Sunday, September 30, 2012

Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett

I saw a great performance of this play last night, at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.

Try to see it if it ever shows up at a theater near you or, even simpler, watch it on UTube. Or get a copy and read it.  

Thinking about this play now, I'm tempted to call it Beckett's Wasteland—like Eliot's poem it is about futility, boredom and despair. Remember the woman who cries out "What shall we do? What shall we ever do?"

And then there are echoes, as it were, from some the great silent films of the 1920s—Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin. For despite its bleak vision of human life, Beckett's tragic play does have its moments of pure slapstick. But the humor is based on pain.

Perhaps only the murderous 20th century could have produced such play. Beckett had lived through two of the most destructive wars in human history. (The world wars were essentially a single war with a twenty year intermission). The bleakness of Beckett's vision of human life emerges naturally from our historical experience:  hundreds of millions of people squashed like insects. Poland, for example, lost a fifth of its population; the Jews, almost wiped out.

Franz Kafka is a powerful presence in this play, especially perhaps his short parable about a man who is waiting to gain access to the Law. It is called "Before The Law." Here it is:

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

W. H. Auden: Three Poems



He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree 
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


     You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
     The parish of rich women, physical decay,
     Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
     Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
     For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
     In the valley of its making where executives
     Would never want to tamper, flows on south
     From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
     Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
     A way of happening, a mouth.


          Earth, receive an honoured guest:
          William Yeats is laid to rest.
          Let the Irish vessel lie
          Emptied of its poetry.

          In the nightmare of the dark
          All the dogs of Europe bark,
          And the living nations wait,
          Each sequestered in its hate;

          Intellectual disgrace
          Stares from every human face,
          And the seas of pity lie
          Locked and frozen in each eye.

          Follow, poet, follow right
          To the bottom of the night,
          With your unconstraining voice
          Still persuade us to rejoice;

          With the farming of a verse
          Make a vineyard of the curse,
          Sing of human unsuccess
          In a rapture of distress;

          In the deserts of the heart
          Let the healing fountain start,
          In the prison of his days
          Teach the free man how to praise.


I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade: 
Waves of anger and fear 
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth, 
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death 
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use 
Their full height to proclaim 
The strength of Collective Man, 
Each language pours its vain 
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare, 
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are, 
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash 
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish: 
What mad Nijinsky wrote 
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart; 
For the error bred in the bone 
Of each woman and each man 
Craves what it cannot have, 
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game: 
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street 
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky: 
There is no such thing as the State 
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.



    She looked over his shoulder
      For vines and olive trees,
     Marble well-governed cities
      And ships upon untamed seas,
     But there on the shining metal
      His hands had put instead
     An artificial wilderness
      And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
   No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, 
   Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
   An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line, 
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
   Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
   No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
   Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

     She looked over his shoulder
      For ritual pieties,
     White flower-garlanded heifers,
      Libation and sacrifice,
     But there on the shining metal
      Where the altar should have been,
     She saw by his flickering forge-light
      Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
   Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
   A crowd of ordinary decent folk
   Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
   That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
   And could not hope for help and no help came:
   What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

     She looked over his shoulder
      For athletes at their games,
     Men and women in a dance
      Moving their sweet limbs
     Quick, quick, to music,
      But there on the shining shield
     His hands had set no dancing-floor
      But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone, 
   Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
   That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
   Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

     The thin-lipped armorer,
      Hephaestos, hobbled away,
     Thetis of the shining breasts
      Cried out in dismay
     At what the god had wrought
      To please her son, the strong
     Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
      Who would not live long.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

JESUS: A LIFE by A. N. Wilson (1992)

This may be the most readable and as well as the most learned book about Jesus, Paul and Christianity that you are likely to lay your hands on.

Without even trying,  Jesus destroyed the world of classical antiquity and wrenched subsequent history into not one but many radical new directions. If you are interested in history you should grab this book and read it cover to cover. It won't change your life but it will, without a doubt, change the way you think about Christianity as Paul more or less invented it, thereby partially taming the anarchic energy loosed upon the world by Jesus's deceptively simple, witty, ironic parables. (Though Wilson doesn't actually say so, he makes it pretty clear that  the 'parabolic' style that stamps almost everything that Jesus says was a new literary invention: no one in the ancient classical world had ever talked that way.)

I think I can best convey something of the tone and content of Wilson's book by quoting some of its concluding pages:

Most of the history of Christendom may be seen as a series of extraordinary accidents, but it is not purely accidental that Jesus could so easily be adopted and transformed into the Gentile God that he became. It is precisely because he refused to define himself that he was so vulnerable to the assaults of theologians and fantasists. 'Who do men say I am?' He asked the question, but did not tell them what sort of answer they should have given.

Something with which Western minds have found it almost impossible to come to terms is the unsystematic nature of Jesus's thought. Since Jesus existed within an accepted religious framework, and was not setting out to found a new religion, still less to found a philosophical school, there is no need to search among his recorded sayings for a coherent metaphysic. He spoke in parables partly with the deliberate aim of  baffling and disturbing his hearers, that hearing they might not understand. He did not wish to deliver them with a finished pattern which they could follow. The pattern was something which, if it existed, they must make for themselves. Most Christian schemes of thought have arisen from a passion to take some group of recorded sayings in the Gospels and to force them to their logical conclusion. The whole of Calvinism, for example, may be deduced from the parable of the women looking for the lost coin. If, as Calvin did, you imagine that this story is a piece of theology, then certain terrible deductions can be made from it. The Almighty is the woman, and the human soul is the coin. It follows that all human impulses toward the divine are worthless, since the initiative, in the process of salvation, must always come not from man but from above. We cannot work for our salvation; we must wait for it. It therefore follows that only those who have been called or elected to glory may be saved—with the cruel concomitant that those who are not so called must be elected to everlasting damnation. [Including unbaptized infants.]. . . .

Who can not believe Tolstoy when he says that oath-taking is forbidden in the Gospel; that the kingdom is within us, and not of this world; that the true followers of Jesus can therefore never wish to take part in civil systems, and never seek political solutions to the problems which beset society? And yet Jesus, who told his followers to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, is never recorded as recommended a Tolstoyan policy of civil disobedience against Rome of the sort which inspired Gandhi to defy, and ultimately to overthrow, the British Raj in India.

