27 December 2007

Snow Vapor

The green on the blog isn't the greatest for photo display, but you can scroll down past the title bar and just get the neutral gray background. Some fooling around with my camera during a misty day produced some worthy images. The whole campus was soaked in moisture, and it hung on every twig and blade of grass. Amazingly, my photo editor allowed me to zoom in with enough detail to see the inverted images of the surrounding branches through these tiny liquid lenses.
At any rate, it was a pleasant thought that I could inhale two weeks of snowfall and tuck it away in my sinuses for later enjoyment.

20 December 2007

Myopic Natural History, Continued

By way of follow-up, an excerpt from this recent article by Cardinal Schönborn sums up the key ideas of my post on A Short History of Nearly Everything:

As the philosopher Hans Jonas was writing his important work The Imperative of Responsibility (1979), it became clear to him that it makes no sense to speak of ethics and responsibility if there is no such thing as the spirit, the soul, reason, and free will. Genes do not assume responsibility. After all, they are not subject to judgment when they produce cancer cells. Animals also are not answerable to responsibility. Only human beings carry responsibility and must (finally before the judgment of God) give an account for their deeds.

15 December 2007

The Cloud of Unfeeling

Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him,
and let none of his words fall to the ground.

1 Samuel 3:19

As I rounded the corner into her room with a red poinsettia in hand, the gold foil in which it was wrapped crinkled in my grip. Here, there was no smell to get used to. Both the nursing home and the senior housing project, my two previous visits, had rancid air that clung on me for several minutes after stepping outside into the crisp snowfall. In the hospital, nothing stayed around long enough to get rancid—a new bed, a spongebath, fresh sheets, then off to a new ward. Yet when left to themselves, the elderly do not change unless they have to. It is a survival mechanism, I think. At times I wonder if the only reason some people live so long is that dying would disrupt their routine.

For instance, I had called Larry (the one in the project) the night before to let him know I would be coming; the neutral voice of the phone lady informed me that 3-1-2-2-5-6-2-7-5-6 had been disconnected and that no further information was available. The only two possibilities quickly crystallized: a protracted stay at the VA precluded his usual timely bill payment, or the chronic pulmonary obstruction had finally asphyxiated him. Larry doesn't skip on his bills; quite the contrary. I have a hard time convincing him that I can't take any money from him when I run little errands he can't do himself. This time, I bought him a smaller poinsettia and didn’t buy him a box of chocolates like I did for the others, figuring that either way he’d be in no condition to enjoy them. The attendant at the door informed me he was still around, 313, same as usual. As I pounded on his door, hardly wanting to open my mouth for the taste of the air, there was no response, and the door was locked. I assumed I’d just missed him, until one of the neighbors stepped out and informed me he’d moved up to 413 two days earlier, and the phone company hadn’t hooked up his new line yet. (Apparently there was a third possibility.) I found him in 413 with his headphones on, leering into the TV set, and his pale eyes filled the lenses of his glasses as he tried to recognize the sound of my voice. I sat as he griped and cursed and laughed at my jibes, just like old times.

The elderly do not change unless they have to.

Ruth had sounded horrible on the phone the evening before, but she seemed happy about my promise to visit the next day so I assumed the subdued tone was because she had her teeth out. Seven hours after our conversation, a neighbor heard her shrieking for help and the paramedics brought her to the nearby hospital to recover from massive dizziness and pain from her recent falls. She had shrunken visibly since I saw her five months ago, now bent nearly double in her bed, the crown of each knob of bone whitening the skin along the horseshoe curve of her spine; speechless with pain and horrendous vertigo, unable to lift her head for more than a few moments to acknowledge that she recognized me—and in so doing she revealed through the neck of her shift bowls of skin hung around impossibly thin bones whose arrangement I did not recognize. Her chin sunk back to her breast, and she whimpered for the dizziness. As I greeted her son, who had driven many days to be with his mother during what may well be her last days, every word we exchanged in the vicinity of this contorted woman had the tone of a blasphemy.

There was not much time, as several inches of impending snow and a good portion of Chicago still lay between me and evening Mass. Ruth was insensible so we chatted for a few minutes as if she was not there, and the abyss gaped wider. This woman was in a sorrowfully shrunken world of her own, isolated from us, and we from her. I was as desperate as I was unable. When I took my leave, I put the beads that had slipped into a crease in the sheets back into her hand, and told her that he would be with her; keep fighting, it would be better soon.

As I uttered them my words rebounded back into my face as if I were speaking alone in a silent room with my nose against a plaster wall.

