Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dante in Purgatory [1]

A ridiculous sort of love
that requires no possession.
What? Really? Asks, seeks,
desires no possession?

Says, 'Oh, it's okay. I'll wait for vision...'
(to dream up, no doubt, some guided tour of heaven)
Waits, perhaps nervous by the door, thinks
'I shouldn't disturb her solitude, and besides she's
spoken for'(or maybe rather hopes she's spoken for?)

A practical sort of love
that desires no identity,
is satisfied with 'Ich und Du,'
quite satisfied with 'you and me,'

forces a laugh, tries to sing,
forces a laugh, a sort of offering,
waits, standing nervous by the door,
locked behind an open door.

[1] In interest of full disclosure: I've never read The Divine Comedy. Or I and Thou for that matter.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I am back from a splendid vacation, and thus I am almost (very nearly) ready to begin thinking about planning to start trying to write something new here. So, er, you're going have to wait a little bit longer...

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Fashion ethics, Film, Omar Khayyam pastiche, & the South Hills

I know this sort of breaks my rule against self promotion, but it is for a good cause, and it is kind of funny.

I am now on a t-shirt (pictured). It's for my friend Lucas's film production company. You can buy one, too, if you want, and the details are here:


I felt obliged to purchase one, but it brings up an ethical dilemma: should one wear a t-shift with one's own face on it. I also contributed a bit of verse to help promote the things. To wit:

a bottle of wine, a book of verse,
wandering the south hills (and how!)
wearing a "un filme" t-shirt:
a t-shirt is happiness for now...
Ok, so maybe I'm not destined to be an ad-man. But we do our best.

The t-shirt is based upon the film L'attante (from January 2006). You can watch it here:


Or, you can see it along with Lucas' new film and the musical brilliance of Mr. Jerome Wincek this coming thursday in Dormont. Details here:


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Fox v. Hedgehog

From Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman:
For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of a man he was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything... Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

"I don't want to meet my new life without you"

My copy of The Idiot is out on loan, but I found this quote again recently thanks to the forward thinking of my good-natured friend Roland. I am posting it here for my birthday, which will be in a few days.
"Stop, and never speak of that again!" cried Myshkin. "Listen, Parfyon, just before you appeared I came here and suddenly began laughing -- I don't know what about. The only reason was that I remembered it was my birthday tomorrow. It seems to have come on purpose. It's almost twelve o'clock. Come, let us meet the day! I've got some wine. Let's drink some. Wish for me what I don't know how to wish for myself. You wish it, and I'll wish all happiness to you. If not, give back the cross. You didn't send the cross back to me the next day! You've got it on now, haven't you?"

"Yes," said Rogozhin.

"Well, then, come along. I don't want to meet my new life without you, for my new life has begun. You don't know, Parfyon, that my new life has begun today." [1]

[1] I believe this is the Constance Garnett translation.

Some thoughts of the ending of War and Peace

Today is the anniversary of both the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the Assignation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, so it is a good day to remember World War I. In his memoir Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis describes some pretty disturbing goings on in the boarding school he attended as a teenager. After the description, however, he writes one of the most chilling paragraphs he ever wrote:
Peace to them all. A worse fate awaited them than the most vindictive fag among us could have wished. Ypres and the Somme ate up most of them. They were happy while their good days lasted.
Which brings me back to War and Peace, which I finished finally a few weeks ago. I heard a professor say that the amazing thing about Tolstoy was that he ended his great epic with Natasha rejoicing over her sick child's dirty diaper. I think the Count seems to be implying that the health of small child is more meaningful and important than the vain pretensions of Emperors and famous men. On this point, I probably agree with him. War and Peace ends with a long philosophical essay about history and war. But before that it's narrative ends with a sort of image of family happiness, in the families of Marie and Nikolai, and Natasha and Pierre. But even in the midst of this family happiness, we know that tragedy again lurks in the background. Tolstoy never mentions the Decembrist uprising, which to be sure is not so tragic as World War I, but Pierre's participation in his secret society in St. Petersburg, which sounds an awful lot like the Northern Society, makes one wonder: what fate awaits Pierre and Natasha's family happiness? Exile, Siberia, or the gallows?

Monday, June 18, 2007

a good word for tonight from St. John of Damascus

Yesterday I found a beautiful image from St. John of Damascus' First Homily "On the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God:
What, then--shall we keep silent, cowering in fear, because we cannot praise her [Mary, the Holy Theotokos] worthily? Not at all! Or shall we stretch out our foot over the boundary, as they say, and ignore our own limitations? Shall we shake off the reins of fear, and boldly reach out to the untouchable? Never! Mingling, instead, fear with longing and weaving from them both a single wreath, let us, in holy reverence, with trembling hand and yearning soul, pay gratefully the humble first-fruits of our minds, as we must, to the Queen Mother, the benefactress of all nature! [1]

[1] From Daley, S.J., Brian E. tr. On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. Crestwood, NY: 1998.

St. John of Damascus (676-749), by the way, is awesome. You should read more about him:


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ars nova

Suddenly he realized he was a philistine.

Friday, June 8, 2007


i fell in love with ornate words
and since then plain ones never do
but cowards get what they deserve
there's no one left to sing them to

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

On Second Thought

"And then when I took my fateful decision:

I decided to choose, to take, Fatalism."

Monday, June 4, 2007

In apology to Mr. Ginsberg on the day after his birthday

I don't want to go
to San Francisco.

