Thursday, September 15, 2011

NEW BLOG

For my time in Belgium: supercurriculum.blogspot.com.

I will still try to periodically update this one also, however, primarily with reflections on faith, theology, &c. Thanks for hanging in there, even with the dearth of content. You are altogether too kind.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Language, Theology, Brutality

These unpolished and loosely related thoughts are admittedly scattered, impressionistic, and flawed. But the things they suggest and gesture at are things that burn in me. This is especially true after seeing Tree of Life, a movie I hope to write about soon for this blog.

* * *

I assume a roughly Reformed theological framework and an aesthetic theodicy that hinges on God's total sovereignty.

I acknowledge the fact of brutal human and animal suffering in the world as a result of natural and moral evils. These are finite empirical data that constitutionally cannot outweigh the infinite datum of God's glory in any consideration of whether the presence of sin or evil can be justified.

Logic, embodied in grammar, seduces the logician. Humility vanishes in the face of control and a subliminal sense of power. Thought allows human beings to have control over their life-world, which bears an inscrutable relation to the world known and sustained by an ultimate intention and intelligence.

"This is a world in which suffering colors the lives of a majority of human beings." "This is a world in which children are trained to kill one another." "This is a world in which starvation and disease are commonplace alongside unimaginable wealth and luxury."

Some words are like atomic bombs disguised to appear as arrowheads, for how much power and sorrow they conceal. In signal cases we speak, and intend something rational or expressive or superficial, and in so doing shear off the actual referents. For instance, this happens whenever an argument is made for or against God's existence when evil and suffering are called into play. We speak with an instrumental function in mind for our words in the context of a conversation, and the realities thereby invoked, we guilelessly pass over. It is not typically a directly intentional sin, rather, a formal or structural sin.

We speak with constant reference to ultimate and ineffable realities; we casually intend the infinite from a distance, but when it actually draws near, we can only offer reverential silence and prostration. I talk of God's glory as though it's an important variable in an equation; I impertinently swing it around to emphasize a point, and fail to realize that I am grubbily pawing over the very greatest good, holding it up with a light touch, as though a clown could pull up the floorboards of the universe.

Language is a tool; its application is rough and approximate. Square pegs are forced into triangular openings, and when resistance is encountered, it's the symbolized thing that suffers as the word intractably forces an entry. The world of human inclining and intending - language refracted through the prism of desire - does violence to any transcendent reality.

If we knew what we were saying - if the reality was, by some miracle, made manifest to us without remainder, even the slightest things, a pencil and a pink eraser - how could we continue speaking?

Life is not possible without language; language does not seem possible without transgression. Every revealing is also a concealing, par Heidegger. Perhaps every articulation is also, in part, a sheer loss, a destruction.

Friday, May 13, 2011

City Montage

I run across a street under a blinking orange indicator and catch myself at the curb, looking up in time to see a legless man in a wheelchair at the corner, grinning maniacally as he turns a gleaming six-inch combat knife in his hand for his friend - "this is what I got, eh!" Round-lensed sunglasses perched on his nose under a grey headband, he makes eye-contact with me and uses his other hand to halfway hold out his change-cup, giving it a shake.  I hastily jog across to a farther curb, eyes wide.


* * *


On one of my first days, I slowed to glance through a window into a bank after noticing that traffic would prevent me from crossing the next street. A man stepped into view to fill the whole window. He was staring intently at something; I followed his gaze down to a woman's generous behind, and shot a look back at him with raised eyebrows and an involuntary chuckle. He noticed me notice him, and for a moment, we only looked at each other. Then, he nodded at the woman's back, looked back at me, and shrugged. His mouth was hanging slightly open in a bashful smile. I smirked and shrugged back, not knowing what else to do. He gazed off vaguely, bouncing his shoulders and straightening his posture before clasping his hands behind him. A security badge tilted over his right lapel. I passed his window, feeling as though I had been let in on a secret, or had observed a private, cherished habit. 