The truth is that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself. Christianity in all its multifarious manifestations, Orthodox and heterodox, has been a repeated attempt to make sense of him, to cut him down to size. The extent to which no saying or story of Jesus can, in fact, be taken to its logical conclusion without being contradicted by some other saying or fact is perhaps less a symptom of how imperfectly the Gospels record him than how oblique and how terrifying a figure he actually was in history. Terrifying because he really does undermine everything. He appeals to disruptive imaginations
such as Tolstoy and Blake, but even they, in seeking to make his disruptiveness their own, systematize or enclose him. It cannot be done. 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.' He will not tell us. . . A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation which we devise. It if makes sense it is wrong. That is the only reliable rule-of-thumb which we can use when testing the innumerable interpretations of Jesus's being and his place in human history.

If it makes sense it is wrong— in some important ways. (Or, as Wallace Stevens says in one of his poems, "The squirming facts evade the squamous mind.") How many other theories—logical, theological, philosophical, political, cosmological etc.—can you think of that would survive this rule of thumb? No matter how sophisticated your theory, it is bound to encounter facts that cannot be explained or evaded. History is littered with the wreckage of busted doctrines and theories. Even this one?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

T. S. Eliot: the invention of a poetic self and voice

Thanks to Christopher Ricks (Inventions of The March Hare, Poems  1909-1917), we can now read the unpublished poems that preceded Preludes, The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock, and the other poems that appeared for the first time in Eliot's first book, Prufrock And Other Observations (1917). [Not 'poems', mind you, but the ironic "observations": Eliot's first readers could not say that they had not been warned.]

Eliot was interested, from the first, in trying to see what he could make of the urban landscape—not romanticized (or etherealized) as in Wordsworth's early morning view of London from West-
Minster Bridge— but presented, shoved in front of us,  in all its ugly reality. I will show you several of these "caprices" as Eliot calls some of them (a musical term like 'preludes').

First Caprice in North Cambridge

A street-piano, garrulous and frail;
The yellow evening flung against the panes
Of dirty windows: and the distant strains
Of children's voices, ended in a wail.

Bottles and broken glass,
Trampled mud and grass;
A heap of broken barrows;
And a crowd of tattered sparrows
Delve in the gutter with sordid patience.

Oh, these minor considerations! . . . . .

Second Caprice in North Cambridge

This charm of vacant lots!
The helpless fields that lie
Sinister, sterile and blind—
Entreat the eye and rack the mind,
Demand your pity.
With ashes and tins in piles,
Shattered bricks and tiles
And the debris of a city.

Far from our definitions
And our esthetic laws
Let us pause
With these fields that hold and rack the brain
(What: again?)
With  an unexpected charm
And an unexplained repose
On an evening in December
Under a sunset yellow and rose.

Interlude In London

We hibernate among the bricks
And live across the window panes
With marmalade and tea at six
Indifferent to what the wind does
Indifferent to sudden rains
Softening last years garden plots

And apathetic, with cigars
Careless, while down the street the spring goes
Inspiring mouldy flowerpots,
And broken flutes at garret windows.


Along the city streets,
It is still high tide,
Yet the garrulous waves of life
Shrink and divide
With a thousand incidents
Vexed and debated:—
This is the hour for which we waited—

This is the ultimate hour
When life is justified.
The seas of experience
That were so broad and deep,
So immediate and steep,
Are suddenly still.
You may say what you will,
At such peace I am terrified.
There is nothing else beside.

Pretty good for a 20 or 21 year-old kid, we might say. When we read the poem that these poems were working towards, however, we can see why Eliot might have wanted to make sure that they would never be published. The poem that Eliot really wanted to write is Preludes, a poem that not only anticipates The Wasteland but in my (minority) opinion is superior to it—and less pretentious.


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

You tossed the blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images;
Of which your soul was constituted
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

His soul stretched across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Eliot wrote a small number of great poems, but never anything greater than this. Prufrock, which seems to have been written before Preludes, is wonderful for the way it uses the urban materials and insights of the former poem for comic rather than tragic effect. The world of Prufrock is neither as desperate or as sad as that other poem had brilliantly forced us to see it. Did it ever occur to Eliot when he came to write The Wasteland that he had already written it?—but without the pompous notes, shallow anthropology and—most of all (from my point of view) the Christian allegorizing.

Many of the poems that Eliot published in 1917 and 1920 strike me (and not only me, I suppose) as either trivial ("Aunt Helen" or "Cousin Nancy" for example) or pursuing some mostly private symbolism, as in the Sweeney poems, or "Whispers of Immortality." The mystery is, how such a private, deliberately obscure, writer of a handful of poems could have become, so widely acclaimed as a great poet? (A similar question could be asked about Wallace Stevens.)

Here are some poem that, in addition to Preludes and Prufrock some poems that I keep coming back to: two poems about heartlessness: Portrait of A Lady and La Figlia che Piange.

I also like Rhapsody on a Windy Night, which seems to be about another kind of failure—the failure, perhaps, of someone from the world described in Preludes—to escape or even to change his or her desperately regimented and impoverished life; that person might even be Prufrock himself. I also like Marina and Burnt Norton (probably—in the case of the latter poem— because of that Rose Garden full of children which the poet can never recover.)

It may, I know, be very old fashioned, even a trifle vulgar, to like poems that make connections between art and life. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.

You can see why Eliot despised the poetry and novels of Thomas Hardy.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Wasteland

I recently read vol. 1 of Eliot’s letters—a little like reading an epistolary novel. My hero is not TS, heroic worker that he was, but poor little Viviene who seems to have done her best only to be shunted off finally to an insane asylum and heartlessly abandoned. Heartlessness, is what a lot of Eliot’s poems, including The Wasteland, are about. What did Eliot mean when he said that his marriage brought no happiness to his wife or (evidently) to him in whom it created the state of mind in which he wrote The Wasteland? I’ve never seen that remark carefully elucidated. I don’t doubt that Eliot’s unhappy marriage is in there–though maybe not in the Game of Chess section which Viviene read and seems not to have taken exception to—but I think the Great War, which is never mentioned  in these letters, has to be a major and tragic presence in The Wasteland. Isn’t that—and the wars to come -what the Thunder is talking about in the final act of this five-act tragedy?  “I am moved” says the voice of Preludes, “by fancies that are curled Around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing.” I, for my part,  have always been moved by this heartbreaking poem—which Eliot messed up with his stupid and irrelevant notes; why couldn’t he leave his (and Pound’s) masterpiece well enough alone? I’ve also been put off by his use of foreign languages—with a conclusion in Sanscrit?—why isn’t plain English good enough?  W. C.  Williams was right to be enraged by all that stuff. And now I find that I have to take some of it back: I love the lines about the girl in the hyacinth garden—and the man who has let her down—framed by those lines in German from Tristan. How does one talk about poetry like that? For that matter, how can one talk practical criticism about this poem at all?

