Tuesday, February 27, 2018

More On Wordsworth’s A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal: As I Was Saying To The Other Guy...

A slumber did my spirit seal; 
I had no human fears: 
She seemed a thing that could not feel 
The touch of earthly years. 

No motion has she now, no force; 
She neither hears nor sees; 
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, 
With rocks, and stones, and trees. 

You say that the redundancy of rocks and stones shows the poet’s numbed reaction to death, the numbness why he near to repeats the same noun. And you say what’s key in poetry is expressing the poet’s attitude to his subject, poetry as such as dramatic poetry. I say that I don’t understand the redundancy and I’m unpersuaded that it’s the poetic dramatization of numbness. 

There’s an entirely plausible reading of this poem that precisely discredits your view. 

While she was alive he slept, albeit benignly-“slumber.” While she lived he was in effect under a kind of protective plastic. He was sealed in. To be sealed is to be tightly, even claustrophobically, hemmed in, cut off from externality. He had no human fears. He was without fear and,so, less than fully human, limited, really an innocent like Blake’s lamb. And his sense of her was accordingly stifled, superficial, reduced to appreciating only what she “seemed” like, with no sense of the fullness of her. 

It was Edenic, but as Blake would have it, a stifled, shorn innocence. She would of course feel the touch of human years but  his lack of full understanding made her into a “thing,” “a thing that could not feel...” what in fact inexorability does to us all.  

So his first stanza’s looking back is shot through with insight as to how limiting his sense of her had been, how dehumanizing, how reductive. So the first stanza is double visioned: he fuses how, sealed off, he saw her together with a more maturely full understanding of what that sense of her lacked. This hardly numbed reaction. 

Now with her gone, he is struck by an understanding of the fullness of what she was and went through as the touch of human years has now made its full claim. His slumber is over, its ending marked from the time of what the fact of her death finally awakens in him, that he missed all the touching of the earthly years of her. 

So now for the first time, measured by the experience fed realization of what he has lost, does he confront, too late, her being gone, the full reality of what she was. Negation, “no motion...no force...neither hears nor sees” breeds perception. 

And so now he comes to his fullest understanding: the rolling planet has claimed her, has enfolded her in “earth’s diurnal course.” And the double vision of the first stanza now refocuses  and fulfills itself in comprehensive understanding of her death being part of ultimate cosmic processes. 

“Diurnal course” isn’t harsh. It’s capacious in intimating something larger than us in our lives and our deaths and in that largeness contains us. There’s an intimation of the divine in that circular rolling, “rolled” not a harsh verb either. 
Sadness and wisdom commingle. 

In these terms, noting the life-fullness of “trees” as against “rocks and stones” isn’t, I argue, picky irrelevance. It’s to the point, one focus of the double vision that is the irretrievable paradox of the poem: a kind of life in death even as death is death. The juxtaposition of inanimate “rocks” and living “trees” precisely image that paradox. 

And so one, or I as one, is left wondering why near to repeat “rocks” with “stones”? Numbed impact disconcerting the poet doesn’t cut it, I don’t think. That’s belied by the presence of mind to say “diurnal,” as I noted, by the evolving double vision working its way through the poem and by the poem’s final and ultimate paradoxical insight.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Why “Rocks, and stones, and trees” Exactly In Wordsworth’s A Slumber Did...


This is fun.

An exchange born of a subthread here on the last line of Wordsworth’s A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.

Hang on to your hats and wigs: it’s a thrilling, roller coaster of a ride and it’s not over yet.

A Slumber did my Spirit Seal

A slumber did my spirit seal; 
I had no human fears: 
She seemed a thing that could not feel 
The touch of earthly years. 

No motion has she now, no force; 
She neither hears nor sees; 
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, 
With rocks, and stones, and trees. 


Why “Rocks, and stones, and trees” exactly? 


The speaker is so deeply moved that he is indifferent to the redundancy? The two  ands  is very good. There is a debate about whether the poem is pantheistic and Lucy is now part of the divine whole or whether she is now a thing.  Or something like that. 


It’s the redundancy I don’t totally get.

I wonder if “stones” suggests gravestones but even if it does I can’t work out why “rocks, and stones.”

I’m in the pantheism school; and she is a thing: all things are shot through with divine spirit.


