Friday, October 30, 2009

Today's delightful Maira Kalman

"And the Pursuit of Happiness," in her New York Times blog,
an excerpt:

Conflicting passions, dominated by...?

Where was Oscar when we last looked in on him in Frank Harris's account of his life? At trial, anticipating prison.
    Now, in Chapter 18 of Oscar Wilde, he's in the final weeks of his two years of squalid incarceration, slimmed from prison food, chastened by the system's cruelty and instructed morally by its suffering and the kindness of some of the guards. In Oscar's words, from a conversation with Harris in prison about what prison had taught him:
[My mother] felt about prison as you do, Frank, and really I think you are both right; it has helped me. There are things I see now that I never saw before. I see what pity means. I thought a work of art should be beautiful and joyous. But now I see that that ideal is insufficient, even shallow; a work of art must be founded on pity; a book or poem which has no pity in it, had better not be written. [p. 210 in Chapter 18]
    By his final weeks in Reading Gaol, he had apparently achieved even a lightness of heart. A prison warder described Wilde at that time:
No more beautiful life had any man lived, no more beautiful life could any man live than Oscar Wilde lived during the short period I knew him in prison. He wore upon his face an eternal smile; sunshine was on his face, sunshine of some sort must have been in his heart. People say he was not sincere. He was the very soul of sincerity when I knew him....[p. 216 in Chapter 19]
Harris added his impressions of Oscar:
All this seems to me, in the main, true. Oscar's gay vivacity would have astonished any stranger. Besides, the regular hours and scant plain food of prison had improved his health [except for an injury in one ear from a fall, which is believed to have led to his death about three years later, at age 46] and the solitude and suffering had lent him a deeper emotional life. But there was an intense bitterness in him, a profound underlying sense of injury which came continually to passionate expression. Yet as soon as the miserable petty persecution of the prison was lifted from him, all the joyous gaiety and fun of his nature bubbled up irresistibly. There was no contradiction in this complexity. A man can hold in himself a hundred conflicting passions and impulses without confusion. At this time the dominant chord in Oscar was pity for others. [ibid]
My way of reading is to look for instruction or provocation to examine myself, especially these days, when I'm examining the apparent conflict between my outspokenness on religion and my essential compassion for others.
    Wednesday's visit with Spinoza (his view of the Bible) made me realize that a better man than I could be both critical of religious beliefs and respectful of them. And Oscar Wilde's hard-won sense of pity reminds me of my own compassion, which it seems I can set aside when necessary to pursue other items on my agenda.
    Another conflict has also come under the microscope of my self-analysis. It arose out of an exchange of comments in the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at UNC-Chapel Hill. As I mentioned on the day my wife and I "did the state fair," there was going to be a football game that [Thursday] night in Chapel Hill. To alleviate traffic and parking problems, the university asked certain employees to leave work early and to expect to make up the time later or not be paid for the missed hours. A letter to the editor of the DTH on Monday complained of this bitterly. On the newspaper's website, I commented "bravo" for the writer of the letter and used the occasion to rail briefly against sports fanaticism, which I said I had "realized in high school (fifty years ago) derogated sport and corrupted values," and I said that the university's arrangements for the day were an illustration. I implied that UNC alumni should maybe stop corrupting themselves by rooting for one team against another; they were maybe "in need of getting a life." I was (predictably, I can now see) attacked as "bitter" (even "bitter old man") and as exhibiting "elitism and false superiority." They thought that it was I who needed to get a life!
    It wasn't the first time I'd been accused of thinking myself superior. In 2004, a cousin my age out in Arizona emailed a group of his church friends and me that he was confident "the Lord would tell us how to vote." I replied-to-all that I sure as heck wasn't going to vote for George W. Bush. I told them in no uncertain terms (as I have said a few times on this blog) that I despised George W. Bush. I probably also said that if God advised anyone to vote for Bush, then he would thereby undermine his followers' claims that he was wise or omniscient. A bit more was said, and one of my cousin's wife's friends told her (and she copied me) that "he thinks he's superior." I remember thinking, Yes, you're right; I'm do think I'm superior to you. (This cousin subsequently started blocking all email from me; we have not spoken since. We may have played as children and teenagers, but we feud as responsible adults.)
    The apparent conflict surrounding my sense of superiority is illustrated right here on my blog. I wonder whether anyone has noticed it? Under my picture at the top of the right column is that quotation from Emily Dickinson (in response to the "about me" prompt in my profile):
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—too?
How can I at the same time be both nobody and superior to others? A feeling of superiority to others seems in strong conflict with my understanding of compassion as "feeling no more deserving than the next person"—a definition I've shared more than once on this blog.
    I'm not sure that I should let myself by absolved by Frank Harris's assurance that this is "no contradiction," for a person's "dominant chord" alternates with other chords over time. That view seems to deny the possibility of personal, moral integrity. But Harris's view does suggest that I might let up and not be so hard on myself for the recent occasions of my outspokenness. As I concluded my final comment on the Daily Tar Heel:
Trying to discuss sports fanaticism might be rather like trying to discuss religion. The best option would seem to have been to keep my mouth shut.
On both topics!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Spinoza's view of the Bible

Apropos my recent interchanges with some "Bible-believing Christians," I was struck by a paragraph in Chapter 7 of Antonio R. Damasio's book I quoted from yesterday:
For the [kind of salvation accessible to all through living "a virtuous life in a virtuous civitas, obedient to the rules of a democratic state and mindful of God's nature, somewhat indirectly, with the help of some of the Bible's wisdom"], Spinoza rejects biblical narratives as God's revelation, but endorses the wisdom embodied in the historical figures of Moses and Christ. Spinoza saw the Bible as a repository of valuable knowledge regarding human conduct and civil organization. [p. 274]
    Spinoza, this atheist with respect to the God of Abraham, was nevertheless plugging the Bible as a force for good in human affairs! (I wonder what the past two thousand years would have been like without the Bible. Too bad that that experiment can't be conducted.) The endnote was even more striking:
Here are Spinoza's words from A Theologico-political Treatise, 1670 (R. H. M. Elwes translation): "Before I go further I would expressly state (though I have said it before) that I consider the utility and the need for Holy Scripture or Revelation to be very great. For as we cannot perceive by the natural light of reason that simple obedience is the path of salvation, and are taught by revelation only that it is so by the special grace of God, which our reason cannot attain, it follows that the Bible has brought a very great consolation to mankind. All are able to obey, whereas there are but very few, compared with the aggregate of humanity, who can acquire the habit of virtue under the unaided guidance of reason. Thus if we had not the testimony of Scripture, we should doubt of the salvation of nearly all men."
    This deeply felt attitude gives the lie to the caricatures of Spinoza as the devil incarnate. Late Spinoza advised those around him, who were mostly Christian, to remain within their church, largely the Protestant church. He urged children to attend Mass, and he himself heard sermons by Colerus, the Lutheran pastor who moved into the house Spinoza once rented in the Stilleverkade and became first his friend, then his biographer. Spinoza did not have faith in a provident God or in eternal life, but he never mocked the faith of others. In fact, Spinoza was extremely careful with the faith of the unlearned. He only discussed religion with his intellectual colleagues....[p. 330]
That stung me into self-awareness. As I was mocking my colleagues' religious beliefs last week, I knew I was doing it and didn't like that I was doing it, but I felt a sort of compulsion to proceed. I'd like to think now that if I'd read this from Damasio beforehand, I'd have held back, tried to emulate Spinoza. What was my need to not just smile and ignore their "sales pitches" but to ridicule and demean them? Why did I need to do that?
    I knew that I was being potentially hurtful; I had no sense that anything good for them could come from my responding as I did. I was vaunting something of my own, at their expense. They obviously feel they need their scriptures to live their virtuous lives (in Spinozian terms, if not in theirs); I don't think I need them to live mine.
    If I will criticize religion, let me not do it in such personal terms. Or, if I must discuss religion with its adherents, let me moderate my tone, be more civil, more forbearing. Like me, they too (I must assume) are doing the best they can.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Virtue its own reward

