Monday, September 29, 2014

Why I’m Protesting The Death of Klinghoffer

The Metropolitan Opera is mounting a production this fall that was last seen in New York in 1991. Written by John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer tells the tale of the hijacking of a cruise ship by a team of Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger at their hands.

Obviously, given its subject matter, the opera has become the center of a bitter controversy. Last week, on opening night at the Met, a squad of 300 protesters gathered in Lincoln Square with picket signs and bullhorns. The charges: Klinghoffer glorifies terrorism, it puts the Jewish victims on the same—if not lower—grounds as their murderers, and it is insensitive to the memory of Klinghoffer himself, whose family resents the appropriation of his death to make lefty art.

These charges might be true; I don’t know enough to judge. Let’s say they’re not. I’m still going to grab my bullhorn and incendiary sign, and join the protest more enthusiastically than the most committed member of the Anti-Defamation League. This is reason enough: The Death of Klinghoffer is terrible art.

Before I make that point, let me show you the context that I’m judging it in. The following is an excerpt from Così fan tutte, Mozart’s opera about the fickleness of love. The plot is preposterous and thin, but the music and poetry are straight from the mouths of the seraphim:


Mozart does something extraordinary here. We’re in the middle of a childish deception: Fiordiligi has been seduced by a stranger from Albania, unaware that he’s in fact the disguised best friend of her fiancé. Surging over this comical affair, though, is a heavenly harmony that can set the heart of a mortal on fire. As a wise Youtube commenter on this clip says, 


tennesseelvr Apr 13, 2010
the musical master of the “feeling intellect” Mozart; unparalleled genius of the heart and soul; God s gift in this chaotic existence!

Let me give another example, this time from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Wolfram von Eschenbach is locked in a singing competition with Tannhäuser, a man who has spent an aeon in the Venusberg. There, he enjoyed all the carnal delights of the gods, and was so saturated by delight that the pale world has no savor for him anymore. Wolfram sings beautifully about the chaste evening star, charming the audience with his tranquil contemplation of beauty. But Tannhäuser, who has scaled to the heavens, has known the evening star (both intellectually and Biblically), and cannot keep himself within decent bounds when he hears it mentioned. Breaking into a wild song to love, he shocks the proper society around him.


This and the previous excerpt are examples of the heights that the opera can take us to. There is nothing under the sun that so unvaryingly leads us heavenward. In that sense, as the sage above said, it’s the closest thing we have to a gift from the gods. And that’s the standard that I judge Klinghoffer by.

At this point, you might remember what you know about Wagner: he was a vicious anti-Semite, right? He was indeed, down to the bone. But since aesthetics are a different ballgame from morality, that didn’t detract in the slightest from his ability to write music of throbbing beauty.

This might be a good time—if there ever is one—for me mention that I am a moderate fan of fascist art. Much more than most others in the twentieth century, the Nazis and their fellows in Italy understood the way to make a person thrill with aesthetic excitement. On the streets of Rome, the temples put up by Mussolini with their white columns and Latin inscriptions are finer than any of the faceless office buildings built in the 50s. And as I walked this summer in the ruins of the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg, mingled with my dumb horror at history was a strong sense that Hitler knew how to build something that was really impressive. The same is true in music: Carl Orff’s work is much more beautiful—and thrilling—than Schoenberg’s, the Jew whose music was thrown out of the Third Reich. The fierce reactionary movement that took place in visual art, meanwhile, was a vast improvement over the surreal daubings of the Weimar Republic.

This is all meant to convince you that I have no trouble whatsoever with anti-Semites making art, or even with anti-Semitic art at all. As I write that, it strikes me that I don’t believe it entirely: my disgust and horror for anti-Semitism itself often bleeds into aesthetic intolerance for anti-Semitic art. But only sometimes; and what’s more, there’s nothing morally virtuous whatsoever in finding the art of evidoers ugly.

This, meanwhile, is an artistic sin that I will never forgive:





Note the utter absence of hummable melody, the ragged, unrhyming English libretto, the clanging, unmelodic orchestral lines, and the pounding insistence on political significance at the complete expense of artistic craft. The last of those faults is perhaps the most grave. Lorenzo da Ponte, when writing the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro, explicitly removed anti-aristocratic references from his source text in order to keep the focus on the art. Let that be a lesson to us and to all our children.


I’m obviously not saying that the Death of Klinghoffer is anywhere near as bad as the death of Klinghoffer. That’s apples to rambutans. In this case, though, my wrath might have some effect in preventing it from happening. Ironically, though perhaps fittingly, the Met has already agreed to replace worldwide broadcasts of Klinghoffer with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is as rollickingly anti-Semitic as the opera gets. Nothing this summer has pleased me more.

[Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that this is wrong: it’s going to be Rossini’s Barber of Seville, not Die Meistersinger. This is even better news: it lets us leave this ugly debate behind, and it’s more melodic to boot.]

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Way Things Are

[Content note: gruesome disease. Self-plagiarism note: this is based on a Facebook post.]

De Rerum Natura, an ancient poem written by Lucretius, is surprisingly popular this decade. (That’s mostly because of the popularity of The Swerve, a fairly good book that Stephen Greenblatt wrote a couple years ago.) The poem is a summary of Lucretius’s Epicurean views, which amount to this: the world is made of atoms, and when the atoms that make us up disperse, our lives and minds come to a firm end. So we should surround ourselves with friends and enjoy our lives while we can, neither hoping for heaven nor fearing the pit of Hell.

What often gets overlooked is how deeply human the poem is. It is in turns elegant, disturbing, and scorchingly beautiful. I’ve seen it make teenagers go wide eyed and silent. Book III, especially, made me ache the first time I read it. Meanwhile, the very end of the poem—describing the horrifying plague of Athens—is one of the most awful things I’ve ever read. Let me translate part of it (VI.1183-1281), and then make a comment on it that I think makes Epicureanism much sadder—and true to life—than it seems.

And many signs of death appeared: the mind tormented by sadness and fear; the heavy brow; the angry, wild face; the throbbing ears full of ringing sounds; the breath either painting or strangely mustered to tremendous effort; the neck glistening with liquid sweat; the thin, saffron-colored chunks of spit, barely thrown from the rough throat by a cough. ... Then if the sufferer survived the [ensuing] flow of dark blood, the sickness would pass into his nerves and limbs, down to his very genitals. And horrified by the threshold of nothingness, many would cut off their own genitals with a knife, and some would cling to life without their hands or feet, and some even tore out their eyes to live a lightless life. This far did the bitter fear of death press them. And some lost their memory of all things, and failed even to recognize themselves. ... And funerals were rushed along, deserted and lonely. And no one knew of any kind of cure; for what filled the mouth of one with living wind, letting him look upon the stars of heaven, was death to the next and brought him to nothingness. 
But among all these things this was the most miserable and heartbreaking: when a man saw that he was tangled in sickness and doomed to die, he would lie down with a sad heart, and staring into the void would lose his life right there. 
And at no time did they stop catching the all-swallowing disease from each other, just like wooly flocks and horny breeds. Thus was funeral heaped upon funeral. Many would flee from their sick relatives into the fields, thirsting for life and fearing death, but neglect would soon punish them with a foul and terrible death; slaughtering them alone and cut off from help. But those who stayed by would catch the disease and die: the kindest, therefore, died all the same. 
... And all the sacred temples of the gods had filled with dead bodies, and the holy places of the heavenly ones were strewn with corpses—the places which the stewards used to fill with guests. For there was no worship left of the gods, nor were the holy ones respected any more: the suffering was too immense for that. Nor was there any burial-rite left in the city, by which the people had always buried their dead: all were confused and tormented, and each one miserably buried his kin in haste. And circumstances and sudden poverty pressed men to horrible things: with an animal cry they would lay their kin on the pyres of strangers and set them alight, fighting often and spilling blood rather than desert the bodies.
THE END. 
Most commentators think that the poem is unfinished, and that Lucretius would have continued here if he had had the chance. If it were really a poem about how to live, it is argued, the plague would be capped with a moral; with an encouragement to us to live a better life. A mere description of brute facts makes no sense as the ending to a poem that is meant to teach us something.

And yet the poem ends here. Against the consensus of scholars, I think there’s a profound and terrible meaning buried in that fact. After writing a book about the randomness of nature, and the possibility of enjoying life without thinking of the gods or the world to come, Lucretius introduces a troubling caveat: the world, precisely given its randomness, more often than not causes us awful suffering. Pleasure is what we strive for, but pain—and ultimately death—is what the mute world has to offer us in the end. There’s no philosophical rationalization of this, because Lucretius is wise enough to know there cannot be.

The end of the poem, then, is Lucretius’s painful admission that his philosophy is not a cure to all human ills. To the contrary: there is some suffering in the world that is simply too painful to be made right. Death is the only remedy in such a case—and as I will explain below, Lucretius’ attitude to that particular remedy is more ambiguous than it seems.

This, if true, represents a break from Lucretius’ intellectual fathers. The first Epicureans talked worshipfully about the tetrapharmakos, the “four-part cure”, a short creed that was a cure to all anxiety:

Ἄφοβον ὁ θεός,
ἀνύποπτον ὁ θάνατος
καὶ τἀγαθὸν μὲν εὔκτητον,
τὸ δὲ δεινὸν εὐεκκαρτέρητον.
Don’t fear god,
don’t worry about death;
what is good is easy to get, and
what is terrible is easy to endure.





