The Problem with God and Muffins at Harvard Divinity School

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This past weekend I got to go to the International Conference on Christianity and Literature in Boston, on a Pi Delta Research Grant from Bluffton University. The specific event title for which was the evocative The Problem with God: Christianity and Literature in Tension. Lynn Martin, a fellow editor at The Curator had let me know about the conference a few months ago, and since my soul consort Kenny Godoy lives in Boston attending Sattler College, I immediately began plotting on how to attend.

Pi Delta grants exist to provide financial support for students at Bluffton doing work in their field of study beyond Bluffton’s academic requirements. The Bluffton handbook claims that the grant is competitive, but based on the number of people who actually apply for it, I sort of doubt whether there is much competition involved. In any case I was awarded the full amount, and after arranging registration, housing, a ticket out of Detroit, and other travel expenses, had a comfortable margin left over for coffee and pastries. When I looked up the schedule of the sessions, lo and behold, there was my American Lit professor, Bluffton’s very own Dr. Lamar Nisly, reading a paper on “The Problem of God-talk: How Can Writers Write if Words are Exhausted?”

Once I decided to go, of course, I bullied and cajoled Lynn to attend as well, who had wanted to but was getting end-of-the-semester cold feet. Thankfully he acquiesced, and drove the eight hours from Maryland through harrowing East Coast Megapolis traffic to get there.

I flew out of Detroit Friday morning, and spent an hour-long flight talking to an ancient and feisty ex-Bostonian who “lived in Boston a hundred years ago” and was going back to say a mass for her “ninety-nine year old mother who died last week, unfortunately not making it to one hundred”. Her memory may have no longer been strictly linear, but she did have vision for life. “Education is just the start.” she said.

Of the many things that Boston is, intuitively laid-out it is not. Cambridge especially is a snarl of tangled streets, awkward alleys, bleak parks, and thoroughfares that dive above and below the ground. In between all this are slashed streets with the varying length and rational that you might expect to find if you turned a toddler loose on a giant pizza with a rolling pizza-cutter. The uninitiated pedestrian like myself is left walking in many directions, some of which he has no need.

I emerged from the metro line at Harvard Square and tried to rush off directly toward Harvard Divinity School where the conference was being held, but found the first several directions I tried insensitive to my intentions or compass. I wasn’t entirely up on the whole timing and schedule of the conference, but when I got to Andover Hall around two o’clock expecting things to be in full swing, I was actually an hour early and had time to go out and walk around again in various directions and get rained on before the first session. This was fortunate, as I didn’t have to miss Lamar Nisly like I thought I might since he was presenting in the first round of sessions.

Alongside papers read on John Donne’s poem “Resurrection Imperfect,” C. S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, and Chaucer’s sermon The Pardoner’s Tale, Nisly presented from his work on Flanery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Leif Enger and Tim Gautreaux. Friday evening, two Conference on Christianity and Literature awards were given. Book of the Year Award went to Irish poet Michael O’Saidhail for his condensation of modern cultural history in The Five Quintets, and Lifetime Achievement Award went to poet and essayist Kathleen Noris.

After the final session, Lynn and I broke ties with our Mennonite heritage and personal instincts and left without taking advantage of the dinner reception afterwards in order to meet up and eat with our friends not attending the conference. In my pragmatically well-formed conscience, leaving something behind already payed for feels so much like contract breaking as to register a guilt level on par with dishonesty.

Saturday morning I fortified myself with several blueberry bagels Kenny and I had gathered from a Panera dumpster on our wanderings across the city the night before, and headed off again to Andover Hall. The morning proved to be educational both literarily and culinarily, as I learned two things about two interesting and useful details about Harvard breakfast. Number one, it can be served anytime before noon, and number two, at all costs avoid the muffins. After sitting through several delicious rounds of papers, around eleven o’clock someone announced that “breakfast” was being served in the Brown Room. The content, coffee, fruit and pastries I could have identified as breakfast, the timing however was new to me.

I snagged two crunchy looking blueberry muffins and headed off to the next session on “Resisting Weak Faith” and “The Problem of the Post-secular.” Unlike your ordinary muffin, these were concave instead of convex, dipping down into the paper rather than swelling out. Their depth looked promising. The crunchy part though, it turned out, was only a thin film along the top of sugar baked into the crust. As nasally voiced Dr. Gonch whined on about pluralist susceptibility in The Death of the Archbishop, I forked my way deeper and deeper into the worst muffin of my life. It was atrociously undercooked, mealy, and more alkaline than a battery core. So bad it was, that I kept wondering if this was a sort of pastry with which I was totally unfamiliar. Was it a crab-cake? A lady-bug pie? Perhaps there is a particular Bostonian oatmeal blueberry muffin recipe that calls for four times as much baking soda as actual baking, you never know. My optimism goes only though so far; I did not eat the second.

The conference over-all though, as I’ve said to everyone who has asked, did meet and exceed all expectations. In under ten hours of lecture, I took over twenty handwritten pages of notes that I know I’ll have reason to return to often. Walking away from the conference Saturday afternoon, I tried to identify what for me at least, had been the main or reoccurring themes of Christianity and Literature in Tension. I think I found three: the need for new/old forms of reading, the need for a vibrant Christian poetics in the 21st century, and the need for finding meaning beyond theory and full-articulation.

Susan Felch presented a paper on “Post-Critique and the Process of the Text,” alluding to the primary 20th century mode of reading that went from asking questions of a text to hostile, power-based approaches where reading well came to mean doing nothing more than pointing out the problems in a text. While Susan acknowledged that the “odious odor of naive reading is difficult to dispel,” she pointed out that critique is ill-equipped to engage sacred texts, because sacred texts do not claim to be validated or invalidated by subjective critique but instead by the fact that they make universal claims upon the reader. Both religious fundamentalists and moral relativists have reduced texts of their potential by using them as methods of coercion rather than offering them acts of love. New modes of reading can learn from modes both ancient and medieval, and through contemplation and attention more richness can be drawn from reading than from either aggressive or consumerist critique or “harvesting.”

One way of characterizing our century is post-Christian, in that neither the old, institutional forms of Christianity such as Roman-Catholicism, nor any Christocentric commitments seem hold any influence in public life or societal consciousness. Another way of characterizing our century though, is post-secular, in that the secular constructions of rationalism and naturalism from modernity are also losing influence and giving ground to a shifting interest in the extra-sensory. On the question of what Christian literature has to offer in the 21st century, Jack Dudley said that it’s clear that criticism has been secular, but it is less clear that literature ever was. He points out that the literature has always been concerned with the problem of God, and that traditions which have sustained this tension will have much to offer in the post-secular arena. David Mahan said that he’s no longer interested in the arguments for or against being a Christian. He just is one, and for him that means responding as responsibly and convincingly as possible to our common human concerns and difficulties through literature. He says that we are in the world to make it richer, and that everything we do, including literary scholarism should do so.

Perhaps the richest session, in the sense of delivering far more than I could take in, was Problems with God in Medieval Literatures, in which poems and sermons from medieval mystics were discussed. In these sermons and poems, there was a beautiful recognition of meaning beyond the closure of syllogism or full-articulation. There is a depth to truth that the intellect cannot exhaust or monopolize. In a different session, Brent Little said that “In the experience of enjoying a great myth, we come the closest that we can to appreciating truths that we cannot express.” Alongside fictions, parables, and myths, rituals and practices can also be languages informing us of who we are, perhaps through deeper veins than linguistic communication. Faith in the transcendent means recognition of a reality that we can never finally express, and the expressions of it that we are given include and go beyond language to include along with it the seeking of silence, the contemplation of prayer, and the participation of shared ritual, attention, and experience.

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Nola via Chicago, 2019

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From Beaver Dam, a truck-stop-village just below Bluffton, route 30 runs all the way to the southern suburbs of Chicago. Through Indiana from Fort Wayne to Merriville, I was culling the best of groceries from dumpsters along the route, and ended up with a nice collection of greek yogurt, biscotti, white portabellas, fresh herbs, tomato, bacon, etc. I hadn’t known what a wasteland the bottom half of Chicago was, but I had come prepared.

I got off the highway at 115th street at Pullman, and lurched across the craters and pot holes through West Roseland. It was about nine in the evening, and nobody was out, with only an occasional light on in the smattering of houses, many of which were obviously abandoned. Apparently many also had been torn down, as there was as much empty brown yard lot as actual residence. On nearly every corner stood squat, tan-brick rescue churches, looking like they had been built in the fifties and boarded up in the eighties. Plywood and iron grating were the only faces to be seen. I tried to imagine what these neighborhoods would look like in the summer time, archipelagos of housing amid seas of grass and weeds.

I spent the night at a Walmart parking lot just outside of Burbank, sleeping immediately and deeply even with the jets thundering over me out of the Chicago Midway International Airport. In the morning I drove up to 41st street and left my car on an unmarked street to buy a day pass for the metro. I hadn’t planned on seeing the Bean, but I stepped down from the L at Washington/Wabash, like a proper little tourist and the first thing I came to was Millennium Park. The view itself from Millennium is worth going for, the city face and skyline rearing up on one side, and the ice fields of Lake Michigan on the other, both expanses jagged, huge, and nearly monochromatic.

I had brought my board, a skate deck on cruiser wheels, with me and spent the rest of the day tramping and boarding, covering as much ground and taking in as much of the city as possible. The sheer expanse of Chicago is wearying. Though urban, there is no reason for things to be compact, it’s the Midwest and there’s room to spread out, to build, to tear down and to leave behind. Huge tracts of post-developed land lie across from the canal and railyards beside Dearborn, some the size of small towns. In 1833, the US government forced native American tribes to cede them the land of northern Illinois and Wisconsin, and proceeded to sell the land cheaply but still at enormous profit to investors who would turn around and sell it again to settlers, traders, and entrepreneurs. The wilderness prairie came cheaply, and there was a lot of it, with Lake Michigan on one side, and on the other near limitless room to expand.

I spend Saturday night near Belmont in the parking lot of what could very well be one of the smallest Walmart’s in the US, crammed between a railroad track and a shabby wooden fence blocking a ghetto. Typically when in a major city on a Sunday, I would look for a cathedral to attend a late morning High-Church service at for the aesthetics, but since Reba Place is in Chicago, this I decided this weekend to go worship with people whom I could share vision with. I was rewarded. Online I learned that Reba starts with bagels and coffee at 9:30 before worship, and on the first Sunday of the month shares a potluck meal. Happy March 3, I told myself

Reba Place community was begun in 1957 as an intentional community by a group of Christians who wanted “to live out a radical Christian discipleship as they observed it in the Gospels and the book of Acts.” Online Reba Place church self-describes as “Anabaptist in tradition, catholic in spirit, evangelical in conviction, charismatic in practice.” Before worship I ate two delicious cinnamon bagels smothered in butter and cream cheese and talked to various parishioners predominately of the aged variety, i.e., those who woke up early to attend pre-worship activities. Worship was wonderful, with both traditional hymns and intuitively tuned modern choruses textured by jazz piano accompaniment by an aged Irishman and various wind and string participants. After the service, I ran out to the car and brought in some Colby and cracker dumpster fair to contribute to the potluck collection, and filled up on fried chicken, deep dish pizza, and a fantastic cold Quinoa and lentil salad.

After lunch in an attempt to meet David Janzen, a historian of Reba place, I ran into Luke, a Bluffton graduate who lives in one of the households at Reba. Luke gave me his number, and agreed to me coming over later to his household to cook up some of the groceries I had brought with me from Indiana. Luke shares “the patch,” a house in Evanston Illinois with six other housemates, who split a very reasonable monthly rent. At the patch, I plugged in my laptop, phone, and portable speaker, and discussed with Luke the various pros and cons of Bluffton University. Later, as I began to regain appetite post the potluck apocalypse, I hauled in my enormous diaper bag full of food stuffs, and made a fry of bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette, sage, and rosemary. After cooking and eating, I cleaned up my mess, washed the dishes in the sink, loaded the dishwasher, and unpacked all the grapefruit, pastries, and blueberries that I couldn’t take with me to New Orleans. As I was cleaning up, I met two others who stayed at the patch. KC, was a young pastor and business owner from a community in Minneapolis in Chicago doing demos for Target of an Asian hotsauce he created. Meghan it turned out, was another Bluffton grad working in Chicago, and until Luke left, there were three Bluffton University students/grads together in the same house, in a northern suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Bluffton is a tiny private school in Ohio, with fewer than 200 students in a graduate class, but apparently the people who go there continue to move in the same circles.

I left my car in a lot under the metro stop just above Evanston, and caught the purple-line down to the blue-line to O’Hare. My flight didn’t leave till the next morning, but I didn’t want to risk the odds of waking up, making it across town, and getting through security all before 7 AM. I tramped about in O’Hare for at least an hour scouting for the best place to sleep. The ground side of security seemed to be pretty much all of the same sort, and after sitting for a few hours near a charging station, eventually I lay down on a slightly raised grated strip against the exterior glass wall near my airline. The strip turned out to be a heater, and unfortunately I was wearing all my clothes for the trip to offset the temperature difference from Chicago to New Orleans and still get away without paying for a full sized carry-on with Spirit Airline. I shed what I could, and tried to sleep, my head on my backpack in an attempt to breathe through the heat. I had brought juice boxes and greek yogurt with me for breakfast, which were almost done cooking by the time I stumbled up and wandered through security at four.

I had been planning to take a metro across town when I got to New Orleans, but when I got on the ground, my brother text me and said drop me a pin, we’re circling the terminals. Both Micah and Hannah came to meet me, since she had the day off from her work at the hospital. Our first stop was the abandoned navy base, where we resurrected a friend of Micah’s who lent me a bike and a lock. Once properly rigged and necessary repairs and adjustments were made, our second stop was peddling down to a Kebab shop, where Micah and Hannah treated me to things like portabella and feta sandwiches dipped in startling and delicious sauces. Creamy horseradish and aquafaba, tahini and habanero, turmeric and mint.

The 70 degree weather google had been prophesying turned out to be a low forty, but the air still had the warm breath of the gulf, and as the week warmed up the sun’s rays gathered the strength to burn. On two afternoons I went out with Micah along the river-walk wear he sold his leather work, and watched the river, lost chess games, and chatted with passersby. On Mardi Gras I woke up gloriously late, and set off across town, hoping to find a café somewhere along Magazine Street to sit and write in for a couple of hours. I ended up at a middle eastern café with baba ganoush and turkish coffee. In the afternoon, I struck off through uptown, and eventually ran into the Krewe of Elks parade, winding for miles through Napoleon, St. Charles, and Canal Streets. Like all other major holidays, Mardi Gras is a vast production of tasteless, single-use, and useless decorations. All the floats throw nearly identical cheaply made nerf balls, plastic beads and plastic, wooden, or aluminum chips. Last year after Mardi Gras, ninety-three thousand pounds of beads were cleaned from the drains in a five block stretch of St. Charles Street. I pushed my bike through the tides and sand bars of beads and food container rubbish that had washed up against the curb, burying the pavement.

I think the loudest and most surprising thing I saw on Mardi Gras was Christians. All day long they preached from megaphones, and held every manner of sign from “Repent you Drunk Catholic Pervert.” to “Let me pray for you.” One particularly large and impressively lettered sign read, “Roman Catholicism is of the Devil and will send You to Hell.” An evangelical group blared CCM all afternoon from the Washington Artillery Park, playing Passion songs and Jeremy Camp. Some carried crosses larger than themselves, some marched in their own parades, some had their own private security, some fences and generators, fluorescent lights and PA systems. From all angles, and creeds of evangelism or orientation, people leaped into fervent shouting matches, lustful and fierce in their joy. As far as I could tell, the opposition to the opposition was as happy for opposition as the opposition was. A little good old-fashioned persecution cheers everybody up all around regardless of faith or affiliation.

Throughout the week, I spent slow mornings in the small, mosquitoey backyard eden Micah and Hannah had created over the last year in the 7th Ward. One day I went to City Park and sat beneath the 700 year old oaks, another I biked out past the navy base to the World’s End and sat and prayed and watched the river. Thursday we dug, mulched and planted a garden patch in the back yard, Saturday we went to the navy base and explored a small portion of one of its three monstrous buildings. Altogether, the Bywater navy base encloses one and a half million square feet of floor space. Hurricane Katrina flooded the first two floors in 2005, and over the next six years the Navy moved out, leaving it completely unoccupied by 2011. In 2013 the Navy deeded the base to the City of New Orleans at no cost, a despite vast plans for restoration, the only reoccupation that ever happened was by the by scrappers, squatters, and explorers. When I was in New Orleans in 2016, I had to climb a fence to get into the base. Today, the gates hang open and you could drive a moving truck or tour bus inside. The base has become its own dystopian village, supported by the natural resources of what the Navy left behind. Immense graffiti projects cover entire faces of the buildings, and underground from the rest of society, a furtive and private population has dug in and barricaded itself in shipping containers and office space.

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For some reason I had thought my flight left Sunday, but on Friday I got the 24 hr. check in alert, and I reconciled myself with the fact that my days were numbered. Down to one in fact. We had spent the entire week celebrating, and in recognition of parting, we did more of the same.

Micah cooked series of fish fries and rice pots, brewed various teas, and sliced up a kale salad that rustled with entire parades of flavors. Dried tomatoes, roasted pepper, rosemary and oregano, ginger and garlic, oil and vinegar. At lunch we spoke of things we would yet do, over dinner of things we were doing. At night we biked down to the French Quarter and watched street bands or went to the river and talked of times that were gone. Jazz artists blended in eddies on Frenchmen street, exchanging feeling beyond speech, in voices of swing or brass or blues. The Mississippi surged against the curve of the Marigny, and swept back upon its current, repeating itself, unsure of its direction, only of its destination.

A consequence of learning is that nothing stays the same. Change is. All of our lives are submerged beneath the past or future, and we surface only in the moment, feeling the tremor of reality as it appears among us, and passes away. We use words as sign posts, pointing toward things we see and cannot comprehend. The wonderful thing about persons is that no matter how well we know them, there will always be more to learn. A name, a definition, is our guide back to a person or thought. The person as they are does not survive the passage of time: who they were falls into the past and dies, who they are is changed by the passage. Only the symbol, the definition, our picture of a person survives across time. The person themselves, in all particularity and complexity, arrives only in the moment.

If every identity is infinitely individual, what does it mean to speak of people who are closest to you, when finally we are all as far away? The complexity of personhood is a mystery unmeasurable by any telling, type or acronym. The secret of self is one which only you are given to know. Sometimes we are haunted by the same dreams as another. Sometimes we are shaped by the same conflicts and fight the same battles in the dark. Our best dreams are always given to us, but they are really only ours when we realize they are different from the ones who gave them. Whatever the nightmare or vision, our only access to it is the one we are given alone.

 

The Veil of Soul-Making: Self-Definition as Creative and Participatory Response

I first encountered the idea of life as a metaphor from Tabitha Driver’s blog the Ultimate Metaphor. I was immediately compelled by the idea, and have been wondering about it ever since. Driver said that “life is a metaphor,” but I was left asking “a metaphor for what?” Eventually I answered the question by saying that life is a metaphor of the soul whereby it comes to know itself, but couldn’t explain that metaphor well until this semester when I ran across a quote from Keats about life as the “veil of soul-making”. Immediately things began to lock in and make sense.

