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The many names of Turin Hurinson

November 3, 2014

Why do I write here under the (pseudo)pseudonym Turin Hurinson (more properly, Túrin Húrinson)?

When I began three and a half years ago, I gave two very simple reasons: “to preserve continuity with my previous journal and to mark the great influence J.R.R. Tolkien has had on my way of thinking.” Both remain true. But both, increasingly, seem inadequate. It’s one thing for a recent college graduate, unsure where his life is going, to want his future to have something to do with his past. It’s another for an advanced graduate student, done with classes and exams, more often the teacher than the pupil, soon (I hope) to begin writing a dissertation, after that (I dream) to get a job as an academic, to be still writing under a nickname adopted at the age of thirteen.[1]

Never fear; introspection is here with the answer.

* * *

It would be easy for me to drop the handle, and might well make everyone concerned feel a little less awkward. There’s really only one reason I don’t, and it has to do with the name’s meaning. Most people, of course, don’t recognize the name, and perhaps think it sounds vaguely high fantasy–and who takes that stuff seriously? But it refers to Túrin Turambar, the first tragic hero I ever took seriously (even if, when I first encountered him, I did not know what taking literature seriously meant). Túrin was the greatest human warrior in Middle Earth, and the most proud. As pride does, it led to his downfall–over and over. The tragedy lies in how he dealt with the second chance, and the third, and the fourth…. (For this reason it would make a bad play–it lacks the proper dramatic arc. Not that I don’t know people who have tried.) After his world fell apart about him, he always moved to a new land, adopted a new name, and attempted to build for himself a new life: first as Neithan, “the wronged”; then as Agarwaen son of Úmarth, “blood-stained son of ill-fate”; then as Gorthol, “dread helm,” and Mormegil, “black sword”; finally as Turambar, “master of doom.” The progression of names is a kind of magic, an attempt to rewrite the meaning of his life: broken from without; bound by the past; reforged from within; freed by the future. So Túrin would have us see him. But Túrin is the son of Húrin, whose family has been placed under a curse, and, as always happens, it was by refusing to acknowledge it that Túrin ensured his lineage would catch up to him. “Túrin Húrinson” is the name he never adopted. To use it would have been, one suspects, a potent anti-magic, a formula acknowledging his lack of power over his curse which thereby lifted it.

This does not, of course, mean that dropping the pseudonym would place me under the curse of Húrin. That the pseudonym is “Túrin Húrinson” of all names, though, seems to me not just an astonishing coincidence (I certainly didn’t have this meaning in mind when I called myself “Turin” in 2003 or tacked on “Hurinson” in 2006), but also a useful memento temporis. I may disavow some of what Turin_2003 said, and wish that others did not pay attention to it, but I cannot change the past, and cannot erase the fact the he said it.

* * *

Over the last decade-plus Turin has said some dumb things, and thought some dumb thoughts. Mistaken beliefs are not sins–though they may be symptoms of moral failure–so the rest of this post is not exactly a confession. But for a while now it’s seemed to me like a good idea to state explicitly, and in one place, some of the more important issues on which I’ve changed my mind since I first started subjecting the world to its contents. Don’t worry, I won’t make you read anything I wrote back then (not everything here I actually said online anyway). I will give enough context to make clear that I held these beliefs for real reasons, even if not for good ones.[2]

*

I’ll start with the position readers will likely find most alien. Turin once thought, and felt very strongly, that “Math ∈ God,” or perhaps “Math  God” (he was always a bit fuzzy about which exactly he wanted). I stand by the basic train of thought: math is true; truth is in God; so math is in God. But Turin clearly thought that this relation was of immense importance, such that, unless we made it explicit, we would remain confused about why to worship God rather than math. This no longer seems to me like a real concern; why would we think mathematics God, just because mathematics communicates truth, any more than we would think economics God, just because economics communicates truth? Whereas I now see reason not to emphasize this point, namely, that it encourages a “Platonic” mathematical metaphysics which I no longer endorse.

