Monday, December 12, 2011

Foucault -- By the sweat of thy brow

On page 55 of Madness and Civilization Foucault writes, “In [the] first phase of the industrial world, labor did not seem linked to the problems it was to provoke; it was regarded, on the contrary as a general solution, an infallible panacea, a remedy to all forms of poverty. Labor and poverty were located in a simple opposition, in inverse proportion to each other. As for the power, its special characteristic, of abolishing poverty, labor – according to the classical interpretation – possessed it not so much by its productive capacity as by a certain force of moral enchantment. Labor’s effectiveness was acknowledged because it was based on an ethical transcendence. Since the Fall, man had accepted labor as a penance and for its power to work redemption. It was not a law of nature which forced man to work, but the effect of a curse. The earth was innocent of that sterility in which it would slumber if man remained idle: ‘The land had not sinned, and if it is accursed, it is by the labor of the fallen man who cultivates it; from it no fruit is won, particularly the most necessary fruit, save by force and continual labor.’

“. . . Pride was the sin of man before the Fall; but the sin of idleness is the supreme pride of man once he has fallen, the absurd pride of poverty. In our world, where the land is no longer fertile except in thistles and weeds, idleness is the fault par excellence. In the Middle Ages, the great sin, radix malorum omnium, was pride, Superbia. According to Johan Huizinga, there was a time, at the dawn of the Renaissance, when the supreme sin assumed the aspect of Avarice, Dante’s cicca cupidigia. All the seventeenth-century texts, on the contrary, announced the infernal triumph of Sloth: it was sloth which led the round of the vices and swept them on. Let us not forget that according to the edict of its creation, the Hopital General must prevent ‘mendicancy and idleness as sources of all disorder.’ Louis Bourdaloue echoes these condemnations of sloth, the wretched pride of fallen man: ‘What, then, is the disorder of an idle life? It is, replies Saint Ambrose, in its true meaning a second rebellion of the creature against God.’ Labor in the houses of confinement thus assumed its ethical meaning: since sloth had become the absolute form of rebellion, the idle would be forced to work, in the endless leisure of a labor without utility or profit.”

Foucault’s provides us with an interesting perspective not only of the development of our treatment of the mad and indigent. It bears a faint but unmistakable hint of Marxism, which may have prevented him from putting this whole matter in an anthropological perspective. The Biblical account of the Eden, the Fall and its aftermath, epitomizes the transition from Hunter-Gatherer societies into farming communities. Prior to this transition, hunter-gatherer women walked about picking fruit, nuts, vegetables, etc while the men were out with hunting. Hunter-Gatherers did not earn their living by the sweat of their brow – not in the sense that a farmer did, planting, weeding, and harvesting his grain or the herder moving his flocks about from place to place to feed and guard them. Prior to this transition man relied upon God’s bounty for food and clothing, but afterward he had work for it.

Anthropological evidence suggests that man’s evolution occurred by fits and starts moving him from the jungle (a place of plenty) out onto the plains to move about from place to place hunting and gathering. But when the weather turned bad, few who couldn’t plant grain and tend flocks survived. This movement from hunter-gathering to farming villages and from thence into towns occurs in the last tiny sliver of our existence. Our hunter-gatherer existence began 1.5 million years ago with Homo Erectus. It is no wonder that we haven’t figured out the best ways of doing things in the short period of time since civilization began. We are making do with the wrong bodies and the wrong needs (based upon what would be right for our hunter-gatherer ancestors).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Foucault's The Great Confinement vs. Lebensraum

On page 46 of Madness and Civilization Foucault writes, “Confinement, that massive phenomenon, the signs of which are found all across eighteenth-century Europe, is a ‘police’ matter. Police, in the precise sense that the classical epoch gave to it – that is, the totality of measures which make work possible and necessary for all those who could not live without it; the question Voltaire would soon formulate, Colbert’s contemporaries had already asked: ‘Since you have established yourselves as a people, have you not yet discovered the secret of forcing all the rich to make all the poor work? Are you still ignorant of the first principles of the police?’”

Further down he writes, “Let us return to the first moments of the ‘Confinement,’ and to the royal edict of April 27, 1656, that led to the creation of the Hopital General. From the beginning, the institution set itself the task of preventing ‘mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorders.’ In fact, this was the last of the great measures that had been taken since the Renaissance to put an end to unemployment or at least to begging. In 1532, the Parlement of Paris decided to arrest beggars and force them to work in the sewers of the city, chained in pairs . . . a decree of Parlement dated 1606 ordered the beggars of Paris to be whipped in the public square, branded on the shoulder, shorn, and then driven from the city; to keep them from returning, an ordinance of 1607 established companies of archers at all the city gates to forbid entry to indigents.”

But with the Hopital, “for the first time, purely negative measures of exclusion were replaced by a measure of confinement; the unemployed person was no longer driven away or punished; he was taken in charge, at the expense of the nation but at the cost of his individual liberty. Between him and society, an implicit system of obligation was established: he had the right to be fed, but he must accept the physical and moral constraint of confinement. . . .”

In England “In 1622 [two years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock] appeared a pamphlet, Grievous Groan for the Poor, attributed to Thomas Dekker, which emphasizing the danger, condemns the general negligence: ‘Though the number of the poor do daily increased, all things yet worketh for the worst in their behalf; . . . many of these parishes turneth forth their poor, yea, and their lusty labourers that will not work . . . to beg, filch, and steal for their maintenance, so that the country is pitifully pestered with them.’ It was feared that they would overrun the country, and since they could not, as on the Continent, cross the border into another nation, it was proposed that they be ‘banished and conveyed to the New-found Land, the East and West Indies.’

Foucault’s book isn’t about those out-of-work lusty labourers and “criminals” shipped off to North America and Australia, but it is worth pausing to think about them. Those who were sent, or requested to be sent, to these new lands endured tremendous hardships, but such hardships seemed preferable to what those who stayed had to endure. And we of Australia, Canada & the U.S. could put off for many years having to establish a system of “confinement” because we could send our malcontents and troublemakers beyond the frontier where they would be killed by natives or the environment or set up new communities and with no help from the people who sent them expand their borders.

Frederick Jackson Turner in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” described the effect of the frontier in glowing terms. It was in the West and not the East where the rugged American identity was forged. The frontier conferred on this rugged individual the power strength to tame the wilderness. This was an attractive concept to many in Europe with (seemingly) no such option. Friedrich Ratzel visited North America in 1873 and read Turner’s thesis; which later German propagandists used to argue the right of the German race to expand within Europe for Lebensraum.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Foucault and the Great Confinement

Foucault discusses (reminding me of the excellent prose of Nietzsche) the sending of the mad off on ships to the sending of them to the Hospital. “Oblivion falls upon the world navigated by the free slaves of the Ship of Fools. Madness will no longer proceed from a point within the world to a point beyond, on its strange voyage; it will never again be that fugitive and absolute limit. Behold it is moored now, made fast among things and men. Retained and maintained. No longer a ship but a hospital.

“Scarcely a century after the career of the mad ships, we note the appearance of the theme of the ‘Hospital of Madmen,’ the ‘Madhouse.’ Here every empty head, fixed and classified according to the true reason of men, utters contradiction and irony, the double language of Wisdom: ‘. . . the Hospital of incurable Madmen, where are recited from end to end all the follies and fevers of the mind, by men as well as women . . .”

“. . . the Hopital General is not a medical establishment. It is rather a sort of semijudical structure, an administrative entity which along with the already constituted powers, and outside of the courts, decides, judges, and executes. ‘The directors having for these purposes stakes, irons, prisons, and dungeons in the said Hopital General and the places thereto appertaining so much as they deem necessary, no appeal will be accepted from the regulations they establish within the said hospital . . .”

Foucault goes on to describe the associated laws the powers of those who run these Hospitals. Once you are inside, there is no appeal. It reminds me of Dana’s Two Years before the Mast, and of Melville’s stories. Why did authorities move from banishment, to something very like banishment in the ships of fools to the confinement in Hospitals? If it had happened in America I would have said that the local authorities ran out of a frontier. The sheriff could no longer tell the unwelcome to get out of town by sundown because the sheriff in the next town would very likely send him back. In the absence of places of banishment, the local officials needed to deal with their own problems locally; which isn’t to say that they didn’t still send the unwanted away, but don’t we still do that today, kicking the homeless out of parks and from under bridges?

Taking responsibility, that is keeping one’s unwanted, is a development in a way, but Foucault doesn’t see it that way: “A quasi-absolute sovereignty, jurisdiction without appeal, a writ of execution against which noting can prevail – the Hopital General is a strange power that the King establishes between the police and the courts, at the limits of the law: a third order of repression. . . . .” Of course if Foucault (or his translator) meant “repression” as a clinical term then I would agree, but if intended to connote negative criticism then I would ask what else was available to them at the time and where else was a better method being employed.

While Foucault doesn’t say what ought to have been done instead, he strikes me as being critical of what was done. And if my suspicion is accurate at times guilty of anachronism -- in his underlying assumption that criminals, the insane and the mendicant should be neither sent away nor locked up.

Think of the confinement of the Japanese during World War Two and of the Arabs at Guantanamo Bay. The initial concern was to protect American citizens; so in each case they rushed through procedures that seemed right to the authorities at the time – just as the French did with their Hospitals. Later on people arose who were critical of these procedures and laws were (are being) changed. The incarcerated are treated more humanely and the places of confinement differentiated: the mad to one place and criminals to another.

“There must have formed, silently and doubtless over the course of many years, a social sensibility, common to European culture, the suddenly began to manifest itself in the second half of the seventeenth century; it was this sensibility that suddenly isolated the category destined to populate the places of confinement. To inhabit the reaches long since abandoned by the lepers, they chose a group that to our eyes is strangely mixed and confused. But what is for us merely an undifferentiated sensibility must have been, for those living in the classical age, a clearly articulated perception. It is this mode of perception which we must investigate in order to discover the form of sensibility to madness in an epoch we are accustomed to define by the privileges of Reason.”

[to be continued]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Das Narrenschiff, Don Quixote and Foucault

Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) was written by Sebastian Brant and published in 1494. Using Wikipedia: “Under the form of an allegory, a ship laden with fools and steered by fools goes to the fools’ paradise of Narragonia. Brant here lashes with unsparing vigour the weaknesses and vices of his time. Here he conceives Saint Grobian, whom he imagines to be the patron saint of vulgar and coarse people.

“The concept of foolishness was a frequently used trope in the pre-Reformation period to legitimate criticism, as also used by Erasmus in his In Praise of Folly and Martin Luther in his Address to the Christian Nobility. Court fools were allowed to say much what they wanted; by writing his work in the voice of the fool, Brant could legitimize his criticism of the church.”

Foucault writes, “The first canto of Brant’s poem is devoted to books and scholars; and in the engraving which illustrates this passage in the Latin edition of 1497, we see enthroned upon his bristling cathedra of books the Magister who wears behind his doctoral cap a fool’s cap sewn with bells. Erasmus, in his dance of fools, reserves a large place for scholars; after the Grammarians, the Poets, Rhetoricians and Writers, come the Jurists; after them, the ‘Philosophers respectable in beard and mantle’; finally the numberless troop of the Theologians. But if knowledge is so important in madness, it is not because the latter can control the secrets of knowledge; on the contrary, madness is the punishment of a disorderly and useless science. If madness is the truth of knowledge, it is because knowledge is absurd, and instead of addressing itself to the great book of experience, loses its way I the dust of books and in idle debate; learning becomes madness through the very excess of false learning.”

Foucault’s emphasis might be questioned at this point. Brant does indeed have a standard against which he judges 110 different kinds of fools, but is it “the great book of experience”? To quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The election of Maximilian as emperor had filled him and many other patriots with high hope. To see in the emperor the supreme temporal ruler of Christian nations, and the Church as the supreme spiritual ruler on earth was his one great desire and henceforth coloured all his poems. Especially did he hope for the restoration of imperial power in Germany and the strengthening of the realm. But he was doomed to disappointment. In 1499 Basle was separated from the empire and became a member of the Swiss confederacy. Brant's position here now became untenable, and he decided to change his residence. . . . Not only follies in the usual sense of the word are satirized, but also crimes and vices, which are conceived of as follies in accordance with the medieval way of thinking. Hence among the fools appear such people as usurers, gamblers, and adulterers. A chapter is devoted to each kind of folly and there are one hundred and twelve chapters in which one hundred and ten kinds of fools pass muster. As a work of art the poem does not rank high, though its tone is serious and earnest, especially where the poet pleads for his ideals, as in chapter xcix, entitled "Von abgang des glouben" (on the decline of faith). Knowledge of self is praised as the height of wisdom.”

The 11th ed of the Encyclopedia Britannica says “Although, like most of the German humanists, essentially conservative in his religious views, Brant’s eyes were open to the abuses in the church, and the Narrenschiff was a most effective preparation for the Protestant Reformation.”

Foucault then turns to Don Quixote: The chimeras are transmitted from author to reader, but what was fantasy on one side becomes hallucination on the other; the writer’s stratagem is quite naively accepted as an image of reality. In appearance, this is nothing but the simple-minded critique of novels of fantasy, but just under the surface lies an enormous anxiety concerning the relationships, in a work of art, between the real and the imaginary, and perhaps also concerning the confused communication between fantastic invention and the fascinations of delirium. ‘We owe the invention of the arts to deranged imaginations; the Caprice of Painters, Poets, and Musicians is only a name moderated in civility to express their Madness.’ Madness, in which the values of another age, another art, another morality are called into question, but which also reflects – blurred and disturbed, strangely compromised by one another in a common chimera – all the forms, even the most remote, of the human imagination.”

For Don Quixote “Poor, he is rich; ugly, he admires himself; with chains still on his feet, he takes himself for God. . . Measureless madness, which has as many faces as the world has characters, ambitions, and necessary illusions. Even in its extremities, this is the least extreme of madnesses; it is, in the heart of every man, the imaginary relation he maintains with himself. It engenders the commonest of his faults. To denounce it is the first and last element of all moral criticism.”

“Denounce” may be what we ought to do when we soul-search, but it seems too strong a word for what Cervantes did. He loved Don Quixote and didn’t denounce him. The reader sees the hallucination but enjoys it. We can take the tilting at windmills as criticism as Foucault does, or we can take it as a noble calling. Let us go out and do what we believe is right even if the whole world calls it wrong. Surely if we believe we are tilting at enemies or errors we would not denounce ourselves. Don Quixote didn’t.

On the Wisdom of Madness

The Middle ages closed, Foucault tells us with the end of leprosy as a major concern. He traces the decrease in the number of leprosariums throughout Western Europe. He speculates upon the “strange disappearance, which was doubtless not the long-sought effect of obscure medical practices, but the spontaneous result of segregation and also the consequence of the Crusades, of the break with the Eastern sources of infection. Leprosy withdrew leaving derelict these low places and these rites which were intended, not to suppress it, but to keep it at a sacred distance, to fix it in an inverse exaltation. What doubtless remained longer than leprosy, and would persist when the lazar houses had been empty for years, were the values and images attached to the figure of the leper as well as the meaning of his exclusion, the social importance of that insistent and fearful figure which was not driven off without first being inscribed within a sacred circle.”

“Leprosy disappeared, the leper vanished, or almost, from memory; these structures remained. Often, in these same places, the formulas of exclusion would be repeated, strangely similar two or three centuries later. Poor vagabonds, criminals, and ‘deranged minds’ would take the part played by the leper, and we shall see what salvation was expected from this exclusion, for them and for those who excluded them as well. With an altogether new meaning and in a very different culture, the forms would remain – essentially that major form of rigorous division which is social exclusion but spiritual reintegration.”

At the Marine base at 29 Palms years ago I subscribed to “The Classics Club” and read every book the Black company sent me. One of them was Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly. How could Erasmus get by with such a book I wondered when enemies of the church, heretics, were being put to death? Was his prestige so great that he was immune? The Middle Ages transitioned into the Renaissance at the same time that Leprosy transitioned into The Ship of Fools. Many, Foucault illustrates, wrote as Erasmus did.

Why “does the figure of the Ship of Fools and its insane crew all at once invade the most familiar landscapes? Why, from the old union of water and madness, was this ship born one day, and on just that day,” Foucault asks? “Because it symbolized a great disquiet, suddenly dawning on the horizon of European culture at the end of the Middle Ages. Madness and the madman became major figures, in their ambiguity: menace and mockery, the dizzying unreason of the world, and the feeble ridicule of men.

“First a whole literature of tales and moral fables, in origin, doubtless, quite remote, but by the end of the Middle Ages, it bulks large: a long series of ‘follies’ which stigmatizing vices and faults as in the past, no longer attribute them all to pride, to lack of charity, to neglect of Christian virtues, but to a sort of great unreason for which nothing, in fact, is exactly responsible, but which involves everyone in a kind of secret complicity. The denunciation of madness (la folie) becomes the general form of criticism.”

Foucault takes la folie as a substitute for death. Instead of being faced with an external death that leprosy reminds us of, we are faced with the internal death of an empty mind. It could as well be said, based on the illustrations Foucault provides that madness, rather than the denunciation of madness, becomes (at least in later times) the general form of criticism (of society, societies members, and societies leaders). Mort Sahl was once a comedian whose prop was the morning’s newspaper. He would find humor in whatever he read and was very popular at “The Hungry Eye” and later on Television. Was he not a fool? He was certainly tolerated as a fool until he became very serious about the second gunman on the grassy knoll. Don’t most comedians bear some resemblance to the fool who is so mad he can insult the king (or Pope) and make him laugh?

Also, the Humanism of the Renaissance deviated from the Medieval (Judeo-Christian) teaching, “raise up a child in the ways of the Lord and when he is old he will not depart from them.” We still raise up a child to respect law and order and hope he will conform to them, but the madman doesn’t conform. He has his own way of seeing thing. He may ridicule Judeo-Christian teaching and modern law and order. And the madman has a great following.

Or think of Heidegger. When he graduated from University he was considered a great treasure by the Catholic Church. It offered him security and a good paying position if he would teach Thomistic Philosophy (the ways of the Lord), but he didn’t want to be constrained in that way. He wanted to follow the humanistic (madness) of being able to think at variance with these ways.

Certainly the scientific method has followed the ways of the madman. We take the old way of thinking and attack it to see if it has flaws and perhaps find a new and better way of doing science.

No doubt it is “early days” in terms of following the great advancements that have come from such madness. But if it is wonderful to be able to find wisdom by thinking at variance with all that was previously considered wisdom, where is there a standard we can teach our children?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Madness, Foucault, Nietzsche & Emerson

As Jose Barchilon, M.D. writes, “Naturally, it is impossible to discuss a book as complex as Madness and Civilization without oversimplifying and doing it an injustice. It is a tale of nuances, relative values, and delicate shadings.” Foucault’s intent is to provide, as his subtitle indicates, “a history of insanity in the age of reason.” Barchilon provides an example:

“Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then ‘knew,’ had an affinity for each other. Thus, ‘Ships of Fools’ crisscrossed the seas and canals of Europe with the comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.”

I read this book back in 1998 and was so impressed by it that I bought several other books by Foucault. I became interested in Foucault from a different point of view after reading Ferry and Renaut’s French Philosophy of the Sixties,” subtitled, “An Essay on Antihumanism. Foucault is one of their villains. On page 77 they write, “When the history of madness is written from a perspective borrowed from Nietzschean or Heideggerian deconstruction of the modern ratio, the ‘natural’ horizon of the topic is a strong defense for the irrational, to which the last pages of this work are unrestrainedly devoted. Passionately describing the great figures of madness (Goya, Sade, Nietzsche), Foucault praises their ‘sovereign affirmation of subjectivity’ (we will question Foucault’s use of this word in what follows), their ‘rejection of natural freedom and equality,’ their ‘excessive expression of violence’ as ‘free exercise of sovereignty over and against nature.’ Through such lightning flashes, the truth of madness returns, a truth reason tries to disguise, the truth of a ‘power to annihilate’ that suddenly rediscovers its own power; with Sade or Goya, ‘the Western world acquired the possibility of overcoming the violence of reason.’ Overcoming reason: the horizon of the interpretation is thus clearly traced, and thus is it entirely logical that the gook should end with an homage to Nietzsche, in whom the irrationality of madness triumphed over what was believed to have negated it.” In the undermining of rationality, Ferry and Renaut see Foucault as being an antihumanist and a detractor of “the subject.”

On page 78 and 79 they write “the whole group of ‘imprisonments’ . . . marked the political arrival of the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which have the names factory, prison, lycee, school barracks, psychiatric hospital – precisely the places where, since 1968 nothing works any more.’ As a result, whoever reads Madness and Civilization carefully will see that what Foucault says about the ‘great confinement’ of the classical age is clearly about the domination of the bourgeoisie, since ‘the classical age is the period of transition between feudalism and capitalism.’”

In the above, Foucault sounds like a Marxist but he considered himself a Nietzschean. In an interview in 1984 Foucault said “Heidegger has always been for me the essential philosopher. . . . My whole philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger. But I recognize that Nietzsche won out,’ to such an extent that one can even speak, he claims, of his ‘fundamental Nietzscheanism’: ‘I am simply Nietzschean and I try as well as I can, in a number of areas, to see with the help of Nietzsche’s texts – but also with anti-Nietzschean these (which are all the same Nietzschean!) – what can be done in one area or another. I seek nothing else, but I seek it with care.”

Why are Americans attracted to Nietzsche and through him to Foucault? In the 16th November 2011 edition of Prospect Magazine, Adam Kirsch wrote “America’s Superman,” a review of American Nietzsche by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. In it Kirsch (following Ratner-Rosenhagen) enumerates a great number of Americans who have been influenced by Nietzsche, Rorty for example, but Nietzsche was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Unlikely as it may seem, Emerson, as Ratner-Rosenhagen explains in a prologue, was one of Nietzsche’s own greatest influences. ‘The most fertile author of this century so far has been American,’ Nietzsche declared, and it is uncanny how many of Nietzsche’s central ideas turn up, slightly disguised, in Emerson’s essays. ‘The only sin is limitation,’ ‘the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it,’ ‘the civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet’: it is the expression more than the substance of these sayings that mark them as the product of Concord, Massachusetts, not Sils Maria.

“Emerson’s insistence on the sovereignty of the self, his skepticism about traditional morality, his metaphysical irony, all prefigure Nietzsche. So why is it that the word ‘Emersonian’ has an infinitely more benign sound than the word ‘Nietzschean’? The reason may have less to do with each thinker’s propositions than with the spirit, and the prose, in which they are advanced. Nietzsche’s Superman and Emerson’s Oversoul are not principles to think with, like Kant’s categorical imperative; they are experiences to be sought. As with all such experiences, they cannot be divorced from the language that induces them; they are, in the strongest sense, literary.

“That is why the difference in style between Emerson and Nietzsche is more telling than the similarity in their concepts. Emerson’s spacious, rippling, blurry prose is the insignia of his trustfulness, just as Nietache’s aphorisms communicate his sarcasm and aggression. Because Americans recognize in Nietzsche the bearer of Emerson’s alienated majesty, they hear the Nietzschean provocation muffled in the old Emersonian reassurance: ‘Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being.’

“The prospect that tomorrow may not bring pleasure and power, but in Nietzsche’s words ‘profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished’ is – even in these days of recession and uncertainty – a notion as remote from American thought as from American experience.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Madness and the Creative Mind

Lionel Trilling’s essay “Art and Neurosis” appears both in “The Liberal Imagination” and “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” He writes, “it was commonly said that the poet was ‘mad,’ but this was only a manner of speaking, a way of saying that the mind of the poet worked in a different fashion from the mind of the philosopher; it had no real reference to the mental hygiene of the man who was the poet.”

Trilling then refers to Charles Lamb, “someone,” Trilling tells us who knew quite a lot about madness. Lamb’s essay “On the Sanity of True Genius” which undertook to refute the idea that the “exercise of the imagination was a kind of insanity.”

In more recent times, Trilling tells us, “the connection between art and mental illness has been formulated not only by those who were openly or covertly hostile to art, but also and more significantly by those who are most intensely partisan to it. The latter willingly and even eagerly accept the idea that the artist is mentally ill and go on to make his illness a condition of his power to tell the truth.”

In regard to those “hostile to art,” Trilling writes, “The excommunication of the arts, when it was found necessary, took the form of pronouncing the artist mentally degenerate. . . In the history of the arts this is new. The poet was always known to belong to a touchy tribe – genus irritabile was the tag anyone would know – and ever since Plato the process of the inspired imagination . . . was thought to be a special one of some interest, which the similitude of madness made somewhat intelligible . . . no one was likely to identify the poet with the weakling. Indeed, the Renaissance ideal held poetry to be, like arms or music, one of the signs of manly competence.

“The change from this view of things cannot be blamed wholly on the bourgeois or philistine public. Some of the ‘blame’ must rest with the poets themselves. The Romantic poets were as proud of their art as the vaunting poets of the sixteenth century, but one of them talked with an angel in a tree and insisted that Hell was better than Heaven and sexuality holier than chastity; another told the world that he wanted to lie down like a tired child and weep away this life of care; another asked so foolish a question as ‘Why did I laugh tonight?’ and yet another explained that he had written one of his best poems in a drugged sleep. The public took them at their word – they were not as other men. Zola . . . submitted himself to examination of fifteen psychiatrists and agreed with their conclusion that his genius had its source in the neurotic elements of his temperament. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine found virtue and strength in their physical and mental illness and pain. W. H. Auden addresses his ‘wound’ in the cherish language of a lover, thanking it for the gift of insight it has bestowed. . . and Edmund Wilson, in his striking phrase ‘the wound and the bow,’ has formulated for our time the idea of the characteristic sickness of the artist, which represents by the figure of Philoctetes, the Greek warrior who was forced to live in isolation because of the disgusting odor of a suppurating wound and who yet had to be sought out by his countrymen because they had need of the magically unerring bow he possessed.

“The myth of the sick artist, we may suppose, has established itself because it is of advantage to the various groups who have one or another relation with art. To the artist himself the myth gives some of the ancient powers and privileges of the idiot and the fool, half-prophetic creatures, or the mutilated priest. . . By means of his belief in his own sickness, the artist may the more easily fulfill his chosen, and assigned, function of putting himself into connection with the forces of spirituality and morality; the artist sees as insane the ‘normal’ and the ‘healthy’ ways of established society, while aberration and illness appear as spiritual and moral health if only because they controvert the ways of respectable society.”

“. . . the whole economy of the neurosis is based . . . on this idea of the quid pro quo of sacrificial pain: the neurotic person unconsciously subscribes to a system whereby he gives up some pleasure or power, or inflicts pain to himself in order to secure some other power or some other pleasure.”

Trilling concludes, “when we have said all this, it is still wrong, I believe, to find the root of the artist’s power and the source of his genius in neurosis.” He takes the more pragmatic view that “one cannot be and do everything and the wholehearted absorption in any enterprise, art for example, means that we must give up other possibilities, even parts of ourselves.” If one has a sufficient degree of creativity and is willing to give up a sufficient number of other things then one can hope to produce art of an adequate quality. And if one gives up everything for it perhaps one will go mad in the process, but there is the chance that this added intensity will result in the production of even better art.

The poetic achievements of Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz have never impressed me. I wouldn’t be willing to go mad in order to write the poetry that they did. Of course if one is mad anyway and through no choice of one’s own that’s another matter. Sylvia Plath was probably mad from an early age. Perhaps Lowell was as well. Dylan Thomas and John Berryman may have been a bit mad but they were also alcoholics. I recall the belief that alcohol like madness could enhance your poetry. Could they have written better poetry if they hadn’t been heavy drinkers? They could certainly have written more of it. But the post-partum depression that occurs after having written a good poem is something like a hangover. How many of those could Berryman experience before deciding to jump off the bridge?

Or Hart Crane off the fantail of a ship – if he jumped and was not thrown? (He was known for not being above importuning sailors and one of them may have been offended in the extreme).

Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions. She seems to have learned to write poetry in one of them. I don’t have the impression that her madness enhanced her poetry; although it was the subject of a lot of it. Her being impressed with the way Sylvia Plath committed suicide struck me as more willful.

Lest the philosopher congratulate himself on not being a poet, Foucault in Madness and Civilization, on page 217 wrote “If the progress of knowledge dissipates error, it also has the effect of propagating a taste even a mania for study; the life of the library, abstract speculations, the perpetual agitation of the mind without the exercise of the body, can have the most disastrous effects. . . The more abstract or complex knowledge becomes the greater the risk of madness.”

