To Look Out Upon the Sea

March 27, 2010

(I will now offer a string of analogies, without explanation or defense, and then a pair of allegories written by two men much more intelligent than I am.)




Or, –to change the metaphor,–there are immense quarries of fine marble; but how to get it out; how to chisel it; how to construct any temple? Youth must wholly quit, then, the quarry, for awhile; and not only go forth, and get tools to use in the quarry, but must go and thoroughly study architecture. Now the quarry-discoverer is long before the stone-cutter, and the stone-cutter is long before the temple; for the temple is the crown of the world.
— Herman Melville, from Pierre

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their bulding material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, from “The Monsters and the Critics”


What is the meaning of all of this?

Put simply, I want to expound a theory of the nature of abstract intellectual endeavors, the liberal arts, broadly speaking. Hence my beginning with the Trivium – logic, grammar, rhetoric.

In this model, there are three possible activities, each of which is necessary in its own way:

The quarry-finder. This is the philosopher, the metaphysician. He chooses what stone to use; thus, he examines the nature of the stone, determines what the stone is. He tries to bridge the gap between us and the transcendent, tries to understand the meaning of words like God, Man, Good, True, Beautiful, Purpose, Form.

The stone-cutter. This is the mathematician, the logician. He cuts the stone into the proper shape for the architect; thus, he examines how the stones fit together, fitting them together in a puzzle. He is interested solely in structure, not in content; he does not care what words mean, only how they fit together. But it is he who shows how to rhyme, how to alliterate, how to construct parallelisms; he does not know what they mean, but he makes them possible.

The architect. This is the author. He chooses what the temple or tower will be like; he guides its construction throughout, from the quarrying to the stone-cutting to the placement of the final brick. He does it all with his final purpose in mind: to ascend the tower and look out upon the sea. And yet the temple is not his alone; it is the crown of the world.


A final thought. I have been speaking all along as if the building were the work of art, as if the artist occupied some ontologically distinct position from the rest of mankind. I don’t believe this to be true. The work of art is not the tower; it is merely the blueprint offered to the world. Each of us must be all of these, quarry-finder, stone-cutter, and architect, each building our own towers, hoping that they can look out upon the sea (which is the Beatific Vision).



March 23, 2010

Earlier today, The Daily Kraken, a blog I’ve read for the last few years written by a grad student at the University of Ottawa, linked to Inklings, a blog written by a friend of mine from school (though, bizarrely, I first met her online through that blog, then later met her in person). Since I list both in my Blogroll (over there to the right), I suspect that I was the source of the connection, though I could be wrong. Anyway, I’m taking this opportunity to link to both of them and say, “read! They’re interesting!” And often talk about things similar to those discussed on this very blog.

Incidentally, I used the word “blog” or a derivative thereof five times in the above paragraph, and was struck once again (I’ve noticed this before) by how hideous it is, even considering it’s a neologism. Why can we not use “journal” or something? Sigh… (Which is a funny looking word, though a fun one.)

Book Review: Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

March 22, 2010

Today I finished reading Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (which I think is a great title, incidentally) for my class on Herman Melville. Now, Pierre, published 1852, was the first novel Melville wrote after Moby-Dick, published 1851. It was also his first book not set on the ocean, but rather on land. And it was a complete failure, resulting in harsh criticism and financial disaster. Melville wrote only one more traditional novel, Israel Potter, and then moved on to short stories, a “masque,” poetry, and the novella Billy Budd.

Given all of this, I did not go into Pierre was particularly high expectations. But, while (unsurprisingly) Pierre does not rival Moby-Dick – nothing can rival Moby-Dick – it is a truly fantastic book. Now, do not mistake me – it has serious flaws, including over-the-top writing, unbelievable characters, and ambiguous morality. Really, almost everything the critics complained about when it came out was present (Dr. Cowan read us some of the contemporary reviews in class, and they were quite accurate).

But they also completely missed the point. Pierre is a brilliant examination of the nature of the self,  subjectivity, love and the other; ethics, ethical pride, and the Titanic man; the artist, artistic isolation, and artistic genius; and God and the problem of evil. It both builds directly on Melville’s own treatment of these themes in Moby-Dick and moves in an entirely new direction due to the movement from land to sea and the absence of a first-person narrator.

Here, for example, is a great excerpt from a chapter discussing the face of a Transcendentalist philosopher who is majestic but “non-benevolent”:

Did I not say before that that face was something separate, and apart; a face by itself? Now, any thing which is thus a thing by itself never responds to any other thing. If to affirm, be to expand one’s isolated self; and if to deny, be to contract one’s isolated self; then to respond is a suspension of all isolation.

