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Archive for August, 2009

A Couple Weeks Light Blogging

August 25, 2009 Leave a comment

Unavoidably busy the next few weeks, no guarantee of any posts.  Hopefully Raskolnikov and Walter Kovacs will be able to write some.  Enjoy the end of Summer!

Edit: Shame upon me, I ended a sentence with a preoposition.

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Categories: General

The Daily Logos XVII

August 24, 2009 Leave a comment

“Modern despair is the effect of a disappointed hedonism and centers principally around Sex and Death…. The primacy of Sex is to a great extent due to Sigmund Freud, whose basic principle in his own words is: ‘Human actions and customs derive from sexual impulses, and fundamentally, human wishes are unsatisfied sexual desires…. Consciously or unconsciously, we all wish to unite with our mothers and kill our fathers, as Oedipus did—unless we are female, in which case we wish to unite with our fathers and murder our mothers.’  The major concern of thought is Death.  The beautiful philosophy of being is reduced to Dasein, which is only in-der-Welt-sein.1 There is no freedom, no spirit, and no personality.  Freedom is for death.  Liberty is contingency threatened with complete destruction.  The future is nothing but a projection of death.  The aim of existence is to look death in the eye.

“Jean-Paul Sartre passes from a phenomenology of sexuality to that which he calls ‘nausea,’ or a brazen confrontation of nothingness, towards which existence tends.  Nothing precedes man; nothing follows man.  Whatever is opposite him is a negation of his ego, and therefore nothingness.  God created the world out of nothingness; Sartre creates nothingness out of the world and the despairing human heart.  ‘Man is a useless passion.’

“Agnosticism and Pride were the twin errors the Church had to meet in the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; now it is the despair resulting from Sex and Death it has to meet in this hour.  When the Agnostics of the last century came in contact with the world and its three libidos, they became libertines.  But when pleasure diminished and made hungry where most it satisfied, the agnostics, who had become libertines by attaching themselves to the world, now began in disgust to withdraw themselves from the world and became philosophers of Existentialism  Philosophers like Sartre, and Heidegger, and others are born of a detachment from the world, not as the Christian ascetic, because he loves God, but because they are disgusted with the world.  They become contemplatives, not to enjoy God, but to wallow in their despair, to make a philosophy out of it, to be brazen about their boredom, and to make death the center of their destiny.  The new contemplatives are in the monasteries of the jaded, which are built not along the waters of Siloe,2 but along the dark banks of the Styx.

“These two basic ideas of modern thought, Sex and Death, are not unrelated.  Freud himself hinted at the union of Eros and Thanatos.  Sex brings death, first of all because in sex the other person is possessed, or annihilated, or ignored for the sake of pleasure.  But this subjection implies a compression and a destruction for the sake of the Eros.  Secondly, death is a shadow which is cast over sex.  Sex seeks pleasure, but since it assumes that this life is all, every pleasure is seasoned not only with a diminishing return, but also with the thought that death will end pleasure forever.  Eros is Thanatos.  Sex is Death.”

-Servant of God, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, The World’s First Love

1 To anyone unfamiliar with this terminology, it is from the philosophical discourse of Martin Heidegger.  Dasein is a compound word, the combination of “there,” Da, and “being,” Sein.  This term, Dasein, is used to designated human existence.  The following phrase, in-der-Welt-sein, translates as “being-in-the-world,” a significant part of the Existentialist dimension to Heidegger’s philosophy, but laden with insights the German philosopher himself seemed to reject on grounds which may only be speculated.  Summarily, the work of Heidegger is immensely important in the search for truth, but the reader must be wary of the untruth with which it is laced.
2 The pool where Christ gave sight to the man born blind.  See details here.

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Content Sensitive Advertising

August 24, 2009 Leave a comment

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I think so.

