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The bees have died

November 23, 2015

I particularly enjoyed a recent episode of the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, colloquially “SMBC” (warning: occasional blasphemy and obscenity). The visuals help, but the joke works without them:

Father: Congrats on your graduation! Here’s a bottle of champagne.

<Daughter opens bottle of champagne>

<No champagne emerges>

Father: Hahahahaha! There is no champagne! It’s filled with bees!

<Daughter recoils from bottle, no bees emerge>

Daughter: Huh, I thought it would be terrible and crazy, but there’s actually nothing happening because they’re all dead inside.

Father: And now you’re prepared to enter the labor force.

At the risk of explaining away the humor, I ask: could it have been any other animal than bees? I doubt it. Ants? How would that be scary? Wasps? Who would care that they died?

Their being bees works on a number of levels. In increasing order of complexity, here are a few:

  1. Bees fly, sting, and move in groups
  2. Bees live in hives, and so are a symbol of conformity, and produce honey, and so are a symbol of industry
  3. But beeswax is used for candles, and so bees are a symbol of enlightenment
  4. Moreover, honey is sweet, and a similar color to champagne; indeed, fermented honey (mead) was one of the first alcoholic drinks, and so honey is associated with inspiration
  5. Bees die after they sting you, which makes it difficult to be angry with them; their sting is more like poetic justice
  6. Because they both produce honey and sting, their deaths are bittersweet: they no longer threaten us, but they also can no longer help us
  7. For several years now the bees have been dying (cf. e.g. the 2012 documentary More than Honey), which we have made into a parable of how attempts to control nature lead instead to both its and our destruction

I’m not saying that the use of bees in this comic was natural, any more than was the use of bread in the eucharist; I’m saying only that it was inevitable.


November 12, 2015

[Posted without comment.]


Odilon Redon Andromeda, 1904/10 Oil on panel Art Institute of Chicago

Odilon Redon
Andromeda, 1904/10
Oil on panel
Art Institute of Chicago


Now Time’s Andromeda on this rock rude,
With not her either beauty’s equal or
Her injury’s, looks off by both horns of shore,
Her flower, her piece of being, doomed dragon’s food.
Time past she has been attempted and pursued
By many blows and banes; but now hears roar
A wilder beast from West than all were, more
Rife in her wrongs, more lawless, and more lewd.

Her Perseus linger and leave her tó her extremes?—
Pillowy air he treads a time and hangs
His thoughts on her, forsaken that she seems,
All while her patience, morselled into pangs,
Mounts; then to alight disarming, no one dreams,
With Gorgon’s gear and barebill, thongs and fangs.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Andromeda,” 1879

What it feels like to be a heretic

November 2, 2015

The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours,
The sentimentalist himself; while art
Is but a vision of reality.

–William Butler Yeats, “Ego Dominus Tuus”


A kerfluffle arose recently in the world of Catholic public intellectuals when Ross Douthat, NYT Token Conservative, dared speak the name of Heresy. Why Douthat tweeted for a Jesuit priest to “Own your heresy” need not concern us here (it has to do with the controversies at the recent Synod on the Family); things have already progressed to the stage where participants attempt to step back and up and draw (conveniently partisan) lessons from the affair, and where their opponents point out the hypocrisy of doing so, and then attempt it themselves, and so on and so forth. We are on the internet, after all.

What follows is not meant to be any sort of stepping back, but rather a diving in. My goal is to understand what Douthat’s opponents understand the word “heresy” to mean, that they find his use of it so upsetting. An article in America Magazine by Fr. James Martin, S.J. supplies a helpful case study:

Calling someone a “heretic” is like calling a journalist a plagiarist. […] These ad hominem attacks—an attack not on the argument but on the person–has no place in theology. […] Feel free to disagree with us, but questioning our fidelity is out of bounds.


Is calling someone a heretic like calling a journalist a plagiarist?