I read Christopher Ricks’ Decisions and Revisions, which smart and intelligent as it is doesn’t to tell me as much about Eliot’s poetry as I had expected and hoped for. Two-thirds of the book is about Eliot’s criticism, which no longer interests me—annoys me in fact: I’ve come to dislike the flat, dead, omniscient tone he puts on.  How could Ricks have got the  balance of his book so wrong? The poetry is what matters—the greatest poetry of the 20th century— not the criticism. The last section, on the delicacy of Eliot’s poetic revisions is wonderful and enlightening. I wanted more and didn’t get any more.

I came across Preludes and Prufrock at the age of 14 in a highschool English textbook.  Of course I didn’t know what to think, I wasn’t thinking at all, but the sound of that poetry was some sort of epiphany (in hindsight); it got caught in my inner ear and remained there. I fell in love with the sound of Eliot’s poetry as later I fell in love with the sound of Frost’s—but not Stevens. Eliot and Frost write about stuff that’s real—there’s no sense of a slight-of-hand man in Frost and Eliot; Stevens writes about poetry and the imagination.  Well, these are real too but not to your or my common reader. Stevens was an esthete and wrote for esthetes. Once in a while, he talks about realities as in Sunday Morning, The Death of a Soldier and  Hibiscus on Dreaming Shores (which is about one of the great realities, boredom), but mostly not about anything that matters to ordinary people.
That’s why snobs like Poirier, DeMan and all the others made so much of him. W. C. Williams missed his mark. He should have reserved his animus for Stevens instead of attacking Eliot.

When we were in China (1983-84) both Kathy and I taught courses in American Lit to the young instructors at Hebei University (in Baoding). The one poem they all wanted to read was The Wasteland. That’s what tney knew about and had lived through, the nearly total collapse of Chinese ciivilization. Of course there was no way we could explain it to them—we couldn’t even explain it to ourselves but it didn’t matter; the poetry told them what they already knew. Now we, in the West, are seeing for ourselves what they had already experienced. Eliot was ahead of his time as well as of it.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dante's Divine Comedy

Dante's Commedia, like any other poem that's worth reading is best read in the language it was written in, but that is not always possible and most of us have to make do with translations. This is especially true of Dante's epic but since I (like most of us) cannot read Italian, I have to make do with one of the many excellent translations that can be easily obtained. Poetry, as has often been said, is what gets lost in translation, which is why I don't generally read poetry in other languages than English, but sometimes a poem is so important that you have to read it in any way you can; Dante's poem, like Homer's, is one of these.

The plot line of Dante's poem is easily described: half-way through his life he says (which would have been about 1300 in his case), he lost his way in a dark wood where he would have perished had it not been for his good angel, Beatrice, who sends him a guide, Vergil (author of the Aeneid) to set him on the right path. The right path takes him through hell, purgatory and heaven corresponding to the three books into which the Commedia is divided: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradisio—a guided tour, in other words of the   (then) known universe. In the first, Dante is shown the inhuman, disgusting and eternal tortures inflicted upon the damned, in all their various categories; in the second the milder forms of penance that everyone must undergo since, as the saying goes, no one is perfect; Paradise is, well, paradise where nothing much happens— though the poetry, I hear, is pretty great.

The ordinary reader (sinners, all of us) will always prefer the Inferno which is dramatic, to the other two books which are not. Part of the drama of the Inferno consists of Dante's human response to God's system of criminal justice: the appalling injustice of torture without end—which he and his readers are relentlessly forced to observe: he weeps for these poor devils and so do we. (What we wonder would Jesus say about all this?) Why does there have to be a hell at all; why not shut it up and send all the sinners to purgatory? These are not the questions that we are supposed (in the divine scheme of things) to be asking and they are certainly not the questions that God in all His omniscience thought he had a right to expect when he sends Dante, the greatest poet of the age, on a guided tour of his penal colony.

Did Dante intend his poem to have these effects? Of course that is a question that cannot be answered; it is a fact however that Dante's poem, like Homer's, necessarily undermines our faith in divine justice; and that both of these poets knew what they were doing—and why. That is to say, Homer and Dante were an important part of the process (historical, philosophical, scientific) that produced the essentially secular societies of the West.

When God failed us—consider all the millions of people who died in our various wars of religion—we put our faith in the rule of law which, having been largely corrupted by money and power, is now failing us as well. Having poisoned the air, water and climate of the world, we are now running out of time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Of gods and humans in Homer's Iliad

The siege of Troy is in its ninth year, and the Greeks have nothing to show for it but some loot from other cities allied with Troy, and most of that has been appropriated by Agamemnon, the king. There is muttering in the ranks, by Thersites especially, which is brutally put down. This business takes up the better part of a day. The next day, as the armies are getting ready to resume battle, a curious interlude occurs: Alexandros (a.k.a. Paris) leaps forth from the Trojan ranks and issues a challenge "to the best of the Argives [Greeks] to fight man to man with him in bitter combat." On seeing Menelaos (the man he has wronged by running off with his wife, Helen) looking like a lion that has seen his prey and is getting ready to eat it, Paris shrinks back into the ranks hoping no one will notice. His brother Hektor sees it all, however, and rebukes him in the harshest terms:

Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy, cajoling,
Better had you never been born, or killed unwedded.
Truly I could have wished it so; it would be far better
Than to have you with us to our shame, for others to sneer at.
Surely now the flowing-haired Achaians laugh at us,
Thinking you are our bravest champion, only because your
looks are handsome, but there is no strength in your heart, no courage.
Were you like this that time when in sea-wandering vessels
Assembling oarsmen to help you you sailed over the water,
and mixed with the outlanders, and carried away a fair woman
from a remote land, whose lord's kin were spearmen and fighters,
to your father a big sorrow, and your city, and all your people,
to yourself a thing shameful but bringing joy to the enemy?
And now you would not stand up against warlike Menelaos?
Thus you would learn of a man whose blossoming wife you have taken.
The lyre would not help you then, nor the favors of Aphrodite,
Nor your locks, when rolled in the dust, nor all your beauty.
(Bk 3, lines 39-55)

Paris is not a weakling, however, and, fully recognizing the justice of Hektor's rebuke, agrees to do battle with Menelaos; the winner keeps Helen and the war will be over:

