02 September 2015

Fragment of a Dialogue on the Nature of Perfection

ALICE. I am very confused.

HARRY. What's confusing?

ALICE. I've been reading St. Thomas's *Summa Theologiae*. It was smooth sailing for the first few articles, and then I got to q. 2 a. 3, and I'm stuck.

HARRY. Which part of that article is confusing to you?

ALICE. Well, it's all pretty difficult, but right now I'm stuck on the fourth way of proving God's existence: the argument from degrees.

HARRY. It's a hard argument. Say more.

ALICE. Well I think the argument is swiss cheese. Holes all the way through.

HARRY. Haha. Yeah, it does seem that way, doesn't it. Well, let's talk through it together and maybe we can find a way to understand it.

ALICE. Ok. My first problem is with the degrees in question. I've thought about this a lot, and I want to focus in on the notion of "degrees of perfection".

HARRY. Ok. Let's start there. So, what is perfection?

ALICE. Well, when we talk about perfection, we're generally talking about the extent to which a thing has a particular form. So, for example, if we talk about how round a pearl is, we're comparing the actual shape of the pearl to a certain ideal shape, like a sphere, and judging the propinquity of the one to another.

HARRY. Right. That sounds right.

ALICE. Ok, well that's fine. But notice in this case that the perfection of a thing always seems to be relative to something else. The perfection of a pearl as round is relative to the perfect roundness of a sphere. The perfection of a dog as a hunting dog is relative to the ideal set of characteristics of a hunting dog, etc. But if the relationship which constitutes a thing's perfection is always *relative*, and its relative to something else, then perfection is not an *intrinsic* feature of things, but is *extrinsic*. And once we say that perfection is *extrinsic* to things, because it's relative to something other than the thing itself, we have to ask what establishes the relationship between the thing and the ideal to which it's compared. And it seems like that relationship is established by the mind, meaning that perfection is always going to not just be relative and extrinsic, but dependent on the subject making the judgment of perfection.

HARRY. Hmmm.

ALICE. And obviously if perfection is relative, extrinsic, and subject-dependent, then it's impossible to talk about the real order of perfection, because there is no objective order of perfection.

HARRY. Ok. So. We should hold on a second. I think if we're going to find a way through this we need to identify a weak point in your reasoning here.

ALICE. Ok. Great. I think the most hopeful solution to my problem would involve establishing that perfection can be relative in such a way that the relative ideal is designated by the thing itself, so that whenever we point to X, we have the choice either to designate an arbitrary formal ideal and judge it relative to that, or to identify the formal ideal implied by the nature of X, and judge X relative to that.

HARRY. Excellent thought. So the problem then would be to figure out two things: (1) how things can, by nature, designate the ideal form relative to which their perfection is to be judged; (2) whether forms in general stand relative to each other in terms of their perfection.

ALICE. Right. So the line of approach would be to show: (1) that this sort of relationship is possible; (2) that every form participates in a chain of relations like this.


ALICE. Ok. So we begin with that: what is it that makes this sort of relationship---i.e., a determinate designation, given an individual, of a form relative to which its perfection is to be judged---possible?

HARRY. Well, let's start with individual entities as wholes, i.e. individual substances, and not talk about beings of reason or accidental attributes or any of that just yet.


HARRY. In that case, it seems like the reasonable answer to your question would point to the nature of the individual substance in question. We judge the perfection of a particular thing relative to the natural potency it possesses as member of a particular species.

ALICE. And how do we know that there are such things as determinate natural species?

HARRY. Well, let's start with this: do you believe that there are determinate actual qualities? Is it possible to say truly that "This thing is this way"?

ALICE. Yes, I accept that. Things have determinate characteristics.

HARRY. Ok, well, if things have determinate characteristics, then we have to ask what "things" are. What is it that bears these determinate characteristics? You agree that if there are determinate characteristics, there must be determinate entities which bear them?

ALICE. Yes, that's true.

HARRY. So, if there are determinate entities, they must each be united in themselves. In other words, if it's "that thing" that has a particular characteristic, there must be something about "that thing" which unites it.

ALICE. Supposing I doubt that, what would the problem be?

HARRY. You know what... Hold on. I think there's something really interesting back in what you were saying before. Let's backtrack a little.


