A Roman Fresco from Pompeii

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Roman Fresco from Pompeii

The wall is a limen or boundary.  On the hither side of the wall is Nature, free and luxuriant.  On the hither side of the wall is the cultivated ornamental tree.  The fruit seems to produce itself on the thither side of the wall.  The ornament is beautiful, but Nature, the fecund lady who feeds men and women and their children, is bountiful. She responds to the farmer’s bargain: Let me understand your cycles and placate your demands and I will increase your fecundity.  Agriculture is the productive compromise between Nature and Culture, to the benefit of both.  The two-thousand-year-old wall-painting from a middle-class house in Pompeii speaks magnificently of the Western idea of Nature, with whom humanity partners, for the sake of her survival, and its — that is to say, our — survival.  Christ does not disrupt this discipline.

The hither side of the wall might be brought into the thither side, to form a garden or grove.  In Augustine’s Confessions, Original Sin finds its analogue in the autobiographer’s  penitential divulgence that when an adolescent he joined with a gang of miscreants to trespass a neighbor’s orchard-garden and steal his apples, or peaches, or plums, or whatever the edible fruit might have been.  Instead of consuming their booty, the trespassers petulantly discarded it, as though it was offal. Augustine begs forgiveness.

Augustine’s story is the germ of the Twenty-First Century’s ecological sensitivity, although the Twenty-First Century ‘s ecological sensitivity has no notion of Augustine or of confession or of the historical archive, witting knowledge of which tells us who we are.

To the west of Oswego, my adoptive civitas, the apple-orchards have benefited from three thousand years of Western horticultural science.  These orchards nowadays resemble olive- or grape-orchards.  The apple-trees are close to the ground, rounded, compact, and the fields of them look like vineyards or oleo plantations.  The work of the harvest is much eased. The cultivated changes in apple-tree morphology entail a dramatic decrease in the price of harvesting apples.  Respect for Nature is a boon.  It is a Western boon.

 

Fake News and the End of the World as We Know It

Thanks to the forethought of my wife, my family and I were lucky to have been able to travel to Madras, Oregon for the recent solar eclipse. Madras was one of the best places to see it, because of the low likelihood of overcast in the high desert of central Oregon during the summer months. As it happened, there was dense wood smoke instead, from the wildfires that have been burning all over the west in recent weeks. But on the day of the eclipse, we were fortunate that, thanks to a shift in the prevailing winds, the smoke had temporarily abated somewhat, and our view of the sky was quite good.

The eclipse was beautiful and spooky, unlike any other thing; happy intellectual fascination atop wild visceral dread.

But the most striking thing about the whole event was how the press disseminated totally false information about it.

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How to Tell a Weenie

Reading a book of evangelical theology this afternoon, I realized that there are a few reliable ways we can be sure that an author is a liberal weenie, and that the text he has written is therefore ideologically driven, ergo tendentious (whether witly or not), and probably wrong in its arguments. It is very simple, at least in books of theology. We can be sure that an author is a weenie if:

  • He uses “impact” as a verb.
  • He uses “image” as a verb.
  • He avoids using masculine pronouns in referring to God.
  • He uses “gender” to indicate sex.
  • He uses “gender” as a verb.

If furthermore there is ever in a writer about ancient texts anything like environmentalism or feminism, egalitarianism or communism, relativism or nominalism, we can be sure that he has read them anachronistically, and therefore wrongly. We can, in short, be pretty sure that he is a hopeless idiot, and what is worse, not even therefore much useful to his sinister god.

What can we take from this? That we should never, ever, ever in a million years commit any such howlers.

Probably I have missed a few. I welcome correction of any such omissions.

