Two and a half years ago I wrote a post here about the ways my mind had changed since I first began to hurl words into the void. I don’t know that today there would be much to add; what seems needed now is less a path-tracing than a survey of the terrain. I have, after all, written on this website around three hundred thousand words—the fruit of posting a thousand words per week for almost six years. What exactly have I been talking about, and how, if at all, does it all cohere? In an attempt to answer this question I’ve written the present post, a sort of analytical table of contents of the best writing I’ve done of this site: links to seventy-seven posts (ninety thousand words), organized thematically, with commentary.
Now, in my “day job”—if academia counts as a job—I study modernist British literature. When I say “modernist,” I mean the word to be flexible enough to encompass Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Geoffrey Hill; my “British” catches also Herman Melville and T.S. Eliot; and my “literature” includes also John Henry Newman and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Some of my posts here have been a kind of literary history shop-talk, though of a kind I hope would interest anyone who cares about modernist sacramental aesthetics, the demise of Anglo-Catholicism, or the politics of 1830s New York. Such posts as these will give you a good sense of my literary heroes, but it must be admitted that the focus of this journal has, in the event, been somewhat different—more fantastical, more philosophical, and more techno-political.
I make no pretense, of course, to philosophical originality, considering myself a rather confused Wittgensteinian Thomist. At best I can aspire to wit—and, since brevity is the soul of wit, perhaps any appraisal should begin with my philosophical-literary shorts, whether riffing on cartoon dialogue, stretching analogies to the breaking point, or building metaphysical houses of cards. If you don’t think me a wit, you may still appreciate my appreciation for good manners, which is to say, for proper definition and distinction, as in my reflections on the phrase ‘lowest common denominator’, the word ‘hypocrite’, and the difference between ‘evolution’ and ‘development’.
The above exercises could also be described as caring too much about words—which is to be expected, since in my academic life I study poetry. Many posts here have kept alive my love of poetry by skirting or entirely flouting the norms of academic discourse, whether through unjustifiable juxtapositions or somewhat facetious interpretations of texts that do not exactly qualify as capital-L Lyrics. Call these eccentric readings. I’ve brought together Hopkins and Tolkien, understood medieval riddle through modern chemistry, brought together Magritte and T.S. Eliot, used a song to relate The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, and found the formal significance of cartoon insects.
One name to appear twice in the previous paragraph was Tolkien. I’m not a fantasy-lover, though, just a Tolkien-lover, and several posts (particularly in the first few months of 2014) have tracked my attempts to explain what makes Tolkien special, namely, his concept of mythopoeia. A two-part sequence explored the ontology and genealogy of genre literature from an implicitly Tolkienian perspective; then a pair of posts explored Tolkien’s approach to gnostic theology and nostalgic desire. More recently, I’ve written about how Tolkien misconstrued his own practice and so failed to save genre fiction from itself.
That such saving is needed has been the topic of a number of posts about the merely fantastic. Here I’m trying to make sense of popular fantasy fiction today, by which I mean preeminently Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter. My best writing on this subject is probably a three-part sequence about the concept of ownership under conditions of skepticism i.e. of magic. I’ve also enjoyed complaining about the awful, truly awful, unspeakably awful Hobbit adaptations, and the absurdly over-rated Star Wars reboot; along the way these posts elaborate a theory of how nostalgia destroys true art.
I write about bad fantasy movies in part to help myself make sense of movies that make good use of the otherworldly. I’ve written about a number of such movies, and have come to think of them in terms of a genre we might call magical marriages, in which the otherworldly elements serve as objective correlative for our fears about our relationships, especially our romantic ones. Films discussed include ‘Primer’ and ‘The Prestige’; ‘To The Wonder’ and ‘Upstream Color’; ‘The One I Love’ and ‘Side Effects’; ‘Her’ and ‘Ex Machina’.
I’ve also written about the meaning of marriage in a more philosophical vein. A three-part series discussed modern and Christian understandings of marriage, and imagined teaching a class on the topic (the movies discussed earlier could, but don’t make an appearance). A sequel to these reflections can be found in essays on George Eliot and Ford Madox Ford.
