Friday, February 23, 2018

Varieties XI-XV: Self-immolation of the saints

Well, if the discussion of conversion in James' Varieties is confusing, the lectures on "Saintliness" and "The Value of Saintliness" are even more so. Maybe that's why, although they represent fully a fourth of the whole Varities, they are rarely referred to.

I've always rather liked them, and use the "Value of Saintliness" chapters in the section on saints of my religious ethics class; I even taught a whole course once called "Preposterous Saints," inspired by these singing words of his:

The world is not yet with them [saints], so they often seem in the midst of the world's affairs to be preposterous. And yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animaters of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant. It is not possible to be quite as mean as we naturally are, when they have passed before us. (1902 edition, rept Penguin, 358)

I was all set for our discussion this morning to center on this wonderful if not unparadoxical claim (saints make what's natural no longer possible?), but it took most of two hours of brush clearing before we could get there. Encountered in the their place in the sequence of Varieties, the five lectures/chapters on saints are disconcerting.  The lives recounted, which are supposed to offer the composite photograph-like representation of a religiously celebrated life shared by all religions (271), are by and large not inspiring, and although James' question is the "fruits for life" of religion, these saints seem often to lead lives stripped fruitless by extravagances of self-mortification. And yet James claims by the end of the section to have answered the question of the value of religion decisively in the affirmative.

Wait, was that the question? James opened his lectures claiming to be putting aside not only everything ecclesiastic and theological (31), but also all "spiritual judgments" assaying the value of religion (4). His approach was to be strictly scientific; his "empiricist criterion" attended to "fruits" rather than "roots" (20) because these are observable. And yet here he's judging fruits - and judging religion on the basis of these fruits - using as his standard a slippery, unexplained thing called "common sense." He thinks this same common sense bids us discard the ecclesiastic, with its spirits of corporate and dogmatic dominion, as the enemy of true religion, too (337-38).

The students were confused in part because James seems to have dismissed everything - "theopathic" individuals and religion-smothering institutions - leaving, well, what? I know where (I think) this leads but it's evidently not clear to a first time reader, who doesn't know what's yet to come, and my efforts to tease it out weren't very successful. Everything hangs on that common sense, and a science of religions as its agent, helping us appreciate the indispensable contributions religion makes - and that to benefit from them we're better off not understanding religion on the terms of its corporate and dogmatic devotés. I would have thought that would have some appeal for my organized religion-leery students, but James' evident antipathy for most of the saints canceled that out.

James' singing words may not sing for them for another reason, too, connected to the apparent paradox in saints' rendering us incapable of being as mean as we naturally are. James loves using words taken to have a fixed meaning - indeed to guarantee the fixity of meaning - in dynamic ways; it's all part of what he'll later call the "pragmatist view of truth." "Facts," for instance, are what seem to us determined, but that's not the end of the story. Recall James' insistence in "Will to Believe" that in certain not unimportant cases faith in a fact can help create the fact!

Create the fact? Through their very "over-trust" in human nature, saints create a human nature worthy of that trust.

The saints ... may, with their extravagances of human tenderness, be prophetic. Nay, innumerable times they have proved themselves prophetic. Treating those whom they met, in spite of the past, in spite of all appearances, as worthy, they have stimulated them to be worthy, miraculously transformed them by their radiant example and by the challenge of their expectation. (357) 

This makes them a genuinely creative social force. Are they altering human nature? Yes and no, since their inspiration changes what we know human nature to be, what we think it capable of. The saints are so important for James' assessment of religion because they are the agents of its change - of its changing human nature. Change is too neutral a word; better would be evolution. Riffing off a remark of Herbert Spencer's, James explains that they are prophetic because they are adapted to a world that is not yet there - but a world which they bring closer. Preposterous, indeed!

Isn't it exciting? Our story isn't over, the final judgment on the human adventure hasn't been felled. One student owned that this was the most optimistic part of the Varieties - too optimistic for her. But other students were put off by what they described as James' pessimism in the same chapters. Asked to explain they pointed to the distaste with which he describes most of the saints, and recalled the combination of envy and contempt with which he he spoke of "healthy-minded" and "twice-born" earlier in the series.

But they may be picking up on something else, too. The first half of the book, like "Will to Believe" before it, articulated the "fruits" of religion for those who have it. The "fruits" of saintliness, however, accrue not to the poor maladapted saints themselves, but to humanity. Their misshapen lives are consumed - they give them willingly - by the evolving spirituality of humanity. The intersection of "saintliness" and the earlier discussion of the "twice-born" lies precisely in this sacrifice, as James makes clear in another term-mangling passage commending the "asceticism" of the saints.