HARRY. You said that perfection is essentially a relative characteristic, because we know from making judgments of perfection that they always involve the comparison of one thing to another under a certain aspect.

ALICE. Right.

HARRY. Well, doesn't it seem like that's kind of an odd thing to say? Perfection always involves a reference to another thing?

ALICE. Why is it odd?

HARRY. Well, let's just assume that it's true, and that additionally the relation is intrinsic to the thing in question: i.e. there is a real answer to the question "What is the norm relative to which X is to be judged as perfect or deficient in itself?" These suppositions by themselves seem to be enough to establish a kind of graph of perfections: every instance of a particular kind of thing will be relative to some ideal form to which it's compared...

ALICE. But this is going to be true even if perfection is a purely subjective thing.

HARRY. That's true. I guess in order to establish a series of linked nodes in this graph we would need to have perfection not just be relative, but also objective. In other words, we would need to be able to ask not just the obvious question "To what extent does X have the form of Y?" but the more universal question "To what extent is X informed at all."

ALICE. Right, and in order to do that, we need to establish that being informed, or actual, etc., admits of degrees. Which I think brings us back to where we started.

HARRY. Ok, so how would actuality have degrees?

ALICE. Well, suppose there are fundamental or atomic characteristics or forms. For example, permanence or corporeality. Something could be said to be more actual to the extent that it possesses that form, as well as another. For example, something that's corporeal and also heavy, vs. something that has no mass.

HARRY. Right, and obviously the objection there is that it's not clear how to determine whether having mass or being massless is more truly a "perfection".

ALICE. Well, I don't think we can judge simply on account of something like having mass or not having mass whether the things in either category are more or less perfect. I'm not sure that that kills this line of thought, though.


Random Notes on Harry Potter

I finished re-reading Harry Potter all the way through for the first time in a few years. Some thoughts:

1. The series is completely devoid of democracy. None of the offices held by any of the characters (students or adults) involve popular election. Even the Minister of Magic seems to be elected by some body within the Ministry.

2. There's a strong talent-based hierarchy. Magical skill is emphasized, moreso than wealth. Money comes into play directly only with respect to Harry's inheritance, the Dursleys, the Weasleys, and the Malfoys, and indirectly only with things like Justin Finch-Fletchley mentioning that he was "down for Eton" in Book 2, or Hermione's parents both being Dentists and taking her on a skiing trip in Book 5.

3. Religion almost never comes into play, directly or indirectly until the last book. Now and then something will be described using religious imagery. E.g. Malfoy is described as looking like a vicar in Book 4, the Hall of Prophecy is described as being the size of a large church in Book 5. However, these instances are rare. It is startling when suddenly Harry expresses surprise in Book 7 by saying "Oh my God!", since this expression (along with "Thank God" and "God bless") is, I think, the only reference to God in the entire series. Even more startling is the use of Scripture on the Dumbledore and Potter tombstones, in the presence of a Church, filled with people celebrating Christmas at midnight.

4. The conception of the soul employed in the series is not nihilistic (souls do not cease to exist at death). The soul seems to primarily function as the basis of a living person's consciousness. That the soul can be "divided" or "torn" is odd and unexplained.

5. The series is mainly about human interactions and activities, rather than magic or the relationship between magic and the world at large. If we compare it with LeGuin's Earthsea books, the difference is very pronounced. LeGuin grounds the magical activities of the characters in a fairly robust world picture. We get several good explanations of the metaphysical basis of magic in Earthsea, and this understanding of the way magic works is inseparable from our understanding of Ged, the protagonist. It also makes the series seem a little more consistent.

