Saturday, 28 July 2012

To Hug or not to Hug

It has come to my attention that the American Atheist Association are having trouble framing a hugging policy for their conference. Due to the fear of opportunists copping a free feel as one person put it or perhaps the descent into a welter of touchy feely, the committee are proposing a secular ‘noli me tangere’. How is one to express a modest level of approbation in a dignified manner? A standard greeting might be appropriate.
Greeting: Rational Beliefs
Response: Reasonably Held

This could be accompanied by a level salute, palm down from the chest representing the order and tranquillity of reason.

Alternatively when collecting name badges one could get a little decal of a teddy bear that signalled openness to a hug. One could have a crossed out bear to express disinclination.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

Vlautin sends his tale hopping across the lake of the imagination reaching its high point with the first hop and following with a series of skips. In the end it sinks into the general water and life closes over it. When the novel was over I didn’t want to know any more, a perfectly coherent world was revealed and that is surely one form of truth. Taking that away is a solid feeling because so many novels are no more than a used tissue of lies.

The Motel Life published in 2006 was the debut novel of Will Vlautin and it is told by Frank Flannagan of Reno a place of gritty despair that he renders well. You have only to think of the mephitic exhalation of the average betting shop expanded to city size. He and his older brother Jerry Lee have been living in motels around the city since their mother died some 6 years previously when Frank was 15 and Jerry Lee a couple of years older. Daddy was a gambling man and having been found out in fraud at his work was sent to jail. On coming out he stayed with the family for a while and then just left and was never seen again. He’s barely the presence of an absence for his sons.

They have dropped out of school and are already hard drinkers working at casual jobs. Frank is a fabulist or to put it in plain English he makes up things to tell his brother. Jerry Lee draws, the comic book drawings in the book are by him. For both of them their art is at least one good place that they can withdraw to. Frank has been put on to this strategy by a car dealer called Earl Hurley that he washed cars for just after his mother died. Earl has noticed him standing in a state of pure blank misery for 10 minutes. He says:

Seems like you’re a pretty tough kid. Look, here’s a piece of advice. I don’t know if it’s any good or not for you, you’re the only one who’ll know if it is. What you got to do is think about the life you want, think about it in your head. Make it a place where you want to be: a ranch, a beach house, a penthouse on the top of a skyscraper. It doesn’t matter what it is, but a place that you can hide out in. When things get rough, go there. And if you find a place and its quits working, just change it. Change it depending on the situation, depending on your mood. Look at it this way, it’ll be like your good luck charm. Make up a place that’s good, that gives you strength, that no one can take away. Then when everybody’s on your ass, or you can’t stop thinking about your mom, you can go there.
‘Okay,' I said.
‘Does that make sense?'
‘I think so, I said. ‘Could it help my brother Jerry Lee?'

The big hop that sets up the story as a whole is Jerry Lee’s accidental killing of a kid who is riding a bike in the early morning in a snow storm. It’s the fault of the cyclist but Jerry has been drinking and so he panics and thinking that he ought to bring the body to a hospital even though he’s obviously dead loads him in the car. Jerry Lee is in his underwear when he calls on Frank because his girlfriend has set fire to his pants so turning up at a police station with this story is probably going to be the start of a long spell of durance vile. They decide to leave the body at the entrance to the hospital and then take off somewhere with a ‘tank full of gas’ that deep rutted escape cliche. The gravitational pull of Reno is too strong and variously and separately they come back. Once back Jerry Lee falls into a depression and afraid to die but seeking some sort of symbolic karmic balance or recompense shoots himself in the thigh of his crippled leg. Details like this are not highlighted with an authorial nudge. It’s Frank’s tale and it’s not the good space the Earl has recommended and will likely contain fanciful elements, American grand guignol that jollies us, the readers of this fiction. Interspersed in the narrative are stories, a farrago of truth and lies, that Frank tells Jerry Lee and others.

