Sunday, October 28, 2018

Danse Macabre

I first became familiar with the Danse Macabre through the music of Saint-Saens, who wrote a tone poem by that name.  I thought it a rather jaunty tune, though in a minor key and so thereby a bit unusual, perhaps even grotesque but in an entertaining manner.  I didn't know when I first heard and enjoyed it that it was greeted with something approaching outrage when it was first performed; something I find difficult to believe, but all too believable.

I knew enough even at the time I first heard it to be aware of its association with death.  Perhaps it's jauntiness in that association is what critics and audiences alike objected to in the 19th century.  The use of a xylophone must have been particularly irritating back then.  But it is after all a dance, even if a dance led by Death, and it seems that dance involved hopping or skipping judging from paintings, engravings and drawings by which it was depicted.  So it seems to me "jaunty" well describes the part of Death in it, at least, cavorting as it leads us into....what?

In the Middle Ages when it seems the dance appeared as an object of artistic representation which became, if we can use the word, "popular", the dance as represented had much the same features everywhere it was displayed.  A skeleton or skeletons, sometimes decked out in the garb we associate with the Grim Reaper, leads men and women and children identifiable by their dress as Emperors, Kings, Popes, Bishops, nobility, merchants and peasants--all of the kinds of people of Europe at the time--in the dance of death.  The meaning and purpose of these works is clear enough.  We will all die, and will do so regardless of our status when alive.  Being one of the rich and mighty won't protect us from our inevitable dissolution.  We all come to the same end, die and decay.

At that stage of humanity's "progress" death was more familiar than it is now.  Life spans were short, medicine primitive, sickness rampant.  The Black Plague and other diseases ran through whole communities.  There was no escape from death.  There's no escape now, of course, but seldom was the phrase "here today, gone tomorrow" more applicable.

Clear enough what was meant, then.  But what was the reaction to the message?  Reaction would vary, one would think.  In pagan times it likely meant something different.  There are old Roman funeral inscriptions which state one reaction; that is, to eat, drink and be merry while we can.  That may have been the reaction of some in the Middle Ages as well.  But with the advent of Christianity came a different view of the Danse.  Eating, drinking and being merry were frowned upon at least to a certain extent; to the extent, that is, they were sins or caused sins to take place.  And so the Danse  impressed on many the need to pray for forgiveness, to repent, perhaps even to do good deeds.  This would not be thought to do much if any good, though, in some circles, where only those were saved who were saved by the grace of God, not their own acts.  Also, of course, there would be the reaction that one must do right by the Church and its rules.

In both pagan and Christian times, however, there must have been those few who reacted to the Danse as indicating the vanity of our concerns and actions,  All fame, power and money came to nought.  Marcus Aurelius wrote more than once of the fact that our words and deeds will not be remembered in the future and meant nothing to the world, which we may now call the universe.

How react to the Danse now, though?  Some no doubt react now as others did then.  Some would react like Marcus did.  Most Stoics would know what he knew.  To a Stoic it would serve as a reminder that we should treat things beyond the control of our will as indifferent.  To do as Epictetus said, and do the best we can with what we have and take the rest as it comes.  To understand that our deaths are according to nature, and not to be feared.  Instead to be accepted.

But this time is peculiar in its selfishness, I think.  At least, I think that's the case here in our Great Republic.  We're encouraged not to care about others--and certainly not to do anything for them.  Particularly those who are different.  It's perfectly all right with many of us that some are poor, or can't afford health care, etc.  Perhaps it's our Protestant background, and the myth of rugged individualism that make us uncaring.  Or, perhaps we merely resent that others may get something we don't have "for free."

Our selfishness causes a different reaction to the Danse.  I think that reaction is anger.  We're angry that we, and what we want, will end.   For some of us, that makes it easy enough to do violence, to others.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Bad Advice and Consent

Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution of our Glorious Republic provides that the President shall nominate, and "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate" shall appoint, Judges of the Supreme Court "and all other Officers of the United States."  This is often referred to as "the Advice and Consent Clause." We many, we unfortunate many, have witnessed the lugubrious exercise of this function by the Senate regarding the ascension (if that is a word that can be used) of a Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Besides being a clause, Advice and Consent is also the name of a movie made in the early 1960s, presumably based on a book, starring Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton and other worthies regarding the nomination of a man to serve as Secretary of State.  In that movie, the nominee was accused of being a Communist or former Communist; a satisfyingly serious condemnation given the times.  The Senate revealed in the movie is a fictional Senate, of course, but either through the magic of film and art or otherwise that Senate--though portrayed as corrupt in a fashion--seems possessed of a dignity lacking in the real thing of our time.  On this and on other occasions our politicians and our political institutions have demonstrated that truth can be far stranger, or at least seedier, than fiction.

