Friday, November 14, 2014

Crescat Scientia; Vita Evisceretur

This is the product of a less-than-gripping class this afternoon. Feel free to skip to the translation at the bottom!

“Vinctum vicit Prometheum
neque Iovis iracundi
aquila, nec alter deûm.
Quinam ergo? ree, veni!”

“Egomet ad nil reduxi
genus omni spe quod caret;
lumen numinumqu’ exstinxi
atra Ker ut vos regnaret.

“Dii, mores, iam vixisti—
dies meus nunc elucet!
Hasta Abrahæ defixi
deum, muscis qui iam vescet.

“Nihil nefas nunc putare
lege æthræ abrogata;
nefas vero est sperare,
æthra ipsa vacuata.

“ ‘Qui, nunc quæres, ex ampulla
me exemet?’ Vosmet ipsi!
VERITAS sum: alba, casta;
veritas quam invenisti!”

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities.
And the translation:

“It was not the eagle of angry Jove, nor any other god, who vanquished the human race. Who then? Come forward, whoever did this!”

“It was I who overthrew humanity, the race that lacks all hope. I quenched as well the light of the gods, so that dark Death might rule over you. O gods, O morality, your day has come and gone, but mine now shines brilliantly! I slew the God of Abraham with my spear, and he is food now for the flies. And for you, nothing is forbidden to think, now that heaven’s law is gone. But heaven is empty, so it is forbidden to hope. ‘Who,’ you’ll ask, ‘freed me from my prison?’ It was you yourselves! I am Truth, pure, sacred truth, that you yourselves uncovered!”

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Beyond Pessimism: Life as a Curse on Death

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 8:14–15

I am a pessimist. Not in the sense that I doubt my ability to make things better; not in the sense that I think that everything will be awful all the time. In fact, it’s just the opposite, as I’ll get to later on. But I’m a pessimist all the same, and this post is an attempt to explain what I mean. In short, there is one assumption that’s shared by every philosophy, every form of religion, every outlook on the world that I can take seriously: the world is an awful, sordid, painful place.

First, it’s because human beings devour each other alive, often with impunity. The hideously evil Jean-Bédel Bokassa died surrounded by his enormous family after a pleasant and luxurious life; and Mala Zitmenbaum, a saint, was sent to be burned alive in a crematorium. Throughout the world, bombs in crowded places regularly kill dozens of innocent people. In the city where I live, thousands of people are shot every year in gang violence. And the Germans tortured and murdered millions of Jews, and the sun rose and set just the same—glorious and indifferent.

Evening in the town of Auschwitz this summer.

But nature is just as evil as human beings, and though there are some who can escape cruelty at the hands of other people, we are all victims of nature’s torments. Dementia is one of these cruelties, robbing the old of their connection to the people whom they love before bringing them to nothing. In America, a large portion of the old die in hospitals or nursing homes; in a fog of confusion, wracked with pain that they can’t understand. (On this point, I recommend this horrifying post by Scott Alexander.) But the world can be even more violent than that: teenagers die suddenly in car accidents. A single tsunami kills hundreds of thousands of people. Cancer cuts people down in their prime. In our deepest suffering, sometimes not even our dignity is spared. And sometimes not even our decency.

The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, nature in her kindness preserves a harmonious balance between the two. This would perhaps ring true if each human life contained pleasure and pain in equal proportion. Now, in many lives there is joy that’s equal to sorrow. But not for everyone. There are people born into the world who are permanently enslaved to suffering, who spend their lives ground down to the earth; whether by painful, debilitating disease, economic hardship, or the ravages of war. There were toddlers who went to the gas chambers, and many who were shot in Polish forests with their whole families. Is there any kind of compensation on earth that could make up for their misery; that could make us say, “yes, the world is cruel sometimes, but fundamentally okay?” As Dostoevsky has Ivan say, even if the world were blissful, and almost all human beings freed from want and suffering, the pain of a single abandoned child would be enough to render the cosmos an evil, cold place.

But let’s assume the very best, and set aside the suffering of the wider world: you live a happy life surrounded by friends, you never go hungry, you get tenure at Harvard, you stay mobile into old age and die at 120 when your heart stops beating in your sleep. You still have to die. You still have to give up everything in your life that gives you meaning and happiness; and wander into the night, cut off from everyone you embraced while you were on earth. “The loneliness of death seems like it’ll be terrible,” goes the old consolation, “but you won’t feel it, because you won’t feel anything.” True, of course. But it’s an awful thing to contemplate now, when we can feel. “Death is just a natural part of life,” say the other comforters of Job, “and it’s one of the rhythms of nature.” But if that’s true, the natural order can go to hell; it’s evil and cruel that it has to be this way.

It might seem odd to call nature evil, since that’s a category that we usually apply only to conscious, rational actors. But the very non-personification of nature is what makes it so sinister. Satan was at least a man that we could talk to: he suffered along with us, and the reason he tempted us was that he resembled us. He could laugh, speak English, embrace us, and betray us. The lonely ocean—whose waves thrash under the sky without consciousness or warmth or purpose—is our modern Devil. Satan has been supplanted by Leviathan, a lifeless god of the sea. Leviathan will stare at us silently before he swallows us. He won’t know that he’s doing it, of course, because he sees and knows nothing.

