Faerie as Other

November 30, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently, for assorted reasons, about what I don’t like about Dostoevsky as an author. In doing so, I think, I have come up with a good explanation of what the word “faerie” means. So here goes my attempt to explain it.

One of my problems with Dostoevsky is how he completely ignores the physical world. Yes, he has characters interact with the world, the two main ways being that people have different amounts of money and people get diseases. But their interactions with the world are always anthropocentric; the world has no value in and of itself, as something inhuman. A Dostoesvky book consists almost entirely of people sitting around having conversations with one another. They don’t go out and interact with the world.

Contrast this with a few of my favorite authors – Herman Melville, G.M. Hopkins, J.R.R. Tolkien. They are very different in style and content, but one commonality is that all of them treat the physical world in and of itself as something interesting. So what is interesting about the physical world, and why ought authors to care about it?

I’m going to shift radically for a moment here and talk about people. There is one way to look at the world that separates the “I” from all others; the “I” is the subject, the perceiver, while everyone else is from this view just an object in the world. This way of looking at things doens’t allow us to recognize other people at all; it just allows us to recognize external things.

Another way of seeing people is socially; “obviously” we are all people, we can talk to each other, interact with each other morally, etc. All good so far, right?

But then there’s the physical world, nature – the thing that is part of the “object” of the subject-object way of looking at the world, but is not part of the “society” in the societal way of looking at the world. It is other – neither way we look at the world allows us to consider it similar to the “I”. But it still exists, and is important – God created the heavens and the earth before he created mankind.

It is this otherness, combined with it being created by God, and thus for a purpose, that is captured in the idea of faerie. We men cannot fully understand nature, individually or collectively, but it exists, and was made by God for a reason, though we cannot grasp the reason or even the nature of its existence.

So in this view of faerie, the idea of Elves, of a race separate from us and natural but also somehow rational, is fey because it echoes this separateness; the other race is like us, but somehow not us, and usually more natural-seeming than we are; Tolkien’s Elves do not have the same gap as is between man and nature. Magic itself is fey because it is physical – it is not a direct emanation from God – but it is incomprehensible; it emphasizes the otherness of nature, even as the wielder controls nature.

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Mental Types

November 24, 2009

Yesterday afternoon/evening I was hanging out with a few friends and we had a really long conversation (~5 hours) about philosophy, theology, literature, psychology… just about everything, really. It was one of the more productive such sessions I’ve had in a while, in terms of bringing together disparate ideas and synthesizing them, as well as coming up with new ways of looking at things; one of the easiest to explain results (though not at all the most important) was this idea of “mental types.”

The basic idea is, there are certain great writers (philosophers, writers of fiction, poets, etc) with whom each individual identifies more than other. So it is an interesting exercise for a person to identify them and then draw what conclusions may be drawn from that list about himself.

This approach has its dangers, of course. We don’t want to say person X is better than person Y for thinking in a certain way, but also, we don’t want to become relativists, saying all ways of looking at the world are equally valid. But, I think, if we realize this danger we have a good chance of avoiding it.

So what writers do I most identify with?

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, obviously, though perhaps less so than a few years ago.
  • Herman Melville, whose philosophy I disagree with in many ways but whose approach to the world feels very similar to mine.
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry resonates with me in a way few others’ does.
  • Thomas Aquinas, whose dry, Q/A approach to theology I recognize as flawed, but whose systematic nature is very similar to my own.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I have not read much of but who I feel like I understand more than really any other modern philosopher.

What do these people have in common? I have a few theories:

  • They are interested in the self, and how the self relates to the world. Melville’s Moby-Dick is about, among many other things, how man attributes his own symbols and meaning to the world at large, and attempts to make himself omniscient and omnipotent; Hopkins’ most important poems all deal with both the self taking in all of creation and the self isolated, cut off from nature; and Aquinas and Wittgenstein, given their fields of study, are almost forced to address this question.
  • They are interested in the world itself, and do not approach the world purely phenomenologically; they give the world an independent existence, which they examine as interesting in its own right. Tolkien created an entire mythology; Melville spends pages upon pages in Moby-Dick describing whale skeletons and the history of whaling; Hopkins tried to understand the inscape of things by examining them until he almost became them; and Aquinas followed Aristotle in categorizing all of nature.
  • They have a  real sense of the divine in nature; as my German teacher told us  the Romantics said, “Natur ist sichtbare Geist, Geist ist unsichtbare Natur.” Tolkien has the concept of faerie, Melville has the Whale as a symbol for God; Hopkins’ entire worldview was based around the idea of sacramentality, and similarly for Aquinas; and Wittgenstein’s one statement about prayer, as I recall, involved a man walking in the woods pounding his walking stick.
  • They are fascinated by language, and the power of words, rather than passively using language without examining its nature. Tolkien was a linguist; Hopkins made up his own words and cared immensely about how words could carry meaning; and Wittgenstein said that “there is an entire mythology stored within our language.”

