Sunday, August 24, 2014

Uncle Remus, Aesop and Pogo

Last week, in a local shop, I came across a book I hadn't seen in decades, Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus:  His Sayings and His Songs.  The book, not surprisingly, was printed in 1957, and, with happy memories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, the tar baby and the brier patch, I bought it.

The Uncle Remus books remain in print, but there's no great mystery to their contemporary low profile.  They purport to relate folk-tales told by the plantation slaves and former slaves in the Old South.  Their offense is manifold.  Uncle Remus speaks in a thick dialect which in itself many would find most offensive, incorporating numerous racial terms now universally intolerable, up to and including the "n-word."  The atmosphere of the slave quarters is one of easy contentment, the very picture of  the antebellum argument that plantation slaves led happy, care-free lives under the eyes of kind and solicitous masters.  To the extent that Chandler has fictionalized, he is accused of falsifying.  To the extent that he accurately transmits the folklore of the slaves, he is damned for cultural appropriation.

All of this is understandable.  Much of it is unavoidably accurate.  And yet in a real sense, because there is genuine artistry in the animal tales, it's a shame that our concern about current, seemingly intractable, racial issues might require our abstention from such pleasures that, to an outsider, would seem entirely innocent.  As with Lincoln, who, in a speech given shortly before his death, said that he always loved the tune, "Dixie," and who, having captured it fair and square, had no compunction about having it played, it would be nice if the Uncle Remus stories could be subject to a similar capture.

That our concern is not slavery in general, but our slavery, our slaveowning, slavedriving heritage, is shown simply enough by considering the figure of Aesop.  Admittedly he's a shadowy figure, and what we think we know of him rests on the flimsiest evidence.  Nevertheless, what is most commonly said of him is that he was a slave.  And knowing that fact--if it is a fact--makes not a bit of difference to our enjoyment of his animal fables.

Now of course there was no real "Uncle Remus."  He was a combination of many slaves and ex-slaves Harris knew and would listen to when first employed on a Georgia plantation, the illegitimate son of a young Irish immigrant mother.  But the reality of Uncle Remus or Aesop is really beside the point.  Greek and American slavery were real.  But Greek slavery is far enough away from us that it doesn't spoil The Fox and the Grapes for us.

Another serious sticking point is the dialect.  It was something that Harris was quite serious about.  He wanted to write the tales just as he heard them, in the very speech used by the slaves.  That technique didn't necessarily demean or mock those who used it, but we hear it, so to speak, on the other side of "Amos 'n Andy," after it has become, not merely put to comic use, but itself, alone, a form of ridicule and smug superiority.

Which brings me to the case of Walt Kelly's Pogo.  I have loved the Pogo comic strips since I was a kid.  (No, to be more accurate, since I was a teenager, since the Pogo strips in the newspaper utterly baffled me when I was in elementary school.)  Kelly, though a northeasterner, wrote Pogo in an invented dialect that hews close to that of the deep South (not surprising, since the strip is set in the Okefenokee swamp).  He actually began in the forties with a comic about a young African-American named Bumbazine living on the edge of the swamp, and having adventures with his talking animal friends.  From the one exemplar I've seen the dialogue is just barely in dialect.  As the strip developed, Bumbazine disappeared, and animal characters took over, and the language became a thing of wonder.

"Mam heerd tell a man over here figgers he's gon run for public office...mam sent the tads over to be kissed up.  Us can't bear kissin' the ugly li'l' sprats ourselfs but we understan's you politicians kisses 'em free of charge."  That's Mr. Frog bringing his tadpoles to Pogo.

"Ef you don't lemme loose, I'll knock you agin,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch 'er a wipe wid de udder han', en dat stuck.  Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin', en Brer Fox, he lay low."  That, of course, is Harris.

What's the difference here?  Obviously in neither case do the animals have any human ethnicity.  Nevertheless, in the case of Pogo, the dialect is somewhat non-specific.  In the tar-baby story the particular ethnicity of the fictional story-teller is directly expressed in the dialogue of the animals.  I myself don't find the use of the dialect offensive, but I understand how others could.