They dribbled off my lips and ran down my chin, splattering on the bedrail and running along the leg of the bed into a puddle on the floor, unnoticed, forgotten, dull, worthless, absurd, like the red poinsettia wrapped in gold foil that sat beside her, out of the range of her crippled vision, on the bed tray.


08 December 2007

Myopic Natural History

A Short History of Nearly Everything, a recent release by the prolific travel writer Bill Bryson, is the fruit of three years of research into the cumulative discoveries of the scientific world, with the hope of re-presenting them in layman's terms to the general public. It began, as he tells in the introduction, during a flight over the Pacific, in which he was staring out the window of the jet down at that vast ocean and realized he knew nothing about it. At that point, he resolved to do something about it, and I rather enjoyed his efforts to remedy his ignorance.

Coming from the pen of a man accustomed to pleasing his readers, the book manages to hold one's attention throughout long periods of academic history in which aristocratic gentlemen in powdery wigs debate with great vigor the suitability of certain botanical categories or the possibility that our noses evolved downward-pointing nostrils to ward off the hordes of contagion that dropped onto our planet from outer space. Scientific history is one long list of characters, some immediately recognizable, and many others whose names were forgotten as I turned the page; some were noble, others shady; some were possessed of a broad mastery of numerous disciplines, and others were content to whittle away at some miniscule corner of the scientific edifice with no apparent concern for what was transpiring around them. All seem driven by some desire for recognition; few seem to have received what they deserve. Each of them stands out in a remarkable way as beloved forebears of a rich and massive heritage.

While the certainties of yesterday are almost always laughable, Bryson manages for the most part not to condescend when surveying the progress of human knowledge--a progress that has been slow and painful since the dawn of the modern scientific method. Consequently, the most consistent reaction this book produced in me was surprise. Of course, the "incomprehensibles" such as astronomical distances, the subatomic particles, the probabilities of life, and the age of the earth and of the universe never fail to impress; yet more than once I found myself swimming in a morass of incoherent hypotheses and data, only to be told by the author that my confusion was not unusual, as the experts themselves really had no idea, either. Apparently, the only thing more astounding than what we know about the universe is what we do not know, and how likely it is that some discovery will come along that will up-end whatever certainties the establishment operates upon. Bryson makes much of the conclusion of the scientific world at the turn of the twentieth century that very little additional investigation was necessary before a complete, airtight account of the universe would be well within its grasp.

It becomes abundantly clear that the history of science is one long story of "back to the drawing board." Theories about cataclysmic impacts from a prehistoric comet driving the dinosaurs to extinction circulate among incredulous geologists, full of disdain for such preposterous conjecture; it's a small but gratifying delight to look back with a knowing smile and think, "Just you wait." Being myself a student of Scripture, which in certain forms is to the neophyte the very province of uncertainty and hypothesis, it was a small consolation to discover that I have some unlikely comrades who share my pain.

Indeed, it is striking to note how the human mind is driven to reduce complex systems to simple ones and summarize them in an elegant whole. Human discovery has been almost exclusively powered by the conviction that given enough time, we will be able to sort the world out neatly and publish our findings in a sort of almanac. Experts almost to a man regarded theories that did not have concise and simple expressions as less compelling than those that did, and new theories were required when data arose that did not fit with existing formulae, thus rendering them incomplete. As I read and reflected on this point, there appeared a subtle correspondence with medieval thinkers on the beauty of truth. These thinkers saw a deep identity between what are called the “transcendentals”: the forms of truth, goodness, unity, and beauty, which are beyond any particular category of being, and for that reason can refer equally to all subjects in which they are found. This is to say, the truth is good, beautiful, and one; so also, the beautiful is one, good, and true. Beauty itself is the presence of integrity, harmony, and clarity within a creature; and, it might be said, any scientific theory that lacked these would have been dismissed out of hand as, in all probability, untrue.

Thankfully, Bryson waits to hammer home the obligatory moral until the last few pages of the book; it was brief enough that wasn't clear to me whether he thought it through or if it was tacked on to make sure it had a chance to get on the bestseller list. Human beings, he opines, are in a unique position to "make a considered difference" given our rapid rise to the top of the list of complex beings. This injunction makes its way onto the page after a long catalog of the species that scientists conjecture we may (or may not) have driven to extinction along the way. There seems to be an implicit appeal to a sort of "species-pride" that seeks to evoke vague sentiments of compassion for all the helpless animals that may (or may not) be crushed beneath the juggernaut of human success. Yet everything that precedes this appeal militates against it. Repeatedly, Bryson marvels at the precarious path life had to travel in order to arrive at its present state of rich variety, noting how tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of species have come and gone without our ever knowing it. If the planet is bountiful in its opportunities for life, it seems equally willing to rub out life forms with the impunity of a bored child. The forms now present happen to be well-suited to their environment and to their fellow creatures, and as the history of the earth has demonstrated, it is entirely possible that changes in climate, geography, the ocean temperatures or even the magnetic fields generated by the molten metal core may be disastrous to life as it exists now, just as such changes were disastrous to life as it has existed in the past.