For Rowling, magic begins as a sort of cliche that she's joking around with (turning things into animals, making things fly around, etc.), which is then grounded in a gradually unveiled magical parody of the ordinary world (Gringotts, the Ministry of Magic, the Daily Prophet, etc.). As the series goes on, the theory of magic is never a point of interest, except when used to explain why some difficulty or other is not easily surmounted (e.g. "Food is one of the five principle exceptions to Gromp's law of elemental transfiguration.") In fact, if we strip away the fact that Harry Potter is a wizard and does magic and all of that, and perform a formalist analysis of the series and its world, we realize that the series is mostly just about a schoolboy who is being trained in a specific craft, while repeatedly avoiding being killed by one of the famous masters of that craft, who is using his skills to dominate and murder people. Analogous stories could be written without the use of magic at all. Magic makes the story fun and amusing, and provides a number of nifty devices for the plot (e.g. the use of memory, prophecy, and the causal efficacy of sacrifice), but a story that had most of the same basic features could be constructed about, say, a blacksmith or an engineer living in a culturally stable non-liberal society.  A realist re-telling of Harry Potter would be interesting, and I think the fact that this is conceivable indicates one of the strengths of the series: it is not primarily a fantasy, so much as it is a fantastic framing of a basically human drama.  The fantastic elements add flair and excitement, but, to borrow Dumbledore's words, really it's more about the importance of friendship, loyalty, servants and folktales.

6. In the last three books, one primary moral theme is that Harry's ability to trust people despite their fallibility, and to love, despite repeated experiences of loss and neglect. Rowling seems very keen on this. The 7th Book in particular is a steady patter of death and grieving. Harry never becomes calloused. I don't think the average teenager, reading Dumbledore's discourse on love in Book 6 would be able to grasp the truth of what he's saying (I didn't), but he's right: a child who had experienced so much abuse and loss by such a young age would probably in most cases retreat inward and become extremely reluctant to trust or love anyone.

7. Snape's character is interesting, because he throws a final, huge wrench into a lot of the themes and expectations of the early years. For the first 3-4 books, Harry is a virtual golden boy. His parents were glorious and wonderful people, Dumbledore is the infallible guardian, his friends are nice and delightful with their little quirks and petty squabbles, Snape and the Slytherins are mean and bad, and everything always works out. After Book 4, things gradually fall apart. Sirius is revealed to be a weirdly immature adult; Harry's understanding of human relationships is proven to be naive; James Potter is more reminiscent of Draco Malfoy than of Harry; Lily Potter's best friend is Snape; Lupin is indecisive and fearful; Ron is untalented, self-centered and stupid; and the ultimate shock is Snape's desolate and mournful interior life. No one has everything figured out, no one is entirely what they seem, even Dumbledore no longer seems fully trustworthy. Harry's response to all of these realizations is, I think, best captured in a little exchange in the midst of Book 7, after Ron's return via the deluminator:
Ron’s ears turned bright red and he became engrossed in a tuft of grass at his feet, which he prodded with his toe, “he must’ve known I’d run out on you.” 
“No,” Harry corrected him. “He must’ve known you’d always want to come back.”
At first, Harry's response seems cheap and cheesy.  Maybe it is. But despite that, what it shows us is a Harry who focuses on what is, instead of what is deficient.  Simple, but also important.

8.  What is evil in the series?  The ultimate crime seems to be murder, but then at the same time we're regularly reminded that there are worse things than death.  What characterizes Voldemort is his reduction of everything to power relations and his consequent refusal to trust other people.

29 August 2015

Counting by Factors (A Short Story)

(The following was written over a series of nights this week.  The whole thing has an idea to it, which I would like to pursue with greater seriousness at some later date.  However, for the moment I am satisfied with this expression of it.)

1. Every encounter between people is perfectly defined by the expectations, memories and desires they bring to it. The result is that each encounter is unique, and could be described—if one had the ability to distill out the components—as the product of the features of the people involved, at the precise moment of their meeting.

2. Denis sat alone, counting hairs as he plucked them from his chin. One... two... three... four... The counting was difficult, because he had started pulling at his beard without noticing, and so the sequence had no certain starting point. Was one really one? If not, was ten really ten? On top of this, the further he went, the more hairs came off with each compulsive tug. Was it sixteen that came after fifteen, or was it really twenty?

3. Tricia's cats followed her everywhere. She did not need to instruct them, or worry about them. They did not wander from her. Even when she was alone, she was never alone, because they were always with her.

4. Denis stared down at the pile of hairs fallen on the desk in front of him. He needed groceries. Feeling the baldness of his chin, he asked himself "Can I go out like this?" In the mirror, his image scrutinized his image. He asked it, "How do you compare to the most slovenly person, who could still be called average?" The image didn't answer, being an image, but Denis caught its eye for a moment and guessed what it was thinking. After a few intense moments of mutual scrutiny, they turned together toward the door.

