30 September 2015

A Critique of Contemporary Ultramontanism (3) – Papal Providence

(This post continue's yesterday's discussion of forms of ultramontanism which place the Pope above the laws of reason.)

B. Practical Mottramism, or the Inscrutability of Papal Providence
Whenever a person chooses to do something, he acts in a definite context, and with some goal in mind, however vague. In order to achieve his goals, a reasonable person will use the information available to him to shape his acts to fit present circumstances. The habit of rationally conditioning one's actions to fit the needs of the present is called prudence.

Prudence is a virtue because it tends to make our actions more effective in achieving whatever we are trying to achieve. Prudence directs us to carry an umbrella when it looks like rain, or to choose the right words with which to respond to a critic, or to measure correctly the length of time needed for a task. Without prudence, our actions tend to be very hit or miss—sometimes they will be effective, often they will achieve nothing, sometimes they will be positively harmful.

No merely human prudence can be absolutely perfect, because it is impossible to know and prepare for all the contingencies of life. Nevertheless, it is possible for individuals to decisively lack prudence, either by failing to take sufficient account of the context of their actions, or by having an incorrect understanding of the situation, which leads them to do things that are objectively counterproductive or harmful.

Yesterday we discussed the ultramontane error called "Mottramism".  Mottramism is the relegation of papal utterances to a special, spiritual realm in which they cannot be wrong.  No matter how factually incorrect the Pope's words might be according to their plain meaning, the Mottramist will always find a way to spin them or re-interpret them to make them spiritually correct.

Mottramism is an error of logic—it strips away the Pope's ability to actually mean what he says, because the Mottramist is so worried about not letting the Pope make any mistakes, that he can't afford to let the Pope mean what he says.  An analogous error exists in the domain of prudence, which we will call "Practical Mottramism."

Practical Mottramists relegate all of the Pope's actions to a special domain, which is independent of ordinary prudence or practical reason.  No matter how objectively unfitting or counterproductive a Pope's actions or words might be in a given situation, the Practical Mottramist will always insist that the Pope's actions were prudent and well-considered.  They do this by dreaming up a plan the Pope is supposedly following.  In long-term strategic action, it is sometimes necessary to do things which seem imprudent close up, but prove to be fitting in the long run.  As a result, these people simply assign any imprudent papal acts to an especially subtle or long-term goal.

In discussing the Pope's actions, Practical Mottramists make assessments on a sliding scale: the more obviously prudent an act is, the more they assess it by ordinary standards.  But as the Pope's actions become less clearly thought out, or less effective, or more outwardly harmful or scandalous, the Practical Mottramist leaps into action to assign a special providence to the Pope's actions.  "Of course the Pope is doing the right thing at the right time! This [apparently imprudent] action makes perfect sense when you understand the Pope's real intention."  Usually this sort of person will have a speculative interpretation of the Pope's plan to offer, which has been worked out specifically to make sense of the present absurdity.  And if anyone insists that the Pope's actions are imprudent, the Mottramist will accuse them of misunderstanding what the Pope is really trying to do.

The ultimate effect of Practical Mottramism is that it ascribes to the Pope an inscrutable providential grasp of any given situation.  Again, the Pope cannot err in matters of prudence, because the Mottramist will not allow him to err.  This means that, whenever people are scandalized, confused, or harmed by a misdirected papal action, the Practical Mottramist will fault them for being scandalized, confused, or harmed, because obviously the Pope is right.  And people should just know that the Pope is doing the right thing.  Furthermore, the Mottramist line goes, to suggest that the Pope is not always prudent, and does not always act with due caution or understanding, is impious and uncharitable, and therefore a sin, akin to the sin of schism.

The problems with Practical Mottramism are analogous to those discussed yesterday:
  1. According to Pastor Aeternus, the Vatican I dogmatic constitution on the role of the Pope, the Pope is granted a special munus of infallibility, when he teaches authoritatively on matters of faith and morals.  No guarantee is made there, or anywhere else in the tradition, that the occupant of the See of Peter will exercise infallible prudence in his own personal or official acts.  The very notion is absurd, first because it would so profoundly over-ride the natural human fallibility of the Pope as to make him a visible saint immediately upon election; secondly, because many Popes have obviously done many imprudent things, throughout the history of the Church, both in their official acts and in their personal affairs.
  2. Proponents of Practical Mottramism blind themselves to the actual character and implications of papal acts, thereby effacing their own personal prudence and making themselves less effective servants of the Gospel in their own proper spheres.  If one is committed to saying that the Pope's actions are always prudent, then one will develop a habit (especially if the Pope seems to lack prudence) of developing justifications for objectively imprudent acts.  As above, so below—what these people justify by tendentious reasoning on behalf of the Pope, they will begin to believe is good behavior in their own lives, so that any potential scandal on account of papal imprudence is magnified by becoming a source of imprudence on the part of the Mottramist faithful, as they imitate the Pope.
  3. As mentioned previously, proponents of Practical Mottramism tend to judge the world for not being in harmony with the actions and supposed intentions of the Pope, rather than accepting the possibility that the Pope makes errors of practical judgment.  This leads to bizarre judgmentalism on the part of Mottramists toward anyone who is dismayed or confused by papal actions.  The defensiveness with which these people attack anyone who suggests that the Pope acts imprudently itself tends to be uncharitable, and even worse are suggestions that calling a Papal act wrongheaded or imprudent somehow places one in schism or makes one a sedevacantist. Which is the more extreme position: to profess, as the Church teaches, that the Pope is an ordinary, fallen man capable of error, or to trump up the doctrine of infallibility to mean that the Pope can do no wrong?  But Mottramists cannot abide the discomfort caused by the idea of Papal error.  And thus they are on a constant crusade, explaining and defending every word and deed, decrying any criticism, circling the wagons against the possibility that not everything is always right in the Church.
(To be continued... a complete index of this series can be found here.)

I wanted to write a novel...

I wanted to write a novel, but I thought: if you are going to write a novel, you have to write a novel about characters, and characters need desires, to motivate them.  Characters can't just do whatever you want because you say they're going to do it.  A good novel has a plot.

Ok, a plot.  So, we need characters with desires and a plot, but what's the point of this plot?  The plot is the long-term result of the interactions between the characters' desires and the actual conditions of their lives, compounded over and over and over.  The timing, the spacing, the rhythm of desire action motivation interaction speech silence sleep etc.  All of this constitutes a plot.  And what is a plot for, why tell a story in the first place?

I guess you tell a story because you want to watch people doing something.  What do you want to see?  Maybe you want to see the struggles of a starving young writer who is convinced of his own greatness and has no source of income, and maybe you want to watch this fellow recriminate and curse himself for his stupidity and weakness and lack of success.  Maybe you want to trace the progress of a little Scandinavian orphan girl as she wanders south into central Europe and attempts to make a living in 16th century Germany amidst the chaos and hostility of the times.  Who knows what you want.  But you want to see something, and that's what you've got to show.

Ok.  So let's figure this out.  I'm going to show something in this novel, and from the standpoint of the novel's construction, the thing that I want to show comes somehow first.  Otherwise each decision will be almost unbearably difficult.  How are you supposed to make decisions for a couple dozen characters, when you don't even know how to make decisions for yourself?   I guess the answer is that you don't make decisions for them, you place them in a story which dictates the sorts of things that your characters will do, and then that dictates the characters and retroactively creates the personalities.

Remember that in a novel all you get is the barest sheen of description.  The mind of the reader fleshes it out and makes it real.  You are merely a guide for the reader's imagination.  You do not need to create the world of the novel.  If your novel is ever to go anywhere or do anything, you cannot effectively create the world in which it takes place, because the abundance of description necessary to pull off such a task would prevent you from ever getting around to saying what happened.

