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To let her appreciate the meaning

October 17, 2016

[Second post of two on novels of interest-bearing marriage, the first being this reflection on a scene from Silas Marner.]

From near the end of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier:

Of course you have the makings of a situation here, but it is all very humdrum, as far as I am concerned. I should marry Nancy if her reason were ever sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service. But it is probable that her reason will never be sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service. Therefore I cannot marry her, according to the law of the land.

The irony here, in contrast with the passage discussed previously, is dark and bitter—a medicinal tonic, versus a pint a the local pub. And of course here it’s the narrator, not just a minor character, who is unreliable—we have to read past John Dowell’s telling of the story to reach that of Ford himself. At this point in the story Nancy has gone mad, repeating ad nauseum “Credo in unum Deum” and “shuttlecocks”—she is caught, in other words, between the peace of divine simplicity and the multiform chaos of the all-too-human passions that bat us back and forth willy-nilly. Aren’t we all? Like most literary madmen, Nancy understands better than most, and if she cannot “appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service” (the phrase repeated twice for emphasis), neither can anyone else. The Anglican marriage service, Ford leads us to suspect, has no meaning to be appreciated.

But what makes it meaningless? We find a clue in the beginning of the next paragraph: “So here I am very much where I started thirteen years ago.” No one can appreciate the meaning because the meaning does not appreciate; there’s no return on the investment. Or, at least, no intrinsic appreciation—the value of the marriage might increase, decrease, or remain constant, but these changes will have nothing to do with the marriage paying dividends, and everything to do with extrinsic market fluctuations. The important point is that the marriage’s value is always uncertain—at least until it’s cashed in. A marriage a kind of empty cipher, at any moment worth only as much as the interested parties happen to believe it is worth. Ford agrees with Eliot that a marriage can be seen as an economic enterprise, but Eliot can tend towards an overly sentimental view of what this means, analogizing it with the solitary laborer, and opposing to it only miserdom and prodigality. Ford follows Melville in fearing the economic vantage point will have the labor-alienating effect of a joint-stock company, which encourages the vice neither of miserdom nor of prodigality, but rather of speculation.

The narrator here is talking about the Anglican view of marriage, and Ford’s novel is deeply concerned with the difference between the Anglican and the Catholic sacraments, so we might shift our discussion from an economic to a theological register (not that the two can be entirely divorced): the Anglican view in this novel stands for the idea that a marriage does not perdure through time, but is re-created anew ever moment, and at any moment might cease to be re-created and so cease entirely to be. I’m reminded here of Stanley Cavell’s idea of “remarriage”: once marriage transcends its origin in religious and economic necessity and becomes a union based on mutual love, it is dependent on a continuous free renewal of that love, such that whenever the love ceases to be given, the marriage ceases, at least temporarily, to be. The marriage, it seems, is temporally discontinuous—or, perhaps, a marriage is less an action than a state; it would be a bit strange to ask whether, when anger returns after a period of calm, it’s the same anger.

Such a view seems in one way like a natural development of George Eliot’s suggestion that “everything comes to light sooner or later,” that the truth of a marriage depends on whether things “turned out all right”—but in another way, like a complete reversal of it. (A fact which perhaps should not surprise us, given that both Eliot and Cavell were greatly interested in German dialectical philosophy.) A development, in that we have a natural tendency to trace any failure of amatory renewal back to an originary failure: if two people fall out of love, they were never really in love to begin with. Eliot says that we can say whether a marriage was “real” based on how it turns out; Cavell makes explicit the one-to-one correspondence, “love-filled marriage = real marriage, loveless marriage = fake marriage”. But a reversal, in that Cavell excises any sense that a marriage can grow, and particularly, any sense that the natural outgrowth of marriage is children. Put more simply, for Cavell, a marriage is not a thing that either happened, or didn’t; a marriage is something that either is happening, or isn’t.

Which is itself a natural consequence of the economic metaphor, updated for the modern age of easy bankrupcy and no-fault divorce. Cavell thinks that “remarriage” arises when marriage is liberated from economic necessity—but such a liberation is always an illusion, and to succumb to it is to remake marriage along entirely economic lines. Eliot recognizes on some level the problems posed to marriage by modern ways of thinking, by the twin spirits of capitalism (wherein enterprises must thrive to survive) and Protestantism (wherein God makes the world anew in every moment), but doesn’t know quite what to make of them. It’s symptomatic that all of her novels are set at least a generation years prior to their writing, and in a rural England quite different from the cosmopolitan London in which she spent her adult years. It’s perhaps also symptomatic that most of her novels end in more-or-less-happy marriages among skilled craftsmen and minor gentry, whereas Eliot (or, rather, Mary Ann Evans) moved among the literati and lived scandalously for twenty years in the house of married man. (Ford, a not-particularly-devout Catholic convert, had a far less stable romantic life, which perhaps makes him more scandalous qua borgeoisie but less qua Catholic.)

For myself, I think this “remarriage” business is all a great misunderstanding. Truth will out, sooner or later—but that doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t already determined. Though the reality of a marriage cannot be determined through inspection of the moment of the wedding, that moment is still the moment at which it took place—after all, there’s no other moment of significance for the question. (“Her reason will never be sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service”.) We look to future events, not for their own sake, but for evidence of what took place in the beginning, and it’s the overall trajectory, not any particular moment, to which we attend. Occasionalism is no more plausible when it comes to marriage than when it comes to cosmogony. Just as the world began with a never-to-be-repeated “Fiat lux,” so every marriage began with a never-to-be-repeated “I will.” (Not, contra J.L. Austin, “I do.”)

Which means, crucially, that when we look to see whether a marriage is real, we’re not just looking to see whether it turned out well. We can draw no one-to-one correspondences. An annulment is not just another word for a divorce, because a marriage is not an economic action, but a living sacrament (albeit a sacrament of oikonomia, of housekeeping): a failed enterprise might be no enterprise at all, but a marriage does not cease to be because it’s failing, any more than does a human being. Alas, this is not, it seems fair to say, the Anglican view.

A possible TL;DR: Anglican marriage is neoliberal. Catholic marriage is radically centrist.

The rattle of false allusions

October 3, 2016

Having learned my lesson from the first two catastrophes (and confident no eu-catastrophe would be forthcoming), I didn’t bother to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies when it came out almost two years ago. I finally got around to it when trapped on a transatlantic flight for seven hours with nothing better to do.

This time around the movie left me far too weary of the whole thing to examine its failings point-by-point. In part, perhaps, because there’s so little point to the whole thing; true to the title, the majority of the film is dedicated to a battle scene on which the book spends only a single chapter. That chapter, of course, looks at the battle from Bilbo’s perspective, a not-particularly heroic one (he wears the ring most of the combat and ends up getting knocked unconscious by a falling rock), so to keep up the audience’s interest for more than ten minutes, the movie has to invent characters and events with only the slimmest basis in Tolkien, and most of the action concerns itself with them. In a sense this isn’t really a film version of the Hobbit at all—it’s Tolkien fan fiction.

The most enjoyable scene of the movie, I thought, was also Tolkien fan fiction in a sense, but this time at least with some basis in the Legendarium (if not The Hobbit)—I mean the attack by the White Council on the lair of the Necromancer. Excerpted here, since it barely connects at all to what’s around it, this ought to be the only part of the movie you watch:

I mention this scene because, while I enjoyed it, I also thought there was something symptomatically wrong with it. What makes it enjoyable? Two things.

First, the action is exciting but still comprehensible. In fact, despite the fact that it’s wizards fighting ringwraiths, it’s more realistic than the other battle scenes in the films—the ringwraiths’ ability to teleport or move with superhuman speed or whatever it is they’re doing keeps things moving quickly enough that Peter Jackson doesn’t feel the need to insert the idiotic gymnastics and gravity-defying leaps that mar so much of the action in the rest of the film. Put differently, while this scene does still have a video-game quality to it, at least it’s a video game that I can imagine wanting to play.

But second, and more importantly, though the characters in the scene are all familiar to us from the Lord of the Rings movies, no longer are they inhabiting the “wise elder” archetype; now they get to enter the spotlight and show off their moves. The effect is much like that of Yoda’s battle scenes in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There’s something strangely exciting about seeing a character spring into action who heretofore had only held their head high and spoken words calm and wise. Their identity with their previous filmic incarnations is ensured not only through being played by the same actors, but also through frequent allusion to scenes from the previous films, the Fellowship in particular: Elrond wears much the same armor as in the Prologue with Isildur; Saruman wields his staff much as he did in the duel with Gandalf; and Galadriel turns dark and menacing just as in her conversation with Frodo by the Mirror.

If these features make the scene entertaining, they also make it meaningless—and not just meaningless, but in fact possessed of a sort of anti-meaning. Think for more than a few seconds about the setting of the scene, and it makes no sense, except by a video-game logic where everything comes down to a battle between, on the one hand, the player’s diverse quartet of Warrior (Elrond), Cleric (Galadriel), and two kinds of Wizard (Saruman and Gandalf); and on the other, the Big Bad’s nine Henchmen, then the Big Bad himself. Worse, think for more than a few seconds about the allusions to the Fellowship, and it quickly becomes apparent that Peter Jackson has not thought through what his allusions mean.

Consider the appearance of dark!Galadriel. In the original film, she turns dark! when contemplating Frodo’s offer of the One Ring, and it represents what she would become if she accepted it. What, then, are we to make of her taking on a similar appearance when fighting against the Necromancer? The best sense I can make of it is that Jackson associates dark!Galadriel with the elven ring she wears—indeed, right when she turns dark! we can see bright light emanating from the ring on her finger. But what sense does this make? Has Jackson assumed that the three elven rings, just like the nine for mortal men, have been corrupted by the one ring? To think so is entirely to misunderstand the backstory; as Tolkien tells it, anyway, the elven rings were the only ones kept safe from Sauron. And really, who could think that Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf would wear rings that had been subjected to Sauron’s will? That would make them no better than the Ringwraiths they fight. But if we want to be charitable and avoid this interpretation of the scene, there is only one alternative: Jackson has associated the use of the elven ring with dark!Galadriel, not because he thinks the ring corrupted, but because the ring is “cool,” and dark!Galadriel is “cool,” and the two ought to go together.

This is just the kind of confusion we would expect if Jackson were attempting, not to make a scene similar in quality to the original, but to make a scene that would remind its audience of the effect the original had on them, but in a concentrated dose—that would be the same, but more. In other words, the scene is mere wallowing in nostalgia. Which is better, I suppose, than wallowing in nonsense—but not by much.

Watch this not that

September 19, 2016

So the BBC has put out a list of the 100 greatest films of the 21st century. Such lists are, if taken literally, an inane exercise, the most extreme version of a tendency already mocked 80 years ago by Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron:

Joyces are firm and there there’s nothing new.
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts.
There’s been some further weakening in Prousts.

Still, contra Auden, I’d suggest that such lists do serve several legitimate purposes; among them: helping those who require initiation in the tradition (students) to educate their palate; helping those already initiated (critics) to step back and notice trends and tendencies that may require correction; and helping those who would understand Culture as a system (economists) to peer into its workings.

So, without further ado, I’ll be engaging in scholarship, criticism, and econometry, in that order.


Scholarship: Almost two thirds of these movies I haven’t seen; of those 66, there are only a handful (bolded) that I have any particular desire to see (though others might make the cut if I knew more about them, and the position of some of them on this list might induce me to seek them out):

100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)


Second, criticism: the other 36 I have seen; there are 27 which I agree should have made the cut (though I’d probably shuffle the ordering)—I don’t necessarily like all of them, but those I don’t like I have no strong feelings about and can recognize their artistry. Whereas there are 9 of whose presence I actively disapprove, thinking them overrated; I’ve bolded and reddened the ones I dislike.

96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
25. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
17. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Curiously, two of the nine movies of whose presence I disapproved were by Christopher Nolan, which might suggest I have a particular dislike for him—but, in fact, I like many of his movies, and think merely that these two movies in particular are quite overrated. In fact, in my suggested replacements for these nine movies, I include one Nolan film that did not make the original list:

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) –> In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002) –> Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) –> Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) –> Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) –> The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) –> The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) –> Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) –> Birdman (Alejandro J. Iñárritu, 2014)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006) –> Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

Note that this is not an attempt to construct my own list of “36 greatest films of the 2000s”; there may be films I’m forgetting that did not make the original list but which I prefer to films on that list. Rather, it aims to replace inferior movies with other movies both similar and superior. This list thus constitutes a critical assertion: watch this, not that! But it’s also fodder for critical reflection. What makes me prefer the movies on the right to those on the left, apparently contrary to the critical consensus?

