Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Tag: Literature (page 1 of 2)

William Shakespeare, “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream”

There are three sets of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Athenians contending over love, the Athenian tradesmen putting on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus’ wedding, the fairies. Puck ends the play asking for leniency “if we shadows have offended” (V.i.430). I wonder if he is speaking about the difficulty of how these disparate groups make the play a coherent whole. He says to regard the play as a dream; an offended audience will have “slumber’d here / while these visions did appear.” A “weak and idle theme” yields little “but a dream” (V.i.432-434).

I won’t pretend to understand all of the play. I know what I’m interested in and can begin to grasp. Nearly all the men in the play want what they want right here, right now. Theseus begins the play by whining that his marriage is a few days away and that’s too long a wait. Egeus demands his daughter obey him and marry someone she thinks little better than a murderer. Demetrius, with Egeus on his side, tries to use the law to force Hermia to marry him. Lysander, the best of the lot, has a plan to elope with Hermia and is certainly not shy about making sexual advances. Bottom, the tradesman who plays Pyramus, is an ass because he exemplifies all these tendencies. He can act the lover and the tyrant far too easily, by his own admission.

Oberon is a strange case. He fits into this mold but complicates it quite a bit. Wanting his wife Titania to give up an Indian boy serving as her attendant so he can make him a knight, he puts a spell on her that causes her to dote on Bottom. That spell seems hideously manipulative. With her unable to control her love, he gets her to drop any claim on the boy and takes him into his possession. He does not seem to explain or apologize for his behavior to Titania. While we can say that Titania’s doting spoils the boy and can potentially make him an ass just like Bottom and many of the other men in the play, Titania herself cites significant reasons for her behavior. The boy, we learn in the beginning of Act II, was the infant son of a faithful follower who died in childbirth. Titania feels responsible for his safety.

The general issue the men raise is that of will. It is neither rational – these men are far from that, believe me – nor reducible to the sort of love that dotes. Venus in Virgil’s Aeneid shows how appetite and carnal love are not really separate from more matronly feelings. Venus will do anything for Aeneas, her son, including kill any number of others while mindlessly focusing on his destiny. I suspect Shakespeare is working with a similar implication regarding Titania. Oberon appears just in his judgment of Demetrius and is genuinely sorry Lysander is a victim of Puck. Still, the problem surrounding his character and moral status should not be ignored. And again, the case for Titania’s stance on the boy is strong.

That fight between Oberon and Titania, to be sure, is the central action of the play. The Athenian lovers are brought together because Oberon is willing to use a love potion to manipulate and humiliate his wife. The justice of the action is terribly unclear, but perhaps I am looking for the wrong thing if I’m focusing on justice. It is helpful that at least one part of the play stands completely outside the central action: the play within a play of Act V. Bottom’s performance as Pyramus would be ludicrous and idiotic whether or not he was loved by Titania or not.

What makes the play within a play a disaster is its overly literal nature. A wall separates Pyramus and Thisbe in the story. Rather than bring in a wall or have the audience imagine one, the actors decide that one of them should act the part of Wall. Another gets the part of Moonshine, since the moon shone upon the tragic night of the lovers’ death. Bottom, playing Pyramus, always makes sure to declare the obvious, announcing he is dying a number of times after stabbing himself on stage. More curious is how Theseus, before the play within a play, talks about how lunatics, lovers and poets are all defined by overuse of the imagination. Lunatics fear too much; lovers hope too much; poets “make” things from nothing, giving to “airy nothing / a local habitation and a name” (V.i.15-16). People who are willful are not always receptive to the idea that their imagination excites them and guides them too much. They like to think they have a direct relation to reality. Theseus himself, inasmuch he is willful, is perhaps subject to this critique. The outstanding question is how will and imagination relate to love; this is somehow related to the fairies and their fight.

Will, imagination and love are all linked by Helena in Act I: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” (I.i.245). She says this to justify her love of Demetrius and what she will do because of it. Not that the mind knows; Helena seems to think herself reasonable, but her speech is more revealing. The mind is rather what love uses to look. There’s a huge difference between knowing and looking with the mind, a difference that I think is between reason and imagination. Helena is why I got into this play. Insecure about her looks, she begins the play by praising Hermia, saying that she wished she had Hermia’s frowns as they’re better than her own smiles. The second Hermia steps off stage, Helena straightaway asks what Hermia has that she doesn’t have, implies that men only like Hermia because they do not know what true beauty is, and asserts that she’s the only who knows what love is. Of course, when two men do fall in love with Helena, she can’t take it seriously. It’s her insecurity on one level that’s the problem, on another this simple truth: love can’t simply be reason alone, because you can be loved and not recognize it at all.

