Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Summertime Catholic

The summer is sad time to be a Catholic. Perhaps this fact stems from the re-classification of the season into "Ordinary Time" from what used to be called simply the time "After Pentecost," but all the order of the year and the faith seem to fall away for a few months. One feels as if the faithful would like to hang a "closed for vacation" sign out front. What gives?

First, many priests take their vacations during the summer. I understand that they need rest like anyone else, and that many priests laudably forego their vacations some for years on end, but it seems that the regular, predictable disappearance of priests at a certain time of the year has an insalubrious effect on the parish. This is especially the case when priests announce their departure.

Second, summer is also the time for priests to go visiting and doing their missionary work around the world. This is laudable and necessary, but its concentration in the summer tends to create disorder, less due to their variety than for two other reasons. First, they often make an additional speech besides their homily, ignore the day's readings to focus on their special message, or make two distinct sermons back to back. Second, visiting priests often have some difficulty with English pronunciation. Neither of these problems are insurmountable, but when they occur regularly they become disruptive. I've also heard priests with relatively poor English speak fluent Latin. Just saying.

Third, the choirs go into summer mode too. Various people are away, and out come the same staple tunes which the rag-tag band of whoever shows up sings without much practice.

Fourth, parishioner dress goes to the birds, which is an insult to what seems the most fashionable of earth's species. We find shorts offering varying degrees of coverage, sandals, t-shirts, tank tops... it's a carnival of horrors so grotesque that any sensate individual must be distracted by the colorful vomitus of tastelessness and skin.

Fifth, everybody complains about the air conditioning. It's too hot, it's too cold, it's blowing on me, it's too loud. Is it working? Did they turn it off? They're so cheap. We need to toughen up just a bit, not just because air conditioning is a luxury and not just because so many of us are slumming dregs of style, but because of the occasion's gravity. You don't need to read about the deaths of too many martyrs to get a little context, either.

Finally, mass simply takes a back seat in the summer. Yes, dutiful Catholics still go, but the event slips from the crescendo of the Lord's Day to something which we can "get in" at any time. If we go to the early mass we can still make the mall. Better yet we can go on Saturday evening! Sure the Saturday evening mass is legit, but it doesn't really seem in the spirit of the Christian day of rest and prayer.

I understand that priests need to say mass at various times throughout Sunday and I don't see any way around that, but the necessity seems to invite if not abuse, neglect. If it is easy to shunt mass to an earlier or later time, people will. Everybody's done it, but who hasn't felt a little guilty going to the very last mass on Sunday night?

These absences seem each to be slight, but combined they wound the corporal worship of the church. St. John Chrysostom writes,
You cannot pray at home as at church, where there is a great multitude, where exclamations are cried out to God as from one great heart, and where there is something more: the union of minds, the accord of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of the priests. –De incomprehensibili 3, 6: PG 48, 725; quoted from Catechism of the Catholic Church, s.2179, p. 526
The "golden-mouthed" father of the church has identified here the communal nature of joyful worship at mass.

All of these problems seem to have a denominator, if not common cause, which is that the calendar of the church has been supplanted by the calendar of the world. Sunday has been graded down to just mere bump above the rest of the week.

In light of modern man's dependance on the written word and modern Catholics' dependance on the missal, it's curious that a most useful part of many missals goes unknown: instructions for preparing oneself for mass. My Baronius 1962 missal has in its preparatory section several psalms, an explanation of the four dispositions for mass–Adoration, Praise and Thanksgiving, Reparation, and Impetration–as well as the Asperges me and Vidi aquam. There is also a most rigorous section about one's fulfillment of the third commandment in the examination of conscience:
Have you kept holy the Lord's Day, and all other days commanded to be kept holy?–Bought or sold things, not of necessity, on that day?–Done or commanded some servile work not of necessity?–Missed Mass or been willfully distracted during Mass? Talked, gazed, or laughed in church?–Profaned the day by dancing, drinking, gambling, etc.?

These questions are of course not chastisement, though in embarrassment we take them that way. Nor are they an incitement to a game of pious one-upmanship, with one seeing who can out-do the other. Instead they are an invitation to the weekly asceticism without which one cannot cultivate virtue. Benedict XVI writes of how the absence of activity,
relativizes work and directs it to the person: work is for man and not man for work. It is easy to see how this actually protects men and women, emancipating them from a possible form of enslavement. Sacramentum Caritatis, s. 75.
It is a concept paradoxical to the modern age: fulfillment through abstinence.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Taxonomy of Discord

Most humans aren't so querulous as I, but at some time everyone is likely to find himself at odds with the mind of a fellow homo sapiens. It is often the case, though, that any differing of mind and the ensuing exchange is labeled a fight. This is a gross simplification, and an unnecessary one at that, for there is a whole range of ways we may disagree. The topic, our ability to act on it, the manner in which we dispute, all of these vary from disagreement to disagreement. Now since I love a good disagreement, much to the dismay of so many of my interlocutors, and would like to remove the stigma from some forms of disagreement, I would like to make some distinctions.

