Whence and Whither #3

1. Jake Meador has a great newsletter. His first issue, in particular, hits on a handful of important issues related to writing, hospitality, and loving our neighbors. But his second issue addresses a problem at the heart of a metastasizing trend in writing in the age of social media:

If we have no common objects of love, what is the affection that can lead us toward studiousness and away from curiosity? If my confidences in everything save my own identity is diminished—and late modern liberalism seems to me to be designed to do precisely that—then my desire for knowledge can only be curiosity.
This, incidentally, is what I meant in the first issue when I said that the only writers with something valuable to say in this context are the writers with a deep love and affection for a particular home place. If we don’t have something outside ourselves that our work is ordered to, then all that we have left is the self and all our work is merely a form of identity construction. And at that point, I fear that the standard for our work is no longer truthfulness or whether the work tends toward love but is, rather, whether the work satisfies us personally or advances our private interests.
2. The Great Non-Rules of English Grammar accompanied by my brief commentary (h/t Prufrock News):
  • Never begin a sentence with “And” or “But.”
    • Yes. I’m a big fan of starting sentences with a conjunction for all the reasons Dreyer mentions in the article. I find it provides some snap to a sentence, and it can spring the reader into the next thought.
  • Never split an infinitive
    • Personally, I think it’s better to follow this non-rule more often than not. I take Dreyer’s point that sometimes inserting an adverb in between the “to” and the “verb” does sound better (“To bodly go where no man has gone before”). But generally it obscures meaning unnecessarily.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition: “Up with which I shall not put!”
    • My view? See “never split an infinitive.” Writers (especially young writers) should follow this non-rule except when it doesn’t work.

3. Matthew Anderson’s exhortation in light of the recent abortion discussions surrounding VA Governor Ralph Northam’s comments regarding a late term abortion bill, and the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who signed the Reproductive Health Act which extends the time frame for late term abortions. For many, this is a cause for concern/despair. But Anderson is right that the Christian response should be compassionate:

In other words, evangelicals must speak of infanticide in ways that remain animated by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are to proclaim the darkness of the evil inflicted upon infants and their mothers in ways that still hold forth the promise of good news. The truth of compassion provides comfort in the face of the cross—a comfort that defeats death not by inflicting it, but by overcoming it with love.

4. These days I’m a sucker for any article that will take down the repackaging of ancient philosophies into modern day self-help movements. Like Stoicism:

Einstein’s God will no doubt appeal more to Pigliucci’s readers than the divine craftsman of the Stoics. Pigliucci contends, moreover, that living well in the Stoic sense doesn’t depend “on whether there is a God” or what God’s “specific attributes” are. I strongly disagree. The practical part of Stoicism—the part where it teaches us how to live—doesn’t work without the outdated metaphysical underpinning. For the Stoics, Zeus made everything, including human beings, to maximize the universe’s perfection. What sets human beings apart is that they alone share in Zeus’s rational nature and can help carry out his plan by embracing the fate he has allotted to them. We are the only part of the universe that doesn’t just blindly function, but can grasp its task and perform it willingly. The key to happiness, therefore, is human reason, which enables us to understand Zeus’s plan and then direct our lives in accordance with it.

5. Austin Kleon on Walker Percy’s theory of “reentry.” (One day I’ll read Lost in the Cosmos for myself. Pinky swear). Quotation from Percy:

[W]hat is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o’clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?