How widely is it possible to use the word metaphor? It is derived from two words: meta, meaning “over, above, or across,” and pherein, meaning “to carry or to bare.” Commonly, we use the term referring to a transfer of meaning, usually comparing an abstract concept like love or despair to a concrete image like fire or flood. Metaphor then is a transference of meaning, across the distance from the material to the abstract. In this sense, we could also say that metaphor is the inverse of incarnation, which is the bearing out of abstracted meaning into reality, or into the concrete. We could think then of life, which is the engagement of a self with reality, as the transference of meaning from concrete to abstract reality. Materiality is the metaphor, the comparison, or the reflection by which the soul comes to know itself. In the Gospel of St. Thomas, Jesus is recorded as saying, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, that is a marvel, but if spirit came into being because of the body, that is a marvel of marvels.” 

In a letter to two of his siblings, John Keats suggested that rather than the “veil of tears” the world is the “veil of soul-making.” He said that if you can understand the world as the veil of soul-making, then you have understood what the world is for. 

“How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How but by the medium of a world like this? This point I surely want to consider, because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion—or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation. This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three materials are the intelligence, the human heart (as distinguished from the intelligence or the mind), and the world or elemental space suited for the proper action of mind and heart on each other for the purpose of forming the soul or intelligence destined to possess the sense of identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive—and yet I think I perceive it. That you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible—I will call the world a school institute for the purpose of teaching little children to read…. Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!… As various as the lives of men are—so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, souls, identical souls of the sparks of his own essence. This appears to me a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity—I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it…”

Engagement of the self with reality is essential for its formation. That engagement, in that it is formative of the soul and the self’s identity, is essentially creative. Engagement is necessitated by existence and is validated by its relationship to God. It is moral and draws the soul towards God in that it follows His methods of engagement of reality. Therefore, our engagement should also be practically creative, mimicking God’s own engagement with the world. Again in the Gospel of St. Thomas, Jesus is recorded saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” Our engagement with reality should be gracious, sacrificial, constructive, self-giving.  

In a short story I read recently, Thomas King re-tolled the Native American creation story of the Earth Diver, and contrasted it with the Genesis account, suggesting that the Earth Diver provides a better framework to inform our own necessary participation in the world. He compares the commonality of all the animals working together to provide a safe place for the woman who falls from the sky and gives birth to the two creating twins to the seeming individuality of the Creator in Genesis acting independently from any assistance. He says that the Earth Diver story better instructs our awareness of the necessity for collaboration, reciprocity, and mutual-submission in our moral action in the world. What King failed to appreciate though, was the relational and creative aspect of the Trinity present and operative at creation, and St. John’s understanding of the creation narrative. God mutually creates in relationship, and beyond the initial act of creation, created in such a way that his creatures would continue to create with Him. King’s point however is sound: we need an awareness of the participatory and mutually constructive nature of our actions. Our participation in the world should be good, creative, and cooperative with the good and creative participation of others.  

Similarly, I can’t understand why Keat’s must see the world as a veil for soul making as being different or antithetical to the narrative of Christianity. I can only surmise that his opinion on the subject is a commentary on the cultural expression of Christianity of his time which he was exposed to, not of Christianity in its universal sense. I’m most compelled by Christianity because I see it as the most compelling, the most dramatic iteration of the human condition. It contributes the most pathos, the most drama, to human existence and the seeming absurdity of human suffering and death. Major worldview competitors, Hinduism, fatalism, nihilism, functional-hedonism, and scientific-empiricism just fall short. Stoicism, Daosim, and Islam come close, but ultimately stop before the cosmic game-changer of Divine Incarnation. Compelled by arguments from scope and drama, I’m intrigued by Keat’s comment on a grander system of salvation than Christianity, but I don’t see the system of reality as the veil of soul-making as opposed to Christianity at all. I see it already assumed within Christianity. That God created, became like us, and suffered so that we could become like him is the most sophisticated and dramatic telling of the universe we’ve been able to come up with. That as Keat’s says it “affronts our reason” shows if anything that we did not indeed come up with it. The Christian system of salvation is grander than the Keatsian, because it assumes both directions of meaning transference, not only the metaphorical but also the incarnational. Not only is spirit formed by body, but body is also formed by Spirit. In His life, Christ took on the materiality of our life so that we could take on the perfection of His. The ideal, complete, abstraction of perfection became concrete and material in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In The Problem of Pain Lewis went to great lengths to show that if you wanted to make self-volitional souls via the multivalent dialectic of choice and action you would need a material universe and consequently the possibility of pain. He argues that love implies otherness, and otherness implies being, and that created, freely-willed-but-finite being requires a material universe. That created, material universe becomes the metaphor or explanation for the soul to recognize and determine by living out what itself as a being in reality is like. Part of that metaphor, that interaction, is of course creation, using the materials of creation. Indeed, the Lord’s creation is not individual, not selfish. He invites, He commands, He implores, us to participate in it. His desire is a work is a defining work which find us where we are at and asks us to work with Him.  

We define our identities in a number of ways, but there can be no identity prior to relationship, prior to encountering the otherness of what is outside of self. We define and are defined by the dialectic of encountering and responding to circumstance. There are elements to both our circumstances and our responses that are within our control, and there are elements to both that are beyond our control. There will always be circumstances that are entirely out of our control, and at best we can hope to only influence minor elements within them. Similarly, even the most carefully and powerfully manipulated circumstances will always carry elements that are beyond the control of the one intending to manipulate them. In a general instance though, we hold far more control over our responses than over our circumstances, and so our responses are able tell more about us. Situations which we control say something about our identity, in that they indicate what our desires for circumstance are, but since they are already considered and self-directed, they provide less opportunity for us to learn what we don’t already know about ourselves and provide less opportunity to demonstrate dialectic, dynamic identity formation. To truly understand or define yourself, accept circumstances that you can’t control and observe your responses within them. Your responses define your identity, and so to take command of, and revise your identity, consider those responses, and when in similar circumstances employ the changes and responses that you would most like to identify yourself by. 

We understand ourselves by the reflection of our choices and responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That’s why self-reflection is so important, our thoughts, our feelings, our reactions are to the extent that they occur in the moment involuntary, and so if we would really have them be our own, we must examine them and with the all knowledge that we now have, consider whether they are ones which we would like to continue to own or not.  

Voluntary Economic Exclusion

In one of my most interesting classes last semester, I learned very little in the traditional academic sense, but did learn quite a bit in real-life practice about confusion and frustration management. The class was Issues in Modern America, and the professor a nuclear physicist who worked on the Iranian nuclear program in the ’80s, graduated from MIT in the 90’s, the University of Ohio in the ’00s, and came to Bluffton in order to study the Sermon on the Mount and its application to economic theory and human survival over the next ice-age which will be brought on sometime in the next 15,000 years by a global transition from the blue-skied, to canopied-earth model. I wish I was making this up.

We spent more than half the time in the class in discussion groups, usually with less than half of us having more than half of an idea of what we were supposed to be discussing. It’s true that we did not discuss issues in modern America, but we did at least cover extensively and over several class periods what it means to be poor in spirit and why the pizza delivery guy may have been late with your order. I wish I was making this up.

Two redeeming parts to the class were the course-work, and a wonderfully comprehensive book written by a British economist Bill Jordan in the ’80s A Theory of Poverty and Social Exclusion which thoroughly examines cultural, political, sociological, and even philosophical and religious issues which factor in contributing both to poverty and its alleviation. What I did make up is my own theoretical attempt to economically justify my personal beliefs on the ideal relationship to money in my contemporary cultural context. I found some of my best sources in Jordan’s bibliography, and other incredible resources at the simply fantastic blogsite Simplicity Collective. The following is an excerpt and abbreviation of my term paper written for Issues in Modern America.

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In recent decades wages across a broad range of occupations in America have stagnated, with the bottom end of wages exhibiting the least growth. If the federal minimum wage had kept up with actual productivity after 1970 as it had roughly done so previously, it would have been at $18.42 per hour in 2014 rather than the $7.25 per hour it was then and still is today (Bivens, Gould, Mishel, 2015). Similarly, the wealth gap in America has dramatically expanded in the last decades, with the wealthiest one percent of Americans now owning approximately forty-two percent of the wealth, or more than the collective wealth of the bottom ninety percent combined (Wolf, 2010). The top one percent of households in 2015 took home twenty-four percent of the year’s income, while the bottom twenty percent took home only four percent of the year’s income (Congressional Budget Office 2018).  

Most of the wealth gap in post-industrial societies can be understood in terms of enforced exclusion from wage earning, profits, and developmental profit. However, not all forms of exclusion can be explained by limit at point of access. In their 2015 paper “Are you really Financially Excluded if you Choose not to be Included” authors have argued that access point definitions of financial exclusions are not adequate for determining financial exclusions since some non-participance in high/middle income brackets and certain financial services may be volitional rather than necessitated by circumstance. Their paper sought to apply approaches used in definitions of social exclusions to determine better definitions of financial exclusion differentiating between enforced exclusion and voluntary self-exclusion (Salignac, et al. 2015).  

In view of the incredible wealth inequalities in economies such as America’s, why on earth would anyone choose to exclude themselves from market opportunities that are available to them? To understand categories of behavior, it is important to not only draw distinctions between groups who experience enforced exclusion and groups who exhibit self-exclusion, but also to draw distinctions between non-participants who self-exclude because of perceived personal lack and non-participants who self-exclude due to perceived personal sufficiency. Previous authors have pointed to this distinction especially regarding social exclusions via self-stereotyping, self-censorship, and label-internalizations (Hoff, Walsh, 2017) In terms of differing behavior toward markets, some groups may self-exclude from access points such as credit, investment, or transaction accounts because they don’t feel that they have the ability to navigate such access points profitably, whereas other groups may self-exclude from access points because they experience contentment and are uninterested in the abilities these access points may provide. Considering market non-participants who self-exclude for reasons informed by perceived sufficiency, what are the motivations for such groups and such actions?  

Voluntary self-exclusion from financial access to market resources has been characterized in a growing body of literature as “voluntary simplicity” sometimes simply abbreviated to “VS” (Alexander, 2012; Walther, 2016; etc.) Groups that exercise voluntary self-exclusion may do so for reasons of morality (Alexander, 2018), faith and religiosity (Abou-Zaid, 2014), life-style preference and well-being (Walther, 2016), or in order to engage in non-remunerative capability-sharing such as volunteer services (Le Guidec, 1996), or political action whether for societal VS advancement or some other compatible end (Alexander, 2012).  

Despite an increasing wealth gap, stagnating wages, and pressured middle-class, there are people variously affected by these trends who are voluntarily choosing less out of a framework informed by perception of sufficiency. It is true that exorbitant amounts of wealth are being accumulated by the top percentages of earners in post-industrialized economies, but it is also true that with a little deviance from accepted patterns of maximizing consumption to meet or exceed means, wage earners in much lower percentiles can reduce their market participation and still survive with remarkable sufficiency. The possibility arises from conditions of abundance brought on by market capitalism, and can be experienced by individuals who have and recognize the opportunity to earn more than they need to acquire the basic material necessities of life. The condition of abundance allows the freedom of self-determined standards of living and reflective self-direction of personal capability sharing.  

Values of simple living are by no means new but have been passed down from many wisdom traditions both recent and ancient. Teachers such as Lao Tzu, Buddha, Diogenes, Jesus, St. Francis, John Ruskin, William Morris, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Gandhi have lived out and taught the virtues of contentment and material moderation across centuries. The conditions made possible by our current economic situation, however, can allow lifestyles of voluntary simplicity very different from the self-denying asceticism which we might get the picture of as practiced by voluntary simplifiers in previous historical periods. Moderate restraint of spending practices while maintaining full employment, reducing hours worked while still enjoying discretionary consumption, or more likely some combination of both are the primary ways in which individuals in economies of abundance can choose to practice voluntary simplicity. Productivity per hour worked has gone up in the American economy as evidenced by rising GDP per-capita. Rising productivity has lead to predictions of corresponding increases in leisure time by optimistic theorists such as Robert Theobald who in 1961 advocated for education reforms which would prepare children for the enjoyment of the twenty-hour work he expected would typical within a generation (Theobald, 1961). Increase in productivity though has not directly corresponded with a decrease of typical hours worked, however, at least partially because unnecessary levels of both consumption and waste have risen along with productivity. 

Economic principles aside, ecological concerns pose a very compelling argument for reducing consumption. Current levels and methods of production and consumption threaten the natural world around us through climate changes and pollution. Members of some societies vastly over-consume, while members of other societies experience significant lack. Recent analysts have estimated that if earth’s entire 7.7 billion population consumed resources at the levels which Americans do, it would require roughly four earths to support the production and sustainability assimilate the waste (McDonald, 2015). Not only are members of wealthier societies disproportionately responsible for the overconsumption which damages the environment, they will also be less proportionately harmed by it, since they will have more recourses to protect themselves from its consequences.  

Unfortunately, it is difficult for people to take personal action for problems which they share responsibility for with a group, but because we all contribute to environmental damage, we are responsible for at least our contribution to the problem even if we are not exposed to its consequences. Every time we make purchases, we are voting for the types of products we want to be produced, and the type of world that we will live in. Every consumable product takes energy to be produced and must be eventually disposed of. Since no process is one hundred percent efficient and nothing that is disposed of ever really goes away but must be either somehow contained or assimilated back into the ecosphere, all production results in wasted energy and all disposal results in damaged to the ecosphere to the extent that it cannot be re-assimilated. Voluntary simplicity can be practiced as a recognition of the fact that we live in a finite word and have personal responsibility for how our individual waste and consumption impacts the environment we exist in. 

Recognizing conditions of inequality and overconsumption, voluntary simplicity becomes then for some a rationally based ethical or moral response. In a 2018 essay, authors Rupert Read and others argued that voluntary simplicity is conclusively supported by three major act-based moral-philosophical frameworks, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantian deontology. The maximum well-being for the largest number indicates over-consumption should be reduced in order to preserve the availability of resources for future generations. From an Aristotelian virtue perspective, simplicity is the golden mean between insufficiency and excess, and liberates the individual seeking his telos to determine what other virtues he should acquire. From Kant’s rational perspective of categorical imperatives, it is impossible to desire that my levels of consumption and waste become universally practiced given that such universalization would break the delimited system I practice them in.  

For others, self-exclusion that is volitional rather than directly necessitated by market circumstance may be a function of adherence to a faith tradition which seeks to incorporate production and consumption within a materially transcendent and spiritually inclusive framework of human meaning. Many faiths teach against material acquisitiveness, for example, the texts of all three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam unanimously instruct against the financial practice of charging interest. The morality of religious injunction against usury typically gets rejected as primitive, irrelevant, and too untenable for even consideration, however, just because a system exists which opposes a moral normative does not in itself invalidate that normative, and certainly other types of systems could exist, as evidenced by a 2015 essay in which economists Leonce and Abou-Zaid point to methods of capital financing alternative to usury such mutual and equally interested partnerships as practiced by Islamic Banks, The Hebrew Free Loan Society, the Swedish JAK Medlemsbank, and other institutions (Abou-Zaid, Leonce, 2015).  

The Catholic conception of work has long been not primarily as a wage-earning activity or even primarily an action ending in production, but primarily a realization of the human being made in the image of a God who creates. Writing from the perspective, Dorothy Sayers argued that valuation should not be derived from profitability, but from work itself, saying that work is not only something that one does to live but also something which on lives to do. To her, work “should be the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction.” She concludes from this that the “greatest insult which the commercial age has offered to the worker has been to rob him of all interest in the end product of the work and to force him to dedicate his life to making badly things which were not worth making” (Sayers, 1948). For Sayers, an economy built on valuing profitably over capability-sharing results in an economy of over-production and over-consumption, and a “society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste…a house built upon sand” (Sayers, 1948).  

For others still, voluntary simplicity and market self-exclusions can be motivated simply from differing, self-interested conceptualization of what a good life entails. Some individuals and groups value lower levels of stress and higher levels of leisure and freedom over the satisfaction and status conferred by higher levels of consumption. This interest could be demonstrated by either more radical examples such as new age travelers leaving jobs and economic security for transient lifestyles, or by prefatory choices such as taking a lower paying job that requires only forty hours a week over a much higher paying one that requires fifty.  

A growing awareness of conditions of abundance and a growing sense of sufficiency is evidenced by burgeoning movements which from a market perspective could be viewed as self-exclusionary. Focuses such as the Journal of Consumer Culture, and The Simplicity Collective have developed expansive analysis of the cultural downsides of over-consumption, and accessible ways forward into voluntary simplicity characterized as being more beneficial to individual and societal well-being than the excess of traditional methods of consumption. Central to these arguments is a skepticism toward market messages of ever-increasing abilities of consumption correlating to ever increasing levels of satisfaction. That life satisfaction depends much more upon relationships than consumption above levels of basic material survival is both intuitive and shown to be the case by empirical research (Reis, 1990). Voluntary simplicity is often marked by practical emphasis of investment in relationships via localization of exchanges, community, collective action, and more time made available for relationships.  

If motivated by faith-based convictions, morality, or a valuation of relationships, groups that self-exclude are already likely be concerned about the conditions of those excluded by necessity, and as self-exclusion places them closer to situations which include the traditionally excluded, further possibilities of solidarity and capability sharing solutions will result. Whatever the primary reasons are for groups practicing voluntary self-exclusion out of perception of sufficiency, these groups are in an incredible position to address situations of exclusion by necessity. Those who choose to be excluded have by definition at least some of the capabilities necessary for market inclusion, and so may operate with more flexibility than if they either did not have those capabilities or had them tide up in exchange systems. Being freer from demands upon time alone allows one to focus more on providing solutions for the excluded. Some Americans are finding that they are able to provide for the lifestyles they choose by working only four days a week rather than the traditional five, and therefore have an extra day a week in which they can engage in non-remunerative capability sharing activities of their choice (Cohen, 2009).   

In Associative Democracy, Paul Hirst argues that centralized, bureaucratic government provides too unaccountable and unresponsive public administration to be effective in addressing the complexity and multivalencey of social needs (Hirst, 1994). Knowledge management and capability sharing easily become diluted and lost in the impersonality and clutter of bureaucracies. Top-down, centralized approaches of addressing the conditions of the excluded are ineffective simply because empathy and pathos, prime human motivators are depleted within the non-exposed bureaucratic layers. The condition of non-exposure to the actual issues of exclusion also results in decreased abilities of knowledge-management, and higher ignorance content in the solutions and externalities produced. Self-excluded voluntary simplifiers however, have the opportunity to address the conditions of the traditionally excluded both from better positions of relationally-specific knowledge management, and from less centralized and more contextually responsive abilities of capability sharing.  