It’s the last part of this slogan that I think Lucretius refused to endorse. Most of De Rerum Natura can indeed be read as an elaboration of the creed. We have sections denying the influence of the gods, railing against the fear of death, and lauding the pleasures of the simple life. But there is nothing in the poem to correspond to the last item: what is terrible is easy to endure. (The traditional position is that Lucretius was on the cusp of finishing the tetrapharmakos when circumstances forced him to end his poem with the plague.) So whether we chalk up the omission to Lucretius balking from a balm to suffering or not having time to include it is an open question. Personally speaking, I think the last item of the tetrapharmakos is the only glib part of Epicurus’ doctrine, which Lucretius’s own account of the plague shows vividly. That’s what impels me to believe that Lucretius simply did not believe that suffering is easily borne.

I think I can go farther, though I am far less sure of what I am about to say. Lucretius builds an elegant case against the fear of death earlier in his poem, reasoning that since death is uninterrupted nothingness, it contains no pain and is therefore not to be dreaded. But I think that the conclusion to his poem shows that he was deeply troubled by the prospect of the void. His description of the plague shows a powerful thirst for life in humanity, which reaches its peak when man looks into the abyss. This longing for life, meanwhile, is too tightly woven into human nature to be easily dispelled by Greek philosophy. If he were true to his teacher Epicurus, perhaps, Lucretius would prescribe suicide in such extreme suffering. Nevertheless, as my friend Greg pointed out to me, Lucretius describes losing the will to live as “the most miserable and heartbreaking thing of all.” There is something beautiful about clinging to life: it is a human impulse that Lucretius documents countless times. When it goes away, when a person is faced with nothing better in his life than slipping into the grave, something terrible has happened. The thirst for life is not only natural but proper and justified.

And what’s more, the wonder and delight with which Lucretius describes life itself testifies to his horror of death. A frequent metaphor in the poem for life is “gazing at the heavens”: only those who are alive can experience the thrill of being awake in the cosmos. Descending to the grave from such a state, even if it involves no pain in the end, is at best an awful shame. It might be better than living in extreme pain, but in such circumstances it is only preferable for lack of a better alternative.

The main question which both of these matters turn on is to what extent Lucretius was willing to break with, or at least modify, classical Epicureanism. The conservative answer is that he was not, which means that the plague narrative must have been meant to conclude with a passage to the effect that “what is terrible is easy to endure,” and that the plague-stricken should have never clung to their own lives. I think this answer is wrong-headed, both as a textual matter and as a question of my own beliefs. Death to Lucretius is awful and pain is worse.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Repent! Repent!

Happy New Year! As I write this, millions of red deliciouses are shivering in New York fridges, awaiting their ritual sacrifice and anointment with honey. My grandmother has bought an entire dead cow from the butcher. My mother’s aleph-shaped challah is out of the oven.

This holiday fills me with savage joy. And that’s entirely due to my family’s tradition—which goes back to the seventeenth century—of refusing to take it seriously in the slightest. It’s a holiday of trying on new ties, standing on tiptoes to look taller in the family photo, and plunging at two o’clock into the all-forgiving embrace of a couch. It’s a holiday when my grandfather used to solemnly pronounce the puns in the prayerbook to a giggling table. Any talk of sin or divine judgment is jarringly out of place.

This all stems from a tradition of looking at piety with a owl’s raised eyebrow. To us, spiritual musings  or minutely, kabbalistically calibrated prayers should never get in the way of the real fun of Judaism—the whispering in the pews, the guffawing at the ludicrous sections of the haggadah, the bottomless krater of squishy, gritty haroseth.

Fig. 1.

What would it mean to take the holiday seriously? One might start with the the theme provided by the Bible’s earliest commentators: judgment. The judgment that the Bible describes is much more radical than anything you could gather by observing a standard rosh hashanah service at modern synagogue of any denomination.

Let me give a quick sketch: It’s September 25th, 314 BC. A priest stands up in front of the massed Israelite crowd with a gold-encrusted trumpet. He blows it fiercely, and is accompanied by the clang of bellowing silver trumpets. Stringed instruments, meanwhile, produce an unearthly tone. As the priests intone songs of the immensity of God—the ancient equivalent of Dies Iræ—black smoke billows from the altar and floats to heaven. The smell of roasting flesh fills the air, and blood pours down the steps of the temple.

Ten days later, the community reassembles, this time in deep, self-imposed suffering. They have tortured themselves in utter, abject submission to the majesty of God. Now the High Priest stands up, amid the same ecstatic fanfare, and pronounces the sacred, forbidden name of God. The crowd throws itself to the ground in humility.