Having learned a great deal from neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio's 1999 book about consciousness, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, I decided to read another of his books.
    Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003) explores, among other things, the role of feelings in ethics and other social arrangements. Damasio brings the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) into the discussion because of his profound insights into the subject in his Ethics (Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding [Tractatus de intellectus emendatione])1.
    I took special note of Spinoza's role in the story for two reasons. First, I have to confess that even as a philosophy major at Yale, I read nothing of Spinoza as an undergraduate. Second, and more important, Spinoza had such unconventional views on God that he was actually expelled from the Jewish community in Holland and for this reason (according to Damasio) had such a "bad reputation" that his writings were largely ignored for a long time.
    Spinoza was not literally an atheist, but he certainly was with respect to the conventional divinity of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition:
God has not revealed himself to humans in the ways portrayed in the Bible. You cannot pray to Spinoza's God. [p. 273]
Ethics derived from biology, from feeling. Damasio quotes Proposition 18 in Part IV of Spinoza's Ethics:
"...the very first foundation of virtue is the endeavor (conatum) to preserve the individual self, and happiness consists in the human capacity to preserve its self2"....
    At first glance the words sound like a prescription for the selfish culture of our times but nothing could be further from their real meaning. As I interpret it, the proposition is a cornerstone for a generous ethical system. It is an affirmation that at the base of whatever rules of behavior we may ask humanity to follow, there is something inalienable: A living organism, known to its owner because the owner's mind has constructed a self, has a natural tendency to preserve its own life; and that same organism's state of optimal functioning, subsumed by the concept of joy, results from the successful endeavor to endure and prevail. Paraphrased in deeply American terms I would rewrite Spinoza's proposition as follows: I hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created such that they tend to preserve their life and seek well-being, that their happiness comes from the successful endeavor to do so, and that the foundation of virtue rests on these facts. Perhaps these resonances are not a coincidence. [pp. 170-171]

Spinoza's best-known recommendation for achieving a life well lived came in the form of a system for ethical behavior and a prescription for a democratic state. But Spinoza did not think that following ethical rules and the laws of a democratic state would be sufficient for the individual to achieve the highest form of contentment, the sustained joy that he equates with human salvation....Many human beings require something that involves, at the very least, some clarity about the meaning of one's life....
    ...the yearning is a deep trait of the human mind. It is rooted in human brain design and the genetic pool that begets it, no less so than the deep traits that drive us with great curiosity toward a systematic exploration of our own being and of the world around it...The same natural endeavor of self-preservation that Spinoza articulates so transparently as an essence of our beings, the conatus, is called into action when we are confronted with the reality of suffering and especially the reality of death, actual or anticipated, our own or that of those we love....
    ...From this perspective, any project for human salvation—any project capable of turning a life examined into a life contented—must include ways to resist the anguish conjured up by suffering and death, cancel it, and substitute joy instead3....[pp. 268-271]
    You need not be in fear of...God because he will never punish you. Nor should you work hard in the hope of getting rewards from him because none will come. The only thing you may fear is your own behavior. When you fail to be less than kind to others, you punish yourself, there and then, and deny yourself the opportunity to achieve inner peace and happiness, there and then....Spinoza's salvation—salus—is about repeated occasions of a kind of happiness that cumulatively make for a healthy mental condition....[p. 273]
  1. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Spinoza's Psychological Theory.
        Damasio points out that Spinoza was the source of many of Montesquieu's ideas, which greatly influenced the United States Constitution.
    Montesquieu's views on ethics, God, organized religion, and politics are through and through Spinozian and were, unsurprisingly, denounced as such. [p. 256]
  2. Note how diametrically opposite to this—how unethical—are our contemporary acts of suicide bombing.
  3. Powerful motives for religiously believing in an afterlife, however wistful the belief!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Want a case of cookbooks?

An Arkansas cousin and her family came by yesterday on their way to Kitty Hawk. She had won a contest selling Arkansas cookbooks. She said the way the contest worked was that participants would get their name entered into a drawing for the sale of two copies of the book. She said she asked herself, "Who would want to buy a lot of these?" The answer that came to her was that maybe Arkansas's tourist information centers would like to offer the book for sale.
    "I phoned or emailed every information center in the state. The smaller ones were mostly not interested, but I sold cases of books to some of the others." She didn't tell us how many copies she sold, but she said her name was entered "a lot of times." The prize had been donated by someone in the military: the cost of lodging for a week's vacation. (I've googled on "arkansas cookbook" but not found anything that I'm confident pertains, even though when I googled on her name I did get a few hits.)
    Because my cousin and her parents and brother had spent a few days at Okracoke with us almost twenty years ago, and she and her husband spent some time in Chapel Hill the year they got married, they decided to bring their four children (ages 3 to 13) over this way.

My cousin's husband told us that so far it had rained all of the way from Little Rock. I told them that if I'd realized this was the week for their vacation I'd have asked God for no rain rather than for rain. My cousin laughed at my joke and saw me noticing she was turning red. "I've been finding myself lately," she said, "coming out at odd times with 'Great God a-mighty.'"
    "Great God a-mighty!" she exclaimed.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Parsing the explanation-of-evil half-gainer

Yesterday I said that I might nominate a certain explanation of evil for "lamest half-gainer performed from the theological diving board." Of course, I don't have a precise scale for judging one half-gainer lamer than the next. In my excitement I was exaggerating a little.
    I still think, though, that the theologian who came up with revelation of God (and had God speak in the first-person in the Old Testament) was undoubtedly a genius of the highest rank, and I can't think of a half-gainer any more adroit than that. But I'm not sure that yesterday's explanation for evil is literally the lamest. My nomination is pending the following investigation.