Helena’s character helps illustrate how the play works. When I first read the exchange between her and Demetrius, I thought about how both deserved each other. They do. Demetrius keeps talking about how he wants to kill Lysander and Helena creepily talks about how much she loves him and will love him no matter what. Helena is almost as bad, if not worse, than Demetrius. She knew he would cause trouble if brought around Lysander and Hermia, yet she brought him to them just to see him again. But Helena is not just reflected in Demetrius. Lysander to some degree is in love with love, just like Helena. It makes perfect sense that he might appreciate her more romantic inclinations. The love potion put on his eyes isn’t actually hypnotic. Rather, it reveals truths which underlie love and likenesses which might cause love.

Titania might be the best example of this. If we take Puck’s “it’s all a dream” speech seriously, we can wonder about the visions each of the characters had regarding each other. At the end of Act IV, the lovers are talking like each one has had separate visions; Hippolyta is openly musing about how they all had the same dream. What’s happening, I think, is that the “visions” are revelations. They are imaginative acts which, in this case, yield rational truths. Instead of seeing Oberon as abusing Titania, we can see the nature of the love potion the following way. Titania sees the full consequences of not allowing the boy to become a knight and protect his and her home. He will be spoiled and think himself entitled. Thus, as someone concerned about the wholeness of nature – she points out to Oberon at the opening of Act II that their argument is causing floods, making the land sterile, mixing the seasons – she is persuaded to do differently. That rational persuasion is presented to us, the audience, as a fantastic, dreamlike sequence.

The imagination is about seeing the full consequences of one’s actions, speeches and thoughts play out. This is the deep reason why it is so essential to love, a life together; why it is not simply reason alone. But the imagination alone does not cause love. The difference between the boy being a knight and being spoiled is that of willfulness. A boy that cannot properly will cannot love.

Puck gives two speeches before the play ends. The one before his final speech in Act V is worth a look. There, he talks about nature made whole and useable by man: the ploughman is fast asleep from work, as opposed to frustrated before (contrast with II.i.450-486). He talks about spirits rising from the graves and wandering at night, spirits he confused his own nature with before. Puck knows himself at the end of the play; this was something that he wasn’t quite clear on when we first encountered him (opening of Act II; note the difference between what the fairy says Puck does and what Puck says he does). The fairies make sure not one ounce of dust leaves a house. They are pagan hospitality, the protectors of the home. What is strange is how home is more imagined than real, less willed and more seen. Perhaps Shakespeare’s most beautiful imagery involves the quiet invocation of spirits, of ghosts (see III.ii as well as end of V). Ghosts from the churchyard, ghosts from the unburied, and nature spirits like Puck are how we know home is real, how humanity has a place on earth. Somewhere, we love.

Mark Twain, “A Fable”

Reprinted from about.com. One of the few things I read in my undergraduate years that I enjoyed greatly. Wilson Carey McWilliams had us read this before anything else in the Classical Political Thought course at Rutgers – this was prior to Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine. Your thoughts about the nature of criticism are appreciated: please put them in the comments.

Once upon a time an artist who had painted a small and very beautiful picture placed it so that he could see it in the mirror. He said, “This doubles the distance and softens it, and it is twice as lovely as it was before.”

The animals out in the woods heard of this through the housecat, who was greatly admired by them because he was so learned, and so refined and civilized, and so polite and high-bred, and could tell them so much which they didn’t know before, and were not certain about afterward. They were much excited about this new piece of gossip, and they asked questions, so as to get at a full understanding of it. They asked what a picture was, and the cat explained.

“It is a flat thing,” he said; “wonderfully flat, marvelously flat, enchantingly flat and elegant. And, oh, so beautiful!”

That excited them almost to a frenzy, and they said they would give the world to see it. Then the bear asked:

“What is it that makes it so beautiful?”

“It is the looks of it,” said the cat.

This filled them with admiration and uncertainty, and they were more excited than ever. Then the cow asked:

“What is a mirror?”

“It is a hole in the wall,” said the cat. “You look in it, and there you see the picture, and it is so dainty and charming and ethereal and inspiring in its unimaginable beauty that your head turns round and round, and you almost swoon with ecstasy.”

The ass had not said anything as yet; he now began to throw doubts. He said there had never been anything as beautiful as this before, and probably wasn’t now. He said that when it took a whole basketful of sesquipedalian adjectives to whoop up a thing of beauty, it was time for suspicion.

It was easy to see that these doubts were having an effect upon the animals, so the cat went off offended. The subject was dropped for a couple of days, but in the meantime curiosity was taking a fresh start, and there was a revival of interest perceptible. Then the animals assailed the ass for spoiling what could possibly have been a pleasure to them, on a mere suspicion that the picture was not beautiful, without any evidence that such was the case. The ass was not troubled; he was calm, and said there was one way to find out who was in the right, himself or the cat: he would go and look in that hole, and come back and tell what he found there. The animals felt relieved and grateful, and asked him to go at once–which he did.