Categories: General

On Literature and the Aesthetic

August 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Of the traditional transcendentals—the true, the good, and the beautiful—the lattermost is the one most frequently and most easily tossed from its noble rank.  The popular sentiment that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is among the many dominant cultural and psychological influences acknowledged to exist and yet seldom subjected to examination.  It seems reasonable, on observation of the sundry opinions as to what is beautiful and what is not.  Yet such reasoning is superficial and characteristic of a lazy inquiry.  It is easy to be swept along by commonality and never realize it, to consciously recognize only the variances amongst the dominance of taste—which is not to say that all dominant taste is good; on the contrary, the more prevalent an aesthetic criterion, the more unlikely it is to adhere to an objective standard, being driven instead by the masses of untrained aestheticians who demand sensory pleasure rather than genuine objective quality.  Consider popular music: the innovators of a particular style are not always the best musicians, and the best musicians are certainly not always innovators.  Neither sort is guaranteed any true popularity; instead, those who perform the style with little regard to either talent or innovation and focus instead on making their music accessible are guaranteed a large following.  Yet amongst the performers who garner a significantly populated fan base, the styles vary drastically, from saccharine cooing to dark, heavy metal.  Though some would see this as even more evidence of the relativization of aesthetic preference, it is the truth that—even if the majority of followers of death metal would not readily accede to such—all music, and indeed all art, even if in the smallest degree, is recognized as communicating some transcendental and objective aspect of the beautiful.

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, wrote that “Fine art shows its superiority precisely in this, that it describes things beautifully that in nature we would dislike or find ugly.”1 While good art imitates nature, poor art imitates good art; and so in poor art, as opposed to the fine, which portrays the naturally distasteful there is found a diluted representation of this transformed beauty; and like all dilution, makes it easier to swallow, hence the popularity of the under-talented and accessible.  Of course, this raises the question, which regularly revisits civilization every few decades, “What is good art?”  When the societal norms dictate relativization of aesthetic judgment, the criteria are usually centered around the evocation of powerful emotion.  When objectively grounded in a transcendental conception, the criteria center around the portrayal and signification of truth or goodness, be it by a via negativa or by a positive relation.  This contrary standard of analysis indeed provides insight to the distinction between good and bad art; the latter being that which merely evokes emotion—sometimes quite powerfully—but passes away, while the former produces a lasting impression by connecting the perceiver with some eternal truth through means of the perceived.  This impression of truth is most powerfully achieved by the well-wrought literary work.

It is for this reason that William Shakespeare is a name known by almost everyone, whereas the Great Bard’s contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson do not share such fame.  The latter two were excellent playwrights, make no mistake, but the brilliance of Shakespeare is universally recognizable, even by those who have great difficulty in articulating why he was so brilliant.  It could be said that Shakespeare’s brilliance resides in the fluidity of his language or the richness of his characters; but the same could be said for a thousand other deservedly lesser-known poets, playwrights, and novelists.  What Shakespeare constructed so well in almost all of his plays, on a level unparalleled, were symbols of essential and immutable human nature.  Were these constructs not immanently beautiful, they would retain their atemporal universality but lose the profundity of their atemporal accessibility.  The contemporary perception of Shakespeare as, to the common reader, impossibly recondite, shows not a lack of beauty in the writing, but a lack of comprehension in the undereducated reader; yet it shows the indomitable nature of Shakespeare’s symbolic constructs that the educated few persist in advocating for the bard, maintaining his status as the playwright par excellence.

But what is the significance of these symbolic constructs?  What is a symbol?  Man encounters symbols every day: in corporate logos, in ritual practices, and in all media of art and entertainment.  These symbols act as intermediaries between the perceiver and the signified.  As such they are signifiers, but not merely signs, for a sign, such as a word or a red octagon on which “STOP” is written have no substantial content in their functionality themselves; a word may be spoken or written or transmitted through sign-language, and a stop sign can be made of metal or wood or any number of materials.  A sign represents its signified by completely accidental means; that which they signify could be signified in a number of other ways, as both “rage” and “anger” connote a particular emotion (with nuanced differences) and both a stop sign and a red light signify that the driver must stop his car (with different rules for proceeding after stopping).  A sign does not share in the participation in being of the signified, of the signified’s substance.  The entire substance of a sign, as a sign, is to point to something else.  Contrariwise, a symbol shares in the participation of that which it ultimately signifies; which is why it is said that a good portrait “captures” an image of its subject.  Likewise a crucifix, though it ultimately signifies the Crucifixion of Christ, also makes present in its own being an aspect of the crucifixion, and is hence venerated.

