Wednesday, April 29, 2015

No Longer K

I’ve been listening to Franz Kafka’s The Castle in the car going to and from work, and I find my mind wandering a lot. Now, before I go on, I want to point out that William James says that the wandering mind is a sign of great intelligence. So who’s more intelligent: the person who reads Kafka or the person who gets constantly distracted while reading Kafka?

I’m used to tangents. I’m one of those readers who can get to the bottom of a paragraph and realize that my eyes have gone over every word although I don’t remember any of them because I was thinking about something else. The effect is even more dramatic with this audiobook. The voice keeps reading no matter what I’m doing or thinking about. It’s not like my ear has to move back and forth to catch the sounds coming from the speaker. But audiobooks actually usually keep my attention better than printed books. I think I heard, understood, and enjoyed 99.7% of the words of Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses. So what’s going on with Kafka?

Most of my parallel thinking (that sounds more directional than “mind-wandering” or “wool-gathering,” doesn’t it?) has had to do with a certain former employer of mine. I hear about the letters from mysterious figureheads scolding K on senseless grounds, and I start thinking about letters I and colleagues sometimes received from “leaders” who didn’t like to show their faces. I hear conversations between K, who tries to make rational sense of it all, and the villagers, who defend every weird policy or event with sounds that have the form of an argument but not the sense, and I recall many baffling conversations with colleagues defending the status quo with non sequiturs. I hear about a group of buildings with no clear purpose, and I think of incessant construction projects during recessions and especially a tour through one new building by a guide charged with the task of finding someone who could think of a purpose for the empty $20,000,000 edifice. (Ironically, this was called the Stephenson Building.)

But these bewildering situations have become a part of my past, and I realized something just the other day as I signed an email. For a long time at this other institution, I used to sign my emails with a simple K. I did it mostly to save time and to lend a note of informality to the message. But I also had Kafka’s beleaguered protagonist in mind. Then I noticed recently that I’ve been signing with my whole name: Ken. I’m no longer K.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


I once worked for a certain person with whom I disagreed a lot. Oh, let’s be honest: I’ve worked many times for people I’ve locked horns with. But today I have one particular authority figure in mind who once tried to silence my argument for everything good, true, beautiful, decent, and sane by saying, “No, we’re going to do things this way because this is what people want. Everybody will like this.” My very rational (and amazingly controlled) response ran something like this: “Everybody?! Well, obviously I don’t like it, because I’ve told you I don’t want it. So if ‘everybody’ likes it but I don’t, what does that make me? Nobody? If ‘people’ want this and I don’t, I guess that makes me not a person. So you don’t even think I’m a person?”

As I do with lots of books, I’m splitting up Bede’s Ecclesiastical History over a number of years. Last year, I read book I (out of five) and enjoyed it. But I wondered: If Augustine (not that Augustine) brought Christianity to Britain, then who were all these other Christians that he meets? Why doesn’t Bede tell more about the Celtic Christians and the other remnants of the first Christian missions to Britain? This year, I read books II and III, and I think I found out Bede’s angle. The Celts were nobodies.

In book III, the focus zeroes in on the controversy over the date of Easter. The Celtic Christians and the Christians based in the new cathedral in Canterbury disagreed on the method for calculating Easter. The Celts claimed to have received their formula from John the Evangelist. The response from the other side had three main points: (1) John only did it that way before he learned better. (How could they have known that?) (2) Only “ignorant, rude, and barbarous” people (such as, for instance, John the Evangelist?) would do it the Celts’ way. (3) Everybody in the universal Church does it our way. (“Everybody” but you ignorant Celts, that is.) Clearly, Bede was on the side of Everybody. You know. People.

I was looking forward to Bede this year. But I’m less eager now to finish up his history next year.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Mad about Orlando

Well, in my reading this week Orlando’s madness was cured. So now that the titular problem of Orlando Furioso has been solved, I don’t know what’s left for those 250 pages I have left to read next year. But they’re sure to be magnificent.

Here are some of the marvels I came across in this year’s portion of the epic poem:

• Any knight staying in Tristan’s castle must leave if another comes and defeats him in a joust. Any lady staying must leave if a more beautiful comes along. Bradamante, maiden warrior, vanquishes the three kings of Scandinavia, so they must leave. But when the hosts discover that she is a beautiful woman and are about to turn out the lady staying in the castle, Bradamante reminds them that she is present by virtue of arms, not beauty, and that the other lady should stay.

• In that same castle are paintings produced by Merlin’s magic that prophecy about future kings (future to Merlin, anyway). What a coincidence that that these paintings foretell the exceeding splendor of Ariosto’s own patron, Alfonso d’Este!

