Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Don't Misunderstand Existentialism

"Pessimism v. Existentialism" by Robert Solomon (in The Chronicle of Higher Education). Linked in Arts & Letters Daily.

Finding fault in A.C. Grayling's "A law unto themselves"

First, go read Grayling's column at The Guardian.

Let me begin with three self-statements:
1. I disagree with many the social, theological, and hierarchical beliefs of the Catholic Church.
2. I believe gay people should have total equal rights in a free society, and that there is no reason gay couples should not be able to adopt children.
3. I am a strong advocate of separation of church and state and a secular society.

With those three statements, one would think I would agree with Grayling's column. We are looking at the issue from a similar place (albeit getting to that similar place in vastly different ways). But I do not. There are some problems in logic and tone. I'll pick out the quotes that strike me as intellectually unstable.

"It asks the prime minister to grant the Roman Catholic church's wish to continue being prejudiced and discriminatory in attitude and practice against a section of society whom texts 2000 and more years old instruct them to regard as abominations."

Being progressive does not mean that we have to think anything that is old is bad. Grayling's tone suggests that the very age of these texts should make us realize they are silly and should be abandoned. It is not entirely unreasonable to assume the opposite. Progressivism need not strike everything down and start from nothing--that never works. Progressivism can work within a culture for, well, progress.

"the Roman Catholic church (let us keep things in very sharp and very relevant perspective here, and remember what this organisation might equally well be called: viz. the Roman Paedophile Protection Agency) to be exempted from the law of the land so that it can continue its discriminatory prejudices."

Besides the intentially inflammatory label, is the implication that the Catholic Church might want to be exempted from prosecution for molestation charges? That they are so morally bankrupt on this issue that they should never ask for any exemptions from the law?

"In their pillow talk does she urge her husband to respect principles of equality before the law, and the human rights of all British citizens, in the face of attacks from narrow-minded bigots? Or does she think that personal choice of superstition trumps the law?"

I've always scoffed when people who disagree with the Catholic Church get called "anti-Catholic" or "bigoted." And I don't easily call anybody bigoted, given that I've been called one myself and it does sting. But let's just note that it's possible for somebody who labels all religious belief as superstition might have a fair dose of prejudices.

"The churches are making common cause in seeking exemptions from the law of the land. Grant one, and soon there will be another, and another; the self-selected coteries of believers will be islands of the exempted, as once they were in our history - above the law, protected by the law in doing what others will be punished for doing, because these latter do not have the modern analogue of "benefit of clergy"."

This is such an obvious use of the Slippery Slope Fallacy that I will not even comment on it.

"Notice this very central and salient fact. Even we who most robustly oppose the effect of superstition on public policy in society, and (separately but relatedly) combat the intellectual corruptions of superstitions belief systems, do not wish to stop cardinals, archbishops or their flocks from believing what they like and getting together in dark buildings to mumble and genuflect and roll their eyes up to heaven. Indeed we would act to protect their rights in this respect if others threatened them with laws to prevent them doing it, or ordering them to believe something else, even as we shake our heads over them or laugh outright at them for the absurdity of what they do."

Again with the intentionally inflammatory word choice. But based on what comes next, it seems Grayling is saying "We defend the right of religious people to believe what they want, to get together and worship as they want. But we do not defend the right to practice in life their religious beliefs."

"But we cannot accept that they should impose their beliefs and choices on the rest of society, or be immune from the law, or be allowed to perpetuate discrimination and bigotry, or be allowed to derail the progress that the rest of society is making towards fair, open, decent, and kindly dispensations of acceptance and inclusion."

Fair enough. I don't like when religious groups impose their beliefs either. However, I'm not sure that's what they're doing (they're not saying no gay people can adopt, they just don't want to help gay people adopt). Obviously England has different church-state laws than America. But if the religious group has an activity that doesn't hurt anybody (in this case, they're just refusing to help certain people, not actively hurting people), then the laws shouldn't require them to do things that are against their religious beliefs. My feeling remains that if a particular church doesn't like gay people, I won't like that particular church, but as a private entity that's still they're business.

In this case, much more than the church trying to impose values on the rest of society, Grayling is recommending that society be allowed to impose values on the church. Neither should be acceptable.

"This is a test case for whether we as a society are going to allow ancient superstition to dictate terms, or whether we are going to have to re-learn the lessons of the secularism"

So in order to not allow religion to dictate terms to the state, the state must dictate terms to religion? Can't they both not dictate terms to each other?

"against which the churches fought and fought, spilling the blood of millions: never forget how hard they fought to stop progress in these as in all other fields - which has got us as far (not far enough) as we have got today."

Often in history the churches--very famously and publicly--have attempted to impede progress. Too often. However, often churches have been at the forefront of progress, too. Churches have brought us a lot of good as a civilization, and it is unfair to selectively view history only in terms of the bad.

A little reader-response

Yesterday I was observing class run by a professor who's really got a handle on and dedication to Reader-response theory. I try to foster discussion and student response in literature courses, but I learned more watching this one class than I could have imaginined. Already I'm trying to incorporate what he does into what I do.

During this class Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" was discussed, and I also read two other poems on father-son relationships (written by the son): Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" and Henry Taylor's "Breakings."

As you may have heard, my life changed a little bit this week. I think every time I've read literature on father-son relationships, I've thought of it exclusively from the son's perspective. This week, perhaps for the first time, I started thinking about the father. What the sons said about their fathers in the poem made me think about how the fathers felt about life and their sons.

