Polite Dishonesty

April 28, 2009

I’ve noticed something interesting about people recently. It seems obvious, once you think about it, but it’s worth thinking consciously about, even if it is obvious. That thing is: people are more comfortable being dishonest when it means they’re being polite, even when the person they’re talking to is begging them to be honest.

I’ll give an example to show what I mean: A friend of mine recently got the DVDs of a BBC Sherlock Holmes series. We had been planning to hang out on a certain night, and he proposed to me and one other person that we should watch an episode of this show that night while hanging out. Neither of us thought this was a good idea, but… we didn’t say so. We said stuff like, “well, maybe”, “I don’t know”, “perhaps”, etc. Even when the friend said something (I don’t remember exactly what) along the lines of “really, guys, tell me the truth, I don’t care either way”, we continued to hedge, instead of just saying “no, not tonight”.

Now, both me and this particular friend are not very polite people, in fact we the opposite, but the fact that someone was asking us a direct question to which we knew what answer he wanted was enough to make us really hesitant to answer it contrary to his desires. What this says about humanity is obvious. Put simply, we don’t want to disappoint people.

Now for what this too-obvious-to-state-clearly fact, stated clearly, reveals: It’s cruel and usually fruitless to ask people their “honest opinion” when it is clear what answer you want. Cruel, because it puts them in an uncomfortable situation – if the answer was “yes” (say it’s a y/n question and “yes” is the answer you wanted), they would have said something like that anyway, and if it was “no”, it forces them to find a way to say it so that it won’t upset you while still being “honest”. Fruitless, because if they answer “yes”, you’ll have no way of knowing they’re actually being honest, and if they answer “no”, well, the fact that you were asking for an “honest opinion” means you suspected their answer was “no” in the first place, and so you were probably going to act as if the answer was “no” regardless.

The reason we make such demands for honesty, I think, is that we have a desire for omniscience. In certain situations, we tell ourselves we would rather know the answer, even if it’s “no” when we want “yes”, than go forward with our lives without knowing. The problem is merely demanding certainty does not provide it for us, and we have to live our lives anyway.

Now, the DVD-watching example was a fairly trivial one, but I’m sure you can think of more serious ones. They’ll probably have to do with romantic entanglements of some kind or another. Those are one of the things people take most seriously in their lives and demand the most certainty about, even though those are the very situations where it is most impossible, I suspect, to have that certainty; at least, certainty is possible, but if you’re in a situation where you feel the need to demand it, it’s probably not possible in that situation.


The Problem with Heaven

April 27, 2009

I have a minor gripe with the way Christian theology is laid out. It’s not that I think it’s wrong – I’m a faithful Catholic, if perhaps not a good one, and tend to believe what the Church says to believe – it’s that the emphasis often seems misplaced.

The issue is with the concept of “Heaven”. Philosophically, I’m not sure exactly what it will be, or what a “resurrected body” is, etc. I do think it’s pretty clearly not going to be what we expect (sitting around on clouds for the rest of eternity – which most people use to mean aeviternality, but that’s a different story), but that’s not that big a deal. But it is a big deal that the idea of a Heaven than you either get into or don’t, and if you don’t you go to hell, encourages a really flawed way of looking at morality.

How this happens is pretty clear. With a Heaven-Hell strict duality, you end up trying to do just the bare minimum to get into Heaven, and not try to be as good as you can for the sake of being good, you end up not being very good at all. You just end up not very bad. That’s not what Christianity is about.

Of course, this is a commonly recognized problem. Look at the text of the traditional Act of Contrition: “I detest all my sins because of your just punishment, but most of all because they offend you, my God”, etc. We’re not supposed to avoid sin because it’ll stop us from getting into Heaven; we avoid sin because it offends God, because it is wrong.

But casting things in terms of getting into Heaven or not predisposes us to look for the bare minimum, because, well, if you’re either in or out, what’s the least you have to do to get in? Find out, do exactly that, and you’ll have a fun, easy life and end up in Heaven. The Catholic Church gets around this somewhat with the concept of Purgatory – putting the emphasis on sanctification, rather than justification, and making clear that just doing the bare minimum might get you into Purgatory, but that you’d be a lot better off doing more than that – but even this leaves the basic Heaven-Hell duality there.

It’s not like I have a solution to this, of course. And I’m not saying we should emend the Bible to not talk so much about Heaven and Hell. But we do need to realize that the point of life is not get-in-or-get-left-out-of-Heaven; the point is to become a good person, and you are who you are when you die, and that not only determines your fate, that is your fate. If you were a bad person, you live with that and that is Hell; if you were a mediocre person, you might get to Heaven, but it won’t be a very big Heaven for you.

This is something that’s been talked about throughout history, but I think it could bear reiteration. Mainly because it’s something that a lot of people don’t realize, or if they do, they don’t have a good understanding of; I know several people who will do things of questionable morality and say, “well, it’s not going to stop me from getting into Heaven, so why not?” That’s exactly what we need to avoid – not because that attitude will stop us from getting into Heaven (it might, or it might not), but because it completely misses the point.

