Thursday, April 30, 2009

What's Good for the Nation Is Good for the Soul

In an odd twist of fate (and my very convoluted and complicated self-mandated reading schedule), I ended up in the middle of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics at the same time. Nietzsche, of course, is one of the few Western philosophers who has little to no respect for either Plato or Aristotle, and in fact, from my understanding, he spearheaded the campaign to bring the pre-Socratics back into flavor. (I’m not sure of the degree to which that mission was accomplished.)

One chief argument between Nietzsche and Aristotle revolves around the function of the individual in society. I suspect that this argument is in a broader sense between the modern and ancient worlds, but Nietzsche and Aristotle will do for representatives of the two.

According to Aristotle, the absolute good is that which is pursued for its own sake—it’s the ultimate good, that which, in pursuing it, we pursue all other goods. To twist one of Aristotle’s own examples: To be a good archer, we need to know not only how to draw back the bow and hit the target, but when to shoot and when not to shoot.

The absolute good belongs in the sphere of “the most sovereign and most comprehensive master science, and politics clearly fits this description” (I.ii). This puts the society over the mere individual, but it’s not quite that simple. Aristotle takes what will eventually be called an Arnoldian view of culture—he believes that “the end of politics [which we can also translate as society or culture] is the good of man” (I.ii). So it wraps back around. The individual seeks the good of the culture, which translates back into the good of the individual.

Nietzsche, predictably, disagrees. Or more accurately, he agrees with Aristotle that ethics are designed for the good of society, but they part ways when it comes to the notion that what is good for society is good for the individual: “one would have to notice that virtues . . . are usually harmful for those who possess them” (I.21). Social “virtues” are thus not only not the same thing as the virtues of the individual—they are out-and-out hostile to them.

I’m much more sympathetic to Aristotle than to Nietzsche here. In fact, I imagine I am generally much more sympathetic to Aristotle than to Nietzsche, who often comes across as a petulant and aging wunderkind. (More accurately, I suppose, I follow Kierkegaard, who notes that the ethical is higher than the aesthetic, the universal higher than the individual, except where specific revelation from God dictates otherwise. I have argued that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are closer than we might imagine, but I’m not sure to what extent I really believe that.) But, however unpleasant and egocentric Nietzsche may be, Aristotle is not as easy to agree with as one might suppose.

The problem comes in when he seeks to define the term justice. Aristotle has what appears to me an odd idea of the relationship between the lawful and the just. He claims that “Since a lawbreaker is, as we saw, unjust and a law-abiding man just, it is obvious that everything lawful is in a sense just. For ‘lawful’ is what the art of legislation has defined as such, and we call each particular enactment ‘just’ ” (1129b). But does that necessarily follow? It must assume either (a) cultural relativity, that is, that justice is not only defined but is different under different sets of laws; or (b) the universality of Athenian law.

Certainly almost no modern Americans would claim that lawful and just are synonyms. The right would argue that abortion, while legal, is in no sense just; and the left would argue that gay marriage is unjustly illegal. Am I misreading Aristotle, or were times that different? After all, if legal and just are in any sense synonyms, then there’d be no reason to refine and change the legal system—and I can’t imagine anyone would argue that principle.

And he takes it even further in the next section, claiming that “ ‘unfair and ‘unlawful’ are not identical but distinct and related to one another as the part is related to the whole; for everything unfair is unlawful, but not everything unlawful is unfair” (1130b). Not only does the law subsume virtue, it also creates it: “What produces entire are those lawful measures which are enacted for education in citizenship” (1130b). This becomes something akin to a worship of law—I just do not understand, with my 21st-century brain, how Aristotle can possibly believe this kind of thing.

I’m not a scholar of Aristotle; I’ve now read On Rhetoric and about half of the Nicomachean Ethics, and Politics still lies in my future. Am I misreading him? Was the concept of the State just that different in ancient Athens? Does he clarify this later in the Politics? And more pressingly: Is there a tertium quid? Is there a way to believe that what’s good for the State is ultimately good for the Individual without engaging in law-worship?

