26 January, 2012

Freedom of Conscience in the USA

"With her long tradition of respect for the right relationship between faith and reason, the Church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents which, on the basis of an extreme individualism, seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth. Our tradition does not speak from blind faith, but from a rational perspective which links our commitment to building an authentically just, humane and prosperous society to our ultimate assurance that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reasoning. The Church’s defense of a moral reasoning based on the natural law is grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a “language” which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world. She thus proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation, and as the basis for building a secure future."
 --From Pope Benedict's Address to the Bishops of the U.S., Jan. 2012

This paragraph really stood out in the midst of a generally excellent and very relevant speech on the role of Catholics in a society in which freedom of conscience is being increasingly infringed upon. Partly because the whole "natural law" concept is one of the most taboo ones you can bring up in academia, and academia is where I am right now, I particularly liked the italicized sentence:  a simple and eloquent way of putting it, even if that alone won't convince anyone adhering to (more or less) total relativism.

The whole speech is short, very worth a read, and available here. In case, by some chance, you are unaware of the circumstances surrounding the speech, here's an overview: http://www.catholic-convert.com/2012/01/21/obama-gives-catholics-one-year-to-learn-to-violate-their-consciences/

18 January, 2012

Two Notes

Throughout the last post Maritain's Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry was very much on my mind.  While discussing the surrealists, he talks about how theories inherently destructive to art can be held by very good artists: the key is that since the theory is destructive to art, the art they produce is produced outside of that theory. They're accomplishing something other than what they're attempting. Just another example of how artists are usually the worst at figuring out what's actually going on in a piece of art. The trouble starts when they begin using vague terms like "irrationality," "anti-rationality," "the beyond," "magic," etc. Oy.

Also, does this bit from Maurice Maeterlinck's "Fauves Las" remind you of anything?

Les chiens jaunes de mes péchés,
Les hyènes louches de mes haines,
Et sur l'ennui pâle des plaines
Les lions de l'amour couchés !
Awkward literal translation: "The yellow dogs of my sins,/ The squint-eyed hyenas of my hates,/ And on the pale ennui of the flatlands/ The lions of love lying down." Later there's the great phrase "les brebis des tentations": "the sheep/flock of temptations."

The first two lines in and the "flock of temptations" made me think of Eliot (no surprise there). For comparison:

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

 It's from "Marina," and  while the two poems are not similar in much else (the former is the quintessential anti-narrative poem, while the latter is much more narrative-driven than the usual poem), the use of animals as symbolic of things with which they have no conventional association is a classic symbolist move on Eliot's part. If anything, Maeterlinck's yellow dogs and squint-eyed hyenas are closer to being conventional symbols than Eliot's dogs and pigs. You can interpret the dog, hummingbird, pig, "ecstasy of the animals" as representing four of the seven deadly sins, of course. But then, interpretation is welcome in symbolist poems; it's just not going to be internally verifiable (contrast Wordsworth's reaper: he's a symbol too, but Wordsworth spends a whole poem interpreting him for us).

17 January, 2012

Symbolists and Parnassians: How good theory gets adopted by bad theorists

This is from Eccles' introduction to A Century of French Poets. It's an older work, a bit prior to the codification of literary theoretical methods in the later 20th century. But this is still one of the clearer, more succinct explanations of symbolism that I've encountered.
"Of the many tendencies imputed to symbolism this is the most characteristic -- out of an acuter perception of what all poets have always known, that words are insufficient if their power is bounded by their meaning, emerged an audacious doctrine which branded their representative function as inferior, and sought to shift the poetical interest from what they signify to what they may suggest. In the Parnassian system description was paramount, and feeling sprang from it immediately: the emotion which symbolism pursues bears no constant relation to the objects represented or the ideas expressed; rather it aims at the recovery of vanished moods by curious incantations, by the magical use of verbal atmosphere. To fashion a true likeness of the material world it holds a vain and illusory undertaking: It values sights, sounds, scents, and savours for their secret affinities with states of the soul .... "   
Three years of on-and-off study, and I still can't quite figure out what I think of the symbolists. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes; Eliot, Woolf, Faulkner, and the French classicists: the philosophers and the "idea" artists are a piece of cake ("idea" artists is a careless term that I don't care to correct beyond saying that I'm talking about "artists who have rational ideas, though their art is not limited to the rational; I'm not talking about platonists). It's these irrationalists that confuse me, these strange artists who believe in some sort of incantatory art--the symbolists--or the anti-rationalists--the Dadaists, surrealists, even (in my opinion) the more extreme existentialists. There's nothing more frustrating to an academic than not "understanding" something. Artists like the symbolists make good art and write terrible theory.

And is this terrible theory? Honestly, I'd be inclined to think so. The Parnassians tended to not be such good writers. They were more like skilled minaturists whose gorgeous description rarely attained its actual goal: that of making "feeling spring from description". But while the symbolists claimed to reject description, the idea that one can use words without "describing" anything is pure nonsense. Words are descriptive in a fundamental way: what you're doing when you're speaking is describing concepts which without language would be unformulated, and without commonly understood words would be incommunicable. These concepts in turn do not derive from some "idea cloud" floating somewhere overhead (sorry Socrates), nor do they have their roots purely in the individual psyche, at least not in any practical sense (even if one is to admit the rational possibility that our interaction with everything around us is "in our heads"--sorry Gilbert Ryle--we still act as though it were real). Concepts have their roots in those sights, sounds, scents, and savours that the symbolists value, but you can't separate these things from their physicality. If you want to communicate their "secret affinities with states of the soul," you have to deal with the thing which has the affinity as it is. To evoke these affinities you don't, it's true, want to have the physical itself as the final object of description. But you will need to use the physical as a means to communicate that final object, if only because concepts are incommunicable if undescribed--that is, if unarticulated.

In short the symbolists a.) rejected Parnassian theory, but b.) went right ahead and put Parnassian theory into practice in a much more vigorous manner than the Parnassians did. The claim to use words "magically" (and yes, there was plenty of occult background chez some of those fellows; more the painters than the poets) to move beyond the material world is a frustratingly illogical one. ("Magic? Really? We've come to that now, have we?") But in point of fact, the symbolists accomplished something a bit more rational than their theory would indicate (which is why someone like the eminently rational T.S. Eliot claim to have found his artistic voice through reading symbolist poetry). They rejected Parnassian theory because the Parnassians applied their theory in a limited manner. For them, description was something like what Flaubert understood description to be, which is great for a novel, but I think rather stupid in poetry. The symbolists realized that the power of words to evoke is not restricted to situations in which those words are being used to describe a specific thing. Rather, you can use them as elements, notes, say in a musical composition. You do need phrases (we're not talking about atonal-ism yet), but you don't need to limit and order those phrases to form a description (think classical music) or to a narrative (think Romanticism in both music and poetry). You simply need to design a progression of moods, which cannot be achieved without recourse to description, but which need not get bogged down in one particular description or another. The perfect musical metaphor for this? Debussy. It's no wonder that they were contemporaries. Nor, to be sure, that japonisme was all the rage in Europe between 1870-1914.

09 January, 2012

"Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu'un long discours"

Nothing like using the French version of a clichéd adage to hide the fact that you're using a clichéd adage. Plus it's possible that Napoleon originated it. Which would be neat, but hardly possible to ascertain, given the multiplicity of origin stories for this one-time aphorism.

Either way, since pictures are Generally Appreciated by both those who don't have time to read and those who have plenty, here is a picture of going "To the Lighthouse" from a few years ago. I post it because it's one of the niftiest pictures I have seen, the histrionic sky and the "unhinged" angle (think of both definitions of that term) lending an otherwise ordinary composition a suggestion of drama in a manner quite appropriate to a Woolf reference.

