Archive for September, 2010

Perspectives on GKC

September 30, 2010

Austin Bramwell has to get something off his chest: he just doesn’t like G.K. Chesterton. At such provocation Ross Douthat and Michael Dougherty come to the defence. And then William Oddie throws down the gauntlet. It’s tussle time!

Kierkegaard: Stages on Life’s Way

September 29, 2010

Stages on Life’s Way (1845)
Søren Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1988)
798 p. First reading.

Stages on Life’s Way followed two years after the publication of Either/Or, and it is something of a sequel, reiterating, developing, and extending the first book’s argument. Either/Or had explored Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” and “ethical” spheres of life, touching only briefly at the end on the “religious” sphere. In Stages on Life’s Way the focus shifts: all three spheres are again represented, but the greater part of the work is devoted to consideration of the religious sphere.

Ultimately Kierkegaard is an advocate for the superiority of the religious sphere, but, knowing this, we must be cautious in our interpretation of this book. Stages on Life’s Way belongs to Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”. Once again he speaks to the reader through layers of pseudonyms, an indication that he is labouring under a teleological suspension of the ethical, including the ethical obligation to speak the truth. Though the book dwells on the religious sphere, it would be an error to suppose that we should take the pseudonymous authors at their word. With a little help from D. Anthony Storm (and a little help was needed, for this is a ferociously difficult book), I believe that we are to understand the book — and the sections pertaining to the religious sphere in particular — as portraying the religious as it seems to an aesthete. Like all of Kierkegaard’s indirect communication, the point is to illuminate error by illustration.

In these notes, I intend to give little more than an overview of the book’s main sections, of which there are four. Let me begin with a summary of the pseudonymous authors responsible for each. The book as a whole has been edited and published by Hilarius Bookbinder, who reports that the manuscripts here collected were discovered in his bookbinding shop, their origins unknown. Hilarius confesses that he himself understands little of their contents, but has undertaken to publish them on the recommendation of his son’s tutor. A likely story. The first section, “In Vino Veritas”, is written by one William Afham; the second, “Reflections on Marriage”, by Judge William, who was also the author of a large part of Either/Or. The last two sections are both the work of Frater Taciturnus; in the first he himself adopts the voice of a fictional character, and in the second he speaks without disguise.

“In Vino Veritas”, the opening section of the book, is evidently modeled self-consciously on Plato’s Symposium: it describes a gathering of men at which each delivers a speech about erotic love. The list of attendees is illuminating, and also somewhat amusing, for those who have read a little in Kierkegaard’s works: Johannes the Seducer, who wrote “The Seducer’s Diary” in Either/Or, is there, as is Victor Eremita, the erstwhile editor of that earlier volume.  Constantin Constantius, the author of Repetition, is also present. A Young Man — perhaps the same as wrote portions of Either/Or? — and an unnamed Fashion Designer round out the group, not forgetting, of course, the narrator William Afham.

The Young Man speaks first, and he argues that erotic love is irrational and comical — comical, that is, to everyone who observes the lovers. So disgraceful is the spectacle that the Young Man vows never to fall in love himself. Constantin speaks next and contends that erotic love is overrated and not worth the fuss; women, he admits, are attractive when viewed aesthetically, but when viewed ethically they become “a jest”, and it is not fitting that a serious-minded man be subject to eros. Eremita disagrees that women are incidental to the good life; on the contrary, they inspire in men a desire for gallantry, or even for transcendence, they awaken “ideality” in the soul. Yet they are only stepping stones, means but not ends in themselves. Both marriage and seduction, he argues, take women and eros too seriously. The Fashion Designer speaks fourth, arguing that women are themselves essentially aesthetic; they think only under the categories of fashion. One suspects that the claim is in fact an unwitting self-revelation. Finally Johannes speaks; he is dismissive of all that came before. Against Eremita he argues that women are not merely means to an end, but possess their own native telos: to be seduced by men. As an advocate and an experienced practitioner of seduction, Johannes is bound to defend the value of eros, but it is plain enough that he can perceive women only through the lens of his own desires. Each of these viewpoints is defective — there is little wisdom to be gleaned from this symposium — and the trouble, in most cases, is that the speakers can see only the aesthetic elements of eros. They, for the most part, do not see the ethical challenge that erotic love generates, nor, just as importantly, are they willing to engage it.