So what do you do? You sketch out a kind of story with kinds of characters.  You give clues to the oddities and personalities and the character of the places and events, and these clues act as cues from which the rest of it is constructed.

Simulated Thoughts about Fictions and Living

I had the idea first to write a phenomenology of sidewalks and domestic architecture.  I wanted to walk around staring at my feet and chronicle the precise succession of impressions that occurred to me, the textures, the cracks, the jutting edges.  I would follow the sidewalk to is end, and then walk on the grass by the roadside, looking for patterns of wear and  natural paths.

Next I thought, I will tell the story of bricks.  Bricks are fascinating things.  They have these incredible faces, with their subtle variations in color, their perfection and durability through time, the way an old brick looks just as solid and dignified as a new one.

In my mind, I imagined walking the gangway between two close buildings, and being immersed in the narrow chasm of brick walls, each rising up seventy or eighty bricks high, and then walking through to an enclosed clearing, where there were people waiting.

Then I wanted to tell the story of a political reaction, and the planning that went into the formation of such a group.  I would have picked out my characters, ten or twenty of them, pre-written their backstories, planned their relationships, and gotten to know them—their impulses, their fears, their ignorance.  Once I had done all that, I would have watched them discuss with each other, and live, and try to push forward a vague plan, which progressively became less vague, which eventually began to produce action, and results, and which startled and attracted the community.  And as the action built, around the group there would be tensions, but the tensions would be surmounted because I was more interested in witnessing a success than a failure, and in the end they would accomplish something.  How much, though, would they accomplish?  I'm not sure.


Oh what's the use.  I walked through the doors and announced myself.  I am Franz Kafka.  I have an interview at 2:30 with Amelia.


In fiction you can  tell lies, because no one knows any better than you do.


Ideological work is no good.  No good.


One has all these fears and anxieties.  No one wants to fall into clichés, no one wants to make a common error, or an uncommonly foolish one.  No one wants to try something and have it end in disaster, or protracted misery, or irreversible entrapment.


The possibilities of life are falling all around me, falling and smashing into bits, and I must grab hold of something soon.

29 September 2015

A Critique of Contemporary Ultramontanism (2) – Mottramism

We can distinguish three bodies of law to which the Pope is subject: (I) Reason, (II) Justice and Natural Order, (III) Revelation.  Corresponding to each of these bodies of law there are several distinct kinds of ultramontanism, based on the inversion of the relationship between the Pope and the law to which he is subject.  Over the next few posts, we will examine a variety of errors that fall under each of these headings.

I. Laws of Reason
The Pope, like everyone, is subject to the ordinary laws of reason.  In other words, whatever the Pope says or does ought to be compatible with the principles of logic and prudence.  He cannot render two contradictory statements compatible.  He cannot make what is absurd reasonable, or what is imprudent prudent, or what is false true.  There are three ways of rejecting this fact, and three kinds of ultramontanism corresponding to it.  Today we will look at the first, and tomorrow we will present two more.

A. Mottramism
The first ultramontanism consigns papal utterances to a special, "spiritual" domain, so that they can all be held true, regardless of existing facts. In his classic novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh parodies this error in the person of Rex Mottram.  Rex is in the midst of private catechesis, preparing to enter the Church before his wedding, when the poor priest charged with the task reports back to Lady Marchmain, his future mother-in-law:
After the third interview he came to tea with Lady Marchmain. 
“Well, how do you find my future son-in-law?”
“He’s the most difficult convert I have ever met.” 
“Oh dear, I thought he was going to make it so easy.” 
“That’s exactly it. I can’t get anywhere near him. He doesn’t seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety.
The first day I wanted to find out what sort of religious life he had till now, so I asked him what he meant by prayer. He said: ‘I don’t mean anything. You tell me.’ I tried to, in a few words, and he said: ‘Right. So much for prayer. What’s the next thing?’ I gave him the catechism to take away. Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ “Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said “It’s going to rain,” would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’
“Lady Marchmain, he doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.”
The logic underlying Mottram's view seems to be that there is no objective fact about how many natures Christ has, or whether it is raining, or anything pertaining to religion.  Instead, all matters of faith occupy a special, spiritual domain which is totally dependent on the authorities proper to it, of which the Pope is primary.  Of course whatever the Pope says is true, one just has to relativize his meaning to the proper sphere.  If the Pope says it will rain, then it must rain.  Even if it isn't raining, if the Pope says so, it must be raining, because the Pope's word is always right, according to its spiritual meaning, whatever that might be.  And, of course, it's up to the Pope to determine what the spiritual meaning of whatever he says should be.

This kind of ultramontanism is extremely common today.  The Pope utters an absurdity or a heresy, and then a flurry of analysis follows.  And in the midst of the fray, the dominant attitude tends to be "Of course the Pope is right! One just has to understand him the right way!"  The Mottramists regard the plain content of the Pope's utterances only selectively.  The interpretation of Papal Truth works on a sliding scale.  The more factually or theologically correct the Pope's words are, the more literally they are read.  But as the Pope's words become vaguer, more suggestive of error, or plainly wrong, the Mottramists dig in further and further and insist that anyone who does not adequately spiritualize or sufficiently qualify the Pope's words until they come out being correct, is simply mis-reading the Pope.

There are several problems with this "Mottramism".
  1. Nothing in the tradition says that Popes are incapable of all error, and only a small minority have held that a Pope cannot believe and informally teach heresy while holding the Petrine Office.  In fact, the case of Pope John XXII demonstrates a Pope can indeed believe and informally teach heresy while he is Pope,* not to mention errors of a natural, factual variety, with respect to which which Popes have no special munus or charism.
  2. Mottramists deafen themselves to what the Pope is actually saying.  They are so busy making sure that he is right, that the plausibility of their hermeneutical contortionism is never examined.  Suppose the Pope is actually making a mistake?  Is it charitable to allow someone to persist in manifest and public error by pretending that they do not mean what they are clearly saying?  No, the work of charity is to instruct the ignorant.  In order to instruct, one must admit that there is ignorance or error.  It is uncharitable to the Pope to pretend that he is not wrong when he manifestly errs, and uncharitable to those who are potentially mislead by his error simply to ignore it.
  3. Mottramism is a scandal to non-believers.  One of the main claims of modern secularists is that religious people cannot abide any evidence which contradicts their existing beliefs.  The Catholic Church claims to believe the truth, to love the truth, and to follow the truth at all costs.  The Church is built on the blood of the martyrs, which was spilled in testimony to the truth.  But when Catholics cannot abide the discomfort caused by the Pope's public errors, and have to blind themselves to the plain meaning of what he says, because "somehow he must be right", they are falling into the pattern described by the secularists: they qualify and equivocate and bury their heads in the sand, as long as it preserves them from having to admit the existence of an uncomfortable error.  People see this behavior, see the manifest blindness of Catholic Mottramists incapable of facing facts, and it merely confirms to them that Catholicism is a massive self-delusion.
(To be continued... a complete index of this series can be found here.)

 * Some readers may protest "But the issue in the case of John XXII had not yet been defined, so he wasn't guilty of heresy!" This objection fails to distinguish: John XXII did indeed believe and teach something contrary to the Catholic Faith, which is heresy.  It is possible that he was not formally culpable for his error, but it was still an error.  And if the error was capable of being formally defined under Benedict XII, then it was capable of being known as an error by John XXII.  To deny this is to claim that Popes are capable of adding to the deposit of faith—another errant form of ultramontanism, which will be discussed in a later post.

28 September 2015

A Critique of Contemporary Ultramontanism (1)

1.  Let's start at the beginning.  What is ultramontanism?  The basic idea of the word, which literally means "beyond the mountains", is that the authority of the Roman Pontiffs extends beyond the Papal States and the suburbicarian dioceses of Rome, into Northern Europe and beyond.