But he did not know where he ought to stand; and so, through error, he stood between the picture and the mirror. The result was that the picture had no chance, and didn’t show up. He returned home and said:

“The cat lied. There was nothing in that hole but an ass. There wasn’t a sign of a flat thing visible. It was a handsome ass, and friendly, but just an ass, and nothing more.”

The elephant asked:

“Did you see it good and clear? Were you close to it?”

“I saw it good and clear, O Hathi, King of Beasts. I was so close that I touched noses with it.”

“This is very strange,” said the elephant; “the cat was always truthful before–as far as we could make out. Let another witness try. Go, Baloo, look in the hole, and come and report.”

So the bear went. When he came back, he said:

“Both the cat and the ass have lied; there was nothing in the hole but a bear.”

Great was the surprise and puzzlement of the animals. Each was now anxious to make the test himself and get at the straight truth. The elephant sent them one at a time.

First, the cow. She found nothing in the hole but a cow.

The tiger found nothing in it but a tiger.

The lion found nothing in it but a lion.

The leopard found nothing in it but a leopard.

The camel found a camel, and nothing more.

Then Hathi was wroth, and said he would have the truth, if he had to go and fetch it himself. When he returned, he abused his whole subjectry for liars, and was in an unappeasable fury with the moral and mental blindness of the cat. He said that anybody but a near-sighted fool could see that there was nothing in the hole but an elephant.

MORAL, BY THE CAT

You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination. You may not see your ears, but they will be there.

Learning the Hard Way: On John Updike’s “The Alligators”

The plot of John Updike’s short story “The Alligators” seems simple enough. Adolescent boy thinks he hates adolescent girl and torments her; boy realizes he’s a social outcast like girl; boy falls in love with girl; boy gets rejected, for he is neither needed nor wanted.

To illustrate, starting with the girl:

Everybody hated her. That month Miss Fritz was reading to them during homeroom about a girl, Emmy, who was badly spoiled and always telling her parents lies about her twin sister Annie; nobody could believe, it was too amazing, how exactly when they were despising Emmy most Joan should come into the school with her show-off clothes and her hair left hanging down the back of her fuzzy sweater instead of being cut or braided and her having the crust to actually argue with teachers. “Well I’m sorry,” she told Miss Fritz, not even rising from her seat, “but I don’t see what the point is of homework. In Baltimore we never had any, and the little kids there knew what’s in these books.”

And now, the boy:

This was the one time Charlie saw Joan cry actual tears. He was as bad as the others: worse, because what the others did because they felt like it, he did out of a plan, to make himself more popular. In the first and second grade he had been liked pretty well, but somewhere since then he had been dropped. There was a gang, boy and girls both, that met Saturdays – you heard them talk about it on Mondays – in Stuart Morrison’s garage, and took hikes and played touch football together, and in winter sledded on Hill Street, and in spring bicycled all over Olinger, and did what else, he couldn’t imagine. Charlie had known the chief members since before kindergarten. But after school there seemed nothing for him to do but go home promptly and do his homework and fiddle with his Central American stamps and go to horror movies alone…. Charlie thought the gang might notice him and take him in if he backed up their policies [i.e. torturing Joan] without being asked.

The plot is deceptively simple; the complications are beginning to show. Charlie’s being a social outcast has something to do with him being a bit geeky, whereas Joan is a primadonna. He likes to do homework. Her marks, from what he can tell, aren’t all that good. Moreover, it isn’t clear that Charlie is terribly aware of sexuality yet. He only really sees Joan differently when she starts looking like the other girls. The center of the story – from where the title comes from – has Charlie saving Joan in a dream from a river full of alligators. It is followed by two statements, one which is expected, “He loved Joan Edison,” and another not so expected:

If he carried her off, did rescue her from the others’ cruelty, he would have defied the gang and made a new one, his own. Just Joan and he at first, then others escaping from meanness and dumbness, until his gang was stronger and Stuart Morrison’s garage was empty every Saturday. Charlie would be a king, with his own touch football game. Everyone would come and plead with him for mercy.

The issue for us is whether Charlie really is in love or thinks he’s in love because he wants power. Of course, Joan’s transformation results in this:

In the afternoon [after walking with Joan a bit] the momentum of the dream wore off somewhat. Now that he kept his eyes always on her, he noticed, with a qualm of his stomach, that in passing the afternoon from Miss Brobst’s to Miss Fritz’s room, Joan was not alone, but chattered with others. In class, too, she whispered. So it was with more shame – such shame that he didn’t believe he could ever face even his parents again – than surprise that from behind the dark pane of the variety store he saw her walk by in the company of the gang…. It came to him that what he had taken for cruelty had been love, that far from hating her everybody had loved her from the beginning, and that even the stupidest knew it weeks before he did. That she was queen of the class and might as well not exist, for all the good he would get out of it.

