There be dragons!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Serpent, the Eagle, Agamemnon and Aeschylus

While rereading the first play of Aeschylus' great trilogy I came across this statement by Klytemnestra:

You claim the work is mine (the killing of Agamemnon), call me Agamemnon's wife - you are so wrong. Fleshed in the wife of this dead man, the spirit lives within me, our savage ancient spirit of revenge.

What a startling admission by the central character that what has been done is the embodiment of our natural human tendency toward violence. We are fallen creatures; and at our heart we are dark and savage. We must, as Robert Fagles points out in the essay "The Serpent and the Eagle" strive for a "...victory... over the barbarian latent in (ourselves), the hubris that unites the invader and the native tyrant as a targets of the gods." This is only possible through "...compassion and lasting self-control" in the pagan world. There is no hope of redemption accept through the wearisome toil of self-control and rational thought which allows us to think through how we are to govern ourselves. Without such thought, without such toil we fall into that cycle of feuding bloodlust that drives even today one clan, one gang, one family to seek the annihilation of the other. Only through law, adherence to self control, and constant exercise of compassion and charity can we hope for a better world.

Klytemnestra, notably enough, is also devoid of any individuality. The revenge murder which she has plotted these 11 years, to which her entire intellect has been turned, has stripped her of individual will and the ability to see reason (or ratio); she is no longer an individual in the LOGOS but an archetype acting as the agent for that "savage ancient spirit of revenge." So do all people who resort to violence over compassion, anger over understanding, dictatorialism over democracy, lose their individual importance and become just another face in the yelling mob of faces. Only goodness is unique; evil is ordinary.

But more, still, for the toil and labor of our own sweat and blood to hold ourselves to the honorable course of self-control and compassion is an impossibility in the long run. You injure mine and I will crush you - "annihilation" as Medea says. In the pagan realm one can marvel at the unique glory achieved through self-control and compassion as a principle, but we fall short, we fail of achieving this glory ourselves and so we end up as victims and losers. Pagan thought offers no solution to this failure. The barbarian latent in ourselves cannot be mastered through our own efforts and so we continue to be pursued by those dark cthonic gods we call "Eumenides".

Christianity alone offers any solution to this conundrum for (as Nietzsche pejoratively declared) Christianity is a religion of losers.
The weak, the broken, the sorrowful and the crushed.
Christianity is all about not being strong enough to endure the grinding Grendelian churning of the wheel of human nature; we cannot master ourselves, and yet that's okay. In Christ is our hope and our salvation. We die that he might live and all our glory, says St. Paul, is due to him. The failures crucified on either side of the Divine Failure are given hope that their sanctity is ensured, not because of their own broken muscle and sinew, but because they recognize their smallness and weakness and give over their broken and contrite heart to the Lord.

in the midst of that sorrow and failure
a miracle!
for Jesus Christ is born this day
and Lo! he makes all things new.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An Exchange

This was a recent exchange with a student:

Hi Mr. A,

I was just procrastinating (my last final is a take-home due tomorrow morning), and I was reading through your Tolkien quotes via your blog. I happened to notice the one I was expecting to find wasn't there. I'm sure you've read it before and perhaps didn't think it fit among the quotes about LOTR and his other works... So on the off-chance you actually haven't stumbled upon it, I thought I'd share it with you. And if you have, I figure it's always great to read some beautiful thoughts on the Eucharist. It comes from a letter he wrote to his son, I believe:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament ... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.

A Studentia

Dear Studentia. How excellent to hear from you. Do stop by and witness all the wonderful produce of my teeming brain and all the gripes fit to share with grads.

About the Tolkien quotation: I don't recall if or why that quotation was excluded, possibly the author of the blog was unfamiliar with the corpus of JRRT's work (including his letters). For my part, that quotation has always had a place with the other great words about the Eucharist. Tolkien, unlike Lewis, had a phenomenal vision about what the world was and how love should relate to it; perhaps born of his suffering at the Somme, perhaps simply a byproduct of his remarkable literary intellect. One of the most striking things about the quotation is that it is in the context of a letter to his son about girls and relationships. How, then, did Tolkien view the conjugal relationship, romance, marriage, and the Eucharist as interconnected? I certainly think he did. The Eucharist is “…the one great thing to love on earth…” but not the wafer; rather “the Blessed Sacrament.” So what does that mean? What is the sacramental vision of life? Is it that, as Hopkins said, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” or as Aquinas pointed out the world and everything in it is good? Test all things and retain what is good, said the Medievals. Sacramental vision means that one sees the order, structure, and goodness of the world even amidst the “horror and frustration” the filth and disappointment; amidst pedaphiliac priests and indifferent congregations – even in the midst of the mire of man’s sweatiness, there too is the Christian divinity “... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth…” The focus must remain on the Eucharist and one clings tenaciously to that vision that man is inherently good, the world is inherently good, despite every sorrow that speaks contrary to this. Moreover, one is not simply Pollyannish in this vision, for the vision is one that also finds “Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all.” We find beauty, joy, sorrow, pleasure, love, terror, success and failure, all drawn toward the person of Christ and thus made comprehensible.

There was a time when I ceased to believe in the Divine Presence… that we consume a wafer of bread? That we venerate a wafer of bread? To do a double kneel to the wafer of bread in a monstrance? How preposterous, silly, infantile. Such thoughts still plague me on bad days, but here’s the deal; the wafer of bread, like all created things, has a connection to the divine realm --- it has become the representative of all things as charged with the divine presence of the LOGOS, the order. Thus it isn’t the bread I venerate, it is the LOGOS, of which the bread is but a conduit or representative. “Why bread and not cheese?” asks the skeptic. But that’s the point. As all created things are connected to the divine, each thing has in its construct a reason and purpose, a symbolic quality; trees are trees and eggs is eggs. Why? Why is an egg eggie? Why is a tree “treeish”? And what is it about bread in that shape with that quality that separates it from a loaf or a shoe or a dog? Why is man man? If the LOGOS has a purpose it’s purpose is learned by looking at the creations and asking such questions as “what makes the red man red?” Bread and not cheese is the perfect representation for a something which the LOGOS wants to make manifest and it’s my job to figure out what that thing is; in fact, it’s my salvation and eternal lifelong task to figure out what that thing is. Sure, there are questions in the back of the head which gnaw at belief and threaten to overthrow all religious sentiment, but the real questions are not “why ought I to believe this crap?” but rather, “how does my belief and the understanding of that belief strengthen who I am? What must I do? Why is a dog not a god?” The threat of these questions is like looking into death; confronting a dragon, or that evil force that wants us to despair and fail (like the Nazgul lord at the gates of Minas Tirith or Sauron in his dark tower probing Amon Hen). But I must allow that peering into death question if I am to also be open to the honest questions which make a man a man. As Tolkien put it “…and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires." All is beauty, all is gift, all is love, and that sustains me (and, I hope, contributes a bit to my salvation).

Thanks for the letter.

Stop by anytime.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Macbeth the Damned

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

Note here the repetitive use of the word "tomorow"; thrice is a charm and just as the three weird sisters speak their charms in three, so too does Macbeth speak his own damnation thrice. He thus confirms the damnation as an inevitable reality. The repetition borders on tedious monotony (one more and he'd seem daft) and thus conveys the hopelessness that the next day will be different from the present and the insanity that drives one to see each day as identically devoid of hope. Further, the cadence of the line is thus daDUMdum, ba daDUMdum, ba daDUMdum; or in poetic terms it is a series of iambic + anapestic + anapestic, sort of. In actuality the line follows no set rhythmic form of poetry (breaking Shakespeare's normal use of iambic pentameter) but is itself a series of stressed and unstressed syllable which act like waves crashing into the reader. Macbeth has "so far waded into blood that it would be as tedious to turn back as it would be to go o'er." He is a man drowning in his own damned fatalism. So his vision of the morrow consists of one day after another hitting like breakers against the drowning swimmer.

Additionally, the days seem to "creep on by" for him. They do not run or jump or gallop, they do not gambol or lunge or lurch. Creeping is a slow, monotonous action that again bespeaks the perpetuity of damnation which the future now seems to hold for him. But creeping also has two other connotations; first, animals on the prowl creep toward their prey. In this first sense, the future is like a carnivore stalking Macbeth, waiting to devour him. He endures a sense of impending doom from the future as though he will eventually be found out and the great crime he has committed will be revealed. Second, though, is that creep is normally associated with weird or uncanny things (as in "that's creepy"). For Macbeth the future has become something fraught with terror of the unknown and stalked by horrors and creatures from the other world. He sees ghosts and moving forests. His future has become nothing but a long Creepshow.

Also note, the creeping is done in a "petty pace." Indeed, pettiness means something small, mean, and unbecoming of noble men. To be petty is to be pusillanimous, small souled. It carries with it the connotation of claustrophobia and being trapped in one's own self. But why not "petty track"? or "petty gait"? or "petty cadence"? Shakespeare seems to have chosen the alliteration of the "p" sound for some intentional purpose. For one thing, the formation of the p sound involves a puffing of the lips, an action done to express frustration or juvenile disdain. For all its horrors and pain, the future may seem to Macbeth to be a frustrating series of base or ignoble trials to be endured without purpose and without cessation. For another thing, the puffing out of the lips involves an exhaling of breath, as though the final exhaling of breath, death, is the inevitable end of all this wearisome toil.

The petty pace ultimately leads "to the last syllable of recorded time." How is time involved with syllables? Why does Shakespeare use here a word, "syllable", associated with poetry and story to delineate time? And who is doing the recording? "Recorded time" is either backward looking or forward looking; that is, either time is being recorded after events happen and thus is retrospective, or it is already recorded and men are merely fated players on the stage. The syllables that compose the story of our lives are written either by a benevolent god who creates story in tandem with his creatures (thus allowing our free will to remain operative) or they are written by dark and severe god who has set down the story in stone from which no created being may deviate. The latter possibility seems to confirm the fatalism of Macbeth and suggests that he sees the future with nothing but horror for when the last syllable is spoken the tomb will be shut and Macbeth's life will be thoroughly and completely damned.

Aquinas and the nature of science.

Check this out.

I was struck today by the distinction btwn physics and bio. 11th and 10th graders hate both b/c they see only the drudgery of the discipline but I, being free of the work part of it, was interested to note that they are the same study, that is, “why is there stuff and how does it work?” If it is the guts of a frog, why do the guts have the order they do and why should they be at all? If it is the movement of physical objects, why ought they to exist, or move in this way, or move at all? These would be powerful questions for Thomas, I’m sure, b/c he was asking the greater question "Who is God?"

Why, for instance, do we have bodies unless they are meant for a purpose? If they are not for a purpose, then isn’t all creation useless and what sort of god would make a useless construct? Or if the “prize” is only in the next life and this world is to be abnegated, then what sort of god would create a useless construct with the intent that our glory be further on, after the destruction and burning of this world? Cruel god? Capricious god? Vindictive god? Then isn’t god the same as Zeus or Baphomet or Ahura?

IF we believe in a god who is good, rational, merciful, then aren’t we bound to consider what the structure/purpose of this world really is? Seems to me that’s exactly Aquinas’ point. He works in the Summa from the premise that God is one, good, merciful to the premise that the world and all in it is worth study. We are not only allowed to study the LOGOS in order to be one with God, we have an obligation to do the same to the best of our ability, b/c only that which is known can be loved.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Looking into the Abyss

I found an interesting passage in Euripides' "Women of Troy" yesterday where Hecabe laments how she now sees "...the cold abyss of truth" (Vellacott). This abyss seems to parallel the abyss from whence emerge Erebos and Night as mentioned in Hesiod's Theognis. It also is a striking parallel to the abyss over which moves the ruha of YHWH at the beginning of Genesis. It is the same abyss described by Goethe and Kierkegaard and Melville and John Paul II. What is most striking is that, given the syntax of Hecabe's realisation, truth comes from that abyss just as creation comes from the abyss of the waters. Is Euripides (like the other great writers) suggesting that our existence hovers over an abyss? That at the heart of things there is a darkness? Or is he suggesting that the experience of the abyss is necessary for wisdom (a la Job)? Or is the suggestion that the abyss separating man from the truth of God, separating Augustine from belief, separating Gatsby from Daisy, is so vast that we can't always see clearly that there even is another side to which we might strive. Thence comes sorrow, grief and despair.
I'm reminded, though of two cultural references; Apocalypse Now "Never get off the freakin' boat" - don't abandon the craft when you lose sight of the farther shore. Gattaca "I never left anything for the return journey" - striving for that ever receding Ausonian shore with every ounce of our being and not saving anything for getting back to normality. Is that what Hecabe is experiencing? And does that mean that true wisdom ONLY comes after draining dry the cup of suffering?