There are also a few writers who, although clearly great, I do not really identify with. The two most important, I think, are

  • Plato. Why? Because, I suppose, he is too much an idealist for me; he refuses to deal with the world. He skips straight to the isolated self.
  • And Dostoevsky. Why? Because he also refuses to take on the world, dealing only with people and God; his books are about morality and inter-personal relationships, but never about the larger world.

Well then. What does this tell us? If there is any conclusion to be drawn from it, it is that I am a realist; I refuse to allow people to ignore the world, and I identify most with writers who have the same preoccupation with the world itself, rather than ideas.


Life as Inductive

November 20, 2009

It’s strange how quickly we can form habits. For example, there is a certain apartment in the student apartment complex on campus that I have visited around 50 times this semester; 50 is not that large a number, yet whenever I’m in the vicinity I instinctively gravitate towards it. And I can even still feel the tug of the apartments and dorm rooms I often visited last semester, even though I don’t even know the people who live there now.

These sorts of habits are good evidence, I think, for my idea that life is inductive. What do I mean by that, exactly? It’s hard to explain, but basically, I mean that the mysterious process of sensory experience being translated into thought is one not of distillation, but of induction. We do not just boil down the complexity of everything we see into something manageable; rather, we take a finite set of data and extrapolate general laws that will explain that finite data set.

Look at language. I have read or heard any given word a finite number of times. The data set of the contexts in which I have heard the sound of the word or seen the sight of it is finite. Yet what I understand the word to mean, while based on those experiences, is not reducible to them; moreover, I could show those experiences to someone else who had never heard this particular word before and they might well achieve a different understanding of the word. I take this to mean that my understanding of the word is infinite – unable to be captured within a purely finite universe.

This inductive power, I think, is essentially what we mean when we say that humans are “rational animals,” and say that it is this rationality that makes us spiritual as well as physical. If our ability to conceptualize involves moving from the finite to the infinite, it means we transcend the physical universe through our reason.

Incidentally, I suspect that what I’ve written above is essentially what Thomas Aquinas was getting at with his own discussion of reason as necessarily immaterial. But since language is an attempt to communicate thoughts, which are infinite, through the physical world, which is finite, reading the words on the page is not enough; we still have to move from them to the infinite thought Aquinas meant to communicate. And often we can only do this through a process that superficially resembles mere rephrasing of what we have read.


Personal Narratives

November 12, 2009

The blog Findings, written by a fellow former Wesnothian, had a post today about narrative which ties in nicely with something I’ve been thinking about myself: perhaps, just as that post implies that we are each trying to write our own narratives, we could say that the world is a grand story composed of the multitude of personal narratives we are all crafting, and which cannot be reduced to a simpler form, and it is impossible to understand the world entirely, because we can never fully understand another person…

Of course, this isn’t a fully thought out idea, but I want to post that link before I forget about it. Perhaps I’ll come back to this when I have a fuller description of what I mean. Incidentally, this is a thought I had after reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; if I end up able to draw a coherent concept out of this mess, I’ll have to revise my opinion of that book upwards.


Lyric and Emotional Sincerity

November 12, 2009

Everyone, I hope it can be safely assumed, has strong, deeply felt emotions that they occasionally feel an intense desire to share with someone else. They can be feelings of love, hope, anger, despair; which exactly doesn’t really matter. But they must be overpowering. They have to make you want to announce to the world, “I love ___!” or “I believe in God!” or “I have been wronged!” or “I feel so alone!”

The thing about emotions like this is: usually, you can’t tell anyone about them. Unless you’re amazingly good friends with someone, going up to him and saying “I feel so alone” will just result in a moment of extreme awkwardness. This is where poetry comes in.

Poetry (among many other things it does) takes those emotions and captures them in language that by will make the reader feel those emotions, rather than just intellectually realize that the writer felt them at one point. Take an example from the life of (you guessed it) Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1884, he wrote in a letter to his friend Robert Bridges “WHAT DOES ANYTHING AT ALL MATTER?”. So: what is the reaction of the reader to this? Perhaps pity that someone could be so distressed at life, but probably no more than that.