5. Quentin unfolded paper bags. Each paper bag began as a flat, folded rectangle, but it was Quentin's job to make it so that none of the sides touched. After completing this exercise several thousand times, Quentin had concluded that the folded bag would always have some sides touching, unless you destroyed it. And isn't that what folding means?

6. Denis thought little of Tricia's cats. Tricia thought Denis's habit of staring at his own reflection and pulling out his beard was weird. Denis would say, "But Tricia, it cannot be allowed to bring cats everywhere. It cannot be allowed. The cats will hurt someone. The cats will be killed by a car. The cats will upset the merchandise in stores. Look at yourself with these cats!" Tricia would say, "Denis, the cats are a fact of life, a force of nature. They are one of those features of the universe with which we must simply come to grips. If you resist the truth of the cats, your life will end in shipwreck."

7. Septimius laughed. We must admit, he was prone to sudden shifts in thinking. Septimius liked to take things to extremes. He could not discover something new without trying to find out how to break it.

8. Denis knew what he thought about people with cats. In fact, he knew it so simply that he never needed to express it to himself. Instead, he thought about other things. While he and Tricia were discussing the cats, inside he was silent. He looked into her eyes, and he saw her seeing him see her. While the spoken words continued, he thought: "In her eyes I am an image, and in my eyes she is an image. We are hidden from ourselves and from each other."

9. Tricia preferred her cats to most people. They could read her thoughts. Their names were Zweig and Elmo. When she spoke to them in her mind, she would say "When we are united, we are strong." Zweig and Elmo could not read her thoughts, and she knew this. But in her head they were personae, and she knew them this way. Zweig would remind her that "By splitting, one branch becomes two." Elmo only ever spoke to her in silence, counseling peace by his lack of words.

10. Quentin said to Denis, "Did you bring your own?" And Denis said, "I don't need a bag." Quentin touched the soft brown paper, and Denis told him "Thanks, though."

11. Elfrid swept her tongue along her teeth, pressing each gap along the bottom row. She did not know she was doing this. They said that Elfrid was something special, but she didn't think she was. Whenever she was mentioned they said she was important, but she was always being left unmentioned.

12. "Look here," said Tricia, "Would you quit staring at me like that? I know you're not listening when you pluck at your beard." The next moment, Tricia knew that Elmo had spoken peace to Denis in the silence, because he said "Soon I will not have a beard." To himself he thought, "What is a beard, but the wasting away of another life without lasting meaning? The waves of sunlight wash away the ink. Nothing endures."

13. Triscuit was very busy. She could never seem to find time for herself, you know. But though she often and habitually expressed this thought, she did not know what it meant. A reasonable observer would be left with two choices: to conclude that Triscuit was wrong, and spent all of her time on her self; or to conclude that Triscuit must not have a "self", since evidence of a life beyond the things she did each day was nonexistent.

14. Septimius had an excellent plan. Oh yes. The man with the patchy beard did not expect it. Denis stared at his feet as he walked away from the grocery. He stared into them, he saw their rhythmic falling, their pattern of soft contact with the concrete. "Plodding", he said. The man with the shopping cart followed him with his eyes.

15. Quentin spoke to Elmo too, sometimes. Quentin said, "In pop topography, they often speak of sharp folds, or creases." Elmo said nothing. But Zweig picked up the conversation: "Is there 'often' in pop topography?" Tricia held out the cat to him in consolation. Elmo closed his eyes, beholding the All. Quentin handed Tricia her filled bags.

16. "I... I... I.... I...." Denis heard this in his head. He heard his voice playing back the voice of someone else he had heard speaking of himself. "I..." He thought a little bit about the limitations of self-awareness. He contemplated the vastness of the myriad.

17. Ezekiel bent over the front left tire of his father's car. It was sinking into the pavement. He had noticed that when you look closely, tires are always sinking into the pavement a little. Ezekiel was too young to ask about the relation between the arc length of the wheel's contact with the road and the internal pressure of the tire. He hugged the tire, because he fit around it well.

18. It was evening, and Denis had shaved. He was watching the cats with Tricia. Tricia thought about the mechanics of machine looms and how her carpet must have been woven. Elmo was silent. Tricia said, "A cat could never go deep sea fishing. For cats, fishing seems to be something more like a slap on the surface." Denis said "It is because they are so social. A cat can never reach the riches of the deep, because it cannot be alone. And Tricia said, "In solitude one more often sinks into the depths... of one's own navel, and finds nothing more than undigested remnants of yesterday's food."