We obviously have to take the narrator’s notions with a grain of salt, given that he’s relaying to us what Charlie thinks, and Charlie, while a bright 5th grader, is still a 5th grader. What’s interesting to us isn’t how Charlie is misreading the situation. The torments this girl went through were real enough, she was forced to fit in. What I’d like to try and get a grip on is Charlie’s boyish pride, that starts from an “everybody hated her” to a realization that he was alone to a love of the girl when it looked like she was trying to fit in to a disappointment when she actually did fit in. The story moves from pride to shame, and what I want to know is how that relates to the development of reason and love. How exactly do we learn – if we learn – from getting things utterly wrong?

There are several narratives underneath the surface. One narrative is the politics of adulthood and childhood. Miss Fritz cried once when a child spilled paint on the floor. Charlie noticed that she was afraid to death of the school board. That same dynamic of fear and torment is used by Miss Fritz to keep order in the classroom when Joan starts up – this school isn’t your old school, fit in now. Getting a response from others is usually perceived to be power, especially if the response isn’t positive. Charlie’s left out as a wannabe: the gang is purposely capricious, and if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be any fun to be a part of.

What’s interesting is what Joan initially represents, before she “changes.” Her character doesn’t change, there’s just a threshold of abuse that everyone has to learn to take. She does represent something exotic, as flower imagery accompanies her all throughout the narrative. When Charlie walks with her and notices her much more closely, it is raining, and she’s wearing perfume. She is something alien, a sexuality that is not more adult as much as it is pushing others to adulthood.

But the ones last to catch on aren’t always dumb or behind. Sometimes they’re like Charlie: the situation is just too complex for an outside adult observer to read, let alone a 5th grader. For example, Charlie’s lament lends strong credence to the idea that students put on an act for teachers and teachers put on an act for their bosses, etc. And the problem with that narrative, of course, is that putting on an act is hard work. It requires an awareness that many don’t have to do consistently. But is it happening? Sure – I remember grade school. I was relatively innocent and still knew a bunch of things I shouldn’t have known. The kids that were less innocent and less bright knew far, far too much, and it did catch up with them. When you can’t pay attention in class because everything is about sex, getting “blitzed,” and power at 13 or 14, you’re not going to pay attention when you’re 21 or 30 or whenever.

At the same time, innocence is not a prerequisite to learning. Experiences that one can work with – experiences that encourage one to think – are. It is no surprise, then, that the Platonic dialogues encourage us to think of philosophy as an art in the sense that cooking or household management are arts. Charlie has those experiences. He likes to draw, and Joan is someone he looks at carefully:

She had a thin face with something of a grownup’s tired expression and long black eyelashes like a doll’s.

…on his tablet where she could easily see over his shoulder he once in a while drew a picture titled “Joan the Dope:” the profile of a girl with a lean nose and sad mincemouth, the lashes of her lowered eye as black as the pencil could make them and the hair falling, in ridiculous hooks, row after row, down through the sea-blue cross-lines clear off the bottom edge of the tablet.

The haircut had brought out her forehead and exposed her neck and made her chin pointier and her eyes larger.

Another peculiar thing was the tan beneath her skin; he had noticed before, though not as closely, how when she colored it came up a gentle dull brown more than red.

We move, in Charlie’s vision, from the colorless to caricatures to the appropriate color. We could sit here and try to think up alternative readings of what Charlie missed or didn’t miss. Perhaps his being in love with Joan, and everyone knowing it, helped earn her the respect of others. Perhaps Charlie isn’t as bright as he thinks he is, and the gang is really a step ahead of him and he’s left out for good reason. But Charlie’s eye for detail really is the key to the puzzle. The other kids have grown up quickly because they have a caricature of what being a grown-up is, and they’re going to stick to the plan. The short story – Charlie’s story – is centered around a river/rain metaphor; he saves her from a river full of alligators, when he walks with her the weather is wet. Alligators grow up in crude, stupid ways too – the trick is to realize when you’re one of them or not.

Just finished a Straussian ritual, Aristophanes’ “Clouds:” Preliminary Notes on the Limits of Comedy

1. Consideration of comedians: they use laughter to make everything ridiculous. The good things, while made ridiculous, still are essentially good and cannot be dismissed. They are necessary no matter how much we laugh. The bad things, made ridiculous, fall away quickly. All comedians – including those who believe all is spin, such as Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert – think they are defending the truest, perhaps the oldest goods in practicing their art well.

2. A more sophisticated consideration of comedy comes about in “The Birth of Tragedy” when Nietzsche associates Socrates with the comic. Strauss on Nietzsche’s “Socrates:”

“He [Socrates] is the prototype of the rationalist and therefore of the optimist, for optimism is not merely the belief that the world is the best possible world, but also the belief that the world can become the best of all imaginable worlds, or that the evils that belong to the best possible world can be rendered harmless by knowledge: thinking can not only fully understand being, but can even correct it….

