Thursday, March 31, 2011

But one day, the mask will sink into the temporal lobes

Misheard Sinatra's "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" as "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Brand", assuming it was a song about changing cigarette brands post-break up.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In a world full of people, only some want to fly, isn't THAT crazy?

Leah writes:
"Plenty of my Christian friends subscribe to theologies that strongly imply I will go to hell when I die, but they don't feel compelled to evangelize to me, and, if pressed on the point, tend to adopt a somewhat wishy-washy position ('I can't know what God will do') or just wave their hands and say 'I guess the Church teaches you're going to Hell, but I don't think I can do anything about it. It's up to God.'"
This, combined with Elizabeth Scalia's recent post about the relationship between faith and reason, have prompted me to delve more deeply into my crypto-fideism. Fair warning: Waits's "Lowside of the Road" is a pretty good picture of my mental landscape on this topic, so fasten your seatbelt.

Conversations about ethics bore me. Increasingly, I find them not only boring, but unilluminating, and often even counter-productive. This is because I think it is impossible to conceive of morality in terms of laws. I really liked Simcha Fisher's post on the difficulty of discerning when natural family planning is appropriate because I think it gets at why the hyper-legalistic approach is untenable, cruel, absurd, and even contrary to the Christian conception of man and his relationship to God: "But why doesn’t the Church give some specific examples of what qualifies as a just reason? Well, one problem is that my just reason is not necessarily the same as your just reason. ...if the Church seems distressingly vague, it’s because she doesn’t want to get in the way of the conversation you could be having with God. He doesn’t want to talk to The Church as a whole: He wants to talk to you."

This may strike some as getting perilously close to relativism, or at least some kind of very low church protestantism-- if you forget that Christianity is first and foremost about the Christian's relationship with Christ. He, not the Church, not the Ten Commandments, not the Golden Rule, is "the Way and the Truth and the Life". Every relationship man has is unique-- our love for each other in every instance manifests differently, and Christ, being human, is no different. I think this is because only in perfection is there true unity and oneness, and man while on earth is inescapably imperfect. Our imperfection necessarily fractures all of us in different ways, and the variety in magnitude and diversity of the fractures demand different bonds to repair us and bring us closer to one another and to Him.

We need a Church because we are so confused and broken that we cannot simply look upon Christ and know the Truth. The Church helps us to know those who are perhaps less fractured, or fractured differently, so that we can begin the infinite and difficult process of mending ourselves. I think seeking directly and radically to emulate Christ in all things is a fool's errand-- we cannot ignore His Divinity. It's sort of like the novice monk doing 500 prostrations a day, or trying to subsist on nothing but locusts and the rain. He hasn't worked his way up to that level of ascesis, he can't be trusted, or expected, to understand it, and in so trying he perverts the practice and ends up worse off than when he started. The first time I read The Brothers Karamazov it pushed me from agnosticism to atheism because I was 12 years old and clearly not ready for it. If you try to lift a hundred pound weight and in so doing injure yourself, you won't even be able to lift twenty.

So we have priests and bishops and patriarchs and monks and saints to help us along, because the sun blinds while the moon illuminates the contours of the desert in the night. Ethics as law make no sense to me because the ethical isn't a list of dos and don'ts, and morality exists nowhere in Big Book of Truth form. The function of ethics is to help me better know how to approach and understand myself.

The first example that comes to mind is when I read somewhere earlier that "God will do what seems repugnant to the world." This is a common sentiment in Christianity-- the Christian ought not be of the world, he ought reject the world, etc. But how much of the world am I? How do I discern what seems repugnant to me because I am fallen and what seems repugnant because of the grace given me by God? I can't bend my will and my desires to the Good-- to Him-- before I actually confront and examine what my will and my desires are.

His law may be written on my heart but I wasn't born literate. Put another way: you can show an American and a Russian the same movie poster, but the former sees "Coat" and the latter "Salt" because they're reading the same symbols as parts of their own alphabets-- and only one of them is reading it as intended.

It's easy to list the virtues and incredibly hard to know how to live them, even if one sincerely wants to (which, really, most of us don't, most of the time). I struggle to know what God wants or expects of me on a day to day basis, so how could I ever presume to know anything about His relationship with anyone else, especially His relationship with someone who doesn't yet acknowledge His existence?
"Thou, simple, ignorant, and humble Russia, stay faithful to the plain, naive gospel wherein eternal life is found, and not the phrase-mongering Aristotle or the obscurity of pagan sciences. Why set up Latin and Polish schools? We have not had them up to now and that has not kept us from being saved!" 
- Ivan Vyshensky, 17th century Ukrainian elder
A lot of the questions I get asked about Christianity seem to boil down to a bizarre kind of absolutism-- most of the conversations end with a "what happens if?" "What happens if the fast is broken?" "What happens if someone throws an icon away?" "What happens if you don't cross yourself?" Perhaps I'm misreading my friends, but they always seem to be looking for a line that, once crossed, will definitively send one to Hell, and if a particular behavior doesn't, they can't seem to understand why it's relevant. I chalk this up, too, to the inability to understand Christianity not as a system but as a relationship. What happens if I don't bum my friend a cigarette? What happens if I forget his birthday? What happens if I steal from him? A friendship can survive many transgressions. That doesn't mean we shouldn't avoid them.