I need answers, folks.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Ties That Bind

Maybe it’s because I’m getting married in a few weeks—that event you think about since you hit puberty but never imagine will actually take place—or maybe it’s because I want to take my mind off of the horrific murders that happened here in Athens this afternoon, but Adam Kirsch’s 2002 book of poetry, The Thousand Wells, hit me really hard today.

I’m not much of a poetry person, honestly, but Kirsch’s work is free from the excesses of modern poetry—the pretension, the nonsense, the “found objects,” etc., etc.—and the whole book is wonderfully crafted. It won the New Criterion prize the year it was released, and that makes sense. It’s classical and modern in the way that Roger Kimball would appreciate.

It’s the third section (out of four untitled divisions) that really interests me. None of the other sections appear to be more than loosely themed, but the third presents us with what is more or less a narrative arc. We begin with the cutesy “Autobiography,” in which Kirsch presents us with his romantic history as translated into ethnicities. That’s all fine and good, but the section really gets off the ground with the second poem, “One Weekend.”

The poem is harrowing, a picture of life in Kierkegaard’s aesthetic sphere. The narrator wanted to get out of his small town, wanted to go where he would “have a choice” (I.6). He wanted existential freedom, and what he got was spiritual emptiness, life in the city where “though you would hold / Fast to some things, you blink, and they are lost” (I.15-16). His supposed freedom encompasses him, smothers him:
the tide
Of option and ambition washes us
So far apart that we can barely see
The outline of the face that used to be
The morning’s first sight, peaceable and precious. (II.8-12)
Life in New York drives people apart, puts between them the palpable space of their freedom. People become Walker Percy’s Will Barrett, working underground (at night!) and blacking out for days at a time. And forget about sex; it’s an empty gesture never shared by only two people, not with the choking presence of the ghosts of everyone else they’ve slept with hanging around. At the moment of supposed closest intimacy, the narrator “know[s] I’m alone” (III.16).

And I don’t see a way out of it. At the end of the poem, the two sexual partners could conceivably commit to each other and enter Kierkegaard’s ethical sphere. The narrator sees this scenario playing out in the movie in his head. But they won’t let go of their precious freedom, the freedom that kills them: “I promise love, and faithfulness, and you / Say you are mine; and somehow it is true, / And we part weeping. No, that’s not for us” (V.10-12). This is an empty world of empty lives and empty sex. Even the laughs are cheap.

Even after the inevitable breakup, things remain in the air. In “Post-Mortem,” Kirsch bemoans his ex and the fact that “the final consummation is not hate, / Nor growing up and past to indifference, / Nor even love, but this thought of you tonight” (ll. 10-12). Everything is indefiniteness.

“A Love Letter” is clearly in a line with these two. It’s a fascinating poem, in that it seems to respond simultaneously to “Post-Mortem” and to “One Weekend,” making both of those poems somehow positive. Specifically, it brings them more explicitly into the philosophical realm. We get a vision of deconstructed emotion; the expression I love you “loses / All obvious meaning, so that when we’re through / We can’t be sure of ‘I’ or ‘love’ or ‘you’ ” (ll. 30-32). We see an attempt to break the binding nature of love, as in “One Weekend.”

But the issue is not with the word love—it’s with the lover himself. The Self has been so radically destabilized by the life it has attempted to lead that the narrator cannot be sure that he’s even the same human being who made that vow all those years ago.

But there’s hope, in that Kirsch says that “a word, we’ve learned, is an arbitrary sound / Yoked to a meaning, and will never do / To describe what’s essential, necessary, true” (ll. 118-120). That’s not what the deconstructionists would have us believe. They tell us that there is no “essential, necessary, true”—it’s not merely that words can’t describe those things, it’s that those things are completely bound up in words and thus do not exist. Kirsch maintains the existence of the thing that our words (I, love, you) cannot reach.

As such, he can find something undeconstructible—if language can’t touch something, then it can’t “explode its binaries,” no matter how many pages of unintelligible prose someone spills trying. And that something, predictably enough, is love:
Love becomes for [the lover] the Unmoved Mover
No logical proof explains or justifies;
He rejoices that in love at last he’s found
The self-evident good, the all-sustaining ground. (ll. 101-104)
It’s this “sustaining ground” that allows promises to be made and to be kept; it’s what allows the narrator and his beloved to cling fast to their vows even as the river of time flows on past them, water they can never see again. His language is important here: “That night we were pledged . . . / To love and each other” (ll. 73-74). That commitment is the solution both to the empty sex of “One Weekend” and the crushing longing of “Post-Mortem”; it’s what holds the universe together.

