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Lao She's existentialism

I recently read Lao She's classic Chinese novel Rickshaw Boy. Here's my review of the book.  One thing I enjoyed was his description.  Eloquent and beautiful descriptions of the weather and scene, but also vivid psychological detail that conveyed a certain existentialism.  Two samples:

The best he could come up with was self-pity, but even that seemed impossible, since his head was empty; he no sooner had thoughts about himself than he forgot them, like a dying candle that won't light.  Enveloped by darkness, he felt as if he were floating inside a black cloud.  Though he was aware of his existence and that he was walking forward, there was no evidence of where he was headed.  He was like a man tossed about on the open sea, no longer able to believe in himself.  Never in his life had he felt so bewildered, so downhearted, so very alone.


He could not shake the feeling that he'd never again be happy.  He swore off thinking, speaking, and losing his temper, and yet there was a heaviness in his chest that went away for a while when he was working but always returned when he had time on his hands--it was soft, but large; it had no definable taste, yet it choked him, like a sponge.  He's keep this suffocating something at bay by working himself half to death so he could fall into an exhausted sleep.  His nights he'd give over to his dreams, his days to his arms and legs.  He'd be like a working zombie: sweeping away snow, buying things, ordering kerosene lanterns, cleaning rickshaws, moving tables and chairs, eating the food Fourth Master supplied, and sleeping, all without knowing what was going on around him, or speaking, or even thinking, yet always dimly aware of the presence of that spongelike thing.

Afrika's eloquence

I posted my brief review of Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika the other day.  Today I'd like to share a two paragraph excerpt as an example of his eloquent writing.

As in the just-past night, only terror tinged with a dull anger stirs in us as the normally ludicrous takes on a shape of nightmare under even so high and revealing a sun, and no laughter moves in us with its saving grace as we watch the beatings as of beasts of those still struggling to free themselves from the  hobbles of their pants, and the face of our Jerry driver floats out before me like the fragment of a dream already ages old, and I reach out as to a lost and redeeming friend, but the emptiness in me is the emptier for its finding only the Now.

The ground is firm enough under our boots, but there is a hollow ring to it as of water warningly close, and I am reckoning it will be bitter and salt as the crystals strewn like some malignant frost over the curiously ochre earth.  Also, there are shallow depressions of cracking mud that tell of water in some other time, a surging, perhaps, of a capricious tide.  The occasional scrub is twisted and black as though a fire had swept it or an enervating poison gripped its roots, and the even scarcer grass is cancerous and brittle as a dying man's hair, and I am hearing the usual silence that even our frenetic trampling cannot shatter or obscure.

Political Correctness

I've never really understood all the angst over political correctness.  This was a major topic when I was in high school and college in the 1990's and has resurfaced in the current presidential campaign. A good essay on Huffington Post invites us to think harder about this topic, including its history.  I learned from the article that the term was originally derived by liberals to mock the way Marxists often tried to control the way people talked.

On the one hand, we are simply talking about being nice.  When people (individuals or groups) have ways they would prefer to be addressed and spoken about, then it is simply kind to abide by their request.  Does that sometimes mean who have to be mildly inconveniced?  Sure, but that's often the case with kindness.

On the other hand, can people be overly sensitive?  Indeed they can.  We've entered into an era when people can be too easily offended and sometimes take offense on behalf of someone else.  This last year many college campuses seemed to exhibit absurd extremes in this regard.

But are those college absurdities a threat to the ordinary person compelling their political outrage?  That seems even more absurd to me.  If Yale wants to get in a furor over an e-mail about Halloween costumes, then simply roll your eyes and move on.

What underlies the reactions of those on the political right is that suddenly (at least to them it is sudden) all sorts of viewpoints they took for granted have become taboo in the wider culture.  

Simon Schama's beautiful prose

Today I began reading Simon Schama's first volume of The Story of the Jews.  I ordered it last winter when the PBS documentary aired, and it kept getting bumped in my reading for other things pertinent to stuff I was doing at church.  I am mesmerized by Schama's prose in this book (in 2008 I read his Landscape and Memory).  Here are some excellent excerpts only from the four page Foreword:

For a couple of hours after supper, the sages, false messiahs, poets and rabble-rousers came into our little company as we cracked walnuts and jokes, and drank wine and the brimming cup of Jewish words.


