There be dragons!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Second Step (Purgatory IX)

In Canto IX of Purgatory Dante describes the second of the three steps up to the gates of Purgatory in the following way:

Era il secondo tinto più che perso,
d'una petrina ruvida e arsiccia,
crepata per lo lungo e per traverso.

Esolen translates this as

The second step, a scorched and rough-cut stone,
was veined with cracks all over and across,
and darker than the darkest violet-brown.

while Mandelbaum

The second step, made out of crumbling rock,
rough-textured, scorched, with cracks that ran across
its length and width, was darker than deep purple.

Longfellow with the same passage

The second, tinct of deeper hue than perse,
Was of a calcined and uneven stone,
Cracked all asunder lengthwise and across.

And Sayers

And dyed more dark than perse the second was -
A calcined stone, rugged and rough in grain,
And it was cracked both lengthwise and across.

The word "perso" translated variously as black, purple, deep purple, or "darkest violet-brown" (Esolen) carries for Dante's audience two connotations lost on us in English.  First, that the color is the color of the church year, Lent and Advent, in the Medieval era (there were no green vestments).  The second step indicates penitence and waiting for rather than the permanent sorrow of black.  Second, the color was the color of royalty - derived from the rare mollusk and producing "the persian cloth" of kings.  Thus the second step, though cracked all over, is also the stone of the king (Christ) who broke the bridges of hell and turned the permanence of death (black) into the penitence of the liturgical year.  Purgatory, different from Inferno, is a temporary state rather than a permanent.  Joy and beauty abound throughout the text because the souls are bound for Heaven - not locked into that inflexible psychological loop of fixation on an injury or object which constitutes the mental state of hell.  The stairs up to the gates of Purgatory are all about Faith (white), Hope (purple) and Charity (red), the theological virtues which the Virgilian human intellect, necessary for the seeing of evil as it really is, does not comprehend.  In Purgatory, which is a journey of the heart (the silver key) more than of the head (the gold key), cannot be accomplished unless one gives oneself over to experiencing these three virtues which complete the "virility" of man.
Details, details, right?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Scruton and the Deconstructionists


Roger Scruton writes, at the end of his excellent analysis that
…it is futile to defend Western culture by attacking feminism, gay liberation and other movements which have captured the curriculum.  For these movements are the effect and not the cause of cultural uncertainty.  And this uncertainty occurs not at the level of the curriculum, but at the level of social reproduction.  The loss of the transition from youth to adulthood means the loss of sexual restraint, and therefore the loss of trust between the sexes.  The sexes cease to be partners and become rivals.
and earlier
In a study of Orwell’s 1984… Alain Besancon argues that the totalitarian society envisaged by Orwell can be understood only in theological terms.  For it is a society founded on a transcendental negation, a supreme ‘naysaying’ to the human condition to which ther is and can be no merely human rejoinder.  In this society there is only power, and the goal of power is power.  In the place where love should be there is absence; in the place of law another absence; in place of obligation, friendship, responsibility and right only absence.  Truth is what power decides, and reality no more than a construct of power.  People can be ‘vaporised’ – for their existence was never more than provisional, a momentary arrest in the flow of unmeaning.  Language has been turned against itself, so that the attempt to mean something – the desperate bid for a significant utterance – will always fail.  Newspeak deconstructs the word, so that nothing speaks (or writes) in it save power.  And ruling through this power is a supreme cleverness, the Mephistophelian irony of O’Brien, who undermines in his rhetoric the very system that he serves, mockingly enforcing through torture the view that torture, like everything else, is utterly pointless… When at last the veil is lifted (on this mindset of deconstructionism), we perceive a wondrous landscape: a world of negations, a world in which, wherever we look for presence we find absence, a world not of people but of vacant idols, a world which offers, in the places where we seek for order, friendship and moral value, only the skeleton of power.  There is no creation in this world, though it is full of cleverness – a cleverness actively deployed in the cause of Nothing.  It is a world of uncreation, without hope or faith or love, since no ‘text’ could possibly mean those transcendental things.  It is a world in which negation has been endowed with the supreme instruments – power and intellect – so making absence into the all-embracing presence.  It is, in short, the world of the Devil.p. 147 – 148