Some of these distinctions may differ from the words' usual meanings, but I hope in holding them to a more limited meaning, using the words closely to their literal definitions, and situating them in an organized taxonomy of discord, to justify my diversions from the norm.

Please note that while I mean disagree in a particular sense, see #4, for convenience I'll use disagree with its common usage to refer to simple, well, disagreement.

Finally, it is possible for a given disagreement to fit into more than one category depending on, 1) the structure of the disagreement, 2) the states of mind of the speakers, and 3) the purpose of their speaking.

1. Dispute

Disputation is the most the purest form of disagreement. From Latin's dis-puto, it literally means to think in different directions. To have a dispute with someone, then, is merely to have a difference of thought. No animus is implied, and one can even dispute with oneself, being of a different mind than that of a hypothetical point. A dispute is a state of being only, implying no process. It is a simple recognition of difference.

2. Discussion

In contrast, discussion implies some kind of exchange of ideas. They may be ideas which one or both parties hold, or one or the other may be playing the devil's advocate, or the argument may be an exercise. From Latin's discuto, a discussion is simply an examination of ideas. Again, there is no negative connotation to discussion and the styles and techniques of disagreement can be various.

3. Debate

Debate, however, implies some degree of organization to the conversation. The debate may be dialectical, parliamentary, Oxford-style, or what have you, but there is a system in place which moderates the discourse. Latin's battere to strike, suggests a tit-for-tat fencing, i.e., a pattern or organization to the discussion.

4. Disagree

Now disagreement implies something particular and important: the desire to act. Dis-ago means to go in different directions in Latin, and therefore the stakes of disagreement are high. You are only having a disagreement if you are going to act on one of the propositions. You can disagree about whether to eat Chinese food for dinner, but not whether Pluto is a planet (which would be a dispute.)

5. Controversy

Very similar to disagreement, controversy implies that you wish to turn the mind of the other individual, as suggested by Latin's contra-verto, to turn against. While in disagreement there is a possibility that you are simply looking for the truth and would happily follow the path of your interlocutor should he prove his point, in a controversy your sole goal is to persuade him.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Fools of Gotham

You can surely learn much about someone by the way he conducts himself, but you can perhaps learn even more by examining his expectations of others. Gothamist ran a piece yesterday titled, "Pushy Crown Heights Sign Urges You To 'Please Dress Modestly.'" One hopes they broke a smirk when writing that headline. The author, at any rate, is outraged by some local signs.

First, in a city utterly festooned with signs for parking, towing, loitering, standing, idling, sitting, honking, speeding, turning, stopping, signaling, crossing, and walking, it's a little hard to take umbrage with a few more.

Second, in a city where each and every one of those signs is backed by the threat of force–either fines or arrest–and where many of these signs are under video surveillance or are manned by armed officers, it seems an overreaction to take great issue with a sign that threatens no penalty for ignoring it. The Gothamist author adds an ominous, "Or else?" to the sign's statement to suggest there's a veiled threat, and she even italicizes it because fonts, but is her fear reasonable?

The sign is itself in no way aggressive, it even reads "please" which is something I can't say for the peremptory postings mounted by the city, and it does not come from a group known for violence. It's not as if, for example, we have any reason to be incredulous of their gesture of politeness because they are known to be disingenuous or prone to assault. Violence is not explicit, implied, or reasonably suspect.

Third, theirs is a community. It's a community because there are only communities. The fact that a coercive political entity forcibly extracts taxes and monopolizes land which they maintain does not obliterate the fact that a community, i.e. a small society, lives in its boundaries. Following from that, whenever you have a society, you have norms. Even if the larger political body is perfectly legitimate and everyone in the community assents to its rules, there is no way to stop people from having opinions about you and asking you to do something, which is what these signs do.

Moreover, paying taxes doesn't give you some infinitesimal percentage ownership of everything on which the taxes are spent. Do you think you own a percentage of use for highways, a quantity of soldiers' bullets, some of Central Park's leaves, and 10 grains of Libyan sand? This is a liberal, positivist, fantasy which seems true on paper, but whose logic does not extend to reality. In practice property is owned by those who maintain it, by those who live there. Yes, there's a logical problem here, but the problem is not that man feels like he owns what he uses, but that government gives and takes what it ought not. In this case, the government brought together two people, you and the maker of that sign, who probably wouldn't get along. You are still a guest in their community. Sorry you paid for it?

Now I agree that these signs are offensive insofar as all signs are offensive. Signs always to me betoken a society in which people do not communicate face-to-face but via the fiat of law. They betoken societies too large to know by familiarity and too fearful of their people to trust to common sense. These signs seem reasonable in what and how it asks, but suggest an inability of the members of the community to interact with one another. For all their absurdity and squabbling, there's a pragmatic and attractive element to the town hall meeting in which people peaceably and personally address their concerns. Besides, how much more reasonable are we when resolving a dispute face-to-face?

