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Fiction Submission

The following story was submitted to me in hopes of having more work published by Korrektiv Press. I explained that we really are a boutique publishing house, an elite group of writers catering to an even more elite group of readers (alas, you read that correctly), and that it would take some time—not to mention a long, hard look by our editorial staff—before his stuff ever saw it through to print. The fellow responded that this was just fine—suited him to a t, in fact, since he was looking for as much feedback as possible. To which I thought, well, why don’t we just post it to the blog, opening up his work to whatever commentary our good readers choose to provide. So … Have at it, folks.

Debita Nostra

Sedately, a hand as though Michelangelo’s Adam’s stretched toward the bulletproof window, outside of which sprung April’s sweet shoots, this man’s hand anticipating no divine spark, reaching instead for infinite space. Garrett stared there, almost praying in spite of it all, sing in me muse of many harried years, I am a man unskilled in the ways of contenting, lax index finger then firming to flick an ant—exiled or escaped from the anthill’s very brotherhood—not utterly destroying it, but doing a crippling work on the hind legs. Dominion over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Should tell someone here. Insecticide. Black dots distracting work that could be done. Contrary to all efficiency and decency. Not that he cared but they would wouldn’t they. Black dots better than black plague, better than the oriental rat flea that gorged on blood and spread it across Europa, eliminating at least one hundred million in seven years, 1353-1346, as though yesterday, danse macabre, dance my little wounded ant, skeletal epitome of eternal mortality, set us dancing again, mon Dieu, Dominus. Dominion. Dominus vobiscum.

Garrett brushed back his black bangs that when hanging ceased just before they reached the eyebrows. Covering it. The broad forehead. That’s how God fits the brains in there, Uncle James had said more than once, often upon introducing him from afar but within earshot—and here he is, broad-forehead-big-brained bullox, pressing blood-blanched fingers against the off white keyboard, trying to formulate a response to client ZX3820 and failing, yet carrying on the slow-motion slog against the debt, stacking his hecatomb against the mortal god who sent summons biweekly: $123,000 total, for which reason we would like to offer you the payment plan option of $1,230 per month, which, o man, measured against your Cosmoception wages of $2,500 per month, leaves you $1,270 per month. Forget not the old cafe job that brought in $1,300 per month at best, if tips bespoke the jubilee generosity, that as dictated by that little known book of Leviticus and insisted upon by the prophet Isaiah, for the faint spirit shall become a mantle of praise enunciated by otherworldly unction.

Still failing to settle the right syntax for client ZX3820. Not for lack of sample form letters provided during orientation, but because not a single one fits. Refusing the forms as inadequate. Aristotle refusing Plato’s theory of the forms–if the father of all philosophical footnotes had one single one anyhow. Failed to figure how this world holds order also not only other-world Forms. Some semblance of home here. My father has many dwellings. Not is only in heaven but as it is, otherwise why the comparison? Client ZX3820—you enter the numbers and the computer program inserts a name which you, the staff, are unable to see, privacy—wants foundation. A shade of peach, non-scented, but can get it cheaper at even the convenience store. He heard now-departed father say have your convenience and hang all to not-yet-widowed mother when she suggested they purchase an eighty dollar keychain by which the doors would unlock and lock by your remote finger’s command. Garrett straightened his spine, felt a click or crack at the base of his back, wrote Have your convenience and hang it all as a draft, then deleted it posthaste, else that $2,500 departs like nymphs leaving you in the wasteland again, leaving no address for anyone, The yellow fog of debt that that rubs its back upon the window-panes, collectors licking their tongues into the corners of the everything.

The nymphs are departed,
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses

Departed, have taken with them the luggage of panic, for if deadened from dull days at work at least there no worried pacings punctuate the evenings as in the elder days, before this big break job, no heart kicks at every door knock as though Loan Co. Himself was on the other side, knocking. Dithyrambic pound with each envelope delivered, even sweepstakes nonsense sometimes looked like loan bills to bloodshot eyes. Taking more hours at the cafe, more coffee cups filled and customers humored over steaming pink salmon, seizing on others’ sick days almost as a parasite and still failing in spite of this to meet monthly payments, readying for default until an entirely oblique conversation with Loan Co. led to a letter that read “ . . . pleased to inform you that your loan has been rescheduled,” which meant, his Uncle James told him over the phone, reduced monthly payments by means of a second loan to help pay off the first which meant increased interest rates but extended repayment schedule so that at least the monthly interest and a bit of the capital balance would be in the hands of the bank every thirty days.

