It's mildly embarrassing to admit it, but while heaving 4 x 8ft. sheets of three-quarter inch plywood up two ladders and out onto a newly framed roof, today, I was very much looking forward to relaxing with my Long Trail Blackberry Wheat beer and seeing what happened on Survivor following a dramatic upset at the end of last week's episode. From that perspective, I can't help but wonder how much of a political hit the President's handlers calculate into their decision to disrupt folks' relaxation routines absent an Earth-shaking announcement.
Some may see it as an indication of the political disengagement that plagues our country, but I could live without the last-minute preemption of my daily mindless time. Oh, well. Television off. Back to work. Maybe tomorrow morning I'll look into what the President actually said.
Well, Survivor was merely postponed until 9:00, so although the sit-down didn't coincide with my beer, I guess it all worked out for the best. At least I got my work done.
As they so often do, the folks on Survivor acted in their own self-interest rather than in harmony with the plot thread that had ensnared me for a few weeks. Guess I don't have to watch anymore. If the President would like to have another 8:00 p.m. press conference next Thursday, he has my permission.
It probably isn't but so much of an exaggeration to say that just about everybody in the world with at least a cursory familiarity with Western society would recognize the main motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, first movement. But the first movement isn't the best part of the symphony. The transition from the third to the fourth is.
The significance of this disconnect that the most famous riff in the history of Western music misses (arguably) one of the most compelling musical moments in history by a shy two movements sends the author's inner metaphorist scurrying among the synapses chasing loose thoughts. Not the least, it must be noted that the symphony, being of the cyclic variety, is a dramatic unity. In music history class, the professor suggested that the theme is the struggle between the major and minor keys which applies neatly to any light/dark or good/evil plot. The abrupt knock on the door at the very beginning (ba ba ba bum) announces that a struggle exists, and we humans are infatuated with its existence. Moreover, the buildup, transition, and climax require the annunciation.
Bringing me to the minutia of my day which I have off while hovering between two companies. I could have leapt from one job to the next, I'm sure, but I've been standing under a teetering pile of unaccomplished tasks and wanted to plane it down. Somewhere between dealing with an abrasive mechanic reinspecting my car (who may have been bitter that the $600+ for required repairs went elsewhere) and calling to confirm the reissuance of one of my credit cards because the number may have been "compromised," I recognized the exact bar of Beethoven's score through which my life is currently passing.
After four months in the minor key of semi-employment (punctuated by major key accomplishments with the writing) and two months of overwork with underpay (and literary connections fading), the first hints of a melody in major are audible above the grumble. My new schedule should open enough space in which to maneuver in my juggling, and my new salary should push me just past the necessity of deciding which bill(s) not to pay in a given month. The second week of May will bring my first biweekly column for TheFactIs.org, and the third week of May will bring me to thirty years of age a bona fide adult, beginning my decade of establishment... I can hope.
Beethoven's Fifth is in C-minor, the home chord of which is a minor third (C to Eb) beneath a major third (Eb to G). The famous four notes that have become a cultural representation of the knock of doom or at least of fate are actually the major side of the chord (G, G, G, Eb). These past few weeks, especially, I haven't felt like myself out of key. But the past isn't the concern, and it is worth pausing, on days such as today, to revel in the transition, realizing what family and faith ought to have kept always beyond doubt: that major and minor are a unity, tempering glee with beauty and morosity with hope.
I was going to write this more poetically, but I'm too tired: I've got another week of a hellish schedule, after which things should be better than they've been in a while.
Better writing to come. And A Whispering Through the Branches will resume next week.
Commenter Fitz notes a post on Alas, a Blog, on which blogger Ampersand links to and quotes from various commentary on the McArdle debate, citing mine as the only one not worth reading (because it is "just more of the old 'same sex marriage will lead to incest' fearmongering).
Particularly when I don't recognize the paraphrased fearmongering as something that I wrote, or even closely related to my points, I'm not but so concerned about what is said over on Alas except to recall the longevity of the "same-old-same-old" dismissal of disagreeable arguments. However, I thought commenter Kim's free-form ode to Fitz pretty well illustrates various, well, difficulties that traditionalists have in finding willingness to actually discuss these matters credulously on the other side:
Fitz, I don't like you.
I don't like you because you personify the unknown stranger that seems intent on invading and molesting my privacy and life.
I don't like you because your own fear and weakness makes you cling to a patriarchy and patriarchal roles that hurt me, other women and others in general that aren't willing to yeild to the power you falsely feel entitled to.
I don't like you because you infringe upon my right to religious freedom or lack thereof with your outspoken attempts at forcing your religion down my throat and into my life.
I don't like you because you are bigoted and unfairly discriminating and try to cover it up with strawmen arguments and a patronizing attitude.