One probably intractable problem with Harris, at least for the foreseeable future, is his free use of terms for African-Americans which remain, in most contexts, unprintable.  There exists, of course, one still-popular work that has managed to overcome that issue, Huckleberry Finn.  But that book's importance in American literature, coupled with Twain's irreproachable humanitarian bona fides, give it a pass that is probably unavailable to Uncle Remus.

That leaves us with two unpalatable alternatives:  setting aside the Uncle Remus stories entirely, or bowdlerizing them.  Those of us of a certain age may conceivably plead that, since our characters are fully formed and too rigid to bear much improvement or corruption, we can privately enjoy these stories without much risk.  But for children, and school libraries, and popular media, they unhappily probably belong with Disney's (partly-scrubbed) Song of the South in the "unsuitable and quarantined" vault--at least in their original form.

There was much talk, with the election of President Obama, of the entry of the United States into a "post-racial" era.  Well, most of that talk has now run up against reality.  Much as I love the Uncle Remus stories, I know how they can be, and would be, used in shameful and unsavory ways.  I am glad we don't have actual censorship, and I am sure that a day will come when they can be read, enjoyed and criticized as freely as Aesop's fables.  But we are still far from that day.  


Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Again wake.  And as all good dreams must come to a fin, and glad as I've been in your company then, please join me in reading the closing lines, slowly and thoughtfully:

"If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the           riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and..." OMIGOD NO!  IT'S STARTING OVER AGAIN!  SOMEBODY THROW THE SWITCH!

(Ha ha)

It is one of the best-known features of Finnegans Wake that it is a tale of "doublends jined," that the end loops back to the beginning, so that there is no real start or finish, only an eternal recurrence.

Now I think that's undoubtedly right, but it's also wrong.  Dreams don't run over and over again.  Night gives way to day, not night after night after night.  And to bring it back to this particular book, the Wake, in its concluding pages, ycleped Part IV, takes the plain form of a conclusion, the dawn breaking, the dream making its way to forgottenness, the River Liffey, as Anna Livia, flowing joyfully, relentlessly into the sea.  So the book ends; also, it doesn't.  Imagine that.

Part IV is the shortest of the four parts, only about thirty pages in my edition.  But it is still divided into four of what I have called divisions.  After a beginning ("Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas!") that again evokes an upanishadic closing (as Eliot did in "The Waste Land"), the harbingers of day from the beginning of the sections seem reasonably clear to me:

"Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne. Array! Surrection! Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally!"

"Dayagreening gains in schlimninging. A summerwint spring-falls, abated. Hail, regn of durknass, snowly receassing, thund lightening thund, into the dimbelowstard departamenty whither-out, soon hist, soon mist, to the hothehill from the hollow, Solsking the Frist...."

"What has gone? How it ends?
"Begin to forget it."

The forgetting, I think, is the forgetting of the dream that typically happens when we awaken.

The last division is the invocation of Anna Livia as the Liffy flowing to the ocean, as well as the fall of leaves:  "Soft morning, city! Lsp! I am leafy speafing. Lpf! Folty and folty all the nights have falled on to long my hair. Not a sound, falling. Lispn! No wind no word. Only a leaf, just a leaf and then leaves."  It introduces perhaps the most lyrical section of the Wake.

And what can I say here in closing?  First, I guess, that I don't see that the Wake has any particular claim on anyone.  I wouldn't call it one of those books anyone has to read to understand this or that (except, possibly, the works of James Joyce).  If I had to choose a single best book by Joyce I'd still have to go with Ulysses. 

Still, no one should succumb to finneganphobia.  It's a book everyone's going to miss most of.  Having taken Joyce seventeen years to write (spending much of his time, apparently, deliberately obscuring it) there's no way that anyone with a life is going to be able to read it as Joyce wrote it, to understand what he was referring to, to glean where he was going, to get what he was getting at.  Puzzled?  Join the club.  It can still be exhilarating, and, even as I was bogging down a bit toward the end, still I find that I miss pulling it off the shelf, and a great advantage of having not gotten so much of it is that I find that I can open it anywhere and still be amused and challenged and entertained, and even  laugh at something that flew five miles over my head the first time through.

Joyce is Literature, but he can be very, very "lowbrow," vulgar, tasteless.  His excuse is the dream.  The proverbial foul rag and bone shop of the heart is quite indiscriminately ransacked.  That closeness to his own common environment is part of what makes him difficult, and which makes me fear that the obscurity of this book will grow exponentially over time.  For all the small library of commentaries and keys explaining Joyce, I am thankful he can still be read straight on, without the volumes of explanation he will undoubtedly require a century hence.