Rationalism is optimism, since it is the belief that reason’s power is unlimited and essentially beneficent…. Rationalism is optimism, since the belief in causes depends on the belief in ends, or since rationalism presupposes the belief in the initial or final supremacy of the good. The full and ultimate consequences of the change effected or represented by Socrates appear only in the contemporary West: in the belief in universal enlightenment and therewith in the earthly happiness of all within a universal state, in utilitarianism, liberalism, democracy, pacifism and socialism.”

– Leo Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes, p. 7

We must keep in mind that Strauss is only sticking to Nietzsche’s surface here for a purpose. Strauss is putting us in the Aristophanean position of defending the ancestral and seeing Socrates from that viewpoint. Socrates is not Rousseau, and the latter half of the quote is pure Rousseau. Moreover, we have noted from Natural Right and History the truer teaching – reason cannot correct “being.” The whole of being is itself beyond being; reason’s ability to merely apprehend “what is” in all cases is dubious.

However, I bring up this more sophisticated view of the “comic” to make the point that comedy, in appealing to what is “common sense,” begins with the ancestral but is beholden to reason as progress without knowing it. “Common sense” can be concerned with immediate effectiveness, after all. This is an enormous problem because people who love wisdom or are very rational – people who can see 10 steps ahead of everyone else – are not necessarily embraced by the comic. The comic only embraces rationality as optimism: it confuses the two and misses that reasonable people can sometimes see problems the rest dismiss as paranoid ravings.

3. The plot of Aristophanes’ “Clouds” is simple enough: a father, Strepsiades, is of moderate means and is going broke. His son, Pheidippides, is using all the family money to become a superior horseman. These lavish tastes stem from the merger of old and new Athens – Strepsiades didn’t have much money but married rich, and his wife instilled lavish tastes in the son.

So what Strepsiades wants to do is get Pheidippides to go to Socrates and learn sophistry, i.e. the “unjust speech.” With that he can win any lawsuit against creditors and can go back to his son wasting tons of cash and himself, well, sitting around farting (I kid you not. Aristophanes uses this sort of joke every other line). He goes to Socrates’ thinkery himself and runs into new deities Socrates introduces – “the Clouds.” The “Clouds” promise Strepsiades quite a bit if he listens to Socrates, and even give Socrates a hint or two about how to deal with his new pupil. He almost becomes decent enough to defend himself, but doesn’t have the natural ability. Socrates expels him but the Clouds get him to enroll Pheidippides and Pheidippides learns the unjust speech. The father holds a feast for the son but they argue about the pious things; needless to say, son is a lot less pious having worked with Socrates, and beats his father up after the verbal exchange becomes heated. Father encounters the Clouds again and learns from the Clouds that his initial want of injustice brought this on. He turns to piety of a regular sort, and in this turning, decides to burn Socrates’ “thinkery.” This he does, and the god Hermes appears to drive him to expel Socrates and his disciples even from the theater.

4. The structure of the play is very complex – Aristophanes is featured himself as a character, the Clouds are selective in what they tell and don’t tell the audience and other actors. It is possible to get a reading of the play that is very sympathetic to Socrates.

5. I am not in the mood for such a reading. While eros unites all comically in the Symposium, where Aristophanes and Socrates seven years after this play was performed don’t seem to hate each other, the ending of this play is absolutely brutal. The god Hermes condones arson and encourages violence against Socrates and his followers, and Strepsiades, an unthinking brute who was more than willing to treat creditors like dirt when he thought his son could win any lawsuit, is given not a “last laugh” but a rather serious role in the polity. His piety is good enough to get Athens horsemen it will need for war, and makes him useful to the city’s higher purpose of throwing the distracting and unnecessary out.

Aristophanes comes before us as a character in the midst of the play to declare his wisdom; he too is a devotee of the Clouds, who can mimic everything. Only: Socrates believes the Clouds to be a stand-in for human reason – imitation is the province of the imagination and refers back to the uniquely human. Aristophanes sees the Clouds as genuinely divine and claims to be a disciple of Dionysus, the god of wine, himself.

It’s hard to see how Socrates isn’t correct in this debate: how on earth are the Clouds gods? Strauss notes that the Clouds want to be gods that don’t wander, but find a home. They want to reside in Athens. Socrates is their only devotee, but a flawed one. His willingness to consider them divine stems from a rejection of divinity in any traditional sense. What Socrates doesn’t see is that reason is a tool for divine, not just human, purposes. The Clouds may reduce to reason, but it isn’t human reason exclusively – the Clouds are everywhere, and are literally above man.