2.  Ultramontanism is a vague and relative term.  For example, in the context of a discussion about whether the Pope has universal jurisdiction over the Church, the affirmative view would be called "ultramontane", even though this is not the definition of ultramontanism.  The term has no precise definition in current usage.  In general, whenever there are several viewpoints about the extent of papal power or authority, the one that maximizes that power or authority is labeled "ultramontane" relative to the other viewpoints.

3.  The various forms of Christian piety surrounding the Pope go back a long way.  One can find them already in the expressions of bishops in reference to the Roman Pontiff at the early ecumenical councils, and probably elsewhere beforehand.

4.  The piety due to the pope is a special form of the piety due to all bishops.  Bishops are our spiritual fathers; they have the fullness of the Christian priesthood; they hold the shepherd's crook and wear the signet ring; jurisdiction belongs to them, both as shepherds who work in place of the Good Shepherd, and as princes who reign in place of Christ the King.  All of these things apply to the Roman Pontiff to a greater degree.  He has supreme jurisdiction, and not merely local jurisdiction.  He has care for the well-being of all the particular churches, and not just the Roman church.  He is alter Christus more than any other priest on earth, even if his priesthood as such is not ontologically different from that of any other bishop, because of his hierarchical position within the body of Christ, and because of his role as guarantor of Christian unity.

5.  Because the pope is a symbol of the unity of the faithful and possesses, by virtue of his universal jurisdiction and care of souls, a paternity with respect to all Christians, certain mistakes are easy to make.  It is easy, especially for the lay faithful, who live mostly in the world and only occasionally within the Church, to think of the pope as the Church.  And it is easy for everyone, because of his role as supreme lawgiver in the Church Militant, to think that everything the pope says and does is binding on all Catholics.  Today especially, when the consideration of what has been handed down has been worn away almost to nothing, it is easy for everyone to think of the pope as the primary authentic source of doctrine and law.

6.  Obviously the pope is a lawgiver, just as every bishop is, and in the Church Militant he stands above all the other bishops.  But just as each bishop is merely a steward or vassal of a higher authority—one hired to tend the sheep or work in the vineyard—in the same way the pope himself is merely a steward or vassal.  And just as any merely political ruler is subject in his decrees to the eternal law of justice and the natural order of human relations, in the same way the pope and other bishops are subject not just to the natural law, but also to the revealed law of God.

7.  In one way we can look at the Roman Pontiff and say that he is more of an absolute monarch than almost any ruler remaining on earth. His authority is not subject to a constitution, or elections, or even the review of his peers. But this impression is misleading, because modern political authority is predominately conceived around a theory of legal positivism, according to which it is merely the act of the sovereign which makes laws, and the power of enforcement which makes them legitimate.  Under such a conception, any law the ruler can get away with making is binding on his subjects.  But not so with the pope or his bishops.  As emissaries of a higher authority, as stewards of the Kingship of Christ, their authority, their status as authentic lawgivers, is hemmed in by the strictures of divine law.  As a result, neither a pope nor any other bishop can speak with authority if he speaks merely for himself, nor can he simply legislate as he likes without care for the requirements of his office.  The validity of the acts of the pope are profoundly limited by the divine mandate from which all priestly authority is derived.

(To be continued... a complete index of this series can be found here.)

27 September 2015

Comparisons for the Incomparable

(This is a translation of Peter Handke's poem "Vergleiche für nichts Vergleichbares", which is taken from his collection Die Innenwelt der Außenwelt der Innenwelt.  As with all of the translations I've posted recently, this is my own work.)

Comparisons for the Incomparable
by Peter Handke

               the fountain pump
               the sign GÖSSER BEER in a horror film:

               the tenants who are at church,
               when the airplane crashes into their house like
               the gap in the straw, into which the fugitive,
               after he had holed himself up in the barn, sank:
               then fell: then suffocated, like
               the train windows, which, after they had been
               pushed down while the train was stopped on
               an open route, now, as the train
               sets off again, are bit by bit pushed
               up again:

               when one sees a child far away
               running in the street in a gale
               and at the same time hears in the hotel room next
               door the whispering of a man and then the
               laughter of his wife
               and at the same time sees trickles of glue from
               freshly pasted signs dripping on the sidewalk
               and at the same time sees how someone
               remains seated alone at the table while his escort,
               in order to freshen herself up, goes out
               and at the same time sees the the one accused
               hiding his face in his hand:

               Like when one wants to breathe in an iron maiden
               and then wakes up and sees the walls sweating
               and then sees one's eyelid drying out
               and then sees a pregnant woman on the bridge railing:

               like the fat in the bottom of the rotisserie machine
               like milk in the streetcar rails
               like the winking of the television chef
               like the shadow of the cameraman
               like the inner city
               like the big G
"how a swarm of grasshoppers claps from the violence of the fire into the water and the heavens resound with the shouting of the cranes and the grains are crushed by the trot of the braying cattle and the other fish in the bay, fleeing the immense dolphin, tussle with each other and the sheep of the rich man, bleating unceasingly, countless in their pen, fill the bucket with foaming milk and the man who caught sight of the queue and went back full of horror and the innumerable assembly of flying things, when the milk drips off of the butter, swarm restlessly through the enclosure of the country shepherd and the cicadas, which sit on the trees, set the forests abuzz with their bright voices":

Like when one throws a sheet over the cage, in order to silence the screeching bird.

Being Welcome in the Church

I am a sinful man.  I have struggled for years with sins of the flesh, with a loose tongue, sloth, pride, bitterness.  The misery that comes with my sinfulness and the temptation to sin are such regular features of my life that it would be absurd to deny that they form a part of me.  Not part of my essence or vocation—they're simply there with me, in me, wherever I go and whatever I set out to do. Sinfulness is part of me.  If I were to give an account of myself to anyone right now, it would be incomplete if I omitted these things.

An outsider would say, "You are always failing to do what the Catholic Church teaches you must do. Deep down you admit that breaking these rules is part of you, part of 'who you are.' Why not admit that the Catholic Church does not accept you?"

But I have never been unaccepted by the Church on account of my sins.  No matter how pathetic, or frequent, or base my own faults have been, I have always been welcomed with open arms.

What would make the Church stop welcoming me?  What would make it a hostile place?  If it changed its ideas, if it started teaching new things, if it was populated by enforcers of an incoherent orthodoxy at odds with its own true message.

We rejoice with the angels in heaven whenever the least lost sheep of Christ is found and returns to the sheepfold.  But what a horror it is to those of us who love the fold, when our shepherds go out, not to bring back the lost sheep, but to tell them they're all right where they are, and to encourage the whole flock to scatter as they have scattered.

Who will protect us from the wolves in this confusion?  How can anyone be welcome in a flock scattered by its own shepherd?

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 23:1-4 

26 September 2015

Odd German Vending Machines

I remember being shocked the first time I saw a paperback novel for sale in a vending machine on a train platform in Berlin.  Such an awesome thing to do.  Just now I was translating a poem by Peter Handke, and came across the word "Grillautomaten".  Not completely sure what this was, I turned to Google, which was not terribly helpful, except that it led me to this amazing video.

New Experiences

(This is my own translation of an old favorite. "Die Neue Erfahrungen" is the first poem in Peter Handke's classic collection Die Innenwelt der Außenwelt der Innenwelt. For those who have never experienced Peter Handke before, I hope you remember this new experience.)

The new experiences
by Peter Handke

1966 /
in Bayreuth /
before a performance of the opera "Tristan und Isolde" /
I stuck /
at a parking spot /
for the first time /
a coin /
into a parking meter /:
that was a new experience for me /
and because one is proud /
of new experiences /
I was proud /
of the new experience;

I asked myself:

"When did I, for the first time, close a door with my own hands? /
And where did I, for the first time, eat an ant together with a piece of bread? /
And under what circumstances did I first see water steam? /
And where did I, for the first time, lose my breath under a cellophane sack? /
And when did I, for the first time, send a letter EXPRESS?"