On page 285 Foucault writes, “The madness of Tasso, the melancholia of Swift, the delirium of Rousseau belong to their works, just as these works belong to their authors. Here in the texts, there in the lives of the men, the same violence spoke, or the same bitterness; visions certainly were exchanged; language and delirium interlaced. . . The madness of Nietzsche, the madness of Van Gogh or Artaud, belongs to their work perhaps neither more nor less profoundly, but in quite another way . . . from the time of Holderlin and Nerval, the number of writers, painters, and musicians who have ‘succumbed’ to madness has increased . . . but between madness and the work of art, there has been no accommodation, no more constant exchange, no communication of languages; their opposition is much more dangerous than formerly . . . theirs is a game of life and death. Artaud’s madness does not slip through the fissures of the work of art; his madness is precisely the absence of the work of art . . . Nietzsche’s last cry, proclaiming himself both Christ and Dionysos, is not on the border of reason and unreason, in the perspective of the work of art . . . it is the very annihilation of the work of art, the point where it becomes impossible and where it must fall silent; the hammer has just fallen from the philosophers hands.”

Friday, November 25, 2011

V. L. Parrington, Dreiser & James

I find it difficult to read a collection of essays straight through, at least the two collections I’m working on at the present time, namely Hitchens’ Arguably and Trilling’s The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. Picking up Hitchens after a few days I noticed that I look forward to whatever he is going to discuss because he is such an entertaining writer. Trilling on the other hand requires more work and he is very likely going to challenge some inadequate notion I’ve left unexamined.

Hitchens mentioned Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran “in which young female students meet in secret with Xeroxed copies of Nabokov’s masterpiece on their chaste and chadored laps,” and of how “it is at first a surprise to discover how unscandalized the women are.” Hitchens moves on from that provocative comment to other reactions to Nabokov’s novel; which didn’t interest me quite as much. One suspects that keeping women’s minds in the thirteenth century in an age when copying machines, computers and iPods proliferate will be an difficulty Fundamentalist Muslims aren’t going to be able to overcome.

I was more interested in Trilling’s essay “Reality in America, 1940-46.” He begins with a lengthy discussion of V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought. I either read this book as a requirement of a class or read it on my own, but in either case I wasn’t as perceptive as Trilling has been – or if I was it was with a very low level of concern. I can’t recall being positively impressed with the book but have the impression that some professor had implied that we all ought to be; so rather than assuming Trilling’s critical stance I felt a bit guilty for not measuring up to someone else’s idea of excellence.

Parrington had the Liberal view that literature should be “realistic,” thus he doesn’t rate Hawthorne very highly. “Hawthorne’s insufficiency as a writer,” Parrington tells us “comes from his failure to get around and meet people. Hawthorne could not, he tells us, establish contact with the ‘Yankee reality,’ and was scarcely aware of the ‘substantial world of Puritan reality that Samuel Sewall knew. . . We learn, too, that his romance of ethics is not admirable because it requires the hard, fine pressing of ideas, and we are told that ‘a romantic uninterested in adventure and afraid of sex is likely to become somewhat graveled for matter.’ In short, Hawthorne’s mind was a thin one, and Parrington puts in evidence his use of allegory and symbol and the very severity and precision of his art to prove that he suffered from a sadly limited intellect, for so much fancy and so much art could scarcely be needed unless the writer were trying to exploit to the utmost the few poor ideas that he had.”

Parrington’s ideas about realism are still widely held, but those who hold them are a bit more cautious, I suspect, about denigrating Hawthorne and some of the others Parrington finds wanting: “To throw out Poe because he cannot be conveniently fitted into a theory of American culture, to speak of him as a biological sport and as a mind apart from the main current, to find his gloom to be merely personal and eccentric, ‘only the attribilious wretchedness of a dipsomaniac,’ as Hawthorne’s was ‘no more than the skeptical questioning of life by a nature that knew no fierce storms,’ to judge Melville’s response to American life to be less noble than that of Bryant or of Greeley, to speak of Henry James as an escapist, as an artist similar to Whistler, a man characteristically afraid of stress – this is not merely to be mistaken in aesthetic judgment; rather it is to examine without attention and from the point of view of a limited and essentially arrogant conception of reality the documents which are in some respects the most suggestive testimony to what America was and is, and of course to get no answer from them.

“Parrington lies twenty years behind us, and in the intervening time there has developed a body of opinion which is aware of his inadequacies and of the inadequacies of his coadjutors and disciples, who make up what might be called the literary academicism of liberalism. Yet Parrington still stands at the century of American thought about American culture because, as I say, he expresses the chronic American belief that there exists an opposition between reality and mind and that one must enlist oneself in the party of reality.

“This belief in the incompatibility of mind and reality is exemplified by the doctrinaire indulgence which liberal intellectuals have always displayed toward Theodore Dreiser, an indulgence which becomes the worthier of remark when it is contrasted with the liberal severity toward Henry James. Dreiser and James: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”

I considered myself a Liberal during the time I read Parrington, but I was probably not a consistent one because I loved Henry James and didn’t at all appreciate Theodore Dreiser. I recall classes in which Dreiser was presented as worthy of appreciation but I couldn’t manage it. I got hung up on what Parrington would have urged me to overlook: “It was Parrington who established the formula for the liberal criticism of Dreiser calling him a ‘peasant’: when Dreiser thinks stupidly, it is because he has the slow stubbornness of a peasant; when he writes badly, it is because he is impatient of the sterile literary gentility of the bourgeoisie. It is as if wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception, and knowledge were to be equated with aristocracy and political reaction, while dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy . . .”

I was raised in the “reality” Parrington lauds. I knew only manual labor growing. I worked on trucks delivering watermelons. I stoked boilers in the dry-kiln of a lumber yard. I delivered heavy equipment and drove lumber carriers and fork-lifts. I worked salvaging pot metal and clockworks from a burnt-down warehouse. And while going to college I worked part time as a “swamper,” loading and unloading trucks at the docks. But this background didn’t incline me to overlook Dreiser’s inadequacies or to denigrate James’ virtues. But “To James no quarter is given by American criticism in its political and liberal aspect.”

“In The Rise of American Civilisation, Professor Beard uses a significant phrase when, in the course of an ironic account of James’s career, he implies that we have a clue to the irrelevance of that career when we know that James was ‘a whole generation removed from the odours of the shop.’ Of a piece with this, and in itself even more significant, is the comment which Granville Hicks makes in The Great Tradition when he deals with James’s stories about artists and remarks that such artists as James portrays, so concerned for their art and their integrity in art, do not really exist: ‘After all, who has ever known such artists? Where are the Hugh Verekers, the Mark Ambients, the Neil Paradays, the Overts, Limberts, Dencombes, Delavoys?’ This question, as Mr. Hicks admits, had occurred to James himself, but what answer had James given to it? ‘If the life about us for the last thirty years refused warrant for these examples . . . then so much the worse for that life. . . . There are decencies that in the name of the general self-respect we must take for granted, there’s a rudimentary intellectual honour to which we must, in the interest of civilization, at least pretend.’

“And to this, Mr. Hicks, shocked beyond argument, makes this reply, which would be astonishing had we not heard it before: ‘But this is the purest romanticism, this writing about what ought to be rather than what is!’ . . .”

Comment: I read most of James’ novels and a substantial number of his short stories but it wouldn’t have occurred to me suggest that James was writing about “what ought to be.” After reading what James actually wrote I can understand his self-assessment, especially if he compared himself to naturalists like Zola. No one can avoid the “naturalism” of life, but not everyone wants to read about it as well. I recall once visiting an aunt during her lunch period at a Potato chip factory. In the old days before my uncle died she had leisure to read whatever she liked, but after he died she had to go to work and wasn’t interested in reading anything of a “naturalistic” nature. She lived it, she told me. Why would she want to read about it?

There is a Biblical principle that might be brought to bear here: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” [Phil. 4:8] It seems safe to say that those who do the opposite of what Paul is here recommending would lead more pessimistic and depressed lives. Those who can manage to live more as Paul recommends could be expected to be more optimistic and cheerful. Someone might counter with the old Philosophy 1A question, is it better to be a happy fool than an unhappy Socrates? But Paul doesn’t neglect “things” that “are true.” We might guess however that his definition of whatsoever is true would be different from Parrington’s definition of whatsoever is “realistic.” Virgins were being sacrificed at pagan temples in Paul’s day. Those sacrifices were “real” and a Theodore Dreiser of Paul’s day could have written about them and been called by V. L. Parrington “realistic,” but they wouldn’t have met Paul’s criteria of what we ought to think about.

Naturalism isn’t dead. The teachings of Parrington, Beard and Hicks are still being followed. One can still buy recent copies of Dreiser’s works on – and his major works rate higher than the major works of Henry James. The “moral obligation to be intelligent” has never been entertained as a burning need by a majority of those in America – or a majority of those buying books from it would seem.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pfaff on Fukuyama’s Origin of Political Order

The above article appears in the November 24th edition of the NYROB. It is a review by William Pfaff of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: from Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.

Pfaff doesn’t think much of Fukuyama or his book. He refers to both Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man with disapproval A biographical article at provides some insight into why he does so:

“In a long assessment of William Pfaff’s work and influence in The New York Review of Books (May 26, 2005 . . . Pankaj Mishra wrote ‘His broad-ranging intellectual and emotional sympathies distinguish him from most foreign policy commentators who tend to serve what they see, narrowly, as their national interest.’ Pfaff is also indifferent to, and often brusquely dismissive of, the modish theories that describe how and why dominoes fall, history ends, and civilizations clash....

“[In his book, The Bullet’s Song], a long essay on utopian violence, he reiterates his conviction that the idea of total and redemptive transformation of human society through political means is ‘the most influential myth of modern political society from 1789 to the present days.’ Pfaff is especially wary of its ‘naïve American version,’ which, ‘although rarely recognized as such, survives, consisting in the belief that generalizing American political principles and economic practices to the world at large will bring history (or at least historical progress) to its fulfillment.”

