The Joy That Flies

 

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

                                                                  ~”Eternity” William Blake

The contrast between the accepting the transient joys of life for what they are and opening oneself to the renewal of eternity functions as the key to unlocking this quatrain. However, most of us still fumble outside in the cold with the keys, always inserting the wrong one first.  The paradox that unravels if we gently tease it out–no need to be boorish with the truth (it can speak for itself): to the degree that we can accept the everyday joys or the joys that completely catch us off guard, forcing us to deactivate our psychological home defense security systems–if for only a few hours over coffee, and then allow them to fly when ready, to this degree will we be open to what remains over the horizon, as illuminated by the sun.

If we try to hold onto them, though, we ground not only ourselves but all those we try to hold. As fireflies should not be stuffed in jars, winged life should be grounded but allowed to fulfill its ontological and mythical destiny: to fly with joy.

But, goddamn, this is much easier typed than done.

 

 

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Not-so Divine Office

Sebastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort writes in his The Cynic’s Breviary (a title for which I might have been tempted to give a few months of my life in exchange for the privilege of having thought of it): “It is when their age of passions is past that great men produce their masterpieces, just as it is after volcanic eruptions that the soil is most fertile.”

To which I reply: How cruel of Nature to bring the Muses to a man only after he no longer cares to steal glances at their legs or fondle their breasts.

Yet, I am beginning to understand the experiential logic of this maxim. For me, Catholicism and age are now the two greatest reins to the reign of the passions. Per Catholicism, I paraphrase a comment made by the enviously gifted but extremely unpleasant Evelyn Waugh: If you think I am bad now, just imagine how worse I would be without Catholicism. If it were not for Catholicism, I would deliver myself completely to drinking, fucking, and pretending to read literature. Per age, this should be obvious. Even if I wanted to give myself utterly to my debased appetites, I no longer have the energy to pursue them like I once did. As it now stands, an early bedtime is much more tempting than fornication or keeping an all-night vigil with a fifth of bourbon.

Now is the time to pursue, without hesitation, with the energy that still lingers, my work. I dare not imply that it will be a masterpiece (or that I am a great man); rather, it will serve as my manifesto: a collection of short fiction, poetry, and essays. With this in mind and in heart, I must treat this blog as a more generous form of Twitter. I still plan to post regularly, but unless I am experimentally essaying a piece for publication, my posts will consist only of brief observations or quotations that have delighted me.

As far as I have been able to gather, my vocation is to write. Thus, I plan to treat my writing in the manner that a priest or religious would prayer: to submit oneself to a non-romantic, regularly-timed, and evenly-paced regimen, even if the inspiration is lacking. I offer this as my not-so divine office.

 

 

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Socrates at Home

This morning I read from Book VI in the Republic. (The mornings are for prayer, Plato, and possibly hangovers.) In speaking of the true philosopher, Socrates asks socratically, “Then how can he who has magnificence of mind and is the spectator of all time and all existence, think much of human life?” As I was reading, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds and beamed through my apartment loft window, and I looked around my kitchen filled with plants and said the Doxology. Then I went to have breakfast with my parents.

Interestingly enough, this morning I resolved to start praying for them every morning. They are lovely people who never let me lack for anything that I truly needed when I was growing. Still today, they insist on helping me whenever they can or whenever I will allow them. Yet, time spent with them, especially in public, can be exasperating. I found myself wondering how Socrates, for all his high-minded talk about the philosophic beatific vision, acted at home with reportedly shrewish, chamber-pot tossing Xanthippe and the three boys. (Side note: maybe history has been unkind to Xanthippe. Maybe she simply got tired of Socrates and Alcibiades palling around all the time together and Socrates’ coming home late with the excuse, “We were talking about the Good, honey. What’s for supper?”)

How does a philosopher who contemplates all time and existence keep his interest when listening to his parents talk about one of their favorite stores closing? Perhaps that is when he must be his most philosophic and detached.

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Now That I Am like God, What Next?