This is what it means to repent. One must be completely crushed by the immensity of the divine—and the whole person, not just his blemishes, is reduced to dust under the vast vault of the sky. Then the religious man comes to understand his real place in the cosmos. Another year, inevitably, will pass, and his soul will puff up again with pride. That’s why repentance is annual—human beings are so inherently proud that they must be regularly crushed into the dust to restore them to their proper place.

This kind of repentance has nothing to do with minor improvements. It has nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions to be slightly kinder this year. (Whether or not that kind of self-development works is besides the point.) It has everything to do with an emotional and spiritual feeling of being reduced to nothingness, and to crawl out of the refiner’s fire in trembling fear of God.

I have only ever found a really, delightfully terrible service in one place—paradoxically, the synagogue where I grew up. When the shofar blower goes up onto the tebah, he pulls a white tallit over his head and intones a scary poem in frightening, ghostly tones. Then he sounds his horn. When I was a kid, I didn’t think it was a human being blowing the shofar, but a demonic angel. There’s also a choir out of sight in a loft, which I thought until a very late age (21) was the thundering voice of God.

But failing terribleness, failing an experience that violently crushes us into the ground, the next best experience on the New Year has nothing to do with petty moralism: it’s unadulterated, ungodly mirth. Do I think we should drop the business of tinkering with ourselves? No way! It’s too much fun to give up. But I’ll save that for December 31st; for now, I’ll salivate over my brisket, and shiver when I go to synagogue.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Milton the ABD

The UChicago library during finals week is a sorry place. Dozens of sleepy undergrads sit hunched in their chairs in front of their laptops, surrounded by nests of books. Among them are the grad students, who get more sleep, but are so weary of the world that they can barely muster the willpower to drag their hands across their keyboards. The fluorescent lights make it impossible to to tell that it's 4:00 AM. One econ major has a sign propped up at his desk advertising $1 caffeine shots, which are solutions of NoDoz® in paper cups. One table over, a senior sobs into her cellphone.

This is awful. But what's so awful about it? Not that these people are working too hard: ask any medical resident what she thinks of an undergraduate's workload and she'll scoff.

What's so galling is that they're working at all. Because reading, thinking, and writing can be a delight. In fact, it can be more than that: it can bring new worlds before our eyes. But I'm going to focus now on pleasure, because academic work stands condemned on the sole grounds that it ruins our fun.

The most efficient humanities factory in America.
There's nothing like a walk in the woods. Specifically, with a friend to talk to about Melville as you wander up an alpine valley to a rocky mountaintop. That's the real home of literature—embedded in a friendship, and as a delight to the mind. In that context, literature is the sweetest, most intoxicating thing on earth. But even when you're alone, a book can be human company in itself. G. K. Chesterton has kept me company through many a sleepless night. Letters, says Cicero, "feed our youth, sweeten our old age, crown our good fortune, give comfort and refuge in our trouble, and delight us at home and outside. They lie awake with us, they wander with us, and dwell with us in the countryside."

They are the crown, meanwhile, of a life that's already awake to the world. Moby Dick makes the Ocean an unsettling symbol of lurking evil. Thoreau turns a Massachusetts forest into a temple of a free American religion. Euripides' Bacchae gives a divine meaning to the exhilarating abyss of wine. But the average Chicago undergrad hasn't seen the ocean in months. He hasn't been in a forest since he was ten, and he certainly hasn't had any wine this week. He spends his days and nights buried in JSTOR pdfs that correspond to nothing remotely like his uncomfortable existence in the library.

He doesn't get to walk in the mountains, and he doesn't have too many close friends. He sits down in the silent B-level, and pretends to write until three in the morning on Objects and Crowds in Dickens' Little Dorrit. Faust turned to Mephistopheles when he had a white beard, after exhausting all the pleasures of life and literature. A modern reader could be excused for summoning him at age twenty.

The product of Ephesus University's supervised writing workshop.

Whose fault? Whose but his own? A standard undergraduate program is a particularly bad place to live the life of the mind, but so is a parking garage, and you don't see young people willingly spending four years breathing car exhaust. There's no moral requirement to do work in the humanities, and no one is keeping us where we are.

And given the academy's treatment of letters, it's far better, though maybe not good, to throw off the yoke of work and find a cabin in the woods with nothing but a library and a blank notebook. Above all, letters should have nothing to do with work. Thoreau is the first man who comes to mind when we think of a life lived this way, but that's only because he was the last to do it. It's in fact a very recent development that our poets write poetry to forge their way in the world. George Eliot never had a humiliating interview with a creative-writing department's career advisor. (She never went to college, for that matter, putting her in such uneducated company as Goethe, Sophocles, and Chaucer.)