In these remarks I am leaning only upon mankind's common instinct for reality, which in point of fact has always held the world be essentially a theatre for heroism. In heroism, we feel, life's supreme mystery is hidden. … The metaphysical mystery, thus recognized by common sense, that he who feeds on death that feeds on men possesses life supereminently and excellently, and meets best the secret demands of the universe, is the truth of which asceticism has been the faithful champion. (364)

It is not the saints but we who are out of touch with the reality of the universe, in thinking that this is all there is - what we take to be human nature is all humans can be. What the universe demands is that we feed on its pain, and in so doing feed it - with our lives. The saints' lives don't make the kind of sense the earlier subjects of James' Varieties do - unification, centering, etc., because they are matter out of place, prophets unaccepted in their own country. The unfinished story of human redemption makes the closure, the coherence of the convert seem immature. There's no rest in a universe which demands heroism, which makes our current human lot unbearable but can gesture only to a future fueled by the self-immolation of the saints for redemption.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Island hopping

Today's session of "Religion & Ecology' was one of those charmed times when everyone is present, and everything we've been through together converges. We were revisiting claims about the importance of stories - for knowing who we are, for motivating ecological engagement - which e encountered already in our first week. This time, we were reading Whitney Bauman's reflections on the limitation of one particular story often told in the religion and ecology world, Lynn White's "Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," and indeed of any single story. But to get there we revisited the otther stories we've been telling and retelling, including stories about stories and storytelling, and so we reviewed Journey of the Universe and Robin Wall Kimmerer's rendering of the story of SkyWoman and the creation of Turtle Island, and then read through the always eye-popping first two chapters of Genesis (with its two creation narratives!), before turning to White (whose claim isn't that Genesis is at fault, but is often thus caricatured) and finally to Bauman's queer, post-colonial Indonesia-informed suggestion that we might be better off with an archipelago of stories. Everything bumped up against everything else: exciting, illuminating!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Season confusion

This profoundly confused vegetal display on 12 Street - is this supposed to be Fall, Winter or Spring?! - seemed somehow just right for this day of unseasonable, perhaps, record heat. Seventies, in February?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Patron saint of ecology

We read the founding document of the field of religion and ecology today, Lynn White's 51-year-old essay in Science which does, and doesn't, blame "our environmental crisis" on the unprecedented anthropocentrism of Christianity. It was that caricature that made the essay so influential, provoking secularist ecologists to paint Christianity as Public Enemy Number One and theologians to defend or pledge to reform it. But White's actual argument is rather more nuanced.
In particular, he thinks those scientists and others who think they're post-Christian still have all the vices of a certain Christianity - an anthropocentric sense of distance from and mastery over nature - and need, as much as anthropocentric Christians (alas still abundant today), to find a more ecological answer to the existential questions posed by religion.

Because White can't imagine Zen or Eastern Orthodoxy (both of which he praises) effecting the necessary culture shift in the West, he famously proposes Francis of Assisi as patron saint of ecology, for a humble "pan-psychism" which recognizes the "democracy of all God's creatures." Next week we'll read the best effort at thus reorienting of western Christianity, the encyclical on the environment by a pope who didn't just take its title - Laudato si' - from a poem of Francis'; he took his name from Francis too.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Biblical times

The Book of Job makes an uncredited appearance in Jeremy Davies' extremely helpful The Birth of the Anthropocene. It comes at the very end of the chapter describing the dramatic sorts of climate-related changes which will be gathered up in the idea of the Anthropocene:

      Some of the trans- formations now taking place are, precisely, biblical in scale. Over a quarter of Hong Kong's urban land ... has been reclaimed from the sea. China's South-North Water Transfer Project will, if completed, carry forty-five billion cubic meters of water a year across a vast stretch of the country ... The first hurricane ever recorded above the warming waters of the South Atlantic made landfall in Brazil in 2004. Above the most inaccessible land on earth, East Antarctica, snowfall is increasing in the context of a general poleward shift in precipitation patterns.
     And God said: who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way fr the lightning of thunder; To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man?
     And Man said: I did, actually.

(University of California Press, 2016), 40
citing the King James Version's Job 38:8, 25-26

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Frog's making new friends as he travels... 

Job against nihilism

Well, not surprisingly, I'm not the first person to think about the Book of Job and the Anthropocene. On the very first page of his Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (Duke, 2017), where he names our as a time in which some old myths now feel revelatory and several official narratives lurch closer to nightmares, political philosopher William E. Connolly turns to Job. Specifically, he turns to Stephen Mitchell's poetic translation-adaptation - the one Bryan Doerries, who uses it for Outside the Wire's readings, calls "Buddhist." Connolly likes the way Mitchell's version floats free of the multiple religious traditions he imagines it's crossed, from Job's world (in which Connolly strangely thinks Job was a "minority") through Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, in the introduction to his version of Job Mitchell aligns the theophany with Shiva's words to Arjuna (and Oppenheimer at Alamagordo) in the Bhagavad Gita, interlacing his interpretation with words from texts of other traditions:

When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear. 

If you bring forth what is inside you, 
what you bring forth will save you.

To men some things are good and some are bad.
But to God, all things are good and beautiful and just. 

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting, 
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will. 

What the Book of Job shows us, Connolly argues, is how, in response to crisis, most people become ever more shrill in denouncing their opponents, who are in fact minor voices in themselves. Job, however, rebels against this logic of intensification, albeit with ambivalence (3), and Connolly isn't convinced he buys the faith in mystery of the complex moral story proffered by the irenic "thoughtful friend," as Mitchell dubs Elihu. This religious version of "it's complicated," which Connolly thinks dominates Job interpretation, is reaffirmed in the epilogue. But does that not miss the true "conversion" Job goes through?

"The Nameless One" (Mitchellese for God; Connolly notes that it might be a subdued voice in [Job] that was clamoring for attention) confronts Job, through questions, with all he doesn't know of creation; oceans and storms, the patterns of heaven and the edge of the universe, ostrich, hawk and vulture.

Job becomes spellbound as the questions accumulate. You might too, as you wonder how so many diverse beings, forces, and energies could coexist in the same world and how they could possibly either mesh neatly with us or be predisposed to our deployment. It is a grand, volatile world of multiple forces, perhaps worthy of our admiration even if we now construe ourselves as minor agents in it. (5)

The Nameless One isn't finished, of course, but eventually Job relents. I know you can do all things, and nothing you wish is impossible. . . . I had heard of you with my ears but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust. Patriarchy seems assumed here, Connolly notes, but it nowhere says that obedience to mystery will ensure protection of favorites - that's all in the epilogue, surely a later appendage designed to to tame the wonder of the poem (8):

Perhaps the poem, and the diverse energies bursting through it, points to human entanglements in a dissonant world of multiple forces that do not carry special entitlements or guarantees for any beings. We inhabit a majestic world with implacable powers that exceed ours. Its energies solicit our embrace in part because we and it are made of the same stuff. Perhaps the freedom of Job consists in his creative rebellion against the punitive stories of his friends, an appreciation of implacable forces, and an emerging attachment to a multiplicitous world that exceeds the stories he and his friends shared and contested. (8)

It's a nice reading of Job, offered to secularists as well as religious people, all who pursue affinities of spirituality across difference in creed during a dangerous time (8), in a spirit of conversation.  Connolly finds in Job a diagnosis of the shrillness of climate denialism, immunization against the hubris both of those who think humanity the end of creation and those who think we are called to become so through our technological mastery. But Job's finding comfort in the words of the Nameless One matters too. It's an antidote to what Connolly calls passive nihilism: the formal acceptance of the fact of rapid climate change accompanied by a residual, nagging sense that the world ought not to be organized so that capitalism is a destructive geologic force. The “ought not to be” represents the lingering effects of theological and secular doctrines against the idea of culture shaping nature in such a massive way. (9) 

How do I feel about this rather Nietzschean retrieval of Job? I guess I'm happy that someone else sees Job's promise in these dangerous times, maybe even a little reassured. Job is part of "Holocene religion," too, after all, fruit of an unusually harmonious time in human-Earth relations. But I've just read Jeremy Davies' impassioned argument (in The Birth of the Anthropocene) that the Holocene was far from a stable Eden from which the Anthropocene vaults us (and civilization far from a good thing for most humans, let alone getting ever better), so perhaps we shouldn't presume that the world religions are by definition unprepared for the adventure of geological time. And if Connolly accepts the modern view that the poem of Job is primary, he at least pays a little attention to the dialogue, and takes on the challenge of understanding what Job understood after the theophany, honoring it as an understanding and not just a capitulation.