This is a short novel that you could read while you were on the Greyhound bus on the run to make a new life. It’s 206 pages long, don’t take more. Read it, it’s great.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Ed Feser's path from Atheism to Theism

Professor Ed Feser
blog post
has given a very close account of his progress from atheism to theism. Every point along this path was marked by an attention to the rational arguments pro and contra the existence of God and he asserts that Thomistic arguments rightly understood were decisive in his conversion. This notion of right understanding is critical. Can one have a right understanding of the argument eg. The Third Way, and still not be persuaded or is your not being persuaded an indication that you do not have the right understanding that you think you have. Though he is not explicit on this point this implication seems ineluctable, the ineluctable modality of the intelligible as it were.

So then at a certain point, the argument, rightly understood, became the irresistible force which pushed him over the line into theism specifically into Catholic Christianity. In this very rational progress he is to be contrasted to Saint Augustine who wobbled his way to faith via the felt insufficiency of various universal schemas. Mystical experience and grace played a major part in his conversion. No one doubts that he was smart enough to get the most powerful Christian theistic arguments of the day but for Augustine to forgo the pleasures of the flesh he had to really know in the flesh. Professor Feser does admit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit during his period of seeking but he also says that once having arrived he had arrived and the proofs of the existence of God do not require the assistance of the Holy Spirit to be accepted.

Do I think that the Holy Spirit was guiding me when I came to see God's existence, etc.? Absolutely. Did that play (and does it play now) any role in my reasons for believing in God? Absolutely not. If someone wants to know why I think God exists, they can read my various writings defending the arguments for God's existence, because those are my reasons. I wouldn't say to them "Oh, and also I've got this experience of the Holy Spirit." That's got nothing to do with it. 

The question I have to ask and it is one which can be relevant to many philosophical problems: Can one understand an argument in all its detail and yet not feel the force of its conclusion? The answer to that must be yes because it is a common experience and if someone said to you - you’re only saying that because you haven’t rightly understood the argument, the only answer would be a giant shrug.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Reid and Anscombe on Memory

Reading philosophy can be like our immersion in the world of a novel in that we are released from our own views for a time and willingly accept the depiction of the everyday as strange, uncanny, prophetic and unwieldy. Our handy ontology is subverted by persuasive oddness if we do not resist it and if we are to understand it we must accept that resistance is futile. How can you get Bergson on memory without abandoning naturalistic assumptions? This is difficult particularly if you belong to the school of rational beliefs, reasonably held version of intellectual probity. There is help at hand however.

Why sensation should compel our belief of the present existence of the thing, memory a belief of the past existence, and imagination no belief at all, I believe no philosopher can give a shadow of reason, but that such is the nature of these operations. They are all simple and original, and therefore inexplicable acts of the mind.

Further down:
Philosophers indeed tell me, that this immediate object of my memory and imagination in this case, is not the past sensation, but an idea of it, an image, phantasm, or species of the odour I smelled; that this idea now exists in my mind or in my sensorium; and the mind contemplating this present idea, finds it a representation of what is past, of what my exist, and accordingly call it memory, or imagination.
(from An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense by Thomas Reid)

Writing in her essay on Memory and the Past Elizabeth Anscombe:

Then what makes my state or act of consciousness memory of the thing. Is it the mere fact that the thing happened and that I witnessed it? In that case there is nothing in the memory itself that makes it refer to the actual past event. And if so, why should the experience of memory have anything to do with actual past events or show one what it means for something to have happened?

She then in her consideration of the phenomenon of memory examines the present experience of which memory is supposed to be.

But if I consider some present thing (which can, if you like, be a state of mind) and my future ability to speak of it, it is brought out more clearly how difficult it is to make out that anything I may attribute to my future mental state will make what I say refer to this.

Is she moving towards a Reidian rejection of ‘ideas’ or the perhaps lesser claim that representations cannot bear the weight of memory. It is significant that the pramana theory of the means of valid knowledge does not accept memory as a free-standing means of knowledge. That is a side issue, I merely bring it up as a link to the concept of the pramana as an irreducible means of knowledge. In this system Perception stands on its own. Inference cannot be reduced to an instance of perception. Each pramana is irreducible.