That said the unending chorus of "why" and my own profound ignorance has pushed me into a corner. If I uncharitably interpret Tolstoy to a friend who's never read him, perhaps that friend never reads War and Peace. Uunfortunate, but not life threatening. If I mangle an aspect of theology, whether it's something minor, like why shrimp are acceptable Lenten fare, or something essential, like the role of the Eucharist in salvation, I may push someone farther away from conversion than if I'd said nothing at all.

Thus my crypto-fideism stemmed partly from fear, partly from cowardice (these are distinct), and partly from the sentiment voiced in the Vyshensky quote above. But now I see that sentiment as affirming a different sort of absolutism-- certainly many were saved before Aquinas and Augustine and Schmemann and Lossky and even Chrysostom and Irenaeus, but how are we in any way the worse for having them? If there is progress in history it is because of men such as they.
"There is a paradox at work, of course; we apply our reason to what is founded upon unreasonableness (and faith is utterly unreasonable; it is 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen) and then our understanding—slowly hatched open bit by bit, by our own Holy Spirit-prompted willingness to pursue the gift through the giftedness of all who came before—leads us to the point where we can say not only 'I believe this,' but 'I know this in a way that has passed through my intellect, and been absorbed within my tissue,' in the same way that you can say you know how to button your coat, or put a car into forward or reverse: not because you are mindless, but because you have fully absorbed that learning. 
And then you really can be fearless..."
That (from the Scalia post mentioned above), really, is the heart of it for me, and the strongest objection to fideism, crypto or otherwise, I see. Faith independent of reason I think is inextricably bound by fear, especially in the modern world so awash in skepticism and unbound inquiry. It may be true, as Don Colacho says, that "there are many things of which one cannot speak without automatically disfiguring them," and certainly the words of Saint Gregory Nazianzen are worth remembering when he says "not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits," but the alternative can't be total silence.

I'm not suggesting theological inquiry or apologetics as a crutch to let us escape the bidding to "preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words," which is certainly a danger, but unwillingness to engage non-Christians on intellectual questions, and unwillingness to prepare for them, strikes me as unfair and even cruel.

So to return to Leah's paragraph above: no, I don't know what God will do, and yes, it is up to Him, and I think she knows that any Christian who says otherwise is probably at the very least confused. But Christianity is, I think, anything but fatalist. To quote the good Don yet again: "The true Christian should not resign himself to the inevitable: he should trust in the impertinence of a repeated prayer." Here again I really like the way Scalia puts it: "the prayer part is absolutely essential, because that is where what you are learning becomes bone-deep; it is the 'setting agent,' as it were."

"I don't know" is a terrifying admission because "on behalf of all and for all" is a terrifying prospect. It's also why every admission of ignorance must be turned from an end into a beginning.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Sieve: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon II

I've written about Rebecca West's wonderful Black Lamb and Grey Falcon before, and as I get farther in it seems only to improve. While I'm barely a tenth into the 1200 page work, the last chapter of the section on Croatia ("Zagreb VII") will certainly rank highly among my favorites when all is said and done. There's much to chew on in its scant eight pages, but I'll begin with this passage, which touches beautifully on melodrama, farce, the self-seriousness demanded by the juxtaposition of peasant and bourgeoisie, and dog shit. Here Rebecca, her husband (English both), and their Serb guide Constantine are visiting the family of the Croat journalist Grigorievitch:
"'Ah! Ah! Ah! cried Constantine, pointing his forefinger. We all wheeled about and saw that the poodle was relieving itself on the carpet. ... Grigorievitch and his wife started forward with tragic faces...
The dog was put out into the passage: but the incident could not be considered as ended. There remained in the middle of the carpet the results of its protest. We endeavoured to take the matter lightly, but we found that the Grigorievitches were evidently hurt by our frivolity; it was as if we had chanced to be with them when a son of theirs has returned home drunk or wearing the badge of the Croat Separatist Party, and we had tried to tamper with the horror of the moment by laughter. The atmosphere was tense beyond bearing; so Constantine, who had assumed an air of gravity, walked to the piano in the manner of an official taking charge in an emergency, and played a majestic motet by Bach, which recognizes the fact of tragedy and examines it in the light of an intuitive certainty that the universe will ultimately be found to be reasonable. The Grigorievitches, who had sunk into two armchairs facing each other, sat with their arms and legs immensely extended before them, nodding their heads to the music and showing signs of deriving sober comfort from its message. There entered presently with a brush and dust-pan an elderly servant, in peasant costume, who was grinning from ear to ear at the joke the dog's nature had played on the gentry.
As she proceeded with her task Constantine passed into the calmer and less transcendental music of a Mozart sonata, suitable to the re-establishment of an earthly decorum; and when she had left the room he played a brief triumphal passage from Handel and then rose from the piano. Madame Grigorievitch bowed to him, as if to thank him for having handled a social catastrophe with the tact of a true gentleman, and he acknowledged the bow very much as Heine would have done. ... Meanwhile her husband took mine aside, ostensibly to show him a fine print representing the death of an early Croatian king, but really to murmur in a voice hoarse with resentment that he had owned both the poodle's father and grandmother, and that neither of them would ever have dreamed of behaving in such a way. 'Nothing, man or beast, is as it was. Our ideals, think what has happened to our ideals... what has happened to our patriots...'"
Yes, mesdames et messieurs, among the Slavs, even the fecal is the political.