I have not been “dismissive” of Fukuyama’s and Huntington’s theses, but have been inclined to pit them against each other in the evaluation of current events and of future possibilities. If Fukuyama were indeed proposing a utopian future based on Liberal Democracy then I would agree with Pfaff, but I haven’t seen that in anything of Fukuyama’s thus far. Could that argument be in the book Pfaff reviews (which I have not yet read)? I doubt it. Fukuyama’s thesis is based upon Hegel’s as “interpreted” by Alexandre Kojeve. This thesis argues that the “end of history” will not be a Marxian one (who turned Hegel upside down) but Hegel’s (thus turning Hegel right-side up). Marxism is indeed Utopian but in all my reading of Fukuyama I have never seen any suggestion that Liberal Democracy, even as the “end of history” comprises a Utopia (unless Pfaff views the end of war as constituting a Utopia). Quite the contrary as his reference to “the last man” signifies.

Pfaff in his review writes “Fukuyama assumes that what Huntington called the ‘third wave of democratization’ has already largely taken place, since at the time he was writing this book the number of ‘democracies and market-oriented economies,’ forty-five at the start of the 1970s (according to Freedom House), had increased to some 120 – ‘more than 60 percent of the world’s independent states.’ Fukuyama therefore claims that liberal democracy is now ‘the default form of government.’ To increase that total and ensure the enlargement of a new democratic international order, it will be necessary to rescue ‘collapsed or unstable governments,’ the issue he says has most interested him as a Washington scholar and think-tank analyst. . .”

We see Pfaff’s “dismissiveness” when he writes “his interpretation of prehistory and history, despite his disclaimer, is close to what the British historian Herbert Butterfield in 1931 termed ‘the Whig interpretation of history,’ which is to say that the past has been a progressive process leading up to us. ‘Us’ is not only England and the United States but Denmark, Sweden, and other exemplary democracies.” The foundation for Fukuyama’s thesis is in Germany (Hegel) and France (Kojeve) not in the ideas Butterfield criticized.

I was surprised later in his review to see this criticism: “He acknowledges the influence of the Enlightenment’s conception and promotion of the rights of man and human equality, and the challenge of its humanist ideas to religion, which widely replaced religious with secular values. But he ignores the most important political consequences of this introduction of the possibility of an earthly utopia, which largely replaced religion’s teaching and that the afterlife was where men and women would find salvation.” Pfaff doesn’t sound here as though he read Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption, Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. If he discusses these matters in The Great Disruption, is he guilty of ignoring them if he doesn’t repeat himself in The Origins of Political Order? Perhaps, if their absence comprises a logical inconsistency, but I am more incline to think the dismissive William Pfaff hasn’t read the former book.

Pfaff might be saying that if Fukuyama were more aware of myths about “an earthly utopia” he might have avoided creating such a myth of his own (a view that a wider reading of Fukuyama would disabuse him of), for further down Pfaff writes, “Post-Enlightenment secular theories of history, as generally recognized today, had the characteristics of substitute religions. Marxism-Leninism and National Socialism, the most important of them, were teleological and utopian. Marxism claimed to provide a comprehensive explanation of society’s existence and its foreordained outcome. It expected to transform the human condition, and, when achieved, to explain and justify all that had gone before.”

Pfaff spends most of the rest of his article arguing that there is no evidence that human nature has in any way improved since the beginning of recorded history. I agree with him here, but so does Fukuyama. Fukuyama treats human nature, at least in The Great Disruption as unimprovable. He begins that book with a quote from Horace, which translated reads “You can throw out Nature with a pitchfork, but it always comes running back and will burst through your foolish contempt in triumph.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Duffy the crow hunter

The last 23 photos in the November 2011 gallery were from this morning.  The watermelon and squash fields had been picked and plowed and no one was about so we went down a farm road separating two of the fields.  I noticed a few crows.  One passed somewhat close to us and I photographed it going away.

On the way back Ginger and Sage dawdled underneath some trees while Duffy and I went on ahead.  Duffy got 30 or 40 feet in front of me when a crow dived at him, cawing the while.  Duffy was startled and crouched out of the way.  The crow wasn’t more than a foot or two above him as it flew past.  After this Duffy ran back and got behind me.

“Those crows are mean, better stay with me, Duffy,” I said to him, but I had no sooner spoken than he decided he wasn’t afraid of any stinking crow and chased back after it.  I didn’t get the photo of the first close pass but photo 224 shows him chasing into the field after one of the crows.  Several of them took offense at that and about 4 came after him.  I have one shot of that going on, photo 226.  Duffy seemed befuddled, but he didn’t run off.  When the crows flew a short distance away he chased one of them.  Photos 229 and 230 show him looking back to see if I had a problem with anything he was doing.  When I didn’t say anything one way or the other he seems to have decided that he would leave them alone if they left him alone.  Photos 231-235 show him watching the trouble makers.

Btw, I finished the March 2001 gallery, and started on the February 2011 gallery, posting some of the older photos.  These two months have a lot of Duffy in them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thomas Hart’s “Reading”

I attempted to respond to Thomas Hart’s blog note on “Reading” but his blog wouldn’t let me; so I’ll respond on mine. The first difference I noticed is that Hart’s reading program is much more organized than mine. Also, he seems to have mapped out the reading he expects to do in the next ten to twenty years he expects to live (barring accidents). I haven’t any such schedule but my doctor leads me to believe I can expect to accompany Hart through most of the next twenty years – barring accidents and illnesses such as cancer which doctors can’t always anticipate.

Hart is a Carmelite secular, we read in his note “About Me” at . He maps out the books he expects to enjoy through his remaining years which savors of monastic order, and a resting in secure belief. I on the other hand am Presbyterian, of a denomination consistent with the early American Presbyterians whom George III accused of starting the American Revolutionary War. The early Presbyterians were Calvinists and it was Calvinism, according to Max Weber, that gave rise to the “Protestant Work Ethic.” I didn’t become a Presbyterian until I was in my early 40s, but I always had something like the Protestant Work Ethic. I wouldn’t have been out of place in Pre-Revolutionary America.

I have a library like the one Thomas Hart has in his basement. Perhaps we have some of the same books. I have a substantial number of Catholic Theologians on my shelves, but perhaps not the same ones that Hart has. I had a very brief interest in Aquinas after having been called a Thomist by a Process Theologist (Process Theology was derived from the Process Philosophy of A. N. Whitehead). At the time I knew little about Aquinas and nothing about Process Theology. In the course of debating this fellow I rectified my lack of knowledge about the latter. My counter arguments caused this fellow to resort to insult in lieu of anything better. I set out on a mild quest to read Aquinas, but in the absence of a strong incentive my interest waned. I respect Aquinas and have nothing against him. I would probably have studied him at greater length were I Catholic. I recall that Martin Heidegger was offered a permanent position if he would agree to being a Thomistic philosopher. He rejected the offer believing it would confine him too much. I had no such worry in my own study of theology. I was doing it on my own without oversight.

While I haven’t too terribly much about theology on my blog, I studied it for about eight years back in the 80s. When I retired to San Jacinto in 1998 I may have had one of the largest theological libraries in town. Mine was larger than the pastors of the Presbyterian churches we were members of. I came to Presbyterianism because it was closest to what I believed not because I was brought up in it. I was never interested in restricting myself to Presbyterian writers. On Church history I was very impressed by Jaroslav Pelikan, especially his five-volume series on The Christian Tradition. In an on-line discussion at the time a Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary (the seminary which educates most of the conservative Presbyterian pastors) asked me why I spent so much time with Lutherans so I asked him for the names of some alternatives. He mentioned Heiko Augustinus Oberman. I appreciated Oberman but I appreciate Pelikan as well. As to Catholics, I have appreciated among others Aloys Grillmeier’s series Christ in Christian Tradition, although I have not read Grillmeier in a systematic way.

My theological presuppositions, a la Cornelius Van Till, were centered on the canon. I accumulated a wide variety of points of view on each book of the Bible and would pit them against each other as I studied. After several years and numerous debates, the aforementioned professor asked me why I kept on. I wasn’t going to be a pastor or teach in a seminary, so why did I keep studying? I didn’t have a good answer.

Later I thought the best answer was that I was a sort-of lower-case polymath who believed in the ethic presented in Proverbs which isn’t inconsistent with the Protestant Work Ethic, “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.” I haven’t just studied theology. I mastered engineering well enough while working in aerospace. At one time I was interested in geology and went on rock and mineral expeditions in Southern California. At another time I was interested in astronomy and cosmology. I had an even greater interest in archaeology and anthropology. Later I became interested in genetics. I am very interested in European, Medieval, and Military history. All the while I have been interested in writing. I have written a good deal of poetry and seven novels, although I haven’t tried in any more than a perfunctory way to get any of them published.

Unlike Hart, after 9/11 I studied Islam, Islamism, and the histories of the most of the Muslim nations. I tend to do everything with “all my might”; which sometimes translates into a great deal of thoroughness.

Most recently I have taken up an interest in photography. One can see a number of these photographs at A few people asked if I intended to become a “professional photographer.” I understand that to be asking whether I intended to sell any of my photographs. I told them I did not. I am pursuing photography with the same intensity I have pursued everything else. Perhaps because of this I have become a better photographer than most people are willing to become, but so what? Christians are taught not to compare themselves with others but to compare themselves with themselves; which I take to mean an evaluation of one’s gifts and then a determining through self-examination whether one is exercising them to the fullest extent. I haven’t the comfort of a Carmelite framework. When I expire during the next twenty years, I hope to be “about my father’s business.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Trilling on Eliot, VI, the notion of human progress

Trilling writes that the “. . . notion of progress [is] a belief shared by the bourgeois and the Marxist, that the direction of the world is that of never-ceasing improvement.  So far as Marxism goes, this idea seems to have a discrepancy with the Marxist dialectic, for it depends on a standard of judgment . . . the judgment of direction, the certainty of what ‘higher’ signifies and what ‘better’ signifies.  One has only to hear a Marxist defend (as many a Marxist will) the belief that through the ages even art shows a definable progress and improvement to understand how untenable the notion is in any of its usual statements.  And the progress which is held to be observable in art is held to be no less observable in human relations. 

