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.


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.


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.”

Book Review: Prolegomena to Charity

March 4, 2010

I was recently talking with a friend of mine (a philosophy major) about the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. Apparently he has been called the first post-modern Catholic theologian. I was intrigued, and so went to the library and checked out his Prolegomena to Charity, a collection of seven essays approaching love from a phenomenological perspective.

The book is a strange mix of philosophy, psychology, and theology – a result, I think, of Marion’s phenomenological bent – and occasionally delves into esoterica that I don’t have enough background to understand. But for the most part, it is reasonably comprehensible. He tends not to make formal arguments, but rather to sketch an outline of a particular phenomenon and then examine its implications. Thus when I disagreed that the experience described was one common to humanity, his analysis of it was uncompelling, but when I recognized truth in his portrayal, I found his elucidation of it intriguing and often quite insightful. Since I agreed far more often than I disagreed, I learned a great deal from the book; in fact, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the questions it addresses. It has seven sections, each of which can stand on its own, though they also work together as a whole. Here are my attempts to summarize each section, hampered by my inexperience in reading phenomenological philosophy and the fact that I already returned the book to the library:

  1. Evil in Person: Marion argues that “evil” is the logic of revenge, and Satan the voice that prompts us to seek vengeance for wrongs done to us. If we even accept the idea of revenge as normative, evil acts as a counterfeit bill we have been given in payment; it doesn’t matter whether we seek revenge or absorb the insult, we lose either way.
  2. The Freedom to be Free: Marion says that we cannot prove our own freedom, but it is in fact this uncertainty that allows us to be free; we become free by choosing to be free despite our inability to know we are acting freely.
  3. Evidence and Bedazzlement: Examining the purpose of apologetics, Marion argues that the goal is not to provide a line of reasoning that leads inexorably to Christianity – for such a line would be a chain, dragging its victim into belief and denying him free will and thus personhood. Rather, apologetics should elucidate the choice that Christianity proposes, a division that boils down to an acceptance or rejection of love.
  4. The Intentionality of Love: In the longest and most involved chapter, Marion proposes a definition of love as the willing of the other’s existence. When looking at the other and trying to love her (Marion consistently uses the feminine “her” to refer to the other, and the chapter throughout describes love in romantic terms, though he means it to apply to all forms of Christian love), an unseen mirror descends between us, and I begin to love my own reflection rather than the other for her own sake. To escape this, I must allow the “I” to become “me,” to be an object perceived by her subjectivity, while simultaneously perceiving her; this situation is impossible, but the attempt, symbolized by two lovers’ gazing into each others’ eyes, results in two subjects trying to perceive each others’ subjectivity and in the process creating, where their visions cross, an experience, love, which only they can perceive. At least that’s a vague approximation of what he describes. There’s also a lot of complicated phenomenological language I don’t quite understand.
  5. The Crucial Crisis: There is a crisis (a crossroads) in our lives, Marion says, because we do not know where the crisis is, do not know what our choice is between. Christ solves this by refusing to judge, and forcing us to judge him; in doing so, we judge ourselves, and make our choice in the moment of death. Or something like that. This chapter confused me, and served primarily to reinforce Marion’s love of paradox and the importance of free will and choosing to choose.
  6. The Gift of a Presence: In the most explicitly Christian and biblical of the sections, Marion provides an exegesis of Christ’s Ascension. Christ removed himself to heaven in the act of blessing us; the creation of distance between Christ and us is thus itself the blessing, as it allows us to enter alongside Christ into the Trinitarian circle of love.
  7. What Love Knows: Marion examines the objection that when we love, we cannot know the object of our love, and responds that in fact love offers a form of knowledge, a grasp of the haecceitas of the other. Through love, we grant the other her being and allow ourselves to become a “me” to her “I”; in doing so, we know her. This article seemed, to me at least, in many ways a recapitulation of chapter 4 in particular, though with some new insights.

All of these are really quite worth reading. But what struck me while reading was how literary Marion’s imagination is – he philosophizes in terms of metaphors, with his “counterfeit bill,” “unseen mirror,” and “crossing gazes.” I get the feeling that what he is doing could be better accomplished in literature – and, in fact, much of it I have already seen in what I’ve been reading recently – Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Hopkins, Melville, even Shakespeare – all considerably older than Jean-Luc Marion or even phenomenology proper.

I’m not sure what to make of this. My inclination is to say that what Marion is doing is trying to translate literary truths into philosophical language – a perhaps not worthless attempt, but one I think necessarily subordinate to the literature itself. It is less philosophy than literary criticism – it elucidates the truth found in literature, but should be read as a supplement to literature, rather than a replacement for it.

But don’t take that as a reason not to read the book. It’s really great stuff, well worth the time spent trying to understand it. Honestly, I don’t understand why Marion isn’t discussed more often.