What now? Once we have this basic pessimistic premise in mind, what do we do?

One response, which I want to touch on only briefly (I’ve gone into more detail here), is the worldview that was set out beautifully by the earliest Christians. My kingdom is not of this world, said Christ, and he meant it. Even God himself was overcome by the evil of the world, and by any human yardstick lived a deeply miserable life, both materially and spiritually. (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?) But the consolation of a Christian is that he doesn’t need to live under the yoke of the world at all: he can step humbly and joyfully into the Kingdom of God. In the first centuries of Christianity, this Kingdom was an everlasting life that believers woke up to to after they died. To some Christians in the twentieth century (led by Tolstoy), it was a state of the soul; a way of living by which human pettiness is drowned in a torrent of love. Regardless of how he interprets his own salvation, though, a Christian can eat the meat of the dead Leviathan on a platter served to him by Christ. He has overcome death and all the suffering of the world.

But I’m a damned soul, and though I’m humble in front of those Christians who can simultaneously hate the world and love God, it’s an experience that has no roots in me.

There is, though, another way of defying Leviathan. It starts with this insight: Just by being born, we’ve escaped briefly from his lake into a starry night. And while we’re here, we can breathe in a gulp of air before we’re forced back under the surface.
Love! O delight of men and the gods, you cause the sea to teem and the earth to bear fruit under the wheeling stars of heaven. By you, Venus, all living things rise up and gaze at the light of the sun.
Our first breath is the wealth of sensory pleasures that we can taste in our lives. A good dinner. A swim in in a glassy pond ringed by burning-red maples. A winter night spent indoors with a cup of hot chocolate and a fire. The thrill of reading a poet who has peered into the holy of holies of your mind. Gaping at the milky way; and lonely moon, whose light shone on Pharaohs and our grandfathers, and who keeps a loon company as she glides on a dark lake. And most sublime of all: Don GiovanniThe Messiah, and The Marriage of Figaro; not to mention Pete Seeger, who came to earth to save us from our loneliness

Next to the delights of the flesh (which I wouldn’t dream of belittling) it’s through love that we can most powerfully deny nothingness and suffering. This holds true for every sense of the word. From a mother embracing a sobbing toddler, to a pair of lovers lying side by side, to Gerasim nursing the dying Ivan as a matter of course, a connection with another soul is our most powerful defense against a cosmos that makes its best efforts to maroon us by ourselves. When we love another person, we can throw open a window onto the stuffy attics of our selfish minds. In another person’s arms, we can briefly escape from time. We can experience, if even just for a second, a glimmer of eternal life. This is the kernel of the most significant thing said at the Symposium:
These are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘What do you people want of one another?’ they would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two—I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?’--there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.
If two souls are welded together, that is, they can escape from the overwhelming loneliness that would otherwise be their fate in death. They can break the iron chain of the kingdom of Hades, and overcome its icy abandonment. Hephaestus can’t, obviously, give this to anyone. But it is in our power, however poorly, to imitate his craftsmanship.

Paolo and Francesca: the only happy souls in Hell.

And finally, even in the absence of pleasure and love, sheer order is often enough to hide us from Leviathan’s blind glare. Keeping kosher, building a house and sweeping the floor clean, shaving, sitting down to tea at 4:00, having a concept of tea and of 4:00. These are things that we take for granted—but we shouldn’t, because the firm human frames that we build our lives on have no analogue in empty space or the deep ocean.

These three experiences are the foundations of a new Epicureanism. I can hate the world with a bitter passion, and I can hate death even more violently. But I can still love life, and I can still look with wonder at the light of the sun. None of this means we can overcome Leviathan. This kind of life-loving won’t let us escape from him, and just as little will it lighten the burden of earthly suffering that he imposes on us. But this is a gospel in its most basic sense of good news. For now, even if just for now, we can turn our backs on the lake. We can make our lives a cry against suffering and a curse on unbeing.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Stifled Love: A Waltz from Horace

This is the next installment in my series of translations. My goal is to keep the meter of the original, and hopefully some of the feeling. [Edited 18 May 2015]

Ode III.13: To Neobulë.

It’s the fate of wretched maidens to suppress their loving yearnings,
and they dare not drown their sorrows with a sweet wine
in their terror of the fierce tongue of their uncle.

Aphrodite’s flying boy has snatched away your wicker basket,
and your yarn—ah, Neobulë, what has done this?
It’s the splendor of fair Hebrus Liparæus.

Him, who bathes his oiled shoulders in the waters of the Tiber,
who rides better than Bellerophon the horseman;
neither outrun nor outwrestled by his rivals.

Just the same in open meadows, when the frightened herd is fleeing,
he can deftly spear a stag; and just as nimbly
draws a boar out from within the knitted branches.

Miserarum est neque amori dare ludum neque dulci
mala vino lavere aut exanimari
metuentes patruæ verbera linguæ.

Tibi qualum Cythereæ puer ales, tibi telas
operosæque Minervæ studium aufert,
Neobule, Liparæi nitor Hebri,

simul unctos Tiberinis umeros lavit in undis,
eques ipso melior Bellerophonte,
neque pugno neque segni pede victus;

catus idem per apertum fugientis agitato
grege cervos jaculari et celer arto
latitantem fruticeto excipere aprum.