My reaction to these conclusions is, so what? If man is nothing more than the latest, most successful instantiation of protein conglomeration, what justification is there to minimize our ecological footprint? If (as the argument goes) our presence on the planet has resulted in a significant loss in biodiversity, what ethics pronounces judgment upon it? What tribunal will decide our innocence or guilt, if not the Court of the Fittest? What, other than a howl of victory, could be its verdict upon the proliferation of the human species to the detriment of all others? What, other than a resigned shrug, could be its verdict upon the self-destruction that follows? Is there any warrant for the demand that the long history of life’s self-preservation should cease and desist?

This is why the sentimentalism of the environmentalist cause rings so hollow. It parades the long, loveless history of the universe before us, ever to remind us that we are dust, to dust we shall return, being no more than a blip on the cosmic radar. Yet when a nameless beetle may (or may not) have disappeared without ever having been known to science, there is an equally earnest appeal made to the "responsibility" humans have to care for this planet and the potential for its rapid and disastrous deterioration, an appeal that parades an equally long and much more lovely history (quite in contradiction to the first) in the hope that this panoply of variety and marvelous complexity in harmony with itself could provoke a middle-class American to “think globally, act locally”—or at least act in his own self-interest.

The question then arises of whether it is even possible to rise above an enlightened self-interest, given the parameters of the issue. It's not clear that these apocalyptic prophecies will come true in our own lifetime, or in the lifetime of the youngest of our children. Is it for the good of the human species, as such, that sacrifice is necessary? Or is it for some unknown future generation that may (or may not) benefit? Entreaties in behalf of abstractions or faceless non-beings are hardly the most compelling imaginable. In fact, they are nonsensical, as Henri de Lubac lays out in a pointed refutation of humanitarian optimism:

... it is not really for humanity [itself] that sacrifice is made; it is still, despite assertion to the contrary, for other individuals, who in their transitory outward form contain nothing that is absolute and do not stand for any essentially higher value than those who are sacrificed to them; in the last resort, it is all for one generation of humanity—the last—which is yet no greater than the others, and which will pass away like the others.*

Erazim Kohak skewers this perspective even more pithily, saying, “Only in a most myopic perspective does life become meaningful by virtue of being used as a means to something whose value is in turn solely instrumental.”** Sustained reflection gives the lie to environmentalist importunities. Yet they are, I believe, indications of a deep-seated disorder awaiting diagnosis.

Before delving into what that diagnosis might be, it is necessary to clarify that we have long ago left behind Mr. Bryson in his own right; his well-researched, thoughtful, and informative book have served as a springboard for further reflection. My comments are not directed at him, nor do I wish to burn him in effigy. Furthermore, I should mention that in no way do I mean to be dismissive of the importance of ecological responsibility. Humankind has certainly been a destructive influence upon the integrity of this planet. That something must be done is clear; what we are not agreed upon is why it must be done, and my hope is to shed a little light upon that chain of reasoning.

What, then, permits the environmentalist movement to make such groundless and self-contradictory demands, and what conclusions can we draw regarding them? I suggest that it is fundamentally a profound discomfort with the truth of who man is and his flight from God. These two are tightly interwoven. As a professor of mine puts it, to turn one’s back on God is to assume God’s stance towards reality. Thus, any rejection of one’s own identity demands a turning of one’s back upon the ground of all identity, and to turn away from that ground is to reject one’s own identity and deepest source of meaning. In place of them, a surrogate destiny must be found, one that reaches into the depths of one’s being and makes the sort of practical demands on one’s life that the innate desire for the infinite requires. In a series of retreats he gave before being elevated to the papacy, a certain German theologian captured the essence of this attitude as it is exemplified in the ecological movements:

Man sees himself as the enemy of life and of the balance of creation, as the great disturber of the peace of nature (which would be better off if he did not exist), as the creature that went wrong. His salvation and the salvation of the world would, on this view, consist of disappearing, of his life and soul being taken back from him, of what is specifically human vanishing so that nature could return to its unconscious perfection, in its own rhythm and with its own wisdom of dying and coming into being.***

Trace the contemporary green movements to their roots, and this is what you will find. There once was a time when it was believed that we could harmonize our presence in nature; one is hard-pressed to find such hopes among the die-hard today. Eradication of the human footprint is the only way we know how to convey respect.

