He had a vision of London, of the western world; he saw a thousand million slaves toiling and grovelling about the throne of money. The earth is ploughed, ships sail, miners sweat in dripping tunnels underground, clerks hurry for the eight-fifteen with the fear of the boss eating at their vitals. And even in bed with their wives they tremble and obey. Obey whom? The money-priesthood, the pink-faced masters of the world. The Upper Crust. A welter of sleek young rabbits in thousand guinea motor cars, of golfing stockbrockers and cosmopolitan financiers, of Chancery lawyers and fashionable Nancy boys, of bankers, newspaper peers, novelists of all four sexes, American pugilists, lady aviators, film stars, bishops, titled poets and Chicago gorillas.

~ Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Readings: A Cabal for the Ages

My copy of The New Yorker magazine with the Obama cartoon cover arrived in today’s mail, even as the brouhaha it created begins to end in a whimper. (Did I mention that, of all the many political, news, and cultural mags to which I’ve subscribed over the years, The New Yorker is the only one I still take?) Well, it is—and here’s why:

The Ryan LIzza story about Obama isn’t even close to being the most interesting piece in the July 21, 2008 edition. Consider, for instance, the article “Surfing the Universe” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. This piece tells us the strange and wonderful story of a snowboarding beach boy who earned a Ph.D. in physics from UCSD at the age of 31 and then essentially dropped out of sight for most of the following decade, only to reemerge claiming to have discovered The Theory of Everything – the Holy Grail of Physics. More gripping than politics is this stuff, people.

But this one issue of The New Yorker can top even that. Are you familiar with the towering, magisterial, literary critic and thinker, Harold Bloom, who resides somewhere down in the ivy at Yale University? If not, begin learning about him here. I’ve read many of his books. They are all strange and challenging and…awe-inspiring. I sometimes think that Harold Bloom is buggier than a hillbilly hatband, but few writers have engaged me at so fundamental a level.

So, I ask you: In what slick periodical other than The New Yorker is one apt to find an article (“The Spiritual Life – H-Bloo on A-Rod” by Ben McGrath) that features the surrealistic constellation of baseball superstar, Alex Rodriguez; perennially dominant diva, Madonna; and Ivory Tower guru, Harold Bloom? You’re not gonna find stuff like this in the National Review or The Nation. No way.

How are these mind-bending connections made? Well, for starters, A-Rod has a plug and Madonna has a socket. You can work out a Big Apple celebrity mise-en-scene that works for you concerning how that juice allegedly started flowing. Harold Bloom, it turns out, is a big Yankee fan. Madonna and Bloom are both into Kabbalah. And A-Rod cites the Material Girl as his soul-mate. Hey, presto! This piece may come closer to the Unified Field Theory than the one cited above.

Bottom line: subscribe to The New Yorker; become acquainted with the mind-expanding writings of Harold Bloom; check out Madonna’s rendition of “Fever” on the Erotica album…

…and remember who sent you there.
ADDENDUM: Since the article I'm raving about is entitled "H-Bloo on A-Rod" I guess that I should give you some Bloom on Rodriguez. Here goes:
"The great Alex Rodriguez, the famous A-Rod, is not a clutch performer," he said. "He compiles these enormous statistics, but every time I make the mistake of looking at a game he comes up with two out and men on second and third, and does nothing."

A-Rod no good in the clutch? Uh, Madonna -- feel free to chime in here, if you like.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reflections: Had Enough?

Here are some hot words from a man who knows a little bit about bail-outs:

Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can't even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, "Stay the course."

Stay the course? You've got to be kidding. This is America, not the Titanic. I'll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!

Someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country anymore. The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don't need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we're fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions.

That's not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I've had enough. How about you?

I'll go a step further. You can't call yourself a patriot if you're not outraged. This is a fight I'm ready and willing to have.

I'm going to speak up because it's my patriotic duty & I'm hoping to strike a nerve in those young folks who say they don't vote because they don't trust politicians to represent their interests. Hey, America, wake up. These guys work for us.

