Monday, January 26, 2009

It's not that long, but if you don't have the time, this was the best part.

You can read the whole essay, or you can just read this sentence:
When the day of judgment comes therefore and all secrets are laid bare, we shall not be surprised to learn that the reason why we have grown from apes to men, and left our caves and dropped our bows and arrows and sat round the fire and talked and given to the poor and helped the sick—the reason why we have made shelter and society out of the wastes of the desert and the tangle of the jungle is simply this—we have loved reading.
—From "The Love of Reading" by Virginia Woolf, The Guardian, 17 January 2009

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Higher education.

Angelica wanted to attend another preview day on campus (luck favors the prepared, after all), so everyone sans Mom came down for the day and we all went out to dinner that night. Angelica called me that afternoon, saying, "I have some great news!" I quickly caught her enthusiasm. She went to her transfer interview and found out that all except one of her community college classes will be accepted, meaning she will enter with at least 50 credits, which is about what I have right now as a second-semester sophomore. If she takes a few summer classes, she could easily be graduating with me.

I am really excited for her. Not only has she earned essentially the equivalent of an associate's while getting her diploma, but her high school subsidized all of it. She'll halve her undergrad debt, and be able to go to grad school two years earlier. She could conceivably have a doctorate by 24.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Monday in the library.

"What we need to talk about, what someone needs to talk about, particularly now, is our ever-deepening ignorance (of politics, of foreign languages, of history, of science, of current affairs, of pretty much everything) and not just our ignorance but our complacency in the face of it, our growing fondness for it. A generation ago the proof of our foolishness, held up to our faces, might still have elicited some redeeming twinge of shame—no longer. Today, across vast swaths of the republic, it amuses and comforts us. We're deeply loyal to it. Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath."

—From "A Quibble" by Mark Slouka, Harper's Magazine, February 2009

Thursday, January 15, 2009

With all the hope and potential of a new semester.

So I started my reading for Continental Authors (six weeks in The Brothers Karamazov alone!) and I realized that I am now the same age as the protagonist, Alyosha (Alexey). I'm not that much older than when I first read it, but a year and a half of college and all that comes with it separates me from the I-wish-I-were-anywhere-but-here-doing-anything-but-this state I was in that induced me to pick up Dostoevsky in the first place. I picked up a lot of other stuff, too, in that year and a half in between schools (which is why I can link to my half-formed, ill-informed thoughts on literature), and I am glad for it, especially because I can now approach works like this one with a foundational understanding. After the infatuation of the first read-through, with the thrill of the unknown and the what-happens-next impetus, I can settle into the familiar rhythm and take notice of the more subtle and masterful aspects of the work.

And maybe I can begin to try and understand the ideas that Alyosha wrestles with as well. Knowing that we are the same age gives me the confidence that I have the capability to look at the existence of God and the problem of evil as earnestly and as comprehendingly as he does. Having an incredible professor helps.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Words, words, words . . ."

My intro to lit professor was trying to warn us a little, I think, but she just made me happier than ever to be in the class. She said that this semester we are going to have to memorize hundreds of literary terms and their definitions, and for some reason, I just wanted to get started then and there. I was trying to figure out why the phrase "memorize literary terms" had given me such a thrill, and I realized that there really hasn't been a time when learning new words didn't excite me. In fourth grade, I could spell all of the words that my teacher assigned me, so she had me make up my own spelling tests of ones I didn't know yet.

I have a history of getting lost in the dictionary. In high school, I kept lists of unfamiliar words that I encountered while reading, and then as a reward for myself after I finished a book, I would pull out my large navy-colored dictionary, which my parents gave me for Christmas one year. We had been visiting a friend of my dad's, who had a job playing Santa on a train in Perris. After all of my sisters sat on Santa's lap, I was cajoled into following suit, and so when he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told the truth: "A dictionary." The elves gave me a funny look.

