Saturday, December 31, 2016

It’s Perfectly Natural

Montaigne remarked in his essay on a monstrous child (II.30) that nothing produced by nature can be reproached for being unnatural.
Nous appelons contre nature, ce qui advient contre le coustume: rien n’est que selon elle, quel qu’il soit. 
We call unaccustomed events unnatural: but everything follows nature, no matter what it is.
He got the idea from Cicero, who had said something similar about a pregnant mule (De divinatione II.22). The thought is: if we’re horrified by something unusual or barbaric, the one thing we can’t accuse it of is being unnatural. If we think at first that it’s outside of nature, the only conclusion to draw is that nature is wider than we thought.

The logic is tautological as it’s unshakeable, and it’s not even worth pointing out that Montaigne’s argument proves exactly nothing. It’s interesting, though, to ask what impels a man’s mind to formulate a thought like this. We certainly see this particular observation everywhere, whether in direct quotation (e.g. Gide’s Corydon) or in spirit.

It is deployed most of all as an excuse for human folly: It’s not difficult to list behaviors that get defended on the sole grounds that they’re just another part of nature. Sodomy is the classic, but also think of adultery, nudity, masturbation, anger, gluttony, laziness, squid-eating, and zoophilia. Find me a guilt-ridden teenager, and I’ll find you the pamphlet that tells him it’s perfectly natural to feel or do what he does.

I think that this is usually an attempt to overcome shame of one kind or another. More specifically, by appealing to nature, we relieve ourselves of responsibility for our character. We don’t have to say, “such and such are my reasons for doing this”; or even “I am like this but I wish I were like that.” We can simply say, “I am what I am,” and dismiss gnawing guilt in an instant.

If your behavior is natural, then against all the glares and mutterings of a solemn priest, you have the warm approval of Mother Nature. She asks for nothing and allows everything. Her permission is an indulgentia plenaria perpetua offered for free to all souls that ask for it. If a child hits a baseball into a car window, he expects to be scolded and forced to pay for it by his mother. Natural man has a far more lenient parent.

It is worth remembering, of course, that merely being a child of nature is not enough to redeem a creature from its own wickedness – or even from its ugliness. That's because being natural puts you in dodgy company. Nature is more tolerant than any liberal New Yorker. She takes everyone under her roof, whether they’re men, women, blacks, whites, gays, cattle-rustlers, murderers, bears, cuttlefish, or Londoners. Robert Mugabe is as much her son as Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Viva, viva la libertà!
Nature can give birth to human beings and that’s it. Therefore, the most we can ever say about her is “she exists”. She cannot condemn her children, and because of that she cannot exonerate them either.

That means that if you want to press a moral case, you’d better find better grounds for it than nature. If you want to argue that polygamy or homosexuality is fine because it’s a part of human natural history, then you should be prepared to endorse gouging out an infidel’s tongue on the same grounds. By the same token, if you defend your own actions by saying “it’s only natural”, you share a dock with Jack the Ripper. In order to show your own innocence, you have to get there by proving his as well.

Good for Montaigne for pointing out that everything is natural. Pressed to its logical conclusion, his observation means only that ‘natural vs. unnatural’ is useless as a measure of behavior, of beauty or of character. Being natural is a participation medal for existing; it confers no relative justification.

Snake eating a living frog
— Nature is Scary (@NatureisScary) 6 December 2016

 ^ (It’s perfectly natural. Remember, you are the snake, not the frog.)

We, not nature, are the only ones who can pass judgment on human beings. Morality means imposing humane standards on our lives, regardless of what nature has made those lives into. It’s childish to give up responsibility for making these judgments. If we resign our authority to nature, then we’re shrugging our shoulders in indifference to gruesome sin. Rape and torture, after all, are as natural to humankind as sneezing.

So good, we’ve put away the argument from nature. Silly as it was, it was only ever devised because of a real psychological problem. If we can’t banish shame by calling our behaviour natural, we need to find some other way of coming to terms with it. Some people feel a tolerable amount of shame, and some feel it intensely, but one way or another every human life is bitten by little worms of secret guilt. Putting aside the casuistic trick of appealing to nature, there are three ways to cure ourselves.

Shamelessness is one way. That amounts to completely overturning the standards of behavior that you had previously been bound to.