A side effect of reading Finnegans Wake is the advantage of developing and exercising a facility to read with ambiguity.  Anyone who's tried to read a foreign language (or contemporary poetry) knows the need to suppress that frustration with knowing most, but not all, of the meaning attached to the words on the page.  Assuming you don't explode with rage after the first twenty pages, the Wake gets you into a frame of mind to accept what's there and move on with the hope of filling in the gaps tomorrow; maybe some meaning will later emerge.  It's an important skill for any reader to have.

In the end, though, it's about the book, and its art, and its impossible pretentions to wholeness.  I had thought at one point that the Wake might be likened to a koan.  A very long koan.  But I certainly wasn't struck with enlightenment at its conclusion.  Perhaps it is more like the eleventh teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, in which Krishna instructs Arjuna:

...see my forms
in hundreds of thousands;
diverse, divine,
of many colors and shapes.

See the sun gods, gods of light,
howling storm gods, twin gods of dawn,
and gods of wind, Arjuna,
wondrous forms not seen before.

Arjuna, see all the universe,
animate and inanimate,
and whatever else you wish to see;
all stands here as one in my body.

Or, to bring it back west, we might rest content with what Dryden said of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:  "Here is God's plenty."

I have arguably devoted a disproportionate amount of time to blogging the Wake.  Maybe so.  I think I blogged, not so much for the blog itself, but rather as a means to help myself with the reading of the book.  That is to say, Finnegans Wake is so odd, so formless, so baffling, that I found it helpful, in going through it, to continually ask myself, "What can I say about this part?"  The implied promise to blog forced me to be more active than usual in reflecting on the readings as I went along, and I think that in itself promoted understanding and made the experience all the more fruitful.

In reading any blog series the beginning is the end, the end the beginning.  So, to bring the enterprise to an end, if any stray reader wishes to peruse all the Wake entries, from the other end, they can be found as follows:

1.  Sin against Fate (March 19)
2.  Sense or Sensibility (April 18)
3.  A quarter dunned (May 22)
4.  Too clever by half (June 27)
5.  Finnegans Wake, Part II, third division (July 9)
6.  Finnegans Wake, Part II, fourth division (July 15)
7.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, first division (July 20)
8.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, second division (July 31)
9.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, third division (August 11)
10.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, fourth division (August 12)
11.  Fin (which is where we came in)

शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Finnegans Wake, Part III, fourth division

"What was thaas? Fog was whaas? Too mult sleepth. Let sleepth."

The beginnings of many of these latter sections suggest, almost clearly, that the night is passing.  The previous division suggested dawn and waking, but didn't quite make it, and this one begins putting us back firmly in the sonambulant state.  We drowse still.

And yet.  And yet.  I have to admit, as I approach the end, I give in to the temptation to hurry up and finish.  This is not good.  This is a book that requires patience.  And when you get impatient, Finnegans Wake can get tedious.  Sense only surfaces slowly.

Soon after the beginning we are presented with a "dumbshow," a sort of pantomime, with HCE and ALP and the children sporting what some think their "real" names, Bartholomew and Mrs. Porter.  There may be a parallel with a chess game, as, throughout the division, each of our "four" notes a position:  Matt a "first position of harmony," Mark, a "second position of discordance," Luke (implied), a "third position of concord," and at the end, John, with a "fourth position of solution." 

The performance eventually makes its way into an indictment of "Honuphrius," presumably Porter/Humphrey/HCE, for infidelity, unnatural coitus, blasphemy and sacrilege.  This unaccountably transforms, in a sentence or two, into the details of a ridiculously detailed commercial legal claim.  The four watchers then seem to withdraw: 

"— He sighed in sleep.
"— Let us go back.
"— Lest he forewaken.
"— Hide ourselves.
"While hovering dreamwings, folding around, will hide from fears my wee mee mannikin, keep my big wig long strong mano-men, guard my bairn, mon beau.
"— To bed."

