Monthly Archives: August 2016

We Rest On Thee

Some years ago, I had the chance to be in a production of the reader’s theatre play Bridge of Blood, and this set of words for the “Finlandia Hymn” portion of Sibelius’s wonderful composition continues to be pretty powerful with me.

Here’s the playwright’s own contextualization of his use of the song, from notes for a production of the play at Cedarville University:

W. H. Auden on the relationship between being a poet and teaching

No, I never have. If I had to “teach poetry,” which, thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart. I may be quite wrong, but I don’t see what can be learned except purely technical things—what a sonnet is, something about prosody. If you did have a poetic academy, the subjects should be quite different—natural history, history, theology, all kinds of other things. When I’ve been at colleges, I’ve always insisted on giving ordinary academic courses—on the eighteenth century, or Romanticism. True, it’s wonderful what the colleges have done as patrons of the artists. But the artists should agree not to have anything to do with contemporary literature. If they take academic positions, they should do academic work, and the further they get away from the kind of thing that directly affects what they’re writing, the better. They should teach the eighteenth century or something that won’t interfere with their work and yet earn them a living. To teach creative writing—I think that’s dangerous. The only possibility I can conceive of is an apprentice system like those they had in the Renaissance—where a poet who was very busy got students to finish his poems for him. Then you’d really be teaching, and you’d be responsible, of course, since the results would go out under the poet’s name.

(source: Paris Review – The Art of Poetry No. 17, W. H. Auden)

The Other One

In my Introduction to Literature course, I wrote this alternate version of the Day One Essay:

For a literature class like ours, I would use this quotation a bit differently than for other classes I teach.  There are a number of ways I can approach a passage like this, but I want to evaluate the way Chesterton uses paradox to provoke and smooth controversy, and to offer some observations about what seem to me to be some faults in the style of the passage.

I hope it seems obvious that this passage seeks to provoke controversy by appearing to contradict common sense.  In fact, the larger text this is drawn from is full of examples of just this, and just a little up the page from this very passage he directly mentions the antithesis of this assertion.  We generally think of people with sharp, strong beliefs as more likely to get into disputes, and we associate that strong emotion readily with “bigotry” and violence.

Chesterton provokes us, then, by challenging our belief.  He claims “indifference” causes bigotry and even “monstrous persecutions,” and thus tempts us to react before we have reflected on the meaning of his words.  In a very small way, he tempts us to act like “bigots” about the definition of “bigotry,” at least by that common definition.  Not being willing to be thought hasty, though, we may try to understand his intended meaning–and then he has us.

For Chesterton has in view the ordinary state of interest and concern–of what has been called “studious seriousness”–that one shows in matters that are important.  When the “appalling frenzy” comes, it sweeps away those who react to the horrors and celebrities and outrages of the moment; it is only those who have spent time and effort to form initial judgments with reasons they can explain, who have actively committed themselves to principles they cannot easily back down from, who are emboldened and empowered to speak reasonably and responsibly to the needs of the moment.  Chesterton’s paradox, then, is that he suggests that those most committed to study and argue in their leisure are least likely to be swept up in thoughtless currents of bigotry and violence.

At the same time as Chesterton provokes with his paradox, he also soothes.  This happens in two ways.  One we might describe by noticing that Chesterton’s writing is, in vulgar phrase, “too danged cheerful.”  That is, Chesterton puts so many bits of clever language, paradox, and wordplay before us that we are likely to feel at every turn that we would like to throw a beer in his face, or buy the next round, or both.  He provokes, but he is having so much fun doing it that we are likely to be drawn in, at least a little bit.  Notice, in this passage, that he lets us–his readers–off the hook; we are not likely to think of ourselves as “indifferent,” or as not being “peopl who cared,” until we reason more deeply about our habits–the sting of that reasoning comes only after we have been soothed by the distance he allows us to gain from the provocation.