Brettanomyces Bruxellensis

is the stuff (yeast, specifically) sometimes used in Belgian beers and Côtes du Rhône wines. I was sampling some tonight, and had to conduct some quick research to find out what all the fuss was about.

From Wikipedia:

In the wine industry, B. bruxellensis is generally considered a spoilage yeast and it and other members of the genus are often referred to as brett. Its metabolic products can impart “sweaty saddle leather”, “barnyard”, “burnt plastic” or “band-aid” aromas to wine. Some winemakers in France, and occasionally elsewhere, consider it a desirable addition to wine, e.g., in Château de Beaucastel …

“So what’s your take on this one, Louis?”, said Phillipe, swirling the dark red liquid three-fourths of the way up to the rim.

“Well now! That’s quite a bouquet”, said Louis, after letting his nose linger above his glass.

Each took a healthy swallow, and then audibly sloshed the contents around in their mouths, trying to outdo one another.

“Begins with a remarkable sweaty saddle leather”, said Louis.

“And finishes with the band-aid”, said Phillipe.

“Burnt band-aid”, said Louis, frowning slightly in satisfied appreciation.

“Oh yes … Quite!” said Phillipe.

from The Apologizer by Milan Kundera

There’s just loads of French out there to read these days. Not just a new Houellebecq novel, but another Kundera book as well. The Festival of Insignificance will be his first novel in more than a decade. I’m in the midst of the French version, but the translation comes out next month and I seriously doubt I’ll finish it before then. Here is a selection of a selection in The New Yorker a few weeks back:

It was the month of June, the morning sun was emerging from the clouds, and Alain was walking slowly down a Paris street. He observed the young girls: every one of them showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short. He was captivated, captivated and even disturbed: it was as if their seductive power resided no longer in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts but in that small round hole at the center of the body.

This provoked him to reflect: if a man (or an era) sees the thighs as the center of female seductive power, how does one describe and define the particularity of that erotic orientation? He improvised an answer: the length of the thighs is the metaphoric image of the long, fascinating road (which is why the thighs must be long) that leads to erotic achievement. Indeed, Alain said to himself, even in mid-coitus the length of the thighs endows woman with the romantic magic of the inaccessible.

If a man (or an era) sees the buttocks as the center of female seductive power, how does one describe and define the particularity of that erotic orientation? He improvised an answer: brutality, high spirits, the shortest road to the goal, a goal that is all the more exciting for being double.

If a man (or an era) sees the breasts as the center of female seductive power, how does one describe and define the particularity of that erotic orientation? He improvised an answer: sanctification of woman, the Virgin Mary suckling Jesus, the male sex on its knees before the noble mission of the female sex.

But how does one define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel?

How? indeed! Read more here.

from Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

I’ve been rereading this 1899 novel by Machado de Assis, and came across this passage, which seems somewhat related to the conversation JOB and I have been having over the last month or so.

God is the poet. The music is by Satan, a young and very promising composer, who was trained in the heavenly conservatory. A rival of Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, he resented the preference they enjoyed in the distribution of the prizes. It could also be that the over-sweet and mystical style of these other pupils was abhorrent to his essentially tragic genius. He plotted a rebellion which was discovered in time, and he was expelled from the conservatory. And that would have been that, if God had not written an opera libretto, which he had given up, being of the opinion that this type of recreation was inappropriate to His eternity. Satan took the manuscript with him to hell. With the aim of showing that he was better than the others—and perhaps of seeking a reconciliation with heaven—he composed the score, and as soon as he had finished it, took it to the Heavenly Father.

“Lord, I have not forgotten the lessons I have learned,” he said. “Here is the score, listen to it, have it played, and if you think it worthy of the heavenly heights, admit me with it to sit at your feet …”

“No,” replied the Lord, “I don’t want to hear a thing.”

“But, Lord …”

“Not a thing, not a thing!”

Satan went on pleading, with no greater success, until God, tired and full of mercy, gave His consent for the opera to be performed, but outside heaven. He created a special theater, this planet, and invented a whole company, with all the principal and minor roles, the choruses and the dancers.

“Come and listen to some of the rehearsals!”

“No, I don’t want to know about it. I’ve done enough, composing the libretto …”

If we imagine that the score is by Schoenberg, maybe the passage will make even more sense!

Articulus 2

Videtur quod Deum esse non sit demonstrabile. Deum enim esse est articulus fidei. Sed ea quae sunt fidei, non sunt demonstrabilia, quia demonstratio facit scire, fides autem de non apparentibus est, ut patet per apostolum, ad Hebr. XI. Ergo Deum esse non est demonstrabile.

It seems that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated. For it is an article of faith that God exists. But what is of faith cannot be demonstrated, because a demonstration produces scientific knowledge; whereas faith is of the unseen (Hebrews 11:1). Therefore it cannot be demonstrated that God exists.

Read the rest here.

And here.

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…]

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.”

Two Articles on Mind and Brain

Recently a number of related items have popped up, almost at random, that are somewhat related to Rufus’ Field Notes. The first two were articles sent to me by my Uncle: one by Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton and the author of the (truly excellent) novel, Love Song of Monkey. In the article, Graziano writes:

[What] is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.

The entire article is worth reading, as are Graziano’s books God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World and Consciousness and the Social Brain (probably—I’m guessing on this one, as I haven’t actually read this one yet). In the article and the first book Graziano makes his case for an account of the mind that reckons it in entirely materialist terms. Philosophically this is called eliminative materialism, and while the science is certainly new, the big idea has been around at least since Democritus and Leucippus.

I won’t quote the entire article by Graziano, but I will quote my response to my Uncle:

In ​one of​​ ​his books about neuroscience, he has proposed a theory of consciousness that is intriguing—namely, that consciousness evolved when hominids took their already highly developed social skills (think​ ​of ​monkeys grooming each other, or chattering on the brink of speech) and as individuals then turned these skills “inward”. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, but it’s an interesting theory.

He doesn’t go into that in the article, but I find that more compelling than his idea about brain-as-information-processing machine. An idea that is pretty worn out, it seems to me, as people have been making that analogy for decades now. It seems to me that Graziano has simply taken the analogy seriously, which is to say he takes the computer as a model for the brain/mind, when of course it is the brain/mind ​(or some of its properties, such as the ability to perform mathematical computations) ​that has historically been a model for the computer.

​This unfortunately seems to me an example of the “cartoonish reconstruction of attention” of which he speaks.​ Not that I think he’s wrong about there being cartoonish awareness, but aren’t some instances of awareness more accurate (less cartoonish) than others?

While Graziano is an excellent novelist and, as near as I can tell, an excellent scientist, in this article ​he makes statements that are half-truths at best.

For example, he writes that Copernicus showed us that “we’re a speck in a large space”, ​and of course this is true as far as it goes, but what of the fact that in that large space, ours is the only planet that supports any kind of life, let alone intelligent life? Of course we may find that we are not alone in the universe, but then what would that mean, exactly? Our planet wouldn’t be unique, strictly speaking, but would that mean that our planet and planet #2 were really less marvelous for supporting life? Of course not, and I doubt Graziano would even claim that. So what exactly is he arguing against? The existence of God? Why?

​Likewise for his second great scientific insight, that “we’re a twig on the tree of evolution”. Just another twig? I doubt Graziano really believes this​. One twig on a tree is much like any other twig, which really isn’t all that different from bigger limbs or even a tree trunk or a tree’s roots. But Graziano is one of the only kind of primate to study other primates. It may turn out that Graziano and the rest of the human race evolve into beings that are as different from us as we are from non-rational animals, or as animals are from vegetable life, or as vegetable life is from inorganic matter, but this remains to be seen. But to say that the most complex organism produced yet by evolution is just another twig strikes me as betrayal of Darwin’s theory rather than a supporting analogy.