08 January, 2012

From whence we draw our inspiration...

In this case from my sister's latest trip "to the lighthouse". I was rereading the book by bits and reveling in Woolf's exquisite prose (which stands in first place in my admittedly subjective aesthetic system). This bit is one of my favorites--though as soon as I say that I remember four or five other passages that deserve the distinction just as much. When one begins to quote Woolf, it's difficult indeed to stop. I think what I admire so much about her style is how very intertwined each passage of a novel is with the others. The rhythmic repetition of ideas and phrases throughout doesn't leave me bored, but fascinated, as though I'm watching a weaver at work creating a tapestry--less like the Bayeux tapestry than like a Persian rug in which the same theme is elaborated until any "perceived" is an organic emanation from the picture as a whole. Perhaps that's an excessively complicated way of saying that while you can take a chapter from, say, Jane Austen, and read it as it's own sub-narrative, almost every moment in TTL depends on all the others.

Yes, yes, all moments in a good novel depend on the whole for their full explication, and one can admittedly isolate narrative moments from the rest of a Woolf novel. The distinction is meant to mark tendencies; if the difference were as extreme as the rough Bayeux-Persian analogy, I'd find it difficult to even call Woolf's work "novels".

In any case, here's the quote, and if you go look it up in the book (third section of part II), you'll see what I mean by hating to have to stop here. In itself it's a highly poetic expression of the "modernist dilemma," and you can see from this some indication of Woolf's skill as an essayist. But it's rather unsatisfying on its own; it's a moment that deserves its context, so to speak. I've left out the only narrative moment of the third section, incidentally, which is very short in comparison to the rest, although a huge spoiler, if you care about that sort of thing. Again, read it in context though; that narrative moment makes all the difference.

But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

It seemed now as if, touched by human penitence and all its toil, divine goodness had parted the curtain and displayed behind it, single, distinct, the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking; which, did we deserve them, should be ours always. But alas, divine goodness, twitching the cord, draws the curtain; it does not please him; he covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them, so confuses them that it seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth. For our penitence deserves a glimpse only; our toil respite only.

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

[I should hope, incidentally, that anyone reading this would catch the Matthew Arnold reference. If you don't immediately see what I mean, please refer to "Dover Beach" for your own good.]

07 January, 2012

On Language

“How you must detest dining in this bear garden,” she said, making use, as she did when she was distracted, of her social manner. So, when there is a strife of tongues, at some meeting, the chairman, to obtain unity, suggests that every one shall speak in French. Perhaps it is bad French; French may not contain the words that express the speaker’s thoughts; nevertheless speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity.

--To the Lighthouse

06 January, 2012

Ron Paul and National Security

Yes, yes, I'm quoting Ron Paul, but please don't assume I'm a mindless follower. I'm still reading carefully, sifting through actual quotes and actual voting records instead of reading heavily biased things like, uh, this, which uses the whole familiar yet enticing "cite facts but only some of them" method of argument (which explains why this article can make an equally convincing case for the opposite interpretation of Santorum). But hey, you don't have to be a mindless follower to agree with someone on some of the things he says, right? And on this small point, I rather think I agree, having written what I did on December 21.

Speaking on the National ID card:
"As long as a government can stir up fear, sometimes real and sometimes not real, the people are expected to do one thing: sacrifice their liberty. If you’re fearful, the government, the people who believe in big government--big-government conservatives or big-government liberals--they like fear to be out there. Sometimes fear is normal & natural & real, and we have to deal with it. At other times it’s concocted. In times of war, whether it was the Civil War, WWI, WWII--just think of the violations of civil liberties during the period of war when people are frightened. The one conclusion I have come to since 9/11 is that there is absolutely never a need to sacrifice any of your personal liberties to be safe! That means we do not have to accept the notion that we can have warrant-less searches, a total loss of our privacy. We don’t need a National ID card. You don’t have to register the American people to make us safe. You have to deal with the problem much more directly."