24 August 2012

Some thoughts on vice and governing logic

Problems:  What is the moral significance of a resolution to "amend one's life"?  Disordered affections cannot easily be reformed, and not ordinarily reformed in one act.  Why?  On one hand we resort to thinking of vice as any habit: it is difficult to change because it is a settled disposition and has become inscribed (in some sense) on the person possessing it.  But in the case of vice, the matter is more complex.  The governing "logic" of a human being is multifarious, having many disjointed parts -- parts which are relatively independent, without direct reference to each other, and which function in some cases almost automatically.  The unity of the person is not grounded in a unity of will, because the will, as a secondary intellectual power, is informed by intellectual habits.  It is true that the will is the governing power of the rational soul, but also true that, just as our intellectual habits are not (except in unusual cases) monolithic or perfectly systematic, the moral habits of a person are not organized according to a perfect unity.  For a person resolving to reorder his affections to be effective in this resolution, that person already needs to have governance over those affections.  But this is often not the case, notably (in the case of vice) when the logic motivating the undesireable behavior is at odds with the logic motivating the resolution to change.  The problem is exacerbated when the former is unrecognized by the latter, giving us "compulsive" behavior.  The "hidden" (often because it is too obvious to be noticed) logic governs some set of behaviors or coping mechanisms which tend, in accord with particular judgments and circumstances, to kick in, contrary to broader principles of action.

It might be tempting, then, to assume that a "healthy" individual has an "integrated consciousness" or something like that.  But this seems to be unrealistic.  The field of interests and occasions encountered by the average person even in a single day is too diverse to be governed by one, monolithic logic of action.  Instead, what we have are diverse principles of order which come into play or fall out of use depending on the circumstances and prejudices at work in a given moment.  Virtue ethics, especially in Aquinas, respects this perfectly.  Notice how little time Aquinas spends on the questions of the universal goodness or evil of individual acts (4 questions), in comparison to the vast set of treatises devoted to the particular principles governing action: the Passions, Habits, Law, Grace, Gifts, Theological and Moral Virtues. 

15 August 2012

I want to understand

I want to change systems: no longer to unmask, no longer to interpret, but to make consciousness itself a drug, and thereby to accede to the perfect vision of reality, to the great bright dream, to prophetic love.

(And if consciousness—such consciousness—were our human future? If, by an additional turn of the spiral, some day, most dazzling of all, once every reactive ideology had disappeared, consciousness were finally to become this: the abolition of the manifest and the latent, of the appearance and the hidden? If it were asked of analysis not to destroy power (not even to correct or to direct it), but only to decorate it, as an artist? Let us imagine that the science of our lapsi were to discover, one day, its own lapsus, and that this lapsus should turn out to be: a new, unheard-of form of consciousness?)

— Barthes, Fragments of a Lover's Discourse

14 August 2012

Confucian extracts

The Master said, "He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it."

The Master said, "When we see men of worth, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves."

The Master said, "Shen, my doctrine is that of an all-pervading unity." The disciple Zeng replied, "Yes." The Master went out, and the other disciples asked, saying, "What do his words mean?" Zeng said, "The doctrine of our master is to be true to the principles of our nature and the benevolent exercise of them to others, this and nothing more."

The Master said to Zi Gong, "Which do you consider superior, yourself or Hui?" Zi Gong replied, "How dare I compare myself with Hui? Hui hears one point and knows all about a subject; I hear one point, and know a second." The Master said, "You are not equal to him. I grant you, you are not equal to him."

When Zi Lu heard anything, if he had not yet succeeded in carrying it into practice, he was only afraid lest he should hear something else.

The Master said, "Fine words, an insinuating appearance, and excessive respect - Zuo Qiu Ming was ashamed of them. I also am ashamed of them. To conceal resentment against a person, and appear friendly with him - Zuo Qiu Ming was ashamed of such conduct. I also am ashamed of it."

The Master said, "It is all over. I have not yet seen one who could perceive his faults, and inwardly accuse himself."

The Master said, "The wise find pleasure in water; the virtuous find pleasure in hills. The wise are active; the virtuous are tranquil. The wise are joyful; the virtuous are long-lived."

11 August 2012

toward thomistic perspective on intellectual property

Resolved: St. Thomas would not condemn internet piracy.

Exhibit A: SCOTUS itself, in accord with the tradition of US copyright law, distinguishes between copyright infringement and theft (cf. Dowling v. United States). Copyright infringement is thus an offense against positive law and not against the natural rights of the copyright holders.

