The Exam To End All Exams has ended, and, it is to be hoped, has lived up to the name I have just now given it. Leaving me free, for the first time in several months, to think and write about whatever I may happen to find interesting. Which explains, I suppose, why I am sitting here writing this post, rather than, I don’t know, not writing convoluted blog posts at one in the morning after a week of writing thirteen thousand words of academic essay.
That, and Infinite Jest continues to haunt my every waking moment. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and am already willing to say that It Should Be Read. I went in skeptical, but it more than lives up to its hype. I’m not at a point yet where I can give a coherent account of what makes it so achingly beautiful, but if you took all the laudatory adjectival phrases found in the dust-jacket blurbs and averaged them, giving extra weight to the “tragic epic” and “humane vision” type ones and half-ignoring the “intellectual wizardry” and linguistic rush” stuff, you would at least not be led far astray. Which in and of itself is impressive, seeing as dust-jacket blurbs are notoriously overwrought and hypocritical.
What I mean by achingly beautiful–for example, after reading a particularly disturbing scene, I found it difficult to do anything but sit quietly until the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate began to run through my head. It’s perhaps the closest I’ve come to wanting to pray for a fictional character. Which touches on another thing about Infinite Jest: for a wor of secular-realism (with a pinch of science-fiction-as-social-satire), it sure makes one feel the importance of belief in, and fear of, demonic powers.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate is well worth learning. Here’s a good sung performance of it. But the words that came to my mind are from one of the verses that almost never gets sung:
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
(Yes, it’s Cecil Frances Alexander’s 19th century poetic reimagining I use, not a sturdy old prose translation. I like beautiful things. Alexander was another of those 19th century hymn-writers associated with the Oxford Movement, though she, unlike Frederick Faber, did not convert.)
What would a secular-scientific fear of demons even look like?
I’ve also been delving recently the archives of Star Slate Codex, the personal blog of one Scott Alexander, rationalist and LessWrong community member (you may recall my delving into the writings of their cult leader Eliezer a while back). He has, I think, a good answer to the question, in his post Meditations on Moloch (warning: long, but good): demons are those natural processes that prevent us from doing well, and that turn even our best efforts to overcome or evade their powers against us. The part near the end about “not hav[ing] enough hubris not to try to kill God” offers a fascinating perspective into how transhumanists approach ethical questions, and even if I disagree with it, I find the concluding peroration quite stirring:
Moloch is exactly what the history books say he is. He is the god of Carthage. He is the god of child sacrifice, the fiery furnace into which you can toss your babies in exchange for victory in war.
He always and everywhere offers the same deal: throw what you love most into the flames, and I will grant you power.
As long as the offer is open, it will be irresistable. So we need to close the offer. Only another god can kill Moloch. We have one on our side, but he needs our help. We should give it to him.
Moloch is the demon god of Carthage.
And there is only one thing we say to Carthage: “Carthago delenda est.”
Now, this comes across to me as essentially gnostic, but that may be the transhumanism, not the scientific-secular demon-fear, speaking. I’d have to re-read Augustine to be sure (but at least the anti-Manichee stuff is in the Confessions not The City of God). I have noticed Christian writers, e.g. Alan Jacobs, speaking in very similar ways, e.g.The Devil’s Bargain (which is somewhat of a tangent but is still worth reading, and which is shorter than any text mentioned so far except the Breastplate), so yeah.
The basic move being made in all this demon-talk seems to be treating natural or economic processes as if they had agency. Strange kinds of agency have been a theme on this blog in the last year or so, but I’m only just beginning to get a handle on the best way to talk about them. Another of Scott’s posts (don’t remember which) pointed me towards this account of different ways of doing so: Patterns of Refactored Agency (warning: philosophical sloppiness, but with a helpful catalog, plus a bonus computer programming metaphor). I’m not sure, but I might posit that Augustine accepts #2 (clumping) and #4 (inversion), and sees demons basically as agents of these kinds; thinks #1 (splitting) and #3 (crosscutting) are unacceptable denials of personal responsibility; and finds #5 (pervasiveness) overly pantheistic and #6 (elimination) perversely atheistic. (#7-9 are less interesting.) Anyway, there may be more on this topic soon.
Why do I care? Knowing how to talk about these things is important because words have power, and using the wrong words can leave you vulnerable. If you do not understand Moloch, Moloch might destroy you. If you understand Moloch wrongly, Moloch will control you–in a way, a worse fate. Be careful what you read, lest you summon demons unawares–there’s a way of seeing Infinite Jest and The Lord of the Rings in which both have this as their moral. Infinite Jest, of course, is (in part) about an avante-gard film so entertaining that whoever sees it loses all will to do anything other than watch the film over and over. As for The Lord of the Rings, this is the last link, promise: An Adam Roberts lays out a mind-bending reading of Tolkien in a (brief) post titled The Great Fable In Praise of Book Burning:
Tolkien’s ring of power is a plain gold ring, of course, and embodies a series of quite complex valences to do with binding, with vows and marriage. But at the same time as being a blank surface, the ring is also paradoxically (which is to say, magically) lettered. The ring, in other words, is a book. To be sure it is a short book; its whole text is the one ring charm. But a short book is still a book. Looked at this way, Lord of the Rings becomes a strangely self-destructive fable—a book about the quest to destroy a book, a long string of carefully chosen words positing a world in which words have magical power to huge evil. […] The repeated theme is the danger of words; their slipperiness but also the ease with which they can move us directly into the malign world of the text. One ring to bind us all. Books are bound, too.