Like the philosophers Dennet and Churchland he refers to, Graziano’s philosophy of mind seems to be eliminativist materialism, which seems to me to be ultimately incoherent. Going back to Graziano’s analogy, he’s eliminated any idea of truth except whatever he calls “science”, which seems to me to postpone any and all truth to the claims of some future science. How can he claim that “wavelength is a real, physical phenomenon; color is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it​” without relying on “awareness”? How does he know that one “complex bundle of information” is a caricature and another is not?

We know that some things are true and some things are not true, and we know this now. Certainly it is very difficult to prove that anything is true, but somehow that doesn’t stop us from knowing some things are true (not just believing some things are true). Science comes from the Latin “scire”, to know, and ought to include ways of knowing other than mathematics and reasoning with tools. It ought to include reasoning in such areas of philosophy as metaphysics, since arguments for the truth are always built on assumptions of some kind or another, and proponents of any argument need to be able to examine their assumptions.

The other article my Uncle sent to me is by Lawrence Berger, Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters, itself a response to the Graziano article linked above. Berger begins:

A cognitive scientist and a German philosopher walk into the woods and come upon a tree in bloom: What does each one see? And why does it matter?

While that may sound like the set-up to a joke making the rounds at a philosophy conference, I pose it here sincerely, as a way to explore the implications of two distinct strains of thought — that of cognitive science and that of phenomenology, in particular, the thought of Martin Heidegger, who offers a most compelling vision of the ultimate significance of our being here, and what it means to be fully human.

In the article, Berger offers a pretty good criticism of the Cartesian view of matter (“The prevailing view is that the universe consists of discrete entities that are ultimately related by physical laws”) and proposes instead that “Heidegger, on the other hand, offers a holistic view of all that is. We belong here together with the trees and the stones, for we are made manifest together. Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first, and the extent to which we are related matters for what we and the stone ultimately are.”

I think this is fine as far as it goes, but I’m not so sure Berger or Heidegger get to what we and the stone ultimately are, if only because I don’t think the story ends with just we and the stone.

As I wrote to my uncle:

I’m not sure the difficulty with Heidegger is your problem alone. I think he (and his explicator Berger) leave some things out, without being as clear as Graziano. For example, it seems obvious that it’s easier to talk to somebody who is actually listening, but isn’t clear how “the same general principle applies to a purely physical object such as a stone,” or exactly how “the manner in which such an object is made manifest can be affected by the quality of my presence.” Unless he means something vacuous like my throwing it means that it will move, or (maybe a little less vacuous) that I can use it along with other stones to build a wall.

And Heidegger is notoriously murky, not just in the way he expresses things, but in what he is trying to express. For example, which is “more primordial”: being or time? What is the difference between some thing and the being of some thing? What is the difference between the being of some thing and the being of all things?

It isn’t clear to me that Heidegger makes any headway in answering these questions. The questions themselves have become interesting to me, but I’m not sure there are answers to these questions, or that there is even a way to answer these questions.”

Unless we go back into the history of philosophy and find out why Heidegger formulated these questions in the way he did, and if perhaps that might shed light on why the questions have meaning as ultimate questions, though perhaps unanswerable, or if rather they lead to a philosophical cul-de-sac.

I suspect the latter, but the place to go is Reduction and Givenness by Jean-Luc Marion, who reveals how much Heidegger’s ontological investigation owe to his teacher Husserl’s phenomenological investigations.

Risen Indeed!

… like a bat outta …

However appropriate, I suppose this metaphor might seem a little confusing, given the season.

Still, the point is, they made it!!!

Congratulations to Matthew & Mark and everybody involved with the project. We’re looking forward to the first episode!

‘the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric’

He [i.e., Lactantius] delighted in writing, in the joinery and embellishment of his sentences*, in the consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning.

–Evelyn Waugh, Helena (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012), Nook edition, chap. 6, p. 8.

[Read more…]