The Unstilled World

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.


- From "Ash Wednesday" by T.S. Eliot. Read the whole poem here.

An End to Evil?

I dearly wish we could rid ourselves of the idea that human beings have the ability to bring and end to evil. We do a lot of damage when we act from such ideas. Such damage may have been on my mind when I checked out from the library David Frum and Richard Perle’s book, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror and Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.

I’ve been meaning to read Frum and Perle’s ridiculously named narrative since it came out in 2003, particularly given their influence on the rhetoric and thinking of the Bush Administration. I finished it over the weekend, somewhat relieved that the content didn’t quite match the absurdity of the title. I’m reading Mayer’s text now, in which she chronicles how we executed Dick Cheney’s plan of working on “the dark side” by instituting a policy of torture. I also happen to be revisiting R.A. Salvatore’s fantasy series The Dark Elf Trilogy, but that’s probably not related to my other pre-Lenten reading.

Frum and Pearl, both fellows at the American Enterprise Institute, pitched their book as “a manual for victory” in the War on Terror—victory defined not as managing or minimizing the evil of terrorism, but rather as ending “this evil before it kills again and on a genocidal scale.” They framed this war as a war at home, abroad, and a war of ideas. At home, they pushed for an enforced immigration policy, measures like the Patriot Act, and a “national identity card that registers the bearer’s name and biometric data.”

They proposed we fight abroad by imposing an air and naval blockade of North Korea, redeploying our ground troops on the Korean peninsula, developing detailed plans for a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities, toppling the Iranian regime and establishing in its place a secular democracy—in part by supporting Iranian dissidents, insisting upon a “Westward reorientation” of Syrian economic and political policies, halting the flow of oil to Syria from Iraq, and treating Libya as “an implacably hostile regime” aggressively pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Frum and Perle also offered guidance on how to handle Hamas and Hezbollah and how to get tough with and tell the terrible truth about Saudi Arabia.

How to pay for this long war? Frum and Pearl: “We can pay for it by holding the line on federal spending, setting tax rates at levels that promote economic growth, and borrowing the remainder.” Not to worry, though, “victory triggers economic prosperity—which in turn repays the debt we incurred to achieve that victory.”

I didn’t find the book impressive, to say the least. The authors wrote weak versions of counter-arguments and spared no superlatives in introducing experts who supported their positions. What really frustrated me, though, was their neglect to consider what all these actions would have upon the people and complex social structures of the countries they would attack, liberate, or protect us from. They didn’t seem to care that our actions in the name of fighting terror or keeping us safe may be terribly destructive to others, especially if we don’t have the faintest clue about their countries and who they are as a people. The authors did finally approach the ludicrousness of their title in their concluding paragraph, which ends with what I assume is intentionally religious language:
A world at peace; a world governed by law; a world in which all peoples are free to find their own destinies: That dream has not yet come true, it will not come true soon, but if it ever does come true, it will be brought into being by American armed might and defended by American might, too. America’s vocation is not an imperial vocation. Our vocation is to support justice with power. It is a vocation that has earned us terrible enemies. It is a vocation that has made us, at our best moments, the hope of the world.
The hope of the world?

Truth in Literature: Truth as Correspondence

Having dealt in my previous two posts with my objection (translate: pet peeve) to a particular approach to the question of truth in literature, I now turn to exploring the broader question of how literature contains truth or how literature can be true. Taking my cue from a critic of my previous posts who shall remain nameless (does a link constitute a name?), I intend in the next few posts to look specifically at the question “What is truth in literature?” In this post I will consider truth in literature as the correspondence between the statements in a work of literature and reality.

Truth has traditionally been defined as the correspondence between language (e.g., words, concepts, ideas) and reality. My idea of a thing is true if it conforms to the thing as it is in itself. The understanding of truth as correspondence seems to describe what we mean by truth in literature. When I say that Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit, my statement is true, because Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. Macbeth’s proclamation that life is a tale told by an idiot seems to be false because life, while it may be a tale, is not one told by an idiot. Dante’s image of Satan encased in ice strikes me as true, for it embodies what I take to be the truth that sin stifles freedom. However, understanding truth in literature as the correspondence between its language and reality presents some difficulties.

First, many if not most of the statements in a literary work, especially in the case of a fictional work, do not correspond to reality. Yet the falsity here, if it is falsity, doesn’t seem to bother us. We might be willing to call a story true in which 99% of the statements do not conform to reality. Besides, we don’t generally verify most sentences in literature by testing them against reality. When I read in a bedtime story, “It was a dark and stormy night,” I don’t look out the window to see if the sentence is true. The author establishes the truth of the statement. Tolkien established the truth that Bilbo is a hobbit by creating Bilbo as a hobbit. Of course, that the fictional artist establishes truth doesn’t rule out truth in literature being truth-as-correspondence. While I don’t scan the horizons of Texas looking for Ents, I may reflect upon the truth of Treebeard’s words when I can apply the meaning of his words beyond the literary world Tolkien created. Treebeard seems to make a number of statements about morality and the nature of language that I can consider both within the context of the novel and the larger context of the world I inhabit.

Here emerges our second difficulty with thinking of truth in literature as a correspondence between language and reality. When a fictional narrator or a fiction character makes a statement that we would consider true to life, the statement made, while written by a real author, does not directly reference the real world. Sentences in literature have their meaning and reference in the context of the fictional world.[i] Captain Ahab’s words of hatred for the White Whale refer to an entity created by Melville. Portia’s exposition on the nature of mercy refers not to mercy in our world, but to mercy in her world, a world created by Shakespeare. What she says may be true to real mercy, but her statements are not directly about real mercy, for the real word in which real mercy exists is not the world of which she speaks. Why do these prepositions to and about matter?[ii] Because if Portia’s statements do not directly refer to mercy in the real world, then it seems that no declaration about mercy in the real world is being made. As a reader, I might speak those beautiful lines about mercy and mean them to refer to real mercy, and in doing so make a declaration, but here it is I who declare, not Portia. Moreover, while we are probably safe to say that Shakespeare believed the words he gave to Portia (and didn’t believe, say, Richard III’s take on conscience), it does not follow logically from his giving the lines to Portia that he himself agreed with those lines. Therefore we cannot logically conclude that Shakespeare was making a declaration about mercy when writing Portia’s words on the matter. If literary works do not make declarations about the real world, is it then accurate on our part to judge the truth of literature on whether its words correspond to reality?

A third difficulty is with the correspondence theory itself. When I consider, for example, whether Treebeard’s philosophy of language is true, I cannot test its correspondence to the reality of language, but at best to an interpretation of the reality of language. In other words, I compare Treebeard’s fictional philosophy of language to philosophy of language in the real world. The question, then, is which understanding of reality should be the standard by which I judge the truth in literature?

These difficulties shouldn’t lead us to abandon the idea that there is truth in literature, but they may prompt us to consider ways other than correspondence that truth functions in the literary work of art.

_____

[i] Ingarden, Roman. The Literary Work of Art. Translated by George G. Grabowicz. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
[ii] Hospers, John. Meaning and Truth in the Arts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948.

Literature and Truth II

There are stories in which the characters, plot, setting, and other literary elements are important only in so far as they help covey some message or moral. We call these stories parables, particularly when they are brief. I have noticed a tendency, often among my fellow Catholics, to treat all stories as if they functioned in the manner of parables. Stories are approached, understood, and judged primarily, if not exclusively, in reference to the message or moral they communicate. If the story expresses Truth, then the story is good. If it propagates falsehood, then it is bad. I remember a conversation in which a friend remarked that she didn’t care for The Fellowship of the Ring film by Peter Jackson because it didn’t have the “Catholic messages” of the book. Harry Potter was widely criticized for containing a “pro-witchcraft message.” I’ve started reading a few terribly written novels recommended to me because the authors proudly upheld the teachings of the Catholic Church. Now the question of truth and falsehood is not irrelevant to the discussion of literature, but neither is it the only pertinent question. Other qualities of literature matter. Beauty, for example, which has a purpose of its own.

Literature and Truth

I am leery of the notion that the purpose of literature is to impart truth. Not because literature cannot express truths about matters temporal or eternal, but because the literary artist is concerned first and foremost with creating a literary world and its concrete objects. These creations serve as more than just aesthetic coverings for the author’s philosophical or theological ideas. A work of literature is about its characters, settings, events, conflicts, images, and its other earthly aspects; these have greater significance than any simplistic “message” or “moral” the reader might abstract from the work. What matters most in Macbeth, for example, is not that the reader walks away with a premonition that it’s best not to kill people in the pursuit of power. Catholic author Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.”

Faith in The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Several years ago, before our son came into the world, my wife and I were delightfully watching each season of The Simpsons as it came out on DVD. I excitedly anticipated the day when we could watch one of the funniest episodes in the series, the one where Mulder and Scully from The X-Files come to Springfield. We had a problem, though. My wife had never seen an episode of The X-Files. Fortunately, our public library carried the very expensive DVDs of the whole series. My wife was hooked, particularly by the dynamic between the lead characters. We watched just about every episode, missing mainly those that wouldn't play due to scratches on the disk.

When the second X-Files movie came out last year, we were eager to see it. Unfortunately, we rarely see movies in the theater these days, and the poor reviews the film received didn't inspire us to make it the one film we saw on the big screen in 2008. The X-Files: I Want to Believe recently came out on DVD and at our local library, so we finally saw it on Friday, figuring from the reviews that we'd probably like it, but not that much.

We loved it. The film isn't without its flaws, but none of these diminished my enjoyment. My major complaint was that the FBI characters who call upon Mulder and Scully were bland and uninteresting. When one of them dies, I didn't care. The story didn't seem to care either.

The story sort of picks up years after the final episode of the television series, with both Mulder and Scully no longer at the FBI, and plays as many of the stand alone episodes did. Indeed, aside from the wide-screen format and longer length, the film could have been one of the many well-crafted episodes outside the show's mythical arc. The X-Files: I Want to Believe follows a narrative structure suitable for an uninterrupted film, but it maintains a small and simple scope, never trying to be grand or impressive. The special effects are minimal. I wish The Simpsons movie had done the same; it tried to be super big and failed so horribly.