Over everything else, understandably, the crematoria smoke still hung its tragic pall.


But, whatever the cost of breaking it, silence is not a historian's option.


We would moor under the willows to wrestle with the pain of Shylock.


Faith & Pregnancy

My good friend Greg Horton has posted a response to the Hobby Lobby case that I found to be very good.  His main purpose, as Greg usually does on his blog, is to discuss the role of language.  In particular here he is discussing whether faith-talk can define medical categories like "pregnancy."  He concludes, of course, that it cannot.  Which leads him to conclude that "The Hobby Lobby decision is a hydra-headed clusterfuck."  Amen.

Two parts of this post also get to issues that I had with the majority decision, but haven't written about yet, as I also didn't want to jump into the fray before but wanted to read, listen, and mull things over.  Here is issue one, as described by Greg:

To be clear, the case rested on the Green family being allowed to define pregnancy in a way that is counter to how medical professionals define pregnancy. I have no idea why I should take the word of business owners who specialize in selling imported crap for display in middle class homes around evangelicaldom when the American Medical Association seems a far more reliable source of information about medicine, but it's America, and as my students regularly inform me with scalable—depending on their level of offense at my cultural blasphemy—levels of indignation, "Everyone has a right to their own opinion."

In reading the majority decision I was horrified by the line of Justice Alito's that the court was protecting the Green family's belief that four of these contraception methods were abortifacients.  Despite the fact that the scientific and medical communities, including the FDA, don't categorize them as such.  Justice Ginsburg was shocked that the Court now will be adjudicating religious beliefs in a way it never has before, determining if they are sincerely held in order to apply this ruling in other cases.  It is, of course, shocking that the Court is protecting a claim that is empirically false.  I'm not sure how an empirically false medical claim becomes a religious belief, but it did on Tuesday.  And that is Greg's problem, as he concludes his post:

Faith in god does not imply the ability to define non-theological terms, like pregnancy, so that they are consistent with a particular brand of theism. The object of faith is not definitions or meanings that are only tangentially related to words in a sacred text; the object of faith is god. This will necessitate that theists believe certain things are true or false, but extracting categories from the text and then insisting testable truths be understood in light of those categories is not helpful in communicating with members of various tribes who do not share those categories. Pregnant means, for all tribes, a fertilized egg is implanted in the wall of the uterus. To equate faith with the belief in definitions that are contrary to known scientific realities is to impose an anti-intellectual burden on believers that makes meaningful, intertribal communication impossible.

The second big issue I had with the ruling, is also something Greg addresses tangentially.

That the SCOTUS majority opinion specifically said the decision could not be used for precedential purposes related to blood transfusions and other medical realities about which different faith traditions have differing beliefs is a strong indication that they know this was a perilously bad decision. Either the principle applies or it doesn't, and in this case, they treated a comprehensive application of principle as an ad hoc application of principle, but the box is still open and the five justices in the majority will be living with their decision in the form of litigation for years to come.

First, as a practical matter, you cannot claim that the ruling is not a precedent, for clearly lower court judges will be compelled to use it as a precedent when adjudicating similar cases.

Second, the ruling defies the laws of logic that most people learn as an undergraduate in college.  According to those laws it is the basic form of the argument that is valid, regardless of what the particulars are.  The particulars in this case had to do with contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.  But if the argument itself is valid, then you can change that particulars and get the same conclusion.  That the Court in point of fact says that the form of argument is not valid when applied to other particulars entails that it is not valid when applied to this particular.  This part of ruling must be making every logicians head spin.

So, we'll be living with this "hydra-headed clusterfuck" for some time.

Distorting American Political Life

I read this sentence in the news this morning:

"Cantor lost in an upset to tea party challenger Dave Brat on Tuesday, an outcome Democrats quickly jumped on as a sign that the Republican Party is being pulled to the right by its conservative wing."

I'm sorry, but Eric Cantor was in the conservative wing. He was one of the leaders of this rebellion against reasonable governance and even the Tom Delay era of conservatism.

This sort of language distorts American political life, but implying that somehow Cantor is a moderate.

Will on Obama's rhetoric

I agree with George Will that the President's rhetoric commits logical errors and is not helpful for sustained, rational discourse.  However, I disagree with him that this is particularly a feature of this president, as it seems rampant in public discourse, particularly in the political class.  I do believe that this president can talk in extended, rational arguments, but has realized the public futility of doing so in the current climate.

