There be dragons!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Ahab says to Starbuck, "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event ... some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.... I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate."

Ahab twists into something unholy and terrifying the vision that all things are metaphor for something else. Yet in Moby Dick the vision is already twisted and terrifying; the god is an unreasoning whale, the sea is dark and protean, the crew is savage and brutal. The world is already a nightmare such that Ahab's vision is but a nightmare within the nightmare. The book itself is therefore a pasteboard mask, hiding through Melville's obscure language and copiously unnecessary minutia of whaling lore some dark vision of how things might be. If indeed everything is a metaphor for everything else, Melville intimates, how then can we ever know what is the really real? Aren't we just pushed about by dark forces that don't kill us outright but rather maim us and leave us to live on with only one lung? Dark shadows with condor wings, to borrow from Poe. It is a dark vision, indeed, and not easily softened by the platitudinous responses of Melville's more religiously-minded critics. St. John of the Cross offers this sort of reflection, to descend into the darkness w/o the hope of return as a thing necessary if we are to grow. Yet even the suggestion that this endurance of the darkness, the horse doldrums of uncertainty, might be for our betterment and growth is to delete the experience of its effectiveness. Maybe there is no betterment. Maybe things just happen. And your ship gets staved in by the malignant force with a hump like a white hill leaving you clutching for dear life to Queequeg's coffin, held liminally between the infinite depths of the sky and the infinite depths of the abyss.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On Plato

A recent exchange with a student on Plato.

Hi Mr. Rex!

I hope everything is going well for you!

I just had a quick question that I thought you might be able to help me out with. In 611c of

the Republic and in the surrounding area, Socrates is speaking of how factious things made

up of parts ultimately corrupt and only unities and harmonies are eternal. If this is the case,

then in 611c when he mentions justice and injustice he uses the plural- implying that justice

is factious. If this is the case, doesn't this imply that Platonic thought viewed justice as

conventional and volatile? This seems to contradict the entire message of the Republic, but

as it comes at the end and it seems very deliberately placed, I can't quite pass it off. Can you

make anything of it?


Dear N.O.,

Thanks for the email. You caught me on an exhausting afternoon with an open house looming before my eyes so I wasn't able to answer toot sweet.

About the Republic 611c line. I hadn't given it much thought actually. In all likelihood, there is little chance that a single word would throw into confusion the entire bulk of the text. Still, it is not beyond Plato's ironic dexterity with language to do exactly that; to say, "well, in the end, maybe it's all balderdash." What is Socrates really talking about, after all? It is only nominally Justice, just as it is only nominally about philosophy or a city. The city works to talk about justice which serves to talk about the examined life which serves to talk about ... what? A vision Plato had? An ineffable beauty within but not of the world? In which case, all metaphors break down. The city metaphor only goes so far before it gives way to the cave metaphor which only goes so far before giving way to Er and so on. If the term of Justice has served its purpose, Socrates/Plato no longer wants us to dwell on it; this is god and not god - or, "look pilgrim and then pass on" as Virgil says to Dante. All metaphors, even the words and concepts of abstract thought, move us toward a deeply silent and personal contemplation of what really IS; being qua being. Thus, if Plato were to throw into confusion the definition of justice he so carefully has crafted to this point I would not be surprised. Is his message, then, that of the Eleusinian mysteries that we ought not to cling too readily to any one thing? All things change? All things are mutable? The only constant in life is change. Why should we be surprised by fortune's inconstancy, advises Boethius, when change is her nature? Plato wants us to be able to say, this is Justice, yet more to the point he wants his readers to find humility and thus wisdom (philoSOPHIA, after all). Such humility only comes by accepting that we are not gods and change happens; a good bumper sticker, or phylactery, or mantra. The trick isn't so much to claim that we know what these shadows are b/c we see them more often than others, nor to gain prizes b/c we actually are better at naming them, but b/c we accept that we are not gods to see them and pass out of the cave into the light. This is justice, but justice even is not the point. I know what justice is, but it isn't "my justice" nor do I claim divinity b/c I know what justice is; rather divinity is granted me b/c I know that I do not know.

I'll look further into this when I have breathing room. For now, have to help a student with an essay then go down to play practice.

Gnothi seauton.

A. Rex

Friday, November 2, 2007

Analysis of the Evidence

Photographers of any worth are very intentional about how they compose their photographs. Each picture is supposed to say 1,000 words, to whit photographers are meticulous about lighting, color, pose, background, setting, props, focus, film type and numerous other details that consumers like you and I take for granted.
Take for instance The Esquire photo of Bill Clinton a few years back:

Exhibit A

Bill Clinton, erstwhile commander in chief and darling of the liberal media.
There he sits, the picture of masculine power and confidence, the smug smirk on his face, well groomed hair, soft blue lighting, the halo in the background; note the size of the hands - controlling, powerful, rugged; note also the lay of the tie - powerful, yet casual, not prim at all; note the position of the hands akin to the Lincoln statue in the memorial; note the pose - legs spread in that dominant male stance to show off the groin; note the angle of the photograph which takes the role of an intern begging for direction; note also the black stool which we all know is a stool that blends with the black suit such that, though we know it's a stool, it takes on other ramifications of innuendo and subliminal impact (boy is Mr. Clinton endowed, isn't he? Don't you want to be an intern? Don't you want to worship before his might? The photographers is intentionally creating an image to inspire adulation before the golden boy of the left.

Compare such an image to

Exhibit B

Ann Coulter; conservative hothead and no-nonsense commentator on liberal policy.
Long legs exaggerated, the lighting again like a halo, but somewhat disturbing (no pleasant blue background here); the chair an oversize leather bit of painful pop art; note the clothing, the dark dress, white tights, black shoes like some nun or Puritanical mistress of all that oppresses freedom; note the pose as though ready to leap from the chair and go for your throat - no smile - no twinkle in the eye- severe, angry, unflattering; note the hands (one of the most attractive things in a woman) hidden from view; note the angle of the camera with its prurient upskirt view like some crazy private school Abby Hoffman waiting to take advantage of this conservative schoolgirl prude. Not the same photographer, true, but the photo of Ann could have been different. It could, after have been like this...

Exhibit C

Current Junior Senator and President Elect Hillary Rodham Clinton, the great white hope of the liberal left.
The colors; warm red, powerful, inviting, communist, but also redstate. The couch, some Edwardian beauty taken from somewhere in the White House, reminescent of those couches royalty used to employ when visiting hours at Buckingham palace occurred; the great, regal frame of some important potentate hangs overhead; the camera, slightly above shoulder level, looks down from a standing position, as though the photographer were at the Christmas party hosted by the CEO and you round the corner carrying your glass of egg nog with the best rum in it, and there, sitting demurely in a Victorian decorated room is Hillary, a smile on her handsome face and her hair in a perfect Martha Stewart, sitting side-saddle facing you directly; her dress is a dark, velvet number like Grace Kelly might wear or Princess Diana or some other regal-seeming individual with a gorgeous foreign accent; one hand lies pleasantly on her lap, the other pats the couch, as she purrs, "I'm not a threat. I'm a beautiful woman ready for Christmas. Come, sit next to me, tell me how you want to see the country fixed."