January 24, 2008

As I think I’ve mentioned before, last semester we read epic poetry; the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One recurring theme was that of armor. Achilleus, in the Iliad, has made for him by the god Hephaestus a suit of armor that protects him from all attackers. Aeneas in the Aeneid has a similar suit made for him. Beowulf, however, goes into battle unarmored – the movie Beowulf that just comes out interprets this as nude – trusting in God to protect him.

I don’t know if nude is what the Beowulf poet meant, but battling unclothed has certainly happened historically – the celts, it is said painted themselves with woad and wore nothing else, believing the blue dye would protect them from harm. I don’t know what they thought when it clearly didn’t stop the pilum-throws and gladius-thrusts they suffered at the hands of the Roman army.  Battling in full armor can also be seen in medieval knights who wore full plate armor, covering even their faces.

This is all seemingly tangential, but I think in the end relevant, to my topic of the nature of clothing. It seems to me that clothing is really not fundamentally different from armor. Both are intended to shield you from the outside world. To not wear armor in battle is to declare that you do not need physical protection, that somehow you are safe from physical assault or simply do not fear death. To not wear clothing is to declare that you are not ashamed of your nakedness.

So it seems armor is protection against physical assault and clothing protection from being seen. Most people, I think, would say that, in protecting against sight, the basic goal is to cover up the genitalia. I think it’s more than that, though. Clothing tends not to just cover up what needs to be covered up, it makes us look less like animals and more like machines. Pants hide the fact that our legs are composed of different parts, and make them look like single-width cylinders. Shirts do the same for the torso and, if they are long, for the arms. I have even read that long coats are a good idea if robots take over the world because they’ll obscure the fact that you’re walking, not just gliding, and thus obscure the fact that you’re human. We like to cover up everything but our face and hands so that we can manipulate the world, view the world with our senses, but not be affected by the world directly – we are protected by our clothing. Put like this, clothing takes on an almost Gnostic character. Which shouldn’t surprise; according to Christianity, clothes are a result of sin – but they are also, strangely, a gift from God, who gives Adam and Eve real clothes after he discovers them wearing fig-leaves.

This almost body-denying nature of clothing applies to men, definitely. I know that many guys, including me, rarely if ever wear shorts, and many of those will also wear long sleeves and coats whenever possible. I’ll also note that it’s usually the more intelligent – some might say pretentious – guys who follow this practice, and the less-so ones who don’t. But the goal of female clothing is clearly different – they want you to look at them.

This doesn’t go only for the… well, sluttish way many girls dress today. Even modestly dressed women don’t hide the fact that yes, they have breasts, yes, their legs curve, yes, their face and their hands are not just floating there in midair attached to lumps of cloth. In other words, they don’t hide that they are attractive, in a not-necessarily-sexual manner (c.f. my earlier post on that subject, Amor).

Why the difference? Perhaps because men won’t fall in love with a girl they aren’t sexually attracted to – but, really, I think it’s more than this. Like I said, it isn’t primarily about sex, for at least some women. Some of it probably has to do with the fact that (and I don’t care if you think this statement is sexist) women tend to be more earthly than men, who seem to be much more strongly tempted by gnosticism. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; no, we shouldn’t be gnostic, but if males tend naturally towards hiding their bodies more I don’t think that means we have to fight that tendency.

At least, I don’t plan on doing so any time soon. Even if it is flawed, I figure it can’t actually be sinful, and I really would prefer to wear a trench coat almost every day. Besides being potentially gnostic, they’re just cool.

Humility and Intelligence

November 10, 2007

I’ll just come out and say it – I find it rather odd how people, including me, are expected to downplay their intelligence.

When you do better than someone else on a test, you’re not supposed to brag about it. You say that “It’s just because I test well,” or that “I just have good memory,” or (strangest of all) “I’m just good in {that particular subject}.” If you study a lot, you’re supposed to say that you do well just because you study – you’re not really smart. If you do well because you’re smart, you treat it as dumb luck – genetics and all that. You never actually take credit for intelligence. Basically, you’re supposed to make the other person feel like they’re really just as good as you are, you just happened to do better for some reason beyond either of your control.

I understand that humility is a virtue. I don’t think that if you’re intelligent you should go out and proclaim “I am smart, much smarter than you, Hibbert!” But I don’t think we’re right in our current approach. The problem I have is that it seems like false humility to claim that you don’t possess a virtue you actually do.

And the current approach is, I think, rather dangerous for the egos of all involved.  At least I know it’s given me a giant one. The problem is that it convinces the listeners, to a certain extent, but it doesn’t convince the speakers.

Here’s what I mean – Whenever I say stuff like the above, I may appear to others to be humble. But I know what I’m saying is kind of nonsensical. It goes the other way too. When I meet someone who might perhaps be smarter than me, I don’t treat those explanations as nonsense. If they understand an area of math I haven’t learned yet, I say it’s just because they’re had that class and I haven’t. If they’re doing well in a class and I’m not (at least not as well), I’ll say it’s just because they’re working hard and I’m not – but if I wanted to, I say to myself, I could easily do just as well as them. I suspect it is the same for other people – though perhaps this is just me and other people are perfectly willing to admit there are a bunch of people much smarter than they are.