The nature of that ethical challenge is articulated and developed by Judge William in the second part of the book. His section, “Reflections on Marriage in Answer to Objections”, is a long essay in praise of marriage, which he considers to be the quintissential form of the ethical life, and the principal means by which one comes to personal maturity. The bridge, says the Judge, from the aesthetic to the ethical sphere is resolution. Against Eremita’s thesis in the previous section, the Judge argues that a life lived in relation to ideals, to “ideality”, is not achieved through an aesthetic experience but solely through resolution, and resolution manifests the ethical. It is marriage, with its vows and unswerving commitment, that is the principal expression of resolution in human life, and therefore the principal form under which the ethical life is engaged.

As he did in Either/Or, the Judge argues that the relationship between eros and marriage is that the latter is the fulfillment of the promise of the former:

The husband is the young lover, totally so. His love is unchanged, except that it has something the youth does not have, the holy beauty of the resolution. Is he not just as rich and happy as the young man? Is my wealth less because I possess it in the only adequately secure way; is my claim upon life less because I have it on stamped paper; is my happiness less because God in heaven guarantees it, and not in jest, as Eros would do it, but in earnestness and truth, as truly as the resolution holds him fast!

Eros in itself cannot consitute a marriage, but likewise a marriage without eros falls short of the requirement. Yet it is true that marriage includes various elements, such as duty, that can, especially to one who lives aesthetically, seem foreign and even contrary to eros. Falling in love is immediacy, but marriage partakes of reflection and commitment, which are not immediate but abstract. Somehow marriage must do honour both to the god of eros and to the God who is spirit and before Whom one utters one’s vows. This subsuming of eros into marriage is accomplished through resolution: “Love is the gift of the god, but in the resolution of marriage the lovers make themselves worthy of receiving it.”

The Judge then develops a general account of the characteristics of the kind of resolution that is most powerfully conducive to an individual’s personal growth and maturity, and he then argues that marriage has precisely the required characteristics. This good resolution, he says, must not respect probabilities, for one who looks to probabiltiies is hedging bets, and is unable to make a true resolution. Likewise, resolution cannot look to potential outcomes, as though resolve could be revoked because of an unfavourable outcome. No, one cannot know for certain the consequences, but still one must make the resolution. The ideal resolution is also “just as sympathetic as it is autopathetic”, which is perhaps an odd quality to insist upon in a resolution but is incontestably a requirement for marriage. Resolution should be “just as concrete as it is abstract”, for it should have real and immediate consequences, but remain in relation to an ideal; marriage is both unavoidably concrete and unavoidably abstract. Finally, the good resolution must be “just as dialectical with regard to freedom as it is to the divine dispensation”; I do not know what this means.

The remainder of the book is an examination of the religious sphere. It begins with an “imaginary psychological construction” in the form of a young man’s diary. The young man, a fictional creation of Frater Taciturnus, is in love with, and engaged to, a young woman, but he breaks off the engagement in order to devote himself completely to the religious life — the Kierkegaardian religious life, of course, not the Catholic one. (I am tempted to read into this scenario autobiographical elements, for Kierkegaard himself broke off an engagement in just this sort of way, but I will resist.) Dwelling as it does on the decision between marriage and something else — something higher — it is reasonable, I would think, to see the diary as an exploration of the relationship of the ethical (represented, preeminently, by marriage) and the religious.

Unfortunately Taciturnus has given us an extremely difficult text, and I am not at all sure that I am on the right track with this interpretation. D. Anthony Storm, in his commentary on Stages, suggests that the situation is complicated by the fact that the young man is himself living in the aesthetic, and is therefore unable to really understand either the ethical or the religious. In any case, the diary is hard to understand. Frankly, I have no idea how it bears on the religious, nor even what Kierkegaard means by the religious sphere.

Whether to console or discourage, the fourth and final section of the book, a “Letter to the Reader”, also by Frater Taciturnus, begins by remarking that the preceding section was so difficult that “two-thirds of the book’s readers will quit before they are halfway through”. He then goes on to offer an interpretation of the diary, but his interpretation kicked me while I was down: I did not understand what it was all about, nor why. I understood so little of it that I cannot even summarize it, much less evaluate it. So I failed. I am one of those readers who failed to get to the end, in any meaningful sense.

On that self-mortifying note, I will simply say that Stages is, in my judgement, justly less famous than Either/Or. Granted that I failed to grasp much of what was going on, it seems to me to lack the cunning insight, psychological richness, and simple charm of its predecessor. This is a pity, since the transfer of focus onto the religious sphere would ideally have called forth an even greater, richer performance on Kierkegaard’s part. Perhaps it did, and I am just too much a dullard to see it. This is a real possibility. As it is, it is principally the Judge’s discourse on marriage that I admire. For your edification and mine, I close with two excerpts from the Judge’s essay:

[Freedom and choice]
If that phrase “to choose” is used to mean wanting to set someone up as the beloved, instead of wanting to accept the beloved, then a deluded reflection promptly has something to hold to. The young man then dissolves love into loving the lovable — after all, he must choose. Poor fellow, that is an impossibility; and not only that, who would still dare to choose if it is supposed to be understood in this way; who would dare to be so doting on his own manliness that he would not grasp that he who proposes must first be proposed to by the god himself, and any other proposing is a foolish having it all one’s own way. I decline to choose in this way; instead I thank the god for the gift — he chooses better — and to thank is more blessed.

[Probability and resolution]
There is a phantom that frequently prowls around when the making of a resolution is at stake — it is probability — a spineless fellow, a dabbler, a Jewish peddler, with whom no freeborn soul becomes involved, a good for nothing fellow who ought to be jailed instead of quacks, male and female, since he tricks people out of what is more than money and more valuable than money. Anyone who with regard to resolution comes no further, never comes any further than to decide on the basis of probability, is lost for ideality, whatever he may become. If a person does not encounter God in the resolution, if he has never made a resolution in which he had a transaction with God, he might just as well have never lived. But God always does business en gros, and probability is a security that is not registered in heaven.

Related reading:

Mahler mania

September 24, 2010

Tomorrow I will be attending a performance of Mahler’s mighty Symphony No.2, the ‘Resurrection’ symphony.  It will be a repeat of last night’s opening concert in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 2010-11 season.  This symphony is among my favourite pieces of music, and for years I have wanted to hear it performed live. I can hardly wait.

I have posted excerpts from it before: the beginning and the ending, for instance. Here is a segment from near the middle: the wonderful interlude Urlicht, sung by Janet Baker, with Leonard Bernstein conducting:

O Röschen rot,
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not,
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein,
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einem breiten Weg,
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein, ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott,
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig’ Leben!

O little red rose,
Man lies in greatest need,
Man lies in greatest pain.
Ever would I prefer to be in heaven.
Once I came upon a wide road,
There stood an Angel who wanted to turn me away.
But no, I will not be turned away!
I came from God, and will return to God,
The loving God who will give me a little light,
To lighten my way up to eternal, blessed life!

At the concert tomorrow the soprano part will be sung by a local gal who made good: Isabel Bayrakdarian. I haven’t heard her on the stage for many years, since she sang Zerlina in Don Giovanni with the Canadian Opera Company. It must have been ten years ago now. I am looking forward to hearing her again. She grew up in Toronto, and learned to sing in her Armenian church choir. Here is a short video of her singing the Armenian Sanctus:

She has a great voice. This is going to be wonderful.

