Not Seven But Seventy Times Seven

March 9, 2011

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season during which all Catholics are obliged to go to confession.

I used to find this requirement rather perplexing. One ought to go to confession whenever one has committed a mortal sin, of course, but why must one go once a year, no matter what? Since most of us commit enough sins to necessitate confession multiple times per year, this is less a practical question than a theoretical one. What is it about confession that mandates it happen more than once?

I think part of my confusion stemmed from thinking about confession the same way I thought about baptism–as marking a complete break with one’s previous life. This is, I think, what baptism offers: a second chance, an opportunity to start fresh. And second chances are easy to comprehend. They tell a clear story–“I was a pagan, now I am a Christian.”

But third, fourth, fifth, tenth, hundredth, chances are harder to make sense of. And this is where my problem with confession lay. If every time one goes to confession, one is wiped clean, how can one have any coherent sense of identity? One can only be baptized once. To be baptized a second time is to say that the first baptism wasn’t sufficient, that it was a false baptism. Similarly, it seems, confessing a sin that one has confessed before negates those previous confessions, makes them false. To be wiped clean once is to tell a story, “I was a pagan, I am now a Christian,” but what is it to be wiped clean over and over, other than to say, “I am nobody, and every time I start to become somebody, I must erase that new identity”?

That was my old (subconscious) understanding of the sacrament. But the Lenten requirement got me thinking. If confession must happen every year, it is in a sense always happening. How could something that changes who one is be always happening? Only if it marked not a reversal, but an adjustment. It is more akin to the (continual) fires of purgatory than the (one-time) waters of baptism.

This is, of course, an obvious truth; but it is one that because it is obvious is easy to ignore. Once I realized it, I understood much more clearly the sacramental nature of confession: it mediates between the present and the eternal. It is, in a way, more sacramental than baptism even. Baptism, as a one-time event, can be used by any being whose life could be divided in two. Confession can be used only by being whose lives are not just “before” and “after,” but who exist truly in time, progressing gradually along the path to salvation.


Homelesness and Uprootedness

May 8, 2010

Unsurprisingly, given that this semester I’m taking one course about the works of Herman Melville and another about those of William Faulkner, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about “America” as a culture distinct from that of Europe. America’s relationship to its cultural heritage is, to put it nicely, ambiguous. Now, I don’t have a grand theory of America to propound here, but I do have two concepts that I think are important to understanding how America understands itself.

First, I want to discuss “transcendental homelessness,” a term Georg Lukacs invents in his Theory of the Novel and defines as “the urge to be at home everywhere.” My professor used this term often to describe Melville, and I think it applies well to America as a whole (incidentally, Melville seems to me in many ways the quintessential American author). Americans are transcendentally homeless, because they want everywhere to be like America. Compare this to the concept of “American exceptionalism” that we hear so much about. “Exceptionalism” means that America believes it is somehow special, the culmination of history, but I think it is more the case that America has a hard time coming to terms with itself as a specific place in a specific time, preferring to see itself as an incarnation of a universal ideal to which all other countries ought to aspire. I am reminded of Melville’s constant references to Anacharsis Cloots, a participant in the French Revolution who said that the Revolution had to apply not only to France, but to all the world.

The other concept I want to apply to America is “uprootedness.” I mean for this to stand in opposition to the idea of “rootlessness” that sees America as a complete tabula rasa, placing man anew in the state of nature (credit to Therese of Inklings, who talked about this earlier this week). If “rootlessness” means America is cut off completely from the Old World, and represents a new beginning, then “uprootedness” means that America is based in the Old World, but because it was transplanted to the New, continuity could not simply be taken for granted. Every continued tradition had to be consciously continued, and that consciousness implied a reevaluation and modification. Look, for example, at the American South (the focus of Faulkner’s work). Its traditional structure was an attempt to remain in continuity with the aristocratic Old World, but it was necessarily a conscious imitation, not an unconscious continuation; while it “died” with the Civil War, it had hardly existed before that. Or look at the attempts to create a “city on a hill” in Puritan New England, a subject Melville is interested in; it was in some ways a conscious break from the Old World, but in more important ways a continuation of certain Old World religious ideas.

These two concepts are complementary, I think; one deals with America in relation to the rest of the contemporary world, the other with America in relation to its heritage. And both of them involve not a separation of America from the rest of the world, but an uneasy connection, an ambiguous bond. What I find really fascinating is that both Melville and Faulkner lead me to this same thought. It’s perhaps the strongest common thread I can find running throughout America, both North and South.


Incidentally, these are the books we read in the two respective classes; I highly recommend everything on this list, but italics I use to indicate particular noteworthiness, and the most important work on each list I bold.