“And from the notion of progress has grown that contempt for the past and that worship of the future which so characteristically marks the radical thought of our time.  The past is seen as a series of necessary failures which perhaps have their value as, in the dialectical way, they contribute to what comes after.  The past has been a failure: the present – what can it matter in the light of the perfecting future?  And from – or with – a sense of the past as failure, and of the present as nothing better than a willing tributary to the future, comes the sense of the wrongness of the human quality at any given moment.  For while they have always violently reprobated any such notion as Original Sin and by and large have held the belief that, by nature, man is good, most radical philosophies have contradicted themselves by implying that man, in his quality, in his kind, will be wholly changed by socialism in fine ways that we cannot predict:  man will be good not as some men have been, but good in new and unspecified fashions.  At the bottom of at least popular Marxism there has always been a kind of disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be.”

COMMENT:  What is being described here is a Marxist eschatology.  The Christian eschatology this most closely approximates is Postmillennialism.  They both hypothesize a future time when humans will be much closer to perfection than they are today.  Close enough so that human failings the world is used to become almost nonexistent.  This is another case, perhaps, where Marx addresses a Christian ideal and proposes to accomplish the same thing by material means.  

Postmillennialism envisions this improvement in human nature to be accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Marxism envisions this improvement to be accomplished by Socialism.  Atheists will argue that there is no Holy Spirit to improve man by changing him in such a way that he more closely approximates the image of Jesus Christ.  Very well, I would ask the Socialistic atheist, what in a material system is to effect this change?  Marx wasn’t specific, but Socialists have had a long time since his death to think about it  We have seen Socialism at work in many forms and stages.  Has anyone at any time in any place seen the sort of human improvement here alluded to?   

Postmillennialism is described as an “optimistic eschatology.”  There will be a time when the “Word of God will cover the world as water covers the floor of the sea.”  It is “optimistic” because this will occur on earth prior to heaven.  The other two major eschatologies, Amillennialism and Premillennialism are “pessimistic.”.  There will be no improvement in human nature and only small numbers will be saved.   The Marxists from Trilling’s time sound “optimistic” about a Materialistic future.  I wonder if that optimism exists in the Marxist remnant that survives today.

Trilling picks up Eliot’s arguments after this to say that while they are no more tenable than Marxism, at least Eliot is not deceiving himself. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trilling on Eliot, V (Marx, Wordsworth, Hardy, Henley)

Trilling writes, “. . . it is incidentally significant that . . .  in every nation touched by the Revolution, the novel should have taken on its intense life.  For what so animated the novel of the nineteenth century was the passionate – the ‘revolutionary’ – interest in what man should be.  It was, that is, a moral interest, and the world had the sense of a future moral revolution.  Nowadays the novel, and especially in the hands of the radical intellectuals, has become enfeebled and mechanical: its decline coincides with the increasing indifference to the question, What should man become?

“The heightened tempo of events will go far toward explaining the change – the speed with which calamity approached, or sense of the ship sinking and our no doubt natural giving to survival the precedence over the quality of the life that was to be preserved.  Much of the change can be laid to the account of Marx, for it was Marx, with his claim to a science of society, with his concept of materialistic and dialectical causation, who, for his adherents, made the new emphasis seem unavoidable.  Considerations of morality Marx largely scorned; he begins in morality, in the great historical and descriptive chapters of Capital, but he does not continue in it, perhaps because he is led to believe that the order of the world is going to establish morality.  He speaks often of human dignity, but just what human dignity is he does not tell us, nor has any adequate Marxist philosopher or poet told us: it is not a subject which comes within the scope of their science.

“Yet not merely upon the tempo of events nor upon Marx himself can we lay the indifference to the morality and to aims.  It must fall . . . on the total imagination of our time.  It is the characteristic of this imagination so to conceive the human quality that it diminishes with ever-increasing speed before the exigencies of means.

“Lenin gave us the cue when, at the end of The State and Revolution, he told us that we might as well postpone the problem of what man is to become until such time as he might become anything he chose.   One understands how such a thing gets said; but one understands, too, that saying it does not make possible a suspension of choice already made and the making of it was what gave certain people the right to wonder whether the ethics and culture of Communism were anything else than the extension of the ethics and culture of the bourgeois business world.  For many years the hero of our moral myth was the Worker-and-Peasant who smiled from the covers of Soviet Russia Today, simple, industrious, literate – and grateful.  Whether or not people like him actually existed is hard to say; one suspects not and hopes not; but he was what his leaders and the radical intellectuals were glad to propagate as a moral ideal; that probably factitious Worker was the moral maximum which the preoccupation with immediate ends could accommodate.

“[This] diminished ideal . . . represented by that Worker is what Mr. Eliot would perhaps call, in his way, a heresy.  But from another point of view it is also a practical, a political, error.  It is the error which lies hidden in materialist and rationalist psychology.  Against it a certain part of the nineteenth century was always protesting.  Wordsworth was one of the first to make the protest when he discarded the Godwinian view of mind . . . it was in protest of the view of man shared alike by Liberal manufacturing Whig and radical philosopher, the view that man was very simple and individually of small worth in the cosmic or political scheme.  It was because of this view that Wordsworth deserted the Revolution; and it was to supply what the Revolution lacked or, in some part, denied, that he wrote his best poetry.”

COMMENT:  It is pertinent to think again of Ferry & Renaut’s French Philosophy of the Sixties, subtitled “an Essay on Antihumanism.” Ferry & Renaut’s essay was written in 1985, 45 years after Trilling’s essay on Eliot.  Not all of these Antihumanists could have been known by Trilling, but the idea of them would have been.  That is, Foucault is mentioned, but he is mentioned as deriving from Nietzsche, and Derrida from Heidegger, Bourdieu from Marx and Lacan from Freud.  Trilling didn’t assert that any of the (latter) philosophers had set out to dehumanize man, nor do Ferry and Renaut make this allegation, but an effect of their philosophies has been to diminish man.  What can the “good life” be in the face of such destructive arguments?  What can the intelligent novelist, i.e., the novelist who accepts some form of anti-humanism, write about that is not colored by despair?  Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, and The Mayor of Casterbridge come to mind as examples. 

Is there some way to rise above or repudiate the rampant anti-humanism that pervades our thinking?  Religion has that potential.  The Anti-Humanists have all declared God Dead, but backing away from that un-provable hypothesis is a start.  In the West we are used to Christianity.  We Christians are not left in doubt as to what we should become.  The Holy Spirit, Scriptures tell is, is transforming us into the image of Jesus Christ.  Transforming us kicking and screaming seems to be the case for most of us, but the ideal, the goal is out there for us to see and we don’t repudiate it. 

Many Christian thinkers today oppose what they perceive as an exalting of man over God, calling it “humanistic.”  But the modern philosophers they have in mind aren’t interesting in elevating man.  There is very little of that in their philosophies.  I was most recently reading Heidegger and a major concern of his was a despairing harking back to tradition as a probably-vain hope that something better could be made of Germany.   The Russian followers of Marx exalted the Worker as Trilling describes, but that Worker and his paradise were shams. 

Wordsworth was no Christian, but he saw the emptiness of a belief in Godwin’s philosophy.  He didn’t advance any alternatives that impressed Trilling.  Eliot turned to Christianity for several reasons.  Anyone who has become a Christian later in life can trace the path through several reasons (or arguments) that led to his becoming a believer.  At least one of those reasons was pragmatic.  Eliot couldn’t survive the conclusions of The Waste Land.  He couldn’t survive the conclusions he drew of the First World War and its aftermath.  

Could Eliot have been faking it, using Christianity as a means and not an end?  That doesn’t seem possible.  What benefit could he have found in a Christ he didn’t really believe in?  Paul wrote in First Corinthians 15 words to the effect that if Christ was not raised from the dead then we are the most miserable of men.  In order to be a Christian one must so believe, and if this belief is entered in to optimism becomes a possibility.  Jesus said, “In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be not afraid for I have overcome the world.” 

Or one can take the approach of Hardy who envied those who can experience optimism:

. . . At once a voice arose among

    The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

    Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,

    In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

    Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

    Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

    His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

    And I was unaware.

Or one might try for the self-encouragement of William Earnest Henley partially recovering from a disease writing,

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

I tend to take a pragmatic view of these matters.  Henley was a sickly fellow who spent years in hospitals.  His unconquerable soul lasted him only 53 years. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

RE: Trilling on T. S. Eliot, III, (the Christian State)

Someone challenged me a bit about Kaczynski.  I read Kaczynski’s Manifesto & commented on it to some extent at the time.  I was amazed that anyone could hold those thoughts in this present age.  Later, in 2005, I read Harvard and the Unabomber, the education of an American Terrorist.  Kaczynski was building himself a better revolution and working at Berkeley while he did it.  He left the Berkeley milieu with the Leftist-Environmental mindset that is probably still significant at that University (as well as at Harvard where he was education).   

Alston Chase, a former professor of philosophy with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton specializes in “intellectual history.”  Kaczynski was a fitting subject for his study.  He was passionate about his beliefs and logical and coherent in his argument for them.  He hypothesized a disestablishing of human civilization to such an extent that what succeeded it would be consistent with the balance of nature – something Al Gore and many others hope for in a vague way without drawing the conclusions Kaczynski did. 