The narrative then goes elsewhere, for page after page, and ends with "John's" fourth tableau, the end of part III of the Wake, and a real promise of the morning:

"Fourth position of solution. How johnny! Finest view from horizon. Tableau final. Two me see. Male and female unmask we hem. Begum by gunne! Who now broothes oldbrawn. Dawn! The nape of his name-shielder’s scalp. Halp! After having drummed all he dun. Hun! Worked out to an inch of his core. More! Ring down. While the queenbee he staggerhorned blesses her bliss for to feel her funnyman’s functions Tag. Rumbling.
"Tiers, tiers and tiers. Rounds."

Again I have missed much, skipped lots.  Anyone can return, when you or I wish.  The night recedes.  I think I'm absorbing more, but it seems so much less necessary or useful to articulate the connections, to point out this or that reference or tie when the whole cacaphony is winding up.  There is a weariness, or a surrender, as the end looms.  But maybe it's just from starting to rush.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Finnegans Wake, Part III, third division

From a Shaun and a Jaun we come to Yawn (which one does at dawn): "Lowly, longly, a wail went forth. Pure Yawn lay low. On the mead of the hillock lay, heartsoul dormant mid shadowed landshape, brief wallet to his side, and arm loose, by his staff of citron briar, tradition stick-pass-on. His dream monologue was over, of cause, but his drama parapolylogic had yet to be, affect."

This unaccountably puts me in mind of the awakening of Faust at the beginning of Part II, after the revels of Walpurgis Night and Gretchen's death.  If Finnegans Wake is indeed a nightdream, it is surprising that Yawn is waking as dawn is breaking.  But if the "dream monologue" had ended, the "drama parapolylogic" was not.  We're not out of the woods yet.  The dream was within a dream, perhaps, or a false dawn yawns.

We are soon again in the presence of our Four:  "First klettered Shanator Gregory, seeking spoor through the deep timefield, Shanator Lyons, trailing the wavy line of his partition footsteps (something in his blisters was telling him all along how he had been in that place one time), then his Recordership, Dr Shunadure Tarpey, caperchasing after honourable sleep, hot on to the aniseed and, up out of his prompt corner, old Shunny MacShunny, MacDougal the hiker, in the rere of them on the run, to make a quorum."  And they meet to "hold their sworn starchamber quiry on him."

Whether these are still the four evangelists, or now the four provinces of Ireland, or the four points of the compass, Joyce only knows.  But for the next two-thirds of this division a conversation begins.  It presumably includes the Four, making their "sworn starchamber quiry," but this is only an inference from the above.  Who else is involved, I cannot say, and it seems to have no form, and no aim, and no conclusion. 

This is, to me, a long period of obscurity.  There is some linguistic play, and a more frequent invocation of HCE.As I look over these posts I become dissatisfied because the matters brought out are what to me are the brightest, clearest spots.

At a certain point we begin to again encounter sexuality, though doubling with ALP's character as water:  "[S]he began to bump a little bit, my dart to throw: and there, by wavebrink, on strond of south, with mace to masthigh, taillas Cowhowling, quailless Highjakes, did I upreized my magicianer’s puntpole, the tridont sired a tritan stock, farruler, and I bade those polyfizzyboisterous seas to retire with hemselves from os (rookwards, thou seasea stamoror!) and I abridged with domfine norsemanship till I had done abate her maidan race, my baresark bride, and knew her fleshly when with all my bawdy did I her whorship, min bryllupswibe."

There is plainly a lot of sex in Finnegans Wake.  This arises, I think, from something more than the fact that sex is often suspected and more easily detectable when other activities are more obscure.  Aside from the obvious physiological rising and falling involved, the play of generation is yet another pattern of death and resurrection,  life ascendant succeeding to life descending, the great recurrent drama of the human race.  But perhaps Joyce is also enjoying writing one impliedly pornographic scene after another that his censors can't object to as unambiguously salacious. 

Another section that stands out seems nothing less than a mash of personal and lodging ads, with few puns and doubled words, but a series of phrases, some ordinary, some absurd, on the same pattern:  "[E]ccentric naval officer not quite steady enjoys weekly churchwarden and laugh while reading foreign pictorials on clumpstump before door, known as the trap, widow rheumatic and chars, haunted, condemned and execrated, of dubious respectability, tools too costly pledged or uninsured, reformed philanthropist whenever feasible takes advantage of unfortunates against dilapidating ashpits, serious student is eating his last dinners, floor dangerous for unaccompanied old clergymen, thoroughly respectable, many uncut pious books in evidence, nearest watertap two hundred yards’ run away, fowl and bottled gooseberry frequently on table, man has not had boots off for twelve months, infant being taught to hammer flat piano, outwardly respectable, sometimes hears from titled connection."