* * *


I run down to meet a friend in the park for lunch, literally, because I have no idea how much lunch time is permissible at this job, and whether I will get fired for being outside. She chuckles at how flustered I am when I arrive and pleasantly hands me the sandwich she received for free at her work. We talk for some time; I only think of angry managerial decisions and how unhappy joblessness was. She smiles, we part ways, and I sprint back, cutting between cabs in hopes of returning quickly. It is balmy out and my shirt sticks to my back and chest. I clop by a wall of windows, and a man in a suit watches me blankly. An unfamiliar street is ahead; I hesitate, realize my mistake, swing around, and run back. I peer in the wall of windows again, realize that behind it stand a dozen spectators from not ten seconds before, and I seize my legs, forcing them into a businesslike walking pace. Mall of America style, I strain forward with swinging arms, heading in a roundabout way for my desk. I risk another look into the windows that are now on my right; the suited man behind them turns to hide a grin. 

* * *


On the walk back to the train after a productive day, a beautiful girl approaches on the street. I act preoccupied while furtively directing glances at her. Her gaze runs over nearby buildings and cars, but we can only avoid eye contact for so long. With her dark curly hair and thin tan jacket, with her easy walk and glow, she is grace personified; she lights up my brain. I imagine her voice: mellifluous but firm, the expressive tool of a person who knows herself and what she does not enjoy. We step closer. I cross a street, feigning nonchalance through an active suppression of anxiety as a cab recklessly swings behind me, a narrow miss. The woman nears. 

I rally my nerves around this plan: to make definitive eye contact with her the moment we pass one another, to send a clear signal that I also am self-possessed and a viable object of affection and even admiration! The moment is upon us; I deliberately look away, building potential energy at the apex of my head's pendulum swing, and at that point, the smell pushes into my nose. A thick waft of city stink catches my open nostrils on an upswing, probably the pressurized release of some sewer, and my face contorts in ways I cannot control. The problem is this: that I am committed. Therefore I swing my face around, and to my horror, she has anticipated my move and is looking at me, interested in seeing what kind of visage adorns that attractively lanky body. 

My left eyebrow is probably raised, my lips pursed, my jaw offset, my whole face is likely scrunched. It is an unintentional expression of disgust over the presence of a gas in my sinus cavity derived from some form of methane, the gurgling byproduct of troubled digestion. She quickly looks away, and I understand why; Chicago's skyscrapers are architecturally fascinating after all, for instance, there is one that was designed to look like a champagne bottle, rising into the ethereal heights of Plato's heaven, far above the crazy-eyed people who haphazardly navigate fetid city streets. What did she think, I wonder? And what did the next person think, who saw my shoulders drop as I looked down glumly at my shoes, one of which was untied? 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Excerpt from _The Writing Life_

It's deservedly famous. I think of this passage now whenever I watch Jersey Shore with my roommate.

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading—that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur's life a good one, or Thomas Mann's? 
 —Annie Dillard


I am challenged with the question, "is it really so hard for you to be satisfied?" The answer ought to be, without hesitation, "no." But I know myself well enough, and I hesitate. 


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

MORE CONTENT SOON

I promise

Sunday, March 27, 2011

3eanuts

My roommate Dan has started a new tumblr for Peanuts cartoons minus the last frame. It's a great premise; sorta like the hilariously-altered Garfield minus Garfield, the abrupt end of 3eanuts strips highlights existential undertones that may more accurately represent Schultz's take on the world.


Here are some examples:








Friday, March 25, 2011

NEW JOB

Hey homies. So I haven't posted anything in a while, and it's because I've been writing like crazy for a job application I've had in the works for a couple months. Thankfully, the results are finally in. Sorry about the formatting; I couldn't figure out another way to put up this screenshot.










So I guess this makes me, well, a professional writer, I guess. Heh. Stay tuned for further updates. Hopefully, I'll also be posting more content soon.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Misuse of Two Important Permissions

I received two important permissions when I was six or so: the first permission was to use the word "heck," and the other permission was for spitting. Significantly, the latter permission was implicit; I assumed, since my parents had probably seen me spit at some point, that they condoned it, provided I didn't spit on other people. Both of these allowances, to say "heck" and to spit, were important to me for being in line with an idea I had of a grown-up tough-guy, which was then a projection of future self-image. I actually asked them specifically, "well, can I say it like, what the heck, or, oh heck, or in other ways too?" They were confused, as anyone would have been, because they didn't have a view of the mental movie playing itself out as I asked, in which a man wearing jeans and a leather jacket strolled down between two rows of RVs, spitting in between puffs on his cigarette and saying "what the heck, oh heck" just before breaking into a full run and disappearing offscreen. Even so, they permitted a whole spectrum of inflections, so long as I did not use the word against another person. I was not yet ready to pick up smoking; however, I figured "heck" and spitting were within the domain of viable action as demarcated by my extra-sensitive conscience, even if "heck" and spitting were pushing the envelope more than any prior choices of personal behavior. 