The next poem, “Epithalamium,” takes it even further; Kirsch blesses “the form that marriage gives to love” (l. 14). More significantly, he claims that
only the modern couple, freed
From sexual and financial need
That anciently condemned
To bondage without end,
Without embarrassment can choose
To give themselves, so serious,
Serene and dignified,
Like this groom and bride. (ll. 25-32)
It seems as though true freedom is required for commitment; only when we are given the options of empty sex and crushing longing can we truly commit ourselves to the undeconstructible Unmoved Mover that is love. Let's hope my marriage has that commitment.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Deep Calls to Deep; Or, How Karl Jaspers Solved My Problems with Milton and Emerson

By Book IV of Paradise Lost, Satan has formulated and begun to enact his plan for revenge on the God who cast him from heaven, but he enters the Garden of Eden in a deep existential funk:
Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate,
To me alike, it deals eternal woe.
Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n. (IV.69-78)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing two centuries later and across the Atlantic, somehow manages to turn Satan on his head:
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning;
that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (“Circles”)
Emerson is not always the sunny optimist popular thought holds him to be—he can moan and groan with the best of poets—but “Circles” is not a particularly pessimistic essay. Just a paragraph later, he refers to God, who sees the world as “a transparent law, not a mass of facts.” So why on earth would Emerson take what may be the deepest despair in a book full of despair and turn it into a paean to openness and freedom? I spent much of last spring trying to answer this question to my satisfaction.

I’ve had Karl Jasper’s seminal Philosophy of Existence sitting on my shelf for months, waiting until I had time enough to start reading for my comprehensive exams. If only I’d looked at it earlier; Jaspers, it seems, could have solved my dilemma.

Human beings, he says, operate from a perspective that is always already limited, inside what Jaspers calls “a horizon of our knowledge.” There’s always something over and beyond that horizon, and we are always already called to cross the horizon into what he calls the “encompassing.” The encompassing is not the horizon, and in fact once we cross one horizon a new one opens up. I was instantly reminded of Satan’s telescoping deeps and Emerson’s ever-widening circles.

The encompassing is a realm of pure possibility, similar to what Heidegger takes fifteen pages of Being and Time to call Dasein’s living ahead of itself. It is something that by its very nature cannot be grasped. To grasp pure possibility, after all, would immediately make it no longer pure possibility. Instead, we live our lives in immanence, forever drawn toward the transcendence that would take us beyond the horizon—to, of course, another horizon. It’s in this constant transcending that we receive our freedom.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t answer the question. Why is Satan dizzy over the gulfs while Emerson is exhilarated watching the circles to expand? Jaspers answers with one very unexpected word: authority:
At first, authority taken on faith is the only source of genuine education affecting man’s nature itself . . . As he grows up within authority, the arena in which he everywhere encounters being opens up to him. If he grows up without authority, he will indeed come to possess knowledge, he will master speaking and thinking, but he will remain at the mercy of the empty possibilities of the realm where Nothingness stares him in the face.
It’s a paradox, of course—in order to transcend the immanent and confining world, in order to receive freedom, one must first surrender one’s freedom to a higher authority. Satan’s sin, of course, is one of refusing to recognize his place in the universe; he rebels against God, attempts to throw off the chains of perceived oppression, and so he’s locked into his position in the universe. And yet he still transcends. He literally moves through spiritual realms, from heaven to hell to earth (and, if the Book of Job is to believed, back to heaven occasionally).

So his transcendence offers him freedom and possibilities. But the encompassing is a threat to Satan because all beneficent possibilities have been exhausted for him; all that’s left beyond that horizon is a new defeat, a new suffering, a new punishment. Existential possibility is horrific in his eyes. There’s been some hand-wringing in theological circles as to why human beings are offered forgiveness but Satan and the fallen angels are presumably not. Milton and Jaspers seem to offer an answer: Human beings have never truly thrown off God’s authority, or at least they haven’t rebelled in such a violent and obvious way. They’ve never literally tried to toss God off His throne.