Mencken on Harding

My downstairs bathroom reading is the book Deadline Artists, a collection of America's greatest newspaper columns.  Yesterday I read a hilarious one by H. L. Mencken lampooning Warren G. Harding's inaugural address.  The column is entitled "Gamalielese" and was published in the Baltimore Sun on March 7, 1921.

He makes fun of Hardings atrocious use of the English language--his bad word choices, his grammar, his lack of any meaning in the phrases that are strung together, his delivery.  The column resonates with the more serious column of George Orwells entitled "Politics and the English Language," and is, if anything, even more appropriate in this day when so much political speech lacks substance.  I highly recommend the column.

Here is one sentence of Harding's which Mencken delights in analyzing.  "I would like government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved."  

Like I said, he goes into a thorough analysis of this sentence and all of its myriad problems, but I love how he opens, "I assume you have read it.  I also assume that you set it down as idiotic--a series of words without sense."  I wish we had a little more of that in our political coverage today.

Mencken's main objection to the inaugural address is that was a stump speech, and he has no high opinion of stump speech.  A little aside, I once read a book on the history of American sermons which argued that the inaugural address had become a national sermon of our civil religion.  Maybe one aspect of Harding's failure was he delivered a stump speech and not a sermon?

My favourite paragraph is when Mencken lampoons the listeners.  I can't imagine a newspaper columnist daring this today.  Maybe Bill Maher.

Such imbeciles do not want ideas--that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention.  What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of treadbare phrases terrifically repeated, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures.  As I say, they can't understand many words of more than two syllables, but that is not saying that they do not esteem such words.  On the contrary, they like them and demand them.  The roll of incomprehensible polysyllables enchants them.  They like phrases which thunder like salvos of artillery.  Let that thunder sound, and they take all the rest on trust.  If a sentence begins furiously and then peters out into fatuity, they are still satisfied.  If a phrase has a punch in it, they do not ask that it also have a meaning.  If a word slips off the tongue like a ship going down the ways, they are content and applaud it and wait for the next.

This reminds me of that classic, brilliant, episode of The Family Guy when Lois runs for public office and learns very quickly during the public debate that reasoned arguments about real ideas is not working, but if she simply repeats "9/11" over and over the crowd will rise in rousing applause.


No writer has more influenced my use of a single word than Seamus Heaney has.  And the word in question is "so."

Listen to my sermons.  Read their manuscripts.  And, if you are listening/looking for it, you will notice how often I use "so" and how dependent I am upon it for the flow and structure of my work.  I actually have to restrain myself from overusing it.

And this is due to Heaney.  I think when I read what he said about "so," it resonated with my own previous, conversational use of of the word.  Our northeastern Oklahoman use of it seemed very similiar to what he described of his Irish relatives.  Maybe our linguistic connections to the Old World were closer than we realized.

Where does Heaney talk about "so" in the way that deeply influenced me?  In his magnificent translation of Beowulf.  Here is how he translates the famous opening lines:

So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

[Note: I've never, in a sermon, dared the single word sentence "so."] 

Here is his explanation of the translation.  He gets to "so" at the very end, but you need to read what comes before.

It is one thing to find lexical meanings for the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work.  Without some melody sensed or promised, it is simply impossible for a poet to establish the translator's right-of-way into and through a text.  I was therefore lucky to hear this enabling note almost straight away, a familiar local voice, one that had belonged to relatives of my father's, people whom I had once described in a poem as "big voiced Scullions."

I called them "big voiced" because when the mean of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf.  A simple sentence such as "We cut the corn to-day" took on immense dignity when one of them Scullions spoke it.  They had a king of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk.  And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives.  I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon.

Convention renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and--more colloquially--"listen" being some of the solutions offered previously.  But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.  So, "so" it was.

Don't you just love that description--"obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention"?  Who would fail to use a tool like that once discovered?

And, thus, in pretty much every sermon, there comes a point where I utter this two-letter word and know full well that behind my utterance lies the translation work of Seamus Heaney, the idiomatic expressions of his Irish relatives, the majesty and power of the old Anglo-Saxon epic, and the courage and greatness of the stories it tells.