Schwenkler considers bad children books, and immediately chops down one of the pillars of my childhood:

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I guess that this is a pretty common target in these kinds of discussions, but damn is it ever deserved. Tree loves boy. Boy loves tree. Boy grows up. Boy exploits tree. Tree takes it all silently, growing less happy with each lonely year. Boy gets old, tree is a stump, boy sits on tree, no apologies. I mean, I get the point: the tree loves the boy. But heck, even Jesus was able to rise triumphant when all was said and done; couldn’t Silverstein have made the love at least a little more, you know, mutual? (Other questions: Why didn’t the tree’s apples grow back? And how did the boy build himself and his family a house out of branches?)

As sympathetic as my warped communitarian heart is to demands for mutuality, I think that the story’s lack of shared charity is actually its most powerful point.  It seems to me that the story’s complexity comes from the fact that love isn’t always mutual, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee interpersonal justice.  In fact, in some cases it can demand precisely the opposite: that we give until we have nothing left, and that the only compensation we can expect is the satisfaction from having done so. When I try to imagine what it must be like to raise a severely disabled child or deal with an addicted sibling or care for a mentally ill parent, this is the only understanding of love that can suffice… The love that gives until it is spent.

As I’m writing this I see that Millman has written a very insightful post in the same direction, so I won’t spend any words going places he’s already been, but I figure I should also mention this lovely piece by Kyle Cupp on the experience of being a father of an ancephaletic child and his sense of the divine in that struggle.  It’s definitely a better articulation of Silverstein’s take on love than I’m capable of giving, and one that think explains why it remains one of the better children’s books around.

Jim Harrison

Fig 1.1: A Man and his Book

There was a fantastic report on the News Hour about Jim Harrison last night… He’s been one of my favorite writers since I read The Road Home at the urging of a friend back in college.  Unfortunately the PBS folks don’t have the full video up online, but there are some shorter clips of him reading his new poetry and losing his breath here…  I’d warn any curious readers ahead of time that he is not a beautiful man and his reading, while certainly possessing, uh, character, doesn’t convey the strength of his writing terribly well. (Indeed, it sounds as if he’s been eating a steady diet of broken glass since 1983. Ah, chain smoking.) Still, very worth you while.

Ah, freedom:

Friday Linkage

July 3, 2009

Because I am writers-blocked like nobody’s business:

1.) I imagine many readers already know about A Supposedly Fun Blog, a group blog on Infinite Jest.  So far it looks quite good. (Now that I have outside stimulus, its probably safe to say you’ll be seeing more posts like my very first in the future.)

2.) Having written my undergrad history thesis on the University of Chicago’s neo-Thomistic turn during the Hutchin’s years, I was tickled to see First Principles posting a profile of Sidney Hook.  That’s probably the most press the man’s gotten this decade.

3.) Hit by a car? Having an existential crisis? Hike up your skirts and move to Uzbekistan!

4.) The first in a series of posts on Nietzsche and the New Atheists.

Plastic Rot

July 1, 2009

When Greece declined, their buildings went from being painted garish colors to the more natural stone-tones we recognize, setting the stage for DC’s immaculate (but from a Greek perspective, unfinished) federal style.  And when our civilization ages more than a few decades?

The casualty list is appalling: Antique plastic dolls at the National Museum of Denmark have begun to peel and flake; classic furniture at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London might as well have been left out in the sun for years; the first-ever plastic toothbrush, at the Smithsonian, is collapsing into a pile of crumbs; etc. A whole generation of irreplaceable items that are as representative of our culture as pottery or flintheads were of ancient ones are dying—and many people charged with their care have no idea how to stop further damage.

Read the whole thing.