This is the secret to “Christian freedom.” When God shows Peter a squirming bag of unclean animals, Peter refuses to eat them, protesting that nothing unclean hath at any time entered my mouth. God replies: What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. In other words, a Christian can gaily flout the bonds of old morality without trembling for fear that he’s crossed the will of heaven. A glance at the medieval literature (say, the Song of Roland) reveals how far this principle was carried by bloodthirsty Christians eager to glut their swords on unbelievers.

Shamelessness can take non-religious forms too. To Nietzsche, by uncovering the historical origins of morality, you can overcome the sickening shame that would usually go along with rejecting Christian pity. At the end of Lolita, for another example, Humbert decides that after committing murder and bringing a girl to ruin – well, screw it, why not drive on the left side of the road?

The risk of this approach is obvious. Shamelessness makes you deaf to reproof, which is fine if you’re being reproved by stupid people, but dangerous if, like most people, you’re susceptible to be seduced into evil under the guise of freedom.

Stupefaction is the other usual method of quenching conscience. Drink yourself blind, and what few shameful memories you retain will be covered over in the warm waters of friendly feeling. Tolstoy pointed this out in an essay of 1890. “Why do men stupefy themselves?” he asked. The answer:
People drink and smoke, not casually, not from dullness, not to cheer themselves up, not because it is pleasant, but in order to drown the voice of conscience in themselves. … Life does not accord with conscience, so conscience is made to bend to life.
This might not be exactly right – sin might not, in fact, be why most people drink. It is nevertheless one good reason. Stupefaction is a potent antidote to shame, so it's natural for the shame-eaten to distill it purer and purer until the spirit is completely extracted. Death, as Judas learned, is this perfect form: it is a final escape from remorse.

Apart from shamelessness and self-destruction, there is only one safe way to be freed from shame. It is to do nothing that is shameful. Then you won’t need sly tricks of logic, nor a leap into the abyss, nor even strong drink to let yourself loose.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Holocaustum sempiternum

Abraham’s Isaac was a son untainted,
Born to no handmaid of the Nile’s floodland;
Nor to Keturah, but to free and laughing
          Sarah, our mother.

Strange that the worker of the constellations,
And of the snowfall, and immense Behemoth
Cared for so little as this son of men;
          Howbeit the Great Lord

Stirred for one straighter than archaic Enoch
Whom he’d exempted from Sheol’s abysses;
Tenderer even than the one he took from
          Fountainous Ida.

So said his herald to our righteous father,
‘Get thee to Moriah, and ascend the mountain
Which I will show thee; there enkindle Isaac’s
          Flesh on an altar.’

Then he was quiet, and our pious father
Groaned to be sundered from the soul he’d fostered,
Naught less exulting to obey his likeness
          Over the waters.

Abraham stayed not, but in early morning
Burdened his asses and a pair of slave-boys.
These three with Isaac sought the north and entered
          Moriah’s border.

Now on a mountain was an emerald fire
Lighting the desert. To his slaves our father:
‘See ye not God there?’ and the slaves responded:
          ‘No, we see nothing’.

‘Stay then, O blind ones: we alone will meet him.
God is afire to his dearest children;
Naught to the nations, who will never see him.
          Stay with the asses!

Now unencumbered they went up the mountain
Eagerly treading in the sight of angels.
‘Father’ – now Isaac – ‘here are flame and faggots;
          Where is the victim?’

‘God will provide it’, said his loving father.
Once at the summit they prepared the slaughter;
Abraham offering and his son the offered
          Host on the altar.

Seraphim wheeled now to the darkest heaven:
Sathan the dawn-star, and the never-westing
Septem Triones, and the Twins who glimmer
          Over the Hunter,

Kesil, and Kimah, and the Mazzaroth all
Pleading in horror for the life of Isaac
Vainly, till gleaming in a subtle hauberk
          Michael the princeling

Entered this darkness that was veined with amber.
‘Lord’ – he said – ‘swar’st thou to thy servant Abram
Erst that his firstborn was refused the birthright,
          But to restore it?

‘Or wilt thou suffer yet the moon to glimmer?
(Such even Isaac, as the sun his father.)
Think, is there nothing that thy soul desireth
          More than the stripling?’

Long was the silence, and the amber lightnings
Ceased for the while, as the fearsome being 
Pondered in darkness on his own devices.
          Then came an answer:

‘Wonderful creature, I relent; but mark! I
Smother mine ardour for no little pittance.
Yes, there is something that I covet sorer:
          Israel for Isaac!