This basic pattern–a provoking paradox, a soothing abstraction, a subtextual jab to our consciences–is one Chesterton uses over and over.  I will not dispute its effectiveness.  I do think there is a risk, however, that impels me to urge writers to use this sparingly.  Over time, the need to provoke tempts each writer into more and more contrived paradoxes, often obfuscating the relatively simple.  At the same time, the abstractions required to provide emotional distance and explain the provocation become more complex and opaque.  The reader is likely to find them more elaborate than the situation can actually bear.  As a result, both the traction of the paradox in the mundane world and the sharpness of the jab to the reader’s conscience are weakened, turned into mush.

I think I may clearly exemplify this problem by simply changing one word in one sentence:  “Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have [only] opinions.”  This sentence is now logically contradictory to the original.  I actually agree with the main point of the original phrase, too.  Using ordinary definitions of “opinion” and “argument” that I establish in my Rhetoric classes, however, I could totally rewrite the whole passage to make a slightly different point.  In other words, the style of the paradox is not very tightly related to the substance of the point.

Thus at once I notice the power of Chesterton’s style, and in passing my agreement with his point, while yet hoping that a habit of merely clever paradoxy will not slip into your writing style or mine.  Such a style might, after all, prove to be another expression of “indifference”–of what might be called “sloth,” in fact.  Rejecting such “indifference” should, it is to be hoped, enable us to reason and respond well–not least by weighing carefully the fitness of our words.

My Day One Essay

For the first day of class this term, I did not speak to my students.  I simply presented them with a prompt and had them use the time to write a response to this quotation from G. K. Chesterton:

Of course, to be fair, and to make it easier to remain silent, I did the writing myself.  (in the first class, and in another class that was a different course; I wrote poems during the other sections, rather than rewrite the same piece multiple times.)  What follows is my response to my prompt, as transcribed from the legal pad I wrote it down on:

There are several reasons I offered you this quotation to begin our class.  I can discuss some of these with you later.  For just two examples, this passage sets up a conversation I like to have in Rhetoric classes about the meaning of words such as “fact” and “assertion” and “argument” by using “opinion” in a controversial manner.  For another, really technical-sounding, reason, I like the way Chesterton’s point here coincides with a Gadamerian defence of prejudice.  Most simply, though, this bumptious-sounding passage brings us rapidly to the heart of the subject we are here to study–the relationship between reasoning in public and being well-informed on matters that should concern us all.

By “indifference” Chesterton does not mean having no feelings–no one could be “terrible” in “frenzy” without emotions.  What he means is a bit more subtle than that.  Consider two possible responses to seeing an upsetting event on television.  One person talks to all his friends about how gross or scary it was, or maybe joins a bunch of friends to stand outside where there’s a protest.  There are some emotions on display–but has he really done anything that commits him to further action and makes him fit to act and advocate wisely and well?  I suggest he has not.

By comparison, consider his friend who has a habit of being well informed and well prepared.  She wants to know whether the reactions she hears are realistic and proportionate.  She is not content to be merely “open-minded” or “skeptical,” so she actively studies available learning from a variety of disciplines and traditions.  When she ends up talking to others about this problem, she already has some idea what she thinks, and has reasons for her view–she knows what her “initial judgment,” or “prejudice,” is.  As a result, her friends have to offer her better reasons than the ones she’s already found, if they want to move her to a new, possibly better, position.

This movement, from preparation to “exigence” (the moment when others might disagree with you) to a more decided and defined understanding, is what we call “reasoning.”  We do not merely shout what we think at any moment at each other, but prepare our thoughts so that we can give reasons to our friends–and even our rivals, opponents, or enemies.

When we prepare by studying and thinking carefully, and reason with others, most people will feel an obligation to give their own reasons, or at least to criticize our reasons.  Responding to reasons with reasons, and weighing those reasons for fitness and relative importance, is what “reasonable” people do, and “responsible” people expect this to be usual in their conversations.  People who abuse this process with lies or manipulations are justly called “unreasonable” and “irresponsible,” and we can safely refuse to consider their views until we hear reasonable and responsible expressions of similar views.