It’s worth noting that this fact does not necessarily make our possible future any brighter. Emerson recognizes this when he says, in “Experience,” that
Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping, if it were not. God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness he draws down before us an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. “You will not remember,” he seems to say, “and you will not expect.”
We don’t get to know what’s over that horizon, and while the circle could expand and let us climb higher, the deep could also open up and suck us in Nothingness. Jaspers sounds almost like a Calvinist here: “I can force neither of these two.” Of course, to do so would be to fail to submit to authority.

One point worth noting here is that Jaspers does not use the term authority the way someone like Milton would. That is, authority and God are not coterminous. When the circles widen, the authority disappears, and “the destructive exception becomes source of new authority.” This puts Jaspers much more in Emerson’s camp than in Milton’s—but he’s nevertheless the best way I’ve found to bring the two together.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bury Me

Hello, you few readers who are left. I know it's been a bad semester in terms of posting, but I'm now done with the bulk of my coursework and will (I hope) be posting more, especially now that I've begun reading in earnest for my comprehensive exams. Be ready for months of very tiresome posts on Existentialism.

In the meantime, here's the basic plot of the two papers I wrote this semester.

"'The Snake Was There Before Adam': Faulkner's Inversion of Augustinian Ponerology." I build off of my earlier post on Quentin Compson as a failed St. Augustine but recast it in much more theological terms. In brief, I argue that Faulkner's Sanctuary presents us with a ponerology that's the exact opposite of St. Augustine. Here, good is a privation of evil, and it is the male element that most clearly signifies nothingness. As femaleness is biologically a lack of maleness, so good is a lack of evil. This is a bleak worldview, especially since the mingling of female and male is necessary for the race's survival.

"More Art with Less Matter: Anxiety of Meaninglessness in 'Gertrude and Claudius.'" I examine Updike's much-neglected "prequel" to Hamlet and argue that, in its inversion of "good" and "bad" characters and its influx of religious and theological references--Claudius at one point or another represents just about every religion ever conceived--Updike turns Hamlet from a mere tragedy to something much, much darker: a negation of all meaning, be it interpersonal, religious, or philosophical.

I guess it's been a dark semester, you might say. More later.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;

it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that--pierced--died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might

new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

- John Updike, "Seven Stanzas at Easter"

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Fire Next Time

Most of the time, William Faulkner’s characters don’t ring true; they feel for the most part less like real human beings existing in an actual world than like elaborate metaphors existing in a world of elaborate metaphors. There are a few exceptions, of course; Quentin Compson, for example, comes off as a real person despite or perhaps because of his total lack of a stable identity, as do most of his cohorts in 1936’s Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner’s finest novel.

Absalom deals with the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a self-made demon of a man who comes storming into Jefferson, Mississippi, in the middle of the 19th century, destroying lives left and right and eventually losing his own to the grandfather of the 15-year-old girl he’s impregnated. It’s a vision of the collapse of the South, depending on who you ask, even though Quentin memorably denies such a reading at the end of the novel.

Among all the Shakespearean drama of the Sutpen clan, however, it’s easy to lose track of the man who brings it all to an end, the indigent squatter Wash Jones. To get the whole story on him, you have to turn to the fifteen-page story “Wash.” I’ve read only a few of Faulkner’s short stories—the big ones mostly, “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning” and “Dry September” and “Red Leaves” and “Mountain Victory”—but I’m not sure how he could top this one. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking character study, exactly the type of thing you don’t expect from an aloof Modernist like Faulkner.

I was surprised to discover that the story was published before Absalom, Absalom!, in 1934. It seems like such a clear attempt to vindicate an unattractive and relatively minor character from the novel that I assumed it must have come later. Its chronological position has the effect of casting all of Absalom into doubt; it makes that novel the story of Wash Jones instead of Thomas Sutpen. That’s just as well—in his way, Wash is a far more interesting character than Sutpen, or at least more human. If Sutpen is the devil, as he’s repeatedly called in the novel, Wash is the herd of pigs he possesses and runs off a cliff.