A caveat: I don't mean that we should stop doing scholarship; that we should stop spending time in libraries and writing articles. I am submitting, though, that we should write those articles if we have something to say; or, failing that, if we enjoy it. Lorenzo Valla used careful philology to condemn the Donation of Constantine, because he thought it was a forgery. And the modern scholar sits for seven years in front of his dissertation, because without writing something he won't get the lectureship he wants in Wichita.

Nor am I saying that there's anything morally wrong with not enjoying yourself as a scholar. But there's also nothing morally wrong with drinking tortoise urine.

And finally, I'm not saying either that there's anything morally wrong with work, or with a scholar doing it. To the contrary! There's no reason why a flight attendant can't read Milton, or a nurse teach himself Akkadian. The problem only emerges when Akkadian itself becomes work rather than serious play. The concept of amateur scholarship is utterly foreign to our sensibilities, but it's all scholarship was until the last couple centuries. It's a strikingly narrow view, and historically very strange, that the only people metaphysically allowed to do serious work in the humanities spend their entire existences in a brutalist university library.

The point is that countless men and women, throughout history and regardless of their income, have lived lives that were rendered at once meaningful and incredibly pleasurable by the literature that they were immersed in. And that the modern university, simply by being an enormous corporate institution, tends to have priorities other than pure enjoyment. You object: a university program is nothing like the intellectual life of the past, but it's the form that modern intellectualism has, take it or leave it. And I say: lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

The Woods and the Waters

I just got back from one of the most grueling experiences of my life: I hiked the Great Range in the Adirondacks, making a trek across half a dozen of the tallest mountains in New York State. The feat has been added to my ledger of accomplishments, which will be read aloud on the Last Day when my soul is weighed on the Scales of Adventurousness.

On a chilly evening, my companion and I showed up at the trailhead about an hour before sunset. We began hiking into the woods, and it wasn’t long before we were walking in complete darkness. All we could see was the ground immediately ahead of us, lit up by a tiny headlamp. Around us were dark woods for miles. As we climbed higher, the towering pines grew withered and bent.

“I’m glad I’m an atheist,” my companion remarked eventually. “If I believed in demons and witches, this would be way too scary.” 

“Ha!” I answered. “A Medieval man would have never left town.” 

A little later, we camped on a mountaintop. We had a clear sky overhead, and looked out onto a sea of clouds. A few mountain peaks poked above the surface of the clouds, making little islands off in the distance. The stars were out, and a dark red moon was rising.

The next morning, we woke up to overcast skies and a damp mist. Packing up our tent, we continued along the ridge. The cloud surrounded us by noon, and the early-morning mist turned gradually into a steady rainshower as the day wore on. Soon, we found ourselves on a wind-whipped alpine tundra, surrounded by rocky cliffs. As if to mock us, the fierce wind and rain turned icy, pelting us with sharp hailstones. We took shelter behind a slab of rock and, soaked to the bone, decided that the safest plan was to climb down the cliff to get below the treeline.

All hardships defy.

And as I inched my way down, telling myself in my best counselor-voice to stay calm and keep moving, I had a song stuck in my head:

He’s got the woods and the waters in his hands;
He’s got the woods and the waters in his hands; 
He’s got the sun and the moon right in his hands;
He’s got the whole world in his hands.

But there was nothing in the world I believed less at that moment. I was a tiny ape crawling on a barren slope, shivering and exposed. I had enemies massed against me, but they were neither evil nor clever. They were the indifferent rain and the tuneless wind. And if there was anyone who could protect me from them, he certainly wasn’t with me on that peak.

And it struck me that the attitude I’d had the previous night was woefully misguided. We paid a price for renouncing spirits in the woods. The empty woods at night are safe, because they hide neither lurking witches nor real dangers. But the spiritless mountain peak is another thing entirely. There is no God up there to protect us from the vultures—the real, drab vultures—that plunge their beaks into our side.

And that’s something I feel acutely even when I’m not on a mountain. There is no such thing as cosmic malice. There is no Satan to renounce. But there is still death: a mute and unembodied shadow. We curse it, but it makes no conceptual sense that it could be listening. We might as well talk to the Krebs Cycle.

As I’ve said too often, it wasn’t always so in human souls. Just a couple centuries ago, evil was a tempter to be scoffed at, and ultimately to be defeated. And if you could escape the hungry wolf, you could take shelter in the shepherd’s arms. So after killing our ancient foes—the spawn of superstition—we’re left with a last enemy far gloomier, and with no comforter to help us.

So it’s not just that modernity is boring. It’s also much more frightening than any children’s book. And the fear that accompanies it isn’t the picturesque, imaginative evil that the Medievals were so thrilled to be surrounded by. It’s a barren, gray nothingness that eats away at us. One can’t write poetry about it. Maybe it can give birth to a fine work of philosophy or a rollicking Swedish movie.



I want to close with a literary point. When I was little, there were two books that kept me awake in terror.