I don't think it's possible to pretend that who and what we are as people has no influence on how we read. That's silly. The only way we can read is as ourselves, and everything we are, our identity, is based on such a wicked combination of place, time, experience, background, and relationships that we cannot avoid interpreting a poem from our identity.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A top ten list

I made a list of my favorite books. These are works that are my favorite, but that I would also feel comfortable nominating as "great" works, either surely or potentially great classics of the Western tradition. There's little diversity among the authorship (10 males, 9 of them white--for all my progressive politics and progressive literary theory, I'm a Bloomian conservative on literature, I guess). If I had read all of Book Two I would include Don Quixote, in a different mood I might include The Odyssey, and four of my favorite authors (Hemingway, Faulkner, King, and Sartre) don't find any books on the list. A "book" is considered here to be a novel, a play, a long poem, or a collection of poetry (written as a collection).

The Brothers Karamozov (Dostoevsky)
Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky)
The Magus (Fowles)
The French Lieutenant's Woman (Fowles)
Hamlet (Shakespeare)
Wicked (Maguire)
Crow (Hughes)
Paradise Lost (Milton)
M. Butterfly (Hwang)
Young Man Luther (Erikson)

Since I need som projects on this blog, I will probably devote a longer post to each of these works in the future. Feel free to comment on the list or add your own. You can use any standard you'd like for "favorite," but again, my standard involves feeling comfortable replacing "favorite" with "great."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Grab Sack

There are two attitudes of pacifism:
1. Striving for a future utopia in which the factors that lead to war, and war itself, don't exist.
2. Recognizing utopia is impossible and that the world is full of complexity and conflict, and attempting in all things to exist in this world of complexity and conflict in non-violent ways.
Either way, waging war in order to achieve a future stable peace is oxymoronic and typically doomed to failure.

I am no expert on the Vietnam war, though I have enough familiarity with it to imagine that what is going on right now is pretty much what was going on then, that politicians are responding in the same way, and that exhaustion and frustration of Americans from all perspectives is developing pretty much the same way. Sadly, I suspect that 30 years from now we will be experiencing this all again.

The difference in difficulty between being vegan or vegetarian is about a hundred times greater than between being vegetarian or carnivorous. There are just so fewer options--I miss cheese as a vegan much more than I missed meat as a vegetarian. But a moral choice without sacrifice isn't really a choice, and besides, strawberries and grapes are nature's candy.

I'm nothing if not fickle--not only have I given up my vow of reading 25 plays before reading another novel, but I have given it up to read the longest novel I could find, War and Peace. And when that is finished (when? I'm a horribly slow reader, but I also believe my slow reading helps me to retain/remember what I read much better) I'll probably read another long novel, Dostoevsky's Demons. I like Russian writers in general and Dostoevsky in particular.

The distinguishing feature of Paul Thomas Anderson's films is structure.

A trend I wholly support is the abandonment of the laugh-track for sitcoms. There's a long list of recent terrific sitcoms (and even just some merely decent ones) that are much better for lack of a laugh-track. My favorites include Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and The Office, but there are many others, and the list should include cartoon sitcoms. I will consider Seinfeld the last great laugh-track sitcom, and the new wave of sitcoms an upgrade.

When my child is born, the first words I would like to say to him/her are from King Lear: "When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." Alas, I'm thinking my first words might just be "Holy Fuck."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Moral relativism is not the problem in the world. The problem is people that are so convinced that they are right and that an Other is wrong they are willing to kill over it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I recommend the last two things I read

Larry Watson's Montana 1948 For professional reasons I broke my vow of reading drama to read this brief novel. It's somehow relaxed, detached, and intense. Could a writer make it more clear that his book is about a particular time and place than making that particular time and place the title? A really good novel--the narration works well.

Aristophanes' Lysistrata
Wait a minute, so there's a work of art out there with a strong anti-war message, and it's loaded with boner jokes? And it was written 2,400 years ago? Is this the greatest thing ever to happen? Well, no, it's not. But it's pretty good.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

After all these years, we still don't know whether art imitates life or life imitates art.

Today on some chuck cable news station some chuck pundit was talking about what flaws a particular political group might have in the coming year (no more details in part because I avoid explicit discussion of contemporary "politics," in part because I don't remember it all, and in part because I wasn't paying very good attention). This pundit mentioned overstepping and referred to hubris. I started thinking of Greek tragedy at the word, and most of the ideas were twisting and oozing and gushing in my brain before the pundit said something to the effect of, "We haven't really advanced beyond Greek tragedy." Before he mentioned this, my stream of consciousness was, "Hmm, those Greeks were really onto something. They had something real in their art about human nature. But wait--why would a contemporary pundit even use the word 'hubris'? Were the Greeks really onto something, or were their works so formative and influential that even today people see the world through the framework of Greek tragedy? Did the Greeks see the nature of humanity, or did they preach a viewpoint of humanity that everybody still believes?"

And so it goes. Why haven't we advanced beyond Greek tragedy? Is it because, in truth, there is a universal, timeless aspect to human nature, and particularly to human beings who strive for power? Or are we essentially incapable of looking at the world in any other way because the basic forms and structures we have for making meaning were set in place so long ago? Has the world simply been interpreted through those forms for so long and so many times that it is the natural way we intrepret it? Or is it the "right" way to interpret it, some eternal truth of human nature?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party"

Pinter is a unique writer: his style stands out, and you always know when you're experiencing one of his works. "The Birthday Party," I believe his earliest play, features many of his bigger issues: odd power dynamics, absurd situations (and as importantly, absurd human reactions to absurd situations), emphasis on language, particularly the difficulties of communication, the inanity of everyday conversation, and again, the absurdism in language. I wonder, though, just how many Pinter dramas it is necessary to read. Do I need to read both "The Birthday Party" and "The Dumb Waiter" to get the point? Granted, his screen treatment of The French Lieutenant's Woman shows versatility, so I guess there's no reason not to keep barrelling through his works.