It expresses the speakers abcorption in his state of mind and indifference to eloquence, though of course eloquent in the Worsworthian manner, the power of common speech to express what standard poetic eloquence cannot.  That was Wordsworths great invention and still dominates poetry.  Many readers in his day found him clumsy, simply unpoetic.  Which in their terms he was.  


What I wonder about when I ask myself “why ‘stones’” is whether any number of words could have been used, seemingly, in place of “stones,” which then suggests an arbitrariness to “stones” that dispels the idea of perfect placement, that only that word can do. 

Why not “Rocks, and bones, and trees”?

Arbitrariness seems to me to take away from what I might call the “aesthetic authority” of the artist and any particular work. But that may be my naïveté about these matters, as though there isn’t an element of the arbitrary always in all works, good, bad or indifferent, as long as the choice, however arbitrary, works. But “stones” being a smaller brother of “rocks”doesn’t work necessarily. 


Bones is bad because of the rhyme, and the morbidity.  You want some sort of meaning, and I think Wordsworth wants the words to express the speakers state of mind, in this case the impact of a death that numbed him. The speaker should not sound sophisticated, poetic, intellectually subtle or deep.  Neither the pantheism nor her becoming a thing is intellectually deep.  It expresses a feeling, the emotional “slumber” induced by her death, and the redundancy helps express that.  


....A slumber did my spirit seal; 
I had no human fears: 
She seemed a thing that could not feel 
The touch of earthly years. 

No motion has she now, no force; 
She neither hears nor sees; 
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, 
With rocks, and bones, and trees...

I wonder if you aren’t making my point. 

What if Wordsworth had said “bones”? 

And what if there were 170 years of literary criticism expounding on the vivid sharpness of “bones,” its counterweight to any gentle sentimentality over death, its emphasizing “dead is dead” sitting in brilliant tension with the life of “trees,” emphasizing Wordsworth’s sure sense of the implacability of her absence, and expounding on the effectiveness of the stark physicality of “bones” breaking so meaningfully, even shockingly, so remarkably with the tone of the rest of the poem? 

Then what if, against all those years of explication and the question of a mere thing against a pantheistic vision, someone had ventured “stones” instead of “bones”? Wouldn’t we then be inclined to say “No, “stones” is bad. It’s the same as “rocks,” and, so, redundant, a wasted word that erases all the complex, striking effectiveness of bones?”

P.S. “Diurnal” doesn’t register too much numbed impact to me. It’s a learned word that cuts against the idea of numbness shown by the slight redundancy in the last line.

P.P.S.S. I don’t get “the rhyme”  as one reason why “bones” is bad. “Stones” has the same rhyme.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Pinker And Douthat: Enlightenment Now: Science Versus The Irrational


I just read the linked-to-above piece by Ross Douthat on Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now. 

I disagree with everything Douthat says.

His argument is that Pinker’s liberal, scientific, data driven optimism is smug in its dismissal of the irrational and the virtues of the irrational, of how those virtues are evident in an intensely curious drive, akin to science, which can give us answers, based on the “evidence” of the self, to our deepest personal perplexities, answers for which science and secular liberalism offer no help.

His argument concludes with noting Pinker’s lament for the loss of appreciation of science, for, by necessary implication, our deeper dive into the irrational, and with suggesting that his smug, dismissive “secular certainties” may be among the causes of that loss since these certainties, as Douthat has it, tend to smother the questing curious spirit common to the quest after the irrational and to science.

...Which is why if Pinker and others are genuinely worried about a waning appreciation of the inquiring scientific spirit, they should consider the possibility that some of their own smug secular certainties might be part of the problem — that they might, indeed, be stifling the more comprehensive kind of curiosity upon which the scientific enterprise ultimately depends...

There is so much I think wrong with Douthat’s argument that I scarcely know where to begin. 

His first mistake is to mischaracterize Pinker’s position as one of smug liberal certainty, as though he were a naif in his faith in inevitable human progress including North American social progress. But Pinker’s not that. 

Pinker cites evidence for his theses of demonstrable progress, the engine for which is the combination of enlightenment values best encapsulated by the scientific method. (And nothing will do but to refute his evidence, a refutation  Douthat says is beside the point in his piece-Pinker’s “bright line” between science and “obscurantist” non science.) 