The town for me
is Bethany.

Saturday, June 2, 2007


The Thesaurus was
his favorite dinosaur.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Equivocal Richness and Evensongs

Writes Harold Bloom in The Art of Reading Poetry:
Language, to a considerable extent, is concealed figuration: ironies and synecdoches, metonymies and metaphors that we recognize only when our awareness increases. Real poetry is aware of and exploits these ruined tropes, though it is both a burden and a resource, for later poets in a tradition, that language ages into this wealth of figuration. The major poets of the twentieth century, in Britain and America, were those who could best exploit this equivocal richness: Thomas Hardy, W. B. Keats, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane among them. [1]

For some reason this afternoon the word evening suddenly struck me. It's a great word. The word afternoon is so exact and straightforward that it lacks any mystery. There is something businesslike about it that fits. But evening has something mysterious about it, something almost sinister (The Evening would make for a perfect name for a triller on the New York Times Bestseller list). The name suggests movement, action. Something is going on. It's a good name for a time of day whose cousin is twilight.

I've been trying to think of how evening is used in poetry and I can think of two examples, even without the aid of Google.

There is a prayer by St. Patrick that I like a lot, whose title is usually translated "The Breastplate of St. Patrick" though not always. The following lines are taken from a version, with Victorian liberties taken, by the nineteenth century Anglican hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander:
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun's life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free [2]

The line that is most memorable to me is "The whiteness of the moon at even." As the original's version is much less verbose ("étrochtai ésci" is all it takes for St. Patrick to say the same thing [3]), Oliver Davies' translation "in Moon's radiance" is more accurate [4], and I like the simplicity (how else can you describe such great and intricate things, sometimes, without simplicity). And let's face it, not many people go for the Victorian aesthetic these days. But there is something haunting about the line "the whiteness of the moon at even."

The Anglicans might have been onto something for calling Vespers Evensong, which reminds me of another hymn, an ancient beautiful hymn, from Vespers:
O Joyful Light of the holy glory of the immortal, heavenly, holy blessed Father, O Jesus Christ. Having come to the setting of the sun, having beheld the evening light, we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God. Meet it is at all times to hymn Thee with reverend voices, O Son of God, Giver of Life, wherefore the whole world doth glorify Thee. [5]

Chesterton wrote once that "Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because he has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight." [6] And somehow the evening with its mystery and its sanity, which is so important for those of us who during the day do the world's work the best we can with keyboards and coffee and office cubes and copiers, is wrapped up in and evoked by its name, which is kind of neat.

Good night.

[1] Bloom, Harold. The Art of Reading. Perennial. New York, NY: 2005. And great little book, which as has the advantage of being little. You don't have to buy it; you can just read it in the coffee shop of your local corporate bookstore.

[2] http://wikisource.org/wiki/St._Patrick%27s_Breastplate

[3] http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/St._Patrick's_Breastplate

[4] translated by Oliver Davies in Celtic Spirituality (The Classics of Western Spirituality). Paulist Press. Mahwah, NJ: 1999.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phos_Hilaron

[7] chapter 2 of Orthodoxy


a thorn


a seed

Monday, May 21, 2007

Ends, Means, and Art Objects

According to the same essay I quoted last time about X. J. Kennedy, literary critic Randall Jarrell once wrote the following about the great American poet William Carlos Williams: "We want to explain why Williams' free verse...is successful, not to make fools of ourselves by arguing that it isn't." I would like to take this sentiment as a starting point for talking about the Russian avant-guarde painter Kazimir Malevich. I am no critic and have only the most superficial knowledge about art, so I can't pretend explain why his paintings are successful, but I am fairly sure that they are. Take, for example, the following painting, Black Circle from 1915:

I suspect even those who roll their eyes at abstract and minimalist art might like Black Circle. Again, I am not sure exactly why, but we might begin by asking what other sorts of choices Malevich could have made: he could have made the circle smaller, or centered it, or changed its color, or made the background a different color (for instance, truly white). The result of these proposed alternatives would be a completely different painting and very likely a worse painting; the existence of bad abstract art works opens the possibility for good ones. And I believe Black Circle is a good painting.

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (1878-1935) was born and raised in Ukraine, though his parents were Polish and he was baptized Roman Catholic, and he was educated and spent his artistic career in Russia. His art spanned the period of transition between the late imperial and early socialist periods of Russian history, and his art can in some ways be seen as a symptom of the tremendous sickness of Western civilization which gave rise to social turmoil, feverish artistic and intellectual experimentation, and culminated in the devastation of the First World War and the rise of communist and fascist totalitarianism. He called his art Suprematism, wrote a manifesto about it (anybody who was anybody wrote manifestos back then) and was heavily influenced by the Futurists and the Cubists and, I suppose, a few other early 20th century ists as well.

