A poem which I wrote five years or so ago has been published in the Fall issue of 'War, Literature, and the Arts', the literary journal of the United States Air Force Academy. It was written in Barbados, during the denouement of a relationship and an obsession with Kenneth Rexroth. I don't think I would ever write anything like it again, but it holds a lot of meaning for me as an artifact from a time and place and state of being. Maybe you'll be able to make something out of it yourself.
It has been said that the theology of Thomas Aquinas is like a hologram. Every part contains every other part. Therefore, to study any question from his corpus in depth is to get an introduction to his theology as a whole. This was certainly my experience. And my study of transubstantiation has equipped me to write and teach about not just the sacraments, but Christology, ethics, Christian anthropology, ecclesiology, eschatology, the doctrine of God, even Scripture. The laser beam that shot out from the doctrine of transubstantiation and subsequently unfolded the whole hologram of Thomas’s theology for me was undoubtedly his doctrine of creation, specifically, the way Thomas understands the relationship between God and creation.
Which takes us back to Aristotle and article 8 of question 75 of the Summa. Aristotle believed in the eternity of the universe. Since something exists, something has always existed. It is only the Judeo-Christian understanding of a radically other and transcendent God that could make any sense of the universe having a beginning, of a creation out of nothing. And of such a God Aristotle was quite innocent. Aquinas, though he finds Aristotle’s categories quite useful, breaks with Aristotle on the foundational question of the eternity of the universe. And this has radical consequences for the way he can use Aristotle in his theology, not least on the question of the Eucharist.
This is because it is only a creator God like the God of the Judeo-Christian biblical and philosophical tradition that could possibly change bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood without transforming their physical characteristics. In article 8 of question 75, Thomas distinguishes transubstantiation from natural change, or transformation, because in natural change natural causes act in natural ways to produce change. So, for example, a fire can turn a wooden log or plank into smoke and ashes. But he also distinguishes it from creation ex nihilo, which is not, properly speaking, a change at all, since there is literally no thing that becomes some other thing. While it is unlike both natural change and creation ex nihilo in these ways, transubstantiation is like natural change in that one term becomes another term, and like creation ex nihilo in that only the power of a transcendent creator God could effect it.
In Robinson Crusoe, we can witness the emergence in the literary canon of the Janus-faced consciousness that is our distinctly modern way of experiencing the world. It is a way in which it is possible to look at a remarkable event sometimes as a miracle and sometimes as a natural phenomenon, to read our horoscopes while trusting medical journals, to raise children who declare allegiance both to NASA and to Gryffindor House, to believe that love has a higher, even transcendent, purpose at the same time as we believe it was naturally selected for because it is a pro-social behavior that helped our species survive. Robinson Crusoe registers that modernity is not the condition of uncertainty about whether we are enchanted or disenchanted, superstitious or scientific; it is the condition of being both.
In his book A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor describes the “cross-pressures” of modernity, the way many of us experience the world as a tug of war between conflicting belief systems. Some of us “want to opt for the ordered, impersonal universe, whether in its scientistic-materialist form, or in a more spiritualized variant,” yet we “feel the imminent loss of a world of beauty, meaning, warmth, as well as of the perspective of a self-transformation beyond the everyday.” Think of Victorian humanists like George Eliot or Thomas Hardy, or anyone who grew up in a Christian family and now attends services only at Christmas, out of nostalgia or family tradition. Others opt for faith, yet remain “haunted by a sense that the universe might after all be as meaningless as the most reductive materialism describes. They feel that their vision has to struggle against this flat and empty world; they fear that their strong desire for God, or for eternity, might after all be the self-induced illusion that materialists claim it to be.”
Whatever we profess to believe, we all share an experience that is structured by scientific, materialistic concepts, encouraging us to sense that we occupy a natural, this-worldly realm, rather than a supernatural, transcendent one. Taylor calls this naturalistic realm the “immanent frame.” Imagine it as like living in a house. For those who live strictly in the immanent frame — think of Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris — the doors and windows are shut. This world is all we have; there is nothing more. Others are open to peering out the windows. Many more still are caught at the threshold and unsure whether to keep the door open or closed. These opposing pulls are the “cross-pressures” of modernity. For Taylor, this also describes most religious believers today: in the modern age, “the struggle for belief is never definitively won.”
Robinson Crusoe falls squarely in the middle of a long tradition of castaway stories in which the struggle for survival becomes a stand-in for the struggle for belief. But it may be the first to capture what it is like to feel “some of the force of each opposing position,” as Taylor describes the cross-pressures. As we will see, Defoe’s novel can be read in part as a response to the utopian vision of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), a story about a remote society that has brought empirical science and revealed religion into harmony. In turn, the hit TV series Lost can be read as our era’s mysterian, angst-ridden response to the epistemic problem raised by Defoe. Situated in this way, Robinson Crusoe can be seen as a crucial stage in the emergence of the modern double consciousness — the point when a union between the natural and the transcendent could no longer be taken for granted, but perpetual and global conflict did not yet seem inevitable.
Ted Gioia talks to Tyler Cowan about "the history and industry of music, including the reasons AI will never create the perfect songs, the strange relationship between outbreaks of disease and innovation, how the shift from record companies to Silicon Valley transformed incentive structures within the industry– and why that’s cause for concern, the vocal polyphony of Pygmy music, Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize, why input is underrated, his advice to aspiring music writers, the unsung female innovators of music history, how the Blues anticipated the sexual revolution, what Rene Girard’s mimetic theory can tell us about noisy restaurants, the reason he calls Sinatra the “Derrida of pop singing,” how to cultivate an excellent music taste, and why he loves Side B of Abbey Road."
"But I think what Wheeler and other commentators on Ruskin have not quite recognized is this: The essential task of Ruskin’s life was the prophetic discernment of the right and wrong, the healthy and unhealthy, forms of human making, which for him was the most essential kind of human labour. Ruskin always thinks theologically, and what he most consistently thinks theologically about is what Thomas Hughes calls the “human-built world,” which comprises both what we usually call technology and what we usually call art. Ruskin’s exploration of how humans respond to the given world through making, when properly understood, reveals him as a kind of predecessor to twentieth-century figures like the German philosopher Martin Heidegger—but with a warmth and a passion and an eloquence that set him quite apart from the notoriously inscrutable Heidegger."
But Ruskin was also—as he announces in the first line of Praeterita—“a violent Tory of the old school.” He makes this sound like a merely literary fact—the “old school” is “Walter Scott’s… and Homer’s.” In fact, his political economy—like that of his contemporary Thomas Carlyle—was essentially feudal, vested in a far-reaching faith in inequality. His sexuality was mystifying and damnable. He was anti-modern, anti-scientific, anti-Darwin. He was anti almost anything that didn’t antecede his birth, except, perhaps, the novels of Walter Scott and the work of J.M.W. Turner. Considered all together, his beliefs are usefully described by one of Rudyard Kipling’s characters as “mixed pickles.” Ruskin is the spoiled child of the nineteenth century—stringently, evangelically spoiled, but spoiled nevertheless.
What matters is his sight, his sense of particularity, his love of detail. That is what fills Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and even—strangely--Fors Clavigera, his remarkable late series of ninety-six monthly letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Reading Ruskin, you begin to think that he more or less lived at the tip of his pencil, in the nib of his pen, for he was always writing. His entire sensibility seems to flow into every word he inscribes. Ruskin’s manner of being in the world would call to mind the image that opens George Eliot’s Adam Bede—“With this drop of ink at the end of my pen I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge”—except that Ruskin disliked Eliot. In Ruskin’s drop of ink, you can see his world with astonishing clarity and fascinating distortion. And you see the man himself staring back at you, balefully, as he tends to do in his self-portraits.
In Parenthesis found a language for what he needed in its snaking adaptations of style indirect libre. Throughout the poem the enemy is ‘he’, but so too is the English sentry who, during a dawn stand-to, is probably using his shaving mirror (fixed to his bayonet) as a periscope:
In the mirror: below the wood, his undulating breastworks all along, he sees and loses, thinks he sees again, grey movement for the grey stillness, where the sand-bag wall dipped a little.
He noted that movement as with half a mind – at two o’clock from the petrol-tin. He is indeterminate of what should be his necessary action. Leave him be on a winter’s morning – let him bide.
This floating third person is part of the poem’s attempt to translate experience without self-expression, and without speaking for those involved. What it seeks is a choric in-betweenness, remote from Wilfred Owen’s aspiration to speak for the inarticulate common soldier. Jones’s soldiers are supremely articulate: ‘Every man’s speech and habit of mind were a perpetual showing.’ The poem’s view into other minds includes its transfixed intimations of the enemy as a semblable with better-appointed trenches, a hundred yards away. This articulated his sense of war as fraternity and fratricide – in his long view, because of the ‘culture-tangle’ of our historical interconnectedness, or as Henri Barbusse put it, ‘two armies fighting is one great army killing itself.’
Jones had been fascinated with the trench mazes of the British sector in Ypres, which resembled a German system, but his visual ‘loyalty’ was to the single wavering line more typical of British defences and, he felt, of the insular imagination. The labyrinth is one (Celtic) pole of Jones’s visual and verbal imagination: asymmetrical, self-enfolding, abstract, curvilinear. The zigzag is a different pole, and shapes the fluctuating lines of In Parenthesis, whose purposes are as much spatial as aural, and serve to keep the reader in a shifting relation to what is being said. Dilworth suggests that Jones’s spatial imagination was formed by his experience of map-making, which involved making coded sense of the visually indeterminate and psychologically confounding.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor