Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fame at Last

It gives me a certain satisfaction to be able to announce—a mere day after I learned of this event—that one of my great literary heroes (these tend always to be very obscure) is about to achieve, after a wait of nearly 700 years, genuine fame and well-deserved celebrity beginning on February 9, 2010. Dante’s Inferno is now at last available as a video game, the author of the work himself featured as its action hero—triumphant, tall, grim, muscular, in shiny armor, his weapon an awesome scythe. Dante comes to us by the grace of Electronic Arts Inc. EA, as the company styles itself, had revenues in 2009 of $4.2 billion, thus qualifying it as hefty enough to present DA (as Dante would no doubt style himself these days) to the youth of our day. EA’s slogan for the game is “Go to Hell - Send sinners to hell, torment and punish them.” In the graphic the Os in “Go to” have a little cross inside them by way of a hat tip to Christianity. Very tastefully done, I must say. You can tell from every detail of the art, the audio, the action, the rollout, and the promotion that the EA team charged with this challenging assignment has left nothing to chance. By all means pre-order your copies now lest you be denied entrance to Hell when the cherished day arrives. With the product secured, you will be able to enjoy the triumphant Television Debut of Inferno by EA in a state of relaxation as the event is announced with trumpets to the mundane earthly scene by ads during the upcoming Superbowl.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Portrait of the Blogger As a Young Man

This photograph reached me thanks to the good eye of my old Army buddy, Philip Marshall Cavanaugh. Needless to say, it made me chuckle. The picture dates to 1955 or mid-1956—and yes: I was already at it then in an age that didn’t even dream of the Internet. The tawdry disorder on my do-it-yourself desk in the Army (visible by clicking on the picture), before me my most valued possession, the typewriter, testifies to the shape of my life then, although I must say that looking around at my current work station, things look pretty much the same. And yes, the words were flowing then as now. There on the right is some manuscript in the making.

Sometimes it seems to me that we are born stamped in a certain way, and while changes do take place over time (I hope and pray), the form remains stubbornly the same.

And No. I don’t know what it was that I was doing with my fingers. Removing a carelessly licked stamp from an envelope? Having decided that the letter in the sealed enveloped held a badly turned phrase—realized after the sealing? Compulsive, obsessive editor? Wouldn’t surprise me.

And last, the beige book on the desk is titled The Soldier's Code. Fate inserted that into the picture as a little joke. And Yes. It was hot and humid at Ft. Benjamin Harrison that summer. The paper’s curling everywhere.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Different Ages of the Image

I came across the following last night in a marvelous book titled A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel (Viking, 1996, p. 105):
In October 1461, after being released from prison by the chance passing of King Louis XI through the town of Meung-sur-Loire, the poet François Villon composed a long poetic medley which he called his Testament. One of the pieces, a prayer to the Virgin Mary written (so he tells us) at his mother’s request, put in his mother’s mouth these words:
     I am a woman poor and aged,
     I know nothing at all; letters I never read;
     At my parish monastery I saw
     A painted Paradise with harps and lutes,
     And also Hell wherein the damned are boiled:
     One gave me fright; the other, joyfulness.
The French is also wonderfully archaic to my eyes:
     Femme je suis povrette et ancienne,
     Ne rien ne scay; concques lettre ne leuz;
     Au monstier voy, dont suis parroissienne,
     Paradis painct, ou sont harpes et luz,
     Et ung enfer ou damnez sont boulluz:
     L’ung une faict paour; l’autre, joye et liesse.
Villon, a fifteenth century poet, had been jailed for thievery. His most famous line—I’ve known it for at least fifty years but only today realized who’d written it—is “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Where are the snows of yesteryear? Phrases like that echo and reverberate, return year after year, wonderfully hold a feeling fast that, otherwise, is difficult to render—and this phrase has been echoing like that (if in me) in countless chests for about 450 years. But this post is not about words. It’s about images.

Manguel’s chapter in which this piece appears is titled “Picture Reading” and deals with picture books used in medieval times to convey the contents of the Old and New Testaments to an unlettered public. To make his point sharper, Manguel contrasts that age of the image with this one, and shows a picture of one of those magical ads for Absolut Vodka all of us, presumably, have seen an admired. After finishing the chapter and turning off the lights, I lay there for a while pondering a time when the great majority of people had no letters and absorbed the higher levels of culture by means of painted images or images formed of colored glass seen from the inside of monastery chapels, churches, and cathedrals. And we call ours the Age of the Image. And it is. In a quite different way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Elusive Culture

Over roughly a decade I’ve attended four science fiction conventions in Michigan, two called ConClave and two ConFusion, my last, this past weekend, one of the latter. Before that time I’d attended one in Minneapolis, one in Chicago, and a WorldCon in Kansas City—that one because I was one of the Hugo nominees and invited to attend. Despite this very limited sample, I drove home from my last ConFusion spontaneously forming, in my thoughts, a strong convictions about the changes over time in SF culture—until I stopped myself dead.

In every earlier case as also in this one, I spent three days in a hotel, attended five or six sessions, talked to two- or three-score people through the noise and the turmoil, watched oddly costumed people, garish goods and strange art on display, listened to prominent figures most of whose books I’d never read—and marveled at it all. And the residual impressions of this activity, filtered through my own accumulated life’s memories, is what I call culture?

No, nothing of the sort. But then, come to think of it, my views of Culture writ large—American culture, Western culture—are built up much the same way: that of the greater culture strongly influenced by a relentless stream of newsprint and media images, mixed with the residues of contacts with real people, problems in business, annoyance in travel, the contents of books read, films seen, art beheld, music heard. And this huge but not systematically studied mélange, synthesized in the endlessly fluctuating cauldrons of emotion into a single impression, that is my own subjective sense of culture. Not that I’ll avoid the word in the future. Such habits are hard to break. But at least today I realize the oddity of speaking of a subjective assessment of reality (or a part of it) as if it had a hard, independent existence, a singularity and stability, outside of myself.

Having said all this, some of the things I noted at ConFusion 2010:

  • The paranormal in one special form—vampirism, zombies—played a major role at this convention, and not at all because it was the convention’s theme. It wasn’t. I heard no references to the paranormal as normally understood, the real thing as it were.
  • I had a sense that many fans and panelists spontaneously used television series as the central points of reference when wishing to appeal to common knowledge—along with a few well-known fantasy-style books (Tolkien’s, for instance—rather than the science fiction greats).
  • The prominent philosophical or sociological issue was feminism, perhaps because most of the authors present were women.
  • The economic shadow that now weighs down on Michigan was obvious and tangible, many people suddenly opening up and relating their own woes at great length when asked about themselves. We heard many and very strange tales about the difficulties of getting by. And going to an SF convention was evidently a temporary escape into a better world for many—despite its growing population of blood-sucking mirages made modern, slender, sexy, and immortal.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Flying Buttress

The arch, which gives its name to architecture, produces an aesthetic form by harnessing practical intellect. This combination of a feeling, difficult to capture conceptually, and an intellectual force, the astute understanding of the play of physical forces, has always appealed to me in whatever field. Modern structural steel came into use in the nineteenth century and produced the first skyscrapers. After that all things became possible in architecture. Quite wonderful buildings still rise all over the world, but the interesting innovations the past produced by limiting the means to wood and stone have become less visible. Good architecture, nowadays, is a matter of money and taste.

My own interests date back to childhood when, at my grandmother’s house, aged four or five, left alone in a living-room-plus-library for a nap, I found a fascinating book of architecture filled with floor plans and architectural drawings—nothing like children’s books—and I fell into a life-long fascination. Later yet once I read a book on the arch—and its absence, for instance—in pre-Columbian American architecture. And then, while in Germany as a soldier, I spent my free time traveling all over Europe to haunt the great cathedrals. The Gothics were my favorites—and these feature that wondrous innovation, the flying buttress.

This drawing of a buttress at the Reims Cathedral is from an album of drawings by Villard de Honnecourt from the period 1230 - 35 obtained from Wikipedia here. This flying buttress has two wings, you might say. The interior of the cathedral is to the right; the buttress is outside under the open sky.

This elegant form came about because architects of that period (roughly the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) wished to build open cathedrals, the interior entirely hollow; “soaring” is often the word applied to capture the feeling we have as we look up into the dark immensities above. To get the open space, the ceiling could no longer be held up by a forest of massive interior columns. But, as a consequence, the weight of the ceiling used to cause the outer walls to push, to cave outward; if this was left uncorrected, the building could collapse. Two possibilities existed to correct this: to build very thick walls with very narrow or no openings at all. But the architects wanted lots of light to enter from without. Therefore they piled masses of stone on the outside of the walls to buttress them—not all the way up to where the windows were, but thickly at the bottom.

The flying buttress emerged later as a deeper understanding of the underlying physical forces developed over time. A flying buttress carries the weight of the roof and ceiling outward, away from the walls, in one or two flights, and lets it rest on the solid ground a distance away from the building itself. The concept of  “pushing against” had to be replaced by the concept of “carrying away.” This gives Gothic cathedrals their unique and wondrous look in which aesthetic values serve the needs of engineering and engineering transcends its function and becomes beautiful. I’ve long cherished this architectural structure as a visible symbol of the body-soul interaction. The next image is that of Notre Dame in Paris. It was begun in 1160 and completed in the 1240s; cathedrals, alas, are never really finished. Notre Dame was one of the first structures to use the flying buttress.
Notre Dame picture courtesy of Andy Hochhalter here.

Kate McGarrigle, R.I.P.

Just two months ago I linked to Matapedia on You Tube here to mark Brigitte’s and my appreciation of the McGarrigle sisters and their music. This morning I learn from the New York Times that Kate McGarrigle has died of clear-cell sarcoma at 63. Heaven is richer by her passing; we’ve been richer by her life.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Seen from the Future

We have been listening today to the hearings of what the British call an Inquiry, sometimes the Chilcot Inquiry (after its chair, Sir John Chilcot), a body that here we would call a commission; here is the Inquiry’s web site. Prime Minister Gordon Brown established The Iraq Inquiry on June 15 of last year. Its mission, as articulated by Sir Chilcot: “We will … be considering the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned.” The way the yellow press would rephrase that is by saying: “Why did Britain get into the war? Was it dragged kicking and screaming by the Americans? Was Blair really Bush’s poodle?” The portion of the hearings broadcast today by CSPAN featured the testimony of Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications and Strategy to Prime Minister Tony Blair in the 2001-2003 period.

It was fascinating—in part because these Brits are so very eloquent, commissioners and witnesses both—because the tone is so much more conversational than in Congressional committee hearings where everybody seems to be posturing all the time—and because, in today’s instance, they got into the most awesome details on behind the scenes maneuvers, minute matters relating to the development and even the phrasing of dossiers on matter of intelligence, relating to personalities, to political, international, and bureaucratic relations, the tensions between the Americans and the Brits—and all this in what sounded to us as extraordinarily candid tones unimaginable in the United States.

