Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Putting on the Newman, putting on the style

And if the voice of men in general is to weigh at all in a matter of this kind, it does but corroborate these instinctive feelings. A convert is undeniably in favor with no party; he is looked at with distrust, contempt, and aversion by all. His former friends think him a good riddance, and his new friends are cold and strange; and as to the impartial public, their very first impulse is to impute the change to some eccentricity of character, or fickleness of mind, or tender attachment, or private interest. Their utmost praise is the reluctant confession that "doubtless he is very sincere." Churchmen and Dissenters, men of Rome and men of the Kirk, are equally subject to this remark. Not on extraordinary occasions only, but as a matter of course, whenever the news of a conversion to Romanism, or to Irvingism, or to the Plymouth Sect, or to Unitarianism, is brought to us, we say, one and all of us: "No wonder, such a one has lived so long abroad"; or, "he is of such a very imaginative turn"; or, "he is so excitable and odd"; or, "what could he do? all his family turned"; or, "it was a reaction in consequence of an injudicious education"; or, "trade makes men cold," or "a little learning makes them shallow in their religion." If, then, the common voice of mankind goes for any thing, must we not consider it to be the rule that men change their religion, not on reason, but for some extra-rational feeling or motive? else, the world would not so speak.
(from Private Judgement by John Henry Newman.

If anyone can speak with authority on this issue it is surely Newman. There was the Anglican chagrin at losing a star and the Catholic unease at gaining a personality they hardly knew what to do with. ‘Let’s send him off to the barbarian Irish, that’ll soften his cough’.

In India conversion is viewed very much askance by the Hindus the idea being that conversion can only have been through some inducement or other, communal identity being so important. Leaving your caste seems as impossible as getting a new set of fingerprints. I wonder if some sort of thing like this was exercising Deepak Sarma when he wrote
Huff and Puff
Putting on the Newman, putting on the style, everyone does it to some extent. If you join a Benedictine monastery for the cool black robes, that will soon get old.

Lo! when the wall is fallen, shall it not be said unto you, where is the daubing wherewith ye have daubed it?

Lo out loud, really!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus by Spinoza

I’m reading Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and I’m having to question the received assessment of Spinoza as a model of calm and rational resistance to perfervid sectarianism and religious obscurantism not of course that I blame him for his views because as he would himself say he is as subject to passive emotion as all men are. That characterisation of the gentle lens grinder is just an indication of how culture heroes are allowed an indulgence which they themselves would never seek and also perhaps a basic misunderstanding of his philosophy. It is human nature to be so swayed and Baruch Spinoza was a man, a brave and beset one who if he occasionally sounds like a boy atheist, has cause.
He allows himself some irony:

Now, seeing that we have the rare happiness of living in a republic, where everyone's judgement is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things dear and precious, I have believed that I should be undertaking no ungrateful or unprofitable task, in demonstrating that not only can such freedom be granted without prejudice to the public peace, but also, that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish nor the public peace be secure.

He states that it is the respect that is accorded to ministers of the church that has made it a haven for blackguards:

The spread of this misconception inflamed every worthless fellow with an intense desire to enter holy orders, and thus the love of diffusing God's religion degenerated into sordid avarice and ambition.

It’s that rationalist tendency to generalise, to strive for thoroughgoing principle which brings all instances under its aegis that is at work here. It was then as it is now ahistorical if not anahistorical that is to say positively hostile to the idea of the power of historical conditions in the creation of rebarbative attitudes. Obviously this is the great weakness in Spinoza’s system namely the assimilation of nature to maths physics, a cosmic parallelogram of forces. This is less obvious in his metaphysics where we are accustomed to a single unifying unity but in politics it is naive.

The practical danger of his conclusions are evident:
I show that justice and charity can only acquire the force of right and law through the rights of rulers, I shall be able readily to arrive at the conclusion (seeing that the rights of rulers are in the possession of the sovereign), that religion can only acquire the force of right by means of those who have the right to command, and that God only rules among men through the instrumentality of earthly potentates.
(from Chap.XIX: On the outward forms of Religion)

Justice, therefore, and absolutely all the precepts of reason, including love towards one's neighbour, receive the force of laws and ordinances solely through the rights of dominion, that is (as we showed in the same chapter) solely on the decree of those who possess the right to rule. Inasmuch as the kingdom of God consists entirely in rights applied to justice and charity or to true religion, it follows that (as we asserted) the kingdom of God can only exist among men through the means of the sovereign powers; nor does it make any difference whether religion be apprehended by our natural faculties or by revelation: the argument is sound in both cases, inasmuch as religion is one and the same, and is equally revealed by God, whatever be the manner in which it becomes known to men.