I had really wanted an Oxford English Dictionary, but that would have been prohibitively expensive (and 20 volumes), so as a compromise, my parents found me the single-volume Oxford American Dictionary. And so I'd start out looking up the words I'd found in whatever I had been reading, but I'd quickly get serendipitously sidetracked. It's how I discovered excellent words like "philologist" or how to pronounce the "ae" in Old English (like the a in "cat").

And so that urge to know flared up in me again in class. When I learn new words, I receive more accurate ways to express myself. I can grasp for a more acute articulation, get closer to saying exactly what I mean. It's empowering, language is, giving us a medium through which to communicate what goes on inside our heads. The more words we have, the greater our opportunity to get as close to what we want to say as possible. I know that I, for one, just want to know what others are saying and have others know what I am saying. I have become increasingly aware of how dangerous it is to generalize out from myself, but I think I can say fairly confidently that at a fundamental level, we all want to understand and to be understood. With words we can begin to attempt this.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry by Alasdair MacIntyre.

In a series of lectures presented at Edinburgh University in 1988, Alasdair MacIntyre divided modern philosophical thought into two opposing sides, and offered a third as a solution to them both. Entitled Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, the collection of lectures begins with MacIntyre’s definitions: encyclopaedists, whose thought dominated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, saw rationality as objective. Beginning with Descartes and Kant, the encyclopaedists assumed that every human being could access rationality on his or her own, that all could, working with systematic reasoning, eventually reach the same conclusions. All of history and all the disciplines were moving in the same direction, and all would eventually be impartially definable and categorizable, which is the implicit assumption behind the creation of the encyclopedia.

Genealogists, however, sharply dissented. Beginning with Nietzsche, the genealogists saw the assertion of rationality merely as the wielding of power; whoever held the power was the one who got to determine what was rational, right, or true. This meant that objective standards were actually temporally and culturally determined. Nothing could be universalized; the encyclopaedists were simply projecting their white-male Western ideals upon a world that could not relate to this limited perspective.

While few openly adhere to the tenets of the encyclopaedists within academia anymore, the view’s presuppositions underlie much of higher education. “The encyclopaedic mode of enquiry has become one more fideism and a fideism which increasingly flies in the face of contemporary realities” (p. 56).

The genealogists retain all the problems of relativism.
[T]he intelligibility of genealogy requires beliefs and allegiances of a kind precluded by the genealogical stance. Foucault’s carrying forward of Nietzsche’s enterprise has thus forced upon us two questions: Can the genealogical narrative find any place within itself for the genealogist? And can genealogy, as a systematic project, be made intelligible to the genealogist, as well as others, without some at least tacit recognition being accorded to just those standards and allegiances which is it avowed aim to disrupt and subvert? (p. 55).
Though it appears that the genealogists’ project has been little more than “progressive impoverishment” (p. 55), their accusations have been incisive enough to permanently disable the encyclopaedists. And so MacIntyre introduces his own theory: tradition-based Thomism.

The genealogists and encyclopaedists disagree markedly in regard to reason.
Either reason is thus impersonal, universal, and disinterested or it is the unwitting representation of particular interests, masking their drive to power by its false pretensions to neutrality and disinterestedness. What this alternative conceals from view is a third possibility, the possibility that reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry (p. 59-60).
For MacIntyre, through Aristotle, conceives all areas of study, including philosophy, as a skill or craft. If “true reasoning . . . requires both intellectual and moral virtues,” then “the enquirer has to learn how to make him or herself into a particular kind of person if he or she is to move towards a knowledge of the truth about his or her good and about the human good” (p. 60-61). Such training allows one to develop “orexis or prohairesis, felt desire alone or guided by reason” (p. 62) to determine what is the good and right.