                                                                           . . . . do not
bring up against me the sweet favors of golden Aphrodite.
Never to be cast away are gifts of the gods, magnificent,
which they give of their own will, no man could have them for wanting them.
Now though, if you wish me to fight it out and do battle,
make the rest of the Trojans sit down, and all the Achaians,
and set me in the middle with Menelaos the warlike
to fight together for the sake of Helen and all her possessions.
That one of us who wins and is proved stronger, let him
take the possessions fairly and the woman, and lead her homeward. . .
So he spoke, and Hektor hearing his word was happy
and went into the space between and forced back the Trojan battalions
holding his spear by the middle until they were all seated.
But the flowing-haired Achaians kept pointing their bows at him
with arrows and with flung stones striving ever to strike him
until Agamemnon lord of men cried out in a great voice:
'Argives, hold: cast at him no longer, o sons of the Achaians.
Hektor of the shining helm is trying to tell us something.'
   So he spoke, and they stopped fighting and suddenly all fell
silent; but Hektor between them spoke now to both sides:
'Hear from me, Trojans and strong-greaved Achaians, the word
of Alexandros, for whose sake this strife has arisen.
He would have all the rest of the Trojans and all the Achaians
lay aside on the bountiful earth their splendid armor
while he himself in the middle and warlike Menelaos
fight along for the sake of Helen and all her possessions.
That one of them who wins and is proved stronger, let him
take the possessions fairly, and the woman, and lead her homeward
while the rest of us cut our oaths of faith and friendship.
   So he spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence;
but among them spoke out Menelaos of the great war cry:
'Listen now to me also; since beyond all others this sorrow
comes closest to my heart, and I think the Argives and Trojans
can go free of each other at last. You have suffered much evil
for the sake of this my quarrel since Alexandros began it.
As for that one of us two to whom death and doom are given,
let him die: the rest of you be made friends with each other.

And right then and there the whole damn war might have ended, if the gods would only allow their human playthings to settle their own affairs. This the gods are unwilling to do, however, for, as Homer makes very clear, the Gods have no lives of their own; without their human subjects or slaves, through whom they live vicariously (or parasitically), their lives would be empty, meaningless—an eternity of boredom. So, just as Menelaos is about to kill Paris, Aphrodite whisks him off to his bedroom in Troy, to which she summons Helen, who at first is so ashamed that she dares, in an act of extraordinary courage, to defy her patroness—but only for a moment.

'Is it because Menelaos has beaten great Alexandros
and wishes, hateful even as I am, to carry me homeward,
is it for this that you stand in your treachery now beside me?
Go yourself and sit beside him, abandon the god's way,
turn your feet back never again to the path of Olympos
and stay with him forever, and suffer for him and look after him
until he makes you his wedded wife, or makes you his slave girl.
Not I. I am not going to him. It would be too shameful.
I will not serve his bed, since the Trojan women hereafter
would laugh at me, all, and my heart even now is confused with sorrows.'
   Then in anger Aphrodite the shining spoke to her:
'Wretched girl, do not tease me lest in anger I forsake you
and grow to hate you as much as now I terribly love you,
lest I encompass you in hard hate, caught between both sides,
Danaans and Trojans alike, and you wretchedly perish.' (3.403-17)

And so Helen obeys, returns to Paris, for whom she has as much contempt as she has for herself, and disappears from the poem—as tragic a figure in her way as Achilles is in his.

These (attempted) rebellions have not gone unnoticed by Zeus and the other gods. He is prepared to be forgiving, or so he says, knowing that his words will enrage his wife, Hera, and daughter, Athena, whose hatred of Troy is unappeasable.

'Let us consider then,' he says, 'how these things shall be accomplished,
whether again to stir up grim warfare and the terrible
fighting, or cast down love and make them friends with each other.
If somehow this way could be sweet and pleasing to all of us,
the city of lord Priam might still be a place men dwell in,
and Menelaos could take away with him Helen of Argos.'
   So he spoke; and Athene and Hera muttered, since they were
sitting close to each other, devising evil for the Trojans.
Still Athena stayed silent and said nothing, but only
sulked at Zeus her father, and savage anger took hold of her.
But the heart of Hera could not contain her anger, and she spoke forth:
'Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken?
How can you wish to make wasted and fruitless all this endeavor,
the sweat that I have sweated in toil, and my horses worn out
gathering my people, and bringing evil to Priam and his children.
Do it then; but not all the rest of us gods will approve you'
   Deeply troubled, Zeus who gathers clouds answered her:
'Dear lady, what can be all the evils done to you
by Priam and the sons of Priam, that you are thus furious
forever to bring down the strong-founded city of Ilion?
If you could walk through the gates and towering ramparts
and eat Priam and the children of Priam raw, and the other
Trojans, then, then only might you glut at last your anger.
Do as you please then. Never let this quarrel hereafter
be between you and me a bitterness for both of us.
And put away in your thoughts this other thing that I tell you:
whenever I in turn am eager to lay waste some city,
as I please, one in which are dwelling men who are dear to you,
you shall not stand in the way of my anger, but let me do it,
since I was willing to grant you this with my heart unwilling. . . .
   Then the goddess the ox-eyed Lady Hera answered:
'Of all cities there are three that are dearest to my own heart:
Argos and Sparta and Mykenai of the wide ways. All these,
whenever they become hateful to your heart, sack utterly. (4.14-53)

Meanwhile, as Zeus and Hera are settling their own jurisdictional disputes, the truce established by Hektor is still in effect; if nothing is done it might become permanent: the two sides might, for example, begin to understand that they have nothing to fight about and are merely entertaining the gods. Hera is the first to say, in effect, let's get back to business:

'Come then, in this thing let us both give way to each other, 
I to you, you to me, and so the rest of the immortal
gods will follow. Now in speed give orders to Athene
to visit horrible war again on Achaians and Trojans,
and try to make it so that that the Trojans are first offenders
to do injury against the oaths to the far-famed Achaians.'
   She spoke, nor did the father of the gods and men disobey her,
but immediately he spoke in winged words to Athene:
'Go now swiftly to the host of the Achaians and Trojans
and try to make it so that the Trojans are the first offenders
to do injury . . . .'
Speaking so he stirred up Athene, who was eager before this,
and she went in a flash of speed down the pinnacles of Olympos. . . .
[and] in the likeness of a man merged among the Trojans assembled . . .
searching for godlike Pandaros, a man blameless and powerful,
standing still, and about him were the ranks of strong, shield-armored
people. . . 
Speaking in winged words she stood beside him and spoke to him:
'Wise son of Lykaon, would you let me persuade you?
So you might dare send a flying arrow against Menelaos
and win you glory and gratitude in the sight of all Trojans,
particularly beyond all else with prince Alexandros.
Beyond all besides you would carry away glorious gifts from him,
were he to see warlike Menelaos, the son of Atreus,
struck down by your arrow, and laid on the sorrowful corpse-fire.