First-Day Lecture to the Lit Crit Students

Lecture Hall

Ideal, Free-Range College Students

Let us begin with two questions – what is literary criticism and who or what is a literary critic?  The true answers to these questions might surprise someone who attends college and who associates literature almost solely with what is called academic or scholarly interest.  Very possibly, only a few academicians or scholars are today genuinely deserving of the title literary critic.  The humanities departments, having become all at once thoroughly and fanatically political and thoroughly and fanatically bureaucratic, what passes in them for literary criticism is largely the imposition of predetermined and stereotyped ideological matrices on novels, plays, poems, and stories such that, in the main, the novels, plays, poems, and stories disappear and all that remains is the ideological matrix.  Practices still calling themselves literary and critical will work themselves out as though they were self-actuating algorithms (“apps” in contemporary parlance), in the functioning of which, no human intervention is necessary.  The sole interests are hierarchy, which everyone knows to be “bad” and which everyone therefore loves to denounce, and the somatic attribute, conceived in the narrowest way, and assumed to distribute itself according to a moral hierarchy. * Such a practice can only issue in a debilitating self-contradiction, which is exactly what happens.  Missing in the “deconstructive,” “postmodern,” “feminist,” “classist,” and related English-Department discourses concerning novels, plays, poems, and stories is any scintilla of Eros – that is to say of passion, desire, or love – and any sense that the critic might be far less significant than the object of his interest.  We have, of course, not yet answered the two questions, but clearing away certain misconceptions is a necessary prequel to furnishing those answers.

Literary criticism – to tackle the first question – is best grasped as a subject’s passion, desire, or love for novels, plays, poems, and stories.  The passion, desire, or love is so great that the subject, gradually forming himself into a critic, relinquishes his ego entirely to his transcendent project of understanding the object as itself, in its beauty, its meaning, and, as entailed by those, in the total organic relation of its parts to its whole.  More than that, literary criticism, nourishing itself on individual items that inflame its ego-dissolving passion, develops an interest in the generic relation of one item to another, thus also in the distinctions of the genres, and in the history of those genres.  The ultimate object of literary criticism would be literature in itself, or the essence of the literary, but the ultimate object would not be identical to the ultimate aim, the telos, of literary-critical vitality.  The ultimate aim or telos of that activity would constitute itself in the transformation of the subject – his raising of himself to a higher level of conscious awareness.  There is an old saying that intelligent readers never, in fact read books; rather, intelligent readers let the books read them.  No serious person who reads a serious book should expect to be the same person afterwards.  Reading, supposed by college students on the basis of their secondary school experience to be a tedious obligation, has been understood by bibliophiles since the Fourth Century BC to resemble mystic initiation, a rite de passage, one of many such in the unwinding journey between birth and death.  We must return to these themes, Eros and so forth, reading as a rite de passage, but let us first tackle the second of the two questions, who or what is a literary critic.

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Some Very Preliminary Remarks on Hegel’s Aesthetics (Updated)

Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

According to our – very plastic – seminar-schedule, the tentative completion-date for our cooperative reading of Hegel’s Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics is the middle of June, which is approaching.  I myself am now engaged in a second reading of the Lectures, with the aim of making careful notes to be the basis of a short essay.  I will post that essay at The Orthosphere.  The present short missive consists of what I hope are helpful hints to anyone tackling Hegel’s treatise.

Believe it or not, the Lectures show Hegel’s prose at what might be its most accessible and least abstract; its chapters are few, only five, and three of the five are relatively short.  Readers should remind themselves on every turn of the page that the first four chapters constitute the preparation for the fifth chapter, where Hegel (at last, readers might well say when they reach it finally) addresses the topic entirely in his own voice.  Being an historical thinker par excellence and, in his own terms, a dialectical thinker, Hegel, in the first four chapters, mainly rehearses the history of aesthetics and critiques other theories of fine art and the beautiful prior to or in contention with his own.  Here again readers need to take care to keep separate Hegel’s summaries of what other, previous thinkers have had to say about fine art and beauty, and what Hegel himself holds to be the case.

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Proposing a Casual Seminar

Richard Cocks and I have proposed to ourselves a summer reading project on the linked topics of aesthetics and kallistics.  We invite interested parties to join us, if they like.  The reading-list consists of four items chosen because of their germaneness to the two topics, but also because they are relatively short and mainly accessible to non-specialists, such as the two of us.  I give these four titles in the order in which we propose to read them. –

W. F. Hegel: Lectures on Aesthetics (1818)

 Plotinus: On Intellectual Beauty (circa 250 AD)

 Friedrich Schiller: Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794)

 Plotinus: On the Three Initial Hypostases (circa 250 AD)

The curriculum is plastic.  Richard and I plan to have read Hegel’s Lectures by the middle of June.  We will write up a short summary of our discussion to be posted at The Orthosphere, with an invitation to comment.  We plan to have read Plotinus’ On Intellectual Beauty by the end of June, and so on, encompassing Schiller’s Letters and Plotinus’ On the Three Initial Hypostases, which is, notwithstanding its odd-sounding name, also concerned with beauty.

