Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Quote du Jour: Ouch!

A philosopher is one who worries and worries about the obvious.

~ Theodore Roethke, Straw for the Fire

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Reflections: With Regard to Torture

I haven’t posted any political opinion for quite some time. The national debate over the use of torture by Americans, however, now prompts me to do so. More accurately, that such a debate is even necessary prompts me to do so. In effect, then, this post is more centered on questions of morality than it is on politics per se.

I originally posted the hypothetical that is presented below in the comments thread of an excellent post by Kyle Cupp at his blog Journeys in Alterity, one of my daily reads. This post is entitled “Torturing Christ”. In my opinion, that title already answers every question that Kyle’s post raises—or at least it should— especially for professed “pro-life” Christians. But it seems that this is not the case. I therefore offered the hypothetical scenario below, in order to see if it would provoke any rethinking on the justification of use of torture in order to save lives. Keep in mind that in the real world those “saved lives” are every bit as hypothetical as is my scenario:

The pro-torture argument seems to be that torture which is effective in producing positive results for the conduct of the “War on Terror,” especially insofar as its use can plausibly be said to have saved lives, is morally justifiable. Let me test that with a hypothetical:

Supposing an Afghani or Pakistani woman came secretly to a member of the American military with this story:

“I am a modern woman and long to be free. But my father is a member of the Taliban—very high up—and I cannot live as I want to live. I have had undetected access to certain of my father’s communications, including those from the inner circle of bin Laden himself. These disclose that al-Qaeda has obtained a nuclear “suitcase” bomb from rogue elements in the former U.S.S.R. I can tell you in detail the route by which this bomb will be smuggled into the United States and where they plan to detonate it.

“But my immediate problem is that I have become pregnant by a man that my father will not allow me to marry. If my pregnancy is discovered, my father will kill me. Because of our obligations to others, it is impossible for either my lover or myself to leave the country. If you will secretly provide me with a safe abortion in a U.S. medical facility, I will make all of this information available to you.”

What do you do? Do you, a) provide the woman with the abortion in order to possibly save hundreds of thousands of lives? Or, b) do you torture the woman to get the information from her without providing the abortion? Or, c) do you take her into custody and make her disappear into a secret prison in an undisclosed country, despite her personal innocence?

It’s not somebody else's decision—it’s yours: what do you do?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Quote du Jour: To Be and Yet Not Quite to Be

I am reading Straw for the Fire, a compilation of excerpts from the notebooks of poet and Michigander homeboy, Theodore Roethke. As is the case with all Quotes du Jour, I present below words which resonate with my own experience of existence:

The feeling that one is on the edge of many things: that there are many worlds from which we are separated by only a film; that a flick of the wrist, a turn of the body another way will bring us to a new world. It is more than a personal expectation: yet sometimes the sense of richness is haunting: it is richness and yet denial, this living a half step, as it were, from what should be...

Yes, isn't it so.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Quote du Jour: A Do-It-Yourself Kit

Below are sequential excerpts from a telephone conversation between the central protagonist of David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest and his older brother, Orin. FWIW, the conversation orbits around the topic of their father's suicide; an act accomplished by baking his head in a specially-rigged microwave oven. The speaker is "Hal":

‘The new Discursive O.E.D. says the Ahts of Vancouver used to cut virgins’ throats and pour the blood very carefully into the orifices of the embalmed bodies of their ancestors.


‘Apparently the Ahts tried to fill up ancestors’ bodies completely with virgin-blood to preserve the privacy of their own mental states. The apposite Aht dictum here being quote “The sated ghost cannot see secret things.” The Discursive O.E.D. postulates that this is one of the earlier on-record prophylactics against schizophrenia.’

So there you have it. Sort the symbols; construct your own metaphors of self-reference. Have fun with it. GGFN.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reflections: Thesis...Antithesis...

In direct contradiction of the presentation of the Spirit of Philosophy, excerpted from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy of in the previous post, is the position of Nietzsche as interpreted here by Martin Heidegger:

XXXAccording to Nietzsche’s interpretation the very first principle of morality, Of Christian religion, and of the philosophy determined by Plato reads as follows: This world is worth nothing; there must be a “better” world than this one, enmeshed as it is in sensuality; there must be a “true world” beyond, a supersensuous world; the world of the senses is but a world of appearances.
XXXIn such manner this world and this life are at bottom negated. If a “yes” apparently is uttered to the world, it is ultimately only in order to deny the world all the more decisively. But Nietzsche says that the “true world” of morality is a world of lies, that the true, the supersensuous, is an error. The sensuous world—which in Platonism means the world of semblance and errancy, the realm of error—is the true world. But the senuous, the sense-semblant, is the very element of art. So it is that art affirms what the supposition of the ostensibly true world denies. Nietzsche therefore says: “Art as the single superior counterforce against all will to negation of life, art as the anti-Christian, anti-Buddhist, anti-Nihilist par excellence.”

While one wants to preserve Nietzsche’s idea of art as effectively enhancing the essential Being of the artist, one does not want to relinquish one’s belief in, and hope for, the Next World in order to do so. If ever a good strong dose of thesis-antithesis-synthesis were called for, it seems called for here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Quote du Jour: Philosophy's Prayer

from Boethius: Consolation of Philosophy, Book III, Meter 9 [tr. Joel C. Relihan]:

Grant to the mind, Father, that it may rise to your holy foundations;
Grant it may ring round the source of the Good, may discover the true light,
And fix the soul's vision firmly on you, vision keen and clear-sighted.
Scatter these shadows, dissolve the dead weight of this earthly concretion,
Shine in the splendor that is yours alone: only you are the bright sky,
You are serenity, peace for the holy; their goal is to see you;
You are their source, their conveyance, their leader, their path, and their haven.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reflections: Happy Easter

Through all the long night visions of sugar plums danced in my head--wrong holiday. Got up groggy, with a strong desire to hear Natalie Merchant slur her way through "Candy Everybody Wants"--this can't be good. Chose the "Unplugged" version--needed to hear the applause. (Oh, Jesus!)