Once /
in which year? /
I awoke /
for the first time in a strange room /
and noticed for the first time /
that I was in a room.

Once /
on which spot? /
someone called me /
– "Quickly! Quickly!" /
to himself /
down a path /
and when I called back /
– "Yes! Yes!" /
and then ran /
and then arrived /
I noticed for the first time /
that I /
before I had arrived /
had been running.

1948 /
on the Bavarian-Austrian border /
in the town of Bayrisch-Gmain /
"in a house with which number?" /
I saw /
on a bedstead /
under a linen sheet /
behind flowers /
for the first time /
a person /
who was dead.

In Austria /
later /
"When?" /
I do not know /
"Under what circumstances?" /
When I looked up once
and caught sight of my mother
who at some distance /
"What distance?" /
At a distance from me /
she stood at the table /
and ironed /
I was overcome/
because I /
of her there /
for the first time with /
so that the distance /
to the table /
became a distance of shame.

1952 /
in the summer /
when I /
(sent home from the funeral reception in memory of my buried grandmother, in order to get the forgotten cigarettes of a guest) /
entered /
the empty /
silent /
space /
in which the deceased /
for three days /
had lain in state /
and /
in the silent /
empty /
space /
saw nothing /
but a dirty little puddle/
from a vase /
on the floor /
I had /
for the first time /
in my life /
the fear /
of death /
and only because people said /
that one in fear of death /
has shivers down his back /
was I able /
by holding before myself /
for protection /
the things people said /
once more /
to resist /
the fear of death.

Later /
I saw /
(after I had constantly heard about dangerous madmen) /
for the first time /
an un-dangerous madman /:
I slopped for the first time /
into the snow /
on Großglockner-Hochalpen Street /:
I saw for the first time /
in a film /
at the command: HANDS UP! /
a one-armed man /
raise /
his hand /:
I saw /
for the first time /
a mannequin /
with eyeglasses /:
I had /
(when it was my turn to speak) /
for the first time /
no longer anything to say.

Now I ask myself:

When will I for the first time hear from someone, who was able to take an umbrella with them in death?

Today /
(although it could be said: "I see it as if for the first time.") /
I see /
not for the first time /
a picture /
in which a representative of the authorities /
chases after
one of the people represented by the authorities /
and not for the first time /
I read about it /
that so and so had been clubbed for so long /
but /
really for the first time /
I see today /
in the street in which I live /
in front of the HOTEL ROYAL /
on the sidewalk /
a big doormat lying /
and saw a few days ago /
for the first time /
the insides of an escalator /
and saw /
for the first time /
a fish freshly caught /
in the fist /
of a king /
and saw /
for the first time /
the coffee /
abruptly spill over /
out of the cup /
onto the white tablecloth /

Vanishing Point (3)

(My translation on the opening of Peter Weiss's novel Fluchtpunkt continues below.)

Max set in with an attack.  What was he looking for in Denmark, he called, and struck his fingers through his bristly hair. Back then you had only closed your mind out of self-defense, he said, but in the moment of choice you should have known what side you belonged to.  I answered that if I hadn't escaped like all the others, I would have drifted onto the battlefield.  I carried Uli's picture in my wallet.  I pulled out the photo. It showed a young blonde man, with a smooth, well-defined face and broad shoulders.  He wore a Luftwaffe uniform.  Max considered the picture, then looked at me silently.  His gaze said, the man in this picture is the enemy, he would turn a machine gun on you and blow you away. I remembered the enthusiasm Uli had shown before the Pergamon frieze in the Berlin Museum, and the Doge's bust by Bellini in the National Gallery during a visit to London.  The veneration of this hard, cold, sovereign face and of the war heroes of ancient Greek artwork were tied to the national intoxication with power and greatness.  Uli's penchant for Greek mythology, classical Rome, the massive statues of Michelangelo, had indicated to me the contrast that stood between us.  For me, art in which battle and strength were glorified were strange.  Painters like Cranach, Baldung Grien, Bosch, Brueghel, Klee, Nolde attracted me. The hero-cult of the Greeks and Romans was decadent. Medieval compositions, the oratories and masses, the classical dramas and operas, were steeped in lies; in everything there was a tremendous sense that that the commanders, the saints, the martyrs, all of them were duplicitous and offensive. Bach himself could be disfigured.  I thought of Dietrich, the musician, who had introduced me to the world of fugues and organ music.  Dietrich's home was filled with treasures of gothic art, and with treasures from China and Egypt.  In this home, which stupefied with its cultural assets, the image of the Führer hung in a domineering place, and the enthusiastic features and noble profile of the man with the Charlie Chaplin mustache was worshipped, as if before an altar.  You can interpret art however you like, said Max.  You can fabricate everything, you can use everything for your own interests.  But right now there is only one question: Which side are you on?

25 September 2015

Another Blow to Jorge Bergoglio's Personal Doctrinal Credibility

From an address given today by Francis to an inter-religious assembly gathered at the World Trade Center Memorial.
For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace. In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say “no” to every attempt to impose uniformity and “yes” to a diversity accepted and reconciled.
There have been a few moments during this pontificate when I've simply balked at Francis.  His apology to a group of pentecostal protestants in Italy because in past years the Church had obstructed the growth of their denomination.  His insistence in a speech after last year's Robber Synod that doctrine had not been called into question, despite the overtly heretical implications of Walter Kasper's proposal.  But to date the above takes the cake.  The man occupying the See of Peter is publicly preaching indifferentism.  What a disgrace.

Some Disconnected Ruminations on the Long-Term Effects of the Kasperite Heresy

1. Look back over the past two years at the number of vocal texts that have been produced by bishops in defense of the orthodox faith.

I am young.  I have only been Catholic for five years.  But I do not believe that a vocal reaction of this scale was produced by the Episcopate in defense of the faith under the pontificates of either Benedict XVI, John Paul II, or any of their recent predecessors.

2.  Francis is destroying the global perception of Rome's doctrinal pre-eminence.  His habit of speaking freely and incautiously, without authority or clarity, is gradually undoing the ultramontanist cult surrounding the See of Peter, which has plagued the Church since the rise of mass communication, and helped to turn every public utterance into a pseudo-divine oracle.

3.  Francis is the darling of Our Hegelians who believe that the Church never adequately lived up to the Küngian hopes of modernization from the 60s and 70s.  He is releasing the brakes.  He is pushing things forward.  Etc.  The Hegelians in the hierarchy clearly think this way as well.  Are they right?  This depends on what Francis himself intends.

4.  Francis's intentions are inscrutable.  Why?  Because his attitudes and sympathies communicate one thing, and his verbal utterances communicate something else.  He's willing to recite the creed for us, to prove that he's not an antipope.  That's amusing, I admit.  But then he does all these weird things, and he weirdly doesn't do all sorts of things it seems like he ought.  He's a loyal son of the Church, and will stay faithful to the Church's teaching, he tells us.  But he endorses and gives positions of power to men who are emphatically and publicly not faithful to the Church's teaching, not loyal sons of the Church.  At every turn he wants to show his sympathies for the spirit of modern liberalism, which is destroying the Church across the Anglo-European world, but he points out that the core of his message is just a re-affirmation of the social doctrines of the Church.  He's right!  He is a fantastic proponent of the social doctrines of the Church.  But at times in his pontificate these doctrines seem to have become a "disconnected multitude"...  He is better in act than his attitudes and sympathies indicate.  But he is confusing to watch!  And he leaves all manner of things unsaid, which ought to be said.  Who knows what the man is up to.  Does it matter, really?  For a layman, it shouldn't matter much, because most of the things Francis leaves unclear are already abundantly clear if one looks to the proper authority.

5.  Just to put forward a guess: the long-term effects of this pontificate and this doctrinal crisis will be: (1) the dissolution of the cult of papal utterances, (2) the renewal of the sense of absolute doctrinal truths, but at the hands of the episcopate and not through papal teaching (as in Veritatis Splendor), (3) another nail in the coffin of passive lay acquiescence to episcopal and pontifical action, (4) another step toward authentic 'collegiality' of the sort that has not existed in the Roman Church since the middle ages — not a collegiality of episcopocratic conciliarism, but one in which the pre-eminence of the bishop as governor of his local church comes to the fore; and this, not because of the positive action of the Pope, but because of the failures of this pontificate, and the confusion being spread by the Pope's long-term inaction and silence.

6.  Historically, the refinement of the normative modes in which the catholic faith is taught (popularly and problematically referred to as "the development of doctrine"), has almost always been brought about through heresy.  The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed emerged in response to the great Christological and Trinitarian heresies.  The beautiful distillation of modes of predication proper to the person and natures of Christ was prompted by the gross errors of Nestorius, Eutyches, and Apollinaris.  The explication of the operation of the sacraments and the nature of our justification was brought about by the innovations of the protestants.  The solemn affirmation of the pope's role as guarantor of unity and supreme authority in the Church was brought about in response to the liberal "leveling" of the 19th century...  So many grains of sand, so many pearls of orthodoxy built up to isolate and encase them.

7.  And then there's the question of the SSPX.  If they are canonically re-absorbed, it will mean good things for the Church.  An end to the spectre of the "Spirit of the Council" for those interested in promoting orthodoxy and adherence to tradition.  Another blow to the weird ultramontanism of the papal positivists.  Confusion for the dominant schools of post-conciliar theology.  Another boost for creeping liturgical traditionalism...

Who knows how accurate any of these predictions are, though.

Vanishing Point (2)

(My translation of the beginning of Peter Weiss's novel Fluchtpunkt continues below.)

I did not come as a fugitive or asylum-seeker.  I came to Stockholm in order to live here as a painter, and at first I had money, which I had laid aside each month when I worked at a factory. There was no lost homeland for me and no thought of a return, since I had never belonged to any country. Because Max did not recognize this freedom, and wanted to see my present situation in relation to the events of the time, I gave him a picture of the background I had broken from.  My father came from a Hungarian village.  His parents, who had traded in grain there, had been faithful Jews, though he himself had converted to Christianity when he moved to Vienna in his early years.  My mother's parents came from Strasbourg and Basel, and one of her ancestors had been a peasant leader who wielded a pitchfork during the Thirty Years War. During the World War my father served with the Austro-Hungarian army.  He was wounded by Russian machine gun fire and was awarded a decoration and the rank of lieutenant. He was proud of these distinctions and displayed them on ceremonial occasions. I passed the first years of my life in the Galician steppe, where my father had been transferred, and among my earliest memories are the soldiers marching through clouds of dust, and the Polish farmer's wives who offered to sell fat, white geese to my mother, and bent their broad faces playfully over the carriage where I lay.  After the war my father received Czechoslovakian citizenship on account of the newly drawn borders.  But he became a resident of Germany, and I passed my youth there.  That I was no German, and was descended on my father's side from Jews, I discovered only just before my emigration.  I had been baptized and had gone through Christian religious instruction and confirmation, indifferent and half dazed as with everything that came to me in my education.  My speech was not associated with any region, since we moved often from town to town.  I was at home around harbors, in fairs and circus tents, where people's minds were open to mutability and wandering, where one's gaze was directed into the vastness of things.  There I left behind the world of Russians and French, English, Americans, Scandinavians, and nothing held me back from being at home in my thoughts.  I was kindred with Gauguin in Tahiti, with van Gogh in Arles, with Myshkin in St. Petersburg, Lieutenant Glahn in the Norwegian forest and Fabrice in the Charterhouse of Parma.  The abrupt designation as foreigner and half-Jew, the ban on participation in the common salutation, made no impression on me, since for me the question of nationality and racial identity were indifferent.  In our family nothing was ever said regarding political issues.  My father was in favor of the existing order; he did not criticize nationalism, and his wartime experiences had made him no opponent of militarization. He had even strongly desired that I do military service, because he saw it as a school that would be able to make me into a man. I did not come into contact with radical circles.  What turmoil I experienced was directed not against the middle classes, but only against the oppression that limited my personal freedom.  I knew nothing of social arguments; in art I found the only weapon with which I was able to make an assault or defend myself. In art there were no borders, no nations. Uli, my school friend, was cosmopolitan like me.  We were fellow expeditioners—in the libraries, the museums, the concert halls.  When I emigrated with my family to England, it was just another move.  I followed along with the household; I would have remained, if my father had not possessed the vision, the resolve and the means to to escape danger at the right time.  Uli, and my other school friends, remained behind.  Uli drowned during the occupation of Denmark.  His corpse washed up on the shore.

24 September 2015

Vanishing Point (1)

(What follows is my own translation of the opening paragraph of Peter Weiss's short novel Fluchtpunkt, "Vanishing Point".)

I arrived in Stockholm on the 8th of November, 1940.  From the station I drove to Schedin's guesthouse in Queen Street, where Max Bernsdorf had reserved a room for me. It was a big, corner room with brown murals and brown velvet curtains at the windows.  Flecks of light were on the wall over the high wooden bed frame and on the cloth of the battered chair arms, and black marks stared out of the scratched  wood of the wardrobe, in the mirror of which I saw my trunk set down.  Max lived at the end of the hall, in a narrow chamber, on the door of which a placard hung with the text DON'T DISTURB A SLEEPING DOG.  Just as four years earlier in Prague, when I visited him for the first time, he lay in bed, to spare his strength.  He was half-buried in newspapers and was smoking his pipe.  The room, chairs and tables stood shadow-bound in the blue smoke.  His hand, which he stretched out to me, was cold and bony.  His face was emaciated, the skin colorless.  His hair had gone grey, and only the bushy eyebrows were black, as if smeared with coal. His hand sank back and lay feebly on the crackling newspaper. The fingernails were chewed up and the skin around the nail beds was picked raw.  Only recently had he been released from the camp in which he was interred after his flight from Norway.  They deport us, or they stick us behind barbed wire, he had said.  Great things were said about the struggle for human rights, but we, the ones threatened, were treated like mangy dogs. Whoever has money can buy himself asylum.  The rest of us live off of alms; we are not permitted to work.  His face was animated by rage. He snatched out his pipe, packed it, and let it smolder.  Over the bed, on a shelf, there stood well-thumbed paperbacks with English titles: crime novels, political writings, a couple of volumes of Persian lyric, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Adlington's Death of a Hero.  Seven years of emigration lay behind Max Bernsdorf.  Emigration was a single period of waiting for him. He waited for the day of his return. For him there was still a landscape he was rooted in. In his smoked-up, dung-colored guest room, he lay and dreamed of a piece of earth he called home, even if he had been driven from it.  In that narrow, foreign parlor he imagined his Swabian village and his little forest, and the weather on the meadows and the mountains was present to him. In Sweden he saw an enemy, who had descended on his ancestors three hundred years before, in wild pursuit and the infamous Jauchetrunk. Chagrined, he berates the bad coffee in this town, the sweetened bread and the floury grub. There was no bar in this town, and no cafe where one could, as in Oslo, sit half a day with one cup of coffee, read newspapers from the world over and talk to like-minded people.  In Oslo he had spoken the same way of Prague, just as in Prague he had praised Barcelona.  Now he was waiting for an American visa, at the mercy of a recommendation, and when he was in New York he would lie in the bed of his hotel room and think of Europe. I heard him speak of the effort involved in writing the requests, applying at the Consulate; he had to vent, had to express his ill-feeling, before he could straighten up and ask about my plans.  Then the look of a beaten, submissive dog would leave his eyes, and my arrival would, as it had before in Prague, draw to life again something of his old activity.

23 September 2015

Commentary on Symphony No. 2

The following is a commentary on a short text by the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms.  The commentary was originally composed in my final semester of college, as the term paper for a comparative literature seminar entitled "The Prose Labyrinth".  The course was organized around certain formalist themes, focusing on the role of repetition, inversion, and variation in the construction of logically interesting fictions.  This commentary was the last thing I wrote in college, and remains one of my favorite compositions.  Of course, the commentary itself is not at all formalist, but uses Kharms's chaotic text as the occasion for a number of more or less absurd ruminations on related themes. I have posted sections of it here before.


Anton Mikhailovich spat, and said “Ugh,” spat again, said “Ugh” again, spat again, said “Ugh” again, and went out. To hell with him. I’d better tell you about Ilya Pavlovich.
Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a small boy, they moved to Petersburg, and there he graduated from the German School on Kirochnaya Street. Then he had a job in some kind of store; then he did something else; and when the Revolution started, he emigrated. Well, to hell with him. I’d better tell you about Anna Ignatievna.
But it is not so easy to tell you about Anna Ignatievna. First of all, I know almost nothing about her, and secondly, I have just fallen off my chair and forget what I was going to say. So I’d better tell you about myself.
I am tall, fairly intelligent; I dress meticulously and in good taste; I don’t drink, I don’t go to the races, but I like ladies. And ladies don’t dislike me. They like it when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna invited me to her place more than once, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also said that she was always glad to see me. But a funny thing happened to me with Marina Petrovna that I want to tell you about. An absolutely ordinary thing, but an amusing one. Because of me, Marina Petrovna lost all her hair—bald as the palm of your hand. It happened this way: once I went to see Marina Petrovna, and bam! She lost all her hair. That was all.


The German School on Kirochaya Street

When falling asleep one sometimes has the experience of physically falling, as if the relaxation of one’s muscles entailed a liability to stumble in real life. The strange moment in which ones legs suddenly seize up again to prevent the fall — though one is lying back in bed and otherwise stationary — bridges the gap between wakefulness and sleep. Here we consider Ilya Pavlovich. He is born in New Rome, this son of Paul, and moves to the land of the Third Rome, to the fortress of St. Peter. Resonances of the West abound. Petersburg is that great western capital of the unchangeably eastern Holy Russia. The Germans have replaced the French as intellectual overlords, and now the fruits of late protestant German philosophy are being exported to the land of the Tsars to rot and suffocate the populace with their noxious vapors. Mother Russia has demonstrated in the centuries since Peter the Great that classic truth of social behavior: the one who, through lack of confidence about his abilities, seeks to adopt the strengths of another, will not only fail in this task, but, having betrayed himself, fare worse than if he had been content with his original gifts. Ilya Pavlovich is the lost child of a Russia no longer certain of herself. His birth was at the edge of the West already, and his education as a son of Paul in the house of Peter at the hands of some kraut merely confirms his alienation from the land which might have been his home. Blessed are they who will see Christ descend upon Moscow, who will proclaim the second coming from New New Rome. But for the false children of the land, the pruning hooks of he West await, to pull them back into the darkness of rationalism and heresy. Woe, woe to those who flee from his face.

They like it when I go out with them

This fragment demonstrates the instability of modern aestheticism. The narrator cannot keep a steady hold on his subject matter. He is a kind of fictional realization of the thought process of Plato’s Democratic Man. He cannot carry through such a routine task as settling upon a subject for his musings. In fact, the routine-ness of every task is precisely what repels him from following through. He looks down the path, anticipating the next move, anticipating the results of his activity, and sees the futility, the lack of interest in everything. It is fortunate that there are infinitely many subjects to take up and reject in turn, or the boredom might resolve itself into a crisis.

I have just fallen off of my chair

We recall the Laputans in Gulliver’s Travels. What is it about their inflated bladders that wakes them from the sleep of contemplation? This motif recurs in one of the hipster generation’s earliest philosophical expressions, the film “I [heart] Huckabees,” and again in Darren Aronofksy’s post-modern “Clarice Sunrise”. But where Aronofsky turns the bladder into a token of pain (replicating by means of a disconnected outward sign the hidden interior mortification of the monastic hairshirt), in “Huckabees” it is an exercise in nihilism. The moment of contact is the moment of self-forgetting, a chance to lose all interest and focus, to deprive one’s thoughts of any intentionality, and hence (if we accept the hackneyed converse of the Cartesian argument) to cease to exist. Falling off one’s chair is the greatest liberation.

An absolutely ordinary thing

Toothbrush. What is most fascinating about the ordinary is its repetitiveness. Repetition has the ability simultaneously to render a thing completely invisible, and to make it so eerily present at hand to us that it becomes alien and meaningless. Say the word “toothbrush” fifteen times aloud, and then attempt to reconnect the strange mixtures of hisses and clucks to their bristly referent. Toothbrush, toothbrush. Roland Barthes writes, in his late work Camera Lucida, of the strangeness of hearing children chatter in Chinese on film. One has the ability to hear language for a change, where normally it is hidden — toothbrush — the invisible arrow which directs us so perfectly to its object that in seeing the sign we are already present with the thing itself. Toothbrush. Toothbrush. Toothbrush.

Born in 1893

Origins are a tedious matter, as if one could reach the earth’s core with a spade and a large back yard. Where do we find our origins? In memories of early childhood, vivid patches of significance that form little cupboards of the past into which we can occasionally retreat for a moment, recovering the tremendous meaning attributed to the largest marble in our collection, to the tar patches on the asphalt playground, which formed little paths about the chain-link-bounded universe of uncertain play. At such a time the violence of reality was a sign of some deep villainy at work in the world — an incentive to accept the teachings of the Cathar perfect and surrender rule of the world to an unknown dark lord. But for the most part the violence could be kept at bay, by means of flashlights, and illustrated novels, and the promise in hundreds of stacked and printed pages of a systematic crusade against the Gnostic pessimism. The greatest defense, though, lay in a sort of tragic resoluteness, open to the decay of reality while delighting somehow in the profundity of fading goodness. Now, in these latter days, tragedy is no longer the easiest mode of endurance. When we despair of the world, we acknowledge the meaninglessness of the well of the past. I am merely a floating projection of potential onto things open to being discovered according to the habits of my understanding. The one true miracle is that this wispy delusion of selfhood does not simply disperse into a mist.

Because of me

The most obvious thing in the world is that I am of no consequence. The narrator demonstrates this masterfully by the connection between his visit and the loss of Marina Petrovna’s hair. The connection is meaningless. Did he bring some shears? Did he poison her? Is it possible that between the two clauses the entire plot of The Count of Monte Cristo has occurred? No, it is utterly impossible. I have no creative ability; I am merely a scribbler, here, falling off my chair, hovering beside a desk, clacking away at an indifferent machine which could say anything in the world — if it had a voice.