The first was Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, a book about a man who spends all eight nights of Hanukkah in a haunted hilltop synagogue. He’s visited nightly by increasingly hideous demons, and he outwits all of them with a dollop of homespun Yiddish wisdom. On the eighth night, the King of the Goblins shows up. The following picture is burned into the soul of any Jewish kid born in the 1990s:

IT IS I, THE KING OF THE GOBLINS!
At this point, my five year old self would shrivel in fear. But Herschel, after making the right prayers to the Almighty, proceeds to trick the Goblin King into lighting the menorah for him. Hanukkah is saved, and rejoicing ensues in the shtetl at the bottom of the hill.

The second book was far scarier. It preoccupied me much more. And though by now I’ve grown quite fond of Herschel and his goblins (who, on a second reading, are pretty friendly after all), I’m just as terrified now as I was as a toddler by Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Harold has nothing in his world. Literally nothing: he stands against a blank background. Imaginative and full of energy, he creates scenery with his trusty crayon, sketching out a universe for himself to inhabit. The sea is just a swish of his crayon, and so is the sun. He proceeds to have a thrilling adventure. But at the end of the book, as Harold crawls into a bed of his own drawing, an awful truth dawns on the careful reader: Harold doesn’t have a friend in the world. There are no objective dangers facing him, but there is no great comfort either. He lives in a landscape of his own imaginings; there is no one beyond his world to reach out a hand and keep him company. So his imagination is enough to conquer boredom, and he certainly gives no place to ancient customs that would oppress his creativity. What his imagination can’t do is bring him home from the lonely and dark modern sea. All is vanity; a meaningless tapestry of purple wax.

When I was five, this translated to “where is his mom? doesn’t he want to see his mom?“ And come to think of it, that’s a far more cogent statement of what’s wrong with the book—and with modernity—than anything else I’ve been able to say in this post.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Things I’ve Learned about the Problem of Evil

I spent two weeks this summer in the archives of Swansea University, a tiny provincial college in the western corner of South Wales. I had a feeling of loss there that I’ve only had before in the Roman Forum. Here was the cradle of one of the most powerful ways of thinking ever devised, and there was nothing left of it but boxes of notes in the library. The philosophy department has been disbanded, and its two most prominent members are buried—both alone—across the bay.


Most importantly to me, the Swansea philosophers meditated on an ancient religious question: If God is both loving and powerful, why is there evil in the world? Why does it fall so heavily on innocent people? My thinking—summarized here— rests on their thinking, especially that of of D. Z. Phillips.

Religious apologists tend to founder on this problem. But it’s important to stress that the difficulties involved are not primarily logical: at a certain point, logic will not force our hand in any one direction. Thinking through evil logically, which this post meagerly tries to do, can help us clarify the issues involved, but it cannot ultimately tell us that we must make peace with heaven—and just as little should it necessarily throw us into revolt.

The difficulty, rather, is spiritual. It’s hard to imagine a religion accounting for suffering; rendering it understandable, without becoming callous to the real human experience. It’s one thing to moan, like Hector, and fatalistically accept that unturning Fate will do her will. It’s another to claim that God has the whole world in his hands, to love him, to rest in his bosom, and to have a calm soul amid sickness and death.

So I make only one, non-logical demand of religious responses to evil: that they face the unbearable suffering that the world consists of. For the world is, in fact, evil, and that’s the starting point of any humane discussion of this question. Auschwitz is a horrible reminder of this. It still sits on the face of the earth, cynically laughing at anyone who praises God’s goodness.

I will give two examples of what I consider inappropriate attitudes. One common response, rooted in the Old Testament, is to say: “what do you expect? God promises evil to sinning men!” This approach doesn’t violate logic, but it’s repugnant enough to our concept of God that it’s not a real option. If God were really one to kill infants for the sins of the community, it would be an awful religion that continued to worship him. His only qualification over Satan would be his immense power over our lives. I would accept eternal suffering before I showed my face to him.

The second is to attempt to construct some framework in which God is justified for filling his world with awful misery. Perhaps the world is simply a training camp for our souls: the hardships that come our way are meant to strengthen our moral fiber. That’s why we get sick, for instance: so that we can appreciate our health in an attitude of humility. Or: if we didn’t have free will to do evil, we couldn’t enjoy any of the credit for doing good. Or: if there were no evil in the world, we wouldn’t know what goodness meant. Here’s what Rush Rhees has to say to that:
What is the value of suffering like that in King Lear
What was the value of the degradation that belonged to the sufferings in the concentration camps? When, for instance, a man is going to pieces morally and knows it. ‘Joyful acceptance’???. . . If I could put my questions more strongly, I should do so. For I think that religious apologists have generally been irresponsible and frivolous in writing about this matter. 
In other words, the evils of the world are so gross that any God in charge, even if he had an abstract plan of justice in his mind, would be sadly, laughably off track. Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov couldn’t accept the justice of God if it involved the suffering of a single child. We, meanwhile, have to live in a world where children are slaughtered daily for being the wrong kind of Muslim; where a decent, loving 40-year-old gets killed in car accident, leaving her young children to grow up as orphans.

