One Hundred Fiftieth

April 12, 2011

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, which began the American Civil War. And I’ve already seen several items noting the anniversary and a few offering explanations as to why the South was wrong.

I’m not going to say that the South was right, because in the most obvious respect, they weren’t–slavery was, and is, wrong, and the South was in large part fighting to keep it’s “peculiar institution.” But I do think it’s important to understand that the South understood itself to be fighting not primarily for slavery, but for (and this is my formulation) state’s rights, community, and tradition, as set against nationalization, legalization, and modernization. Though the South was tainted by slavery, these ideals are not themselves evil. Neither are they unequivocally good, but there is much to be said for them, and much to be said against their opposites.

There are many directions I could go with this–secession, Southern culture, how the War was prosecuted, Reconstruction, etc–but I don’t think it’s all that necessary to do so. I’m certainly not the most intelligent Civil War commentator out there. I think what’s most important to realize is how bad it was–600,000 Americans died at a time when the U.S. was much smaller than it is now–and to contemplate whether those deaths were necessary or unnecessary. People have described it both ways. I find that fascinating.


Not Seven But Seventy Times Seven

March 9, 2011

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season during which all Catholics are obliged to go to confession.

I used to find this requirement rather perplexing. One ought to go to confession whenever one has committed a mortal sin, of course, but why must one go once a year, no matter what? Since most of us commit enough sins to necessitate confession multiple times per year, this is less a practical question than a theoretical one. What is it about confession that mandates it happen more than once?

I think part of my confusion stemmed from thinking about confession the same way I thought about baptism–as marking a complete break with one’s previous life. This is, I think, what baptism offers: a second chance, an opportunity to start fresh. And second chances are easy to comprehend. They tell a clear story–”I was a pagan, now I am a Christian.”

But third, fourth, fifth, tenth, hundredth, chances are harder to make sense of. And this is where my problem with confession lay. If every time one goes to confession, one is wiped clean, how can one have any coherent sense of identity? One can only be baptized once. To be baptized a second time is to say that the first baptism wasn’t sufficient, that it was a false baptism. Similarly, it seems, confessing a sin that one has confessed before negates those previous confessions, makes them false. To be wiped clean once is to tell a story, “I was a pagan, I am now a Christian,” but what is it to be wiped clean over and over, other than to say, “I am nobody, and every time I start to become somebody, I must erase that new identity”?

That was my old (subconscious) understanding of the sacrament. But the Lenten requirement got me thinking. If confession must happen every year, it is in a sense always happening. How could something that changes who one is be always happening? Only if it marked not a reversal, but an adjustment. It is more akin to the (continual) fires of purgatory than the (one-time) waters of baptism.

This is, of course, an obvious truth; but it is one that because it is obvious is easy to ignore. Once I realized it, I understood much more clearly the sacramental nature of confession: it mediates between the present and the eternal. It is, in a way, more sacramental than baptism even. Baptism, as a one-time event, can be used by any being whose life could be divided in two. Confession can be used only by being whose lives are not just “before” and “after,” but who exist truly in time, progressing gradually along the path to salvation.


The Mimetic Square

February 21, 2011

There’s something strange going on with Plato’s divided line. It is a complicated “something strange,” as it often is with Plato, and requires some elucidation. There is an analogy going on between shadow, thing, idea, and form. If we call these S, T, I, and F, we are told, “S:T::I:F::(S:T::I:F)”—that is, that not only do shadow and thing bear the same relationship to each other as idea and form, but that this is the same relationship as between the sensory and the intellectual. That “S:T::I:F” I can accept, but why must the parts of this equation be proportionate to its whole? It results in a number of odd claims, foremost, that T=I. In what sense are things and ideas the same?

Let us leave aside this question for a moment. The above equations allow us to construct another geometrical shape, not a divided line but a divided square, which will serve much the same purpose. Plato actually does this, in the Laws, when talking about things divine, images of things divine, things human, and images of things human. As examples of these, he gives mountains, shadows of mountains, houses, and pictures of houses, but it is easy to see how they could be reinterpreted to be analogous to form, idea, thing, and shadow. So let us look at this square:

FORM THING

 

IDEA SHADOW

We can see that S:T::I:F::(S:T::I:F). Additionally, T=I, insofar as the area of the rectangle THING equals that of the rectangle IDEA. Granted, this portrayal ignores the human half of the divided line—noesis, dianoia, pistis, eikasia—for to include those would require a divided cube. But for our purposes it is enough. The geometric reason for T=I is more clear now; S:T::I:F, but also S:I::T:F. S is two steps removed from F either way. One wonders, what are the philosophical implications of this?