The Olympian Gods and the city that bears the name of the goddess of wisdom have a stake in the Clouds. Reason can never divorce entirely from “common sense” for Aristophanes. If you look unhealthy, you must be unhealthy – Socrates’ gauntness doesn’t reflect moderation as much as hubris: he thinks himself beyond the human.

But we’ve seen above that “common sense” can be fatally flawed: it doesn’t even realize its own grounding. And fathers, wanting the best for their sons, can end up throwing away years of tradition that might help the city as a whole. Strepsiades is an arsonist at the end of the drama; his pious revelation is just as destructive to the city as the sophist that Socrates is purported to be. Except that it wasn’t Socrates who came into the thinkery asking if he would teach injustice.

Point is, Aristophanes is between a rock and a hard place in defending his comic art. He wants to defend all the good things the city wants at once – wealth, martial virtue, reason/superior speech, piety. Guess what? No matter how much awareness your play may show as to the tensions between those things, even the exaggerated, poorly represented Socrates is in a better position to address the issue of the good. He’s at least honest about the things that aren’t compatible with each other.

So the question we’re left with is: Does human reason, which allows actual apprehension of the good, require a “beating up” of one’s own father? How radical is the questioning of “common sense?” The Platonic and Xenophontic Socrates, the one that would never teach an unjust speech or hold “clouds” to be responsible for all phenomena, keeps the critique very radical. That much Aristophanes got right; what he missed is why it is essential to not give up on lines of questioning. People are going to ask questions about authority no matter what, and it is when they don’t have any questions one has to wonder: either they’re frittering their money away on luxuries like horses, not caring for the debt. Or maybe they’re perpetually at war, with their neighbors and other cities. Finally, if they have no questions, maybe they’re in the most dangerous state of all, thinking they know everything when they can’t even articulate what they believe.

Temptation.

I want to post on the election, and I have no idea why. Yesterday I spent a good bit of time thinking about how all the entries written about the election are now a waste, consigned to the dustheap.

No one – not even me – cares what I thought about Joe Biden some weeks ago. But the poems I’ve written on I’m still mulling over.

So why am I tempted to write something about the news now?

From Waugh’s “Decline and Fall,” for your consideration: “…one of the first discoveries of his [Pennyfeather’s] captivity was that interest in ‘news’ does not spring from genuine curiosity, but from the desire for completeness. During his long years of freedom he had scarcely allowed a day to pass without reading fairly full from at least two newspapers, always pressing on with a series of events which never came to an end. Once the series was broken, he had little desire to resume it[.]”

Before you take that passage as gospel, Josh has noted rightly that Pennyfeather, the person making the observation, is a very problematic narrator.

Comment on Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age:” Hackworth, Authorship and Philosophy

Subject to change when I reread the book.

IT IS POSSIBLE to conceive of knowledge as reflecting an eternal order, a way things should best be done. Knowledge in this case would be linked to Being, whose permanence would be seen in moral laws, aesthetic standards, and intellectual discipline. Confucian and Victorian mores are of this cloth, their unchanging nature making them conventions attempting to describe the way things truly are.

But another way to think of knowledge is as that which generates change. To this end, knowledge uses us as a machine: our most passionate desires only find completion in it because it seeks and finds more than we ever will. The book uses the metaphor of an orgy to bring this out, but what is notable about the orgy is how mechanical the process itself is, not to mention how it is part of a larger mechanism even. Similarly, the old mores are also machines – not only do they produce like-minded tribe members, but since each tribe uses different nanotech in profusion, the air one breathes is one’s culture.

Between the two great machines of ‘knowledge as being’ and ‘knowledge as becoming’ lies the authentically free human, authentic both in the desire to reach beyond oneself to celestial mechanics, and also in finding and loving those caught in the same predicament. Continue reading

Running into a Professor on the Internet feels Weird: On Sophocles’ Antigone, 334-375, the “Ode to Man”

Karl Maurer is a professor of mine, so it is with an especial pride I present to you these lines. I ran into him accidentally on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Brainstorm” blog, and the passage he cited by Nietzsche there is well worth your time. The comment below was left on the blog by me, and is very off-the-cuff and rough. The divinity/rationality comment at the end assumes Sophocles is in agreement with Homer on that issue. I could, quite obviously, be very wrong about that assessment:

Antigone (lines 334-375)
Sophocles (tr. Karl Maurer)

Strange, many things; none stranger than the human.
It crosses foaming sea in winter storm
beneath the sucking
round-roaring swells.
The oldest of the gods, unwithering
and never-resting Earth, man puts to labor
as to and fro year after year the ploughs
pulled by his mules upturn her.

The breeds of the light-headed birds, the tribes
of wild beasts or the ocean’s briny brood he leads
to his nets’ spirals,
far-cunning man.
By cunning he controls the Outdoor Sleepers,
wild beasts that haunt the crags, the shaggy-maned
horse bridled with a yoke strapped to its neck,
the wild ox of the hills.