So to know what is good, we must be good. To escape this paradox, MacIntyre says, we must at first submit to authority to give us the preliminary skills for making this determination. "[W]e shall have to learn from that teacher and initially accept on the basis of his or her authority within the community of the craft precisely what intellectual and moral habits it is which we must cultivate and acquire if we are to become effective self-moved participants in such enquiry” (p. 63). This is antithetical to both the objective individualist rationality of the encyclopaedists and the mistrust of power of the genealogists.

MacIntyre’s Thomism, a tradition-based conception of rationality tracing back to Aquinas, bears features of both of the frameworks that he has judged incomplete, while carrying the idea of craft further. “To share in the rationality of a craft requires sharing in the contingencies of its history, understanding its story as one’s own, and finding a place for oneself as a character in the enacted dramatic narrative which is that story so far” (p. 65). In the “master-craft of master-crafts,” philosophy, the “embodied mind actualizes its potentialities,” and “failure in learning what one should come to know is always rooted in defect in respect of the virtues” (p. 68).

Viewing the three rival versions as narratives exhibits their fundamental differences.
[T]he encyclopaedists’ narrative reduces the past to a mere prologue to the rational present, while the genealogist struggles in the construction of his or her narrative against the past, including that of the past which is perceived as hidden within the alleged rationality of the present. The Thomists’ narrative, by contrast with both of these, treats the past as neither as mere prologue not as something to be struggled against, but as that from which we have to learn if we are to identify and move towards our telos more adequately (p. 79).
MacIntyre accesses Augustine for his conception of moral enquiry.
The will which directs [the intellect and the desires] is initially perverse and needs a kind of redirection which will enable it to trust obediently in a teacher who will guide the mind towards the discovery both of its own resources and of what lies outside the mind, both in nature and in God. Hence faith in authority has to precede rational understanding. And hence the acquisition of that virtue which the will requires to be so guided, humility, is the necessary first step in education or in self-education. In learning therefore we move towards and not from first principles, and we discover truth only insofar as we discover the conformity of particulars to the form in relation to which those particulars become intelligible, a relationship apprehended only by the mind illuminated by God. Rational justification is thus essentially retrospective (p. 84).
MacIntyre agrees with Aquinas’ assertion that perfect virtue must have its source outside of the soul. “[T]he ultimate good must lie in the relationship of the soul to something outside itself . . . in no state available in this created world can the type of good in question be found. There are indeed a variety of imperfect happinesses to be found in this world, but neither separately or in conjunction can they constitute the human end” (p. 137). Without such a conception of the ideal, “the soul would find itself directed beyond all finite goods, unsatisfiable by those goods, and yet able to find nothing beyond them to satisfy it” (p. 138).

The relationship between reason and the passions is a critical element of making moral determinations. “What has to be discovered is how to order the passions so that they may serve and not distract reason in its pursuit of the specific end, the good” (p. 139). There is a universally “rooted tendency to disobedience in the will and distraction by passion, which causes the obscuring of the reason and on occasion systematic cultural deformation. . . . The acknowledgment by oneself of radical defect is a necessary condition for one’s reception of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity” (p. 140).

In sharp contrast to Descartes, Aquinas insists on the necessity of the embodiment of the mind and its encounters with objects. “For Aquinas a human being is not a soul plus a body but a body which has a soul. Human experience is bodily experience, and the soul knows and knows about singulars only on the basis of that experience as mediated by imagination—itself a bodily phenomenon—and structured in terms of form by intellect. The human mind is thus not self-sufficient, on Aquinas’ view; it is rather . . . incomplete without that encounter with the objects of sense from which it moves to the actuality of knowledge” (p. 153). That was the most exciting passage in the entire book—it dovetails remarkably well with the physiological account of the human articulated by Damasio.

Personal identity within the Thomistic framework takes on a specific form unlike the disembodied mind of the encyclopaedists or the shifting impermanence of the genealogists. Under Thomism, we are bodies, members of a community engaging with one another and liable for the actions perpetuated by our bodies. As “teleologically ordered unit[ies],” we are responsible for discovering the ends of our lives according to the narrative that they assume, from birth until death. “[E]very particular life as a whole exists in its particular parts, in that range of particular actions, transactions, and projects which are the enacted narrative of that life, and as the life of that one particular body” (p. 197).

The community that MacIntyre envisions provides a functional forum for disagreement because it can occur upon the foundation of a shared set of beliefs and values.
It is only insofar as someone satisfies the conditions for rendering him or herself vulnerable to dialectical refutation that the person can come to know whether and what he or she knows. It is only by belonging to a community systematically engaged in a dialectical enterprise in which the standards are sovereign over the contending parties that one can begin to learn the truth, by first learning the truth about one’s error, not error from this or that point of view but error as such, the shadow cast by truth as such: contradiction in respect of utterance about the virtues (p. 200).
A shared framework allows the members of a community to hold one another accountable as they pursue their ends together.
In a community which shares this conception of accountability in enquiry, education is first of all an initiation into the practices within which dialectical and confessional interrogation and self-interrogation are institutionalized. And that initiation has to take the form of a reappropriation by each individual of the history of the formation and transformations of belief through those practices, so that the history of thought and practice is reenacted and the novice learns from that reenactment not only what the best theses, arguments, and doctrines to emerge so far have been, but also how to rescrutinize them so that they become genuinely his or hers and how to extend them further in ways which will expose him or her further to those interrogations through which accountability is realized (p. 201).

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rationality, emotion, and consciousness.

In The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio asserts unequivocally the existence of consciousness and identifies what he considers to be observable aspects of it within the limits of current scientific inquiry. Building upon the theory of the biological roots of emotions that he constructed in Descartes’ Error, Damasio continues to present conclusions culled from his own work as a neuroscientist.

“[T]he highly constrained ebb and flow of internal organism states, which is innately controlled by the brain and continuously signaled in the brain, constitutes the main backdrop of the mind, and, more specifically, the foundation for the elusive entity we designate as self. I also suggest that these internal states—which occur naturally along a range whose poles are pain and pleasure, and are caused by either internal or external objects and events—become unwitting nonverbal signifiers of the goodness or badness of situations relative to the organism’s inherent set of values. I suspect that in earlier stages of evolution these states—including all of those we classify as emotions—were entirely unknown to the organisms producing them. The states were regulatory and that was enough . . . Consciousness begins when brains acquire the power . . . of telling a story without words, the story that there is life ticking away in an organism, and that the states of the living organism, within body bounds, are continuously being altered by encounters with objects or events in its environment . . . The apparent self emerges as the feeling of a feeling” (p. 30-31).

Emotions, as natural states, are impossible to control. “We are about as effective at stopping an emotion as we are at preventing a sneeze” (p. 49). We may learn culturally contingent modes of attempting to mask emotion, but the biological changes that occur are out of our sphere of domination.

There are six primary or universal emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust. Also, there are secondary or social emotions, such as embarrassment, jealousy, guilt, pride; and background emotions, like well-being or malaise, calm or tension (p. 50-51).

Damasio charts a hierarchy of biological phenomena. “At their most basic, emotions are part of a homeostatic regulation . . . Emotions are inseparable from the idea of reward or punishment, of pleasure or pain, of approach or withdrawal, of personal advantage and disadvantage. . . . the idea of good and evil” (p. 54-55). In a table, he ranks four “Levels of Life Regulation”: “basic life regulation,” which comprises the most simple survival drives; emotions; feelings, where emotions begin to be processed as images; and finally “high reason,” where conscious images become plans and behavior (p. 55).

Emotion, then, is inescapable, barring the severe brain diseases that have allowed Damasio to study these concepts. “[W]hen consciousness is available, feelings have their maximum impact, and individuals are also able to reflect and to plan. They have a means to control the pervasive tyranny of emotions: it is called reason. Ironically, of course, the engines of reason still require emotion, which means that the controlling power of reason is often modest” (p. 58).

Damasio assumes the metaphor of narrative. The organism constructs an account of itself through the biofeedback that it receives. “This account is a simple narrative without words. It does have characters (the organism, the object). It unfolds in time. And it has a beginning, a middle, and an end” (p. 168). “Looking back, with the license of metaphor, one might say that the swift, second-order nonverbal account narrates a story: that of the organism caught in the act of representing its own changing state as it goes about representing something else. . . . [T]he knowable entity of the catcher has just been created in the narrative of the catching process” (p. 170). Consciousness is essentially the feeling of biological knowledge. “You know you exist because the narrative exhibits you as protagonist in the act of knowing” (p. 172). The narrative is a “nonlanguaged map of logically related events” that can easily be converted to words (p. 185). “[T]he mind’s pervasive ‘aboutness’ is rooted in the brain’s storytelling attitude. . . . [T]he brain naturally weaves wordless stories about what happens to an organism immersed in an environment” (p. 189).

Consciousness connects the images that are occurring within the brain to the body that the brain is a part of in a meaningful way. “The feeling of knowing . . . such unsolicited knowledge . . . is the beginning of the freedom to comprehend a situation, the beginning of the eventual chance to plan responses that differ from the Duchampian ‘ready-mades’ provided by nature” (p. 182).

Varying degrees of neurological impairment in different parts of the brain allow Damasio to create a distinction between core consciousness (an immediate awareness of being) and extended consciousness (a sense of self that continues across time), which is predicated on the first but can be absent in certain disorders. But neither comprises the entirety of what it is to be a human being. “I do not place consciousness, either in its core or extended levels, at the pinnacle of human qualities. Consciousness is necessary, but not sufficient, to reach the current pinnacle” (p. 230).

Damasio ingratiated himself further with me in his literary allusions, referring to T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster on the heels of his Anna Karenina reference at the end of Descartes’ Error. He used the same line that has been floating in the sidebar of this blog for who knows how long. And why shouldn’t he? It’s a great statement.

Damasio ends by asserting a distinction between consciousness and conscience, declaring that the former can in fact be studied, in part because it is not the latter. “I see consciousness, instead, as allowing the mind to develop the properties we so admire but not as the substance of those properties. . . . [C]onsciousness is a grand permit into civilization but not civilization itself” (p. 309, 311). Consciousness, he concludes, could be the impetus for the banishment from Eden.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Damasio quoted it at the end of Descartes' Error—that's when I knew it was meant to be.

So I read Anna Karenina last week, and it was brilliant and complex and precise and incisive. The unhappy families from the opening line are there, and the happy family is as well. By chronicling their respective developments, Tolstoy contrasts the dynamic of his ideal domestic situation with the ramifications of ill-fashioned relationships. Within this framework, he also explores the dominating ideas of intellectual Europe in the 19th century, weighing the merits and utility of the various philosophies being tossed around at the time. I wanted to quote copiously from this one as well, but I didn't want to spoil it for someone who hadn't read it; after all, my mom and sister held off on watching the movie until I could read it too.

But I do want to say that the spiritual consideration of the character whom Tolstoy modeled on himself is strikingly relevant still. Viewing the deterministic atheism of the materialists and the groundless mysticism of the various religiose movements with an equal dissatisfaction, he seeks to know that there is more than just him, living and dying. In the end, he rests in the idea of existence as miracle, and God thus as eminently evident.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Another set of long book excerpts with minimal commentary.

Continuing the exploration of rationality and emotion, I read Descartes' Error by Antonio Damasio.

Damasio begins with the case of Phineas Gage, a 19th-century man man whose personality fundamentally shifted after his brain was damaged. “Gage lost something completely human, the ability to plan his future as a social being” (p. 19).

He presents an overwhelming litany of case studies culled from his experience as a neuroscientist. One method of evaluating patients rates them according to moral development; I had no idea that such a determination had been articulated. “The Standard Issue Moral Judgment Interview score . . . preconventional levels (stage 1, obedience and punishment orientation; stage 2, instrumental purpose and exchange); conventional levels (stage 3, interpersonal accord and conformity; stage 4, social accord and system maintenance); and a postconventional level (stage 5, social contract, utility, individual rights)” (p. 48).

One patient scores well on many of these tests, but the irrational decisions that he makes are directly correlated to the brain lesions that have eliminated his emotions. “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options, and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat” (p. 51). The emotions prove to be an essential element of rational decision-making.

Damasio’s basic idea: “When I say that the body and brain form an indissociable organism, I am not exaggerating. . . . The organism constituted by the brain-body partnership interacts with the environment as an ensemble . . . [C]omplex organisms such as ours . . . generate internal responses, some of which constitute images (visual, auditory, somatosensory, and so on), which I postulate as the basis for mind” (p. 88-89).

We do not think in words or symbols initially; our primary processing format is imagery. “[B]oth words and arbitrary symbols are based on topographically organized representations and can become images” (p. 106).

Damasio resists complete genetic determinism, positing a complex nature/nurture interaction. “Neither our brains nor our minds are tabulae rasae when we are born. Yet neither are they fully determined genetically. The genetic shadow looms large but is not complete. . . . The unpredictable profile of experiences of each individual does have a say in circuit design” (p. 112).

“For most ethical rules and social conventions . . . one can envision a meaningful link to simpler goals and to drives and instincts. . . . Perhaps I would be more eligible for praise if I arrived at such sentiments by means of pure intellectual effort and willpower, but what if I have not, what if my current nature helps me get there faster, and be nice and honest without even trying?” (p. 125). But he contends that this does not debase emotion, altruism, or free will. “[T]hose governing biological drives . . . require the intervention of society to become whatever they become, and thus are related as much to a given culture as to general neurobiology. Moreover, out of that dual constraint, suprainstinctual survival strategies generate something probably unique to humans: a moral point of view that, on occasion, can transcend the interests of the immediate group and even the species” (p. 126).

He differentiates between “primary emotions,” those experienced fundamentally across cultures and by individuals of all ages, and “secondary emotions,” which are built upon the primary ones, associated mainly with adults, and are often socially constructed (p. 131). These are processed through the same cognitive channels (p. 139).

Universal emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust (p. 149). Background feelings constitute the bulk of emotional experience—in between major emotions, like mood or general sense (p. 150). “The brain probably cannot predict the exact landscapes the body will assume . . . Anosognosia suggests that the normal mind requires a steady flow of updated information from body states” (p. 158).

Damasio’s pivotal point is his somatic-marker hypothesis: “The automated signal protects you against future losses, without further ado, and then allows you to choose from among fewer alternatives. There is still room for using a cost/benefit analysis and proper deductive competence, but only after the automated step drastically reduces the number of options” (p. 173). The somatic markers aid in decision-making by eliminating sterile choices and reducing deliberation time. They have biological roots, but are also culturally constructed. “If we assume that the brain is normal and the culture in which it develops is healthy, the device has been made rational relative to social conventions and ethics” (p. 200).

He admits that occasionally emotions can lead to poor decisions, but continues to affirm that they are essential for an overall rationality. “Biological drives and the automated somatic-marker mechanism that relies on them are essential for some rational behaviors, especially in the personal and social domains, although they can be pernicious to rational decision-making in certain circumstances by creating an overriding bias against objective facts” (p. 192).

The organism perceives in itself “a nonverbal narrative document of what is happening to those protagonists. . . . Humans have second-order narrative capacities, provided by language, which can engender verbal narratives out of nonverbal ones. The refined form of subjectivity that is ours would emerge from the latter process. Language may not be the source of the self, but it certainly is the source of the ‘I’” (p. 243).

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dorothy Sayers, the other half.