And so the arrow is loosed, the truce treacherously broken, and the great war continues to its terrible and tragic conclusion. We should note, in passing, that Athena does not keep her promise to Pandarus, but treacherously brushes the arrow aside so that Menelaos merely suffers a superficial wound.

The significance of this moment—so close to the beginning of the great poem—seems not to have been sufficiently noticed: for the first time in human history, human beings try to break away from the tyranny of the Gods.

The only thing we know about Homer, besides his name, is that he was evidently the last of an ancient tradition of professional poetic singers or performers. We know he was the last, because he was the one who either fixed the poem forever by writing it down, sometime in the 8th century BC (which was when the Greek alphabet became established, and Greek became a written language), or by dictating it to someone who could. (There is a self-referential moment in the Odyssey, when Odysseus who is still unknown to his hosts on the island of Phaecia, is present at one of these performances of the poem that would become the Iliad. When his hosts see the tears running down the face of this stranger, they ask him who he is.)

Perhaps you should also know that the Iliad is the first tragedy. And what is tragedy? Aristotle's remarks in the Poetics are not very helpful, mainly I think because tragedy is about the basic irrationality of human existence—a very unAristotelian notion: a tragic choice is a choice in which reason is useless; a perfectly rational argument can be made for all the choices you face—and doing nothing is not an option. And it gets worse: equally rational arguments can be made for doing contradictory or inconsistent things. Such situations are not supposed to arise in Aristotle's Ethics. Homer's cosmos, founded on the amorality, unpredictability and arbitrariness of the Olympian gods, is antithetical to everything that Aristotle believed in. Nor, it seems to me, was life under Yahweh much better—despite the decalogue which always seemed to have been intended for other people. Job thought Yahweh pretty much the same as the devil and he wasn't far wrong. (The Palestinians certainly think so, justifiably.) After Job, Yahweh makes his exit, from the bible and from history. (I'd be inclined to say "good riddance" if it weren't for the fact that the Decalogue still makes pretty good sense; or would if we could alter the command to honor ones' father and mother in such a way as to give it serious moral force: "Don't dishonor your father and mother." All the other commands would then make sense for atheists as well as believers.)

So why was it that it was the Greeks, not the Jews, who invented tragedy?

Homer, at least, had no illusions about the gods; nor did Socrates, who was executed for saying far less subversive things about them than Homer does in the Iliad, one of the most widely read and admired poems of classical antiquity. You can see why, given a choice between the Olympian gods and Jesus, many Romans made the switch.



Friday, March 16, 2012

On the radical incompleteness of modern physics

Kurt Gödel published two theorems in 1930 that establish the inherent limitations of all but the most trivial axiomatic systems capable of doing arithmetic. The first of these famous "incompleteness" theorems (and here I quote from Wikipedia), "states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an "effective procedure (e.g., a computer program, but it could be any sort of algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers.  For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers (or irrational or complex numbers) that are true, but that are unprovable within the system." (Should one add axioms that make the truth or falsity of these statements provable, it will be possible to find more true statements that can not proved within the axiomatic structure of this new, enlarged axiomatic system.)The second incompleteness theorem, a corollary of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. 

Something analogous seems to have happened to physics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The explanatory and predictive power of modern physics has and is being repeatedly demonstrated at both the relativistic and sub-atomic scales. The theories of special and general relativity have been tested again and again and not found wanting. The same can be said of The Standard Theory of Quantum Mechanics—the missing link of the Standard Theory, the Higgs Boson, will it seems, soon be cemented into place. But all is not well: there seems to be some inconsistency between Relativity and the Standard Theory. Every attempt to unify these two theories has failed. Both of these are field theories, which is to say that every particle or object in the universe is connected with a field and what these theories describe (if that's the word) is these fields. You can feel the electro-magnetic field of a bar magnet if you put an iron object near it and you can feel the field of gravity every time you fall; you can see it in the motion of a pendulum—or of the moon; if there is such a thing as the Higgs boson, and it seems that there is, you can feel the presence of the Higgs field, which is what gives matter its mass, every time you push someone on a swing and feel the inertia of his or her body.

The trouble is that the equations of the Standard Theory can't be used to describe relativistic fields and the equations of relativity can't be used to describe electromagnetic fields, or indeed any of the other fields described in the Standard Theory. 

So, there's a massive disconnect between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. For a while it seemed that String Theory (which I do not understand at all) might be able to bring Relativity and Quantum Mechanics together: the equations of Relativity and those of Quantum Mechanics show up quite naturally in the mathematics of string theory. There's just one hitch, and it is not a small one: the mathematics of string theory has not produced a single verifiable prediction since it was first invented more than twenty years ago. And that's not for lack of trying.

Just as Gödel demonstrated the fundamental incompleteness of mathematics, so it would seem that we must now face the fact that physics too is fundamentally incomplete—not because of some radical fault in our assumptions or our thinking or our experimental procedures, but because nature is more mysterious than we can possibly understand. It's not that we have somehow or other asked the wrong questions but that nature is so strange that we will never, ever know how to ask the right ones. Maybe there aren't any. I find that last possibility not only interesting and amusing but also satisfying.

And then there's the fact that about 96% of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy, which cannot be accounted for in any of our theories.

I don't want to be misunderstood: none of this has anything to do with religion; if you want to fill in the empty blanks with the word 'god' that's your business, not mine.

Gödel's incompleteness theorem did not slow down the development of logic and mathematics, even slightly.
The incompleteness of physics will have no effect on the work that is now going on at the frontiers of science in Astronomy or condensed-matter physics or superconductivity.

(Since my ignorance of these matters while not total, is profound, I would welcome comments or corrections from those who really know what they are talking about. I doubt, however, that I am seriously mistaken on my main point, the radical incompleteness of modern physics.)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Keats' Fall of Hyperion: Desperate Questions, Courageous Answers

When Keats knew he was dying he took a last look at himself and his fellow poets and he did not like what he saw; that at least is the conclusion I draw from one of his last (and incomplete) poems, "The Fall of Hyperion", which is grafted onto an earlier and also incomplete poem, "Hyperion", a sort of historical allegory written in Miltonic blank verse—a style and subject matter so remote from the astonishing poetry of, say, "The Ode To A Nightingale," that, not surprisingly, these "Hyperion" fragments have been largely forgotten.

