Some Frail Sisters and Cyprians of the Demi-Monde

“Three of the frail sisters, Jennie Greer, Emma Sherwood, and Jessie Simpson were arrested by the police while uproarious in a hack on one of the principal streets.”

Galveston Daily News (April 29, 1877)

The three arrested women resided in Vinegar Hill, a neighborhood of northwest Houston in the 1870s.  It was not really a hill, only the left bank of Buffalo Bayou, the sluggish stream that runs through that city; but many say it was in those days pungent with the fumes of a vinegar factory.  Because they feared the miasma that they believed rose from the bayou, and recoiled from the fumes that wafted from that factory, the burghers of early Houston did not live on Vinegar Hill.  This is why the land was available, and cheap, when manumitted slaves began streaming into the city after the Civil War.

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Nietzsche – the Diabolical Saint of Acceptance

1Friedrich Nietzsche is a strange mixture of conflicting impulses; so chronically sick that writing was a physical agony for his eyes and his stomach permanently bothered him, yet he wrote paeans to the strong and mighty. A brilliant analyst of resentment, he had every reason to feel ignored being unread during his lifetime and self-publishing books that he mostly could not sell. He admired Dostoevsky, which itself is admirable, writing in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. Nietzsche first stumbled upon Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-87 and immediately loved it, though Dostoevsky never knew of Nietzsche. Notes from Underground is psychologically and anthropologically penetrating, exploring themes of mimesis and resentment that were of immense interest to Nietzsche.

Unlike Dostoevsky, there is something perennially adolescent about Nietzsche, perhaps because young adults are often trying to decide what values they should hold, often temporarily in contradiction to their parents, as they prepare to make their way in the world on their own. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” fits this model nicely. There used to be a certain kind of young man magnetically drawn to Nietzsche’s mixture of cleverness, perversity, sense that he had a secret understanding of things, and man alone and against the world demeanor, and perhaps there still is. Continue reading

With Strangers at your Gate

Our Office for Diversity is proactive when it comes to hate. The word proactive may require a little explanation. It was built on the pattern of the word reactive, a reaction being the effect of a cause that has happened and a proaction being the effect of a cause that is imagined.  It is thus reactive to eat when you are hungry, but proactive to eat when you think about being hungry. It is reactive to go indoors when it rains, but proactive to go indoors when you think about getting wet. It is reactive to punch your neighbor when he grabs you by the throat, but proactive to punch him when you think about him grabbing you by the throat. Continue reading

Three Anecdotes, Three Questions

I have been reading old Texas newspapers for the past few days, and my perusing has stumbled on three items that were not to my purpose but repay study and reflection.  The first appeared in the reminiscences of one Edward T. English, published in the Cameron Herald in 1916.  Mr. English recalls an incident from 1870 in which his friend, one T. M. Kolb, remarked on something that I have sometimes wondered about.  Does Christian charity require us to hope that a man in a state of grace will suddenly die, perhaps of apoplexy, before he sinks back into sin? Continue reading

Where is God in the loss of faith?

The Social Pathologist has made an intriguing point about the secularization of the West.  Explanations of the disappearance of Christianity, whether provided by unbelievers or by believers, operate entirely on the natural plane of sociology and culture.  They give reasons why, for example, changes in social structure or technology might make the Christian God less plausible or attractive.  However, Christians believe that faith is a gift from God, a supernaturally infused virtue.  Purely natural explanations of secularization don’t necessarily assume that divine stimulus to faith is unimportant, but they implicitly assume that it is roughly constant, an assumption with little scriptural or theological warrant.  Should we not instead entertain the hypothesis that God has simply withdrawn the grace of faith from mankind?

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Courthouse, Counting House, House of Prayer

There are three great powers in every society, economic, political and religious.  These three powers can be respectively characterized as the power of the purse, the power of the sword, and the power of the word.  In the days of Christendom, these were known as the First Estate (clergy, religious), Second Estate (nobility, political) and Third Estate (bourgeoise and peasants, economic).  In Hindu civilization, they were known as the Brahmins (religious), the Kshatriyas (political) and the Vaisyas (economic). Continue reading

John Locke – Quantifying Reality

The modern division between the words “objective,” and “subjective” can be traced back to certain thoughts of John Locke, and Galileo before him, at the start of the scientific revolution. “Objective” has become a synonym for truth and reality. Just as it sounds, being “objective” means treating things as objects and quantifying them. “Objectively true” thus means “we measured it and the measurements were correct.” “Subjective,” anything not measurable, is then regarded as not true and not real. Applying this objective/subjective distinction then means that anything debatable and not provable 1using measurement is then supposed to be a kind of nonsense. Morality, beauty, purpose, value, meaning, emotion, consciousness and mind, and all interior phenomena, not being quantifiable, would then be “subjective,” and thus regarded as not real, which is intensely nihilistic. The word “subjective” needs to be rehabilitated as having to do with treating people as subjects, rather than objects. Subjects are moral agents with interiors; with minds, thoughts, feelings, desires, ambitions, and volition. To treat someone as an object is to relegate that person to the status of a rock, an “It.” This is what all sciences do, including psychology. A person is transformed into data and facts. They are reduced to the facets of those that can be measured. To treat someone as a subject, a “Thou,” is to treat that person as having an interior life as rich, important, and meaningful, as your own, rather than a one-way “study” of that person. You engage in dialogue with them to discover their inner life; their thoughts, feelings, and desires, with moral worth; subject to subject. The “subjective” then is what is most importantly real about a person. It is what is being asked when someone queries whether you know someone. The tragedy of much of modern life consists in treating people as objects to be manipulated. To stop doing this, it is necessary to rethink the “objective” is real, the “subjective” is unreal, division. The good news is that since someone just made up this point of view a few hundred years ago, it is possible to change it. It is not an immutable feature of the human condition or human outlook. Continue reading

Oedipus Rex in René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred

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Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex has entered popular consciousness. It names the tendency of boys to become romantically infatuated with their mothers, and girls with their fathers, then called the Electra complex. The notion is scandalous but the phrase provides a certain scientific sounding emotional distance while also connoting messy depths of neuroticism. Incest and cannibalism are so taboo in most societies that in lists of things not to do, they are frequently omitted, so excluded from polite society, that most people forget they even exist most of the time. Classes in ethics will often mention abortion or euthanasia, but never even mention sleeping with your relatives, or eating people. That is a sign of a powerful taboo – so strong that the prohibited activity gets excluded from awareness.

A significant portion of René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred is devoted to a critique of Freud. Continue reading

Juggernaut and Jackanapes

“Faustian man has become the slave of his creation . . . . The arrangements of life as he lives it have been driven by the machine onto a path where there is no standing still and no turning back.”

Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, vol. 2 (1922)

You may have seen photographs of the Ector County SWAT team besieging Big Daddy Zane’s saloon in West Odessa, Texas. The Ector County SWAT team besieged Big Daddy Zane’s because Big Daddy Zane was pouring drinks in defiance of the statewide shutdown, and a gaggle of protestors, some of them armed, were accomplishing nothing in particular in a vacant lot behind the saloon. Continue reading