One of the most gratifying aspects of reading is encountering someone else who has thought about the same things you have, just more thoroughly, clearly, and articulately. The remarkable thing about Mind of the Maker was how often Dorothy Sayers expands and improves on concepts that have floated half-formed in my own head (like this one). Over and over again, Sayers pinned down and packaged ideas that I had barely glimpsed in my mental miasma.

Sayers mocks David Garrick for his attempted revision of Hamlet, illustrating the relationship between good and evil in light of the Fall. “We can redeem it. That is to say, it is possible to take its evil Power and turn it into active good. We can, for example, enjoy a good laugh at David Garrick. In so doing we, as it were, absorb the Evil in the anti-Hamlet and transmute it into an entirely new form of Good. This is a creative act, and it is the only kind of act that will actually turn positive Evil into positive Good. Or, we can use the dreadful example of David Garrick for edification, which is what I have tried to do here, in the hope that this will prove to be a good, creative activity.

"We can do this, only if we first get back into contact with the original great Idea that was in Hamlet—since we can never see how wrong Garrick was till we realize just how right Shakespeare was. In such ways, we can (while still thinking it a pity that David Garrick ever set pen to paper) enrich the world with more and more varied Goodness than would have been possible without the evil interference of David Garrick. What we must not do is to pretend that there never was a Garrick, or that his activities were not Evil. We must not, that is, try to behave as though the Fall had never occurred nor yet say that the Fall was a Good Thing in itself. But we may redeem the Fall by a creative act.

"That, according to the Christian doctrine, is the way that God behaved, and the only way in which we can behave if we want to be ‘as gods.’ The Fall had taken place and Evil had been called into active existence; the only way to transmute Evil into Good was to redeem it by creation. But, the Evil having been experienced, it could be redeemed only within the medium of experience—that is, by an incarnation in which experience was fully and freely in accordance with the Idea” (p. 107).

Evaluating a work as a whole is essential to understanding its full intent and import; how much more so this should be true for creation as a whole. Perhaps so many of the things that don't make sense now will align in light of eternity; the last chapter of the book will reveal the intent of all the ones that preceded it. “While watching the new play we are in contact with the Energy, which we experience as a sequence in time; we wonder ‘how it is going to work out.’ If, during the interval, we are asked what we think of it, we can give only a very incomplete answer. Everything depends, we feel, on the last act. But when the final curtain has come down, we feel quite differently towards the play—we can think of it as a whole, and see how all the episodes are related to one another to produce something inside our mind which is more than the sum-total of the emotions we experienced while sitting in the audience. It is in this timeless and complete form that it remains in our recollection; the Energy is now related to the Idea more or less as it was in the mind of the playwright: the Word has returned to the Father” (p. 116).

The real genius of Sayers' book is the extended metaphor that superimposes the trinity upon the creative process. She reckons the Father as the Idea that precedes the creation of a work, the Son as the Power that implements the work, and the Spirit as the Energy that reveals and communicates the work. So the trinity is manifested in the artist, and it is reflected in the creation as well. "This threefoldness in the reader's mind corresponds to the threefoldness of the work (Book-as-Thought, Book-as-Written, Book-as-Read) . . . The implication is that we find the threefold structure in ourselves (who are the-Book-as-Read) because that is the actual structure of the universe (which is the Book-as-Written), and that it is in the universe because it is in God's Idea about the universe (the Book-as-Thought). Further, that this structure is in God's Idea because it is the structure of God's mind. . . . There is nothing mythological about Christian Trinitarian doctrine: it is analogical. . . . This is the Trinity in the mind—the essential identity of Idea, Energy and Power, which is reflected as a Trinity in the work—the Book being the same book, whether thought, written or read" (p. 122-124).