Along the same lines, Douglas North points out that along with more conglomerate and aggregate operating agents such as foundations and corporations, come not only higher operating costs but also higher transactional costs, enforcement costs, and in the form of contractual safeguards (North, 1990). In North’s view, the most successful conditions of social and economic inclusion are those in which formal and informal force-extensions are set up so that they encourage the maximum volume of low transactional cost voluntary exchanges between individuals. The challenge is that not only do conditions of exclusion destabilize abilities of knowledge management and conversion of brute-force to force-extensions, they also often fail to give rise to the norms of trust, reciprocity and confidence necessary for voluntary exchange systems to advance beyond the most rudimentary transactions. Excluded populations therefore have difficulty in self-organizing groups for their own interdependent economic advancement.  

Following Hirst’s and North’s analysis of resource-management and my analysis of the abilities and interests of the voluntarily self-excluded, it could become the task of more mobile and resilient middle-class voluntary exclusionaries to use their increased time for knowledge management and allocation of capability sharing to provide both formal and informal structures of exchange with lower-threshold access points which poorer populations could voluntarily interact with. More localized, inclusive and dispersed capitalism, operating on more grassroots levels could be easily facilitated by groups that elect partial dominant market exclusions, and could be more easily entered into by groups which are excluded from dominant markets by necessity. Lower-structured informal exchanges would represent less risk than large scale transactions, and hence could allow interdependency and risk sharing to be more readily entered into. Groups operating out of concepts of sufficiency and therefore already volunteering for some level of economic exclusion would be better prepared to absorb micro-losses in the form of un-enforced transaction risk, and therefore able to remain in informal exchanges with the excluded providing the stability and demonstrating the resilience necessary for norms of trust, mutual interest, and reciprocity to develop. As a cultural stock of such norms get developed within the informal exchanges of the excluded, not only would a buildup of trust-capital be generated, but also a buildup of wealth-capital from an increased volume of transactions.  

Humans are more than resource takers and will not be fulfilled unless they have both resource taking opportunities and power-process opportunities of knowledge management and capability sharing (Kaczynski, 1995, Rafizadeh, 2018). Without networks of exchange to interact in, the knowledge-management and capability-sharing of the excluded are wasted to both their own loss and the loss of society around them. Relieving situations of poverty is synonymous with providing the excluded with a wider range of freedom and possibilities. Correspondingly, solutions of informal, voluntary exchange systems provide the opportunity of immediate volitional actions on the part of the excluded on their own behalf. Increasing the opportunities of capability-sharing and exchange for the excluded will enable their inclusion in abilities of social and market interaction, and contribute to individual dignity by increasing the range of available options by which they can exercise volitional, self- and societally-beneficial action.  

Accordingly, a large part of addressing the situation of the excluded will be developing new networks and connections and increasing integration with existing networks and connections. Here the localized, communal, and relational values of voluntary simplicity become important. Bill Jordan defines community as activity of voluntary members who “regulate each other’s actions by reinforcing norms of social obligation and offer mutual support and assistance on a reciprocal basis” (Jordan, 1996). Because their exchanges are mutual and reciprocal usually entailing no transaction and enforcement costs, communal arrangements are extraordinarily efficient and allow consistent, sustainable growth even if there are only low-volumes of wealth to be exchanged. Sustainable growth is slow growth. 

Integration and creation of new networks can be accomplished by offering small, no-interest or low interest loans to the excluded. These loans could be used to build small business or strategically improve living conditions in order to gain better access to systems of exchange. Self-excluding individuals could join those excluded by necessity in working to develop more integrated communities where more opportunities for working, living, and shopping exist within walking distance of each other in order to reduce commuter costs. Those who self-exclude by choice have backgrounds of more inclusion, and therefore have more trust-capital with those of traditional, dominant market inclusion. They could use this trust-capital along with their increased availability of time for capability sharing and knowledge management to connect labor markets of the included with labor resources of the excluded.  

Existing exchange networks of the excluded could be strengthened directly by the voluntarily self-excluding investing by purchase in small and struggling businesses, voting with their money that they want the livelihoods of the excluded to survive, rather than the monopolies of the elite to become stronger. Networking is perhaps one of the most important services to be provided for the excluded, since the possibilities of capability sharing in relationships exterior to the one making the connection are usually more extensive and diversified than ones that he himself could provide. Bill Jordan notes that professionals and public agencies can provide better services by connecting the excluded with already existent communities and infrastructural resources rather than attempting to independently engineer comprehensive solutions to every individual need (Jordan, 1996). Resources such as job markets, labor supply, business ventures, informal exchanges, union organization, ethnic, regional, and faith communities should be brought together around and among the excluded to interact with each other and benefit from mutual capability sharing.  

The approaches offered in this analysis would take a long time to develop and gain effect, even if immediately adopted by those who practice voluntary self-exclusion. However, given the values, interests, and abilities of the voluntarily self-excluded, it would seem that they are more likely than the traditionally included to adopt these approaches, and have more flexible and immediate ability to do so incarnationally, not only because they understand better the positions of the excluded, but also because they are less hindered by investment in the interests of the included. Wherever the voluntarily excluded do succeed in developing sustainable formal and informal exchange systems among the excluded, however, such developments are likely to have long-lasting effects. When grass-roots networks of knowledge management, and capability sharing do develop, the sustainable wealth and trust capital that gets generated continues to strengthen the system and systems around it. Robert Putnam notes that the current areas best socio-economically off tend to be the same ones where cooperatives and mutual-aid cultural associations were most prevalent in the nineteenth century, and these were in turn most likely to be located in areas where neighborhood and economic associations such as guilds, and infrastructural religious communities and work collectives most flourished in the centuries previous (Putnam, 1993).  

In conclusion, the position taken in this essay is that voluntary simplicity from a market perspective is a form of self-exclusion, and from an analytical perspective is motivated by a perception of sufficiency at levels of consumption below those which conditions of relative abundance could allow. Further, those included in this definition of voluntary simplicity are likely to be more immediately interested and able to relationally and sustainably address the situations of those excluded by necessity. Since this is a grassroots approach to the situation of excluded relying primarily on voluntary relational exchanges rather than being dependent on system-based, top down force-extensions, it is a few-agree position that does not need to ascend to a many-agree position before it can start functioning, but can instead strengthen few-agree positions compatible with it and form many-agree positions within the specific, localized situations it works itself out.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited and Bibliography: 

 

Abou-Zaid, A. and Leonce, T.(2014),‘Religious Pluralism, yet a Homogenous Stance on Interest Rate: The Case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.’ Contemporary Economics, 8(2): 219– 228.  

Alexander, Samuel. Ussher Simon. 2012. “The Voluntary Simplicity Movement: A Multi-national Survey Analysis in Theoretical Context.” Journal of Consumer Culture 12:66-86.  http://simplicitycollective.com/start-here/why-live-simply 

Alexander, Samuel. “Living Better on Less? Toward an Economics of Sufficiency.” Simplicity Institute Report, 12c, 2012. 

Brown, Paul B. Kiefer, Charles F. Schlesinger, Leonard A. Harvard Business Review, March 29, 2012 https://hbr.org/2012/03/choosing-between-making-money  

Cohen, David. “Take Friday Off… Forever. (Cover Story).” New Scientist 203, no. 2725 (September 12, 2009): 38. http://bl.opal-libraries.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sch&AN=44338194&site=eds-live. 

Conger, Rand D. and Elder, Glen H, Jr. 1994. Families in Troubled Times. (New York: Walter de Gruyter, Inc.) Print. (pg. 171) 

Congressional Budget Office. Distribution of Household Income, 2015. November 8, 2018. https://www.cbo.gov/publication/53597  

Ellwood, Wayne. 2012. “We’re All in This Together.” New Internationalist, no. 454 (July): 25–29. http://bl.opal-libraries.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=24h&AN=77324285&site=ehost-live. 

Gandhian Economics.” 2001. Gandhian Economics, September, NoPg. http://bl.opal-libraries.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=24h&AN=35351211&site=ehost-live 

Hirst, Paul. 1994. Associative Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance, (Cambridge, Polity Press) Print.  

Hoff, Karla, and James Sonam Walsh. 2017. “The Whys of Social Exclusion : Insights from Behavioral Economics.” doi:http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/637511513001943873/pdf/WPS8267.pdf. 

Jordan, Bill. 1996. A Theory of Poverty and Social Exclusion. (Cambridge: Polity Press) Print. (pg. 182).   

Kempson, E., Whyley, C., Caskey, J. and Collard, S. 2000. “In or out? Financial exclusion: A literature and research review.” London: Financial Services Authority. 

Kacynski, Theodore. “Industrial Society and Its Future.” The New York Times Vol. CXLV. September 19, 1995 

Le Guidec, Raymond. 1996. “Decline and Resurgence of Unremunerated Work.” Internal Labour Review, January, 645. http://bl.opal-libraries.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=24h&AN=26810914&site=ehost-live. 

McDonald, Charlotte. “How Many Earths do We Need?” BBC News, June 16 2015. 

Mishel, Lawrence R. The State of Working America. Vol. 12th ed. Ithaca: ILR Press, 2012. http://bl.opal-libraries.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=671537&site=ehost-live. 

Putnam, Robert D. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. (Princeton: Princeton University Press) Print. (pg. 162). 

Rafizadeh, Hamid. 2018. The Sucker Punch of Sharing. (Bloomington: Archway Publishing) Print. (pg. 42-52). 

Reis, H. T. “The Role of Intimacy in Interpersonal Relationships.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 9, 1990.  

Rotolo, Thomas, and John Wilson. 2006. “EMPLOYMENT SECTOR AND VOLUNTEERING: The Contribution of Nonprofit and Public Sector Workers to the Volunteer Labor Force.” Sociological Quarterly 47 (1): 21–40. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2006.00036.x.  

Salignac, Fanny. Muir, Kristy, Wong, Jade. “Are you really Financially Excluded if you Choose not to be Included? Insights from Social Exclusion, Resilience and Ecological Systems” Jnl Soc. Pol. (2016), 45, 2, 269–286 © Cambridge University Press 2015 doi:10.1017/S0047279415000677 

Sayers, Dorothy. “Why Work?” in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine. First Print: 1948. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), accessed through http://tnl.org/wp-content/uploads/Why-Work-Dorotthy-Sayers.pdf  

Theobald, Robert. The Challenge of Abundance. (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.) 1962. Print. (pg. 107).  

Ulus, Ayşegül Yıldiz. “On Discrete Time Infinite Horizon Optimal Growth Problem.” International Journal of Optimization & Control: Theories & Applications 8, no. 1 (January 2018): 102–16. doi:10.11121/ijocta.01.2018.00464. 

Walther, Carol S., Jennifer A. Sandlin, and Kristi Wuensch. “Voluntary Simplifiers, Spirituality, and Happiness.” Humanity & Society 40, no. 1 (February 2016): 22. doi:10.1177/0160597614565698. 

Wolff, Edward N. “Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze—an Update to 2007.” Levy Economics Institute of Bard College March 2010  

Wolff, Edward N. “The Asset Price Meltdown and the Wealth of the Middle Class.” NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH. November 2012.Working Paper 18559 http://www.nber.org/papers/w18559 

Wolfgang  Lutz. 2010. “Dimensions of Global Population Projections: What Do We Know about Future Population Trends and Structures?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 365 (1554): 2779–91. http://bl.opal-libraries.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=53379127&site=ehost-live 

WOODWORTH, Warner. 1984. “COOPERATIVE MOVEMENTS IN THE USA ‐ THE THIRD STAGE. (In English)” Annalen Der Gemeinwirtschaft, January, 239. http://bl.opal-libraries.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=24h&AN=26790926&site=ehost-live 

 

The Metamorphosis as Dehumanization

          This is a critical reading of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, I originally wrote as an essay for an Approaches to Lit class by Jeff Gundy. The Metamorphosis is by no means a favorite book of mine, but one which apparently every 100 and 200 level college literature course finds necessary to cover.  Kafka’s insights into humanity, are of course, remarkable, even if the constant academic conversation around them can be wearying considering the range of other great authors with great insights into humanity who get less attention in literature courses for reasons ranging all the way from the fact that they get less attention to the fact that they get less attention. The major insight I draw from Kafka in The Metamorphosis, is that a process of dehumanization is one which we are unlikely even to notice. 

A short foray into the body of criticism surrounding even one of Kafka’s stories can leave a reader wondering if the key to success in making a lasting impression upon the Western, post-enlightenment exchange of ideas is not primarily coherence or even originality, but rather simply a smear of ambiguity and obscurity thick enough to keep the critics arguing about interpretation. However, it is doubtful that all readings of a story such as The Metamorphosis, are in fact relevant to the story in that they disclose more information internal to the story than they do information internal to the reader. Christian Goodden compares Kafka’s story to a mirror, and indeed, a good story certainly is reflective in that it tells us of some reality which we recognize, but no story is able or should be expected to reproduce within it the perfect noses and festering warts of every face who reads therein (Goodden, 2).  

In certain veins of criticism, much has been made of Gregor’s barely present sexuality, never referenced homo-erotic orientation, scarcely justifiable Oedipal complexes, and fantastic leaps have been made from the chrysalis of his transformation from human to arthropod to full-unfurled-wet-winged-yet-cryptic yearnings for a sex change. The instances in the story which these criticisms reference are significant not for their detail, nuance, nor psychoanalytical revelations, but for their insignificance, their insipidity, their lack of freedom and definition. They do not convey any coherent or commanding message in their depth of desire or experience, but rather in the depth of their lack. If they point at all, they point to a severely reduced image of sexuality, corresponding to a reduced image of humanity.

Similarly, analysis of Gregor, and by oft established extension Kafka’s, painful relationship with his father may be made more (though at least in Gregor’s case no less lethally) fruitful through an approach which recognizes the poverty and lack of relationship rather than the richness of its significance. Herr Samsa’s relationship to his son is mostly one of degradation, devaluing and dehumanization, which Gregor responds to with only incapacity. Outside of the story though, Kafka is as Bill Dodd tells us, “A critical observer and exposer of power, not a helpless, passive, unreflecting victim; his fictions are designed to have an effect on us, his readers” (Dodd, 135). With this in mind, perhaps the father complex does not provide for Kafka the actual battle ground on which his fictions are played out, but rather the hard-shelled resilience it takes for him to understand and portray the descent into meaninglessness brought on by dehumanizing relationships. Kafka is not a victim, he has the tenacity to explore critically victimization.

Critical approaches to The Metamorphosis have at times left everything up for question, even as far as suggesting that the physiological transition never happened, and the meaning is to be found somewhere else. I suggest that the best reading of The Metamorphosis is one which shows a young sales-representative suddenly turned into a large beetle, and one which finds reason for this astonishing transformation both considering conditions surrounding the transformation and the even more astonishing fact that its subject never seems to be astonished by it. The physiological stages by which Gregor’s human body converts into a beetle are not described in the least, and Kafka is neither detailed nor scientific in giving us any image of what species Gregor occupies in his new form. Therefore, from evidence internal to the story we cannot conclude that either the biological data concerning the Metamorphosis or Gregor’s appearance post-Metamorphosis are at all central to the meaning of the story. What is explored at great length though, are Gregor’s internal processes, his disintegrating relationships, and the conflict between his internal and external relationships. If we recognize this, then we will recognize as central to the plot a protagonist who feels very human, set in a world unwilling or unable to treat him as such.  

What is this world like then, which does not treat Gregor as human? And which situation is prior: is Gregor inhuman because he is treated inhumanely or is he treated inhumanly because he is inhuman? If we can find evidence of situations prior to the transformation which are dehumanizing, it should be possible to conclude that dehumanizing conditions are in fact prior to dehumanization, and at least plausible that the Metamorphosis itself is metaphor for what is actually being accomplished by these conditions. Walter Sokel rightly criticized readings which fail to “take into account the background of Gregor’s Metamorphosis, his relationship to his work and employer” (Sokel, 118). Carefully taking this background into account seems to me to be the best approach in reading the story.  

A myriad of potentially dehumanizing aspects of the societies shared by Gregor and Kafka could be explored, from non-communal, isolating apartment dwelling, to the incoherence of a religiously informed morality now divorced from any functionally supporting philosophical framework, to the clearly racist and thereby anti-human doctrines of social-Darwinism. While the enlightenment freed people from the specifically Christian constraints of divine image bearing, modernist thought failed to provide them with any replacement which satisfactorily valued the human life. Situated in a narrative that could only understand itself in terms of self-generative progress, modernism already had begun to show signs of strain at the level of individual meaning and fulfillment, before the further dissolution of progress metanarrative by the world wars and following political democides. Here considering the historical point at which The Metamorphosis was written, high-early modernism just prior to the First World War, is certainly not of insignificance.  

More internal to the story though, and therefore more to our point, is the issue which Sokel references of Gregor’s relationship to his employment. At the opening of the story where Gregor lies in bed debating whether to get out of it and go to work or not, more distressing to him is the line of work that he is in than the fact that he has become a giant bug. Contemplating his work, he lists the grievances of his particular position culminating with the one which is the most destructive to personal well-being: “worrying about train schedules, irregular, unpalatable meals, and human intercourse that is constantly changing, never developing the least constancy or warmth.” He goes on disparaging the early rising he must do, saying that “human beings must have their sleep” and that it does not seem other traveling salesmen need maintain the same hours that he does (Kafka, 4). In his situation, Gregor feels that he is completely alone, which is of course the consequence of living in a society such as the late Austro-Hungarian Empire or its industrial and ideological sister Wilhelmine Germany which Alistair MacIntyre criticizes as one of “bureaucratic individualism” (MacIntyre, 24-29, 68).  

For MacIntyre, societies characterized by bureaucratic individualism are populated by role-filling characters for whom action and interaction are coherent only either in following orders or in fitting means to ends. MacIntyre describes recognizable social roles such as manager, therapist, and rich aesthete, within societies of bureaucratic individualism as characters, as in the stock, ready-defined identities within carnivalesque play who use their same positional identity which defines their role to determine their actions. Such a character or ready-made position certainly describes the “general manager” who immediately appears to harass Gregor when he fails to show up at work. 

Referencing a character in The Trial who says “I was appointed as a beater, so I beat,” Gunther Andres points out the moral consequences of humans becoming mere functionaries, responsible not for the great causes or outcomes in which their efforts are lost, but only for the position that they fill (Andres, 108). In such a society we have the human fractured apart from the intersectionality of human experience, and personality so relegated to title or position by specialization and division of labor that when we ask someone who she is, she replies with what she does, and not all of what she does, but what she does for forty hours a week in exchange for a position within the system of exchange by an allotment of its medium. Though impersonality and estrangement are the probable consequences for any participant in a system of bureaucratic individualism, Gregor sees his position as a traveling salesmen to be even more alienating than one within the office of a firm, as he is not around to defend, explain, or associate himself with its other members (Kafka, 14). 

In her 1948 article “Why Work?”, Dorothy Sayers criticizes a system which values profit over work and divorces the laborer from the product of his labor. For her, work “is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God” (Sayers, 4). Gregor however, is not only divorced from the product of his labor, but does not labor to produce anything at all. The actual process of his labor does not visibly serve him or his community in any way, and so is for a moral philosopher such as MacIntyre or a social critic such as Sayers internally incoherent.  