Paul as Plato

Via the Western Confucian, some very thought-provoking archaeology news: newly unearthed third century depictions of the Apostle Paul show him portrayed in the mold of the Hellenic philosopher… This is interesting for a lot of (admittedly obvious) reasons, since the ferment of that period more or less set the tone for medieval Christianity and the political institutions that came out of it…  Definitely worth the read:

“The problem was posed between the third and fourth centuries, when a Church that had become widespread and well structured made the great and brilliant wager that is at the basis of our entire artistic history. It accepted and made its own the world of images, and accepted it in the forms in which the Greco-Roman stylistic and iconographic traditions had developed it. It was in this way is that Christ the Good Shepherd took on the appearance of Pheobus Apollo or Orpheus, and that Daniel in the lion’s den had the appearance of Hercules, the victorious nude athlete.

“But how could one represent Peter and Paul, the princes of the apostles, the pillars of the Church, the foundations of the hierarchy and doctrine? Someone got a good idea. He gave the first apostles the appearance of the first philosophers. So Paul, bald, bearded, with the serious and focused air of the intellectual, had the appearance of Plato or perhaps of Plotinus, while that of Aristotle was given to the pragmatic and worldly Peter, who has the task of guiding the professing and militant Church through the snares of the world.”

If this is what happened, then the Church in the early centuries had no reservations about attributing to the apostles, and to Paul in particular, the title of philosopher, nor of handing down, studying, and proclaiming in its entirety his thought, which is certainly not easy to understand and accept.

To my mind, what’s most interesting about this equation of philosopher and apostle is that it’s being articulated at the same time that the Messiah is first being equated with the Emperor; the crystallization of the disruptive power of the Messiah coincides with the end of the apostolic ideal of martyrdom and its institutionalization as an epistemic and political hierarchy. But the end outcome of these shifts is not the creation of a philosopher-elite, as revelation is final and apostleship is universally open,  nor the creation of a new empire, since the Messiah has not arrived, but a whole new configuration (the medieval church) which can lay claim to the Messiah’s body and which was amplified by the decline of the Roman body politic.  So an image where Paul is portrayed as a philosopher isn’t just indicative of a shift of in Paul’s meaning, but for the meaning of the images entire social field:  reconciling Paul’s image to Plato’s establishes a world where neither is entirely at home.

Or something.

Mmm, textual instability. How I love thee.

Art, Gods, Respect

June 29, 2009

Goya Saturn Devouring His Children (1)Spengler is feeling the horror:

I am, alas, not hopeful. “Cultural conservatism”—if I can thus label a movement that wants to regenerate the classic values of “Western culture” —does not recognize what it needs to conserve. To understand why, begin with Scruton’s reference to Plato’s belief in a “vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order.” There is only one problem: Plato was unjustified in his belief.He wanted there to be a “changeless order.” But he had no way of knowing that such an order existed.

Plato had the ancient inheritance of Hellenic “art”: Homer, Hesiod, and the sculpted and painted representations of the gods in their stories. In Book II of The Republic,he rejected their stories, because they viewed the gods—Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, Hera, Aphrodite—as handing out good and evil without reason or justification, lying, violent and in all other ways morally corrupt. What he could not do  is explain whyone should reject the gods. A fundamental task in any philosophical argument is being able to show how one reaches one’s conclusion. (As in modern empirical science, the argument must be “reproducible.”) In Book III, Socrates repeats a long list of the stories of the gods, and encouraged by his interlocutor, responds that “they ought not to hear that sort of thing,” and “let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated” this or that account. Plato did not (and could not) prove that the “true” gods were not morally corrupt, he assumed it.

Later on:

Another son, Cronos , “hated his lecherous father.” He and his mother, Gaia, hatched a scheme: a Ouranos came down on her to mate, he cut off Ouranos’ genitalia and hurled them in the ocean. The foam in the water produced Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual passion, while the blood created the Furies, “chthonic deities of vengeance,…of the anger of the dead (Wikipedia).”

This is the beginning. Look long and hard; think carefully before you choose to praise it. Art comes from the ground, the dark soil of human passion, greed, and rage, the incestuous intertwinings of lust and loathing.

Fear all art.