Pinker is far from smug. He knows our progress is fragile, reversible, fraught with dangers threatening massive human destruction. He knows that science is trial and error and, so, full with errors. And, so, we move forward but in a highly contingent and zig zagging way. 

Douthat’s second mistake is to vaunt the virtues of the irrational-astrology, fad diets, faith healing, ecstatic prayer, all kinds of new ageism-as manifesting an independence of spirit that makes those who pursue them jmore independent minded than secular liberals who incline “to meekly submit to authority.” Because the divers into the irrational, an existential quest to be sure, rely on the “evidence” of the self, they quest after personal truth the way scientists do after phenomenal truth. And those who dismiss (say) prayer as illusory without actually seeing whether it works are anything but empiricists: 

....If you refuse any non-F.D.A.-blessed treatment for chronic illness because there’s no controlled study proving that it works, or have a religious experience and pre-emptively dismiss it as an illusion without seeing what happens if you pray, you may be many things, but you are not really much of an empiricist....

That the secular liberal are meeker than (say) astrologists is a presumption so absurd that I wouldn’t have expected it of Douthat. Those who in their distress turn to the irrational for answers offer no model for admirable living. Irrational responses to heightened despair aren’t admirable curiosity; nor do the off side routes and processes to answers beyond evidence have anything to do with science, literally or metaphorically. The “evidence” the self provides is wavering, irreplicable and unfalsifiable subjectivity. In using the imagery of science to celebrate glossolaliasts and macrobioticists, Douthat conflates the literal and the metaphoric. And if he’s not, then he’s stretching  the metaphor of science past snapping in trying to attach it to the obviously unscientific.  

Consider finally his last paragraph quoted a few paragraphs above. If Pinker and his ilk contribute to a decline in the appreciation of the scientific spirit by way of their smug “secular certainties,” if they are helping squelch the comprehensive kind of curiosity science depends on, and if science and the intense pursuit of the irrational have that curiosity in common, then why is the appreciation of science declining while the pursuit of the irrational grows, that growth the obvious corollary of that decline? If Pinker and fellow secular liberals stifle that common curiosity, then how can chasing after the irrational be growing? 

I want to say that the incoherence of Douthat’s last paragraph is of a piece with the confusion, conflation and category error that mark his piece.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Banality As Evil

1. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/enduring-outrage-hannah-arendts-eichmann-jerusalem/

2. M: 

I've read it a couple of times and taught it once.  I think I tended to see it as a type of meditative non-fiction that is maybe closer to the modern novel that Arendt never wrote, than to an analytic report on a trial.  The account of how Eichmann got to be the high administrator of genocide is fascinating and does present a disturbing picture of how anonymous bureaucratic structures can be moved toward something like the Holocaust without disrupting the office work, so to speak.  In respect  of the Bellow/Sammler commentary, I think it's certainly arguable that the banality is a way of disguising evil for the modern secular world, but there is an unanswerable question at the heart of political philosophy, which is what a genuinely nihilistic modern politics would be.  As a political philosopher, Arendt was fascinated by the idea that it would look like basic administrative ability.

3.  Me:

This is a high powered comment that I appreciate.

Gotta ask: in what context or for what course did you teach it; and how did that go?

I wonder, and not to want to cavil, whether there may not be distinction between a journalistic account and an analytical account with the latter lining up with a meditative non fiction? Arendt’s “project” seems to have been at least in no small part to have advanced her thesis of Jewish under-reaction and complicity, and of, more so, rehabilitating her mentor’s idea of true evil lying in industrial capitalist modernity decimating the putative ideal, in Heidegger’s account, of a pastoral past unsullied by capitalism’s reduction of men and women into mere units of production. Wisse doesn’t say this as such but I do: namely, the corollary of this line of reasoning is the banality of evil. But I’d argue she does something like this as she highlights Norman Podhoretz’s characterizing Arendt’s book as the perversity of contrarian brilliance, throwing her obscuring of obvious and clearly understood categories like good and evil and what constitutes them back at her, borrowing her mo to take Eichmann In Jerusalem apart. 

