There be dragons!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Achilles and the devastation of rage

Personal responsibility. A man is responsible to friends, parents, siblings, the whole human race. What Achilles’ pride blinds him to is how vital this responsibility is and how his actions can cause so much devastation in the lives of others. Man is a sorrowful beast – to learn about this sorrow in a personal way is a painful, terrifying business but vital if we are to see the world as it is and not as we want it to be; bent to our inexorable will. To experience sorrow leads to greater knowledge of ourselves and all humanity.
Yet the sorrow never goes away. There is no “happily ever after” for those who eat the bread of this earth; such poor wretches as we are, scuttling between heaven and earth. Rather, an adult, a man, carries always with him the sorrow, knowledge, pain over his own mortality and his ability to destroy and the inevitable, miserable Ragnarok of all things beautiful. This weight of sorrow is a teacher which reveals reality to the initiate and gives him an insight into who he is. Such insight is not available yet to self-centered immature whelps, lost in their own innocence. It is a knowledge both somber and liberating.
Achilles’ rage clears the way for this mature realization; burns away all obstacles, leaf, flower, tree, from the landscape of his soul such that all the pretty, bucolic Eden of youth is eternally lost; the whims, illusions, pretences and luxury of pettiness to which young people are prone. Once the rage burns itself out, Achilles stands in that fire-blasted terrain, barren of tree or grass or living thing, amidst the devastation caused by his own hand and the unearthly, inhuman silence in which no birds sing and there realizes his own capacity for violence and his own utter aloneness. And he weeps.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Humanae Vitae

Ever have days that you just get a little irate over seeing things too clearly?

Contraception, why not? I reread Humanae Vitae today and thought about that question raised by Paul VI. Why oughtn’t one to engage in artificial contraception? Yet the answer to me seems so very obvious that it becomes a source of frustration.

Look, either human actions do or don’t represent spiritual actions.

  • If they don’t then there is no purpose or point to our action and we are no more than highly evolved apes; the whole of man’s spiritual happiness and nobility of existence being thrown out with one negative.
  • If human actions do represent spiritual actions then either they do or they don’t have specific consequences on the spiritual level.
  • If they don’t then all actions are whimsical bits of relativism, without consequence and one might as well murder and rape from the world all that one desires rather than suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
  • If they do then marriage either does or doesn’t have a spiritual dimension.
  • If it doesn’t then marriage is the one, unique action, materialistic and relative.
  • If it does than marriage either is or isn’t ordered according to natural law.
  • If it isn’t then one must deny that this most fundamental action of our human existence is connected to the natural law which governs every other aspect of our humanity.
  • If it is connected to natural law than natural either does or doesn’t dictate that marriage is twofold; procreative and unitive.
  • If it isn’t twofold (solely procreative or solely unitive) then we deny one aspect of natural law and the marriage act either has no purpose (again, unique among human endeavors) or it becomes nothing more than a unitive or a procreative activity.
  • If solely unitive, the unity eventually fades with nothing to show for such unity (as pleasure and happiness in another person will fade without some project to work on together).
  • If solely procreative, neglect of one’s spouse eventually kills the love and happiness the two share and makes an object of one or the other person.
  • If, then, marriage is unitive & procreative it either does or doesn’t reflect the spiritual reality of unity and procreation.
  • If it doesn’t reflect this reality what then would it reflect? One is left denying the spiritual aspect or seeking some better spiritual aspect for this action to reflect.
  • If it does reflect this aspect then the greatest example of unity and procreation is the unity of Christ and the Church which unites God with the individual soul and produces the fruits, or children, of such union in loving acts of charity.

So either one denies the spiritual aspect of man altogether, or else one denies that this act (of all human acts) has relevance in the spiritual realm, or else one denies that this act reflects this reality of unity and procreation, or one relents and says that indeed marriage does reflect the union of Christ and His Church.

Then, any act that actively denies or prevents one or other aspect of the twofold nature of marriage denies the twofold nature of the union of God and man.

Contraception, why not?

  • If contraception then one either does or doesn’t deny one aspect of the marriage life.
  • If one doesn’t, then the very purpose of contraception is undermined, or redefined by a lie.
  • If one does deny one aspect then doesn’t one have then to justify by denying other realities; namely that there are other realities, or that there is natural law, or that there is a purpose to human action, or that this act corresponds with this reality, or that there is a twofold meaning to the marriage act, or that there must not be any artificial barrier between God and man?
  • And if there is a barrier raised between God and man and the subsequent denial of other realities, a denial necessary to justify the action of contraception, what then becomes of human life? What happens when the artificial barrier fails and the natural course of things occurs as God planned and a little bambino or bambina emerges into the world? Isn’t it a mistake? Isn’t it unplanned? Isn’t it out of one’s control? Shouldn’t one destroy it and keep only those little ones that one judges are worthy of life?

Seems that this is a one way ticket to making gods of ourselves.

Isn’t that obvious?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Rewriting Dan Brown

A friend recently sent me a funny article critiquing the syntax of that master of modern literature, Dan Brown. All theological argument aside about the veracity or blasphemy or what have you of the work da "Vinci Code", his writing stinks! So, I took it upon myself to rewrite him. Here are some samples, please feel free to offer your own rewrite:

Assignment: Rewrite Dan Brown’s opening paragraph.

Dan Brown (original): Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

S.E. Hinton: As I stepped out into the shadowy recesses of the gloomy gallery from the brightness of the lobby, I lurched, like some animal, desperately toward the Caravaggio, covered in gold and massive; now my only hope for triggering the alarm and bringing salvation. The canvas tore from the wall with a ripping sound and the twang of snapping twine. The last I remembered as I lay in a heap, the cold, clean tiles pressing against my cheek, was the sound of the resonating alarm and the slow, sonorous approach of my pursuer’s footsteps. Then only blackness.

Hemingway: Darkness. A hallway. The curator moving as men move, men who know death like a lover or a charging bull running in the streets of Barcelona, their ominous hoof tread close behind and the sweat and the terror fast approaching through a whiskey-clouded haze, though now it was fear, not the sweet burning residual alcohol in the throat. Jacques Saunière, seventy-six years old, still capable of fear, knowing what fear was, fearing the unmanliness that it would bring, knowing he could not stop it, clawed with ancient and papery hands at the nearest trifle. There. On the wall. Something like a Caravaggio, or a Monet. With his last strength he exerts all and chances all in a gamble that the silent alarm will bring help or perhaps that the relentless pursuer (no bull this, but a man, dark and menacing) might halt and turn aside at the veracity of the act, or perhaps the heavy frame might come down swiftly on his old head killing this aged curator right out, his last defiant act like a man dying at his own hands and not reduced to womanish weeping and pleading for his own life at the hands of a merciless stranger.

Faulkner: Saunière had loved the Caravaggio. Loved it like a child knowing (in that way that only a long life spent in intimate thought and conversation unhindered by the trivialities of a world in chaos that rushes by without heeding the beauty and immensity of artwork) that one day (though perhaps not this day, “please Lord let it not be this one,” he might say in a moment of agony and they were many at this age) he would leave it (despite all the pills and the exercise and the eating of his creamy purified yogurt new bought from the local health store in the desperate attempt to stave off the years of excess, the gin and the women and the hard living, nights up poring over manuscripts, and the back-breaking strain of living, not just living, but surviving, enduring, unvanquished) or it would leave him (for all that is beautiful suffers at the hands of delineating time which gnaws always at the back of the mind until “Jack!” he might hear “Jack!” the sound of mother at the top of the stairs on that most desperate day “Jack!” calling to him as she struggled to rise up from the ground “Jack!” and he, as if in some dream, running, weeping and running up the stairs, three at a time only to arrive too late and that most beautiful thing in his world, though he could tell no one; how could he? A six-year old boy and his mother collapsing at the top of the stairs; expiring at last from the face of the planet). Now was the time. Now. It would give its life for him, this Caravaggio. It would protect him from the barbarian onslaught, the incessant footfall of strangers, standing in the shadows watching, always watching with a menace and hatred which he, even at seventy six could not comprehend any more than at the age of six. He yanked and pulled at the frame but it would not come free. Dammit! Why now? How often had he had to readjust the frame after a field trip of young, foolish-eyed students had bustled through and (though never touching the picture) had dislocated it through their cattle-like stampede. He needed it to come free; to give its life; to trigger the alarm; that he might live, might escape the footfall he had dreaded ever since that day that she had collapsed at the top of the stairs; coming closer, always coming closer; so that now, at the age of seventy six his hands still shook with a fear and terror of the darkness pervasive like that of a six year old child. He pulled again. There was a twanging noise and the curator let out one sharp, rabbit-like shriek.