The concept of mimesis, seems to recur here as well—as should perhaps not surprise us, for Plato was discussing art when he described the square in the first place. Recalling earlier, when mimesis was divided into reflection and representation, it seems that we can associate each with one of the two identical elements, T and I. Reflection seems associated with T; a mirror attempts to show us things, and Plato’s complaint is that it does a poor job of it. Representation, on the other hand, can be associated with I; a representation of a separate reality, a heterocosm, can offer nothing to our understanding of reality save general laws that we infer from our comparison of the world portrayed with our own, and Plato’s complaint is that the laws inferred are false. Mimesis begins in SHADOW—in fictions—and tries to bring us into THING and IDEA; Plato says that, without the guidance of philosophy at least, it fails. But worse, it seems, is that it cannot bring us from THING or IDEA towards FORM. Even when mimesis works perfectly, reflection can only bring us from the top of the bottom, and representation from the right to the left; it is not clear that they can build on each other, that together they can bring us from SHADOW to FORM.

Because I enjoy diagrams, and because I like to play with words, I like to label the rows and columns in this divided square. I do so as follows:

TRUTH FACT
FACT FORM

 

THING

 

FICTION IDEA SHADOW

But, of course, I could not defend the claim that FACT=FACT.


Self-Image

February 6, 2011

For the last three years I had been growing my hair out. By a week ago it was maybe a foot long, kept tied back in a ponytail. Then last Saturday I got a haircut.

Almost immediately, my head felt lighter, and I felt naked. But that went away soon. It took longer to adjust to seeing myself. For several days it was jarring to see myself in the mirror–who is that person with short hair? Ah, right, it’s me. Even when I got used to mirrors, though, my shadow confused me, I think because it was just as different as my reflection but having less detail and so with a less obvious explanation.

This has all gotten me thinking about how one visualizes oneself in one’s memory. One doesn’t see oneself from a third-person perspective in real life, but many memories, I have found, are in fact from a third-person perspective (just another indication that memory is extraordinarily unreliable), and the person appearing in the place of the main character, so to speak, doesn’t always look as one did when one was the age one was in the memory. Often one sees oneself in one’s current appearance, even if one’s physical appearance has changed radically.

For example, I know that, when I had long hair, my memories from back when I had short hair would show me having long hair, despite that being impossible. Or, when viewing a memory from recent years but in which I considered myself to have done something immature or childish, I would often (unconsciously) fill in the me with short hair, rather than the me that actually was at that point in time.

At this point I wonder two things. 1) How long will it take me to adjust my “default” self-image to be short-haired me, rather than long-haired? The instinct is to say “a long time,” but I suspect that somehow it won’t be that long–it takes the human brain a surprisingly short time to form new habits. 2) Once I have done so, will I now have three self-images, younger-short-hair, long-hair, and older-short-hair, and choose one for each memory based on some more complex criteria than simply “immature” and “mature”? Will it perhaps be “childish,” “adolescent,” and “adult”?


Theory: A Dialogue

January 18, 2011

(For my literary theory class last semester we wrote several short papers about different theoretical ideas. One of mine, co-written with another student, took the form of a dialogue between “1″ and “2″ about paraphrase. Given its subject matter, it seems right to not attempt to rewrite the ideas it contains in essay form, but to simply post the thing itself. It runs as follows:)

1: To begin, I would agree with the New Critic’s claim that a poem cannot be paraphrased; or, at the very least, that such a paraphrase would necessarily be woefully inadequate.

2: It is a plausible enough sounding claim, but what precisely do you mean by “inadequate”? If a poem is saying anything at all, any format will do for communicating whatever it says. Now there might be as much controversy as you like about the meaning of a particular poem. And maybe you won’t ever be able to paraphrase all the constantly changing, evolving critical debate out there. But as long as you have a view on what the poem says, or at least what it might say, then you have a paraphrase you can express with standard English sentences. Perhaps that paraphrase is boring or contrived or awkward, but it gets across everything you believe to be the poem. There’s nothing you can’t say about the poem that you can’t say about the poem.

