2009 Reviewed in Words

December 29, 2009

(As opposed to not in words? they ask.)

It’s been an eventful year. And I’ve discovered a lot of new interesting concepts; or, perhaps, a better way to say it would be that I’ve learned a lot of new words that can be used to describe concepts that I already understood implicitly. Thus, I think, the best way to recap what I’ve learned over the last twelve months is to attempt to define, briefly, all of the words I’ve gained a new grasp of. (I’m going to proceed somewhat chronologically; basically, to write this post, I’m reading through all of the posts I’ve made so far this year.)

  • sublime – n. What is extreme, out of proportion to mankind, overwhelming. The sublime, though not itself divine, reminds us of God. An example of the sublime might be a vast mountain, or a storm at sea.
  • hue – n. The aspect of color captured by the rainbow, whose essence is variety without inherent moral meaning. Red, blue, green, etc, have different emotional flavors, but are in themselves neither good nor evil.
  • value – n. The aspect of color contained within the dichotomy of light and dark, and which carries a moral connotation, but has no aesthetic value.
  • empathize – v. To attempt to understand another person’s state of mind despite the impossibility of actually becoming them. That impossibility makes empathy impossible, and yet it remains necessary for human life. To empathize with another is to treat them as another subject, not merely an object.
  • sincerity – n. The virtue of presenting oneself as one is, rather than as one wishes to be perceived. Necessary if one is to be empathized with, or (since empathy must be reciprocal) to empathize with another.
  • induct – v. To move from a finite data set to a general conclusion. Life itself is inductive, for the universe is finite, and yet we attempt to find meaning in it that is not arbitrary, not finite, divine. Language is also inductive; we will only experience the hearing or reading of a given word a finite number of times, yet we can extrapolate a meaning from it beyond the mere amalgamation of those experiences.
  • deduct – v. To apply general laws to specific cases and thus arrive at a conclusion. To act in the world, we must use deduction, and yet we cannot deduct without general laws, which we get from induction; the two are thus inextricably linked.
  • faerie – n. The sense of mystery we feel when we encounter nature as separate from the self and from society, impossible to understand, and yet intended by God. Tied to a feeling of strangeness, of the foreign, the “other.”
  • numinous – adj. Suggestive of the power or presence of a divinity, and of final causality; the “why” rather than the “how.” Different from “fey” in that the numinous is generally spiritual, whereas the fey is necessarily physical, and related specifically to nature.
  • spell – v. To entrance, draw in, convey a meaning. What a poem does to us when we read it: through its language, rhyme, wordplay, it impresses on us an emotional state we perhaps would never have experienced otherwise.

These ten words, as you may have noticed, are interrelated; there are perhaps three or four themes running through all of them. But I don’t want to try to define what those themes are; I’ll let the words speak for themselves.

(Incidentally, this post may end up as a precursor to a new page to go along the top: “Turin’s Dictionary,” consisting of the above plus any other words crucial to my understanding of the world.)

Metaphorical Board Games

December 27, 2009

My younger brother got a backgammon set for Christmas; the nature of the game provoked in me some questions which I will not convey, regarding the nature of traditional board games. Specifically, what is the action of the game a metaphor for? What I mean is, since each game is a microcosm, we must ask, what is the movement of the pieces, the goals of the different sides, etc, supposed to represent in terms of the real world? What follows is an exploration of this question with regards to various different board games:

  • Draughts (a class of games of which American checkers is a specific type) is one of the simplest of the well-known traditional board games. Its metaphor is clear and uncomplicated: two sides are fighting each other, your goal, as the leader of one side, is to kill all the soldiers of the other side. Most of the other rules have to do with making the game playable, and do not develop the game’s metaphor. A possible exception is the rule for getting a king when a piece gets to the opponent’s side; this seems to represent how experienced soldiers are more powerful. These games are among the oldest known board games, originating before 3000 BC in Sumeria, and mentioned in Homer; men have always fought each other in war.
  • Then there’s chess. The game is similar in many ways to checkers – indeed, it’s played on the same type of board – but it adds differentiation between the pieces. The battle here is not between two crowds of people, but between armies, with footsoldiers (pawns), well-equipped warriors (knights, bishops, rooks), and a queen and king. The king also adds an interesting dimension to the metaphor; the player is no longer a vague presence directing his army, he is physically present on the board; the king is the player. So the game doesn’t end with the destruction of the entire army; it ends when the king is captured. As one would expect, since it involves combat between complex armies with specialized tasks, chess is a significantly newer game than draughts, originating in India in the 6th century AD, and making its way to Europe by the 10th.
  • Another interesting group of board game in this general theme is the Tafl games. There are different because they are between uneven forces, and while one player’s goal is to kill the opponent’s king, the other’s is to have his king escape. The metaphor seems to be that a king and his loyal bodyguards are surrounded on the battlefield, and the guards must sacrifice themselves in order to help the king escape from the opposing army. It seems fitting that these games are Scandinavian in origin, since the lord-thane relationship is of such importance in those cultures.
  • Another board game that I’ve played very little of, but which is one of the most popular in the world, is Go. The metaphor here, as I understand it, is of controlling territory; the individual pieces do not matter as much as the land they are on, and the goal is to be the one with the most board space at the end. And again, I find that this seems somehow appropriate for its origins; it is an East Asian game, originating around 400 BC in China (though legend traces is back to 3000 BC). Oriental society has always seemed to me more interested in the societal group than in the individual, as opposed to Western civilization; thus Go fits them quite well.
  • The Tables family of games (of which backgammon is a member) is the final game I’m going to talk about. These all involve moving around a board past the opponent and trying to be the first to get all your pieces to the finish; the metaphor, then, might be one of racing. But this doesn’t make all that much sense. Neither does war, though; in what kind of war is the goal not to kill the opponent, but to send them back home? It might have something to do with merchants and trade, but I really haven’t figured it out. Backgammon is one game whose metaphor I can’t unravel – perhaps because it seems to mix them. I do know it is one of the oldest board games, being dated to before 3000 BC; perhaps, then, whatever the story was intended to be, it has been lost.