Fourth, the personal element here is perhaps the more disturbing. A statement from the woman who sent the pictures to Gothamist:
I wear what I want to (what is most comfortable and appropriate) and have done so since I was old enough to purchase my own clothes. "Modesty," as defined by others, is not a ​​​​consideration as I dress myself to face the day. I am capable of pulling together appropriate and flattering attire on my own, using my best judgement and taste. 
If one finds oneself offended by my attire, that's not my fault or my problem. Signs printed with demeaning and insulting subtext that my "immodest" attire is offensive to a particular group to which I do not belong are offensive to me.
This is precisely the kind of liberal and libertarian statement which drives conservatives batty, betraying as it does a complete disregard for common sense. You have to love the quotations around modesty, suggesting that any concept is automatically artificial and therefore has no objective credence or authority. You can hear the argument now, "There's no such thing as modesty. It's just whatever you think is right."

More important, though, is the fact that it is indeed your problem if you offend someone. Likewise theirs if they offend you. Latin's offendere means to strike, quite appropriate considering that offense in our modern sense is still violence. Yes, the violence is subject to a concept about which people may disagree, but it still needs to be dealt with lest we live in a violent society. Perhaps this violence is very slight, but a society of petty violence seems a sad thought to me. Who wants to walk around assaulted by violent sights, thoughts, words, and petty aggressions which make you regret your community with others?

I'm not suggesting we bow to the wills of the most easily offended, but rather that 1) self-righteous self-indulgence not govern expression, 2) coercion and pride be absent from expectation, and 3) imprudent political bonds not artificially make hostile neighbors of peaceable aliens. Gothamist's liberal prescription, however, is simply to be content trading trading offense. It is precisely the gentleman who seeks to avoid causing pain to others, and a society of offense is a barbarous one.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TV Review: Shark Tank

So in an effort to confirm the stereotype of the heartless, money-grubbing libertarian, I thought I would review Shark Tank, which even I first hearing about it thought a caricature of markets and entrepreneurialism. What I found instead was a program which, despite its shtick about sharks and feeding frenzies, brings out many of the bits and bobs of business which get overlooked in theoretical explanations and lost in popular clichés. In fact, so many facets arise as the entrepreneurs pitch their plans to the panel of venture capitalists that despite the show's simple premise and static presentation, Shark Tank puts more than a little education on the table. Add to the mix the endless variations of pitches, from the kooky to the brilliant, and the energetic hosts, and you have a real show on your hands.

The hosts really are the heart of Shark Tank, but not because they're cantankerous or charming. They center the show because of their energy, and they bring energy to it because they're personally invested in the outcome. There is no producer underwriting their risks and they don't have the luxury of playing the whole scene for a laugh or for drama: they want their money. This simple investment strips the show of a lot of the artifice of which reality shows usually consist.

Each host also brings unique expertise to the table. Mr. Wonderful, aka Kevin O'Leary, plays up the dark-hearted capitalist angle and always cuts to the quick of the deal. He's the Blue Shark. He's fast but he wants his money to work for him. He can take big prey, but he'll also settle for a lot of little royalties that'll keep him full. On the spot he'll calculate all your finances and tell you how much you're worth and likely to make, and that his little nips are cheap. He's also vulnerable to parasites who try to mooch off of his initial offers.

FUBU founder Damon John, real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, and Lori Greiner, Queen of QVC, seem among them to know every market. They can tell you who wants your product and what you need to do to put it in their hands. They're your Grey Reefs. They're good at gathering information and you can tell when they're ready to strike with an offer.

Robert Herjavec is the Mako in the tank, fast and smart. He has a huge advantage with his knowledge of technology that lets him pounce on deals while others are still trying to figure out how they work. Finally, billionaire Mark Cuban is the Tiger of the group. He's aggressive, plowing into existing deals with offers that throw everyone into confusion. Cuban also has the widest variety of expertise.

For all the bravado of the show, though, the sharks can be pretty conservative. They restrict themselves to their areas of expertise and don't throw themselves into businesses far afield from what they know. Likewise if they don't have enough information, they'll back off. Sharks manage risk, making an offer that'll balance protecting and increasing their investment. The sharks don't throw their money around because of the soft, touching, stories that tug at the heartstrings. They'll tell you that they like you, but that you don't have a business. They may admire you, but won't invest in your business. They may want your product, but don't see a larger market for it. The sharks ultimately want to make money, and that really just means putting resources where they are most useful, and therefore most valuable.

This process is often caricatured, but putting money where it is useful is simply putting it where it is most needed. Inventors and entrepreneurs think that people need their product but it is the sharks who take the risk to bring products to consumers. The sharks bridge inventors and consumers by means of capital, expertise, and connections. Without their knowledge and liquid resources, entrepreneurs would only have their limited experience and minuscule personal savings and debt to realize their projects. Of course the funding comes at a price, but there's a place in the chain of commerce, and food, for sharks, as there is for entrepreneurs.