On top of the impersonality of Gregor’s position and incoherence of his labor, is the demeaning treatment he receives from his superiors at the office. His boss has the “odd custom” of perching high up on top his elevated desk and addressing his employees down below (Kakfa, 4). For the slight infraction of being late once for work, the firm finds it necessary to send to general manager to inquire after him. The invasive, irrationality of this inquiry is hyperbolized by the absurdity of the manager showing up at the Samsa’s door at quarter after seven whereas Gregor was to get to the office at seven by catching the five o’clock train. Sokel states that the general manager’s visit “highlights the oppressive hold the company has over Gregor.” “[The general manager’s] arrogant tone, his readiness to suspect the worst motives, his pitiless view of an employee’s decline in usefulness—all these typify the inhumanity of the business from which Gregor longs to escape” (Sokel, 118). Such is the office‘s control over him, that despite its dehumanizing treatment of him, Gregor finds it impossible to leave apart from completion of the process of dehumanization. Only when Gregor has lost all ability of human interaction, and can no longer compel people to buy products by his presence but instead scares them away by his appearance does the general manager himself flee and give up trying to convince him to “suppress indispositions out of consideration for the firm” (Kafka, 9). It’s true that Gregor is employed at his current office because his father owes a large debt to its boss, but is it not conceivable that this debt could be transferred and Gregor could change employers? But it is not so, to the extent to which Gregor is still useful to it though, the office’s hold on him is complete. In another nightmarish tale of oppressive bureaucracy, That Hideous Strength, a character offers to smuggle Mark Studdock out of the violently inclusive, diabolically totalitarian institute that he is a part of, saying ”there’s really nothing to think about. I’m offering you a way back into the human family.” To which Mark has only the conditioning to reply, “It’s a question affecting my whole future career” (Lewis, 235). 

Further dehumanizing to Gregor, are his relationships within his family. They are dependent upon him as a breadwinner, but do not seem to give him any thanks, instead saving away secretly the money he brings home. Boundaries of personality in the family also seem ill-defined. Herr Samsa is perfectly happy to speak for the wishes of others without consulting them, as when he says “’why of course,’ as though he were the violinist” (Kafka, 38). Gregor has limited personality, and readily changes his opinions and preferences to match those expressed by those closest to him. He is defined to such an extent by those around him, that it is after Grete denies him of his personhood that he becomes convinced that he must by all means disappear and accordingly in the same paragraph dies (Kafka, 43). In the end, Gregor’s dehumanization is complete, and he is reduced to nothing but a great mess. A corpse and a memory too grievous for the family to be bothered with, an embarrassment for the servant to dispose of without thanks.     

Considering the reading accomplished here, and one which could certainly be expanded in its same vein both in philosophic analysis of background and in interpretation of the text, is it really that astonishing that the metamorphosis which Gregor undergoes is not astonishing to him at all, but only registers as a dull ache or indisposition? Immersed in dulling, incoherent, practices cut off from both the ends of his labor and any meaningful human interaction, he has lost the ability to determine his personal or societal meaning. Surrounded by shallow, unhealthy relationships and absent boundaries of personality, his self-definition is determined by the definitions of those around him, and when those definitions dehumanize him, he is dehumanized. Frighteningly enough, The Metamorphosis shows us that a process of dehumanization is one that we’re not likely to be surprised by. It is treated merely as slight annoyance. Gregor’s ability to resent or resist the loss of his humanity disappears during or even prior to the process itself.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited 

Andres, Gunther. “Franz Kafka: The Literal Metaphor.” “The Metamorphosis”: A New Translation, Texts and Contexts, Criticism. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. Edited by Mark Anderson, Norton, 2016, 103-16. 

Dodd, Bill. “The Case for a Political Reading,” The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. Edited by Julian Preece, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 131-49. 

Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis”: A New Translation, Texts and Contexts, Criticism. 

Translated by Susan Bernofsky. Edited Mark M. Anderson, Norton, 2016.  

Goodden, Christian. “Points of Departure,” The Kafka Debate, edited by Angel Flores, Gordimer Press, 1977. 2. 

Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength. The Macmillan Company, 1946. 

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.  

Sayers, Dorothy. “Why Work?” tnl.org. A Parish of Sacred Grace. Web. 27 Nov. 2018. 

Sokel, Walter H. “Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’: Rebellions and Punishment.” “The Metamorphosis”: A New Translation, Texts and Contexts, Criticism. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. Edited by Mark Anderson, Norton, 2016, 117-29. 

After Virtue, Review and Summary

 

Alistair MacIntyre opens up his book After Virtue by making the claim that our contemporary moral vocabulary is in as much disorder as the vocabulary of natural science would be if it were being used several generations after a social reordering in which all instruments of technology and nearly all scientific writing had been lost. In this imaginary society adults would sit around debating scientific practices and theories, but would certainly not have whole concepts of what those practices and theories at all were. Such is the situation of our moral discussion today, says Alistair speaking to a primarily academic audience, and increasingly more so tomorrow. We are living in a society which several generations ago has lost belief in the validity of knowing morality and virtue.

I first heard about After Virtue from my friend Kyle Stoltsfuz, I believe either in a speech class or dinner conversation. In a following conversation, Kyle talked about how MacIntyre brought out that life loses coherency when the concentration of our daily efforts are no longer directly related to our well being and the well being of those around us. The example Kyle used is that if he leaves home for ten hours a day to work at an office job, part of the money he earns is converted by an invisible process into natural gas that flows through pipes into the house for heat. On the other hand, if he calls the community around him to partake in a wood cutting, the end result is the same in that the house is warm, but for his child a more realistic narrative has been built and affirmed, not just that the house is warm in the winter, but that warm houses in the winter are important, and that people are willing to get together and exert effort toward that end. In a single instance this example may not seem very important, but when extended to every aspect of our lives the difference becomes one more element of influence upon the people we become.

To Alistair at least, and hopefully to many of his readers, the ability to know morality and virtue is still important, and so he says in order to gain a philosophically coherent understanding of morality, we are going to need to trace our current understanding of it back to where its coherency was lost. McIntyre begins his trail with a critique of emotivism, which has as its most basic premise that ethical judgments are reducible to expressions of will or feeling. Emotivism says that to say “Theft is wrong” is nothing more than to say “I prefer that theft did not happen and I would prefer if you preferred the same”. He is thorough in his critique of emotivism, but I don’t claim to follow all of his arguments against it. However, one simple and very reproducible argument simply shows that the claims of emotivism themselves are claims of moral judgment, and by emotivism’s own terms then, to say that a statement on morality is nothing but an expression of preference is only to say I prefer moral statements to be only expressions of preference and that I prefer that you would see them as such. Another is that it is demonstrable that in times and places expressions of morality are necessarily undesirable or unprefferrable to the one expressing them, and so to say that the expression “This is right.” is at times not at all the same as the expression “Hurray for this.”

MacIntyre follows his critique of emotivism with critiques of the moral philosophy of Hume, Kant, and also Kierkegaard, a task which is not only difficult but also difficult to follow. From here MacIntyre expands his argument to a broad criticism of the Enlightenment saying that in terms of ethics and the virtues it was not an enlightenment at all but rather a peculiar kind of darkness in which men so dazzled themselves with their own abilities that they could no longer see realities outside of their immediate ability. So impressed were we with empirically verifiable evidence, we could no longer see or ask questions which did not follow from empirically verifiable assumptions, and thus learned only to ask that which we could answer.

In further pursuit of the virtues, MacIntyre goes back still further to times when a discussion of them was coherent, at least for its participants. He points to aspects and occasions in the medieval discussion of virtues which appear to be coherent as well the discussions on virtue by Aristotle and heroic societies such as the Norse and the Ancient Greek from whom Western civilization is descended. For an understanding of virtue or morality to be coherent, it must be both philosophical and practical, as well as take place within a narrative in which its methods and means are consistent with its ends. For Aristotle, a study of ethics is essentially a study of those actions which would move humanity from “man-as-he-happens-to-be” to “man-as-he-would-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature.” This view assumes a potentiality for humanity, as well as the possibility of attaining that potentiality. Statements which would be moral in that they join virtues and or prohibit vices must be such that they move us from only the possibility of potential towards acts which in turn move us towards the potential itself. This is basically a teleological understanding of ethics, saying that virtues are something which move us towards a better and more complete telos, (i.e. end), than the position in which we find ourselves now. After Virtue asserts that any coherent understanding of morality must be teleological.

Discussing twentieth and twenty-first century society, MacIntyre says that it is one essentially as described by Max Weber, a society in which individuality is both lauded and limited, characterized by rationalization and bureaucratization of social structure, vocation, and authority. MacIntyre links the accuracy of Weber’s views with the rise of social sciences, simultaneously affirming Weber’s insight and criticizing the prevalence and inability of social sciences. Implicit in MacIntyre’s critique of the social sciences, is their attempt to contribute to the discussion of morality. Since its rise, sociology has become arguably the largest contributor to moral conversation and understanding.

Building on Weber’s own views, Alistair says that law like statements cannot be arrived at within social science, because society is a phenomena to complex for consistent empirical demonstration. Critiquing the social sciences, MacIntyre points out the fallacy of a social science “expert”, and shows that social sciences are not science in the same way that natural sciences are in that social sciences allow generalizations and counter-examples to happily co-exist in ways that mathematics or biology never could. He gives an insightfully delightful analogy of why value-statements and predictions are problematic in the complexity of real life for social sciences, saying that even when you have analyzed the chess game sufficiently to determine that the only way for the white player to avoid checkmate in three moves is to move its knight to e4, the response may well not be knight to e4 but instead tennis ball being lobbed over the net upsetting the game and checkmate still is avoided. Though social sciences may attempt to address morality and predict ends or describe outcomes (think teleological statements), it is incapable of doing so by mere observation and interpretation of social reality. Rationalism demands calculability, predictability, efficiency, and utility but at least as far as its implementation as a managing aspect of society, it is not able to deliver upon those demands. In any case though, as rationalism took over as the basis for judgment in the Western mind, calculability, predictability, efficiency and utility became the functionally predominate virtues.

In cold philosophical rampage, MacIntyre questions the validity our bureaucratically rationalized society even further, pointing out that while a major premise of sociology is the individual’s lack of control over their and society’s fate, in reality society is not only out of our control, but also out of anybody else’s. Social reality is so complex that even bureaucracy is capable of at worst only contributing to the complexity and difficulty and at most only nominative or apparent control. The major accomplishment of bureaucracy consists in its existence, not in its efficiency. Bureaucracies by default exist primarily for their own perpetuation rather than for espoused goals, as is shown by rare the instances when their goals actually are realized as was and is the case of March for Dimes Foundation continuing to exist past the need for its original purpose, providing treatment of polio. An incoherent facet of rationalistic society is that bureaucracies are perpetuated not because of their efficacy in moving society towards a betterment, potentiality, or telos, but because of their perpetuation.

Along with the myth of managerial or bureaucratic efficiency, MacIntyre exposes the contemporary myth of inherent human rights. Though we feel that such rights exist, rationalism is no better able to demonstrate the existence of inalienable human rights than it is able to demonstrate the existence of magic. When organizational utility comes into conflict with human rights, the one which is more empirically verifiable than the other tends to come out on top. Hence protest has become a predominate feature of morality in modern society, and indignation a predominate emotion.

MacIntyre’s reconstruction of a coherent account of morality does not happen all at once, but it does gain momentum in his fifteenth chapter “Virtues, Unity of Life, and the Concept of a Tradition.” If you’re interested in the book but get bogged down in the first fourteen, this chapter is the one which you won’t want to walk away from without reading. Introduced earlier, the concepts that human existence must essentially be understood as narrative, and that any understanding of virtue must at once be both philosophical and practical, provide groundwork for arguments raised in this chapter. Expanding on Aristotle’s concept of virtue necessarily being some practice which moves humanity toward its telos, MacIntyre suggests that virtue is an acquired human quality which enables us to realize goods which are internal to their practice. What he means by this is that some goods can only be derived directly from their practice, while others follow exterior to the practice. For example, in chess the only way to realize the goods of becoming an analytical player is by sticking to the rules and by playing, while such goods as fame or reward may be derived exterior to the actual practice of chess by such a circumstance as winning, and in a different case such goods as winning can again be derived exterior to the practice of chess by cheating. Virtues, such as integrity or persistence, are such things as enable you to achieve the goods which are interior to a process. Outside of its practice, goods which are only delivered upon the practice of virtue may not be recognizable. Thus virtue cannot be separated from or understood properly outside of some type of self-reflective community in which goods are processed internally.

MacIntyre shows that narrative, intelligibility, and accountability are necessary components not only of a coherent account of morality but also of personal identity. Action cannot be accountable outside of intelligibility, and cannot be intelligible outside of narrative. There is no such thing he says as behavior outside of intentions, beliefs, and settings. Virtue becomes incoherent apart from being lived out in a communal narrative. So essential is narrative and its affirmation to an understanding of ourselves and of virtue, that narrative must not only be livable, but also re-tellable. “Deprive children of stories,” Says MacIntyre, “and you will leave them unscripted stutterers, in their actions as well as their words.”i

An understanding of morality must have both the individual internality, asking, “What is the good for me?” and the collective accountability asking, “What is the good for humanity?” An account of morality must include not only a systematic asking of these questions, but also a collective and personal attempt to answer them both in word and in deed. Thus both asking and answering must be ever present aspects of a coherent understanding of virtue. If you think the reasoning here is becoming cyclical, you are right. The answer that Alistair brings to the question of “What is the good life?” is indeed a circle. The virtues he says are things which enable us to better ask and to better answer “What is the good life for humanity?” Virtues are those things which not only provide for us the goods internal to practices, but also those things which sustain us in our pursuit of a telos, enabling us to overcome temptations, dangers, and distractions, as well as equipping us with better self-knowledge and better knowledge of the good allowing us to purse it more effectively. Thus he says that “The good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is.”ii Virtues are then such things as allow people to live together in peaceful, constructive, and healing communities seeking the good together and the virtues necessary for the philosophical inquiry and the practical answering of what that good is. Cyclical reasoning can certainly feel reductive and constricting, but at least to me, this argument does not at all. It sounds only coherent.

Concluding his book, Alistair points the way forward for those that would seek to practice a coherent understanding of morality, in probably the most widely quoted and recognized passage in After Virtue. Here he cautiously draws a parallel between the age in which Western Culture finds itself today, and the era of the decline of the Roman Empire just previous to the dark ages. If Western civilization is again indeed in such a decline, as MacIntyre asserts that it is if its moral state is in as much disarray as he suggested it is in his opening chapter, then the task of many good men and woman must be a turning from attempts to associate morality with and to manage the morality of dominant culture or the imperium, and instead a turning to and a forming of alternative communities in which civility and morality can be understood and sustained independently from the fall of civilization around them and so survive the coming incivility and dark age. The difference between our time and the last fall of Western civilization, says MacIntyre, is that this time the barbarians are not waiting to invade our borders, they have already been governing us for quite some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 MacIntyre, Alistair. After Virtue (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) pg. 201.

 

2  Ibid. Pg. 204

The Politics of Jesus: A Summary

In a short series of blogposts, I’m going to be reviewing some of my favorite non-fiction books. This review process is important for me to be able to formalize my views coming away from the book, and better understand what I’m taking away from it, and hopefully it can be useful for you too, giving an overview of essential concepts from these books even if you don’t have time to read them yourself. Hopefully though, my scattered synopses will leave you intrigued, but malcontent, and you’ll go to the book itself trying to figure out what it really has to say instead of just what I’ve managed to strain out of it. I’m starting with The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, and hoping to get to other titles such as After Virtue by Alastair MacIntyre and The Different Drum or A World Waiting to be Born by M. Scott Peck.

In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder argues that the life and work of Jesus had a relevant social, and thereby political aspect, and that this social and political aspect should be normative for Christian social and political interactions. That Jesus held and communicated political interests does not mean that he was in any way politician, campaigning for votes and enacting legislation, it simply means that he shared opinions on how communal and social interactions should be structured and maintained. Yoder conveys that the mistake which some traditional views of the life and work of Jesus have made is that they treat Jesus strictly as the divinely redemptive sacrifice who intervened at a certain point in history, and do not admit that he had real and relevant human political and social concerns. This narrow viewing of the purposes of Jesus in human history leaves the viewer looking for social and political guidance in flawed, human resources rather than in the perfection of Christ. It is denying Jesus had political concerns that leads us to our confidence and participation in human politics. Yoder’s basic thesis is that Jesus was and still is, directly relevant to social ethics, and should be the normative model for all Christian social ethics.1

Yoder supports his thesis with a commentary on the book of Luke interpreting the prophecies about Jesus as well as his own actions and teachings through a social-political reading. He points out that messianic expectations of Christ were extremely political and social, and that these expectations were informed by divinely inspired prophecy. In the Magnificat, Mary proclaims the socially re-ordering work of Jesus saying he will pull the mighty down from their thrones, and exalt those of low degree (Luke 1:46). In Jesus own public proclamation of his ministry, He reads the very social Isaian prophecy about himself which says among other things that he will give good news to the poor, release the captives, and liberate those who are oppressed (Luke 4:13). Major to the overall argument of The Politics of Jesus is Yoder’s statement that “Jesus was in his divinely mandated prophethood, priesthood, and kingship the bearer of new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships.”2 Jesus had a very specific concept of how human society should be carried out, and shared it to those who followed him through his teachings and example.

Yoder argues that we are inconsistent to the mandated whole-person work of Jesus to read these texts in a purely spiritual or metaphysical light, just as his contemporary zealots would have been missing out to hear them in a purely physical or pragmatic light. In further portrayal of Jesus’ very specific political ethic, Yoder interprets Satan’s temptation of him in the desert as being primarily political and presenting political options of ruling power, popularity, and success very incongruent with Jesus’ work and social-political values. Yoder argues that options of radical revolutionary force were very open to Jesus throughout his ministry. Jesus would not accept these political options not because he did not have any political ends, but because his methods of achieving these ends were not forceful but loving. Jesus did not say “you can have your politics and I shall do something else more important”; he said, “your definition of politics, of the social, of the wholeness of man in his socialness is perverted.”3 Jesus not only had specific and radical ideal for what human social relationships should look like, he also had specific and radical methods for realizing those ideals. Jesus did not overcome by killing those who opposed him, he overcame by allowing his enemies to kill him.

After showing that Jesus did indeed have political and social concerns in the first half of the book, Yoder goes on in his chapter “The Trial Balance” to establish that his concerns and methods of enacting them should be normative for his followers by stressing the repeated New Testament injunction to take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus. Yoder points out that this injunction is strengthened by the absence of New Testament appeals to model other aspects of Jesus’ life such as his Franciscan lifestyle or his celibacy. Yoder then clarifies that this cross of Christ’s which we are to carry similarly is not any and every kind of sickness, suffering, tension, catastrophe, or personal crisis, it is rather the counted and freely chosen cost of obedience to a higher social-political ordering, and thereby a necessary current social-political nonconformity. Jesus’ words “The servant is not greater than his master; if they have persecuted me they will also persecute you” (John 15:20)4 was given as a statement of the normative relationship of his disciples to society. In this light, we can neither accept the “legitimate use of violence” nor “the ritual purity of noninvolvement”5 but instead must remain lovingly engaged, inhabiting Jesus’ new social-political ordering of society. Like Jesus, we must maintain a threefold rejection of quietism, revolution, and establishment participation.6 We are left with neither the avoidance of political options, nor with our choice of political options, but with the one political-social-ethical option which Jesus espouses.