Why are we in this mess? How did we end up with this crowd in Washington? Well, we voted for them — or at least some of us did. But I'll tell you what we didn't do. We didn't agree to suspend the Constitution. We didn't agree to stop asking questions or demanding answers. Some of us are sick and tired of people who call free speech treason. Where I come from that's a dictatorship, not a democracy.

And don't tell me it's all the fault of right-wing Republicans or liberal Democrats. That's an intellectually lazy argument, and it's part of the reason we're in this stew. We're not just a nation of factions. We're a people. We share common principles and ideals. And we rise and fall together.

There was a time in this country when the voices of great leaders lifted us up and made us want to do better. Where have all the leaders gone?

On September 11, 2001, we needed a strong leader more than any other time in our history. That was George Bush's moment of truth, and he was paralyzed. And what did he do when he'd regained his composure? He led us down the road to Iraq — a road his own father had considered disastrous when he was President. But Bush didn't listen to Daddy. He listened to a higher father. He prides himself on being faith-based, not reality based. If that doesn't scare the crap out of you, I don't know what will.

So here's where we stand. We're immersed in a bloody war with no plan for winning and no plan for leaving. We're running the biggest deficit in the history of the country. We're losing the manufacturing edge to Asia, while our once-great companies are getting slaughtered by health care costs. Gas prices are skyrocketing, and nobody in power has a coherent energy policy. Our schools are in trouble. Our borders are like sieves. The middle class is being squeezed every which way. These are times that cry out for leadership.

Geez, I wonder what the liberals are saying?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reflections: The Marriage of Politics and Religion

I recall once making what I thought to be the non-controversial observation that Plato was a "religious philosopher" in a comment box discussion, only to have the jamoke with whom I was arguing tell me flat-out that I was wrong. I wish that I had had Iris Murdoch's essay on Plato, "The Fire and the Sun" on hand at the time so that I could have backed up my statement with the following excerpt:

Plato's work is...largely concerned with ways to salvation. We may speak of a (democratic) "way of justice" which, without necessarily leading to enlightenment, is open to anyone who is able to harmonize the different levels of his soul moderately well under the general guidance of reason. The characteristic desires of each level would not be eliminated, but would in fact, under rational leadership, achieve their best general satisfaction. The baser part is really happier if rationally controlled. The reasonable egoism would be accessible to the lower orders in the Republic. Plato certainly thought that few could be 'saved', but allowed that many might lead a just life at their own spiritual level.

That should settle things for the religiously minded. Any philosophy that is "largely concerned with ways to salvation" is certainly concerned with the "religious."

That said, on the same page Murdock throws out some tidbits for the intractably political, particularly those of a partisan bent. Plato, she says, taught that "most people want power not virtue and must be trained by pleasure and pain to prefer justice." That's grim enough. "Political systems make men good or bad", she adds. I agree completely. It is the role of the progressive (the good) to train the bad (the conservative) to "prefer justice" by the application of pain (confiscatory taxation). At this juncture do religion and politics form an uneasy union, allowing us to get on with the daunting task of making a better world for men at every spiritual level.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


TO NEW WIMBLEDON CHAMPION, RAFAEL NADAL and five-time champ, Roger Federer, for giving the world one of the greatest athletic events, ever. Bravi, gentlemen, bravi!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Retractions: Outing a Pig in Lipstick

In December 2007, prompted by the adulation which I had frequently encountered on Catholic and other blogs, I read and enthusiastically posted on two books by British author, G. K. Chesterton -- Orthodoxy and Heretics. Beginning with a post on December 1st, and continuing with subsequent posts on December 2nd, December 5th, and finally on December 14th, I affirmed my enthusiasm for Chesterton’s prose.