19. Whenever Nina washed the dishes, she would look at the task as being almost done. She did this with many routine tasks. It was easier to finish up than to start something. And, after all, given the number of dishes she had washed so far in her life, the current load was always only the tiniest fraction of the whole job.

20. Quentin complained that books about knots focused too little on the practicalities of knot tying. He said to Denis, "All the books on knots are pop topography. What if I want to learn about rope handling instead of trefoils?" Denis quoted back at him the line: "I’ve got these words that mean completely different things inside myself, and it’s tearing me apart." To himself, Denis simply repeated over and over again his latest mantra, "Wasabi sunrise. Wasabi sunrise." He wondered a little at Quentin's unusual interests.

21. It was just as he had planned. The cats were jogging calmly in Tricia's wake. She was looking for some carrot juice, with which to make a cocktail. Septimius peered at her from the magazine rack. She saw him. He did not move, but mouthed the words at her, "Cats are inferior animals." She called back: "They know how to avoid catastrophes."

22. Elfrid did not know Denis. Nevertheless, one day when they were sitting next to each other on the train, she took his hand, squeezed it, and told him "It's ok. It's ok." He squeezed her hand back. Without looking over, he told her "I love you. I am very grateful."

23. Ian behaved oddly. He never spoke of textiles. He never thought about the production chain for plastic bottles. His behavior was robotic and regimented, but without any apparent design on his part. Many evenings he sat with empty eyes, gazing at the play of dancing lights on a screen.

24. Tricia set six candles out on the table. She wanted dinner to be perfect. The wall behind her chair was a mirror. She debated: should we face each other, or sit at angles? Denis preferred to sit at angles at meals, because there was space for his gaze to wander without the risk of locking eyes with someone. Elmo perched in her chair, his furry arms resting on the edge of the table. Six candles, eight bits of china, twelve rose petals on each plate. One table, four of them (including the cats). Her and Denis. Perhaps not perfect, but close. Denis had told her, "I will arrive by midnight."

25. Late at night, Quentin thought about warding off vampires. He said, "Crossing your fingers is supposed to ward off evil, like holding out a crucifix." He wanted to practice tying knots in cherry stems with his tongue, but he did not like cherries. It seemed a waste to only use the stem. The quiet of the room at night was brilliant. Still, he shouldn't fall asleep.

26. Triscuit took the letter confirming Denis's resignation. She told him what she thought: "I don't want to have to go through another round of hiring to replace you." Denis said, "I am nothing. I am simply dead tissue in the institutional body, which is now being expelled." Triscuit didn't hear him, because she had no ears. Denis said, "In reality, this body is dead, and I must escape before its lifelessness infects me."

27. Tricia had triple checked everything three times. She sat now, legs folded, on the floor, with Elmo and Zweig facing her. Elmo said nothing. Zweig stared in the mirror.

28. Septimius looked with loathing at Denis. Denis remarked to him "Do you hate me because you are complete? Is it that completion in human life means that death is at hand?" Inwardly, Denis saw immediately that these thoughts made no sense at all. Septimius simply told him: "I must conquer Britain. But if I cannot conquer you, how can I conquer a whole island full of people? Sometimes it is the stability of life that is the greatest impediment to someone's advancement."

29. Twila enjoyed baking eggs. More time consuming, it's true, but she loved the texture and warmth of them.

30. At midnight Quentin wandered down to the apartment below him. He told Tricia, "I would like to join you for dinner". Tricia was surprised but pleased. She said, "You are very welcome." When Denis arrived, he thought for a moment. He told Quentin, "It has been an interesting day."

26 August 2015

Nature Photography, W.C. Williams, and the Emancipation of Memory

(Notes inspired by nature photography and the memory of WCW's fragment "The Descent", which often appears as an individual poem, but also notably in the midst of Book II of his epic Paterson.)

For whatever reason, as life goes on things from our past become encrusted with a patina of bitterness or disdain.  As a child, one likes a particular story.  When one reaches adolescence, one says to oneself "I am tired of this story! It is time for me to move on."  The adolescent then moves on, but this moving on is not so much an act of progress as one of alienation from things that were once familiar.

