The Reformation of Romance

If today you invite a stranger to discuss art over a nice cup of tea, it would come as a surprise if you went into any subject besides paintings once you had sat down together.  Go back a couple of millennia to hold that same conversation with a conservative Roman, and you’ll find that a diversion into the more practical topics of carpentry, weaving, or any other kind of trade or profession is not only natural but inevitable.  The difference between the two discussions is the tea…or rather the ‘T’.  A Roman would not have discussed A-R-T but A-R-S, and by that Latin term, he would have referred primarily not to sculpture and pottery (much less to oil on canvas) but to crafts, trades, and skills in general.  Indeed, as the root of the word suggests (ar-, to join), ars has always been about any matter in which people fit old things together in order to create new ones, and in ancient times, this would have been thought of first and foremost from a pragmatic point of view.

So what happened to the word?  Why would a stodgy, grizzled Roman like Cato the Elder have concerned himself with the joining of wood to build wagons in place of the joining of colors to please the eye?  Indeed, there can be no doubt that, had Cato been our converser, we would have begun this imagined dialogue with the driest exposition on how to build a miserly carriage and ended it with the averring of some oddly arrived at conclusion that Carthage must be utterly destroyed!  That sort of discussion would be a far cry from its modern analogue, which would inevitably take on a register much removed from the practical concerns of daily life, since modern idiom has come to assume a certain allowance that our ancestors never made for the inutile.  Aristotle would suggest that this evolution is one of progress, that it is only natural for a society, once having achieved a surplus of whatever is necessary for survival, to begin taking an interest in beauty and truth for their own sakes rather than for some ulterior end (Metaphysics 1.980 ff.).

The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman […] brought to every new shore on which he set his foot […] only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset.

—Joyce, Ulysses

We can detect such a progression in the development not only of language but also of ‘myth’, as it were.  I refer to myth as a convention of semiology, however remote the concept might seem from the Postmodern world.  If we put yet another question to that contemporary stranger of ours and ask him what are the foundational myths of our society, he might tell us that the commonest myth he knows of is that a toilet flush will change direction depending on what hemisphere it’s in, when in fact this is not true.  Of course, our philological minds would have hoped for a rather different kind of answer—and in ancient Greece or Rome, those hopes would not have been disappointed.  At least to our assuagement is the knowledge that modern literature may play an analogous role to this dated concept of myth and may show equally well the lexical shift.  Indeed, the very fact that myth has been replaced by literature intimates the progression from practical to impractical.  In place of a craft that is necessary to society, the modern world has an unessential art that is taken up at leisure.

So let us briefly skim through this apparatus, this artistic compendium of myth or literature or whatever you’d like to call it.  We begin with the Greeks and Romans,  whose interest in ars and τέχνη centered around the crafty joining of things for needful purposes.  The joining of materials to create goods and the joining of persons to create persons.  Indeed, the latter kind of joining is spoken of openly in Greco-Roman myth, especially in the form of comedy.  We need look no farther than the character of Circe, a seductive temptress, or of Lysistrata, a masochistic wife, or of Dido, a desperate bedmate—no farther than these to realize that human copulation, in ancient Greece and Rome, was a needful craft, and it was assumed by the society that one could no more abstain from that kind of joining than from the necessary building of miserly carriages.  This was the character of pagan myth, and it wasn’t until Christianity came to the forefront of Western culture that our inveterate myths about love began to revise dramatically.

It follows that Medieval literature regards the art of procreation as a kind of sacred taboo.  Explicit references are replaced by innuendoes, and with the expurgation of so many long-winded discussions of the bedroom, space is made for a whole new kind of discussion: a version of romance that concerns the spirit rather than the body.  Hence, poets of the dolce stil novo are at leisure to praise the spiritual virtues of the beloved rather than being bounded by the “inescapable” drives elicited by the body.  There is now an Art of Courtly Love, rather than a craft.  The basic assumptions about romance have transformed entirely.  Pretty soon it will seem aberrational to suggest that Sex is the tyrannical despot of the human will, and of course, the moment that such a suggestion becomes so anomalous as to shock and appall will be the very same moment that it is opined most forcefully.

But setting aside this apprehension at present, we continue with the Renaissance artists of literature.  Here we still find plenty of vulgar innuendoes, in Shakespearean comedy for example, but nothing more explicit.  In Shakespeare and Spenser there is now a more refined interest in virtue, which has developed out of Medieval philosophy.  Medieval thinkers were the sort of folks that would run around organizing and categorizing every little thing they possibly could.  They would have liked nothing better than to fully index the human soul, and the assumption of this assiduously compiled index is what allowed a poet like Spenser to allude to “The Twelve Virtues”, with everybody pretty much knowing what he meant (thank you Thomas Aquinas).

Moreover, so rational an assumption about human nature—the assumption that it is systematic and organized—is an underlying myth in the Age of Reason as well.  Kantian morality and the concept of Natural Rights would have never been possible had we still been living under the anarchical rule of Sex.  Our understanding of Nature had by now been entirely reformed.  Mother Earth, the reckless, dictatorial, juggernaut, whom primitive man would propitiate for a favorable harvest, had been supplanted by an enlightened Nature, a civil, rational  ideal.

This rational outlook on love and life in general continues to dominate society into the Romantic era.  Of course, our mythology becomes more mystical, and there is now a prevalent belief in the irresistible power of passion, but the latter is always held in tension with an optimistic confidence in man’s aptitude to comport himself with diffidence and decorum even when he is under duress.  By now, Sex has fully abdicated her throne in favor of a Philosopher King, who we might call Reason, Truth, or at least Beauty.  The former tyrant is cloaked deeply in an abstruse garment of circumlocution, and in her place this transcendental other is believed to rule more democratically over nature.