The explanation of evil went like this:
The "evil" that you speak of is put there for a reason, that we may all realize that there is none good, not one, and that left to ourselves we are all capable of the most heinous of crimes against God and against our fellow man.
Now, I had characterized the evil as having been influenced by the Bible (by persons presumably Christian):
...the murder and persecution of Jews—the ones who killed Christ!, the slaughter of Muslims during the Crusades, the persecution of "witches," the racking and burning at the stake of heretics, the showing to Galileo of the instruments of torture to force him to recant his scientific findings, etc.
    So, let's try to sort the explanation out. These evils, committed by Christians (and under the influence of the Bible), were "put there." Hmm, does the theologian mean that the Christians were manipulated like puppets and didn't really, morally commit the acts? Interesting!
    And who or what manipulated them? The passive voice leaves this to the imagination. I don't suppose that the Bible, through its "influence," is the manipulator, for if that were so the theologian would be conceding my point. (But it would tend to explain, perhaps, why one publisher titled his edition of the Bible The Living Bible. The living manipulator Bible!)
    Also, since the classes of acts I specified were just examples, standing for all evil acts that are (or will be) committed under the influence of the Bible, the theologian seems to be making the more general pronouncement that whenever Christians commit evil acts (under the influence of the Bible) they're being manipulated, so that their acts may be "put there" to make a point.
    Boy, that really does make you realize, doesn't it?
    But, oh, wait a minute. There's more to what we're thus made to realize; we're made to realize that, "left to ourselves, we are all capable of the most heinous of crimes against God and against our fellow man"! Uh-oh, problem here! All of these evil-doing Christians haven't been left to themselves; their acts have been "put there"—and to make a point, no less! It's getting kind of circular here maybe.
    You know, I think this half-gainer is still on the coach's drawing board. It's not ready for the diving platform yet. Nominations for performance awards for this candidate are ruled out of order.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Moristotle and the missus do the state fair

The HR department where I work announced recently that today would be State Employees Recognition Day at the North Carolina State Fair. The price of admission, only four "canned items."
    What the heck? I couldn't remember exactly when we last went to the state fair. Maybe 1995, when our daughter was helping run a mobile tack shop there for an equestrian company out of Memphis. We decided why not, and I let my boss know I would be taking the day off to go.
    I told a few people we were going, and they asked me whether I'd try any of the new culinary treats we've been hearing about, like chocolate-covered bacon (that's right!) and deep-fried Ho Ho’s (a Hostess product, "a gooey hot chocolate filled cake on a stick," according to a local news site). I said, no, I didn't expect to, but I planned to take my camera and try to snap other people trying them.
    So this morning we loaded up our canned items and my camera and took off for Raleigh, about forty miles away. The traffic wasn't bad. It would get worse this afternoon, before this evening's unfortunate college football game in Chapel Hill.
    As we approached the fairgrounds, it was clear that even though it was a weekday, the place was going to be fairly crowded. A lot of other state employees had come out, I guessed.
    My wife turned right and as we passed busy parking lots left and right, I said, "You sure we don't want to just turn around and...?"
    She continued on a little ways and I said, "You know, we really could just go on back home. I'm serious. You want to?"
    "Yes!" she said. And off we went. It was about the most "happy" we've had at a state fair.

Mamma Mia!

I felt sick yesterday morning, having spent some time during the night in agitation. Nu's latest email had posed two or three problems for me, not the least of which was that it stirred memories of old religious woundings—some very old, some not so old. As I said on Sunday (quoting one of my emails from the Friday interchange), "in my earlier days [in my youth, I] spent many hours praying"—for what I can't quite remember, but possibly for reassurance that I believed sufficiently to be "saved." Not fun to revisit all that. Children don't deserve to have religion foisted on them in that way. Santa Claus is bad enough, but parents admit that hoax eventually. Childhood woundings. The more recent woundings were suffered during my ill-fated attempt to form a friendship with a jehovah (Tom S), whose talking points and Bible quotations were, if anything, even more rehearsed than Nu's. I exited that interchange to preserve my sanity.
    Nu and I have been friendly and have referred to each other as friends. We discovered early that we shared some basic values, especially the sense that "everything is holy" (if anything is, as I qualified it). Ironically, Nu seems to have inferred from that that I must "believe in God" and "be a Christian," after all and in spite of my denial. Nu won't allow that morality has evolved, that evolved consciousness shapes spirituality. In my view, of course, the "revelations" of the Bible grew out of that evolved consciousness; they were not imposed from outside by "God."
    The tone (and the "love" words) of Nu's latest message suggest a parent-child thing, with me the child to her mother:
Morris, This will be my final reply to you on this subject.
    I am sad to see your response. I think that over the last several years I have communicated to you in a very loving way....
She had sent me at least two previous notes of talking points and Bible quotations, and I reminded her most recently—about a year ago—that I don't respond well to being "preached at."
The motives behind my words have been very transparent. I would think that ultimately they are the same for every true Bible-believing Christian who shares their beliefs with any who do not believe. It is a desire for all men to know God and to believe on His Name. A desire that all men would give Honor and Respect to the Creator of the Universe. In all genuineness and sincerity. It is NOT to win a debate, ever....
No one "knows God"; it's all words and ritual, same as is "believing on His Name"—as though mouthing formulas to win something could make any sense. The Bible isn't all bunk, but John 3:16 certainly is.
    And we know virtually nothing about the creation of the universe. To say that "God created it" adds nothing to our understanding; it is a nullity. It's frankly hard even to see what wish it could fulfill, except perhaps in a primitive brain incapable of judging the inappropriateness to cosmology of the parent-child schema.
    Nu has nothing to sell; why is she trying so hard to sell it?
In closing, I will just add that the Bible was written so men might receive its message. The "evil" that you speak of is put there for a reason, that we may all realize that there is none good, not one, and that left to ourselves we are all capable of the most heinous of crimes against God and against our fellow man. This is patent throughout the entire Old Testament.
I might nominate this "explanation" of evil as "put there for a reason" for lamest half-gainer performed from the theological diving board. Pure twaddle.1
The Good News of the New Testament is that although the heart of mankind was continually disobedient and rebellious to God, He did not leave us in that lost and hopeless estate, he sent a redeemer who was the only one qualified to satisfy God's holy requirements...He was conceived by the power of the holy ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary and born of her yet without sin.
Here, child, have another dose of this redeeming elixir!
The bible was written over a period of more than 1,500 years, by over forty different writers from every walk of life including kings, peasants, and fishermen in three different languages, and this message has been preserved and the integrity of the message has not changed. This is a miracle that could not be concocted or staged.
The books of the Old and New Testaments were variously selected by whoever wielded the power to decide; the dominant figures in the early church rejected dozens of other accounts of what people believed had happened. Whatever "integrity" the Bible has was an editorial decision, and "God" was not the editor.
In closing [yet again]: Plato and Socrates and Aristotle and Mohamed and all other great men inspired other men surely, but they died and are still decaying in their graves, but the One who claimed to be God and to breathe out the words of scripture Himself through His Holy Spirit (inspired) is not in His grave. He has risen, and is coming again to judge the world.
Says Nu, who obviously believes this without question and is impervious to any rational or skeptical challenge. Bible scholars disagree as to whether Jesus "claimed to be God." And the only use of the Bible's claim to be divinely inspired is to impress the gullible2.
Dear Morris, that is all any of us care for you to know. We are not debaters or arrogant or any of the other things that you might be thinking. We are sincere and wish only God's richest blessings on you.
As if she cannot see that I am richly blessed, and certainly no less blessed than anyone in our email group.
This requires no response, please.
That "please," the unkindest cut of all!