6. Did I mention in the previous “Whence and Whither” that Monty Python’s Flying Circus is on Netflix? Well it is.

 

 

7. Tunes: “better jump down the manhole / light yourself a candle”

 

Whence and Whither #2

1. Brad East, “The Church and the Common Good: Can we equate the church’s eternal mission with temporary politics?”

I enjoy reading Brad’s articles partly because he represents a more moderate voice among many of the alarmists and culture warrior-type rhetoric within Christian circles. This article is no exception. It’s hard not to quote the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

How, you may ask, is this not secession from politics, a status quo–baptizing desertion of the common good? Answer: Because Christians remain as engaged as ever, even to the point of laying down their lives, only without the vices that attend a realized eschatology (activism absent resurrection): the desperate need to win, the entitled expectation of success, the assumption of God’s approval, the forgetfulness of sin, the recourse to evil means for good ends. Domine, quo vadis? Christian political witness is figured by St. Peter—the rock on which the church is built, surely an ecclesial sine qua non—following the Lord back into Rome, certain that his end is near, but equally certain that all his noble plans and good deeds are not worth resisting the call. For the End is not in his or any human hands, and depends not one iota on our efforts.

Christians in the West have been so bewitched by centuries of being in charge that we think the only alternatives are choosing to exercise influence or choosing not to, the former a function of “engagement,” the latter a function of “disengagement.” But consider Christians in Egypt or Iraq, for millennia a small but resilient minority in their homelands. Should we judge them faithful or unfaithful, missional or monastic? Doubtless the church should seek to bless the societies in which it finds itself, including politically; but are such opportunities always ready to hand? Must we force others to listen to us? Relevance requires more than effort; irrelevance is not a sin.

2. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is now (back?) on Netflix. So much for cutting back on binge watching television shows.

3. Tunes: I can’t listen to this song enough: “Hopopono” by GoGo Penguin

4. I just wrote a post that catalogues Dante’s various reactions to the sinners he meets throughout his journey in hell.

5. Rene Descartes’ reputation was not improved when I found out that he made a robot version of his deceased daughter.

Thinking Through Hell: Hate to Die

I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: catalogue scenes in the Inferno where Dante exhibits a physical and/or emotional reaction to the damned. I’m sure someone has already done this somewhere, but I wanted to comb through the text myself. In every instance, either Virgil explicitly comments on the appropriateness of Dante’s reaction, or the narrative description invites reflection on Dante’s view of sin in that particular moment.

Below, I’ve listed the scenes with a brief summary of what happens. At the bottom of the post, I’ll remark briefly on my own conclusions about what I think is going when these scenes are taken together.

Note on the Translation: I used the online text available through the World of Dante website.

I. Canto 5: Paolo and Francesca, circle 2, Lustful

  • Dante: swoons and faints when he hears Francesca tell her story, “so that-because of pity- / I fainted, as if I had met my death. / And then I fell as a dead body falls” (5.140-42).
  • Virgil: No reaction.

II. Canto 6: Ciacco, circle 3, Gluttonous

  • Dante: “Ciacco, your suffering so weights on me that I am forced to weep” (6.58)
  • Virgil: No reaction. Tells Dante that the damned will receive their body again on the day of doom which will perfect their punishment.

III. Canto 7: N/A, circle 4, Avarice

  • Dante: Desires to meet some of the souls in this circle.
  • Virgil: Does not allow Dante to talk with anyone because… “That thought of yours is empty: / the undiscerning life that made them filthy / now renders them unrecognizable” (6.52-54).

IV. Canto 8: Filippo Argenti, circle 5, Wrathful

  • Dante: Insults Filippo (8.37) and then tells Virgil “I am very eager / to see that spirit soused within this broth / before we’ve made our way across the lake” (8.52-54).
  • Virgil: “you shall be satisfied; / to gratify so fine a wish is right” (8.56-57).

V. Canto 10: Farinata, circle 6, Heretics

  • Dante: initially afraid to speak to Farinata; lost in thought after his conversation with Farinata who has told him about the political future of Florence and the nature of a damned soul’s knowledge.
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for cowering at the sound of Farinata’s voice and forces him to speak with him; encourages Dante to remember the words spoken against him by Farinata.

VI. Canto 13: Piero della Vigna, circle 7, Suicides

  • Dante: breaks a twig of a tree that happesn to be Piero; cannot find the words to ask questions of Piero because “so much pity takes my heart” (13.84);
  • Virgil: tells Dante to break one of the branches though it “grieves me deeply” (13.51); encourages Piero to tell Dante his story so that he can refresh his fame (13.53); also takes Dante to the tree ravaged by the souls and hounds racing through the forest.