Waters: The Little Stranger

September 22, 2010

The Little Stranger
Sarah Waters (McClelland & Stewart, 2009)
480 p. First reading.

If one is going to go to the trouble of writing a ghost story, one might as well make sure that the finest ingredients are at hand, and Sarah Waters has certainly done so. For her stage she summons up an old English country house, now falling into disrepair, many of its rooms draped and shut, and the family retreating into an ever smaller circle of light. The family, too, is in decay, plagued by financial troubles and touched by illness and madness. Time, closing the curtain on the house’s glory days, conceals secrets that nonetheless quietly press their way into the present. A haunting seems almost inevitable.

The Little Stranger belongs to the same class of ghost story as The Turn of the Screw. It is highly naturalistic, adopting all of the emotional realism and narrative detail that one expects from serious fiction. Into this faithfully rendered world the supernatural elements of the story creep from the corners, never fully exposed, and never really understood. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace — maybe too leisurely — but this gives us room to get to know the central characters apart from their disquieting visitations. The focus is not principally, as is often the case with ghost stories, on ‘solving the case’ of the haunting, but also on living through the experiences with the characters and seeing how they are affected. How would you be affected?

The quality of the writing is high. Waters has been short-listed three times for the Man Booker Prize, including a nomination for this book. (The Little Stranger lost, however, to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.) It is, perhaps unusually for a literary novel, genuinely suspenseful and frightening. Her literary style is not allowed to draw attention to itself at the expense of the story. And the story is so finely architected that the overall plan is not apparent until the very last page (and, indeed, the last sentence).

If I do have a concern about the book — and, it so happens, I do — it is that I fear it suffers in the end from a failure of nerve. A common temptation for modern writers of ghost stories, which has lured many away from the straight and narrow, has been to replace the supernatural element of the story with a phenomenon that, however strange, is ultimately given a scientific, or quasi-scientific, explanation. In this way the crack in the world, which it is the whole purpose of a ghost story to pry open, is sealed up again, and an imposture is perpetrated upon the reader. Granted that there is some ambiguity in this case, I would argue that Waters seems to have succumbed to this temptation, and, for me, despite the delicacy with which it is done, this is enough to give the book a faintly bitter flavour. Those who do not adhere as rigorously to a correct understanding of the nature and purpose of ghost stories may find the fare Waters serves to be more palatable than I finally did.

DIY: Plumbing emergency

September 21, 2010

I don’t know if anybody else has been reading The Do-Tique since Filia Artis, friend of this blog (and friend in real life too) started it up. It has been very interesting so far. Her stories about Do It Yourself (DIY) home improvements have inspired me to write about something that happened here a few days ago.

It happened this way: My lovely wife, overtaken by one of her periodic cleaning frenzies, had washed the kitchen floor with a bucket and rag, and went to empty the dirty water into the toilet. When she did so, the toilet automatically flushed and — oops — the rag fell into the bowl and was flushed too.

Out of sight, then, but not out of mind. We realized that a rag bunched up in a sewage pipe was probably not a good thing. It might very well come back to bite us, ever so gently, on the behind. We thought of calling a plumber, but, after a moment’s reflection, decided that this was an excellent DIY project. Plumbers are expensive, after all.   If we could snag the rag and pull it out or, failing that, push it further along (for this toilet was in the basement, quite close to the pipe that exits the house), we could probably manage to get rid of it. So we set to work.

The first thing we tried was a coat hanger. It did not work, mostly because the pipe that exits a toilet has a convoluted shape, and the coat hanger could not maneuver with enough agility. It was then that my ever resourceful wife, who was an engineer before she was a physician, had an idea. “We need a closet auger,” she said. A what? Before I knew it she had the car keys and her jacket and she was out the door, leaving me, alone, staring, with a certain poignancy, at the toilet bowl.