Prior to reading Orthodoxy and Heretics, I had been familiar with Chesterton only through his novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, and his life of St. Francis of Assisi, both of which are in my personal library. I no longer remember what prompted me to buy The Man Who Was Thursday. As a reader of a wide range of fiction, I had probably seen the novel mentioned by some writer or critic of fiction whom I respected as being similar to the fiction of Kafka. I read the book on St. Francis strictly out of my interest in St. Francis. As a non-Catholic I had little interest in Chesterton per se. I admired his aphoristic writing style, but I knew nothing of his biography, nor of his writings other than the four books cited above. I should have been forewarned by Chesterton’s popularity with the authorial hate-mongers at What Wrong With the World that there was something wrong with Chesterton. But I must now admit, red-faced, that my guard was down.

One should never be surprised to discover that any Brit who came up during the waning days of the British Empire was a racist. Nonetheless, I was a bit taken aback when the July 7th and 14th edition of The New Yorker arrived with an article revealing Chesterton to have been a nasty and explicit anti-Semite. I suppose that it’s also the case that one should never be surprised to discover that a Catholic, especially a typically hyper-zealous and orthodox convert, is an anti-Semite. But Adam Gopnik’s article for the “A Critic at Large” feature, entitled “The Back of the World” has now caused me some embarrassment. My gushing over the pious virtues of Mr. Chesterton was badly misplaced. I had kissed a pig.

Unfortunately, the on-line version of The New Yorker does not include the full article, but you can read an abstract of it here.

Gopnik’s article, the occasion for which is to note, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of The Man Who Was Thursday, the publication of two new editions, most tellingly characterizes Chesterton’s racism with passages typified by the following:

The insistence that Chesterton’s anti-Semitism needs to be understood “in the context of this time” defines the problem, because his time – from the end of the Great War to the mid-thirties – was the time that led to the extermination of the European Jews. …He claims that he can tolerate Jews in England, but only if they are compelled to wear “Arab” clothing, to show that they are an alien nation. Hitler made a simpler demand for Jewish dress, but the ideas was the same.

Gopnik provides several instances of Chesterton’s anti-Semitism in his own words. I will let the following autobiographical excerpt stand for the rest:

… [Chesterton] writes of how he appreciates that “one of the great Jewish virtues is gratitude,” and explains that he knows this because as a kid at school “I was criticized in early days for quixotry and priggishness in protecting Jews; and I remember once extricating a strange swarthy little creature with a hooked nose from being bullied, or rather being teased.”

A strange swarthy little creature with a hooked nose: nice stuff. So much for the magisterial Catholic sage. My enthusiasm of last December is retracted. Mea culpa. Discipleship does not cancel out race hatred; it’s the other way around: Chesterton was a false prophet and a swine.

[Note: I was going to link to my previous posts on Chesterton, but have decided against it. Why shed light on my own past follies? If anybody wants to read them, he has the dates, and he will have to go to the trouble of using the archives.]

Friday, July 4, 2008

Readings: Dung Happens

I have, for some time now, been reading one of mankind's top ten literary masterpieces, Don Quixote, without posting any excerpts from it. This morning, however, I came across a passage that seemed to cast the brilliance of Cervante's wit and wisdom on a feeling that has been fidgeting around in some dark corner of my mind, just below the level of consciousness, thus revealing it in the light of understanding.

In the following, the humble, but loyal, Sancho Panza may be understood as representing your host. Don Quixote will be understood to hold the place of all those blog post gurus and sages of the comment box with whom I have come in contact since entering the blogosphere some years ago:

"Each day, Sancho," said Don Quixote, "you are becoming less doltish and more wise."

"Yes, master, for some of your wisdom must stick to me," said Sancho, "just as land that is of itself barren and dry will eventually, by dint of dunging and tilling, come to yield a goodly crop. What I mean to say is that your worship's talk has been the dung that has fallen upon the barren soil of my poor wit and that the time during which I have served you and enjoyed your company has been the tillage.

Dung: dig it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Reflections: To Do Is To Be

It's a cinch that the Bush administration and its intelligence wings are not Maoist entities; they must, therefore, be fascist...