‘Who, when he cometh, will contemn the gay hunt,
Guarding my statutes in his tabernacles.
Fondly he’ll love me, while the desert jackals
          Tear at his clothing.

‘Yea, though he hide him in the towns of Japheth,
Or in the deserts of his hairy brother,
Ever I’ll savour his appalling torment,
          Due to me fairly;

‘Though for what reason I had rather Israel
Ask not too keenly, for mine holy will is
Hidden in darkness. O thou loyal Michael,
          Slaughter this victim!

‘Sodden thine iron on his wasted members;
Ruin his wisdom with a thousand scruples;
Scourge him with fire, till I send Elias
          With an Anointed.’


‘Abraham, Abraham,’ now the sky resounded –
‘Here I am’, answered our unerring father.
‘Stop, and thy seed will be as all the stars thou
          Seest in heaven.’

Then there was silence, and our father yielding
Drew back the dagger; now descried a he-goat
Twined in a thorn-bush. Unensnaring Isaac
          Abraham slew it,

Darkly though guessing that the holocaust was
Bond for a later and a dearer victim.
Deep in this musing, with his living son he
          Went from the mountain.

Now in the desert was a rolling horn-blast
Like to a Levite’s up on Zion’s ramparts
Watching the west sky, when at last he trills his
          Hail to the New Moon –

So did it quaver; and the fires of heaven
Dimmed, for all nature and the the starry demons
Trembled to wonder what the unborn Israel
          Owed to his master.

Little they knew it, how the bleating flocks of
Jacob would smoulder on the nations’ altars,
Doomed to be incense to a god who loved them. –
          Doubt not! he loved them

Fond as a shepherd loves his little charges.
Say not then rashly, O ye scattered Hebrews,
That he hath spurned you, for he loves the race that
          Keeps his commandments.


If you want to know the author—or supposed author—of a medieval Hebrew poem, you often need only run your eye down the right margin. Take this Spanish ode, a prayer for the forgiveness of whoring Israel:

Looking closely, you’ll find that the first letters of each stanza spell out the words “Moshe Hazak.” This refers to Moses ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century author of the poem.

The acrostic’s history in Hebrew poetry dates to the Bible itself. Each verse of Psalms 25, 34, and 145 begins with a successive letter, though the received Hebrew manuscripts are missing alphabetically required verses here and there. The first four chapters of Lamentations follow a similar pattern, with the verses grouped into batches by the letters beginning their first word.

This is an introduction to a certain class of artistic features that I’ll call tinsel. Here are some more scrapings that artists have used to deck their firs.

First look at this poem by George Herbert. High school teachers adore this one, or at least figure that it’ll catch their students’ attention:

It’s called “Easter Wings”, and its clever conceit is that look, the poem looks like an angel’s wings when you turn it sideways! Proceed in a modern anthology of English poetry, and you’ll find variations on this theme, with words squeezed into the shape of ostriches or condoms or other things like that.

There is also such a thing as ‘found poetry’. This involves finding a snatch of text on a bottle of lotion or a grocery receipt, and calling it a poem, perhaps with a word or two added. Close kin is the ‘erasure’, which amounts to finding a scrap of writing and scratching out most of it to yield a penetratingly profound sequence of words. Look at this erasure I just made from the New York Times.

Next there are codes to be found in music. In The Marriage of Figaro, during Figaro’s climactic rant against fickle women, Mozart blows two horns together as a symbol of cuckoldry. Robert Schumann supposedly encoded the letters of his wife Clara’s name into his piano concerto in A-minor, so that the oboe’s melody begins with the notes C-H-A-A. The sequence B-A-C-H, for its part, has been written into over four hundred scores. (means in German-speaking countries, and means B-flat.) In February 2010, I was unfortunate enough to be at the premiere of Odna Zhizn, a clanging symphonic poem that you might be able to hum if you were an alien. The composer wrote in the program, if I remember right, that the piece’s notes spelled out the story of some woman’s life – but he wouldn’t tell us which notes or which woman. 

Then there is visual art with a backstory. This statue of an innocent girl, for example, is made of steel salvaged from a Francoist nunnery. This likeness of Willy Brandt is made of postage stamps from the DDR. This elephant is carved out of the bones of poachers. This kippah is sewn from the chest hair of an artist uncomfortable with Jewish masculinity. This building is exactly 1,776 feet tall.