Friday, March 25, 2011

We have always been at war with Soviet Realism

My Ear-Trumpet Has Been Struck By Lightning never fails to fascinate, and if I blogged about every post that caught my eye this would cease to be a crypto Waits commentary blog and become a crypto Ear-Trumpet commentary blog. That said, I couldn't let his recent posting of an Abel Grimmer painting slip by unnoticed:
"Carrying the Cross" - Abel Grimmer, 16th century
Abel Grimmer was 16th/17th century painter of the Flemish baroque school. Don't worry, I'm not suddenly expanding the roster of countries with which I'm obsessed to include Belgium-- this painting struck me because its use of perspective reminded me vaguely of some early Muscovian manuscripts (yes, yes, EDISPD).
The Kremlin, 16th century
Crowds implore Mikhail Romanov's mother to let him to go Moscow and become Tsar (really), 17th century
Construction of the Kremlin, 16th century
Boy, the perspective looks screwy! Contrary to popular belief, this is not because the early Russians were subhuman gold-worshipping bear-eating creatures incapable of discerning shadow from light or near from far. As it was told to me, at least, early Russian manuscripts portrayed people and places in proportion to their importance to the scene. Surprisingly ten minutes of Google image searching didn't yield up ideal examples of 16th century depictions of Uspenskiy Sobor, but if you're ever lucky enough to come across such things, you'll note that the religious buildings are always larger than the secular ones surrounding it, and that the important people (Patriarchs, Tsars, Saints) are larger than the random boyars and whatnot surrounding them. Conscious rejection of realism! How neat.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dr Bernice - Cracker

Baby don't you drive around with Dr. Bernice
She's not a lady doctor at all
She's got hands like a man, with hair on the back
She'll crush you with her embrace

Though the wind may whisper and moan sometimes
We all need a kind place to live
Though the wind may whisper and howl at your door
We all need the comfort of friends

Baby don't you drive around with Dr. Bernice
That ain't a real Cadillac
It's a Delta '88 spray painted black
With fake leather seats from Juarez

Though the wind may whisper and moan sometimes
On a hot desert night it is still
Though the wind may whisper and howl at your door
You're not obliged to let them all in

Baby don't you ride in that faux Cadillac
If you must please ride in the back
If you sing while you ride you'll be a siren tonight
Spare this poor sailor's life from the rocks

Though the wind may whisper a melody now
We can't find a tune of our own
Though the world may whisper and blow in your face
And tangle the hair on your head

On a hot desert night we can drive down the road
And the stars will spell out your name
On a hot desert night with the windows down wide
The sirens, they'll sing me their song

And the ghosts of the sailors who died on the rocks
They feel not a twinge of regret
Though the wind may tangle the hair on your head
You sing like a siren to me

On a hot desert night the caravan stops
At the oasis, it's next to your heart
The soundtrack is played by some aged British queen
On BBC Radio One

Though the wind may whisper an epic sometimes
the cast must include Karen Black
Though the symphony strings, they shifts with the sand
You sing like a siren to me

You sing like a siren to me
You sing like a siren to me

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lady Gaga meets the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

With a good bit of Eddie Izzard's Mr Kite (Across the Universe) thrown in, and heaven knows what else. Whether you watch House or not, watch this:

I am very impressed. Hugh Laurie is, of course, a wonder. Really loving the fingerless gloves and gaudy rings, but then, I would.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

And another

DL: Ya khochu pokurit'... 
TKB: And I want to be a carny.
LL: Why do you want to marry Brian Carney?

I'm just pleased she thought of Brian before Jay.

(Translation: I want to smoke.)

But you trusted them before?

"I'm never going to trust independent voters again."
"Why? I'd take that."
"Charlie Sheen over Sarah Palin."
"I don't believe in governance, Christopher."

Inspired by this.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'll show yous unsustainable!

That would be upstanding Russian businessman Viktor Bout, currently "awaiting trial in the United States on terrorism and arms trading charges." Ever see Lord of War (AKA The Last Time You'll Be Able To Take Nicolas Cage Seriously For A While)? His character, "Yuri Orlov", was apparently based in large part on poor Viktor Anatolyevitch.
Bout in 2010, looking more like Ron Swanson than Nic Cage
Bout has been in custody since 2008, although he wasn't extradited to the United States (from Thailand, where he was arrested) until 2010. Having been in the land of the free for nearly six months now, he's decided it's time to speak out against the grave injustices being visited upon him: the prison where he is being held "does not cater to vegetarians".

