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Christianity and cryogenics

March 24, 2015

Along the line of organ drafts, I’ve been thinking recently about cryogenics. The practice in which you have your brain frozen when you die so that you can, at some point in The Future, be revived.

Not thinking about signing up for them, of course; they’re absurd. That seems to be the common sense response, and I ultimately agree with it. But the common sense arguments supporting this response, not so much. “They’re expensive”, “They probably don’t work”–on F.H. Bradley’s definition, these two surely count as metaphysics: “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.” They’re expensive: how much should you be willing to pay for eternal life? Isn’t that the pearl of great price, for which you should go and sell all that you have (Matthew 13:46)? They probably don’t work: but so long as the chance is non-negligible, doesn’t the greatness of the prize make the venture worthwhile?


The common sense responses attempt to appeal to certain kinds of facts, namely, scientific facts, facts about what is and isn’t possible. But infinities render all such discussions murky. We might be better off making an ethical argument, in the Aristotelian sense: “If cryogenics did work for you, you might end up wishing they hadn’t.”

I don’t mean the possibility that you might be brought back as an exhibit in a zoo. To make such an objection is to allow the cryogenics advocate’s calculations to proceed apace; all he needs to do is include a term for the fact of this possibility in his equation. But I do mean what this objection meant to get at: we value not life, per se, but flourishing, which, for human beings, entails life within a community; and signing up for cryogenics seems somehow to embody a rejection of that community, a declaration that what really matters to you is not the life you’re living now, within that community, but your life “after the freeze”. It would be duplicitous to pretend that this were not so, to act as if the decision left your relations with your friends and family unchanged:

But he said to another: Follow me. And he said: Lord, suffer me first to go, and to bury my father. And Jesus said to him: Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou, and preach the kingdom of God. And another said: I will follow thee, Lord; but let me first take my leave of them that are at my house. Jesus said to him: No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:59-62)

To sign up for cryogenics is to live in anticipation of being frozen. But how can you sustain such anticipation with no continuity between your pre-freeze and post-freeze lives besides the bare fact of it being you who bridges the gap? And, of equal importance, how, after the freeze, can you make your life a fulfillment of that anticipation? If you and only you (with none of your “furniture”) do survive the freeze; and if this leads you to forget your pre-freeze life; then your new life will be indistinguishable from that lived by someone who lived forever without undergoing the freeze. This indistinguishability will render your decision to be frozen unjustifiable.


But, of course, signing up for cryogenics makes one a member of a new community. This changes our moral intuitions; it’s the difference between Rip Van Winkle, who loses his own time through sleep, and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who sleep because the time is not yet theirs:

Decius (249-251) once came to Ephesus to enforce his laws against Christians … here he found seven noble young men, named Maximillian, Jamblichos, Martin, John, Dionysios, Exakostodianos, and Antoninos … who were Christians. The emperor told his soldiers to find them, and when found asleep in the cave he ordered it to be closed up with huge stones and sealed; thus they were buried alive. But a Christian came and wrote on the outside the names of the martyrs and their story. Years passed, the empire became Christian, and Theodosius reigned. In his time some heretics denied the resurrection of the body. While this controversy went on, a rich landowner named Adolios had the Sleepers’ cave opened, to use it as a cattle-stall. Then they awake, thinking they have slept only one night, and send one of their number (Diomedes) to the city to buy food, that they may eat before they give themselves up. Diomedes comes into Ephesus and the usual story of cross-purposes follows. He is amazed to see crosses over churches, and the people cannot understand whence he got his money coined by Decius. Of course at last it comes out that the last thing he knew was Decius’s reign; eventually the bishop and the prefect go up to the cave with him, where they find the six others and the inscription. Theodosius is sent for, and the saints tell him their story. Every one rejoices at this proof of the resurrection of the body. The sleepers, having improved the occasion by a long discourse, then die praising God.

So the question must be: is the community of those “awaiting the freeze” one we should want to join–or, rather, one we can justify joining, given that joining it entails rejecting the community in which we now live?

Until now, the argument for cryogenics has closely paralleled that for Christianity. Now the two must diverge, for any justification here must depend on the ethical qualities of the group to be joined, and the ethos of cryogenics and the ethos of Christianity could not be more different. In place of the Christian virtue of faith, transhumanism puts curiosity; in place of hope, expectation; and in place of charity, cupidity. (It’s still cupidity even if the “more” sought, the “utility” to be “maximized,” is located in “us” rather than “me”.) Well, rehearsing these arguments would be too big a tangent, but you can tell from my rhetoric where I stand on the matter.