Melville: Call me Jacques. Having eluded the pursuit of a stranger –don’t ask me how- I came here at last to this cocoon of sanctity; this womb of happiness which, for so long as if in some dream or nightmare (call it what you will) I had spent so many happy hours alone; utterly alone. Now the womb was invaded; the cocoon broke open and I, pursued as if by some dark fury down cavernous corridors, come at last to my Megiddo. Whence then to run? The looming effigy of that hideous stranger, the whiteness of which I detested more than my own cuticles, threatened even from fifteen feet away. My eyes burned with horror that indeed his immensity, not physically, mind you, but the immensity that some strange characters in the drama of the world, evil men and chaotic, exude by their very ability to escape the ebb and flow of the natural law, might come down upon me, penetrate this womb of joy I had so long known, crush me within its pale marble confines and finally snuff out the life I had lived as curator and caretaker of this place. No. It would not be. I would stab at him from Hell’s heart. For hate’s sake I would spit my last breath at him. With eager, shivering hand, as though in some somnambulant excursus, hindered only by an inarticulate reticence for preserving that thing which constitutes beauty in our world, I reached for the nearest work of art; a Caravaggio, it would happen to be, in the grand, cosmic irony of the universe. This! This would be the weapon. To set off the alarm. To crush his spectral whiteness, blot out his terrifying purity, pierce his inner heart that beat with a whiteness of its own. The snap, then the groan of the wood, then my own piercing shriek as the wood fell onto my aged head, and I? I knew no more. 


Midway along the path of this life’s journey
I woke to find myself too swiftly pursued
Down vaulted shadowy archaic archway,

My terror now increased, now lost, now renewed.
And I, renowned curator, Jacques Sauniere,
With the last remaining manly strength embued

Clasped the Caravaggio frame cutaway,
- Chiaroscuro, Sanctus Petrus nailed prostrate -
The fast approaching stranger's hand to stay

Or perhaps the silent 'larm to activate
And then alarm amongst the watching guard
Spread.  My fears not only to corroborate

But the murd'rous pursuers pursuit retard.
Three quarters and one steps up a path so steep,
My life's sweet pilgrim ascent now stumbling hard,

With no smooth path my footing then could not keep -

The masterpiece toward myself I tore
And collapsed beneath it in a lifeless heap,

A curator to care now nevermore.

Sing, Brown, the terror of Sauniere,
Murderous, doomed that took him down to the house of death.
Begin, Brown, of how he staggered through vaulted archways
Breathless as a wild deer hunted by hounds
Turning now this way, now that, escaping the snares
While the beaters strike the bushes and the horns ring out,
So too did Sauniere, seventy six years of age, run
Through the hallowed halls of the great Grand Gallery
Until he lunged at last on a looming painting
Caravaggio, grapes, a young boy shadowy
Painted on the canvas and surrounded by the heavy gilt frame
A frame which no two men of our day could lift,
But he lifted it easily. It tore from the wall
And the sinews snapped, and the wood groaned forth,
Until it fell to the floor biting the cruel dirt.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Back in the Saddle

A new post, and not about politics (yet). Let's talk instead about sex. (the two of the three things my grandma always said should never be discussed at the dinner table, the third being religion).
"Heartache occurs" ought to be the new bumper sticker. Relationships run afoul of all sorts of things, from sex, to money problems, to differences in opinion. But such ought not to be the way. Indeed, heartache between people is a sign of fallen nature, not of intrinsic evil of the opposite sex and all of us, prone to heartache throughout our lives, must not fall into the trap of thinking of the opposite sex as the source of the problem. To even engage in language that talks of men as stupid, or women as whores, men as worthless, or women as evil, is to encourage a generalization that is neither helpful nor realistic. Some men are stupid and worthless. Some women are evil and act like whores. Perhaps even many men and women are such, but the fact that they exist ought to prompt us to govern more closely our own hearts and involvements.
Eros, the Greeks said, was the most driving form of love. Not the sordid, physical attractions we all experience, either, but this intense longing for the beautiful; a longing which could not find easy solution. We are human, therefore we have heartache, for our very individuality creates a separation from others, from the beautiful, from God himself. Sexuality is a physical expression of this intense longing, but eros is far stronger than just the physical. This is why when we give ourselves physically to another we always are dealing with a religious act; the physical expression is a surrender of self to the other with the trust that they will remain faithful and desirous of our friendship; fellow sojourners on a road towards the good. Thus heartache is intensified by any physical contact with another person should that relationship go sour.
But how we are told we ought to view relationships is that man and woman are one flesh. Marriage is a vow to honor that oneness and seek unity even at the cost of self-sacrifice and endurance of pain. Love finds its greatest expression in the oneness between man and woman working together to seek the good, and until we can give ourselves in a sworn relationship we ought to very carefully avoid the natural bond that develops through physical relationships however much those relationships are based on real love. Above all else, married life must be a friendship; relying on each other, and entrusting to each other mutual respect and admiration.
When seeking a partner for life one must ask "How worthy am I of love? Have I made myself noble and honest, honorable and knowledgeable, beautiful and interesting?" Then in the other we look to see if this person is a friend; trustworthy; honest; strong in their ideas yet able to forgive; seeking the good yet able to laugh; and finally, attractive. But above all else, honor. How a man talks about women to other women, to other men, to himself is vital to how he will treat women. A man without honor, discourteous, crude, betrays in himself an ability for cruelty which the man of honor could never allow himself to engage in. A man who speaks kindly to women, treats them like human beings, avoids wrecking himself through substance abuse and porn, is a man who can be trusted with greater responsibilities that require self-discipline. Find a man who treats you well and you will have a friend for life. Similarly, the myth of the "dirty woman" has to be abandoned. Men are naturally drawn to the dark and dangerous women who flatter them and play with their emotions. But such women are not women of honor and they can betray and wound a man or drive him to the brink of despair. Find a woman who is beautiful but whose beauty is in holding herself to a code of honor with men, other women, and herself. Such honor in people is rare, but very valuable if we hope to avoid the thousand natural shocks which flesh is heir to.
Heartache is a reality of life, and never fully goes away while in this world (and I can't speak for the next, though I hope...), but the heartache that occurs between man and woman is a sadness that is best minimalized by our own courtesy and pursuit of honor.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

My true face.

Here's a candid shot of me snapped by a friend of mine:

I'm getting a bit pudgy around the middle, I think.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Troy redux

It occurred to me that we are living in Troy again. Not that we have the high walls or the Scaean gates, or that we are located on the plain of Ilium, rather that the situation in which we currently find ourselves with respect to the terrorist enemy is much like the Trojans facing the Achaeans. How much Homer understood. The ancients held that the true character of a man was known only in defeat. This doctrine of heroism in the face of immanent annihilation was best expressed by the Anglo-Saxons in their great works of poetry “Beowulf” and “Maldon.” But I’m convinced that Homer saw it too and incorporated into the theme of his work. Hector, besieged by barbarous and murderous men who seek only the ruination of his city, fights to protect all that he holds dear; wife, son, civilization itself. All around him he sees his army composed of cowards and mercenaries. And his defeat is assured when Achilles, the young savage now bent on revenge, enters again into the fray. We fight an enemy whose cultural memory extends far into the past. Hilaire Belloc notes this in his great work on Muhammadanism in the larger context of “Great Heresies.” Islam, he notes, has suffered a decline for almost 400 years. Technically behind the West they have retained their tribal sense and historical memory of injuries done them many years ago. Belloc points to one date in particular, that of 1683. The Muslim empire had swept through the north of Africa, up through Spain and over the Pyrenees into France. Corsairs from the Barbary coast had established forts on the south of Ireland. Ottomans in the East had surged around the fortress of Constantinople and up to the very walls of Vienna. Though the Spanish kings drove out the Moors after 200 years of Reconquista (in 1492, no less; freeing up the cash which Isabella could give to Columbus so he could “do something”), the East was under constant threat. Islam’s stated goal was to wipe out the infidel and conquer all of Christendom; enslaving the children, killing the men, making concubines of the women. In 1683, the Viennese were facing a three month siege which they knew they could not break. No help was in sight and the end seemed imminent. But the king of Poland (God bless him) raised an army, marched south, and drove the Muslims away from Vienna. Not soon after the Muslim Empire suffered a long and humiliating decline. Thus the memory of that battle burns in the imagination like a firebrand. The date? September 11, 1683. Belloc suggests that Islam will undoubtedly rise again. The barbarism, cruelty, and unremitting violence of the Achaeans will not soon leave our shores of Ilium. The nuke will detonate, the EMP will send us back to a colonial era culture, the murders and assassinations will increase. What then? Are we to be Paris and immerse ourselves in oblivious self-indulgence? Are we to be like Agamemnon and become merciless ourselves? Are we to be Achilles and seek only glory for our own name? Or are we to emulate Hector, who, knowing that he will die, seeks to fight to the last drop of his blood to protect civilization, his beloved wife, and the dear little Astyanax who eagerly awaits his daddy’s return home?

About Richard Scarry's best Word Book Ever

Last night the Happy family was reading Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever (revised edition) and as the little ones (buggy-boo, booky-bear, and sweetpea) listened to their mother read, Mr. Happy noticed that the revised edition had "new" gender-neutral words. No longer was the bear a "mailman" but was now a letter carrier. No more pigs were "firemen", but were now a porcine crew of fire fighters. Nor was the fox a "policeman" but was instead a police officer. Aside from the rather pedantic question of whether policemen who were not officers could still be called police officer, Mr. Happy noticed something a bit odd about our culture and its declining masculinity. sure sure sure, the language is more inclusive and women can become police officers just as much as men. In fact there are some excellent women very suited to the job. But I can't help but wonder, in our society where young men no longer seem to know what it means to be a man; have we eradicated the imagery of the messenger, the protector, the savior as manly jobs when we call them "mail carrier", "police officer", "fire fighter"? No longer are they men, manly men, noble, worthy of emulation by little boys. Now they are gender inclusive roles open to both parties. Yet there's something natural in little boys that longs to grow up and be a man; a messenger, a protector, a savior. They want to be the ones who "kick the bad guy in the shin" or "sock him in the nose": they want to "shoot the zombies" at the house of their wierdo neighbors, or "fight the bad guys" while wearing a mask and a sheet or towel around their neck. It's a little thing, I know, and you might say "Abe, lighten up. It's just a book about pigs and cats..." But the Chinese used to have a torture called death by a thousand cuts whereing the victim would get a little cut here, a little cut there, by a very sharp razor until he was pouring blood, his body went into shock, and he died. If the first cut is the deepest, ought we not try to stop it first? I'll ask my local mail carrier, or maybe I'll just consult my three year old while he's in the role of "shooter man".

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Culture, tragedy, maturity, and other fine things

Cultured. From the original Latin word cultus; meaning to be tilled, ready for planting, receptive to the seed. The cultured man is the civilized man. He is the man who is receptive to understanding who, as Simone Weill points out, is able to listen, the religious man. But being ready for the seed, being receptive to the word, involves a certain amount of violence; churning the earth, tearing out the weeds and roots, breaking the stones. Tillage is not a task for the weak and always some damage to the “natural” environment must occur. Thus tragedy teaches one to be cultured. Hector, the defender of Troy, experiences one tragedy after another over the course of nine years of violence. He is faced with ultimate ruin and pain. He even fails and runs from Achilles. But at the end he realizes what is important and stands his ground. The suffering of violence and loss, that tragic element of life presents to us a moment of crisis wherein all illusions are stripped away and we have to face with unblinking eyes the harsh reality of the world. No more can we respond with laughter to everything. No more can we adopt a careless attitude of irresponsibility. No more can we remain oblivious to our own poor decisions and the suffering of others which those decisions create. In that moment of crisis we are presented a choice; either to reject what has happened to us, to lay down and die, do nothing to stop the inevitable, join with despair and become a monster, or else to accept our own weakness and still fight on for that which we have, in happier times, seen to be good and noble and beautiful whether it be our cause, or our beloved, or our little ones. Acceptance is, in this instance, not simply a que cera cera moment but rather a submission to the plow which makes us more receptive, more open to the commonality we share, more adept at being listeners. It instills in us, as it does eventually in Achilles, a sense of the commonality of human suffering. We cannot remain in that happy childhood world of oblivion where no consequence exists for our hateful words and actions, our neglect and self-indulgence, our laziness and failure to help those in need. Rather, we gain a sense of our helplessness, our smallness, our need for redemption; we hunger for the seed; we thirst for righteousness, yet realize that we cannot gain righteousness by our own good works because we have become a curse to our friends and loved ones and have suffered deeds which men talk about in hushed voices. Only then can we never inflict pain inadvertently. Only then are we ready for the planting; cultured and civilized. Only then are we ready to see the real comedy of God’s mercy and rejoice at the escape from death offered in the resurrection; to rise on that day, to look at the movement of the stars and heavens, and realize that death has no sting.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

An exchange on Plato

This is an excellent email exchange I had today with a recent grad. Aren't our alums great?
Mr. Lasseter – I hope that everything is going well at Providence this year. In a Humanities class that I am taking this quarter ... we are reading several different texts, among which are Plato’s Apology and Crito. I was wondering what you thought about the following question – is it unreasonable to suppose that regarding his trial, Socrates is actually trying to provoke the jury rather than defend his case? In supporting a negative answer to this question, I am in an overwhelming minority.
Also, most of the members of the class seem to view Socrates as arrogant, pompous, and annoying. (Although many also admitted having no previous exposure to him.) I, on the other hand, found many things he says hilarious, especially when he suggests that as an alternate punishment to the death penalty, he should receive free meals. If you have a few minutes, I was wondering what your view would be on these two separate issues – the class brings back a lot of memories of the Republic. (I think when I mentioned in passing that I had studied it in high school, the prof’s response was, “The whole thing? The whole entire thing?!”)
Dear KO,
Good to hear from you. I chuckled at the account of the reading of Plato. Yes, I’ve many times before heard the rather unoriginal and uninspiring reading of Plato that makes such a claim about Socrates. I’ve also heard that Socrates meant none of what he said in the Republic and was just making it all up to toy with his audience. I’ve heard that his philosophizing was intentionally done to throw other people off the right track, to disrupt the society, to seduce his interlocutors. I’ve heard that he was a socialist, a feminist, a Straussian. There are numerous readings out there of Socrates, one more ludicrous than the next. As Socrates himself might suggest, let’s look at the mode of reading itself and judge whether it makes sense.
Socrates, having contempt for his judges and knowing that theirs was a kangaroo court intentionally eggs them on. Is it reasonable that he have contempt for all his judges? The text itself shows that he has contempt for some, but honors others. Why? B/c some were honorable men and others contemptible. The jury was actually split rather ½ and 1/2. Thus he’d have a hard time ticking off the honorable men, and wouldn’t have to do much to tick off the dishonorable. So is it reasonable that he would spend his time saying things to make the dishonorable men issue a more severe sentence or is it more likely that he’d say something which would both show his contempt for the dishonorable and also bear a message to the honorable? That sort of ambiguity holds with Socrates’ (and Plato’s) knack for ambiguous speech. So perhaps his egging on the court is more complex than the one-dimensional read of “trying to provoke the jury” for a more severe sentence.
Regardless, to what end would he be provoking them were he to do so? That they might kill him? Why, that he be an example to others? To really piss them off? To defy them recklessly? Is Socrates in love with death? Is there any evidence anywhere else in the texts that Socrates wanted to die? The answer is, no. There is no other evidence. Moreover there is contrary evidence that he enjoyed life, wanted to live, and found suicide (or self-destructive behavior) to be ignoble. Thus to throw away his life in order to spite the jury seems ridiculous. To throw away his life to make a point doesn’t seem to fit either as he would be more effective being alive and able to speak + he didn’t want to die. What seems most likely, then, is that what he is saying provokes the jury not b/c of Socrates but b/c of the jury. In other words, when Socrates says that he ought to be put up by the state, he means it. When he says that he is the most beneficial asset to the state, he means it. When he says that they ought to reward him for his work, he means it. The other texts confirm that Socrates really does think the philosopher to be the best and noblest benefit of the state (a view reiterated by the Church in their support of contemplatives). Does he not know that such words will piss off half the jury? Of course he does. He even says so when he expresses surprise that so many had voted for him. So what he says is said b/c it is true, and truth provokes the ignoble men on the jury. Socrates doesn’t say these things in order to provoke, but he says them b/c they are true and they provoke.
The real thing to consider, though, is not whether he’s arrogant or provocative or what have you… that’s all irrelevant and counterproductive to a real understanding of these great works. What Plato is saying (and he, after all, is the authority we should consider even more than Socrates) is that good men need to speak the truth, hold fast to the truth even when that truth threatens their life and provokes bad men. Socrates knows his interlocutors will be enraged by his words b/c he knows their character and their characteristic response to the truth. But though he does not desire death Socrates is willing to accept death rather than sacrifice the truth. That’s a far more productive read of the work and it allows one to see some of the truly funny sections of Socrates’ humor to which you allude. The biggest drawback to reading the Apology either as a lesson in arrogance or else as a cynical attempt to prod the jury is that both impart to the character of Socrates a hardness of heart incapable of making jokes or enjoying beauty. Thus the reader (about whom such criticism is actually addressed), suffers the same mercenary tendencies he imputes to Socrates. It’s not that Socrates is mercenary enough to provoke his jury it’s that the reader making such a claim doesn’t possess the cleanness of heart necessary to take a joke.
I wouldn’t sweat too much the stupidity of your fellow students. I remember once having a girl tell me she didn’t like Dante b/c she didn’t believe in Hell. As though her personal beliefs mattered squat in the understanding of great literature.
Anyway, hope this helps.
Must toddle along.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Article by Katherine Kersten