And entrepreneurs can learn from watching the show. The chief question that comes up is whether there are any sales. It seems obvious, but how do you find out whether anyone wants your product? The sharks want numbers–sales and orders–but so often aspiring business owners talk about forecasts, how great the product is, and sounding very much like the present administration, that their main problem is advertising. People would love our product but they just don't know about it! No matter how wrong they are, the entrepreneurs can be quite persuasive. It's humbling to be taken in by a sales pitch and then, when I might have invested, see a shark cut the deal down to size, saying, "You're selling a product at $10 which costs you $4 to make and $3 to move on top of spending $2 to acquire the customer." On second thought...

When the sharks bite, though, things really get interesting. Do you go with the offer that takes the least money or which gives you the most control? Do you go with the shark who gives you the most money or who brings the more valuable expertise? Would you rather give up equity or royalty? These are all tough questions which quickly become confused in the heat of negotiations.

Another common confusion for contestants is that some of them have products, not businesses. Products come and go. They may be fads, they may become so ubiquitous that they disappear among knockoffs, or they may be bought up and folded into larger products or services. A business has to sustain itself with a plan to grow, adapt, and prosper. Aside from fundamentals, more details also come to the forefront in negotiations than most people would ever guess, even when selling a great product. For example,
  1. What size inventory do you need? How do you know?
  2. What's your demographic? How do you find and then appeal to them?
  3. What's your competition like? 
  4. What's to prevent someone from improving on your design?
  5. Not only how much money do you need, but when?
To all those variables add changing demands, new demographic groups, governmental regulations, and evolving competition. The sharks say this often, but besides money, navigating those waters is the expertise they bring to the table. We praise the entrepreneurs, but Shark Tank shows just how much work is left after the excitement of invention. At the same time, though, plenty of these hopeful contestants have labored for years and put all of their resources on the line for their products. Yes, some of them are kooks and others are spoiled, claiming a right to succeed simply because they tried, but many of these entrepreneurs are plain tough. The sharks might get them to success, but these people took those risky first steps, often alone. Simply out of respect and admiration the sharks often want to invest, but reluctantly conclude that the business isn't profitable.

That's a dirty word, profitable, but all it really measures is whether customers are willing to pay what it costs to put the product in their hands, a cost which includes rewarding those who do the work to get it there. This sense of profit as nexus of service, efficiency, and risk, a definition which is born out in every episode, isn't the premise on which the show is sold, though. Part of me likes the unapologetic, blatantly profit-seeking patina to the presentation of the show, because we too often judge how much others ought to make when we haven't taken their risks. On the other hand, I think a more nuanced definition might persuade people who react to profitable commerce with hives.

Presentation aside, Shark Tank is an entertaining show and even an educating one, especially for people who don't themselves take many fiscal risks. My favorite aspect, though, is that fact that after so many seasons with the same format, there is so much variety–and anyone who says it's the same thing over and over again would be a poor businessman. That variety is a testament to the struggles of business and the diversity of ingenuity with which Americans meet the challenge.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

Directed by Michael Bay. 2014.

The first of Michael Bay's Transformer movies is the only movie I ever turned off with the intention of never seeing the rest. I couldn't understand what was happening and visually it was a complete mess. The 2007 progenitor of this series, though, was buoyed by some hilarious sitcom-style humor, namely from the much-maligned Shia LeBeouf and his screen dad, Kevin Dunn. That Transformers: Age of Extinction shares the same virtues and vices as its predecessor tells me two things. First, Michael Bay is satisfied with his work. Second, he missed his calling as a director of sitcoms. Now I don't dislike this franchise or Bay himself and I won't pile on more disdain for the man's cinematic malefactions. What I am is disappointed, because this whole series could have been a blast.

The franchise should have been an unapologetically loud, patriotic, macho, and fun series, grounded in simple, traditional, American values, and held up by classic American hero archetypes. Even this weak installment could have been pulled together into something worthwhile. Extinction features Mark Wahlberg as Texan inventor, brilliant but down on his luck, who upon finding head Transformer Optimus Prime is embroiled in national political intrigue, interstellar assassination, and internecine robot warfare. A talented screenwriter could have had a ball with that setup, but this script is utterly indifferent to anything resembling theme, plot, and characterization. There are threads of interest, but they're nearly invisible burdened as they are under layers of cliche and action.

Still we imagine what could have been with even the slightest effort. Mark Wahlberg's struggling inventor Cade Yeager could have been a hero with whom we identified as a dad, patriot, and intellect. Too Optimus Prime as a leader struggling to protect his separated troops could have been an interesting parallel character. Kelsey Grammer's CIA bigwig hunting down the Autobots could have introduced questions about political alliances and reflected a little on the debate about America's role in the world. The CEO-inventor played by Stanley Tucci works only because two-thirds through the movie Tucci hams up his performance into some genuine comedy as he is chased around Shanghai, but he could have been a meaningful foil for the lead.

Yet without ideas Transformers 4 is just a $200,000,000 jumble in which a transforming truck rides a robotic fire-breathing dinosaur around Shanghai to protect Stanley Tucci from an alien searching for him with a big magnet.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Sound of Music

Directed by Robert Wise. 1965.