One part of me—the glib intellectual surface—was enjoying this about like Brigitte enjoys watching Olympic skating events. Another, lower, more brutal part of me, in the process of trying to snatch a nap out of this daytime televiewing (lunch having just been had), began to grouse under the covers. As the fractal images became ever more complex at every enlargement —while sort of staying the same— my lower self wandered off into the future and wondered what they would say about all this in a time say about four hundred years out. By then this microscopic detail should have been compressed to the absolute basics. And the rude self came up with this:

America went to war because Baby Bush decided to take out Saddam if he had a chance, and he did have his chance with 911—his reason being that Papa Bush had gone wobbly in the same enterprise and drawn back from doing the job right. And Tony Blair had gone to war because he was not about to be the first British Prime Minister to part from the Americans and never mind that his public was massively against anything of the sort. As for secondary reasons, the future (four centuries out), still dreaming of the oil that had been, would also say that oil had played a role, on both sides of the Atlantic. The Bush clan, after all, came out of oil, not hard liquor, like the Kennedys. And Blair, a kind of continental born-again, had a bit of the crusader about him and Saddam enough of Satan to fit the bill.

Whoa, whoa! I cried (mentally) hearing this diatribe. What do you mean the future? What you’re unrolling here is the not-too-distant past. These were your very thoughts when the Iraq war was building. And don’t you remember my urging you to grow up and become a little more measured and analytical?

My lower self suffers being silenced, but not without a parting shot or two. He reminded me that we both had an uncle who, echoing millions in Europe, was sure that World War II was entirely due to arms manufacturers who wanted to have higher sales. And, he adds, before trying for a nap again, Eisenhower knew that—and called for the curbing of the Military-Industrial Complex after the war was over and he’d gotten what he wanted.

Not easy to live with my lower self. No it isn’t.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Marvelous Bodies

In writing the account of a bone marrow transplant to save a child with Wiskott Aldrich Syndrome, a genetic defect that attacks the immune system, I discovered that the transplant is not a surgical procedure. The recipient’s own bone marrow is first killed by chemotherapy and is then withdrawn by suction. That step, the preparatory step, does involve surgical intrusion. But the transfer of the donor’s marrow, the actual transplant, happens in a procedure that is like a blood transfusion. A solution with the new marrow is infused into the arteries. The marrow-cells then find their way into the bone cavities of the recipient entirely on their own. They settle in—engraft is the technical word for this—and, once at home, the cells begin to produce the blood cells for the body, which is their job. The transfusion takes place rapidly. The engraftment takes about two weeks. This absolutely amazes me.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Steady On

As the earthquake in Haiti continues in the news and TV shows old footage about Haiti’s poverty, deforestation, and poisoned environment, some will be prompted to dig even deeper and will discover (I just did) that the first great disaster to hit Haiti was the arrival of Columbus. Contemplating  Europe’s  “discovery” of the Americas in detail produces depression. Savage landscapes open up as I witness nominally Christian people enslaving or slaughtering primitives. And in the North? We looked at that history compiling Statistical Record of Native North Americans. Plenty to be ashamed about. I recall noting from the scholarship back then that the arbitrary conquest of peoples and the seizure of land or other valuable properties was just as illegal in Columbus’ time as it is in ours. All the evil things that happened, the slaughter of the weak, slavery, the ethnic cleansing of rich farm lands of the American Indian—all this happened despite and in contravention of actually prevailing and known, and accepted local and international laws and conventions. Effective enforcement mechanisms did not then, or do now, exist. We not only inhabit a violent planet but also a fallen world. Fallen, yes. But I’ve tended to resist the notion we are all responsible for gross inhumanities that mar our history. Collective guilt doesn’t fix things. In every age there are some who inwardly and openly resist opportunistic savagery. Nor does indulging in depression, rage, or blame. Steady on, I tell myself. We’re bound for other shores.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

Clicking either of the images will get you to sites where online donations are possible. The response of the American Red Cross this morning was very slow, but that is a good sign.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Multi-Media Experience

Last Sunday we watched one of our own perform on stage in Paris. It was a real experience on various levels: electronic, artistic, linguistic, and personal. The event was a performance of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at La Colline, Théâtre Nationale. The play is still running there now. Sunday's performance was broadcast on streaming video live, and we watched it here in the Detroit metro area—Brigitte and I on a computer screen, John and Monique (who have better technology) on a large LCD television screen. The play, of course, was performed in French. It is directed by Stéphane Braunschweig, one of France’s prominent directors of plays and operas. We thought this production superb in every regard—the sets, the imaginative use of light, fantastic acting, and (not least) very good camera work in support of the video streaming. I’ve managed to get some photos of the play to show here.

The first shows (l-r) Phillip Girard as Doctor Rank, Chloé Réjon as Nora, and Éric Caruso as Helmer, her husband. In the next we see our own Thierry Paret, our Michelle’s husband, who plays Krogstad. Krogstad is the plot-maker of the play, you might say, the creator of the conflict that leads to the “doll’s” courageous self-assertion in this classic of feminism at the roots. In the last we see Nora again, alone.  These shots from a distance provide a fairly good feel for the way this play was staged and the importance that lighting played. Alas, the pictures are small, the faces almost invisible, but with Thierry, at least, we can show you a closeup. Here he is, not acting at all:

The play was also a linguistic experience. We watched it holding a copy of The Doll’s House and frequently checking the dialogues in order to keep track of the meaning of the action. It was hard to do because the acting was so riveting and the emotions told most of the story.

The personal aspects of this experience? Great satisfaction! Michelle and Thierry are far away. Thierry's profession is entirely woven into the artistic realities of France, which are not easily accessible here—and principally for linguistic reasons. It gives us very great pleasure to watch him perform, especially when, as in this case, we could see his every expression thanks to the skill of the people wielding the camera.

Thematics and Appearance

The theme of Ghulf Genes, the blog, comes from the central theme of Ghulf Genes, the novel. The novel came first. Its collective hero is a “peculiar” family based more on shared values than on blood, thus on a shared culture and a will to maintain it. Our own experience as a family gave me the initial idea. As participants in international student exchange we came to enroll young people who were, at first, total strangers into our own clan. They became real children for us. But this did not happen automatically or invariably. Something more played a role, shared values, and not least mutual choice. This insight developed from there. Eventually came the notion of genetics “raised an octave,” as it were, from the physical to the next level above—and the notion that culture itself has a code as flexible, tenacious, and as unforgiving as exists beneath it to support the physical.

When I changed the look of this blog a few days ago, I thought that I’d make this more explicit here and in the header. It might give some minimal orientation to new visitors—and I thought it appropriate now that the blog is approaching its first anniversary. The color change? Since I became the owner of a camera last July, I’ve put up more pictures. I operate a private test blog which uses the Scribe theme; that thematic has a similar beige coloration. Testing photos there, I found that they looked better against a non-white background—hence the change.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Nearly six decades ago I had my first lesson about decadence in college—at Rockhurst in Kansas City. Much has changed there. Rockhurst has gone from a males-only to a co-ed institution. It has been transformed from a liberal arts college to a university and now styles itself “Rockhurst - A Jesuit University.” In my freshman year I took a required course in world history from (I’m astonished I still remember this name) a Father Joe McCallin, an acid-tongued, wiry, red-faced Jesuit. He was an energetic if cynical teacher—or so I thought at the time. In retrospect I recognize that his bitterness reflected the modern culture rising all about him—and some of that bitterness stuck to me. At any rate, in that course, trying to make us understand the evolution of the Roman games over the centuries, he used the analogy of stimulus and habituation. In tasting the sweetness of food, he said, we soon get used to the sensation. It dulls with repetition. Then, later, trying to recapture the first pleasure of sweetness, we must increase the dose. The Romans found pleasure in experiencing violence vicariously. They got used to it. To rouse them, the violence had to increase…and increase again…and then again…

Self-evident? Yes, if you think about it. I was young, I hadn’t, and this analogy enlightened me. Obviously I still recall it—and I saw the truth of it played out throughout my life in the development of our commercial culture where drawing (and holding) the customer’s attention is vital even to stand still, never mind to grow, grow, grow—relentlessly, by corporate program, year after year, and preferably at two-digit percentage rates.

The immediate occasion for this line of thought comes from my recent preparations of some graphics (a collage of my old fiction titles) for use on Dwarf Planet Press: wild covers competing for attention. By contrast my new covers are dull, almost forbidding. Odd, this. The contents of these books are much the same. Another context is also present. We got a disc from a good friend of mine, Phillip Marshal Cavanaugh, around Christmas holding a movie. It comes from the old German Democratic Republic and is titled Offiziere (Officers). Brigitte and I enjoyed it a lot—but it also reminded us of visits to the old GDR—and the sharp contrast between that world and the West. That contrast lay in the fact that behind the Iron Curtain the hysterical competition of images and constant sounds, aimed at the customer, was altogether absent. Present in its stead, but much less intensely, was communist symbolism on public buildings here and there. Those old covers of mine are the West. My new covers are like the GDR.

Contradictory phenomena. Good literature aims at deepening perception rather than distracting it. The creative process at its best first deepens the creator’s feelings and understanding, and what the author experiences that the reader experiences later. This deepening is, to be sure, entertaining, but not in the sense of drawing the person into the world of sensation but precisely by its opposite: lifting the reader out of the lower into a higher sphere. Yet, to reach the reader, the publisher deploys a sensory onslaught just to have a chance to sell a book.

Television and movies bear out old McCallin too. On TV producers discovered that a little motion and background music drew more viewership. These days nothing stands still, everything moves on the screen all the time, so much so that the message is drowned in visual and musical noise. Character and plot are vanishing in the blockbuster movies in favor of ever more spectacular special effects—because the public taste has been so jaded by stimulus that nothing arouses any more except vast explosions and morphing monsters.

Jaded. Interesting word. I went to look and discovered its root. It doesn’t come from the hard gem stone but most likely from Old Norse for “mare,” jalda, which in turn derives from the mother of my own mother-tongue, the Finno-Ugric al’d’a, also for “mare.” A jade was a worn out horse—and hence also a woman past her prime.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dwarf Planet

Herewith a brief announcement of a new venture by Editorial Code and Data, Inc., an outfit close to my heart. ECDI is launching a new fiction imprint. I am announcing that on LaMarotte where commercial matters are a little more at home. I’ve also provided a link to Dwarf Planet Press on the blogroll of this site.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What Is It That You Do?

What is it that you do, my dear,
When all the world is fast asleep?
The television in your ear
Makes commentaries dire and deep
That you must scribble down and keep?

Or could it be that you are then
Acquiring scrumptious recipes
From glowing screens about a hen
With henna stuffed and served with peas
And sprinkled with some shredded cheese?

Do tell and now reveal the truth
About your personality.
You spend your night flossing a tooth?
Or does your Aqua comity
Here hold its rites of mystery?

Oh, Woman! Deep, mysterious,
Thy scented, charming tracks and ways,
Your hidden nooks, your furtive fuss!
The changes of your dimmed lamps’ rays
In sleep still haunt my dreaming gaze.

Lamp Loves Flower Pot

Thursday, January 7, 2010

27 Vowel Sounds

We received one of those humorous posts that tend to circulate by e-mail from my brother. It deals with spelling reforms under the guise of an initiative by the European Union. The text begins in plain English, but as each “reform” is instituted in the narrative, the text continues with the changes incorporated. A somewhat longer version is available here at the site of The Spelling Society. I’ll reproduce the last paragraph to give the flavor of things here:

Zis proses vil kontinu, in a kumulativ fashun. Eventuli English vil be ze komon languag ov ze Komuniti, vich vil no longer be merly an ekonomik sifer, but a kominashun ov fre pepls. Ve shal kontinu to red and rit as zo nuzing has hapend. Evrivun vil no vot ze uzer sitizens ar saying and komunkashun vil be mutch ezier. Ze Komuniti vil hav achevd its objektivs ov congrewents and ze drems ov ze pepls of Urop vil finali hav kum tru. It is hopd zat zes signifikant konseshuns vil finaly reashor ze “Uroskeptiks”!
The spoof didn’t go far enough for me. Notice, above that vich (for which) has the short and rit (for write) has the long i-sound. With that in mind I wondered how many distinct letters we would need to represent each vowel sound unambiguously. Webster’s to the rescue. From this dictionary I infer that we’d need 27 distinct letters—or 25 if we did not wish to sound out, correctly, the French words boef and the German Hölle and the French feu and the German Höhle (beef, hell, fire, and cavity respectively).

Here is a trade-off between simplicity of spelling relying on acquired habit and precision in spelling to help children read immediately. In Hungarian, the language in which I learned to read, we have a, e, i, o, u, and y and then additionally á, é, í, ó, ú, ö, ü, ő, and ű—thus 15 vowel sounds. Once you knew what to do with those diacritics, it was very easy. There were also some consonantal combinations to memorize in addition.

Brigitte and I are World Class Level MyWord players. We can do wonders with the six English vowel letters. Could we have been helped mastering English rapidly by having started in other languages? Maybe all children should first learn, say, Italian. Then English will be a snap.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Astonishing Diversity

Not just the Christian Science Monitor, which has long specialized in looking at the entire globe, but these days also in the pages of the New York Times and in images on television news shows (we rather like the new World Focus) we see many images of Asian and African cultures. On World Focus our presenter is usually Daljit Dhaliwal, herself of Asian roots; we got to know her back in the days of BBC’s often hapless world news on PBS. By way of an aside, we knew Daljit by name before she had a chance to introduce herself—because Brigitte likes fascinating sounds, and Daljit Dhaliwal had been one of those. Just for fun, sometimes, Brigitte will remind me of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, prime minister of Sri Lanka in the 1990s. And Brigitte is one of those who’d never dream of speaking of E. coli. No! She will produce the full Escherichia coli name at the drop of a hat and glory in each and every one of its rich, almost mouth-watering seven syllables. End of aside.

In any case, what with Africa in what appears to be a centuries-long turmoil of transition to the regions of Modernity, a process that unfortunately for humans always involves unutterable horrors of bloodshed, oppression, disease, and mayhem—plus our current culture-clash with Islam and our tense confrontation of Asia as an emerging economic behemoth—it is very easy to become aware of human diversity. The fifties and sixties were quite different. The signs of cultural mixing we sometime encountered back then took the form of ordinary white suburban youngsters dressed in odd robes approaching us in airports with “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.”

After the news I went upstairs to do some reading, presently A History of Private Life, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Paul Veyne, ed., 1987)—a book that merely reinforces what surrounds me in the news if not in the flesh, namely that it’s always been so. The book documents a transition between what its French authors are pleased to call pagan antiquity to early Christian times. Greek, Roman, and the Israeli experiences are included. The authors deal with multiple layers of society that, in those times, often lived very different lives. The focus is on private life and hence illustrates diversity down even at the level we call real life, thus life lived at the personal level. Astonishing.

I woke up with that phrase this morning: Astonishing Diversity. I do believe that we go right on thinking after the body slumbers off—or rather, it seems to me that we detach, depart for celestial regions and then, in the morning, resuming our bodies, we kind of check in to see what the status at departure was—and there, in our brains, the traces of the last thoughts still glimmer, the fire not quite extinguished, and so we wake up as we fell asleep.

Unbelievable diversity—but at the core a single nature. This because we are quite able to put ourselves into the shoes of the most arcane past and present modes of thought and feeling with a little effort and imagination. Something stirred in me, and then I remembered that Mortimer Adler had somewhere addressed this very subject. Adler was the editor of the Great Books of the Western World, an enterprise begun jointly with Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. Adler has been, still is, treated with disdain by some of academia’s aristocracy—perhaps because, as a popularizer, he gained wide recognition. Too bad. In my humble opinion Adler did more for real culture than most of that elite has done as a body.

Anyway, despite the ordered disorder of my so-called library, I soon had the volume in hand: Ten Philosophical Mistakes. In one of those essays, “Human Nature,” Adler defends the unity of human nature against its outright denial. This denial Adler assigns to existentialism, quoting Merleau-Ponty as saying that “it is the nature of man not to have a nature.” Adler’s defense may be stated this way: That which humans have in common, and that which makes the radical difference, is that all humans have the same potentialities—but these potentialities, while given to every human, may be—and are—developed in astonishing varieties. All other species are narrowly and genetically determined and therefore are essentially unchanging, but humans have a single potential which flowers in amazing ways. This supports Adler’s other characterization of the human condition, namely that humans are different from other creatures in kind, not merely in degree—a subject on which he produced a book-long exposition titled, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes.
Books mentioned at Amazon:

A History of Private Life, Volume I, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium
Ten Philosophical Mistakes
The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Pleasing Complexity

This gate by way of saying: “Arsen, if you will persist in complexity, at least make it pleasing!”

Pessimism, Nihilism, Dualism, and Hope

Just within a day or two last week I encountered the words pessimism, nihilism, and dualism applied to old Gnosticism by two authors—Henry Corbin and Hans Jonas. Jonas also applied the words to existentialism. Corbin was inspired by Heidegger’s phenomenological approach. He studied Heidegger for a while but went beyond that philosopher’s conclusions. Jonas came out of Heidegger’s school directly and also remained an existentialist throughout his life. Jonas’ essay, the concluding chapter of his The Gnostic Religion, makes the point that Gnosticism arose in the same historical circumstances as existentialism, namely a cultural disaster. Gnosticism, as Jonas saw it, was one answer to the collapse of the Graeco-Roman social system, a system based on a faith in a Cosmic Order, thus the belief in coherent relations between parts and the whole, the governed and the ruler. That order was in trouble, and minorities reacted. Existentialism was inspired, if “inspired” is the word to use, by the collapse of religious faith under the onslaught of modern science. I found Corbin’s comments in a presentation on comparative religion reprinted in The Voyage and the Messenger; that book holds a miscellany of his writings. Corbin uses the word pessimism by way of echoing the common characterization of Gnosticism, but then he parenthetically inserts the word dualism as a qualifier; in his view the Gnostic position was only pessimistic about this dispensation, not about Reality taken as a whole.

Dualism, in this context, is a technical term. It refers to systems of thought in which Good and Evil are both active and almost equivalent forces, thus Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Mazdaism. The Gnostics, most assertively, dismissed the entire cosmos as the product of an incompetent demiurge, hence they were the most pessimistic about this world. As, indeed, the existentialists are too. The Gnostic believed in a very distant sort of God who had no active involvement in this world—and certainly did not create it.

Corbin and Jonas were both men of my father’s generation. Corbin died as a charismatic, almost mystical figure. Jonas went on from his study of Gnosticism to develop an elevated ethical doctrine which, ultimately, is a refined form of existentialism. Reading his later books I felt the cold airs of Stoic endurance—a genuinely sincere conviction, high moral courage, but also the absence of anything that resonated with anything within me—somewhat like watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey, in which we are invited by the displayed emotions and the tone to worship—but to worship what amounts to a lot of suns and nebulae.

Interesting times I’ve lived in. Thinking about this, it occurred to me that our times have not yet genuinely felt the pessimism (dualism—as Corbin might remark in parentheses) that the Gnostics felt. Why? The answer is wealth. In our culture throughout the last century and continuing to this day, the social order has not yet begun to show its cracks as deeply as it did in the days of ancient Greek and Rome. Hence existentialism was/is a minority reaction to a change in culture on the part of those inclined to embrace the spirit of the times while, at the same time, sensitive to what it portends. Progressivism is the modern expression of hope. The real pessimism-dualism will appear when the infrastructure of modern life begins to manifest our one-sided emphasis on the material in more obvious ways. And that is still in the future unless—as in the case of Henry Corbin—we make the transition to a more comprehensive understanding of reality before the old one really begins to fall apart.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Note on Layers, Hierarchies, Flatlands

The image of culture as a layered arrangement rests on a hierarchical conception of reality. Here I note that hierarchy is built from the concepts of “the sacred” and “rule”; thus the word had a cosmic flavor initially before it came to be applied to characterize every kind of governing situation.

Interesting concept. If we see it as “rule from on high,” it has a top-to-bottom dynamic. The peak is therefore both the source and support of that which is beneath it. When we move this concept into an architectural environment, the bottom layer is the most important: it must be firm and wide enough to support all that it must carry, and so on as we ascend. We see both aspects of this arrangement in the visible world. The most important bottom-up structure we know is life. It vitally depends on a foundation of autotrophs, certain algae, bacteria, and plants that use inorganic matter and sunlight to produce the initial layer of the food chain. All creatures above this layer (heterotrophs) feed on autotrophs or other heterotrophs. All governments of whatever kind are top-to-bottom structures in that they are rule-setting and enforcing structures, and the governed exist in the environment thus maintained. Regardless of the prevailing cultural bias, structures of both kinds are always present. But there tends to be a leaning in cultures now toward one, now toward the other view of reality. The bias toward a top-to-bottom view comes when disorders mount. The bias toward a bottom-up view grows when authority becomes oppressive. Oppression grows with authority, disorder with freedom, hence cycling is our fate.

A hierarchical conceptualization is always based on values—and these are also viewed as hierarchically arranged. This view invariably produces the assertion that real agencies, thus autonomous beings, exist (ourselves included). And the hierarchy culminates in a single Ultimate. A flatlands conceptualization is based on the denial of values if these are considered to be in any sense as “absolute”; values are admitted, but only as subjectively perceived conditions. The operant explanatory principle of the flatland view is therefore chance. Its pragmatic explanation of rule is therefore based on probabilities. Those phenomena will govern that are most probable, and this means that large numbers will prevail. Democracy is therefore a natural expression of a value-free cosmology. No value may be asserted as in itself superior to others. Values are subjective, but if many many people hold them, they will prevail by producing high probabilities of adherence.

The disorders in our current layers of culture (if viewed from a position that favors a hierarchical dispensation), are due to the prevalence, currently, of a bottom-up conception of reality; it dates from the French Revolution, roughly, and materialism is one of its servants. All public efforts are therefore bent to persuading the largest possible numbers to give value to some outcome those doing the persuasion wish to impose. Multiple authorities compete to persuade us—because, with our flatland leaning, we deny any one of them ultimate power. We do have one authority in the United States with a final say. Thus we still have a toe-hold in the hierarchical dispensation. But to that authority we only grant a negative power; it may only say No. It is the Supreme Court.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Three Layers

Yesterday’s posting on the Papal initiative—to invite dissident Anglicans to join the Catholic Church—prompted me to ask myself why that event struck me as pleasing. The event may also be viewed in entirely in negative terms, of course. The Anglican congregation is dividing over a major conflict triggered by the ordination of women and gay clergy. Anglicanism, along with other mainline Protestant denominations, has been drifting into a social gospel for many decades already without that trend, which strikes me as much more serious, having caused any active rifts. The Papal initiative may also be viewed negatively as a power-grab. I’ve always viewed the exclusion of women from the priesthood as due to an arbitrary patriarchal bias rooted in the distant past. Similarly, I am persuaded that homosexuality is not a willed choice but a biological fact; fairly decent theories of how it arises are on offer; in other words, Dante to the contrary notwithstanding, it is natural. It occurs in nature, not by free will. The development of a celibate clergy also strikes me as a strange cultural aberration. You might say, in other words, that I don’t have a dog in this fight.

Pondering this, I realized that my pleasure came from another source. To put it briefly, the Papal initiative suggests a movement in the direction of genuine reform. If something like that inspires a realignment of the religious layer of our culture in the long term, it will be beneficial for this grouping of humanity, the West.

I came across this concept of layers in a quote from Ali Hujwiri (990-1077), a Persian Sufi, teacher, and writer. He said: “There are three forms of culture: worldly culture, the mere acquisition of information; religious culture, following rules; elite culture, self-development.” This was written in Hujwiri’s Revelation of the Veiled, and I saw it quoted in Idries Shah’s The Sufis more than thirty years ago. It struck me as true and appropriate—the more so because in the Sufi realm of thought, each individual is counseled to follow the appropriate requirements of each layer of culture, and these layers are conceived of as linked and ascending, like stairs to a summit.

The religious layer of culture, in other words, has a meaningful, elevated, role in the shaping of human values—and behaviors based on these values. It is a necessary element in human life. When this layer becomes deformed, trivialized, or sinks into the one beneath it, that spells trouble for the society—and individuals in it, of course. A single, coherent faith system is better than a carnival of competing beliefs. The reunification of Christianity is therefore desirable. That in turn implies an institutional organ at its peak which is sophisticated and appropriately tolerant of diversity beneath—and Benedict XVI’s initiative, if it succeeds, also suggests changes in that direction ultimately if unity is to be achieved. Hence my favorable reaction to the news.

Now, needless to say, the other two layers in our culture are not exactly exemplars of coherence and order either. And the relationships between them are correspondingly troubled. But the general trend of things, it seems to me, is better now, despite the seeming chaos, than it was in Dante’s day.

The trouble with this medium (blogging) is that it takes multiple passes to develop ideas. Or maybe that is the medium’s virtue. I’ve yet to make up my mind.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

When the Ordinary is Extraordinary

I spent much time during the last half of 2009 getting to know Dante and his era. Dante saw his times with anguish. The universal state (the Holy Roman Empire) just would not take hold over the secular sphere. And Dante thought that the Church had fallen into corruption. Indeed, the poet wrote two centuries before the unity of Christendom formally fell apart beginning in 1517 when Luther wrote The 95 Theses.

With this as background, I was oddly surprised yesterday to learn of an event that had taken place on November 4. We were in the sunroom, Brigitte reading aloud from The American Conservative (February 2010 issue). She came to an article that made us both sit up. The article, by William S. Lind, was titled “Come All Ye Faithful, Benedict’s Counter-Reformation.” As the story unfolded, it struck me that the tide Dante saw receding might now be returning after centuries—and what I might be hearing is news of a change with possibly far-reaching cultural consequences. I’d label this “A Ray of Sunlight” if it were not, at this point, extremely tentative.

In brief. Pope Benedict XVI published an Apostolic Constitution on November 4, 2009. Such a “constitution” is a change in church law. In this one, entitled Anglicorum Coetibus (Groups of Anglicans), Benedict announces that entire Anglican congregations—people, clergy, parishes, dioceses—may enter the Catholic communion at their initiative while retaining their Anglican rites, liturgy, identity, and self-governance. The constitution is available here. It is subtitled “Providing for personal ordinariates for Anglicans entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.”

Those who follow the trials and tribulations of churches know why the Pope may have acted and why some Anglicans may respond to his invitation. The mainstream Protestant churches have been secularizing, so to say, embracing a social gospel while letting the traditional faith erode. And in implementing changes pleasing to Modernity these churches have alienated large elements of the traditionally devout within them. Anglicanism is already cleaving into parts.

A brief look taught me that I’m inadequate to understand fully, or fast enough, the vast complexities in canon law and history involved here, but Lind’s interesting article seems to be on target, and I recommend it. It isn’t available online, but a subscription may be obtained here and I’ve seen The American Conservative on sale at Borders, for instance. Here I will merely cite three points that Lind himself highlights (among many others)—and are in the linked constitution in much dryer language. First, existing married clergy would be eligible for ordination under Anglicorum Coetibus. Second, all Anglicans who rejoin the Catholic Church at Benedict’s invitation would be required to profess the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism contains the doctrine of papal infallibility. Lind sees problems here but hopes that ways may be found to ease that pain, especially in light of the fact that the Anglican break with the Church predated that doctrine's promulgation (in 1870). Third, the incoming Anglicans would be under the rule of their own ordinaries, not subjected to existing bishops.