The second of these fragments—"The Fall of Hyperion"—is what interests me here.

It begins somewhat oddly by drawing a distinction between the dreams of religious fanatics and savages, which are lost to posterity because they were never written down; and the melodious utterances of poets which survive simply because they were. And Keats goes on to claim that poetry is a universal human right: "Who alive can say,/ 'Thou art no Poet may'st not tell thy dreams?'"

Why "oddly"? Because, as you will see, should you go on to read the selection which I have printed below, dreamers, and especially poetic dreamers are looked upon with contempt by the priestess of the temple in the dream that Keats is here describing.

I shall try to summarize this dream here (or rather, as we shall see, a dream within a dream): the dreamer finds himself in a sort of Edenic paradise, where it looks as if an inconceivably luxurious picnic has just been hurriedly, and recently, abandoned—for the food and drink spread out in such abundance is still perfectly fresh and the dreamer proceeds to satisfy his hunger and thirst. The food is harmless but the beverage he sips knocks him out—indeed, it almost kills him, and he is soon to have another near-death experience. Poetry, it seems, is a dangerous trade.

When the dreamer wakes up, (in his dream), he finds himself inside an incomparably vast and ancient temple; far off, he sees a colossal statue with an altar between its feet with a priestess whose presence is never very well explained since there are no worshippers anywhere to be seen—and perhaps there hadn't been any for a very long time. As the dreamer approaches, the priestess tells him, in effect, that he has fallen into a trap, and that if he can't climb the steps leading to the altar in about two seconds he's going to die.

When he reaches the top step just in time and life returns to his half-dead body, and he asks the priestess what this test has been all about, she tells him—and this seems to be the heart of the matter—that
"None can usurp this height . . . 
But those to whom the miseries of the world 
Are misery, and will not let them rest."

No one had ever defined the poetic calling in these revolutionary terms before, and had Keats been content to let his poem end with this courageous manifesto, the world might have had to sit up and take note. The trouble is, Keats own extraordinary genius had not and could not have taken this implicitly revolutionary turn. Moreover, he was too intellectually honest to let Moneta (the name of this priestess)  have the last word:

"Are there not thousands in the world," said I, 
Encourag'd by the sooth voice of the shade, 
"Who love their fellows even to the death; 
"Who feel the giant agony of the world; 
"And more, like slaves to poor humanity, 
"Labour for mortal good? I sure should see 
"Other men here; but I am here alone."

To which Moneta replies:

"Those whom thou spak'st of are no vision'ries,"
Rejoin'd that voice; "they are no dreamers weak; 
"They seek no wonder but the human face, 
"No music but a happy noted voice; 
"They come not here, they have no thought to come; 
"And thou art here, for thou art less than they: 
"What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe, 
"To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing, 
"A fever of thyself think of the Earth; 
"What bliss even in hope is there for thee? 
"What haven? every creature hath its home; 
"Every sole man hath days of joy and pain, 
"Whether his labours be sublime or low 
"The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct: 
"Only the dreamer venoms all his days, 
"Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve. 
"Therefore, that happiness be somewhat shar'd, 
"Such things as thou art are admitted oft 
"Into like gardens thou didst pass erewhile, 
"And suffer'd in these temples: for that cause 
"Thou standest safe beneath this statue's knees."

Keats, after all is nothing but a dreamer—the lowest of the low, a "thing", who "venoms all his days, bearing more woe than all his sins deserve." Therefore he has been admitted to this temple as a kind of favor (some favor considering the fact that he damn near dies of it.) 

But surely, he says "not all 
"Those melodies sung into the world's ear 
"Are useless: sure a poet is a sage; 
"A humanist, physician to all men. 
"That I am none I feel, as vultures feel 
"They are no birds when eagles are abroad. 
"What am I then? Thou spakest of my tribe: 
"What tribe?" 

To which Moneta replies, mercilessly,

"Art thou not of the dreamer tribe? 
"The poet and the dreamer are distinct, 
"Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes. 
"The one pours out a balm upon the world, 
"The other vexes it."

This is more than Keats can take:
"Then shouted I 
"Spite of myself, and with a Pythia's spleen, 
"Apollo! faded! O far flown Apollo! 
"Where is thy misty pestilence to creep 
"Into the dwellings, through the door crannies 
"Of all mock lyrists, large self worshipers, 
"And careless Hectorers in proud bad verse. 
"Though I breathe death with them it will be life 
"To see them sprawl before me into graves."

(I take it that Keats here is referring to Wordsworth, among others.)

And this effectively ends the poem and the argument in which nothing has been concluded; though it is worth noting that it is Keats who has the last word.

The Fall of Hyperion - A Dream


Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage too
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not
Trac'd upon vellum or wild Indian leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance.
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
'Thou art no Poet may'st not tell thy dreams?'
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.
Whether the dream now purpos'd to rehearse
Be poet's or fanatic's will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.

Methought I stood where trees of every clime,
Palm, myrtle, oak, and sycamore, and beech,
With plantain, and spice blossoms, made a screen;
In neighbourhood of fountains, by the noise
Soft showering in my ears, and, by the touch
Of scent, not far from roses. Turning round
I saw an arbour with a drooping roof
Of trellis vines, and bells, and larger blooms,
Like floral censers swinging light in air;
Before its wreathed doorway, on a mound
Of moss, was spread a feast of summer fruits,
Which, nearer seen, seem'd refuse of a meal
By angel tasted or our Mother Eve;
For empty shells were scattered on the grass,
And grape stalks but half bare, and remnants more,
Sweet smelling, whose pure kinds I could not know.
Still was more plenty than the fabled horn
Thrice emptied could pour forth, at banqueting
For Proserpine return'd to her own fields,
Where the white heifers low. And appetite
More yearning than on earth I ever felt
Growing within, I ate deliciously;
And, after not long, thirsted, for thereby
Stood a cool vessel of transparent juice
Sipp'd by the wander'd bee, the which I took,
And, pledging all the mortals of the world,
And all the dead whose names are in our lips,
Drank. That full draught is parent of my theme.
No Asian poppy nor elixir fine
Of the soon fading jealous Caliphat,
No poison gender'd in close monkish cell
To thin the scarlet conclave of old men,
Could so have rapt unwilling life away.
Among the fragrant husks and berries crush'd,
Upon the grass I struggled hard against
The domineering potion; but in vain:
The cloudy swoon came on, and down I sunk
Like a Silenus on an antique vase.
How long I slumber'd 'tis a chance to guess.
When sense of life return'd, I started up
As if with wings; but the fair trees were gone,
The mossy mound and arbour were no more:
I look'd around upon the carved sides
Of an old sanctuary with roof august,
Builded so high, it seem'd that filmed clouds
Might spread beneath, as o'er the stars of heaven;
So old the place was, I remember'd none
The like upon the earth: what I had seen
Of grey cathedrals, buttress'd walls, rent towers,
The superannuations of sunk realms,
Or Nature's rocks toil'd hard in waves and winds,
Seem'd but the faulture of decrepit things
To that eternal domed monument.
Upon the marble at my feet there lay
Store of strange vessels and large draperies,
Which needs had been of dyed asbestos wove,
Or in that place the moth could not corrupt,
So white the linen, so, in some, distinct
Ran imageries from a sombre loom.
All in a mingled heap confus'd there lay
Robes, golden tongs, censer and chafing dish,
Girdles, and chains, and holy jewelries.