When people are “indifferent” to matters that they ought to study and fail to prepare for reasonable and responsible discourse, they are overwhelmingly likely to be swept along with crowds of others who do not care enough to learn, but who can be counted on to do what this celebrity or that party leader tells them, especially if they can be made frightened or angry enough.  “Indifferent” people can be easily manipulated by a charming or famous or surprising person, especially if that person is well-liked by the news and entertainment media.  From street protests to the DMV, from tech support to a mass rally for a radical politician, most of the bad results you see are easily attributable to “indifference” in this sense.  It is through our failure to take responsibility to learn and speak and act reasonably that we become slaves.

In the end, it is slavery that Chesterton warns us against–slavery to those in power, maybe, but definitely slavery to our own ignorance and passions, as those are echoed and amplified by millions of others, and manipulated by those who are eager to sell us things.  For in believing that the world exists to keep our desires met, that being consumers can make us happy and hard thinking will make us sad, we become enslaved–and we are likely also to become bigots.

Getting the Order Right

You really ought to go right now and read the whole of the de Regno, because it’s amazingly clear and simple. 

Because the priesthood of the gentiles and the whole worship of their gods existed merely for the acquisition of temporal goods (which were all ordained to the common good of the multitude, whose care devolved upon the king), the priests of the gentiles were very properly subject to the kings. Similarly, since in the old law earthly goods were promised to the religious people (not indeed by demons but by the true God), the priests of the old law, we read, were also subject to the kings. But in the new law there is a higher priesthood by which men are guided to heavenly goods. Consequently, in the law of Christ, kings must be subject to priests.

(source: Thomas Aquinas: De Regno)

Straw (a fresh draft)

Very much a draft, but I like a lot about it:

Straw

We may, at times, confuse ourselves
with Providence–because
we find ineffable inscrutable as well,
we may confuse
the concepts we deploy for what remains
beyond our grasp, when all has been

Considered, factored in, made subject to our hands’
manipulation–we may think
of Providence as guaranteed returns, as bad
investments surely to be good,
when something makes them so, and not our selves.

We may, in fact, become confused inside,
and think we have become ourselves like God,
inscrutable in our designs, all right
compelling others to be tools, our hands,
in monumental labor without end
assigned, proportioned to the fruit, nor aimed with reason:
bricks without straw.

We may
sink
down
by slow degrees
into irrelevance, our trying feet
caught tangled in the trace we always knew
would prove inscrutable.

Or we may know
How grasses grow around us, may content
Ourselves in sewing patches on the tent
Where simple dishes, homely ways observed,
Transform in sudden splendor at one Word.

PGE 8-16-2006

Digital Traces

Well, there you have it:  the Web documentation of one of my little achievements is still available.  :-)

Until very recently, that was the only time I could say I’d actually made money as a poet.  But thanks to a few sales via lulu.comThe Clay Pot has already paid back my very small production costs.  It’s not going to make me rich, but I’m grateful.

The Kickstarter is still running.  Please help it get funded in the next 18 hours or so!

Last Day on the Kickstarter Campaign to Promote The Clay Pot and Offer Signed Copies

I hope all of you know how encouraging you are to me, and how grateful I am to you–and for you.

Here’s the latest update.

For a long time, now, my “scriptorium” standing desk has been under the watchful eyes of an image of Christ the Teacher.  Not because I imagine that my work is properly “sacred,” but because I think everything true, good, and beautiful comes from and return to that one God who makes Himself and all things intelligible to us in Christ Jesus.  I hope that something in my work goes beyond my little life’s experiences, is caught up in the transformation of all things.

So when I ask for help with my art, I’m very sincere when I say that your encouragement to me and my gratitude to you are the main things I can see exchanged–and I am very happy when we can share in each other’s work so concretely, can make something really and visibly good happen in this world.