This is brilliant.  Three things come to mind.  First, that outlined here is the same problem Socrates faces in the Gyges’ ring analogy raised by Glaucon.  The ring found in the cave grants the bearer “invisibility” which is the power to see that all things are constructs of the human mind; images, words, ceremony, even ideas are not necessarily connected to anything but are mere signifiers and thus completely at the mercy of one who can control them.  To realize such a thing makes one above humanity and awake to the world.  One becomes what Nietzsche called “the ubermensch”.  This is not an evil in itself, it is merely a knowledge, a magus, but it can become an evil depending on how it is used.  The deconstructionists use this knowledge to dominate over others for, as Scruton points out, in their despair they see nothing beyond the signifier.  For the deconstructionist we are totally alone on this ball of mud.  Nor can they bring themselves to live “as if” there was something transcendental for such a thing requires the negation of power.  To acquire power is their only reason for being.  They are sorcerers who use the power of imagery to dominate, as opposed to wizard who use the power of imagery to embolden and encourage (Saruman to Gandalf).  The second thought on this, then, is that the same diabolic activity is what has occurred in groups such as the Legionaries of Christ and amongst the Illuminati and Masons who see all life as the acquisition of more power – through dominating others, abusing others, enslaving others.  And the third idea flowing from this is that, for those who do not know the full extent of the rot, such sorcerous thoughts have infected our institutions in the modern world long enough that they have deeply infiltrated our politics and culture.  Thus, I think Dinesh D’Souza is wrong in his analysis of the current POTUS – he isn’t recrafting the world in anti-colonial terms; he’s recrafting the world for the acquisition of more power to himself.  In essence B.O. is nothing more than a sorcerer, a conjuror (though not a very good one IMO).  He is a child of the deconstructionist riddled universities that see no meaning in anything and all institutions of the West as one long, sick, meaningless joke.  Basically, B.O. is the perfect deconstructionist – a presidential Jacques Derrida, if you will.  Read this book.  It’s brilliant.

The humanities, as these emerged in the nineteenth-century university, were not designed to instill a common culture.  On the contrary, they assumed the work of ‘acculturation’ to be already complete.  Their purpose was to reflect on the human world, by providing images, stories, works of art, and expressions that would become part of the mental repertoire of those who absorbed them.We have abundant scientific knowledge of our world and technical mastery over it.  But its meaning is hidden from us.  We have knowledge of the facts, and knowledge of the means, but no knowledge of the end.  … this peculiar ignorance – not ignorance that, or ignorance how but ignorance what.  We no longer know what to do or what to feel; the meaninglessness of our world is a projection of our numbness towards it…. That is the point of high culture; neither to ‘do dirt on life’, nor to emphasize its senselessness, but to recuperate by imaginative means the old experience of home.…we need the vision of ourselves as ennobled by our aims and passions, existing in ethical relation with our kind.  But we must free ourselves of those last romantic illusions – including the illusion that love is the answer.  Love is not the answer, but the question, the thing which sets us searching for meaning in a world from which meaning has retreated.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pip & Percival

Teaching "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens and noticing this time around an excellent example of mythopoeic speculation.  Bernard Batto in his great analysis of the book of Exodus, "Slaying the Dragon" defines mythopoeic speculation as, 


The conscious, reflected application of older myths and mythic elements to new situations...the process by which new myths are created or old myths are extended to include new dimensions.

This human process of recreation occurs in each generation of artists (ours included) who draw from the old in order to create the new, and thus continue to comment on the eternity of the human spirit.  Egyptians used to call this the sowing of the seed and represented the process by taking crucial artifacts from an older monument and burying them in the foundations of a new monument.  In our own time mythopoeic speculation can be seen most readily in the repetition of movies such as "Seven Samurai", "Magnificent Seven" and "Bug's Life" the plot of each mirroring the one before it.  Dickens' great story is no different.  He is drawing from the second of the two great pillars of British culture which are the King James Bible and the Arthurian cycle.  His story of Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham and Magwich is really the story of Percival ("Peredur" in the Mabinogion), the third knight in the quest to achieve the holy grail.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Percival

First, the situation of both characters is very similar.  According to the Mabinogion, Percival's father was a knight killed in a vendetta whose mother fled to the wilderness with her little boy.  He was raised, therefore, totally cut off from the "civilized" world of the court - a country bumpkin, or hayseed, if you will, but full of the zeal and energy of that rustic world.  
he was slain, and six of his sons likewise. Now the name of his seventh son was Peredur, and he was the youngest of them. And he was not of an age to go to wars and encounters, otherwise he might have been slain as well as his father and brothers. His mother was a scheming and thoughtful woman, and she was very solicitous concerning this her only son and his possessions. So she took counsel with herself to leave the inhabited country, and to flee to the deserts and unfrequented wildernesses. 
Similarly, Pip's father and mother died in his infancy and he has grown up in the marsh country, raised by his sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery.  Dickens makes Joe very rustic; uneducated, good hearted, well meaning but clumsy and plain.  The marsh is remote, wild, isolated, a scene well depicted in the BBC version of the story.  

It is as far from the court of "Camelot" as possible.  Dickens' trope on the image, though, is that this rustic background is nothing to be ashamed of but is full of, what Dickens saw as, country virtues.  It is only a source of shame when compared to the gentile and dandified world of city life.