Further on in “The Trial Balance”, Yoder lays out five sets of traditional systematic antinomies we can no longer choose between but must now accept together. Yoder is not saying that there are not perhaps positive or negative aspects of either choice in these antinomies; he is saying that we are not limited to the extremism a strict choice of either side would leave us with. First, we cannot choose between the Jesus of history, and the Jesus of dogma. We cannot say that he was simply a historical figure without metaphysically redemptive significance, nor can we say he was simply a redemptive sacrifice without real historical significance. Second, we cannot choose between the prophet and the institution. We cannot simply accept and participate in every human institution as if it were not fallen, but neither can we simply decry, condemn, and remove ourselves from every institution. He supports this by pointing out that even jubilee is an institution.7 Third, we need not choose between the catastrophic kingdom and the inner kingdom. Jesus neither introduced the apocalypse and end of societies nor a hidden spiritual kingdom independent of social relevance and historical meaning. Fourth, we need not choose between the political and the sectarian. It is possible to be politically and socially relevant without being involved in governmental participation and responsibility. Fifth, we cannot chose between the individual and the social. “Tradition tells us to choose between respect for persons and participation in the movement of history; Jesus refuses, because the movement of history is personal.”8 The ethics which Jesus presented to us are both social and internal. We cannot do in the social-political arena that which we would not do in the personal, nor in the personal what we would not do in the social. Jesus brought us an morality which unifies and clarifies our ethics and realms of action, not one which separates and obscures them.

Yoder continues to show that the self-giving love of Jesus is meant to be normative for his followers by going on to build a biblical outline supporting this thesis. He says that the concept of accepting the image of God within ourselves and therefore imitating God is both an Old Testament and a New Testament concept. By quoting numerous New Testament references, Yoder argues that we are to participate in the nature and love of Christ, serve others as he served, share in his descension, reject domination as he rejected it, and participate in his suffering and death. To imitate Christ and participate in his nature, we must unequivocally reject the use of power, hostility, and dominion and replace them instead with suffering, forgiveness, and servanthood.

In further development of his thesis, Yoder explains the existence and function of the Powers,9 and their relationship to Jesus. As close as I can understand his concept of the Powers, they are non-human forces which nevertheless have real, constant, sometimes uncontrollable effects upon human life and human relationships. Such Powers can include bureaucratical or religious institutionalized hierarchies, economic exchange, governments, systemic beliefs, will-coercion, and other force-extensions. He says once again that Jesus is relevant to the social and political Powers, and specifically because he has both created and conquered them, and they must ultimately submit to him.10 As followers of Christ and co-conquerors with him, we not rebel against these powers, for even though they are currently fallen and in rebellion against our Lord, he has ultimately replaced them. Indeed, if we do rebel against them we deny the effectiveness of his current and future lordship over them. We need only recognize his dominion, and give our loyalty to him, not them. It is because of this reality that a Christian can be content in a situation of suffering or injustice. We do not need to smash imperfect systems, because they are not primary reality. Primary reality is Jesus’ lordship. We are not defined by our context in relationship to fallen human institutions, we are defined by relationship to God. In comparison with our relationship to Jesus’ lordship the imperfect systems become incredibly unimportant. They have already been conquered, and will soon crumble away on their own. What remains for us is to join Jesus in his death, and thereby in his resurrection. Indeed, it was the suffering love and death of Jesus which defeated the Powers. 

We need not choose between subjection to and participation in the ordering of the Powers and meaningfulness in human history. The suffering love and death of Jesus are the very things which give human history any meaning whatsoever. Human power plays and political endeavors are not efficacious in bringing positive social change. Human politics and powers are incapable of positively structuring society. Because they are divorced from relationship with their creator, they are inescapably flawed. It is only the methods and politics of Jesus which have any lasting importance or significance. These methods are the obedience of self sacrifice, surrender, and suffering love. ‘When John Says “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power,” he is saying “not as inscrutable paradox, but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute force determines the meaning of history.”’11

Yoder argues that Christians must cease to see themselves as guardians of the direction of history to once again become meaningful in its development. He notices a establishment Christian propensity to try to steer the sequence of human events toward morality or Christendom, and says that it is “inappropriate” and “preposterous” to assume that “the fundamental responsibility of the church for society is to manage it.”11 It is in providing a relevant alternative model of the social and political structuring that Christianity becomes effective. Christ’s example, both as the Second Person of the Trinity, and as a tired and rejected rabbi from Galilee, is a refusal to give allegiance or credence to the Powers of social ordering or to their opposition and overthrowal.  Instead he subjects himself to what is demanded of Him, but does not grant final or inherent validation to the process of force and offense exchange by the recognition of either participation or revolution. It is in following Jesus’ very specific example of relationship toward social and political powers that Christianity is socially and politically meaningful. Yoder ends his final chapter with the Latin quote, “Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur.” or “Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him.”12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1972), 23.

2 Ibid., 63.

3 Ibid., 113.

4 (KJV)

5 Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 98.

6 Ibid., 98.

7 Ibid., 108.

8 Ibid., 114.

9 “For in him were created all things, those in heaven and those on the earth, visible and invisible; whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all was created through him and by him.” (Col. 1:16). For a further explanation on these “Powers” see Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 137-147.

10 Ibid., 168.

11 Ibid., 238.

12 Ibid., 248.

Short Impressions of Bluffton U.

IMG_20180901_133353~3Last weekend I moved to Bluffton Ohio. It’s not quite true to say that Bluffton is in the middle of a cornfield; it’s in the middle of twenty-eight of them. The main attraction here is Bluffton University, and the rest is just, well, cornfields with the occasional island of soybeans thrown in for variety. Bluffton University was founded in 1899, as Central Mennonite College, though I’m not really sure what it was central to besides the twenty-eight cornfields. I would have thought it was “Central” as in “somewhere between Goshen and EMU”, but turns out EMU wasn’t even around yet in 1899 so I guess I’ll stick with the cornfield theory.

Moving-in and orientation weekend was spectacularly slow, as such weekends are wont to be. Freshmen were pressed into walking tours of the campus, gatling after gatling of introductions, and round after round of cornhole games. As a transfer, I was able to avoid most of this, and spent my time in the Library checking out the periodicals, browsing the philosophy section, and looking at pictures of cornfields on the walls. Like the College Hall and Tower at Bluffton (pictured at top), Musselmen Library is designed in the Jeffersonian architectural style of the University of Virginia. I’m not entirely certain what this means, but I do know it looks a little less than half as impressive as it sounds. It is a fairly large building though, with four floors and a very decent selection of fiction, religious and philosophical texts.

With a few beaver dams in and around campus, Bluffton’s sports mascot is the beaver. The standard joke in the English department is “What do beavers and authors have in common?” “Trees”. Well over a hundred years old, a great feature of Bluffton is the number of giant trees scattered about on campus. After the Library and the trees inside and outside of it, the other most interesting place on campus for distraction and consumption is the Commons at Marbeck Center, where delicious concoctions of things like corn-salad, corn-salsa, and cornbread are served.

I stay on the third floor of Bren-Del Hall, which despite its lack of any kind of AC seems to be the residency of choice for football players and track and field athletes. My roommate Tim Bender, a senior from one or another of the four corners of Iowa, is not an athlete but a ministry-assistant-campus-youth-pastor-theology-and-biblical-history-dual-major. Tim is certainly a nice guy, but it’s usually just less risky to allow polite distance and space between yourself and your roomy. I accept that this tendency of distance for the sake of minor conflict avoidance is probably a character flaw of mine, but it keeps life un-complicated. On the other-hand, it’s nearly impossible for me to keep a gripe with someone, and Tim seems like he’s of the same sort. I’m sure we could become friends, but so far, I just have a tendency for avoidance of males for whom necessary long-term physical proximity precedes emotional proximity. Is this avoidance avoidable or valid? I’m not sure. It’s definitely not ideal, but it is pragmatic.

One good thing about Bluffton is the low student to instructor ratio, at somewhere between eleven and twelve to one. Matt Friesen, Alex Sider, and Jeff Gundy, professors I have in sociology, theology, and English respectively, are all published and comparatively acclaimed authors in their fields. Friesen earned his doctorate at Purdue, Sider at Oxford, and Gundy wrote that poem about God and cookies that if you haven’t read you probably know four or five people who have. This semester I’m taking Survey of English Literature part 1, Approaches to Literature, Shakespeare, Intro to Sociology, and Issues in Modern America, as well auditing Spanish 1 and Intro to Christian Theology. Outside of class I’m editing poetry for The Bridge, a national literary journal published by Bluffton, and working four to six hours a week for the English department. Supposedly this position could include working on research and referencing for articles written by English department faculty, but I think more likely it will just be grading student papers for grammatics, running photo copies, and hustling books back and forth from the library.

Although Alex Sider has by far the best lecture style I’ve seen here so far, I’m pretty sure my favorite professor is going to be Jeff Gundy. I can’t find his age online, but he’s got to be nearly 80. The man is a caricature of literary enjoyment and wizened vitality, elaborate but natural. I don’t think that he rides a motorcycle or flies and open-cockpit bi-plane, but his hair could certainly lead you to think so. White jets of it shoot straight back behind each ear, as if his face is thrust perennially into the bristling wind of the universe. He bobs and weaves like a boxer or a bobble headed Einstein whenever animated, and accompanies the folk ballads he plays before class with a very fluid arm, shoulder and head jazz groove. To start class he clangs two symbols together, ceremonially dangling them from a leather thong until they stop singing.

Perhaps the worst thing about Bluffton is the coffee. The only place to get it is in the commons at Marbeck, which you can’t get into without swiping your meal card. On the upside, there’s certainly a wide range of flavors available, but on the down side all the coffee is flavored. Unless you’re into Hazelnut Coffee, Pecan Praline, Carnival Waffle Vanilla, French Vanilla, Butterscotch Toffee Cream, Carmel Crème Brulée, or Dark-French-Roast-Chalk-Brick-and-Alkaline-Pond-Water flavored coffee you’re sort of outta luck.

The best thing about Bluffton is the vast swaths of time in which nothing at all is expected of you but to sit around and read. We have a fair bit of reading in all my courses (in Shakespeare we’re reading one play a week), and outside of class I’ve so far read Peace Shall Destroy Many, The Unabomber Manifesto aka Industrial Society and Its Future, and made good headway into Alistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. All in all it looks like if I can muster up consistent enthusiasm for corn on the cob at dinner, thread my way back and forth from my dorm to the Library through the labyrinth of cornhole games, get an electric carafe to make my own coffee, and just find out who and where they are brewing the corn whiskey, I should be in for a very enjoyable two years at Bluffton University.

 

 

Sir Alfred, Hermogenes, and the Fall

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Yesterday the Fall came on my way back from Plomari. In fact, a medium sized yellow dog and I practically brought it back with us, for it was a terrible crisis, and someone needed to do something about it.

Fall is at least my favorite time of year, maybe the only really enjoyable time of year. Everything begins to feel worthwhile in the fall, or at least it seems like it once was worthwhile. I love the energy that everything gives off when it’s dying.

It was a terrible crisis: the second-to-last day of September, and not a fall-ish thing was in sight. No changing leaves, no bustling wind, no change of crispness in the air, no sizzling snare of autumn chanting black cat spells above the phone-lines. None of it. Nothing. Everything lay as still as a woodlot dump in August too bland and indifferent to make a fly get up. Something must be done, I thought, but I didn’t know how to do it.

It was early Thursday morning, about 8:30, far to early to get up or anything, but the summer heat had already the weight and teeth of granite. I groaned a full minute, and rolled over in bed twice, writhing to avoid the breakfast sun scorching through my curtains. I oozed out of bed and onto the marble floor to soak up some residual coolness, but didn’t actually get a lot more than sand and breadcrumbs out of the deal. Attempting to open up some air movement, I opened the window wider than the crack it had been, and swung wide the door.

Sitting perfectly poised and polite as you please, was the ugly yellow dog I’d exchanged greetings with so many times in the street. The first time I’d seen his passionately ugly yellow face, I dubbed him Alfred. Not because Alfred is a particularly ugly name or anything, but because Alfred was the only name that popped itself directly into mind. The dog had the strangest eyes. Not quite as self-possessed as a cat, but nowhere near the open honesty of a proper dog. There was something almost childlike, or deviant in those eyes.

“Hullo Alfred,” I said.

Alfred sneered twice, laughed once, and darted between my legs calling back over his shoulder, “It’s Sir Alfred to you, pedestrian.”

I don’t know how you feel about the slur or adjectival use of pedestrian, but it does no harm to me. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using your own two feet for transportation, and that’s a thesis I am prepared to defend. Only a great big bloated slob would use it disparagingly.

“Only a great big bloated slob would use pedestrian disparagingly,” I told Alfred. “There’s nothing shameful or unhealthy about using your own two leggs for transport. How do you get around, Sir Alfred?”

“What do you think? Does it look like I use two leggs to get around? I’m no pedestrian, I’ve got four leggs, and that makes me a quadruped, Stupid.”

I was about to reach for Merriam Webster to prove being quadrupedal doesn’t mean you don’t walk, but realized that useful individual was on the phone I’d left in a dumpster, and my current piece of electronica didn’t have the memory for anything bigger than Notepad.

“What’s for breakfast?” Alfred said. “We’ve got work today, and I’m going to need some proper nourishment.”

He pawed open the fridge, passed up the milk and orange juice, and got to work right away on my second to last beer. “Beer,” he said, “Is the most caloric beverage. Made of barley juice. Practically food.” I was about to point out that the milk, just under his nose, would have a much higher food value than beer, but changed my mind when I realized that what I wanted for breakfast was cereal, and judging by the way he was drinking that beer, there wouldn’t be enough for the both of us if he started on the milk.

Breaking momentarily with my core values, I reached into the fridge, and poured the milk into my bowel before the cereal to ensure I’d get some. “What are you doing?” Said Alfred, “Everyone knows you pour the cereal in before the juice. Look, I’ll show you.” I whirled around in time to see the entire quarter box of crunchy chocolate muesli pilling up in his bowel.

“That was my breakfast!” I cried.

“Imagine marrying someone just to find out they poured the milk in before the cereal,” said Alfred, cracking my last beer and pouring it over the crunchy muesli.

“Imagine a stray dog coming uninvited into your house and drinking all your beer before breakfast!”

“Imagine insulting a guest in his first ten minutes in your home. Proverbs, Mark Twain, and Socrates all agree you need to wait at least two days to do that. I am going to assist you on a mission of utmost importance today, and I’m going to need some proper nourishment to do it. If you begrudge me that, you can jolly well go down to the south side of the island and bring back the fall yourself. See how that works out for you.”

Go get the fall? If I had ears like Alfred’s, they would have perked up. Thank God I don’t have ears like Alfred. It’s not that I particularly mind a good chewed up ear or anything, but I wouldn’t have wanted him to enjoy my immediate interest.

“What do you mean go get the fall?” I said perhaps a bit too sharply, straining to keep my ears from wiggling. There was no way I was going to show an ugly yellow dog who drank all my beer how interested I was in what he was saying. But I was interested. Very. Especially after the dream I had last night, which I was just now recalling. I dreamed that I and the bluest bird you ever saw were flying below a skyscape vivid in beautiful swirling debris, all the color of New England in late September. Below was the grayest gray of worlds, and we were between, singing a song that matched our flight. It was a haunting dream, now that I remembered it, achingly beautiful with all the flames of Autumn.

Alfred smirked through his beer and granola, “Don’t get so exited. Just because I’ll be with you doesn’t guarantee your success, it only heightens the chances.”

I repeated my question, this time in a tone controlled to border on perturbed.

“Never mind,” he said, in that annoying “you’ll understand when you get older” voice I would come to hate so well. “I tell you too much now, you’ll start overthinking and muff the whole thing up. Nope, discretion is the vibe we’re trying for, and as Abraham Lincoln so wisely said, ‘secrecy is the best policy.’”

I wanted to point out that Abraham Lincoln said no such thing, but decided I would fall for neither distraction nor reverse psychology. Instead, I flexed my mighty muscles of humility, swallowed my pride, and sacrificed my loathing to show interest in anything Alfred said for my need to experience Fall.

“You don’t need to use any baiting or reverse ploys to interest me in this.” I said. “A chance of summoning the Fall? I’m in.”

Genuine shock and disappointment flicked across Alfred’s uncanny face making it a little more childlike than deviant, before he recovered and swung the balance back across the other way. “How’d you know…erhm, I mean what made you think we’d need to summon the fall? It’s really just as simple as bringing it back in a basket.”

“And yet it’s complicated and horrific and if I have any details I’ll be sure to ‘muff the whole thing up’.” I said calmly hurling my bowl of milk at the little mutt.

“Everything in life,” said Alfred, slurping milk up off the floor, “Is a delicate balance between the simple and the complex. Depending on how you want to interact with life, you must concentrate on the one side or the other. The poet and the mystic focus on the union of all things, this is the side of simplicity. The scientist, the mathematician and the skeptic, focus on the disparity of all things, and this is the side of complexity. When you want to do magic however, you need the double vision capable of viewing complexity and simplicity simultaneously. Today we want to do magic.”

Alfred licked his chops sensually, and paused, evidently hoping I’d pounce in with a question. I did not. “Go on,” I said waiting.

“Naturally,” he said naturally, “I am a cynic, a skeptic, a scientist, and a mathematician. I am a cynic of the cynics and a son of a cynic, vastly aware of and comfortable in the stew of complexity. I’m steeply immersed in the tradition, with a pedigree reaching back to my ancestor Skylos the Haggard, who sat at the feet of Diogenes and nourished himself from the great man’s vomit. I believe you, though, are a poet, incoherent, simplistic, and with a parietal lobe entirely undernourished. Together, we will make a team.”

My involuntary flush of elation at being correctly recognized as a poet tempered quickly in the second half of his appraisal. Still, something about his line of reasoning made sense, and I was loath to react to either praise or criticism from a medium sized yellow dog probably tortured into perpetual belligerency by his flea bights.

“I’m down!” I said. “What’s the first step?”

“Ah, I knew you weren’t quite so impractical as you first appeared,” Alfred said. “The first step is the ritual cleansing. The Muslims always were right, you need to wash yourself before doing anything important or sacred. I claim the shower first.”

Half an hour later Alfred came steaming out of the bathroom, looking half as bad as he did before and smelling two times better. Eager to get on the road and closer to retrieving the fall, I grabbed my towel, and ran toward the bathroom. The evil fog which greeted me couldn’t dampen my spirits; I plunged on ahead. Choking and slipping I made my way to the shower where one those floating Peruvian islands was wallowing out of the bathtub onto the floor. Only this foul smelling island was made out of dog hair, not and reeds and bulrushes. The entire tub was full of brownish yellow water, with a mass of slime, hair, and bubbles fumbling around on the surface trying to cut its umbilical cord. I wheeled around to grab the clorox bottle, but Alfred met me in the door. “C’mon Peter,” He said, “You look like you had at least one shower this week. Ye are clean but not all; it is enough that one of us be clean.”