This is an ethical stance, one I adopt in ignorance of the facts; yet the facts do matter, in cryogenics as in Christianity. It makes a difference whether the life-saving and life-extending technologies on which the promise of cryogenics depends are impossible or merely difficult. If the latter, then my stance does not forbid attempting to bring them about; it only forbids preserving one’s own life through cryogenics when such preservation is possible only through an unjust isolationism. But if the former, then trying to bring them about is not only an exercise in futility, but an attempt at self-distraction and self-deception. It’s the difference, I suppose, between honest science and curiosity in the negative sense.

The self demanding to be loved

March 16, 2015

I don’t know what to make of Geoffrey Hill. I hold his early work in high regard, but have never known quite what to do with what came after. Meanwhile, Hill himself doesn’t know quite what to do with what came before.

I’ve mentioned this already, with respect to the early poetry. I’ve recently begun making my way through his Collected Critical Writings, and something similar has taken place. I quite like the first essay, “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement'”; Hill, however, has apparently all but disowned it. Ah well. It still seems to me full of insight. Perhaps reading further in the collection will help me understand in what sense Hill disagrees.

But for now, here’s Hill on the peace that surpasseth understanding:

In certain contexts the expansive, outward gesture towards the condition of music is a helpless gesture of surrender, oddly analogous to that stylish aesthetic of despair, that desire for the ultimate integrity of silence, to which so much eloquence has been so frequently and indefagitably devoted.

On the poet as priest of the religion of art:

The major caveat which I would enter against a theological view of literature is that, too often, it is not theology at all, but merely a restatement of the neo-Symbolist mystique celebrating verbal mastery; an expansive gesture conveying the broad sense that Joyce’s Ulysses or Rilke’s Duino Elegies ‘must, in the spendor of its art, evoke astonishment at the sheer magnificence of its lordship over language.’ If an argument for the theological interpretation of literature is to be sustained, it needs other sustenance than this.

And, finally, in a kind of rewriting of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, on the self of the poet:

However much and however rightly we protest against the vanity of supposing it to be merely the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, poetic utterance is nonetheless an utterance of the self, the self demanding to be loved, demanding love in the form of recognition and ‘absolution’. The poet is perhaps the first to be dismayed by such a discovery and to seek the conversion of his ‘daemon’ to a belief in altruistic responsibility. But this dismay is as nothing compared to the shocking encounter with ‘empirical guilt’, not as a manageable hypothesis, but as irredeemable error in the very substance and texture of one’s craft and pride. It is here that selfhood may be made at-one with itself. He may learn to live in his affliction, not with the cynical indifference of the reprobate but with the renewed sense of a vocation: that of necessarily bearing his peculiar unnecessary shame in a world growing ever more shameless.

Ex opere operato

March 9, 2015

[In which I fiddle with High Modernist and neo-Thomist aesthetics.]

This entertaining article compares different approaches to literary criticism to different varieties of Christian theology. Alas, its reigning metaphor is somewhat inexact. The article assumes that the literary work should be put in parallel with the Bible, but this obviously nonsense; not only do theologians never write the Bible, no one writes the Bible nowadays. No one has for almost two thousand years. Rather, literary works should be compared to the sacraments; only certain people, namely poets/priests, can write/perform them, and only certain other people, namely critics/theologians, have a proper understanding of what is going on what they do so.

The comparison to Protestantism would still hold: a literary Protestant would be one who says that everyone can read and write; everyone is a priest and theologian of literature, not just the published authors and the tenured professors. But we would also gain access to a number of analogies with various heresies, most interestingly, in my view, with the Donatists.

Donatists (=followers of Donatus) were, in brief, 4th-century North African Christians who refused to recognize the legitimacy of certain Catholic bishops because those bishops had been ordained by “traditores”–i.e. Christians who had, during the persecutions under Diocletian, sacrificed to pagan idols rather than undergo martyrdom. Refusing to recognize bishops, by itself, would just make the Donatists schismatics, but they elevated their reason for not doing so into a theological principle–sacraments, they claimed, were only valid if performed by persons of sufficiently “worthiness”–a position soon deemed heretical. It’s easy to see why the Catholics wouldn’t accept this; as they pointed out, “the validity of the sacraments and of other such acts cannot be made to depend on the worthiness of the one administering them, for in that case all Christians would be in constant doubt regarding the validity of their own baptism or of the communion of which they had partaken.” A church with such a theology could never be confident in its own status as a Christian community. The resulting controversy (in which St. Augustine, as it happens, played a central role) led to the formulation of the principle ex opere operato: the work (the sacrament) has its efficacy through the causal power, not of the one performing it, but of the work itself, which is performed in persona Christi. (For more than you want to know about this topic, see St. Thomas, Summa theologica III.64.)


The analogy to literature is obvious. Does the artwork gain its (aesthetic) efficacy through the power of the one writing it, or through the power of the work itself? What I call literary Donatists say the former: they believe that a work of art can only be good (aesthetically) if its creator is good (morally, one presumes). This position leads to such things as paying more attention to the artist’s life than to his work. The opposing position is held by literary Catholics, and, not coincidentally, by many actual Catholics; it can be found in the aesthetic philosophy of Jacques Maritain, and, through him, after crossbreeding in interesting ways with the High Modernist doctrine of poetic impersonality, it finds its way into the writing of such diverse writers as David Jones and Flannery O’Connor. This position leads to an insistence that the artwork should be seen as if created by an anonymous craftsman.


The obvious question, of course, is why works of art should be compared to sacraments at all. Two objections come to mind.

First, isn’t it just another way of secretly asserting the hidden priesthood of all poets? Some sacraments can be performed by anyone, but the ones everyone has in mind in these discussions–communion and ordination–are reserved for a select few. But artistic creation is not reserved for a select few; anyone can do it, or, more precisely, no one can do it, but it still sometimes gets done.

Second, isn’t the point of ex opere operato that what the ministers are thinking doesn’t matter so long as they’re saying the words properly, such that they’re interchangeable with Christ, who does have the right intention? Which means all valid sacramental actions look identical? That’s a far cry from the world of artistic creation, in which even the most traditional creators never make things exactly the way their predecessors did.

Perhaps the better theological analogy for artistic creation is not consecration, but thaumaturgy. Works of art are like miracles: any given one (artwork, miracle) need not much resemble another; there are no known techniques for bringing one about; yet certain people (poets, saints) seem to have it happen to them often, and we think this to have something to do with their holiness, in the case of saints, and in the case of poets, their–well–their something. Hence our tendency to write Lives of the Saints and of the Poets, and to obsess over whether they were “authentic” in their faith, in their artistry. This even though–as the saints know well, the poets less well–what really matters isn’t the thaumaturge, but the wonders he performs, and what those wonders signify.Hey look, its impersonality again. And, of course, sacraments are a special kind of miracle.

Three lives of stone

March 2, 2015

1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” (1888):

[…] Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophiccal Investigations (~1946), §283:

What gives us so much as the idea that beings, things, can feel?

Is it that my education has led me to it by drawing my attention to feelings in myself, and now I transfer the idea to objects outside myself? That I recognize that there is something there (in me) which I can call ‘pain’ without getting into conflict with the way other people use the word? — I do not transfer my idea to stones, plants, etc.

Couldn’t I imagine having frightful pain and turning to stone while they lasted? Well, how do I know, if I shut my eyes, whether I have not turned into a stone? And if that has happened, in what sense will the stone have the pains? In what sense will they be ascribable to the stone? And why need the pain have a bearer at all here?!

And can one say of the stone that it has a soul and that is what has the pain? What has a soul, or pain, to do with a stone?

Only of what behaves like a human being can one say that it has pains.

For one has to say it of a body, or, if you like of a soul which some body has. And how can a body have a soul?

3. W.H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone” (1948):

[…] Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

Forgive me, God, this sin of speech

February 23, 2015

(— vergebe mir Gott
diese Sprachsünde!…)
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Dionysos-Dithyramben, “Unter Töchtern der Wüste”


Cliche the first: “Never talk about politics or religion.”

Cliche the second: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Being cliches, of course, both are entirely true, and both are entirely misleading.



The first: Don’t talk about politics and religion, we assume, because they’re controversial. They’ll start arguments. Because talking about sports won’t? Or about the latest gossip?

The second: Talk about ideas, we assume, because they’re what matter. They’re not frivolous. Unlike the present state of the world we live in? Or who’s a good person, and who isn’t?



The second:

Because talking about people, unless you’re contemplating an interaction with one of them, is nothing more than gossip, a way to reassure yourself that your network of various acquaintances really does hang together, really does coalesce into a social sphere; and most of the time, people are neither good nor bad enough to demand an ethical response.

Because talking about events, unless you’re contemplating a response to one of them, is just news, a way of marking the flow of time and your place in it, your place on the outlined path of life, or on this or that side of history; and most of the time, the events we hear about don’t actually call for us to do anything except not pretend like they didn’t happen.