Pip comes into direct contact with this city life in the person of Estella.  Percival encounters "city life" when he first sees a cadre of knights pass by.  This vision is later reinforced in the vision of the grail.  Both characters, though, are brought out of their lowly condition by a vision of beauty.  In Percival is kindled a desire to become a member of the court, 
"Mother," said Peredur, "what are those yonder?" "They are angels, my son," said she. "By my faith," said Peredur, "I will go and become an angel with them." 
a desire he immediately tries to fulfill by leaving home, defeating a a knight, and traveling to Camelot clad in the defeated knight's armor.  Percival then enters, like many other knights, on the grail quest.  In the Arthurian cycle, however, the grail is closely associated with the image of the feminine.  The shape of the cup, the attraction toward the beautiful, the gentling effect the grail has, all point to a connection between the grail cup and the belle dame image of chivalric lore.  Percival encounters his belle dame in the pageant of the grail castle;
Thereupon, behold five maidens came from the chamber into the hall. And Peredur was certain that he had never seen another of so fair an aspect as the chief of the maidens. And she had an old garment of satin upon her, which had once been handsome, but was then so tattered, that her skin could be seen through it. And whiter was her skin than the bloom of crystal, and her hair and her two eyebrows were blacker than jet, and on her cheeks were two red spots, redder than whatever is reddest. And the maiden welcomed Peredur, and put her arms about his neck, and made him sit down beside her. 
The grail is also associated with the cup of the last supper and the crucifixion of Christ (it is both the cup used to initiate the Mass and the cup that catches the blood of Christ on the cross) but its connection to the feminine raises an intriguing Medieval comment on the nature of sexual desire as it relates to salvation; a governing of desire toward its proper end and a putting of oneself at the service of beauty in order to channel desire toward selflessness.  

Percival's seeking and eventual attaining of the grail are, then, both salvific and romantic; romance as a way toward salvation.  This is most readily apparent in the story of Percival and the temptress by the shore.  Percival's desires for women are still misplaced - he has to recognize women as fellow sufferers and not the source of but merely vessels of beauty; the grail itself is not the goal but what the grail holds or represents.  

In a very similar way, Pip begins by desiring Estella (his "star") but is confused as to why he desires the young debutante.  She treats him haughtily and with disdain, as though she were royalty.  Pip even has a conversation with his friend, Biddy (a character similar to Elaine in the story of Arthur, though Elaine is Lancelot's wife), in which he reveals to her his confusion of Estella.  
"Biddy," said I, after binding her to secrecy, "I want to be a gentleman."
"O, I wouldn't, if I was you!" she returned. "I don't think it would answer."
"Biddy," said I, with some severity, "I have particular reasons for wanting to be a gentleman."
"You know best, Pip; but don't you think you are happier as you are?"
"Biddy," I exclaimed, impatiently, "I am not at all happy as I am. I am disgusted with my calling and with my life. I have never taken to either, since I was bound. Don't be absurd."
...Biddy turned her face suddenly towards mine, and looked far more attentively at me than she had looked at the sailing ships....
"Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?" Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.
"I don't know," I moodily answered.
"Because, if it is to spite her," Biddy pursued, "I should think—but you know best—that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think—but you know best—she was not worth gaining over."
Exactly what I myself had thought, many times. Exactly what was perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which the best and wisest of men fall every day?
(GE: Chapter XVII)
The fact that Pip is either trying to gain Estella or spite her indicates a misplacement of his motivation; he is not motivated out of real life or equality to her but is motivated for selfish reasons.  Thus she becomes the temptress by the shore - a temptress that he can only defeat by remembering death and calling on the "cross" of reality.  In other words, Pip has to have an awakening to the hollowness and emptiness, the vanity, of the material world - a world gained for him by the suffering of Magwich and confirmed in its brutal inhumanity by the character of Drummle - lest he become a damned soul and fail at the grail quest.

Yet Pip suffers from the same flaw as Percival; neither character asks the right questions.  When Percival first encounters the knights he asks about all the trappings, armor, weapons, banners of the knights, all the outward signs of glory and honor, but not about what constitutes authentic heroism and self-sacrifice, real glory and honor.  
"What is this?" demanded Peredur, concerning the saddle. "It is a saddle," said Owain. Then he asked about all the accoutrements which he saw upon the men, and the horses, and the arms, and what they were for, and how they were used. And Owain shewed him all these things fully, and told him what use was made of them.
Percival is entranced by the illusion of the material and does not ask questions that might bring him beyond that temporal world.  His mother exacerbates the problem when she tells him, upon his leaving home, not to ask too many questions.  Thus, when Perival is later in the grail castle, he does not ask about the pageant of the grail that passes before him.  Because he does not so do he is incapable of healing the Fisher King, a king who has a wound in his vital parts (his groin) that cannot be healed by natural causes.  As Matthew Annis points out,
...the Fisher King originates (as a literary character) in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. The reader first encounters the Fisher King when Perceval meets a fisherman who offers Perceval lodging. In his castle, the fisherman reveals himself to be a king who is weak and bedridden, and yet has such an abundance of wealth that he can provide his guest a grand feast. During the feast, Perceval witnesses a Grail Procession but fails to ask his host any questions pertaining to what he sees. As a result, all the inhabitants of the castle disappear the next morning (Chrétien de Troyes 32-37).
This story has found numerous incarnations in Western literature.  Annis notes in the same article that
There are many different versions of the story of the Fisher King, and the character is not represented uniformly in every text. In the medieval period, Chrétien de Troyes' Percival makes him a completely ambiguous figure, while Wolfram von Eschenbach provides him an elaborate background in his Parzival. The Vulgate Cycle expands the Fisher King into multiple Maimed Kings, each suffering from some type of wound; yet Thomas Malory virtually ignores the Fisher King in his Morte Darthur. Modern texts treat the Fisher King less as a character and more as a motif: T. S. Eliot incorporates the motif of the Fisher King into the desolated modern city and its people in his poem, The Waste Land; in other modern texts, the Fisher King is embodied in a Vietnam War veteran, children in search of their fathers' identities, and the baseball coach of a team on a hopeless losing streak. The Fisher King also appears in various films, from Eric Rohmer's adaptation of Chrétien's Perceval to Terry Gilliam's buddy comedy, The Fisher King. In every version of the story, though, the Fisher King is completely helpless and depends on another to alleviate his suffering.
The wounding of the Fisher King parallels the wounding of Miss Havisham.  Just as he is wounded in that part most vital to manliness, the genitals, from which a man draws his power as a man and effects the world in a procreative way, so too Miss Havisham in the novel has been wounded in the heart.  She has been jilted at her wedding by an unscrupulous man and carries with her a wound in the seat of emotion from which women draw their intuitive power and ability to receive love.  In medieval literature, the seat of power for men is dynamic, procreative, inseminating, sexual power; the seat of power for women is the intuitive, receptive, emotional heart (an image that only begins to take shape in medieval romantic literature as heretofore the kidneys, not the heart, were the seat of emotions).  Havisham, like the Fisher King, cannot be healed by normal means but must have a supernatural healing - a healing by the fire of the holy spirit - to cure her of her bitter entombment in a false material world.