I knew there was no point trying to get clean in that bathtub, so I gave up. But was sorely tempted to pour the clorox bottle down Alfred’s cagey little throat.

I went down to the bike rental, and handed over enough money and licensure, to convince the man with beef jowls to rent me a 200 cc mo-ped for the day. As we had agreed he would do, Alfred kept his mouth shut and stayed out of the way to streamline the process. I could see his neck and mouth tensing up once or twice from the strain of wanting to contribute something, but as I told him before, businessmen are not interested much in philosophy, even if you are good enough to make it up as you go.

We wheeled the bike out onto the street amid a heavy flutter of beef jowls and precautions. Alfred doggedly slumped along behind me, looking jarringly dismal until I had puttered around a bend from the rental. I slowed down and he hopped up behind me on the seat, and dug two strong canines through my belt loop. “You should have barked!” I said, “Chased after the bike and looked a little bit convincing.” He may have muttered something about the difficulties of keeping up two acts at once, but the majority was lost in the slipstream.

With or without hope of the Fall, it was a fine idea to rent a bike. I don’t think the temperature seems quite so bad when your scenery is changing. It’s when your cooped up or fall asleep in the sun that heat really becomes unbearable. There still wasn’t any breeze, but on the bike even if the air refused to move, you could move through it. We crossed the mountain over into the Gera basin, drove around the bay, and passed the low flat plains of herbs, olive yards and cypress. As we left the farmland, for the salt plains, the heat once again leaned down with the drone of a hornet. The moped’s speed disappeared sucked into the high-end whine of a low power engine on a straight stretch. Time slithered along, slowed as if by dust. Alfred incessantly panted behind me, and a dust thickened trail of saliva slithered down my pants. My brain melded and gelled into one ambitionless slump, with my eyes fixed on the hills at the near horizon. My mood hardened into an impersonal blob, but peevish and content with peevishness toward everything. There’s nothing worse than a grouchy old summer that refuses to die, but stretches itself obstinately out past natural life for months on into attempted infinity. I hope that I’ll remember this, when comes my turn to die.

Finally though, the road started to lift, and the languors with it. We began to climb up through the hills and olive forests, winding around sharp bends and ancient stone terraces. On the inclines the mo-ped slowed to a whine, but there was a freshness to the air here, and a lot more scenery to work with. Hills and slopes opened again and again into endless new formations of rocks and trees. Only a few kilometers from the half-asleep tourist towns, was wilderness untouched since Greek civilizations more than a thousand years gone. Panaguoida and the whole eastern shore of the island faded from memory like exhaust into the heatwaves behind us.

Sir Alfred began to achieve a little life behind me, sitting up somewhat, and hooking his two fore-paws through my belt loop instead of his left canine. This improvement freed up his mandibles, and in no time saliva, insults, and philosophical fragments were hurling about my ears like shrapnel.

“Now what I don’t like about you poets,” he roared into the wind, “Is your absolute lack of ambition. You’re content to rush about pursuing all sorts of useless ends and call them ‘experiences’, or you slump around hollow eyed like a sack full of socks waiting for the muse to come and grab you by the gunny and shake some aspiration into you. You’re so purposeless. What’s worse, is that people mistake this sham you put on for the honest and purposeful degradation of the cynic. The philosophic cynic knows full well that glass houses, white floors, and fine raiment never brought anyone the satisfaction of one pure breath of thought, and so thrusts himself full-handedly into the throws of life, to spare his mind not from one weight of connection or insight which may be found. But when you poets fall out of repute though in the sight of the rabble, you always make it look as if you strayed through the wrong door by mistake as listless a wandering cloud incapable of rain. No I tell you, the muse is dead, and Pure Reason presided at her funeral. There is no muse, there never was, and never will be, except your own mind, and the powers which it can avail to you. Logic!” he schrieked, “Ration! Mathematics! Statistics! Discipline the mind to complexity!”

He had placed his paws up on my shoulders through the last tirade of obscenities, with his yellow muzzle quivering beside my ear, and I was glad the windstream checked and winnowed at least the majority of the foam spewing out of his mouth. I calmly navigated a hairpin downgrade, flicked an adjective out from where it had lodged behind my ear, and pointed out that I had gathered rather more pure saliva than pure reason from the last paragraph. Alfred though was uninterested in such subtleties of nuance, and apparently considered gold whatever came out of his mouth, whether it was logical, illogical, or biological.

“The real poetry,” he vomited, “The Poesis, the creativity, is what’s done in the mind, the problem solving where untainted abstract reasoning leads to concrete results, and where beauty is beauty by virtue of its usefulness. The sham poetry of polemics and aesthetics is as every bit as bad as Plato made it out to be. It’s good for nothing useful, like waging war, training the mind, or governing a city, fit only to be cast out and trodden under the feet of the rabble. There’s nothing so anemic to good sense and progress as a bunch of weeping adjectives strung together to cast a spell over old maids and boys. I tell you, there is nothing conveyed in the cadences of spoken or written poetry proper, but sheer, arbitrary, defiled, and defiling emotion. When you want to say anything useful, anything that relates to the real world, prose is what you want! Not a mystical arrangement of syllables contrived to drag out a baseless euphoria or sentimentality! There is no such thing as emotion, not for the rational being, there can only be actions. Emotion is a simplistic concept designed by the rabble out of laziness to confuse themselves and distract their consciences from the task at hand. Emotion has no productive correlation to the real world, and so should not be fed, or stroked, or even talked about. It should be allowed to wither away before the blinding sun of Resolution! No! It should be strangled, murdered! Along with all the other weak and pitiful elements of the soul. What we need is volition! Not feeling.”

“In the well ordered soul, in the virtuous psyche, there is no room for the fickle quandaries of feeling. The only real process which results in virtue, is the cold clean movements of cynicism within the intellect, calculating which roads are worthless and which are the right ones to take. Why, you can’t get to Plomari based on intuition, or a by any other groundless feeling within your heart, you’ve got to follow clear evidence! You’ve got to be informed and responsible in the art of reading road signs, not in interpreting the palpitations of the heart. You say you write poetry because somewhat is wrong with the world and your experience of it, but I say all that is wrong with the world is your methods of addressing its problems!”

“Now look here,” I calmly turned around and bellowed at him nearly wrecking, “I’ve never called myself a poet, that’s been your accusation all along. But I’ll let you know for me its about the highest compliment you can give, and if “poet” is an insult to a scientistical cynic like you, that makes it all the more dear to me. I suppose Popular Science is your bible, and David Hume and all the neo-atheists are your canonized saints…”

“Hume!” Alfred eructed, “That heretic deserves to be dug up and bones-burnt! He didn’t believe in so much as cause and effect! No! Democritus is the true mythic God of my religion! He was the father of my Atom and your Adam! Why, good old Democritus, I’m quite sure he founded and propounded Kinetic Molecular Theory even if that bit of information wasn’t passed on to us. Not Hume! Why the imbecile…he came so close to the kingdom, but turned back, that faithless sentimentalist. The sniveling snut! As your Peter put it, ‘It had been better for him not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto him.’ But no, he turned back, and a millstone ought to be tied around that offenders neck. Did you know he said that reason not only is, but ought to be, the slave to passion?”

“No I didn’t,” I said “I thought he was all empiricistic and naturalistic, denying innate knowledge and whatnot. But to heck with Hume, who cares, or at least we can agree on that, but why do you go on bashing poetry without compunction when you said this morning that ‘life takes a delicate balance of the simple and the complex, needing both the poetic and rational perspective’? In all your rationalism you’re not making sense and end up in contradicting yourself. Which do you really believe?”

“Aha!” he barked, actually wagging his tail for the first time since his beer breakfast this morning. “You’re not quite the pitifully illogical wreck I was scared your might be. Your parietal lobe is certainly scrawny and undernourished, but obviously since being around me you’re making rapid progress. Congratulations, you are almost right. You see, there is an apparent contradiction in my balance theory and my antipathy towards poetry. Of course if you wanted to concentrate your life in simplicities, unrealities, and unions you would live the life of the mystic, the poet, or the amoeba. But why on earth would you want to? Wouldn’t this life be the most boring, the most intrusive, the most unproductive? Yes, on it’s own, poetry is certainly a method incapable of producing any functional ends. But when you combine the scope of vision available to poetry, and the scope of vision available to science and skepticism, dual and disparate worlds are drawn together, and you become suddenly capable of Magic! And Magic of course,” he salivated, “is oh so exponentially useful! so wonderful! in producing results! This I think, is what Plato must have dimly seen when even after all his well-justified rhetoric against poetry he did in the end allow it, in certain censured forms of course, into Kalipolis. But Democritus of course was again around the block from Socrates running the establishment he and his student were trying still to find! Democritus is always and everywhere accurately recognized as the father of modern science, but what isn’t remembered is that he also wrote poetry and poetic theory! Now tell me, why would the father of modern science suspend himself from the complexity of reality and concern his time with abject, non-existent simplicity, unless he had expected results! I think he delved into poetry because he knew that if he could marry simplicity to complexity, the children would be absolutely fabulous. He was the true magiterialist.

“Today, if we are going to bring the Fall back to the island,” he said, “we are going to need to do magic, which is I think, the only time immense powers of reason, skepticism, and analysis such as mine are not enough. I am of course, after the manner of Democritus, Diogenes, and all great cynics a materialist. But when you are able to combine the complexity of materialism with a discipline dealing in union, simplicity, and all other unrealities, you are capable of magic.”

Not being very familiar with the magic, balance theories, or magiterialism, I tried to prod him into surrendering more concrete details. “So what your saying then is the magician is a two headed amalgamation? With one mind a cynic and the other a mystic? Is that why the Egyptian magi went around with heads of wolves and crocodiles? I hope your not going to make me walk around with you crouched up on my head leering like a totem pole.”

Alfred though only sneered something about mockery and me taking him for an imitationist. He snappishly re-hooked his left canine in my belt-loop, securing his kinetic balance on the back of the moped and ending the conversation.

Down out of the mountains we coasted. Round curves and curves as the bright Aegean Sea opened up and twinkled out before us. For the first time I sensed the slightest haunting in the air of crispness or static. The trees leaned as if to listen for something, and wind rustled in the ditches. My jaws tightened, and little shivers flicked down across my back in waves. It wasn’t quite so good as fall, but was at least unmistakably the senility of summer. I glanced back to see if Alfred had felt anything, but his eyes were as glassy as the trifocals of a calculus professor.

We passed thin little yards and fences, with rhombus shaped gates to fit the incline of the hill. The distances between the houses got shorter, and the walls between them taller. Macadam road gave away to cobblestone, and low mortar and plaster walls to marble doorsteps. The heat changed again, from the clean heat of the slopes to the dusty and human heat of a city. I thought about feeling self conscious riding down through the mountain slope streets of Plomari with a medium sized yellow dog holding on against my belt loop by his teeth, but assumed these people had seen everything from the smaller of the horses to the larger of the mayors riding on along on the backseat of a motorbike.

The streets leveled out, the right angles straightened, and the steps we had had to bump down flattened into shallow drainage troughs. We dipped out to the sea front, and followed the road along the dock lines. Alfred unclenched his teeth from my belt loop, and sat up far straighter and poised than I had thought him capable. He would cock his head out and toward the side trying to see out below my arm and yell out things like “Stop!” and “Turn left!”.

We carried up over a small hill, and at every split time took the street closest to the sea. The street soon opened up into a highway, as the terrain heightened into cliffs and the sea dropped away below us. Farther and farther it fell, down tumbling mountain sides and sheer rock falls. The huge sea turned assure blue with all the atmosphere, and the horizon slung out so far away the sky really did fall into it so far that you really couldn’t tell which from which. All out ahead you could see the road stretching along the bottom side of the island disappearing behind a mountain jutting its leggs out into the sea. Craggy rock faces climbed above us, and tumbled out below. We were on the side of cliff face, with all the sun and sea shouting after us in laughter.

Then to our right, there was a recess between the road and the cliff-face, and above it, about the height of two men, was an ancient cross of dull red marble cut into the green limestone. Immediately after, the limestone cliff above us fell away into the side of a terraced dirt hill, and up the hill a road a staggered in zig-zags, terraced on either side with ancient stonework. “Up there!” said Alfred, “Is where we’re going.” I gunned the engine and climbed to the first zag before slowing to a crawl around the steep, hard-angled turn. As the engine muttered in its lowest gear, Sir Alfred leaped off, and bounded up ahead, scrabbling around the hair pins. “We’re meeting an old friend of mine,” he shouted over his shoulder, “An old Orthodox hermit who taught me my English.”

Alfred turned around at the next corner which had slightly less pitch than a barn roof, and stopped me. “He was born I think in Albania. Greek parents. They named him Hermogenes. He went to school though at Cambridge. After Cambridge he somehow ran afoul of Hermes, the old Greek god of knowledge, while trying to influence the philosophy department at the Academy of Athens. Hermes enlisted the help a few Furries, and an old Arai disguised as a bohemian intellectual to entrap Hermogenes and curse him to know everything there is to be known. Poor Hermogenes’ ambitions and manners practically crumpled under all that weight, and he spent seven years in the Pindus Mountains of Macedonia begging to be able to forget some things and relieve the weight of his curse. Eventually Eleos the goddess of mercy found him and taught him how to make an Absinthe so pure that he when he drinks it he is able to forget nearly everything but what is relevant and near at hand. Though the Absinthe provides only a temporary absolution from knowing everything, Hermogenes can come back from his little oblivion refreshed and clarified enough to carry a nearly normal life. I hope he isn’t drunk when we find him. If so, all hope is lost, because we’ve got to find out from him where the seasons make their beds when they lay down to sleep.”

“Now the plan is this: He’ll want to start drinking the second we get there, he knows all to well the humiliating and terrifying affects of knowing everything. Especially in social situations. If he’s feeling well enough, if he’s not drunk on Absinthe but still carrying the latent clarity with him, he’ll be able to forget that he knows everything about us, and be able to ask polite questions. This is very difficult for him to do though, so he’ll do his best to treat us well as guests and get us all drunk on Absinthe as soon as possible.”

“Wonderful!” I said, struggling to keep my stalled moped from rolling back down the hill, “I’ve always wanted to taste Absinthe. And if Eleos gave it to him, it sounds like this guy has got the right recipe. Why, I don’t even know if you can buy real Absinthe with wormwood in it anymore anywhere on earth!”

Alfred convulsed exultantly and yapped “See! you’ll go and muff the whole thing up! We’ve got to keep him from drinking until we’ve asked him where the Fall sleeps in a normal enough manner that he doesn’t suspect why were asking. We’ll do it like this, I’ll hold him up for a while with a very difficult question dealing with the relationships between particle kinetics, temperature, and pressure. Then you’ll ask him something about writing poetry on the seasons, which he’ll answer probably in a manner of short simplicity which is due such subjects, and from there, you’ll say something offhand and vaguely poetic like ‘say, where does the fall make her bed when at the beginning of winter she lays down to sleep?’, he’ll know of course, if he hasn’t been drinking to recently of the Absinthe, and likely pop it out in the same manner of short simplicity before he has time to think of why we wonder.”

I looked at Alfred, and could not convince myself if what I was hearing was a deeper wisdom than most, or a deeper nonsense. I was though, for the first time convinced there really was something more going on than a long bike ride on a hot Aegean island.

On either side of the road stood gaunt olive trees, clearly as old as any, but rheumatic and undernourished. Eventually the road leveled out, and lead to three round stone huts, one of which was a little smaller than my studio in Panagouida, and two of which were very much smaller. I stopped the moped, kicked out its stand, and switched the engine off. Three goats under the heat-shade of a fuller olive wheezed pitiful puffs of dust and looked up sleepily. “Hermogenes!” barked Alfred, at the door of the studio-sized hut, head up straight, tail tucked against his leggs. From inside the grotto three good loud whacks issued, like a watermelon being punched by a featherweight boxer, followed by the unmistakable sound of a throat clearing. Out the door popped a leather chested old man with a white trailing beard, no shirt, and loose cotton-flax pants the color of sand. He was squinting and massaging his cheeks, but had eyes so bright you felt like it was you who should be the one squinting. He thumped his chest twice, and the watermelon sound came again, only softer this time. “HErmHERm, Ahh. Forgive me.” He said in a voice that sounded about like the color of his pants, “I’ve got to roust my voice out, its been sleeping so long I wouldn’t wonder if it has turned to bone. Hello, Hello! Alfred! It is you isn’t it? My oh my you’ve matured.” The old man stooped far lower than I would have thought possible, and majestically twice kissed Alfred’s ugly yellow face, once on each cheek. Alfred returned the kisses, and throughout the how exchange looked more dignified, more dog-like, and least like himself than I have ever seen him. The goats though, looked shocked, and baahed in an amiably disgruntled kind of way.

“And who is your friend?” Hermogenes turned to me, and looked me in the eye with eyes like starlight tossed on dark ocean. “Ah!” said Alfred, “He is a poet I found wandering around in Panaguoida. I’ve befriended him and am teaching him in the ways that you have taught me.”

“And what might those ways be I wonder?” said Hermogenes.

“Oh, too many ways to count!” said Alfred, “But summed up of course by the paradox which solves the problem in balance. Everything consists and is governed by near-balances and imbalances. And so for the virtuous soul, all of life must be balanced. Yet never in perfect balance, for in a perfect balance nothing can exist for each side is canceled out by the other. The only way then to live a perfectly balanced life, is to hold balance itself balanced with unbalance and allowing the possibility of each. Thus the only life which is really capable of balance is the one in which unbalance exists.”

“Yes too many ways to count! Or sum up. Which are, I suppose two different ways of trying to do the same thing.” Hermogenes shouted a series of rapid claps of laughter. And while he laughed the three goats lost all languor, struggled up to their feet sideways, and capered about doing their best to laugh as well. He hugged me like a mountain lion, and kissed me twice on both cheeks. Unlike Alfred though, I didn’t return the kisses. I would have if I had thought about it, but as it was I was to busy keeping eyes on those goats to make sure they didn’t try to kiss me as well. They didn’t quite, but I think they would have if they had thought about it. The one started nibbling complacently on my pocket, and the other on my shoe, while the third began rubbing the spot between her horns on my kneecap.

“Alfred!” Hermogenes shouted, “It is good of you to come back after all these years! I hope you haven’t lost your taste for Absinthe! I’ve been meaning to open a cask this month that’s been lying in herbs since years before the first time I met you. We shall remember the old times again!”

Alfred immediately looked worried. “Well, uh, herm, its still a little early to be drinking isn’t it?” I gaped at him, and was about to involuntarily revisit my last two beers he had for breakfast, but thankfully Hermogenes beat me to the sentiment.

“Nonsense!” He roared “It was never to early to drink for the Sir Alfred I knew! Why, what do you mean? It’s already a little bit after noon!”