I don't like you because you try to define my marriage based on your morality instead of respecting that the right to define a marriage belongs soley to the people entering into the contract.
I don't like you because you cling to gender-roles because of how they empower you without giving any consideration to how they disempower women.
I don't like you because you attempt to use feminism and liberalism as dirty words without even fully understanding them.
I simply don't like you. And I want you out of my marriage. I want you out of my bed. I want you out of my religious privacy. I want you out of my decision making when it comes to what role I will choose. I want you out of my family when it comes to deciding whether my family is abnormal because we have married gay relatives. I want you gone with all of your judgements and molestations of my life. In my eyes, you're a cultural and societal rapist of privacy and personal rights.
I don't like you.
Scat-dat-diddledy-do, Sister Same-Old.
Believe me: as is often the case, I'm actually a bit anxious to move on to other topics than homosexuality. But I've been following an editorial-page debate in the University of Rhode Island's student paper, The Good 5¢ Cigar, and I couldn't let the following, from a letter by Professor of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences Alvin Swonger, go without comment:
Mr. Nelson expresses amazement that Americans still "support homosexuality" despite it contributing to AIDS transmission. That his argument is preposterous can be readily understood by choosing from among the unlimited number of parallel arguments relating to other health concerns.
Women after age 45 are twice as likely to suffer major depression as men, yet Americans - amazingly - continue to support femininity. Most cases of influenza are transmitted by inhalation, yet Americans - amazingly - continue to support breathing. Parkinson's Disease is most prevalent in elderly men, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency in blacks, Italians, Greeks, Arabs, and Sephardic Jews, psoriasis in pale skinned whites, radon exposure in miners, and spousal abuse in married couples, yet - amazingly - Americans still (usually) tolerate those various demographic groups and support aging, farming, mining, and marriage while spending tax dollars researching the causes and potential treatments for the related medical and social problems.
Is Swonger serious? These are the sorts of comments that, I imagine, spark rewarding titters in the faculty lounge, but as a logical matter, the professor's own argument is at the absolute least as "preposterous" as that of the student whom he is addressing.
I don't know Prof. Swonger, and therefore I've no reason to doubt his intelligence or professional competence; I say that honestly, without intending to imply doubt through insinuation. But the other option is that this particular intellectual approach is so common that academics scientists, no less let it slide through their own minds without a second thought.
I would hope that, once the faulty passage has been circled in red ink, people far less intellectual than college professors would be able to see the distinctions over which Swonger has glossed. If not, let me know, and we'll see about some lesson plans for a 101.
It speaks volumes about the rigidity of modern liberalism that Community College of Rhode Island sociology and philosophy professor David Carlin (whose political alignment I do not know) didn't bother to list the fourth option for liberal Catholics disappointed in Cardinal Ratzinger's transition to Pope Benedict:
These disillusioned liberals will follow one of three courses: Some will remain Catholic and be depressed by the whole situation; some will join a church that better suits their idea of what a church should be (e.g., the Episcopal Church); and some will drift away from institutionalized religion altogether, and instead practice their own private forms of Christianity.
That a learned man wouldn't even consider it a possibility that some "disillusioned liberals" would reassess their views to conform with the consistent teachings of the Church suggests that sociologists and liberals, as well as the Church, might want to consider ways to put that fourth option back on the list.
Toward the tail end of the (currently) 152 comments to my "Whitewashing the Fence" post, Michael begins an extended answer with the following interesting observation:
All gays have a different attitude towards sex and sexuality than most straights. This is probably because, unlike heterosexuals, gays have been forced to have their own inner dialogues about what sexuality means, something that I don't think straights ever really deal with. This leads to a broader tolerance towards sexual and mating choices.
The difficulty in figuring out how to formulate a response to this quotation illustrates how differently the issue of same-sex marriage is being approached. The question that springs first to mind: Why are homosexuals "forced" to do such deeper thinking than heterosexuals about the meaning of sexuality? The bottom line answer clear enough to merit an <obvious> tag is that any heterosexuals inclined to derive one have an answer within easy reach.
Here, the "tolerance" maven might jump in with one of the two related quick-response reactions:
Rebuttal 1 applies less and less. Indeed, I'd argue that the reverse is true in certain settings. Furthermore, anybody who believes that ridicule doesn't (and doesn't inevitably) play a role in the formation of heterosexuals' understanding of life must lack a broad view of youth.
Rebuttal 2 brings us to the divisions between "liberal" and "conservative" that Michael subsequently attempts to draw. It has been a social-liberal project for decades (centuries, depending where one draws the line) to break down those constructs. The opposition isn't surprising: conservatives wish to maintain those constructs (again, with different lines), to fortify them so that society can rely on them to achieve other goals. (And clearly marriage counts among those constructs.)