Lest anyone should scoff at this crude generalization, let me be clear that I am referring not to a hard and fast rule about literature, but to a basic assumption inherent in language.  This is where the analogy between myth and literature breaks down.  By myth, I mean the assumptions built into language forming the ideological backbone of society.  These assumptions may be predominate in the literature of the culture, but of course, any person or author is equally at liberty to contradict the presuppositions of an audience for rhetorical effect.  If one should bring up Marquis de Sade as a counter example to the general outlook that I have described, then I respond that the foundational writings of sadism held rhetorical force precisely because they contradicted the foundational myths of society at large.  And so too with the foundational writings of Freudianism.  This is the apprehension that I alluded to earlier.  It is one of the frailties of human nature that, if left to her own devices, she will deconstruct immediately, contradicting whatever is most fundamental to her existence.  If there exists a society—as I argue there does—which has progressed from the tyrannical rule of Biology toward the democratic sovereignty of Beauty, then left to itself, that society will do everything in its power to oppose its own existence as such.  What I mean is that unless we had all been more careful, the onset of the Freudian age was inevitable simply because it wasn’t yet actual.

So what’s it to us if society is reverting to an older form of itself?  I might answer this question by turning once more to the authoritative wisdom of Aristotle—provided that my dear, Postmodern readers will find it in their hearts to forgive me for being so ingenuously classical.  I maintain that the reformation of romance I have described is properly considered progress.  Progress brought about by the onset of Christianity.  Progress bringing about the onset of freedom.  I could hardly imagine a sadder fate for the societies of the Western world than to surrender their own dearly established cultural democracy and allow this neologism of “art” to fall once more into obscurity before it has even fully flourished.  I fear it may be by this impending lexical shift, by which we hope to obliterate the last encumbrance of freedom, that we will instead do away with freedom all together.

In short, I believe that the cultures of the Western world stand at an exciting point in their history.  When the stakes are as high as I have described and we have so much to lose, we have equally as much to gain.  Our modern mythology is more conscious than it has been for several millennia of the greatest Adversary of human reason.  In this way, man’s desperate need for divine grace has never been more blatantly obvious, and our potential to recognize and respond contritely to that need may be enough to elevate art, love, and life generally to a quality which it has never before achieved.  Not a quality of earthly happiness and prosperity, but of austerity and supernatural joy.  We stand then both individually and collectively at a parting of ways.  As human fallibility confronts us head on in this uncertain age, this age in which the integrity of reason itself has been called into question, we may either respond with blissful denial and a naive faith in Human Potential, or we may surrender every last surety and confidence that we held in our own ingenuity to be utterly reformed by the hand of God.

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The Pursuit of Happy Meals

“And what to drink?”

“A Diet Coke.”

“Will that be all, sir?”

“That’ll do it.”

“Okay, sir, let me repeat the order: two large cheese-burger, a side of freedom fries, a Diet Coke, and a medium ice cream cone.”

“Not freedom fries, just freedom.”

“A side of freedom, sir?”

“Right.”  There was a brief pause as the man without a face presumably entered the order into the register.  In theories of rhetoric, it is widely believed that a detailed description of a particular scene will generally facilitate vivid mental imagery.  This in turn will cause a greater impact on the reader or audience.  So while the man without a face is entering the order, allow me, like a good writer, to take this moment to describe the scene for you—before the story gets ahead of itself and has to wait for itself to catch up.

The sky was like an ocean that a giant, who prefers particularly creamy tea, had filled with the proportionate amount of milk for a brew that size.  That is to say that the sky was, as it usually is, a light shade of blue.  Can you picture that?  Under the blue sky, there was a horrifying, ceramic clown head—certainly no excuse for a face—held up by two purple metal poles, with a bright shiny speaker like a bad root canal in its mouth.  The man without a face was speaking through this speaker.  He had a young, innocent voice, almost childish.  Beside this head and speaker was our gentleman’s red convertible.  The gentleman’s convertible had converted itself so that the top was down, since, as we have noted, the sky was blue.

“Okay, sir, and would you like to oversize© that today?”  The man without a face interrupted our description.

“Do I not sound American to you?”

“Very good, sir.  Do you want the toy that comes with the meal?”

“The toy?  What is it?”

“It’s a car, sir.”

“Oh, gee, um, I would, you see, but I’m a busy man.”  He was hesitant at first, but then he gravely added, “I don’t have time to play with toys.”

“Sir, I really think you should take the toy.”  He spoke sincerely.

“I’m telling you I don’t have time!”  The gentleman was a bit annoyed.

“Sir, do you have any young ones, sir?”

“One.”

“A boy or a girl?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Maybe your little boy or girl would like the car.”

“Hm…I suppose that’s a valid point.  Hold on.  He’s right here, let me ask him.”  The gentleman turned to ask his son whether he would like the toy that comes with the meal.  “He says he wants it.  Throw it in I guess.”

“Throw what in where?”

“The toy!  Throw the toy in with the meal!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I don’t throw things sir.” The gentleman didn’t even respond.  “It’s a matter of policy.  A Cadillac or a Corolla?”

“What makes you think an eight-year-old boy is gonna know the difference between a Cadillac and a Corolla?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but if you’re only eight years old, then by law I am prohibited from serving you in the drive-through.  It’s a matter of policy.”