And yet, that "Dear Morris"—heartfelt? Though not sure, one has to doubt it: the tone is too like that of a mother trying to manipulate a child. This has hurt me more than it has hurt you.
  1. Nomination subsequently ruled out of order.
  2. From Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary:
    gull vt to take advantage of (one who is foolish or unwary)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Sofia Quartet does Japan

See and hear the Sofia Quartet on YouTube (from Japan).
    Says my son, the cellist Geoffrey Dean:
The initial piece is called "Bazaar in Fez," by Tatsuya Koumazaki, performed by his group Pangaea and the Sofia Quartet at Takaoka Civic Hall, Japan, on September 20, 2009.
    This one is just me, Tatsuya, and Valentin Gerov, viola. I arranged it when Pangaea was in Sofia in September 2006.
    All of the other YouTube selections are Tatsuya's compositions too.

To protect a necessary fantasy, II

The quiet, private response I quoted Sunday wasn't the last one I received. A very similar one followed on Monday, right down to one of the same Bible quotations and including the statement that "it would be great if you could ponder these thoughts in regards to the Bible." (The earlier writer had hoped "that you will think about these verses.") I wonder whether they attend the same church.
    The second writer (let's call her by the Greek letter Nu) also said:
If [the Bible] is not the inspired word of God then it is all bunk and none of it is trustworthy. Because it claims to be the inspired Word of God and Jesus says we live by these words that proceed from the mouth of God. If it's not from the mouth of God, making it inspired, then it's all a bunch of lies and Jesus is a sham. If Jesus is a sham, we don't need the Bible anyway, because He is the Reason it matters. But we know that's not true.
    I replied that I'd actually thought about the whole thing quite a bit and even had a dream about it. I gave Nu links to Sunday's and Monday's posts. And I added:
By the way, I'm afraid that "The Bible is all bunk" does not follow from the fact that some of its statements are false, including the one about its being inspired. You're claiming too much. Or, rather, making a simple logic error.
In very short order, I received a more lengthy reply, but one that made no reference whatever to anything I'd written, as though Nu might not even have glanced at my posts. She started right off with "Morris, Please carefully consider these issues in regards to the Bible...." It was, of course, most annoying that I was expected to be the one doing all of the careful considering. What was Nu doing?

Nevertheless, I bit my tongue and as calmly as possible made a thoughtful reply:
I hope (against the evidence) that you would like to understand where I'm coming from, and would be willing to look at the weaknesses in your own position in order to honor good sense and rationality. While I think that you have (or can readily obtain) all of the resources you need to do that, I'll try to help you in my own modest way by responding to each of the points in your email.
    Accordingly, I'll pair my comments here with Nu's original paragraphs (in italics):
Regarding the necessity of having God as [the Bible's] source, we can consider prophecy. Who else but God could know what would happen hundreds of years in the future? What mere human could get 300 prophecies correct about one person (Jesus) over a period of hundreds and now thousands of years? No one could have concocted fulfilled prophecy.
    It's rather easy to "fulfill" prophecy in a text written hundreds of years after the one in which the prophecies were made. As for "prophecies" that hadn't yet occurred in the second set of writings (the New Testament), it's rather easy to "predict" events if the predictions are vague enough.

The Bible’s insight into human nature and the solutions it provides to our fallen condition are also evidence of its divine source. In addition, the Bible’s honesty about the weaknesses of even its heroes is evidence that it isn’t just a human book. By contrast, we tend to build ourselves up in our own writing.
    So, Shakespeare's works were inspired by God too? My appreciation for Shakespeare grew a lot lately in the course of my reading Frank Harris's memoir, My Life and Loves (1931). He considered Jesus the greatest man who ever lived (primarily because of his teachings on compassion), and rated Shakespeare right up there with him.

As further evidence that the Bible is God’s word, we can note its survival and influence throughout the last two millennia despite repeated attempts to destroy it.
    So, Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's writings (and the writings of other contemporaries of the Old Testament and New Testament authors) were also inspired by God?
    And what about the evil influences of the Bible, the murder and persecution of Jews—the ones who killed Christ!, the slaughter of Muslims during the Crusades, the persecution of "witches," the racking and burning at the stake of heretics, the showing to Galileo of the instruments of torture to force him to recant his scientific findings, etc.? We may be seeing Muslim atrocities in our age, but the Christians had their ages too.

What Scripture proclaims about itself finds confirmation in our experience. For example, the practical changes it brings in individuals and societies are evidence that it is true.
    Ditto with respect to innumerable written works. Was Montaigne inspired by God? Spinoza? And many others....

One more note. We have the testimony of Jesus about Scripture whose resurrection is evidence that He knew what He was talking about!
    Say you.

Morris, There is much evidence that the Bible is true and that it is indeed the Word of God.
    As I've already agreed, there is truth in the Bible. But there is also falsehood, statements for which there is no credible evidence. Contradictions, both parts of which cannot be true, by definition. People have always picked and chosen what parts to believe and let guide them, what parts to ignore as stupid or wishful (or even immoral). What parts do you yourself ignore?

What proof do you have to show that it isnt the Word of God?
    I'm afraid that the burden of proof was on you, and it appears that you have let it just slide off your back [possibly with a little push to get it going]. While I don't claim that I've proved anything, over the past two or three years I've introduced a lot of moral, judicial, and scientific evidence that at the very least throws tremendous doubt on tenets of religious faith. Better yet, I've frequently cited the excellent works of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, who say it so much better and more thoroughly than I do. And Bertrand Russell. And even Thomas Paine. My blog is more for my own entertainment (and keeping myself alive, as I wrote on September 21) than to convince anybody else.
"One final thought for today"—I hadn't noticed that that was the subject line of Nu's note (the one with the above italicized paragraphs); she may have been saying that she hoped for no reply. I do think so now, for in the time that I've been writing this post, I've heard from Nu again, this time with the explicit opening,
This will be my final reply to you on this subject
and closing,
This requires no response, please. [italics mine]
Not having had time to carefully consider the five hundred words in between, I won't comment further on Nu's latest.

