12.5.09

Letter 1:

In Which Our Blogger Hits on Some Familiar Themes:



Awaiting the Storm

Saturday afternoon

Dear Readers,

I make no particular claim to be old. However, I am quite sure the first sign of age (when it comes) is a telescoping of time, so that things which appear to be not so long ago in fact are. When I was finishing The Brothers Karamazov this past weekend, I was aware that it was the second time I had read it. Even without the re-reading, the book was fresh in my memory, and I thought of it often. It took a moment, but I did remember that I last read it nine years ago. I'm not old, but the effects of age are beginning to be felt--I have a history.

The particular occasion for re-reading was to test out a thesis, or, more accurately, to disprove a thesis I heard quite frequently in the interim period. I had taken it as more-or-less obvious that Alexei was the center of the novel; the general opinion I encountered said Ivan was meant as the center. I thought this an understandable reaction given the proclivities of our age: Ivan doubts, quite profoundly and at length, and so do we. Hence he appears to be the most interesting figure, but only because we can see no other way (this is not unlike Stanley Fish's theory about Milton, that the devil is interesting and God is boring because we, as sinful men, are meant to perceive them as Adam did).

On re-reading, I still believe Alexei to be the important figure of the novel, though my reasons have changed. Ivan is the anti-hero, like Pechorin in A Hero for Our Time, but completely brought to ruin. His key thesis, that other-worldly reconciliation is impossible (or undesirable)--how could a murderer and his victim ever be reconciled--is disproven through Alexei's reconciliation of the children. This-worldly redemption points to the other-worldly. Before, I did not see exactly how much it is Alexei changes in the final section of the book: he goes from weak and tentative when he first leaves the monastery to confident and in charge; his faith and his intellect allow him to assess each situation as it is, and act in the proper manner. No one else can manage it: in the end, he is directing everything. Elder Zosima was right to send him out into the world, the real world.

This, I am now convinced, is the theme of the novel: the real world. None of the characters, except Alexei, quite live in it. How does one apprehend what is real? Dostoevsky pushes far on this point. Consider a section from the speech of the defense attorney:

While within the sphere of real life, which not only has its rights, but itself imposes great obligations--within this sphere, if we wish to be humane, to be Christians finally, it is our duty and obligation to foster only those convictions which are justified by reason and experience, that have passed through the crucible of analysis, in a word, to act sensibly and not senselessly as in dreams or delirium, so as not to bring harm to a man, so as not to torment and ruin a man. Then, then it will be a real Christian deed, not only a mystical one, but a sensible and truly philanthropic deed...


The most consistent note the novel strikes is anti-mysticism; it consistently holds up "the real world" and "real life" as its opposites. The prosecutor's speech deplores it. Ivan identifies "mystery, miracle and authority" as the totems used by the church to take the freedom Christ intended to give. There is even a slight parallel between Zosima, who, after death, does not smell (which is taken as a sign of his holiness) and the same thing happening to the little boy who dies (with no one making the same assumption). I'll have to re-read those early scenes, but I am convinced there is more to this emphasis on the real world.


When playing Rock Band with some friends this past weekend, something unusual happened: "Carry On Wayward Son" (one of my least favorite songs ever) was followed by "Teen Age Riot" (a very good Sonic Youth song from their best period). What has the world come to when those songs can be played together indifferently? I would rate Sonic Youth better than Kansas, and better in such a way as to not be on the same scale; I know lamentably many people who would do the opposite. Both of these, at least, are coherent options. To put it a slightly different way: good taste and bad taste can both be dealt with: it's no taste that's really a problem. Everything I've read on aesthetic theory emphasizes the need for unity of taste: what one likes ought to be pointing to something; ideally to the best things, but at least somewhere (Eliot discusses these stages in his introductory essay to On the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). Liking things means not liking others; valuing some things means excluding other values.

When I started listening to Blur, I could recognize it as a violation of at least some of the things I believed in. Perhaps that's a funny example, but at least there's a line and I know when I've crossed it. I will never especially care for musicals, or Pink Floyd, or Shakespeare (though I have taken in all of them); my preference is for the real, which means Rembrandt and not Rubens, Bill Evans and not early-70s Miles Davis, Dostoevsky and not Tolstoy. Thus it was not surprising to me that Veronica Mars season 2 fits while 30 Rock no longer does; that I got more out of Camus' The Stranger than I might out of books written by authors more sympathetic to my philosophical views. Our age is one where the aesthetic is valued above all, and particularly the subjective feeling the aesthetic gives: developing taste is hard, difficult work.


I have decided to consider myself a Calvinist. I'm not really a Calvinist--I still have my doubts about predestination, though I do believe in the perseverance of the saints. It comes more from two things: first, an impulse to stand with the despised. Grotius, the subject of my dissertation, is frequently assumed to be a spokesperson for whatever a modern interlocutor doesn't like (sovereignty, intervention, human rights, natural law, no human rights, no natural law): the only thing these criticisms have in common is very little familiarity with Grotius' work. The same thing is true, in spades, with Calvin: the people who like him least have read him least.