Faulkner here presents Wash as the dregs of the earth, a man who lives in the abandoned fishing camp that Sutpen “wouldn’t let none of” his slaves live in. But at the same time, “the fact remained that the two of them would spend whole afternoons in the scuppernong arbor, Sutpen in the hammock and Wash squatting against a post, a pail of cistern water between them, taking drink for drink from the same demijohn.” If you read the story through the lens of the novel, it’s easy to read this statement as an indication of Sutpen’s decline—if you take the story on its own terms, it seems more a portrait of Wash’s ascent.

But even as he ascends, Sutpen keeps him in his place. He makes Wash lean against a post while he lays in the hammock, and he treats him as a sort of caretaker—or perhaps even as a dog:
Then it would become dark, and after a while he would lie down on the floor beside the bed, though not to sleep, because after a time—sometimes before midnight—the man on the bed would stir and groan and then speak. “Wash?”
“Hyer I am, Kernel. You go back to sleep. We ain’t whupped yit, air we? Me and you kin do hit.”
So Wash, fiercely loyal and heartbreakingly alone, is a much more sympathetic character here than the novel, even if he has a racist personal revelation or two. (“The Bible told him” that blacks “had been created and cursed by God to be brute and vassal to all men of white skin.”) He has a vague sense that the world is corrupt, not as it should be, that in fact “all men were created in the image of God and hence all men made the same image in God’s eyes at least” and that he should not be left in his own squalor in the fish camp.

Public opinion—and probably my own before I read this story—holds that Wash kills Sutpen because “He thought he had Kernel where he would have to marry the gal [Milly] or pay up. And Kernel refused.” But public opinion, as throughout Absalom, proves wrong. Wash kills Sutpen out of a real sense of justice, of getting what is owed not to him but to his defenseless granddaughter, to whom Sutpen said for no good reason, “too bad you’re not a mare. Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable.” That, as you might imagine, don’t fly.

After he kills Sutpen, however, his vague sense of the world’s injustice flowers into a crushing darkness. He hears the police approach and considers running:
It seemed to him that he had no more to run from than he had to run to. If he ran, he would merely be fleeing one set of bragging and evil shadows for another just like them, since they were all of a kind throughout all the earth which he knew, and he was old, too old to flee far even if he were to flee. He could never escape them, no matter how much or how far he ran: a man going on sixty could not run that far. Not far enough to escape beyond the boundaries of earth where such men lived, set the order and the rule of living.
And so Wash becomes a broken and defeated Cain. He kills the closest thing he's ever had to a friend, perhaps for better reasons than those for which Cain killed his brother—at least it was for the sake of someone else rather than out of pure selfishness and jealousy—but there’s no God in the story to give him a mark of protection, no one to look out for him; there’s only the cold, dark world of injustice, and he knows that he will never get a fair hearing, never get what’s coming to him.

Wash is left with what I suppose he sees as a Sophie’s choice (many readers would disagree): he can either go to prison, likely living better than he did on the fish camp but leaving Milly and her child to fend for themselves in the cruel world that planted them on Sutpen’s Hundred; or he can put a stop to the injustice by destroying the oppressed. And in the story’s horrifying final scene, he opts for the latter, setting the building on fire and leaving his granddaughter to burn to death inside, and throwing his body toward the police swinging the same scythe he’d used to kill the man with whom he used to share pails of whiskey.

I suspect Faulkner gave Wash his name because of its connotations with moonshining—wash is the liquid produced by the fermentation process, something not quite water and not quite whiskey. But the word also carries an obvious cleansing echo, and that echo rings and rings through the final paragraphs of the story bearing his name. Jones, who probably never had a proper bath, attempts to cleanse the world of its evil taint the only way he can think to do so, by a fire reminiscent of the one the Bible no doubt told him would destroy the world.

And something else interesting happens at the end. Wash knows that public opinion about him has already formed and has no hope whatsoever of reforming; he knows when he kills himself and his family that he will go down in the annals of Jefferson history as violent white trash and nothing else. But Faulkner uses the story bearing his name to turn public opinion on its head. Were Jefferson a real place, even it would have forgotten by 2009 the desperate deeds done just outside of town 140 years ago—but Faulkner has put Wash’s version of the story down for the ages, finally providing the justice he never received during his own fictional lifetime.