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Archives for April 2015

A Valediction Against Eloquence

artillery

         We cannot know how much we learn
         From those who never will return,
         Until a flash of unforeseen
         Remembrance falls on what has been.
          – Edward Arlington Robinson

I find temerity an easy thing,
A second cousin to that bravery
Which soldiers, priests and changeless change
All seem to learn by heart, to hear and see
In each their several works – the deafening
     Of cannons, bells and clocks. Each counts. Each counts for me.

The almanac’s perennial report
Indicts the dates of E. A. Robinson,
Supposed locus for my own mortal tort –
A figure slated: 1869
To 1935. What years are mine?
     These sixty-six, a vectored fix to spec to span

Such integers? Let fire for mine commence
By azimuth with ticking, tolling tongue;
Arrange bouquets of fusillade, bomb blast
And dry percussion; rip a canyon mouth
From mountainside. What bombast can outlast
     Artillery’s timely canon of eloquence?

Five Short Poems about the Sixth Commandment

By Their Silence or a Certain Anxious Patter
For the observant boniface
Adultery is commonplace.

At a Motel Near the Airport
As one fly said to the other on a strip of glue,
“Nice place you picked for our rendezvous!”

Again the End of Him
She knew it had to be a con
when he said, “I’ll call anon!”

Always More to the Story
Re: their daughter and the groom,
Dad had a shrewd sense
of just who had screwed whom.
Mom tried to show prudence.

She Herself Enjoyed a Glass of Wine
But every date they’d had so far was a vinous
affair of inebriated intimacy—a big minus.

Drinking in Bed with You and Lucinda Williams

lucinda_williams

Our bed’s been drinking, spinning morning dry
As Lucinda pours her loud blood in song
From whiskey bottles, singing about why
Both love and coffee scald, both black and strong
As night – but sunlight lays its warning blade
Across your tapered thighs. There, spider veins
Put paid to what our nudity has made –
Now flush with alcohol – the blush that stains
My middle-aged desires. Your rounded hips
Are building flesh to slender curves; these rise
As, rolling on your side, you bring your lips
To mine and cut the lines that held my eyes.
The spirits, going sober, speak to bone:
We limp through love; you reconnect the phone.

“I attended a same-sex unionizing ritual but I didn’t inhale…”

inhaling ssm

The Grand Underachieving Pusillanimous Party (GUPPy) is at it again and this time they’re catching hell from Father Marcel Guarnizo.

Mind & Brain III: What is so special about the human brain?

Also related to Rufus’ Field Notes and the Philosophy of Mind is an article that has popped up on Facebook is Captain Paul Watson’s “social media” article, The Cetacean Brain and Hominid Perceptions of Cetacean Intelligence. Writing about comparisons of intelligence, Watson writes:

Interspecies comparisons focus on the extent of lamination, the total cortical area, and the number and depth of neocortex convolutions. In addition, primary sensory processing relative to problem solving is a significant indicator; this can be described as associative ability. The association or connecting of ideas is a measurable skill: a rat’s associative skill is measured at nine to one. This means that 90 percent of the brain is devoted to primary sensory projection, leaving only 10 percent for associative skills. A cat is one to one, meaning that half the brain is available for associative ability. A chimpanzee is one to three, and a human being is one to nine. We humans need only utilize 10 percent of our brains to operate our sensory organs. Thus the associative abilities of a cat are measurably greater than a rat but less than a chimp, and humans are the highest of all.

Not exactly. The cetacean brain averages one to twenty-five and can range upward to one to forty. The reason for this is that the much larger supralimbic lobe is primarily association cortex. Unlike humans, in cetaceans sensory and motor function control is spread outside the supralimbic, leaving more brain area for associative purposes.

At the top of Watson’s article is this picture of a human brain and a dolphin brain side by side. Besides the fact that the dolphin brain appears to be somewhat larger, what is to be made of the the wider gap between the two lobes, the more complex squiggly things (sulci, I think) and the much bigger cerebellum (it looks like a third lobe beneath the two upper hemispheres).

Photo-B

I know all this might seem a little ridiculous, but there’s no question that various animals certainly do have capabilities far in advance of humans—dogs and hearing, for example, or elephants and memory. And then there is the subject of elephant death rituals.

So what is it that sets the human brain apart from all other animals? That human beings have crossed the symbolic threshold is the ready answer, certainly, but how exactly did that happen? Girard has some interesting thoughts on the subject of course, as does his student, Eric Gans. Sticking with the brain for the moment, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel says that a lot of it boils down to cooking. Yes, cooking:

On Whether or Not Animals Go to Heaven, David Bentley Hart on Thomists, and Edward Feser on the Soul

Dog Heaven

                                                                  
Somewhat related to Rufus’ Field Notes and my own reference to two articles on Mind and Brain below, there has been an interesting debate of late about whether animals go to heaven. In case you missed it, David Bentley Hart wrote his monthly article in First Things about it, and began with an extended riff comparing Thomists to … beatniks.