Literary Critic Allen Tate

Literary Critic Allen Tate

While the symbolic nature of the plastic arts, or even the well-designed corporate logo, is plain to see, perception of pervasive symbolism in good literature is more difficult.  After all, was it not said just above that words are merely signs, and is not literature composed of words?  Most certainly literature is; but despite its material building blocks being themselves signifiers, the words from which literature is made are accidental to literature itself, the whole instead being something greater.  This accidental nature of the parts is well demonstrated by translation, through which the same work, though homogenous in its original language, may be presented in great variety by multiple translations into another language.  The quality of a translation, it ought to be noted, is not determined strictly by the most precise terminology, but rather by the best connotation.  For example, it is debatable which description of Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad is better:

This one is Laertes’ son, resourceful Odysseus,
who grew up in the country, rough though it be, of Ithaka,
to know every manner of shiftiness and crafty counsels.2

or

That’s Laretes’ son, the great tactician Odysseus.
He was bred in the land of Ithaca.  Rocky ground
and he’s quick at every treachery under the sun—
the man of twists and turns.3

Each translation has its merits, but the latter carries the description awkwardly and with some vagueness and imprecision—“tactician” being of narrower meaning than “resourceful,” “twists and turns” being less indicative than “shiftiness and crafty counsels”—whereas the former has both linguistic fluidity and richer connotation of Odysseus’ character; the reader is given a better image of the man and of Helen’s perception of him.  But even this image, like all individual literary images, is not itself the symbolism of the work or even a symbolic particular, properly speaking, for it is a mere fragment of the work as a whole and may serve simply to frame some more significant action or individual.

Wherein, then, does the symbolism of a literary work as a whole reside?  First, let a particular symbol of a work be examined; in this case, a simile in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”  Though the poem is explicit in reference to its subject matter, it nonetheless corroborates its explication through the use of imagery.  The first two lines,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

say directly what is meant, and yet use a symbolic image in order better to convey meaning through to the corporeally enmeshed intellect; the world is full, energized, by the greatness and the glory of God, which will become visible through bursts of brilliance, which resemble the light which comes off a piece of foil when shaken.  The foil, as that which reflects light—which catches light so to speak—acts as an analogate for the world, and the light as an analogate for the divine grandeur.  The foil as a symbol participates in the same sort of being of the world, the receptivity of a greater and nobler beauty, and the world in turn serves as a symbol that participates in the grandeur of God.  This imagery of transitive significance is what Allen Tate once so succinctly and insightfully described: “The symbolic imagination conducts an action through analogy, of the human to the divine, of the nature to the supernatural, of the low to the high, of time to eternity.”4

Although actions are usually considered as individual elements, when the whole of a literary work is realized by the reader, there is a totality constructed by the various individual actions; as such the action of a Shakespearean tragedy (or any good tragedy) is complete when, through freely-willed human action and the unpredictable vacillations of fate, the life of an extraordinary man ends in calamity, death, or complete disintegration of harmonious existence.  In such a tragedy—Macbeth, for instance—the totality of action becomes symbolic by analogizing the particular to the universal, of showing in the actual fall of one man the potential fall of all; by showing how anyone may capitulate to lust for power and the consequences that may thereby be suffered, regardless of societal norms or provincial circumstances.  This whole signification is achieved by mediate significations, such as the Weird Sisters—the word “Weird” in Elizabethan English connoting that which has to do with fate—who symbolize the impersonal machinations of a world that acts in ways contrary to and independent of human will.  Such intermediaries, which stand between the perceiver and the signified, act as lenses by which, individually, aspects of the total significance are perceived, and together, as that which shows the whole while yet retaining the particulars.  Indeed, the well-wrought literary work is at once a telescope and a microscope to sempiternal truth and reality.