The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure

January 27, 2010

Ferdinand de Saussure was a brilliant Swiss linguist from the early 20th century. The Magnetic Fields are a synth-pop/indie-pop/I-don’t-understand-pop-genres band who specialize in ironic and depressing songs sung, if it makes sense to say it, in a dead-pan manner. One of these has written a song about the other; I’ll let you guess which way it went.

Recently “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” (youtube link) has become one of my favorite songs, both for its catchy tune and (primarily) for its extremely clever lyrics (line numbers added in brackets to facilitate discussion later):

I met Ferdinand de Saussure
On a night like this
On love he said “I’m not so sure
I even know what it is
No understanding, no closure [5]
It is a nemesis
You can’t use a bulldozer
To study orchids”

He said…
So we don’t know anything [10]
You don’t know anything
I don’t know anything
about love
But we are nothing
You are nothing [15]
I am nothing
Without love

I’m just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure [20]
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying “it’s well and kosher
to say you don’t understand
but this is for Holland-Dozier-
Holland” [25]

[chorus 2x]

First of all, let’s look at some of the rhymes he chooses. For example, between lines 1 and 3. See what he did there – rhyme “Saussure” with “so sure”? They’re pronounced the same, but they’re different words, spelled differently. He does something similar in lines 18 and 20, between “composer” and “composure” – in the same location in the stanza as the first time. I doubt it’s coincidental, particularly since it’s a fitting thing to do in a song about Saussure, whose linguist theory said difference between phonemes is how we decipher meaning. It also seems related to Derrida’s “differance“.

Anyway, this stanza is about how Saussure doesn’t know what love is. Why? Because “You can’t use a bulldozer / To study orchids.” This is maybe my favorite two lines in the song. The implication seems to be that Saussure is a linguist who approaches language scientifically, and love is something unscientific. But I think something a bit more complicated might be going on here. It’s about having a structure, a framework, versus having content. (Incidentally, structure v. content may be makings its way to my Dictionary soon; it’s related to deduction/induction, though.)

See, the problem is “No understanding, no closure” – he can’t diagram love and finish the diagram, close it, because love is not found in the structure of the mind, it is in the content of the mind. The bulldozer/orchid metaphor isn’t just about destroying something beautiful with an ill-fitted tool, though it is that; it’s also about the building of a structure (bulldozers are used for construction, even if they do knock things down) being unable to explain something non-structural. This fits again with Saussure’s linguistic theory, which looks only at the structure of language, not the content.

After this the chorus sets up the opposition of the song: Saussure says “we don’t know anything … about love,” but the narrator insists “we are nothing … without love.” The repetition here (“we don’t… I don’t… you don’t…” and “we are… I am… you are…”) I find interesting; it brackets off the fact that this is “about love,” “without love”, making us consider the statement first generally, then about love specifically. Saussure wouldn’t just say that we don’t know anything about love; the same applies to beauty, truth, God, other people. In his structuralist system, we can’t say anything or know anything about these things, the things that really matter; we only know about how they interact with each other, nothing about their content.

But it is this claim about love, specifically, that the narrator objects to. Why? The second stanza addresses this: the narrator is “a great composer,” a song-writer. And it’s “all well and kosher / to say you don’t understand,” but Saussure must die – why? Because he says more than “I don’t understand.” He says “we can’t know anything.” He moves from saying his system can’t make sense of something to saying that the thing cannot be known. Does the narrator believe it can be known? Or only that we cannot be so quick to dismiss the possibility?

Now, that reference to “Holland-Dozier-Holland.” I had to look it up, but that’s the name of the song-writing and production team behind a lot of Mo-Town songs – songs with names like “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” etc. Songs that don’t consider love philosophically, but rather presume love is important and just sing about some particular love, in terms of love as an emotion. It is for these that the narrator shoots Ferdinand de Saussure. He shoots, apparently, because that approach, that assumption of love, cannot coexist with Saussure’s claims.

But is it because they are right and Saussure is wrong? Or because the narrator wants to preserve their innocence (really naivete) from the harsh truth Saussure revealed? I don’t know if the song answers that explicitly. In support of the second theory, the narrator says “we are nothing … without love”: so the narrator acted to stop us from becoming nothing, as would have happened if Saussure succeeded in destroying love. Also, the love of Holland-Dozier-Holland songs is hardly deep spiritual love – it’s little more than glorified lust – so it would seem odd for the narrator to consider that the truth of love that needs protecting. In this interpretation the song has a somewhat nihilistic bent.

But on the other hand, the narrator is a song-writer himself – and he writes about love. I find it hard to believe a man could do that if he believed love was not real, as he would have to, under the first interpretation. So either the song is even more nihilistic than we had thought, or the narrator still believes in love, and did not allow Saussure to claim that love cannot be known because he believes he can know love, through music, through art.