Another remarkable section conveys a sense of primordial history of Genesis, in the spreading of civilization and the founding of cities:  "long agore when the whole blighty acre was bladey well pessovered, my selvage mats of lecheworked lawn, my carpet gardens of Guerdon City, with chopes pyramidous and mousselimes and beaconphires and colossets and pensilled turisses for the busspleaches of the summiramies and esplanadas and statuesques and templeogues, the Pardonell of Maynooth, Fra Teobaldo, Nielsen, rare admirable, Jean de Porteleau, Conall Gretecloke, Guglielmus Caulis and the eiligh ediculous Passivucant (glorietta’s inexcellsiored!)"

Yes, I know this is mostly hunting and pecking.  Maybe from the perspective of the end these sections may find some place in a greater architecture.  But it's honestly hard to see, for me.

Again this section ends with the four: "--Mattahah! Marahah! Luahah! Joahanahanahana!"

And here's an ending note on trivia/puzzle solving.  One of the themes I haven't much commented on is the possible indecency committed by HCE in Phoenix Park.  The park is a real place, a very large public, open space to the west of Dublin center, and lying north of the Liffey.  Now I had assumed, simply, that the park was a prominent location because of its name, the mythical bird who so spectacularly expires and is resurrected from its own ashes.  But in doing a google search for an aerial phote of the park, I read that the park's name is not in fact an English transliteration of the Greek name of the mythical creature, but is a kind of Joycean English approximation of the park's Irish name, Fionn Uisce, "Clear Water."  Not only is there then a double referent to the Liffey, but also a sort of rough-enough assonance between "Fionnuisce Park" and "Finnegans Wake."  I think.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Martin Heidegger and the Nazis

Martin Heidegger's relationship to National Socialism has long been a matter of controversy.  It has lately again come to the fore with the publication in Germany of the "Black Notebooks," the concluding volumes of his complete works.

My acquaintance with Heidegger is long but hardly profound.  When I was an undergraduate philosophy major I wrote a senior "honors thesis" comparing the systems of Heidegger and Alfred North Whitehead.  At a hundred and fifty hand-typed pages it still holds the record for the longest piece I've ever written.  During the summer between my junior and senior years I worked as a surveyor's assistant for a local construction company, ten hour days, five days a week, with evenings free to make my way through Being and Time and Process and Reality.  I honestly, at that time, had no idea that there was any controversy about Heidegger's character or politics.

I have ever since that time retained an interest in his work, and have occasionally dipped into the German Sein und Zeit, which I bought in college (but little consulted, due to my poor German).  I also picked up, over the next few years, a couple of anthologies of Heidegger's shorter works, Holzwege and Wegmarken, which I have also occasionally perused.  This almost-lifelong acquaintance with Heidegger has left me with some small sense of "ownership." I bristle at the possibility of having wasted my time, and I'm therefore probably a little defensive of someone whom I've considered a member of (if I can put it this way) "my team."

I hasten to add that my appreciation of Heidegger never had anything to do with considerations of his life or character.  As best I can judge (and I am obviously an amateur), a case can be made that his books and shorter pieces are the most influential philosophical works of the twentieth century.  I say that as one who admittedly has never been much taken with the English analytic tradition, and who never really learned anything much about the French structuralists and deconstructionists.   Heidegger, apart from his own work, was a mighty impetus to the existentialist philosophers (and existentialist literary figures) of the forties, fifties and sixties.  In theology he had a decisive influence on Bultmann among the Protestants and Rahner among the Catholics.  Himself an atheist, Heidegger offered to an increasingly technical and material world a critique of technology and materialism that, in my view, is more needed now than when formulated.

Nevertheless, there is that Nazi thing.  And a Nazi thing is never a small thing.