Turning from these with awe, once more I rais'd
My eyes to fathom the space every way;
The embossed roof, the silent massy range
Of columns north and south, ending in mist
Of nothing, then to eastward, where black gates
Were shut against the sunrise evermore.
Then to the west I look'd, and saw far off
An image, huge of feature as a cloud,
At level of whose feet an altar slept,
To be approach'd on either side by steps,
And marble balustrade, and patient travail
To count with toil the innumerable degrees.
Towards the altar sober paced I went,
Repressing haste, as too unholy there;
And, coming nearer, saw beside the shrine
One minist'ring; and there arose a flame.
When in mid May the sickening East wind
Shifts sudden to the south, the small warm rain
Melts out the frozen incense from all flowers,
And fills the air with so much pleasant health
That even the dying man forgets his shroud;
Even so that lofty sacrificial fire,
Sending forth Maian incense, spread around
Forgetfulness of everything but bliss,
And clouded all the altar with soft smoke,
From whose white fragrant curtains thus I heard
Language pronounc'd: 'If thou canst not ascend
'These steps, die on that marble where thou art.
'Thy flesh, near cousin to the common dust,
'Will parch for lack of nutriment thy bones
'Will wither in few years, and vanish so
'That not the quickest eye could find a grain
'Of what thou now art on that pavement cold.
'The sands of thy short life are spent this hour,
'And no hand in the universe can turn
'Thy hourglass, if these gummed leaves be burnt
'Ere thou canst mount up these immortal steps.'
I heard, I look'd: two senses both at once,
So fine, so subtle, felt the tyranny
Of that fierce threat and the hard task proposed.
Prodigious seem'd the toil, the leaves were yet
Burning when suddenly a palsied chill
Struck from the paved level up my limbs,
And was ascending quick to put cold grasp
Upon those streams that pulse beside the throat:
I shriek'd; and the sharp anguish of my shriek
Stung my own ears I strove hard to escape
The numbness; strove to gain the lowest step.
Slow, heavy, deadly was my pace: the cold
Grew stifling, suffocating, at the heart;
And when I clasp'd my hands I felt them not.
One minute before death, my iced foot touch'd
The lowest stair; and as it touch'd, life seem'd
To pour in at the toes: I mounted up,
As once fair angels on a ladder flew
From the green turf to Heaven. 'Holy Power,'
Cried I, approaching near the horned shrine,
'What am I that should so be saved from death?
'What am I that another death come not
'To choke my utterance sacrilegious here?'
Then said the veiled shadow 'Thou hast felt
'What 'tis to die and live again before
'Thy fated hour. That thou hadst power to do so
'Is thy own safety; thou hast dated on
'Thy doom.' 'High Prophetess,' said I, 'purge off,
'Benign, if so it please thee, my mind's film.'
'None can usurp this height,' return'd that shade,
'But those to whom the miseries of the world
'Are misery, and will not let them rest.
'All else who find a haven in the world,
'Where they may thoughtless sleep away their days,
'If by a chance into this fane they come,
'Rot on the pavement where thou rottedst half.'
'Are there not thousands in the world,' said I,
Encourag'd by the sooth voice of the shade,
'Who love their fellows even to the death;
'Who feel the giant agony of the world;
'And more, like slaves to poor humanity,
'Labour for mortal good? I sure should see
'Other men here; but I am here alone.'
'Those whom thou spak'st of are no vision'ries,'
Rejoin'd that voice; 'they are no dreamers weak;
'They seek no wonder but the human face,
'No music but a happy noted voice;
'They come not here, they have no thought to come;
'And thou art here, for thou art less than they:
'What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe,
'To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing,
'A fever of thyself think of the Earth;
'What bliss even in hope is there for thee?
'What haven? every creature hath its home;
'Every sole man hath days of joy and pain,
'Whether his labours be sublime or low
'The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct:
'Only the dreamer venoms all his days,
'Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve.
'Therefore, that happiness be somewhat shar'd,
'Such things as thou art are admitted oft
'Into like gardens thou didst pass erewhile,
'And suffer'd in these temples: for that cause
'Thou standest safe beneath this statue's knees.'
'That I am favour'd for unworthiness,
'By such propitious parley medicin'd
'In sickness not ignoble, I rejoice,
'Aye, and could weep for love of such award.'
So answer'd I, continuing, 'If it please,
'Majestic shadow, tell me: sure not all
'Those melodies sung into the world's ear
'Are useless: sure a poet is a sage;
'A humanist, physician to all men.
'That I am none I feel, as vultures feel
'They are no birds when eagles are abroad.
'What am I then? Thou spakest of my tribe:
'What tribe?' The tall shade veil'd in drooping white
Then spake, so much more earnest, that the breath
Moved the thin linen folds that drooping hung
About a golden censer from the hand
Pendent. 'Art thou not of the dreamer tribe?
'The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
'Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.
'The one pours out a balm upon the world,
'The other vexes it.' Then shouted I
Spite of myself, and with a Pythia's spleen,
'Apollo! faded! O far flown Apollo!
'Where is thy misty pestilence to creep
'Into the dwellings, through the door crannies
'Of all mock lyrists, large self worshipers,
'And careless Hectorers in proud bad verse.
'Though I breathe death with them it will be life
'To see them sprawl before me into graves.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Stephen Pinker's "The Better Angel's Of Our Nature" (2011)

You will be glad, and perhaps a bit surprised, to hear that, for some time now, our world has been in the process of becoming a less violent planet—for human beings at least. That, in short is the message of this very long book (696 pages), not counting references and bibliography which have been placed at the end. The statistical evidence is vast and Professor Pinker has mastered all of it. If the numbers and stats were all that mattered, there'd be nothing more to say; they are not all that matters, and there is something more that needs to be said.

