Category Archives: literature

Quote for the Week

You, who call Frankenstein your friend, seem to have a knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But in the detail which he gave you of them he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured wasting in impotent passions. For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?

–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

We went out to watch a big-screen showing of the classic 1931 movie version with Boris Karloff; so I thought a quote from the novel was opportune.  Besides, Halloween will soon be upon us!

Too Much Meta!

“What is meta,” you may ask, “and how is there too much of it?”  Those are excellent questions.  In order to answer them, I’ll need to give a little background on just what it is I’m talking about.  “Meta” comes from the Greek preposition μετά, which simply means “after” or “beyond”, among other things.  It can also be a prefix in which the basic meaning is attached to the root word.  For example, “metamorphosis” pairs meta– with with a derivative of μορφή (morphē), “form” or “shape”, giving the meaning, “beyond the [original] form”.  Thus, in a metamorphosis, something (such as a caterpillar) goes beyond the form it has into another form (such as a butterfly).

A subtle shift in this straightforward meaning began with the works of Aristotle, and rather inadvertently, at that.  Aristotle’s books on various topics derived from what we would now call lecture notes for the talks he gave at the school he founded, the Lyceum. These were either written by Aristotle himself, or taken down by his students.  After his death, these notes were collated and arranged by topic.  The book dealing with the working of the natural world was called the Physics, from the Greek φυσικά (physika), which simply means “having to do with nature”.  The name stuck, and we still call the study of mass, energy, motion, and such “physics”.  The book that was placed next in the sequence after the Physics dealt with abstract topics on the nature of being, what we can know and how we can know it, causality, and so on.  Whoever it was who arranged the texts very pragmatically called this text τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (ta meta ta physika), literally, “the things coming after the Physics”).  In other words, it was the next book after the one on physics, so its title was essentially After Physics!

This was shortened by the Romans who translated Aristotle into Latin to Metaphysics.  From early on, the tendency was to interpret “meta”–“beyond”–as meaning not “beyond” in the sense of “the next book in the sequence”, which was its original connotation, but “beyond” in the sense of “transcending”.  Thus “metaphysics” was understood to mean “that which goes beyond ordinary physics” or “that which transcends nature”.  This has been the standard connotation of “metaphysics” ever sense; and this connotation has determined the use of “meta” in other contexts, as well.

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

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A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is a science fiction novel published in 1960.  The novel, divided into three parts, takes place between 600, 1200, and 1800 years in the future, respectively, chronicling a new Dark Age in the aftermath of a nuclear war.  As in the Middle Ages, the Church survives and preserves learning over the centuries until a new Renaissance can occur.  However, with the rebirth of knowledge and technology come the same forces at work a millennium earlier, and once more the world stands on the brink of nuclear destruction.  Wishing to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that (you can read more in the linked Wikipedia article above).  I certainly encourage everyone to read it–no summary does it justice.  In my mind it’s one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, and probably the greatest sf novel dealing with themes of faith and religion.  Despite this, I think anyone of any religious persuasion can enjoy the novel, and more importantly find food for thought on the topic of knowledge and whether or not mankind can use it responsibly.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. is a bit of an enigma.  He is considered one of the most important writers of science fiction of the mid-20th Century, and yet his output was small.  During World War II, he was part of the crew of a bomber that participated in a series of raids against the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino.  Monte Cassino is the historic monastery founded by St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, and as such the mother house of the Benedictine order.  During the Italian Campaign in 1944, British intelligence erroneously thought that the monastery was being used as headquarters for German troops, and therefore ordered the bombing raids against it.  The monastery was almost completely destroyed, with the only casualties being Italian civilians who had fled there for shelter, rather than Germans.  Ironically, German troops later did camp in the ruins of the monastery, which were good cover.  Miller was deeply traumatized by the effects of this tragic error, and the effects of this–what we’d now call PTSD–lingered for years.  After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism, which was to be a major influence on  his work.

During the 1950’s, Miller published many short stories and wrote scripts for television, winning a Hugo Award for his much-lauded short story “The Darfsteller“.  From 1955 to 1957 he published a series of novellas dealing with an order of monks dedicated to preserving human knowledge in a distant, post-apocalyptic future.  The novellas were originally titled “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, “And the Light is Risen”, and “The Last Canticle”.  In 1959, Miller substantially edited and reworked the material in the novellas and published them in novel form as A Canticle for Leibowitz.  The three-part structure was preserved, with the sections being renamed as “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be man”), “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”), and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy will be done”).  The novel won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1961, and has been in print ever since.  After this, Miller never published anything again during the rest of his lifetime.  Despite his small oeuvre, Miller is widely considered to be one of the most influential science fiction writers of his time.

Sadly, as the years progressed, Miller became increasingly reclusive, avoiding even most of his family and refusing even to meet with his literary agent in person.  He struggled with depression and the aftereffects of PTSD.  Though he published nothing, he worked for years on the manuscript of a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz titled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.  “Sequel” is perhaps not quite the right word–the second novel takes place in the time between the events of “Fiat Lux” and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” in the original novel.  In any case, Miller completed some six hundred pages of manuscript over a period of many years.  By the 1990’s, though, he was in ill health and suffering from writers’s block, so he commissioned sf novelist Terry Bisson to complete the novel.  According to Bisson, the vast majority of the work had been completed, and he merely tidied up the text and tied up a few loose ends.  Tragically, in 1996, shortly after the death of his wife, Miller committed suicide.  Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published the following year.

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Quote for the Week

Everything passes away — suffering, pain, blood, hunger, pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will still remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes towards the stars? Why?

–Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard; courtesy of Wikiquote

For Independence Day: “I Hear America Singing”

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I’ve posted this before, back on March 28th, 2014 as part of my “Daily Whitman” series; but it’s a great poem for the Fourth of July, non-jingoistic and speaking of what makes the American project truly great.  May we continue to emulate it.  Enjoy, and Happy Independence Day.

I Hear America Singing

  I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
  Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
  The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
  The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
  The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
      singing on the steamboat deck,
  The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
      he stands,
  The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
      or at noon intermission or at sundown,
  The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
      or of the girl sewing or washing,
  Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
  The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
      fellows, robust, friendly,
  Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

The Alice Books

The two books that are perhaps the most famous children’s books of the Victorian Era were written by an unlikely author.  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pronounced DOD-son–the “g” is silent) was an Oxford don–a professor of mathematics, specifically–a skilled amateur photographer, and a deacon in the Church of England.  Despite the expectations of his father, Dodgson did not emulate him by going on to the priesthood.  Rather, taking advantage of an exemption made for him by the dean of the college, Dodgson remained at Christ Church College, Oxford, for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and occasionally preaching sermons as a deacon.

Dodgson never married nor had children of his own.  However, throughout his life he had many child-friends, mostly young girls.  One in particular, Alice Pleasance Liddell, made him famous.  Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, and a formidable classical scholar (he was co-author of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, still in use after 175 years).  Dodgson became friends with Alice and her two sisters closest in age to her, Lorina and Edith.  They would often go on excursions, during which the girls would plead with Dodgson to tell them stories.  He was always happy to comply.  On one such excursion in 1862–memorialized by Dodgson as the “golden afternoon“–Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three girls on a boat ride down the Isis River.

As usual, Dodgson, at the girls’ request, told one of his stories.  This time, at the end of the day, Alice implored Dodgson to write it down.  Eventually he did so and presented the result, Alice’s Adventures Underground, to Alice Liddell.  Later, at the suggestion of his friend George MacDonald, he expanded and reworked the book for publication.  The result, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name Lewis Carroll (by which Dodgson is usually known), was a sensation, and has never been out of print since.  In 1871 Dodgson published the equally well-known sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  In 1876 he published the long comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, which, in modern parlance, takes place in the same universe as the Alice books; and in 1895 he published the two-part children’s novel Sylvie and Bruno.  Sylvie and Bruno is largely forgotten, considered by most to be Dodgson’s weakest work.  The Alice books, along with The Hunting of the Snark, are his masterpieces.

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Quote for the Week

The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

–T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent; courtesy of Wikiquote.

A Slight Side Excursion on Fanfic

Someone I follow on Tumblr  had a post recently discussing what makes for good writing in a fan fiction context.  The conclusion was “good technical skills”.  The idea is that, while writers and readers of fanfic may have different criteria of what makes a fic “good” than do the gatekeepers of “mainstream” fiction, and while those differing criteria are valid, good technical skills are universal, allowing you to develop the story you want to tell and to say what you need to say.  Technical skills may not be the end-all and be-all; but you have to be able to control what you’re saying if you want to get anything across to the reader.  I totally agree with this.

Anyway, I reblogged and added a response dealing with an aspect of fanfic that I think isn’t often realized or understood.  It occurred to me that it might be worth putting up here, too, especially since I’ve been discussing pop culture–which of course includes fanfic–in the course of writing my series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality“.  I have edited it very lightly for publication here, but it’s substantially the same as the original form.  Enjoy!

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Mass Media and Lifestyle Fantasy

Last time we looked at the effects of the Enlightenment and the final disenchantment of the world, as both organized religion and everything perceived as being “irrational” were banished from polite society; or at least from the worldview of the elite.  The perfectly rational, logical man of the Enlightenment who would shake off the superstitions of his ancestors and move confidently into a Utopian future of reason and humanism never materialized, though.  Human nature being what it is, the loss of the transcendent and the supernatural left a void that needed to be filled.  Nietzsche expressed this poetically in his famous writing about the “death of God” (the quote below is from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche’s answer–that we must become gods–foreshadows his idea of the Übermensch, the “superman”.  As we’ve seen over the last century and a quarter since Nietzsche’s death, that didn’t work out so well.  The void remained unfilled.  What could fill it?  At this point, we must leave that question hanging for a bit while we look at another of the great societal changes to come out of the Enlightenment.  In the last post, we looked at the religious and philosophical changes brought on by the Enlightenment.  Here I want to look at a change that was partly technological, partly educational, and partly cultural–the rise of mass media.

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Nulla Scriptura Revisited

One of the keystones of traditional Protestant theology is the concept of sola scriptura.  This means literally “by Scripture alone”.  That is, all doctrines and practices of Christianity must be derived from Scripture.  Tradition, commentary, and development are not necessarily bad, but they may never be normative for belief and practice.  My post from some time back, “Nulla Scriptura” was a deliberate pun on this, as it means, “by nothing [of] Scripture.”

Back here, I said the following:

Of course, I’d say that open theism, as well as many other flavors of Protestantism, has too high a view of Scripture, anyway. I don’t mean that in the sense of saying that Scripture isn’t inspired, or of encouraging a “low” view of it. Rather, I mean the tendency to take it more or less as is without looking at context or the philosophical implications. I’ve read essays by open theologians in which they’ve gone so far as to say that if the theology or philosophy says one thing, and Scripture says another, then Scripture must be preferred, even if it seems to paint God in peculiar ways (e.g. limited knowledge, changing His mind, etc.). By that logic we’d have to jettison the value of pi!

What I want to do here is to elaborate on that concept, both in a general, theoretical way, as it pertains to Christianity and Christian thought in general; and also in a concrete, specific way, as it pertains to my own church, the Catholic Church, particularly in 21st Century America.

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