Though Malevich spoke of art for its own sake, apart from naturalist forms, apart from human beings, his theory of art was very much a reaction to earlier movements. In this respect he reflects the spirit of his time. A few other futurist artists in St. Petersburg wrote a manifesto entitled "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste" in 1913 proclaiming:
The past is too tight. The Academy and Pushkin are less intelligible than hieroglyphics... Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity... He who does not forget his first love will not recognize his last.
After considering the artists who came before them, they add: "From the heights of skyscrapers we gaze at their insignificance!"[3] So they said, and so it was with Malevich, whose art has been described as follows:
[His paintings] bluntly announced the end of representation and the advent of new, superior, and limitless possibilities for painting, which was not liberated from what Malevich designated as its "enslavement by forms of nature."[4]
Malevich also wrote that "Creation exists only where paintings present shapes that take nothing from what has been created in nature"[5]. In retrospect, the bizarre iconoclastic optimism of the Futurists "gazing from skyscrapers" and Malevich's liberation from the "enslavement by forms" seems a little naive. There is something particularly adolescent about the whole business. At any rate one wonders if the artist, after proclaiming the greatness of taking nothing from nature, was ever troubled by the embarrassingly numerous examples of squares, triangles, and circles in nature.

It might be helpful to compare the Black Circle with a painting made by another Russian about thirty years before, Ivan Kramskoy's Unknown Woman painted in 1883.

On one hand the two paintings couldn't be more different. Unknown Woman is detailed and skillfully realistic, and, worse than simply showing natural forms, the painting portrays a human being, the worst of all forms to a superartist of the future, and with the gaze of the woman the painting acknowledges a human viewer. Whatever the painting may have been for, it certainly wasn't for art's sake. However, there are some striking similarities. Both Black Circle and Unknown Woman were controversial and probably intentionally controversial, they employ similar contrasting colors, both employ chiaroscuro, and both attempt to draw the viewer beyond the canvas (in the one to a worldly form, in the other to the world of forms). In a way also, but here I might be going a little far, although Unknown Woman is a representative picture, it doesn't necessarily have to be: one should probably understand it to be a painting of a young woman, but it can also be understood merely as a bunch of painted shapes on a canvas. Any representational painting with discipline and perhaps a little squinting can be viewed as an abstract painting (at the very least within the narrow logic of an artistic ideology such as Malevich's), and I suppose psychoanalysis has taught us that any abstract painting can be viewed, with the revealing help of our imagination, as an representational painting.

If I had more time I might research what real art historians and critics have to say about Malevich's work and his artistic theories, because I think that a lot of what he had to say about art being liberated from natural forms and so on was mostly just posturing. He was painting less about the future and more about the past. The only proof I have is a couple of the paintings themselves and an anecdote relating to his painting's religious themes. Take the following painting, Suprematism (1921-1927):

Had the artist really wanted to abandon form, to boldly embrace pure creativity, to throw all the relics of the past (the baby, the bath water, the tub) overboard from the good ship Modernity, surely it would be better to paint something other than a cross. No symbol in Western culture, particularly in Russian culture, steeped as it is in the rich and fertile soil of the Christian tradition, is more central than the cross. It is a symbol not just of a brutal method of execution or a simple emblem of religion, but it represents a very specific cross, a cross of sacrifice and salvation, of murder and suffering love, the cross of "the Cross, the grave, the third day resurrection", the cross that Christianity has called "the beauty of the Universe", but also the cross of the victorious empires (it is fitting that today is the feast day of Ss. Constantine and Helen). But, whether one loves the cross or hates it, merely appreciates its significance in history, or simply shrugs at it indifferently, one simply can not ignore it. Whatever he was saying in Suprematism (honestly I am not sure), surely he is saying something more than that a couple of rectangles merely look pretty good on a canvas.

Another example is his Black Square which, when exhibited at the 0-10 exhibit in St. Petersburg in 1915 was hung in a high corner, the location where icons are traditionally placed in Russian homes; its comparison with Orthodox iconography is explicit (even if it was just a mean-spirited and sarcastic joke of a comparison--I am not sure what his exact intentions were).

A detailed comparison and analysis of this painting from the perspective of the history and theology of Russian Orthodox Iconography would be helpful and interesting, but it is beyond both this blog entry's scope and this blogger's abilities. What is important, I think, is that, by being made in reaction his paintings never break away from what they were made in reaction to. Malevich, in the end, was just as much a slave as Kramskoy or any other painter of the past.

At this point I want to stress that I like Black Square and I wouldn't be too unsettled if I learned in the painting sold at auction for an enormous sum of money (I don't much care about the economics of art); I like paintings of squares as much, if not more, than the next man [6]. Yet I am scandalized by Malevich's artistic ideology, the ideas which made him paint the way he did. In fact, I find his ideas repulsive: arrogant, blasphemous, and inhuman. I love what he wanted so badly to toss away. I like his paintings in spite of his best intentions, because he could not, however much he may have wanted to ,separate them from the natural world and because they were created (even against his own definition), they were created by a human being. This perhaps is the beginning of an answer to my question, which is this: if ends do not justify means, and, in fact, as Wendell Berry wrote, "corrupt and false means inevitably corrupt and falsify ends" then what are we to make of great and undeniably beautiful works of art, so often created by artists with ethical, moral, or philosophical influences which are equally undeniably false and corrupt?

I don't really know, but as I said in the beginning we should not make fools of ourselves arguing that certain things aren't beautiful, but we should probably also not try to explain too much about why they are beautiful, and just be grateful that they are. That beauty exists in the the most corrupt and unlikely, the most dark and horrific, locations in spite of our intentions and our will is a reason for hope.

[1] Here, you might remember, is the link:

[2] All painting displayed are from Wikipedia's Wikimedia Commons.