But this is not all that good literature and other successfully crafted works of art do; for it is not merely the communication of truth and goodness, but the communication of truth and goodness in a particular manner; namely, a beautiful manner.  Certainly, as any Catholic metaphysician worth his salt could attest, the true, the good, and the beautiful are fundamentally the same in their per se existence, much like the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  And yet the manifestations of the good, the true, and the beautiful are as diversely realized as those of the Trinity.  The Father may stand for the Good, the Son for the True, and the Holy Ghost for the Beautiful; but there is goodness in beauty and beauty in truth and truth in goodness, each in the other and the other in each.  Nonetheless it is through the manner of being of the individual human person, tied to the immanent and particular world as he is, that man naturally perceives the Three in One as Three, as through particular symbols and analogates by which the universals of his experiences are known.  This is the task of the aesthetic, to perceive that which is portrayed by a symbol and thereby enable the recognition of the universals which indicate the supreme Universal; through grasping the signs of words, a symbol can be grasped; through grasping a symbol, that which it signifies can be grasped; through grasping the whole of a series of symbols, the greater symbol is realized, and with that realization comes the possibility of tasting eternal truth.

Google Books, p.180
2 Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Lattimore, Richard. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) 105.
3 Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Fagles, Robert (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) 135.
4 Tate, Allen. Essays of Four Decades. “The Symbolic Imagination.” (Wilmington DE: ISI Books, 1999) 427.  For explication of the symbolic in literature, this essay is highly recommended, particularly when read in juxtaposition to “The Angelic Imagination.”

Categories: General

The Daily Logos XVI

August 22, 2009 Leave a comment

The following is a letter written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Catholic priest, Jesuit, and poet of the late 19th century, to Cardinal Newman, seeking the latter’s advice on his reception into the Church.  Hopkins evinces the imperative nature of the true conversion, showing that indeed the presence of Christ can set men against one another.

“To the Rev. Dr. John H. Newman
18 New Inn Hall Street, Oxford.
St. Theresa (15 Oct.) 1866.

“Very Reverend Father,

I have been up at Oxford just long enough to have heard [from] my father and mother in return for my letter announcing my conversion.  Their answers are terrible: I cannot read them twice.  If you will pray for them and me just now I shall be deeply thankful.  But what I am writing for is this – they urge me with the utmost entreaties to wait till I have taken my degree – more than half a year.  Of course it is impossible, and since it is impossible to wait as long as they would it seems to me useless to wait at all.  [Would] you therefore wish me to come to Birmingham at once, on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday?  You will understand why I have any hesitation at all, namely because if immediately after their letters urging a long delay I am received without any, it will be another blow and look like intentional cruelty.  I did not know till last night the rule about communicatio in sacris1 – at least as binding catechumens, but I now see the alternative thrown open, either to live without Church and sacraments or else, in order to avoid the Catholic Church, to have to attend constantly the services of that very Church.  This brings the matter to an absurdity and makes me think that any delay, whatever relief it may be to my parents, is impossible.  I am asking you then whether I shall at all costs be received at once.

“Strange to say of four conversions mine is the earliest and yet my reception will be last.  I think I said that my friend William Garrett was converted and received shortly after hearing of my conversion; just before term began another friend, Alexander wood, wrote to me in perplexity, and when I wrote back to his surprise telling him I was a convert he made up his own mind the next morning and is being received today; by a strange chance he met Addis in town and Addis, who had put off all thought of change for a year, was by God’s mercy at once determined to see a priest and was received at Bayswater the same evening – Saturday.  All our minds you see were ready to go at a touch and it cannot but be that the same is the case with many here.  Addis’ loss will be deep grief to Dr. Pusey I think: he has known him so long and stayed with him at Chale in a retreat.

“I shall ask F. William Neville to pen and answer this in your absence.

“Monsignor Eyre seemed to say that I ought not to make my confession by means of a paper as I have been used to do.  Will you kindly say whether you [would] prefer it so or not?

“Believe me, dear Father, your affectionate son in Christ,
Gerard M. Hopkins.

“P.S. And if you [should] bid me to be received at once will you kindly name the day?  The liberality of the college authorities will throw no hindrance in the way.”