Monday, October 19, 2009

To protect a necessary fantasy

As I lay ruminating in the early morning hours of yesterday, the realization that Gamma was telling me "So there!" wasn't the only thing that came to me. I had a dream in the hour or two that followed. I can remember only two, maybe three things about it.
    Two African-seeming personages were speaking to me (I wasn't "on screen"; they faced my dreaming mind, so to speak). I understood that they were father and son, the father being the primary speaker. He was astonishingly striking (only his head was presented), his face as long as a horse's, the distance from his eyes to the tip of his nose four or five inches and the distance from there to his lips another four inches. A sort of totem pole face. [I am reminded this morning, by Wikipedia, that the totem pole derives from "cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America"—that is, Chief Seattle's people.]
    I wish I could remember the older man's words. At the time of my dreaming I understood that he was telling me there was a religious key of some sort that would unlock the mystery of the "So there!" folks I wrote about on Friday. Glad of this knowledge, I made a mental note to write about Friday afternoon's email interchanges and revisit that day's post. Yesterday I found that writing about the interchanges was enough for one post. But today....

Today I'll try to articulate the beginnings of a "religious" understanding of the "people who don't want the truth," as my old friend the judge characterizes them.
    It seems to me that whatever belief they espouse with their voices raised and their faces red (at once threatening opponents and brooking no debate) is their talisman. A talisman (from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary) is:
An object bearing a sign or character engraved under astrological influences [!] and held to act as a charm to avert evil and bring good fortune, something producing apparently magical or miraculous effects
    "The scientists [who say the evidence shows that Cameron Todd Willingham did not murder his children] are 'latter-day supposed experts'" absolves Texas Governor Rick Perry. I did not put an innocent man to death!
    "There is no global warming" averts the potential catastrophe threatening the Earth. We and our descendants are safe!
    "There is no credible evidence of evolution" wards off an unimaginable horror. We aren't the descendants of monkeys!
    "Obama does not meet the constitutional requirements of being a naturally born American" is the magical charm that might avert the evil of our having a "black" president. Obama will be disqualified!
    "The Bible is true" is a talisman with enough magic for all exigencies. Suffering will be rewarded! Evil will be punished! We will not die, but will live forever and ever!

To the people wearing these talismans about their necks, the things to be averted are to them truly evil. Unimaginably, heart-sickeningly so. To be avoided at all costs, not least the cost of the truth:
Governor Perry did put an innocent man to death. "In a clemency plea four days before the execution, Willingham's attorney raised questions about the forensics. Perry has said he examined the information. But he did not delay the execution."
    Human activity is raising global temperatures.
    We evolved from simpler life forms.
    Obama is our legitimate president (and arguably more legitimate than George W. Bush, given the extraordinary fact of his having been appointed by [a 5-4 vote of] the U.S. Supreme Court).
    Suffering often goes unrewarded.
    Evil often goes unpunished.
    We are all going to die, not to awake again.
If, as seems to be, religion is a support system for mutually assuring people's most profound protective fantasies, then a whole variety of lesser sorts of delusionary practices would seem to serve the same purpose. A pertinent project for cultural relativism would be to discover what it is about a particular culture that explains its members need for the culture's distinctive fantasy. In other words, what is it about the people who seem to need to believe, for example, that President Obama is not legit that defines their culture, over against the rest of us, who accept the fact that he is our legal, elected president?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Whether you believe it or not, it's true! (So there!)

To "kill time" on Friday, a member of an email group I belong to (I'll call her Alpha) sent the rest of us the signs of the Zodiac and asked us to say which ours was. One of the members (who are predominantly church-going Christians) said that after reading the one that was supposed to apply to her, she thought she'd stick to her real sign: "the Cross." (I'll accordingly call her Chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ.)
    I'd already replied to Alpha that the clash between my personal characteristics and the ones listed for Capricorn "rather tend to disprove astrology's claims to objectivity, don't you think?" so for her opposition to astrology I applauded Chi a "Good on you!"
    Alpha then asked, "Where does 'Good on You' come from—did you mean to say 'Good for you, Chi'? I'm confused."
    Now, Alpha is very well aware of my "theological position." Her confusion was likely compounded by my apparently saying something good about Chi's declaring for the Cross. Perhaps she wondered whether "Good on you" was some sort of put-down.
    I replied, "'Good on you' is an Australian saying [says my Aussie friend Peter], whose meaning is 'Well done.' But I adopted it and have used it for years as a blessing. Picture good flowing over someone's head. My image for this comes from the 23rd Psalm. And when I enlarge the saying to 'Good on you to overrunning cup,' I'm quoting the fifth verse. I'm sorry that my quaint use of a biblical reference was confusing to you."
    This interchange hadn't gone unnoticed by at least some of the others. Beta spoke up next: "So-o-o, Morris [I see no reason to substitute a Greek letter for myself; I guess if I did it could be Mu], you do believe in the Bible? Every believer tends to memorize Psalm 23 early in their [sic] Christian life. This is good to know about you."
    Not so quick, Beta. "No, I don't what you say 'believe in' the Bible, but I have read (and studied much of) it and in my earlier days spent many hours praying over it. Obviously it isn't all bunk. It has a few laudable things in it. Is it the 'inspired word of God'? No. Men wrote it. Men edited it. Men selected it. I'd have said humans but, alas, the patriarchal society from which it sprang mostly suppressed women. Remember, in Genesis 19, when the rude crowd comes up to the good guy's house and wants to sodomize the male visitors [a couple of angels], the good guy gives them his daughters instead?"
    Silence ensued for some minutes. But after a while this came quietly (and privately) from Gamma:
II Timothy 3:16. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
    Whether you choose to believe it or not it is still true. I would not try to debate you regarding this, but I hope that you will think about these verses.
    I graciously wrote back, "Thanks, dear Gamma. You're a good 'un!" And left it at that.

But last night, at 2:19 a.m. to be precise, I realized that dear, doctrinally reproving, correcting, instructing Gamma was rather saying "So there!" to me, like the folks with raised voices and red faces about whom I wrote on Friday. I might have realized it sooner had equable Gamma not always given the impression of never raising her voice—though possibly being prone to turn red from self-righteousness?
    I lay in bed thinking of a few things I'd like to ask Gamma, if she were willing to "try to debate" me on this.
Why do you say that, Gamma? Did you perhaps mean to say, "Whether you believe it or not, I do"? Or, "You may not know that it's true, but I know it"?
    How do you know it, Gamma?
    When you say it's true, what do you mean? All of it? All of those animals fitting on Noah's little ark, the Earth six thousand years old, the contradictions? The talking snake?
I suppose I shouldn't wonder that Gamma doesn't care to debate it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What road got us here?

A friend of fifty-three years (we were high school classmates, he went on to become a judge, now retired) wrote me last night (from California):
Read the October 12, 2009 edition of The Los Angeles Times ["Fired commissioner in Texas execution inquiry says governor's aides pressured him": "The panel is looking into disputed arson forensics that convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004"], page A-11.
    For the political crowd that pushes execution as good politics, science means nothing and they will stop at nothing to give it their own spin. Governor Perry is both trying to keep the truth from being published and spinning the denial with the same sort of dismal rhetoric and junk science that led to Willingham's execution in the first place. The trouble is that the country is full of people who don't want the truth. "There is no global warming or if there is it's a cyclical thing and not the result of human activity." "There is no credible evidence of evolution; evolution has been guided by divine intelligence." "Obama does not meet the constitutional requirements of being a naturally born American." Etc., etc.
    When it became intellectually fashionable to believe that all truth was the product of culture and that therefore there was no absolute truth, we got started down this path. Is there any turning back?
    Everyone I talk with agrees it's crazy, yet the public remains apathetic and caught up in celebrity baloney or worse yet, exhibitionism through Facebook, YouTube, etc.
    In the same vein, we learned today that Michael Pollan (the movie "Food Inc.") was prevented from speaking at Cal Poly [California Polytechnic Institute, in San Luis Obispo] because the Harris Ranch Beef Company threatened to withdraw a $150,000 grant unless some allegedly disinterested scientists (food experts hired by the company, no doubt) would also be allowed to present countervailing views at the same forum.
I agree with my friend on where we are now, but was cultural relativity the road that got us here? The vehement certitude with which people argue their positions sounds anything but relativist. When Texas Governor Rick Perry characterizes as "latter-day supposed experts" the scientists attempting to investigate the true nature of the fire that killed Willingham's children (for which he was convicted of murder and executed a dozen years later), he gives the impression of believing absolutely that they (rather than he) are charlatans.
    Those who utter the howling falsehoods quoted by my friend (" global warming or...not the result of human activity," " credible evidence of evolution...," "Obama...not...a naturally born American") utter them as absolutely true. Ironic if this came about because of cultural relativism. It seems rather the opposite, but with little more than raised voices and red faces to argue for a babble of preposterous absolute claims.
    I'm not up on the literature of cultural relativism, but I did read two classic, influential books that argued against relativism and for objective truth. They are William F. Buckley, Jr's God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom (1951) and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987).
    I don't know how we got here, but I don't think it was by the road of cultural relativism...unless what we're seeing is a reaction to (even a backlash against) cultural relativism. That would tend to explain the raised voices and red faces, I think. "My position isn't just culturally relatively true, it's absolutely true. So there, and screw you into the bargain!"
    But loudness and redness won't gain anyone admittance to Buckley's1 or Bloom's truth bandwagon.
  1. By the way, according to Buckley's son Christopher, in his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, Buckley himself had a way of "raising his voice" in debate—by never yielding even an inch, even with his son—that struck both his son and me as curiously inconsistent with a proper regard for truth.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Georgia O'Keeffe, at one with nature

Last night I watched my recording of Lifetime!'s 2009 TV movie, "Georgia O'Keeffe," directed by Bob Balaban. The interplay between Joan Allen as O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) is as scintillating cinema as the story of O'Keeffe and Stieglitz's affecting 30-year relationship is fascinating drama. And as far as I have been able to tell, the actors were successfully cast for their physical resemblance to the principals.
    I was arrested by a short scene in Taos, New Mexico (about 1929 perhaps). The local artists are enjoying some native dancing and O'Keeffe asks Tony Lujan (the fourth husband of her friend Mabel Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan, 1879-1962, the creator of Taos's little artists' colony) what the dance means. I didn't write down precisely what he says, but the gist of it is that the dance expressed that we humans are "one" with other living creatures—neither above nor below them—and with the very Earth, the same concept, perhaps, as that expressed by my daughter's bumper sticker quoting Chief Seattle: "The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

If only Wilde had been religious!

As the movie and Frank Harris's book both make very clear, Oscar Wilde was told emphatically by friends that he would certainly lose in court if he sued Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie)'s father, the Marquis of Queensberry (1844-1900), for libel over Queensberry's publicly calling Wilde a sodomite. Harris seemed to have been among the most vocal in warning Oscar. At any rate, he describes several emotional conversations with Wilde, from which it is clear that Wilde, influenced by Bosie, who vehemently disliked his father, fully intended to proceed in court. Finally, when Wilde asked Harris, "But what can I do, Frank?," Harris replied in exasperation, "Don't ask for advice you won't take."
But Oscar would have had to take a resolution and act in order to stop, and he was incapable of such energy....
    "I am bringing an action against Queensberry, Frank," [Oscar] began gravely, "for criminal libel. He is a mere wild beast. My solicitors tell me that I am certain to win...."
    [Oscar asks Harris if he would give evidence for him, and Harris says he would be perfectly willing.]..."but I want you to consider the matter carefully...."
    ..."Don't forget," I persisted, "all British prejudices will be against you. Here is a father, the fools will say, trying to protect his young son [!]. If he has made a mistake, it is only through excess of laudable zeal...."[pp. 112-114, Chapter 12 of Oscar Wilde]
And here Harris told Wilde something rather extraordinary:
"...You would have to prove yourself a religious maniac in order to have any chance against him in England."
    I suppose it's possible that Harris was suggesting that Wilde, if perceived to be a "religious maniac," might have been able to get off "by reason of insanity," but I take it that he was rather making a point that Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins all condemned in their recent books on religion: if a person's motives are "religious," he is above criticism and all is forgiven.
    Of course, there was no question of Wilde's having religious motives, and Harris doesn't mention religion again [to the point I've read so far, at any rate.]

