Saturday, August 29, 2009

Of the Making of Many Books...

As some of you may know, I have just recently gotten settled in Durham, North Carolina to begin attending Duke Divinity School. In the course of moving I had to take stock of my books, which are numerous. Nothing, I think, gives so much satisfaction to the true humanist than admiring his own library, for it is no less than a concrete expression of his character, the quality of which he surely supposes to be very high. In such a spirit of self approval, I present to you, dear reader, some statistics on my library.

Most Represented Book: The Bible
9 copies on shelf, 2 in everyday use: 2 Greek Testaments, 1 Hebrew Bible, 2 Modern Study Bibles, 4 Older Translations (1 King James Bible, 1 King James Psalms/Proverbs/New Testament, 1 1560 Geneva Bible facsimile, 1 Tyndale New Testament), 2 Modern Translations (1 New Revised Standard Version, 1 Robert Alter Genesis).

Most Represented Language in Reference: Greek
6 Lexica (1 Full Liddell-Scott, 1 Intermediate Liddell-Scott, 1 Classical Greek Basic Vocabulary, 1 Bauer-Danker New Testament Lexicon, 2 Short New Testament Lexica), 3 Grammar References (1 Introductory Grammar/Textbook, 1 Greek Grammar by Smyth, 1 Reference on Greek Verbs)

Most Represented Authors

1. Martin Luther
7 Books: 5 Volumes of Biblical Commentary, 1 Volume of Treatises, 1 Freedom of a Christian.

2. Virgil
6 Books: 2 Latin Editions of the Eclogues, 1 of the Eclogues and Georgics, a 2-volume Latin Edition of the Aeneid, 1 Dryden Aeneid.

2. Cicero
6 Books: 1 De Re Publica/De Legibus, 1 De Officiis, 2 Volumes of Speeches (in Latin), 1 Volume of Speeches (in English), 1 Student text of the Pro Caelio.

4. Herodotus
4 Books: 2 English Translations, 1 Student text of Book III, 1 Greek Edition of Book VIII.

Number of Non-Western Books: 2 (1 Book of Alaska Native Folklore, 1 Tale of Genji)

Obscure Books:
Guido of Pisa's Commentary on the Inferno (in pretty decent medieval Latin).
Giles of Rome's De Ecclesiastica Potestate (in offensively inelegant medieval Latin).
A French School text of Oedipus Rex (or Oedipe Roi) from 1889.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Three Remedies for Modernity, Part 1

...veluti pueris apsinthia taetra medentes
Cum dare conantur, prius oras pocula circum
Contingunt mellis dulci flavoque liquore…

Modernity is a condition of mind into which all of us are born and bred. It is a cage, say some, from which we cannot hope to escape. I prefer rather to think of it as a disease congenital with our era, a birth defect exacerbated by unfortunate but unavoidable habits of environment, upbringing, and education. For such diseases the treatment is simplest and most effective in the early stages of development, painful and dangerous in later life.

Although the essential causes and principal characteristics of modernity may be much debated, the remedies I offer here are directed mainly at the belief in progress, the idea that advances in knowledge and technology so fundamentally improve the human condition that any other solution to our peculiar situation appears primitive and barbaric. An absolute faith in the salvation we shall gain through our increasing mastery of the universe is a prime tenet of the modern creed, and it instills in its adherents as zealous a disregard for the beliefs of others as any fanatical sect. It appears convincing to many not only because it benefits from a grand consensus of the cultural and political powers, but because it is a fact beyond dispute that the progressing technologies and techniques of the modern world have greatly varied and increased the sensual pleasures and material comforts enjoyed by humankind. Against those of us who are wont to long aloud for the condition of some civilization past these benefits are often objected, and the modern assures himself that a long life lived with running water and instantaneous communication is preferable by far to a shorter one endured with simplicity and purpose. It is an important step in the treatment of this condition to expose the vanity of such an attitude.

The three remedies I offer here are all literary, although they differ very greatly from one another beyond that simple category. The first is science fiction, a short story (almost a novella) written in the 1930s. The second is a work of history from the early 1960s. The last is part of an epic poem written in the 1590s. They all address themselves in different ways to some of these important symptoms of modernity.

First Remedy:
H.P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow Out of Time”

Most of H.P. Lovecraft’s best work is at least in part a critique of modern assumptions, usually our typically inflated view of humanity’s place in the cosmos. The general drift of his attitude towards the expansion of human knowledge may be intuited from the justly famous sentence which opens “The Call of Cthulhu:” “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” For Lovecraft, as for the modern, knowledge is the decisive factor in human existence. Yet in spite of all his atheism, in stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” he shares something in his attitude towards complete knowledge with the author of Genesis: knowledge here is ruinous and destructive, not life-giving and liberating.