I’m not sure. But I bet that if we didn’t perform this charade, people might appear more arrogant, but they would actually be more humble. So here, I’ll say it – I’m intelligent. I’m not going to qualify that with a “fairly”, or a “most people consider me”. I am. I have other flaws I need to work on, but there’s no point in denying my intelligence just to make other people feel better. I’m not saying we the intelligent ones are better than the less-intelligent ones (I know several people I consider myself smarter than whom I also consider much better people than me, on a few different levels), just that we are indeed more intelligent and that it isn’t good for us to deny this.

Now that I’ve gone and been arrogant, does my above description seem like an accurate portrayal of how smart people are expected to act? And does my interpretation of its effects sound right?

Legislating Morality

October 28, 2007

As a Catholic, I believe that abortion is murder. I also believe that contraception, while not murder, is gravely immoral.

It seems pretty obvious that I should be in favor of outlawing abortion. And I am. What about contraception, though? Should it be outlawed?

One answer would be that it depends on whether contraception is immoral according to the natural law, or according to Christianity.  If according to the natural law, we should outlaw it, but if according to Christianity only, we shouldn’t, since we don’t want to establish a religion. It seems to me that it is immoral according to the natural law, but I’m not sure – it might well be fine unless you know what we know through divine revelation.

The thing is – even if it is against the natural law, should we outlaw it? After all, there are a bunch of things that are against the natural law that we don’t, and shouldn’t, outlaw. What should the criteria be? Does it have to do harm to others as well? So does that mean we shouldn’t outlaw prostitution (St. Thomas Aquinas made that argument, by the way)? In a perfect society, of course, there would be no prostitution, but there is an argument to be made that it shouldn’t be outlawed in an imperfect society like ours. Then there’s stuff like the various drugs (marijuana, cocaine, etc, for example, and more and more tobacco is joining the list) that are against the law because they harm the user. Even if suicide is immoral, does that mean we should outlaw dangerous and harmful activities? I tend to think not.

At any rate, I find it absurd that in current U.S. law abortion is legal but prostitution, using marijuana, smoking, drinking, etc, are not. But the question is, ought we to legalize all of them (certainly not!), legalize none (but why should drinking be illegal?), or legalize marijuana, prostitution, smoking, etc, but not abortion (why does this seem so extreme to me when it makes a great deal of sense)?

I think a lot of it is that I include prostitution in the list along with smoking and marijuana use. We immediately recoil from legalizing it, because it has to do with objectivizing sex. The thing is – can we really make an argument for prostitution being illegal that doesn’t require banning smoking and drinking? I don’t think we can, though I may be wrong. And this leads us to something that Christians are often accused of that may actually be true – we’re sex–obsessed. That’s a stereotype I’d like to prove false.

Dumbledore’s Retroactive Homosexuality

October 22, 2007

A few days ago, J.K. Rowling revealed that Albus Dumbledore was gay. Or so the world claims.

Does this change anything about how I view the books? No, it doesn’t. As I’ve said before, I dislike the books not for the moral message they send – which, I think, is not a particularly profound or important one, but which isn’t heretical – but for their lack of decent writing or mythopoeia. What Rowling revealed doesn’t change any of this. Wait a second – “You’re a Catholic! You’re against homosexuality!” Both true. But there’s three reasons we can’t say that this revelation makes the books into homosexual propaganda. (Mild spoilers ahead.)

First of all, let’s say that Dumbledore had been clearly gay from the inception of the series. Or that he had been revealed to be gay in, say, the 4th book. Does this mean the book is in favor of homosexuality? We’re not saying that Dumbledore was in a homosexual “relationship”, or even that he considered his “gayness” to be an integral part of his identity. We’re just saying that at some point he confessed to Harry, or McGonagall, or some other character – perhaps his brother – that he was attracted to men not women. What’s wrong with this? The truth is that some men are attracted to other men not women. We don’t gain anything by ignoring this. Saying this shows that the books are homosexual propaganda is like saying that a book in which a character is tempted to have sex with someone else outside of marriage is promoting fornication and/or adultery.

So really, as long as the books aren’t making an argument that Dumbledore should have embraced his homosexuality and that he would have been better off doing so, I don’t have a problem with it. I really wouldn’t have had a problem even if Dumbledore had actually embraced his homosexuality in the books, so long as he wasn’t presented as being right to do so. It’s not like there have never been good books in which characters have committed adultery or something like that. Hell, Dante’s Inferno is full of sinners.