But Pip can no more cure her than Percival can cure the Fisher King.  Pip refuses to ask questions such as why Miss Havisham suffers as she does, whether Estella's disdain is the right way to treat someone, whether his world with Joe Gargery ought to be sufficient, or later where his own money comes from or what the proper human attitude toward other humans ought to be.  As a boy he does not help Miss Havisham ought of love but out of duty, fear, and later the expectation of receiving good fortune.  Later, Pip takes for granted that the wealth he receives is from Miss Havisham and even that it is due to him so that he can become a gentleman.  His cavalier attitude toward material goods, unquestioning of their origins, positions him to become a man similarly heartless to the Drummle character.  Like Percival he is tempted by the "woman by the shore", the false lady, to succumb to the illusion of the material world.

Finally, both achieve the grail in the same way.  In the midst of temptation Percival looks on the cruciform image of his sword and he remembers a dying girl he once loved.  Howard Pyle relates the story in his "The Story of The Grail and the Passing of Arthur":
Then, by and by, the lady grew very fond toward Sir Percival, and she put her arms about his shoulders and held him very close to her. With this the wine swam still more powerfully in Sir Percival's head, and he knew not very well what he said or did. And he said, "Lady, tell me — what is this, and why am I here?" To this she answered, "Percival, thou glorious knight! this is the pavilion of Love, and I am the spirit of Venus who inhabits it. So yield thou to that spirit and take thou the joy of thy life whiles thou mayst."
Therewith she reached her arms again to Sir Percival and he reached his arms toward her and he took her into his arms. And kissed the lady. Sir Percival kissed her upon the lips and the fire from her lips passed into his heart and set his soul aflame.
Then, in that moment, he knew not why, he suddenly bethought him of that fair lady whom he had met in the tent when first he went forth as a knight, clad in his armor of wicker-work.And he thought of how he had kissed her that time; and he thought of how he had beheld her in that cold and windy room of the castle, lying dead and white before him ; and he thought of how he had beheld the Spear and the Grail that time in the castle. Then it was as though a wind of ice struck across the flame of his passion, and he cried out thrice in a loud voice, "God! God! God! What is this I would do, and why should I sin in this wise?" And therewith he drew upon his forehead the sign of the cross.
Then in an instant the lady who sat beside him shrieked very loud and shrill, and all about him was confusion and turbulence. And Percival looked, and behold! it was not a strange and beautiful lady who sat beside him like a wonderful goddess, but it was the Enchantress Vivien, clad in red and bedecked with her jewels. For it was she who had thus planned the undoing of Sir Percival by causing him to sin. 


This memento moris, a recalling of death, jolts him back into the cold light of day such that he rejects the temptress (the belle dame sans merci, or false lady) and prays for help from Mary (the belle dame, or true lady).  Immediately the temptress disappears and Percival is left on a barren shore, but he is joined by the other two knights, Bors and Galahad, who are close to succeeding at the grail quest and together the three go one to achieve the grail together.  In much the same way Pip has to grapple with the harsh revelation that his wealth has been due to the sweat and blood of a convict, Magwich, who loves him as a son.  Then he has to see his beloved Estella married to the brutish Drummle (the false knight) and undergo a painful marriage of abuse and loneliness which chastens her.  Both experiences are harsh encounters with death, but they are necessary for young Pip to realize the truth about his situation.  Only by accepting Magwich does he come to love the man as a father and selfless try to get Magwich free of imprisonment.  Only by seeing his lady, Estella, stripped from him and shackled to a brute of a man does Pip come to see not only what he has lost but what is truly important to him. 