Again, spat again, said Ugh

Ugh, he said, ugh, ugh. This is the grunt of imposition. The world is forcing itself on Anton Mikhailovich, and he has no will to wave it away. It is there before his eyes and he is disgusted. And it is not merely before him, but his beholding is bringing it into him, is affirming the co-dependence between this object of loathing and his own damned self. Anton sympathizes with Dean Young, “You start taking down the walls of your house / sooner or later it’ll collapse / but not before you can walk around / with your eyes closed, rolled backwards / and staring straight into the amygdala’s meatlocker / and your own damn self hanging there.” But Dean Young is fat on the surplus grain of Writers’ Grants and Humanities Fellowships and the greasy stink of academic creative writing centers. Anton is not. We imagine him alone in an unfurnished, cold Soviet room with a frail writing table and a battered pencil. Ugh, he says, ugh. He spits onto the floor. Perhaps the saliva freezes. Dirt everywhere, nothing worth lingering over, hunger and idiocy and a million bad things, but nothing to say about them. Vileness does not inspire good poetry unless you are a psalmist.

I know almost nothing about her

One trick of the novelist is to write about the unfamiliar. This is counterintuitive, since such topics make verisimilitude a problem. Then enters the notion of research, by which the author clears out his strip of narrative territory and acquaints himself with the contours of the land. What does it accomplish? Surely not that the author ends up knowing his subject better than the real equivalents of his characters — if he shows them something about themselves, it is his own life that he reveals in them and not theirs. The novelist discloses alien soil by investing himself in it and sharing in it. If his characters come alive, it is not because he has spent hours deliberating over what such-and-such a man would do in such-and-such circumstances, but because he has spent months living alongside them. The writer gives his characters life by loving them.

To hell with him.

To hell with him. If only it were so easy to cast off the undesirables of life, to simply delete them and say, finally, once and for all, “I am finished with you. Henceforth you are no more to me.” But even in the cases when we are able henceforth to cast off the despised troublemaker, the past remains. The annihilation of another would, ideally, enable us to move freely about in the spaces he might have occupied, creating a history in which he never was, who is not and never again will be. But we lack such power. The theologians tell us that even the omnipotent cannot make the past not to have been. Instead, in order to cast away another, we must pull in the bounds of the world, treading carefully along narrower passageways, meticulously avoiding memories and attachments, connections and concepts that would bring us face to face with the forgotten other. To hell with him, we say, but really we have divided the world between us two, and introduced in the process a host of anxieties about the placement and maintenance of invisible and illogical boundaries. Claustrophobia begins to take hold of us, complemented by an inescapable sadness at the vistas of thought and possibility which have been sacrificed in this mutual damnation of the two foes.

Bald as the palm of your hand

The palm is naked and therefore easily read. Its baldness and proximity to everyday concerns: work, communication, eating, moving about make it the perfect oracle. What is barer or closer to life than our hands?

When the revolution started

War and ideology are two things as distant from each other as possible. Levinas says, “The state of war divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives.” Nonetheless, the philosopher is drawn to contemplate war as much as the ancient explorer would have been drawn to the edge of the world. Here the very essence of humanity is divided in a great and gruesome game which operates by its own rules, distinct from the measured cadence of civilized life. But if war has traditionally divided the world into halves, its more advanced forms (those which, in fact, are even less than barbaric) destroy altogether the coherence which has normally held each partial reality together. Order is most stringently imposed at the fringes, like a hem on a garment, which must make sure that, even though the cloth is cut, the sudden cessation of the woven grid does not allow the entire piece to unravel. So in the military order is maximally enforced, a strict hierarchy maintained and rules enforced. But in guerilla warfare the order of war is itself challenged. Consequently, counterinsurgency tactics have arisen to create a military in which front lines no longer exist. Here, at the extremity of war, ideology is capable of making an entrance. Insurgents seek to re-form the cloth of society by slicing it into a million different fragments, which can then be rebound. What is challenged is not the placement of a particular seam in the garment (as it used to be, even at the time of the second world war), but the weave of the cloth itself. Counterinsurgents attempt to blot out irregularities in the weave, to create uniformity. But these basic questions of local structure, which are relevant everywhere in society, between all men at all times, are essentially philosophical. If Marx is right, and the point of philosophy is to change the world, then philosophers must always be terrorists of a sort, attempting to rip up the fabric of reality and reconstitute it under different conceptual forms.

She was always glad to see me.

The sheer difficulty of facing someone and speaking to him on an average day about some mundane topic is frequently overlooked. The problem is not simply the invented one of transcending one’s own subjectivity and meeting some “other” face to face, but rather that of learning how to engage. What does one say? How? What is necessary in conversation for one to enter into the order of things correctly, to respect the invisible hierarchy of persons and qualities and not upset it? How could someone start from scratch and get along with others who understand so little the problems posed by community, social interaction, etc. People so casual about it all. How could I ever be understood correctly? All this small talk is so bestial.

I dress meticulously and in good taste

In the 1943 Sherlock Holmes film “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon”, Holmes (played by the greatest interpreter of the detective, Basil Rathbone) is captured by Professor Moriarty while attempting to prevent the latter from stealing the parts to a secret weapon which would give the Nazis and advantage in the war. Moriarty asks how Holmes would choose to have him die, and Holmes answers that he would have him bleed to death, drop by drop, so that the criminal could slowly and painfully count the seconds passing before his end. This choice plays an obvious role in the plot of the film, since while Moriarty is bleeding Holmes to death, Watson and company have time to find and save him.

To watch a man bleed to death is a terrible thing. Aside from the pain accompanying the original wound and the panic which arises from consciousness of imminent death, exsanguination amounts to the gradual removal of soul from body. Dizziness, sweating, chills and then coma precede the last moment. The individual experiences what Kant seems describe in his refutation of Mendelssohn’s proof of the soul’s immortality: a fading of consciousness as the definition of specific concepts deteriorates, eventually leaving the mind nothing to think at all, so that the operation ceases and the soul decays into a plethora of dispersed functions spiraling into the chaotic inertia that characterizes inanimate matter. With less than a tenth of his bodyweight removed, the person is merely a shell, materially whole but absent in act. To think along these lines is to sense with sadness the weightiness of Plato’s claim that our bodies are merely clothes or coats for our souls. From this side, though, what Plato would describe as the revelation of the true self appears merely to be the collapse of a set of clothes, as when the Wicked Witch of the West is killed by water, or Obi-Wan Kenobi by a light saber. What gave them form and life has been lost.

And went out

The project of annihilating oneself is moderately appealing and remarkably easy. What we have in mind is not suicide, but the project of driving oneself through the core of reality and beyond it. The image of an enflamed Buddha, cackling and seated in the lotus position as he immolates himself, expresses perfectly what is so desirable about self-annihilation. It possesses a delightful composition of opposites: death and enlightenment, energy and passivity, amusement and self-destruction, mastery and submission. This kind of Buddha straddles the boundary of sense and in so doing demonstrates to us that the perimeter of reason is actually its center. In realizing that transgression is the fount of sense, we let go of the law of non-contradiction and every other rule, recognizing with this little laughing man that to transcend sanity is to become all things.

That was all.