I suppose an argument could be made that, even if having Dumbledore gay isn’t bad for Harry Potter as a piece of literature, it’s bad for it as a piece of children’s literature. To which I say – why is it bad for children’s literature to contain mention of homosexuality when it’s acceptable for it to go on endlessly about teenage relationships, hooking up, ‘snogging’, etc? I’d disqualify it as children’s literature for the latter offense much sooner than I’d disqualify it for the former. And it’s not children’s literature, whatever people say about it. Nor is it adult literature. It’s just bad literature.

Onward and upwards. The second reason this really isn’t a big deal is that, as the facts stand, Rowling didn’t make this clear in the books. There’s no evidence that Dumbledore is gay. None whatsoever. Why does it matter what Rowling says about it after the fact? If C.S. Lewis had said, after publication of the Chronicles of Narnia, that “oh, by the way, Aslan is really a homosexual”, would that mean that he was right, that Aslan actually was gay, and that the Chronicles of Narnia was any less of a Christian allegory? I would say no. It would mean that C.S. Lewis was a deranged lunatic who didn’t understand what he had written, but it wouldn’t change the meaning of the text.

Of course, J.K. Rowling probably wrote down somewhere that Dumbledore was gay, and how is that different  from how J.R.R. Tolkien (I love how all of these authors go by their initials) had the entire mythology of Middle-Earth written down in my notes but never published them? Since the Silmarillion was never completed, can we really say that when Frodo yells out “A Elbereth! Gilthoniel!”, what he says is a call to Varda the Star-Queen, rather than just some random string of syllables? After all, the explanation of that phrase isn’t contained in the Lord of the Rings itself.

This brings me to my third point. There’s a fundamental difference between elements of the story – who did what when and where – and elements of character motivation. Authors often leave elements of both types unexplained in their stories. The difference is that the author usually knows the nature of the story elements, even if he leaves them unmentioned. This is true especially when the narration is third-person omniscient. The narrator may leave things unmentioned for whatever reason, but the author is assumed to know what happened, to keep the story coherent so that if/when an explanation is provided it will be coherent, and to have the ability and right to go in later and write a sequel, prequel, whatever explaining those events.

With character motivation, though, we have no reason to believe that the author knows any more than we do about the subject. The author does not know the character’s mind. (Even with first-person narration, the author is just saying that “this person said this” – he’s not guaranteeing that what the person says is what he believes. You could easily have a first-person narration where the speaker was deceptive.) I think Rowling is aware of this at a certain level – observe what she said. She didn’t say Dumbledore was gay, she said “I always saw Dumbledore as gay”. Did Dumbledore ever do anything that conclusively showed he was homosexual? Rowling has said she “thinks” he fell in love with Grindelwald, and that’s why he went along with his plan. But Dumbledore’s actions make just as much sense if you assume that he was just friends with Grindelwald and respected him. She is in no better a position than we are to speculate on what’s going on in Dumbledore’s head.

Basically, it’s often said that fictional characters take on a life of their own independent from the author. This statement has troubling implications, which I may explore at a later date, but at a certain level it’s true. In the stories I’ve written, I always have an idea of why my characters do what they do, but these explanations are always on the level of how they would justify their actions to themselves or to an outside observer. They’re not the actual causes of their actions. This makes perfect sense, when you think about it – I don’t understand my own subconscious any better.

Online Privacy

September 27, 2007

I’ve heard a lot about how we (everybody, but minors especially) should be worried about our privacy online – don’t give out our names, our ages, our addresses, our phone numbers, what cities we live in, anything.

Some of it, well, sounds rather absurd. Several schools I’ve went to print a directory with names, numbers, and addresses of all the students. If you look in a phone book, it has most of that information. If you look online at the websites of the various scholarships I’ve won, contests I’ve taken part in, etc, you can probably find out a considerably amount about me. So what is so bad about saying anything about myself online? Supposedly creepy people can read your blog / forum / MySpace (I don’t have one, by the way) / whatever and hunt you down for devious purposes. I suppose that is a faint possibility, but what makes it more likely that they’ll target you rather than some other random person they seen on the street? (From what I’ve read, most of the danger seems to be to people who initiate inappropriate conversations with these creepy people, presumably unaware that they are creepy (c.f. the show To Catch a Predator).)

So honestly, I don’t really care what I tell you about me online, because you can find out pretty much all of it elsewhere anyway, and even the stuff that you can’t find out elsewhere isn’t that big a secret. My name is Joseph Simmons. I go to the University of Dallas, which strangely is located in Irving. Before I started going there, I went to Cistercian Preparatory School, which is also in Irving. Before that I went to Irving High School, before that de Zavala Middle School, all in the Irving Independent School District. I did Math Club at Cistercian, took part in a bunch of contests; they included the USAMO earlier this year. I don’t think you can find out my score anywhere, so I won’t say it. Etc. I’m not going to pretend that this blog has any privacy to it when it doesn’t. And because of that, I’m obviously not going to say anything here that I wouldn’t want to say to anybody I know in real life. For all I know the reader of this I know in real life as well.

What I don’t understand is people who do reveal stuff about themselves online that they want to keep secret in their real lives and expect that information to stay hidden…

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