I was once told by a young, ardently earnest Thomist … you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, swaying to bebop, composing dithyrambic encomia to that ­absolutely gone, totally wild, starry-bright and vision-wracked, mad angelic daddy-cat Garrigou-Lagrange. . . .

Weird. And I like Garrigou-Lagrange, at least Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, which is one of the first books I read in Kindle form (“Kindle form” because I actually read it on my phone).

Luckily, there’s always Ed Feser to rely on. Feser posted his response to Hart at the Public Discourse, and it’s well worth reading.

Hart is correct to note that Thomists deny that there will be non-human animals in Heaven. But he gives the impression that Thomists “reject all evidence of intentionality . . . or affection in animals,” and that they are committed to a “mechanistic” account of non-human animals according to which their apparently conscious behavior reduces to “biomechanical stimulus and response.” He insinuates that at least many Thomists maintain an “unsettlingly gnostic picture” of human nature on which “the vegetal, animal, and rational functions of the soul must be segregated into strictly impermeable compartments,” so that the human soul becomes a “Cartesian ghost” inhabiting the physical body.

None of this could be further from the truth. As with his critique of natural law two years ago, Hart’s latest anti-Thomistic salvo is a showy exercise in firing blanks, all shock and no awe. Hart’s piece is long on rhetoric and short on argumentation, riddled with sweeping assertions, attacks on straw men, and failures to make crucial distinctions. The reason why Thomists tend to deny that non-human animals go to heaven has nothing to do with those attributed by Hart. Let’s untangle the mess.

Good stuff, and worth reading even as an introduction to the Thomist view of the nature of human souls. Feser is hard enough on Hart that I doubt Hart himself will be persuaded, but he ought to be.

Heads up.

Martyrdom: The Coloring Book - Fryd and GfrörerMartyrdom: The Coloring Book

  • Illustrated by the supremely grim, superlatively talented Julia Gfrörer *
  • Due September 2015 from Zest Books
  • Blurb:

    The lives of the saints are filled with inspiring, life-changing moments—but the deaths of the martyrs are where you’ll find the real “Oh, hell no!” moments of history. This adult (very adult, as the body count will quickly indicate) coloring book gives aspiring crayon and paper artists the chance to hone their craft while also buffing up their knowledge of Catholic history and tales. The attending stories will go down pretty easy at cocktail hours as well. [Continued…]

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Grieg Piano Concerto, performed by Leif Ove Andsnes, Leonard Slatkin conducting

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Last night I saw the Grieg Piano Concerto performed by Marc-André Hamelin with the Seattle Symphony. I thought I was done with big, gushing romantic pieces like the Grieg concerto, but it was outstanding. Hamelin was amazing. Not that I know a lot about what makes one virtuoso better than another … they all just play so damn fast!

Here is Hamelin himself playing Chopin’s Minute Waltz, Debussy’s Feux d’artifice and Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet No. 123. This last piece is quite good, and if you’re wondering how Liszt wrote a Petrarch sonnet for the piano (I was), here is an article by Andrew Fowler that explains what Liszt set out to do.

Also on the program last night was a world premiere by the composer Sebastian Currier. Divisions is an orchestral piece I rather liked, particularly a weird sequence near the beginning in which a chord played by the entire (or most of the) string section was bent to waver a few times before the orchestra continues the same discordant dialogue as before. To give you a sense of Currier’s style, here also is a violin concerto called Time Machines that is pretty great. Performed by Anne Sophie Mutter, who is always worth listening to.

And here is the composer being interviewed about that last piece, with some interesting observations about “objective time” and “psychological time” and the way music is the optimal medium for exploring this (with comparisons to film and television). Here is another, more general interview, beginning with a selection from his String Quartet, New Atlantis and including comments about a piece based on a poem by Wallace Stevens.

Two More Short Poems About Animals

Don’t Stir Up the Dust!
On the savannah, a spindly-legged,
galloping camelopard
dwarfed a nearby zebra, who begged
her not to trammel so hard.

So Not Happening at the Zoo
You’ll have to forgive the elephant,
if his manner seems a bit brusque:
imagine a runny nose in that trunk,
let alone a toothache in his tusk!

Ross Douthat Checks Gary Trudeau’s Privilege

Can Ross Douthat bring to Reason the subscription base of the New York Times? Probably not, but he continues making a valient effort:

A living cartoonist lecturing his murdered peers makes for a curious spectacle, but that’s what transpired at journalism’s George Polk Awards a week ago. The lecturer was Garry Trudeau, of “Doonesbury” fame; his subject was the cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian satire rag, who were gunned down by fanatics because of their mockery of Muhammad and Islam.

Trudeau did not exactly say they had it coming, but he passed judgment on their sins — not the sin of blasphemy, but the sin of picking a politically unsuitable target for their jabs. By mocking things sacred to Europe’s Muslim immigrants, Trudeau lamented, the Hebdo cartoonists were “punching downward … attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” This was both a moral and an aesthetic failing, because “ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”