1: Well that hardly covers it. What about the aesthetic impression a poem makes? That can’t be replicated in ordinary language—it’s an experience, not a propositional claim. If poems were just complicated propositions then their form would be little more than decoration. But it is not mere decoration—it’s of central importance to the experience of the poem, which cannot be replicated. It is this that makes paraphrases of poetry inadequate in a way normal paraphrases are not. Poems are not simply statements, they are aesthetic objects.

2: That I will grant—a poem is independent of the description of a poem, in the same way a flower is independent of the description of a flower. Perhaps my paraphrase does not have the same “ring” to it, or perhaps it’s harder to remember. Perhaps my description of a flower fails to evoke the same emotions the actual flower might. But that doesn’t make poems special—all objects are like that. The phenomenon of the thing differs from its description. Fine. But not important.

1: No, I don’t think that’s quite right. Poem’s are not quite like flowers. You see, a flower does not mean to communicate anything at all. Perhaps there is some sense in saying it has a certain rhetoric with regard to bees. But poems are not like that. They are intentional acts of communication. And I don’t think this is trivial, because language acts’ only meaning is intentional. Flowers exist regardless of how they rhetorically affect bees, but the word “flower” only exists as long as we allow it to mean something. And poems are made up of words. Moreover, I think poems are special acts of communication. They intend a “meaning” like any statement might; but unlike other verbal acts, a poem also intends itself.

2: What do you mean by “intends itself”? All this sounds very nice, but, if you see my point, you’ll know you have to tell me specifically what it is that only a poem can tell me. You’ll have to say what it is that you cannot paraphrase, and you’ll have to say it in a way that couldn’t itself serve as a paraphrase.

1: When one speaks, one intends something by one’s speech different from the speech itself. Speaking attempts to communicate linguistically, but the act of speech, at the most basic level only produces sound waves. The meaning behind those sound waves is intended, but not explicitly present—what would it mean for it to be? For it to be present, the speech would have to carry within itself the entire context of the conversation, indeed the entire English language. None of this is present in the speech itself, yet we can say that the speaker intends for us to find it there. Synecdochally, we can say that the speech intends it. We could, but perhaps should avoid, getting into whether speech is actually the sort of thing that can intend.

2: So explain what is different about what a poem intends.

1: Consider the sentence “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.” In normal speech, this is a proposition about the location of certain women and their activities, and intends to communicate that information. Within “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is something quite different.

2: Is this due to the strange form of that line?

1: No. Not really.

2: Well, what do you attribute this special sense to? Look, the line you are talking about has an unusual form, but it can nonetheless be paraphrased.

1: How would you paraphrase this line?

2: Well, I suppose I might rather say that the poem itself can be paraphrased. The sentence can be paraphrased insofar as it is part of the poem.

1: But the line cannot be paraphrased?

2: Merely because of its brevity and isolation from context.

1: Well, this is sort of what I’m trying to get at: that poetic context makes things mean differently; and that we cannot get beyond poetic context without changing meaning.

2: I’m not sure I agree with that. To say that a line cannot be paraphrased because it is within a poem is akin to saying that a word cannot be paraphrased because it is within a sentence. Certainly the individual word cannot be paraphrased, but the sentence as a whole can be. Context must always be considered when paraphrasing; the non-poetic version of the “Michelangelo” utterance can vary drastically in meaning because of context. If it followed the question, “what sort of art do women prefer?”, it would mean something different from if it followed, “where are those women, again?” But this does not render the phrase impossible to paraphrase, any more than all language cannot be paraphrased—and it would be absurd to say that no language can be paraphrased, for then the word “paraphrase” would become useless. So clearly paraphrase depends on context, for all paraphrase. My point is this: Poetry provides an unusual, but arbitrarily defined kind of context; it has no special properties that are in principle unique to poetry. Poetic context is not unique. It functions in the same was as the context of normal speech, except in that the context of normal speech is immediately obvious to the speakers while the context of poetry is not always so clear.

1: Yes but you’re ignoring aesthetics. Perhaps I take back what I said about the form of poetry. Perhaps it is the crucial difference. The sentence in question has aesthetically interesting properties, and it is because we find that poem in a poetic context that we pay attention to them. The rhyme between “come and go” and “Michelangelo” doesn’t mean anything, propositionally, but within the poem it is significant.

2: So it looks like we’re relegating the supposed uniqueness of poetry to its rhetorical value, i.e. how well it sounds?

1: That is certainly part of what distinguishes poetry from other speech.