Some tentative inferences: first of all, my rejection of The Pianist, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Master might suggest that I’m not a big fan of what’s usually called the “character study”—I prefer films with plots; and my dislike of the last one, in particular, might suggest that I have an aversion to slow-paced movies focused on what are often called “powerful” performances, in favor of the frenetic. And I admit—I agree with Kurosawa that the human body in action does a better job revealing character than lingering shots of contorted faces. Second, my dislike of Moonrise Kingdom, Amélie, Her, and Pan’s Labyrinth might suggest that I have an aversion to a certain kind of whimsy, and my like of In Bruges, Ex Machina, and Hero, a preference for fantastical themes played straight. I suppose this is right, though it requires more thought—some whimsy, after all, I do appreciate; but perhaps I prefer my whimsy to be social rather than metaphysical. Finally, my replacement of Inception and Memento with The Prestige and Primer derives, I think, from my like for but also extreme severity regarding what are often called “puzzle” movies. I dislike the former two movies because their puzzles seem to me simplistic and insignificant; it seems as if many people just say “Oh! Puzzle! That must have taken skill to work out!”, and leave it at that.


Finally, econometry:

56% of the films I disliked were in the bottom 25% of the original list, and the bottom 22% of the list of those I’ve seen, which isn’t too surprising; you’d expect the movies nearer the cutoff point to be less obviously “great.”

More surprisingly, 33% of those I disliked were in the top 25% of the original list (though only the top 39% of those I’ve seen–again, it’s unsurprising that I’ve seen more films at the top of the list than at the bottom, since we tend to seek out movies that have a high reputation), and only 11% were in the middle quartiles. This suggests that movies considered “the best” will often be more controversial than those considered merely “good”.

To round it off, some fun with dates: their century includes both 2000 and 2016, and they have three #100s (I guess there was a tie?), which means their list includes an average of exactly six movies per year. Most years are pretty much average, having between 5 and 7 movies on the list. 2004 and 2006 are low, with only 4 each; 2012 and 2013 are high, with 9. 2016 only has 1, but the year isn’t up yet and so this number can’t be taken entirely seriously. Personally, apart from the inconsequential ’16 (I haven’t seen the one movie from this year), I’ve seen the most films (4) from ’01, ’12, and ’13, and the fewest (1) in ’04, ’05, ’06, and ’15; all other years I’ve seen 2 or 3. This tracks pretty well with the distribution on the list as a whole, except for my having seen 4 of the 6 movies from 2001; I attribute this, I suppose, to my usually watching “great” movies gradually over time, not when they come out, and so I’ve had more time to see the movies that have been around the longest, although it may be just a meaningless outlier.

World-building and mythopoeia

August 29, 2016

A friend recently brought to my attention this youtube video, a critique of what’s come to be known as “worldbuilding”. The basic problem with the practice:

Each [secondary world] has developed audiences that hunger for the author to fill in the margins, the gaps, the geography, the backstories, the histories; and, if the author won’t, they’ll do it themselves. […] The great science fiction and fantasy writer M. John Harrison once famously called worldbuilding “the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there.”

Well, what’s so wrong with that? The video pivots from this observation into what’s basically a post-modern attack on realism, whereby the text creates an illusion of reality and so relieves the reader of her knowledge that it’s mere words on a page. Supposedly, this leads to a more passive reading experience, and so encourages habits of reading that make people more susceptible to advertisements, propaganda, etc.

There’s something to this—but in what sense is the reading experience passive if the readers are so engaged that they’re willing to fill in the backstories themselves if the author won’t? That looks like engagement to me! Moreover, it’s communal engagement: people don’t just fill-in-the-blanks on the fold-out map in their copy of The Silmarillion; they share fan fiction and home-made props, they meet online or in person to discuss their theories. They even argue about their theories, and sometimes care greatly about their disagreements—though they’ll always set those disagreements aside when it’s time to look down on those who don’t care about the worldbuilding at all.


In other words: the fans of world-building are less like the targets of advertisements and propaganda, than like the purveyors of conspiracy theories. I was struck by this act of definition in an article about American UFO culture:

“Experiencers” is the preferred term here, since “abductee” doesn’t apply to people who’ve gone with aliens of their own free will, and “contactee” has positive-sounding connotations that actual abductees don’t like.