While I waited, I reflected on the peculiar name of this mysterious tool: closet auger. I thought that perhaps it was derived from ‘water closet auger’, which is what Her Majesty would be inclined to call a toilet-pipe-clearing instrument. In any case, our water closet auguries, I knew, were most inauspicious at that moment, and I hoped that the water closet auger would turn our fortunes.

My lovely wife returned. A closet auger, it turns out, is exactly wht it sounds like: a tool used by plumbers to clear toilet pipes of debris. It is a kind of wire snake with a crank on one end, like so:

We stuck that thing into the pipe and started cranking. It was unclear exactly how we would manage to snag and retrieve the rag, so we resolved to try pushing it out. And we did. Or, at least, we satisfied ourselves that the section of pipe on the near side of the big city pipe was clear. Case closed.

Following the format that Filia Artis uses at The Do-Tique, I conclude thus:

DIY rating: 10

Forget about paying for a plumber.
Get your wife to buy a closet auger,
and then have a glass of whiskey.

Gilles Binchois Day

September 20, 2010

Though I suppose it will pass without much fanfare in the press, today might well be designated Gilles Binchois Day, being the 550th anniversary of the death of that notable late medieval composer. Read about him here, and listen to some of his delicate chansons here. As a teaser, here is Adieu ma tres belle maistresse. Sadness has rarely sounded so lovely.

Sunday night Beatus

September 19, 2010

I awoke bright and early this morning — no fault of my own, I assure you — and through a miracle of modern technology was able to join the Pope in praying the Angelus, live, on the interweb. He was closing the beatification Mass for John Henry Cardinal Newman at Birmingham. His trip to the UK this week, which, going in, put many people in mind of Daniel going into the lions’ den, seems to have turned out to be a good success. The Queen, whose manners never lapse, received him graciously, and he made a mind-blowing appearance at Westminster a couple of days ago, choosing as the subject of his address no less a man than St. Thomas More. (Damian Thompson reeled too.)

Whatever else may have happened, the principal reason for the journey was to honour Newman. I am no great expert on the man, though I would cite his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine as being among those handful of books that had a significant impact on shaping my thinking about things churchy and historical. I admire him, partly for his intellect, but mostly for his courage and devotion to truth. God knows that it did not earn him an easy life.

Newman had a very high view of the communion of saints. He wrote, in that luscious Victorian prose for which he was famous,

They are present still! We are not solitary though we seem so. Few now alive understand and sanction us; but those multitudes in primitive time, who believed, and taught, and worshiped as we do, still live unto God, and, in their past deeds and their present voices, cry from the Altar. They animate us by their example; they cheer us by their company; they are on our right hand and our left. Martyrs, Confessors, and the like, high and low, who used the same Creeds, and celebrated the same Mysteries, and preached the same Gospel as we do. And to them were joined, as ages went on, even in fallen times, nay, even now in times of division, fresh and fresh witnesses from the Church below. In the world of spirits there is no difference of parties.

I’ll finish up with an excerpt from Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, a setting of Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem about death and the afterlife. I have posted this clip before, but repetition, being the hearty fare on which the spice of life is sprinkled, is not to be disparaged.

And now the threshold, as we traverse it,
Utters aloud its glad responsive chant.

Choir of Angelicals
Praise to the Holiest in the height,
And in the depth be praise:
In all His words most wonderful;
Most sure in all His ways!

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
O Wisest love! that flesh and blood
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
And that a higher gift than grace
Should flesh and blood refine,
God’s Presence and His very Self,
And Essence all divine.
O generous love! that He who smote
In man for man the foe,
The double agony in man
For man should undergo;
And in the garden secretly,
And on the cross on high,
Should teach His brethren and inspire
To suffer and to die.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
And in the depth be praise:
In all His words most wonderful,
Most sure in all His ways!