 Through the experience of memento moris Pip ascends to a higher plane of human understanding, trading in the false lady for the true.  Though at the end of the novel he doesn't wed Estella (contrary to the lovely ending of the BBC production) he meets her at the end as a fellow human being and sufferer along the way.  Since she is no longer the source of desire and beauty (the great expectation), Pip is able to show her compassion and friendship.  Like Percival, Pip's expectations have ascended beyond the realm of the material world toward a real apotheosis of spiritual understanding.  Thus, just as Percival leaves the realm of the grail and returns to die in the civil war of Camelot, Pip can part from Estella with blessings as a fellow human being and return to the toil of the world.

The story of Percival and of Pip seems at first as a tale of tragedy and to some degree it is so.  Nevertheless, it is a powerful tale about the nature of our human condition, love, desire and attainment of sanctity.  Tragedy is a necessary part of sanctity and sorrow and loss are vital to our waking up to expectations greater than we could ever imagine.  Only such expectations can promise real happiness, real honor, real humanity and the fulfillment of such expectations comes not from the material wealth and beauty of the grail but from the holy wine, the blood of Christ, poured out for suffering humanity.

The Opening / Concluding Paragraphs

Video of yesterday's lecture on the opening/concluding paragraphs.  Sorry about the sound.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Five basic concepts to look for in essay grading

5 basic concepts to look for in student writing
(written especially for teachers in subjects other than English)

  1. spelling (feel free to grade as much or as little spelling as you wish, incorporate it into your overall grade if you wish; I normally give spelling at about a 10% of overall grade)
  2. grammar (students should be able to express themselves coherently if not expertly.  Grammar ought to factor into the grade at about the same level as spelling; 10%)
  3. organization of ideas (this remains subject to your judgment.  If their ideas are jumbled it should detract and if their ideas are organized, even if not perfectly organized, it ought to contribute to their overall grade; roughly 20%)
  4. clarity of expression (similar to organization of ideas is how clear students are expressing themselves.  Clarity includes things such as formatting, handwriting, headers, footnotes/endnotes, anything that needs to be clearly expressed to the reader; 60%)
  5. use of subject matter (normally this will be the remainder of the grade; appr. 40% of their grade.  Thus if they spell well and have good grammar, organize their thoughts and write clearly, they will get a passing grade – 60%.  The excellence of their grade then depends on the use of subject matter and that is left to discretion of the individual disciplines).  Included herein is succinctness and profundity of thought - what is the quality of what they are saying (this will increase in importance as the student progresses from year to year).


Rubric for essay grading

Grades are “an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material.” ~P. Dressel

Rubric for Essay Grading



The grading system as we know it was invented in the late 18th century.  It took root in America through the progressive system under John Dewey.  In Neil Postman's book, Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology (1992), the author says that, "In point of fact, the first instance of grading students’ papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish.”  He goes on to say this about the grading system:

And yet his [Farish's] idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself... Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge.
I shall not argue here that this is a stupid or dangerous idea, only that it is peculiar. What is even more peculiar is that so many of us do not find the idea peculiar... If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did.
In every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by his famous aphorism “The medium is the message.” This is what Marx meant when he said, “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature” and creates the “conditions of intercourse” by which we relate to each other. It is what Wittgenstein meant when, in referring to our most fundamental technology, he said that language is not merely a vehicle of thought but also the driver. And it is what Thamus wished the inventor Theuth to see.
This is, in short, an ancient and persistent piece of wisdom, perhaps most simply expressed in the old adage that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.

Students are not numbers, and though they must be required to learn certain quantifiable data, and though assessment of such requirements must be generally accurate, their intellectual progress cannot be limited to a single letter or percentage.

Consequently we are forced to conclude that the grade must be no more than a short hand for the judgment of the student’s progress by the master.  Grades reflect certain general principles of expectation which the student is required to meet.  The letter ranks the student both against other students and against the ideal which the master desires that they achieve.  The positive or negative marking indicates that the student still needs improvement in this area, rests solidly in this area, or is progressing in this area.

For essays this rubric consists of the following criteria.

Letter Grade
Verbal assessment
Criteria met
A, A-
Outstanding
Essay has
      strong, clear, simple thesis;
      three clear topics supporting thesis;
      three clear supporting points furthering the argument;
      Sufficient evidence grounding the supports in data; well-integrated, well-employed
      well-argued explication of the data in the form of commentary;
      clear introduction & conclusion;
      smooth, easy to read style with clear enumeration, metaphorical language, concise word choice
      impeccable punctuation/spelling/grammar
B+, B, B-
Above Average
Essay has
      Fairly clear thesis which could be stronger
      Three fairly clear topics which could be closer tied to thesis
      Three supporting points in each paragraph which could be more strongly tied to topic
      Good amount of evidence though could be better integrated or employed
      Attempt at explaining evidence
      Introduction & conclusion could be stronger
      Writing is readable but could be smoother
      Some punctuation/spelling/grammar flaws
C+, C, C-
Acceptable
Essay has
      Thesis is complex, compound, or vague
      Topics which don’t support thesis very well
      Supporting points not tied too closely to topic
      Evidence lacking or poorly integrated or employed
      Introduction or conclusion which are weak
      Writing that is choppy, hard to read, vague or confusing
      Punctuation/spelling/grammar flaws which need more attention
D+, D, D
Deficient
Essay has
      No thesis; or vague, confusing, grammatically incorrect thesis
      No discernable topics, or vague topics pointing out fact
      Supporting points which are erroneous, vague or meandering
      Paucity of evidence poorly integrated or employed
      Meandering, confusing or nonexistent introduction or conclusion
      Writing that is erroneous, confusing, vague or banal
      Punctuation/spelling/grammar flaws need so much work as to be a distraction from the argument
F
Failing
Essay has
      No discernible thesis
      No discernible topics
      No supporting points
      No recognizable evidence
      No clear introduction or conclusion
      Writing that is erroneous, confusing, vague, banal or impenetrable
      Punctuation/spelling/grammar flaws so graphically poor in nature that they ruin any hope of finding the argument