James Cameron’s Avatar?

December 24, 2009

No, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t decided if I will or not.

But I have read a LOT of reviews of it – they’re everywhere, it seems. And pretty much everything I’ve read takes the approach of, “the plot’s mediocre, the characters are mediocre, whatever, but OMG TEH SPECIAL EFFEKTZ!” So it would be beautiful to see, I suppose. So?

Then today I ran across this op-ed piece in the NYT. It’s about pantheism in pop culture. Interesting stuff. There definitely is a current of pantheism running through movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, etc.

What I wonder, though, is exactly how misplaced that pantheism is. There’s a great line from Chesterton about pantheism:

For the obstinate reminder continued to occur: only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister.

My question is, if Nature is our sister, does that really mean the pantheistic impulse is entirely flawed? I am wary of pantheism, but I am also wary of what I would call gnosticism – the rejection of the physical world entirely, saying that Nature is not only not our mother, she is not our sister either, she is rather our slave. If some Christians tend towards the former, some also tend towards the latter. But to be good Christians, we can do neither.

That’s why I don’t have a problem with movies like The Lion King – it is only about nature, not mankind, so it is not really pantheistic; it just provides an incomplete view of the world. Whereas with the Force in Star Wars, and other such belief systems, we find real pantheism. It is the latter that is dangerous, I think, not the former.

Anyway, has anyone seen Avatar? Does anyone think it’s worth seeing for reasons other than teh special effektz?

So Weit Wie Noch Nie

December 22, 2009

I recently came across the song “So Weit Wie Noch Nie” by Jürgen Paape. Here are the lyrics, and my translation of them into English:

Wir hören ein Singen im Raum
Singen im Raum
Singen im Raum
Wir jagen die Monotonie

Wir machen aus Stunden ein Jahr
und Mondschein aus unserem Haar
Wir fliegen so weit wie noch nie


We hear a singing in the room
Singing in the room
Singing in the room
We hunt the monotony

We make out of the hours a year
And moonshine out of our hair
We fly higher than ever before.

What’s fascinating about this song, I think, is the sense of joyous fatalism that it captures. Some friends of mine who heard it said it reminds them of someone intentionally driving a car off a cliff, or maybe into a wall. These were people who don’t know German, but it fits with the lyrics; “we hunt the monotony,” and “we fly higher than ever before.” I used it as background music in a film for German class to impart a similar tone – that the characters’ actions are pointless, but that the pointlessness doesn’t matter, and is even perhaps beautiful.

It’s an interesting aesthetic, one of resignation, of recognizing and accepting the transience of human life.

I’ll Just Have Water

December 17, 2009

I went out to dinner with an assortment of people earlier tonight (there were 5 of us total), and noticed something I have noticed often before:

The waiter comes up to the table and asks the person to his immediate left, “what do you want to drink?” She replies, “Oh, I’ll just have water.” The person to her immediate left says the same. Then the next person orders an iced tea – and the two remaining people (I was last) both get cokes. Neither of them get water.

What’s notable here is how often it goes like this – the first person asked almost always gets water, and then either it goes around the entire table with everyone getting water, or someone will get something else and then everyone left feels free to get whatever they want. Rarely will the first person not get water, and rarely will anyone get water after someone has “dared” to not get water.

What’s the explanation for this? I don’t know exactly, but my guess is it has to do with people not wanting to look profligate or poor, and not wanting to force other people to do so either. Buying a coke in a restaurant costs two or three dollars, which is just enough to not be a completely insignificant amount of money. Thus if the first person gets a water, it’s “OK” for the next person to do so as well, and so on, and once someone gets a coke, everyone else has the choice presented to them and usually chooses to get a coke, since, after all, it tastes better. But if the first person got coke, no one could get water without looking cheap, which is no good.


December 15, 2009

I apologize for lack of significant posts in the past few weeks. I’ve been quite busy/lazy. But finals end tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll have vast swaths of free time over the next month to read, write, blog, and not talk to people. It’ll be great.

I am thus trying to put together my reading list for Christmas break. Right now it consists of:

  • (finish reading) The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Seascape, Soulscape by Eugene Curtsinger (a book of literary criticism about Moby-Dick by a recently-deceased professor of literature at UD)
  • The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
  • Light in August by William Faulkner

Anyone have any more suggestions? I won’t promise I’ll get to them, of course, since these few may very well get me through the break, depending on how quickly I read.

Also, I figure I’ll announce the classes I’m taking next semester, given they’ve actually already shown up in this post:

  • Early Modern Literature
  • Special Topics: Moby-Dick
  • Faulkner’s Vision (hence Light in August, or whichever other Faulkner book I decide to pick up)
  • Analyis II
  • Intermediate German II

Feast Days

December 8, 2009

It is once again the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which celebrates Mary’s (not Christ’s!) conception, which was without original sin even though she came before Christ’s crucifixion redeemed humanity.

The trans-temporality of this occurance fascinates me. It suggests to me that something else I would like to say is possible; that original sin itself is in some ways trans-temporal, retroactive so to speak. That would allow us to retain a temporal fall while explaining how the world was fallen (and I don’t buy the argument that it wasn’t fallen – sabre-toothed tigers killed and ate wooly mammoths) when it ought to have been prelapsarian.

But asserting a retroactive fall might be going too far. I’m not sure, really. Anyway, it’s three in the morning, and I need to write a paper. Happy feast day everybody.

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