Marriage interests me as a preeminent instance of language binding persons to their own and one another’s flesh. But as I see it, this is the role of all assertion, and the real question is, how do we know whether the bond will hold? A number of posts here have been about what we might call philosophical eschatology: meditations on the philosopher’s abiding faith that truth will out. I began with Socrates, his trial, and his wife, then moved on to Newman and the nature of martyrdom, from there to Pascal and the sociality of the afterlife, and finally to Coleridge and the freedom of knowledge.
In parallel with these posts (and it took me a while to realize it was a separate inquiry), I’ve written about how, if at all, language can describe reality; we might call this topic poetical epistemology. From Newman’s calculus metaphor, I turned to think of meaning in terms of musical attunement, then attempted further to specify the problem with a grammatical approach to analogical language; I’ve also thought about how we understand ontology through metaphors of sense-perception, and the difference between word-as-ladder and language-as-net.
A third offshoot of these philosophical inquiries has been a series of posts about conversational ethics. I began by distinguishing different kinds of speech from one another: empirical, aesthetic, and ethical claims, then gossip, news, and knowledge. Then I considered some case studies: Noam Chomsky v. Sam Harris and Ross Douthat v. James Martin.
Being interested in the different kinds of claims one can make, I’m naturally interested in how easy it is to mistake one academic subject for another—particularly, to mistake myth for science. The defining feature of science, I’ve suggested, is its difficulty, a difficulty which creates incentives that reduce the need for censorship; the humanities, in contrast, have misaligned incentives, and so demand a kind of self-reflective asceticism.
Why engage in such asceticism? What purpose does humanistic reflection serve? The last several categories all represent, in various ways, my answer to the question. The most obvious answer, I think, is: to help us decide what to do with the power science offers us. I’ve taken for granted the truth of at least some of the predictions of transhumanism; my question has been, as human beings, do we really desire to live transhuman lives? How does a transhumanist imagination alter our relationships to our own bodies, to the bodies of others, to our deaths? And what meaning is there in the resistance nature poses to these alterations?
Similarly, I’ve taken for granted that modern political machinery is, however decadent, capable of something approaching self-perpetuation; and I’ve asked, how can we live honestly in such a regime? Must we see it as demonic, or only as a kind of broken machinery? Can ethics heal Ahab’s madness, or is our only choice to pay our taxes though we prefer not to? These reflections reached a fevered pitch around the 2016 elections; the week before I wrote an apocalyptic prophecy, and the week after a paean to contingency.
Transhumanism and politics come together in the modern tech industry, and I’ve written a number of posts that attempt, somewhat quixotically, to exorcise Silicon Valley. I’ve been deeply suspicious of implicit claims that the interests of company and user do not conflict, or that the wealth of these companies can ever be harnessed for good. I’ve thought it inevitable but tragic that algorithms will displace human understanding, and in doing so will make the world more opaque. Finally, I’ve compared the prospect of true artificial intelligence to that of Cthulhu awakening from his long sleep.
Keeping Silicon Valley honest may be impossible, but it’s the least we can do to keep ourselves honest. I’ve taken a firm Kantian line about the ethics of lying, but tried to suggest that equivocation can, in the face of force, at least sometimes be justified. I’ve sought to understand equivocation as an instance of the doctrine of double effect, and so typically Catholic; I’ve taken as exemplary Thomas More’s silence and Athanasius’s misdirection. My position might be best described as argumentative pacifism. Most recently, I’ve used these concepts to try to understand Martin Scorsese’s film ‘Silence’.
So what does all this add up to? The inevitable effect of any such summing-up as this is to suggest that a conclusion has been reached. And, I suppose, one has. Consider some statistics. I set out simply to list the best writing found on this site, and so one might expect to find the selection evenly distributed across the six years (mid 2011 to early 2017) I’ve been writing here. But in fact the distribution is far from even. A plurality of twenty-one, came from 2015; 2016 and 2014 were close behind, with eighteen and sixteen respectively; looking back, 2013 had eleven, 2012 seven, and 2011 none; 2017 had only three, and so was on track for less than ten. The number of posts-per-year has also been variable, and so too the proportion of posts selected: 55 posts in ’11 of which 0% were selected, 69 in ’12 (10% selected), 47 in ’13 (23% selected), 43 in ’14 (37% selected), 45 in ’15 (47% selected), 31 in ’16 (58% selected), and 7 in ’17 (57% selected, if we consider the present post to select itself). It seems, then, that I consider this journal to have had its fullest blossoming some time around ’15; before that point, I wrote a much but little of value; after that point, I’ve written better but, gradually, less and less.
This tapering off has happened for extrinsic reasons but also, I think, intrinsic ones. Many good posts here have been stand-alone works of poetic interpretation (giving that phrase a poetic interpretion), but my intention was never to make this site a mere collection of poem analyses and movie reviews, and I think the very best posts have been, explicitly or implicitly, contributions to a sustained line of inquiry. These lines of inquiry may not be entirely spun out, but I suspect that, were I to continue pursuing them in this haphazard fashion, I would be spinning my wheels. What I need is to make these arguments more sustained, more rigorous, and, perhaps most importantly, more public. If I had the time, the thing to do would be to write a formal essay about the distinction between fancy and imagination; about marriage as a focal point for skepticism; about how to speak across apparently unbridgeable chasms; about virtuously navigating the dangers of modern biological and political technologies. And to take as a guide to all of this an eccentrically composed philosophical-literary tradition: Melville and Tolkien; Hopkins, Eliot, Auden; Shakespeare and Shane Carruth; Plato, Thomas, Newman, Wittgenstein. But of course such essays would find no home. And, in any case I have a dissertation to write.
So I’m shuttering Ironical Coincidings, at least for now. I’ve always hated the word “blog,” and yet I’ve blogged weekly or biweekly for over ten years; after this post goes live, that will no longer be the case. When I decide what I’m doing next—maybe blogging on some other site, maybe maintaining an online presence in some other way, maybe retreating for a time entirely into my books—I’ll post an update here.
The line of [the Church Fathers’] discussion traverses a region rich and interesting, and opens on those who follow them in it a succession of instructive views as to the aims, the difficulties, the disappointments, under which they journeyed on heavenward, their care of the brethren, their anxieties about contemporary teachers of error. Dogma and proof are in them at the same time hagiography. They do not write a summa theologiæ, or draw out a catena, or pursue a single thesis through the stages of a scholastic disputation. They wrote for the occasion, and seldom on a carefully-digested plan. –John Henry Newman, Historical Sketches
How much does this apparent overlap of proof and hagiography have to do with the Fathers’ historical situation? A time of martyrs, confessors, and polemics, which is to say, a time before the Church held a stable political situation, such that every theological debate was at the same time a debate about the very survival of the Church. To give three prominent examples: 1) The Gnostics threatened to absorb Christianity into the mystery-religion syncreticism of late pagan Roman. 2) In an opposed but ultimately similar move, the Donatists tried to protect the Church’s purity by cutting off those who succumbed to Roman influence even after the Empire had begun to Christianize. 3) The Arians, and later the monophysites and monothelites—all heresies fostered at the Imperial Court—tried to make Christ a blend of God and man, rather than fully God and fully man, a position which would have buttressed caesaropapism’s implied belief in the quasi-divinity of kings, and their right to rule over the Church.
The theoretical debates over ecclesiastical politics continued in the Middle Ages, but the stakes were less existential; the Church was not threatened by civil society—it was that society—and its struggles with emperor and king more often involved such mundane matters as ecclesiastical appointments than they did dangerous heresies. Anselm was (to my knowledge) the last major bishop-theologian, and it’s difficult to point to a clear connection between his pastoral and his philosophical work. Medieval theologians did not need to write for the occasion—occasions rarely called for it. Medieval theology is a theology of scholastic leisure.
I tend to think that this development is a positive one. Theology ought to be free from politics. But Newman is right that such freedom makes theological less obviously personal. I deny that it makes it altogether so; one can be personable without being a polemicist. Seen in the right light, the Summa theologiae has its own hagiographic qualities—it reveals St. Thomas’s philosophical charity at the same time as his rigor. If medieval theology is impersonal, it is so—as is often said—in much the same manner as the gothic cathedrals.
One last remark. Newman’s writing is, on this scale, more patristic—but is that not because his situation, as a Roman Catholic convert in an Anglican nation slowly becoming secular, was more politically fraught?
Even I, by nature a timid conformist lower-second if ever there was one, gained my skin-of-the-teeth first in 1953 by telling a member of the viva committee that he was completely wrong about the last two stanzas of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and demonstrating his error by effective off-the-cuff quotation. Tolkien, who chaired, was said to have observed as the door closed behind me, “I rather like the cut of that young fellow’s jib!”