What I am describing is different from the simple act of forgetting—once I found flashlights delightful and collected them, but at some point without any particular act of will I forgot this love and it faded away through lack of attention.  When one forgets, one can always remember, and renew the gestures of love and engagement which made an object or interest or place significant.  When one intentionally moves on, the thing is no longer available, and one returns to consider the acts of love or engagement only through the distance provided by one's notion of self-progress.  The person who loved that story is an object of interest or study, and not the persistent "I" who can, with a few moments of imagination and renewal, love the story again.

Sometimes we encounter this phenomenon in precocious children who wish to demonstrate their adulthood by distancing themselves from things they perceive to be associated with childhood.  If the habit of moving on gets out of hand, it develops into a generally cynical outlook on life.  The person no longer allows himself to love or be engaged by anything, out of the conviction (or fear?) that anything or everything can eventually prove to be contemptible and unworthy.

But moving on is only one cause of the tarnishing of memories and past objects of interest.  There are others.  Sometimes we cease to love something because it is associated with the memory of pain, or with an enemy, or because it invites us to despair.  The most memorable paragraph in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (Part VI) describes this phenomenon:
"He could not stand it. He despised his brother so much that he would not allow him to love the things he loved. He would have much preferred to hear Christian speak of them in his Marcellus Stengel voice. Thomas had read a book, some historical work, that had made a strong impression on him, and he praised it in stirring words. Christian was impressionable and easily influenced, always depending on others for his views; he would never have found such a book on his own. But he read it now, and, having been primed and made receptive by Tom's praise of it, he found it quite splendid himself, describing his reactions as precisely as possible. And from that moment the book was spoiled for Tom. He spoke of it with cold disregard. He pretended that he had barely looked at it. He left it to his brother to admire it all by himself."
Here Thomas loves some book, but the pain of his resentment for his brother is such a powerful psychic force that his brother's appreciation for the book is enough to make the book hateful to him—he cannot abide anything tainted by his brother.

Imagine a different scenario, less extreme: you are in a relationship, with a person who loves a particular bit of music.  Under their influence, you too begin to love the music, and not merely out of a desire for harmony, but for the music's own revealed excellences.  Then the relationship ends.  Perhaps it ends poorly.  Perhaps there is a lingering wound left by the separation.  Now you return to that music.  Can you still love it?  It is difficult, because the act of loving the music is now associated too much with the closeness of the other person, and so that habitual proximity involves the music in the pain of the separation.

As time goes on, the clutter of these unlovable objects lingering about in one's life becomes a hindrance.  One goes about avoiding things, or reliving painful memories.  You cannot love this bit of music, because it brings you close to that person.  You cannot delight in this story because you have chosen to progress "past" it.

But if one can suspend these associations, it becomes possible to delight in things again.  This one, which called up memories of pain, does not belong to the source of the pain.  It is its own thing.  We would tell Thomas, if we could, that Christian's love does not subsume the book under his own nature. And as for moving on, at some point one has to progress to the point at which the idea of moving on is itself jettisoned, and one allows oneself to abide and behold things as they are.

25 August 2015

Random Thought

Reading through an introductory textbook on Cryptography tonight (this one, which is well-written at least as far as the first few chapters).  Reached the section on AES.  Before explaining how AES works, the authors run through the basics of Groups and Galois fields.  They run through the properties of Groups (closure under whatever function, associativity, having an identity element, invertibility).  I've thought a little in the past about closure, which is a very cool property.  But I hadn't thought much about associativity before.  It's funny, because they teach you associativity in your first algebra class.  It's a very basic thing.  But there it's grouped with all the other basic algebraic properties which are taught functionally as instruments for understanding the relations between terms and the order of operations implied by a given expression.  I was never taught to consider what it would mean for an algebraic system to be non-associative.  Obviously we encounter functions that are non-associative all the time (exponentiation, the cross product, etc.)...  Still, it's interesting.

21 August 2015

λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον

ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐ μὴ ἀφεθῇ ὧδε
λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον ὃς οὐ καταλυθήσεται.
Amen I say to you, there will not remain here
one stone upon a stone which will not be thrown down.
(Matthew 24:2)

"I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone"
(Robert Frost, "Mending Wall")

Such an incredible phrase.  I wonder what other occurrences there are of it.