I think we can still see this thing work out, because as Kickstarter starts rotating this up in the “almost finished” results, some new folks will see it for the first time. Please keep sharing, and back if you can, because we are now well and truly in the last day of this project.

Here’s me, reading from The Clay Pot, one more time, for now:

I will go down with the ship

Fighting against this:

The pervasiveness of these attitudes in the university is so obvious one wonders why anybody bothers to deny it anymore. Not just in scholarly writing or the class syllabus, but in every document most universities generate, in every event they sponsor, in every program they tout and fund, the mantras of multiculturalism are chanted as talismanic charms to ward off accusations of Eurocentric elitism and hegemonic pretensions. What is lost in this eager adherence to a questionable ideology, of course, is the sense of the university’s mission to encourage “the free play of the mind on all subjects,” as Matthew Arnold put it, and to foster the “instinct prompting [the mind] to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever.”[3] These days what is taught is driven instead by “identity politics”: that is, whatever gratifies the sensibilities, esteem, and prejudices of various state-certified victims and their self-selected tribunes, who profit in institutional power from their presumed representation of the “oppressed” and “exploited.”

(source: The Twilight of the Professors – The Imaginative Conservative)

A Fresh Draft: “Kernel”

This was an effusion, first posted on Facebook, but I’m going to keep it in the file for my next collection (already underway, with working title Wrapped Attention from the introductory piece).

Kernel

Except you become as a grain of wheat and fall
into the ground, you cannot see
(the kingdom of God)—I say to you,
As a little child, I heard about “the corn of wheat”
That had to die, and wondered
Not that it had to die, but how it could be “corn”
And “wheat”
at once. The dying was quite easily explained,
Kernels of corn falling from the sower into soil,
Their husks all decomposing, as the germinated seed
Consumed its built-in nutrients, burst forth
In greeny-shooted splendor. In Illinois,
This parable involved corn; the footnote was
“of wheat.” And how become
The little child
To whom the language-pattern I invoked above
More properly belongs? You must imagine
Carefully
The life of corn, or wheat, or any useful grass,
Or lilies of the field, as they belong
To sun and wind and soil and rain
And cultivating farmers, and to those
For whom the Earth is given fecund force,
Forgetting none; and then you must not, ever,
Disentangle gift from giver, seed from sower,
Corn from cob in children’s shucking hands,
But contemplate true essence, in relation,
Doctrine in integrity,
And never simplify.
When this seems overwhelming, and you beg
For comforting embraces, understanding
Turned to nothing, one who knows
Unfolds Himself to you.

PGE 8-4-2016

Hypothetical Tactical Voting will not excuse supporting the wicked

Something that I have struggled to make clear, even in my own speech and writing, but which is actually fairly urgent in this year:

Voting is not precisely the same as supporting, and that distinction does not take the edge off your obligations.

What do I mean?  Well, consider the case of “tactical voting.”  One of the most obvious instances is sabotaging an open primary by voting for a weak or absurd candidate in another party’s race, when one’s preferred party has an uncontested race or one that makes little difference.  This probably undermines public debate, which is a good argument for closed primaries; but it is the sort of “gamesmanship” that can advance preferred outcomes from time to time.

Would my “vote” in that case indicate “support” for that candidate?  Manifestly not.  And would that “vote” justify my going out and pretending to advocate for that candidate, in order to ensure that my sabotage was effective?  No.  That would be just plain lying.  (Not even “undercover investigation” deception, or other possibly justified-in-a-crisis deceptions, but the kind you need to go confess to stay out of Hell.)

And obviously my tactical-voting-as-sabotage would not be legitimately construed as “support” for that candidate by anyone I happened to tell about it.

Would it be “participation” in the outcome?  Yes, yes it would.  I would clearly need to consider that.  To take a ridiculous example, let us imagine that some folks boosted the execrable David Duke in a primary just to “rattle” the local party, or to “shake up” some unconscious racists by putting a real Klucker in front of them, or just to make that party toxic to voters.  And then let us imagine that this effort “succeeded” in putting that…words fail…in office.

Ooops.

So it is important to realize that “vote” does not equal “support,” but it does equal “participation,” and therefore considering what outcomes are reasonably foreseeable is important, even though your primary obligation to support what is good and to resist what is wicked in policies, approaches, parties, candidates remains primary and constant.

So then consider why “There may technically be a situation in which my best option is to vote for otherwise unacceptable candidate X” simply does not let you off the hook for in any way, to any extent, supporting candidate X or aligning with such a candidate in public discourse, campaign affiliation, etc.

I may not be able to actually support a candidate, because not only on matters where I think there is misjudgment about priorities or methods, or about understanding when a thing is acceptable and when it tends to undermine the common good, or about line-drawing in use of force–not only on these proper matters of political debate, but in matters where there can be no reasonable debate, like killing babies or using terroristic tactics when conventional force is available but politically undesireable, the candidate is unacceptable.

But let us imagine a close race between two utterly unacceptable candidates.  Or maybe three or four utterly unacceptable candidates.

You know, just hypothetically.  Because it would be crazy to think a thing like that could happen in ‘Murica.

I may well decide, after considering stable realities as well as changing efforts to apply those–for example, the generally consistent teaching (obviously committee-written and thus sometimes oscillating paragraph-by-paragraph in emphasis) of the USCCB, which is not the sum of all wisdom but is still your nearest high-ranking point of reference if you are a Catholic engaged with American poltiics–that my best option, when I enter the voting booth and the crisis of decision is upon me, is to use my very limited power to nudge the contest between those two candidates in a fractionally less unacceptable direction.

Perhaps I think one candidate’s sanity in one area of governance will provide more breathing room for the nation to recover from the madness, or perhaps I hope that one candidate will cooperate with a party that at least has some sane debate about top-shelf issues, or perhaps I fear that one candidate will discredit a movement I hoped would succeed, or…or…or…

You can see how this is all highly speculative.  In fact, the basic reality here is that my vote almost certainly does not matter enough to influence any such highly specific outcome.  My participation remains severely undermotivated and overdetermined.

(Which is why you ought to treat the devolution of power to lower levels as the chief structural political need of our time.)

For that reason, my steadfast and sincere advice to you is never forget that you do not have to vote and even that you should treat not voting as your default option when candidates are dead wrong on top-shelf issues.

But many folks are still conditioned by the “you must vote” and “least-worst” habit that keeps us all in chains to the enthralling obscenities of mass-market democracy.  And when that mentality rules, then the mere fact that, under some circumstances, I may have to “nudge the process” through a tactical vote between unacceptable options tempts them to urge others to consider themselves “free” to vote for utterly abhorrent candidates–like Hillary Clinton or that Trumpery fool–just because the other candidate is “just as bad” on the top-shelf issues.

Again, it may be necessary to vote tactically.  But that necessity is very limited, and it is a consequence of your bondage–it is not liberty.

And in no way does it justify supporting an unacceptable candidate with your voice, blogging, social media, signs, money, etc.

To say “I may feel compelled, when it is all said and done, to make a tactical vote in support of the least-worst outcome” may well justify discussing what the most effective tactic for resisting all the evil options will be.

But it cannot translate into support.

There is no excuse for supporting an abomination like Hilary Clinton, like the Trumpery candidate, or even an unlikely character like Gary Johnson.  There may be a situation in which voting for one of them becomes necessary, at least to you within your limited sphere of options.  I, too, contemplate that.  (I will probably refuse.)

But I will continue to resist all the wicked options, because my integrity and fidelity are worth more than the foul stew they are trying to pass off as Jacob’s “mess of pottage.”