Ratzinger goes on to uncover the foundations of this desire to disappear, and discovers there a circular paradox not unrelated to the discomfort with man’s identity described above. Originating in the desire “to be like God” and become his own creator, man refuses to acknowledge his dependence on God and asserts his freedom from him; man claims to rule in God’s place. Yet this is a rejection not of God’s dominion, but of his life, and soon the fascination with death supplants the fresh acquaintance with liberty. Soon, this liberty is consumed with the“flight from God, the wish to be alone with oneself and one’s finiteness and not to be disturbed by the presence of God.” **** What an accurate description of the clamor of secularism, anxious above all to be rid of this inescapable presence.

What is the antidote to this malady? At the risk of being facile, it must be an acceptance of true identity. With respect to the created world, this identity has long been spoken of as ‘the recipient of a gift’. By gratuitously bringing into existence all that is in a free act of good will, the Creator gives to each creature the gift of itself, a gift that is constrained by no one and surpassed by no one. Humanity, moreover, is the recipient of all else that is, and is situated within an ordered cosmos. Man has power and authority over this cosmos, given by the one who is its maker. A gift given so freely and with such perfect and unselfish correspondence to our good can only be called ‘love,’ and the only proper response to love is love itself. Neither paralyzed by sentimentality nor greedy with the possibilities for exploitation, as stewards we must step boldly forward into our position of responsibility. With love comes vulnerability, and in our stewardship we will find it necessary to execute the bitter works love at times requires.

Perhaps we will also ask ourselves if we have not settled for too simple a solution; yet, perhaps it also takes courage not to dismiss what satisfies that desire for the integrity, harmony, and clarity of the beautiful--ultimately, for the truth.

* Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, p. 353
** The Embers and The Stars, p. 101
*** The Yes of Jesus Christ, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, p. 74
**** Ibid., p. 75

05 December 2007

Thoughts on A Few Good Men

After seeing the play A Few Good Men so long ago, as it was interpreted by my peers in high school—it suited our all-male student body well—I finally managed to see the film that was based on that play and popularized it. The occasion was an extended quotation of Colonel Nathan Jessep's extended diatribe by a fellow seminarian, marvellously rendered in true Nicholson style. It was a stirring reminder of the play I'd seen over a decade ago, refreshing old memories of the same speech that had managed to be stirring even in the hands of a high school performer, to his credit.

I have never seen Nicholson in a movie where I was not captivated by his character. For me, as an actor he can do no wrong; whatever part he plays, I am transfixed. He fills the frame to the exclusion of all other characters. At every cut of the camera I await the inevitable barbs of caustic, raspy disdain, my delight increasing with each as they come. It is vanity, pure vanity, but he’s just so good at it…

Apart from Nicholson, I was disappointed in the film for a couple of reasons. At the risk of overanalyzing a 90s courtroom drama, and of saying many things that have been repeated many times over, there are a few things worth putting out there about how I experienced it. The most significant is that I didn’t side with the characters I was supposed to. Perhaps my undue attachment to the Colonel blinded me to the most central flaws of the “code” that was skewered so mercilessly, but I don’t think so. In the end I found the Marine rhetoric compelling, and when Kaffrey slaps the “sonofabitch” across his face it was totally unsatisfying—in part because it's never appealing to grind the loser under your heel, but mostly because what the Colonel says is in some sense true. Moreover, there is no development in Kaffrey’s character. There is no deeper awareness of the human, moral dimension of his work; his decision to go ahead and risk baiting Jessep to confess to ordering the Code Red is not driven by any desire to lay himself down in service of the truth or even in service to the men who depend on him for their legal defense. In the end, it is pragmatism and the conviction that he can succeed, nothing more. Risks were calculated and the numbers that fell against him were not unsurmountable. This is not a character that has matured in any way beyond a discovery of a proficiency of which he was not aware before and that he was afraid might not exist; we first meet him in a position that enabled him to "stay out of the courtroom" and thereby stick to what was reliable and safe. All that his changed is that he is more willing to be bold.

The cheesy synthesizer music that resolved into a nice major chord as soon as Kaffrey announces he will be putting Jessep on the stand after an off-screen soul-search for the “strength within” didn’t help, either. These sorts of moments were repeatedly being pushed aside by a bad soundtrack. This is what we call ham-fisted. I was naïve to expect more, but as a certain FT recently said, it’s nice to be treated like you’re smart enough not to be told outright what is going on in a story. And good grief, were 80s and 90s soundtracks really that bad? Who put up with this stuff? Sic transit gloria...