The implicit aspect of the second permission, to spit, got me into trouble not long after I believed myself to have received it, in an event that produced a crucial explicit modification. We were at a furniture store in a nearby town, and a salesperson was talking to my parents about dresser options. I was in a rebellious mood. I strutted around the store, believing myself to be above the conventions that apparently had my parents and this salesperson by their throats. To demonstrate my sense of superiority, I walked up to where they were talking, looked at both parties, looked at the dresser, and finally, after mumbling something with "heck" in it, I spat on the floor. 

My parents were shocked. "Martyn Wendell! Why did you do that?" "I needed to spit. I had something in my mouth." Wry shrug. "I want you to apologize to this man, and never do that again. Spitting inside is offensive. You should only ever spit outside." "Okay. Sorry sir." Smirk. As I walked away, I'm sure I mumbled something ending emphatically in "heck."

Knowing I was in view of my siblings, I maintained my tough-guy exterior, but inside I was torn up over the possibility of having offended or harmed someone. The shame made my face hot and I kept my arms crossed for the rest of our visit to the store. There was no reason to have acted out in the way that I had, but my pride prevented me from offering an apology that was anything but ironical to the man in whose store I had impertinently spat. And it did my soul no good to think back on all the allusions to eternal judgment that I had casually cast about the place, as though making glib predictions about the ultimate state of the salesperson's soul. 

Because of the relative triviality of the incident, it was not brought up again by my parents. In some ways I wish it had been, because without a chance to talk about it, I was unable to unravel the twisted knot of my motivation; the memory of it became a slimy black stone that weighed down my opinion of myself in moments of real moral reflection. I would think: "I'm not really a good kid, I'm a kid who spits in well-meaning furniture makers' stores while needlessly consigning them to infinite torment, all in the name of a grown-up version of myself I wouldn't feel safe to be around were that character to approach me now."

Where does one go from there? Towards a different future, one would hope, and hope does not disappoint. Seeing as I currently do not smoke, rarely use "heck," categorically avoid leather clothing, and have never visited an RV dealership, I think it's safe to say that my early prophecies did not culminate in self-fulfillment. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Top Five Novels of 2010

By this, I mean the top five novels I read in 2010; only one of them was actually published during the year. Fiction became an important refuge for me from the freaky new adult world after my sort-of graduation from college last May, and while I don't believe I made any particularly bad book choices, some novels made more lasting impressions than others. Seeing as good fiction has the power to help us to see and understand ourselves and our humanity better, it is for your edification, and for the sake of holding on tightly to the imago Dei, that I present to you my top-five of twenty-ten list, with an honorable-mention addendum at the endum.


___________________________


1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan 

This book blew me away. Remarkably, Egan manages to craft a deeply felt story out of unpretentious prose that nonetheless sparkles with intelligence. The structure is subtly profound, the characters are sympathetic, endearing, and relatable almost without exception, and the eschewing of temporal linearity (which could have torpedoed the whole story) in the end only serves to deepen our emotional bond to the various inhabitants of Egan's complex world, by bringing the scattered roots of their personalities to light in such a way as to make even their most selfish actions intelligible to us as the actions of deeply flawed, deeply human people. I read it in the two days after Christmas, picking it back up at every opportunity like an addict. "Time is a goon, isn't that the saying?" Even if the delivery elicits continuous laughter, the content is serious; my experience with A Visit From the Goon Squad was emotionally rich and multifaceted. Few books are able to get at the mystery of time's erosive passage like this one does. 


2. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I read Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on the recommendation of my friend and roommate Dan during the middle of the summer. It's a post-9/11 love song to New York, but set in the seventies, in the days and weeks surrounding the audacious spectacle of a french funambulist who danced across a line stretched between the towers of the world trade center. Like Egan's book, it's a tightly wound, character driven story that stretches and grows like ivy vines around the central edifice of the high-wire act. The primary theme is connection; all twelve characters, with disparate but totally convincing voices, are given space for their stories to unfold, and it becomes clear with each addition to the swelling ensemble that every character's life touches the life of every other character, even if only in some fleeting or glancing way. McCann is a talented stylist to boot; portions of the book drove me to tears with their urgent and desperate lifting up of love and the possibility of love in a cold, unfeeling, and violent world. 


3. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Certain of my friends, whose opinions I esteem, don't like this book. I don't care. Simply put, Gilead is beautiful and profound. Written as the "endless letter" of elderly congregationalist minister John Ames to his seven year old son, whose adolescence and adulthood he will never see as a result of his old age and declining health, this book quietly takes on depth and weight as our narrator directs a steady procession through a century of struggle and defiant hope in a remote Iowa town. I had to read sections out loud to myself to better appreciate Robinson's florid diction. Out of necessity, several times - looking out over a lake in northern Wisconsin just before the setting of the sun - I had to put the book down, take in the view, and try, unsuccessfully, to articulate the powerful new feelings it had evoked in me. Gilead will not leave a sensitive and open reader unchanged.


4. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

After familiarizing myself with Walker Percy's nonfiction, particularly his thorny and befuddling anti-self-help book Lost in the Cosmos, I picked up The Moviegoer to see if he had anything important to say through fiction. I was not disappointed. Percy's real strength in my eyes is his psychological acuity; he just understands why people do the things they do, and he uses this special prescience to great effect in telling the story of a cool, classy, and privileged son of New Orleans who is on "the search." Percy leaves a residue of his insightfulness on Binx, his protagonist, whose struggle for meaning reflects, somewhat deliberately, the presence of several of Percy's intellectual and literary forebears, among them Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. While it's undeniably heavy most of the way through, The Moviegoer is also steeped in hope and a special kind of humor; I laughed out loud through three pages dedicated to a carefully implemented program of flirtation just because it was so experientially accurate. 


5. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I'm a sucker for whimsy, off-kilter humor, and verbal dexterity. Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel Everything is Illuminated does magnificent work in each of these categories. Told in alternating narrative halves dedicated to, on one side, a Jewish writer (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) on a search in the Ukraine for information about the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis, and on the other side, his grandfather's shtetl community through centuries of its wacky communal life, Everything is Illuminated is the kind of book that can kill you with laughter just before reducing you to abject grief over the fact of human wickedness and brutality. Foer adroitly uses whimsy and irony to create opportunities for his characters to obliquely and unexpectedly hit his readers right in the heart, and they do it again and again. By the way, have I made it sufficiently clear that this book is hilarious?


Honorable Mentions (not ordered):

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Toibin's straightforward and unadorned prose tells the story of Eilis, a young Irish woman who immigrates during the 1950's to New York City primarily because she has no reason not to when given the opportunity. Her life is hard, but she grows up, learns how to make choices for herself, and gradually takes her place in the world. Through her, Toibin speaks clearly, directly, and reassuringly to those who find themselves similarly caught in a murky transition into adulthood. 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The second book of Chabon's for me after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay presents the exciting, expansive, and quirky journey of two misfit Jewish kids to the heights of the 1940's comic book industry and back. The writing is lush, the characters are unique, and the momentum of the completed story left me feeling as though I was still rolling along with Kavalier and Clay after I'd closed the back cover for the last time, like a kid in bed at night who feels like he's still on a trampoline. 

Home by Marilynne Robinson
A slower moving book than Gilead, Home is also less ornate and self-conscious; fortunately, in many ways, it is just as rich. Written as a kinda-sorta sequel, Home is primarily concerned with Jack Boughton,  John Ames's perceived young antagonist. Jack is one of my very favorite characters in literature for, among numerous traits with which he is skillfully endowed, his wry perspective, his enigmatic comportment, his unmediated love for the few good things in his life, and his lifelong acquaintance with shame. He, his father, his sister, and their attempts at living together in a spiritual dusk compose the central cord of strands woven through the book. Their story ends up being a small, but meticulously definite, good thing. 

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
This is one of those big important books. Franzen is a talented writer; he can be psychologically insightful like Walker Percy, but generally operates on a bigger scale, enmeshing a dysfunctional midwestern family in contrasting layers of familiar familial hurt and pettiness, bizarre international intrigue, and constant anxiety and insistently spiritual questioning. It ends on a redemptive note that justifies most, if not all, of what precedes it. Franzen's characters are some of the most substantial and well-defined of any that reside between the covers of books on this list.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
It's as brutal and dark as everyone told me it would be; it's also so compelling that I had to stay up all night to finish it in one drawn-out, frightened reading. A father's love for his son and will for him to live is made manifest in the starkest of circumstances so as to set it in high relief; the relationship between them is Platonically simple and pure as a result. McCarthy is kind enough to allow the macabre beckoning of despair to abate once in a while, and these little gifts of momentary well-being to his characters are made all the more meaningful and significant by the otherwise unrelenting grind of their plight. 

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Murakami's most well-known novel is charming and immersive. Kafka, the Japanese teenage protagonist, is a precocious runaway whose flight to an old, mysterious library involves him in an unfolding chain of events destined to produce enormous cosmic and metaphysical consequences. It is by turns sensual, dramatic, thoughtful, exciting, funny, and horrifying; it ends in esoteric mythological obscurity, but the collective journey of its various characters makes the weird ride worth it. This book may bend your mind and even your heart around like telekinetically animated spoons. I mean that in a good way.


___________________________


Ah, I love me some books. I hope you treat yourself to one or two of them, and that they bless you abundantly for it. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Somnambulament: A Dialogue Between Night Me and Morning Me

NM: I get by by pretending you don't exist. 

MM: I hate you, Night Me! 

NM: I'm completely indifferent towards you, except for a modicum of abstract goodwill that disappears in the presence of some potential short-term gratification of desire.

MM: I hate you, Night Me! 

NM: I'm just gonna go play this video game. Until I beat it. Also, it is an RPG.

MM: I hate you, Night Me! 

NM: What's this - something to read? A newspaper from two weeks ago? I wonder what was happening two weeks ago! How engrossing! 

MM: I hate you, Night Me!

NM: I'm totally wanton!

MM: I hate you, Night Me! And therefore I resent myself. 

NM: Quit your pouting. I'm going for a walk and I don't care if it doesn't make sense to do so, at this hour, and in this weather. 

MM: I don't even exist half the time! Some days it's straight from Night Me to Early Afternoon Me! I believe you must recognize your culpability in this. 

NM: What? The intro from the movie "Persona"? And I can play it over as many times as I want?

MM: I have work today! 

NM: A panda sneezing on YouTube? Color me obsessed! 

MM: I had to use my personal day today! Because I was too tired to go in to work! 

NM: Recently, I saw the sun come up. We were watching the popular television series LOST.

MM: Our reputation has been irrevocably damaged! 

NM: My self-absorption may have grown. I feel I must blog about this. 

MM: I missed another breakfast appointment you bastard! 

NM:  The living room calls out to be rearranged - 

MM: I fell asleep while praying!

NM: There is no time like the present for cooking eggs and writing about the qualities I appreciate in a woman. 

MM: . . . 

NM: . . . 

MM: . . . 

NM: The things I do are important. 


whatcha doin, Night Me? "ALL THE THINGS!"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Favorite Weather: Drizzle

Everyone seems to make a big fuss about the first snow of the winter - so why not equally celebrate the first rain of the spring? I do not understand why we aren't more eager to see water-specked windows and those little rivulets that form en route to drainage pipes below street curbs. Rainy days are objectively better than snowy days; here are three good reasons to believe this.


  1. On a rainy day, a person may feel just as good about staying indoors with books and cups of hot tea as she would on a snow day; she is fully justified in giving herself permission to remain inside. However, God does her one better on a rainy day because she is additionally free from worrying about the looming prospect of shoveling the driveway / sidewalk in order to eventually leave.
  2. Rain cleanseth, whereas snow covereth over. Rain is therefore more beneficial and less deceptive than snow. Rain even mitigates certain problems that develop as a result of heavy snowfall, such as the salt residue that ends up on, well, almost everything during a midwestern winter. 
  3. Rain is like the joyful tears of angels in anticipation of the new season of growth and life in the world. Snow is like dandruff falling off their heads, which they scratch in befuddlement while trying to gain an insight into God's inscrutable decision to counterbalance the life of the world with a season of cold, death, and scarcity. 
So there you have it. Here are even some pictures of rain in different places around the world.


Chicago, Illinois


Paris, France


New York City, New York


The Taj Mahal, India


Petra, Jordan


Seattle, Washington


The Ocean, Unspecifically


The Great Plains, American West


Rio De Janeiro, Brazil


Lima, Ohio


Redwood Forest, California


Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota


Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe


Utrecht Canal, the Netherlands

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Day in the Life

The biggest question for an entire day can end up being "do I have milk?" And the most significant activity for an entire day can end up being the trip to the grocery store to get milk.

"What do you want to do tonight?"

I must check to see if anything has come for me, if there is anything I need to pick up or file away. I need to check my email, and my apartment mailbox, and then, if nothing has come, I settle for messages intended for me insofar as I am a member of a set, like a mailing list. For instance, I will read a magazine. Or I will read the news on the internet.

"Want to watch a movie? Want to play a video game?"

I don't know what exactly I am waiting for, but most of my time is spent passively deferring the present moment. If it is the afternoon, I anticipate the evening. I fill the time, or, the time ends up filled anyway. Or, in the least, it passes. It is punctuated biologically - I have to eat, and sleep, and drink, and bathe, and other things - but it is not punctuated spiritually without some impetus (usually of an external origin) sufficient to overcome the inertia of my drowsy soul.

"Have you eaten? Want to go out?"

I wait patiently for events. I do not often cause them. I do not often create a situation or an event that is compelling, either to me or to the people around me. When I do, it feels dangerous and risky. I wonder how it might be dismissed or criticized or laughed at. It is easier not to posit anything, but then, not positing anything is poisonous. So I wait to think about what I ought to posit.

"I am so angry; there were no parking spots left." 

How can the dishes come to mean so much? What kind of world permits the dishes to dominate an entire day? Even a couple of days? Why can't they just be the dishes? Who allowed the dishes to become a goal of their own? Why should the dishes cause me to feel anxiety and apprehension? Why is it that every move I make in the apartment is made with the dishes as a reference point? How could it be that the dishes are such a potent symbol? Why can't I figure out what the dishes are trying to communicate? Why can't I figure out the meaning of the dishes? Why don't we have any clean dishes? Why can't I do the dishes, if it is not my turn to do the dishes? What prevents me from fixing the problem of the dishes?

"I dunno, I might read or something. Let me know when you are coming back."

If I intend to be a paying customer, I can go almost anywhere. If I do not intend to be a paying customer, my options are limited. I cannot stay in many places for very long before I am asked to purchase something or leave. If I park my car and remain inside it, just to be able to sit for a while in a place that is not my apartment, I am approached with suspicion by the police. At night, I can stay inside my apartment, or drive, but that is about it. If I choose to drive, I do so without knowing where I will be able to stop and park, apart from my apartment parking lot. So, I mimic purposeful driving, and turn the mode of transportation into a destination of its own. It is like choosing to live in a hallway.

"Eh, nothing really happened today. I made a couple of sales. Almost made a grown man cry. Not in a happy way either; he was a grown man, and it was weird." 

Some days it feels hard to believe that the plans for our cities and suburbs began as ideas in the minds of actual people. The results seem more closely fit to a computer-generated model created for maximum efficiency and economic benefit. It would seem that the invisible hand, in addition to everything else it does, also shapes and forms our communities according to its inscrutable designs.

"There was this hipster today." 

When I was growing up I thought this was almost tragic: how a tall building could put so many people so close together without their being able to tell how near or similar they were to those above and below them. Sometimes, in big cities, I would wait, and watch, and wish that somehow, one of the people in the windows would brazenly defy the order of things and speak directly to the person on the floor above or below their own. I squinted so as not to miss the crazy possibility of this vertical dialogue. It would be nothing short of revolutionary! But my hope was pulled up short, and everyone in view spoke only to others on their level, if they spoke to anyone at all. I did not understand why the need to communicate could not overcome such apparently slight obstacles as floors and ceilings. Then I came to learn (or: I was taught) that I had been overestimating the need. Many people are perfectly content to quietly remain on one level for the duration of their lives. Rilke says that some people live as though pacing one strip of floorboards even though the entire house is open to be explored. It is easy to judge "those people," but then you see yourself pacing with them across that one small space, and so.

"If we put up some more pictures, the walls would not be so blank. But we're leaving soon enough so I dunno. If you want to pay for it, I guess."

After buying a bagel for dinner I almost threw away my change. This is because I have become so unaccustomed to paper money and coins that they felt like discardable waste in my hand. Used packaging.

"I reached for the glove that fell between the seat and the console, and pulled up something that I didn't recognize for the first couple seconds, and then I realized: this is an old banana peel! So I threw it out the window and two days later it is still there in the snow where it landed. Seriously, it was for, like, a couple seconds that I just couldn't even recognize it."

Gmail offers a status update option similar to that of Facebook. Implicitly, it also asks you, "what are you doing right now?" That is a damning question.

"But think about it. Wouldn't it be great to be a baker for a while? To be mentally and physically and maybe even emotionally involved in your work?" "What, in baking?"

If I lose my pen at work, I may become angry and unsympathetic towards others for the rest of the day. Should it concern a person, when the small things in his life are never just small things? When a healthy sense of right proportion in responding to his life's circumstances has been lost? Who gave so much power to traffic lights and automatic doors that are locked after a certain hour? Shouldn't emotions of this caliber be directed at something a little more consequential, with a little more heft?

"Well, the first thing I want to say is that I don't have any answers for you." 

A couple of weeks ago a car alarm went off, and it kept going off intermittently for days. Its obnoxious cadence would reemerge in the pauses of a conversation, in the silence after a movie, and at bedtime after lights-out. I laughed every time I heard it and swore at its impertinence. It persisted. I casually mentioned it in conversation with friends as one more example of the peculiarity of our lives. Finally I began inclining to receive a message from it, and at that point, it stopped.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Terry Eagleton on Evil and Wickedness

and wickedness


Terry Eagleton produces delicious prose. His hybridized Catholic/Marxist perspective, coupled with tactical demonstrations of his brilliant wit and serious theoretical chops, make him an eminently worthwhile writer for serious, thoughtful, and thick-skinned readers. His recent book On Evil follows his established precedent with provocative riffs and reflections on a multifaceted conception of evil.


Eagleton's book reaches a controversial apex in the final pages, as he turns the inertia of the preceding study on the topic of terrorism. His problematic takes this form: ought we say that fanatics who strap bombs to their bodies are truly "evil," or do they rather fall under the more mundane and inclusive description "wicked?" Eagleton, somewhat unsurprisingly, takes the latter option, after some qualifications. The devil is in the details, as it were.


Eagleton's characterization of evil draws from a variety of sources, including medieval philosophical theology and Freudian psychoanalysis; ultimately he reduces the ontology of evil to a very limited domain. Evil is primarily, in his view, an existential malaise; it is a quality of being, and consequentially manifests as a quality of action. It is a rebellion against meaning and existence, an ultimate and paradoxical union of Milan Kundera's "angelic" and "demonic" faces of humanity as it abstracts reason from context and the senses in pursuit of the infinite while degrading the world into total meaninglessness. Value, to the evil person, is a false, empty, imposed idea that is foreign to the world it would presume to organize; death and nonbeing are, by contrast, objects of affection, the evil person's anti-values. Posing an historical example, Eagleton writes, "Nazism is a form of crazed idealism which is terrified of human fleshliness. But it is also one long jeering belch in the face of all such ideals. It is both too solemn and too sardonic - full of stiff-gestured bombast about Führer and Fatherland, yet cynical to its core." 


The union of hyperextended reason and cynical revulsion at the world are closely related, and the latter grows in proportion to the former. In Eagleton's words, "[t]he more reason is dissociated from the body, the more the body disintegrates into a meaningless mess of sensation. The more abstracted reason becomes, the less men and women are able to live a meaningful creaturely life." Tragically, the despair produced by the disintegration of value and sense is the only real assurance the evil person has of his continued existence, which binds him to the maintenance of his despair. Although suicide would seem to be the natural culmination of this outlook, the fact of evil in a person is itself an expression of the insult that evil intends against being and goodness, and so, instead of expiring under the weight of his hopelessness, the evil person experiences Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death," which does not permit a determinate end. Eagleton goes on to say that his despair is what gives the evil person a leg up on men and women of all kinds who subscribe to one or another framework of sense-making because his condition would seem to destroy the possibility of meaning or redemption; and so, in another paradoxical turn, the despair of the evil person ascribes to him an obscene spiritual superiority. Evil, manifest, seems to be a naked, perverted, unhindered will-to-power.


Wickedness is both a less complex thing, and a more common thing. Assuming a rational framework, wickedness would primarily reside in the quality of one's actions, and an empirical preponderance of wicked acts would lead to the inference of an individual's wickedness. In essence, wickedness is morally wrong action done in the pursuit of rational and even morally neutral or morally right ends. On a small scale, it is cutting off a person in traffic to make it on time to a job interview. Writ large, it results in the destruction of the homes and lives of innocent people in an attempt to force the hand of an unjust government. Or so Eagleton would argue. 


The key difference between evil and wickedness seems to be the presence of rationality. Evil people cannot in principle be reasoned with because there is no reason in what they do; unfiltered evil is an unreflective acting-out against Being itself with no goal or achievable end in mind. Radical irrationality is one of its constitutive aspects. By contrast, the wicked may be reasoned with, at least in theory, because they possess reasons for acting in the way that they do, no matter how poisoned or twisted the logic. Their means can be reprehensible and even unintelligible for a person with a different outlook, and this may still say nothing about the ultimate value or worth of their ends. 


Eagleton's final point is that these ends are what must be addressed, but these ends are also dismissed out of hand by the person who categorically labels, for example, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists as sheerly evil. Eagleton wishes to say that those who feel, as powerless international actors, that their only recourse is to acts of terrorism may have legitimate political and ideological grievances against the west that may serve as the raw material for a dialogue that could in turn represent a first step on a path towards some sort of reconciliation.* 


In this hypothetical dialogue, if both parties were to acknowledge the legitimate claims on the side of the other - perhaps if radical Islamic fundamentalists were to recognize, even through the tight strictures of their ascetic moral code, space for moral neutrality and moral goodness in the lives of westerners living in secular capitalist culture, and if westerners could see the ways in which the Arab world has been mistreated by western nations over the last several centuries through implicitly and explicitly imperialist programs, agendas, and policies - is it feasible that this newly discovered plane of mutual intelligibility could create room for rationally working out a peaceful resolution to this conflict of life-worlds that has set the tone for international affairs in the twenty-first century? 


At this point, I am unsure if this is a reasonable idea, or idealistic to a point of radical naïveté. I welcome comments intended to elucidate, add to, or call into question my characterization of a fascinating aspect of Eagleton's study.


Also, happy St. Valentine's Day! I hope that you are having, or planning to have, a wonderfully romantic time with your significant other, if you have one. Otherwise, happy Monday, I guess. 


_____________________________
*This is not to say that there are not terrorists for whom wanton violence and death have become ends in themselves.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Humility

There was silence, and then

squeak;


then, from the squeaky subject,
a furtive glance over and back -

then a surprised return glance
quickly withdrawn  -

but then,
another, deliberate, accusatory look

and then, finally,

(seconds after)

four eyes meet
and shame fills the noxious space between
two pairs of nostrils.


Thank God we have recourse to
chuckles
otherwise we would probably
explode.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Day of Reckoning Approaches

Sorry homies/homettes, I've been super busy and haven't had much time to reflect or write. I have a lot of things on the way, I hope; an essay on zombies, a post on the best novels I read in 2010, and stories recounting past events even more whimsical and ridiculous are all in various stages of completion. I hope to produce a decent amount of content before Valentine's Day, certainly enough content for an afternoon and evening of lonely perusing, should this blog's audience possess certain significant attributes in common with its author.

However, this Friday I will be taking the GRE. This means that between now and then (assuming I possess a modicum of concern for my future) my spare time will primarily be devoted to the study of very, very basic concepts in algebra and geometry. Hopefully I'll be back to 8th-grade levels of mathematical competence by the end of the week. In the meantime, my roommate Dan's tumblr is unfailingly entertaining and informative.

Until next time, wish me luck - or pray for grace and peace for me, your choice.


there are many kinds of tests

Thursday, January 6, 2011

T-Rex Lays Down Fat Beats!

For Christmas in '09, my friend Tim gave me an obese T-Rex plush toy from Dinosaur Comics. Well, a friend's friend sent in a picture of him to the dino comics website, and now that picture is being featured there for the whole internet to see!

The photographer discovered him in the basement of the house we rented last year, practicing Sex Bob-omb's opening song from the movie Scott Pilgrim Vs the World for a cover show. You can see the pic here. It is a beautiful candid action shot.

More to come... happy 2011!