But these are distractions. The main reason that heterosexuals, generally speaking, don't require extended inner dialogue about the meaning of sexuality is that a plain observation of biological reality provides the essential: procreation. (Frankly, when I was an atheist, I would have argued that the single most objective "meaning" to life is procreation.) As pleasurable as sex may be, and as much as the provision of pleasure can rightly become a secondary meaning, the fact that procreation remains central can be seen in the lengths that heterosexuals must go to deny it. Even all of the contraptions, the changing of body chemistry, and the dismemberment of unborn progeny do not fully succeed in permitting denial.
For homosexuals, on the other hand, not only is that denial allowed, but it is required if they are to formulate "what sexuality means" in a way that doesn't mire their sex lives in the secondary. Even conservative gays (among whom Michael counts himself) must take a radical view of sex or else admit something in which there is neither sin nor reason for shame: that their sexual attractions are, in the Catholic phrasing, "objectively disordered."
Whether they like it or not, denial of this conclusion which is not meant to be belittling is inherently subversive. Witness Michael's insouciant response to the question "Will gays androgynize marriage?":
I dunno. Probably. But that's a good thing. Not that men and women are completely interchangeable, but that men and women can feel free to fulfill the roles they're good at fulfilling.
In one swoop, the meaning of sex has not only engulfed the significance of gender, but also installed the individual as the definer of roles in a relativist process of blending what one wishes to do and be with a self-assessment of what one is "good" at doing and being. The denial is, in St. Paul's language, of what can be "understood and perceived in what [God] has made." We do well to consider his explanation and admonition, not as an insult, but as the advice of one concerned with our individual and collective well being lest while claiming to be wise, we become fools. Even inner dialogues require more voices than one's own.
Dinner had passed with no sign of Nick. D. was surprised to find herself mildly apprehensive, not unlike a girl awaiting a merely hinted rendezvous. It wasn't that she was developing any attraction whatsoever for him, but Nick's tale, apparent in the telling, had been heading into the realm of melancholy. With her imagination hopelessly inclined to create vast and morbid possibilities, D. began to long for the end of the story so that she could choose another book from the shelf and curl into a literate ball in her room. That would, after all, leave her mind to ponder securely fictional accounts.
After dinner, D. noticed that the day lingered longer than it had been, and strolling through the entrance hall, she watched the bright blur of the sun pass through the stained glass owl and disappear as it sank below the distant roof. The hall turned instantly dismal, and she hardly heard the creak of the door and footsteps behind her until a voice whispered, "So what do you see?"
Spinning with a start, D. inhaled deeply and pressed a hand to her chest, "Oh, Nick. It's you." Then, "What did you say?"
"The window," he replied, gesturing to the subject of his inquiry, "what does it look like to you?"
Turning back around, as if a final glance after having looked at it so long would prove to be the decisive one, D. decided, "I haven't decided yet. What does it make you think of?"
"A token," Nick told her curtly, "for the subway."
Moving next to her, Nick watched with D. as the shadow of the roof rose until it had completely engulfed the window. As if he had been waiting for the exact moment when the darkening of the room would cease to be observable and begin deepening in increasingly murky shades of gray, Nick said:
"You know, my first year here I used to watch undevotedly for the day that the sun would line up with that pigmentless hole in the middle. Even more so once everybody had left, but before Nathaniel and I began to talk in earnest. It was only a matter of days after I had watched him on the roof from the underbrush that I was standing on this very spot watching the bright splotch of the sun descending in a direct course for that center circle.
"It sounds either fanciful or dimwitted to say it now, but as the climactic moment approached, I noticed that my pulse began to quicken and my eyes refused to blink. I watched as the first sliver of unadulterated light curled around the edge of the ring. I turned to witness the crescent-moon shape that had appeared against the wall behind me, only to see a silhouette block out the light. Unjustly chastising myself for having blinked and missed it, I turned to discover that the obstruction was on the other side of the glass. I could even make out the arms and legs of Nathaniel on the distant rooftop. I don't believe that he knew the calamitous maneuver that he had made, but it seemed almost too convenient that he moved out of the way just in time for me to watch the sun loose its grip on the bottom arch of the ring.
"Part of me, I suspect, was bent on reprimanding him for his inconsiderate action, but when I emerged into the courtyard, I merely stood there and watched Nathaniel pace back and forth on that precipitous crux between the two towers. He'd caress the cold stone of each before twisting and casually crossing to the other.
"Would you like to go sit on the verandah?"
D. did not answer the question, for she had not understood that it hadn't been part of Nick's narrative, but she responded to the extended silence. "What was that?"
