27 March 2016

The Reactionaries

Plot Outline:

  1. Pius is introduced, morning routine, departure for the grocer's. (It is Saturday in winter.) Only passing mention of vandalism in the newspaper.
  2. Background notes on Simon's college  (start with deep background -- no mention of Simon)
  3. Pius meets Anita (his much younger sister) at the grocer's, talks to her about their uncle Leo (Leo is a paleo-con and traditionalist catholic, with a testy and legalistic disposition.  Anita disapproves of him vaguely, Pius does not defend him but is clearly sympathetic.)
  4. Tatiana's first year at college (culture shock).  Tatiana is very free with her personality, and very assertive of herself.
  5. Pius walks past graffitied synagogue, remembers a conversation with uncle Leo about religious pluralism.  Pius investigates the graffiti, notices certain aspects of it.
  6. Tatiana's second year at college (postmodernism, gender theory, ideas about experimentation)
  7. Anita calls Simon, expresses concern about Pius asks Simon to drop in on him.  After the conversation, Anita and Wallace (her husband) talk through their concerns about Simon's impracticality and failure to secure reasonable employment.  Anita has success anxiety.  Wallace is dispassionate and cynical about his son's generation and its faults.
  8. Tatiana's third year at college (introduction to the conservative set, description of the ridiculous rituals and ideas.  Simon appears, but is a quiet figure, interested in literature, a member of the group by default (through familial alignment, not by personal choice). He engages a little, but is not one of the leading personalities. The main focus of the chapter is a dinner scene with the group.  Raymund plays arch-reactionary antagonist to the moderate traditionalism of the others.  He is laconic and a way of peppering banter with witty sarcasm.
  9. Simon's house and housemates in the present.  Simon has just gotten off the phone with his mother.  They are building a fire.  (Zadoc and Ralph)  Simon and Ralph argue about nominalism and the reality of fictional persons.
  10. Tatiana's fourth year at college.  The chapter is another dinner scene.  Tatiana is preoccupied with Simon, but Simon has shifted from literature to political theology, and spends all his time arguing with Raymund, who has become quietly charismatic.  The two linger on the fringes of the set while Tatiana watches them.  Tatiana reflects on the difference between the desire to be esteemed by one's peers and the desire to shape reality.
  11. At Simon's house, the door rings and it is Uncle Pius, who has brought some loose tea.  Simon is startled, introduces Pius to Zadoc and Ralph.  Pius makes the tea and they chat, mostly about his memory of cultural changes in the 1960s and 70s. (There are references to Uncle Leo.) Ralph argues (passionately but with polite restraint) in favor of the view that certain decisive historical events shaped history.  Pius is calm and magisterial, sympathetic, but he offers a Tolstoyan picture of historical developments as an antidote to Ralph's view.  Chapter ends with Tatiana arriving with a friend (Alice), prompting Pius's departure.  Pius invites Simon to visit him that afternoon, so he can give him something.
  12. Winter in Tatiana's fourth year of college.  Raymund and Simon are walking in the snow, and Simon is angry.  The topic of big talk / little action arises, with the air of a challenge.  They encounter Tatiana, who is derisive toward them, and tells them that one and the other are both just playing a game, and their self-consciousness only raises their hypocrisy to the next level.  (Kierkegaard, basically, but without mentioning Kierkegaard.)  Raymund laughs, but Simon is startled and notices Tatiana.
  13. Pius sits at home, reading.  He thinks more about the synagogue he passed, and tries to work out the balance between religious liberty and the duty to the truth.  His thoughts are interrupted by the doorbell.  
  14. Raymund is leaving work (tutor) and picks up a newspaper at a coffee shop.  He strikes up an exchange (laconic, but warm and earnest) with the barista about the weather.  Raymund smiles brightly and laughs to himself as he leaves, apparently overjoyed at the interaction.  Raymund gets on the train, reads about the graffiti, reads the story carefully and rereads it. (no reaction registered)  He gets off the train and walks to a house, where he rings the bell.  Pius answers.
  15. Tatiana sits with Alice and Zadoc by the fire, while Simon showers and gets dressed.  Alice interrogates Tatiana about domestic life and the idea of "settling", with Zadoc interjecting (or being called into the conversation) sporadically.  Simon emerges, ready to leave.  Zadoc withdraws to his bedroom, leaving Alice sitting awkwardly alone in the house.
  16. Pius welcomes Raymund in.  Raymund pulls out a pouch of tobacco and papers, sets a book down on the kitchen table, and asks Pius if he'd like to smoke.  Pius is delighted.  Raymund rolls two cigarettes while they talk about the popularity of addiction as a subject.  They step out to the back of the house and smoke.  There, Pius reminisces about a friend of his whose overzealous expectations of himself drove him to despair and suicide.  At the end of the story, he admits that he doesn't know why his friend committed suicide, that it was probably an accident, but he wanted to teach Raymund something.  (What?)  Pius and Raymund go inside to discuss the book (student/mentor relationship).
  17. Simon, Tatiana, and Raymund emerge from a matinee and are discussing the movie.  Different standards of assessing it: by what it was trying to do, by its moral value (in particular themes, in general), by its political and philosophical implications, by its entertainment value.  Raymund holds the film to high standards.  Tatiana is interested in its morality.  Simon is more accommodating and positive about it, as a piece of mass culture.  They walk as they talk, with Simon directing them.  Tatiana asks where they're going, and Simon explains that he promised to stop by Pius's house.  Despite the intensity of the conversation, they are enjoying themselves.  The sun is setting.  They arrive at the house as it gets dark, and no one is home.
  18. Pius walks to the evening mass at a local parish.  He thinks about Uncle Leo again and what he would have to say about Saturday evening mass.  They banter in his head about change and drawing hard lines and accommodating the imperfections of reality.  Leo wins the argument, and Pius accepts this, thereby implying (to the reader) that he agreed with Leo all along.  Nevertheless, he deadens himself as he makes the sign of the cross at the beginning of the mass.
  19. Raymund's notebook.  A collection of fragments dealing with his thoughts about relationships and society, most of which focus directly on particular experiences.  The excerpt closes with a long memory of an experience he had in college (the confrontation with Simon and Tatiana).

16 March 2016

A Political Fragment

1.  Every act is the act of an agent.  Every agent acts out of its own nature, which determines its aptitude toward particular acts, and frames the bounds of its possibility.

2.  Human agents act out of their own, human nature, and that human nature is differentiated in each person by various accidental characteristics—things like memory, prejudice, habituation, and physiology.

3.  Man is a political animal.  This means first of all that humans are naturally social—they have relationships with other people.  But to be political is more than that.  Man is a political animal because his life (the set of activities and contexts which make up his everyday way of being) tends to be part of a stable order of dependencies and hierarchies, which constitute a whole, a community.  Man is a political animal because the structure of individual sociability tends to create political order. Wherever humans dwell, the polis soon appears, and with it law, culture, custom, ritual, and social differentiation.

4.  Political order arises from human relationships, between individual personalities.  Personalities are as complex as the experiences and desires of individual persons.  Because in the first instance political relationships are relationships between particular individuals, political order tends first of all to have a personal character, which is born out in most “primitive” societies.  Order and law are located in personalities and social bonds, rather than in the heavens or an abstract realm of ideas—or, the abstract realm of ideas and the heavens are themselves understood in ways that reflect the highly personal character of social order.  As below, so above.

5.  The stability of political order (which leads to the long-term inculcation of certain social positions, relationships, and dependencies) makes possible the emergence of categories of social behavior that are more particular, and less dependent on individual personalities.  The complexity of life which is so present in the rituals, customs, mores, and social hierarchies of primitive societies is gradually sifted and specialized.  In a large city or a developed society, each person needs to worry only about a few things, or perhaps just one thing.  The meaning of social positions is rarefied, creating large uniformities of social position and behavior, within which new currents of activity can develop.

6.  In the introduction to his book The Savage Mind, Claude Levi-Strauss puts forward a contrast between two modes of making and understanding, which he calls bricolage and engineering.  Bricolage is improvisational.  It takes a set of already available ideas and materials and crafts something out of them.  The product of bricolage cannot be conceived without taking note of the materials, and whatever results from bricolage bears within itself a dense array of existing significances, previous uses, and traditions.  Engineering, on the other hand, attempts to start from nothing.  The engineer’s materials are blank; his designs are imposed upon them without restriction.  The engineer is, ideally, a pure maker, whose works are purely artificial.  

7.  The practice or ideal of engineering is made possible over the long term by a certain tradition of bricolage.  It is out of the rarefaction and refinement of our narratives about the world that we make available the most abstract and universal concepts.  Likewise in social relations, the stratification of society, the division of labor, and the refinement of specialties make it possible for us to describe politics in terms no longer directly tied to the complexity of human personalities.

8.  One of the peculiar possibilities opened up through this process of abstraction or social rarefaction is the construction of new cosmic mythologies by groups occupying select social positions, using ready-to-hand concepts and narratives internal to them.