The writing process explained (in 5 easy steps)

The writing process explained (in 5 easy steps)

At the inception note well that there is NO GOOD WRITING only good rewriting.  Rome was not built in a day and a stitch in time saves nine.  Most students when assigned an essay take the approach of Gene Fowler who suggested that,

·         “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” 

Others would rather be gnawed to death by Chihuahuas while listening to Justin Bieber sing than have to write an essay.  But no, writing does not have to involve some Medieval form of leechcraft. The secret, however, is primarily in the approach to writing adapted by most students.  When you sit down to write do not do as the Mad Hatter who advised Alice to “begin at the beginning and when you get to the end, stop!”  Do not write your essay from start to finish.  Instead, write from the inside out.  Think of the essay rather as a creation; a house or a bologna sandwich or a battle plan.  Begin with the basics and flesh out until you have an essay.  Here are five easy steps to accomplish your battle plan for building the house of bologna that is the essay.

Step 1 – digest the material
Reading the book or listening in class or doing the experiment is only the first stage of this step.  You really have to “digest”, that is assimilate or understand, the material.  This includes writing in the text, asking questions in class, getting the details straight, discussing the implications with others.  This first step also includes what is referred to as “brainstorming”.  The process of brainstorming is not done simply on the night before the essay is due.  You should make a habit of doing frequent, little, brainstorms (maybe a “brainsquall” or “brainzephyr”) during the course of your reading/study.  This activity is merely writing down the connections and questions that emerge from a central observation or detail.  If you think of essay writing as a parallel to constructing a house this is the preparation before the building; collecting of material (lumber, brick, mortar), drawing up of plans, asking questions about the project.  Doing these actions BEFORE you write will give you material to construct the essay later on and make your life considerably less full of pain.

Step 2 – construct a basic thesis
A very important step is to get your multiple ideas down to one thing about one thing.  What is the main thing you want to say/notice about the topic?  Articulate this central, governing idea in a single, simple sentence.  Three things should be stressed about the thesis;
1.      It ought to be a simple sentence; not verbose, not complicated, not densely full of impenetrable syntax – but simple.
2.      It ought to express some opinion, judgment or observation about the topic BUT consider that you probably aren’t going to be writing the definitive claim about the topic nor will you be surprising your teacher with the brilliance and erudition of your insight.  It is far more important that you express with clarity and accuracy something that occurred to you than that you construct the formula for cold fusion.
3.      YOUR THESIS CAN CHANGE WHILE YOU WRITE!  This is very important because the writing process is also a thinking process.  As you write you will continue to think about the subject and perhaps have greater clarity and/or insight about what you want to say.  Do not be so caged by your thesis that you think of it as an Iron Maiden or Procrustean bed to which you have to jimmy-rig your paragraphs in some Gothic form of Frankenstein essay writing.  The thesis is a starting point, not a terminus.

Step 3 – clearly articulate the three major points that support your thesis
Once you have your thesis clearly articulated in a single sentence, go back through your notes and brainstorms to find how you got to this articulation.  There should be at least three observations that lead you to this conclusion.  These observations, once articulated in clear sentences, will be your topic sentences.  Try to set the sentences in parallel construction (subjects & predicates in the same place in each sentence) at first in order to see whether you are making a clear argument.  This structure can be altered later to make smoother writing.