[3] "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste" by D. Burliuk, Alexander Kruchenykh, V. Mayakovsky, Victor Khlebnikov. You can read it here:

[4] From the Guggenheim Museum's "Russia! Catalogue of the Exhibition." I was fortunate enough to see this exhibition in New York a couple years ago. Among other great things, they had an icon painted by Andrei Rublev and Vasily Perov's Portrait of the Writer Fedor Dostoevsky which is on the cover of most paperbacks of F. D.'s works.

[5] http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/malevich.htm

[6] I own more than one Rothko print, after all.

Higher Education

Although we addressed him as 'Doctor,'
he possessed neither knowledge nor wealth.
He was entitled, you see,
from an honorary degree
he'd long ago given himself.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Marriage and Poetry

An interesting coincidence: I received two wedding invitations in the mail yesterday, (inaugurating the beginning of wedding season, I suppose), and that made me think about poetry, and, since I am neither married nor much of a poet, I am entitled to strong opinions about both.

My one big idea about literature, and poetry in particular, and art in general, is that it always exists within a set of boundaries, and therefore these boundaries should be well understood and intentional (and preferably intended as part of a tradition). [1]

Walt Whitman, with his trademark exuberance, sung about breaking open doors (implying, I imagine, that all doors are in some sense prison doors):
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs![2]
And this can be thought of as a rallying cry to poets who wish to dispense with form altogether, which actually amounts to replacing an old form with a new one, a screen door with a storm door, which really is often a shame. Although it is possible to create great poems without traditional forms (William Carlos Williams and Whitman himself come to mind), yet freedom in poetry usually has an unhappy result, as my own little offerings over the past couple weeks have likely made perfectly apparent. Shigalyov, a radical in Dostoevsky's Demons, says:
I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea I start from. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.[3]
The poet must give up his freedom to say whatever he wants in order to say something worthwhile, and forms help us do this. X. J. Kennedy wrote:
People say, "I dislike rhyme. It won't let me say what I want to say." I answer, "Yes! You've got it! That's what's great about it!"[4]
That's what great about marriage, too (well, that's one of the great things about marriage).

Mr. G. K. Chesterton has said everything I have just said, but with significantly more wit:
Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called "The Loves of the Triangles"; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.[5]

He even makes the same connection to marriage:

To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. That objection, which [will-worshippers] used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act. Every act is an irrevocable selection exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses.[6]

But when you marry one woman, you should not only give up the possibility of being married to all other women, you also give up the possibility of having your own way. And this is a good thing, but I imagine it is rather difficult. Anyway in these and other ways marriage is like art. "Truly, this is a great mystery, as says the apostle."[7]

At any rate the two invitations arriving on the same day is not such an amazing coincidence because both weddings will take place on the same weekend, and the invitation senders were bound by the same laudable sense of etiquette. I'm planning to go to the one here in Pittsburgh. It is a bit of a shame, though, because Massachusetts is lovely in June.

[1] Although I can't pretend to know the first thing about literature, I am told that this has to do with Representation Theory. But I owe the beginnings of my own ideas on the subject, probably, to Neil Postman and also my own misunderstanding of Marshall Mcluhan's maxim "the medium is the message." (But, who knows? Perhaps his whole fallacy is wrong).

[2] From "Song of Myself."

[3] I am quoting here from Richard Pevear's introduction to Notes from Underground (Vintage Classics Edition. September 1994) but really if you get a chance you should read Demons.

[4] The only place I can find a reference to this is on the Alsop Review website where its quoted without a citation.

[5] From Chapter 3 of Orthodoxy. It's in the public domain. You can read it here:

[6] Ibid.

[7] Father Ambrose of St. Barlaam monastery, Meteora, as quoted in Peter Hammond's The Waters of Marah

Monday, April 30, 2007

Goodbye, Cruel Month

Hello, May flowers.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

To a Fabulist Considering Her Breakfast Nook

"The wallpaper looks so much nicer,"
she said, "now that it's almost spring.

And somehow these processed pastries taste better,
too, while our chairs float three inches off the floor."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Restraint has its limits

A spring afternoon (and
if I still owned a drum set


accidental syncopation,

start, fall out of tempo.

And if I, for a while or late into the night,
banged on the snare, the toms, the hi-hat,

the cymbals--crash!--crescendo,
just for the joy of afternoons, evenings, late nights,

what cause could my neighbors
possibly have to complain?)

Monday, April 9, 2007

Asceticism and the Environment (Intermission and Roadmap)

When I started to write about this, I fully intended to finish the entire series before Holy Pascha, but, alas!, I am not perfect and have barely begun. I will try to do better. But, in the interest of getting things going again and, figuring that it's easier to write an outline than fully flesh out an idea, I thought I'd give a sort of short road map of what I plan to write about:

Part II: A restatement of the problem and a defense of the possibility of ascetical environmentalism

Part III: On the traditional Christian understanding of Creation (as I understand it and as best as I can express it in a blog post).

Part IV: On the traditional Christian understanding of Asceticism (as I understand it and as best as I can express it in a blog post).

Part V: Practical reasons for fasting as an ecological act

Part VI: Mystical and Theological reasons for fasting as an ecological act

Part VII: Interesting Examples

Part VIII (optional): Unspecified closing remarks

I was actually planning to devote an entire post just to asceticism and its relations to birds, but decided that would be too much and anyway 8 Parts is probably enough.