Moral authority is situated in the power of the state. Struggle with it as they may, those who regard Spinoza as a sort of lay saint of the first church of Socrates must recognise that only in the good old U.S.S.R. was it thoroughly carried through.

Addendum 26/11:
My guess about the U.S.S.R. was a good one. It seems that Spinoza was a major figure for early Soviet philosophy who took his materialist atheism, as they saw it, in an age of religious control, to be wholly admirable. Here is a review by Isaiah Berlin of of book by George L. Kline on just that subject.Berlin I also note that there was a call for papers for a conference last May: papers

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

His Final Mother by Reynolds Price read by James Salter

Any of you dropping in here led by an interest in the titles of the posts will probably know of that excellent resource The New Yorker Short Fiction Podcast at PodcastsSometimes hearing a story read is an experience that is like floating in a sea of images. A current bears us along and certain of those images become significant both of themselves and emblems of a larger reality. Symbols join up to provide that secret structure that cannot be listened for. What I’m trying to say is that there are vertebrate and invertebrate stories. Reynolds Price’s story His Final Mother is one of the former. It is read by James Salter with a proper Southern Gothic accent.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

It’s all about Nancy and her pursuit of love and romance (pub.1945). She is openly disguised as Linda one of the sisters that the narrator her cousin is reared alongside while her mother known as the Bolter gads about on her own amatory adventures. Uncle Matthew is a choleric eccentric who having read one book White Fang and being well pleased with it has decided to leave literature to one side. Why push one’s luck sort of thing.

Over the chimney-piece plainly visible in the photograph hangs an entrenching tool, with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans, one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs, an object of fascination for us children.

The rest of you will only use the word luncheon in that conjunctive vileness known as luncheon-meat but be aware that u and non-u usage applies generally in this novel and is associated with Mitford whether facetiously or not is hard to discover. A nice little marketing device in any case for the English upper class restricted code. So it’s pudding, writing paper and is it lavatory, let me check.

The device of having an external narrator allows the author to describe what is clearly a version of her own family that probably gave some offense. For instance the Radlett family of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie are described as uneducated except for a smattering of French from a governess and the highly
prized good seat in the saddle when hunting about which Linda is passionate. In season a pair of children are given a head start and hunted by their father, a somewhat literal version of hare and hounds. The Radletts being children of a Lord are Hons. So is Fanny the narrator whose father is also ennobled but a bounder and who remains in the Bermudas with an old Countess of some foreign sort to avoid being cut as Ford explained to Hemingway once.

The other eccentric is the man who marries the aunt who first had charge of Fanny, Captain Davey who is of course also an Hon. The novel pullulates with them. His oddness is dietary theory. Early morning tea replaces the evaporation of the night which is true. Actually he may be proleptic rather than truly eccentric. His time at Matthew’s house is fraught by the nursery comfort cuisine that obtains at Alconleigh. However as the Irish saying has it ‘one earwig recognizes another’ and they get on well.

Linda’s misadventure’s in love provides the core of the story and I’m demmed if I’m going to tell you it. It moves along effortlessly the fictional correlate of a lemon meringue pie, the tartness perfectly balanced by the fluffy lightness and the base crunchiness of narrative density. It ought to have that at least as there seems to be many parallels with Nancy Mitford’s own life. How to make the truth seem true requires wit and that deftness that is her forte. Excellent.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Essays on the Principles of Method by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

If Coleridge were to Friend you it would mean no more than that you were to receive in the post a successor periodical to The Watchman. Rather that descrying the state of political life his intent was:

I do not write in this work for the Multitude; but for those , who by Rank, or Fortune, or official Situation, or Talents and Habits of Reflection, are to influence the Multitude. I write to found true Principles, to oppose false Principle, in Criticism, Legislation, Philosophy, Morals, and International Law.

Much the same Aims and Objectives which I myself espouse though I doubt S.T.C. had to deal with the machinations of the Illuminati. It was through the remarks of Owen Barfield on Essays on the Principles of Method in his book What Coleridge Thought that it first came to my attention. My particular edition of The Friend is that published by Princeton University Press in 2 Vols. Edited by Barbara Rooke. The second volume is a variorum containing emendations, historical background, index etc. which is of course fascinating but the actual text with notes but without index is in the first volume. The more important chapters are to be read here in a pdf (link not working but google on post title to get it) unfortunately the scanned copy of The Collected Works of S.T. Coleridge is hard to decipher in parts.