But why would abductees and contactees have anything to do with one another? If some people think aliens are out to get us, and others think aliens are out to save us, wouldn’t they be mortal enemies? Most worldbuilding-subculture words are kind of like this, “nerd” most of all: nerds may differ about what matters more than most people realize (in both senses of that phrase), but they all agree that something matters more than most people realize, and can find common cause in looking down on “most people”—forgetting, in some cases, that there might be hardly any overlap between the different groups of people they each look down on.

In theological terms, nerds and conspiracy theorists alike are predisposed towards asceticism, gnosticism, monotheism (one world to rule them all). Most people, on the other hand, if any “most people” are even left, are predisposed towards libertinism, universalism, polytheism.


Literary realism, according to the post-modern critique, creates a desire for reality that the realistic work can never fully satisfy, since reality is infinite and a book or movie is finite. Kind of like how Coca-Cola isn’t selling you a soda, it’s selling you a brand, and, drink as many coca-colas and you want, you’ll never quench your thirst for Coca-Cola(tm). I’m not sure I buy this for realistic fiction, but it’s definitely true for worldbuilding fiction, or at least a legitimate threat—secondary worlds can suck you in like a conspiracy theory, make you always hunger for more.

This happens because worldbuilding is, by definition, never finished. In a sense, Tolkien’s failure to publish The Silmarillion in his lifetime was necessary, not contingent. There might be bounds on the section entitled “Quenta Silmarillion,” “history of the silmarils,” but in writing the book now known as The Silmarillion Tolkien tried to encompass the entire legendarium, a task which had no natural endpoint, just a place at which he was forced to stop.

It’s not a question of passivity versus activity: the author can get sucked in just as easily as the reader; and the line between reader and author can easily be blurred. Rather, it’s a question of the telos of poetic activity: is it the perfection of the work itself, or the satisfaction of the hunger the thought of the work elicits? Insofar as authors take it to be the latter, their work can never be finished, for the hunger can never be satisfied. Insofar as they take it to be the former, it can be. This is the difference between building a world and telling a story. Stories end; worlds don’t. Even an apocalypse can’t fill in all the gaps.


Is it bad to build literary perpetual-desire-machines? From a theological point of view, it certainly seems suspect: it makes an idol of the secondary world. Only God should be an object of infinite desire. This suggests to me that authors should not take world-building as an end in itself; as Aristotle said of tragedy, stories are the imitation, not of a world, but of an action.

If I’m right here, then Tolkien’s theoretical justification for his work (offered at greatest length in “On Fairy-Stories”) is somewhat misguided. His argument involves an unjustified logical leap; what he calls the “power of image-making,” even when artistic excellence gives its creations “the inner consistency of reality,” need not produce “Secondary Worlds,” but only secondary images—that is, metaphors; and, in literary work, secondary actions—that is, metaphoric actions—that is, myths. A secondary world is not a necessary component of literary works, and is also a dangerous one, since it seems almost always to result in a temptation towards indulging the desire for world-building, which means indulging nostalgia. Any literary work that does attempt to build a secondary world must have a special reason for doing so, grounded in the myth it seeks to tell.

To see what such a reason might be, we must ask: of what reality does a secondary world, qua secondary world, offer an image? The answer is obvious, and Tolkien basically gives it to us: “At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art.” Secondary worlds are about the human desire to imitate God’s creative act—a desire perfectly natural, and also, in the eyes of traditional theology, exceedingly dangerous. No literary work should consciously embark on an act of cosmopoeia unless it does so to tell a story about this desire—unless it means to make an issue of its own artifactuality.

Burning burning burning burning

August 28, 2016

Today being the Feast of St. Augustine, I call to your attention the last lines of “The Fire Sermon,” part iii of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


In a way these lines, which allude (among other things) to Augustine’s Confessions, seem to demonstrate the opposite of the ethic of reading Augustine suggests in Confessions book IV, wherein the worst thing you can do is interrupt someone reading out loud because you want to linger on the sound of one particular word, at the expense of the sense of the entire sentence; I suggested in that post that Ambrose’s silent reading affects Augustine so powerfully because it suggests to him the possibility of uninterrupted sense-making.