No, no it is not. At least, not in the relevant way. Both, of course, are serious accusations, but there the similarity ends, and Fr. Martin clearly needs more. The purpose of the analogy is to suggest that, just as “plagiarism” is an ad hominem accusation, so is “heresy,” but this is clearly false. To call something plagiarism is inherently to attack the person who wrote it—or, rather, did not write it, and yet claimed to have done so. To call something heresy is nothing more nor less than to say that it is false because it contradicts the established teaching of the Catholic Church; this constitutes an attack on the person only if the person persists obstinately in his heretical beliefs.

Of course, even if the plagiarism::heresy analogy held, it would not help Fr. Martin’s case, for while no one disputes that idle name-calling is bad, not all ad hominem attacks are idle name-calling, nor are ad hominem attacks always inappropriate. To use Fr. Martin’s example, there are times when “plagiarism” is the right word to use, namely, when someone has plagiarized. But Fr. Martin suggests that “heresy” is never the right word, that its use is always an illegitimate attack on “our fidelity.” A strange sort of argument for a theologian to make, that a theological term has no proper application!


If Fr. Martin suggests two clearly false things: 1) that accusations of heresy are inherently ad hominem, 2) that ad hominem attacks are inherently illegitimate; what is the connection between the two?

I hypothesize that Fr. Martin intended a further application of the plagiarism::heresy analogy. He focused, remember, not on the substance of the accusation, but on the effect the accusation has on the person accused. We might take this as a suggestion to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine you’re accused of plagiarism. You know whether the accusation is true or not, and if it’s not, you know that the accusation is either malicious, or erroneous, the fruit of a justified but untrue belief. Now imagine you’re accused of heresy. Similarly, if the accusation isn’t true (and it never is), it has to be malicious—never erroneous, since nothing could count as sufficient justification for it.

But wait. Whence this “and it never is”? Well, from our imagination: we can imagine having plagiarized (we can imagine the temptation to plagiarize), but we cannot imagine what it feels like to be a heretic. Fr. Martin’s not wrong here. I can easily envision knowingly plagiarizing (the incentives are obvious, the moral peril dubious), but unless I imagine an absurd, comic-book-villain level of malevolence, I cannot imagine knowingly espousing heresy. That would be like—or, rather, it just would be—knowing that my beliefs were false. No one consciously chooses to believe falsely, any more than anyone consciously chooses to be unhappy.

But to think that this proves that nothing is heresy, that no belief is false…. that is a serious error. Insofar as it has theological implications, it is heresy.


If your beliefs are called heretical, you almost certainly think the accusation false, but this certainty is meaningless; you’re not in a privileged position to judge.

This is not because the presence of heresy, unlike the presence of plagiarism, is not a factual matter. Both are facts, and both are facts about you. But they are about different aspects of you. Plagiarism, though we associate it with academia, involves not the intellect but the will. Heresy, by contrast, involves both: the intellect itself grows willful and refuses to listen to the truth. To paraphrase Yeats, the plagiarist would deceive others, the heretic himself.

Yeats spoke of rhetorician and sentimentalist, but the substitution does not alter the substance of the phrase. The plagiarist is the most brazen kind of rhetorician; he did not even write the words by which he seeks to persuade. And heresy is the most dangerous kind of sentimentalism. All sentimentalism confuses the feeling of knowledge with actually knowing. But the sentimentalist typically acknowledges this conflation at least partially; the Romantic egoist makes it central to his philosophy of “to thine own self be true.” The heretic, however, follows his feeling while claiming to be faithful to the theological truths taught by the Catholic Church. He suggests that to think one is faithful, just is to be faithful: that fidelity is a feeling, devoid of doctrinal content.

To call something heresy is to say that it’s pseudotheology: it looks like (Catholic) theology, but it refuses to be bound by the authority which is constitutive of (Catholic) theology, and so it’s not theology at all. This is not a point about the Catholic religion; it is a point about the relationship between belief and truth. The scientist can substitute “while claiming to be faithful to empirical reality”: the scientific heretic, that is, the pseudoscientist, is worse than the religious fundamentalist who dispenses with science altogether. Better to admit that you’re uninterested in an epistemic community’s pursuit of truth than to pretend that you seek to participate it when you do not.