Collected Works
What interested me is the seeking after the anfractuose way of abduction that runs between the purely logical straight lines of induction and deduction. In a remarkable passage from his Table Talk he muses:

I do not know whether I deceive myself, but it seems to me that the young men, who were my contemporaries, fixed certain principles in their minds, and followed them out to their legitimate consequences, in a way which I rarely witness now. No one seems to have any distinct convictions, right or wrong; the mind is completely at sea, rolling and pitching on the waves of facts and personal experiences. Mr. —— is, I suppose, one of the rising young men of the day; yet he went on talking, the other evening, and making remarks with great earnestness, some of which were palpably irreconcilable with each other. He told me that facts gave birth to, and were the absolute ground of, principles; to which I said, that unless he had a principle of selection, he would not have taken notice of those facts upon which he grounded his principle. You must have a lantern in your hand to give light, otherwise all the materials in the world are useless, for you cannot find them; and if you could, you could not arrange them. "But then," said Mr. ——, "that principle of selection came from facts!"—"To be sure!" I replied; "but there must have been again an antecedent light to see those antecedent facts. The relapse may be carried in imagination backwards for ever,—but go back as you may, you cannot come to a man without a previous aim or principle." He then asked me what I had to say to Bacon's induction: I told him I had a good deal to say, if need were; but that it was perhaps enough for the occasion to remark, that what he was evidently taking for the Baconian _in_duction was mere _de_duction—a very different thing.[1] [Footnote 1: As far as I can judge, the most complete and masterly thing ever done by Mr. Coleridge in prose, is the analysis and reconcilement of the Platonic and Baconian methods of philosophy, contained in the third volume of the Friend, from p. 176 to 216. No edition of the Novum Organum should ever be published without a transcript of it.—ED.]

He likens the natural philosopher to the sage who attempts to put himself into a receptive state of tension:

We have seen that a previous act and conception of the mind is indispensible even in the mere semblance of Method; that neither fashion, mode, nor orderly arrangement can be produced without a prior purpose, and “a pre-cogitation, ad intentionem eius quod queritur,” though this purpose may have been itself excited, and this “pre-cogitation” extracted from the perceived likeness and differences of the objects to be arranged. But it has likewise been shown, that fashion, mode, ordonnance, are not Method, inasmuch as all Method supposes A PRINCIPLE OF UNITY WITH PROGRESSION; in other words, progressive transition without breach of continuity. But such a principle, it has been proved, can never in the sciences of experiment or in those of observation be adequately supplied by a theory built on generalization. For what shall determine the mind to abstract and generalize one common point rather than another; and within what limits, from what number of individual objects, shall the generalization be made ? The theory must still require a prior theory for its own legitimate construction.

‘Intentio’ is ‘straining after’ (White’s Latin Dictionary) which sense is retained in the philosophical concept of intentionality. It is this very straining after, this tension, this aporia, the I don’t know how to go feeling that is creative. A new comprehension is required. The emergence of the creative solution involves finding a catalyst that crystallizes the new vision and it is inspririted by the stuckness.

This instinct, again, is itself but the form, in which the idea, the mental correlative of the law, first announces its incipient germination in his own mind : and hence proceeds the striving after unity of principle through all the diversity of forms, with a feeling resembling that which accompanies our endeavors to recollect a forgotten name, when we seem at once to have and not to have it; which the memory feels but can not find. 

The catalyst Coleridge calls a protophenomenon:

The naturalist, who can not or will not see, that one fact is often worth a thousand, as including them all in itself, and that it first makes all the other facts,—who has not the head to comprehend, the soul to reverence, a central experiment or observation (what the Greeks would perhaps have called a 'protophenomenon’), —will never receive an auspicious answer from the oracle of nature.
(from Essay VII)


My Latin dictionary and the tattered cere cloths of my schoolboy Latin tell me that ‘intentio’ has the meaning of straining after something that we feel in our water is out there. Now you may say that if you get knocked on the head or slipped a ‘mickey finn’ there will be nothing out there but that does not get over the fact that for consciousness cerebral events are out there too. Descartes was not stupid, cerebral events are extended and material, consciousness is unextended and immaterial and therefore the identity that we claim between them is an identity that is fundamental and yet mysterious. We cannot understand how the pulsation of neuronal traffic is at one and the same time memories, dreams, and reflections. How are we to understand identity which is not numerical identity? It is perfectly possible to know this and talk about it at length without feeling the force of it. Metaphysics is just the attempt to get off the reef that we are stuck on. Many philosophers regard this feeling of 'stuckness’ as a Continental affliction, a Sartrean-type freak, forgetting that Wittgenstein expressed just that sensation of familiar mystery in Philosophical Investigations:

The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something - because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him, - And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Process and Reality (Corrected Edition) by A.N. Whitehead

How is one to read Process and Reality? Very slowly is an acceptable response as is ‘with wrinkled brow’. Don’t look down when you climb Mount Whitehead or you will be overcome by vertigo. There I am with my pencil moving over the lines, anchoring my eye to the page lest the effort of comprehension may make my mind flee to the sunnier climes of reverie. I have read it a few times in the past and then my procedure was to not dwell on specific knotty points which might dull the mental plane blade but to push on trusting that all would be made clear. Faced with eight categories of existence, twenty-seven categories of explanation, nine categoreal obligations and more to come what else can you do. In many ways it’s like a large Russian novel which mixes patronymics, pet names, and titles so that you have to keep going back to the Cast of Characters to see who is in question.