Heidegger became the rector of the University of Freiburg shortly after Hitler's rise to power.  He resigned after a year or so, and lived relatively privately in the Black Forest to the end of the war.  During his tenure at Freiburg he made some speeches in enthusiastic support of the new regime.  He also acted against Jewish faculty members, including his old mentor Edmund Husserl.  These kinds of facts came trickling to my attention in the early 1980's.  They were disturbing, but not necessarily damning.  The murderous character of the new regime may not have been so evident in those early years.  Decent Germans arguably had a duty to continue to staff German institutions to prevent their utter subjugation to Nazi policy.  And anyone holding such a position would have to occasionally give a cheer-leading speech for the Führer or enforce increasingly anti-Semitic regulations.  In any case, might it not have been a small act of courage to resign when he did?

Time has not been kind to these rationales.  Heidegger resigned from the rectorship, but not from the party.  And now the publication of the Black Notebooks has, for the first time, revealed the man's thoughts and judgments during the remaining years of the Third Reich.  Some of those who have examined these notebooks have found them black indeed for Heidegger's reputation.

Now at this moment I think we have to say that a verdict has not yet been finally rendered.  The notebooks have not yet been put into English.  I looked on German Amazon and a number of them, volumes ninety-two to ninety-five of the complete works, are available now.  I have neither the time, nor the money, nor the inclination, really, to purchase these volumes and pursue the question.  There are allegations that Heidegger revives the old slanders about the "rootlessness" of the Jews, finding them irredeemably alienated from the authentic sense of Being that grounds the true German.  This chauvinism, allegedly, isn't confined to the Jews.  Similar things are said about the grasping English, the barbarian Russians, the vulgar Americans.  I'm not sure whether this helps him or hurts him.  But it's supposedly not pretty.

But what does one do with this?  These past few years I have run across articles and book reviews calling, essentially, for the shunning of Heidegger.  Isn't Nazi party membership alone enough to ban him from the high company of philosophy?  I've read arguments that the young ought not to be exposed to him, that his philosophy, if it co-existed with Nazism, must be tainted at its root.  I've never given these calls for expulsion much credence.  But now they are back, with new support.

My own view is that these late concerns about Heidegger's philosophy (as opposed to his own personal fault) suggest that the philosophical content of his work itself can't be fairly tagged as Nazi or anti-Semitic, at least the work that made his reputation and is at the heart of his influence.  It's one thing to read some of Heidegger's later disturbing comments and find suggestions of them in his earlier work.  In a body of writing so vast and impenetrable it wouldn't be difficult to make such a case.  But I don't think that anyone did or could imply Nazi or anti-Semitic propositions from Sein und Zeit when it was originally published in 1926.  Those intimations have by and large only been seen in retrospect.

Any body of teaching can be corrupted or appealed to for different ends.  Karl Popper famously saw Plato's philosophy as the germ of modern totalitarianism.  The use of religious doctrine to justify persecution and violent conflict is of course too well known.  Whatever the flaws in Marx's work, it's doubtful that he foresaw, or would recognize, the use to which Stalin or Mao Tze-Tung put it.  The development of ideas is rarely predictable.

Any proposed removal of Heidegger from the "canon"--even if that were actually possible--would obviously leave an enormous gap in the intellectual history of the twentieth century.  There will undoubtedly continue to be research and advocacy on the relationship between Heidegger's life, politics and philosophical work.  He will continue to have defenders and adversaries.  My attitude that is that these controversies, proper as they are to a certain sphere, do not essentially touch his work.  At most, if the worst allegations are proven, they will establish that the ideas alone were not sufficient to override any prevailing darker tendencies.  But this we really know already, from the distance between ourselves and whatever ideas and ideals which we profess.

Last year I started reading Sein and Zeit in German, and I got about fifty pages into it.  I put it aside for reasons I don't remember, and I may pick it up again later.  If some of my thoughts on it make their way here,  objections based on Heidegger's compromised character will probably not enter into it.  I'm aware of the problems, and I hope I've taken them seriously.  But, in this instance, I think the dance can actually be distinguished from the dancer.

A Personal Postscript: The Death of Heidegger

In the age of the internet it's odd to think back to an earlier time when the "vital statistics" of life weren't always instantly available.

I don't know exactly when, as an undergraduate philosophy major, I first began thinking that I'd like to do a senior project involving the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.  It must have been before the summer of 1975, which I spent as a student-vagabond in Western Europe. 