I tend to think he saw himself as having the courage to take the “next step” in a Leftist-Environmentalist revolution.  He hoped others would see his example, his sacrifice for the cause and follow him.  Anders Behring Breivik’s “massacre” of Norwegian civilians was like that.  There are all sorts of philosophies and philosophical nuances floating around and it isn’t surprising that some become fanatical converts and decide to take them to excess.  Another example is the anti-abortionists who decide to kill doctors.  Doing that is repudiated by every organization that opposes abortion, but the murderous “next step” isn’t illogical.  The death of doctors who perform abortions will save babies.  My opinion about this is that people who propagate philosophical and religious positions that can readily be taken to excess should take responsibility for what they are teaching and at the very least argue persuasively against excess such as Kaczynski’s, Breiviks’s & those who murder abortion doctors.  Some people cannot hear about environmental, immigration, and abortion concerns without wanting to do something with them.

Alston interviewed Kaczynski and remained in contact with him.  In 1998 Kaczynski wrote, “I suspect that you underestimate the strength and depth of feeling against industrial civilization that has been developing in recent years.  I’ve been surprised at some of the things that people have written to me.  It looks to me as if our society is moving into a pre-revolutionary situation.  (By that I don’t mean a situation in which revolution is inevitable, but one in which it is a realistic possibility.)  The majority of people are pessimistic or cynical about existing institutions; there is widespread alienation and directionlessness among young people. . . .  Perhaps all that is needed is to give these forces appropriate organization and direction.”

No, something more is needed.  Your revolution needs sociopaths who aren’t subject to the Christian morality that gave rise to Western civilization.  You, Breivik & the murderers of abortionists fit this description but not enough of Western Civilization has been ripped away for your numbers to be anything but small

Trilling on T. S. Elliot, IV (the good life)

Trilling writes, “Yet when we have recognized all the inadequacies of Mr. Eliot’s conception there still remains a theoretical interest which in the long run has, I think, its own practical value, and this lies in the assumption upon which Mr. Eliot’s society is based.  Mr. Eliot . . . in his essay on Pascal makes clear what the grounds of his belief are.  Mr. Eliot is talking about the ‘unbeliever’s’ inability to understand the way the ‘intelligent believer’ comes to his faith; the unbeliever, he says, ‘does not consider that if certain emotional states, certain developments of character and what in the highest sense can be called ‘saintliness’ are inherently and by inspection known to be good, then the satisfactory explanation of the world must be an explanation which will admit the ‘reality’ of these values.’  This sentence, which could not have been carelessly written, indicates that Mr. Eliot is perhaps closer than he would admit to the pragmatic theology of Matthew Arnold which he so much disdains.  But the exact nature of Mr. Eliot’s theology is not for the moment important.  What touches our problem of a whole new intellectual world and what I should like to take hold of, not only for itself but for what it indicates beyond itself, is the morality with which Mr. Eliot is concerned.  ‘I am inclined,’ he said some time ago, ‘to approach public affairs from the point of view of the moralist,’ and over and over again he has insisted that to think of politics and economics as independent of morality is impossible:  impossible in an ethical sense – the political and economic theorist should not so consider them; and impossible in a practical sense – the theorist cannot construct his theories except on the ground (often unexpressed) of moral assumptions.  ‘I feel no confidence in any scheme for putting the world in order,’ Mr. Eliot said, ‘until the proposer has answered satisfactory the question: What is the good life’

“Everybody, of course, approves of morality.  Even Leon Trotsky, who was suspicious of the morality of all moralists, spoke well of it.  But, like Trotsky, most people think of morality in a somewhat ambiguous fashion: it is something to be cultivated after the particular revolution they want is accomplished, but just now it is only in the way; or they think of it as whatever helps to bring the revolution about.  But Mr. Eliot thinks of morality as absolute and not as a means but an end; and, what is more, he believes that it is at every moment a present end and not indefinitely postponable. . . When he says that he is a moralist in politics he means most importantly that politics is to be judged by what it does for moral perfection, rather than for the physical easement, of man.  For the earthly good of man . . . is moral perfection; what advances this is politically good, what hinders it is politically bad.”

COMMENT:  Bernardette Dohrn at the SDS Reunion on November 30 2009 (available on YouTube) conceded that their attempted revolution had failed but expressed hope that a future revolution would succeed.  Dohrn was a member of the most radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society, but many in the SDS and in the Left in general believe that the U.S. would be best served if its Liberal Democracy were eliminated and replaced by “something better.”  I don’t recall Dohrn’s precise words but “something better” is probably a serviceable paraphrase.  What this “something better” is to be she doesn’t say.  If one was of the Left back in the Vietnam Days then “something better” was what they had in the USSR.  Failure of “the revolution” in the thoughts of Dohrn probably includes failure of the USSR.  The SDS by the way has been revived.  There are 150 chapters protesting the war in Afghanistan.  While few would argue that Dohrn’s Weather Underground favored a high-view of morality, other experiments were gentler:

The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education was founded by George Ripley in 1841 as an experiment in communal living inspired by the ideals of Transcendentalism.  The experiment was later revised after the ideas of Charles Fourier.  Ripley gave it up as a failure in 1846.  It was poorly financed and managed, but did it achieve any moral benefits?  Some enjoyed the atmosphere.  Nathanial Hawthorne didn’t.  Henry David Thoreau hated it.  George Ripley’s wife later described the Brook Farm optimism as ‘childish, empty, and sad.”

Someone who had the luxury of creating an experiment in his imagination and not actually having to put it to the test was Edward Bellamy.  His Looking Backward: 2000-1887 portrayed a Socialist society in which all moral evils had been eliminated.  Yes, there is still a bit of crime, but it is considered a medical rather than a criminal matter.  Bellamy’s social paradise approximates.  Utopians share the idea that man is born good and corrupted by inadequate societies. 

I suspect the idea that if a perfect society can be created perfect morality will follow must be laid at the feet of Rousseau.  Rousseau in his “Discourse on Inequality,” held that uncorrupted morals prevailed in the state of nature.  Assuming this to be correct, what was needed to create a society in which perfect morals prevailed was to construct it on the pattern of nature.   His model man was the independent farmer.  The Unabomber proposed something like that in his manifesto.  Societies were largely agricultural in Rousseau’s day, but in the day of Ted Kaczynski society would have to be deconstructed to put the independent farmer back in a key role.  Kaczynski, a Leftist idealist from Berkeley, was happy to begin his revolution in his own small way, letter bomb by letter bomb. 

What these revolutionary utopias have in common is 1) Details of the destruction of Liberal Democracy are described and in some cases begun, but not the details of how to build the perfect state that is to follow.  And 2) Moral standards are not described.  What the good life is to consist of isn’t addressed beyond physical care, control and maintenance.  

[I needn’t mention but I will anyway, that Communist states have been constructed, and while there may have been some of benign ideals in the minds of some of the creators, what was actually created could be distinguished from other tyrannies by name only.]

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Trilling on T. S. Eliot, III, (the Christian State)

Eliot [in his The Idea of a Christian Society] “projects a society which will exist in three aspects – what he calls the Christian State, the Christian Community, and the Community of Christians.  This more or less Platonic triad exists, as we cannot help observing, on a rather minimal Christianity.  For the heads of his Christian State Mr. Eliot demands no more than that they be educated to think in Christian categories; for the rest, the criterion of their value is to be the same to which statesmen have always submitted – not devoutness but effectiveness.  ‘This may,’ Mr. Eliot says, ‘frequently perform un-Christian acts; they must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.’  The State, we are told, is Christian only negatively and is no more than the reflection of the Christian society which it governs.  Yet this society itself is not permeated by a very intense Christianity.  The mass of its citizens make up the Christian Community and their behavior is to be ‘largely unconscious’ – for, because ‘their capacity for thinking about the objects of faith is small, their Christianity may be almost wholly realized in behavior: both in their customary and periodic religious observances and in a traditional code of behavior toward their neighbours.’

“What is left, then, to give the positive Christian tone to the Christian Society is what Mr. Eliot calls the Community of Christians, a group reminiscent of Coleridge’s ‘clerisy’ but more exclusively an elite, constituted of those clerics and laymen who consciously live the Christian life and who have notable intellectual or spiritual gifts.  It is they who, by their ‘identity of belief and aspiration, their background of a common system of education and a common culture’ will collectively form ‘the conscious mind and conscience of the nation.’  They are not to constitute a caste and so are to be loosely joined together rather than organized, and Mr. Eliot compares them in their possible wide effectiveness with the segregated in intellectuals who now write only for each other.”

COMMENT: While Eliot’s Christian-State “solution” may be naïve and impractical, his recognition of the problem is valid.  I recall a great number of discussions and debates where an act or a course of action was asserted to be good or evil, but when I questioned the basis, the set of assumptions, the standards that must or at least ought to bear upon such an assertion, the discussion lapsed into smoky vagaries.  Some of what Eliot is advancing is based upon solid ground, that is, the principles that have been developed through the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian moral tradition. 

The Marxist-Left has no such system of principles.  Consequently when they gained power in Russia they “winged it,” they made up principles as they went along.  We saw the effects of that in the U.S. known as “the party line.”  There was no univocal “principle” but merely a “line,” what happened to be believed at the present time, and could be, and frequently was, changed during Stalin’s reign and that of the leaders who followed him.  This “Left” was negatively constructed.  They attempted to set up a Leftist society based on a Marxist oriented Party Line, but it succumbed to raw human nature with its desire for power.  Nietzsche’s “will to power” provided a better description of the mature Soviet society than Marx’s Communism.