Then why did he not say what love is, in response to Saussure’s doubt? Because he does not know himself. In this interpretation, the singer is, albeit with respect to love rather than God, a kind of Christian nihilist, a la Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. He does not know what love is, but, taking a leap of faith, he believes that knowledge is possible, and that love itself is possible. But it cannot be understood through philosophy, through reason, through Saussure’s methods; rather, it can be known only through art.

Of course, the song-writer for the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt, is gay and was raised Buddhist, so any Christian undertones are likely unintentional. But the nihilistic slant is there, as is the conflict over having faith in something not understood.

PS: This post is 1157 words long, and has 11 tags – probably a new record. But they’re all relevant, so I can’t remove any!

Difference and Indifference

October 15, 2009

I’ve become aware of an interesting phenomenon over the past month or so regarding the reading of argumentative non-fiction. It’s probably because of the JPo project, in which we read a bunch of literary criticism about our focal poet, but I’ve experienced it regarding other subjects as well, including philosophy and politics.

What I’m talking about without naming is essentially an experience that I’ve had multiple times, in different forms: I read a book. I disagree with the argument of the book, and “officially” declare that to be my response to the book. I go about my life. Days, weeks, or months later, I encounter something related in some way to the argument the book made. I then approach the new situation in the light of the book I previously read, whether explicitly or implicitly, and treat it as providing me a unique insight into the new situation, regardless of the fact that I completely disagree with the book when I originally read it.

I have a theory as to why this happens. Essentially, I think, when I read something, I’ve invested several hours, perhaps days, into reading and thinking about what it is I’ve read; that time spent has created an emotional bond with the material. I may disagree with what it says, but I disagree with it; I don’t just vaguely not like that way of approaching the subject, I have grappled with a particular person’s argument and formed an emotional bond with it – perhaps negative, but still, an emotional.

After writing that last sentence, it occured to me that this seems related to something I’ve written before, I don’t remember where, about interpersonal relationships. To dislike someone is still to have an emotional connection to someone. To actively dislike someone – rather than simply ignoring them – is to have a closer bond with someone than to just vaguely not mind their being around.

Also, I think, a strong enmity is more likely to turn into a strong friendship than into nothing at all; and, in fact, I think it is more likely to turn into a strong friendship than is a weak friendship, by which I mean one where the two people are not good friends not because they don’t know each other well, but because they just don’t particularly like each other, even if they don’t particularly dislike each other. The former case, after all, is just one of changing the type of emotion felt; the latter is one of changing the intensity of emotion, a more difficult proposition.

The Paradox of Martyrdom

June 8, 2009

The concept of martyrdom is, on its surface, a simple one. A martyr is someone who is willing to die for their faith; martyrs are generally considered to be saints – meaning they go to heaven – and deserving of a special respect, since they were willing to die for their faith.

But the motives for martyrdom become confused. A martyr is someone who is willing to die for their faith – someone who is willing to endure something bad, death, because their faith is so strong. But martyrdom itself is considered good, and martyrs are rewarded with a special place in Heaven, and so quickly you have many people who desire martyrdom – not who are willing to be martyred for their faith, but who actively desire to be martyred.

These people’s faith would have to be strong, otherwise they wouldn’t believe that if they martyr themselves they will go to Heaven – but because they believe martyrdom is good, they no longer look at it as “willing to endure something bad because their faith is so strong” – they are willing to endure death, which is no longer considered that bad anyway because they will go to Heaven when they die, so that they can be a martyr.

This attitude has always been around, and it has generally been seen as severely flawed. There are references to it as early as the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a document from the second century AD, which is careful to point out that Polycarp didn’t have this attitude – he tried to hide from the people looking for him, rather than actively seeking out capture and martyrdom.

But something always strikes me as odd about these claims that specific saints did not seek out martyrdom. They were men of deep faith; they would have believed that, if they died a martyr, they would go to Heaven; why would they not seek it out? Because to do so is to seek out Heaven, rather than demonstrate faith in God, and so it makes you not a martyr at all. And so, whenever I read about how a given saint tried to avoid capture and execution, it feels like the saint was evading capture only reluctantly; they actually wanted to be captured, to be martyred, but felt that they had to avoid it because, counterintuitively, avoiding martyrdom was a better way of proving their love of God than being martyred.

I sometimes thing the reason counterintuitive situations like this arise in Christianity is that Christians are so focused on Heaven as where you go when you die, and how you are rewarded in the afterlife for your actions in this life. If there were no Heaven, after all, it would be silly to martyr yourself in order to get there – you would only allow yourself to be martyred because you would rather die – enter oblivion – than renounce God. Martyrdom would still be considered heroic, but it would be a kind of futile heroism, and not one that anyone would ever seek out.

I don’t think we should stop believing in Heaven just because it makes the issue of martyrdom confusing, of course. But I do think we might be better off if we stopped saying that “if you’re good, when you die you’ll to Heaven”, and start emphasizing instead that “if you love God, when you die you’ll be with God” – shifting the focus of hope from faith, the least of the theological virtues, to love, the greatest.

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