My uncle Bill was then an army chaplain stationed just outside of Frankfurt, and, armed with an International Youth Hostel membership card and a second class Eurail pass, I was able to get by on no more than ten dollars per day (so long as I confined myself to one daily meal, and meat on Sundays only).

So, I find myself in Freiburg, and walk about a mile into the woods where a local Weinfest is being celebrated.  I'm obviously a fish out of water, a tongue-tied Ausländer, but I manage to strike up a simple conversation or two, and one of the questions I had for the locals was whether Heidegger was still alive.

It's an odd thing now to remember how, at the time I decided to study his work, I had no idea whether Heidegger was alive or dead.  I asked my advisor, and he didn't really know.  I'm not sure how I would have even found out, short of a newspaper search (remember those huge volumes in every library--I think it was called the Guide to Periodic Literature?  Totally unwieldy).

Now of course it wasn't germane whether Heidegger was alive or dead.  Today I would google him and get any number of biographies, maybe a home page or a fan club.  Then--well, I didn't know, and I didn't know how to find out, and I didn't particularly need to know, but I was mildly curious.

So, back to the Black Forest.  "Wissen Sie wenn Martin Heidegger noch lebt?"  A few people knew the name.  They thought he was dead.  OK.  Makes sense, guy writing his big book back in the twenties.

So, fast forward to the next summer.  I'm working with the surveyor of this construction company during this very hot summer in north Texas.  By day I set corners and drive stakes to set depths with rod and chain and plumb bob (all now gone the way of the abacus and slide rule, thanks to GPS).  By night I read philosophy.  So one day Chastain and I--Chastain's the surveyor--are driving down some God-forsaken road in his old pickup truck, windows down, on the way to a field to set points.  The radio's on.  Not a lot of choices.  It's Paul Harvey, news and comment.

Paul Harvey was an enormously popular radio figure, irritable about most things new, a kind of faux-farmer mid-American, too liable to sneer, but with a unique delivery and a sense of humor akin to that of your parents' less tactful friends.  So he's going through the daily news, and, right before commercial, he blurts out, in his inimitable staccato delivery, "Martin Heidegger...German existentialist philosopher...DEAD!"  That was it.

And that's how I found out that Martin Heidegger was dead, on the day he died.  From Paul Harvey.

Requiescant in pace.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Devotion and Discipleship

Strangely enough, it was watching the World Cup match between France and Germany that got me to thinking about the differences between a couple of books I've been making my way through, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Nachfolge (discussed a few posts back) and the Introduction à la vie dévote of St. François de Sales.

Neither focuses on what I would call a philosophical theology; their subject is the Christian life.  And their differences admittedly go further than France vs. Germany.  They reflect important differences between  Catholic and Protestant, and between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. 

I had started to add that one was directed to an "ordinary" period, the other to a "crisis" period, but I'm not sure if that distinction entirely obtains.  Nachfolge was written to Christians under the National Socialist regime, with dire consequences for anyone, of whatever conviction, who did not sit down, shut up, and do what he was told.  The Introduction's intended audience wasn't under such pressures or temptations, but, appearing as it did between the end of the French Wars of Religion and the beginning of the Thirty Years War, its context is still one of intense conflict within Christendom about what it means to be a Christian.

Perhaps a better way of expressing the social difference is that, in the world of the Introduction, the Church is a functioning reality, even if there is bitter conflict between communions about some fundamental doctrinal and social assumptions.  For Bonhoeffer, the Church itself is near collapse--not only the State-approved church, but even the Confessing Church, which he did so much to foster, is losing its way.

This loneliness of the individual for Bonhoeffer is not solely the result of the struggle with Nazism.  There was always a strain of individualism in Lutheranism, the individual conviction brought on by the unmeetable demands of the Law, the denial of a "safe harbor" in the Church.  Bonhoeffer knows Luther well.  He also knows Kierkegaard:  "Der Ruf Jesu in die Nachfolge macht den Jünger zum Einzelnen. Ob er will oder nicht, er muss sich entscheiden, er muss sich allein entscheiden.  Es ist nicht eigene Wahl, Einzelner sein zu wollen, sondern Christus macht den Gerufenen zum Einzelnen. Jeder ist allein gerufen."  