“My son, you idiot!  Not me, my son!  I’m a forty-year-old proletarian breadwinner, past his prime, and suffocating in my bleached-perfectly-white collar of choler, which grows tighter every day!  I only have half an hour to take little Jimmy out to lunch before I have to drop him back at his enriching grade school and return to my tiny, sweaty little office.  I don’t have time for—”

“—would you like that for here or to go?”

“To go, you idiot!”

“Sir, I really think you should eat it here.”

“You what!”

“It’s just, people usually tend to enjoy it better here.  Especially—”

“Enjoy!  People usually enjoy!”  The gentleman was hysterical.

“—Especially when they order a side of freedom.”

“Did you not hear a word I said?  I don’t have any free time at all.  The most I can afford to do is take the freedom to go.”

“But sir it doesn’t work that way.  It’s a matter of–“

“–Give me one, clear, practical reason why I should stay here.”

“Sir, there is a play land out back.”  He nearly pleaded.

“I’m too old for play lands.”

“No sir, it’s not that kind of play land.  I really think you would enjoy it.”

“The nerve you have!  It wasn’t long ago that your average, decent man would be ashamed even  at the thought of a play land for adults.  Now, thanks to the clever Freudian intellectuals and what have you, they’re proud to shout about the sort of thing freely from loudspeakers in front of children!”

“Sir you misunderstood me.  It’s not a play land just for adults either.  It’s a play land for everyone.  All ages, all kinds.  It’s something that Freud could never have dreamed of—and that man certainly knew how to dream.  But this has nothing to do with dreams.  It’s real.”

“Oh, I’ll bet!  I know exactly what this has to do with!  I’m taking my freedom to go—thank you very much—and when I get home from work, I’m yelping about you for false advertising!”

“Do you have time for that sort of thing?”

“You better believe I do!  I have time for whatever I want.  It’s a free country, isn’t it?”  The question was clearly rhetorical, but the gentleman seemed almost unsure.

“I don’t know.  Do you feel free?  I thought you came here looking for freedom.”

“Here?  Here is the last place I’d look for freedom!  That’s why you’re advertising is false.  You tell the public that you can offer them life, freedom, and the pursuit of happy meals, but then when someone asks you to deliver, all you can talk about is some imaginary play land.”

“I told you it’s not imaginary.”  He pouted.  “They serve apple pie.  Part of the healthy-eating act.  You can probably smell it from there.”

“A fantastical play land, floating in the sky, where they serve healthy-eating apple pie.  I’d sooner die.”

“Sir, it’s no such thing.  If you would come in, I could show you it, and you’d understand.  Or really…I can’t say if you’d understand, but you’d definitely believe what I’m telling you.”

“No thanks.  Nothing could be so spectacular that it’s worth the time it would take me to park the car in this sketchy part of town, climb every last one of those brown-tile steps” (of which there were two) “and creek open that slimy smiley-face-door to come in.  That’s not to mention the danger of leaving my car unattended around here.”

“I assure you, there is no need to worry about your car.  There is a car that comes with the meal if you need one.  But what I want to show you is a lot better than that.”

“You’re full of lies.  If I leave my car here someone will hot-wire it and drive off.  Don’t think the internet wouldn’t here about that!  I’ll write everything.  I’ve also heard you’re culinary methods are unethical.  I’m reporting animal abuse and auto-theft.”

“It’s true that our products use a lot of resources.  But I assure you nothing is wasted.”

“I knew it!  You’re killing perfectly innocent cows, aren’t you?  You ought to be ashamed!”

“No, sir, not cows.”

“What then?”

“Men.  Actually, just one man. One perfectly innocent man.”  He was entirely frank.  “That’s all it took, but many others followed him on their own.  All volunteers of course.”

“Look, don’t mess with me.”  The gentleman’s tone changed drastically.  “I have a gun.”

“Sir, it’s the freedom.” Both parties were dead serious.  “You see, it’s hard to come by.  You can’t just get it to go.  It’s a matter of policy.”  By this point, the gentleman had realized that this was no ordinary drive-through.  He and his son had gotten a little lost on the way over, when they came to this place instead of another.  He had assumed the whole ‘freedom’ thing was just some kind of joke.  A funny name for a menu item, exaggerating just how wonderful the potato squares must be, or something like that.  Now, however, it clearly must have been more literal.  Frighteningly so.  He would have left right then and there, were he not overwhelmed with a morbid kind of curiosity.

“You’re killing men?”

“For freedom sir.  That’s why it doesn’t cost anything.  It comes with the meal.”  This was indeed how it was listed on the menu.  “But as a courtesy, if you do order the freedom, we ask that you be willing to go next.”

“To go next?  What do you mean?”  He was afraid to ask.

“To follow the man.”

“But I want to get away from The Man!  That’s why I’m asking for freedom in the first place.”

“No, I mean, you must be willing to die, just like the innocent man was.  You won’t have to die, not really.  Certainly no one will force you to die if you don’t want to.  You just need to be willing to die if you order the freedom.”  This was the most ridiculous thing that Jimmy or his father had ever heard.  There was something eerie too about the way it was said.  The gentleman could have sworn that the man speaking had suddenly become possessed.  Or perhaps it was the ceramic clown head itself that was possessed.  Perhaps he, his son, and that horrific, haunted head were really the only ones there, and this mysterious acousmata, this dire, disembodied voice was insinuating something much more dreadful than anything he could imagine.

“I’ll take my meal now.  How much do I owe?”

“Nothing sir.  But would you like the freedom?”

“Yes, but to go please.”

“You can’t have freedom to go.”  Was that the man talking or the ceramic clown head?

“What on earth could be in this ‘freedom’ that makes it worth all that?”  He laughed uncomfortably.

“Well, I’ve known many people to get a lot out of it.”  The cashier’s innocent, childish tone resumed.  “One fellow, much like yourself, sir, was in a bad marriage, a bad job, and a bad mountain of debts, and this changed everything.”

“So it’s a loop-hole?”  The gentleman had been meaning to get a divorce, quit his job, and file for bankruptcy, but who has the time?  If this ‘freedom’ could take care of all that without any rigmarole…

“—Sir, I didn’t finish.  In that fellow’s case, the marriage, the job, and the mountain of debts still went on just the same.  This only took the bad out of them.”  The gentleman was confused, but he didn’t know what to ask.

“But why do I need to die?”

“You don’t.  Like I said, someone else already volunteered for that position.”

“That’s right.  I forgot.  I only need to be willing to die.  Well then, what if I—how about this: if you give me this freedom…to go…then I’ll be willing to die for now, but then, since no one will force me, I’ll just—if anyone asks, I’ll say—”

“—Sir, that’s not how it works.  Don’t you get it?  That’s what the Freedom is.  It’s complementary—a down right gift, really.  Someone perfect died for you—he died to fix your whole situation—and if you accept that he was willing to die for you, then you’ll be willing to die for him as well.  It’s only natural.  And that right there is the gift, that’s the freedom.  This fellow with the bad marriage, he didn’t suddenly escape from a civic bond imposed on him by the law.  He was liberated from a self-imposed kind of bondage.  For years, he’d been protecting himself from his wife’s attacks.  She was spending all their money, taking advantage of him, robbing banks, and chewing with her mouth open just to annoy him.  A wicked woman, there’s no doubt.  He had nearly lost his mind to paranoia over the next thing she might do to injure his precious self.  But when he accepted Freedom, his perspective slowly changed.  Little by little, he began to realize that he wouldn’t be worried if she came at him with a knife (much less if she spoke with food in her mouth) since he was willing to die.  That’s the gift.  It’s not a loop-hole.”

“But that doesn’t sound like a gift at all.  It sounds like a malady.  Depression or maybe Gothism.”  The gentleman hardly cared to realize how late this all was making him and Jimmy.  Maybe he wasn’t in such a hurry after all.  People often act like their in a hurry only to make themselves seem important.  However, this sort of pretense always betrays itself as soon as something more interesting comes along.  At the moment, this prospective death seemed more interesting than affectations of business.

“The Goths certainly did have something about them, but it wasn’t depression.  An honest monk in a monastery, what do you think he has to live for?  Just this bizarre, mysterious gift.  A gift that consists in being taken from rather than being given to.  An anti-gift, if you will.”

“But freedom is a commodity, not a liability (excuse me, but I’m a business man).  A market is only really free when it has a surplus.  If people don’t have any disposable income, then competitive marketing doesn’t exist, since everything must be sold for essentially no profit.  What I mean to say is that if you take away my car, my time, and my life, I won’t be a freeman—I’ll be a slave, a sucker, and a specter.”

“Not at all—”

“—Let me take it a step further.  Freud suggests that the ultimate legal tender for the economy of human affairs is…something you alluded to earlier.  What I mean is…to be blunt…the man with the most mates is the freest.  In that light, I’m almost tempted to think it a shame…about the play land and all…”

“Let me tell you something.  (I’m speaking to you now not only as your personal cashier—however honorable a title that in itself might be—but also as your fellow human being.)  I once thought exactly the way you just described.  I tried having a surplus of everything.  The modern world insists, after all, that these sorts of lower appetites must be satisfied, if we are ever to be free from pain.  But for some reason I found that the more I possessed, the more I was in turn possessed.  Each commodity was also a liability, and at that, a debt twice as great as its own worth.  The lower pleasures I satisfied, the impulses I acted on—these began to control me.  I believed that pleasure was the way to happiness, and so I was compelled to pursue pleasure, and I could be happy doing nothing else.  In short, I believed in Freudian psychology, and that belief was precisely what made it a reality for me.”  The man without a face had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.  This job of cashier, as some readers may be aware, is one of the most highly sought after vocations of people in that field.  One can understand why.  The faceless philosopher went on:

“But it was one day while eating a happy meal that it suddenly hit me.  It was a fly swatter slightly misguided by an old man without his glasses.  He apologized right away and explained that he had been aiming for a fly that he had heard buzzing in my general direction.  For my own part, I didn’t hear a thing.  But after that happened, I got to thinking about my life, and I realized that I had been calculating my net worth all wrong.  A surplus was exactly what I needed, but not of money or luxury or sex.  I needed a surplus of something else.  I couldn’t really say what it was, but I knew at that moment that whatever it was must be inversely proportional to the kind of worth I’d been pursuing in the past.  Maybe it was a surplus of hope, or something like that.  A surplus perhaps of reason to act.  When we have no such surplus, we can only act to maximize our own pleasure.  But if we have extra reason to act and to exist, we can do both freely.”

“But Freud suggests reasons to act—”

“—Not reasons so much as causes.  Neo-Freudian and popular psychology assumes that human behavior is caused by external events.  That may be true of any individual who believes it, but I have found reason to act in spite of those events.  I have reason to relinquish every pleasure and still be satisfied.”

“And what reason is that?  A dead man?  Is that your reason?”

“It is now, but when I first accepted freedom, I didn’t really understand—”

“—I’m sorry to say that this sounds like the most morbid bit of hogwash I’ve ever heard.  Which reminds me, I forgot to order a drink for Jimmy.  But as to your philosophy, I must say that I will never follow any ideology related to death.”

“Then you are an ignoramus.  Every ideology is related to death.  But let me tell you, when I first came upon this whole philosophy, it had nothing to do with—”

“—Buddhism doesn’t have to do with death.  It’s about inner peace, rebirth if anything.  Come to think of it, Buddhism is about freedom too.  The freedom found through meditation.”  The happy meal seemed a long ways off.

“That’s still related to death.  Call it rebirth if you like, call it anything really, death is still death.  But when I found Freedom, or rather, when Freedom found me, it had nothing to do with death.  It was the farthest thing from death.  Some sentimental people like to suppose that the opposite of death isn’t life but love.  I can’t say I know whether that’s true, but I do know that love his how I found freedom.  These days I feel like I kind of have a surplus of reasons for living.  I’m free to do things that don’t satisfy me at all, and even then, to be completely satisfied.  I used to be a helpless romantic, but now I’m ashamed to admit I’m a helpless altruist, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be.  I wish I could say I figured this out on my own, but really it was all a big, embarrassing mistake.  You see there was this one girl, well…you don’t really want to hear this, do you?”

“Not really.  I’d actually just like my meal now.  You can leave out the freedom.  It’s honestly more than I bargained for.  I’ll take just the happy meal, just the happiness to go, please.”

“Very good, sir.”  He spoke with a cold civility.  “I hope your son is a licensed driver.  It’s a matter of policy.”

From Dust

The splendour of the world in rags

Resplendent darkness hides.  And light

I see the mystery of heaven

That human flesh decays in humble

Waste. A sacred sacrilege

To muck and filth, it burns

With thunder, resounds with fire,

And rages all the more with silent

Wind. Did he lay the foundation

Of earth, a giving grave of life?

Magnum Mysterium (Great Mystery)

For your convenience I have provided an interlinear translation of the text below.  Please enjoy this acceptably dignified and sensitive performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, as Paul Salamunovich directs them on Morten Lauridsen’s well-known setting:

Source: youtube.com

O magnum mysterium,

Great mystery

et admirabile sacramentum,

And sacrament wondrous

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

That animals would see the newborn Lord

jacentem in praesepio.

Lain low in a manger.

Beata virgo, cujus viscera

O blessed virgin, whose womb

meruerunt portare

Became worthy to carry

Dominum Christum.

Christ the Lord.

Alleluia.

Alleluia.

 

Note: some overeager grammarians and Catholic theologians may take umbrage over the fact that I have translated meruerunt as an ingressive.  To all such people I offer my most humble and sincere apologies for this liberty.

How to Impress Girls

Dear Ernest,

Everyone loves a good anecdote, so I thought I’d tell you one: several years ago, while at a composition workshop, I had the privilege of meeting and befriending a fellow by the name of Ben Nakamura.  Ben’s English skills were intermediate at best, but as you and I both know, this put him on par with the upper percentile of all native speakers—a brief perusal of any blog like this one can reveal as much.  Employing such and aptitude for English, he once asked me why I began writing music.  I offered him in reply a lengthy exposition on the purpose of art, the human propensity for creativity, and other such kinds of pretentious philosophical ramblings.  When I had sufficiently despoiled from his mind any presumption of eloquence or compendiousness that he might have held for me in light of my life-long familiarity with our mother tongue, I stopped blabbering and returned to him with the same question.  His response was much simpler: “I started writing music,” he said, “to impress a girl.”  Then he laughed at himself before adding, “it’s okay though.  It turns out I like doing it anyway.”

In your last letter: “I fear you despise your own tongue at times”

In answer to your accusation, I must submit entirely.  I can hardly stand my accursed tongue!  It’s always sloshing around like an unwelcome guest, the umbrage of my mouth, all wet and gross, and always arguing with me.  I don’t care how amusing a scene it makes for passersby—my debates with my tongue are utterly infuriating!  Just the other day we were arguing about Dante.  My loquacious antagonist was of the opinion that the Divine Comedy can be read and appreciated much more deeply under the assumption that Beatrice was not a real person.  I opposed him directly.  If Beatrice were not an actual woman, it would mean that Dante has neglected to provided us with any real-world advice on how to impress girls.  Naturally, I would find this all rather disappointing, since arguing about Dante with my tongue already puts me at a disadvantage in that category.  In defence of my viewpoint, allow me to extrapolate evidence from one of his sonnets, quoting in a language that’s much more dear me by heart than native to me by birth:

“or voi di sua virtù farvi savere.  / Dico, qual vuol gentil donna parere / vada con lei, che quando va per via, / gitta nei cor villani Amore un gelo, / per che onne lor pensero agghiaccia e pere; / e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere / diverria nobil cosa o si morria.”

trans: Now let me make her [Beatrice’s] virtue known. I say that it behoves whoever longs to seem a gentle lady to walk with her, for when she passes by, Love casts a chill into the hearts of the villainous, so that their every thought freezes and perishes.  Whoever might endure standing beside and beholding her—he would either become something noble or die.

(Vita Nuova XIX)

As this sonnet implies, the main point that Dante will try to make in the Divine Comedy is simply this: the best way to impress a girl is not to compose music for her but to write immortal Italian love poetry.  All throughout the epic, the same question recurs.  Dante asks his readers and himself, ‘how does one become worthy?’  Worthy, that is, of so virtuous a lady as Beatrice, of so lofty a poetic theme as the salvation of the human soul, and of so glorious a kingdom as that unending realm of Him who is from Everlasting to Everlasting.  The solution is always immortal Italian love poetry.  Live a life, Dante tells us, that is a love poem addressed to no less a muse than the very God whose name is Love.  Come as you are, base and villainous, and He will cast a chill into your heart so that your every vile thought vanishes into oblivion.  Perhaps this will begin somewhere quite superficial—perhaps you’ll begin ‘pursuing God’ only to impress others with your conspicuous virtues or specious magnanimity, both of which are among the many practical benefits of being a nominal Christian.  But by the time you find yourself ‘midway through the journey of our life’, you just might realise that God has been using all those trivialities to cultivate his own radical vision for you.  He has been pursuing you through all the stupid fancies, all the vanities and futilities that first inspired you to turn toward Him, and now, as the impetus and completion of everything that you are becoming, He has overwhelmed you with His grace and bereaved you of every source of pride, even the pride you might take in your own morality and righteousness.  When He has done all this, you may very well arrive at a solidarity with my friend Ben Nakamura: “it’s okay,” you’ll conclude, “it turns out I like doing this anyway.”

Your servant,

TWM

P.S.  Everything I told you about Ben is true…except his name.  He didn’t really go around using a pseudonym as far as I know.

Sucking the Blood out of a Mosquito

I considered titling this post ‘On Surrealism’, but ‘Sucking the Blood out of a Mosquito’ sounded less stodgy, so I went with that.  Sorry if it grosses you out a little.  Anyway, here it is:

It was one of the primary goals of the surrealist movement to astonish its audience.  I believe the surrealists have succeeded wonderfully in that regard, but I am not sure to what end.  In terms of the impact, there is little difference between a hare getting a tortoisecut and an apple crawling out of a worm—both are surreal and astonishing, but neither one communicates to us a particular truth or wonder.  It seems that in trying desperately to liberate his expressive palette, the surrealist has actually restricted it and very nearly reduced it to utter meaninglessness.  Instead of reconciling fantasy with reality, he has rejected reality altogether, turning inward to the more vivid but even less satisfying world his of imagination.

Salvador Dalí (1904 – 1989) was a Spanish surrealist painter, and at times, a devout Catholic.  He is probably most famous for painting this:

The_Persistence_of_Memory
The Persistence of Memory

Perhaps, considering how iconoclastic a movement he followed, it might astonish us that Dalí was ever a Catholic.  But I think this only reflects how greatly our modern society tends to misunderstand what it means to be Christian.  Unlike Surrealism, Christianity is an ideology with no preference for either novelty or convention.  The Surrealist movement has existed entirely for the sake of revolution—take away the radicalism and the astonishment dies.  But Christianity makes no comment on either the radical or the obvious, and if it harbours any implicit affiliation with tradition, it is that religious tradition exists for the sake of Christianity and not the other way around.  However, while the novelty of Surrealism then poses no incompatibility in itself, there still seems to be a conflict between the Surrealist movement as it originally began and Christianity.  That conflict is the alleged rejection of reason.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, there really is no such thing as illogical thought.  One can believe in the irrational but not experience it.  And this belief is what fuels conventional surrealist art, while also providing its greatest shortcoming.  What I find so uninteresting about an apple crawling out of a worm is not the situation itself, but its implied context.  Surrealism cannot help but take place in a world with no rules, a world with no limitations or conflicts.  But these adversities are the very things that make earthly life interesting in the first place, and to exclude them from an imitation of nature is to overlook the most beautiful thing on this side of eternity: the resolution of dissonance.  Good art doesn’t astonish merely for the sake of astonishment; instead it imitates nature, and that is astonishing in itself.  Perhaps making that kind of art might entail hares getting tortoisecuts or sucking the blood out of mosquitos, but at the same time, every incongruity ought to be rationally explained, and that will make it all the more beautiful.

Sometimes as Christians we can forget how astonishing the world really is.  We too might think that the only recourse from the dull vexation of this revolving planet under the sun is some kind of escape.  But in actuality, we need no compensation for the truth.  There is in fact nothing more astonishing than the most fundamental reality of our lives:

Dalí's painting of the Passion of Christ.
Dalí’s painting of the Passion of Christ.

 

There is nothing illogical about God’s creation, but everything about it is astonishing.  For we could not imagine something more beautiful or surreal than what Our Saviour has done for us in reality.  And what is the purpose of art or even of fantasy if not to reinvigorate once again our astonishment with that truth?

Incidentally, Dalí was also fascinated with rhinoceroses.

Miserere mei, Deus

This is very beautiful.  If you are able to find fifteen minutes of quiet today, I would recommend following along in the text as you listen.  Here it is:

source: youtube

The text is from the Vulgate, Psalm L, Psalm 51 in most English Bibles:

Miserere mei, Deus

Have mercy on me, O God

Secundum magnam misericordiam tuam

According to your great compassion

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum

And according to the multitude of your mercy.

Dele iniquitatem meam

Remove my iniquity.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea

Wash me entirely from my iniquities,

Et a peccato meo munda me

And clean me from my sin,

Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco

For I am familiar with my iniquities

Et peccatum meum contra me est semper

And my sin is always in opposition of me.