Alfred looked even more uncomfortable, but then gave a show of appearing like he was giving in. There was no dog-honesty in his eyes, only childlike deviance. “Aged on herbs since before you met me?” He said in a wistful sort of voice, and his eyes changed again, holding now the full range of honesty, intelligence and deviance. “Well I would like to try some, for old times sake. And of course, for its own particular merits, but I was hoping we could enjoy your curse a little as well. We have some questions for you. You see, my friend here has been bellyaching to write a few odes to fall, don’t ask me why, but he can’t because so far summer hasn’t even expired yet enough for him to write its epitaph. He needs you to tell him the secret of writing well without ever meeting the external inspiration of a topic. You know, the art of writing love poetry without ever having met your lover. As for myself, I’m having difficulties reconciling the thermodynamic consquenses of the Ideal Gas Law with the consequenses to atomic kinetics. You know I haven’t got any authoritative sources down there in the wasteland of Panaguoida, and have to rely soley on memory for my facts, and solely on thought experiments for my hypotheses. You see, the equations for the kinetic results of the particles of a compressed gas cannot be derived from the results of the net change of the overall temperature of the gas, as predicted by Avagodro’s equations if Boyle’s Law and Charle’s Law really are different results of the same effect noticed by Avagondro. I’m now beginning to wonder…”

“Oh,” Interrupted Hermogenes, “That’s easy, you’ve only been approaching things in the wrong order. You can’t go from the Ideal Gas Law to the actual kinetic activity of particles. You’ve got to instead first make simplifying assumptions about the weight, type, and kinetic activities of the particles, and from there you can work your way to Ideal Gases. It doesn’t always work the other way. You’ve got to remember that simplifying assumptions have already been carried in one direction, and if you want to get back you’ve got to carry the same simplifying assumptions in the opposite direction. It’s simple, really, but I can understand how you arrived at your confusion.”

“Herm, but the question of poetry, now that is much more difficult. I’m not sure I’ve been quite sober long enough to get at something of that complexity the way I’d like to.”

Poor Alfred gaped at him like fish just told the surface of his pond was not the sky. His pride was so delicately wounded that even I could nearly read the entire story of his intents and desires from the contents of his face.

“Why what’s the problem?” said Hermogenes, his face obviously straining the effort of forgetting that he probably actually knew. “If you’d like me to, I could try to stay sober for the night, and maybe in the wee hours of the morning if we stay up in good conversation I’d be sober enough to remember everything I need to address the possibility of conduiting inspiration on topic without experiencing the topic or even including the topic itself.”

I understood Alfred’s problem. If Hermogenes got drunk now on Absinthe, he probably couldn’t tell us where the fall sleeps. If he stayed sober for too long though so that we could enjoy his curse, he would eventually remember what we were really up to despite himself. I wasn’t sure why this would be a problem, but obviously Alfred knew him better than me, so I supposed if he knew he would try to put a stop to us. On my end, I really did want to hear everything Hermogenes had to say about inspiration and poetry, but I also was desperate to bring back the fall. Also after our conversation on the hill, I was beginning to see that for Alfred this trip was not about bringing back the fall at all, but attempting to make use of what he called a simplistic soul to test his theories on the effective and “really fabulous” results of magiterialism.

“Ah, splendid!” cried Alfred in feline mal-ease still clearly at loss of what to do. “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his sanity for his friends!” He writhed minutely with effort of trying to come up with a revised plan.

Hermogenes saw this, and writhed majestically with the effort to remember to forget why Alfred was writhing. I wasn’t sure who looked the more uncomfortable. Hermogenes clearly was more the visibly distressed, but then and again Alfred always looked so uncomfortable that anything which could make him look this much worse than normal must have been agitation indeed.

Out of a fissure in this tension, somewhere above and over to the left of my eyes there was a quarter instant of simplifying bright green flash like the Muse, and without planning to I blurted, “But couldn’t you just tell me where the Fall lies down at the beginning of winter to sleep? It is about the end of September after all, maybe I could just wake her and write about the Fall herself rather than just some inspiration about her. That would be so much easier, so much more real than just talking about it.”

Alfred looked horrified, but not Hermogenes. “Splendid idea!” he roared. “Why! What a flash of simplicity! That’s what you wanted all along isn’t it!” He looked hard at both Alfred and me with a very disconcerting eye on each. The dark water beneath the starlight in his eyes went from fierce stillness to hilarious rippling. He laughed and laughed at us, with more good humor than all the sun and wind. “You should have just told me in the first place, rather than trying to confuse me with all that complexity, poetry and chemistry. Why that was about has conflicted as I’ve been since before Heleos gave me Absinthe! The place that the Fall sleeps in not far from here at all, in fact, it’s on this same mountain just on different legg, the one that juts out into the sea. There are four caves there in a cliff face where the four Seasons either sleep, or do not sleep. I’ll even go with you to make sure you find the way.”

Sir Alfred’s poor face was so convoluted I could no longer read any of it, but I took courage in that everything seemed to be going alright.

“Wonderful!” I said, “Now that that’s all been taken care of and gotten out of the way, could we uh, partake in the drink of Heleos, Hermogenes, and the Muse?”

“Of course!” Hermogenes grinned delightedly and respectfully, “That is, if you’ve had enough time to enjoy my curse, Alfred?”

Alfred grinned too, almost as amiably as the goats, and muttered something very confusedly about no greater love, but it was blurred by sensuous licking of his chops.

Hermogenes rushed about like a beaver at a dam break and laying down a tired piece of linen on an ancient smooth slabbed table under one of the taller olives, bringing out curious carved stone bowls, fetching a wonderfully large cask out of one of the smaller huts. He set the bowls and cask down ontop the linen, went back in for a dipper and second cask filled with cold water. With a small drill he pushed a hole near the top of the cask, and neatly set in it and corked a small tube. He then inverted the cask, and drilled a new whole in what was now the top. Carefully he held each one of the stone bowls in turn beneath the spout and undid the cork. Instantly the air briskened with the scents of the acids and oils of thousand herbs. A slightly lucent green vapor wafted from each of the bowls. From the second barrel he ladled a dipper of clear water into each bowl of spirits. Hermogenes handed a bowl to Alfred and I, and we three sat down cupping our bowls and staring at one another over the rims, Alfred completely at ease in the gymnastics of sitting upright upon a keg and holding a stone bowl between dog paws. Clearly, he had been here before.

“Drink!” cried Hermogenes, and started sipping his with immense pleasure, like a good tea at the optimum temperature. Alfred lifted his bowl above his upturned nose and did a waterfall, his throat bulging and swallowing hedonistically. I held mine very close to my face, looking down into it and drenching my brain and sinuses in the upturned worlds of scent. “In this Absinthe,” said Hermogenes, “is the distilled essence of every virtuous herb in the western world. I have gone beyond wormwood, fennel and anise, Heleos showed me the way, I have left nothing out.” The verdant color, the lucent vapor, the heady scent, themselves were enough to hold me; I wanted to sit and smell my bowl forever. I let them go and allowed myself to more, setting the bowl to my lips, spilling it into my mouth, swallowing, accepting, letting it trickle down within me to my stomach, the region of the body ancient Greeks believed to be the seat of emotions. It tasted like star spice and earth’s milk, cool, musky, and potent beyond belief. My body rippled with the sensation of taking it in, my senses unfurled like a blossom in fast-forward, and my entire consciousness felt as clear and green as Eden.

“It won’t have the same effect on you as it has on me,” Hermogenes was saying. “For myself, it eases the terrible weight of my curse, and allows me to forget nearly everything but what is immediately at hand and those things relevant to the moment. It’s hard telling what it will do for you. For some people, the Absinthe is no different from another spirit, for some it is no different from water. Others pass into a green haze and speak only in horrible ionic tetrameters, remembering nothing they said when they return. Believe me, they are terrible to listen to.”

I tried to experiment with lining up an ionic tetrameter in my head, but had to give up beaten.

“Now for me,” Hermogenes said, “Like the true hedonists, the greatest pleasures are those of the mind. The surest pleasure is the clarity of partial oblivion, when I can set down my curse and forget the weight of near infinite knowledge. But within that pleasure, I have another great pleasure. The fleeting moments of natural learning that come sometimes when reading. If I have drunk of the Absinthe, and begin reading at a great pace, some times I can pick up enough speed that I am not only able to loose my knowledge of the extraneous, but also my knowledge of what is near at hand. At that moment, I have the immense pleasure of actually being able to learn things again before I know them.”

His majestic face slumped almost imperceptibly, and he looked down and then back up at me in the face. “But I’ve lived so long with the pleasures of the mind. I need something again to remind me of the pleasures of Life. If the strongest things are the unities that allow separate things to come together to one within them, like fibers to rope, chords to music, rules to chess, and members to a body, then it would follow that the greatest pleasures are not those of the mind or the body, and neither even of the soul. The strongest pleasures would be only those that interact with all three. The greatest pleasure would be that of life. If this life is the context for proving one way or another what a human is, then surely playing the drama out will reveal to us more about ourselves than will discussing our beliefs on the subject around a fire-side. If we are the stage writers and actors proving to a watching cosmos what it is that humanity is and does, we’d better watch out we don’t spend all our time arguing about the script. I’m going to throw the heart into the mix to, and go so far as to say the greatest pleasures are those of the body and mind together when they have accomplished in reality a belief of the heart about nature of the soul. Or when the soul, the heart, the mind, the body have all communicated and agreed together as the result of a metaphysical and nonabstract conjunction. That’s why, of course, the greatest of these is love. Love is one thing that does not leave any realm of reality untouched. It arises as either a call or a response withing the soul, gains intensity from the heart, direction from the mind, and physical reciprocation in the body. Love is binding yourself together in the only way which makes sense of a cup of cold water, every preceding impulse which delivered it, and the entire dialectical history of cause and effect that resulted in the water, the cup, and a thirsty person.”

“I’m skeptical”, Sir Alfred said, in a blasé tone of voice that made both me and Hermogenes shout with laughter. “You had me lost until the dialectical history of cause and effect. Thanks for tossing me in that little life-saver, I’ll do my best to cling to it and get safely through without drowning in your sea of unions and simplicities. I’m a fan of love too of course,” Alfred held out his bowl like a thirsty person, “But you can skip the water.”

“A great point! The greatest pleasures are not only unions but simplicities,” cried Hermogenes, “Or least they must be remembered and counted upon only as simplicities. Even on the greatest pleasures and especially on them we cannot hinge the weight of complexity. Take this Absinthe,” Hermogenes uncorked a green stream of Absinthe into Sir Alfred’s bowl, and handed it back to him straight, “It is an immense pleasure because in interacts with not only your body, but also your soul and your mind. Yet it cannot deliver to you anything that is not already within in you, and should not be counted on to do so. It may take some things away, like your constraint of nearly infinite knowledge or your ability to speak in anything but ionic tetrameter, but it will not bare the weight any final absolution. The great pleasures of simplicity and union must be respected, and not violated, for they are squandered if not entered into rightly or if they are allowed to interact only with one part of the human. Everything must be included.

“And that is why,” he said leaping up and knocking both his knees on the edge of the table, “Adventure also is so intoxicating. It appeals to every part of you, your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body. Not one of those is an adequate instrument with which to understand reality. But all together? We can maybe get close!” He dodged back and forth between us and the hut, ladling us all another bowl of Absinthe, re-corking it, and carrying everything back within the grotto. He strode about very animated and bustling, bringing out and putting on shoes, locating a walking stick, and instructing the goats on what they should do when he was gone. I thought that beyond gestalts, simplicities and true hedonism, or well, perhaps because of them, he was clearly very excited to have something to go out and do. I’m sure it had been just him, his goats, his books and his Absinthe for far too long.

Thinking about gestalts, I again remembered that dream I had the night before. Its emotions haunted me, and I realized they were the same emotions I had heard in what Hermogenes said about unities. I felt the dream again, myself and somehow also a bird more blue than the deepest skies flying below endlessly layered skyscapes of vivid September, swirling up and up in heights of color. Below us was the grayest gray of worlds, that we knew was there, and somehow flew in and above at the same time but without ever seeing it. For our eyes were somehow only upwards, and we flew between, singing with everything our flight. Maybe everything around was dying, but if so, then the death itself was only a shout of life. I ached with the memory.

I saw then with wakefulness, how primitive I was, how spiritually unevolved and soulishly primevial. If for Alfred going to wake the Fall meant only a chance test his theories of magiterialism and do magic by merging his complexity with simplicity, then for me it meant only an attempt to find emotional completion by hinging the weight of meaning and complexity upon experience. For both of us, the trip was an attempt to make our dreams come true. Both a wonderful and dangerous thing if either we should fail or succeed. After you’ve thought of everything, or thought of nothing, and located your dream, to truly succeed, you must then delocate it, and carry on anyway, without thought of whether or not it can come true. Everything that is sought for itself will turn to dust, and everything must be sought in the context of something greater. Love is a faith that is kept through the cycle of mystery, reason, and mystery again.

I wanted to say all this to Alfred, but he and Hermogenes were in an absolute frolic of setting about a departure. They had nothing left to do for themselves but leave, so of course they joyfully prodded me into motion, Hermogenes jerking me up by the hand, and Alfred exuberantly biting at my ankles. I was glad the goats were busy closing up the little stone huts, or I’m sure they would have been charging me too.

The three of us set off capering out the lane and down the zig zag trail. Alfred doing hilarious acrobatics and Hermogenes sliding sideways on a long spill of loose gravel, trailing his walking stick down behind him as a ballast. We reached the road, and lit into a dead sprint for as many yards as we could take. I was surprised to find I had less breath than either Alfred or Hermogenes, and lagged out early into a walk, wracked with breath, and dust, and life.

We reached the place where the road turned in against the mountain, and its great leg jutted down into the sea. We clambered down off the road, and into a ravine that should have been damp with a vague trickle of water, but was only hard burnt stone and dust. We lowered ourselves down the incline, sometimes having to balance in the narrow places between rocks. Alfred had the hardest time, since he was the shortest, and sometimes had to go far out on the ridge to our left and pick his way through the brush and hillside to climb back down and meet us. To our right the ravine reared up steeply into cliff, and the rock gave way from granites and sand stones completely to a black ingenious rock formation, worn and ancient. Weird crystal formations wove tight patterns through fissures in the rock. In a near-chimney between two formations were worn bracing holds, embedded into the rock.

“Herm, here we are,” Grunted Hermogenes. “I’d better go first in case of any surprises.” He tied the leather thong on his walking stick to his belt, and started climbing. Alfred was picking his way toward us around fir trees and hard fire-loving vegetation. I just reaching up my hands and feet for the first holds, when Hermogenes turned and looked back down on me from about ten or fifteen feet. “You better give Sir Alfred a ride up, he won’t be wide enough to span the foot holds.” Remembering our ride on the moped, the dryer parts of my heart blanched a little, but I crouched down and said. “Up you get!” I had expected Alfred to somehow cling on like a back pack, but no such luck. In a bound he lurched up on top of my shoulders and sat on his haunches, wrapping his fore-paws around my fore-head, his chin looking out over my face and his body draped down the back of my head. I saw an image of what we must look like, and collapsed against the side of the wall groaning in laughter. “You know what we look like?” I said, “An Egyptian magi in an ugly yellow dog mask.”

Alfred yelped and twisted to keep from being crushed against the wall. “Who cares! I told you, I’m not an imitationist! I’m a pragmatist! Quit trying to laugh me off your head and get me higher!”

Sputtering and complaining, I made my way up the chimney, finding it surprisingly easy to climb, even with 35 five pounds of ugly medium sized yellow dog on my neck. We caught up with Hermogenes on a ledge that was accessible from the chimney, and followed him out along it till it terminated in a knobby boulder above which another chimney rose, but steeper and spiral cased. Hermogenes lept with the agility of a goat, and landed on the boulder, his hands in the first holds of the chimney. I braced myself at the edge of the ledge, and tried think how I would get both Alfred and myself across onto the boulder. With the extra weight on my head, it would certainly take some sort of at least strategic if not philosophical balancing. “Alfred, I’m going to crouch down to jump, but a second before I jump you need to, and convert your potential energy to kinetic energy so your inertia doesn’t way me down. I’ll complete my crouch as you jump and spring back from your recoil and we’ll both make it across.” I swallowed hard, and felt Alfred swallowing hard to, deep with his diaphragm all the way down the back of my head.

“I see what your saying,” He said, “Every one of us must be his own leader. Even if we can help eachother out. Ok, I’m jumping, one, two, three. Crouch. Juh”

“Jump!” Alfred jumped. I jumped up in behind and overtaking his jump. We reeled onto the boulder, as I caught us in controlled fall against one of the hand holds of the chimney. Hermogenes was again far above us, and I climbed up the spiral as quickly as I could, wheezing with exertion, sweat, and dog hair. This climb was much more difficult than the last one, and Alfred began to smell faintly like fear as my muscles strained and pulled. Finally the chimney opened up into the shallow knob of a hill, and just over it a plateau where Hermogenes waited for us, radiant with joy and sweat. “You see through those fir trees where the cliff begins to rise again? In there are the four caves in which the four Seasons sleep.” I looked where he was pointing, and through the trees made out the opening of cave. All my skin crawled at the sight of it, and I thought the back of my neck was actually crawling off until I realized it was just Alfred. I shivered involuntarily three times, each one feeling almost like it was a sneeze.

We crept forward through the trees, all three of us unnecessarily hushed and careful. Four caves lay ahead of us, spaced out along the cliff wall. “Which cave is the Fall’s?” Alfred asked Hermogenes.

Hermogenes inched closer, “Herm, it’s the second I think. Yes, it goes backwards from here, Winter, Fall, Summer, and Spring all the way down where the cliff falls into the sea. I’ll go on and poke my nose in and do some reconnaissance. You two better wait here.”

Hermogenes stopped at the mouth of a the first cave, and listened. We couldn’t help ourselves, but crept along behind him and listened as well. From inside there came the sound of a vast snoring. Hermogenes winked back at us, and mouthed something about Winter snoring and hibernation. He paused listening at the second cave, peering in for only a moment, before walking around it and going up to the third.

Alfred opened his mouth, and shut it again, looking very foolish and important. “Now here’s the plan,” he confided to me, “We won’t need Hermogenes from here. I’ll join the side of simplicity by quoting an ancient and cryptic ode to the Fall, while you join yourself to the side of complexity by reciting the formulas for atmospheric pressure and temperature changes on the first meteorological day of Fall. So you don’t mess up, I’ll write the formulas in that patch of loose sand at the mouth of the cave, and you speak them as I write. We’ll take turns, I’ll write a formula, then as you spout it out and erase it while I spout out a stanza and write you another formula. We’ll be sure to wake the Fall with that delicately complete balance of complexity and simplicity. Why, with such magic, we may even conjure the Muse!”

Rows of objections lined up in my mind. “But you don’t even believe in the Muse! And even if you wrote out the formulas I still would never be able to read the math parts of them, even if I could the Greek and English!” Horrified at trying to conjure the Muse with ancient verse and barometric pressures, and remembering the flash I had seen at Hermogenes’ house, “You’ll never conjure the Muse like that,” I blurted, “For all you know the Muse is conjuring us!”