Has the above jeremiad accused Fr. Martin of heresy? Not quite. I’ve suggested that certain of his statements tend towards the heretical. I’m not a theologian, but I don’t hesitate to say this because I do not see in the statements in question some subtle Christological or soteriological error. Rather, they tend to reject the very idea of the Church’s teaching authority. If we reject that idea then of course the word “heresy” is both meaningless and useless. If we don’t, it is neither. It’s a way of saying that something is false while also giving your reason for judging it to be false, namely, that it contradicts the deposit of faith.

The statements quoted at the outset of this post can tend in a heretical direction even if, as I do not doubt, Fr. Martin is certain that he believes there to be such a thing as theological truth, and such a thing as the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Because it does not feel like anything to be a heretic, and we are not privileged authorities when it comes to judging to what further words our words will drive us on.

Aristotelian impersonality

October 27, 2015

I alluded in my last post to this passage from Aristotle’s Poetics (ch. VIII), writing “Aristotle discourages us from thinking that a life constitutes a whole,” but for some reason did not post it. I now correct this omission:

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether from art or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to center round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

I could be reading in, but Aristotle seems to suggest here that tragedy has to imitate action because nothing would count as imitating an entire life; an entire life has too many “infinitely various” incidents to be reduced to a unity. This is not just an aesthetic statement, for it implies a certain understanding of human life, as if superhuman forces were working themselves out through human actions, but did not particularly care whose actions they were, since nothing substantial connects any one action a person performs with any other.


“On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” I am reminded here of a passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.

In Eliot’s view, often denoted “impersonality,” the poet is not a personality, but merely a medium for the recombination of emotions. in the peculiarly impersonal anthropology implied by the Poetics, all agents are merely media for the working out of human action.


I concluded my original comment by noting that “we often think differently than the Greeks about such things.” I might have said, more strongly, that Aristotle often thinks differently about such things. I find it difficult to square the above anthropology with the considerably more personal one implied, e.g., by this passage from the Nicomachean Ethics (I.7):

… human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.

The answer, I suppose, is that for Aristotle personality is real, but an achievement; an activity of the soul. The biography of a happy man could supply a tragedy with its unity, for the happy man performs one action all his life. But tragedies are, for various reasons, rarely about happiness.

Beauty and form

October 19, 2015

The Star Wars prequels are bad. Everyone knows this. Will it change our minds to hear this argument that they are not?


The argument: most people assume the prequels are bad because they “have a tendency to come across as lesser, more commercially-minded rip-offs of the original trilogy.” But the similarities between the originals and the prequels are not a result of laziness, but are a part of the design: as George Lucas says in an interview, “I create themes…and I repeat those themes, in different chords and different arrangements.” For example, “Instead of destroying the Death Star [like Luke], [Anakin] destroys the ship that controls the robots. It’s like poetry. Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.” When we recognize that the prequels are not rip-offs but rhymes, we can see them not as selling out, but as creating a larger and more complex work of art.

Does this convince us? Why or why not? It’s easy to say “I don’t buy it” (and I don’t), but more difficult to say why. Aesthetic arguments are funny this way. What sounds to one person like a knock-down argument will seem to another to be, not wrong, but irrelevant. We might respond: “So what that George Lucas intended the parallels between IV/V/VI and I/II/III? It doesn’t change the fact that the prequels are bad, and that the connections between them and the originals does more to sully the originals than it does to redeem the prequels.” It can be difficult to see where the argument can go from here. Still, it seems worth trying.


One option would be to ask why increasing the length and complexity of the story should be seen as desirable. The pro-prequel argument assumes that this is the case; without this assumption, the argument may convince us not to think that Lucas “sold out” (at least not consciously), but it cannot convince us that what he did actually made the Star Wars series better.

Surely increasing the length are complexity are not inherently good; if they are good, it is only under certain conditions. Aristotle agrees that the greater the magnitude, the greater the work, but he has this to say about to what extent (in Chapter VII of his Poetics):

As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock—as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.