I had never seen The Sound of Music but I entertained a passing and unfriendly familiarity with a number of its tunes for what seems like my whole life. It seems that either in reproduction or parody one will invariably hear something of The Hills Are Alive no matter how assiduously one avoids the Rogers and Hammerstein classic. I wondered, though, what manner of musical could possibly string together such candied tunes as My Favorite Things, Maria, and Climb Every Mountain. What legitimate drama could support Sixteen Going on Seventeen? To my undiminished surprise, The Sound of Music manages to pull it all together, if only just, and pitched a little too romantic for me.

More surprising, though, is that the script pulls it off with a solid intellectual footing. I don't mean with the well known romance between Julie Andrews' pure, perky novitiate Maria and Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), the widower who runs his big Austrian family like a military brigade. That romance is all well and good, if lengthily prepared and predictably carried out in the plot, but it is the cultural context that perked my interest. It's not by itself interesting that the von Trapps live in the specter of a nascent Nazism. That political group, their era, and its crimes have been exploited on film for decades in every conceivable genre. In action movies they're acceptable automata to be remorselessly mowed down by the good guys and in dramas they're the staple spokespersons for hatred. Comedies use them as fodder for gags about mustaches and bloviating dictators. Little of this is revealing, though, but of all places who thought The Sound of Music would reveal to us something significant about evil?

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in 1941 to his son that, "You have to understand the good in things to detect the real evil."* Instead of showing us more evil, The Sound of Music shows us the good. Yes, the frolicsome scenes of song and dance are idealized, but there is a purity and authenticity to them which seems all the more beautiful and frail a flower under the threat of the Nazi boot. We've scene the physical violence of Nazism in countless films, but precious few have shown us the cultural destruction, and fewer, if any, the violence done to the Germanic traditions subsumed into the Nazi maw. How much more crass and cruel does the violence of Nazism look when it attempts to stamp out and subvert the gentle values of its little brother. The von Trapps don't suffer terribly, but their culture of convents, the peace of their hillsides, the way they made clothes for their children, all of that is shattered.

The film's chief contrast, though, is that between the forced political organization of the Nazis and the freely flowing kindness of song which Maria brings into the family and which brings them together. She teaches the children to sing of the hills and flowers, of goatherds and the simple pleasures of life as Captain von Trapp is hounded by members of the rising Nazis to fly the party flag instead of his native Austrian colors. At a fancy gala in which Captain von Trapp entertains some visiting German dignitaries, his seven children put on a charming little musical routine which Maria taught them and by which they say good night. When the Captain commends the innocent voices of his children as what is best in the nation, a guest protests in favor of German virtues, to which the Captain replies that, "some of us prefer Austrian voices raised in song to ugly German threats."

We find a pleasing symmetry too between the political and personal, for just as Nazism is a perversion of the Germanic spirit which is foisted upon the Captain, so his own stern authoritarianism with which he governs his children is a deviation from his character. While the film wisely steers clear of further explication about the obvious politics, Captain von Trapp learned his coldness after the death of his wife. To this theme of learned autocracy, both personal and political, the theme of musical love and peace forms a counterpoint, especially von Trapp's own Edelweiss. This gentle folk dance captures the Captain's love for his now fragile fatherland, and it is also the song with which he awakens from his stern slumber and warms once more to his children, and, of course, to Maria.

So well does Edelweiss captures these themes–the fall of his homeland and the rebirth of his family–that I wish the movie ended with it as a more bittersweet note. Alas the final scene of the plucky von Trapps climbing a mountain to the tune of, you guessed it, Climb Every Mountain, is a little too hammy and chipper. I can't really begrudge the movie a hopeful ending though, and the sight of the family taking their traditions together into the future, if not in their homeland, is rewarding enough.

*To his son Michael, 9 June, 1941. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Houghton Mifflin. 2000. p. 54

Monday, July 14, 2014


There's a fine line between perspicacity and wisdom and I'm not sure on which side of the divide falls George Bernard Shaw's statement that, “A man's interest in the world is only the overflow from his interest in himself."Taken by itself the statement seems more clever aphorism than philosophy, a cheap sophism to indulge the narcissistic. Yet taken with another quote from the very same man–that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."–there appears a wisdom to the thinking. I'll charitably assume so, at any rate.

The wisdom seems to me the realization that a great deal of man's struggle is with the fact that the world is not he. We rejoice in individuality, but we long for reconciliation. It is man's curse that the otherness of the world so essential for even recognizing his own being is simultaneously a source of antagonism. Moreover, the otherness from which we are separated is large, intractable, and worse than incomprehensible, parts of it are inscrutable. The mysterious world and the other wills in it are not wholly mysterious and the ensuing possibility for success is a source of both dynamism and despair. Yet what does success look like? Happiness and virtue, but the search for happiness conceals its origin in the ontological quandary, a need to reconcile with a multifariously different and often hostile otherness. To find this reconciliation he has three choices: remaking, rejecting, or redeeming.