What the film did achieve was the tension between the two worlds of the abstract, legal realm and the situations in which the decisions made on high must be carried out. It is the age-old clash between the politician and the soldier (or, as Plato put it, between the ruler and the guardian); the worldview of each is so conditioned by its goals that the two constantly run up against one another. It just so happens that in this particular story the setting of the action is in the abstract world of the law, and not in the concrete setting the laws are meant to govern; it should come as no surprise that the lawyer comes out on top. He does, and that’s probably the way it should be. But the fact is, there is such a thing as a good Marine, and there is such a thing as a good lawyer, or manager, or lawmaker, and these are very different things. The soldier does what he must do and does it as best he can; regardless of what he is asked to do, there is a sort of excellence that can be achieved proper to himself. Likewise for the lawyer. Put a soldier in a courtroom and the lawyer will dance all over him; put a lawyer on the front and he will have his own lessons to learn. Take a soldier out of the field and subject his actions to rigorous scrutiny and there will be some glaring inconsistencies that, when articulated, will be as bewildering for the soldier as they are outrageous to the lawyer. This is a clash of worlds, and it is unavoidable. Wars will never be waged in orderly fashion.

That being said, I don’t want to give the impression the perjury of military officers should be condoned; the “bad guys” did wrong and they deserved to be punished. However, it was clear that the bad guys stood for something much more than military excellence run amok. Though the Marines were acquitted of their crimes, the source of meaning for their lives had been ripped out from beneath them, ostensibly to their benefit. The accidental death of a Marine resulting from a straightforward but unregulated act of peer correction was an unfortunate consequence of their devotion to a code of conduct, but that code informed and structured the lives of those young men in a way they could not do themselves. The conclusion of the film betrayed an antipathy for such communal structures of meaning and purpose, likening it to the flashy marches and rifle drills that began the film—eye-catching and impressive, but ultimately just the rehearsed and well-executed maneuvers of men required to concentrate only on not falling out of line with the soldier on either side in the hopes of creating a corporate body that acts in concert to the ultimate detriment of its members. This antipathy is just the sort of reaction a highly individualized perspective would have to such a structure, and this is the prevailing wisdom of our world today.

It was this repugnance to communal structures that fired my dislike for the film overall. Would I watch it again? I probably will, one day. It will take a few more viewings to get a good handle on Nicholson’s speech.

02 December 2007

Danny's Own Story

They ain't nothing so good as hanging round a campfire. And they ain't nothing any better than sleeping outdoors, neither. You roll up in your blanket with your feet to the fire and you get to wondering things about things afore you go to sleep. The silentness jest natcherally swamps everything after a while, and then all them queer little noises you never hear in the daytime comes popping and poking through the silentness, or kind o' scratching their way through it sometimes, and makes it kind o' feel more silent than ever. And if you are nigh a crick, purty soon it will sort of get to talking to you, only you can't make out what it's trying to say, and you get to wondering about that, too. And if you are in a tent and it rains and the tent don't leak, that rain is a kind of a nice thing to listen to itself. But if you can see the stars you get to wondering more'n ever. They come out and they is so many of them and they are so fur away, and yet they are so kind o' friendly-like, too, if you happen to be feeling purty good. But if you ain't feeling purty good, jest lay there and look at them stars long enough; and then mebby you'll see it don't make no difference whether you're feeling good or not, fur they got a way o' making your private troubles look mighty small. And you get to wondering why that is, too, fur they ain't human; and it don't stand to reason you orter pay no attention to them, one way nor the other. They is jest there, like trees and cricks and hills. But I have often noticed that the things that is jest there has got a way of seeming more friendly than the things that has been built and put there. You can look at a big iron bridge or a grain elevator or a canal all day long, and if you're feeling blue it don't help you none. It was jest put there. Or a hay stack is the same way. But you go and lazy around in the grass when you're down on your luck and kind o' make remarks to a crick or a big, old walnut tree, and before long it gets you to feeling like it didn't make no difference how you felt, anyhow; fur you don't amount to nothing by the side of something that was always there. You get to thinking how the hull world itself was always here, and you sort o' see they ain't nothing important enough about yourself to worry about, and presently you will go to sleep and forget it. The doctor says to me one time them stars ain't any different from this world, and this is one of them. Which is a fool idea, as any one can see. He had a lot of queer ideas like that, Doctor Kirby had. But they ain't nothing like sleeping out of doors nights to make you wonder the kind of wonderings you never will get any answer to.

From Danny’s Own Story, by Don Marquis (Ch 4)