So, that is the plan anyway.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

'i took the time to check your blog, and all i got was this lousy haiku'

wandering Oakland
an unkempt college student
drums on a djembe

Monday, March 26, 2007

two really good sentences

So I found my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The first paragraph has two of my favorite sentences:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.


The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Quality and Quantity

Because I haven't figured out how to write Greek characters on my fancy PowerBook G4 yet, I cannot begin this post with the motto of the Apostolic Diaconate of Thessalonica, as quoted in Chapter 12 of Peter Hammond's fantastic book, The Waters of Marah [1], a chapter about the Orthodox religious movements which were revitalizing the Greek Church at the time. Unfortunately, my Modern Greek is limited only to the essentials (such as 'Excuse Me,' 'Good-bye,' 'Where is Victory Street?'), so I can't even translate it nicely into English. I will have to leave it to Mr. Hammond:
The motto ... provides a key to much of the most notable work that is being done in Greece to-day; 'the victory of the width'--to give a literal translation of a phrase that cannot easily be put into English--ultimately depends upon the faithfulness and energy with which 'the battle of the depth' is waged. There can, in other words, be no fruitful outward activity that does not spring from a deepened interior life. It is only as the missioner himself is truly converted, only as he himself learns to dwell in Christ and as Christ is formed in him, that he can be used as an effective instrument for the conversion of others. Apart from this all his activity is in vain. [2]

We can have no 'victory of the width' until we win 'the battle of the depth.' Christopher Dawson, I believe, was speaking about the same thing when he wrote:
Christians stand to gain more in the long run by accepting their minority position and looking for quality rather than quantity. [3]

I agree, but, we must understand what we mean by 'quality.' If, in the name 'quality,' we delude ourselves with a sort of self-righteous elitism, we will have lost the battle of the depth before it has started, to say nothing of the width.

[1] I will write more on this wonderful book soon, after I am finished reading it. It is a beautiful travel narrative about the Orthodox Church in Greece during the late 1940s. I was so inspired by this book, and wanting learn more about Greece, I immediately purchased a used copy of Kevin Andrew's The Flight of Ikaros which is apparently excellent (and anyway Bishop Kallistos recommends it, so it can't be all bad).

[2] The words of St. Seraphim of Sarov come to mind: “Acquire the spirit of peace, and a thousand around you will be saved."

[3] This is from Dawson's book The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, but I found it quoted in Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, who adds "Is it possible that if we become too obsessed with quantity we will end up with a 'Christian' mentality that is no longer even superficially Christian?" Sigh.

Incidentally, I've been meaning to read Dawson's classic study Religion and the Rise of Western Culture for years. Sigh.

Oh, and I will continue my writings on Asceticism and the Environment when I have a little more time. Good night.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Adoration of the Precious and Life-giving Cross

Today is the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. From Saturday's Great Vespers:

Hail! life-giving Cross, the fair Paradise of the Church, Tree of incorruption that brings us the enjoyment of eternal glory: through thee the hosts of demons have been driven back; and the hierarchies of angels rejoice with one accord, as the congregations of the faithful keep the feast. Thou art an invincible weapon, an unbroken stronghold; thou art the victory of kings and the glory of priests. Grant us now to draw near to the Passion of Christ and His Resurrection.

Hail! life-giving Cross, unconquerable trophy of the true faith, door to Paradise, succour of the faithful, rampart set about the Church. Through thee the curse is utterly destroyed, the power of death is swallowed up, and we are raised from earth to heaven: invincible weapon, adversary of demons, glory of martyrs, true ornament of holy monks, haven of salvation bestowing on the world great mercy.[1]

We venerate Your Cross, O Christ, and Your holy Resurrection we glorify!

[1] The Lenten Triodion. tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware. St. Tikhon's Seminary Press. 2002.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

When freewill kicks in again

For some reason a couple amusing quotes jumped into my head this week, quotes which I hadn't thought of for a while. I suppose I thought of them because I was trying to remember what it was like being a senior in college again.

1. The first is from Kurt Vonnegut's triumph of popular fabulation [1], Timequake:

Trout again confronted him, saying, "Wake up! Wake up! You've got free will again, and there's work to do!" And so on.


Trout had an inspiration! Instead of trying to sell the concept of free will, which he himself didn't believe in, he said this: "You've been very sick! Now you're well again. You've been very sick! Now you're well again."

That mantra worked!

2. From the late nineteenth century Chinese and Japanese Art scholar Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea:

Charles Lamb, a professed devotee, sounded the true note of Teaism when he wrote that the greatest pleasure he knew was to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident. For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal. It is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humour itself,--the smile of philosophy.

3. Here is another one that I just remembered from Denise Levertov ("I learned that her name was Proverb"). I wouldn't call it 'amusing' like the first two, but it is nice:

those we meet for only
one crucial moment, gaze to gaze
or for years know and don't recognize

but of whom later a word
sings back to us
as if from high among leaves
still near but beyond sight

drawing us from tree to tree
towards the time and the unknown place
where we shall know
what it is to arrive

[1] If anyone from Berkley Publishing Group is reading this, please feel free to put "'A triumph of popular fabulation' --Matt Reed" on the back of any future printings of the novel.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Asceticism and the Environment (Part I)

This year the Lent began with Al Gore receiving an Oscar for his film, An Inconvenient Truth.