Perhaps "stranger" isn't an appropriate word in this case.  Sadly, there was nothing strange about the proceedings.  They seemed very familiar, in fact.  Posturing, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, scheming, lying is to be expected whenever our politicians are on public display and particularly when they are in groups.  They scheme and lie in private as well, of course, but may be less inclined to posturing, hypocrisy and self-righteousness when not in the public eye.  Be that as it may, the proceedings were by all accounts spectacular; a spectacle, in fact.  I avoided them as much as possible, but a real effort is required to avoid anything that our dread enemy, the media, finds interesting.

What little I saw was disturbing in a peculiar way.  Events were taking place; people were talking, asking and answering questions, but it was difficult to think of it as something which was not a movie or play.  I wonder if that is how we experience events in which we're not directly involved.  We watch a movie, generally a boring, bad one.   Perhaps, but the feeling in this instance may have had its basis in the knowledge that the outcome of the proceedings was virtually certain.  I think everyone knew that the needed number of members of the Senate would consent to the appointment from the very start, regardless of what was said, simply because the majority of members of the Senate are Republican.  The only real question was how the Republicans would contrive to nominate while appearing to take seriously the allegations which were made, and whether they could do so while increasing their political status and likelihood of reelection--ultimately, the only concerns of politicians.

The Democrats like any other person of middling intelligence knew that the nomination would very likely occur, and so knowing that did what they could to attack the integrity of the nomination.  Perhaps, also, they saw it as an opportunity to bring attention to the plight of victims of sexual assault, but I suspect that their primary end in view was to make their Republican colleagues look bad, which was at least achievable.

I won't delve into questions of credibility.  I think it clear enough that the Judge drank excessively in his younger days, and marvel somewhat that he took pains to deny this, or at least not to admit it.  That appears to have been the only well-established fact.  So, he was less than credible in that respect, and much of his expressed outrage in the proceedings seemed a performance, similar to that of Senator Graham.  This doesn't mean he committed sexual assault, however.  Senate Committee proceedings are not useful in determining criminal conduct.

What I find interesting, and disheartening, is that the process has become so partisan, so infused with political conflict, histrionics and melodrama that it is doubtful whether it serves any useful purpose in assuring that competent people are appointed in any capacity as Officers of the United States.  What competent, honorable person would want to subject himself/herself to such a review, given that the review would be conducted by people whose motivation is not assuring that the best person for the job is appointed, but furthering a political agenda at whatever cost?  Chances are the only person who would go through it would be so eager for power that they're willing to expose themselves, to run the gauntlet.

The Senate can still consent, and will no doubt continue to do so, but is no longer capable of giving advice.  But considering that currently, the one who is suppose to be advised is inadvisable, that may not be much of a concern in the short run.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Invincible Ignorance

"Invincible ignorance" has at least two meanings.  In Catholic theology, it refers to the state, or condition, of persons who are ignorant of Jesus because their circumstances are such that they are, or were, unable to know him.  Among those who possess invincible ignorance according to the Church are pagans who lived before him--especially worthy pagans such as Plato--and infants.  These necessarily ignorant, and thereby unworthy of heaven, are said by some to spend their afterlives (assuming the infants die before baptism) in Limbo.  Limbo is a kind of place which isn't heaven, but isn't hell either. There, it is to be presumed, Plato, Aristotle and other pagan greats debate and think great thoughts while changing diapers and otherwise tending babies.

Another meaning for "invincible ignorance" is the condition resulting from a refusal to accept evidence or argument.  This is referred to as a logical fallacy, sometimes.  It is the ignorance I address in this post, and was also I believe referred to by the man quoted above, a French physician and philosopher of the Enlightenment.