This past semester I slowly worked my way through (a mountain of shitty essays and) Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. This, by no means, is intended to serve as a review but rather as a summary to whet one’s appetite. As one should gather from the title, the author explores the possible ramifications that may follow once humanity has achieved “god-like” status regarding health and knowledge.  Current advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, allied with the substantial predictions of where such technology is heading, allow us to envision a not-too-distant future when mankind may live a thousand-plus years and have all available knowledge–to be distinguished from wisdom–ready at demand. In addition, the three scourges that have afflicted humanity for most of its history–plague, famine, and warfare, no longer loom as harbingers of death over the developed world. Harari argues that even where we see these forces at (death)play in underdeveloped areas, we can blame governmental mismanagement rather than what our ancestors would have believed were inevitable and unavoidable realities, though many, perhaps, may lump rulers’ behaving badly into that mix. Though not an example used in the book, one can easily look at the greatest American foreign policy blunder: the second invasion of Iraq. Leaving aside the utter meretricious justifications for this war, the US did not need to attack Iraq for the historical precedents: resources and/or protection. The devastation of that nation, the near eradication of ancient Christian communities, and the refugee crisis now enveloping Europe have all been the results of governmental malfeasance, not elemental forces that will cycle through regardless of our actions.

Despite the heady subject matter and the impressively sprawling manner that Harari incorporates history, philosophy, science, religion, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, the book possesses a pristine prose and tart emotional tone that make for engrossing reading. My only real frustration with the work is that while Harari makes no bones about his ostensibly scientifically-based atheism, his “attacks” on God and religion come across, at times, as sophomoric and emotional. E.g., We have not been able to prove the existence of the soul, so it must not exist–neener, neener.

While I am somewhat aware of the trends in biotechnology and AI, Harari provided excellent grist for my thought mill concerning the modern trend of approaching organisms as nothing more than flesh-and-blood algorithms and life as a quirky way of data processing. Then again, I suppose that this conceptualization proceeds smoothly from Descartes and may, in fact, be the inevitable philosophical outcome. For if mind can be separate from the body, and the body can be conceptualized as a machine, when belief in an immaterial mind no longer persists, then all we have left is the machine–and what better machine than one based upon a mathematical model.

He leaves the reader with the following three processes and three questions that one can educe from them:

  1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing. 
  2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
  3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves. 

 

  1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
  2. What’s more valuable–intelligence or consciousness?
  3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?  
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Non-being Makes Its Appearance

For the past few months I have been gingerly perusing works that, in their own idiosyncratic ways, make the case that human, namely, conscience-oriented, existence is a positive evil. I have looked into works such as E. M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Colin Feltham’s Keeping Ourselves in the Dark, Jim Crawford’s Confession of an Antinatalist, Gerald B. Lorentz’s HOMO, 99 and 44/100% NONSAPIENS, Edgar Saltus’s The Philosophical Writings of Edgar Saltus: The Philosophy of disenchantment & Anatomy of Negation, Schopenhauer, and David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. (These readings have dovetailed very nicely with my late-in-the-game discovery of the brilliant first season of True Detective.)

Benatar’s academic-esque work may be the standard-bearer in the surprisingly fertile field of antinatalism. Benatar, however, is notoriously private, so to read about him recently in The New Yorker was a treat. The following from the article captures the essence of Benatar’s thinking:

Many people suggest that the best experiences in life—love, beauty, discovery, and so on—make up for the bad ones. To this, Benatar replies that pain is worse than pleasure is good. Pain lasts longer: “There’s such a thing as chronic pain, but there’s no such thing as chronic pleasure,” he said. It’s also more powerful: would you trade five minutes of the worst pain imaginable for five minutes of the greatest pleasure? Moreover, there’s an abstract sense in which missing out on good experiences isn’t as bad as having bad ones. “For an existing person, the presence of bad things is bad and the presence of good things is good,” Benatar explained. “But compare that with a scenario in which that person never existed—then, the absence of the bad would be good, but the absence of the good wouldn’t be bad, because there’d be nobody to be deprived of those good things.” This asymmetry “completely stacks the deck against existence,” he continued, because it suggests that “all the unpleasantness and all the misery and all the suffering could be over, without any real cost.”

In the absence (or even in the presence) of the Faith, I can understand the potency of this line of thinking. On a purely quantitative/experiential level, the worst pains (physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social) we have ever experienced stand out much more vividly than do their pleasurable rivals. Thought experiment: would we endure the worst pain we have ever experienced or could imagine for five minutes to experience the best pleasure we have ever experienced or could imagine for five minutes? Perhaps this signals a lack of imagination on my part, but I would not agree to such a sensory quid pro quo. Also, more analytically, we can understand his argument (from his aforementioned work, p. 30):

1. the presences of pain is bad, and that                                                                                       

2. the presences of pleasure is good.

However, such a symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me as true that 

3. the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, whereas             

4. the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence          is a deprivation. 