When I was growing up, conservatives often took the position that global warming was a hoax concocted as a sort of desperate rear guard action by environmentalists, a rather silly set of extremists who for some bizarre reason found the Triumph of Capitalism unpalatable. Times have changed [1] and the globe seems to be warming, and the phenomenon has now been given the move neutral and inclusive moniker "Climate Change." One of the arguments from the Right, currently, seems to be that the climate may be changing, but the it couldn't possibility be caused by humans. The argument seems to be that the world is too vast, too intricate and complex, that humans are to small in comparison to make any serious dent in it.

I am not interested really in the politics of the situation or the validity (or lack thereof) of the conservative viewpoint. What I am interested in is the fact that the argument is at least superficially plausible. There seems to be something shocking in the notion that humans could actually destroy the world. It seems arrogant and audacious. What is interesting to me is that Christianity is even more audacious, even more radical than the most fervent environmentalist, because for the Christian human choices did not only cause the rivers and streams of the world to be polluted or the ice caps to melt, but also and further and more deeply, human choice caused the entry of all the pain and death into the world, human choices are the source of both the physical and spiritual pollution that exists in the world. Talk about audacity. We have really messed things up, and we can't fix what we've done to Creation by simply buying a hybrid car.

In his book, The Doors of the Sea, the theologian David Bentley Hart puts it this way:

Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces -- whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance -- that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. And we are not only permitted but required to believe that cosmic time as we know it, through all the immensity of its geological ages and historical epochs, is only a shadow of true time, and this world only a shadow of the fuller, richer, more substantial, more glorious creation that God intends: and to believe also that all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness. That ours is a fallen world is not, of course, a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe: it is not a first principle of faith, but rather something revealed to us only by what we know of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time.

This is truly the Christian message, but it is a message that would be incomprehensible to someone who believes that human actions cannot affect the world. But the implication is that the universe (that is, Creation) is in a far worse situation that we might otherwise think, that even if we could, through rigorous public policy and sweeping sacrifice by all the billions of people in the world, even if we were to stop global warming and set right the environmental abuses which we have caused over the past centuries--and we should at least try to do that I think, even then we would still be not all that much better for it.

Christian Environmentalism[2] I believe should be more radical, more audacious than Political Environmentalism. So what does that mean, and where should we begin? I am going to suggest over the next couple blog posts that the answer is Asceticism. Wendell Berry once wrote that the best thing you can do for the environment is to start a garden. This is good advice. But I think the best thing you can do for the environment is to fast.

It seems counterintuitive. It seems that asceticism is the opposite of what we need because it seems to be somehow rejecting the physical world. It seems that the Christian idea of a 'fallen' world would suggest the the earth is not worth saving and might encourage the sort of abuses that we've seen in the industrial West, which has after all Christian roots. Well, it may seem that way, but this is only part 1. And it's getting rather late. So, to be continued...

[1] For the most part. There was a rather colorful Texan manager at a company I used to work for who, based on the air-tight logic that it happened to be a cold day, threatened to shoot anyone who anyone who said anything about global warming.

[2] I say 'Environmentalism' only because 'Creationism' is (Alas!) already taken by Protestant fundamentalists.

You should read Dostoyevsky's The Idiot

Quick: What's your all time top 5 favorite Dostoevsky novels? Here's mine:

1. The Brothers Karamazov
2. The Idiot
3. Crime and Punishment
4. Demons
5. The Gambler

But I don't really want to write about that. Instead, I want to write about a subject that is rather near to my heart: underlining. Now, as a study technique I am sure there are times when it can't be avoided. Still, there is a special kind of despair one feels after purchasing a perfectly good looking book (say, a hardback Modern Library edition of The Wind in the Willows or the second volume of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation) from a used bookshop only to discover upon further investigation that the innards have been marked up beyond recognition by highlightings, underlinings, and banal scribbled notes. It affects me more, perhaps, than the average reader because I am vain and neurotic, and I begin imagining that upon my death whoever inherits my library will suspect that I was the one who wrote those aforementioned banal scribblings and went about playing fast and loose with yellow highlighters.

I experienced this feeling with particular force several years back when I bought a 2 dollar paperback of The Idiot [1]. There is an interesting scene early on in the novel where some of the characters (trying, I believe, to impress their female host) play a game where they each tell a story of how they have behaved shamelessly. The first two, the more sophisticated gentleman, give accounts where they are ostensibly shameful but in fact the stories are meant to disguised self-praise. The third, a depraved young man, tells his story straightforwardly and artlessly and he certainly behaved shamefully. None of them come off very well. Anyway, the previous owner of my book had written in the margin:
Note: All of the 'shameful"[sic] stories are ones in which the teller went unpunished.

I mean, that's not even germane. So, if you happen to inherit my library, please know that I didn't write that.

Now, please go read The Idiot. It's a really a great novel no matter what is written in the margins.[2]

[1] The Signet Classic edition, translated by Henry and Olga Carlisle.

[2] But be warned: when I originally read it years ago, it had such a traumatic affect on me that it cause me to be depressed for a week after I finished. But don't worry, I'm ok now.

I have travelled a good deal in Oakland

The American poet William Carlos Williams wrote in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

I cannot say
that I have gone to hell
for your love

but often
found myself there
in your pursuit

I do not like it
and wanted to be
in heaven. Hear me out.