Sinners take heed: as you burrow into your cushy recliner after the big meal like a python slowly digesting a whole lamb; as groaning with surfeit you nonetheless bite the little ears off yet one more chocolate bunny; as feet up, in your postprandial daze, you surreptitiously flex a doughy cheek to pass gas, try to remember:

On your own personal Easter, just over that rosy horizon, you're going to have to rise up and waltz with the thief whut brung ya to the Big Dance.

Good thief, bad thief--don't let it be a coin flip. Wake up! Make of your every "yes" a fully conscious assent.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Readings: The Art of Being

This, from Martin Heidegger's Nietzsche, Volume I: The Will to Power as Art:

[T]he being of an artist is the most perspicuous mode of life. Life is for us the most familiar form of Being. The innermost essence of Being is will to power. In the being of the artist we encounter the most perspicuous and most familiar mode of will to power. Since it is a matter of illuminating the Being of beings, meditation on art has in this regard decisive priority.

And then:

[A] guiding principle of Nietzsche's teaching on art: art must be grasped in terms of creators and producers, not recipients. Nietzsche expresses it unequivocally in the following words: "Our aesthetics heretofore has been a woman's aesthetics, inasmuch as only the recipients of art have formulated their experience of 'what is beautiful.' In all philosophy to date the artist is missing...." ...The question of art is the question of the artist as the productive, creative one; his experiences of what is beautiful must provide the standard.

Not to be a mere critic, then, or a passive, effeminate recipient, one must produce art; having done so, one has enhanced one's essential Being. This is why Jesus was also a tekton. So, get off your ass and make something.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Readings: Out of the Box

To wrap up the Hans Jonas/Gnostic posts, there are these two final excerpts; the first is Jonas’ restatement of a Gnostic “formula” for salvation, as found in an apocryphal Christian Gnostic scripture from Nag Hammadi, entitled The Gospel of Truth:

The Gospel of Truth: the Formula

“Since ‘Oblivion’ came into being because they did not know the Father, therefore if they come to know the Father, ‘Oblivion’ becomes, at that very instant, non-existent.” Of this bald proposition it is then emphatically asserted that it represents the gist of the revelation of truth, the formulation as it were of its logic: “That, then, is the Gospel of Him whom they seek, which Jesus the Christ revealed to the Perfect, thanks to the mercies of the Father, as a hidden mystery.”

The second is a restatement of the formula from The Gospel of Truth as a philosophical “equation”:

The Pneumatic Equation

That the human-individual event of pneumatic knowledge is the inverse equivalent of the pre-cosmic universal event of divine ignorance, and in its redeeming effect of the same ontological order; and that thus the actualization of knowledge in the person is at the same time an act in the general ground of being. The “formula” is precisely a shorthand expression of that pneumatic equation—which thus is the Gospel of Truth. [emphasis added]

Kind of “existential,” isn’t it? As pessimistic as is the dualistic Gnostic understanding of the cosmos, at least it offers the human being who finds himself exiled in the material world a little help from Beyond—unlike, say, French Existentialism, which offers Man only his acceptance of the fate of Sisyphus as a remedy for the absurdity of existence—and his freedom as a condemnation, rather than as a blessing. At bottom, Gnosticism was an attempt to provide a detailed solution to the Problem of Evil, rather than just labeling it a “mystery” and passing the plate.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Readings: Spooky Stuff

In continuing his explication of the Gnostic interpretation of heimarmene, Hans Jonas provides us with the following excerpt from the Corpus Hermeticum:

[I]t is the natural condition of man to be a prey of the alien forces which are yet so much of himself, and it requires the miraculous supervening of gnosis from beyond to empower the imprisoned pneuma [spirit] to come into its own. “Those who are enlightened in their spiritual part by a ray from the divine light—and they are few—from these the demons desist…all the others are driven and carried along in their souls and their bodies by the demons, loving and cherishing their works…All this terrestrial rule the demons exercise through the organs of our bodies, and this rule Hermes calls “heimarmene (Corpus Hermeticum)

Jonas then comments:

Thus inner-worldly existence is essentially a state of being possessed by the world, in the literal, i.e., demonological, sense of the term.

I guess that depending on how one chooses to interpret the word "demon," one could derive either St. Paul's "powers and principalities," or the myriad lusts and urges teeming around in Freud's Id, or even, maybe, whatever the hell it is that Tom Cruise was bedeviled by before he graduated to "Clear," leaving him free to bounce unashamedly on Oprah's couch.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Quote(s) du Jour: The Big Nada

Stolen from the late David Foster Wallace and aphoristically retooled by your humble host for presentation here:

The epitome of savoir-faire is to know exactly where on the inside of the stall door to carve BEWARE OF LIMBO DANCERS


As Socrates is reported to have said when handed the hemlock, “Life sucks and then spits you into a Dixie cup.”

It is easy to say that the suicide of David Foster Wallace was the result of chronic depression. But the embedded humor in the second (if you'll excuse the term) gag above suggests that he may have suffered from Gnostic tendencies; and the first hints strongly of an acute, urgent, and intractable precosity which may have become unbearable as he entered middle age.