I wonder if you’re missing something, at least from the standpoint of Wisse’s critique, in noting Eichmann’s rise as a case of bureaucratic upward mobility. She says Arendt downplays, advancing her thesis of bureaucratically following orders as a mode of evil, the lengths Eichmann undertook, including traveling to Jerusalem and reporting back on it, to become a “Jewish question” specialist and how vociferous he was in the pursuit of genocide even when orders came restraining him. Those incline to break the characterization of banality. 

The idea of banality disguising evil in the modern world is what I might call a second order point, no disrespect meant. I’d think the first order point is that genocide and operations and actions less than genocidal but unendingly horrifying, whether a few on many, many, or one or a few  on a more on or a few, are a main constituent of what evil is. That is, so to say, first order evil. That some states and entities euphemize the evil they do under numbing verbiage seems to me to be banality disguising evil.

Realism as a political school of thought is the closest we get to a nihilistic politics, I think. But in North American political theory it attracts its own counter thesis of a morality based politics sourced in spreading democratic values and in privileging morality over interest. Surely, realism isn’t so much nihilistic as it does the opposite of what its counter thesis holds: it privileges interest over mortality and, too, complicating the issue some, makes national interest coextensive with some notion of national morality. If Arendt was fascinated by the idea of a genuinely nihilistic political morality, that speaks to, I’d further tend to argue, an intellectual fancifulness, an intellectual remoteness, a level of abstraction, that all flaw her work.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Sherry Turkle And Solitude



I noted that I’m reading Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation.

She inveighs against device addiction both intrinsically because it’s addiction and consequentially because it minimizes conversation—the basis of human exchange—and, so, minimizes face to face communication and, so, empathy. She argues not to do away with devices but to use them judiciously. She diagnoses that those enslaved by their devices cannot stand being alone or bored or the burdens of unmitigated human exchange and friendship.

Her evidence for her thesis is her compilation of years of interviews with many different people.

I’m waiting to be convinced of this widespread loss of empathy, keeping an open mind. But her recounting of and generalizing from her interviews come across to me like she’s relating a series of anecdotes. 

Here’s one conceptual puzzle she presents me with.

She emphatically touts solitude as an intrinsically good thing and as an antidote, and an answer, to our need for constant distraction and immediate connection: “We share, therefore we are,” contrasting connection with real live conversation and friendship.

But her conception of solitude is unclear to me. Denotatively, it means being alone without being lonely, the contrast being between solitude and loneliness. By the way she talks about solitude, however, almost as a kind of mindfulness, but not quite, I sense she means being alone and undistracted for lengths of time beyond the few minutes mediation typically involves, a time for reflection and self creation emerging out of boredom. 

But if we listen to music are we undistracted? Does it depend on the kind of music, soothing sounds compared to raucous music? Classical music, for instance, covers that span. If we’re reading, are we undistracted? Does it depend on what we’re reading? These kinds of questions multiply themselves. If we’re writing are we undistracted? Does it depend on what we’re writing, say poetry compared to texting? If we walk and have a lively sense of our surroundings, are we undistracted? Do our surroundings matter: something pastoral against some active urban scene? 

So my point is that it seems unreal to me to prescribe mindfulness as solitude even as that may be a good but brief daily practice. I don’t think Turkle has mindfulness in mind. As I say, I think she means something more enduring by solitude than a few minutes of mind clearing. The unreality is that for the vast most of us us, who really, achieves anything like a pure state of solitude for any length of time? Who among us when alone doesn’t want some form of engagement: music, something to read, writing, checking out our surroundings and so on?

That being so how do we distinguish from the perspective of solitude what is and what isn’t distraction? Maybe the line between checking our texts, emails and reading, enjoying music alone and so on isn’t so clear and bright. Maybe one person’s distraction is another person’s solitude. 

So I need to understand better what she means by solitude and how it exists in people’s lives when they’re alone as opposed to it being an abstraction as it seems to be in her discussion of it so far.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Colten Boushie Acquittal


I know little about the trial and the acquittal in the Colten Boushie homicide.

So this is an off the top of my gut reaction.

Why do people who didn’t sit through the trial nor sit with the jury during its deliberations so quickly criticize the verdict? 

Why can’t it be as simple as the defence having raised a reasonable doubt about Stanley’s intent?

Why is Trudeau weighing in saying, paraphrase, “Canadians have to do better”?