I bring this up not to encourage needless cruelty to any man, (alleged) criminal or otherwise, nor to offer my take on the legality of the extradition, nor to gush about how dreamy Mr Cage was in the aforementioned film (although oh, honey, he was!) but to ask: why did he think he could make this complaint at all? Whom did he expect to listen?

Americans, of course. Because we're radical individualists-- which is to say, we're terrified of hearing the word “no”-- even if it's an echo ringing down an empty hallway.

It's not a bad instinct, given that the only voice most of us listen to nowdays is that of the State. Even if I have been reading a lot of Peter Lawler lately I'm still too much of a libertarian to be comfortable with US Courts examining the “sincerity of prisoners' religious beliefs” to determine whether they qualify for kosher meals.
“The courts have ruled that a person should have the right to choose his or her religion and be allowed to practice it in prison as they would in the community. The courts also said that a person’s religious belief is that which he or she feels in their heart. In response, the Department allowed offenders to switch their religion easily and fairly regularly. It didn’t take long, however, for offenders placed in disciplinary segregation to claim to be Jewish in order to receive sealed, pre-packaged Kosher food because they did not want to be given food delivered by other offenders who might put something in their food, even though correction officers were watching. Before we knew it, the number of Kosher meals being served went from very few to many, at an unacceptable and unnecessary cost. In the end, we had to revise the policy regarding how often one could change his or her religion. The need to balance the rights of offenders with the ability to manage a prison was the real issue here.”
- Brian Fischer, Commissioner of the NY State Dep't of Correctional Facilities
The worst part is that I bet that sounds reasonable to some of you.

I began this post in something of a sleep deprived delirium (according to some 4am scribblings I was supposed to tie this into an episode of Father Ted where Father Dougal is trapped in a milk truck that will explode if it goes slower than 4 mph; when Father Ted tells the other priests they have to “do something practical, something that will really help Dougal,” they set up a moving altar hitched to a tractor and say a Mass alongside the milk truck-- if you can figure out what the hell that has to do with the sanctity of vegetarianism do let me know), but I've found a new track now, and it's gloomy, but seems to be going in the right direction: pluralism is doomed—meaningful pluralism—you know, the kind composed of norms, rites, and rituals that can't, won't, be sloughed off to better manage a prison.

Sorry, meant "meaningful pluralism in a statist society". None but the Great Lidless Eye of the State would be so driven to categorize, legalize, equalize, homogenize, and so nowhere but in its realm would the people write essays like "IS ETHICAL VEGANISM A RELIGION?" so that their animal rights activist buddies can finally exercise their right to vegan footwear in the pen.

Perhaps this is what Don Colacho meant when he wrote that "a bureaucracy ultimately always ends up costing the people more than an upper class." Does an upper class have the ability to completely redefine our most cherished cultural institutions? Does it do so for the sake of paperwork? Does it force square pegs into round holes to better achieve equality? Does it create and perpetuate false categories and equivalences in the name of fairness and order

I'll just let him finish this up for me:

"Modern man believes he lives amidst a pluralism of opinions, when what prevails today is a stifling unanimity. ... The sinister uniformity that threatens us will not be imposed by a doctrine, but by a uniform economic and social conditioning. ... The necessary and sufficient condition of despotism is the disappearance of every kind of social authority not conferred by the State."

Behold, the fruits of our freedom.

It is good to reject the "no" of the State, but in rejecting all denial we lose all that we would affirm.

Oh, right, St Patrick's Day

Good things that are at least somewhat Irish include:

1. My childhood hero Denis Leary

"I love to smoke. I smoke seven thousand packs a day, okay? And I am never fucking quitting! I don't care how many laws they make. What's the law now? You can only smoke in your apartment, under a blanket, with all the lights out? Is that the rule now, huh?

The cops are outside, 'We know you have the cigarettes. Come out of the house with the cigarettes above your head.'

'You'll never get me, copper! I'm never coming out, see? I got a cigarette machine right here in my bedroom. Yeah, see, yeah!'"

This routine is nearly twenty years old.

2. The Pogues

"If I should fall from grace with God
where no doctor can relieve me
If I'm buried 'neath the sod
but the angels won't receive me

Let me go, boys
Let me go, boys
Let me go down in the mud
where the rivers all run dry."

3. Guinness: not actually very good, but reliable and omnipresent. When all else fails, when you're in a strange land, when the world collapses around you, when you've forgotten your own name... Guinness can be your inscrutably dense, watery, bitter, cloying anchor.

4. St Patrick's Breastplate Prayer: Did St Patrick actually write it? Does it matter very much?

"Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord."
Whole thing here.

5. Father Ted

Cos see when I was younger I would say

In the spirit of introspection and honest self-evaluation (and because I'm finally starting the reapplication process so I can finish my degree...), I present:

(and some inspirational factors)

1. Carny maquilleuse: RuPaul's Drag Race, various Youtube makeup tutorials, Carnivàle, Waits's "Circus"
Shannel (Bryan Watkins), who was totally robbed in Season 1
2. Godbeat journalist: the complete ignorance of huge variations in structure and hierarchy of religious institutions and inability to understand the most basic relationships between religious thought and politics among the educated class,

3. Tabagisme curator: Cigarettes are Sublime, the entire Tobacciana category on eBay, The Cigarette Book, this Lynn Barber column on the symbolic nuance brought to classic cinema by cigarettes, this cigarette dispenser from Mad Men:
It is nigh impossible to find cigarette dispensers like this, anywhere, nowadays.
I shudder to think how many hours of my life I've wasted looking.
4. Bar singer: there's just too much.

5. Early Russian history professor: Paul Bushkovitch.

6. Something with the Office of External Affairs and Interchurch Relations or Pension Board (OCA): any number of posts GetReligion has had to write because the religious institution in question left entirely too much open to misinterpretation by the media.  Also, the Pension Board helps parish treasurers understand the US tax code (among other things), which is a noble endeavor if ever I've heard of one. Perhaps inexplicably various scenes in A Canticle for Leibowitz and In This House of Brede

7. Smoking rights activist and/or PR rep: Nick Naylor,  NYC CLASH (particularly their seeming inability either to design a proper website or understand why such a thing is necessary), Freedom2ChooseTobacco Truth,, Michael Siegel and his courageous battle against the overt abuse and politicization of "science", Simon Clark (of FOREST, among other praiseworthy organizations),  Dick Puddlecote, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, the Owl Shop and Shelley's shared (and endangered) status as the only legal cigarette-friendly bars I've ever been to in the US, despite much searching.

8. Anything at the Hillwood Estate: Who wouldn't want to work at their favorite museum? I would clean its toilets-- hell, I would do worse than that-- if I could wander through those grounds every day. Marjorie Merriweather Post (Close Hutton Davies May), daughter of C.W. Post and founder of both General Foods and Hillwood Museum and Gardens, was not only a millionaire with a sense of philanthropic duty, but an heiress who grew her father's company, kept it in the family, and took seriously her role as an arbiter and patron of culture. She briefly lived in the Soviet Union with her third husband, Ambassador Davies, and while there not only grew to love Russian decorative and liturgical art, but saw it as her responsibility to salvage as much of it as possible from the brutal environs of Stalin's Russia, where all remnants of the old order, aristocratic and religious, were being melted down, ritualistically destroyed, or sold into black markets. Russianists everywhere owe her a great debt-- the Estate is also a center of scholarship and grants access to its various libraries and archives to researchers by appointment, in addition to having an online database. You can take a brief virtual tour of the museum (that in no way does it justice) here. Really, if you're around DC, whether you're a Slavophile or not, make it out to the Estate sometime-- the gardens are magnificent in the warmer months. 

9. Tom Waits roadie: Actually I think if I ever saw him in person I'd spontaneously combust, so this might not be wise.

10. Professor of Orthodox Church-State relations/ government advisor on the same: the "Conflict and Cooperation in Post-Communist Europe" seminar I took last spring. The inability of many political scientists and theorists to wrap their heads around sincere religious belief and the many troubling implications of this failure. Ivo Banac (whose course, "Eastern Europe Since 1914", I was lucky enough to take while he was still lecturing!) and much of his writing. Daniel Larison.

(anytime prior to matriculation, not just immediately prior)

1. Political speech writer: the knowledge that I was a very good writer and a very bad communicator. My mother's obsession with the Clintons.
2. Fiction author and/or Vanity Fair contributor: latent narcissism misdiagnosed as vocation. Issues of Vanity Fair laying on the bathroom floor. Reading at "college level" by 10 or 11. Being treated like an actual prodigy, instead of a slightly advanced student, by several of my teachers, and the resulting assumption that I had interesting things to say.
3. Diplomat: peculiar fondness for airports. Faux intellectual disdain for America. Europhilia. Hans Gruber. Acceptance to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

4. Physics/math historian: attempt to balance my love and appreciation for the beauty of math and physics with the realization that I was probably not smart enough to pursue either field directly. The University of Pennsylvania's History and Sociology of Science Department, Mark Adams in particular. Copernicus, Brahe.

Contains neither plums nor pudding.
5. History professor: My 11th grade American history textbook. Orlando Figes's Natasha's Dance. Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The vague notion that I wanted to be an "academic" and an "intellectual" (though I had no real idea what either of those words meant). A very eerie History Channel documentary I saw when I was 8 or 9 about some relatively early English king who had a series of unfortunate and mysterious diseases and whose death both left me profoundly unsettled and forever imbued the study of history with an air of mysticism and danger. The Cloisters.