Step 4 – flesh out your paragraphs


  • Body paragraphs.  Your body paragraphs should be written first (before the beginning or concluding paragraph) and should emerge from the statement in your topic sentence.  Provide at least three sentences that articulate what you mean in your topic or how you came to that topic; smaller observations or details that you noticed while digesting the material.  Then provide the text or evidence that prompted you to these three observations.  Then explain the text/evidence such that your audience can understand how you derived your conclusions.  Remember to set up your paragraph so that you have similar supports, evidence, commentary grouped together (rather than doing all three of your supports, then all three pieces of evidence, then all three commentaries – which would confuse the juices out of your audience).  Finish your paragraph by rephrasing your topic sentence.  While writing this paragraph you may want to go back to your thesis to re-evaluate it, or to prior paragraphs to check if you are employing parallel construction or using similar grammatical cues. 
  • Opening paragraphs.  Once you have your body paragraphs done you can create your opening and conclusion paragraphs fairly easily.  Opening paragraphs generally serve to get to your thesis.  Since the thesis normally has two parts (subject & predicate) you can think of the opening paragraph as having two parts of about one to three sentences each.  The opening can start with a general introduction to your subject, perhaps naming the major details like author, title, main character or topic you are examining.  The middle part is narrowing to your thesis and can serve to introduce the second of two terms in your thesis.  The final sentence should be the thesis sentence itself.
  • Concluding paragraphs.  The last thing to do is the concluding paragraph.  This paragraph has one purpose - to conclude.  You want to leave your audience with a sense of finality or closure.  The best way to do this is a technique called “closing the circle”.  Think of the concluding paragraph in terms of three parts (like the opening).  In the first sentence rephrase your thesis.  Then go back to the opening paragraph and note whether there is a question asked, term introduced, problem raised, or particularly catchy phrase or adjective employed.  Echo this item in the second section; that means, don’t just repeat it but try to hint at, or remind about, or play off of the phrase so that your audience is subtly reminded about what they saw in the opening.  The final section can conclude by extending the idea into the future, suggesting a possible outcome, or deriving an application of what has been learned.

Step 5 – refine your writing
At this last stage you want to double check your thesis to see if it needs modification, especially to fit your paragraphs.  Check your basics like spelling, grammar, logical consistency.  See if there are any points that might profit from further explanation or example.  Do any detailing work (like page numbering, headers, title, footnotes, et alia).  Have someone else read over your essay.  Read it aloud to see how it sounds.  Walk away from it for an hour and go for a bike ride then come back and read it again.  The astute student will note well that this step requires that you begin your essay sometime prior than the night before it is due.  Experience will show that a student can spare themselves considerable agony and embarrassment by planning to complete the essay a night or two before it is due.

Four types of Essay Writing

It is helpful to note that there are four types of essay writing (according to the Little Brown Handbook); these are analysis, interpretation, synthesis, evaluation.

1.       Analysis: Students break the work into smaller parts (plot, character, setting, imagery & symbolism, word choice & conventions, historical or cultural influences & elements), examining how the parts fit to each other and how they fit into the whole of the work.  Students should gather basic information about the topic first. This is best accomplished by creating lists related to the topic; looking at the text itself; writing out the actual textual evidence (names of characters, number instances, evidence of symbolism, plot devices). From this students ought to draw connections between items within lists and between lists. 

2.       Interpretation: Students suggest what the connections found through analysis represent or imply, what the imagery used in the work might mean, what the author’s overall thesis is.  Students express their judgment on the topic based on the evidence before them. This judgment is not to be confused with mere opinion.  It is rather what the Greeks called doxa, (from which we draw the words Orthodoxy and Doctrine) which is a statement of judgment, meaning, or interpretation based on evidence; the informed opinion. Students are something of an informed authority by nature of having read the work.  They ought to be able to explain what each quotation suggests, reveals, or implies.  They ought to be able to express, in their own words, a conclusion drawn from the analysis.

3.       Synthesis: Students ought to be able to draw together their analysis and interpretation of the text, outside opinions (articles) and notes from class in order to reach a synthetic conclusion about the work.  They should be able to express a connection between their own informed interpretation of the primary work and some other work they have read.  They must express accurately their conclusions drawn from thoughtful study of the topic and, if possible, reading secondary sources of criticism about the work. 

4.       Evaluation: Students pass judgment on a work’s impact, significance, and worth in the larger context of history, the corpus of the author’s works, contemporaries, or literary writing in general, or the bulk of critical writings about the work.  Normally this is reserved for scholars who have thoroughly completed the other three levels of writing.  As such, it probably ought to be only the parvue of seniors at the earliest.  Most evaluation runs in the format of “these findings at Lascaux are significant for human culture” or “this development in Fermat’s last theorem is revolutionary in its impact on history” or “this work differs from Joyce’s normal mode of composition” or “Hauerwas is wrong in his evaluation of von Balthazar’s fundamental thesis.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Balance and conversion in The Republic

The Republic begins in the Underworld of Peiraeus (a trope of the underworld image of Hades to which one must descend in order to reach heaven) - Socrates "goes down" katabein into the port city to see the festival of the goddess of resurrection, Bendis/Persephone/Kore and is halted on the way back up by Polemarchus.  Such halting is symbolic of the halting soul of Glaucon, teetering on the brink of a dark vision of mankind (as witness in the beginning of Book 2 & the Myth of Gyges' Ring).  Like Eurydice he runs the risk of fading into shadows unless an artist of superior skill, like Orpheus, can "sing" him back into remembrance of what he really is, that is infinite.


Like Glaucon, the soul of the average reader of the Republic is on the brink of accepting the materialist vision of man's dismal nature - willing to accept that at heart we are opportunistic beasts that would cannibalize each other should the fear of the Leviathan, Law or Government, be taken from us; willing to accept that at best we can hope for a dull grey day without too much pain; willing to accept that, though we may not like it, life is a rum go and that's the truth.  The "dialogue" thus acts as a converting tool; a work of art designed like a cathedral to convert the soul from death to life, from darkness to light, from animalian ignorance to a higher state of consciousness.  