Something and nothing

September 17, 2010

Stephen Hawking, who has been summering at the Perimeter Institute not far from where I live, has recently co-authored a new book of popular science called The Grand Design. I have not read it, but I have been intrigued by some of the responses to it that I have seen. The commentary has generally circled around a claim that Hawking makes, to the effect that modern cosmological theories have done away with the need for a Creator. He writes:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.”

(Out of context, this may sound like an odd thing to say. Briefly, the ‘gravity’ to which Hawking is here referring is a theory of quantum gravity in which quantum fluctuations of space-time could produce a universe like ours.)

By now we are quite accustomed to hearing churchmen and scientists make statements that reveal their misunderstanding of one another’s domains, and Hawking’s claim has nothing, apart from the fame of Hawking himself, to distinguish it in that regard. It so happens, however, that several interesting rejoinders to Hawking have appeared, and they have seemed to me worthy of notice.

A good explanation of why Hawking is not making sense comes from William Carroll, writing at The Public Discourse, who clarifies what is meant, in Christian theology, by ‘creation’:

Creation is not primarily some distant event. Rather, it is the ongoing, complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns the origin of the universe, not its temporal beginning.

To be fair, among the most famous lines in all of Scripture is the very first: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, and to speak of a beginning, especially in a passage structured by the passing of days, is naturally to speak of a temporal beginning. Christians have always done so, and denial of the eternity of the world is a mainstay of Christian belief. But to speak of creation in the beginning is not to preclude the ongoing creation of which Carroll speaks. Creation refers to an act by which things are given being, and the theological point of the doctrine of creation is to affirm that the universe does not have its being from itself — not in the beginning, and not now.

This kind of claim takes place on a plane that is distinct from the plane of explanation accessible to the natural sciences. In consequence, to say that God is Creator does not mean that there does not exist a correct scientific description of the origin and evolution of the space-time manifold that we call home. The two levels of explanation are complementary:

To say that God is the complete cause of all that is does not negate the role of other causes which are part of the created natural order. Creatures, both animate and inanimate, are real causes of the wide array of changes that occur in the world, but God alone is the universal cause of being as such. God’s causality is so different from the causality of creatures that there is no competition between the two, that is, we do not need to limit, as it were, God’s causality to make room for the causality of creatures. God causes creatures to be causes.

Therefore to say, as Hawking does, that a scientific theory of cosmological origins contradicts the religious concept of a Creator is simply a non sequitur.  By the same token, Christians must be careful about drawing theological conclusions from empirical cosmological data.  Even if God is the ultimate origin of all material reality, it does not follow that the Big Bang is that ultimate origin.

The most puzzling thing about Hawking’s position, however, is what on earth he means by ‘nothing’ in his statement above. His ‘nothing’ seems suspiciously like ‘something’. Stephen Barr, a particle physicist and commentator on issues in religion and science, unpacks Hawking’s ‘nothing’:

The “no-universe state” as meant in these speculative scenarios is not nothing, it is a very definite something: it is one particular quantum state among many of an intricate rule-governed system. This no-universe state has specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws.

In other words, the ‘creation from nothing’ that Hawking is attempting to describe is, from his point of view, a physical event like any other, governed by a pre-existing physical order. It does not really get at the questions of origins at all. The really interesting question, even if Hawking’s theory were right, would be where that pre-existing order came from.

Gratias ago tibi, magister

September 16, 2010

Wherever you are, Dr. Toporoski, I know that you are smiling today:

(I realize that not everyone knows who Dr. Toporoski is.  This post is for those who do.)

That anti-Semitic, medievalistic, misogynistic, homophobic, pre-post-modernist G.K. Chesterton

September 15, 2010

This is heavy-handed humour, but not entirely without merit, and it is fun to see that our man Chesterton is the one chosen to be lashed with a wet noodle:

Incidentally, there is a great selection from Chesterton, on Gothic architecture, up today at The Hebdomadal Chesterton. My goodness, whoever runs that blog is doing a fine, fine job.