The question that Professor Pinker never manages to answer, to my satisfaction at least, is why did this revolution in our attitudes toward violence occur? Yes, there have been a number of what he calls "rights revolutions"  but that doesn't take us very far. What is a 'right'? What does that word mean? Where do 'rights' come from? How do they acquire legal standing? These are historical (as well as philosophical) questions, and it will not do to say that the answers have something to do with 'modernity'—another term that Professor Pinker does not bother to examine—and with the rule of law which I don't think he even mentions and which, in any case, did not just happen overnight or even during the last two or three hundred years.

The title of this book, "The better angels of our nature," is slightly misleading; not because it might lead the innocent reader to suppose that there are or ever have been good or bad angels watching over us but because it obscures or at least ignores what ought to have been Pinkers' great truth: civilization and the rule of law—each absolutely requires the other—is and always has been a human invention. Every year,  every century, reminds us of the fact that absent the rule of law, civilization in this preposterous pig of world, would count for nothing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

William James and the will to believe: "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902)

William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) is a bold, brilliant, and justly famous attempt to reconcile science and religion—or perhaps I should say, to prevent these two different forms of human experience from turning into two mutually hostile, incompatible, and irreconcilable 'cultures.' As we can see now, it was already too late, at the beginning of the 20th century, for such an enterprise to succeed—if it ever could have—but James thought the attempt should be made; he had too much invested in both sides to sit back and watch them fight it out. It was, as he must have known, a fight that could only make religion intellectually if not spiritually irrelevant and force believers into various forms of intellectual dishonesty.

I shall try to show how and where this attempt goes awry.  

First and most obviously, he failed to examine his own methodological assumptions as a philosopher and scientist. It does not seem to have occurred to him that, by treating religious experience as a "psychological phenomenon", he had already undermined the claim his book is based on: that religion is is not only as fundamental to the lives of human beings as language or music or art, or love or laughter or tears—that religion is part of what makes us human (which is not as reassuring as it sounds)—but that some people at least have really had direct, first-hand experience of divinity. Nor does he seem to have noticed that most of the accounts he cites of such direct, first-hand experience predate the modern era.

Nevertheless, James's book is a heroic attempt—at about the last possible moment in modern history when such an attempt could be made in all honesty by a first-class philosopher and scientist—to keep God alive in a world that seemed increasingly inclined to get along without him (it? her?). What I find particularly interesting is James's struggle to stick up for the truth, not of religious doctrine as embodied in particular religions, but for the sort of mystical experiences that organized religion, of any kind, tends to distrust. Here, he seems to be saying, is where or how divinity makes itself known or felt; here is where the rubber meets the road.

This creates a problem for James since, as near as I can tell, he had never had such an experience. The most he can do, therefore, is argue for the validity and importance of religious feelings. How do we know that the scientific worldview is inadequate? How do we know that the mystical experiences James has been describing are as true in their own way as the modern scientific worldview is in its? Because our feelings tell us so. As you might expect, an argument of this kind—facts on one side, feelings and the will to believe on the other—cannot be pursued without its having a dramatically disabling effect on James's style.

Here is the scientific James, presenting clearly and elegantly our world with its various religions and the universe of which it is a part; it is a view of religion and the world that he dislikes but is too honest to ignore:

There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism . . . . This view is so widespread at the present day that I must consider it with some explicitness before I pass to my own conclusions . . . .  The pivot round which the religious life, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest in the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism. . . . Religious thought is carried on in terms of personality, this being in the world of religion, the one fundamental fact. Today, quite as much as at any previous age, the religious individual tells you that the divine meets him on the basis of his personal concerns.

Science, on the other hand, has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view. She catalogues her elements and records her laws indifferent as to what purpose may be shown forth by them, and constructs her theories quite careless of their bearings on human anxieties and fates. Though the scientist may individually nourish a religion, and be a theist in his irresponsible hours, the days are over when it could be said that for Science herself the heavens declare the glory of god and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Our solar system, with its harmonies, is seen now as but one passing phase of a certain sort of moving equilibrium in the heavens, realized by a local accident in an appalling wilderness of worlds where no life can exist. In a span of time which as a cosmic interval will count but as an hour, it will have ceased to be. The Darwinian notion of chance production, and subsequent destruction, speedy or deferred, applies to the largest as well as the smallest facts. It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the driftings of the cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or the particular scale, anything but a kind of aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result. Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes, as the scientific mind now follows them, she appears to cancel herself. The books of natural theology which satisfied the intellects of our grandfathers seem to us quite grotesque, representing, as they did, a god who conformed the largest things of nature to the paltriest of human wants. (pp. 480-483, in the Modern Library Edition)

Now THAT was deeply felt by a man who had made no merely casual study of modern physics,  astronomy, and biology. A little more than 100 years later, the world and the universe looks the same—to those at least who have been paying attention. Yet so powerful was James's own will to believe that he was willing to throw everything he knew about science into the dust bin of history:

In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow, and I can now state my reasons in comparatively few words. That reason is that, so long as as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. I think I can easily make clear what I mean by these words.

The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner "state" in which the thinking comes to pass. What we think of may be enormous—the cosmic times and spaces, for example—whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of the mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inward state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one. A conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus the sense of self to whom the attitude belongs—such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the "object" is when taken alone. It is a full fact, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong; the motor currents of the world run through the like of it; it is on the line connecting real events with real events. That unsharable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune's wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made-up. (pp. 488-90)

Now compare the scientific account of the world and its place in the universe, which James presents in the paragraphs I have quoted, beginning with the phrase, There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism . . . with the paragraphs above beginning with the words, In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow . . . and ask yourself if James succeeds in making his meaning clear ("I think I can easily make clear what I mean by these words.")

I think James's confidence in that last sentence is unjustified: not only do the convolutions of his argument in defense of feeling stand in marked contrast to the clarity with which he presents the scientific world view he wants to reject, but the more closely I scrutinize that argument, the more certain I become that James is merely begging the question. Take another look at his reasons for regarding the scientific attitude as "shallow:" "so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term." Here James is assuming as a self-evident truth the very thing he intends to demonstrate. And that, in general, is how he proceeds throughout the curious argument that follows.

And so the great unifying truth about religious experience constantly eludes him. How could it have been otherwise?