For a long time after I visited the Cloisters (sometime in elementary school), I assumed the word had something to do with death and the dead because of how dank, tenebrous, and otherworldly it was. 
6. Lawyer: Law & Order's fixed presence on my mother's television. Winning some "debates" in summer camp in fourth grade. The assumption that lawyers are a thing smart people tend to become. My phenomenal bullshitting skills (in 7th grade I convinced my entire home ec class that I had been born and partially raised in the UK, and the teacher that my mother had gone to school with her sister in England).

7. UN translator: The Interpreter. Having a better French accent than my teacher (who I later learned spoke French so poorly that she frequently made up words and grammatical constructions. We did not have AP languages in my district). Being really good at memorizing things.

8. Mathematician: spending hours staring at my calculus textbook, finally understanding a concept, finding that more beautiful and rewarding than memorizing dates of Supreme Court cases.

9. Psychiatrist: Frasier. John Katzenbach's The Analyst. The Dali Museum. Hannibal Lecter. The first Artemis Fowl book. Dostoevsky's White Nights. Ivan Karamazov. "Antisocial" tendencies.

10. Neuroscientist/neurologist: Society for Neuroscience Brain Bee. Fondness for the orderliness of hospitals. Flowers for Algernon.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Judge a blogger by the readership she keeps

Five search strings that have brought people to my blog, presented without comment:

1. "an intense preoccupation with eschatology"

2. "psychosis dream hacking"

3. "nagorno-karabakh 'state of nature'"

4. "16th century venetian money"

5. "it won't be my fault if I die an old maid"

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hermeneutics's just another word for nothing left to lose (tarot ramblings)

In response to my post about the tarot and dream interpretation, a friend writes:
"If a Catholic refuses to supply his friend with a gun for use in a murder, it's because murder is wrong, not because he's superstitious about guns. The Tarot is, worst-case scenario, a means to divination; it's prohibited, if at all, on that ground.
The Catechism is unequivocal in condemning 'all forms of divination', defined as 'recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead, or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future.' (2115) Clearly the Tarot, as you describe it, does not involve 'recourse to Satan or demons' or 'conjuring up the dead,' so the question becomes (isn't law great, by the way?) whether it's a 'practice' that is 'supposed to "unveil" the future.'
(We may take it as given that the future cannot be unveiled, so the word 'falsely' functions here only to remind the reader of that fact. The Catechism does not, I'm pretty sure, contemplate a 'truth defense' for any means of divination.)
Your claim, I think, is that 'unveiling the future' is NOT what Tarot does; rather, that it uses symbols deeply rooted in the natural human psyche to initiate a conversation about the 'querent's' (?) present, and perhaps past. I'm not taking a position on whether that claim takes the Tarot, properly practiced, out of the Catechism's condemnation; just trying to make sure I understand your claim."
The Catholic Catechism on "Divination and Magic" (emphases mine):
"2115 God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.
2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.
2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity."
Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever been, a Catholic. Proceed with caution.

I'll start by explaining my understanding and appropriation of tarot, with another disclaimer that I am not at all involved in any broader community of readers, that what follows is based solely on my experience and fairly limited reading and research, and is in no way necessarily representative of any dominant "tarot theory" (for better or for worse). 

SO: my friend is absolutely correct to say that, under my tarot theory at least, a reading is much more about understanding the past and present than about attempting to "unveil" the future. Granted, there is a very wide variety of spreads, and nearly all of them include at least one position whose card is supposed to indicate something about the future-- the tarot book I've always relied upon most heavily uses the phrase "probable outcome"; I tend to say "possible outcome" when doing readings myself. No self-respecting reader (if you can accept that such a person exists) will use language stronger than that.

It is important to understand what cards in these...'forward-looking' positions actually signify (or are supposed to signify). The tarot is misrepresented in a variety of ways in pop culture, but one of the lies about its "power" is that it is supposed to predict very specific actions and/or circumstances. It does no such thing, and no reader will tell you it does. Even if I'm doing a ten-card Celtic cross spread with an honestly chosen significator, the tenth position ('likely outcome') will never tell me that you're going to meet a tall handsome foreigner in a bookstore on the Sabbath-- just like the third position ('roots of the problem') will never tell me that your father drank too much because he was a closeted homosexual scarred by his experiences in the Second World War.

The cards have survived this long ('occult tarot' first appeared in the 18th century) precisely because they represent aspects of man and his relationships that transcend particular historical contexts.

To illustrate this I'll explain one of my favorite cards, the Two of Swords.
"Prague" version
(the deck I own and use)
Rider-Waite version
Each card in the tarot is composed of many different layers, and its significance for the querent emerges only when one both sees the layers for what they are, and the shapes and shades they combine to create.