And because talking about ideas, unless you’re contemplating changing your mind on one of them, is nothing more than self-congratulation, a way of reminding yourself that your opinions are (in your opinion) correct; but there no time like the present to stop thinking that what is not, is, and that what is, is not; and to start thinking that what is, is, and what is not, is not.

The first:

Because not everyone realizes that it’s pointless to talk about politics and religion if you’re not trying to change your mind.

And because, even if you do realize, it’s still the case that trying to change your mind is difficult, and it’s not polite to force other people to do difficult things for which they haven’t volunteered.


This applies, of course, not only to politics and religion, but to all ideas that matter.

It doesn’t apply to talk about science in the sense of natural history, which, as the name suggests, is really a form of news. They discovered a new kind of dinosaur! They put a man on the moon! How exciting to live in such times! Nor does it apply to talk about artistic preferences, which is just a form of gossip, talking about people synecdochally, by talking about the things the people have made. This kind of talk isn’t idea-talk at all.

But it does apply to talk about science in the sense of natural philosophy, and to talk about artistic judgments, in the Kantian sense.Neither of these kinds of idea-talk are controversial in the slightest. It just doesn’t make sense to engage in controversy about quantum mechanics, or algebraic topology, or the effect achieved by a particular poetic meter. I can teach you something about (say) QM, or I can learn from you, or we can be confused about it together, but as soon as we start arguing about who’s right (rather than trying to see who’s right), we’re no longer talking about QM at all, we’re just expressing (say) our wish that the many-worlds interpretation of QM be false because it being true would be bad for our preferred side in the wars of ir/religion. Such conversations, despite surface appearances, have nothing to do with the ideas supposedly in question. We might say the same, for that matter, of actual political and religious ideas, unlike political and religious cheerleading.

No, these ideas aren’t controversial; rather, they’re a bit dull, for those who don’t find them fascinating, and are difficult, even for those who love them. To the student, when there is a student, the remarks of the teacher in conversations about natural philosophy verge on gobbledygook, and in conversations about artistic judgments verge on the utterly vapid. When there’s not a student–that is, when there’s not a teacher, when neither conversant knows what ought to be said next–it doesn’t feel like meeting someone at a party and trading the names of bands you like; it feels like being called on in class and not knowing what to say, and like listening to someone else when they’re called on and they don’t know what to say. Awkward, unsatisfying, aimless.

And when the student finally learns the lesson, and both parties in the conversation know what to say when? At this point nothing remains to be said. They’re left to contemplate in silence.

A strange way, this, to spend your leisure hours. But if it isn’t what you want to do, just gossip and read the news. Don’t talk about “politics and religion.”

King all dressed in red

February 17, 2015

After re-watching The Wire last year, I recently begun watching David Simon’s next serial effort, Treme, (yes, I’m several years late).

I’ll admit, I expected it to be something like The Wire: New Orleans. But it’s–well, perhaps not more than that, or less, but certainly other. I’d recommend Treme (or at least the first season, which is all I’ve seen) to anyone fascinated by The Wire‘s bleak portrait of the modern city… but, perhaps even more so, to anyone interested in New Orleans jazz, or in the meaning of artistic performance and improvisation more generally.


Is it surprising for the creator of the supposedly hyper-realistic The Wire to make a show about such recondite subject matter? Nevertheless, Treme does seem to me a true sequel to The Wire, and watching it has brought out for me just how inadequate the term “realistic” is as a description of what The Wire accomplishes.

We could put it this way. The Wire offers a comprehensive vision of what it is to live in Baltimore, that is, to be a human being in the modern city: cops and drug dealers (season 1), and longshoremen (2), and politicians (3), and public schools (4), and newspapers (5), are all enslaved to Moloch, god of misaligned incentives. Either they act as the systems of the world bid them act, and live successful, meaningless lives; or they try to buck the system and do meaningful work, and are destroyed. Treme takes that vision for granted, and asks a further question. For those living in a heavily musical neighborhood in post-Katrina New Orleans, a neighborhood full of professional jazz players and street performers and high-end chefs: what does all this artistic activity signify, in the face of the utter devastation New Orleans suffered when the levees broke? That is: what has “pure” art, art without any practical object, to do with the world of Moloch? Is the escape it offers true or false?