18 August 2015

Notes on Matthew 16:13-14

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Is the confusion of the present age greater or lesser than the confusion in ages past?

We live in a time of great unity. There are common languages, there are easy channels of mass communication. We also live in a time of great confusion. I do not know whether the confusion present now is greater or lesser than what was experienced in the past.

What authority did the people look to in the days of the Judges? It doesn’t seem that they had any clear authority to look to. “In those days no king ruled in Israel.” The author of the book of Judges seems to speak of this “no king”, looking forward to the coming of David. But there is no king in terms of adherence to the law of God, either. Even in their half-hearted dealings with the sacred, the Israelites in the book of Judges are sacrilegious… When there were kings, who did the people have to look to? Sometimes a good king, but more often than not a wicked king. Then what did they do? They remembered the way things were in the days of a good king, or they sought out the law, or they listened to a prophet… If not, they were corrupted like their wicked leaders.

When did adherence to the law become something of enduring and national importance in Israel? After the Babylonian exile? Could this have been one of the fruits of the exile?

11 August 2015

A Conversation about J. Alfred Prufrock

Fred and Walter are unacquainted.  Walter has sat down on a public bench in the evening, near a fountain in the local square.  He is writing in a notebook, and occasionally stops to flip through a magazine.  Fred sits down at the other end of the bench and lights a cigarette.  It is around 8pm.  After some time, they speak.


What do you make of the people who gather here tonight?  There are a decent number.

Yes.  I think it is one of the last evenings like this of the summer.  Lots of children.

Do you wonder how people survive?

Yes, I wonder.  Who are you?


Your shirt, it has a pattern on it.  I would ask about it, but I don't care enough to ask.

I love the smell of tobacco smoke.  When you sat down, I hoped the wind would waft it toward me.

Second hand smoke is the best, no?




I noticed you are copying out Prufrock.

Yes it came back to me earlier.  It was very dear to me some years ago.

And then?

And then I assumed I had grown out of it, the way one grows out of children's novels and such.

But you don't believe in these things, do you? "Growing out of"

No, you're right.  I don't believe that there should be distinct culture for children and young people.  So why should I insist on abandoning literary objects associated with youth?

You abandoned Prufrock because Prufrock is an expression of indirection and anxiety, and you thought you had found hope and certainty.  Is that so?


And you did not find hope and certainty?


There are many things of childhood which are not washed away by later experiences and discoveries.

I am very tired.

I do not believe that you are tired.

I am unhappy.

Everyone is unhappy.

That is little consolation.


Did you judge me for copying out Prufrock?

I thought of you the way I think of the men with mental problems who sit in libraries or on trains, furiously filling up spiral notebooks.  Why copy out a memorized poem into a notebook?

Because I wanted to read it, or savor it.

To savor.  Do you think the poem is wise?

No, but ... at particular times, particular objects have greater resonance with a person.  It's perhaps like fitting flavors into a meal.  The chocolate goes well after this, but poorly after that.  And right now the flavor or tune of this poem fits my state of mind.  So I savor it.


"I do not think that they will sing to me."

Who is this "they"? The mermaids? And who are these mermaids?

For Prufrock, I think they are his socialite women talking of Michelangelo.  For myself I think they are the fates, or the muses, or something.

The fates?  What would it be for the fates to sing to you?

The fates tell one ones destiny, or so I imagine it.

And if they sang, it would be a known destiny, and a beautiful one?



I did not judge you.

What does it mean to judge?

Perhaps it means to think ill of someone, or to think of them in a way that they would not want to be thought of.

No, merely to condemn them for their moral imperfection or determine that they suffer from some defect of character.

I thought "this person may well be insane, or perhaps is in the younger stages of that same insanity."

I thought the same thing of myself when you approached.  But really I am just sad and trying to find something to draw me on.

One can be both sad and insane, no?


And who are you?

I am Mystery.

Ha! You don't get to be mystery.

Ego vox clamantis...

I don't think you get to be John the Baptist either.


You must have smoked three cigarettes before speaking.

One should always think before speaking.

Yes.  I think so as well.  I often have.