Undoubtedly, six is greater than three. But that’s good only “Provided that the whole be perspicuous.” How can we judge whether the “whole” of the Star Wars saga, Episodes I through VI, is perspicuous? It certainly doesn’t accord with the Aristotelian unities, but then neither do most film series. What, then, can we use as criteria for the presence of a perspicuous whole? Well, the series does deal with the whole of Anakin Skywalker’s life, from his childhood to his death. Aristotle discourages us from thinking that a life constitutes a whole, but we often think differently than the Greeks about such things; biographies can have a certain unity, though they are not guaranteed to do so.

We wind up, then, with the question: is Anakin’s life a strong enough thread to bind the entire saga together? I tend to think not, in part because it’s far from obvious, watching the original series, that it’s about Anakin’s life at all; it seems to be about Luke’s. The focus on Anakin in the prequels makes a sort of sense, but the way that focus shifts the meaning of the entire series makes it seem like a bait-and-switch.


Another option would be to pursue the question from the other side: why have we judged in the first place that the prequels were bad? Even if we decide that the saga has no coherent unity, the claim that George Lucas clearly intended for it to “rhyme” might be taken to defuse the “rip-off” argument; we can leave the author’s intention behind, and just look at the work. There’s plenty to detest: bad acting, bad dialogue, Jar Jar, the Gungans, CGI Yoda.

Bad acting, bad dialogue, and Jar Jar are indisputably bad; if we all acknowledge this, there remains only the task of determining how much this detracts from the works as a whole. A difficult task, since some readers like great dialogue with a plot that makes little sense; other can stand some bad dialogue if the whole is good enough. Can we offer coherent arguments between prioritizing the surface of the work and prioritizing the overarching structure? I don’t know.

The Gungans and CGI Yoda give us more to work with. Both affect our enjoyment of the original series, but in different ways. CGI Yoda bothers us because we already like puppet Yoda, and don’t like how he’s turned into something fake and shiny and manic. The Gungans bother us, conversely, because they remind of us the Ewoks, which we didn’t like but could overlook. They make an annoying (and somewhat racist) motif more central to the saga than it had been before.


These seem to me the sort of counter-arguments one could offer to the claim that the rhyming prequels improve the saga rather than detract from it.

An air of design

October 8, 2015

From Aristotle’s Poetics, ch, 9:

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.

Posting will continue to be light for the next few weeks as I attempt both to complete by diss. prop. and to organize a graduate student conference on the subject “community, reason, tragedy.” If you’re in Chicago in early November you should come by.

Harder than stone is the flesh and bone

September 29, 2015

When Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, & Strider come across the turned-to-stone trolls in their journey to Rivendell, Sam Gamgee sings this song:

Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;
For many a year he had gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!
In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by.

Up came Tom with his big boots on.
Said he to Troll: “Pray, what is yon?
For it looks like the shin o’ my nuncle Tim,
As should be a-lyin’ in graveyard.
Caveyard! Paveyard!
This many a year has Tim been gone,
And I thought he were lyin’ in graveyard.”

“My lad,” said Troll, “this bone I stole.
But what be bones that lie in a hole?
Thy nuncle was dead as a lump o’ lead,
Afore I found his shinbone.
Tinbone! Thinbone!
He can spare a share for a poor old troll,
For he don’t need his shinbone.”

Said Tom: “I don’t see why the likes o’ thee
Without axin’ leave should go makin’ free
With the shank or the shin o’ my father’s kin;
So hand the old bone over!
Rover! Trover!
Though dead he be, it belongs to he;
So hand the old bone over!”

“For a couple o’ pins,” says Troll, and grins,
“I’ll eat thee too, and gnaw thy shins.
A bit o’ fresh meat will go down sweet!
I’ll try my teeth on thee now.
Hee now! See now!
I’m tired o’ gnawing old bones and skins;
I’ve a mind to dine on thee now.”