VII. Canto 14: Capaneus, circle 7, Blasphemers

  • Dante: —
  • Virgil: Rebukes Capaneus and tells Dante that in hell, Capaneus’ true nature is revealed (14.70).

VIII. Canto 15: Brunetto Latini, circle 7, Sodomites

  • Dante: Strongly desires to sit with Brunetto (15.34); remains fond of and grateful for Brunetto (15.82); narration end on a positive description of Brunetto.
  • Virgil: allows Dante to speak at length with Brunetto.

IX. Canto 16: Three Noble Florentines, circle 7, Violent Against God

  • Dante: speaks with them at length and then says, “Your present state had fixed / not scorn but sorrow in me-and so deeply / that it will only disappear slowly…” (16.52-54).
  • Virgil: Tells Dante that these three souls deserve his respect.

X. Canto 19: Pope Nicholas III, circle 8, Simonists

  • Dante: delivers a long invective against Pope Nicholas III
  • Virgil: appears happy with Dante’s rant.

XI. Canto 23: Two Friars, circle 8, Hypocrites

  • Dante: speaks with two friars; begins to respond to their story, “O friars, your misdeeds–” (23.109), but then he cuts it short when he sees Caiaphas crucified to the ground.
  • Virgil: Recommends the friars as sinners for Dante to speak to; he stares at Caiaphas in amazement (23.124).

XII. Canto 26: Ulysses & Diomede, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Dante: desires to speak to the “twin flame” that contains Ulysses and Diomede
  • Virgil: says that Dante’s desire is a worthy request, but forbids him from speaking to them directly–Virgil claims that they would shy away if Dante attempted to speak to them in Italian, so he speaks on Dante’s behalf.

XIII. Canto 27: Guido de Montefeltro, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Montefeltro’s story is detailed, but as soon as he’s finished speaking, the narrator simply says that Dante and Virgil walked away. Strange that there’s no description of Dante’s reaction to such a detailed–and sad!–story.

XIV. Canto 30: Master Adam & Sinon, circle 8, Falsifiers

  • Dante: “intent on listening” to two sinners insult each other (30.130)
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for being so captivated by the scene.

XV. Canto 32: Bocca Degli Abati, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: accidentally stubs his toe on Bocca; asks Bocca to identify himself, and when he refuses, Dante first tries to convince him by offering him fame, but eventually must yank his head back and pull out his hair to force him to respond.
  • Virgil: no response

XVI. Canto 33: Count Ugolino, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: listens to Ugolino’s story; instead of a direct response, the narrative complains that the people Ugolino betrayed should not have punished his sons along with him.
  • Virgil: no response

XVII. Canto 33: Brother Alberigo, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: Alberigo cries out to Dante to hear his complaint; promises to wipe the ice from Alberigo’s eyes if he tells the truth; when Alberigo has finished talking, Dante refuses to fulfill his promise to him because “it was courtesy to show him rudeness” (33.150).
  • Virgil: No response

XVIII. Canto 34: Satan, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: when he sees Satan, he says, “I did not die, and I was not alive…I became deprived of life and death” (34.25-27).
  • Virgil: No response

(Brief) Concluding Thoughts

The pattern of Virgil’s responses seem relatively straightforward: Virgil only reproves Dante when he fears or is entertained by the sinners. Anger and pity, however, are allowed and often praised.

One question that often comes up in discussions about the Inferno is why Dante must travel through hell before ascending Purgatory into Heaven. The answer, I think, lies in the pattern of Dante’s behavior that Virgil praises and censures. Dante must learn to hate sin. Hate encompasses a spectrum of responses to sin that range from anger to pity.

Dante must also be bold in facing sin. Cowardice cannot hate. Boldness counter-balances the opening scene where Dante “awoke” in a dark wood. He’d become lazy and fell asleep, no longer vigilant in his fight against sin. The way was lost to him because he didn’t keep up his courage.