Language, thought quick as wind, the temperament
for towns he learned, and how to shun the shafts
of frost shot from the sky and darts of rain:
All-solver goes solutionless to nothing,
except to Hades’ house. No flight from that!
Yet from a fatal germ he finds refuges.

Inventive craftsman, unexpected, subtle,
he now embraces evil, now the noble;
honors Earth’s laws and justice sworn to gods,
strong-citied; citiless, picks the ignoble
for love of daring! Such a man may never
be either my hearth-mate or my confidant.

Comment:

1. “It crosses foaming sea in winter storm
beneath the sucking
round-roaring swells.”

Why the image of the sky blowing against the ocean? It’s very strange because the preposition “beneath” seems to confuse the ocean and the sky; despite the “sucking,” the turbulence of the ocean is what man seems to barely notice while cutting through.

2. “The oldest of the gods, unwithering
and never-resting Earth, man puts to labor
as to and fro year after year the ploughs
pulled by his mules upturn her.”

Man seems to accost the Earth as the sky accosted the ocean. When we consider that “crosses foaming sea” may be some sort of allusion to Hesiod’s “Theogeny” and the creation of Aphrodite, one wonders what the real source of turbulence is. We don’t work the Earth because we hate.

3. “The breeds of the light-headed birds, the tribes
of wild beasts or the ocean’s briny brood he leads
to his nets’ spirals,
far-cunning man.”

The real spiral here is a descent – we move from what is higher to what is bestial to what may be primordial. Proteus, the shape-shifting god, transforms into all things because of the primordial character of the ocean.

Why is man’s cunning described in a list that lists easy targets last? The nature of cunning is a base one, since control only is the object. The birds are closest to the divine properly speaking, and they are literally above man. Cunning contrasts with piety, esp. as man uses beasts to tame the oldest god, i.e:

4. “By cunning he controls the Outdoor Sleepers,
wild beasts that haunt the crags, the shaggy-maned
horse bridled with a yoke strapped to its neck,
the wild ox of the hills.”

This list is a narrowing, I assume (I don’t know what Outdoor Sleepers are). The beasts haunting crags are not domesticated at all; horses are somewhat domesticated; the ox is used entirely for the conquest of Earth (the significance of “wild,” I’m conjecturing, is entirely ironic). Again, is this pious? Hesiod and Homer to a degree might say yes, that virtues can stem from the shaping of Earth.

We have an indication that man is alienated from the Earth, that his influence on it is like the turbulent reaction from the ocean to the sky. We yearn for control, whether we have it or not is another story. An ox is domesticated only because a portion of land is controlled in the first place. There’s a lot more out there.

5. “Language, thought quick as wind, the temperament
for towns he learned, and how to shun the shafts
of frost shot from the sky and darts of rain:
All-solver goes solutionless to nothing,
except to Hades’ house. No flight from that!
Yet from a fatal germ he finds refuges.”

“All-solver goes solutionless to nothing” – this is also ironic – man gets solutions only for the problems he can conceive. In a deep way, man has never properly conceived of death (see the Phaedo for the ultimate irony of where this logic goes). Language, thought, mores – these are necessary in order to get solutions, but they stem from something a lot baser, merely getting shelter from the sky.

The “fatal germ” makes me wonder: I think it is the Earth, which we ultimately return to in the darkest sense (we die) but also in our works and days.

We’ve got one more stanza left. How is all this adding up? We started with “ocean” in the first stanza, moved to property/control over beasts, then in this stanza have talked about the sky. Man moves in the first stanza, is at rest in the second, is seeking rest in the third.

The point is, despite the very complicated and beautiful structure, it doesn’t add up. Something is amiss here – the sky governs all in too deep a way, the divine truly is above the human. That’s why the fundamental confusion between sky and ocean to begin with; that’s why Aristophanes considers Sophocles to equal Aeschylus (cf. The Frogs).

6. “Inventive craftsman, unexpected, subtle,
he now embraces evil, now the noble;
honors Earth’s laws and justice sworn to gods,
strong-citied; citiless, picks the ignoble
for love of daring! Such a man may never
be either my hearth-mate or my confidant.”

Politics generally is afflicted by the very strangeness and terror of divinity. Man is untrustworthy because this world is difficult to make sense out of. Is this nihilism? No – the divine can be trusted, must be trusted. It is because of divinity/rationality we were able to make something out of an imperfect beginning. But.

Bookstore

There’s a new Barnes and Noble open near me. I’ve been walking there nearly every day to read, although I carry my own books. Always the dissertation text and one other book – the recent one has been Heidegger’s “Introduction to Metaphysics,” for obvious reasons.

It’s comfortable there: well-lighted, nice furniture, fitting temperature. But the books are terrible, especially for my field. I wonder if this is a consequence of nearing completion of a doctorate? Have I just turned into a book snob?