In this fifth chapter of part I of Nachfolge, Bonhoeffer addresses two of the most difficult passages of scripture, the saying of Jesus that his follower must hate father and mother, and the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  His reading of the Old Testament story follows closely that of Kierkegaard in his Fear and Trembling:  Abraham's faith allows him to give up Isaac, and that very act is what allows Isaac to be returned to him.  Bonhoeffer reads that narrative into the demand of Jesus to "hate" those closest--it is not, ultimately, demanded in order to really separate, but to emphasize that direct relationships can only be based on a renunciation and restoration.  This is a hard, hard teaching, reminiscent of the old American folk song

You've got to walk that lonesome valley,
You've got to walk it for yourself.
Lord, nobody else can walk it for you,
You've got to walk it by yourself.

Kierkegaard's loneliness always strikes me as noble, principled, but almost pathological, because not called for by extraordinary circumstances.  Bonhoeffer's is more understandable, since the path his conscience calls him to endangers anyone near him.  

It is something of a relief to turn from the world of Bonhoeffer to that of St. François.  The style of Bonhoeffer is strong, demanding.  That of St. François is a light style, a sweet style, seeking as much to entice as to convict.  "Le roi des abeilles ne se met point aux champs qu’il ne soit environné de tout son petit peuple, et la charité n’entre jamais dans un coeur qu’elle n’y loge avec soi le train des autres vertus, les exerçant et mettant en besogne ainsi qu’un capitaine fait ses soldats."  This comparison of the "king" of bees, attended by his "petit peuple," with charity attended by the virtues, is typical of François' drawing on lovely images to convey his message.  

But the greater distinction is that provided by the environment of the Church.  The individual never faces the crisis alone.  Devotion comes, not out of a radical confrontation and consequent forced decisiveness, but from listening to the voice of the Church, and, to a large extent, from following the various "methods" that the experience of the Church has bequeathed to her children:  "...j’ai fait cette Introduction de cinq Parties, en la première desquelles je m’essaie, par quelques remontrances et exercices, de convertir le simple désir de Philothée en une entière résolution."  The desire for devotion is assumed; by certain exercises that simple desire is allowed to blossom into a whole resolve.

This might seem mechanical, were it not, in fact, ultimately grounded in the love of God:  "La vraie et vivante dévotion, o Philothée, présuppose l’amour de Dieu, ains elle n’est autre chose qu’un vrai amour de Dieu;... Bref, la dévotion n’est autre chose qu’une agilité et vivacité spirituelle par le moyen de laquelle la charité fait ses actions en nous, ou nous par elle, promptement et affectionnément; et comme il appartient à la charité de nous faire généralement et universellement pratiquer tous les commandements de Dieu, il appartient aussi à la dévotion de les nous faire faire promptement et diligemment."  Devotion is what transforms the love of God in the soul to the activity of charity in the world, to that obedience to the commandments of God which is also, ultimately, the goal of Bonhoeffer's exhortations.

I do not presume to judge between the two.  As a Catholic in a time of peace and relative prosperity I admittedly live more in the stable world presumed by St. François.  Even so, I recognize that the Church is considerably more marginalized in contemporary society than in the seventeenth century, and that the relationship, even of devout Catholics, to our Church, is far different today--the practice of spiritual direction, even of participation in the sacrament of penance, is far from central to American Catholic life.  We are largely as proudly individualistic (and lonely) as our Protestant counterparts.

This dissolution of Christendom--even if not so radical as the "religionless Christianity" expected by Bonhoeffer in his prison letters--tends to bring Bonhoeffer to renewed relevance.  We are more and more brought to discipleship, not by catechesis and training,  but by crisis.  Not, thank God, from a crisis so severe as that which Bonhoeffer endured, but by the continual re-arising of serious, deadly evils, at home and abroad, which we are fully capable of ignoring and co-existing with in our comfortable little worlds.  It is to that kind of complacency that Bonhoeffer speaks, equally to the Protestant and the Catholic.   

In closing here I can't help noting the temporal coincidence of these two works with others I've been discussing in nearby posts.  Nachfolge was published just two years before Finnegans Wake.  The Introduction à la vie dévote was published between the appearance of the first and second parts of Don Quijote de la Mancha.  There is one world, but many takes on it, and it is often hard to square them.