Do I have anything to add to it, beyond the idea, already suggested, that what Connolly calls "Jobian" insights have been part of those traditions Connolly seeks to skirt - and valued, at least by some, as part of the "complex moral story" of our existence? In my thoughts about future retrievals of Job I've found myself retrieving the part of the story so many moderns deplore, Job's restoration. Not as the replacement of what was lost: like all those species we have already pushed into extinction, Job's first family are irreplaceable, gone forever but not forgotten. Rather the story tells of something more like the mysterious acceptance of newness in the face of unthinkable loss that led Kierkegaard to devote his Repetition to Job. Making kin - new kin - is also a response to passive nihilism. (I'm sure Connolly would agree.) Perhaps it's well to consider our capacity to do this a gift of the Nameless One.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Exhibitions in three museums in three days!

 Gego at MoMA Thursday

 Two renderings of the Purkinje neuron at NYU yesterday

Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum this afternoon

Friday, February 16, 2018

Varieties VIII-X: Variations on conversion

In our James' Varieties course today we grappled with the confused and confounding lectures on "The divided self and the process of its unification" and "Conversion." Each of us, for different reasons, felt we'd lost the thread. What did James mean by "conversion" anyway, and what did he think its fruits? Why did he mention "gradual" conversions if he was only going to talk about the "instantaneous" ones, and why did his quotations from others' lives seem to be getting longer and longer? How powerful was "suggestion" in shaping, or even triggering, conversion? Was converts' experience truly unified or still tense with the contradictions of life, like or unlike healthy-minded happiness? And did James think conversion a possibility for all people or not?

The very enterprise of understanding conversion in general is a conflicted one, for reasons we were clearer about after two hours of vigorous interrogation. The second birth of conversion seems a consummation devoutly to be wished for every sick soul, but James doesn't speak as a convert, and takes pains to suggest that people can convert to all sorts of things, including things of which people in his audience would surely disapprove. The testimonies he reads tell of a few people surprised by conversion but many more who find it - are found by it - only at the end of exhausting processes of seeking. In all cases something flows into conscious experience from our subconscious life, into the center of our experience from the margins, but Neither an outside observer nor the Subject who undergoes the process can explain fully... (196) Yet can anyone be as dispassionate as James tries to be about so momentous a subject, as diffident as his suggestion that though not many of us can imitate Tolstoy .. most of us may at least feel as if it might be better for us if we could (186).

As we wrapped up for the week I wondered if conversion was something anyone could describe except in retrospect, shaping what was a shape-defying experience into a narrative of finding and being found. The Subject is in control of a narrative about a transformative experience of not being in control, of what James calls "surrender," and often notes how incredulous the pre-conversion Subject would have been to know that she might in short order be doing and saying what she's now doing and saying. To the unconverted, conversion may be a general possibility but a personal hope beyond hope. There are elements of the paradoxes of "ineffability" which James will stumble over in the lectures to come on mysticism, in the convert's self-narration, not to mention the refined, rationalized accounts the sympathetic outsider then seeks to synthesize into his science of religion. The convert is, and is not, the same person who was converted. How can that tale be told?

I returned to my office and, inspired by I know not what agency, decided I wanted to listen to some music, perhaps, why not, Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Paganini. I've no idea why this particular piece demanded to be heard; I haven't listened to it in a long time. So, as one does, I typed it into YouTube. A BBC proms performance from 2013 seemed promising so I clicked. The broadcast started with a brief analysis of the piece by the piano soloist Stephen Hough, from which I learned that the ravishingly romantic theme in the famous 18th variation is the result of a common trick: Rachmaninov

takes the Paganini theme, turns it upside down,
puts it in the major, puts it in D-flat major, slows it down,
and suddenly it becomes this exquisite, beautiful melody.

The performance was lovely, and when the inverted slowed-down theme comes on (at 20:22, but don't jump right to it) I felt like I knew something more, somehow, about why it was so moving. It's just the piano at first, but then (at 21:04) the orchestra swoops in and carries the theme away, the piano stammering out chords of enraptured support, freed from the need to play the melody itself as the whole room sings it, the chords multiplying in exaltation before the theme returns to the piano, trembling quietly with its pure simplicity. Is it more than testimony to the power of suggestion that this seemed to me precisely what conversion experiences seek to describe, the theme flipped into major but still the same, afloat in a newly embracing world?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

This happened.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Reflections of love

At our local coffee shop, love is in the air.