Further down she writes:
In general we must fail if we try to explain the sense of statements about the past by means of present memory, consciousness of meaning, quality of images, or anything else of the kind. For either we have left out all reference to the actual past, or we have surreptitiously introduced it into an explanation that proposed to do without it.

Even though the focus of her paper is on the reality of the past, one can see that here she is pointing towards the Bergsonian idea that a memory of a past event is not got through an image. A memory is of the past but is not of the past through the memory. There is an irreducible aspect to memory and that is mysterious. Just this oddness of what we take for granted is philosophy is doing its work.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Mowing of a Field by Hilaire Belloc

So great an art can only be learnt by continual practice; but this much is worth writing down, that, as in all good work, to know the thing with which you work is the core of the affair. Good verse is best written on good paper with an easy pen, not with a lump of coal on a whitewashed wall. The pen thinks for you; and so does the scythe mow for you if you treat it honourably and in a manner that makes it recognise its service. The manner is this. You must regard the scythe as a pendulum that swings, not as a knife that cuts. A good mower puts no more strength into his stroke than into his lifting. Again, stand up to your work. The bad mower, eager and full of pain, leans forward and tries to force the scythe through the grass. The good mower, serene and able, stands as nearly straight as the shape of the scythe will let him, and follows up every stroke closely, moving his left foot forward. Then also let every stroke get well away. Mowing is a thing of ample gestures, like drawing a cartoon. Then, again, get yourself into a mechanical and repetitive mood: be thinking of anything at all but your mowing, and be anxious only when there seems some interruption to the monotony of the sound. In this mowing should be like one's prayers—all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can establish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.
(from The Mowing of a Field by Hilaire Belloc )

This is an example of an easy clarity of exposition falling naturally into a shape that has the inevitability of truth. He is right about the tool teaching you the best way that it ought to be used and that this comes to you when you forget to struggle with it. In woodworking too you have to apprentice yourself to the bench and find the best way to do any task with the tools that you have.

A scythe blade and its handle or sned/snathe are simple tools but the peasant's cunning has wrought a wilful complexity. I read somewhere that the word snathe is from the Anglo-Saxon for snake. Taking that etymology the continental sned is more like a straight pole with its doles differently arranged to the snake like, steam bent, apparatus of the English and the American sort. The blades are also different not in terms of general shape but in weight and tempering. The Anglo-Saxon kit is much heavier and requires grinding or filing to produce an edge which is dressed with a heavy cigar shaped stone generally of natural coarse sandstone. The continental scythe is a more subtle instrument whose thinner blade can be peened along the edge with a hammer to extend a thin sliver of steel which gives an extra sharp cutting edge and requires but a few strokes of a light stone to dress it.

Having used both sorts of scythe my un-expert opinion is that for grass the continental wins hands down but that if you have rough margins to cut with brambles and saplings the weight of the true snaithe and the stiffness of the blade is more effective. There are short continental blades for this but the heavy scythe can do that and cut grass without a lot of fettling. Sharpness is all.

It is most pleasant exercise, the long flat continental sweep or the pendulum swing of the snathe. Belloc's essay is taken from the collection Hills and the Sea and is available for free download from Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Edward Dahlberg: Alms and Brickbats

 Edward Dahlberg although congenitally inclined to the acidulous has nothing but good to say about Ford Madox Ford who unfortunately seems to require rehabilitation after Hemingway's character assassination.  Deny that Ford was a fabulist even a confabulist he cannot, but he commends his other qualities: (from Alms for Oblivion pub.1968)

Ford lied about everything; he said that he never looked up one quotation for his March of  Literature. ......

His kindness was a wind that was always blowing his head about in one direction or another. He simply could not do enough for our talented authors.........

Compare these venal foxes with Ford Madox Ford, who, having empty pockets himself, was a Medici patron of literature. .......

Stieglitz ran open shop at the Place for conversation; fat, gracious Ford was as hospitable as Zeus, and would beg you to come for tea and to bring along some early or late book you had written so he could find out whether you were a quack or not. Whenever I pass the 10 Fifth Avenue brownstone my steps fumble a little and I think of Ford’s eyes, the dove-gray eyes of the Shulamite, as Lawrence described them. They were amorous eyes, soft and almost wet, because they were always feeling something. ......

Concerning Ernest Hemingway he writes:

The worst canker is jealousy. Somebody praised Faulkner to Hemingway who, after reading Faulkner’s novels, said, “I don’t have to worry about Faulkner.”......

Walsh anathematized the venal literati, for money is far more obscene than pornography; though Hemingway’s first short story was printed in This Quarter, Walsh distrusted this vulgar dollar scribbler......

I offer these excerpts from Dahlberg in the interest of an alternative view realising at the same time that he is not a careful reader and therefore not a reliable judge. His remarks on The Great Gatsby are inaccurate and contain a current of bitterness which causes wild swinging at the empty air. Of Tom & Daisy he says:
Seedless grapes, seedless oranges, seedless wedlock all go together

Tom Buchanan breaks his wife’s nose because he is an athlete and has to do something with his body.

Unfortunately he compares Gatzby with:
The amorous novels of Dreiser and Anderson have been replaced by a very tired fiction. 

Can he be setting Dreiser; of whom it was said that he wrote like someone whose native language was other than English, ahead of Fitzgerald? Dahlberg’s prose is a little muscular. He is a stranger to the limpid that glances but must always be stunning us with a manly poleaxe. Still I have always been fond of effects as long as they are not special.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Green Razors

From BIC a major producer of cheap disposable razor blades I learn that recycling is not an option. This means that 10,000,000 of them are going into landfill every week. Considering the high energy aspect of steel production that is serious waste. I myself have been using straight razors/cut throats for the last 12 years not initially for any greenery but I find that they give an excellent shave and will easily outlast the shaver. Forget about running out and using something which resembles a hacksaw blade. I have a couple of new ones, a basic Dovo from Solingen, a Wapienica from Poland, a Sheffield Rodgers wedge with cutlers to their majesties on it and a Poyet Freres from Thiers. The last two are second hand for 10€ each and the others were 30€ each.

What about the fussing with stones and strops? The stone I have I found in the back of a stair spandrel cupboard in a house that I was renting, probably forgotten about in the 40's. It appears to be a natural lump of fine grained sandstone that was smoothed on two sides to give a honing surface. It is somewhere between 6 and 8000 grit which gives a fast edge. The last few passes on the stone should be very light. I see experts on you tube going up to 10,000 grit and more but from my set up I get a shave that is equivalent to a new double edged blade. Actually a with the grain shave is fine if you are going to shave every day and want to avoid going too close. After about 6 shaves with each razor I give them a few licks of the stone using a half and half mixture of white spirit and engine oil as lubricant. A curious feature of the crystalline structure of the very thin edge is that it reconstitutes itself after a few days.

Time: about 5mins. one way, 10 mins. both.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Great Gatsby and other legends

Of course I had to go on and read The Great Gatsby which I supplemented with The Crack-Up, The Complete Pat Hobby Stories and Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda. Gatsby is fresh as the early morning dew before the sprinklers and their false rainbows are turned on. Effortlessness is such hard work and it requires a level of anxiety that does not stifle the rising image or the phrase that is like a clew that brings a writer out of the maze. Scott kept a notebook full of such glow-worm phrases. Like those lights they cheered by a momentary illumination that did not last long enough to be a distraction. There are very few of those 'look at me no hands' phrases in Gatsby, more in Tender and Pat Hobby was punched in the mouth by Hemingway. Some crack about Priapus Maximus.

What happened? Of AA he said:
AA can only help weak people because their ego is strengthened by the group, I was never a joiner.
But like the man said, he was a member of Alcoholics Enormous before it was invented and it would only have helped him as a repository of stories. Was Pat Hobby rock bottom, an excellent prognosis? If it wasn't, it was a good foundation anyways. But the party was over and it was time to go. In the apartment of his inamorata, a proper title for a gossip columnist, as he was eating a Hershey bar and making notes in the latest Princeton Alumini Weekly the cloakèd figure with a scythe called. That last phrase would have been one that might have made it to his notebook, without the mower. Leave out the mower.