*

Second, for the position readers will likely find most repulsive. Turin once self-identified as a (non-Nazi) fascist; by this, he probably meant something like neo-reaction. The more shallow train of thought leading him here was: if fascists are bad because they kill Jews, but really only the Nazis killed Jews, what’s wrong with fascism per se? (Middle school teachers are not the best at answering this question.) The deeper one was: moral anarchy is bad. We need a way of telling which actions are right and which are wrong, and this appears to be the purpose of the state. But if it’s sometimes right to break the law, this falls apart. So it can never be right to break the law, ever. It might sometimes be right to change the law, but this has to be done through recognized channels. Those who work outside those channels (e.g. Henry David Thoreau, Antigone) deserve what comes to them. I can still sympathize with this mindset, but if anything I now have a tendency towards anarchism. The solution to Turin’s deeper worry, clearly, was to find a state-independent source of ethics. Which I concluded was Christianity, but that’s a different story.

*

These beliefs both reflect a strong tendency Turin once had to abstract away from the human person. We can see this more clearly in his afore-mentioned approach to literature. Influenced by too many poorly-reasoned essays by prominent authors, he thought that literature was, essentially, about running psychological and ontological experiments–what would such a person do in such a situation? what would a world in which such a thing was possible “be like”?–which could inspire useful generalizations about Humanity and Being. So, literature as philosophical counterfactual. (This was also his justification for preferring to read “speculative fiction,” i.e. books about things that couldn’t have happened in real life: good scientists seek out exotic subjects to experiment on.) Actually trying to write stories, and reading more and better ones, slowly brought him to see the inanity of this approach. I’m not able at the present date to give a straightforward argument for the value of literature (who is?), but if I had to try, I’d appeal not to the comparison of the life-world portrayed with our own, but to the encounter with the life-world and its inhabitants, an encounter I see as quasi-ethical.

*

The temptation to abstraction comes out also, unsurprisingly, in Turin’s approach to romantic love. Beloveds are like books, except that ideally one loves many books, but only one beloved. Turin recognized this, but was unclear on how, exactly, you were supposed to know which person to love without loving more than one. He also couldn’t tell how you could give reasons for loving someone which wouldn’t mean that you loved the reasons, not the person. He concluded that love ought to be unconditional: you were supposed to pick someone to love as if at random and stick with it, come what may. He grew out of this before actually pursuing anyone romantically, but was unclear what belief should replace it. He eventually realized that loving someone for no reason was no better than loving her for some particular reason (just like 0 is less than 1, but isn’t any less a number). He also realized that romantic love was less different from friendship than he had thought, since the goal was marriage, not perpetual angst. The point, it turns out, was to love her for herself.

*

The final major shift from abstract to personal took place in Turin’s views on intellectual property. From a young age Turin was exposed to the philosophy of Free Software and “copyleft” generally. He still essentially agrees with it; he still, for example, uses GNU/Linux, and thinks everything written more than, say, 20 years ago should be in the public domain. But originally his justification for this centered on the fact that mathematics was eternally true, and that anything you could copyright was just information, and so just a number–and how could you own a number? (…as if owning anything were straightforward.) I would now focus the argument, not on mathematics, but on poetry: copyright makes no sense, not sense because we owe works of art too little, but because we owe them too much. I would also acknowledge that, since the law is not an embodiment of morality but a tool for helping society function, there might be some place in it for copyright restrictions, so long as they were of limited duration, and acknowledged to be merely pragmatic.

*

I’m unsure whether to include here two additional shifts, because they demonstrate, not how Turin’s original idiosyncratic beliefs evolved to be still idiosyncratic but more justifiable, but how he bought into the “common sense” on certain subjects only to realize how silly it was. But perhaps this itself is a reason to find these shifts, too, noteworthy. So I’ll state the positions without giving the (hardly thought-out) reasons I found them plausible. First, I believed that allowing corporations to be “legal persons” was terrible, since that stopped us from regulating them the way they clearly deserved; second (and not necessarily consistently), I believed that regulation caused more problems than it solved, since the free market distributed goods most efficiently. I’ve since come to believe, contra the latter, that distributism makes some good points as well; and, contra the former, that there’s no other way to talk about corporations that makes sense.

* * *

[1] Oh, and soon to be a father (incidentally, check out my wife’s art!). Therefore irrefutably an adult, however strange that seems to all concerned.

[2] Reading Scott Alexander continues to impress upon me the importance of the principle of charity. I’d say “you should definitely read him,” except I’m not sure I should. Not because he’s ever less than eloquent, intelligent, and charitable, but because I often disagree with him, and eloquence, intelligence, and charity don’t stop his beliefs, when wrong, from being potentially dangerous. If you’re just reading casually it’s too easy to move unthinkingly from “he’s a good person” to “his beliefs are good.” So–you should read him, if you’re willing to put in the effort. In which case, he’s definitely worth it.

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