At a certain point, atheism begins to seem like the only response that preserves some kind of respect for humanity. Either atheism, or a Promethean hatred of heaven.

Drop your bucket into this well, and you’ll draw up gleaming wisdom.

I. Christ

But modern Christianity—Christianity in particular—has an answer to the problem that strikes me as one of the only adequate religious attitudes to evil. Tolstoy was the first modern to think this way, but he is not alone. It begins with this insight: yes, the world is evil, but Christ insists that my kingdom is not of this world. God will not remove pain from this world, because it does not belong to him. God, in fact, when tempted by Satan, explicitly let Satan have all of it.

As if to show how futile all trust in the world is, Christ came to earth and suffered just as much as we do: both physically and spiritually. (Spiritually? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?) Meanwhile, the onlookers at the foot of the cross mocked Jesus: “He trusted in God; let Him deliver him now, if He will have him: for he said, I am the son of God.” They suffered from the same confusion as many a modern believer: they did not understand that the fate of God’s children is to suffer, not to be rescued by the world.

Now, a Christian of this type believes that God suffered to show us divine love. The Sermon on the Mount, not any mystical eternal life, was the full delivery of this love: he showed a way for human beings to reach beyond their depraved selfishness and live instead for the sake of God. Not for any reward; earthly or otherwise, but for love itself. Loving other people is not a prelude to inheriting the Kingdom of God. Practicing love is what it means to live in the Kingdom.

So we suffer; sometimes horribly. But to a certain Christian, that does not cut us off in the least from God’s love. As long as we love each other, we can live beyond the awful world.

This picture of religious belief, as I fully realize, seems to depend on nothing. I am amazed that there are people who live by it. They exist, nevertheless. Martin Luther King, if I understand him, was one: he fully understood that a transcendent God is absent from human affairs, but he had unshakeable faith in the power of human love to do God’s will.

II. Job

Judaism, which has none of Christianity’s eschatology, has no answer. It had no answer when Babylon dragged the Jews into captivity, it had no answer when God crushed Job because of a stupid wager, and it had no answer after Auschwitz.

What it does have—haltingly and intermittently—is reverence for heaven. There were survivors of Auschwitz, as well as many who were murdered there, who were able to love God until the end of their lives. This seems to make no sense. But just as certainly as there are Christians who can live in love, there are Jews who can bend their knees. This is the man in Isaiah 53. He lives with God—the arm of God has been revealed to him—and he lives a stale life of meaningless pain.

One of the strangest texts I’ve read is the last chapter of Job. After Job suffers unimaginable torment, and then spends days meditating on his fate, God finally appears to berate him. How could Job dare to presume that he could know God’s ways, let alone judge Him? And here is Job’s answer:
I know that Thou canst do every thing, and that no purpose can be withholden from Thee.
Who is this that hideth counsel without knowledge?
Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.
Hear, I beseech Thee, and I will speak; I will demand of Thee, and declare Thou unto me.
I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee;
Wherefore I abhor my words, and repent, seeing I am dust and ashes.
This is even more perplexing than God’s boast in the foregoing chapters. It expresses a kind of piety whose existence is a riddle. But it does exist, even today. It’s not mine.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Democracy of Democracies, All is Democracy

Ross Douthat had a thoughtful column last weekend. Let me give a liberal excerpt:
The history of liberal democracy is actually inseparable, as Abram Shulsky writes in The American Interest, from “the constant appearance of counter-ideologies that have arisen in reaction against it.” Whether reactionary or utopian, secular or religious, these counter-ideologies are as modern, in their way, as the Emancipation Proclamation or the United Nations Charter. Both illiberal nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are younger than the United States. They aren’t just throwbacks or relics; they’re counterforces that liberal modernity seems to inevitably conjure up.

So writing off the West’s challengers as purely atavistic is a good way to misunderstand them — and to miss the persistent features of human nature that they exploit, appeal to and reward.

These features include not only the lust for violence and the will to power, but also a yearning for a transcendent cause that liberal societies can have trouble satisfying.