Remaking is perhaps the most common path. Man can either attempt to remake the world or himself. Some men are concerned with the matter of the world and attempt to reconfigure the atoms of the world for man's good. These are the scientists and engineers who've been elevated to the preeminent ranks of society in the last two hundred years. Other men, the architects, build structures to dominate the land, and their structures reform the face of the earth. Shaw was right that without such dissatisfaction man would enjoy precious little material progress. Yet most people are incapable of such labors and passing aside their inability to remake the physical world, they attempt to remake men. There is no way persuasively to fake the ability to build bridges and make medicine, but promises of justice, liberty, and unity are too easily sold. Such are of course the goals of political liberalism and progressivism, but despite what they support on ballots, most people don't have a political bent to their actions. Instead we attempt to remake people we know, nudging them slowly but surely until they resemble us. This is usually subconscious, and frighteningly so, but do we reward those who do what we want and punish those who differ? Do we not by our actions encourage others to do the same, and are we not drawn to follow? We remake to reconcile.

Not ourselves, usually. Sometimes with great reluctance, though, we can nudge ourselves into habits more conducive to prosperity. The transformation can of course be major or minor, and stem from pragmatism or principle, but we can change with effort.

Rejecting the world is a period through which everyone passes, although it's possible to ground rejection in principled nihilism. It's no small coincidence that rejection tends to spur rejection. When we're spurned by lovers, we reject love. When we're spurned by bosses, we reject business and economics. When the political reigns are held by the opposition, we say that the system is broken. Most people come to terms with basic facts of life–you need a job, some people won't like you, not all problems can be fixed–but the paranoid reject the world as a malignant otherness.

Redemption is the release of man from the lonely quandary of being a self among others. It is instead of a change, a reunification. As we have observed this reconciliation is sought politically, socially, scientifically, and psychologically, but these means are transient and imperfect. The unification is sought aesthetically too, and perhaps this experience surpasses the others. For for what seems to unify all more than the pervading strains of music? How easy it is to imagine life, whether walking about town or pondering the cosmos, set to music. Too the aesthetic experience invites a coming together of personal impressions–those of artist and audience–with aesthetic principle. Still the experience of art is temporary and cannot fully transcend the isolation of otherness.

The only full redemption has already been paid for man, though, by the suffering of Christ, a passion which redeems man both on earth and in eternity. Man is unified to man each by their unity with Christ, and then man is unified with creator in eternal contemplation.

In his two perfect prayers, St. Thomas employs terms of redemption to describe the freedom and unification in the Eucharist. The Body is healing, enrichment, clothing, and cleaning; freedom from necessity. It is also the extinction of desires and lusts, the quieting of impulses; freedom from one's own and all wills but the divine. Finally it is a happy "consummation" and an "ineffable banquet," a fulfilling to the utmost. We are fortunate that the English translation retains the beautiful sense of consummation here: the bringing to perfect and thus ultimate completion.

It's unlikely that we can choose just one path of remaking, rejecting, or redeeming. We need to make a safe place for ourselves in the world that is somewhat inhospitable. Likewise we do need if not to remake others, to restrain evil, which requires a polity of virtuous men. We need to remake ourselves, to extirpate vices, yes, but also to love, for all forms of love require a change, whether to virtue or selflessness. All loves are likewise a form of unity, as hatred and war of destruction. This polar model has been cluttered for us by cheap pop references to love and war, but the classical (and especially Epicurean) conception of love and war, Venus and Mars, as natural forces is fundamental. Lastly it is evident that the bad must be rejected.

Our goal ought not to be excluding a given path of remaking, rejecting, or redeeming, but learning prudently to perceive and cultivate by kind, expecting, as Aristotle encouraged, no more or less than what each can offer. Much heartache and suffering could be avoided by not expecting perfect reconciliation now and forever through each path alone.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Presidential Rhetoric VIII: Martin Van Buren

Welcome to Part Eight of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Please feel free to look at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
  7. Andrew Jackson
See Also: Presidential Rhetoric: Grading the Graders

We continue with our present look at the rhetoric of Martin Van Buren's inaugural address. Will there be any stylistic curiosities in this speech from the New York-born, Dutch-speaking president?

The text of the speech, via

1. Fellow-Citizens: The practice of all my predecessors imposes on me an obligation I cheerfully fulfill—to accompany the first and solemn act of my public trust with an avowal of the principles that will guide me in performing it and an expression of my feelings on assuming a charge so responsible and vast. In imitating their example I tread in the footsteps of illustrious men, whose superiors it is our happiness to believe are not found on the executive calendar of any country. Among them we recognize the earliest and firmest pillars of the Republic— [1] those by whom our national independence was first declared, [2him who above all others contributed to establish it on the field of battle, [3] and those whose expanded intellect and patriotism constructed, improved, and perfected the inestimable institutions under which we live. If [A] such men in the position I now occupy felt themselves overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for this the highest of all marks of their country's confidence, [B] and by a consciousness of their inability adequately to discharge the duties of an office so difficult and exalted, [C] how much more must these considerations affect one who can rely on no such claims for favor or forbearance! Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with the same kind and partial hand.

While the opening sentence begins with the now traditional sentiments of modesty and following in the footsteps of great predecessors, two words stand out: cheerfully and happiness. This is the first time any degree of cheer or joviality has made its way into any inaugural address, and while these words don't constitute frivolity, they do mark a uniquely festive sense of gratitude for having inherited such a great nation from such great men. Van Buren's use of the word calendar is also worth a note, for on the one hand it can simply mean register, but also it can mean guide or example, and even by metonymy it can refer to the history of the presidency. The firm image pillars of the Republic is no throwaway, though, but itself becomes the foundation for the rest of the paragraph. Van Buren breaks the Founders into three groups of those who 1) declared independence, 2) fought for it, and 3) those who firmed and expanded it. This is a novel and engaging way of reiterating the feats of the Founders, and note with him who the indirect reference to the now nearly deified Washington.

The next sentence is a gradatio of increasing tension from phrases A-C, but it reads simply as a condition: If A and B, then C. Van Burn ends with a most surprising turn, an invocation to the people to regard him not as one of the Founders but to regard him as one of them and to judge him not with the gentleness with which they treated their forefathers, but impartially. A most uncommon sentiment, in and out of politics.

Finally, note the simple, lucid flow of ideas in connected pairs of conditions:
  1. I follow in the footsteps of great men
  2. who fall into three categories.
  3. If they were nervous about the duty, great as they were,
  4. how much must I be?
  5. Also unlike my predecessors, America was a nation when I was born, 
  6. so judge me as one of you and not one of the Founders.
This is a solid opening, full and formal but not orotund, and tightly organized.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Theater Review: Violet

Music by Jeanine Tesori. Libretto by Brian Crawley. 1997/2014 (Off/On Broadway)

Toward the end of Violet there's a big bubbly gospel number in which dancers accompanies the buoyant lyrics. Now this ensemble didn't have long to shine on stage, but they really gave it their all, especially the two ladies up front who let loose a nearly-distracting degree of enthusiasm. While I didn't care for the number, which I've forgotten entirely, I did enjoy and do remember their spirit. That's pretty much how I feel about Violet, the story of plucky girl's bus trip from North Carolina to Tulsa looking for a preacher to heal her scar.

I'll mention first Violet's chiefest success, which is a clever trick of staging the flashbacks of the titular main character at the same time as the unfolding story. This device rescues a story which if told linearly would have started to flag after its first hour. Beyond the energizing effect though, the sharp juxtaposition of these scenes brings some unique insight, as when Violet, fooling around with a fellow passenger during the Memphis layover, remembers her first time with a man. Rather than simply remembering a scene from act one, the presence of everyone on stage at once makes us more strongly identify the past characters and actions with the present ones.

This is a simple trick, but it works. Until the end, anyway, when after reaching the preacher, her father appears onstage in flashback. When she accuses him of intentionally maiming her so that the disfigurement might repel boys and keep her close to him, the father responds that wasn't so and apologizes for the accident. She believes this, which makes her feel so good that she thinks her scar has been healed. So presuming she didn't actually experience communication with the dead or divine, and that her flashback (i.e. the product of her consciousness) couldn't and therefore didn't tell her something which she didn't already know, what happened? What caused her transformation? If it was just a memory, which is the only thing it could have been, why does she believe him now?

Perhaps the awakening came when the preacher said her problem was her character and not her face, which is reasonable, but is that all it took to convince her, some frank advice from a man she just learned is a charlatan? This development is ultimately unsatisfying not because of its origin in the preacher, though, but because Violet is not introspective, or at least because the process of her reflecting on her character is not part of the story. Violet's resolution needed to come not from a logical proposition which she could just accept, but via a developed plot line, such as her relationship with Flick, a soldier traveling with her on the bus, which had been dramatically prepared.

Anyway, when she finds out that Flick, who chose not to sleep with her for what seem to have been moral reasons, or timidity, does indeed love her scar and all, she's happy. Since we don't know what she thought about him not sleeping with her, though, we again don't know what caused her sudden change of feeling. Why is she so enthralled now? She didn't learn anything new about him.

I'll touch but briefly on the music, which is a credit to the performers though not the composer. They played with a lot of gusto, but there's very little of interest in the score except for the variety of genres which is both pleasant and sensible given the changes of locale from stop-to-stop. Unfortunately the start of every number featured a jarring distraction: the disappearance of everyone's thick southern accents as they shifted into perfectly neutral pronunciation for their song. Still, the tunes are attractive and lively enough in the moment to move the show along.

I enjoyed Violet because I was in cheerful company and because the cast and band gave their all, but the experience is of a spirited performance of a somewhat dull show. Violet is pleasant enough to watch but its tunes and plot fade quickly after the curtain falls.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lost in Translation #1: Vergil

Perhaps the most difficult tasks for the teacher of foreign languages is to persuade students of the need to read a work in its native language. In an era not only of plentiful translations but of numerous good translations, why turn to the original? The difficulty of this task of persuasion is compounded by the fact that it's nearly impossible to make this point clear and attractive at the introductory level when students are performing the thankless work of basic mechanics. Yet if the student does not grasp this notion at some early point, he risks wandering astray from the appreciation of his acquired language as a conveyance of literature. It's a terrible fate that the first utility of Latin, for example, is so often said to be its ability to improve one's English vocabulary.

Toward the end of showing Latin as a language of literature I would like to take a look at some passages of choicest Latin and compare them not merely to good translations, but to fine ones. I hope to demonstrate in this Coleridge's dictum that, "one criterion of style is that it shall not be translateable without injury to the meaning." (Lecture 14 on Shakespeare) I don't mean in any instance to denigrate the translator, moreover in studying the Latin and English in parallel one's appreciation for the task and success of these translators can only grow. Still, that task is in the end impossible to fulfill to perfection, at least for any work which maximizes the possibilities unique to its native language.

It seems prudent to start with one of the best and best known passages of Latin's most famous work, the Roman Classic, the Unclassical Classic, the Homeric reincarnation, the Augustan renaissance, Vergil's Aeneid. The translation is by Robert Fagles, published 2006.

We enter in Book IV, where a seething Dido rages at Aeneas, whom she caught stealing away.

365 'nec tibi diva parens generis nec Dardanus auctor,
366 perfide, sed duris genuit te cautibus horrens
367 Caucasus Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres.

/ "No goddess was your mother!
No Dardanus sired your line, you traitor, liar, no
Mount Caucasus fathered you on its flinty, rugged flanks
and the tigers of Hyrcania gave you their dugs to suck!

English eschews both leading with the dative form and the dative of possession (it is to you, vs of you, or the possessive adjective your), so Fagles presents us first with goddess (diva) and the possessive adjective your. The logic of the sentence is preserved, but the effect of leading with Aeneas (tibi: to you) and concluding with Aeneas (perfide: you traitorous one) enjambed onto the next line is lost, and the effects are that of 1) amplifying the accusatory tone of the line and 2) linking the two lines.

An understood linking verb (est: was) links diva to parens and Dardanus to auctor, a gapping which produces a line of stark juxtapositions. In the English, Dardanus auctor spills into a whole clause just for the need to use as a stand-in for auctor (founder, originator, progenitor), English's sired (forefathered), whose noun form sire is both deprecated and tied up with associations of its use as a salutation. Now sired is probably the best substitute, but its use results in a circumlocution which comes at the price of brevity and thus potency. Likewise perfide (faithless, traitorous, deceitful, false) becomes traitor, liar, which still doesn't quite capture the sense of scandal and outrage of perfide.

Fagles truly does a superb job with 366, so much that the layer of translation fades to an invisibility which would do Coleridge proud, but again there's no way to mimic the word order permitted by inflection, and thus the ensuing effects. Here, after in 365 declaring from whom Aeneas was not born, Dido describes who were his parents, according to her insult. The whole line is a preparation though, which isn't fulfilled until Caucasus enjambed into the beginning of 367 tells us just who was his father. Likewise lost is Vergil's sandwiching of te (you, i.e. Aeneas) between duris and cautibis (on hard crags.) Too, while flinty is a brilliant substitute for duris, conveying both physical and emotional hardness, rugged doesn't capture the sense of dread in horrens. Finally, in English we lose the emphasis of the parallel placement of Aeneas (perfide) at the beginning of the line and horrens at the end.

Again, though, Fagles' 367 captures the meaning of the line, but the style and imagery is in rerouting, lost. First, the English is cluttered with and, the, of, you, their, and to, a volume which dilutes the potency of the idea. Next, the stark back-to-back placement of Caucacus and Hyrcanae is an exotic splash which is lost in separation. What the Latin says obliquely or subtly in image, admorunt ubera tigres, the tigers drew up/near their teats, with "for suckling" implicit, Fagles says literally with "gave you their dugs to suck." This is quite a subtle difference, but the phrase "drawing up the breast" typifies the action as associated with nursing, whereas Fagles English spells it all out. Also lost is tigres' emphatic separation from its adjective Hyrcanae and placement at the line's end.

Finally, ubera tigres in Latin is a tight-knit pair of noun and direct object, linked by their constituting the hexameter's famous zippidy-do-dah final feet. Though they are in different cases and thus function differently, Latin can place them together and produce a non-grammatical, purely visual-aural relationship between the two. Here, the two words simply by their proximity produce a clear image: tiger nipples. It may sound silly, but that's a very bestial image which perfectly concludes Dido's scurrilous contention that Aeneas is not born from the soft goddess of love and a son of Zeus, but hard crags and animals. He's inhuman, to her, and this is the perfect image for that sentiment.

In contrast, Fagles' English shows the same images in a different series with different connections for a different effect. Compare the following and try to visualize each image as it comes:

Latin: Hyrcanian gave nipples tigers
English: tigers of Hyrcania gave you their dugs to suck!

More processing is required by the Latin to supply the understood information, but the brevity and word placement produce a more compact, more vivid image, compared to which the English seems rather literal, as if the image is being explained to you rather than presented. The potential of this cascade of images and associations is one of the chief powers and pleasures of the Latin language.