–Geoffrey Hill, “I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers”
Three names I would not have expected to see together.
At the climax of Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence, as of the novel by Shusaku Endo upon which it is based, a Jesuit missionary in Japan faces an apparent choice between an act of blasphemy and the death of his followers. I say apparent, because I do not think that there can ever arise a situation in which such a choice presents itself; and I think that this impossibility tells us something important about how persecution works. (In case it needs to be said: spoilers follow.)
Why can it not occur? Setting aside for a moment the book and film, let us imagine what such a situation might look like.
Suppose Bob’s friend Alice is trapped behind a door that has been accidentally sealed shut, and he will suffocate before help will arrive. The door has painted on it a sacred Christian image, to destroy which would, in Bob’s eyes (for Bob is Christian) be an act of blasphemy, at least under ordinary circumstances. But again, Alice will die if Bob does not break through the door. What should he do? “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) Jesus is not saying that one may break the sabbath in order to save a life; rather, he is saying that saving a life is not breaking the sabbath at all. The analogy between sabbath-breaking and image-breaking is not exact, but the same logic would apply here. Breaking down the door would not be a justified act of blasphemy, it would be no blasphemy at all.
What if Bob learns that the door sealing shut was no accident—someone wanted Alice to get trapped, so that he would be forced to destroy the sacred image? “They watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him” (Mark 3:2). The malevolence of a third party does not change anything: Bob breaks through, saddened that he was forced to do so, but without regret.
Let’s change up the situation. Bob and Alice have gotten lost in the desert, and she will soon die of thirst. He has no way to signal for help other than by burning the sacred image he has been transporting. This scenario differs from the first in that destroying the image no longer contributes directly to saving Alice’s life; rather, it shows her location to another person, who then must decide to take action. It is an act of communication. An important difference—but not, yet, a relevant one. Any means of signalling would have worked, and it was pure bad luck that destroying the image was the only way to create such a signal. Bob may do so entirely free of blasphemous intention.
And what if he learns that getting lost in the desert was no accident—someone means to force him to burn the sacred image? The same applies as in the earlier scenario—the malevolence of a third party does not change the nature of the act. Bob lights the fire and wait for help to arrive.
But what if the only help that could arrive would come from whoever has trapped Bob into burning the image? Well, this might make no difference—if they would save her no matter how he signalled them, then the sacredness of the image does not contribute to the act of communication achieved by destroying it. In this case, Bob’s situation would no longer be pure bad luck, but still, all could be set right through the small miracle of finding something else to fuel the fire. He doesn’t need a ram caught in the thicket, he just needs a thicket. Others might disagree, but I don’t think this would be blasphemy.
Such indifference on the part of Bob’s tormentors does not, however, sound very likely. They have put him and Alice in the desert to force him to destroy the sacred image. Surely they already know where they are, and need no signal to know that Alice needs rescuing—they hold back solely because Bob has not yet destroyed the image. If by some miracle he manages to signal for rescue without doing so, will they accept this lying down? Or, as soon as they realize that he has not destroyed it (and assuming the miracle does not so impress them that they let them go) will they not leave them again in the desert, or try some other tactic to elicit blasphemy?
In such circumstances the sacredness of the image destroyed is not accidental to the act’s efficacy, but rather essential. Alice is not rescued due to Bob lighting a fire with what happens to be a sacred image; rather, she is rescued because Bob destroys a sacred image. Such an act must count as blasphemy if anything is to do so.
But still Bob does not face a choice between blaspheming and saving Alice’s life. He cannot save her life at all. The “because” in the previous paragraph is misleading. As mentioned earlier, Bob’s destruction of the image will not lead directly to Alice’s rescue, but rather indirectly, by means of communicating something to a third party—although what is communicated, now, is not her location (so that she can be saved) but rather his blasphemy (so that he can be damned). Bob has no power at all over Alice’s life—if he did, then a miracle could help him save it without blaspheming. But in the scenario we have sketched, no miracle could help him save her (though of course a miracle could save them both by removing them from the situation entirely).
This is because Bob is not at all faced with a choice between blaspheming and letting Alice die; rather, he is faced with his tormentors, who threaten his friend in order to persuade him to blaspheme. The tormentors hope, of course, that Bob do not notice this. The illusion of a choice between blaspheming and causing suffering is achieved by effacing those who create the necessity for such a choice.