Thus, according to Benatar, denying someone pleasure is a bad if and only if there is someone who experiences that specific denial in space/time. However, even if no one in particular benefits, the absence of pain is (an absolute?) good. Teasing this out: not bringing a person into existence cannot be considered a true denial, for no one yet exists to deny. Furthermore, even though the non-existent person will never exist to appreciate what pain he/she has been spared, the preventative absence of pains that would necessarily have come if a person were to have been brought into existence still ranks as good.

Traditional Christians, however, ascribe to pain and pleasure relative values, though, within the larger context of general estimations. Yes, generally speaking, pain is bad, and pleasure is good. This notwithstanding, no pleasure–no matter how great–can be validated by Christians if it is illicit. As for pain, our salvation comes through, though is not primarily the result of, our willingness to unite our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ and to pick up His cross and to follow Him. Thus, pain does not leave checks only on the negative side of life’s registry. Yet, what about the writings of most of the saints throughout history? Any even-handed study–and I would love to hear to the contrary–will show that they, with a few prominent exceptions, have believed most of humanity to belong to the seemingly innumerable massa damnata. If this is the case, why have children–and lots of ’em? What would be the traditional responses? We are not to use artificial birth control anyway, so the question is moot. (However, we will leave unaddressed the Church’s prohibition against artificial birth control, which would necessarily have to be disregarded [more so than it already is] by all sex-loving antinatalist couples, Catholic or not.) Or: everyone will be given the grace he/she needs to be saved (though most will reject it). Or: the (very slight) possibility of divine union with God justifies all the certain sufferings we will undergo in this life and the (very likely) risks of damnation we may face every day.  Let us speculate that for every thousand people, only ten will go to heaven. This may be a liberal estimate according to saints like St. Leonard of Port Maurice. How egotistically wretched is it to say that the salvation of those few (aka the fewness of the saved) justifies the loss of the other hundreds?  Does having children to ensure the continuation of a family line justify the likelihood that most branches of that tree will burn for eternity? I would think that Catholics who took this saintly speculation (for it is not Church dogma) seriously would deny themselves the comforts of marriage and family for the sake of “leading” fewer souls to hell and either take vows or live as intentional bachelors and spinsters out of Christian charity. If most are going to hell, then why have children–future fodder for God’s flaming justice? Even Jesus Himself said regarding Judas, one whose fate did not look too promising at the close of the Gospels, that it would have been better for him never to have been born.

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Look, Objectify, Touch–No, Do not Touch. Too Late: Losing Your Job

Over at the Front Porch Republic, Mark T. Mitchell points out our cognitive dissonance pertaining to our heady embrace of pornography (okay, word choice) and sexual permissiveness in spite of the current feverish trend to keep at arm’s length all those accused of acting, well, like they live in a pornographic and sexually-permissive society. He writes:

We have mainstreamed porn and then are shocked when we find men willing to act consistently with the logic of porn. We have extolled the absolute freedom from any restraint and therefore we have given up the moral authority to claim that porn is unhealthy culturally and harmful to both women and men. We revel in our freedom to offer up bodies as objects of consumption and then are shocked, SHOCKED!! when bodies are consumed.  

Mitchell is by no means letting swine (boar, by the looks of him) like Weinstein off the hook. Rather, Mitchell wants us to see that, instead of these men (and women) merely acting like rogue agents in this psycho-sexual drama, these students of the school of modern sexuality are forming valid syllogisms of action according to the logic of porn, as unsound as the premises may be.

Speaking of logic, this leads him to lay out the following either/or:

It is simply impossible to coherently hold these two claims: 1) humans have inherent dignity and therefore deserve respect, and 2) pornography is harmless, perhaps even beneficial, and is a measure of our liberality, open-mindedness, and the empowering nature of the market.

Despite our ostensibly theoretical acceptance of the first claim, we live according to the second claim–that is the claim to which we have attached flesh and,er, flesh and bodily fluids. We cannot coherently accept both as true; we definitely cannot coherently live as if both were true. By trying to believe and act in a contradictory manner, however, we become both victim and perpetrator. Thus, accusing others, regardless of the end of the casting couch on which they may be, for acting consistently to the reigning mores of the day without examining our own part in perpetuating those very mores reeks of self-righteousness, hence the reference to the Puritans, though I am not sure that such a reference is quite fair–and I am by no means a fan of the Puritans.

 

 

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Can’t Keep a Lukewarm Man Down

Despite, and to spite, my last post, here I am again.

Try as I might otherwise, the Nicene Creed, the Baltimore Catechism, the stories of the Saints, the old prayers, and the general damn weirdness of Catholicism are what I believe. Now just pray that I can live accordingly.

~A rebel of the Sacred Heart

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