Great article, again, by Katherine Kersten. I am reminded both of the old Anglo-Saxon insistence on remaining stalwart even in defeat. At the Battle of Maldon, immortalized in a mere fragment of poetry, the idea is expressed beautifully by Brythwold, the Saxon. Surveying the corpses of his brothers and father and seeing the imminent destruction of the Saxons by the raiding Vikings he says:
“Thought must be the harder, heart the keenerSpirit shall be more - as our might lessens.”
The Saxons contributed this vision to the Western world, as Tolkien points out in a great essay on Beowulf. Nowhere else exists such a substantial resistance to the power of despair in the face of defeat.
Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon poem which we teach in the 9th grade, also expresses the sentiment. Faced with inevitable death at the hands of the troll, Grendel, many of the Danes have succumbed to despair, abandoned Christianity and begun worshipping again the dark, bloodthirsty pagan gods. One such despairing man is Unferth whose despair has led him vicious attacks against nobility in others, envy of the courageous, and eventual murder of the king’s sons entrusted to his care. Beowulf defies Unferth, defeats Grendel and Grendel’s ugly mother. Even in his old age, enfeebled and weary, when other men thought of retirement by the fireside, Beowulf faces a dragon that threatens his country. He defeats the dragon, but only at the cost of his own life. As he lies dying he passes on the reign of kingship to the youth, Wiglaf, the only man who has remained by his side when others have fled.

"I would fain bestow on son of mine/this gear of war, were given me now/that any heir should after me come/of my proper blood. This people I ruled/fifty winters. No folk-king was there,/none at all, of the neighboring clans/who war would wage me with 'warriors'-friends'1/and threat me with horrors. At home I bided/what fate might come, and I cared for mine own;/feuds I sought not, nor falsely swore/ever on oath. For all these things,/though fatally wounded, fain am I!/From the Ruler-of-Man no wrath shall seize me,/when life from my frame must flee

This refusal to give in to the despairing vision of a hopeless future populated with cowardly citizens seems to embody that Anglo-Saxon toughness.
Tolkien adopts this theme in his great work of the Lord of the Rings and gives the theme a more Christian element. Frodo, as he stands on the cracks of Mount Orodruin, is unable to throw the ring into the fire. He refuses to complete the task given him and ultimately fails in the spiritual fight set forth for him. I have come.
"But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine."
He despairs, and takes action (the wrong action) to stave off that despair. It takes a struggle with Gollum, who defeats Frodo and bites off the finger with the ring, to complete the quest by stumbling and falling into the fire with the ring clutched in his hand. Tolkien saw that in the Christian vision everyone fails. There is no such thing as a successful Christian. Not that Christians can’t have good jobs, good families, happiness in life, but rather that the struggle, the Great Struggle in which Christians find themselves is a struggle which no amount of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps can win. We will ultimately fail. Christianity, Tolkien witnessed, proclaims that such failure is possible to endure and live through.
The young men on Lynch’s soccer team certainly faced no physical trolls, dragons or fiery chasms, but they faced that fiery chasm of the heart/mind of which Hopkins says:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.
If, then, the young men on that team suffering those defeats and still pursuing excellence learned any lesson it was that defeat is possible, indeed, inevitable, and yet surmountable. To quote one last less literary though no less valuable source, Thomas Wayne who says to young Bruce,
“Why do we fall, Bruce? To learn to pick ourselves up again.”

Friday, August 4, 2006

Bernard Lewis on the Muslim Crisis

In his great essay on the Muslim crisis, “What Went Wrong?” Bernard Lewis has several excellent insights. Among these he states:

The idea that any group of persons, any kind of activities, any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought. There is… no distinction between canon law and civil law, between the law of the church and the law of the state, crucial in Christian history. There is only a single law, the shari‘a, accepted by Muslims as of divine origin and regulating all aspects of human life: civil, commercial, criminal, constitutional, as well as matters more specifically concerned with religion in the limited, Christian sense of that word.

What this implies, of course, is that participation by Muslims in a democratic government proves by its nature to be difficult at best, impossible at worst. If there is no room for secular government in the imagination Muslims dealing with issues as small as traffic control, energy allocation, building codes would either assume the dimensions of religious questions or be seen as too trivial to merit real attention. How can one contribute to the ongoing development of civil life under such conditions? Something would have to give. One of three possibilities would then be open. Either government would become a monumental exercise in which each decision held the weight of eternal salvation/damnation, government would be grossly neglected because of its insignificant and worldly nature, or religious convictions would have to be relaxed or abandoned. The Muslim who takes seriously his religion, unlike the Christian, Jew, or even Buddhist or Hindu is thus placed in a difficult spot.

Lewis goes on to note that the blame leveled at the outside world by Muslims is an ancient malady.

“Who did this to us?” is of course a common human response when things are going badly, and there have been indeed many in the Middle East, past and present, who have asked this question. They found several different answers. It is usually easier and always more satisfying to blame others for one’s misfortunes. For a long time, the Mongols were the favorite villains … but after a while historians, Muslims and others, pointed to … flaws in this argument … . The rise of nationalism … produced new perceptions. Arabs could lay the blame for their troubles on the Turks who had ruled them for many centuries. Turks could blame the stagnation of their civilization on the dead weight of the Arab past in which the creative energies of the Turkish people were caught and immobilized. Persians could blame the loss of their ancient glories on Arabs, Turks, and Mongols impartially.

Blaming others for the collapse of the Muslim seems to stretch back to the 16th century when Muslims first began to notice how Western culture was advancing beyond them. Never did they ask, however, “Could this failure be due to religion & culture?” There is no statement in Muslim culture to the effect that the king derives his power from the dukes who support him. Nor is there any statement that each man’s body may be the king’s but his conscience is his own. Muslim culture contains no political thought to the effect that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, nor do they begin to suggest that governments are instituted among men to secure these inalienable rights or that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed.

Yet Islam is so vastly inferior to the West in so many areas that there must be a root cause to the misery under which the Muslim people suffer. They currently blame the Great Satan of America and the Little Satan of Israel (not to mention the minor choirs of Satans in Britain, Italy, and Australia), yet as Lewis points out, though

The period of French and British paramountcy … produced a new and more plausible scapegoat – Western imperialism. … Anglo – French rule and American influence, like the Mongol invasions, were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle – Eastern states and societies.

It is certainly easier to blame others for one’s own failure, especially when introspection and self-examination are absent. Add to this the infection of inherited from the West of anti-Semitism and the crisis in Israel & Lebanon which we are currently witnessing takes on a new dimension. Again, as Lewis points out,

With rare exceptions, where hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in the Islamic tradition, (Muslims) tended to be contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive. This made the events of 1948 – the failure of five Arab states and armies to prevent half a million Jews from establishing a state in the debris of the British Mandate for Palestine – all the more of a shock. As some writers at the time observed, it was bad enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was an intolerable humiliation. Anti-Semitism and its demonized picture of the Jew as a scheming, evil monster provided a soothing answer.

Middle Eastern Muslims (of which the current diaspora of Muslims throughout the West is derived) harbor a bitter resentment against the insult dealt them by Israel.

Lewis’ conclusion is good, though not fierce enough.

If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination… If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization.
I would suggest that unless they deviate from their current path the only result is genocide and annihilation, not for the West, but for Islam and the Middle East. It seems, then, that hope for the Muslim people exists, but perhaps not in the form of Muslims as they currently are.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Joy to the Person of My Love

Here's a dandy little Scots tune.

Joy to the Person of My Love
Joy to the person of my love although that she doth me disdain.
Fixed are my thoughts and cannot remove and yet I love in vain.
Shall I lose the sight of my joy and heart's delight?
Or shall I cease my suit?
Shall I strive to touch? Oh, no, that were too much;
She is forbidden fruit.
Ah, woe is me, that ever I did see
the beauty that did me bewitch.
But, now alas! I must forgo
the treasure I esteemed so much.
O whither shall my sad heart go, or whither shall I flee?
Sad echo shall resound my plaint or else, alack, I needs must die.
Shall I by her live who no life to me will give,
But deadly wounds my heart
If I flee away O will she cry me stay
My sorrow to convert?
O no, no, no she will not do so
But comfortless I must be gone.
But ere I go to friend or to foe
I’ll love her or I’ll love none.
A thousand good fortunes fall to her share although she hath forsaken me.
It filled my sad heart full of despair yet ever shall I constant be.
For she is the Dame my tongue shall ever name;
Fair branch of modesty.
Chaste in heart and mind, Oh, were she half so kind
Then would she pity me.
Oh, turn again, be kind as thou art fair
And let me in thy bosom dwell.
So shall I gain the treasure of love's pain.
Till then, my dearest love, farewell.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki

I just saw a good movie on the liberation of POWs in the Philippines called “The Great Raid.” I recommend the movie with caveat; the brutality of the Japanese is graphically depicted. Invaluable in the movie, though, was the timeline and reminiscence of the veterans provided in the extras. These allowed me to put a few pieces together and here’s the history of why we dropped the Bomb on Japan.
In the 1920s there were two factions in the government of Japan; the militarists and the pacifists. The militarists held that it was the divine right of the Japanese people as a superior race to conquer and enslave their neighbors. The pacifists, though no less racist in their views about neighboring peoples, held that military action would result in cataclysm for the Japanese people. One must consider that Japan had only recently “modernized” (see “The Last Samurai” if you can stomach Tom Cruise). Many of their districts and villages were still 17th century hovels consisting of straw huts and rice farmers, most of whom had no electricity, no newspapers and no window into the outside world aside from rumor. The pacifists thought that the strength of the Japanese military was not yet able to withstand the backlash of other modernized countries (and they were right). Yamamato, for instance, (who had studied in America and knew implicitly the character of the American populace) stated that the Japanese army might “run wild” through the islands for six months to a year but would then be steadily and remorselessly driven back by the other nations. However, with the emergence of militaristic Nazi Germany, the militarists saw an opportunity to ally with a “modern” nation of the West and achieve their objectives of conquering their neighbors. They won the ear of Hirohito and thus gained the upper hand in Japan, subsequently allying with Hitler and implementing their plan for domination of the Eastern Hemisphere (no joke. Tojo, the chancellor of Japan, actually stated to his generals that the ultimate goal was to dominate every land and people in the Eastern hemisphere.)
After gaining power the militarists began a campaign of mobilizing the Japanese people toward war. Radios were placed by the government in the central buildings of each Japanese village to disseminate information. This information was controlled strictly by the government. Civilians were constantly reminded of the glory and divinity of the emperor, the greatness of the Japanese people, and the barbarity of their neighbors and of the Americans. Tojo, his cabinet, and Tokyo Rose fed the Japanese people a constant diet of “information” calculated to mobilize them against their neighbors and to stir them to hatred of the Americans. Americans were “weak, corrupt, immoral, ungodly, savage, and barbaric”; a rhetoric that sounds eerily familiar. Most of the unlettered peasants, having no other source of information about the outside world, and trusting implicitly in the greatness and honesty of their government never considered the truth or falsity of such claims. How could they? The whole system of hierarchy, honor, shame, and militaristic Bushido was against their questioning such information coming from their “betters.”
In 1927 the Japanese had completed an ultra-secret plan called the “Tanaka Memorial” outlining the invasion of China and surrounding areas followed by an invasion of the US. Beginning in 1932, every graduating class of the naval academy in Tokyo was asked the one single question; “How would you carry out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor?” The Japanese military flexed its muscle by invading Korea, Thailand, Burma, and surrounding island areas. Then in the late 30s Japan staged a fake attack on their own troops in Manchuria at the Marco Polo bridge. They claimed that the Chinese were responsible for the attack and used the offense as a pretext to launch a massive invasion of China; an event which, because of its immensity, had obviously been long in the preparation and planning. The atrocities committed by the unbridled Japanese military on the locals whom they conquered is beyond description. In 1937, for instance, they beheaded 250,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking. Later in 1945 they killed 100,000 Filipinos in Manila. They did not consider such locals to be human, or at least thought of them as “lesser races” and so could do with them as they wished. The Japanese were no less bigoted in their opinions on this matter than the Nazi with their “master race” theory.
The attack on China and surrounding areas rather caught the American military by surprise, as did the attack on Pearl Harbor which drew us into the war. Looking at the timeline of events, I completely reject the “Roosevelt knew” conspiracy theory wherein paranoiacs claim Roosevelt set the fleet in Hawaii in order that it be attacked and we enter the war. Hawaii was our major military base in the Pacific. The violence and militaristic pretensions of the Japanese were well known and the saber rattling rhetoric had gone on for ten years by the time of Pearl Harbor. The subterfuge employed by the Japanese was completely unexpected, not just by the Americans but by the Chinese, Koreans, and every other country which “played by the rules.” Getting caught on our heels at Pearl Harbor was what the Japanese wanted and, though on heightened alert, the American Navy couldn’t have foreseen the event or its outcome. We were unprepared for a war on two fronts and probably would have done all we could to prevent entering into conflict with Japan. Even when Japanese flyers sank one of our ships, the Panay, in 1937 America avoided opening hostilities even though it was assuredly an act of war; 19 American soldiers were affected by the sinking of the Panay (rather like the attack on the USS Cole). Roosevelt was so keen on not entering hostilities that he merely called the attack “reckless flying” on the part of the Japanese. But Americans were certainly on the alert for a Japanese attack. In 1938, in fact, Americans had exercised a wargame called Fleet Problem XIX in which American forces, playing the role of Japanese, infiltrated and conquered Pearl Harbor. Japanese spies sent a detailed report of the exercise and it became the basis for the actual attack on the island.
Anyway, after we were in the war, things looked pretty grim for Allied forces. There was no absolute guarantee (as we in the future tend to superimpose upon the past in typical anachronistic fashion) that the war would end positively for the Allies. Indeed, we cracked the Japanese code in 1941 and thus were listening to the radio chatter for quite some time. In this way the American military learned of several things to their advantage. Tojo and Yamamato planned to invade Hawaii a second time with their full navy and, once conquering that waypoint, intended to proceed to invade California as well. Our navy, crippled by the attack on Pearl Harbor, would be incapable of defending against such an attack if it came as surprise. Fortunately, the cracking of the code allowed us to intercept and sink all four carriers of the Japanese navy at the battle of Midway thus harming their fleet enough that a second invasion of Hawaii was rendered untenable. Furthermore, the intel from the code informed us in 1943 that Yamamato was to travel by plane to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Sixteen P-38s scrambled, intercepted his transport plane and shot him out of the sky. All Japanese aboard perished.
Yet despite these successes the first part of the war was not bright for the American military. The American navy was crippled at Pearl Harbor. The American air force on Luzon was wiped out in a single raid by the Japanese on December 10, 1941. By 1942 Hirohito reigned over 1/7th of the planet. American military leaders predicted that a conflict of 10 years would be necessary to defeat the Japanese.
In Southeast Asia American forces were driven by the Japanese, pulling back in a fighting retreat to the Bataan peninsula. A Japanese naval blockade surrounded the area and the intent of the Japanese army was to annihilate the Americans. MacArthur, with a small body of American soldiery, slipped through the blockade and escaped to Australia, leaving behind the men on Bataan who fought on until they were short on ammo, diseased, and starving to death. Forced at last by the severity of their situation and the belief that their country had abandoned them to their fate they surrendered to the Japanese. Later, allied forces on Corregidor also were forced to surrender to the Japanese. Such surrender, however, was unexpected by the Japanese military who expected to wipe out the Americans. Suddenly they were faced with the prospect of doing something with 75,000 starving, diseased, shell-shocked Americans. Moreover, they had to get their artillery onto the Bataan peninsula in order to shell the main part of the island. The surrendering Americans impeded this maneuver; after all, they were supposed to be dead, not milling about on the peninsula in a state of slow starvation. The decision then was made to march all the POWs north and distribute them amongst various hastily crafted camps.
But the march north did not reckon on the condition of the men. Healthy Japanese soldiers used very little mechanized transport; they marched everywhere. They expected the Americans to do the same, and quickly too. When men began to collapse from heat, sickness, dehydration, or exhaustion the Japanese soldiers panicked and began to stab, or shoot the fallen. Corpses littered the road north as men, in a blind nightmare of marching, tried desperately to keep from collapsing. Whipped, driven by curses and bayonets, murdered if they fell, they endured a horrific experience later dubbed “The Bataan Deathmarch.” 10,000 men died. For most POWs, arrival at the ramshackle, pitiful little bamboo huts surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire, was a relief from the agony of the deathmarch. Here they could at last collapse in the shade and anticipate sitting out the rest of the war in relative peace.
What they did not realize was that the Japanese did not operate under the same rules as the West. POW camps in the Pacific were, consequently, a very different thing from POW camps in Nazi Germany or Italy (or America, despite the liberal attempts to compare such camps to the American internment of Japanese citizens in relatively comfortable and well-built military-run communities).
Tojo's orders regarding POWs was very clear. Guards, he said, “must supervise their charges rigidly, taking care not to become obsessed with mistaken ideas of humanitarianism or swayed by personal feelings toward prisoners that might grow over a long incarceration.” Rarely did top government officials visit any Japanese prison camps. Therefore, the local commanders could do as they wished without reprimand. However, considering the indoctrination of Japanese troops, reprimand was highly unlikely. If the commander wished, he could make anything, even whistling, a crime and inflict any type of punishment, including execution.[1]
Japanese withheld aid boxes, rations, and medicine from the POWs. They fed the men one bowl of rice and ½ a cup of water each day. The majority of prisoners were put to work in mines, fields, shipyards and factories on a diet of about 600 calories a day.[2]
They beat the POWs savagely if they disobeyed orders, showed disrespect, or requested more humane treatment. They tortured POWs for information. They executed POWs in the most savage ways if they attempted to escape; crucifixion by one arm was a frequent form of torturous death. Corpses of POWs were frequently left out to rot as an example to others. Any who did escape from the camps faced impassable terrain, man-eating tigers, heat, dehydration, and recapture by the heavily fortified Japanese-held villages. Men were routinely shipped from the death camps to slave labor on the mainland of Japan. Of the men who entered camp O’Donnell, for instance, 30,172 perished. Very few escape attempts occurred in from the camps in the Pacific.

The POWs were forced to sign non-escape oaths soon after they reached the POW camps. They signed at the advice of their officers with the secret understanding that the oaths were not morally binding. Escapes were rare. Any re-captured escapees were executed. Not only were they killed in front of the other POWs, but ten additional POWs were executed as well.[3]
U.S. prisoners of war held by the Empire of Japan, 1941-1945 died at a rate exceeding 37% while in captivity. On the other hand, U.S. prisoners of war held captive by Nazi Germany died at a rate of less than 2% while held by the Germans.[4]
As the war progressed and America drew closer to the mainland of Japan two things happened. First, the propaganda campaign increasingly emphasized both the pride in Japanese greatness and the paranoia against America. Battles such as Midway were proclaimed “glorious victories” for the Japanese while reports of American atrocities became almost a daily occurrence. Japanese were told that Americans systematically butchered and raped both Japanese enemies and their own local allies. As the invasion of Japan became imminent the government began training civilians in martial skills. Children as young as three were taught how to use knives, guns, and even the katana (the traditional battle sword of the samurai). The entire populace was galvanized against any land based invasion. American soldiers had already faced a staggering butcher’s yard on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and, most significantly, on Okinawa. Japanese also experienced tremendous losses. For instance 23,000 Japanese had been killed on Saipan alone. 6,000 died at Corregidor. On Iwo Jima 216 Japanese survived of the 20,000 defending the island. In a conventional invasion of Japan Americans would have to face Kamikaze attacks, the Japanese regular army, and an entire civilian population trained to fight door to door, house to house, closet to closet. American military advisors suggest a conservative estimate of one million American military casualties and perhaps five million Japanese casualties. Such an invasion would prove to be a blood bath for Japanese and Americans alike.
Second, the Japanese wanted to erase all record of their atrocities against the POWs. They began burning all records at the POW camps. Then came the orders to liquidate the POWs themselves. At Palawan POWs were forced to dig air-raid shelters. They were then herded into the shelters, walled in by the Japanese using gasoline drums, doused with gasoline and set on fire. Any men who tried to escape were machine gunned to death. It was shear murder. When Van der Post writes about the rumor about executing the prisoners he wasn’t just talking about a bullet to the head. It was quite horrific what the Japanese did and what they planned to do on a large scale would have been barbaric on an equal to Auschwitz or Dachau. The need to end the war quickly became imperative. We had to convince the Japanese to surrender and surrender immediately; both for their sake and for ours.
But the Japanese would not surrender, nor would they listen to reason. The populace knew only that savage Americans were coming to rape and torture them and kill their beloved divine emperor. The militarists were absolutely fanatical in their intent to auto flambé. Self immolation was their alternative to defeat and they intended to take every Japanese citizen and as many American soldiers with them as they possibly could. Moreover, the Japanese had, apparently, gained knowledge through the Germans and their own spy-ring in America of how to effect nuclear fission. They were working on a nuclear bomb. On the very morning of August 6th, Yoshitaki Mimura, a scientist at the Hiroshima Bunri University told 500 Japanese army officers that they were days (days!) away from completing a new weapon called an atomic bomb. As he spoke there was the sound of an allied B-29 overhead, a flash of light, and Hiroshima was incinerated.
America had tested the nuclear bomb once before the holocaust on Japan on July 16, 1945 at a remote desert in New Mexico. Aside from the incineration of the local floral and fauna (lizards and cactus and stuff) there was no damage to be measured. Sand had been turned to glass and rock had been bleached white, but there was no way to assess how destructive this would be against a civilian center. Nevertheless, the American scientists knew they had a powerful weapon at their hands. We therefore warned the Japanese high command that unless they surrendered we would annihilate them, city by city. My suspicion is that the militarists either ignored this ultimatum thinking that the Americans were not so advanced on the Manhattan project, or else interpreted the “annihilation” to be through conventional forces and thus great loss of life. Japanese Prime Minister Kantoro Suzuki responded to the ultimatum with a single word Mulusatsu, “kill with silence”; or in the vernacular “shut up and kill us.” I don’t think they as yet knew of the destructive payload which a nuclear bomb would deliver. These ultimatums were kept from the Japanese populace who had no idea such a bomb even existed. In the days before August 6th, B-17s made several literature drops over Hiroshima telling the populace to evacuate because a great conflagration was imminent. The Japanese government assuaged the local concerns by calling the drops “Allied propaganda.”
When the bomb hit on August 6th, the Japanese were mere days away from finishing their own bomb and from executing their POWs. They had no intent of capitulation. In fact Tojo’s officers attempted to assassinate him in April of 1944. He resigned in disgrace in August and was replaced by the more militant and more savage Kuniaki Koiso who had brutalized the Korean populace during his stay as governor. Koiso assured the emperor that the Japanese would “fight to an ultimate victory!” The devastation of the bomb on Hiroshima, then was a shock to the Japanese system. But moreover, it convinced the populace of the island that their government was terribly and devastatingly wrong about Japanese invulnerability. Rumor of the conflagration spread throughout the countryside within hours, as though some god had touched down on the face of the island. The Japanese peasant, hitherto trusting in his government to protect him and in his own strength to defend against the barbarians was violently awakened to the reality of the modern world; an awakening from which I think they are still recovering.
But the government still would not surrender. Either through pride, fanaticism, or perhaps just a lack of communication about just how bad things were, they continued to defy the Allies and proceed with their plans to execute POWs and defend the mainland. Nagasaki was flattened three days later. I would not be surprised if these two cities weren’t the beginning of a campaign by the allies, rather than two isolated events, to hammer every single Japanese city until they surrendered or were no more. Tensions were that high that the military and most of the American populace probably would have agreed with the program. But such a program never came to fruition because the second bomb broke the back of the militarists. Surrender was declared and the emperor spoke on Japanese radio for the first time personally telling his people to “endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable.”
In retrospect, it seems that the atrocities and brutality of the Japanese were lost amidst the horror of the nuclear bomb. Our attention, captured swiftly and suddenly by the threat of the Soviets, shifted from hatred of the Japanese for their arrogance and barbarism to sympathy for all they suffered from their government and the effects of nuclear fallout. The whole business was pretty horrid, but given the circumstance there was no alternative. Had we not dropped the bomb, no amount of negotiation, reason, appeasement could have deterred the Japanese from butchering our captured soldiers, the local natives of Southeast Asia, and their own people. In war, one must be a realist and choose the lesser of two evils. Though the dropping of the bombs was an evil of nauseating proportion the alternative would have been far worse.
George Washington often stated that the victory of the colonists over the British was nothing short of a miracle. Without the intervention of Providence, he said, the Americas as a separate nation would not be. I think a similar thing could be said of the war in the Pacific (and probably in Europe, too). The cracking of the code; the escape of MacArthur; the survival of the aircraft carrier, Enterprise, after Pearl Harbor; the near fatal successes on the islands of Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Okinawa, and the Coral Sea; the suicidal decision of the Japanese high command to employ kamikaze tactics thus resulting in the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”; and, yes, the Bomb all seem to have been near miraculous events contributing to the defeat of the Japanese and the success of the Allies in the Eastern theater. Imagine for a moment if the code had not been cracked, Yamamato had survived and the invasion of Hawaii and then California had ensued. Imagine if the Americans had failed to develop the bomb and an invasion of the mainland transpired with a butcher’s bill approaching genocide. Imagine if the Japanese had conversely succeeded in creating a bomb and deploying it upon one of our cities on the West coast as they most assuredly would have done. And imagine a Japan still stuck in the 17th century which had never awakened to the generosity and kindness displayed by the American GIs during reconstruction, had never progressed into democracy such that her citizens might enjoy greater prosperity and happiness, had never become the strong ally she now is in our current and greater war against the ideology of terror.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