"I was just wondering if you wanted to sit down somewhere. I feel as if I've been standing all day."
D. acquiesced, and Nick led her out onto the porch, where they sat next to each other in individual wicker chairs and looked off into the increasingly obscure trees.
With an elegant clearing of his throat, Nick continued, "The daily ritual of the household became so routine that it was nearly comfortable for all its morbid ambiance. John, for all I could tell, was either absent for long intervals or wandered off before I awoke and staggered in after I was asleep. Nathaniel stayed up all through the night at his perilous vigil and so slept all day. I took the freedom of my days to reinvigorate my long lost literacy and at night watched from below as Nathaniel measured out the sunset in footsteps and glared off into nothing once the moon had risen behind him. One evening, I was speculating about Nathaniel's purpose in having me stay and resolved to rise to the southern tower and confront him.
"I made no effort to conceal my ascension or position, but still he didn't appear to notice that I was watching him. From my new vantage point, I could tell that he wasn't looking after the sunken light of the day, but into his palms: with one eye covered by each hand. His posture bespoke an aloofness that compelled me to hold my tongue, and so I spent that evening, and several nights after, just watching him after he had sat down into stillness.
"No, that's not right. I say that he was still, but had that been truly the case, I imagine that some common concern for humanity would have forced me to attempt to lift his spirits. The truth was that he was never quite still. There was always some kind of motion of his feet or hands that made him appear to be lost in grappling with some indomitable question, so I didn't dare disrupt him.
"It was already very nearly autumn when I finally picked a name for myself. I realize now that that must sound like a frivolous pedantism to be elated about when I had effectively been left to myself for several weeks. However, like the missed sunset through the token hole, I had been so consistently curious about the significance of the event that when it came I felt as if I had been cheated by not having anyone with whom to share the moment. I decided to celebrate myself, and it was dark by the time I had finished the sole remaining bottle of champagne, and the house and its living gargoyle changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound. It was in this state that I finally stumbled up to my accustomed perch and called out the news to Nathaniel.
"I've decided since then that he must have been really very distant in thought, because I needed to remind him of the book from which the name had been drawn. He glanced up at me, and through the dim light I could make out his lips moving slightly as if he were formulating a response. I flattered myself that I had diverted his thoughts onto me, but then he said, in a whisper that required me to lean so far towards him that I nearly tumbled end over end to my doom, 'I'm afraid I won't be much of a protagonist for you.'
"I thought I was being cavalier when I told him, 'Who's to say that it is your role to play,' but he just cocked back an eyebrow in dismissal and resumed his previous position. I had resolved, before I had climbed to the height, that I was either going to converse with him that night or leave in the morning. The stakes on my next words being so high, I took a moment to consider. Nathaniel was, I imagine, in his early twenties at that time, and by virtue of my being a little bit older, and at that age at which 'a little bit older' seems more significant than 'much older,' I thought I'd be able to draw a fair conclusion of his state through mere deduction.
"On first reflection of him sitting there curled into a cocoon of consideration, it seemed to me that Nathaniel was in the process of undergoing some sort of metamorphosis, one that was still too fresh for him to have realized what he had gained by it, so he was caught in the lamenting of that which he had lost. An eager leaf, brown and dead, skimmed the rooftop, making a deceptively loud scratching noise before it floated down into the courtyard. I looked at what Nathaniel had built around him. I thought of the droll companions that he kept always surrounding: interesting if not worthy of celebration. First I brought a vision of Huck to be considered, he of the demeanor that suggests that he is the only person unaware that his life runs on now as if in an inevitable anticlimax to those shining, regal days of youth. Displacing Huck in my mind's eye was Martin, a man who had been so drunk all his life on the rote maneuvers of a complacent existence and understood it enough to believe that some benefit might be gained from the world of books but was too lazy and stupid to do more than pace the library reading titles. And over them all, to be dealt with on an even longer-term basis, John, who made no qualms about preferring to be alone, then submitting himself to the rape of privacy that comes from small gatherings.
"They were, and still are, as are all of us who come here, careless people. When our individual seasons are over, we disappear and forget whatever messes we've made of Nathaniel's world. At that time, I almost pitied him. I sighed at the misapprehension of this simple gift that he gave to those who shared his home for a time.
"In his turn, I realized that Nathaniel had developed his own creation of himself before he threw open the gates to his reality. His, however, had not been an idle diversion. He was younger then, and his identity was still malleable. Once he had perceived his freedom to do so, he had thrown himself into the molding of his adolescence with a creative passion, picking bits and pieces of any plume that drifted his way. But because he was young, he invented the sort of figure that any young man of his intellect and spirit would be likely to invent and had explored this symbol of himself to the extent that it became comfortable and real to him. But, of course, we grow out of the fancies of childhood, and I had arrived just in time to witness the crucial moment of readjustment. He was running down like an old clock in order to rewind himself to a different rhythm.
"I think, though, that his poetic nature had imbued him with a longing for exactly the type of liberty that youth inherently imparts. I concluded that he felt his freedom slipping away like the sun into dusk and that the sunset, as it sank and blew the verdant hue from the foliage in a radiant beacon, had become to him the sinking vision of the person that he had been, and in losing himself, his count of enchanted objects had diminished by not one, but two. If this were true, he must have felt that he had lost the whole warm world and so, in melancholy reflections, lamented the disappearance of the sun too devoutly through the night and was forced to forego his relish of it during the day by the natural necessity of sleep.
"'They're a rotten crowd,' I called out to him. 'You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.'
"After that evening it was as if I had discovered the key to the treasure chest and lifted the lid to observe jewels that were mine whenever I wanted, if only temporarily. Nathaniel began to retire earlier each night, and as he partook of more and more of the day, we increasingly occupied each other with conversation. He talked often about the summers of the past, and I felt confirmed in my suspicion that he wanted to recover something, but realized that it was currency that must eventually be traded in.
"As the first cool breezes began to blow, Nathaniel prepared to leave. I made it known to him that I had no means of departure, and he offered to break the mores of the household just that once when he went into a nearby town to replenish John's supplies for the winter. He dropped me off outside of a small, one window train station on the outskirts of the town.
"I remember that I had sat there for a moment wanting to say something insightful and uplifting. The thought didn't come to me until I was out of his titanic and ancient Oldsmobile, and I held the door open as I told him, 'I truly believe that sometimes, if you've given up something from your past and the future proves that you made an error, then you can reinvigorate that part of you that you've lost.'
"'No,' he said, 'you can't repeat the past.'
"And with that he leaned over and pulled the door closed and drove away. To this day I consider his departing words to be proof of his extraordinary gift for hope. I knew then, as I know now that Nathaniel will turn out right in the..."
The sound of a breaking twig stops Nick before he finishes his sentence; rather, it is D. jumping up from her seat and backing toward the door that stops him. Nick calls out, "Is somebody there?"
The quiver of a nearby bush is the only response. In the eerie light of the moon, the shadows of each budding leaf can be seen to flutter like scarabs frightened from their carrion. A metallic jingle sends D. racing into the house in search of Jim, or perhaps any company will do at this point. Nick, unshaken in his familiar surroundings, stands up, placing his hand on the rail, a disquieted expression on his face as he stares into the impenetrable darkness of the forest.
"Who's there?" he shouts. In the gloom he can vaguely make out a dark shape floating away.
Shivering as the shape blends into the deep shadows all around and a whistled tune that he finds familiar but cannot place drifts out of the anonymity of the darkness, Nick enters the house, muttering, "Like a figure of ashes gliding away from him through the shapeless trees."
(N.B. I'm sure this has been done before and better, but it was easier to draw than to seek.)
Well, the next week or two should see my fiscal life become less difficult (incrementally), along with my schedule's becoming better distributed. Both should allow, in their own way, an increase in my time (and patience) for blogging.
In the meantime, I have to say that it's been much more pleasant even if more time consuming to come home to more comments from y'all than spam. I've also been surprised that the rate at which advertisers have bought ad space on this blog has increased.
To bring all the themes of this brief post together, I'd appreciate it if you'd invest a moment of your time in clicking the ads and, if feasible and appropriate, to consider further investments on the other side of the links.
It may have taken the oxymoronicism of Christianity and constitutional pessimism, but National Review has found a secular utopian in John Derbyshire:
Conservatives are not supposed to believe that human beings are the helpless instruments of blind Historical Forces. We are supposed to be the people who celebrate humanity in all its knotty and unpredictable variety, and in the power of the individual human will to transform the world. Did not John Paul II himself challenge, and help defeat, those who claimed the mandate of History? Yes, but that only adds a gloss of irony to his larger failure.
Looking back across the past few decades, it’s hard not to think that post-industrial modernism is headed all one way, everywhere it has taken a firm grip. Pleasure-giving gadgets and drugs are ever cheaper and more accessible. The distresses of life, especially physical sickness and pain, are gradually being pushed to the margins. As scientists probe deeper into the human genome, the human nervous system, and the biology of human social arrangements, that divine spark of person-hood that we all feel to be the essence of ourselves is being chased along narrower and darker passageways of the brain and the tribal folkways. Happiness itself, it seems, is genetic. And all this is headed…where?
We all know the answer to that one. It is headed to Brave New World.
Society is in a bizarre state indeed when the dour are resolving themselves to an impending world of untrammeled happiness:
So far as it makes any sense to predict the future, it seems to me highly probable that the world of 50 or 100 years from now will bear a close resemblance to Huxley’s dystopia a world without pain, grief, sickness or war, but also without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility of spirit.
I'm not sure whether it's an indication of deeper pessimism about human beings, but Derbyshire discounts humanity's ability to screw things up. In other words, he implicitly concedes human nature as something that will go softly into that good night. A recent scene makes me question the assumption: While sitting for a moment after a hard day's work last week feeling the contentment that can only come with the completion of exhausting labor I became whelmed with love for my three year old daughter and her unmitigated joy at life. Just as the contentment was tinged with pain, so was the love tinged with sadness.
We may be entering an era of bland happiness, but I'd suggest that the "risk death to taste life" ethos of the '60s was a dark manifestation perverted as so much was during that period of something intrinsically linked to religion, sacrifice, and nobility of spirit. In short, we will not be content to be content.
But even that odd consolation views our society as an isolated ecosystem. It ignores outside forces, including most profoundly God. Christianity's hope is intriguingly carried within a form of worldly pessimism. We must die, and the world must end, but those are good things. Are we to believe that God will cease to call those whose society has dragged them into false heaven? Are we to believe that He will cease to shape the world toward His own ends?
Human nature will answer the call to which it is so innately tuned. God will act in the world, and surely we've only just begun to appreciate the extent to which John Paul II was evidence of that action. Our actions and words will carry into the spotless future, and even behind a veil of palliatives, humanity will wonder what truth we had.
Expecting there to be a hearing of the Rhode Island House Committee on Judiciary this afternoon during which testimony would be received on a bill that would de-genderize my home state's marriage laws, I devoted a few hours last night and this morning to testimony that I planned to send in. Well, not two minutes after I'd compiled my list of the relevant state representatives and hit the "send" button, I discovered that the testimony session had been postponed.
Oh well. I've posted my testimony over on Anchor Rising.
The dish washing station was really quite remarkable. Perhaps the average visitor would pay it little heed, being accustomed to the luxury of instant hot water in the home and because the Pequod was so full of intriguing items and ingenuities that innovations of the domestic kind could only pale in comparison. But then, perhaps it wasn't such an amazing contrivance. After all, the inventor would most likely have been aware, himself, of modern running water systems and, thus, came up with this invention because he was unable to develop a more convenient method.
D. thought of Nick as she stoked the flame in the small enclosed oven under the dish basin and pumped water to clean the breakfast dishes the following morning. Huck had begun the process, with the promise of D.'s assistance, but had marched off, book under arm, hinting that he had some immediate personal business to attend to.
During breakfast, Nick had been excessively civil to D., and she could not help but feel that he was struggling to devise some means of speaking with her. They had sat, all five of them, at the servant's table in the kitchen, and Nick had remarked that it would be prudent of somebody to clear off the dining room table in the near future; their current dining arrangement would only seat one more. He had addressed the comment to the entire audience but, in some tacit way, made it clear that he had no intention of being the one to perform the task, or even to help.
She was pouring soap into the as yet cold water when D. heard the door swing open behind her. After waiting for some salutation or annunciation of intent that never came, D. turned to find Nick leaning, with arms and calves crossed, against the door frame: the picture of apathy even concerning the length of time it took for any conversation that he was planning to initiate to take form.
D. was the first to speak. "I don't know how we're going to continue to eat like that if many more people come."
"Oh, we'll get by."
A discomfiting silence, perhaps so for having been planned as such, settled on the room like downy linen. Nick shifted to the other shoulder on the opposite side of the door frame. "I've been meaning to apologize."
"What for?" asked D.
"I don't know, entirely. But I seem to have upset you last night, so this morning I'm apologizing."
Smiling amusedly, D. accepted the apology, half-heartedly insisting that it wasn't so much that she had been offended, but that she hadn't been of a mind to have a discussion as had seemed brewing.
"It's just," Nick struggled, "it's just that, to my experience, it is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment. I suppose I addressed you so put-offishly because I wanted to leave the way open to deny any insights you might have in the future that contradict everything I assume to be true. In part, as well, I must admit that any exhibition of complete self sufficiency, such as you were demonstrating, draws a stunned tribute from me."
D. wondered what specific evidence she had provided Nick to justify this flattery. The next swift moment, the door swung open to Huck proclaiming that he felt lighter. Nick was flung into the room and asprawl the table at its center. Huck sized up the situation and said, "Oh, I'm sorry Nick. I didn't know you was there."
Stroking his vest and hair so as to straighten them along with his composure, Nick suggested, "Well if you'd be more careful with that cruel body of yours..."
Huck cut him off with a laugh. "My body ain't been fitted fer cru'lty fer quite a while now, I'd say."
"Well still, if you weren't always seeking the dramatic turbulence of your irrecoverable college football games."
Huck corrected, "I was a baseball man."
Storming out of the room, Nick huffed, "And I'm sure you never tire of reminding the whole sad world of your advantages."
When Nick was gone, Huck shrugged his shoulders for D.'s benefit. "I'll wash, you dry?"
Having read the book to the very last word, D. lay it closed upon her thigh and ran her hand along the cover as if she wished to smooth a wrinkled cloth. She looked up from her chair and out the window of her room at the branches that hung threateningly near. Though parts of the book had dragged, she had to admit that in the end she was moved. One thought led to the next, and she decided that it would be best to stroll and clear her head.
From the balcony she could see John, still awake and reading in his chair. Huck was beneath the tree engulfed in an apparently humorous tale, and Jim pranced circles around the yard in pursuit of his own. Looking to the left as people look down well-known roads in their commutes, D. instead took the spiral staircase into the empty ballroom.
Her bare feet sent rhythmic shushes into eternal channels of echoing. She noticed that there was nothing to be seen from the broad picture windows but the budding green of the proximate trees. To be honest, the scene was mostly brown, and as the birth of leaves is one of nature's least spectacular events except when viewed in turns, she initiated a pirouette in order to leave the morose sight. But as she spun, some anomaly in the hue of one of the trunks caught her fancy. Having noticed a stark difference, more minute ones became apparent, and yet more. In one spot, a branch with the same curvature as another had a juvenile leaf at the elbow. One tree trunk was so wrinkled that the preponderance of shadow made the bark look nearly black.
Once, when she had been younger, though perhaps not much, D. had spent a house-ensnared snowstorm piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of a verdant forest. She was three quarters finished when the snow stopped. In conjunction with her placing of the final piece, the sun broke through and drove away the clouds.
While surveying the weighty mask that lay across the land, D. had noticed that what had appeared to be a blinding white was, in fact, a collage of hues and tinctures. Here a mound of snow fallen from an overhanging branch left a squirrel-shaped shadow. There the snow had melted into a sheet of nearly reflective ice and appeared to sparkle blue with the mirrored sky.
The differences, it need not be said, would have been there had she noticed them or not, but her eye had just graced three thousand similarly colored bits of cardboard for the most minuscule of details, and the habit had yet to dissolve. So did the trees before her now ripple into disparity.
A clicking of nails on marble startled D. from her reverie, and Jim came bobbing across the room with a rubber ball in his mouth.
"Where did you get that, boy?" inquired D. of her mute companion.
Jim swished his tail from side to side and dropped the ball at her feet. Sweeping it up before it had come completely to rest, D. hurled the ball against the nearest wall and watched as Jim slid, as if on ice skates, to intercept the unpredictable projectile.
Nick appeared from the hallway that ran along the southern side of the house and issued a resonant whisper, "Those toes of his make quite a racket in this room. I rather think that they are in need of grooming."
Jim did not answer the suggestion, nor did D. respond. Speaking in a near whisper, Nick said, "I don't suppose that it's difficult to discern that Huck and I are not on the best of terms."
"Oh. I hadn't noticed." D. reconsidered, "At least he hasn't said anything to me."
Crossing the room and gazing out the window with his arms clasped behind his back, Nick told her, "I've yet to deduce the reason that the builder of this house placed the widest range of windows in view of nothing more than tree trunks."
"I imagine that the house was built before the trees had grown so high."
"I suppose you're right. But for the half-decade that I've been here, I haven't noticed any significant change in their height, though I can't claim to have been watching closely."
D. noticed that Jim was quietly attempting to peel the skin from his ball and asked Nick, "So what story are you going to tell me?"
Turning only his head, with eye brows upraised, Nick seemed to be calculating the amplitude of D.'s interest. "There are many I could tell you. What would you like to hear about?"
D. chuckled at the seemingly superfluous question. "How about Nathaniel?"
"Oh? Have you been told much about him?" And after D. had answered in the moderate affirmative, "Have you been given the same portrait each of the three times you've heard tell of him?" D. stated that she hadn't. "Well I don't suppose he'd be bothered much whatever impression you develop of him, but I wouldn't care for you to get a wrong idea from all the stories you hear, so remember: until you've heard the same rumor from three people, you can't be certain that it's true." He smiled to indicate that the specific number was arbitrary.