It can’t be – I look at all the books and I realize something. I could have read everything in that bookstore and not know what I know now. What puzzles me is how all the books are dumped together and people are supposed to magically make sense of it all. Homer lies next to Rimbaud who lies next to Jackie Collins. I couldn’t put any of it together before I started graduate school, how is everyone supposed to get something out of what they read now?

I mean, I remember how I used to read. I’d enjoy the story or vignette or poem, and jot down memorable lines or facts. But all that does is create a scrapbook – it takes fragments of things and leaves them fragments. Ultimately, my own memory is what connects the fragments. Ultimately, all I would do is read and see myself.

I don’t know if I’ve progressed beyond that, whether it is possible to get beyond the entirely subjective. But at least now I can say “so-and-so said such-and-such, and another so-and-so responded to that thought like such.” It’s a narrative about narratives, and still a product of my own mind in a key way. The trick is, it does not receive its entire shape from me. I don’t cut out the fragments I like always; I cut out the ones that others responded to and move towards understanding truly what I like.

There’s something strange about a bookstore being comfortable, when every good book – from Homer to the Bible to Faulkner and Philip Roth – is usually very discomforting. There’s a whole conversation that everyday life only touches on, and to enter it is to enter a world almost alien from that of customer service and slick marketing.

On Reading Slowly

Just a thought, nothing more:

I wonder if all the intellectual virtues can be had merely through reading carefully.

Usually we encourage students to get books done so we can start discussing the whole. But that quite obviously serves the end of rereading, of getting more out of the book the second time.

Rereading is one way to simply read well. There, one has to know the whole book in order to be able to truly appreciate its parts.

Patience, diligence, a sense of justice (only a well-constructed text can be given this sort of treatment), fraternity (in a sense, the author’s words are closer to one than some people), contemplation, appreciation all seem to attend reading one line at a time and trying to make the most out of it. To get one book done well is quite an accomplishment, and that’s what reading should be, no?

It would seem, however, that anyone who merely worships the book using this type of reading would be exceptionally crazy. If those virtues are indeed involved, they would be twisting those virtues towards an unnatural end.

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Brief Incomplete Comment on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (Oedipus Rex)

Adapted from an e-mail I sent recently; I am aware this doesn’t address Benardete’s “trapdoors,” it’s not meant to.

What is below is mostly from the essay “On Oedipus Tyrannus,” by Seth Benardete, in the book Ancients and Moderns: Essays in Honor of Leo Strauss. You can deduce how this reading came about by thinking through Teiresias and Creon. In rejecting the prophet as self-interested and attacking a member of his own family as only interested in overthrowing him, Oedipus demonstrates his impiety, his ‘hubris,’ his attempt to be more than the gods and everyone else. But why does Oedipus want to be more than the gods? Is he a bad guy?

The real irony of Oedipus Tyrannus is that he is a good guy, but his claim to rule is fundamentally corrupt. For the Greeks, kingship was lawful rule, where one became king because the law said so. Tyranny was rule by means of merit – one could be a tyrant merely because one is stronger and willing to use violence, or, in Oedipus’ case, one was stronger by putting the burdens of a people on himself.

Oedipus’ claim is that human rule alone is possible. Benardete wonders if Oedipus beings the play leaning on a stick, because of his initially swollen feet. If so, he solves the riddle of the Sphinx (you have to look this up, it’s outside the play) by merely recognizing two stages in his own life: the baby (walks on fours) and the old man (walks on 3, two legs and a cane) aren’t the answer to the riddle but distractions. This means Oedipus never really solves the riddle, for he never recognizes what man as man – man standing upright and seeing for himself – truly is. “Seeing” explains the end of the play: Oedipus sees truly when he finds out the awful truth, and thus chooses never to see any more.

The true awfulness is in what it takes to be a tyrant, to believe that we alone can rule each other. Piety and family (dependent on piety: all the Olympians are related) have to go if merit is the sole criterion for rule. So it makes sense metaphorically that Oedipus would marry his mother and kill his father – in a world where merit alone rules, and there are only pious guidelines preventing incest and parricide, why not? The world merit alone rules in is introduced by Oedipus himself.

Again, note that Oedipus is not wholly bad. If he is mistaken, he may be mistaken in a way that Sophocles himself might be in error. After all, Strauss says that in the Odyssey Hermes gives Odysseus a plant to avoid Circe’s spell. He doesn’t snap his fingers or just will Odysseus as stronger: rather, it seems, the gods are those who know how all things work. The Greek gods are human reason perfected. Oedipus, in not understanding the relation between man and seeing, cannot be reasonable. But if one truly sees, then Sophocles’ argument for piety and family as simple goods doesn’t quite hold up – it is because we see that we have questions about such things.

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