  • Moby-Dick
  • Pierre
  • The Piazza Tales: The Piazza, Bartleby, Benito Cereno, The Lightning-Rod Man, The Encantadas, The Bell-Tower
  • The Confidence-Man
  • assorted poetry (mostly from Battle-Pieces; particularly good are “The Conflict of Convictions” and “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”)
  • Billy Budd


  • The Unvanquished (not Faulkner’s best, but a particularly easy read)
  • Absalom, Absalom!
  • As I Lay Dying
  • The Hamlet
  • Go Down, Moses

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.

Worlds of Wanwood Leafmeal Lie

October 2, 2009

So, it’s October now. Isn’t it supposed to be… at least cool, rather than warm, outside? Ah well. I suppose this is Texas.

The title of this post is from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Spring and Fall.” It runs as follows:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

A beautifully written poem, though not terribly complex in its meaning. It comes to mind for two reasons, both of which are interesting but unrelated: it is now fall, and so (in theory) I should still be seeing “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie”; also, I’m doing Gerard Manley Hopkins for my Junior Poet project.

Regarding JPo; it seems fitting to reference Hopkins this month, of all months, since my annotated bibliography is due November 2nd and thus I will this month finish Paul Mariani’s biography of Hopkins (I have about 70 pages left), read three books of literary criticism (I have two done, and need five), and read sixteen articles (I have four done, need twenty). That is a lot of reading to do over just thirty days; it comes out to about thirty pages a day, actually. So that’s what my life for the next month will be about, for the most part.

And regarding the fact that it is now fall; I find fascinating the question of seasonal preferences. Hopkins’ poem seems implicitly to say that fall is depressing, it being the dying of the natural world, and spring being its rebirth. But I actually prefer fall, as a season; that was the main reason I went to Rome Fall ’08 rather than Spring ’09. I’ve already explored the question of what it means for me to prefer winter to summer; it means I think of myself as being in combat with the world, rather than allied with it. What does it mean to prefer fall to spring?

It’s not that I like the fall holidays better than the spring. I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving, Christmas (technically winter, but a lot of the buildup is in fall) is just OK, and I love Easter. Nor, I think, is it just that I dislike summer so much I want to be as far from it as possible – if that were the case, fall would be my favorite, since it leaves nine whole months until summer comes again, but I prefer winter to fall. But I don’t want to say it is because I hate nature, either, even though that seems a reasonable answer (my favorite season is when nature is dead, my second favorite is when it is dying)…

I think the answer, in the end, is that I prefer mourning to rejoicing. It’s not that I have a problem with nature being reborn, but I am more fascinated with its going away. It has a bittersweet feeling to it; spring is more triumphant, and a triumphant attitude seems out of place in this so fallen world.

Stream of Life

January 16, 2009

So, my newest favorite author is Gene Wolfe. I started reading his books about a year ago, and I’m completely hooked.

But if I have one complaint about his books, it is that the plot often seems somewhat discontinuous. One set of events leads logically enough to the other in terms of causality, but there is no sense of plot progression – X happens, then Y, then Z, then the book’s over, and it feels like the writer forgot to put in a climax.

On the Wesnoth forums, Eleazar articulated his objection to Gene Wolfe thusly:

Gene Wolfe is an amazing and imaginative writer, but ultimately his stories IMHO aren’t about anything… there’s no message, no point, no focal idea… just random events, interesting in themselves but with no real connection or larger significance. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth after reading, even though his skill at putting sentences and pages together is probably greater than any other active sci-fi writer.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there’s no real connection or larger significance, and I don’t think it leaves a bad taste in the mouth (though this is, I guess, subjective), but Eleazar’s clearly on to something, I think. It’s almost as if Wolfe’s books have no metanarrative (insofar as a work of fiction can be said to have a “metanarrative” at all, rather than simply a narrative :P). Wolfe is guiding the narrative somewhere, perhaps, but not paying attention to whether the audience is at least emotionally aware of where it’s heading.

This can be taken as a flaw in his work – or an intentional omission. It’s an interesting idea – leaving out the “story arch”. Perhaps it’s more true to real life.

How so? I’ve been thinking recently about the metaphor “stream of life”. Life can be looked at a stream of events, you flow downhill towards your final destination, and eventually you’re there. It’s a somewhat common turn of phrase – it even has a Magic: The Gathering card associated with it.

What’s interesting about streams, though, is that they don’t have any goal in mind. They flow downhill, following the laws of gravity and inertia, and end up where they end up – in the ocean, in a lake, dried up in the desert, wherever. Streams don’t have story archs. They don’t build up to some goal – they just run on and on until they reach their destination, then stop. There is no story to a stream. If life is like a stream, does that mean our lives have no metanarrative, either comic or tragic? I think, perhaps, so. (This is kind of the same idea I tried to convey in the poem I posted recently…)

So, life has no story arch. We go from place to place to place, do X then Y then Z, but there’s no reason Y should lead to Z dramatically – only logically. You’ve perhaps heard it said that life is not a fairy tale; well, neither is it any kind of story. It’s just what it is, life.