It is the refusal that characterizes ignorance of this kind.  You or I may be ignorant simply because we don't know something or other for perfectly acceptable reasons--acceptable in the sense that there is no deliberate effort not to know something or other.  Invincible ignorance is ignorance by choice.  The invincibly ignorant choose not to know.  Their ignorance is the result of their willing rejection of knowledge or the effort to know.

According to Julien Offray De La Mettrie, our happiness depends on this kind of ignorance.  Judging from the nature of the quote, he probably had ignorance of some thing or things in particular in mind.  But ignorance of anything which disturbs us can contribute to our happiness.  Ignorance is bliss in some circumstances if not all circumstances.

But the refusal to consider an assertion or an argument, or the evidence which supports them, is different from a refusal to know something in the sense of experiencing something.  You can have perfectly good reason, I would think, to refuse to know what it's like to murder someone or torture someone and can hardly be blamed for balking at having knowledge of what it's like to do so.  In some cases, then, the desire to be invincibly ignorant is quite understandable.  Some knowledge isn't good.

Sometimes an argument or assertion is so absurd there's no point in giving it any serious consideration.  Judgment must be exercised in determining absurdity, though.  Judgment is something we come to lack more and more these days, at least here in God's favorite country.

It strikes me we live in a time when people are less inclined than ever to consider any position that may challenge or undercut personal, political, religious or cultural views.  It may be that such consideration is too trying; the world is more complicated than it has been in the past, in great part because there are more of us needing and demanding limited resources.  It may be that the uncertainty of these times causes us to cling more than before to cherished and comfortable thoughts and customs, particularly where religion and politics are concerned, and to so dread what is different as to disregard it as much as possible rather than try to understand it.

But I'm concerned that fear and uncertainty and the desire for the happiness that results from ignorance aren't the only motivations behind invincible ignorance.  I'm concerned that many of us are invincibly ignorant simply because we have accepted the view that many intellectuals and academics have propounded for some time.  What I'm thinking of is what has been associated with the word "postmodernism" rightly or wrongly.  That is, an adverse reaction to the Enlightenment and the faith in science which dominated modern Western culture for two or three centuries, until the 20th century.

A skepticism regarding the extent to which science can cure all our ills and make the world a paradise is understandable.  But that skepticism has been associated with a distrust of reason and logic generally; with the view that they are mere constructs of a social and political tradition or culture, no more admirable or desirable, or worthy of respect, than any other construct.

If that's the case (not "true", of course), why is there any point in being anything but invincibly ignorant?  We can ignore, refuse to consider, anything we like.  There's no basis on which it can be said that assertions or arguments different from those we favor are to be preferred.  There's no reason to consider the evidence in their support.  There's no reason to think, in fact, or second-guess ourselves, when what others think or claim is no more worthy of respect or acceptance to what we believe and like already.

The invincibly ignorant are fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Happy Birthday, H.L. Mencken. Wish You Were Here.

Today H.L. Mencken would be 138 years old, if only he was still alive.  How I wish he was.

The Sage of Baltimore was not a religious man and did not believe in an afterlife.  If there is one, though, his rightful place in it would not be in heaven, of course, nor even in purgatory, but instead in the First Circle of Hell according to Dante along with other great pagans.   If it's possible to return from the afterlife and, if nothing else, haunt this sorry world, I think he would be with us now, if only to enjoy the increasingly perverse course of our Great Republic and congratulate himself for having anticipated so well the decadence of our democracy.

I think Mencken had his faults, and have described them previously in this blog.  But I know of nobody in the history of American journalism or opinion who wrote so well, and so savagely, of American politics and politicians, and American culture (I can almost hear him say "such as it is") with the exception of Gore Vidal.  I regret that he can't write of the current occupant of the White House and the rogue's gallery of our national leaders.  How well he would excoriate them, revile them!

We have people enough in journalism and elsewhere who do or would do the same, of course, but either the times or the people have changed.  Criticism as we now know it is crude and often vulgar, if omnipresent thanks to the Internet and social media.  Now people of all kinds, regardless of levels of intelligence, wit, literacy or sophistication, can express their opinions regarding current events and figures of significance and popularity, and do so with some relish.  Unfortunately, they for the most part are incapable of doing that well.  Just read what passes for commentary these days, or worse yet the comments readers can now make regarding the commentary.