The distinction I would draw here is perhaps over-subtle, but I think Eliot’s lines actually enact for us the opposite of the privileging of sound over sense that Augustine decries. Rather, by forcing us to read the repetition of the word “Burning,” it becomes not an aestheticized interruption, but an ascetic meditation. And by moving from the whole sentence “O Lord Thou pluckest me out” to the truncated repetition of “O Lord Thou pluckest,” Eliot anticipates the “backlooping” which we silent readers would have done anyway (“backlooping” being Walter J. Ong’s term for “glancing back over the text selectively,” an action possible only with the written word). The difference between backlooping and interrupted oral recitation is like that between memory and nostalgia. The former takes place as necessary for comprehension, the latter merely on a whim.

Suppose they shouldn’t be fast married

August 15, 2016

[First post of two, and a sequel of sorts to last year’s meditations on modern marriage. I might want to add some George Eliot (perhaps Silas Marner and Middlemarch?) to the syllabus offered in the last of those posts.]

In chapter 6 of George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a conversation in the tavern takes a strange turn, and one not particularly relevant to the plot, though of great thematic significance:

Here Mr. Macey paused; he always gave his narrative in instalments, expecting to be questioned according to precedent.

“Aye, and a partic’lar thing happened, didn’t it, Mr. Macey, so as you were likely to remember that marriage?” said the landlord, in a congratulatory tone.

“I should think there did—a very partic’lar thing,” said Mr. Macey, nodding sideways. “For Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him, though he’d got a bit confused in his head, what wi’ age and wi’ taking a drop o’ summat warm when the service come of a cold morning. And young Mr. Lammeter, he’d have no way but he must be married in Janiwary, which, to be sure, ‘s a unreasonable time to be married in, for it isn’t like a christening or a burying, as you can’t help; and so Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him—but when he come to put the questions, he put ’em by the rule o’ contrairy, like, and he says, “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?” says he, and then he says, “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?” says he. But the partic’larest thing of all is, as nobody took any notice on it but me, and they answered straight off “yes”, like as if it had been me saying “Amen” i’ the right place, without listening to what went before.”

“But you knew what was going on well enough, didn’t you, Mr. Macey? You were live enough, eh?” said the butcher.

“Lor bless you!” said Mr. Macey, pausing, and smiling in pity at the impotence of his hearer’s imagination—”why, I was all of a tremble: it was as if I’d been a coat pulled by the two tails, like; for I couldn’t stop the parson, I couldn’t take upon me to do that; and yet I said to myself, I says, “Suppose they shouldn’t be fast married, ’cause the words are contrairy?” and my head went working like a mill, for I was allays uncommon for turning things over and seeing all round ’em; and I says to myself, “Is’t the meanin’ or the words as makes folks fast i’ wedlock?” For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then, when I come to think on it, meanin’ goes but a little way i’ most things, for you may mean to stick things together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, “It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue.” And I was worreted as if I’d got three bells to pull at once, when we went into the vestry, and they begun to sign their names. But where’s the use o’ talking?—you can’t think what goes on in a ‘cute man’s inside.”

“But you held in for all that, didn’t you, Mr. Macey?” said the landlord.

“Aye, I held in tight till I was by mysen wi’ Mr. Drumlow, and then I out wi’ everything, but respectful, as I allays did. And he made light on it, and he says, “Pooh, pooh, Macey, make yourself easy,” he says; “it’s neither the meaning nor the words—it’s the regester does it—that’s the glue.” So you see he settled it easy; for parsons and doctors know everything by heart, like, so as they aren’t worreted wi’ thinking what’s the rights and wrongs o’ things, as I’n been many and many’s the time. And sure enough the wedding turned out all right, on’y poor Mrs. Lammeter—that’s Miss Osgood as was—died afore the lasses was growed up; but for prosperity and everything respectable, there’s no family more looked on.”

Every one of Mr. Macey’s audience had heard this story many times, but it was listened to as if it had been a favourite tune, and at certain points the puffing of the pipes was momentarily suspended, that the listeners might give their whole minds to the expected words.

If Macey’s story raises questions about the efficacy of the sacraments, the gentle irony with which Eliot describes his telling of it expands the scope of the problem. What guarantees the validity of any significant action, given that there’s always a threat that it might not have been really meant—it might have been performed, as it were, by rote?