2: But can’t anything have aesthetic value? A good speech will use the same tropes of repetition, evocative imagery, and allusions that you want to call specifically poetic. So I grant, again, that poetry can’t be paraphrased fully, qua rhetoric. But note two things: First, the word “paraphrase” does not really demand replication of rhetorical effect in the first place, and, Second, it is in any case sometimes still possible to reproduce the aesthetic effect in the paraphrase.

1: Still, poetic speech doesn’t intend to be taken rhetorically—at least the words “poetic” and “rhetorical” are not to be understood equivocally. Rhetoric seeks to persuade. Poetry may be persuasive, but poetry qua poetry entails nothing of the sort. Thus I feel legitimate in maintaining that a poem is “about” its own aesthetics in a way the speech is not.

2: I don’t follow. Are you saying poems that poems are meant to be pretty? Lots of things are pretty. What is the difference between a poem being about its aesthetics and a poem having aesthetic value?

1: A poem is not just aesthetically pleasing, but of aesthetic interest—we take rational interest in the poem’s aesthetic facts. We can hear “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo” and simply find it pleasant, but we can also try to make sense of what that rhyme does as it is situated in the poem. This is what most literary criticism written about poetry attempts to do. So, what differentiates the context of poetry from the context of normal speech is that the context of poetry draws our conscious attention to the aesthetic facts of the poem.

2: If aesthetic facts are the type of thing in which we can take rational interest, then they are the type of thing which can be paraphrased. If poems are about their aesthetics, then a summary of the poem insofar as it is as a poem, rather than insofar as it makes statements, would be a description of its use of tropes and figures, and a summary of the poem as a whole would be a combination of the two. So the poem can be paraphrased by summarizing its use of aesthetics/rhetoric as well as its propositional claims.

1: Even if that is the case—that we can paraphrase poems that way—there is no sense in which it would be an adequate account of the poem. Reading a good poem has an effect on the emotional state of the reader in a way that a description of that same poem would not. That effect, for its part, alters the way in which all aspects of the poem affect the reader. A cold, dead summary could not communicate this emotional experience that we all know to be inextricable from our encounter with a poem—inextricable from the poem in a way that it is not inextricable from normal speech.

2: To an extent, I will grant this. Yes, the way in which a poem affects my emotions differs from the way in which a description would, however elegant or correct that description may be. This having been said, it is not the purpose of a paraphrase to mimic the emotional ups and downs of a poem, but rather to be like a description, however inadequate a description it will be. Secondly, we should note that all descriptions are by nature inadequate, not merely those of poems. My description of a flower is exactly like my description of a poem, in that it would be incapable of mimicking the emotional effect of a flower in an exact way. The fact that the paraphrase of a poem is limited in its descriptiveness does not make poems “special” in any way.

1: That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all. If we allow paraphrases to be descriptions, however inadequate, then of course we can paraphrase a poem; grant that, and we can paraphrase anything, and made the word “paraphrase” meaningless. But you have completely ignored the way in which paraphrases of poems are radically inferior to paraphrases of non-poetic speech. Leaving flowers to the side, your description of a speech is not exactly like your description of a poem. What would be lacking from that of the speech would be incidental to the propositional purpose of that speech, but what would be lacking from that of the poem—its aesthetics—would be of the utmost importance.

2: You continually attempt to separate poems from normal speech by saying their aesthetics are of special importance, but it is unclear what exactly you mean by that. You shift between saying that they are aesthetically pleasing and that they are aesthetically interesting. But the first of these applies to all aesthetic objects, and the second poses no significant obstacle to paraphrase. Insofar as poems are like flowers, they can be described; insofar as poems are like speeches, they can be paraphrased. I am not denying that poems are like both of these—that poems are not reducible to normal speech—but just because a poem is like both of these things does not mean it is a third kind of thing distinct from both. I remain unconvinced that poems differ from normal speech in some deeper fundamental way that makes them impossible to paraphrase.

To be continued…


Portrait of the Reader as a Young Man

September 27, 2010

I recently finished reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for class. It’s an excellent book, though I don’t claim to understand what Joyce is trying to do. One thing I do find extremely amusing about the book, though: the reaction it elicits from people who read it.

Because the strange thing about the book is, it’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, is an artist type, and the book is mostly about his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. There’s a plot, but it’s driven almost entirely by the ideas Stephen has. He’s really the only character of importance. This means that your reaction to the book is dictated almost entirely by your reaction to the character of Stephen Dedalus. And, since Stephen is a brilliant, angsty, pretentious artist type, most people have the same reaction to him: disgust mingled with a prideful sympathy.