Exhibit B: We turn then to St. Thomas on positive law.  "Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good--and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver--and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good." (ST IaIIae q.96 a.4)

10 August 2012

Five more reviews

18.  Superman:  It says a lot that the film opens with shots of a comic book narrated by a little boy.  The whole story feels like something thought up by a small child.  The characters are all caricatures of real people, and the thing seems almost like slapstick at times.  Superman is already kind of a lame character, but here he has no personality at all, except some nonsense about not telling lies.  In brief, no development, no plot, just a bunch of short happenings in temporal succession.  And since when does spinning the earth backwards roll back time? (2)

19.  The Prestige:  Two apprentice magicians become enemies after one accidentally drowns the other's wife.  Their feud continues for years and ends up focusing on who can better perform a teleporting stunt.  Christopher Nolan directs.  You see a few of his characteristic shots here (the slow overhead zoom/approach shot, for instance), but it's not as coherent as Inception or the Batman trilogy.  The story is told in three layers simultaneously: one man reads the other's diary in prison, a diary which recounts the process of translating the other's diary.  It's a neat narrative device, but isn't used to great effect except as an excuse for flashback drama.  Anyway, despite some faults, including a weird use of Nikola Tesla, it's enjoyable. (3)

20.  Easy Rider: Woah.  A hippie bike trip from 1969.  Two friends who have successfully carried out some sort of drug sale near the Mexican border drive across the southwest so they can make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  It's unexpected and quite good.  The acid trip at the end is pretty interesting. (4)

21.  Saving Private Ryan:  Spielberg's D-Day movie starts at Omaha beach and depicts a quest to find and recover the last remaining of four sons and send him home.  Gritty, but not in a Platoon (2) sort of way, or an All Quiet on the Western Front (3) way.  It has the fraternal, humane air of Band of Brothers (4), which Spielberg later produced for HBO.  Evidently Spielberg still thinks there are stories worth telling out of civic piety, for the edification and education of the citizenry.  It's a little sentimental at times, but I don't mind.  (4)

22.  Breaking Away:  Very seldom will you see a movie in which a 19-year-old American kid sings Verdi while riding down the street on his bike.  Set in Bloomington, IN, Breaking Away is a mix of I Vitelloni (the protagonist's cat is named Fellini), a town-gown relations study, and a sports movie.  I loved it.  (4)

08 August 2012

A few more recently viewed movies

9.   Fandango: A bunch of frat boys flee adulthood (marriage, the draft) after graduation for a last roadtrip through the desert.  One of them spends the whole time in the back seat reading philosophy.  Tarrantino apparently saw this five times in a week when it came out.  It's fun to watch and reasonably okay. (3)

10.  Grand Hotel: Two Barrymores, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo costar in this ensemble piece that snapshots the ups and downs of a few guests at a high class Berlin hotel.  The bits with Garbo are almost painfully saccharine, but it might be worth watching for Lionel Barrymore's character, a terminally ill accountant who decides to have a good time before he goes (cf. Ikiru [5]).  (3)

11.  The French Connection: Drug bust caper.  The plot is linear and unsurprising.  I'm not sure why it won Best Picture or why Gene Hackman (whom I like a lot) particularly deserved Best Actor.  It has that cold, 70s photography that I associate with The Exorcist (same director and cinematographer).  It's a decent film, but the characters have little depth.  One nice thing is the lack of explanatory dialogue: no voiceovers to explain the net or the heist.  We just watch what happens.  (3)

12.  Modern Times: Charlie Chaplin navigates the difficulties of life in the 1930s.  Work on an assembly line.  Communist rallies.  Prison, poverty, anxiety,  etc.  It's a sharp (kind of bleak) portrait of the period that still manages to make you smile all the way through.  (4)

13.  Tootsie: Surprisingly good drag comedy.  Dustin Hoffman is a washed up actor with a bad reputation who jumpstarts his career by taking a female role on a soap opera.  Well executed. (3)

14.  From Here to Eternity: Private Prewett refuses to box after he's involved in an accident, and his captain puts him through hell for it.  Remember Pearl Harbor, that endless ooze of sap starring Ben Afleck and Josh Hartnett?  Well, this is like that, except that it doesn't have a second movie tacked on after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the plot/characters are less stupid. (3)

15.  The Dark Knight: After three viewings, I think it's well-done.  I think the Joker's lines are brilliantly written, and this makes up for weaknesses in Christian Bale's performance.  The plot is beautifully constructed. (4)

16.  Marty: A 34-year-old bachelor decides whether he wants to be alone for the rest of his life.  It's amazing, and hits a lot of the mundane realities of life in a way that's neither overly grim nor melodramatic.  Worth owning. (5)

17.  His Girl Friday: Newspaper editor's ex-wife comes to announce her imminent remarriage to an insurance salesman.  He does his best to pull her back into the newspaper business.  Extremely fast-paced slapstick.  It's like Twister, without the tornadoes and with more humor.  (3)

Dragons, Aliens, and Con Men

1.  Aliens: Sci-fi action sequel.  Pretty predictable, but not tedious.  Commandos accompany Ripley and a stock capitalist to check out a colony on the moon where the original Alien began, and things get messy. (3)

2.  The Artist: Overrated.  Compared to the silent greats this is kind of poorly done.  And the self-consciously silent business is past its day.  If a film with this concept had been made in the 30s/40s it would have been classic.  Now it's just an anachronism. (3)