Even the paranormal activity is low-key in The X-Files: I Want to Believe. The FBI enlists the aid of Mulder and Scully when an agent vanishes and the bureau's only lead is a retired Catholic priest named Father Joseph Crissman who seemingly has a psychic connection to the vanishing. He leads the agents to related crime scenes they otherwise would not have found. We're informed that the priest is a convicted pedophile, a detail that explains his current residence, motivates (perhaps) his hope for atonement and redemption, unites him to the criminal activity, and establishes the basis for Scully's dislike and distrust of him.

Scully is a Catholic and a medical doctor, and the television show often explored the dynamic between her faith and her scientific reason. In The X-Files: I Want to Believe, her faith and reason are not put into conflict, but are actually united. Scully now works at a Catholic hospital; her boss is a priest named Father Ybarra.

Scully's story in the film focuses on her caring for a young boy with a rare brain disease who everyone other than Scully, particularly her boss, believes cannot be cured. Scully's boss functions as her foil, but not in a battle where she is clearly right and he is clearly wrong. Father Ybarra believes that her patient should be transferred to hospice where he can die peacefully. Scully believes that there is a very small chance for his cure in a very painful series of procedures involving stem cell therapy. This conflict could easily have been used as mere filler between scenes involving the vanished FBI agent, but instead it becomes the basis for the film's actual dramatic climax. Despite the fact that her climactic decision isn't one of right and wrong, it carries heavy moral weight. The story appropriately ends with her affirmation of belief in the face of uncertainty and undecidability. And with hopeful nuns looking through the window into the hospital operating room.

Belief or faith is the central theme of the movie, highlighted in the disgraced priest's and Scully's faith in God, Mulder's (and later Scully's) belief in the paranormal gifts of Father Crissman, and Scully's belief in science to cure the seemingly incurable. The film maintains the faith as faith, never turning it into knowledge. Mulder and Scully believe but cannot prove beyond doubt that the paranormal gifts of Father Crissman were real. We do not learn whether or not Scully cured the boy. We can only hope that Father Crissman found redemption. The title "I Want to Believe" refers to the caption of a poster in Mulder's office and to a line he speaks in the film, but it also frames the way that Mulder and Scully, long developed and defined in the television series, grow in this film. The two leads move from wanting to believe to actually believing and then to affirming their belief.

Where is the Interview?

On January 28th, Hilary White of LifeSiteNews published a story about an "exclusive interview" LifeSiteNews had with Archbishop Raymond Burke, the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura. White reported that in the interview the Archbishop said that the USCCB document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” led to confusion and support among Catholics for Barack Obama.

Two days later, White published another story referencing the "exclusive interview" with Archbishop Burke, highlighting another theme; however, so far as I can tell, LifeSiteNews has yet to publish the interview itself.

When you have an exclusive interview, don't you publish at least some of it? Unless I missed it, LifeSiteNews hasn't. It has merely reported twice on its own interview in news stories that quote here and there from the interview, but without context. White gave us some of the words of Archbishop Burke, but not the questions she asked or any indication that the quotations capture his complete thoughts.

It could very well be that LifeSiteNews accurately conveyed the Archbishop's meaning, but I tend to read their news stories with a bit of skepticism given their history of twisting the words of high ranking Church officials to fit their agenda. LifeSiteNews has published other interviews. Why hasn't it published its "exclusive interview" with Archbishop Burke?

Obsession

Brian Treanor describes deconstruction's focus on the imperfection of our judgments as reaching the point of obsession. He acknowledges the imperfection, but thinks we can cope with it in order to move through it.

Obsession isn't the word I'd use, although I admit that deconstruction focuses on imperfection. Like, a lot. That focus can be a danger if imperfection overpowers the thoughts to where the deconstructionist reflects on nothing else, but the focus itself is generally a good thing. And it's a good thing that other philosophers focus on other matters. I like deconstruction, but I wouldn't want everyone to be a deconstructionist.

I wouldn't call the imperfection of our judgments the most pressing philosophical matter, but I've no problem with some philosophers making it the focus on their philosophies. I consider such a focus to be their unique vocation. Or maybe I just like the way they smell.

Kyle Bait: A Contest

Taking my cue from a friend's suggestion, I am announcing the premiere Journeys in Alterity contest! In the comments section of this post, write what you think are the topics or events most likely to elicit a response from me on this blog. In other words, give three examples of Kyle Bait. Submissions are due by 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, February 18th. I will judge submissions based on accuracy, specificity, and success at making me smile.

Detours, Twistings, and Wary Steps

The permanent things are not realized or possessed by us in permanent ways. We might say, echoing Gabriel Marcel, that they provide us not with a resting place, but with a direction for a journey.

Dominating Freedom

"Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual. The criterion for free choice can never be an absolute one, but neither is it entirely relative. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear--that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls."

- Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man