It does so by the use of esoteric thought and imagery, that is, imagery that operatives intuitively through connections of the smaller to the larger so that the soul eventually can reunite with the whole (as opposed to exoteric, or analytic, thought which breaks the whole into parts in order to comprehend the thing - at the end of which one is left with a pile of parts and no longer a viable bird).  Such a string of pearls rests on faith; one must believe that the larger can be comprehended through the smaller, that with faith the size of a mustard seed one can move mountains, that because we can be trusted with small things we can be trusted with larger, that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  It is this string of pearls that cannot be cast in front of swine (the symbol of mortality and darkness) and for which a man will sell all he has because it is of great price.


By a faith progression we move with baby steps to greater and greater vistas, the eyes of the mind are opened to see more of what the grand LOGOS really is.  This is called "gnomonic expansion" - movement from the "gnomon", or small, to greater expanses - and is the pattern and path of all great religious experience.  



The Republic is like a "cathedral of thought" showing to its readers the macrocosm of the LOGOS through the microcosm of dialogue.  Like a Cathedral or Temple the dialogue possesses a certain balance or architectural harmony by the use of chiasmi, or balancing elements in the work.  Images in the early part of the work balance images in the latter part of the work.  Once a reader moves through the whole of the work they can step outside and admire the whole frieze / structure in a single take, but while they are moving through the work they are as yet in time and cannot yet see eternity; past, present, and future are operative while reading the work but the higher conscious reached at the end allows the perceptive reader to comprehend all at once.


Given this, the three characters in the opening book, the vestibule or narthex of the dialogue, parallel the three images at the end in the myth of ER.  Cephalus, "the head", is a Hades/Osiris figure offering the idea that justice is "telling the truth and giving back what is owed"; he both sits in judgment over the justice and unjust but also starts the interrogation that rules over the dialogue.  


Polemarchus, "leader of the attack", is the son of Cephalus and, like the son of Hades/Osiris, he is Zagreus/Horus.  Like Horus, he inherits the argument and attacks the enemies of his father.  Like Zagreus, son of "Zeus in the Underworld" & Persephone, he represents the god that is torn to pieces by the Titans (creatures who appear later in the Myth of Gyges' Ring and from whose blood mingled with Zagreus' emerges the human race) and born again from Semele as Dionysus, the god of wine and the LOGOS.  Thus Zagreus is the god who is saved and not lost, as at the end of the Republic Socrates says, "Thus, Glaucon, a tale was saved and not lost" (Republic X: 621c).  Polemarchus has three definitions of Justice; the inherited Past definition of telling the truth and giving back what is owed, the Present definition of "doing good to friends and harm to enemies": the Future argument suggested by Socrates that Justice is "an art of stealing".  The arguments are a parallel to the three daughters of Hades, the Erinyes; Megara, punishing marital infidelity, Alecto, punishing moral crimes such as anger, cheating and theft, Tisiphone, punishing parricide, homocide and crimes of violence.


Thrasymachus with his anger, yelling, intimidation, the need to be held back by others, and the definition of Justice as "advantage of the strong" is Cerberus the dog (himself a trope of Tartarus, the black pit that devours the unjust).

If we have gone through the work, heard the myth of GYGES, seen the divisions of the kalipolis, encountered the myth of the metals, the myth of the cave, the divided line, the vision of the good, the regimes, then we reach at last the Myth of ER.  This last myth which is the vision of the afterlife from the perspective of a good, noble man, is divided into three sections; the four portals, the spindle of necessity, the judgment on the lawn. The myth is set up in an inverse of the three figures at the beginning - so portals (with the roaring voice and the casting into Tartarus of the unjust) corresponds to Thrasymachus, spindle (with the beautiful complex whorls and the three fates) to Polemarchus, judgment (with the lottery and choice presided over by the divine judge) to Cephalus. Such an inverse reflects Plato's frequent use of the inverted triangles of alchemical exchange; the dross of lead being converted to the wealth of gold in the soul - death being converted to life.  


In this vision the corrupt little earth man of GYGES (from Greek word for "earth" = GE) becomes the perfect macrocosmic man of ER (from the Greek word for the highest realms of air).  Thrasymachus' tyrannical roaring becomes the mouth that rejects the corrupt souls and the devouring Cerberus nature of Thrasymachus becomes the pit of no return, Tartarus. Polemarchus' democratic nature with all its attractive and persuasive colors becomes the spindle and its rainbow whorls, his definitions and their corresponding Furies become the three Fates; Clotho (past), Atropos (present), and Lachesis (future).    Cephalus/Hades, as wealthy an oligarch as Pluto himself, becomes the "certain spokesman"  and judge in the employ of Lachesis who "marshals them at regular distances" and presides over the choice of lives.  The underworld of Peiraeus becomes the bright pastoral lawn of the judgment area.