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wilde the movie

Last evening I watched again the 1997 film, "Wilde," directed by Brian Gilbert and starring Stephen Fry as Oscar, Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie") (1870-1945), and Tom Wilkinson as the latter's father, the Marquis of Queensberry. I found it even harder to watch or enjoy than the first time, likely because I know more now about Wilde's submissive participation with Bosie in his own undoing—and also, perhaps, because there were more scenes of homosexual sodomy than I recalled the film's having. Bosie was no more forgivable for being portrayed prettily by Law, although Wilde may have been even more pitiful for Fry's pathetic portrayal.
    Most interesting, actually, was this time recognizing the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, whose portrayal of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) in the 2006 film, "Amazing Grace," I'd watched the night before (and whose portrayal of Horatio Hornblower we enjoyed months ago in the TV series). In "Wilde," he plays John Gray, whom Frank Harris described as having "not only great personal distinction, but charming manners and a marked poetic gift, a much greater gift than Oscar possessed." Harris identified Gray as the likely source for the last name of the title character in Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Remember, Harris knew the people involved; he was Wilde's junior by only sixteen months.
    From the blurb at the bottom of the front cover of Frank Harris's life of Wilde ("Now a major motion picture starring Stephen Fry"—see the cover photo on Thursday's post), I was expecting to see that the film was based on the book. Not so, alas; it was said to be based on Richard Ellmann's biography (which I've had for years but not read yet).
    Ellmann (1918-1987) is said in the introduction to Harris's book (by Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, copyright 1997) to have distanced himself from Harris's account:
Such, though, is Harris's reputation that even modern biographers are often reluctant to quote him. Harris in Chapter 4 tells the story of the famous Wilde/Whistler exchange culminating in Whistler's "You will, Oscar, you will." Hesketh Pearson's 1946 biography repeats the incident word for word and Richard Ellmann quotes it in his 1987 biography of Wilde, but gives Pearson as the source rather than the generally discredited Harris....[p. ix, Oscar Wilde]
I note, however, that Ellmann gave Harris almost half a column in his index, with over thirty references.

Siegfried in action

Continuous release on my Nikon is especially fun with Siegfried. Taken in the back yard this morning:


And again:

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oscar's brilliant talk

Continuing to read Frank Harris's life of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) (before we encounter Wilde's disastrous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas):
No season, it is said, is so beautiful as the brief northern summer. Three-fourths of the year is cold and dark, and the ice-bound landscape is swept by snowstorm and blizzard. Summer comes like a goddess; in a twinkling the snow vanishes and Nature puts on her robes of tenderest green; the birds arrive in flocks; flowers spring to life on all sides, and the sun shines by night as by day. Such a summertide, so beautiful and so brief, was accorded to Oscar Wilde before the final desolation.
    I want to give a picture of him at the topmost height of happy hours, which will afford some proof of his magical talent of speech besides my own appreciation of it, and, fortunately, the incident has been given to me. Mr. Ernest Beckett, now Lord Grimthorpe, a lover of all superiorities, who has known the ablest men of the time, takes pleasure in telling a story which shows Oscar Wilde's infuence over men who were anything but literary in their tastes. Mr. Beckett had a party of Yorkshire squires, chiefly fox-hunters and lovers of an outdoor life, at Kirkstall Grange when he heard that Oscar Wilde was in the neighboring town of Leeds. Immediately he asked him to lunch at the Grange, chuckling to himself beforehand at the sensational novelty of the experiment. Next day "Mr. Oscar Wilde" was announced and as he came into the room the sportsmen forthwith began hiding themselves behind newspapers or moving together in groups in order to avoid seeing or being introduced to the notorious writer. Oscar shook hands with his host as if he had noticed nothing, and began to talk.
    "In five minutes," Grimthorpe declares, "all the papers were put down and everyone had gathered around him to listen and laugh."
    At the end of the meal one Yorkshireman after the other begged the host to follow the lunch with a dinner and invite them to meet the wonder again. When the party broke up in the small hours they all went away delighted with Oscar, vowing that no man ever talked more brilliantly. Grimthorpe cannot remember a single word Oscar said: "It was all delightful," he declares, "a play of genial humor over every topic that came up, like sunshine dancing on waves."
    The extraordinary thing about Oscar's talent was that he did not monopolize the conversation. He took the ball of talk wherever it happened to be at the moment and played with it so humorously that everyone was soon smiling delightedly. The famous talkers of the past, Coleridge, Macaulay, Carlyle, and the others, were all lecturers; talk to them was a discourse on a favorite theme, and in ordinary life they were generally regarded as bores. But at his best Oscar Wilde never dropped the tone of good society. He could afford to give place to others; he was equipped on all points. No subject came amiss to him; he saw everything from a humorous angle and dazzled one now with word-wit, now with the very stuff of merriment....[pp. 78-79, Chapter 9 of Oscar Wilde]

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oscar Wilde's method of work

Having learned from Frank Harris's memoir, My Life and Loves, that he was very well acquainted with Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and had written a life of Wilde (who was the "greatest talker" Harris ever met—and Harris talked with the likes of Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Guy de Maupassant), I decided to read it. Chapter 8 begins:
The period of growth of any organism is the most interesting and most instructive. And there is no moment of growth in the individual life which can be compared in importance [to] the moment when a man begins to outtop his age, and to suggest the future evolution of humanity by his own genius....
    This period for Oscar Wilde began with his marriage [1884]....
    During this period we were often together. He lunched with me once or twice a week, and I began to know his method of work. Everything came to him in the excitement of talk, epigrams, paradoxes, and stories; and when people of great position or title were about him he generally managed to surpass himself....
    As soon as he lost his editorship [of The Woman's World], he took to writing for the reviews; his articles were merely the resumé of his monologues....
    [They] made it manifest that Wilde had at length, as Heine phrased it, reached the topmost height of the culture of his time and was now able to say new and interesting things...In fact, all the papers which in 1891 were gathered together and published in book form under the title of Intentions had about them the stamp of originality. They achieved a noteworthy success with the best minds, and laid the foundation of his fame. Every paper contained, here and there, a happy phrase or epigram or flirt of humor, which made it memorable to the lover of letters.
They were all...conceived and written from the standpoint of the artist, and the artist alone, who never takes account of ethics, but uses right and wrong indifferently as colors of his pallette. "The Decay of Lying" seemed to the ordinary, matter-of-fact Englishman a cynical plea in defence of mendacity. To the majority of readers, "Pen, Pencil, and Poison" was hardly more than a shameful attempt to condone cold-blooded murder. The very articles which grounded his fame as a writer helped to injure his standing and repute....[pp. 66-68, Chapter 8 of Oscar Wilde]

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A thrilling story (but sadly untrue)

[Not really] from The London Times:
Outside England 's Bristol Zoo there is a parking lot for 150 cars and 8 buses. For 25 years, its parking fees were managed by a very pleasant attendant. The fees were £1 for cars ($1.40), £5 for buses (about $7).
    Then, one day, after 25 solid years of never missing a day of work, he just didn't show up; so the Zoo management called the City Council and asked it to send them another parking agent.
    The Council did some research and replied that the parking lot was the Zoo's own responsibility. The Zoo advised the Council that the attendant was a City employee. The City Council responded that the lot attendant had never been on the City payroll.
    Meanwhile, sitting in his villa somewhere on the coast of Spain (or some such scenario), is a man who'd apparently had a ticket machine installed completely on his own; and then had simply begun to show up every day, commencing to collect and keep the parking fees, estimated at about $560 per day -- for 25 years. Assuming 7 days a week, this amounts to just over $7 million dollars!
    ...And no one even knows his name.
My friend who sent me this commented that, "unlike the Madoff scheme, no one was financially crippled by this guy." Especially since he (apparently) never existed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lacking rachmones