Book Review: Moby-Dick

April 22, 2009

I don’t mean for this blog to turn into just a bunch of book reviews, but I’ve been reading a lot lately, alright? I do hope to post soon about “copyright and the pirate bay trial”, and perhaps something philosophically oriented as well. But no promises.

In any case, even if I never posted book reviews, I would post one for Moby-Dick, because it has leaped to the front of my list of great books. That’s right – I think Moby-Dick is almost certainly the best novel ever written in the English language, and might even be the best thing ever written in the English language, period. But I’m not going to explore the question of whether it’s better than Shakespeare’s best.

I didn’t really expect this – I came into Lit Trad IV expecting to love Crime and Punishment, really like Go Down Moses, like Moby-Dick, and tolerate Mansfield Park. We haven’t read Go Down Moses yet, but so far all my predicts are right except for Moby-Dick. I don’t just like it; it’s simply amazing.

What makes it so great? A large part of it is simply its scope. It tries to be the modern epic, and succeeds admirably. Some people find the “encyclopedic” portions of the book boring; I thought they were really well done, and was surprised to find myself enjoying reading for ten pages of tiny text about “cetology” so I can learn about how nature can’t be fit in a box or “the whiteness of the whale” so I can learn about the terrifying sublime. And those parts are necessary to do what an epic is supposed to – explore all of human life, religion, politics, economics, social interactions, etc.

(Interlude: This business about the “modern epic” I actually find somewhat fascinating. As technology has progressed, the primary literary form has changed, and epics are normally done in the primary literary form – but there are only a few works in the history of mankind that deserve the term “epic”. In the days of oral traditions, we had oral epics, such as the Iliad and Odyssey, because verse is easier to remember. When writing came about but there wasn’t really any way to publish something, we got literary epics like the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy. When printing first came about but wasn’t that widespread, we got Shakespeare, none of whose plays are themselves an epic, but of whom I’m willing to say his entire corpus composes something “epic”. Milton’s Paradise Lost is an interesting abberation, but it still makes sense, since printing wasn’t that widespread at that point. When books become widespread, we get the novel, and Moby-Dick.)

But its scope is not all that makes Moby-Dick amazing, even if that’s the easiest thing to describe about it. There’s also the fact that its characters are so compelling – there’s only perhaps a dozen real characters, and by my count six major ones (Ishmael, Ahab, Quigqueg, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask) – but they all seem at the same time immensely real and perfect “psychic projections” of a single consciousness.

And then there’s just the quality of the prose. The entire book is worth reading just to get this monologue:

Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.

I’d also recommend the Demons & Wizards song “Beneath These Waves”, from their album Touched by the Crimson King. It’s actually about Moby-Dick. Don’t you love power metal bands singing about great literature? I’m just waiting for the first concept album about the Divine Comedy, or perhaps about the Bible itself (now that’s be interesting, if perhaps slightly blasphemous).

Book Review: No Country for Old Men

April 20, 2009

No Country for Old Men is one of my favorite movies. I recently read the book, by Cormac McCarthy, that the movie was based on. It was an interesting experience; normally one reads the book then watches the movie to compare the two, but more and more recently I’ve been watching the movie first then reading the book.

One result of this is I find it hard to look at the book as a book – I’m constantly comparing it to the movie, even though the book came first and stands on its own. Ah well.

Of course, there’s some things that a book can do that a movie can’t, and vice versa. The movie has cool fight scenes that don’t show up in the book; the book has a unique style of prose that works really well for what McCarthy is doing. It works for The Road, which I read a while ago, and it works for this. It would work horribly for, say, a romantic comedy. I’m not sure what to make of this.

But other than stuff like that, the book is really similar to the movie, which is another way of saying the movie does a good job of following the book. Every scene of the movie, pretty much, is from the book, and most scenes of the book show up in the movie. The only important exceptions that I can recall are a few of Sheriff Bell’s monologues and one of Anton Chigurh’s deterministic rants.

Of course, one of the reasons I loved the movie was the character of Anton Chigurh, so I found the slightly different way he was portrayed in the book somewhat interesting. Essentially, while in the movie he is portrayed as a straight determinist, he actually has something a bit more complex going on.

As far as I can tell, and I might be wrong, he clearly doesn’t really believe in free will, but he’s more of a fatalist than a scientific determinist. He thinks that your choices are determined by your personal characteristics, and so in any particular situation you can’t “change your mind”, but that what you do is still the result of who you are, and so you are still somewhat responsible for it. If, as we did in my Lit Trad III course, we look at things in personhood in terms of moira, ethos, and persona, Chigurh believes in only moira – but he still believes in personhood. He’d more of an ancient Greek fatalist than anything else, really.