Tibi soli peccavi

I have sinned against you alone,

Et malum coram te feci

And in my heart I have done evil before you,

Ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis

So that you were justified in your words

Et vincas cum iudicaris

And vindicated with justice.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum

Behold, for I have been born in iniquities,

Et in peccatis concepit me mater mea

And in sin my mother conceived me.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti incerta

Behold, for you delight in the truth.

Incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi

You have shown me the hidden and secrete parts of your wisdom.

Asparges me hysopo et mundabor

May you purify me with hyssop and I shall be clean;

Lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor

You shall wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam

Grant that I hear joy,

Et exultabunt ossa humiliata

And my humble bones will exult.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis

Turn your face from my sins

Et omnes iniquitates meas dele

And remove all my iniquities.

Cor mundum crea in me Deus

Create in me a cleansed heart, O God,

Et spiritum rectum in meis visceribus innova

And renew your righteous spirit in my guts.

Ne proicias me a facie tua

Do not turn me from your face,

Et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me

And take not your holy spirit from me.

Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui

Give me again the joy of your salvation,

Et spiritu principali confirma me

And strengthen me with your high spirit.

Docebo iniquos vias tuas

I will teach sinners your ways

Et impii ad te convertentur

And the impious shall be turned toward you.

Libera me de sanguinibus Deus

Free me from blood, O God,

Deus salutis meae

God of my salvation.

Exultabit lingua mea iustitiam tuam

My tongue shall exult in your justice.

Domine labia mea aperies

O Lord, you shall open my lips,

Et os meum adnuntiabit laudem tuam

And my mouth shall declare your praise.

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium dedissem utique

Since if you had wanted a sacrifice, I would have given it,

Holocaustis non delectaberis

But you will not be delighted with offerings.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus

The sacrifice before God is a contrite spirit.

Cor contritum et humiliatum

A contrite and humble heart,

Deus non spernet

God will not despise this.

Benigne fac Domine in bona voluntate tua Sion

Act benevolently before the Lord, O Zion, for he is good,

Et aedificentur muri Hierusalem

And the walls shall be built around Jerusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium iustitiae

Then you shall accept a sacrifice of justice,

Oblationes et holocausta

Offerings and sacrifices.

Tunc inponent super altare tuum vitulos.

Then they shall place bulls on your alter.

Is Love Irrational?

More specifically, could love be radical without being irrational?

Ever since the mystical romanticism of nineteenth century western culture, it has become fashionable to regard love as an irrational human sentiment.  People seem to like this notion because it gives love a special place in philosophy: love is not the sort of thing you can write a long philosophical treatise on (or can you?), but instead it is a subject for great poems and works of art.  Of course, this understanding completely disregards any art that may be inherent in the genera of boring treatise writing, which is entirely surpassed, it is supposed, by the capacity of an ardent poet.  Indeed, this superior position seems to be where such a notion of love is placed; it is not merely irrational but super-rational, transcending and exceeding the limits of the human intellect into some supposedly higher, metaphysical realm of unintelligible emotion.

Some readers might think this notion is less novel than I have made it out to be, and perhaps a brief look at gothic love poetry—by which the romantics were allegedly inspired—would reveal so much.  But let me respond to all such objectors with the position that the culmination of that poetic school is actually the dolce stil nuovo—a highly rational understanding of love.  Indeed, there is very little mystical about medieval mysticism.  But enough arguing with my imaginary antagonists; let’s look at an early renaissance passage.  This comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, wherein Eve has just eaten the forbidden fruit and Adam is now throwing a mild hissy-fit over the matter:

“Should God create another Eve, and I

Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee

Would never from my heart; no, no, I feel

The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,

Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State

Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.”

(Milton, Paradise Lost IX.911-6)

The last two lines might seem irrational.  Why would Adam ever pursue a state of woe?  That doesn’t make any rational sense; hence, Adam’s love must be irrational.  But such a reading completely overlooks Adam’s own rationale, which he provides quite clearly: ‘I feel the Link of Nature draw me’.  Milton is referring to the classical metaphor for marriage as a chain (people have been complaining about ‘the old ball and chain’ since antiquity).  So entering into a state of woe is something that Adam would do by compulsion, and thus, he violates no rational principles.  But Adam’s first premise is the most puzzling part of his logical argument: ‘Should God create another Eve … loss of thee / Would never from my heart’.  What does that mean?  If God could make another version of the same thing that Adam holds dear, why on earth would Adam pursue the broken one rather than being satisfied with a replacement?

We could easily imagine this question posed in much a more personal way.  Suppose after thirty-five years of marriage, when the children are fully grown and left the cave, Eve turns to Adam in a moment of personal dissatisfaction and asks him that enduring question which has baffled the mind of every lover since the dawn of mankind: ‘why did you choose me?’  Adam would hardly have found himself in a tighter spot if she had instead asked, ‘does this sheep skin make me look fat?’  But he has an easy way out, a simple, rational answer that has been available to no man since: ‘I frankly had no other options.’   However, much to our amazement and stupefaction, Adam utterly refuses this obvious answer and favours a romantic and seemingly mystical one.  He goes out of his way to create a hypothetical situation in which there are other Eves and then still decides to stick with his particular wife.  Why?