Finally – I stop for mercy not exhaustion – , there’s the novel La disparition by Georges Perec, translated into English as A Void. Neither original nor translation contains a single instance of the letter e. Amazing! 

Hopefully you’ve grasped the common theme. These are all works of art whose main point lies in something other than the art itself. The emphasis is on a clever intellectual fact about the art. This fact is only visible to the contemplating brain, not the real senses of the person who listens to the poem or hears the concerto. 

Anyway, tinsel is always frivolous, whether spun in the fourteenth or the twenty-first century. An acrostic in an ancient Hebrew poem is excusable, because those poems are meant to be committed to memory, and frail human minds need as much support as they can get. Take away this excuse, and acrostics – like all gimmicks – become ostentatious and trivial.

I don’t think it gets mentioned enough that English-language Haikus are really bad.

crinkled autumn leaves
drifting gently into a teapot
it is almost dark.

Haikus have been held to be easy, but I’ve never understood that. An illiterate farmer can think up a native English poem at the plough, and sing it that evening at the free house. A haiku can’t be sung, and it needs pen and paper. (The above might be a haiku, or it might not, but you’ll have to check.) Easy? I can recite a hundred metrically complex stanzas of Horace, but I’ll never be able to get a single haiku into my head. If I didn’t know that this random arrangement of syllables was a culturally important form in Japan, I couldn’t tell a haiku from the words scrawled by vandals onto subway cars and called “Poetry in Motion.” Its only distinguishing merit among unmetered poems is that it ends mercifully quickly.

But worst of all is that a haiku’s touted feature – syllable-count – is something completely divorced from its substance, which is meant to be poetry. Haikus do not rely on the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, which nearly all English poetry does. Instead they are built on the raw number of syllables, which is effectively inaudible to anyone who isn’t counting. It is an art form predicated on a gimmick; tinsel all the way through.

I am not arguing for simple art; extreme complexity, both of themes and of execution, is in fact necessary (though not enough!) for the best effects. Nor am I saying that every aspect of a novel’s construction must be immediately apparent. But complexity, if it’s to exist, must be the tissue of the work itself; it cannot be an external ornament without being vain. (Ah, you’ll ask, but is there really a difference there? That question is not ennobled by its refined tone of voice. There is. It is the difference between 20,000 notes in K. 331 and 273 seconds in 4′33″.)

You might also object that ornaments are constraints, and constraints are good for art! It is dogma in academic fiction-factories that a piece of art is more likely to “work” if it is produced under restrictive conditions. This, like so much said by program-fictionmongers, is a rotten cob of falsehood that sports a single kernel of undecayed truth.

Which kernel is this: every schoolboy knows that it’s easier to be forced into a story about a three-legged dog and an octopus on a Thursday than to face a blank page with only a pen and an imagination. Even a professional author is better off if he has a frame to work in; otherwise he might spin aimless in chaos with nothing to go on. This is one justification for modern poetry that follows the old formal patterns, like Robert Frost’s and Richard Wilbur’s. It is a weak argument – but no strong argument is necessary – against the shapelessness of T. S. Eliot and everything after him.

Then again, I think the fictionmongers have it backwards. A formal work of art is not good because it is constrained. It is constrained because it is good. In other words, beautiful art will have a traditional form because, dare I say it, the traditional forms are beautiful. The art of the Renaissance was not sweet and lovely because it wanted to be formal; it was formal because it wanted to be sweet and lovely.

Man with goatee and pierced ear:
“I think this really works. It takes a risk for sure, but it grabs me.”

There is nothing, however, to be gained from constraining a work of art for the sake of constraining it. Artists who don’t see the beauty of the forms, and insist on using them anyway, are playing a sick intellectual game. Parenthesis closed.

The real reason I dislike tinsel is not that I hate frivolity. (Hell, The Mikado is one of my favorite things on earth.) I hate frivolity that replaces our quest after real art. Art, seen right, is the earthly form of human feeling. We are all vessels of a great human oversoul, and the feelings that stir that soul – however glimmering and subtle – can be incarnated by a craftsman whose mind goes deep enough and whose hands are nimble enough. Tinsel is an abuse of the holy craft. Wherever you find it, there a scheming brain has replaced a mind that might have sounded eternity.