The Heroic Ideal

My father tells stories of how, when he was a young boy growing up in the 40s, his parents had few worries about what he was reading, or seeing, or learning in school. Life was fairly safe. Unfortunately, we parents no longer have the option of being unaware of our children’s environment. “The price of freedom is eternal diligence,” and if we wish our children to be free we must diligently make ourselves aware of their environment. America has created, and continues to create an environment of violence. The result is violent creatures. One particular of the modern environment, though certainly not the only particular, is the realm of fiction. More specifically, within the realm of written fiction there seems to be a not so new genre which, though not directly promoting violence, undermines the bulwark which could prevent violence from becoming the norm. The fictional novels of one author, Gary Paulsen, are prime examples of this phenomenon. His stories, in the genre of “novels for young people” such as are written by Judy Blume, R.L. Stine, Shel Silverstein, and others, purport to write for young people, but what they really do is work against young people. In so doing, they strike a serious blow to the moral framework of society and contribute to the environment of violence in which our children live.
We can’t lay the entirety of the blame at the feet of these authors, but they certainly do have a share in the problem. We live by stories and view the world with those eyes formed in the cave in which we choose to make our dwelling. Fiction itself comes in many forms; movies, music, still photos, the spoken word, and written fiction. In terms of imagery alone, one could, of course, argue against the many gross and graphic images within Paulsen’s books, but these are not at the root of the disease. What Paulsen does is far more dangerous, for he essentially abandons the heroic ideal.
When I was a youth I was given a book called "the War Party" by an author who has since, thankfully, drifted into the obscurity of my imagination. In it, the Indian youth is all aquiver to go on his first war party. The book tells of his preparation, his fear, and ultimately his agony in battle when, after getting clobbered, he lies on the ground with blood oozing from his head, wondering how long it will be until someone comes to rescue him. What "the War Party" did for my imagination is what the books of Paulsen, Blume, and the others do for young people now. Essentially, it wrecks their belief and faith in the heroic ideal and leaves them with a sense of despair and abandonment.
What, then, is this heroic ideal? The heroic ideal consists of images and stories of man as heroic or engaged in something noble. This concept is ingrained in us from an early age; through the stories we read and hear, the games we play, the images we see. For example as a boy, the first real novel I read was a version of Gawain and the Green knight. As I read, I was filled with a sense of adventure and a concept of knighthood and nobility. Any young child reading such a story of the heroic ideal makes it his own. He plays at these concepts, emulates them, mimics them, conforms his life to them, develops an affection for them.
The images of the heroic ideal do three major things in the mind and soul. First, they provide a corpus of imagery and abstract concepts such as goodness, beauty, and nobility. Second, they encourage affection and love for the heroic and hatred for the unheroic. Third, they promote a conformity of the young life around these ideals.
This concept of the heroic ideal can be better understood by observing the opposite or lack thereof. First, without the corpus of images created by the heroic ideal the mind has no language for that which all men must experience. It cannot express in youth or adulthood the emotions and thoughts which make man what he is. Like a plant without water, the soul withers, or grows corrupt with bad imagery.
Second, the ideal encourages affection while the lack of the ideal retards the soul from ever learning to love that which it ought. It is impossible to love that which is not even hinted at to be known. Either the soul ceases to love or else strikes out to love what it thinks it ought or what is given to it to love (often an inferior copy of love).
Third, the ideal promotes a conformity without which the habit of living goes astray. Our habits from early on are formed and often dictate how we are to live. Without the image of the ideal life conforms around things which are inferior, even at a young age becoming unruly or entirely impotent.
Essentially, the heroic ideal is that thing which shows us at an early age that men can be virtuous; that our state as humans, though fallen, can be redeemed in some way. This prepares one for adulthood in three ways. First, it allows for the conception of abstract ideas of goodness. To understand the philosophical concept of "the good" one has to have a history of having seen "the good." At last, studying it as an adult, one then says, "Ah! So that is what this has meant all along," or "that is why Gawain refused the lady of the castle." This concept of the good, then, leads one to God.
Second, the ideal allows one to love that which ought to be loved. As love develops it is trained and encouraged by the memory and the corpus of images which say "this is good," or "this is worthy of love"; "do good, avoid evil." This ultimately leads to a love of God.
Third, the ideal allows one to conform one's adult life to virtue. As habits are established early they do not simply go away but rather change to become the habits of adult life; as the child, so the man. Slovenliness in youth becomes selfishness or carelessness in adulthood. Eagerness in youth becomes zeal in adulthood. These habits of childhood, encouraged and trained in the right direction, of course, lead to the virtuous life.
Now, this is not to say that without the heroic ideal a person becomes a shambles. Rather, a person creates some ideal for himself (or has it created for him) and goes on living. But to say that a sick man is not sick does not help him to get well. It stands to reason that the man without the heroic ideal in his life might lead a life which seems perfectly normal. Indeed it stands to reason that his life might be good and true and devoted to God. In the same way, a man cast overboard in a storm might survive and make it to shore, but a life preserver sure would help (or better yet, it would help if the boat never went into a storm but made it safely to port without mishap).
What Paulsen, Blume, and the author of "The War Party" do is project their own sense of despair and abandonment onto the minds of those who read their works. The authors have given up on the idea that man is heroic and this makes itself painfully obvious in their writing, both in the graphic realism prevalent in their technique and in the basic hopelessness of the stories they tell. Whatever the case, to depict man as gross, helpless, hopeless, a mere puppet of fate who will eventually die a gruesome, ignominious death is to deny the redeeming qualities that still exist even in fallen man. It is, finally, to deny salvation itself. Abandon the heroic ideal in the worst of times and one abandons the beatific vision.
There are several ways in which Paulsen, Blume, Silverstein and the others wreck the heroic ideal. I will limit myself to three major ones. First, by the excess of gross imagery in their works they focus only on the basest functions of human existence. Like a lens focused on the worst of human life, such imagery tends to blot out all that is good in us. Furthermore, such imagery stays in the mind, effects it, and can damage young minds that cannot yet discern the difference (I’m still horrified at the memory of hearing children playing in the front rows of the movie theater when I went to see “Saving Private Ryan”). Second, the sheer loneliness and commonality of the characters makes them seem base and unheroic. Paulsen’s characters are not young people who achieve great deeds (like the Hardy Boys), but ordinary messed up kids who stumble through awful situations and barely get out alive. More terrifying than impressive. Third, the very stories themselves which Paulsen tells are essentially unheroic. Heroism is the conscious decision of a person to survive, to achieve, to succeed and thus to transcend themselves. Paulsen’s stories are not about this action, but about barely surviving in the face of impossible odds. Amidst all the grossness, frailty, awfulness of life, Paulsen’s characters have terrible things happen to them. They survive by a stroke of luck, only to return to the same gross, frail, awful world which they left without ever experiencing the heroic, the noble, the blissful, or the joyous. Pretty miserable.
Children raised without such images do make heroic ideals for themselves. They worship icons of power, violence, strength, unremitting hate and merciless retribution. After all, the devil can be a pretty attractive fellow when he wants to be. Lacking any other alternative, a person will grab at any image of strength that offers him or her a way out of their predicament. Since the modern American educational system refuses to offer images of the good, and since images of the opposite are abundantly available in every movie, billboard, magazine, musical guru, and fashion explosion in existence it only makes sense that they would have chosen what seemed to suggest to them a powerful means of overcoming their enemies. Perhaps what we are witnessing in places like Colorado are the symptoms of an emaciated and heroism-starved society dying a slow but violent death. Life ought not to be simply survival. If survival alone is that for which we aim, then we will not survive at all. Nor will our children. Be diligent. If you do not, your children will not only not grow up free, they may not grow up at all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Re: 666.

Two shocking posts in a row!
This is an exchange with an alum from PA.

Hello Mr. Lasseter, how are you doing? i was wondering, if you could tell me how 666 was actually God's number and not the number of the devil. I remember that we talked about it one day, or week. However I cannot remember what was said, i was trying to have a argument with people, but I couldnt remember.

In Jewish mysticism, called Kabbalah (not the Madonna-modernist-Hollywood crap pseudo religion) each number has a metaphysical correspondence. Numbers are a language for speaking most purely about certain metaphysical qualities or states of being. In this language the numbers 2 and 3 are particularly important. 2 is the feminine power of contemplation and receptivity. 3 is the masculine power of intellection and dominance. Thus, since 6 is 2 operating on 3 (3+3) or 3 operating on 2 (2+2+2) it is a combination of the masculine and feminine powers working together in the creative process; rational thought, in other words. Next, any number elevated to a power of 3 signifies divine power rather than mortal (Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus = really holy). 666, then, is rational thought on a divine level. The dominance of rational order which creates and controls everything in existence. Finally, a bit of history (b/c undoubtedly we are referring to the passage in Revelation where the beast has 666 on its forehead). When a slave escapes once the punishment in the Ancient world was whipping. Twice = hobbling. Three times = branding the slave with the name of his master (normally on the forehead where it was most prominent). So 666 is not the number of the beast but the number put upon the beast who is the servant of the Lord of Rational Thought.
Perhaps the most exciting writer on this sort of stuff is John F. Michell :
or here at Amazon
City of Revelation:

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Heroic imagery

The great struggle for our civilization is immanently winnable on the military front. The most dangerous and vulnerable front, however, is the psychological front here in the states themselves. As I am a firm believer, therefore, in the power of imagery to sway imaginations, I consider this movie “United 93” to be brilliant. We’ve seen anti-American and anti-heroic movies spew forth from Hollywood; everything from “Syriana” to “Sin City.” Where in all that is the character of the hero, the man or woman willing to lay down their life for what is right and good and true? The fictional character of Batman in “Batman Begins” was one such hero in an ocean of depressing and demoralizing films. So to was the story of “Cinderella Man.” But the first was a cartoon character, the second a character from an earlier era in American history. With the movie “United 93” heroes of the present age are depicted. This is exactly what is needed right now. Not only must the image of heroism be championed to combat the negative rewriting of history surrounded the events of 9-11, but it must be championed lest we, like the character Unferth in the Beowulf epic, lose heart, quail, and retreat. At this point in our history the enemy is at the gates. And if, through fear and cowardice, our shield wall breaks now...

Friday, March 31, 2006

On the Study of History

An exchange with one of my recent grads.

You told us the importance of studying history and it's significance in every knowledgeable persons education. I was recently asked by a fellow student why I would major in a study which is not about true "facts". He went on to say that the winners write the history books therefore we are given skewed and twisted accounts of what actually happened. Basically we cannot read a primary historical text and know for sure if what is said happened or if we are getting a distorted version. I knew this was dangerous logic and that just because you do not witness an event does not mean you cannot be sure it happened but I was not entirely sure what to say at the time. I tried to remember what you had said to us way back in the dark ages of 11th grade but alas, my memory grew clouded.
Your friend is essentially dodging the issue. It isn't that the logic is poor (which it is) but that is a pseudo-intellectualism that borrows the trappings of logic in order to avoid addressing the issue. Sure history is written by the winners. To say otherwise is assinine. How could losers write history? They're all dead!!! One might just as easily ask why study music since we only know the music written by musicians, or why study math since only mathematicians show it to us. Foolishness. But if we say "oh, the winners write history" we can effectually avoid having to memorize dates, names, events, avoid studying the scope and drama of human existence, avoid the rigor of getting our facts right. Essentially your friend is acting like a lazy slob who chooses to look smart instead of being smart. (Tell him I said so).
It isn't important that the winners write history but that there be around winners who can write at all. It is a consummation much to be desired that those same winners who can write take interest in the passing of human events enought to chronicle what happened.
Why should it be important?
Well, first see my blog entry on Anselm and the nature of education.

In brief, every study we engage in is really a study of ourselves. We learn about ourselves (gnothi seauton) so that we might know more about that which we most closely represent; namely the divine. The study of any discipline is only superficially about the subject matter (numbers, or history, words, or notes). Primarily it is a study of who we are and how we relate to the world around us. Simone Weil states that studying anything teaches us to be aware of our surroundings, to "pay attention." Indeed, the strictness of history forces the student to look at what really is there, not what they want to be there. Did Custer really get slaughtered by the Indians? Were the Crusades really against the Muslims? Was the potato famine really a disaster for the Irish? By doing so we learn the discipline of looking at things around us and letting them speak to us. We learn our own capacity for error, insight, accuracy and sloth. These things are important no matter what course of study we choose, but history particularly teaches us these things.
Second, sure there are bad historians; twisters of facts, fabricators of data, charlatans of academia; but ought that not be more incentive instead of less for good men, honest and intelligent to enter the field? Every story is an interpretation and as history is story it too is interpretation. But interpretation does not imply falsehood. I interpret that the sun is rising in the morning. Is the sun rising? Yes. I interpret that the ground is hard when I slip on the ice and fall down. Is it hard? Yes. Just because our interpretation corresponds to reality doesn't mean that the interpretation is erroneous. Good historians do all they can (barring the limits of their cultural background, personal predilections, and natural comprehension) to convey the meaning of the events accurately. In fact, one who does interpret the events is normally a better historian than one who purportedly does not because he can more thoroughly convey to his audience the sense of what really was. Everyone interprets events. As soon as we open our mouths we are interpreting by the mere act of choosing this word and not that one. So those who claim to not interpret history really are interpreting and should be watched, very carefully.
Third, "the farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see." Churchill was correct in this. The man who knows history v. well knows that what is happening currently, and what might happen eventually, are events that follow a pattern. Lack of knowledge about how the Nazis gained power only hobbles a man into believing that expediency outweighs legality. Knowing that appeasement has never ever ever ever ever worked against tyrants prevents one from thinking that Sean Penn has a rat's chance in Hades of stopping Saddam Hussein. "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat" says Tocqueville, and he was right. Moreover, to paraphrase Boethius, the insight into the patterns of history allows one to see the workings of the Pattern Maker. How does God operate in the carnage and joys of human life? Historical study grants a window into the mind of the Maker.
Fourth, historical study ought to be engaged in because it's simply so much fun. Essentially those who do not acknowledge history as worth while have failed to make the effort to see what is good in the study. Essentially, history is a lot of fun; all those slaughterings, torturings, diseases, empire-buildings, marriages, betrayals, skullduggeries, survivals, struggles, journeyings, oratoryings, artifactings, partyings, and livings that people have done for who knows how long are a riot to read and think about. It gives delight to see and makes one happy to think about and as such makes one a little bit more godlike; as God delights in watching us scuttling betwixt heaven and earth, so too we delight in seeing the panorama of history laid out before us. Your friend has not only denied himself a real joy, he has denied himself the opportunity to become more like God.
Yes, history does repeat itself but why do we really study history? Why is it so essential for every humans education? Was Winston Churchill right when he said "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see"? What does really mean? I think it was Boetheus who said that we do not realize the true worth of our goods until they are gone. ... Please remind the current students of how blessed they are to attend their school and to really take advantage of the rich education which can't find anywhere else. You and the other teachers are such an invaluable resource and so kind share your knowledge with your students even when they are hundreds of miles away.
Ah... you tell them and you tell them, but do they listen? No. C'est la vie.