The “learned” solution, that any question of validity can be settled by the written record, is obviously no solution at all. The expanded scope makes that perfectly obvious: no record is kept of the occasions on which Mr. Macey and his audience enact the ritual of storytelling, but that does not mean the ritual did not take place. Moreover, even for significant actions of which there usually is a record, the absence or presence of a record guarantees nothing. Records can be erased, or lost, or forged, or misinterpreted. An appeal to the written record turns out to be no different, metaphysically speaking, than any other appeal to physical evidence. Just like the spoken word, the written word can be lost to the ravages of time, and it does not interpret itself. Who can now say whether Mr. Macey heard the erroneous vows correctly? And who can say whether vows being spoken wrong really makes a difference to what their vowing them accomplished?

But Mr. Macey is also right to reject the appeal to “the meanin’.” Not only is it the case, as he points out, that intentions do not always hit their mark, but—as philosophers like J.L. Austin and G.E.M. Anscombe would argue a century later—there’s no such thing as an “intention” floating free of the physical world. It would be, not just baseless, but nonsensical, to say that someone “intended” to be φ‘ing when they were neither φ‘ing nor doing something that could be described as failing to φ (whether due to accident, or mistake, or whatever). Knowledge of the couple’s intentions at the time of the wedding might help us determine whether they indeed wedded, but it cannot resolve the question entirely, and in any case such knowledge will just be a summary description of what the couple actually did, which is what we wanted to know in the first place.

Though George Eliot doesn’t suggest a plausible solution in the immediate vicinity of the story, I think Silas Marner as a whole does offer us a way out. At the climax of the book, one character pronounces, just prior to confessing their greatest sin, a hope basic to philosophy: “Everything comes to light, [Wife], sooner or later. When God Almighty wills it, our secrets are found out.” Instead of the passage of time obscuring the meaning of one’s actions, it reveals it. The “meaning” is indeed what matters, but this isn’t something that can be accessed through any inspection of the physical action itself, even if that action was the writing on a piece of paper of words whose meaning we think we know. Rather, the meaning is determined by the context, and the context cannot be limited in advance; it will become apparent either sooner, or later.

For example, much of the drama of Silas Marner revolves around another marriage than that Mr. Macey describes—in fact, one involving the daughter of that marriage—and the question of its validity. The presence or absence of a child is central to our judgment on that question, in complex ways I won’t go into here. And this is entirely appropriate. Whether a union is fruitful is the kind of evidence that by definition cannot be present at the time of marriage, but which can be crucial to determining whether the union was ever open to fecundity. Which matters, of course, because a marriage not open to life—for an Anglican, I think, as much as a Catholic—is no marriage at all.

Same flowers, same bees

August 1, 2016

I don’t read a lot of contemporary poetry, and what I do read I don’t often like, but I’m oddly fascinated by this Franz Wright prose-poem, called “Bees of Eleusis”:

Unless a grain of wheat goes into the ground and dies, it remains nothing but a grain of wheat.
—John 12:24

The ingredients gathered, a few small red tufts of the dream spoor per sheaf of Demeter’s blonde wheat, reaped in mourning, in silence, ground up with the pollen and mixed into white wine and honey. These stored forms of light taken under the ground. Taken by mouth. First those who by birth hold in secret the word; then placed on the tongues of the new ones, into whose ears it is meant to be whispered. Word murdered, forgotten so long ago, placed as a kiss on the lips of the soon-to-be-no-longer breathing who mean to enter death with open eyes, with mouths saying Death, what death? We have no word for it in our country where the bride of a brighter oblivion reigns. Not the purple-haired god but the child queen, the raped girl, come back from the dead hand in hand with the child she conceived there, returned in a resurrected virginity, wind through green wheat. Present-day site of a minor refinery in Christ. Although by the tenth generation already the children of light (“in their dark garments”) had trampled and smashed and generally raped the two thousand years of this precinct and its holy meal, intolerable mirror. Men who’d designed and bowed down to a law derived from the sayings of one who appeared here to say that the law is abolished, it is too late, all that is over with. Men who bungled their way through the next eighteen centuries before finally descending into the earth themselves, and what they found there they used, and we thank you for destroying the destroyers of the world. And here at the end this is as good as any other entrance to the underplace, journey of the fallen leaf back to the branch, to the bees of Eleusis among olive blossoms, untroubled among crimson wildflowers. Four thousand years later: same flowers, same bees.

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was an American poet. I like this Denis Johnson quote about him: “[his poems] are like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers–miraculous gifts.” Though I’m not entirely convinced it’s true.