So, NCfOM is well written, interesting, does some things the movie doesn’t… is it better than the movie? I honestly have a hard time saying it is. Each can do different things, but I don’t want to say the novel is per se a better narrative medium than the film, and it’s a damn good movie. And I’m not sure that what McCarthy is doing with the novel-specific aspects of his work – the prose style, the narratorial asides, etc – are important enough, that they manage things the movie simply could not. A book like Moby Dick would not work at all as a movie. Something like NCfOM, however, works nicely. And there is a power movies have that books do not – though vice versa, as well. So I don’t know.

In any case, both are good. I actually do think it’s worth it to both read the book and watch the movie. If you can only do one… watch the movie, because there are better books out there, but there’s not that many better movies out there. But do try to read some Cormac McCarthy at some point. He’s quickly turning into one of my favorite modern authors.


April 16, 2009

Things that have happened in the last week:

  • I registered for classes next semester. Unfortunately the professor who does the Tolkien class (scheduled for the fall of odd-numbered years) is going on sabbatical, so it’s not going to happen, probably. Hopefully he’ll run it in the spring or something.
  • I got my housing situation for next semester in order. This involved a helluvalot of last-minute running around, and I actually had to lose six credits in order to no longer have senior status so that I can live in the student apartments here. Which means I no longer have credit for the Chemistry AP. Which is fine by me, I don’t know chemistry anyway.
  • I spent the longest amount of time I have ever took to complete a mathematics homework assignment – I probably spent ten hours on it in total. But it was actually three assignments rolled into one.
  • I had a philosophy exam yesterday, in which I wrote about contingency, God, and (as always) actuality and potentiality. Though only the first two were part of the stated prompt. It seems like every essay I write for this class comes back to actuality an potentiality.
  • I turned in an excerpt from the short story I’m writing for my Lit Trad class and had it critiqued. Here’s a sample, the first 35 or so words of the story:

    Stream of Life

    (X)(G) – Sorcery – Target player gains X life.

    Beep beep beep beep. Beep beep beep beep. Beep beep beep beep. Beep beep beep beep. Beep beep beep beep. Beep beep beep beep. Beep beep beep beep.

    Yeah, it’s kind of weird. People liked it though, for the most part. Not many people got the Magic: The Gathering reference though.

Anyway, this is why I haven’t been posting much recently (and this post itself is hardly a real post either). But I’m hoping to have more pretentious essays about life, the universe, and everything for you come this weekend. Probably I’ll try to have a review of No Country for Old Men, the book, which I finished last week as well.

Paschal Triduum

April 8, 2009

Tomorrow begins the Paschal Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. These are the days leading up to Easter Sunday, and they’re pretty much the most important days of the year to Catholics – on Thursday you remember the Last Supper, on Friday the Crucifixion, and at Easter Vigil on Saturday night, the Resurrection.

What I find interesting is how you don’t have mass on Friday. You have Mass on Thursday – and it’s the one where you get to do the Gospel-reading-as-play, with the congregation taking the part of all the groups of people in the narrative – and on Saturday night you have Easter Vigil Mass, with its candle-lighting, several readings from all sorts of Old Testament books, baptisms, etc. But on Friday there’s no Mass celebrated, anywhere. It’s the day Jesus died, I guess, and so it would be inappropriate to celebrate his resurrection.

Or something like that. I confess I don’t understand it completely myself. But these are three of my favorite days of the year, because even if I don’t fully understand everything Catholicism has to say, I understand enough of it, and besides, the liturgies for these days are simply awe-inspiring. I wouldn’t like to have a four-hour-long mass every Sunday, but the Easter Vigil mass can be as long as it likes and I really won’t mind. It ought to be a marathon. It just seems appropriate.

Beware! Beware!

April 3, 2009

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

I just wrote a paper for my Romantic Tradition class, and I’m in a poetical mood; plus I had too much coffee and so am still awake at 2:30 AM. Hence this post.

The above is an excerpt from “Kubla Khan”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a celebration of raw poetic power. The first half of the poem is simply a description of an incredibly sublime scene, Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome, with its sacred river Alph that “ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea”, and assorted other wonders. The second half, reproduced above, reveals that this description is a vision the poet had.

What I love about this poem is how, with its irregular rhyme scheme, lilting rhythm, and constant use of alliteration, it propels the reader forward, almost as if it were a magic spell or incantation. Its power is irresistible, sweeping us along whether we want it or not. And that’s what the poem is about; how poetry is power, how the poet is a magician whom all others should “beware! beware!”

What I can’t understand is how the same poet that wrote the above also wrote poems like “Frost at Midnight” or “This Lime-tree Bower my Prison” – poems which, though well-written, are not at all sublime or powerful. I can’t really enjoy them as poems, because, well, they don’t strike me as poetic; I may sound like a philistine saying this, but they’re for the most part just prose descriptions of not that interesting events with line-breaks every ten syllables.

I don’t insist that poetry must rhyme or alliterate, but I do think it has to use words as if they were something magical, as if words had power, or else its words will not have power, the form of the poem will not matter as much as the content, and it will not be poetry. Perhaps that’s how I define poetry – as something written so that the way the words fit together is as important to the meaning as the literal meaning of the words.

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