But look at a one of the “Sonnets of Desolation” that he wrote around that time. I’ll pick “No worst”, as that’s one of my favorites.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

For me at least, these lines do not just convey the idea that Hopkins felt great despair at this point in his life; they force my entire consciousness to, for a few moments, try to take on the emotion that Hopkins felt when he wrote them. The last two lines, especially, echo powerfully in my mind; they express the emotion, one that I have had myself occasionally, better than I ever could.

That brings me to something that I find somewhat odd about poetry, and which I haven’t really formulated an opinion on yet. Namely, the emotional power of the poem is based on how well-written the poem is. More broadly, we demand that what a person says be well-crafted before we will believe what they say. Or perhaps “believe” is the wrong word – “care”, maybe. We don’t care about other people unless they can express their feelings in powerful poetic language. Does this not strike anyone else as odd?


Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov

November 8, 2009

So, this last week and a half (starting basically when I no longer had to do a bunch of work for Junior Poet) I sat down and read The Brothers Karamazov.

Verdict: It’s amazing, but I just don’t get it.

That is all.


Dies Irae

November 3, 2009

Today I went to an All Souls Day Requiem mass. In an interesting coincidence, that mass opens with the Latin hymn “Dies Irae,” and my “exemplary poem” for Junior Poet, “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” draws its title from the hymn’s opening stanza: “Dies iræ! dies illa / Solvet sæclum in favilla / Teste David cum Sibylla!” Thus, I will endeavor to give a reading of it now, while the coincidence is still interesting.

The poem itself, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (full text here), is a fascinating look at three of the four last things: death, judgement, and hell. One of Hopkin’s darkest poems, it does not speak about heaven; the reasons given for this vary, among them that it is a pre-Christian poem in content, that it stemmed from an Ignatian meditation on hell, and that logically it ends by rejecting poetry while it is meant to aesthetically, through the music of the words, redeem poetry.

In any case, whatever caused Hopkins to write the poem, its substance is him confronting the fact that all life boils down to a choice between good and evil. The octave presents the world disintegrating, the image being one of the sun setting, the stars rising, and, while in the heavens the stars are fixed, stable, below on earth, everything succumbs to entropy. Here we find such great lines as “womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night” and “her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height / Waste”; these descriptions blend the distinction between symbol and what is symbolized, and we feel that the nightfall is the Apocalypse.

In the sestet Hopkins turns inward, seeing that now that the world has ended, the dappled and pied beauty of things is irrelevant. It begins with the cryptic but evocative line “Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,” going on to explain the threat implied there as one of morality: now that the world has come to an end, the only distinction that matters is “black, white; ‘ right, wrong.” Aesthetics no longer matter, Hopkins fears; even as he strives to assent to it. In a sense the poem is about poetry, and whether it is worthwhile to write beautiful poetry about the beauty of the world; Hopkins concludes that it is not, unless that beauty serves a moral purpose.

But of course that is what all of Hopkins’ poems are about – his nature sonnets all begin with observing the natural world and move up to God. Some people think “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” is somehow atypical of Hopkins; on the contrary, it perhaps best encapsulates his concerns: nature, the self, sin, and God. It is written in the Baroque style of earlier poems like “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “The Windhover,” which he returned to with e.g. “That Nature is a Heraclitan Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection” (these four poems I would say are Hopkins’ most important), but its darkness ties it in to his later sonnets of desolation, which are written in a more plain style.

What I’ve left out so far from my explanation of the poem are the last two lines – and indeed, those who want to place the poem as an extremity, not an example, of Hopkins’ poetry look to those two lines to make their argument. They’re difficult lines; they’re also what first turned me on to the poem, as I at first grew frustrated with Hopkins for not making any sense and then slowly realized the brilliance of them. They describe the damned souls after the Last Judgment, and their difficult rhythm – it is almost painful to put the stresses where they are marked, rather than where they would naturally fall – makes them sound like a drumbeat out of Hell. They’re not unmusical; it’s just a terrifying sort of music. Nor is it hopeless terror; the poem is a prophecy and a warning. “Teste David cum sibylla.”

So that’s my exemplary poem. With any luck, I’ve convinced you at least that the poem is worth looking at. It’s really amazing, in sound and sense (Hopkins is a master of combining form and content). I get to do a practice presentation of it tomorrow morning, then my panel’s Friday the 13th; I hope writing this out in the last half hour will actually help me with those (and the paper we have to write in a month) rather than prove a hindrance. We’ll see.


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