Is Trudeau saying the justice system didn’t/doesn’t operate legitimately when the results cut against prevailing narratives?

As someone who didn’t sit through the trial nor the jury deliberations, how does Trudeau have a clue as to any injustice here? 

Was he advised of the injustice by people who also didn’t sit through the trial, weigh the evidence, judge credibility, and hash it all out in jury deliberations? 

Is it so clear that racism predicted this result?

I’m open to be persuaded that this tragic but reasonably possible accidental loss of life should have resulted in a verdict of guilty.

But the law is that judicial results are prima facie—right until proved otherwise—correct.

So those rushing to judgment who have no first hand experience with the trial, the evidence, the forensics, the cross examination and credibility of witnesses and the weighing of all that by the jury, let alone the judge’s charge to it,  might want to step back, take a few breaths, and inform themselves of all this before feeding the beast of the narrative.

Not least Trudeau.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Tribalism As Idelogical Conformism


In his long conversation with Joe Rogan, 2 hours, 13 minutes, Steven Pinker says he changed his mind about this-political views flowing from ideological premises. 

He now thinks that tribalism counts more heavily than ideology for our positions on political, and for that matter public, issues generally, that our “group,” whatever that consists in, presses in on us to conform to it at the risk of social sanction, (say) ridicule or even ostracism. Pinker and Rogan note that almost to a man or woman, positions held on discrete issues are as eyes into fixed political souls, into leftward or rightward. 

This view makes sense to me though I wouldn’t cleave so sharply between ideology and tribal pressure. They probably overlap and are a piece of each other.

I’d like to think I don’t fall into the web of that human disposition, that within a general creedal framework, sort of Third Wayish really, I try to call em as I independently as possible see em, wanting to be moved by logic, evidence and the best argument.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Shapelessness Of Water

I generally don’t like in movies magic realism, fables, allegories, science fiction, fantasy, and people and sea creatures rising from death to live happily ever after together under water. 

But I try keep an open mind when I reluctantly see one of these genres. 

I reluctantly saw The Shape Of Water.

I wasn’t bored by it. It wasn’t uninteresting. It was dramatic at points. But in the end I found it off putting and pointless. So I guess all the dislikes I first listed kicked in. I could see what its themes are, I think, and the institutions and human types the characters were proxy for, but my mind wasn’t provoked and I wasn’t moved.

My problem is I like movies about real people with real problems. Take Manchester By The Sea for instance. A painful but magnificent movie experience, I found. It’s like a piece of perfectly cooked, rare to bloody steak to The Shape’s appetizer of mock crabmeat. 

I’d give The Shape of Water 2.5 out of 5 and wouldn’t recommend it.

Monday, February 5, 2018

A Further Note On My Gloss On Jordan Peterson On Immanence And Exhiliration

I wrote this to someone, fwiw—he’d listed a lot of really bad folks who were/are religious 

....Your first sentence sounds pretty and profound but makes not a lot of sense to me. 

I could a stab at unpacking it but it would be guess work. 

I was trying to put a gloss on what I heard Peterson say, that, as I have it, there is deep within us all a drive, an impulse, to make meaning, to seek coherence, to seek the wholeness of ourselves. The medium for the manifestation of that driven impulse is consciousness informed by our feelings, themselves the outpourings of our deepest selves, physically and psychologically. 

When we feel profound exhilaration, then that drive for meaning for the instant of our experience resolves itself in a heightened state we might characterize as something like pure being or transcendence, an instant of experience when we get past the ordinary fractiousness, tensions, paradoxes, weaknesses, frailties, deficits, enigmas, uncertainties and so on of ongoing typical living, (which rationality and deliberation not only can’t ultimately resolve but inhere in and help create.) We reach peaks in those experiences.   

And here’s a point in response to your list: the achievement of these high moments of being does not confer morality or beneficence on us. What may ignite transcendence will for good or (say) normal people will likely include the kinds of things I first listed but the twisted and the perverse and the evil the external sources may well include what destructive and depraved, I’d argue. But the evil too have their own experiences of transcendence. In that regard your list, on consideration and further reflection, seems in fact outside Peterson’s point as glossed by me, even as your list and your elusive further comment prompted some further thought by me.  

Any thoughts on this?...