It strikes both Richard and me that beauty is central to the Traditional view of “life, the universe, and everything.”  It strikes us both that beauty is increasingly under attack in the postmodern dispensation, which either denies its existence or declares it to belong to the institutions of oppression.  We believe therefore that a concerted introductory study of aesthetics and kallistics will be useful to those who participate, especially insofar as it results in a better understanding of beauty as an objective and integral element or character in the order of being and the structure of reality.

The titles given above in bold green typescript are links to online versions of the four items.  I will be reading Hegel and Schiller in the convenient Penguin editions (in English translation); Richard will probably be reading Plotinus, as will I, again in the Penguin edition of the Enneads, in the translation by Stephen McKenna and B.S. Page.  The Penguin edition, while no longer in print, is easily available in second-hand copies.

 

For the Love of God: Read Old Books

A few months before the US elections of 2016, my creative output cratered. I had got interested in the news, and begun to follow it. I stopped reading books, instead reading articles online. Most of them were pretty good, and I learned some interesting stuff from them. But what I learned was mostly obsolescent just a few weeks later. This is to say that it didn’t matter, and I shouldn’t have wasted my time on it.

If you want to be creative, or good, or in touch with things as they are, you simply must cut off almost all consumption of media. You must instead go for walks under the sky, read old books that don’t much pertain to our current travails, spend time in prayer, contemplation and silence, get away from the noise and the hurry of any sort, and turn your attention to heavenly things, and away from earthly things. Earthly things are all dead (this is why they vanish like chaff in the wind). Your life – your real life, your true life, the one that truly matters to you and to those whom you love (especially your children) – is hid with Christ in God. Seek it there. Seek him there.

OK: now to check up on Drudge …

 

Book Review: Hidden in Plain View

One of my favorite sorts of book relates fascinating historical facts new to me, in such a way as to cast a novel light upon a subject or an era. The facts all by themselves are savory intellectual morsels; the discovery of their dense, thick and muscular coordination under a new perspective is strong meaty beer.

Lydia McGrew has written just such a book, and I have just had the pleasure of reading it. A pillar of the traditional Christian Right, a prolific and penetrating blogger (both at her own site, Extra Thoughts, and at What’s Wrong With the World), McGrew is among other things (mother, home schooler, musician, etc.) an analytic philosopher and formidable Christian apologist. She has also commented here from time to time.

The book is Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts.

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Consciousness, Culture, and Art: Informal Comments on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

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Ou Li Da

The poem to which this essay’s subtitle refers is one of the much-excerpted and much anthologized verse-interpolations in the Menippean combination of verse and prose, Spring and All (1921), that the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) produced at the acme of his self-consciously Imagist phase in the years after the First World War.  The poem carries no title, but, according to the tenets of Imagism, presents itself to the reader as an instance of res ipso loquitur or “the thing speaks for itself.”  In a later phase of his insistent creativity, Williams would adopt as his poetic motto the formula, “no ideas but in things,” the implication of which is that experience is not solipsistic, nor consciousness hermetic, but that any self-aware navigation of the world presupposes an intentional relation between the navigator and the world that he navigates, which he records as images, ideas, or concepts.  Williams’ poetry in all its phases possesses the charm that its author maintains equal interest in the reality and workings of the external world and in the mystery and joy of the mind that represents and cognizes that reality and those workings.

Williams’ oeuvre offers itself seriously in two other ways: Its author knew that consciousness, language, and culture intertwine with one another aboriginally, so that any investigation of one necessarily entails an investigation of the two others; and he knew that consciousness is historical, that it has traceable origins that suggest the mechanism of its making.

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