As The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty argues, discussing the Europeans who have joined up with ISIS, liberalism’s “all-too-human order” — which privileges the sober, industrious and slightly boring — is simply “not for everyone.” Nor, most likely, will it ever be: in this century, the 22nd, or beyond.
The first thing to establish here is a definition: Douthat is not just talking here about voting. Democracy, instead, is to be understood as the society in which these elections have their life: that is, a society with free speech, a press, strong checks on the government, and religious diversity. As Douthat points out, this democratic society—together with the citizens it produces—is, for all its pleasures, rudderless. Now, that’s not a fixable flaw: part of the point of liberalism is that the polity enforces no ideals on its citizens; so if a society had a rudder, it wouldn’t be democratic.

And this is a serious problem, because democracy gives no shape to our lives. It forces us to make our own meaning out of the fog of life, and that’s a yoke that’s too heavy for all but the strongest souls. The difficulties of living in, say, Medieval Europe were enormous, but at least people knew what was worth living and dying for. Even though you and your neighbor were dying of the plague; even though you lived in horrible poverty; if you followed God’s rules as promulgated by the church, you were living with the comforting truth that heaven kept a close watch on you—and was on your side. You had a loving father in Heaven, and needed only listen to his light instructions.

And now we’re sitting on a rock hurtling through space; and not only have we given up trying to figure out what heaven wants, we’ve stopped believing in heaven altogether. We have no keen sense of purpose, beyond the vague sense that every person must be free to pursue his own purposes. And so we live in democracies.

I cede the floor to Plato. This is Socrates talking in Book VIII of the Republic (my translation):
“And,” I said, “[the democratic man] spends his life by the day, humoring whatever desire lands on him; sometimes getting drunk and sometimes being charmed by the flute, sometimes drinking water and sometimes losing weight, sometimes exercising, sometimes being lazy and throwing off his cares, sometimes whittling away time at philosophy. He often practices politics, leaping up to say and do whatever he chances on: when becomes zealous for military men he is carried away by them; if for profiteers, then he rushes in that direction. And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but, calling his life pleasant and free and happy, he spends it like this to the end.” 
“You have thoroughly described,” said Adeimantus, “the life of the lover of equality.”  
“I certainly think,” I said, “ that he is full of variety and different customs, and that he is beautiful and many-colored—just like the city he lives in. Many men and women would envy his life, for he has the most patterns of cities and characters within him. 
“That is him,” he said. 
“What then? shall we ascribe this man to the democratic regime, and say that he is rightly called democratic?”  
“Let’s do so,” he said. 
I read this passage for the first time when I was a first-year at Chicago, in the bygone, halcyon days of 2011. Plato, it seemed to me, was making a point that undermined the entire world I had grown up in. We democrats, he said, have nothing to live by. We spend our lives sating our intellectual and emotional appetites, and then we die in a breath of wind. There’s plenty of kale and challah, but no meaning on the Upper West Side.

Democracy on a Grecian Urn.
This is an incredibly vexing situation. But here’s the paradox: neither you nor I would like to live a life any different from the one offered us by our democratic regime. Perhaps American Jewish teenagers who join the IDF and Christian converts are exceptions, who revolt against the frivolity and emptiness of our democracy. But most of us stay on the path paved for us by our regime, correctly sensing the danger in leaving the tropical island of Scarsdale. Sitting in my dorm room with The Republic on my lap, I resolved I wouldn’t live a democratic life—but then had trouble taking any other way of living seriously.

In 167 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes attacked and conquered Jerusalem. The response of most Jews was a shrug. Already Greek-speaking, they were eager to give up their weird ancestral practices, which were quickly becoming a burden in the open society of the eastern Mediterranean. They were already laughingstocks for refusing to eat pork. And circumcision was a point of shame: it caused great embarrassment in the gymnasium.

Within a year, as every Jewish child knows, the Maccabees, a tiny sect of radical Jews, started a revolt; smashing idols, murdering Jews who ate pork, and waging a bitter—ultimately successful—war against the Seleucid invaders.

And here’s what every Jewish child doesn’t know: we are the Greek-speaking, whole-penised Jews. The Maccabees stood for everything we despise: intolerance, religious zealotry, violence, theocracy. The Hellenized Jews, on the other hand, were cosmopolitan, modern, and refined; in a word, democrats. Perhaps ironically, Judaism is now the most thoroughly democratized religion in the world. Antiochus lost the battle in the second century, but he has finally triumphed in Westchester and Los Angeles. And for my part, I thoroughly support the commercialism of hanukkah: every time we eat a gross metallic chocolate and gift-wrap Jonathan Haidt’s newest book, we put another stake in the hearts of the terrorist Maccabees.

Despite their odiousness, it’s extremely easy to see what motivated the Maccabees. I suggest we apply the same insight to our modern enemies who want to smash democratic society; understanding their distress while still doing everything in our power to thwart them. We shouldn’t expect them to change their minds: we should expect to defeat them.

In short: we’re leaves in the wind, and that’s a state of ruthless unease—sometimes, of agony. But God help us from those who would drive us down into the firm, unmoving ground.