Saturday, August 27, 2005

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Saturday

One observation of Chesterton's that the thoughtless like to ridicule, is that the Church is criticized on opposite and contradictory grounds. They are aided in this by a sort of shallow Chestertonianism by which these and other observations are treated as clever debating points, rather than solid and simple truths.

Like the Egyptian magicians "reproducing" the miraculous plagues that God sent upon them, and thus satisfying the Pharoah that there was nothing to worry about, no not at all, just push the frogs off your dinner-plate and eat up - like that, they recount some trivial instance of some person or institute being criticized on two contradictory grounds, and say "see? There is nothing, then, unusual about the Church in this."

But of course, if one actually reads Chesterton, one finds quite clearly that he saw this as significant not from a single instance, but because it formed a distinct pattern. Do people really think Chesterton was merely stupid, or such a rank sophist, so as to ignore the obvious fact that a Fabian socialist (to take an example from his day) would have been condemned both by Conservatives and anarchist bomb-throwers, by one for being too revolutionary, and by the other for being not revolutionary enough?

I sat down and tried to think of the various ways that the Church has been accused of opposing errors. For a moment I thought "well, I suppose in, say, Trinitarian theology this is not really so..." somehow I had blanked out on Sabellianism and tritheism (which was named after some fellow too, I think, but I can't recall who). Arianism has not, maybe, had a really opposing error, though Docetism comes closest. When we consider Christology we also find Nestorianism and Monophysitism, which are practically a picture-perfect illustration of Chesterton's dictum. Moving on to grace, we have the Pelagians on the one hand, and the silly fellows who accused us of Pelagianism on the other hand (Calvinists in the main, though Jansenists had something of that too). Considering the created world, there are the iconoclasts, puritans and so forth who say we are infatuated with the world; then there are the wordly who accuse us of hating life. Chesterton mentioned the Unitarian Universalists, who were much more respectable in his day than ours, and believed in Purgatory but not Hell (not in so many words, but progress in the afterlife was part of the Universalist scheme) - and of course, the Protestants who believed in Hell but not Purgatory. Regarding the human reason, it hardly needs mentioning that we have met accusations both of rationalism and obscurantism; regarding morals, accusations of laxity and unreasonable rigour. There are those who accuse the Church of rigid adherence to "antiquated" beliefs and customs, and those, mainly the Eastern Orthodox, who accuse us of changing too much - though there are also unbelievers who accuse us of calling yesterday's heresy today's orthodoxy. Long ago, there were pagans so outraged at our dismissal of their superstitions that they called us "atheists"; now there are Protestants and unbelievers (largely influenced by Protestantism I think; there is a direct line between Hislop and "modern" [i.e. old in Chesterton's day] babblings about Mithraism) who accuse us of paganism.

This is just what I can call to mind off the top of my head, without going about it in any systematic way. It is idle to deny that such a situation is unique; the only objection that even deserves response, is that it certainly is unique, but that it is not so clear that this uniqueness indicates anything significant. After all, the Church is the oldest institution in existence; it is unsurprising that She has a long list of enemies past and present, and that some of these enemies were not in agreement with some of the others.

First I must ask, has there ever been an institution, whatever its age, that would even admit of contradiction in so many contrasting and various manners? The religious sects, despite innumberable divisions, can certainly boast no particular party, however old (and there are such parties that predate the birth of Christ, and remain today in some form at least) from which other parties have fractured on such various and contradictory grounds as all those who have broken off from the Church; likewise those who never adhered to these sects in the first place, have usually condemned them on rather few and limited grounds; no one has ever said that Muslims were pagans, or that Buddhists were infatuated with Creation. Yet no one really could, by the nature of Islam or Buddhism or what have you.

If the Church is unique not only in Her enemies, but in Her very potential for opposition, then I suppose one might complain that we have rather "stacked the deck" when we say that we and we alone have met such opposition, since nobody else could ever have met it by the very nature of things. There is something in this (yet it hardly impedes our argument, inasmuch as it only concedes another uniqueness to the Faith to explain the first one) but this does not explain why such opposition would arise. It is not self-evident that, simply because our doctrine and customs logically admit of very many contradictions, that human beings will have any inclination to make more than a few of the possible ones. Indeed, even if no one would ever say Muslims were pagans, surely there are enough doctrines in the Koran that a large number of contradictions (and inconsistent contradictions) of Islam would be theoretically possible - the question is how many are made. Outside of the Church, the primary objections (as opposed to mere debating-points) to anything whatever are rather few in number, however old the thing in question. This is because, due to the nature of Man, only a few points of a thing will sufficiently interest human beings so as to incite their condemnation.

Yet in these days, we find an extraordinary thing regarding the Church: that rather than nature producing the impetus to object, and thus keeping it within certain predictable bounds, their objections produce their very notion of human nature. That is, men will say, "we reject Christianity" and in so doing, they will reject humanity itself, calling it part of "the Judeo-Christian tradition" (they have learned this trick of speaking, because stating the plain fact that their quarrel is with Christianity, would make it sound more like petty sniping than the tone of lofty, anthropological observation for which they aim). All rules governing the mind that are not merely self-evident (and sometimes even those), are called "Aristotelean" (another stalking-horse for Christianity, as they would have nothing against Aristotle were it not for St. Thomas) and dismissed as obsolete; all rules governing the body, are referred back to that "Judeo-Christian tradition" and dismissed as the fruit of "repression", "patriarchy" or something along those lines. Nothing but the barest social-contract legislation retains any force, though men still exhibit a sentimental admiration for "altruism" now and then. Now what mere human institution, is such that its rejection leads to the rejection of everything? Or how much more clearly can it be seen, that there is something violent at the heart of all the objections to the Faith, something that is not produced by the objections but produces them?

In any case, the mere possibility of mounting many objections to the Faith does not explain the profusion of those objections in reality. Nor does it account for their consistent violence; the hatred of Christ, whether it be called "anti-Catholicism" or whatever you please, is known wherever the Church is known; these opposing objections, a few of which I named above, were each and every one of them - however absurd they seem today - the grounds of a fervent and abiding hatred and contempt for the Church. Even one so ignorant of history as myself, can see plainly that this is a very strange thing without historical parallel. And Chesterton could certainly see it quite well.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

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Opera

One of the things that, growing up in the modern world, I was not really brought up to think about, is the language barrier. Yes, yes, there's all that fashionable academic nonsense about "the impossibility of translation" but that's not what I mean; translations are the one bright spot in this matter, and it's typical of silly modern people to complain about the least important of the problems - even the least problematic of the problems.

You see, we're assured that we live in "the information age" and to be sure, there are enormous amounts of information at our disposal, so we get a little like spoiled children and take it for granted that whatever information we want, will be available. Likewise with works of art and similar things that are not "information" per se but whose availability is determined by information (that is, the materials are ubiquitous so it isn't something like jewelry); we take it for granted that if you have a hankering for a symphony, a souffle, or just about anything that isn't terribly costly, you can "get hold of it" and probably without too much trouble. When these things are inaccessible, it rather offends us - "why, this is the twenty-first century!"

But then you become, say, an historian, and realize, "wait a minute, I can only find one book on this subject...and it's in German and never been translated! Well...looks like I've got a date with Mr. Langenscheidt for the next few months." And so on.

So I was listening to Verdi's Aida, which is of course a staple of the opera repertoire, then I listened to Dvorak's Jakobin, which is utterly obscure. And I thought, "you know, Verdi's quite nice and all, but can anyone seriously claim that the music of Jakobin is the least bit inferior to Aida? In fact it's hard to avoid concluding that it's better - and it's not as if the quality of the libretto is so poor [not that that's a disqualification, or there'd be no opera repertoire at all], at least as far as I can tell without reading Czech..." and I suspect that that last bit is the key to the whole business. It's in Czech, and operas are generally in Italian or German. I've heard there are operas in English, but frankly the thought makes me queasy.

Czech is a beautiful language; it shares the hair-raising slavic consonants of, say, Russian, but it strikes me as more graceful somehow. But beautiful or not, nobody but Czechs seem to go around singing it very often, so despite priding ourselves on the cosmopolitan or "global village" world in which we live, where literary snobs will blither about the "tale of Genji" as readily as Joyce, a really magnificent opera is condemned to obscurity for the sole reason of language. Of course the Czechs know a good thing when they hear it and Dvorak's operas have been popular there from the beginning.

Still, this is the information age, and if you want Jakobin I'm sure you can get a hold of it. There is certainly some remarkable stuff in there - especially in the first five scenes of Act Two. At the beginning of the act, the schoolmaster Benda is preparing the children's choir to rehearse "his" serenade; he chortles to himself that even Mozart would not have been ashamed of his little creation. Benda is a rather comical character and I'm not sure what the librettist (Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova) expected; maybe that Dvorak would write the sort of thing an obscure choir-master would likely write for a children's choir - not necessarily terrible, but nothing much. Unless she had an unbounded faith in Dvorak's genius, it's hard to believe she expected what actually happened...in any case there are some really funny parts in those first few scenes, and the music contributes to the humour in some unusual ways - but some of it is more serious, in a sentimental sort of way (and I admit, it's hard to like Dvorak if you don't like "cheap sentiment" as heartless people generally call it) and the duet of Julie and Bohus is really somewhat moving. It's an extraordinary sequence, and those five scenes are the crown of the work, but the whole opera is laden with beautiful melodies, including a number of "folksy" interludes such as Dvorak favored, which display that charming habit of using a violent, allegro, fortissimo passage in a minor key to express a really buoyant cheerfulness.

Anyway, a very nice opera, and it's a shame it doesn't get more attention.
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Thursday

Yes, it has to be admitted that better men than myself have "given up" blogging, only to find...well. Blogging daily as I've (occasionally, certainly not lately) done in the past will be impractical, but beyond that I'll play it by ear. The site will still be here, I'll still know my login and password (I've had problems with that before.....) and when I have something to post, I'll post it. Tuesday's pessimistic assessment of things was perhaps a bit impulsive - not that I ever do or say things impulsively, oh no. Don't know where anyone would get that idea. So I guess my final answer is "we'll see" - but don't expect any more 6000 word posts. Ugh, that was horrible; at work the next day I was barely alive.

Work, by the way, has ended in preparation for the coming move, if I haven't mentioned that already. My co-workers gave me a 24-pack of coke cans as a parting gift; they seem to think I'm addicted to the stuff or something. Of course I'm not addicted, that's just a silly idea. Reports that the container is 3/4 gone after only a week, are greatly exaggerated (and besides, my mother drank some of them).

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

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Tuesday

Alas, the more that I consider the matter, the more it seems that without an internet connection at home, I can pretty much give up the whole blogging thing...so whatever I write this week will be, as it were, a farewell to blogdom. Perhaps it's for the best, as I enter a stage of life which discourages blogging - I think I've about finished the part of my life where I know everything, and am beginning the more humbling stage of life in which one tries to at least learn something. Someday I will actually learn something, and then I can happily go back to lecturing people at length on my blog or whatever; as it is, the various online disputes and so forth which I could probably address as well as anyone, do not really interest me and the matters that do interest me, I lack the competence to address. Meaning, in other words, that the well of subject-matter has rather run dry and is likely to stay that way for awhile - but perhaps, before I go, I can leave my audience (of about 3, I think) with one more week of posting.

For now, I'd like to say a bit about thinking. It's funny that an act so essential to the human being, the act that separates us from the beasts, is so obscure to us. You'd think that the one thing we would have down pat, would be the nature of that very knowledge through which we know everything else, and that very reason by which we come to our conclusions. But the darkening of the intellect that accompanied the Fall, seems to have especially hid from our intellect that intellect itself.

As I look back, it's clear to me that I always looked on really solid, clear thinking as a sort of magic trick. There I would be, trying to understand something knotty and stuck right at the beginning - if I was lucky; if not, I would convince myself I was getting somewhere, only to realize it was all more or less a fantasy. And then some sharp fellow in a book would come along and set to work in a very methodical way, saying only the most obvious and self-evident things, progressing from plain truth to plain truth - and then, voila, it all made sense. Having somehow convinced people that I was a child prodigy and even convinced myself, I never was willing to admit any intellectual inadequacy on my part, yet all the same I felt it. I might have been clever, but I could not think; because of that, I am perhaps more impressed with the mere fact of clear and systematic thought than people who were raised in its presence. To me it's a bit like something out of a science-fiction novel...in fact I've thought on several occasions of A.E. van Vogt's "World of Null-A", in which the heroic Uebermenschen of the novel have achieved their powers by dint of Korzybski's General Semantics - very silly, you say and you are doubtless correct. In any case the "A" in "null-A" was "Aristotelean", the idea being that this villian Aristotle had corrupted manking with his dichotomistic thought, or something of the sort, and that by nullifying this we may achieve "cortical-thalamic sanity" (what an unpleasant-sounding sanity). Did I mention that a lot of science fiction is a bit whacked in the head?

The funny thing was that the villainous, systematic thought of Aristotle and his equally-villainous henchman, really did (and does) savour to me somewhat of van Vogt's Venusian supermen. I had the idea of writing a novel called "the World of A"...but it never went anywhere....

I don't think I'm alone in this. For all that the "modern mind" is said (with some justice) to be disrespectful of authority and tradition, one of its prime markers is a really craven and superstitious awe for "great minds"; people look back, for instance, on earlier critics who spoke of Shakespeare, if generally with great admiration, yet also with free criticism, and they smile tolerantly. These small-minded men of the past could not appreciate the towering greatness of the Bard, they say. He is, they say or at least imply, beyond the criticism of mere mortals such as ourselves, and those Victorians and whatnot really ought to have seen that.

That is the sort of cravenness to which I refer. If you can do something significant with your mind, you are like a shaman of some sort; this sort of attitude can only be explained by supposing that our civilization has, generally speaking, lost the ability to think methodically and therefore rationally. Yet I suppose that this superstitious awe is better than a mere ignorance of thought, which is displayed by particularly debased intellects; such people are unaware that thought more clear, original and subtle than their own sophisms is even possible.

In any case, Belloc seemed well to understand the position of Chesterton: a man who was admired, and dismissed, as a slinger of paradoxes and pretty verbalisms, yet who was simply a clear and correct thinker in an age that had lost the power to recognize such. And Chesterton, in turn, well diagnosed the deepest flaw in modern thought, which is that it starts "at the wrong end of things". That is, we think about something in terms of yesterday's polemics, slinging around terms whose meaning we pretty much probably understand, using bits of popularized 18th and 19th-century philosophy to bolster our arguments even when we are none too sure about the philosophy that does the bolstering...continuing arguments when we are no longer really sure quite why the arguments began or what they concern.

In such an age, it becomes almost a sort of mystic discipline simply to think.

Monday, August 22, 2005

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Monday

Well, my new place doesn't have a phone connection, so if I blog anything after this week (I move in on Monday) it will have to be...when I'm somewhere else.

Yeah, country living can have its disadvantages. On the other hand, the setting is a good sight better than the northern suburbs of Minneapolis. It has what you call "grasses" instead of the dwarfish little stuff you just call "grass" - that, and trees that do not lie in a row decorating a boulevard nor stand alone to provide a tiny backyard with that je nais sais quois (or however you spell it) of backyardiness. In other words, actual woods - I've never been what you'd call a "nature lover", mostly because nature includes bugs...lots of bugs...but even I was not immune to the whole "this is how Man was meant to live" thing when I first saw my new surroundings. I'll be able to take nice long walks - in fact I'll be obliged to do so, since I don't have a car and I'm 3 miles from the nearest small town.

The only thing I'm particularly nervous about is the new parish. It has that reassuring Neo-Gothic-meets-American-kitsch look, it's called "Immaculate Conception" and there's generally no a priori reason to fear liberal pastors and liturgical wackiness...but on the other hand it's the only church in town (Minnesota, settled largely by Germans or so I've heard, though everyone seems to think it was Finns [there certainly are some Finnish regions up north], is maybe evenly split between Catholics and Lutherans; your stereotypical small town in Minnesota will have a Catholic church at one end and a Lutheran at the other). So I'm a bit nervous, but I probably shouldn't be - I'm certainly not increasing lifespan nor stature by fretting over it.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

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Thursday

Sorry about the prolonged absence; I've been atypically busy lately. I'm moving to a new place, for one thing, on August 29th. It's very nice; out in the country, which will be a definite and mostly-welcome shift from suburbia.

I've also been finishing up at my job, which ends tomorrow. It was quite an experience, and I have to say it has been wearing me down a bit. This week I've been tired pretty much all day...and hence not really in a blogging mood. But I have a break next week between the job and the move, so posting should return to normal then, don't worry!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

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Wednesday

The first volume of Rosmini's Essay consists of a massive overview of philosophy, in the context of its various accounts for the origin of ideas, and in particular the idea of being or existence. It is imposing and not what I would call easy reading, but there is a very human and personal touch to his work at the same time.

I am stepping well beyond my level of expertise in saying this, but it seems to me that there are two excesses into which even very great minds may fall, when treating of philosophy - and perhaps we may consider Plato and Aristotle as exhibiting these two trends. On the one hand Plato represents the exhilaration, the loftiness of philosophy, which is an excellent thing true enough, but can all-too-easily become an end unto itself, rather than a sign of the nobility inherent to philosophical thought. The allegory of the cave, which (I confess) constitutes about half of what I know about Plato, is a perfect illustration of this. On the one hand it is thrilling, and not without reason either; there is something in it. On the other hand, you can't become a philosopher by thinking up cave allegories. Not that Plato would have had anyone doing that, but the mind which delights in drinking the heady draughts of great thought, can become rather drunk on great thoughts and fail to notice when they are not actually correct thoughts.

Aristotle, on the other hand, is not what you would call thrilling. I would not say he is dull, but many would say exactly that. In any case he discourses on things in a rather detached manner. And it is easy enough for people of a certain temperment to say "see, this is why I don't like Aristotle. Give me Plato any old day." It is even easier for people of my own temperment to say, "such rank emotionalism has no place in serious thought; you are no true philosopher but a child fascinated with pretty things." I think there is something true in my snotty little remark there, but it is not quite right, and there is also something in what the other fellow says, however illogical it seems on its face to reject a thinker because he is boring. For it is not exactly boredom with which we are dealing, or at least not this purely.

For philosophy does not, after all, consist alone in manufacturing, by whatever means, various true propositions, true answers to various pertinent questions. A philosopher who does not know the worth of philosophy, is no philosopher at all, for if a philosopher need only be right, and need have no inkling of the profound significance of the truths he knows, then there is no philo, only sophia - or rather sophistry. A philosopher must love wisdom because otherwise, after all, what is the point of his knowledge? An absence of utility is practically the defining characteristic of metaphysical knowledge, for as it pertains to being in general, it cannot give rules for the behaviour of those specific systems of being, the understanding of which will bring us worldly dividends. Only insofar as philosophy improves the mind, is it useful - but see Newman's Idea of a University for the problems inherent in seeking knowledge merely to improve the mind. After all, it will invariably turn out that some counterfeit, some imperfect and falsified knowledge, will serve the same useful end "in a pinch". Thus the philosopher must love the knowledge because he loves being in general, and the truth of it - if he loves them not, his motives are based on some worldly utility for his knowledge, whether a self-satisfaction or victory in some dispute or something else, and because he will be able to satisfy these ends with some counterfeit metaphysics, he is bound to come up with one, and likely sooner rather than later.

Rosmini strikes me as steering a middle course, quite excellently, between glorying excessively in the grandeur of philosophy, and ignoring this grandeur entirely and focusing only on the examination of propositions; not only does he seem to have a sound view of philosophy himself, but I think encourages such a sound view in the reader. But it is time that I went off to bed....

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

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Tuesday

For several years I have had a funny conceit, which I'm sure everyone will find improbable, and in fact I suppose it might be all explained by chance and the results of semi-purposeful inquiry...but anyway. I've thought that whenever I feel dissatisfied in an intellectual sort of way, as if there's something rather missing from my overall view of things, some problem so simple and intractable that I can't so much define it as vaguely localize it - just then, I will find the right book. It's not exactly on the level of a superstition, in that I don't say "hm, I wonder what the next book will be." But it happens rather often, so I wonder a bit sometimes. I don't wonder very much because really, what's there to wonder about? That God, in His Providence, should sometimes direct me towards those of my fellow men who have thought things through a bit more than I have, is not something that would seem implausible a priori.

With that I lead to a now-obscure philosopher (at least I'd never heard of him) named Fr. Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855). To link to those great Catholic mainstays of the Internet: one may learn something of Fr. Rosmini from this article, and something of the controversies surrounding his work from this one. But what neither of these express, is the profundity and grandeur of his thought; the Ven. Newman spoke highly of him ("although he belonged in a special way to your Institute, a man like him, as long as he lived, was the property of the whole Church") and I cannot but see, already, a connection between Rosmini's thought and Newman's, though I do not know of any major influence of Rosmini on Newman. Suffice to say that those who seek a bracing tonic for the narrow, contentious, polemically-based habits of thought that so pervade our times, may be edified even more by Fr. Rosmini than by Cdl. Newman. The various objections to his work, amount basically to two things: he expressed things rather boldly, if not boldly by the brazen standards of today, and perhaps occasionally lacked in precision of expression - and his system is too incomplete and possibly too idiosyncratic to form a general philosophical method commendable to all Catholics.

Be that as it may, I dug around a bit in his works and am now embarking on his New Essay - Origin of Ideas; after reading his weighty preface alone, I am convinced of his great stature as a thinker. And, ha, anyone who calls Kant "the sophist of Koenigsburg" (a play on the ill-conceived epithet "saint of Koenigsburg") can't be all bad...but don't worry, his stature consists in much more than sniping at silly people.

He recognized the futility of conducting arguments with men in a post-Enlightenment mindset without considering the fundamental fallacies in their systems - that to engage them in debate over any subject, however important, would lead to a mere waste of words if their very concepts of being, truth, and reason were corrupt.

Further reports to follow.

Monday, August 08, 2005

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Monday

As I've mentioned before, I used to be a science fiction/fantasy fan; nowadays I hardly read the stuff. Partly this is because not so much of it is all that good, but I also have to say that the anti-religious bent of most of its writers (including some of the better ones) rather started getting to me when I became, well, a religious man. It's not so much that these writers would aim constant barbs against religion in general and Christianity in particular (though there was something of that, too...) nor that they ignore religion per se (Wodehouse ignored religion, aside from profuse Biblical allusions and the odd campy-Anglican ecclesiastic - but you won't hear me complain about Wodehouse, oh no) but that sf/fantasy writers, having much more freedom in the setting of their novels than mainstream writers, will frequently create a world which is, as it were, steeped in and premised on unbelief. Such worlds do not interest me, and as even the best modern fantasies are not really of a flabbergasting literary quality (with a few exceptions like the underrated Tolkein, who was of course a Catholic), I give it a pass nowadays.

And my personal (though for the most part on-line, if you want to call that personal) contact with many fans and a few writers, despite introducing me to some good people (particularly Lynn here of course) rather left me bitter about the whole business I have to admit. I saw first-hand a world of people whose intellectual principles - like my own at the time - were largely formed by science-fiction writers of one stripe or another (if this sounds outlandish, consider that sf is often the primary reading material of precocious young children, and in a culture so entirely bereft of serious education, this constitutes the introduction to the intellectual life for many, unless they have the good luck to get hooked on older books instead) and it was not a good thing. So many fans will give the most disproportionate accolades to men of the most minimal stylistic and intellectual gifts, simply because they write the stuff on which the fan had nursed his suckling mind. And one particular instance of this, has left me with a permanent antipathy to the "greats" of the genre - a fan whose habits of thought were so largely the product of these arrogant and fatuous men, and who constantly praised them, and deferred to them and tolerated very rude treatment from at least two of them, yet who was clearly the mental and moral superior of these half-educated oafs. She deserved better than such as they, and with their thoughtless corruption of her alone, they have hewn an enourmous millstone for their collective necks...no, I do not have fond memories of the genre.

But all the same, there are many ways in which sf compares most favorably with its contemporary alternatives. I remember an old, stale dispute between the mainstream "literary" types and the sf fans, which in retrospect I find quite revealing: some mainstream lit fellow would get up and say that of course science fiction is not "literature", for this or that reason. One of the reasons was particularly hilarious - the fellow quoted Aristotle to the effect that spectacle was the lowest of the literary effects, and that sf with its fantastic backdrops, was an affair of mere spectacle and thus the lowest of literary species.

Uh huh. The idea that a modern critic would appeal to the Poetics in condemning sf, is utterly absurd for anyone who actually reads the Poetics. For if you asked an ordinary sf fan "what are the most important things in a story?" he would probably say something like this: plot, characters and interesting ideas are the most important things; literary style isn't quite so important, though of course it ought to be good. If you asked the same thing of a modern lit type, it would be something like: "well, of course I'm a sucker for beautiful prose; I'm simply in love with the English language - I like good characters too. Plot isn't so important."

So let's look at Aristotle's rankings, where he supposedly condemns science fiction. They are quite clear:

1. Plot

2. Characters

3. "Thought" (or ideas)

4. Style

5. Spectacle

I think I'm leaving one out, but they're all in the right order anyway. Now when mainstream types are notorious for regarding the second-to-last item as the be-all end-all, while everyone would admit that sf fans put a heavy focus on item number one, isn't it quite laughable for such a one to appeal to Aristotle in defending his position?

And of course, Aristotle is almost fanboyish in his admiration for the Illiad and the Oddyssey - and if the Oddyssey isn't fantasy, nothing is.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand: the sf fans rejoined that the mainstream category of "literature" as something existing on a higher plain from trash like sf, was the rankest snobbery - and of course they were entirely right. If you can read it, it's literature; the idea of "Literature with a capital L" bespeaks an utter ignorance of literary history. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Shakespeare, Dickens and so forth wrote the same sort of "popular trash" as everybody else; they just did it much, much better. When Shakespeare wanted to create Serious Art he wrote poetry.

But of course, the literary types were quite right that sf and fantasy novels do not deserve comparison with something like Dostoyevsky's (Tolkein is an exception, and their contempt for him will look ill in the judgment of history). The interesting question is: why are they right for such a wrong reason?

Perhaps I am merely floating off into the air here, but I will speculate that they have invented this false category of "literature" as something separate from mere fiction, because they do not honestly enjoy reading Shakespeare. Left to their own devices, they would end up reading the trashiest mystery novels or whatever, and so they must have some account of why their preferred reading habits are so at variance with the best. The explanation, then, is that Literature is sort of like vegetables - very good for you, not very pleasant. Sf or mystery novels or whatnot are more like chocolate - tasty but bad for you.

I suspect that a similar dynamic exists with classical music - many, perhaps, can see that Mozart is in some sense better than the stuff they listen to for entertainment, and rationalize this by separating "high art" from "low art" (though here with more justification, if not very much).

In other words, distinguishing between "high" and "low" fiction is not so much a sign of good taste, as of bad taste of which a person is ashamed. Personally, I think it is better to have honestly bad taste than to read your Shakespeare because it's good for you...I suspect Shakespeare rolls over in his grave, whenever anybody reads his plays because they are Great Works of High Literary Art - though perhaps he is not insensible to the flattery either.....

(As I write this, I see that Tom at Disputations has just written a long post about science fiction. Now it was weird enough when he dissed Kant in his comment boxes shortly after I asked "why on earth is that ninny still so darn famous after two centuries?", but when he starts anticipating my posts that's just a little too much.)

Friday, August 05, 2005

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Friday

Sorry about my absence this week; I haven't been feeling so well. Summer colds are always the worst...at least that's what I say when I have them.....