Rampant Christianity gave rise to Western Civilization as we know it.  Christian moral principles remain good and reasonable.  Lest I be accused of vagueness, consider the Ten Commandments (using the KJV) which comprise the great foundation and example of Christian morality:

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  Gloss:  While belief in God cannot be mandated, those how do believe in the Christian God will have no “other Gods” and that in today’s terms would include such beliefs as Fascism and Communism.  We might observe from a practical standpoint that Liberal Democracy, which rose out of Christianity in the West has proved more effective than anything developed from those who ran after “other gods.”  Fukuyama’s “End of History” is consistent with having “no other Gods” from a pragmatic standpoint.  Fukuyama may be an atheist, I don’t know, but on this one point, he is consistent with the idea of having no other gods.  More specifically we see Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World, describing Christianity as the necessary foundation of the West.  It was during the developmental period monotheistic.  Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, this commandment has been weakened in the West.  Not only are nations prevent from mandating Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, they are prevented from mandating any religion (or God).

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  Gloss:  This two might best be considered applicable only to practicing Christians.  In a Liberal-Democratic Society, non-Christians should be permitted to create graven images if they like.

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.  Gloss:  Again, belief in God cannot be mandated in a Liberal Democratic society, but it seems to be a demonstrable fact that beliefs are handed down from father to son and one generation to the next.  And if an erroneous or impractical belief is handed down, there will probably be consequences.  I think here of the anarchism that arose in Europe prior to WWI (see Shattuck’s The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I), and the pacifism that developed later.  Those erroneous and impractical beliefs resulted in destructive consequences to those nations who most strongly held them.  People who inherited these beliefs were of the third and the fourth generation of those who originated them.  France in 1940 was perhaps the most pathetic example of the consequences of following the erroneous beliefs of ones’ foolish ancestors. 

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”  Gloss:  This applies to believers.  Someone who speaks frivolously of the God he claims to believe in would not be seen as sincere in his belief by other believers.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”  Gloss:  This applies to believers in different forms.  Some Christians follow the Jewish tradition and keep a literal day as holy.  Some Christians say the Jewish Sabbath was translated into the “Lord’s Day” by Jesus.  Some Christians invoke Hebrews Chapter Four and see the entire Christian era as “the Day of the Lord,” as we rest from our own works and trust in Christ for our salvation.

“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”  Gloss:  This commandment in a Christian Society would be applicable to all, believers and unbelievers. We can see it at work in many of our social programs.  We in the West have taxed ourselves in order to provide Social Security and Medical aid to our old people. 

“Thou shalt not kill.”  Gloss:  Pacifists have used this commandment to justify their position, but a majority of theologians exegete this commandment to mean “Thou shalt not murder,” and murder is against the law throughout the West.  We cannot say it is a universal law because many societies do permit murder.  For example, consider the “honor killings” practiced by Conservative Muslims.  Judicial executions and killing in war are not considered (by a majority of theologians) to be proscribed by this commandment.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Gloss:  This commandment is applicable to believers.  No Christian church I know of condones adultery.   Some churches may excommunicate those who commit adultery, probably not for a single lapse that is repented of, but in perhaps all denominations the serial adulterer will have difficulty remaining a member in good standing.  In some churches adultery, adultery leading to divorce, remarriage after divorce considered as adultery are treated as “unforgiveable sin”; however, the only sin described as unforgiveable in the New Testament is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which is usually interpreted as repudiating an act of the Holy Spirit when he is urging someone to turn to Christ and be saved. 

“Thou shalt not steal.”  Gloss:  This seems to be a universal principle, applicable to believers and non-believers alike.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  Gloss:    This is often considered to mean “thou shalt not lie,” but that would be true only if it was expanded to say “thou shalt not lie in such a way that someone else is harmed.”  Going to court and lying about someone in such a way as to cause them to be convicted of something they didn’t do would be a violation of this commandment, but any lie that hurt someone else would also be a violation.  On the other hand if you said to the Gestapo in 1943 “there are no Jews hiding in my cellar,” when your cellar was chockablock full of them,” you would not be in violation of this commandment.  We have laws against slander that are consistent with this commandment.  Telling your sensitive aunt Margaret that her ugly hat looks great would not be a violation of this commandment (unless your false statement caused her to injure herself or someone else).

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbours.”  Gloss:  While this commandment has not been translated into law in any Western nation as far as I know, most of us can appreciate that it is wise advice (even for those who don’t accept it as a commandment).   “Keeping up with the Joneses is a cliché for bankrupting oneself in pursuit of neighborhood status.  Coveting someone else’s wife has led to many a divorce, not to mention ruined lives and the occasional murder.  Coveting a neighbor’s car might cause one to buy a car he really can’t afford resulting in eventually having it repossessed or perhaps resulting in personal bankruptcy.  Being content with what one can afford and what one has is an attitude to be cultivated as a wise alternative.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Trilling on T. S. Eliot, II (philosophical & theological quietism)

Trilling wrote, “Perhaps Mr. Eliot’s long if recalcitrant discipleship to Matthew Arnold gives me some justification for quoting Arnold once again:  of criticism he said that ‘it must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent.’  It is with this sentence in mind that I urge the importance of Mr. Eliot’s book.

“In the imagination of the Left Mr. Eliot has always figured with excessive simplicity.  His story was supposed to be nothing more than this: that from the horrible realities of the Waste Land he escaped into the arms of Anglo-Catholic theology.  This account may or may not be adequate; but as we review the ten years in which Marxism flourished among the intellectuals and then decayed, we can scarcely believe that this story, if true, is the worst that could be told of a man in our time.  Whatever is censurable in it depends on the blind power of that word ‘escape’ and on our attitude to theology.  For theology I certainly do not make a stand, but when Mr. Eliot is accused of ‘faith,’ of the ‘surrender’ of his intellect to ‘authority,’ it is hard to see, when the accusers are Marxist intellectuals, how their own action was always so very different.  If we have the right to measure the personal and moral value of convictions by the disinterested intellectual effort through which they are arrived at, we might find that Mr. Eliot’s conversion was notably more honorable than that of many who impugned his decision.”

COMMENT:  I was a bit surprised to read that a belief in Marxism “decayed” after a ten year period, i.e. from 1930 to 1940.  He was writing before a Cold War in which Marxism was embraced with great enthusiasm by many Western intellectuals.  I was once interested in American Marxists who advanced the cause of labor during this period.  Perhaps he had those people in mind when he used the word “decayed.”  

Trilling’s point here is that if Eliot gave up his intellectual independence by embracing Anglo-Catholic theology, those who embraced Marxism were in no position to criticize him.  Embracing a fideist or quietist approach to religion or philosophy to the extent that counter theories are rejected a priori is an extreme not many intellectuals could manage.  Perhaps people who don’t fit Trilling’s definition of “intellectual” might manage because they wouldn’t be fully aware of counter arguments, but Eliot was aware.  He worked through the problems that concerned him (perhaps described in The Waste Land) and embraced Anglo-Catholic theology as a logical solution to them.  But did that mean he quit thinking, and embraced his theology as a fideist? 

I am much more familiar with Reformed than Anglo-Catholic theology, and there is a famous controversy that developed between two Reformed theologians that bears upon this subject.  Cornelius Van Til took the position that we could not know everything God knew.  He revealed what He wanted us to know in the Scriptures, but He didn’t tell us all that He knew.  He didn’t even tell us all that he knew about what he told is in these Scriptures.  We could never know all that God knew about anything.  Gordon Clark believed that while we couldn’t know everything that God knew, we could know everything there was to know about what God revealed in Scripture.  We could know the Scriptures as thoroughly as God knew them. 

If we couldn’t know everything there was to know about Scripture, Van Til’s critics asked, how could we believe something we couldn’t fully understand?  We understood as much as God intended us to understand, but the insoluble matters we accepted on faith, Van Til responded.  Were Van Til and T. S. Eliot fideists for accepting difficult theological matters on faith?  Or was Gordon Clark arrogant for thinking he could know everything God knew about Scripture? 

Van Til & Eliot weren’t fideists any more than modern scientists are.  Modern scientists don’t believe that they know everything about nature, but they do believe that scientists will one day know almost everything.  They believe that on faith.  While some theologies are frozen in time, most subscribe to “the progress of doctrine.”  Intellectual theologians have been wrestling with doctrine for hundreds of years.  No Christian denomination holds to the theology that the earliest Church fathers advanced.  Various interpretations were advanced and debated.  Creeds and Confessions resulted.  Doctrine progressed and is still progressing.  Van Til, if not Clark, was engaged in that “progress” himself.

Heidegger’s history bears on this subject as well.  His brilliance came to the attention of the Catholic Church, and he was offered a well-paid teaching position if he would devote himself to Thomistic philosophy.  He turned the offer down.  Not because he had a better offer.  He had no other job prospects at the time, and not because he didn’t believe in Catholic theology.  He turned it down because he didn’t want to adhere to Church oversight and restriction.  His philosophy has been seen as promoting the authoritarianism of Fascism, but can we not see in, for example his invocation of ‘tradition’ hints of Roman Catholic authoritarianism?  He didn’t advocate Roman Catholicism, but might it not be there as a kind of Freudian influence? He never claimed to be an atheist and was reconciled to the Catholic Church right before he died (according to an attending priest). 

Wittgenstein adhered more closely to Christianity.  He was converted while reading Tolstoy’s paraphrase of the Bible while fighting on the side of Germany in the First World War.  His philosophy is seen by some as a kind of Quietism.  We should use the words of philosophy for comfort, and not to erect philosophical edifices.  Quietism is often associated with Fideism.  If you hunker down with the comforting words of theology or philosophy, you won’t be angrily debating contrary positions.  You will be embracing what you find comforting and not worrying very much about anything else.  There have been Quietists and Fideists present throughout Christian history.  Should the Quietism of Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin and Rorty be intellectually acceptable, but a Quietistic embrace of Anglo-Catholicism not be?