The Two of Swords, for example, is in the minor arcana, which means it signifies less portentous things than a card in the major arcana (the cards with names). The minor arcana is constructed just like a typical deck of cards, with four suits that run from Ace to King. That this card is of low rank reinforces the smallness of the situation it represents. The number  itself (2) signifies paradox, balance, partnership, opposition. It is a Sword; its element is therefore Air. Swords deal with rationality, intellect, the pursuit of knowledge, and the attendant emotional coldness, distance, and insensitivity. The Sword's dedication to the pursuit of truth and confidence in the primacy of the solitary intellect becomes cruel if untempered by the sensitivity of Cups, fanatical, reckless, and stubborn if unchecked by the pragmatism of Pentacles, and chimeric, feckless, and eventually incommunicable if not fueled by the dynamism of Wands (pretty much everyone in the PB is very, very Sword-- at least while they're in college).

So how does any of that help me understand the significance of a blindfolded woman on a riverbank? Should I ask Bobby to the Prom or not?!

To begin with, note how the card's imagery reinforces what we already know: the woman is alone (the Swords' fierce independence). She is female, but her feminine traits (intuition, sentimentality, mysticism, empathy) are undermined by her clear separation from, and seemingly willful ignorance of, the river behind her. The river signifies those traits not only because fluidity seems to recall them in our minds, but because Water is the element of Cups.
Swords are Vulcans, Cups are Betazoids.
(No, I cannot take credit for this work of art.)
She is simultaneously at war with herself (the duplicity implied by the number 2) and the outside world. There are no visible threats, and so she seems excessively antagonistic (Sword)-- in the Prague card especially her stance seems more one of defiance than of defense. 

Is she compensating for her blindness? For that she can blame only herself-- her hands are not bound, and she could remove the blindfold easily if she'd put down the damn swords. Her blindness again highlights her fundamental imbalance: vision, like all the senses, is part of the physicality central to Cups, which signify primacy of the felt over the known; the importance of the unrationalized, unanalyzed, and unexplained. But the Sword, in its stubborn gnosticism, has no desire to see, and rejects the possibility of gentle interaction (and with it the possibility of emotional pain/vulnerability more broadly),  in favor of isolation and impenetrability (not to beat you over the head with the gender theme or anything).

WHEW! So, back to this divination business. Now that we have a basic idea of what the Two of Swords carries within it, what does it mean if it turns up in the "outcome" position in, say, a very basic five card spread? That depends somewhat on the other four cards, but much more than that it depends on the querent himself. 

The "potential/probable outcome" position is always about self-knowledge and never about the immutability of fate. Think about it: the entire tarot, as I've described it, is nothing but a tool to help us tell stories about ourselves. If a card here or there makes it to the end of the reading neither shaped by nor shaping the narrative, the whole thing's pretty useless, isn't it? 

At this point I'm gonna let you in on some of my ground rules.
1. No readings for complete strangers.
2. Really try to avoid readings for "acquaintances".
3. The querent has to want the reading.
4. The querent must be seeking guidance/direction, not a clear answer to some binary.
5. The querent should not tell me their query.
6. If the querent absolutely must tell me their query (and sometimes they do, you'd be surprised), make them wait until the reading is completely over.
These rules have evolved organically over the years, but I think they're essential now, and here's why: they maintain an appropriate distance between querent and reader-- not too far, but not too close. 

As we saw earlier, tarot cards are incredibly gravid and complex, and very often bring to the surface equally deep and complicated problems. I've inadvertently driven more than one querent to tears over the course of a reading and that's not because the cards are demonic-- it's because the symbolism is well-crafted and powerful, and it's incredibly unnerving to see our neuroses, weaknesses, vanities, and fears stare up at us blankly from a card table at a cocktail party. 

Tarot readings are, when you get right down to it, like group therapy sessions-- with thousands of people, spanning hundreds of years. We on the right so often bemoan the death of tradition-- here's one for you boys, neatly stacked and tied with a gold ribbon. The tarot represents, no, embodies, accumulated knowledge of human nature, personal relationships, and political and entrepreneurial ambition-- all we need do is lay out the cards and look. 

Which brings me back to my imaginary querent, who was unfortunate enough to find the Two of Swords, er, not-staring right at him at the end of the spread. To unlock the key to his future (ooooo),  the reader must figure out the querent's relationship with Swords. Is he himself more like a Sword or a Cup? Is the card a warning or an encouragement? Does the story of the previous four cards make sense if this is the conclusion? How does the querent seem to feel about this as a conclusion to their story?

There are, when it comes down to it, two options: either the final card flows with the rest of the story, or it doesn't. If it does, but the outcome seems undesirable, examining its relationship to the rest of the spread and figuring out how the querent feels about those certain repeated elements is nothing more than a useful psychological exercise.

For example, if we have the Six of Swords in the second position ('the present') and the Two of Swords in the fifth position ('potential outcome'), it's clear that the querent runs the risk of emerging from the difficult transition period indicated in the Six not with strength and quiet dignity, but damaged, defensive, and afraid. If the querent already sees something of the Six in his situation, then the Two is a very appropriate warning, and again, not because of divination, but because of the elegance with which the tarot lays out human psychology. The same applies for a desirable outcome in a spread that fully coheres.