Setting aside the other issues I have with this post, the operative claim here seems to be this: the kind of account of the world offered by Greek mythology is horrendous, frightening, and expresses the most base parts of human nature.  As such, it represents (a) the truth and (b) a threat.  Therefore, the correct response to art/myth is fear.

To begin with, I think Goldman’s underlying characterization of Plato’s take on mythology (and hence cultural conservatism that values myth) really doesn’t do justice to the complexities of what Plato’s take on myth drives at. As often as his later work emphasized the necessity of hiding myth, the Socratic dialogues exhibit more or less the opposite attitude, and provide just such a method (dialectic) to explore the dilemmas posed to us by a mythological worldview and to reach the universal by that process. (Which isn’t even to mention how essential struggling with Hesiod was for the Pre-Socratics… I could go on.) The fact that Plato later turned on this view shouldn’t make us follow him there, provided the arguments aren’t compelling.

That said, a full understanding of the danger posed by our mythological and artistic traditions is merited, but the correct response to that danger should not be fear but respect. Spengler’s preference for obscuring the gods denies what there is to learn from them, firstly concerning ourselves, as JL has astutely argued, but also about forces wildly outside of ourselves;  almost all mythology plays in the space between anthropocentrism’s necessity and it’s futility, personifying forces so impersonal that even putting a name to them borders on blasphemy, but that nonetheless allows us to discuss them in a way that, oddly enough, winds up being completely human.   Consider these stories about the incestuous, multi-sexual, violent pre-Olympians; are they human? No, though they’re moody, they ain’t moody like us, not even remotely. They do things beyond the pale, because, like it or not, nature is often just as foreign, and showing them up as humans lets us grapple with their pre-social nature in ways that would otherwise be impossible. But the only way that that understanding (which incidentally lies at the origin of both law and science) can move forward is if it’s allowed a space to exist, either as art, or sacrifice, or myth.

Mental Break

June 28, 2009

I apologize to any readers who may have dropped by over the weekend.  I’ve needed a few days off to pause and get my thoughts back in order, which they now are, and I will be back to full steam tomorrow.

In the meantime, I heartily recommend this, definitely the best of Maria Kalman’s already stellar And The Pursuit of Happiness.

Via Upturned Earth, Hitchens is in Athens.  I’ll leave the historical criticisms to more competent parties, but I just feel the need to kvetch about this for a moment:

Don’t let me blast on too long about how absolutely heart-stopping the brilliance of these people was. But did you know, for example, that the Parthenon forms, if viewed from the sky, a perfect equilateral triangle with the Temple of Aphaea, on the island of Aegina, and the Temple of Poseidon, at Cape Sounion? Did you appreciate that each column of the Parthenon makes a very slight inward incline, so that if projected upward into space they would eventually steeple themselves together at a symmetrical point in the empyrean? The “rightness” is located somewhere between the beauty of science and the science of beauty.

I don’t want to be trite here, or to insert polemics where they might not belong, but to reduce the Parthenon’s aesthetic appeal to scientized beauty, as Hitch does here, is to misunderstand the building and its purposes. As incredible as it is from an architectural standpoint, the building’s original purpose was just as much about accord with the rest of the polis, particularly the city’s religious and political life, as it was about the pure technical accomplishment. Those congruent rooftops? The sanctuary to Athena? The large quantities of money in the basement? It would be misleading to identify this place as a church (at least until it got made into one) but it would also be a mistake to deny that it was a place where the civic and religious orders of Athenian society intersected fruitfully.  Yet addressing that possibility would throw quite a wrench into Hitchens’s devaluation of religious moderates, since it suggests a social order in which muthos and logos stand in a fruitful relation to each other, rather than their permanent irreconcilability.

All of which may be rather beside the point…  This is an article about Athens, not Atheism. Still, you got to get your jabs in where you can, especially when the pickins’ is this easy.

Could be. Take a listen.

(h/t Andrew)