A paragraph in Ed Goldberg's letter to the editor of the NY Times Book Review (published September 27) succinctly identifies what I have come to see as the main problem with conservatism in the United States, at least as it is vociferously represented on talk radio, in angry diatribes to newspaper editors, and even in the halls of Congress.
Jews understand that the world is a hostile place, and that we are all of us subject to the whims of this enigma. This causes in most Jews a sense that we can survive physically and emotionally only by showing rachmones [compassion and sympathy and empathy] to others. Those who do not (neocons and other believers in a me-first philosophy) become right-wingers. [emphasis mine]
Mr. Goldberg is commenting on Leon Wieseltier’s review of the book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, by Norman Podhoretz (September 13).
    To double-check the fairness of the "me-first" characterization, I asked a wise friend (Ralph, but not Waldo Emerson, of Poet's Walk) what he thought of it, and he said:
Morris, that's a great quote, and a good way of distinguishing the rightist philosophy. I've always felt that Ayn Rand's philosophy of enlightened self-interest is subject to great abuse, depending, as it does, on the adjective "enlightened." And I suspect that the Buddhists are right that with enlightenment, self-interest falls away.
You see this "me-firstness" in many statements putting other people down, whether it's illegal immigrants, gays who want to wed, or liberals who want government to intervene on behalf of the poor or powerless (or of us ordinary citizens, who are no match for big corporations and other moneyed interests).
    No immigrants; it's my land.
    No married gays; it's my institution.
    No taxes for government programs; it's my money.
    No regulations; it's my liberty.
[The line drawing is of the Jewish writer Bernard Malamud, who was well-known for his rachmones.]

Monday, October 5, 2009

Testing a new format

At Moristotle2, I'm testing a cool new format, with its masthead photo spread across the columns and blog title and description superimposed on it. But I'm carefully "figuring things out" before updating, not wanting to lose the modifications I've made here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Mass

In the opening lines of Wallace Stevens's poem, "Sunday Morning":
Complacencies of peignor, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
[p. 53, Library of America edition
of his Collected Poetry & Prose
On our walk this morning, back in Hillsborough on the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail, the signs that marked the end points of the trail (HOST ENTRANCE, HOST EXIT) mingled to remind me of that ancient sacrifice.
    "So many hosts," I remarked to my wife and Siegfried as we were leaving, "we've been to church."

[I didn't realize until later that "HOST" was an acronym.]

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Animated spirits remembered

Having found Poet's Walk gentle and fairly level last Saturday, I took my wife there today—and Siegfried, who was thrilled by the "new book" (as my wife phrased it) of all the unfamiliar scents he could put his quivering nose to. He and I had to walk ahead so that he wouldn't in his eagerness continually run into her. But once, when we got far enough ahead (only ten or fifteen yards) for him to feel some disquiet apparently, he stopped and sat to wait for her, and in so doing reminded me of Wally's doing the same on an autumn walk in Duke Forest two or three years ago. (I thought I'd blogged about this, but if I did I couldn't find the post, unless it was "In the woods," but the incident isn't mentioned. I remember now, and mention here, Wally's animating spirit.)
    Near the end of Poet's Walk (or the beginning, depending on where you start), there's a "reflection pond" so picturesque that I wished I'd brought my camera (and would return with it the next morning):

And also at the end (or the beginning), there's a display with a quotation from Emerson appropriate to my reflections on last week's walk and talk here:

The first two lines appear in Emerson's poem "Threnody,"1 a meditation on the loss of his animated five-year-old son Waldo to scarlet fever (1842), but the four lines together are from the little poem "Nature," published in his Essays: Second Series (1844):
The rounded world is fair to see,
Nine times folded in mystery:
Though baffled seers cannot impart
The secret of its laboring heart,
Throb thine with Nature's throbbing breast,
And all is clear from east to west.
Spirit that lurks each form within
Beckons to spirit of its kin;
Self-kindled every atom glows,
And hints the future which it owes.
[p. 539, Library of America edition
of Emerson's Essays and Lectures
Again, "the only 'animated spirits' that we have any experience of" are those of Nature, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, seemed to know it already2.
  1. P. 120, Library of America edition of Emerson's Collected Poems & Translations.
  2. "1841: First series of Essays published in March, and aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, pronounces it a 'strange medly of atheism and false independence'...," p. 1301, Chronology in Library of America edition of Emerson's Essays and Lectures

Friday, October 2, 2009

Harvest Moon alert

My dear cousin André graced me today with the following information about the upcoming Harvest Moon, and I would like to share it with you:
I'm sending this to a few of you who I think, or who I know, will find it interesting. This weekend, if you have a chance, go outside and view the rising of the full moon. It's my favorite full moon of the year, known as the Harvest Moon. Usually occurring in September, it's the full moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox (first day of fall); this year it's in early October. Unlike most other full moons, which rise almost an hour later each night, the Harvest Moon rises only 25-30 minutes later on successive nights (this happens also, to a lesser degree, for the full moon the following month). The result is that there is not a long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise. In earlier times this allowed farmers to work longer hours in the fields to bring in the harvest; that's why, in moon folklore, it's called the Harvest Moon. Another cool thing about the Harvest Moon is that it sometimes appears brighter and a little larger than the average full moon, based on the earth's position this time of year.
    If you can, go above your local tree (or roof) line, so you can catch it coming up over the horizon. You will be able to see it slowly get brighter and change colors from red to peach to orange to cream, and finally to white if you wait long enough. Then later in the night it will be really bright. Sometimes it's too cloudy or hazy to catch the rising, but we in Arkansas and Tennessee have lucked out this year. The skies should be very clear there this weekend. Be patient, as it's hard to spot at first.
    The calendar lists the full moon as October 4, but since the exact time of the full moon is around 1:00 a.m., this means that the moon will appear fullest Saturday night (October 3, after midnight). On Sunday night it will still be practically a full moon...99%, and will rise exactly when the sun sets.
Rises on Saturday at 6:08 p.m.
Rises on Sunday at 6:38 p.m.
It's a pretty inspiring experience, I think, if you can spare 20-30 minutes to watch.
[The times vary with global position.]

By the way, I read recently that it gets colder in some of the deep craters within craters on the Moon than it does on the planet Pluto. At least Pluto gets some sunlight; those deep craters get none whatsoever.

Image found readily by googling on "harvest moon photo"....