So what is an ordinary and what is an ordinariate? An ordinariate, I discovered, corresponds to a diocese, but one without a geographical boundary. The Church already has many such ordinariates to serve far-flung military commands. The ordinary, consequently, is the person responsible for such groupings. Webster’s definition: “a prelate exercising original jurisdiction over a specified territory or group.” He may be a priest or a bishop. Every bishop is thus an ordinary, but not every ordinary is a bishop. A personal ordinariate (in the language of the constitution) means one without a geographically-defined territory.

All this, of course, is Extraordinary! Brigitte and I grew quite lively at the prospect that some kind of unification of the faithful may eventually emerge from all this, the Anglicans representing the tip of a melting iceberg. Global Warming in a new sense. If it happens it will take a long time, no doubt as long as the breakup of Christendom took from the time when Dante noted the appearance of ugly cracks. Brigitte and I will long be gone. Lind sketches the possibilities of this in sufficient detail so that possible, even plausible, paths leading to unification of the faithful become thinkable.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Tirschenreuth: One of Our Cradles

In the fall of 1944 the chance of war deposited our family in a small Bavarian town called Tirschenreuth. We lived there for five years, formative years for me. I was eight on my arrival and thirteen on departure. I look back to that time as a great grace, gift, or sheer luck. Tirschenreuth gave me direct experience, in the twentieth century, of what it might have been like to live in an earlier and much more religious era of Europe. The following excerpt from a family memoir will convey the feel of the place. The account is historical, but it really felt like that still in my day.

In 1692 Tirschenreuth was just a little village under the rule of the great Cistercian Abbey of Waldsassen to the north. That year the typhus struck Tirschenreuth. People called it the “searing fever.” The mother and sister of one Johann Zottmeyer fell ill. He was a shoemaker. He prayed to the Sorrowful Mother to heal his family and promised that if they recovered, he would fashion an image of Mary for her veneration. Untreated typhus kills 10 to 60 percent of those infected. Zottmeyer’s sister and mother survived. He then engaged the artist Adam Beer to make an image of Mary for him out of white clay. White clay, kaolin, is common in the region and is the source of Tirschenreuth’s famous china. Zottmeyer hung this image near the church in a grove of lindens. In 1714 a lens grinder named Georg Sandinger was traveling south from Eger. He stopped on his way. He had drunk some bad water before departure and gotten quite sick by the time he reached Tirschenreuth. He lay down under the linden trees; he thought that he was dying. He glimpsed Mary’s image up in the tree beneath which he had come to rest.

(Wonderfully mediaeval this story. The Age of Enlightenment had begun, but Tirschenreuth has always been behind the times—like me.)

Sandinger now prayed for relief. Instantly, it seemed, he felt fine again. In gratitude he fashioned a roofed frame for Mary’s image. Three years later a journeyman whose left side had been lamed by stroke was instantly healed when, awkwardly, he climbed the linden tree and lit candles placed on the little ledge Sandinger had made to frame the image. These stories spread. By 1719, pilgrimages began to arrive in Tirschenreuth and grew huge as scores of healing stories spread across the land. People came from as far as Hungary. The Cistercians in Waldsassen took notice. A group came south and organized this phenomenon into an annual event.

The pilgrimage was suppressed in 1803 at the culmination of a period of secularization carried out by absolute monarchs in Europe. The Abbey of Waldsassen was dissolved and lost all of its holdings.

We didn’t know, living in Tirschenreuth after the war, that the place had been something akin to Fatima once—and would be so again, if still only on a tiny scale. The pilgrimage was authorized again in the 1970s. Today a monthly pilgrimage takes place in Tirschenreuth on the 13th of every month. There is now a Legion of Honor of our Dear Lady of Tirschenreuth, and those who make the pilgrimage three times are named its knights. Tirschenreuth is getting ready for the coming dark age now preparing all around us…

In a way we experienced an echo of those times. Several annual religious festivals in Tirschenreuth preempted all other activities. Every spring the parish staged a so-called Mission at the main church on the square. Afternoon and evening sermons followed high masses in the morning. Vast throngs attended these emotional events. There was the organ, the choir, and the voice crying for repentance from the golden pulpit of a cavernous dark church. An Easter celebration caused the streets to deck out in flowery booths, and floats passed the watching crowds. In autumn we attended the Harvest Festival (das Erntedankfest). Christmas was always also rather splendid.

My sister reached the age of first communion while we were there. She received it in that magnificent church with many dozens of young girls all wearing splendid white dresses that had taken quite some labor to obtain and fit. The whole family this time, all of us together, sat dressed in our very best and watched her proudly as she made her way toward the altar. I think each girl carried a lit candle. There were boys there too, of course, but we only had eyes for our daughter and sister.

I was confirmed in that church.

In those days the church was dark, almost gloomy. Old, forbidding, but mysterious. It was a dark and mysterious time—and the preachers at the annual Mission had a ready audience. Years later, in the 1970s (but unaware that pilgrimages had resumed), Brigitte and I once—on a visit to Europe to attend a conference—entered that church mid-morning on some weekday. Eight women sat in a single pew toward the front and recited a litany in rhythmic, cheerful voices. I could barely believe my eyes. The church had been restored to its original baroque splendor. It was all bright and yellow and pink and gold and red and the blue of the sky. The statues were milky white. The marble had been cleaned so that it shone and showed off the fine graining of its native stone.

* * *

Throughout my earlier childhood, we had moved with such frequency all over Hungary—my father having been an officer in the Army—that no place left any deep impression, only a few sharp highlights. For this reason for me, and my sister Susie (our little brother was too small to have experienced this quite so sharply) Tirschenreuth became, oddly, our home town, one of the cradles of the Ghulfs.