1 The forbidding of Catholics to participate in non-Catholic worship.

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The Daily Logos XV

August 21, 2009 Leave a comment

“People are not commonly disposed, as they are simply not in the appropriate mood, to reflect on the ultimate meaning of reality as such.  As a rule, therefore, we should obviously not expect that the philosophical experience and the philosophical quest would be such a common occurrence.  ‘How is it with the world as such?’—this is not a question one asks while building a house, while going to court, while taking an exam.  We cannot philosophize as long as our interest remains absorbed by the active pursuit of goals, when the ‘lens’ of our soul is focused on a clearly circumscribed sector, on an objective here and now, on things that are presently ‘needed’—and explicitly not on anything else.  (In intelligent company one can, of course, readily and always discuss any philosophical ‘problem’ tossed to it from the outside like a question on a quiz show.  This is not what I am talking about.  Here, I understand the philosophical quest as an existential experienced centered in the core of the human mind, a spontaneous, urgent, inescapable stirring of a person’s innermost life.)  More likely than not, therefore, a challenge is required that shakes the common and ‘normal’ attitude dominating—by nature and by right—man’s everyday life; a push is needed, a shock, in order to trigger the question that reaches beyond the sphere of mere material needs, the question as to the meaning of the world and of existence: to trigger the philosophical process.”

-Josef Pieper, In Defense of Philosophy

In his brief but sapient apology for the philosophical quest, Josef Pieper puts forth the reality of philosophy: namely, that it, in itself, does not bring forth any good products, and its pursuit brings no guarantee of improving the world or life.  Indeed, Pieper is perhaps best known for his work in promotion of leisure, by which is meant the engagement with good culture and particularly good intellectual culture; for while there may be no tangible efficacy of philosophical endeavors, there is an invaluable effect on the good of the person, which cannot be seen.  Unfortunately, despite the unparalleled opportunity for leisure in contemporary society, there is virtually no persistence along its most noble roads, but the mere dabbling of those who feel a curious draw, but quickly become disillusioned with the complexity before them.  The push and the shock that Pieper here describes are all too often ignored, and, even more sadly, too often not given at all.

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The Daily Logos XIV

August 20, 2009 Leave a comment

“Incomparably coherent, closely knit together in all its parts, Thomism is, nevertheless, not what is called a ‘system.’  When it is said that Thomism is distinguished from all other philosophical doctrines by its universalism, that should not be understood as a mere difference of extent, but, on the contrary, as a difference of nature.  The word ‘system’ evokes the idea of a mechanical linking-up, or, at the very least, of a quasi-spatial assemblage of parts and consequently, of a personal, if not arbitrary, choice of elements, as is the case in all artistic constructions.  A system unfolds or travels along bit by bit, starting with its initial elements.  On the contrary, it is essential to Thomism that it require whatever has to do with its construction or its ‘machinery’ to be rigorously subordinated to what belongs to the immanent activity and the vital movement of intellection: it is not a system, an artifact; it is a spiritual organism.  Its inner connections are vital ties where each part exists by the existence of the whole.  The principal parts are not initial parts but, rather, dominant parts or central parts, each one of which is already , virtually, the whole.  Thought makes no personal choice therein among the elements of the real, it is infinitely open to all of them.

“In truth, Thomism is a common task.  One is not a Thomist because, in the emporium of systems, one chooses it as if one were choosing one system among others just as you try one pair of shoes after another in a shoestore until you find a pattern that fits your foot better.  If that were the way it was done, it would be more stimulating to cut a system to one’s own measure.  One is a Thomist because one has repudiated every attempt to find philosophical truth in any system fabricated by an individual (even though that individual be called ego) and because one wants to seek out what is true—for oneself, indeed, and by one’s own reason—by allowing oneself to be taught by the whole range of human thought, in order not to neglect anything of that which is.  Aristotle and St. Thomas occupy a privileged place for us only because, thanks to their supreme docility to the lessons of the real, we find in them the principles and the scale of values through which the total effort of this universal thought can be preserved without running the risk of eclecticism and confusion.”

-Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge

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