Is this not the phenomenological definition of “love” that Jean-Luc Marion talks about in his Prolegomena to Charity? And Melville wrote this in 1852.

Something else I find striking is how similar Pierre is in many ways to some of the novels of Dostoevsky. I suppose this ought not to be surprising; I knew a year ago that Moby-Dick and Crime and Punishment had many interesting parallels, and I’ve mentioned before how a key facet of the philosophies of both Melville and Dostoevsky is that, in Melville’s words, “it’s a mutual, joint-stock world,” or, as Dostoevsky would say, “each is responsible for all.” But I didn’t expect such a similarity in action and tone, as well as of philosophical thought:

  • Like that of Crime and Punishment, Pierre‘s central character attempts to be Titanic, a over-man, by transcending society and paradoxically becoming completely moral by transgressing conventional morality;
  • Like The Idiot, Pierre is a drawing-room novel revolving around an idealistic young man who attempts to marry in order to “save” a girl, rather than truly out of love;
  • Like Demons, it is partially a parody of the extremes of philosophic thought when devoid of love (Transcendentalists in Melville, nihilists in Dostoevsky) and the moral hollowness of the society that allows/forces these figures to emerge;
  • Like The Brothers Karamazov, it involves conflict over the memory of a father figure and the nature of guilt;
  • Finally, like any good Dostoevsky novel, Pierre ends with an act of extreme violence that is apparently the only way, in a book like this, to bring about the terrifying denouement.

Of course, their styles are quite different – Melville is more given to description and internal thoughts (multiple chapters involve various characters’ faces and Pierre’s internal reactions to them) while Dostoevsky uses pages and pages of conversation/monologue to delineate character. But, for two authors who could not possibly have read each other or even known about each other, these seem to me fascinating similarities. Perhaps they are a start towards an understanding of the modern Christian existentialist novel (existentialist here used broadly, meaning focused on the self, not the world or society). What other authors, I wonder, are as concerned with these questions as Melville and Dostoevsky? I ought to find them and read them.

Art and Sub-creation

March 16, 2010

Arts and Letters Daily (whose RSS feed is well worth subscribing to, incidentally) was better today than it usually is. It linked to two quite interesting articles. The first was “Addiction and Freedom,” which discusses (among other things) the strange substance dualism implicit in how people seem to equate showing that something is linked to a certain activity of the brain with showing that it cannot be a free choice.

The second was “Avatar and the Flight from Reality,” which used the movie Avatar as a springboard for an argument that true art is mimetic, and works such as Avatar that attempt to create an alternate reality that “alludes” to our own, rather than imitating it, are egocentric and not artistic. He argues that the Western tradition has always consisted of art that attempts to describe the world, and the modern fantasy and sci-fi genres are radical breaks from tradition, however traditionalist Tolkien and Lewis might have thought they were.

It’s an interesting thesis, though one I disagree with. Did Homer really believe in the gods he describes? (Perhaps – the article argues he did.) What about Shakespeare and “A Midnight Summer’s Dream” or “The Tempest”? Are those entirely mimetic?

But I think he does make a valid point when he says that the idea of creating entirely new worlds – rather than just modifications to our own – is relatively new, and indeed a break with tradition. There’s  a reason Tolkien insisted that Middle-Earth is not a fantasy world, it is Earth – because that means he’s writing (fictional) mythology/history, not creating his own entirely distinct world with no relation to our own. Of course, most sci-fi is set in Earth’s future, and fantasy often connects the created world to our own (e.g. Earth children can visit Narnia).

But sci-fi and fantasy do, at heart, promise new realities, one different from our own. Is this a bad thing? Is it as radical a break as the article suggests? I’m going to try to write something about these questions in the near future, but for now I won’t draw any definite conclusions. But I do advise people to read the article and think about it – it’s worth your time, even if you disagree, as I do, with its conclusions.

Book Review: Outcast of Redwall

March 11, 2010

Two years ago I re-read Martin the Warrior over Spring Break (and reviewed it here). Now, I have always considered Martin to be the best of the Redwall books, but I’ve often heard that Outcast of Redwall could be considered a rival to that title; thus, this year, I decided to spend some time over Spring Break re-reading Outcast (which I haven’t touched for at least six years, probably longer) in order to pass judgment on that claim.

Conclusion: Those making that claim were wrong. Martin the Warrior is far superior to Outcast of Redwall. Furthermore, I think I can see in Outcast the beginning of the end of the Redwall series; that is, I think the book contains hints that Brian Jacques, while writing it, had an authorial crisis; he chose, rather than to bring Redwall in a more mature direction, to continue just spinning fun yarns. And it was this that resulted in the recycling of plots and general lack of creativity in the later part of the series (which has now gone on for longer than the earlier part – Martin was #6, Outcast was #8, and now he’s up to #20).