The goal of Dante’s journey through hell is to hate sin so much he’d willingly die to it. Dante’s transformation ends in a form of death–i.e., a state of being deprived of “life and death.” This death is different than the kind of death the sinners in hell experience. Sin does not kill Dante. Rather, Dante’s perseverance throughout his journey suggests that he’s resolved to die before he allows sin to chain him in hell. Such a death ultimately liberates Dante and allows him to escape.

Descartes before the Machine

I read Frankenstein for the first time last year which also happened to be the centenary of the first publication. So that worked out.

In this piece, David Lloyd Dusenbury re-asks the question at the heart of Mary Shelley’s story: why should we not mechanically recreate life? Dunesbury answers the question by first discussing the philosophical context of Shelley’s work. Naturally, Descartes comes up. He then mentions this interesting piece of biographical information:

It is a defining mark of modernity that Descartes’s texts are haunted by lifelike machines—and not only his texts. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, sources claim that Descartes built a girl-like machine in a desperate bid to replicate his only child, Francine, who was born (out of wedlock, but recognized by him) in 1635, and who died of scarlet fever in 1640. When rumor of ­Descartes’s ­android was first reported in 1699 by a Carthusian monk (and a ­Cartesian), Bonaventure d’Argonne, he asserted that the philosopher made it “to prove demonstratively that animals are nothing but highly complex ­machines.”

I did not know this about Descartes, and it doesn’t improve my opinion of him. Read the rest of Dusenbury’s piece at First Things.

Thinking through Hell: Guided by my Students

If hell was a museum, my students could be its docents. They just finished reading Dante’s Inferno, and as they read, they had to draw a chart of hell that illustrated the sin, the punishment, and any major characters Dante meets in each circle.

When I assign any kind of project that requires drawing, I set the standards low. After all, on my best days, I can draw stick figures that barely resemble the human form. I’m learning that I’m in the minority, since most of my students have more artistic ability in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body. Needless to say, the finished products were better than I could have hoped for.

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Not pictured: a pop-up book of hell. Easily one of my favorites.

They’ll do a similar project as we read through Purgatory over the next couple weeks. Pictures to come.

Whither and Whence #1

I’m going to attempt to maintain a weekly schedule of posts. It’ll be a little like a newsletter where I simply share a handful of essays, images, podcasts, movies, etc. I enjoyed that week. Right now, the working title for these posts is “A Survey” but that’ll probably change.* In the meantime, here are five things I enjoyed this week.

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1. Finished watching a five hour documentary on Saint Paisius yesterday. I watched it over the course of a month. It’s a documentary in Greek, narrated/translated into Russian, with subtitles in (broken) English. Worth every minute.

2. A fantastic opening line for a fantastic essay:It would have been much better for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s posthumous reputation if the KGB had killed him just before or shortly after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in February 1974.”

3. Alan Jacobs on the only productivity guidance/advice worth your time.

I pay myself first. That is, if I need to get writing done then writing will be my first task of the day. If I try to get all the other stuff done before turning to writing, I’m usually too tired to write much or well.

When I work I work and when I play I play. When I’m writing I deny myself access to email, to social media, to fun internet sites. I don’t write a hundred words and then reward myself by watching a YouTube clip or arguing with strangers on Twitter. I just write until I have to do something else or am too worn out to write any more.

4. A new podcast, Libromania. The first episode with John Wilson is wonderful. Next up, David Kern’s interview with Jeffrey Overstreet.

5. I’ve been signing up for newsletters from writers whose work I enjoy reading. Apparently newsletters are the latest and greatest trend in the open internet movement. I don’t know if these will catch on, but it’s worth a shot. Here are some of the folk I’m following: Alan Jacobs, Austin Kleon, Jake Meador, Matthew Lee Anderson, Prufrock

 

 

*UPDATE 2/4/2019: I’ve now changed the title of these posts to “Whither and Whence.” We’ll see how long this lasts.