Sayers takes on the concept of originality and makes a superb scriptural connection (it reminded me, incidentally, of this excellent article in Harper's last year). “The demand for ‘originality’—with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work—is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time. The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed. . . . The Power—the Spirit—is thus a social power, working to bring all minds into its own unity, sometimes by similarity and at other times by contrast. There is a diversity of gifts, but the same spirit” (p. 121).

Sayers accesses Acts 17:28 and examines its pertinence to her metaphor. “[I]t depends utterly upon the sustained and perpetually renewed will to creation of its maker. The work can live and grow on the sole condition of the maker’s untiring energy; to satisfy its will to die, he has only to stop working. In him it lives and moves and has its being, and it may say to him with literal truth, ‘Thou art my life, if thou withdraw, I die.’ . . . All [the human creator’s] efforts and desires reach out to that ideal creative archetype in whose unapproachable image he feels himself to be made, which can make a universe filled with free, conscious and co-operative wills; a part of his own personality and yet existing independently within the mind of the maker” (p. 141-142). This is why, I think, God had to become a character in His own book.

If her metaphor adheres, it means that we are, in many cases, denying an essential element of who we are as created creators. “[I]f we conclude that the creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe—we cannot arbitrarily stop our investigations with the man who happens to work in stone, or paint, or music, or letters. We shall have to ask ourselves whether the same pattern is not also exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman. And, if it is, whether, by confining the average man and woman to uncreative activities and an uncreative outlook, we are not doing violence to the very structure of our being” (p. 185).

“If the common man asks the artist for help in producing moral judgments or practical solutions, the only answer he can get is something like this: You must learn to handle practical situations as I handle the material of my book: you must take them and use them to make a new thing. . . . The distinction between the artist and the man who is not an artist thus lies in the fact that the artist is living in the ‘way of grace,’ so far as his vocation is concerned. He is not necessarily an artist in handling his personal life, but (since life is the material of his work) he has at least got thus far, that he is using life to make something new. Because of this, the pains and sorrows of this troublesome world can never, for him, be wholly meaningless and useless, as they are to the man who dumbly endures them and can (as he complains with only too much truth) ‘make nothing of them.’ If, therefore, we are to deal with our ‘problems’ in ‘a creative way,’ we must deal with them along the artist’s lines: not expecting to ‘solve’ them by a detective trick, but to ‘make something of them,’ even when they are, strictly speaking, insoluble” (p. 192-193).

When we covered Thoreau in American Writers las semester, my professor said that there are only four material pursuits: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. Once we have achieved these, all we are doing is getting more of them. So the question that Thoreau asks, and asks us to ask ourselves, is whether we should keep striving for these, or maybe look for things that are more important. Sayers also derides two of my favorite objects of derision: movies and sports. “[W]e may begin to suspect that the ‘problem of Unemployment’ is not soluble in the terms in which it is set; and that what we ought to be asking is a totally different set of questions about Work and Money. Why, for example, does the actor so eagerly live to work, while the factory-worker, though often far better paid, reluctantly works to live? How much money would men need, beyond the subsistence that enables them to continue working, if the world (that is, you and I) admired work more than wealth? Does the fact that he is employed fully compensate a man for the fact that his work is trivial, unnecessary, or positively harmful to society: the manufacture of imbecile and ugly ornaments, for instance, or the deliberate throat-cutting between rival manufacturers of the same commodity? Ought we, in fact, to consider whether work is worth doing, before we encourage it for the sake of employment? In deciding whether man should be employed at a high wage in the production of debased and debasing cinema films or at a lower wage in the building of roads and houses, ought we to think at all about the comparative worth and necessity of bad films and good houses? Has the fact that enthusiastic crowds cheer and scream around professional footballers, while offering no enthusiastic greetings to longshoremen, anything to do with the wages offered to footballers and longshoremen respectively?” (p. 204).

“The hand of the creative artist, laid upon the major premise, rocks the foundations of the world; and he himself can indulge in this perilous occupation only because his mansion is not in the world but in the eternal heavens” (p. 212).