But we need metanarratives. We need our lives to have storylines. Perhaps we make our own; we try to craft our lives to fit what we think our storyline should be. But then the world intervenes and prevents our storyline from coming true.

To return to Gene Wolfe, then; perhaps he’s not making a mistake by having his stories have little dramatic build-up. Perhaps it’s an invitation to draw what connections we will between the different events – to try to discern the storyline that may or may not be hidden in the various and seemingly random events happening to his characters. I’ve always known Wolfe was a writer who forced the reader to interact with his work (heck, you can’t even figure out what’s going on half the time, let alone what it means, unless you’re willing to put in a decent amount of work); this would be just another level of such interaction.

Or maybe this is all nonsense and this is actually just a flaw in Wolfe’s writings. I dunno.

And A Possible One

July 14, 2008

This post is, in a way, a sequel to my previous one (“Story Without a Moral“). In that post I said that Orbivm is not meant to have any preset philosophical interpretation; still, I thought it might be interesting to examine one “theory” of Orbis Terrarvm philosophy.

This idea is, one might say, that of “anti-Pelagianism”. Now, Pelagianism was an ancient Christian heresy that said humans could save themselves – they did not need God’s grace or the Resurrection (Christ was just setting a good example for the rest of us). How does this apply to Orbivm? Well, since there is no Christ and no Resurrection in Orbivm, then if Pelagianism is not true then mankind cannot be saved, since he cannot save himself. And I think this is backed up by examples from the history of Orbivm (is that a result of my skewing the history to support this interpretation? maybe).

Basically, it’s clear that the residents of Orbivm can be virtuous in different ways. But they cannot save themselves; this is why all heroes of campaigns are in the end flawed. Caius Regilius goes back to the front to fight a battle he knows is hopeless; Alfhelm lets his wife get killed and loses his kingdom; Vaniyera is consumed by his hatred for humanity in a way that eventually leads to his death; Sparxus thinks that he found freedom, but his “freedom” consists of the ability to kill who he wants to. And it goes on.

Basically, in the end, I don’t think any of the heroes of Orbivm campaigns has reached happiness or salvation or anything like that. And if none of the heroes of the campaigns manage it, how could anyone?

Of course, this poses a problem for those who would like to interpret Orbivm in light of Christianity (which of course is the only reason you would be talking in terms of Pelagianism at all)… namely, if the menn of Orbivm cannot save themselves, how are they to be saved? It seems to me there are two possibilities. One, that there is some sort of salvific event late in the history of Orbivm, after all events outlined in the histories. The problem with this is, what could such an event possibly be? Two, that, even if the menn are fallen and there is no salvific event in history, God could still redeem them without any informed consent on their part (their desire to do good being enough). This latter possibility is of course not really Christian, but it might be that a constructed world can’t really be Christian, since it seems stupid to try to write your own version of the Resurrection story (you couldn’t possibly do it justice – I don’t think Aslan really succeeds in Chronicles of Narnia, if you couldn’t tell), and without some form of Crucifixion and Resurrection it’s not really a Christian universe.

Which means, I suppose, that it’s not really a possible universe. Oh well. I guess the best we can do is to stay somewhat vague on the idea to make sure it’s not explicitly non-Christian, even if it’s not explicitly Christian. Which is what we’re doing so far.

Story without a Moral

July 8, 2008

Since I’m busy doing a site redesign (read: I finally got myself ftp access to the server after much procrastination) for the Orbivm forums, and since we’ve been discussing the naming of the different MP eras on said forums and what the logic should be behind those names, I’ve been reminded of this topic which I thought about a while ago but never, if I recall correctly, made a post about.

The concept of metanarratives is a simple one – put as concisely as possible, a metanarrative answers the question, what is the moral of the story of history? What gets complicated is applying metanarratives to mythopoeic fiction. I have said before that the world of the Orbis Terrarvm is meant to have no preset philosophical interpretation. But it often gets difficult to craft a fictional world that doesn’t have a metanarrative.

I mean, look at Middle Earth – the metanarrative is obvious. It’s one of decay, coupled with occasional redemptions that never bring the world back up to its original glory. As the final words of the Silmarillion say,

Here ends The Valaquenta. If it has passed from the high and beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred; and if any change shall come and the Marring be amended, Manwë and Varda may know; but they have not revealed it, and it is not declared in the dooms of Mandos.

That’s Middle Earth. The Orbis Terrarvm is different. It’s a collaboration, many of the contributors have (extremely) varying views on religion, history, etc, and so it’s obviously better to avoid a clearly religious metanarrative like that of Middle Earth. Well, really, what we want is a world where such a narrative would be plausible, but not the only option – just like in this world the Christian understanding of history is not the only plausible one (even if it is, IMO, the true one).

So, when outlining the broad strokes of our fictional history, we have to be careful. The names we choose for the eras have a lot of importance…

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