“The Shadow Out of Time,” one of his last stories, is a profound and multi-layered exploration of the ultimate emptiness inherent in the promise of scientific advancement and indeed all hopes of transcendence through knowledge. The plot centers on a university professor—most of Lovecraft’s heroes are intellectuals of one sort or another—who suffers from amnesia of several years of his life during which he acted somewhat bizarrely and conducted strange researches. As he begins to look into what happened to him, he pieces together clues from his own actions with a series of vivid and recurring dreams to discover that he had in fact exchanged minds with a being of the distant past. This researcher of the so-called “Great Race” had used the professor to acquire certain information available in his own day, and the professor in turn, while he inhabited the other’s body, had written a history of his own times for the archives of the Great Race. The ability of the Great Race to transfer their consciousnesses through time means that, in a way, their civilization never dies: by the time in which the professor encounters them, Earth’s distant past, they had already lived out the lives of many previous species, moving their consciousnesses each time into a new host civilization in the future. However, the Great Race also knew that the horrible creatures called Elder Things, which they had subdued when they first transported themselves to Earth, would eventually awake and overthrow them, forcing them to migrate their consciousnesses into the future once more, to a time when the Elder Things will no longer threaten them.

Having pieced this story together, but still fearing himself to be mad or deluded, the professor convinces some colleagues to join him in an archaeological expedition in the Australian Outback to discover the city of the Great Race. Wandering alone at night in the desert, the professor finds the city and the archives from his dreams and memories, but also awakens the Elder Things, which chase him from the ruins utterly terrified. The next day, he tries to rediscover the site, but the desert has swallowed it.

Lovecraft attacks the possibility of transcendence through knowledge from three principal angles in “The Shadow Out of Time.” First, he tauntingly suggests the impotence of the contemporary sciences in the form of the doctors and psychologists who try to convince the professor he has merely had a mental breakdown. This strand, however, does not critique the principle behind the belief in scientific progress, for one might easily respond that our knowledge, although it is insufficient now, will eventually be perfected. The principle of all-powerful knowledge is the object of Lovecraft’s second critique, which operates from the example of the Great Race itself, a civilization so advanced that they had conquered those two forces which seem to make us mortal and therefore form the substance of our problems, time and matter. But it becomes all too clear in the tragic story of the Great Race that this mastery does little to actually change the limitations of creaturely, bounded existence: they are merely capable of fleeing from one set of material and temporal problems to another. Finally, Lovecraft rejects even the idea of attaining some level of transcendence through self-knowledge in the character of the professor, whose quest to find out about himself results only in greater despair when he finds the truth: “If that abyss and what it held were real, there is no hope. Then, all too truly, there lies upon this world of man a mocking and incredible shadow out of time.” In this moment of cosmic despair, the professor’s only comfort is that he has no hard proof of the reality of it all: the best knowledge is faulty knowledge.

Whether the “shadow out of time” is a shadow that emerges from time and is cast by time, or is a shadow cast from outside of time, it lies over all that is bound by time, and it cannot be escaped except by truly transcending that limit—and for the efforts of creatures defined by that limit such transcendence is impossible. Against this metaphysical wall every presumption and ambition of enlightened science will be dashed.

In the story, this metaphysical shadow is personified by the sinister Elder Things, whose presence preceded the Great Race and continues to inhabit their ruins, whose eventual triumph proved inevitable. The Great Race is described as living always with the fear of these Elder Things in the back of their minds, for they knew they could not defeat them. As an object of knowledge, the Elder Things may be recognized, but not mastered.

For atheists such as Lovecraft and his protagonist the situation must indeed look very bleak. With the universe so laid bare, the innate human desire to transcend our mortal limits certainly appears to be mocked by the very principles of existence, and the Great Race, for all its achievements, proves merely to be a stronger creature chained in the same mortal limits. For a Christian, however, things look much different, for God, who becomes man in Jesus Christ, is a light out of time which shines in the darkness: this God throws no shadow over the world of man, as if to smother it, but casts light onto it, as if to reveal its place in the presence of something better. And this light does not merely uncover the tantalizing prospect of something unattainable, for over The Man Who is God death and all the attendant forces of the universe have no power, and in his true mastery over these forces he opens a way to true transcendence for all those who have their being in him. In the Bible (e.g. Hebrews 4) and in Church Fathers such as Augustine and Maximus the Confessor this transcendence is described as rest from the labor and motion of our existence, a characterization we may well apply to the Great Race and its tragic, eternal migrations, doomed, like all things set in motion, never to cease but by the power of another.