3.  Stalker:  Brilliant tour through a UFO quarantine zone / industrial wasteland with a guide, a writer, and a physicist.  Questions about the purpose of life, fundamental desires, and faith.  Another profound film by Andrei Tarkovsky. (4)

4.  How to Train Your Dragon:  Enjoyable.  Protagonist's voice is whiny and irritating.  Animation at times weak.  With a little more depth it could have been a very good story, but it does what it does well enough to be worth the time.  Themes: inter-generational conflict, identity development, alienation, reversal of cultural norms.  (3)

5.  Alien: Very well-executed low-key horror flick.  The photography is very well-done and the pacing is good.  It has the tasteful, realistic feel of 2001, but with more of a plot.  And the cast (Ian Holm, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt) is amazing.  Lots of weird Freudian stuff if you go looking for it, but it doesn't get in the way, really. (4)

6.  Catch me if you can: A real delight.  High school student goes on a cheque-forging rampage living as a doctor, lawyer, and airline pilot.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, with Spielberg's usual catchy storytelling and a good soundtrack too.  (4)

7.  Winter Light:  Original title: "The Communicants".  One Sunday afternoon spent with a widowed Lutheran pastor and his half-dozen congregants.  Captures perfectly that moment when you're called on to profess what you believe and find yourself incapable because you no longer really believe it.  Gives a compelling presentation of an atheist world-view. (5)

8.  The Apartment: Young insurance man tries to work his way up the ladder by lending out his apartment to his superiors on weeknights.  Complications ensue.  Really nice movie.  It could almost be an episode of Mad Men, except that it's marginally more humane. (3)

02 August 2012

I sleep a lot

I sleep a lot and read St. Thomas Aquinas
Or The Death of God (that's a Protestant book).
To the right the bay as if molten tin,
Beyond the bay, city, beyond the city, ocean,
Beyond the ocean, ocean, till Japan.
To the left dry hills with white grass,
Beyond the hills an irrigated valley where rice is grown,
Beyond the valley, mountains and Ponderosa pines,
Beyond the mountains, desert and sheep.

When I couldn't do without alcohol, I drove myself on alcohol,
When I couldn't do without cigarettes and coffee, I drove myself
On cigarettes and coffee.
I was courageous. Industrious. Nearly a model of virtue.
But that is good for nothing.

I feel a pain.
not here. Even I don't know.
many islands and continents,
words, bazaars, wooden flutes,
Or too much drinking to the mirror, without beauty,
Though one was to be a kind of archangel
Or a Saint George, over there, on St. George Street.
Please, Doctor,
Not here. No,
Maybe it's too

Please, Medicine Man, I feel a pain.
I always believed in spells and incantations.
Sure, women have only one, Catholic, soul,
But we have two. When you start to dance
You visit remote pueblos in your sleep
And even lands you have never seen.
Put on, I beg you, charms made of feathers,
Now it's time to help one of your own.
I have read many books but I don't believe them.
When it hurts we return to the banks of certain rivers.

I remember those crosses with chiseled suns and moons
And wizards, how they worked during an outbreak of typhus.
Send your second soul beyond the mountains, beyond time.
Tell me what you saw, I will wait.

— Czeslaw Milosz

01 August 2012

Notes on the Sound of Cries and Whispers

I have been using an old DVD player for listening to CDs in my room.  Last night on a whim I put in Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers and decided to listen to the film.  The experience was all the more interesting because, lacking a screen (and therefore subtitles), I had only my memory of the film's plot to inform me of what was going on.  I made some notes.

Bergman begins with simple gestures: a series of chiming clocks.  It is 4.
The clocks indicate a large home: they signify by their ringing the fullness of time.
Breathing: Agnes is in pain.
The absence of music is refreshing.  It allows us to actually experience the event.  No tone is set.
I recall Agnes taking up her journal:  [Date] I am in PAIN.
Ticking clocks.
8 minutes in and not a word spoken.  Barely a sound except ticking clocks.
"Good morning."
A music box plays.
How has Agnes, the least loved daughter, come to own the old house?
Clock strikes 8.
Agnes remnisces: music plays as we look into the past.
What does this say about Bergman's view of music?  Music as reminiscent.
Agnes remembers a scene outdoors.  Idyllic, but laden with the pain of the unloved.  We remember Wild Strawberries for some reason.
The old aunt is telling a story with the magic lantern.  Agnes narrates.
What an amazing actress she is.
More piano music.
Agnes hated by the mother (because they are the same?)
The present again.  Enter Anna.  The doctor is here for an exam.

Why does Bergman care so much about humanity to write these scripts?  There is love behind every great art, and a greater love behind great film and literature.
The doctor and Liv Ulmann connect . . . a sign of yet untold past events.
No, he says, and walks out.
Ullmann's character is evil.
Here is her section: her daughter is sick and the doctor stays the night.
She has a disgusting coquettishnes.  She comes to his room.
She is Maria.

Her husband has stabbed himself in the chest.  "Help me!" he says.  She shakes her head and walks away.