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?

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?

Gooey Philosophy

In Ecclesiastes 12:12, Solomon noted the vanity of excessive bookishness.  Just for giggles, let’s quote the passage from the Vulgate:

faciendi plures libros nullus finis frequensque meditatio carnis adflictio est

“There is no end to the making of many books, and contemplation is often an affliction of flesh.”

In case you’re wondering, yes, quoting from the Vulgate is quite frankly something that I do for giggles.

Often when I’m writing philosophy or music, I find it the most interesting to make the matter as complicated and involved as possible.  Philosophy is always more fun when it involves enough distinctions and qualifications to make your head spin, and music is more engaging when it’s intricate and difficult.  Moreover, I believe complexity is in fact something to be desired.  Reality is very complicated, so it only makes sense that the human quest for truth and beauty be equally involved.

However, I also recognise that there is something very off-putting about ‘gooey philosophy’, and for that matter, ‘gooey music’.  When things get really convoluted, philosophy beings to seem less plausible and music less beautiful.  I think that one of the most crucial observations to have gone unnoticed by 20th century composers is that once you have the goo, you’re only halfway finished with your work.  What ought to ensue is an elaborate process of simplification and polishing.  It’s all fine and dandy to do strange and barbaric things while at the piano with no one listening, but when there is an audience involved, all such wild inventions must be translated into a civilized form of rhetoric.

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

My thoughts on Volition

Dear Ernest,

In answer to your compendious letter, “Seeking your thoughts on Volition“, I reply that, to the best of my knowledge, every single thought that I have ever produced has been formed entirely on volition, and that I still lack the dubious and scarcely sighted experience–to which your title seems to allude–of producing thoughts in some other singular manner that is, I presume, involuntary.  Furthermore, I would like to make it clear that, if by chance, the interpretation of your letter be erroneous that is presupposed by my replay, and if in fact, you had intended more literally to seek my thoughts by virtue of your own volition, rather than by my compliance–if this be so, then I not only apologise for the mistake, but do myself whole-heartedly urge you to disengage in your vain attempts at telepathy immediately, returning as soon as possible to a more conventional and pragmatic method of dialogical discourse.

That being settled, I voluntarily offer you someone else’s thoughts which I found quite interesting.  They are both on and about volition:

[H]omo est dominus suorum actuum, et volendi et non volendi, propter deliberationem rationis, quæ potest flecti ad unam partem vel ad aliam.  Sed quod deliberet vel non deliberet, si hujus etiam sit dominus, oportet quod hoc sit per deliberationem præcedentem.  Et cum hoc non procedat in infinitum, oportet quod finaliter deveniatur ad hoc quod liberum arbitrium hominis moveatur ab aliquo exteriori principio quod est supra mentem humana, scilicet a Deo. 

“Man is sovereign over his acts, both willing and not willing, according to the deliberation of his reason, which can be turned to one part or another.  But that which he deliberates or doesn’t deliberate, if he were also sovereign over this, this would need to be according to a preceding deliberation.  And since this may not continue ad infinitum, it must finally come to an exterior principle by which man’s free decision is moved and which is itself above the human mind—that is, God” (Thomas Aquinas, S. T. 1a2æ. 109, 2).

Your servant,

TWM