April 2018

  • Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto against the utopian desire for achieving an abstract broader sort collective knowledge. Why? Because that knowledge would be fragmentary, and because it would denude the distinctive voices, perspectives, and spirit of the individual in favor of a bland “consensus” perspective, akin to the ways that the most alienating aspects of foreign cultures are reduced or destroyed by the empires that incorporate them:

    An impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship. This was as clear as ever when John Updike and Kevin Kelly exchanged words on the question of authorship in 2006. Kevin suggested that it was not just a good thing, but a “moral imperative” that all the world’s books would soon become effectively “one book” once they were scanned, searchable, and remixable in the universal computational cloud.

    The approach to digital culture I abhor would indeed turn all the world’s books into one book, just as Kevin suggested. … If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video. A continuation of the present trend will make us like various medieval religious empires, or like North Korea, a society with a single book. …

    The one collective book will absolutely not be the same thing as the library of books by individuals it is bankrupting. Some believe it will be better; others, including me, believe it will be disastrously worse. As the famous line goes from Inherit the Wind: “The Bible is a book … but it is not the only book.” …

    One of the first printed books that wasn’t a bible was 1499’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” an illustrated, erotic, occult adventure through fantastic architectural settings. What is most interesting about this book, which looks and reads like a virtual reality fantasy, is that something fundamental about its approach to life—its intelligence, its worldview—is alien to the Church and the Bible.

    It’s easy to imagine an alternate history in which everything that was printed on early presses went through the Church and was conceived as an extension of the Bible. “Strife of Love” might have existed in this alternate world, and might have been quite similar. But the “slight” modifications would have consisted of trimming the alien bits. The book would no longer have been as strange. And that tiny shift, even if it had been minuscule in terms of word count, would have been tragic.

    This is what happened when elements of indigenous cultures were preserved but de-alienated by missionaries. We know a little about what Aztec or Inca music sounded like, for instance, but the bits that were trimmed to make the music fit into the European idea of church song were the most precious bits. The alien bits are where the flavor is found. They are the portals to strange philosophies. What a loss to not know how New World music would have sounded alien to us! Some melodies and rhythms survived, but the whole is lost.

    I thought of Valya Balkanska’s “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin” as an example of something strange-sounding to Western ears, but that is probably just a pale echo of whatever songs and sounds mankind offered up in the millennia before recorded histories.

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson on books:

    The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar is the mind of the Past,—in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth,—learn the amount of this influence more conveniently,—by considering their value alone.

    The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him life; it went out from him truth. It came to him short-lived actions; it went out from him immortal thoughts. It came to him business; it went from him poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

    Or, I might say, it depends on how far the process had gone, of transmuting life into truth. In proportion to the completeness of the distillation, so will the purity and imperishableness of the product be. But none is quite perfect. As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to contemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.

    And on a problem with disordered love of books:

    Yet hence arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation, the act of thought, is instantly transferred to the record. The poet chanting was felt to be a divine man. Henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit. Henceforward it is settled the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly the book becomes noxious. …

    Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

    Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution…

    Thinking, not simply consuming. Although good thinking tends to require lots of consuming.

  • Eli J. Finkel, in his “All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work,” highlights an under appreciated shift in marriage in the 20th century:

    In the two centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution, developments in political theory, the social contract, Enlightenment thinking, the freedom to use one’s intelligence, gender relations (separate spheres), and romantic beliefs (the primary of authentic emotional experience), set the stage for a new martial ideal. This ideal shifted the basis of marriage from sharing tasks to sharing feelings

    The older view that wives and husbands were workmates gave way to the idea that they were soulmates. It’s easy to see why many Americans preferred this new ideal to the more impersonal, patriarchal ideal it replaced. But ideals and behaviors are not the same thing. And the transition from the pragmatic ideal to the love-based ideal was slow. As long as American society was predominantly agricultural, with the individual farmhouse serving as the primary unit of production, it was virtually impossible to complete the transition. There were too many other, more essential, demands on the relationship. However, it wouldn’t take long for industrialization and urbanization to crush the pragmatic model of marriage. These forces sharply increased the proportion of houses that subsisted on wage labor rather than farming and domestic production. In doing so, they created a social and economic context well suited to the ideology of separate spheres. They also reduced restrictions on individual freedoms, and people used these freedoms to marry for love.

    It’s in this sense, Finkel writes elsewhere, that contemporary marriages far less practically speaking than marriages of the past, and far more than marriages of the past in the sense of very heightened expectations of meaning and fulfillment.

  • Conserving sound

    Conserve the Sound, “online museum”, is clever:

    Conserve the sound is an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds. The sound of a dial telephone, a walkman, a analog typewriter, a pay phone, a 56k modem, a nuclear power plant or even a cell phone keypad are partially already gone or are about to disappear from our daily life.

    Accompanying the archive people are interviewed and give an insight in to the world of disappearing sounds.

    A few of my favorites? Rotary telephone. Cassette. VCR. Those are things I remember, along with the typewriter. Pretty much everything else on there is foreign to me.

    I haven’t checked, but I imagine Internet Archive probably has stuff like this too, but maybe not presented in the same “museum” way.

  • K.V. Turley writes on the experience of visiting John Henry Newman’s room:

    To stand in the room of a saint is quite something. Such was my privilege the other day when the door to the room of John Henry Newman was unlocked and I was bid enter.

    There, before me, was the desk at which Blessed John Henry had written letters, sermons and books, all of which are still pored over by scholars today, and no doubt shall be in the years and decades to come. There were his books and his papers; upon the walls his pictures, mostly religious, and, pasted on a wooden cupboard, there was still the trace of a Victorian newspaper. Newman was wont to decorate his cabinet doors with cuttings from newspapers and journals.

    There was something else though.

    The room is partitioned. Behind the thin wall that separates the two parts of the room there stands an altar. Upon it, there is the Crucifix and candles yet that Newman used when he offered Mass there. On the wall above the altar there also hangs a portrait of St. Francis de Sales, the French spiritual father of this most English of Englishmen. To the left, there is a built-in cupboard holding vestments. They all still hang there: green, red, white, rose, black. It is as if they are about to be lifted out and worn once more. It is as if, at any moment, a footstep will be heard, and before our eyes will come the man who lived and worked in this room: Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, Prince of the Church, but above all, a priest of God offering the Holy Sacrifice each day to the Glory of God and for forgiveness of sins. More than 100 years later, the room retains something of the air of the sanctity of its former occupant. No one else has lived or worked here since Newman, and no one else ever shall. It stands still as if John Henry Newman has just stepped out for a moment, and is due back very soon. Perhaps, in a way, that is how a Christian death should feel – a passing, not an ending, before a never-ending reunion.

    There is another ‘death’ in this room though. It is the room itself. The Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory call this room of Newman’s “ the Dying Room.”

    My guide pointed to the ceiling. In the corner of the room where two external walls join, there were large ominous cracks on display. Recent structural survey reports indicate that these cracks, far from being superficial, are the outward manifestation of serious interior decay. In the vernacular: Newman’s room is crumbling to dust.

    Many will have seen Newman’s room, and the equally impressive library, at the Birmingham Oratory. Some may recall how Pope Benedict XVI, on his visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, visited this room and its adjacent library. There are many pictures online recording this occasion when one saintly scholar visited the room of another. One can only imagine what might have passed through the mind of Pope Benedict when he beheld the room of Blessed John Henry still as intact, at least superficially, as in the late 1800s. One can almost visualize Pope and Blessed sitting at the table in the center of the room lost in the enjoyment of discoursing upon weighty theological matters.

    But the room is ‘dying.’

    The Birmingham Oratory is seeking patrons able to help conserve that simple and remarkable space. K.V. Turley adds:

    When men, whether in the world of science or theology, history or philosophy seemed intent on rejecting God, here was a man who dared to engage his reason so as to understand better his faith. In doing so, Newman created something in the world of ideas that has not only grown in significance since but also seen off many of his then contemporaries and their modish theories. …

    A strange prayer perhaps, but a prayer nonetheless: let his rooms be preserved and, thereby, with them, his memory as a man as rational as he was holy.

    When I was in London for the Olympics in 2012 we attended mass at Brompton Oratory, which has a small space of honor and devotion to John Henry Newman. Having first encountered his writing when I was still at Penn State, and then seeing his place of honor in this English church, was a special thing; one of those moments where so much experience that has been “in your head” suddenly came rushing into this particular place and in this particular moment. An experience of concrete reality.

  • In reading John Muir’s Travels in Alaska recently, so many of his experiences and vignettes begged to be remembered that I would have highlighted practically the entire book. Here are a few that transported me to the scene he describes:

    Looking back on my Alaska travels, I have always been glad that good luck gave me Mr. Young as a companion, for he brought me into confiding contact with the Thlinkit tribes, so that I learned their customs, what manner of men they were, how they lived and loved, fought and played, their morals, religion, hopes and fears, and superstitions, how they resembled and differed in their characteristics from our own and other races. …

    The Thlinkit tribes give a hearty welcome to Christian missionaries. In particular they are quick to accept the doctrine of the atonement, because they themselves practice it, although to many of the civilized whites it is a stumbling-block and rock of offense. As an example of their own doctrine of atonement they told Mr. Young and me one evening that twenty or thirty years ago there was a bitter war between their own and the Sitka tribe, great fighters, and pretty evenly matched. After fighting all summer in a desultory, squabbling way, fighting now under cover, now in the open, watching for every chance for a shot, none of the women dared venture to the salmon-streams or berry-fields to procure their winter stock of food. At this crisis one of the Stickeen chiefs came out of his block-house fort into an open space midway between their fortified camps, and shouted that he wished to speak to the leader of the Sitkas.

    When the Sitka chief appeared he said:—

    “My people are hungry. They dare not go to the salmon-streams or berry-fields for winter supplies, and if this war goes on much longer most of my people will die of hunger. We have fought long enough; let us make peace. You brave Sitka warriors go home, and we will go home, and we will all set out to dry salmon and berries before it is too late.”

    The Sitka chief replied:—

    “You may well say let us stop fighting, when you have had the best of it. You have killed ten more of my tribe than we have killed of yours. Give us ten Stickeen men to balance our blood-account; then, and not till then, will we make peace and go home.”

    “Very well,” replied the Stickeen chief, “you know my rank. You know that I am worth ten common men and more. Take me and make peace.”

    This noble offer was promptly accepted; the Stickeen chief stepped forward and was shot down in sight of the fighting bands. Peace was thus established, and all made haste to their homes and ordinary work. That chief literally gave himself a sacrifice for his people. He died that they might live. Therefore, when missionaries preached the doctrine of atonement, explaining that when all mankind had gone astray, had broken God’s laws and deserved to die, God’s son came forward, and, like the Stickeen chief, offered himself as a sacrifice to heal the cause of God’s wrath and set all the people of the world free, the doctrine was readily accepted.

    “Yes, your words are good,” they said. “The Son of God, the Chief of chiefs, the Maker of all the world, must be worth more than all mankind put together; therefore, when His blood was shed, the salvation of the world was made sure.”

    A telling illustration of the ready acceptance of this doctrine was displayed by Shakes, head chief of the Stickeens at Fort Wrangell. A few years before my first visit to the Territory, when the first missionary arrived, he requested Shakes to call his people together to hear the good word he had brought them. Shakes accordingly sent out messengers throughout the village, telling his people to wash their faces, put on their best clothing, and come to his block-house to hear what their visitor had to say. When all were assembled, the missionary preached a Christian sermon on the fall of man and the atonement whereby Christ, the Son of God, the Chief of chiefs, had redeemed all mankind, provided that this redemption was voluntarily accepted with repentance of their sins and the keeping of his commandments.

    When the missionary had finished his sermon, Chief Shakes slowly arose, and, after thanking the missionary for coming so far to bring them good tidings and taking so much unselfish interest in the welfare of his tribe, he advised his people to accept the new religion, for he felt satisfied that because the white man knew so much more than the Indian, the white man’s religion was likely to be better than theirs.

    “The white man,” said he, “makes great ships. We, like children, can only make canoes. He makes his big ships go with the wind, and he also makes them go with fire. We chop down trees with stone axes; the Boston man with iron axes, which are far better. In everything the ways of the white man seem to be better than ours. Compared with the white man we are only blind children, knowing not how best to live either here or in the country we go to after we die. So I wish you to learn this new religion and teach it to your children, that you may all go when you die into that good heaven country of the white man and be happy. But I am too old to learn a new religion, and besides, many of my people who have died were bad and foolish people, and if this word the missionary has brought us is true, and I think it is, many of my people must be in that bad country the missionary calls ‘Hell,’ and I must go there also, for a Stickeen chief never deserts his people in time of trouble…”

    I’d like to visit Muir Woods next time I’m in California.

  • Philadelphia spring afternoon

    Three scenes from a few-hours-long walk through Center City, Philadelphia, including Mayor Jim Kenny speaking to a news crew about something. The Cambria hotel, by the way, replaced a dismal-looking parking garage this year. That’s an improvement.

  • Old City night scene

    View from my seat outside Race Street Cafe tonight at 2nd and Race Streets, catching up with Gavin Keirans. I somehow don’t think I had been there before. Across the street is a new luxury style tower that looks out over the Ben Franklin Bridge whose illuminated pillar you can see.

    It was a beautiful night, the first that’s really felt like spring. I had come from McCrossen’s Tavern in Fairmount, where I caught up with Alex Smith after work. It was really great to be able to comfortably walk from work to McCrossen’s and then across the city to Race Street Cafe.

  • Randall Smith writes:

    I have had the pleasure of discussing Josef Pieper’s wonderful book on The Four Cardinal Virtues with my students this semester. Sometimes I wonder whether the best education I could give my students would be simply to take the list of books in Fr. Schall’s Another Sort of Learning and start working our way through them.

    Every page of Pieper’s book brings new insights, but I was struck by this one the other day. Justice is one of those topics much in the news these days, whether it is “political justice,” “economic justice,” or “social justice.” Early on in his discussion of “justice,” Pieper makes this challenging observation: “We may venture to assert that expressions like ‘calumny,’ ‘malign aspersion,’ ‘backbiting,’ ‘slander,’ and ‘talebearing’ are now in their proper meanings scarcely intelligible to most people.”

    Indeed, none of my students had ever heard the term “talebearing,” which admittedly is not much used in American English. Fortunately, Pieper defines it: “talebearing” is “privately spreading evil reports about another, and to that other’s friends, no less.” Classically, this was considered an especially grievous violation of justice, “since no man can live without friends.” The writer Pieper quotes to this effect is not some socially-conscious Brit writing during the age of Jane Austen or John Henry Newman; it was made by one rather socially-unconcerned Italian friar named Thomas Aquinas.

    In Latin, the term Thomas and his contemporaries would have used for this vicious disposition to tear people down was derisio, from which we get the English term “derision.” It is the act that violated justice “by bringing shame to another through mockery.” How, asks Pieper, would we designate the special form of justice that “consists in sparing another man shame?” We no longer have a word for that virtue, perhaps because it has largely disappeared from society. …

    I am not claiming there is never room for public shame. People who do morally wrong acts should feel guilt. They should be ashamed. Whether public shaming is the way to bring about this inner transformation in them is not clear. …

    In the same chapter on justice, Josef Pieper adds another interesting comment. Suggesting that it might be possible for a just person to be mistaken about some particular issue and propose an objectively “unjust” solution to a problem, Pieper asks this question: “Should not all this be of some significance for the realm of political discourse, which is of course concerned with what is just and unjust? Does it not imply for example, that it may be quite possible and logical to reject a certain political objective as ‘objectively unjust’ – and even to combat it with intensity – without at the same time bringing the moral integrity of one’s opponent into the discussion?”

    I wonder. Current evidence suggests not. Our opponents aren’t just mistaken, they are either fools or scoundrels or both. And the key skill we look for in political discourse is derision. This is what sells, both in television news commentary and in the magazines on supermarket checkout lanes. Are just institutions built on unjust words? Will constant recrimination bring reconciliation?

    I like the idea that we can all gain from removing aspersions and derision from our political discourse. It reminds me of something Arthur Brooks talked about a year or two ago, which is the goal of practicing “warm heartedness” with one’s political opponents—that has to be the route to cultivating a better and more resilient society, doesn’t it?

  • It seems likely that France will make at least some forms of euthanasia and suicide legal later this year, which is why President Macron’s explicit invitation to Catholics to participate in the French public debate on bioethics leaves me feeling conflicted:

    French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the importance of a Catholic voice in the country’s political debates, particularly on bioethical issues, in an address to the French bishops April 9.

    “What I want to call you tonight is to engage politically in our national debate and in our European debate because your faith is part of the commitment that this debate needs,” Macron told French bishops in a rare public meeting between Church and government leaders in France.

    While France was once referred to as the “eldest daughter of the Church,” the country’s legal secularism has required strict neutrality of the state in religious matters since 1905.

    In his speech Monday, however, Macron spoke of the important philosophical need for the Church’s voice.

    “What strikes our country … is not only the economic crisis, it is relativism; it is even nihilism,” said Macron.

    “Our contemporaries need, whether they believe or do not believe, to hear from another perspective on man than the material perspective,” he continued, “They need to quench another thirst, which is a thirst for absolute. It is not a question here of conversion, but of a voice which, with others, still dares to speak of man as a living spirit.”

    Father Joseph Koczera, an American priest based in Paris, told CNA that in some ways, Macron’s speech “was quite remarkable.”

    “This is a clear challenge to a particular style of French secularism that suggests that, [since] the state must remain neutral, perspectives informed by religion should not be invoked in political debates,” Koczera said.

    Macron stressed that “Secularism does not have the function of uprooting from our societies the spirituality that nourishes so many of our fellow citizens.”

    “To deliberately blind myself to the spiritual dimension that Catholics invest in their moral, intellectual, family, professional, social life would be to condemn me to having only a partial view of France; it would be to ignore the country, its history, its citizens; and affecting indifference, I would derogate from my mission,” he said.

    Macron’s speech comes as bioethical debates continue in France, with parliament preparing to reform its bioethics laws.

    It’s a great thing that President Macron is inviting Catholics back to a place in public discourse. But if it ends up merely being a further way to condone an anticipated legalization of forms of euthanasia and suicide by underscoring that “Catholics were given a chance to voice their positions,” after all meaningful decisions had already been made, then it would be an example of cynical political use, rather than meaningful outreach and dialogue. We’ll see.