The book begins by introducing several interesting characters. Sunflash is a fairly relatable badger lord, with his desire to be a peaceful intellectual, and Skarlath makes a nice addition – a bird character who is not completely one-dimensional (not that he’s all that complex). Swartt Sixclaw is one of the more competent villains, though I find it hard to believe that his repeated poisonings of his rivals would work. Nightshade also adds a nice touch of mystery, and she is fairly sympathetic, as villains go; she feels fated to follow her lord to the bitter end.

Unfortunately, Part II adds several rather unlikable characters, including the absurdly romantic/idealistic Bryony and the whiny titular character, Veil. Now, Veil is a morally complex character, but he’s not sympathetically morally complex; whenever he does something bad, the reader’s reaction is to condemn him and wish the author  would stop talking about him, rather than to feel sorry for him and wish he would stop doing bad things. I realize one of the supposed strengths of the book is its moral complexity (relative to the other Redwall books, at least), but I thought it could have been much more convincing.

Plot-wise, there was a nice dramatic unity to each of the two plot threads (the Sunflash-Swartt rivalry on the one hand, Bryony’s struggle for Veil’s soul on the other), though they had little overlap. I found the Sunflash-Swartt one consistently more interesting, and I really liked the use of Nightshade the Seer (the fox prophets in Redwall are always good characters, actually) and how it came full circle at the end, everything coming back to where it began. At times, though, particularly in the middle section, the book seemed somewhat rambling, and the jump forward in time wasn’t as smooth as it could have been (I still don’t see how it took maybe years for Swartt to travel a distance other characters cover in a few weeks).

There was also a strange tendency, which I don’t remember in any other Redwall books, of plot threads being built up for a confrontation but then anticlimactically ending in a few pages. Yes, even in the original Redwall we see Redtooth try to usurp Cluny’s authority and be swiftly eliminated, but the book has more than just a few red herrings. Before the time-jump, we have Bowfleg, Wildag, Krakulat, Shang Damsontongue, Balefur; each is a threat to Swartt’s power, each is instantly eliminated (and interestingly, leads directly to the next threat). After the jump, Zigu appears, has a bit of character development, and dies in battle to a minor hare character. Obviously nothing can interfere with the the Sunflash-Swartt confrontation – Nightshade did predict it would happen, after all.

The last red herring is The Wraith, whom Swartt hires to kill Sunflash. Of course, genre-savvy Redwall readers know by now that assassins never work; thus it is no surprise when he fails mid-mission. But his failure is spectacular – not only does he not kill Sunflash, he doesn’t kill anyone, instantly falling to his death on being hit with a pie in the face. And after the number of failed diversions already appearing in the book, I couldn’t help but notice the absurdity of it all. It began to feel like a deconstruction of Salamandastron, #5 in the Redwall canon.

Indeed, I think Jacques was, perhaps self-consciously but probably not, performing a deconstruction of previous Redwall stories; thus the moral complexity of the Bryony-Veil plot line (ill-executed as it was) made perfect sense. I got the impression while reading that Jacques was realizing some of the absurdities of his universe, with its species-based morality and predictable plot lines, and decided to explore them – what happens if a vermin is raised by Redwallers? Is he still evil? How inevitable is the final confrontation between Hero (Sunflash) and Villain (Swartt)?

But then… Jacques doesn’t do anything interesting with it. The Nightshade/prophecies aspect of the Sunflash-Swartt plot line vanishes after Nightshade’s death, leaving the status (fated or not?) of their rivalry not only unanswered, but unaddressed. I don’t mind leaving something unanswered, but I think authors have a duty to at least address the issue and suggest a resolution, even an imperfect one.

Then there’s the final resolution of the Bryony-Veil plot line. It really bothers me. Jacques, speaking through Bella the badger-mum, seems to say that all of the moral ambiguity we thought he had been discussing had been illusory, and in fact morality is black-and-white after all.

So Jacques begins to deconstruct his world – but then stops, goes back on what he’s said, and then writes a bunch more Redwall books – twelve (and counting). Did he decide the issues he’d brought up didn’t actually need addressing? Did he think he had addressed them? Did he not realize there were issues? I don’t quite know. But it definitely seems that Jacques began a deconstruction but never attempted a reconstruction.

The later entries in the series were never as good as the ones preceding Outcast, and I think this is why. Jacques kept writing what he had been writing, but he had realized some of the absurdities of it, on some level at least, and decided not to address them. Thus they moved from innocence to immaturity.