Yet withal there is no sense of ad-hoc extensions, this is archetectonic with the occasional grand sentence thrown in. He tells us:

That the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities. Thus actual entities are creatures; they are also termed 'actual occasions’. (First Category of Explanation pg.22)

On page 28 you have an explication:
It follows from the first category of explanation that 'becoming’ is a creative advance into novelty. It is for this reason that the meaning of the phrase 'the actual world’ is relative to the becoming of a definite actual entity, which is both novel and actual, relatively to that meaning and to no other meaning of that phrase. Thus conversely, each actual entity corresponds to a meaning of ‘the actual world’ peculiar to itself.

Coming back to the text with a different feeling for the concept of God I shall be interested to see whether God as the underwriter of novelty is merely a thin colourless wash or the tactful verger for the ‘tremendum et fascinans’.

Now I’m at Chapter III : Some Derivative Notions. That cliche of woodworking when dealing with difficult grain, ‘the plane blade should be sharp and closely set’, comes to mind. More anon.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Ellen Terhune by Edmund Wilson (from Memoirs of Hecate County)

I always felt, when I went to the Terhune house, that I was getting back into the past – or rather, perhaps, that an atmosphere which had first been established at the beginning of the eighties, when the house in which she lived had been built, had been preserved there as a vital medium down into the nineteen twenties.

Pay close attention to that opening sentence for in it is established the house as time machine or the projective vehicle of its chatelaine Ellen Terhune who is subject to strange absences. The story in its way is an exploration of that puzzle beloved of time travel theorists, the grandfather paradox. In this case the target is more the mother paradox. Go back to that stage to halt her marriage and thus the pregnancy which issued in Ellen. The time traveller is the narrator of the tale and as he goes back his modern clothes are noted much as he notes the retro styles of the 'persons' that he encounters. To cross into this imaginal domain he has to physically enter the Terhune place and be transported by Ellen who is one of her spells. (Hecate how are you) She tells us:

I've always been a little bit scared by these states that I was telling you about, and I thought it might be a good thing to take hold of them and deliberately exploit them – to try and put them outside myself.

Her intention is to alter her own past definitively so that she no longer exists in an unacceptable present in which she is creatively stuck. She is a composer and Wilson describes her impasse through the rendering of a sonata that is working on.

At the end, the ghost of a second theme limped off and dropped away in irremediable speciousness and impotence, and we were back with the same confounded phrase, which was never satisfactorily resolved, but simply repeated eight times at precisely the same loudness and tempo.

As I mentioned in a previous postgrail cup one can be in one of those imaginal realms and not know it so the narrator does not get spooked by the change in the appearance of the house. There is no immediate confrontation with another plane that is known to be such. To me the element of changing the future by altering the past is the predominant feature of the tale so I would put it into the category of time travel fiction.

To alter a phrase; yes I know, one that was never uttered, Beam me up Scot, there are little notes which put us in mind of the man for whom he was the conscience.

I turned away my mind, I confess, with a certain complacent relief to a big party I looked forward to that evening; one of those gathering where great quantities of tan-backed girls and scarlet-faced men, with highballs fizzing in their hands, lift laughing and strident voices among glass-topped cocktail tables and lamps that give indirect lighting.

There's that jaded lost generation note, the seed of Carraway so to speak:

I would feel suddenly after lunch or dinner that living in the country was hopeless, that I had no communication with other people, and that nothing I was doing meant anything; yet on the other hand I could not see any hope in living in the city or travelling: I knew what other human beings were – they might be more or less picturesque in their various environments and climates, and to the young this was a source of excitement; but to me, on the verge of thirty, it was desolatingly, incontrovertibly evident that people under any conditions, were the same wry pathetic freaks, and why should I go to the trouble of moving about among them in order to observe the shapes which their defects and distortions could take?

That's shown as one long sentence though there might be a misprint of a colon for a full stop after 'travelling'. Still he can't be faulted for his mastery of the archetectonic of narrative balance. He moves along very smoothly in a manner that is old-fashioned in the best way.