The second came from sitting down to read Calvin. He is, first of all, a humanist--which is to say he's read widely, knows his Greek and Latin and Hebrew, and can pull from an impressive array of sources. (Perhaps not enough emphasis can be laid on the scholastic/humanist divide; it's why I find Erasmus tolerable even at his most rah-rah Rome). He proceeds carefully an meticulously, always documenting his sources (and, for good measure, pulling a trick Grotius himself would later use: citing a Greek Father and a Latin Father for the more controversial claims he makes). I once said of N.T. Wright, who I think stands in this tradition, that he writes as though his authority is an open question every time he sets pen to paper: one misstep and it goes away. And Calvin, for better or worse, understands not just his own mind, but those of his opponents: I've had theological conversations in which my interlocutor has made exactly the objections Calvin predicts in the order he expects them. He may be wrong, but he's earned the right to be heard.

Some years ago, when I was first starting to get into poetry, and was looking for a short poem of Ezra Pound's to include for a school project, she directed me to this one, which seems appropriate:

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman--
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving
We have one sap and one root--
Let there be commerce between us



I've been reading Karl Barth's Dogmatics in Outline with some friends. From Barth:

A well-intentioned business, this entire 'spectacle' of Christian art, well-intentioned but impotent, since God Himself has made His own image. Once a man has understood 'God in the highest', it becomes impossible for him to want any imagery in thought, or any other kind of imagery.


The rejection of images and icons was the glory of the western church until it, too, backslid. Now hardly anyone sees a problem with them; so much the worse for now. Barth echoes Kierkegaard, and Hegel's long explanation of the problems with religious art. (But didn't Gregory say that images were the Bibles of the illiterate? 1. No: you should read the art history literature on this topic. 2. Teach people to read, and the problem goes away.)


The other very interesting point Barth raised was a rejection of natural theology. There's much to say on this topic, but one of my friends raised the point that once the language of nature is employed, it can be used to justify most any cultural preference. Hugo Schwyzer provides a good example of this weakness, and his commenters elucidate it quite well. Both the die-hard traditionalists and the radical feminists look only to the point they find some pretext for the belief they had anyway, and then use it to hammer the opposition.

Both, however, repeat the mistake Hugo mentions in his original post: "the TOB embraces the idea that yes, biology is not only destiny, but divinely ordained reproductive destiny." There's a crudeness to it: either pleasure is a sign something bad is going on (or something that needs to be controlled), with all the Platonic nonsense that follows; or pleasure is something good to be pursued without reservation. My biology is not my destiny; pleasure is one of many ends (there are more than two).

Of course, this is much worse for women than it is for men: if TOB is right, the fundamental purpose for which women were put on the earth is done when pregnancy starts being a great biological risk for the child (35? 40?). The dangers of this mentality are (or should be) obvious: combine it with the pressure to have lots of children, and one ends up with the result that being unmarried at 23 (or 25, etc) is considered a warning sign of spinsterhood: the best procreating years are being wasted.

It's difficult to attempt to be both a conservative Christian and a feminist, but it's a combination I think worth trying. My church, a year or so ago, reaffirmed that we believe it's quite okay for women to preach from the pulpit, and last Sunday was the first example of it. The sermon, on John 4, was quite good--possibly the best I've heard all year. (I will not say "good for a woman," or "she brought an interesting feminine perspective to the passage:" she has a gift for teaching, full stop). In the last year, I've heard a lot of mediocre preaching--the kind of which the best thing that can be said is that it's over quickly--and it never ceases to amaze me what people will accept. I think it's possible to do so little with a lectionary reading as to not make it worth having bothered in the first place--and that's a real dishonor to the word, which should be central (where your effort is, there your heart will be also). I am, at any rate, glad to belong to the church I do, where this sort of thing happens.


There is still more to say (there always is): on how I've lost my trust in Charles Taylor, Dante and T.S. Eliot, how Hegel has recommended himself to me, and the long-promised set of reflections on intellectual patrimony. These must all wait.

There is much left unsaid (there always is): the memory of a long, slow, happy evening, which will be in heart and mind for a very long time. Life has its consolations

1 comment:

Amos Johannes Hunt said...

Great post!

Yes, "developing taste is hard, difficult work." But perhaps expressing it is harder. If the principle dividing the good from the bad is something like an attitude favoring the real, I can see how that rules out Pink Floyd and musicals, but how do Tolstoy, 30 Rock, and Shakespeare violate the real? I only ask because I like to think I share your criterion and yet I love all three of these.

And what, then, about the theology of the body? You are right to say that your biology is not your destiny, but is it not at least one note in the ineluctable chord of reality which your destiny is to resolve? Surely to say that there are many ends is only to say that the way to resolution called life has the one end of finding a way to respect many given themes at once (If I seem to be introducing an aesthetic criterion into what should be a rational business, I can only point out that reason itself is founded on the musical form of resolution. Is not its defining feature that confronted with premises related according to logical form it cannot bear to resist a conclusion?). Insofar as the theology of the body reduces destiny to "divinely ordained reproductive destiny," it is as perverse as you seem to think, but it would be fair to demand that where it seems to make such a claim, this should be treated in the same way as those extreme statements of Calvin which those who have not read him like to store up without regard to how the texts from which they are collected condition them.

At the very least in considering the proposals that women are in some way destined for childbirth and that pleasure is in some way a sign of danger, you ought to consider that the theology of the body originates and is largely celebrated among people who admire lifelong celibacy in women and men and celebrate a rapturous physical event called ecstasy experienced by their saints.