And yet I think that those who are today professional commentators and pundits, who express their opinions weekly or daily on television, newspapers and journals are, in an odd way, actually more restrained than Mencken was in his heyday.  Read what Mencken wrote of such worthies as Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan, for example.  There's nothing like it being written now.

Perhaps "limited" is a better word than "restrained" though.  Limited, that is, in ability, knowledge and intelligence.  Someone with great powers of expression, like Mencken, can mock and revile far more effectively than someone who is merely consumed with hatred and self-righteousness as so many are today.  Today's political figures, and especially our current president, are barely capable of expressing themselves, verbally or in writing.  Against Mencken they would appear embarrassingly overmatched. 

And I think it would do our nation a great deal of good if they were overmatched, overtasked and overwhelmed by a great writer and critic.  They would be shown to be the mediocrities which, at best, they are, and the strikingly small and pitiable people they are and which, perhaps, we've become. 

If you can return, Mencken, please do.  And hurry.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Enduring Appeal of Freaks and Freak Shows

There's something about us that makes us enjoy freakish displays.  Traveling carnivals and circuses brought with them sometimes real, sometimes faked, human physical oddities and humans with deformities to be viewed by amazed and revolted locals for a fee for many years.  They were popular in Europe and in the United States, though it seems their popularity lasted somewhat longer here than there. 

Freak shows were characteristic of carnivals.  I don't know if they still exist, but if they don't in the form they have in the past it seems we can't do without them as we've managed to replace them with something similar.  They must satisfy some need we have.  It delights us in some strange sense to see people who are deformed even if they're repulsive.  My guess is it does so because it makes us feel we're better or at least normal when compared with those who clearly are not, provided they're displayed in a manner which poses no threat.  They provide us with a kind of reassurance.  Through them we think ourselves acceptable, and demonstrably so.

There are those of us who still enjoy the deformity and disability of others, I'm sure, but we're not as willing to express our enjoyment as openly as we did and could when invited to view freaks of nature as they were called by paying a fee and visiting them as they posed in tableau at some local fair.  Much as we are inclined to inflict pain on others, there's been a decline in the tendency to do that publicly, although our recent toleration and approval of hate and the hateful on the national stage makes one wonder whether that decline will continue.  One doesn't want to be accused of "political correctness" after all.

I think freak shows have been replaced, by reality shows.  I suspect others think so as well.  The similarity is fairly clear.

Some reality shows unashamedly center on people who are physically uncommon, e.g. they are morbidly obese.  Some center on people who have problems of a particularly disturbing nature, which impact others visually, e.g., hoarders.  Their lives are displayed in detail.  Generally, such shows also are carefully structured to have, in most cases, a "happy ending" where there is some kind of redemption or at least the hope of redemption.  The physically unusual is somehow rectified, a house full of rubbish is cleaned.  Nonetheless, peculiarities, physical or psychological, are on display for our entertainment though we watch them from some comfortable, private venue and not at a public showing.

Some modern day "freak shows" are more subtle, however--if that word can be used when exhibitionists are observed by voyeurs.  They involve anything from people beating one another senseless with fists and feet, to people brought together in an unusual environment and manipulated in certain respects so that the manner in which they react is displayed, to men or women being romantically paired with a number of women or men and made to choose one or another of them for marriage while we watch.  In the case of such shows, what is put on view for the public at large are not physical deformities or psychological or mental deficiencies in particular.  Instead, individuals are treated as freaks once were; they are made the objects of our attention, our review.  We watch them and marvel at them or use them by comparing them, usually unfavorably, with ourselves.  They become freaks, eventually, if that suits the producers or directors of the shows.

Freaks shows and reality shows appeal to the voyeur in us.  A voyeur is not necessary someone who derives sexual pleasure from watching others, but may also be someone who enjoys the pain or distress of others and wishes to observe it, or to observe people in sordid or scandalous circumstances.  They appeal, in other words, to what is base in us and we debase ourselves by watching them.  Their appeal and popularity doesn't speak well for us or our hopes for improvement.