Given all the heady interpretations attached to improvisational jazz by those who would see in it the proper artistic response to late-modern atomization and loss of traditional meaning, it makes perfect sense that Simon would take New Orleans as the setting for a show answering such a question. “New Orleans,” in the world of this show, is the name given to the belief that art can save. Not just a name, of course–an atmosphere. Several minutes of every episode are devoted to watching the characters play music. These aren’t just music videos; the point seems to be for us to recognize the presence (or absence) of what Auden (in “Sext”) calls “that eye-on-the-object look,” the look of total absorption in an action, the look that shows the artists are “forgetting themselves in a function.”

The irony, of course, is that, as one watches, one inevitably wonders: are the actors really playing the music here, or are they only pretending to play music? And so, by a strange transference, one wonders about the characters: is this life they live, this life of absorption in music, only a pretense? And so “New Orleans” becomes a name also for pretense; for the kind of decadent Catholicism the city is so well known for, a Catholicism of surface aesthetics only, with no content underneath. This life of pretense is the perpetual fear of every religion of art–until it is finally embraced. Treme so far at least has not quite embraced it, nor condemned it utterly; it seems more interested in examining its every facet, and searching for what in it might be worth saving.


While I do think this way of describing the series is accurate, it necessarily leaves out much, including the specific racial and economic tensions that complicate New Orleans life. This is all, of course, fascinating, just like The Wire‘s attention to detail. But, though there’s always more to be said, as an introduction to Treme this will have to do.

Since I have it stuck in my head at the moment, (and indeed it was the proximate cause for writing this post), I’ll end with a performance of “Iko Iko” from the 1950s. “Iko Iko” is one of the pieces of “classic New Orleans music” that shows up throughout the show. It’s not, though it might at first sound like it, a nonsense song; it’s about one of the more obscure New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions, the “Mardi Gras Indians.”

Happy Fat Tuesday.

Who would dare interrupt

February 9, 2015

There’s a curious moment in Book VI of Augustine’s Confessions where he describes a visit he made to Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, to ask for his advice. Ambrose had no door blocking the entrance to his study, and Augustine simply walked in, only to find Ambrose reading:

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room–for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him–we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence–for who would dare interrupt one so intent?–we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business.

A lovely description of perhaps the first recorded act of silent reading. But what does it mean? Despite Augustine’s obvious desire to portray Ambrose in as positive a light as possible, the behavior he describes doesn’t seem particularly charitable. So why mention it at all?

Well, maybe Augustine felt obliged to defend Ambrose against a criticism that had already been leveled against him. Or maybe silent reading really was a novelty whose historical importance Augustine realized. But if we go looking for a less deflationary explanation, it’s easy enough to find; just compare Augustine’s description, in Book IV, of the reason why grief fades with the passage of time:

This is the way of things. This is the lot thou hast given them, because they are part of things which do not all exist at the same time, but by passing away and succeeding each other they all make up the universe, of which they are all parts. For example, our speech is accomplished by sounds which signify meanings, but a meaning is not complete unless one word passes away, when it has sounded its part, so that the next may follow after it. Let my soul praise thee, in all these things, O God, the Creator of all; but let not my soul be stuck to these things by the glue of love, through the senses of the body. For they go where they were meant to go, that they may exist no longer.

And he goes on to wonder, not only why he failed to understand this at the time, but why he still fails to understand it:

Why then, my perverse soul, do you go on following your flesh? Instead, let it be converted so as to follow you. Whatever you feel through it is but partial. You do not know the whole, of which sensations are but parts; and yet the parts delight you. But if my physical senses had been able to comprehend the whole–and had not as a part of their punishment received only a portion of the whole as their own province–you would then desire that whatever exists in the present time should also pass away so that the whole might please you more. For what we speak, you also hear through physical sensation, and yet you would not wish that the syllables should remain. Instead, you wish them to fly past so that others may follow them, and the whole be heard. Thus it is always that when any single thing is composed of many parts which do not coexist simultaneously, the whole gives more delight than the parts could ever do perceived separately. But far better than all this is He who made it all. He is our God and he does not pass away, for there is nothing to take his place.

So the world is like a sentence (spoken, presumably, by God); and to hold on too tightly to any one object within it, would be like interrupting the speaker mid-sentence because you wished he had not moved on from a word you liked. Or, what is the same thing, would be like paying no attention to the rest of the sentence because the sound of a word sent you into a reverie.

Perhaps no one can listen with complete attention to the entirety of God’s world. But when reading the Scriptures, at least, Ambrose knows how to pass silently, without rhetorical distraction, from the syllables to the sense, in a way that makes it unthinkable to interrupt him. No wonder Augustine admired him most of all his teachers.


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