• The English Count Astolfo rides a hippogriff to the highest mountain of Africa. There he meets John the Evangelist, who has not died, and who leads Astolfo and his magical beast to the moon, where they discover everything that has ever been lost on earth: misplaced objects, defeated kingdoms, and even lost wits. Yes, even Orlando’s wits have been preserved in a bottle, and Astolfo picks up the vial and races back to earth with it so Orlando can breathe his sanity back in.

• Bradamante, jealous because she thinks her love, Ruggiero, has fallen for Marfisa, challenges Ruggiero to a duel. The fight moves to a glade where a voice from a tomb announces that Marfisa and Ruggiero are actually brother and sister. Just in time for Luke, Leia, and Han to return in Star Wars VII!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Does That Make Sense?

Happy Tax Day, if that greeting even makes sense. Actually I’ve been reading about what statements make sense and what statements don’t in a reader of essays by philosopher G. E. Moore. I ditched the second half of Heidegger and decided to read Moore instead because I thought he would be easier and more enjoyable to read. Easier it is, although not easy. Again, if that makes sense. It’s definitely enjoyable, even if I’m not certain I’m getting it all. (Moore talks a lot about being certain, also, by the way.)

G. E. Moore seems to me the twentieth-century counterpart to Thomas Reid: a philosopher of Common Sense. Asked by empiricists and idealists to prove the existence of material things, Moore raises a hand and said, “There’s one hand,” and then raised the other and said, “There’s another hand.” That demonstration, he says, is as convincing as any demonstration of anything. But he admits that he couldn’t actually prove that the thing he’s calling a hand is really more than a imaginative figment. I got confused at that point, as I thought that the proof was actually what the idealist asked for.

But maybe Moore means to say that his opponents are asking for proof in a situation where proof doesn’t apply; or perhaps he means to say that they’re asking for a greater burden of proof on this question than they themselves require on other questions. In another essay he responds to the empiricist’s claim that you don’t know for certain that you aren’t dreaming right now by saying that he knows it even if he can’t prove it. The empiricist says, “You don’t know that you’re not dreaming, therefore you don’t know that that’s your hand. For all you know, your hands have been cut off, and that hand you see just the spectral smoke of sleep’s hallucinations.” Moore replies, “But I do know that this is my hand, therefore I can’t be dreaming.” Each argument is as good as the other, he points out.

If his original point about the hands is that he can demonstrate the existence of material things without proving them, then Moore reminded me of another author I recently read: Alvin Plantinga. In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga argues that the difference between true belief and knowledge is not proof, but warrant, and that warrant is the product of a mind correctly working according to its design plan in the right environment in the mode of seeking truth. Of course the idealist could ask, “How do you know your mind is working correctly? How do you know you’ve not been drugged or made to hallucinate by a trickster demon? How do you know you’re seeking truth and not just comfort or survival?” Enough! says Moore. At some point people who want to know things and function in the world have to stop asking these questions. But don’t let me stop you, he says to skeptics with tongue in cheek. Go ahead questioning your own existence, and doubt your silly caviling away along with yourselves.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Absence Makes the Heart Go Wander

If you haven’t done it already, read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. It won’t take you long. You’ll either love its relaxed African warmth or be bored by it; you won’t hate it. And if you love it, you have a nice, longish series of sequels to enjoy. I loved it, so I’ve been rambling through the sequels over the years.

Naturally, I tried McCall Smith’s next series, too: the Isabel Dalhousie books, starting with The Sunday Philosophy Club. Many familiar features carried over from the Mma Ramotswe books: interesting characters with good hearts and pain in their backstories, lackadaisical plots, a crime that won’t be solved in the typical detective-novel fashion, and a main character who wrestles more with the mystery of life than with the mystery of murder. But one difference stood out: where Mma Ramotswe is a Christian woman wandering through the post-pagan world of Botswana, Isabel Dalhousie is an agnostic wandering through the post-Christian world of Edinburgh. The Sunday Philosophy Club never meets in the book; its members don’t even show up in the pages. The club seems to me clearly a metaphor for the virtually absent Church that has lost its voice, relevancy, and direct influence on the culture. But its history and indirect influence lurk behind every corner of the plot, and that setting kept me fascinated through the whole book.

The sequel, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, was enjoyable, but the Club wasn’t even mentioned (I think I remember that right), and the latent Christianity of contemporary Scotland remained almost completely hidden. So I ended up ambivalently liking it (although it did have that one marvelous moment I blogged about in 2012.) But I recently read The Right Attitude to Rain, the third in the series, and there once again was the vestigial layer of faith that I enjoyed so much from the first book. Isabel doesn’t believe but confesses that faith would be a great comfort and guide. So I’m hooked again. Looking up that old post, I see now that I waited at least three years between installment 2 and installment 3 of the series. So I need to pick up the pace and read The Careful Use of Compliments soon. Who knows? Maybe the Philosophy Club will decide to meet one of these days.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

I’m Thirsty!

Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses has proved to be one of the best off-list non-fiction books I’ve read during my ten-year plan. Actually, I didn’t read it; I listened to a digital recording checked out from the library (the wonders of technology!) on the way to and from work. And I was glued to every word. Last month I posted some comments about the sections on beer and wine. And the parts about spirits, coffee, tea, and cola were no less fascinating.

According to Standage, spirits originated as a way to transport alcohol long distances (especially across the ocean) more efficiently. Apparently no one much liked the taste of distilled liquor at first, so it was assumed that it would be diluted when it got to its destination. Lemon juice and sugar were also added to mask the taste, and thus the cocktail was born. Spirits were so popular in colonial New England, and sugar was so important to their consumption, the Sugar Act did more to incite the American Revolution than the tea tax or the Stamp Act. At least that’s Standage’s argument. True or not, it made me smile when he pointed out the irony that the first internal rebellion of the new nation came about because of a tax on whiskey.

Coffee was the drink of the Enlightenment, a stimulant that fostered clear thinking and discussion about political, financial, and philosophical issues. Voltaire did much of his work in a coffee house in Paris. (I’ve sat at his desk.) The French Revolution was declared in a coffee house, and both Lloyd’s and the London Stock Exchange started in coffee houses. People still discuss business over coffee and in coffee shops.

Since Standage’s “World” mostly means “the West,” he rushes through the history of tea in China as a mere prelude to the story he really wants to tell: tea’s role in the building of the British Empire. It certainly played a central part in one of the darkest chapters of that history, in which the Limeys (so called because they put lime juice in their spirits) traded opium to the Chinese for more tea.

If tea represents all the best and worst of the British, the world has taken Coca-Cola as the symbol of the United States and has loved it or hated it in correlation to its feeling about America. Some of the most interesting parts of the story dealt with Pepsi’s role in geopolitics. No less a product of the US than its rival, Pepsi has made a habit of stepping into global markets left Coke-free by political opposition to the States: Iron Curtain countries in the 1960s and 70s, and Arab countries in the last twenty years.

Well, the book was so interesting, I’ve just rehashed some of its most fascinating points without adding much interest of my own. I hope I’ve said enough to entice someone to read the book and not so much that you think you don’t need to read it. I know I’ve said enough to make me thirsty. But what do I drink first?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Is the Bark Worse than the Cenobite?

Who am I to criticize monks? They give up private possessions and the freedom to pursue personal desires in search of the most perfect Christian service possible on earth. I on the other hand have my warm coffee in a Starbucks mug and my glowing computer. I very definitely could go much farther in devoting my thoughts and activities to God rather than to my own comfort. But I sometimes think that monks go too far.

John Cassian’s Institutes of the Cenobia (which I read using the Kindle app on my shiny new Google Nexus) introduced Egyptian monasticism to the West. His work outlines a plan and justification for monks living in a group, not for hermits living in caves or on top of pillars: in other words, he favors cenobites, not eremites. And in laying out the life of a monastery, John shows wisdom and mercy but also some excessive harshness.

Two examples of wisdom: (a) Constant prayer and work keep a person from entertaining many tempting thoughts. (b) A simple uniform encourages humility and equality.

Two examples of mercy: (a) Not everyone can go without food for even one day; fasting should mean restricted and regulated intake of food, which can look different for each brother. (b) A few people should be assigned to sing the chants at each prayer office; some of the others will nod off during the prayers, and they shouldn’t be disturbed.

But then John commends surprisingly harsh treatment as tests. For instance, he says that other monks should taunt novitiates and treat them poorly to see if they really want to live humbly. Maybe that’s a reliable test of the firmness of a young man’s decision to enter the monastic life, but what does it do to the monks who spit on him and call him names? In another place, John says that superiors should give new monks impossible tasks in order to test their obedience. Humility and obedience are good, and we all need to work to increase these virtues. But doesn’t God also want us to be as wise as serpents and to make good use of our time? Watering a dead plant every day for a year doesn’t grow wisdom any more than it grows the tree – except perhaps the wisdom of knowing that some people profess Christianity and then blatantly lie every day.

But the worst moment of the book involves the story of a boy who entered a monastery with his father. The boy was beaten for days and then thrown into a river in order to test the father’s preference of the “life of Christ” over the welfare of his son. First of all, the life of Christ entails care for the safety of children; the two aren’t in opposition to each other. I seem to remember Jesus saying something about children and millstones, but in that lesson, it wasn’t the children who were thrown into the water. Secondly, why was the boy only seen as a means of testing the adult? Apart from being horrified by the thought of using a human being as a means to an end (OK, so John hadn’t read Kant, but surely he could have seen that this was wrong), I wish those cenobites had thought about the boy’s own needs for mercy and wisdom and instruction in his new way of life.