Possession

Dear Ernest,

It has been famously written that ‘man is born free and is everywhere in chains’.  The moment someone first invented the concept of possession, humanity immediately became possessed.  Indeed, the pursuit of wealth is perhaps among the most peculiar habits of mankind.  The whole concept of becoming rich is usually understood in a the most disillusioned light possible.  Claim a piece of land, and it will claim a place in your concerns.  Buy yourself a nice car, and you will also sell a part of yourself to the cares and liabilities that come with.  All and all, the more you have, the more you are had, and it is for this reason that we must be extremely mindful of what we choose to possess and what to let go.

Of course, possession isn’t all bad, and a certain amount of it may even be necessary.  If I call you my friend, then I am implying that there exists a unique level of mutual belonging between us.  After all, I wouldn’t go around granting that title to just anyone.  It would be strange to regard some one-time passerby as a dear friend.  Friendship requires some amount of time, investment, and familiarity.  In other words, it requires that one allow a part of his concerns to be possessed by someone else, and this in exchange for the same degree of solicitude.  But I mustn’t describe this paradigm in only negative terms.  Obviously, by nature of being invested in each other, friends share also in their well-being.

In your last letter: “Was it not stealing to take from me by coming up with your ideas?”

When speaking of ‘possessing wisdom’, I think it is best not to regard beauty as existing in the eye of the beholder.  As most philosophers since antiquity have held, the truth is something valuable in itself.  We needn’t be able to market an idea for it to acquire worth.  This is because, unlike in the world of finance, in the world of philosophy, popularity has no bearing on the value of wisdom.  Instead, philosophising is like digging for dinosaur bones.  There are a predetermined number of bones in existence, so the value we assign to each one is really artificial, and indeed, even the notion that we possess one is a provision made only for the sake of practicality.  A paleontologist needs to eat, and to that end, he may need to claim some kind of possession over his discoveries, but when it comes down to it, God created bones, not men.  Indeed, the only justification for the paleonologist is a rather infantile maxim: finders keepers, losers weepers.

It is the same with philosophers.  The truth is simply the truth.  The fact that I have uncovered some small sector of it doesn’t seem sufficient cause to make me an owner.  However, I might feel a sense of attachment to my discovery much like the attachment felt between friends.  If tomorrow, you should make friends with some other fellow by the name of Thaddeus, then I assure you I would by no means regard myself as someone poorer in your friendship.  If anything, I’d be richer.  As your friend, I would share in your well-being.  Likewise, if someone else should come up with a really clever idea tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel as though my own ideas had depreciated; instead, the whole puzzle of human understanding would grow more interesting and more beautiful, making ideas themselves all together more valuable.  Each of us has our own membership in the body of Christ, and that means we will each understand a different part of who God is.  But if we should ever wonder whether the addition of a new member will cause our own function to become less valuable, then we must remember another bit of infantile wisdom: make new friends, and keep the old.

Your servant,

TWM

The Serial Lover

Dear Ernest,

As I read your letter, I fell, almost involuntarily, into a state of thorough introspection, a consideration of my own habits wherein I examined the ramifications of my efficiency, as you described it, and of each particular mannerism that I possess.  I shortly realised that these subconscious habits you mentioned, these mindless expressions of virtues and of vices, could take place in even least conspicuous expressions of morality—in mere thought—and insofar as they were notions arising at random, could provide, escaping all notice and control, some of the most troublesome and unknowable sources of intellectual sin.  Upon realising this, I began examining my thoughts, searching them for whatever may be of ill report, and finding, much to my dismay, that as I so examined, my thoughts contained nothing more than a contemplation of my thoughts themselves, which left me confused and frustrated by the vain attempt.  Needless to say, I soon directed my attention to a cogitation of recursive systems and fractals.

And indeed, this seems to me to be the fundamental shortcoming of the Freudian age.  Psychology is prefaced, unlike all other sciences, by a philosophy of introspection, not of nature.  Here man does not observe the natural universe outside of himself, using the scientific method from the age of reason, but rather, he observes himself and the inner-selfs of those around him, taking his means instead from the romantic and mystical age that followed.  But the romantics, in all their zeal for formless intuition, and in all their commendable appreciation of the complexity of natural phenomena, appear nonetheless to have overlooked an essential issue that, in a simpler fashion, any adherent of formal reasoning and academic proceedings could have never failed to notice: namely, that the scientist always perceives in the third person only, and that a mirror is not the self, but a false image or resemblance.  Consciousness is, like the speed of light, a cosmic limit, always trailing off in front of an observer at the same rate.  Indeed, the moment man considers his own thoughts, he is no longer thinking them.

In your last letter: “[Love] is not a set of scripts we can write to program ourselves to imitate Christ – it is a continuous choice, an expression of our thoughtful, creative self in ways that show love to others and to God.”

In any case, it remains a question for the ages whether Hamlet loves Ophelia when he says ‘get thee to a nunnery’.  Perhaps the to be or not to be speech is really a demonstration not of suicidal gothicism nor of manic depression, but of prudent foresight and planning for a certain fate; for who could ever imagine such treachery as Hamlet’s dread command going unpunished, even with death itself?  How could he ever hope for a better future than ‘that sleep of death’, his only ‘consummation’—perhaps with some dark but revealing allusion to la petite mort?  If this is so, then there is no more passionate expression of love devised in all of English poetry than the scene that follows.  But it is a very strange kind of love.  One not of intimacy and affection, nor of any warm sentiment that would betray the serial-killer illusion under which our Hamlet is so often typified, but it is a love that exists in thoughts, a love that operates, much like the programming of a computer, by systematic planning and calculated proceeding.  This is the kind of love that submits, in the most dire of circumstances, even to surrendering its very object for the sake of her own good.

 

Your servant,

TWM