The disgust is easy to understand. Stephen is in many ways a terrible person. The prideful sympathy might need a little drawing out. What I mean is, most people recognize something of themselves in Stephen – the questions he is grappling with, after all, are questions everyone confronts at some point in their life, and Joyce describes Stephen’s searching in such honest terms that, whatever else we think of him, we have to believe he is really struggling with these questions.

But Joyce also presents Stephen as believing that he is alone in his struggles – he is an artist who cares more about his art than about other people and believes himself uniquely capable of forging the “conscience of his race” (whatever that means). He is convinced that no one else thinks about things the way he does. So when the reader recognizes party of himself in Stephen, he is made also to assent to this prideful part  of Stephen’s personality. Joyce brings the reader to believe himself to be, like Stephen Dedalus, unique.

But in that sentence the whole absurdity of the claim makes itself apparent. Because if every reader is like Stephen Dedalus, then the way Stephen thinks is clearly not particularly unique. And so the reader is forced to admit that he, too, is not actually unique; he is so normal, in fact, that a hundred years ago a book had already been written about the type of person he is.

And it is this self-recognition, when the reader realizes how prideful his sympathy with Stephen Dedalus is, that brings about the disgust that the reader feels towards him. Becaue the reader realizes that the main character ought not to be sympathetic, and also that the portrait drawn of the main character is as much of the reader as it is of the artist.


Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

September 4, 2010

I’ve recently gotten into the music of The Decemberists. Genre-wise, Last.Fm classifies them as “indie/indie rock/indie pop/alternative”; my listening to them is thus partially a result of my having picked up Andrew Bird over the last year or so. But in a lot of ways, I think, the Decemberists are closer to the rest of my music library (i.e. various flavors of metal) than they are to Bird. I’ll try to make the argument for why, though again, since I’m not a musician, I don’t feel qualified to talk about musical style; I’ll primarily be looking at lyrics in this post.

While Bird concerns himself with the inherent limitations of science, language, and reason generally, the Decemberists are interested in much the same things as, say, Kamelot; their songs are love songs, for the most part, generally failed loves, and often have a strong historical or literary bent to them. Kamelot’s best work is their two-album-long interpretation of Goethe’s Faust; the Decemberists’s three “The Crane Wife” songs are twenty minutes of music about a traditional Japanese story, and “The Island–Come And See The Landlord’s Daughter–You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” is from what I can tell about Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The Decemberists also bear resemblances to Dream Theater, another prog metal band. Both are strangely literary for musicians; they constantly allude to poems and poets, and try to capture the emotional state of characters from stories. Dream Theater quotes Frost and James Joyce in some of the songs off Awake; the Decemberists seem to reference Coleridge in “The Island (&c)”, with lines like “The rivers roll down to a soundless sea,” and the song “The Legionnaire’s Lament” always reminds me of Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues,” though perhaps only because of the word “legion.” Songs like “Yankee Bayonet” and “When the War Came” are historical, not literary, but show a story-teller’s eye for history, just as Dream Theater has songs about AIDS (“Learning to Live”) and 9/11 (“Sacrificed Songs”).

These may seem like facile points, that I’m pointing out similarities of the sort that exist between any two musicians. But I don’t think that’s it. The main point is that the Decemberists, unlike Andrew Bird, are predominantly story-based. They’re not trying to capture a mood that one arrives at upon contemplating the world (which is what Bird does most of the time, I think), but rather to show how emotions work as one acts in the world — primarily in the most emotional of activities, falling in and out of love.

Anyay, this all brings me to the song I started this post wanting to talk about, “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect.” I’ve been listening to this constantly over the last week or so. Though it’s a great song, I’m not here really to talk about how it functions musically; mostly I want to point out the verse in which the title appears.

And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade
To keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seemed to meet
This structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go

I find fascinating how similar, and yet different this is to Andrew Bird’s stuff. It’s using so much of the same language, the same ideas. It’s more abstract than most Decemberist songs; the reference to architecture makes it necessarily meta-artistic, and we have to think of language as architecture, as a building, words used to build and to cage. The line “even though my work is unparalleled” is the kind of mathematical pun I think Bird would love. But while Bird would use these words to talk about the failings of science when it tries to understand the world, the Decemberists use them to show a failed romance; even when dealing in abstract ideas, they come back to concrete human interactions — to life, not thought. An interesting juxtaposition.


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