Do not turn away.[1]

My high-priced liberal education tells me he is alluding to the Homeric Epic and in particular Virgil's Aeneid. I think I kind of know what Aeneas and Dr. Williams were going through, because today I got separated from friends in the Carnegie Natural History Museum. One of the neat things about getting lost in a natural history museum is that in a single half hour, you feel as though you've traveled the world in search of your objective. So, when I finally found my friends (gazing peacefully and innocently at Japanese prints in an entirely different building), I had searched for them through the arid deserts and dark tombs of Egypt and Mesopotamia, through prehistoric forests of what would become modern Denmark, by the bones of all manner of extinct mammals, the cold igloos of the Inuit Arctic, through the gritty streets of London's lesser known neighborhoods, through cathedral portals of Gothic France, and past a multitude of depressingly plastic people.

But the entire day was worth it because in a hallway of glass cases filled with extinct avian taxidermy, examples of primitive stone tools, and suchlike I saw a poster with the following helpful advice:

Don't feel bad for neolithic woodcutters!


[1] (from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower & Other Love Poems, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1938.) Forgive me: I can't get the formatting correct in Html and the lines look different in the original. Anyway, later on in the same poem, he gives us this gem:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack

of what is found there.

Monday, February 26, 2007

cognitive confusion from an unprophetable servant

Listening to NPR today, I was fairly confused when they spoke about a new book which accuses the newspaper industry of being 'too focused on prophets.'

What makes a song good? (Opening Remarks)

I've been formulating a response to the question 'What makes a song good?' and thought I'd vet some ideas here before I respond. I thought I'd start with another question: what makes a sentence good?

The key quotes for me are:

1. T. S. Eliot in The Little Gidding:

...And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together).
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning...

2. Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.

3. I once formulated a General Theorem of Poetry:

(Sound > Sight > Trope > Metaphor > Subject)
(Sound = Sight = Trope = Metaphor = Subject)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sad but true

Tonight's quote is from the inimitable P. G. Wodehouse:
If girls realized their responsibilities they would be so careful when they smiled that they would probably abandon the practice altogether. There are moments in a man's life when a girl's smile can have as important results as an explosion of dynamite.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More on forgiveness from Dostoevsky

For those who own The Brothers Karamazov but haven't read it yet, perhaps one more quote will convince you:
Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.
He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. "Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears...," rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and "he was not ashamed of this ecstasy." It was as if the threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, "touching other worlds." He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, "as others are asking for me," rang again in his soul. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind--now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. [1]

[1] Pevear and Volokhonsky again...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Forgiveness and Freedom

Yesterday was Forgiveness Sunday and last evening the beginning of Great Lent. One of my favorite images of forgiveness is from Dostoevsky's Brother's Karamozov, the section "From the Life of the Elder Zosima." As a child Elder Zosima's brother became very sick and near the end of his life he repented.
"Dear mother, heart of my heart," he said (he had then begun saying such unexpected, endearing words), "heart of my heart, my joyful one, you must know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me. And how could we have lived before, getting angry, and not knowing anything?" Thus he awoke every day with more and more tenderness, rejoicing and all atremble with love... The windows of his room looked onto the garden, and our garden was very shady, with old trees, the spring buds were already swelling on the branches, the early birds arrived, chattering, singing through his windows. And suddenly, looking at them and admiring them, he began to ask their forgiveness, too: "Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you." None of us could understand it then, but he was weeping with joy: "Yes," he said, "there was so much of God's glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it all." "You take too many sins upon yourself," mother would weep. "Dear mother, my joy, I am weeping from gladness, not from grief; I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to love them. Let me be sinful before everyone, but so that everyone will forgive me, and that is paradise. Am I not in paradise now?[1]

And, so today the Great Fast begins and for the first time in weeks the sun is out here in Pittsburgh!
Thy grace has shone forth, O Lord, it has shone forth and given light to our souls. Behold, now is the accepted time: behold, now is the season of repentance. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, that having sailed across the great sea of the Fast, we may reach the third-day Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls.[2]

Peace to everyone as the Lenten Spring begins.

[1] translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[2] Sunday of Forgiveness Vespers from The Lenten Triodion translated by Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, published by St. Tihkon's Seminary Press.

The Torments of Spring

Last month I accidentally started rereading War and Peace[1]. I picked it up looking for a quote--I don't remember which--and, reminded of how good it was, started reading again from the beginning. Now I am captivated by Tostoy novels the way more normal readers are captivated by murder mysteries, thrillers, and tv show novelizations. Because of this, after finishing the second book (about halfway through the novel), I am setting it aside for Lent, because late night reading about the trials of 18th century high society is probably not the best way for me to spend my time this spring [2].

Some thoughts on rereading the novel:

1. I was reminded again of the similarities between Tolstoy's writing style, especially in the first book, with Homer's (especially the Iliad and I believe someone famous compared the two books before me so this is nothing new, I guess), in his use of long and complex similes which one rarely sees in fiction these days and his use of epithets in describing the characters, so much so that I wonder if he did this intentionally. Perhaps the epithets (which seem to drop off as the novel progresses) are there because he recognized that even the most alert readers, even readers familiar and comfortable with Russian names, will have trouble keeping track of the seemingly endless cast of characters. So, the good author helps us out: Elena Kuragina is always "the beautiful Ellen," and Lisa Bolonskaya is always "the little princess." The intention, I suppose, of both the similes and the epithets was for simplicity and clarity of expression as well as an eagerness to help the reader as much as possible [3]. The result is also a certain lightness and charm, which is refreshing in a book unapologetically dedicated to lofty subjects like death, life, honor, love, and the mechanisms and telos of history. The ancient Greeks had their "swift-footed Achilles" but a part of me prefers "the clumsy Pierre" of Russia.