In Silence, whose final scenario is identical in structure, though not in details, to that we have been considering, the various agents of persecution quite deftly avoid any suggestion that they have anything to do with it. “The price for your glory,” they tell Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues, “is their suffering”; “Do you have the right to make them suffer?” As if Fr. Rodrigues, rather than their tormentors, were the cause of their torment. At the same time, the persecutors insist to Fr. Rodrigues that trampling on the “fumi-e”—a small metal image of Jesus—is “only a formality.” Meaning, not that it will have no real effect (for Fr. Rodrigues, it will determine everything), but rather that the effect, not the intention, is what matters. They do not care if Fr. Rodrigues blasphemes in his heart, but only that he apostatize—visibly renounce his faith—by way of an act of blasphemy.
In other words, the persecutors will treat blasphemy like pushing a lever on a bureaucratic machine (no accident, perhaps, that trampling on the fumi-e looks something like pressing a car’s brake pedal). We are all used to the idea that, when we check the box saying we have read the agreement, we needn’t have actually read it in order for the law to treat us as if we did so. Trampling on the fumi-e, according to the persecutors, will not say anything about Fr. Rodrigues’ soul, but it will have the effect of him living under Japanese law as if he has abandoned his faith. Is there any difference between the two? “Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed?” (Mark 4:22) Scorsese’s film seems to think so; Endo’s novel is, I think, less sanguine about the possibility of invisible Christianity. To live a life of pure formality, just “going through the motions,” is incompatible with an evangelical faith unless one denies the humanity of those with whom one lives.
I have been referring to Fr. Rodrigues’ persecutors with the collective “they,” but both novel and film do much to differentiate their characters, particularly the Translator, Inquisitor Inoue, and Fr. Ferreira. In trampling on the image, Fr. Rodrigues tells these three men that he does not believe, and so abandons any hope of their hearing the Gospel and converting. He does not think that he is doing so, of course. He is not thinking about his persecutors at all; he thinks that he is risking his own soul in exchange for the lives of his followers. He sees it this way, however, only because they have convinced him to do so. They have become invisible. In one of the films’ darkly comic scenes, Fr. Rodrigues demands to be taken to Inquisitor Inoue, not realizing that his demand is addressed to—Inquisitor Inoue.
Inoue makes himself invisible through words, but also through actions. Most importantly, he tortures Fr. Rodrigues’ friends in order to make him—not them—convert. This horrifying indifference to human life—torture without even a pretense of justice—is meant to show Fr. Rodrigues that Inoue cannot be swayed, and cannot be saved. Formalities, after all, can be dispensed with, if the other party is willing. If the other party refuses despite the inhumanity of the form, that inhumanity begins to color the other party as well.
Ought Fr. Rodrigues to trample on the image? If so (and setting aside the possibility of special and incomprehensible revelation), it is because the souls of Fr. Rodrigues’ persecutors do not outweigh the lives of his Japanese followers. I do not see how this could be the case unless, by torturing the innocent, they have placed themselves beyond the pale of forgiveness—but Christ, at least, did not think that an impassible barrier. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Instead of trampling the image of Jesus—or, at the very least, in addition to it—Fr. Rodrigues ought to pray for Inoue’s soul. We see no indication that he does so; he cannot even recognize Inoue when he sees him.
This last observation may strike the reader as obvious, but in all the discussion of the film that I have read, I have not seen it. It is easy to focus on Fr. Rodrigues’ internal dilemma, caught between blaspheming and watching his followers die. Doing so can, as many have observed, prevent us from seeing the heroism of other characters—the Japanese martyrs, Fr. Garupe—who undergo a more conventional martyrdom. It can also, however, prevent us from seeing the humanity of other characters, like the Japanese persecutors. Unless we see the humanity of Inoue, and refuse (contra Inoue himself) to believe that it is unsalvageable, it is difficult to understand how refusing to trample on the fumi-e could be an act of charity. It comes to look like a prideful preservation of one’s own sanctity at the expense of others’ lives. In the face of human suffering, such pride is difficult to maintain. If, on the other hand, we see Inoue as a possible (if unlikely) recipient of the Christian Gospel, the importance of resisting him becomes easier to see. One should resist blasphemous demands because the blasphemy demanded would harm even the one demanding it.