I realize this is a harsh criticism, and I don’t mean for it to be taken as entirely accurate. I overstate my case; the books were not perfect up until Outcast, Outcast is a decent book, and they were not uniformly abysmal following it. But I do think Outcast serves as a good turning point in the series towards the worse, and that the above is a good part of the reason why.


March 10, 2010

My professor for the class “Faulkner’s Vision,” a Cistercian monk named Fr. Robert Macguire, while talking about Vergil’s Aeneid (and don’t ask me why he was talking about Vergil in a Faulkner class), defined Aeneas’ virtue of “pietas,” i.e. “piety,” as “blood-duty-bondedness.” I interpret this to mean, roughly, that love of family and country that creates a bond based on the duty one has towards them.

What I think is interesting is that connection between “love” and “duty.” This showed up again while reading Jean-Luc Marion; he said, while discussing “The Intentionality of Love,” that to love another is to allow one’s “I” to become a “me”, to surrender oneself to objectivity. This entailed, he said, an accepting of ethical responsibility, of duty, towards the other that perceives the “me.”

I take this responsibility to mean that “love,” i.e. “charity,” is not a pure gift; rather, though the act of love is free, made without constraint, it involves acceptance of a situation (the subjectivity of the other) which entails an obligation. It is like the lover, in loving, realizes that he is constrained by shackles which he could throw off by simply not believing in them, has certain obligations which he could disregard, but which would be obligations nonetheless.

But the important point is this: if he does believe in them, they are no gift on his part. He cannot claim credit as benefactor for the charitable deeds he does; rather his acts of love are acts of piety, blood-duty-bondedness.

A strange result of this, I think, is that if the lover’s love is unrecognized, he cannot (without it ceasing to true love) point it out; to do so would be to say “look at me, I’m performing acts of charity!” He would, in doing so, claim that he deserves honor for his good deeds; but good deeds, the lover knows,  are obligatory.

It’s an interesting connection, I think, that between piety, love, and humility. No wonder that Dostoevsky’s catch-phrase in The Brothers Karamazov is that “each is responsible for all,” and Melville in Moby-Dick is always going on about how “it’s a mutual, joint-stock world.”

Arithmantic Poetics

March 7, 2010

I recently re-watched the Stanley Kubrick movie The Shining, and afterwards went to Wikipedia to find out what changes Kubrick had made to the Stephen King original. When I did so, I was struck by one change in particular: the number of the haunted room was 217 in the book and 237 in the movie.

Why would Kubrick bother to change this? What difference does it make either way? It doesn’t matter for the overall plot; but then, being true to the original number doesn’t either. It’s a throwaway detail, and thus should be selected to add to the texture of the whole. The room is haunted, and ought to fill the audience with a sense of dread; my theory is that Kubrick thought “237” sounded scarier than “217”.

Don’t laugh at the idea of numbers having a certain feel. I’ve already talked about how one- or two- digit numbers usually function as symbols for specific ideas. I believe three- or four- digit numbers function differently in art; while too indefinite to have specific symbolic meaning, they can convey vague associations of significance, thus giving the thing numbered a numinous quality.

How does this work? I believe we instinctively three- or four- digit numbers as sequences, and thus attempt to impose order on them by finding in them mathematical patterns. But simultaneously, they are too short to determine whether or not the patterns we find really hold. This seems to work best with increasing sequences; I suspect this is why Kubrick changed “217” to “237”. The former just feels like a basically random number, while the latter gives the impression of an increasing sequence, but we can’t quite place what it is (no interesting mathematical pattern that I know of begins 2-3-7). Thus it has resonances of the numinous.

There are, in fact, a lot of fun three- or four- digit patterns, and the best place to find them is on a digital clock. These are those times when, if I happen to glance at the clock during that minute, I get a vague feeling of significance that I know is false, but which I find sublime nonetheless. This can apply to the date as well; for example, I’m not sure why, but two days ago was March 5th, and though I know of nothing important that happened on 3-5, it nevertheless felt somehow meaningful. Perhaps it was because 3-15 is something (Ides of March) and 3-25 is something (Annunciation).

Finally, though it runs somewhat counter to the point of this post, I’ll list some times of day that are interesting because they follow identifiable patterns:

  • 11:23 (Fibonacci time)
  • 12:34 (arithmetic time)
  • 12:48 (geometric time)
  • 1:36 (triangular time)

And here are some that are meaningful through association with other numerical sequences, not through their own merit:

  • 12:25 (Christmas time)
  • 3:14 (Pi time)

%d bloggers like this: