Monday, September 19, 2011

Der bestirnte Himmel über mir

I suppose we all have projects or ambitions we are occasionally able to pursue. I've always wished I knew the names of trees, for instance, or the songs of birds.

Living at seven thousand feet in a dry climate and a smaller city I have found myself, more so than at any other time in my life, aware of the presence of the "starry heavens above." I have always wanted to know something of the stars, not necessarily a deep knowledge, but some sense of which constellations are which (beyond the Big Dipper and Orion), and maybe the names of a few stars and other celestial objects.

This summer has not been a good one for viewing. I don't know why, since we've been in a record-setting drought, but the sky has been cloudy almost all summer. The last two nights things cleared up some, and I spotted, for the first time, the well-known galaxy in Andromeda, and the double cluster in Perseus.

Even the most amateur of amateur sky-watchers will perhaps smile at the modesty of these achievements. No matter. Those who, like myself, have gone through most of their lives oblivious to the celestial hemisphere above may find here some motivation to look up.

I have been much helped by four things. The first two are things you look through, a telescope and a pair of binoculars. The telescope is a cheap one--well, mine, very cheap for me, since I won it in a raffle from a local toy store that was going out of business. It retails for around a hundred dollars, so it's not a terribly good scope. But I've seen Jupiter's Medician moons with it, and, looking at Saturn, I have just barely made out a tiny silver ring running round a tiny silver disc.

The binoculars are much more rewarding. It's hard for me to find things with the telescope--the afore-mentioned Andromeda Galaxy took me almost an hour to find, and it had the same "faint-headlight-in-a-fog" appearance as it had in the binoculars.

The other two aids are things one looks at rather than through. A constant companion has been the "Audubon Guide to the Night Sky," with page after page showing typical monthly night skies, constellations (both drawn and photographed), and narratives keyed to the most interesting sights in each. It's invaluable, but, as I used it more and more, I became increasingly aware of its limitation as a two-dimensional representation of a great overhead hemisphere.

Which brings me to the wonders of the celestial globe, a 12-inch sphere illustrating the positions of the stars, constellations, stellar regions, star clusters, deep sky objects, and the annual path of the sun through the zodiac. Upon receiving it I immediately cut from poster board a narrow ring with a slightly less than 12 inch interior diameter which, placed on the globe, works as a "horizon." By orienting Polaris and the Big Dipper I could thereby at any time of the night have a model of the sky above.

The celestial globe has an initially surprising property, that it appears to be a mirror image of the sky. This is, of course, because one is on the outside looking in, rather than (with the real thing) on the inside looking out. It takes some getting used to, but, by imagining that the surface of the globe is being projected outward, one gets adjusted.

The great utility of the celestial globe lies in being able to handle it, to turn it around the celestial pole to get a tactile sense of what most initially puzzled me about those monthly star maps in the Audubon guide: how exactly the (apparent) movement of the celestial sphere caused just those perrenial and seasonal constellations to appear. It also allowed me to visualize, for the first time, through imagining a tiny solar system in the disk of the great circle formed by the zodiac, how and why the sun and the planets remained within the zodiac.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Life in the Woods

"Walden" is a book so familiar to my generation that it almost comes as a shock to realize that I've never read it all the way through. I am currently about halfway through remedying that.

The passage about the "different drummer" was ubiquitous in the sixties and early seventies. The great imperative to "Simplify!" has always been present, if ever very incompletely realized. I remember, when moving from a larger city to to smaller town in the mid-eighties, my touchstone wasn't Thoreau, but Yeats' "Lake Isle of Innisfree":

I will arise and go now
And go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there
Of clay and wattles made.
Nine bean-rows shall I have there,
A hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there....

That's from memory--it may not be quite right, but it's being there, that way, in the memory confirms, I suppose, it's doggedness. And looking back, so much of Walden is there: the lake, the small cabin, even the bean-rows.

Thoreau is irritating because he asserts that it's all so easy. And it's tempting to respond that not everyone has health, has Ralph Waldo Emerson to let you build on his land and pay your taxes. Even apart from those things, though, why can't we live in nature as in Eden, being content with little, keeping that level of mindfulness high and alert? Part of the answer, I think, is that Thoreau himself couldn't keep it up. He maintained his simple life for two years, and that was that. Paradise was lost again, presumably his own choice.

And then, he did do it alone. When I was young, I was entirely baffled by that "quiet desperation" that Thoreau attributed to the mass of men; now I not only get the concept, I can say right out that I've lived it. And it comes from responsibility, from those connections and concerns that Thoreau simplified out of his life. A great advantage of reading Thoreau is seeing that things like celibacy--though not, I think, by name invoked--are in fact pretty essential for a monastic lifestyle. Something not exactly emphasized in the sixties, but bourne out in a thousand different social experiments.

There is much beauty of observation in Thoreau, much that is instructive (I'm thinking of his conflating the village with a nearby prarie dog colony), in his disdain of the inessential. I hesitiate to criticise an experiment I couldn't have undertaken myself. But my admiration of his project, and my appreciation for so much of what he has gotten right about our aspirations toward the sublimely simple, are tempered by his terrible isolation from deep human ties. Thoreau was no hermit during his two years, and observed very well how easy it is to be lonely when surrounded by others. But his solitude, which, in measure, I, and many people find occasionally necessary, was too complete to compensate for the glorious freedom he enjoyed as perhaps no other. His admirable mastery of his appetites still leaves him sometimes a monsterous egoist. But in this, perhaps, he does come very close to the Natural Man.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Confessions as "Confessional"

By "confessional" I mean "sectarian"--specifically, whether its approach to scriptural interpretation is more Protestant than Catholic.

I first formally studied Augustine in a medieval philosophy course where his distinctive theological positions were presented as unmistakably proto-protestant. There was nothing dishonest about this approach, since Augustine was undoubtedly the leading patristic influence on the magisterial Reformation: Luther was, of course, an Augustinian monk, and Calvin's Institutes fairly burst with references and appeals to Augustine.

But the issue came up again recently in a chance conversation with an acquaintance--an acquaintance, I should add, with a long, deep, and learned history with Augustine. She found him essentially Protestant because of the freedom inherent in his biblical interpretation. Those who know the Confessions will remember that only about two-thirds of it is what we could consider properly autobiographical. After his account of the death of his mother Augustine launches into meditations on the marvel of memory, followed by a long disquisition on the nature of time. He ends with a penultimate book entirely taken up with the first phrase in Genesis, and a final book engaged in an allegorical reading of the seven days of creation.

Her view was that Augustine was essentially Protestant because of the freedom with which he handled scripture. And it is, to us, handled freely indeed: "Heaven and earth" point more to Neoplatonic entities that the "sky and ground" as literally read. Light is enlightenment, the firmament the scriptures, the luminaries and creatures in the firmament expositers and exemplars. It does indeed seem quite far from any reading that Ezra or Paul might have given it.

But, given the freedom that is there, it still seems to me a bounded freedom, one that recognizes an imperative to stay within the tradition. This, I think, can be inferred from Augustine's earlier narrative of his disdain of the scriptures, his finding them so essentially childish, until he heard them expounded by St. Ambrose. There he was given a view of them that he had never found by simply reading. Once introduced into the tradition, once reading the scriptures in the lived community of the Church, they not only made sense, but opened themselves to a difficult philosophical interpretation which neither extinguished their sense for the simple, nor unmoored them from the defining limits of the tradition.

I think of Augustine's experience when I come across what seems to be a new journalistic form, the reading of the scriptures by one outside of the tradition with astonishment at the bizarre and outlandish. They read, and expound, like the early Augustine, and, not surprisingly, end with disdain. And very seldom is there time for an Ambrose to explain, to interpret, to place in the greater context. That is one of the frustrations of being a Christian after the demise of Christendom, the belief of so many that they know the Christian faith because of their rote familiarity with a set of random propositions and passages.

Another phenomenon is the re-casting of new traditions, possible anytime from the plasticity of any text. I think a good example, a good contrast with Augustine's penultimate chapter in the Confessions, is Joseph Smith's breathtaking King Follet Discourse, where he, too, interprets the first verse of Genesis, and comes up with: "In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the God; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it." This is free interpretation indeed, but rather outside of the Catholic tradition as hitherto lived.

Friday, July 1, 2011

E.N.R.A.D., 1921-2011

Χαίρετε ἐν κυρίῳ πάντοτε· πάλιν ἐρῶ, χαίρετε. τὸ ἐπιεικὲς ὑμῶν γνωσθήτω πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις. ὁ κύριος ἐγγύς. μηδὲν μεριμνᾶτε, ἀλλ᾽ ἐν παντὶ τῇ προσευχῇ καὶ τῇ δεήσει μετὰ εὐχαριστίας τὰ αἰτήματα ὑμῶν γνωριζέσθω πρὸς τὸν θεόν. καὶ ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ ὑπερέχουσα πάντα νοῦν φρουρήσει τὰς καρδίας ὑμῶν καὶ τὰ νοήματα ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ.

May God support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Meandering through La Mancha

Breathless followers of this blog are undoubtely wondering how things are going with the reading of Don Quijote in Spanish. The answer, I suppose, is "deliberately."

There are some things that ought not to be rushed, and if it takes me another ten years to make it through, that's OK. It will give me some comfort in not being an ungraduate trying to finish it in a semester.

And what has been most arresting? The story of the Grisostomo, who died for love of the "cruel Marcela," the beautiful shepherdess who spurned his advance is remarkable, both for its faithful telling of this rather standard kind of pastoral (complete with the late lover's despairing poetry), and for the epilogue in which Marcella is allowed to come on stage and ask, essentially, Where does Grisostomo get off dying for me? I didn't ask him to do it!

"Que si a Grisóstomo mató su impaciencia y arrojado deseo, ¿por qué se ha de culpar mi honesto proceder y recato? Si yo conservo mi limpieza con la compañía de los árboles, ¿por qué ha de querer que la pierda el que quiere que la tenga con los hombres? Yo, como sabéis, tengo riquezas propias y no codicio las ajenas; tengo libre condición y no gusto de sujetarme: ni quiero ni aborrezco a nadie. No engaño a éste ni solicito aquél, ni burlo con uno ni me entretengo con el otro."

"My condition is free, and I am not pleased to be subject to anyone." Some would say that this is "modern." I would be more inclined to say that it is more of Cervantes' contrast of the idyllic and the real. Marcella's protest is just as appropriate in the seventeenth century as today. It was, after all, Chaucer's Wife of Bath who informed us that that what women want is "sovereneyee/As wel over hir housbond as hir love,/And for to been in maistrei him above."

Antecedents of the Confessions

I have been reading, the last year or so, Augustine's Confessions--the third time through it, for me, but this time in Latin, with much help from the Loeb Classical Library crib. Reading in a language other than English always slows me down a lot, and, in this case, I think that's a very good thing. Augustine is not easy, and often goes where one is not expecting him to go, and where one might have even thought he went, reading rapidly.

It is commonly said that the Confessions is the first autobiography, the first literary expression of this kind of personal history and self-revelation. And I suppose it is so. Nevertheless, I think it important to see here still an assembling of much that went before. I don't think it at all lessens the Confessions' originality to see that it has precursors.

One obvious antecedent--obvious because quoted and paraphrased continually--is the book of Psalms. There the various psalmists give expression to brief but heartfelt cries of internal turmoil, addressed, like the Confessions, not to some future reader, but to God. Of personal history there is little (except of course that addressed in the headings: A psalm of David, when he was fleeing this or that enemy). But they narrate the internal, what is otherwise inobservable. To me Augustine's tone is very like the tone of the psalms: very personal, imploring, and leaving behind a sense of openness, a waiting for the divine response which, if it comes, must be from outside the text.

Another possible percursor is suggested by a descendant, an almost contemporary account of faith obtained through struggle and doubt, Newman's Apologia. The very word sends us back to Plato's Apologia Socratous.

There, of course, we are probably not reading Socrates' words about himself; Xenophon's alternative version compels some degree of doubt, unhappily. But the form of the narrative is Socrates telling his own life, justifying the notariety that placed him before the Athenian tribunal. It is not only a "what happened," but "how I internally changed": the encounter with the oracle, the disillusionment that followed on seeking to test the oracle, and the defense of a life, in every sense, examined, and examining. The tone is quite different from Augustine's, but the autobiographical form is there.

But is it really? Can there be any greater opposites than a Confession and an Apology? One seeks to set out and admit, "I was wrong." The other is a defense, an assertion, "Indeed, I am not guilty of what I am accused of; I was right." Certainly in that sense they are quite different.

But of course Augustine's Confessions are, to some extent, an Apology. We are so used to seeing the man as the great stodgy Father of Grace that we tend to forget that, for his contemporaries, he was a bishop with some decided negatives. First, of course, he was for years an adherent of the heresy of the Manichees--he, a man whose upbringing by a devout Christian mother allowed no excuse of ignorance. Second, there was that small matter that, over the years, he had had at least two mistresses, and had a son out of wedlock. These, today, would be weighty clouds hanging over the head of any bishop. In the Church of his day, of course, they would have especial significance because of the Donatist's continuing charge of laxity against the Catholics.

So, in some sense, by combining the imploring and repentant stance of the psalmists with the defensive explanatory history attributed to Socrates, Augustine both confesses himself guilty and seeks vindication for the outcome of a seemingly misspent life. It is a remarkable synthesis of two seemingly incompatible aims.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Par pareille moyen on arrive a divers fins.

"Something's existence with a thing does not prove that it exists by that thing."

"We do not claim that these things are necessary [i.e. fire not burning, bread not satisfying]. On the contrary, they are possibilities that may or may not occur. But the continuous habit of their occurence repeatedly, on time after another, fixes unshakably in our minds the belief in their occurance according to past habit."

The foregoing is not from David Hume, but from part seventeen of the Tahafut al-falasifa of Abu Hamid Muhammed ibn Muhammed al-Tusi al-Ghazali--the "Incoherence of the Philosophers," from twelfth century Baghdad. It grounds an argument for miracles, much as Hume relied on such observations to declare them inherently incredible. Thus by similar means we arrive at diverse ends.

There is also that strangely illiberal conclusion to the Enquiry: Examine any book in your library, and, if it lacks "abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number, " or "experiemental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence," "Commit it then to to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." We can rejoice that Hume's admonition has not been honored in the West, and lament the hand that al-Ghazali, with similar exhortations, had in eventually virtually extinguishing Islamic philosophy.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Tearing the web

Desocupado lector: Having now left off this thing for a year and a half it's a little daunting to return. "This," one expects to be asked, "is what took eighteen months?"

So, exactly.