We are deeply concerned over the declining quality of printed books. Standards of ink, paper and binding are collapsing as the mass-market paperback vents its noxious death cloud of ephemerality over the entire publishing industry. Despite the decline in standards and the frustrations the past two centuries will no doubt provide in great quantity for librarians, historians and conservationists, we must accept the advent of wood pulp paper as a great blessing for the preservation of the intellectual integrity of our civilization. Within another two hundred years, the majority of what was written between 1830 and the present day will have been reduced to a mass of filthy brown dust. Good riddance. It is about time that the curse of the printing press with its tendency to magnify at random the most pathetic and unworthy authorial voices was counteracted by some natural winnowing fork. The lignin-driven decay of millions and millions of volumes that is presently underway will force publishers to actively decide what will be preserved from one generation to the next, and force them to choose wisely, since typesetting is expensive. No doubt many of these books will be preserved digitally in the internet, but the beauty of that massive cesspit is that one can only really find in it exactly what one is looking for. Genuine browsing is completely impossible in the digital world, contrary to the indications of common parlance. What is chiefly needed is a system of transmission whereby significant effort is required to generate a new copy of a text. When we hear that Aquinas would have exchanged all of Paris for a copy of some volume of Chrysostom’s works, we are given a glimpse into the differences in education between the thirteenth century and the present day. The real function of the textbook has collapsed, as we no longer have some standard reference volume like Lombard or the Glossa Ordinaria upon which a curriculum can be based. We read too much, too quickly, without focus or stability of perspective, to the extent that it is now possible to receive sixteen years of education at the best schools and remain a kind of ignoramus. The liberal arts, which were once the glory of western civilization and the cornerstone of an ordered understanding of the world, have now collapsed into a collection of fragmentary monologues concerned primarily with the proliferation of differences, the maintenance of a sheltered skepticism, and the production of marginally “original” texts. What we all seem to miss is the uselessness of originality when one actually wants to learn something. Mathematics textbooks published a century ago are generally better than those published today, at least because they lack the idiotic distractions of colored photographs, excessive sample problems and worthless motivating factoids. Today children are given books of several hundred pages to teach them basic principles of algebra that could be covered adequately in a few dozen leaves of smaller paper. What’s the use? We are obsessed with the new at the expense of truth and understanding; we value the idea of new-fangled pedagogical methods too highly to notice their worthlessness. Our libraries are overflowing with trivial studies on obscurities and our educators have been trained to pursue fringe topics to the point that many can no longer adequately teach the fundamentals of their own disciplines. The value of book burnings is underrated.

20 September 2015

Clichés and Getting Older

One repeats the same expressions over and over again.  Over and over again.  And one recurring fear is that these ready-made phrases one uses to explain the way things, render the thing described nondescript, because they are so common.  But perhaps the commonness of the phrases merely hides the blindness of the experiences themselves.  Worse than not being able to convey the uniqueness of a thing in words, is the possibility that the uniqueness of things, as life progresses, is less and less available to one in experience.  And if this is the case, then each of us is trundling down a track that leads from the inarticulateness of youth to the cliches of old age—from being mute when we are young, to being deaf when we are old.

Good thing I don't believe this is the case.

17 September 2015

Advice for Catholics on Preparing for the Synod

1. Pray for the Church.
2. Stop following ecclesiastical news and commentary.
3. Don't worry about it.
4. Brush up on your catechism.  Use this one.
5. Don't worry about it.

16 September 2015

How to Know that Transgenderism is Bogus

How can we figure out that transgenderism is bogus?  The easiest way is probably by figuring out what would have to be true for transgenderism to be possible.  In the following, I'll start by trying to pin down "sex" and "gender", and then move on to point out some difficulties in making sense of transgenderism.

Let's start with the much-touted "sex-gender distinction".  As we'll see, thinking through the implications of this distinction is helpful for getting to the core of transgenderism.

According to the proponents of sex-gender disassociation, biological sex is a feature of one's body and organs, their arrangement and behavior.  It's goes along with the primary and secondary sex characteristics which are a result of one's genetics.  Most people have a very clear and determinate biological sex: male or female.  Men have male sex characteristics; females have female sex characteristics.  So far, so good.  Of course, there is a small portion of the population which for various reasons (genetic or hormonal aberrations, etc.) are not determinately members of one sex or another.  The assignation of a sex to these people is difficult, though it does not obviously threaten the notion that humans tend to naturally have a determinate biological sex.

On the other side of the sex-gender divide is the thing we call gender. Biological sex, we said, is based on the physical sex-characteristics humans tend to have by virtue of their genetic makeup.  But obviously when we look at people, noticing physical features associated with their biological sex characteristics (bone structure, gait, musculature, fat deposits) is only part of how we determine someone's biological sex.  Socially, there are a large number of culturally developed behaviors and signals that are usually associated with biological sex.

14 September 2015

Reading List for the Past Decade

What follows is an imperfect compilation of the books I have read over the past decade.  I'm not sure why anyone would care to read it, but this blog has become as much a jotting pad for me as a way of communicating my ideas to people, so it's their business to figure out why they care, if they do.  The list begins around the time I started making organized reading plans for myself.  There is a lapse of several years in the record as I have kept it, but I am fairly confident that I've collected the major items from that time period.  The list includes only books I have read completely (to my best knowledge), except where specific parts are noted.  It does not include (with the noted exceptions) the many books I started reading and put down, or read piecemeal, or only read excerpts from.  There are a few obvious (to me) omissions from the list: (1) there is very little scripture listed, even though I have read rather a lot of scripture during this period; (2) Tolkien never appears, even though I have re-read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit during this period, and I think more than once.  There are other omissions, but I can't say what they are, or they wouldn't be omitted.  Short things, probably, and re-readings.  In any case, this is one of those moments when I'm glad to have kept a record, even if it's imperfect.  Oh, and one other thing—some of these are not books at all, but short texts which, for some reason or other, I felt merited inclusion.

11 September 2015

Notes on the Construction of Fictions

Inventing a fiction requires familiarity with the context in which the fiction takes place.

This is true for most designed things: if the design is to come off well, the thing must be situated effectively in its context.

Exposition is always primarily linear. However, even though the tongue and the pen are bound by the limitations of [expressing only one thing at a time], neither the mind of the author nor the reader are bound this way.  We understand by compounding facts and impressions.  Consequently, linear exposition is always the tracing out of a map, and ideally a non-linear map.

Thus three things become objects for the inventor of fictions.
(1) The form of the thing described.
(2) The form of the description.
(3) The relation between (1) and (2).

Thesis: There are no good fictions or bad fictions per se, but only secundum quid.

The multiplicity of fictions militates against the genus having a single perfection or characteristic ideal. Fictions are edifices of language, which is an instrument of human thoughts, relations, and intentions. They are therefore themselves instruments and artifacts, and should be understood to have as many ends and possible perfections as language allows.

In their accidental features, fictions are perfected by a certain harmony or proportionality which is called "beauty".  The beauty of a fiction need not entail any sublimity of subject matter or mystical rumination.  What is commonly called "cleverness" in fictions is just a species of beauty—beauty consisting in the elegant construction of a plot device or expression.

Note that parsimony is not the only form of narrative beauty.  Expansiveness can be beautiful as well.  It is not the length that matters so much as the proportionality. . . a feature difficult to define.

Regarding (2), the way to establish the mood of a place is not by repetition of some abstract claim or detail (which is rather cloddish and usually seems overdone), but to confirm the mood by layering corroborating details on top of each other.  "Smiley tapped his foot.  Beside him, Guillam let out a small sigh.  Connie Sachs was wiping her glasses with a florid kerchief for the third time." etc.

There is a kind of harmony to each of the three components of a fiction.  Each one requires its own perfection according to is function.  But the mode of excellence required of each component differs depending on the intent of the fiction as a whole.

But what I just called "components" must not be confused for some elementary or primary constituents of fictions.  Just three aspects of the process of constructing one.  Obviously the pie can be cut in many different ways.

In the communication of a mood, it's important for the author to believe in the mood.  To believe that this is clever, or interesting, or sad.  The structure of the text creates an experiential world parallel to and partly independent of the world which is being described.

The world of the fiction ought to be known well in advance. The characters of the fiction ought to be known especially well.  The same rule applies to the composition of a fiction as to the composition of a factual, descriptive treatise—you need to know what you're talking about before you start talking about it.

Regarding probabilities: events are usually improbable—what happens to people, the concatenation of chance circumstances, these things are usually unusual and irrational, but what  people do in the circumstances presented, even if irrational, is usually (almost always) understandable.  Human action has its reasons, even if they are not strictly logical.  This means that in the construction of characters and backstories, one needs to beware of creating chains of development which depend on or yield highly implausible modes of behavior or reasoning in characters—though, on the other hand there is always a degree of inscrutability to human action.

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.