“Then pay the Muse no mind!” Barked Alfred, paying me no mind. “I’ll just start us off with a little incantation of initiation, explaining to ourselves and the Universe why we are here, and warming up the side of my simplicity with a little poetic exercise. I’d suggest you do a little exercise to, why not go through the times tables?” He said his voice dripping horridly with everything I’d know better when I was older.

His face contorted, and his eyes rolled back in an expression that might have been ecstatic if it hadn’t been so ghastly. With an impossibly forced enunciation of meter, he stilted out,

“Today we join duality

a dog and man, best company.

Complex and simple

the firmament wrinkle

and bend apart normality

To find a…..

He was interrupted by a terrible eruption from the third cave. A huge gaunt wraith of an old man, clearly senile and see-through, was beating at Hermogenes at the mouth of the cave, trying to take away his staff in a flutter of flapping skin and swirling dust.

“Compose yourself Summer!” shouted Hermogenes desperately, “Its just me! Hermogenes! You used to come by my place sometimes at the end of spring when you had just woken up disguised as a goat buyer to find out from me the news of the world that had happened while you slept!”

Alfred and I rushed up on the pair, one of us bearing his teeth, and the other going into a boxing stance. We held our poses right up the edge of the whirlwind of old men, where we stopped and looked at eachother awkwardly. Alfred dropping out of his boxing stance onto all fours, and me unbearing my teeth.

Before we could take up our rightful and effective positions of attack, the Summer let go of Hermogenes, slumped into ash-grey folds through which you could see the rock behind him, and squinted at him. “Hermogenes? Why I thought you were another pesky geologist come poking around in the caves looking for crystals.” He stopped, “Well now I know who you are, but how did do you know who I was?”

“Hermogenes knows everything!” Snarled Alfred.

“Except when I’ve had Absinthe,” Laughed Hermogenes, “Then I’m blessed to forget most things but what are at hand.”

“You know everything?” Said the Summer looking closely at Hermogenes. “Would you know how to fix the Fall’s alarm clock? She can’t wake up without it, and I can’t wake her! I must be asleep when she wakes up, or she’ll be frightfully angry.”

“Of course!” Said Hermogenes, “I still know everything that is near at hand, and without the terrible weight of all the rest of my knowledge, I can actually put my knowledge at hand to use! But what’s wrong with the Fall’s alarm clock?”

The Summer looked decrepitly embarrassed, and turned into the cave so we couldn’t see his face. “Right this way,” he said, “It’s all in my front room, I’ve just about gotten it back together. You see, I disabled it a week or two ago because I wasn’t quite ready to go to bed yet, and I haven’t been able to quite get it running again properly.”

We rounded the corner, and all across the floor was strewn heaps of crystals and cut rocks, levers and shafts and cogs. Basins of distilled herbs bubbling vaguely, and pots of mastic resin I assumed were to hold the whole thing together. In the center of the floor, stood a gaunt skeleton of thin rock pillars and trellis work of smooth wood, oozing resin and crystals.

Hermogenes gaped at the wreckage, horrified. I pushed at a crystal shaft the width of my wrist with my foot, and sighed. Even with Hermogenes’ complete knowledge of things near at hand, the Summer had made such a mess of the alarm clock, I was sure it would take days to set the thing aright. The summer squatting down and creaking and fidgeting, picking things up and setting them back down again and muttering to himself.

Alfred though, was the only one unperturbed. “Ah!” He cried ecstatically, vastly comfortable in the stew of complexity and barely capable of keeping himself from getting down and rolling in the pile of loose springs and crystals. “Timekeeping!” He yipped, “That wonderful past time of the orderly Universe! I tell you gentlemen, here lies true beauty, asleep at our feet, waiting for us to awaken her! Oh the complexity! The disparity! Order! Discipline! Function!” He shrieked, and began picking up pieces too, muttering, growling gently, organizing things into neat piles and rows.

Hermogenes attacked the squat little monster in the center of the floor directly, dismantling and rearranging. “Herm, this won’t work. That’s not going to do. Better take this off and save it to put over there.”

At first the Summer tried to help, but his fingers were arthritic and so vaguely material that things would keep slipping through them and he couldn’t get a grip on anything. I thought it looked like Sir Alfred and Hermogenes we’re making good progress on their own, and I new I wouldn’t be of any help, so I walked outside and sat down in the sun at the mouth of the cave. The scrub firs and cypress were stirring indefinitely in the near-stillness of the air off the sea. I looked out at the Aegean, seeing the faint outline of the mountains of Turkey off in the east, the expanses of blue, the vast blocks of gold that had fallen off the afternoon sun and into the sea. I looked back over the day, and it seemed to stretched out for miles and miles farther even the horizon. I was pleasantly horrified by how far away was the morning, and how much life had happened in between.

Over the next half hour, I kept going back in to see how Alfred and Hermogenes were getting along with the alarm clock. They were making progress, as far as I could tell, but still to busy and excited to pay any attention to me, which I thought was a good thing. The Summer hovered over them, fluttering and drooping, utterly exhausted from having guests in his home cleaning things up and putting things to rights.

In another half hour, I dozing blissfully in the sun, when I woke up with Hermogenes leaning over and shaking me, saying “Hurry up! Hurry up!” bobbing around and flapping his wispy white beard. “We finished the alarm clock, and set it to go off in fifteen minutes! Come help me carry it into the cave of the Fall!”

I leaped up and rushed inside where Sir Alfred and the Summer were scrabbling with the alarm clock, trying to push it toward the door of the cave. It was set on a thick round base of dark ancient wood, with thin stone columns and a second circle of wood on top. Its basic outline reminded me of an hourglass, but between the columns was a riot of kaleidoscopic carnival that made my eyes hurt. Canisters of ferment bubbled, crystals twinkled and twitched, cambers pulsed feebly. The thing looked fine enough, but was brutishly heavy. Hermogenes and I carried it out into the sunshine, squinting in the minute glares of a hundred crystals, and over to the mouth of the second cave. We crept into the mouth of the Fall’s cave, weirdly quite and self-aware, trying to breath quietly and avoid looking eachother in the eye. “Here, here,” Said the Summer pointing to a corner in a front room of the cave very much like his own. Grunting gently, Hermogenes and I set down the massive clock, and backed away toward the entrance. I looked back into the gloom of the cave, and the back of my neck really did crawl off and went scuttling away across the floor crab-like, trying to get back outside of the cave.

In the rear of the cave there was a hum of static and electricity, particles accelerating and bouncing off one another, free electrons sizzling about in the air. Waves of chills came over me with more life than the hottest day in July, I knew in the back of the cave, lay the Fall, poised in her sleep, wound down like spring and gathering strength like a dawn held back by a dam of climbing mountains. With all the spare energy in the room, with and the edgeness, with all that was about to happen, the clock began to pick up speed. The fermentations bubbled faster and faster, the crystals creaked and ricocheted against their casings, the cogs ticked and the cambers whirred. I fled out of the cave, where the poor old Summer was torn between effusively thanking Hermogenes and Alfred and darting back to his cave. He looked up at me with blank terror, rushing out of the cave with my face crawling and hair sizzling on end. “The Fall’s coming!” He and I shouted together. The Summer made a dash for his cave, with little bits of ash and skin blowing off him in the sudden wind that had gathered, fierce and bright. He turned at the mouth of his cave, quavering, terrified. “Goodnight!” he screeched, and plunged headlong into his long-due rest and peace and darkness.

“That clocks about to go.” I yelled tripping over Alfred and catching myself on Hermogenes. “Nonsense,” said Alfred, picking up the back of my neck quivering behind a rock, brushing it off and handing it to me. “I calibrated the alarm mechanisms myself, and they aren’t due to go off for another seven minutes. My count.”

“You’re right,” said Hermogenes peering into the cave, there is Something waking up in there. Why I think the Fall was so overdue that she is nearly awake already, more awake, in fact that her Alarm clock, since it is so far behind. I think she is waking it up, and the two will go off together. She’s so late now that she will wake up at the earliest possible moment, and is even now exerting her energy on that clock, moving it as well to go off at the earliest possible moment so that she can awake.”

“Poor old Summer when she does,” snickered Alfred, “I do hope he’s aslee…”

There was a green explosion. Crystals and bits of the alarm clock whistled passed us out of the cave. Thin smoke spewed from the cave like steam, drab grey, and vivid orange. The Fall burst from the tomb, endlessly old with all the years of her turning, yet endlessly young in her birth, and with all the edge of her waiting. Her hair was as black as the dress on death’s grandmother at his funeral, and liquid lithe with a keen dying life of its own. Her aura filled the air like the wings of a phoenix arising from the ashes of a five-hundred year pyre. Her mantel was thin wool, a flight of migrant birds. Her dress was sweeping linen, all the leaves of Autumn. Her very skin bristled with the crackling life of changing colors, of dying embers, of conversations far to full to be remembered.

All this was a blur of motion, upward, outward, seeming to fill the earth. For a moment, a sacred second, the Fall paused and cast her radiance of glorious face and rising eye upon us. And everything within me rose up, fell down, cried out, was silent. But she was gone, in a flight of brilliance, swirling the sky into a collage of wind and color above us.

In silence, we three adventures numbly left the edge of the cave, and in silence climbed back down the way we had came. Alfred once again rode down on my head, and this time I barely noticed him. Still not speaking, we hiked out of the ravine, and up to the road, where we only flicked little glances at one another’s eyes, to see again if the others really understood, if they to had seen the Fall, and were ensconced as well in wonder. We trudged to the east, and back up the hill toward Hermogenes’ dwelling, every atom electrified, and our souls in the ache of world-weariness. And above us, weird wings of migrant birds chanted the haunting trail of their spells.

Outside Hermogenes’ stone huts we parted. Hermogenes bent long, wrapping his leathery arms around Alfred’s scraggly yellow neck. He kissed Alfred on both cheeks, then stood up and kissed me. We looked long into eachother’s faces, our eyes remembering everything between us, everything that we had seen and said.

I turned away, and walked the moped out the lane and down the hill, hands on both brakes. Alfred walked beside me, slow, knightlike, dignified. At the last slope of the hill, I let go the brakes, and kickstarted on the downgrade, waiting at the bottom for Alfred to climb on behind me and batten his canines into my beltloop. He hopped up, and we wobbled out onto the road heading north-east, all the air and sky above us sizzling with the color and spell of Autumn, in front of us Plomari and the mountains, and behind us the dear old sun, dying naked in the West.

A Very Boring Bit about Faith, Hope, and Dreams You Probably Shouldn’t Read, an Altar Call, and an Amen Corner.

I began considering myself an adult sometime last October. When it came, it certainly wasn’t the quasi-death or frightful ending of all passions I thought it might be, but much more boring and acceptable than all that. It came only as a sort of quieting, like a nation about to go into war actually sitting down and planning for real after the first hullabaloos of declarations and excitement were over. Before this, I had certainly been doing many adult-like things, but still deeply considered myself a kid, in an almost sacred sort of way. This is the only thing that has changed, even though I still do many kid-like things, and I hope to heaven that it never changes. Relatedly, I dislike the word adult as much as I ever did before, and am still convinced it has baboonish connotations, like dad, heathen, or sales representative.
One of the defining characteristics or dilemmas of the last five or six years of my kidhood, I think, has been the constant and often unconscious pursuit of motivation. A restless search for stimulation asking, what is purpose, and how do you find it? Life has a tangible purpose when you are able to want something, realize you want it, and take immediate steps to achieve it. What are the contexts in which this process is possible? What chosen external, or internal stimuli are able to get you into productive motion? Motivation is important for a very obvious reason: without it, we achieve nothing. And we all feel the need to achieve something, if for no other reason then at least in order to validate our existence as individuals.

The lack of motivation really isn’t its opposite, but sort of a negated state, or void, which in its own way can be motivant to pursue motivation. God knows I’ve wasted enough time, lying flat on the bed or in games of energy conservation. I’ve always said that I’m passionately lazy, and despite shocked looks and shook heads from everyone I say that too, it’s impossible for me to quite believe it untrue. But I’m also passionate about something else. I’m passionately in search for motivation, in search for routes to completely circumvent the laziness, and land me purposefully engaged in some productive outlet on the other side. The discourse between my dual passions, is really paradoxical, and yet I believe almost a model for understanding and reconciling paradox. The two sides though warring, are built for each other, in spite of, or even by virtue of their antagonism. The commitment to laziness, is really a commitment to nothing but true inspiration. The commitment to motivation is shown as often by avoidance of banal exertion and responsibility as it is shown by engagement with worthwhile motivation.
The whole search, I think, is one of the adult like things that I’ve been doing since even the prehistoric stages of kidhood, and it’s also a search I’ll never complete. The point will never arrive at which I will have generated or received enough motivation to achieve something final enough to somehow validate my existence. I always hope that there will come a time in which I am more motivated than I am now, and while I’m sure that times like that will come, I’m also sure that they will go. I need to do more though than scrap for every ounce of motivation or inspiration in every moment. I need to plan for the long run, delay the satisfaction (i.e. motivation) and move toward contexts and relationships which will deliver worthwhile motivations toward worthwhile ends over a time frame longer than the 140 character tweet, or even the new and improved 280 character. This shift of commitments, from the short to the long term, is I think, the major element comprising the shift of how I view myself, from kid to adult.

Did you dream as a kid? I don’t think I did. At least not in the plans and dreams sense, or what do you want to do when you grow up. Plans, dreams, and ambitions are useless to a seven year old. Bragging rights our nearly useless too. I think I was far too primeval as a seven year old to have any use for self-actualization or society beyond the actuality and society of the creek, the woods, or legos. I do remember hiding below the barn, or across the road in order to do nothing but sit and think, but I still wouldn’t consider this dreaming, except maybe the day kind. Even up through the rest of my kidhood, into and past the end of my teens, I didn’t need to dream. I had no use for it. I simply did what I wanted to, without having to focus my energy and generate some kind of contentment based off of a constructed future reality. Basically, why dream, when you can do? Sure, maybe some elements of your current life are as rotten as a hard boiled egg and broken glass soup, but focusing on some possible but nonexistent future won’t make any of it go away. My point is, although for some reason hopes and dreams are a staple of human existence, until recently I could see no use for them.

There are many upsides to living spontaneously in every moment. But it is hard to support an ethical framework in a solely spontaneous existence without a reference point fixed somewhere which to work towards. Perhaps what first began to shift my thinking from exclusively in the moment to also include futurity, was in an ethics class where I met a book that probably gave me more good theology than ethics. In The Moral Quest, Stanley Grenz presents and shows the strengths and weaknesses of every major ethical framework. Finally, he puts forth a teleological, or “end purpose” framework for ethics, and argues that this is the only one which is philosophically sound. Basically, he says, the reason we are to do good, is because good leads to good, and there is a time coming (i.e. the kingdom of heaven) in which only good will be done. What we do now is a way of bringing that about, and has meaning only in its context.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about redemption, and some of the things that might entail. Unless you assume that a moment which you occupy fully, or in an attempt to do so allow to fully occupy you, is somehow self-containedly culminating and validating of your existence, you’ve got to assume every moment becomes meaningful or meaningless in its context to some sort of progression defined by the higher, Divine form which both upholds and evaluates it. If there is a redemption coming every moment has meaning only its context. If there is not a redemption coming, the moment is meaningless beyond itself, making it meaningless in relation to you, and not worth even occupying or allowing it to occupy you. With regards to the moment then, as well as you, redemption is of course a good thing, as it has suddenly acquired a meaning

In this context of redemption, the future also acquires meaning, and is worth spending resources on. Resources such as time, energy, stimulation, inspiration, motivation, and so on could be invested in the future by arranging continued patterns in the present which deliver these resources in the future. I don’t think this is in anyway invalidating to the moment though, as it is a direct consequence of the same process which brought the meaning of the moment from a zero to one state.

If I seem suspicious of devaluing the moment and relegating it off to the side, that’s because I am. Maybe I’m desperately trying to prove to myself that the gravel heaps of nearly senseless moments I bury every day under the river of time will somehow be worthwhile once I’m through them. I’ve been building steel walls in a huge concrete and steel cavern for the last three months of winter, and I feel like if I emerge in the springtime with only my lungs and not my soul also turned black and curling up at the edges I will have been lucky. I spend fifty hours a week in this cavern, pushing steel around, running self-tapping screws through it, and melting it together with weld. I suppose its in contexts like this that one has to dream. There’s no point in dreaming during the Renaissance, you can jolly well do. But if you’re in the dark ages, dreaming is important.

Hope is I guess a motivation, enabling you to stick out an unfavorable situation, because you’re convinced of what’s ahead. But it’s also an exterior anchoring point, preventing you from becoming content at any point along the way. Hope would be a traitor if it ever terminated in retirement, the ideal job, or a desirable relationship and did leave you completely satisfied. It’s hope that finally dies into the reality of redemption that makes any single hope or moment before then worth ever having. Hope in this sense is a little different than dreams. You can have have dreams with out any sort of faith that they will come about, or in anything else, for that matter. But in the longview, this is still a hopeless state, a state which may have staved off the awareness of its hopelessness, but which is hopeless nevertheless. Though you can have dreams without faith, you can’t have hope without faith. You can have faith in all sorts of things, but it’s when you have faith in nothing that you become hopeless. I don’t think this works both ways though, as I’m pretty sure its possible to have incredibly stalwart, tenacious faith without hope so much as hovering nearby. Picture Job, for a major part of the book.

I still do my best to inhabit as many moments possible in the pea-gravel of the fifty-hour mudslide. On the best days I’m singing, freestylling, and preaching on that belligerent line somewhere between serious and sardonic. On the worst days I crawl into some tiny hole bellow my mind and shut the door, till a timeless eternity passes and the day inexplicably is over. Despite my exonerating philosophies, it is hard to dream in this context, and I’m still almost involuntarily suspect of any region of the brain given over to it. It still seems escapist and worm-holeish to lend mental energies or resources to any moment but the present. It’s still hard for me to unentangle hope from positivism, emotivism, sentimentality, and the other forms of escapism. Like the moral complex christian’s sometimes have of unentangling sex from lust, I probably have a complex separating hope from its perversion. Just because nostalgia is hope faced rearwards, doesn’t mean that hope faced forwards is at all a similar thing.

Hoping and dreaming are still two things that I don’t understand, but I am very interested in them, not only because they’ve been a staple of human survival, but also for how they play into and deliver on motivation. I know very well the philosophies and altar calls for living in the moment, and typically have a very positive emotional and functional response to them. But what about when the moment doesn’t seem worth living in even a little, much less fully? ‘I’m preaching to myself then’, and giving a philosophy and altar call to let hope into those moments, or at least hover nearby, in the well, hopes, that in the context of redemption they do somehow become worth living. In this sense then, I really am still committed to my moments, just allowing regions of myself to step outside of them, in an attempt to latch onto something that will redeem them, or at least make myself aware of the possibility of their redemption. This is not, i think, a betrayal of the moment. Its only, in a quite literal, (or philosophical) attempt to “redeem the [moments] because the days are evil.”  If you see any connections, if anything i said is ‘in need of correction,’ if you ‘feel blessed’, or for any other reason feel ‘called’ to give a testimony, the comment box is your amen corner.