2. It is interesting also that his use of more poetic language (metaphor and the like) are usually confined to when he is describing a character's subjective feelings. This strikes me as the right way to go about writing novels. Often contemporary novels, especially 'literary' ones, indulge in one of two extremes: on the one hand they are overly poetic, using a sort of insipid lyric realism, a plodding crypto-poem; on the other hand they often have a sort of journalistic, even voyeuristic, style, with the author going out of their way to 'tell it as it is' or to shock. The upshot of all this is that I rarely read contemporary novels [4]. But Tolstoy uses his techniques to suit the requirements of the narrative. The epic battle and the marriage ceremony are described in a detached 3rd person, with realistic detail and intellectual commentary; the feelings of a soldier in the midst of a battle, however, or the sudden confusion and lofty hopes and despair of a young man who has fallen in love are written in a subjective, personal, and poetic style.

3. My copy (the Signet Classic version, translated by Ann Dunnigan) is well written, but the fact that it uses "Mass" rather than "Divine Liturgy" makes it suspect. Alas, I wish I knew Russian! [5]

4. It was a bit unsettling, but certain parts of the novel, especially near the end of the second book, resonated with my own struggles and situation, resonated more than I would prefer in petty entertainments like novel reading. For instance (I will leave out the most poignant and painful resonances), there is a beautiful passage where Prince Andrei is riding down a road during the early spring and notices an old oak, older than all the other trees in the forest, an oak that has not yet begun to bud, which seemed to be mocking the rest of the forest by its barrenness, by its unwillingness to participate in the hopes of spring:
"Yes, that oak is right, a thousand times right," mused Prince Andrei. "Let others, the young, be snared anew by that delusion, but we know life--our life is over!"
A whole new sequence of thoughts, hopeless but ruefully satisfying, rose in Prince Andrei's soul in connection with that oak tree. He considered his life afresh as it were and arrived at the same hopeless but soothing conclusion as before, that it was not for him to begin anything anew, but that he must live out his life harming no one, disturbed by nothing, desiring nothing.

The fact that the Prince finds renewed hope soon after these musings, and then later loses it again, only adds to the sad, whimsical beauty of the passage. But what a temptation! and the beauty of it, the fact that it is so close to truth, only adds to the lure of that temptation. I have to admit I feel this way more often then I should, indulging in a sort of self-righteous and arrogant, and therefore false, sense of martyrdom; certainly there is nothing particularly special or redeeming in my own personal failures. But there is a thin line between humility and self-pity, between fleeing the fallen world and hating the created world, between true self-sacrifice and empty vanity. These are matters that with myself I too much discuss.

Anyway, I will pick up my reading of War and Peace later this spring with book three which, I regret to report, ma chère, begins in the year 1812.

[1] I have tried my best in the past to promote the reading of this great novel.

[2] Especially by an author who would be excommunicated, but we shall let that pass for now...

[3] And, I suppose, a reader reading 1500 page novel needs all the help he or she can get.

[4] So for all I know my criticism of them is unjust.

[5] Or at the very least I wish Pevear and Volokhonsky would get to work on a translation!

Prolegomena, and Declaration of Principals

Chesterton, I believe, wrote that every writer should justify the existence of each book they write. I feel this should be the case with blogs as well, and particularly blogs authored by myself, because I have started a number of blogs (somewhere between 2 and 4) with mixed results. Those friends who know me best are likely to greet each new idea and project I undertake with--a more than justified--look of doubt and pity, an ironic smile, a good natured eye roll. These friends have on their side all the advantage of inductive reasoning. So it goes. But still I can't help starting new projects and spinning off new ideas, and here we go again. But, further, I must justify this blog because in the past I stopped blogging not only out of fickleness and laziness, but also because of some things I've written on blogs that I have regretted. Further, I am of two minds about blogging (and the Internet in general, actually): at times I am completely annoyed by blogs and at other times I profit by them and feel like writing them myself. In the same way, I am sometimes turned off to poetry when I pick up a copy of the New Yorker, but then I eventually open a volume by T. S. Eliot, or Denise Levertov, and I suddenly love poetry again.

My only justification for writing this blog is that I have failed as a diarist but I need to write, that my writing has slipped since I stopped writing, although to be honest I have never been much of a prose stylist. My intention here is to blog within the following boundaries:

1. I will confine myself to topics like literature and poetry, and in particular Russian literature (as a simple non-academic, only a few steps above philistine), the spiritual life from the point of view of an Orthodox Christian laymen (avoiding as much as possible theological polemics and debates, which I no longer have the stomach for and am unqualified for anyway), thoughts on the books I am reading, on the art I go look at, the music I hear, and perhaps the films I view. Perhaps I will throw in an occasional thought or joke, story or poem, or idea.

2. I will try not to write about politics (unless Israel or the US starts a new war, and then I might not be able to restrain myself!) or indulge in self-revelations: no one wants to hear about my personal life, and I am not so mean as to force it on anyone.

3. I will try to keep shameless self-promotion to a minimum.

4. I will try to only write when I write, and not wander about like a spy looking for things to write about, moments to steal.

5. I tend to use more commas then I ought. I apologize in advance.

So begins a new blog. Good morning.