But just as he thought his dinner was caught,
He found his hands had hold of naught.
Before he could mind, Tom slipped behind
And gave him the boot to larn him.
Warn him! Darn him!
A bump o’ the boot on the seat, Tom thought,
Would be the way to larn him.

But harder than stone is the flesh and bone
Of a troll that sits in the hills alone.
As well set your boot to the mountain’s root,
For the seat of a troll don’t feel it.
Peel it! Heal it!
Old Troll laughed, when he heard Tom groan,
And he knew his toes could feel it.

Tom’s leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;
But Troll don’t care, and he’s still there
With the bone he boned from it’s owner.
Doner! Boner!
Troll’s old seat is still the same,
And the bone he boned from it’s owner!

It’s a curious song for Tolkien to have written. Evil seems to win. Of course anyone who’s read the Silmarillion knows Tolkien tells many stories where evil wins; but they’re always contained within a larger story, catastrophe followed by eucatastrophe. Here, the troll keeps the bone, and that’s the end of the story.

Some explanation is needed. I offer this one: though trolls be evil in Middle Earth, in the world of this song this troll is not. He is simply natural; perhaps, even, (though Tolkien hated allegory,) he is nature, or rather is matter, and the resistance matter offers to our desires. This troll is not to be overcome, or given the boot to larn him; he’s harder than stone, and no more mobile: “Troll’s old seat is still the same.” But neither is he malicious; unlike Sauron, who detests whatever he does not control, “Troll don’t care, and he’s still there.” This troll is to be accepted, and taken into account.

If we accept this reading, we can see in this song (despite Tolkien’s hatred of allegory) three interpretive levels of natural resistance:

First, and most obviously, the troll is gnawing on the shin o’ Tom’s nuncle Tim. This is perfectly natural: animals eat each other. But it bothers Tom because he’s not merely natural, he’s human, and he wants his nuncle Tim to remain buried. But as Tolkien knew, nothing can remain buried forever. If a troll doesn’t dig up your shin and eat it, it will still turn eventually to dust.

Second, much of the humor of the song comes from each stanza’s apparently nonsense rhyming: “come by. / Done by! Gum by!” Of course, the rhymes aren’t all nonsense; some reveal what someone intended to keep hidden. Take “larn him. / Warn him! Darn him!”: Tom claims to want only to teach the troll, but his words betray him: he wants to damn him. Or “owner. / Doner! Boner!”: Tim was the bone’s owner, but the bone is no longer his, he has donated it to the earth, and all that’s left of him is bones. By stressing and over-stresing the rhyme-words, the song demonstrates the materiality of language, and how that materiality is a two-edged sword: it breaks down both sense and deception.

Finally, Sam Gamgee sings this song while the fellowship takes a rest in the literal shadow of one of the most memorable events from the book The Hobbit, predecessor of The Lord of the Rings. Without The Hobbit, of course, The Lord of the Rings could not have happened. But in writing the latter, Tolkien had constantly to overcome the resistance offered by the former. He found it necessary, in fact, to rewrite an entire chapter (the riddle-game with Gollum) to fit with his new conception of the Ring. But in Tolkien’s mind it would have been dishonest to simply rewrite that chapter with no explanation; it would be a brute-force attempt to overcome the resistance The Hobbit offered in the writing of TLotR, a resistance necessary for that work’s composition. So Tolkien did something more ingenious: he rewrote that chapter of The Hobbit, but made its very rewriting a minor plot-point of TLotR. The original chapter becomes the story as Bilbo first told it; the revised chapter becomes the story as it really happened; and the difference between them becomes significant: it shows us how the Ring convinces its wearer to deceive others about its true nature.

Of course there’s more to be said about this poem; I could write, for example, about how Tom evading the troll’s grasp but laming his foot offers a comic version of a common Tolkien motif, the maimed hero (consider Beren’s hand, or Frodo’s finger). But I’ll end, I think, with this: a recording of Tolkien singing this song (with slightly different lyrics). His singing voice is actually quite decent:


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