However, if the final card makes no sense whatsoever, no matter what aspect of it is emphasized or how its message is spun... the querent still learns something about himself, noting his own confusion at the incongruity.

Let's say you have a really Pentacle heavy spread, all about money, business, duty, craftsmanship, etc, but the last card-- the "probable outcome"-- was the Hanged Man, who typically signifies suspension-- both of thought and of action. He may be Limbo, or Nirvana, or even just a sabbatical, but he's definitely alien to everything else in the spread-- the past, the present, the warning and the suggestion are all firmly rooted, down-to-earth, and devoid of the faintest hint of spirituality. So ought the hypothetical querent faced with this reading tremble and be fearful, worrying every moment that his life will be completely upended?

No! He should decide whether he wants to embrace what the Hanged Man signifies. Ideally the rest of the reading will help him evaluate the proper place of the Hanged Man in his life. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Charity case (also: Calvin Coolidge)

"No one could describe the Word of the Father;
but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described,
and restored the fallen image to its former beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images."
-Kontakion of the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the victory of the iconodules over the iconoclasts at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 AD!

One of the very fun things about this feast is the procession of icons. Different churches and parishes do it at different times-- at St Andrew's in Dix Hills, NY, today, it was done after the Divine Liturgy-- but basically members of the clergy and the parish hold icons and process about-- many simply walk the perimeter of the church building itself, though we walked outside the church today, which was made all the more beautiful by the bright morning and mild weather.

Great Vespers before the Sunday of Orthodoxy at St Alexis of Wilkes-Barre, 2007.
(Using this photo because Father Michael of Holy Transfiguration is in it [on the left]!)
Since I'm rarely in New York, this is only the second time I've been to St Andrew's. Still, I went to high school with the priest's children, and his son recognized me and asked if I wanted to hold an icon in the procession! I said no, of course, in what I'd like to think is humility but is really mostly just awkwardness.

After the procession and the veneration of the Cross, I walked out to the parking lot where my father was waiting in the car to drive us back home (he's been to a Divine Liturgy before, but isn't a religious man and doesn't really enjoy the standing). Just as we were pulling out of the parking lot a woman runs up to the car and knocks on the window.

"Hi! Hey. Father John told me to come talk to you. Have you been here before?"

She eventually gets me out of the car and walks me back into the church. I leave a bit heavier than when I entered:

I am ridiculously blessed. A priest literally sent a woman running after me to make sure he and his parish could do whatever they could to assist my conversion and make me feel welcome. He's since emailed me as well! I haven't read through all of the literature yet, but thus far I'm really enjoying this interview with Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (with whom I share a surname, bizarrely enough) on prayer:
"If we try to ignore life, and pray imagining that we are attempting to be contemplatives, it cannot work. Our concerns will carry us away from prayer. But if we realize that the whole of life is a situation in which God has placed us to bring our faith where there is no faith, to bring hope where there is no hope, to bring light--even if it is a very dim light, a spark--where there is only darkness or twilight, to be salt to prevent corruption, to bring a flicker of love where there is lovelessness, then there is no evil or distracting situation into which we cannot enter in a prayerful way."
The entire interview, conducted by AGAIN in 1989 (the year of my birth!), is well worth reading in full-- I had difficulty choosing what to excerpt! Available here for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

On a vaguely related note, I was watching C-SPAN3 this morning, as I am wont to do, and saw David Pietrusza (author of Silent Cal's Almanack: The Homespun Wit and Wisdom of Vermont's Calvin Coolidge) discussing that very President at a symposium hosted by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Unfortunately the whole video isn't available on the C-SPAN website-- hopefully it will be soon, I enjoyed it quite a bit-- but a bit that particularly stuck out to me involves one of Coolidge's intellectual startsi, as it were: Charles Garman, his philosophy professor at Amherst College. From Coolidge's own autobiography:
"It always seemed to me that all our other studies were in the nature of preparation for the course in philosophy. The head of the department was Charles E. Garman, who was one of the most remarkable men with whom I ever came in contact...Beginning in the spring of the junior year, his course extended through four terms. The first part was devoted to psychology, in order to find out the capacity and the limits of the human mind…We were not only learning about the human mind but learning how to use it, learning how to think...The human mind has the power to weigh evidence, to distinguish between right and wrong and to know the truth. I should call this the central theme of his philosophy…We looked upon Garman as a man who walked with God. His course was a demonstration of the existence of a personal God, of our power to know Him…The conclusions which followed from this position were logical and inescapable. It sets man off in a separate kingdom from all other creatures in the universe, and makes him a true son of God and a partaker of the Divine nature...He believed in the Bible and constantly quoted it to illustrate his position…To Garman was given a power which took his class up into a high mountain of spiritual life and left them alone with God…What he revealed to us of the nature of God and man will stand. Against it ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail.’"
Garman was, of course, an Orthodox Christian.