After D. had reassured him that she would keep an open mind and not come to any conclusions at all until she had met the man, Nick yanked a chain that disappeared into a pocket of his vest and pulled out a watch. Debonairly flicking the cover shield with the nail of his thumb, he checked the time against the exterior shadows as if the trees formed a peculiarly accurate sundial. He replaced the watch and began to speak.
"I, like most of the people that you'll meet while you are here, was an uninvited guest. Oh, some will claim to have been brought. If not by Nathaniel then by some higher power or some such gobble-de-gook. To my knowledge, the only person who did not just arrive here, excepting acts of God, was John.
"No, I barged in on the Pequod's patrons in as harsh a manner as is likely to be possible without ending one's life. Several accomp... acquaintances of mine deserted me not far from here. You see, I was forced, by circumstances that I won't describe to you now, to make a quick exit from their moving vehicle, and it was quite beaten and bruised that I first knocked on the door of this house, without drawing a response from anything but a hooting owl.
"I must have fainted, because the next thing of which I was aware was a large tree that seemed to be dripping snakes all around me."
"The willow?" interrupted D.
"Yes," responded Nick, slightly perturbed that he hadn't gotten to tell it as he wanted. "Yes, the very same. But in my state it seemed a blurry monument dripping snakes all around me, and I nearly jumped through the branches when a strange, bulbous face leaned over me and glared with protruding bug-like eyes. The phrase, 'They're real, you know,' drifted through my semiconscious awareness.
"'What?' I said, startled to rising. 'The snakes?'
"The man, who I would later learn calls himself Martin, gave me a much deserved look of bewilderment, 'What snakes? I noticed that you were looking at the books, and I thought that I would save you the trouble of having to ascertain for yourself. They are all real. I've read the titles of every one.'
"I, understandably, had no idea what he was talking about, but rather than admit this to him, I merely asked, 'Why shouldn't the books be real?'
"'I don't know,' he said. 'I was fooled.'
"Before I could make any sense of the matter, John came into the courtyard and managed to get me cleaned and fed. After situating me in the room next to Martin's, John explained to me the etiquette of the household and told me that if I needed anything he'd be delighted to oblige."
D. interjected, "Sorry to interrupt, but there's something that I've been wondering about John that maybe you could shed some light upon."
Smiling sardonically, Nick told her that he'd be happy to try.
"OK. When I first met him, John lured me here by claiming to have a lit fire and plenty of food."
"What of it?" impatiently.
"Neither was true."
"You mean to say that he was unable to provide you with any sustenance?"
"Well, if you call instant eggs and stale bread sustenance..."
"So then he did give you food."
D. responded irresolutely, "I guess, but there was no fire."
Nick looked at her as if he could not comprehend her insinuation then explained, "Dishonesty in John is a thing that you never blame deeply," and a block of confused muteness was broken when he requested permission to continue his story.
"Oh, sure. I'm sorry."
"Not a problem," Nick consoled. "What was I about to say... oh, yes. I don't believe that there was anybody here then that you have yet to meet, including Nathaniel. Apparently he had disappeared quite mysteriously, and my arrival served only to exacerbate the uneasiness that seemed to monopolize every conversation. For my own part, I enjoyed this period, not only because I was as yet unnamed, but because I was generally unnoticed due to this ineffable vanishing of a person of greater concern. In short, I was within and without. I could drift from room to room and between conversations and the awareness of the others. I found, as you will, that quite a diverse clientele congregates here and amazing railleries are issued: even more amazing for the fact that diatribes and casual innuendoes alike are between men who've never known each other's names! But still, contrary to the tension that one might expect, there is an overall sense of calm. All keep in sight of the fact that presently this year's foray will be over and a short trip later they will all casually put each other away in their minds as strangers in a daydream.
"Perhaps some things never change. Perhaps there are constants in subject matter as much as in weather. Or perhaps some topics age like wine, becoming more pungent with each ferment of consideration. But then, it must be acknowledged that his mysterious absence made Nathaniel the modish topic of the early summer. Martin, I recall, was vainly attempting to deny that he was worried. His supposition was that Nathaniel was a juggernaut and that nothing short of an apocalypse would prevent him from returning. I suspected, and time has made me more firm in this conviction, that Martin was afraid that Nathaniel would never return and that such an act would be exclusively a comment about him.
"John, however, was afraid for Nathaniel's safety. 'He is, after all,' John would say, 'just a man named Nathaniel.' And while I agreed with this observation, I couldn't comprehend the need to refer to him as merely 'just a man.' Huck, on the other hand, claimed to have no concern about Nathaniel's safety, but I suspect that he was just covering his confusion, for his is a simple mind, and as I'm sure you know, there is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.
"However, despite all the conjectures, I couldn't help but feel an admiration for this man who was able to inspire romantic speculation, in the classic sense, from three so enthusiastically obsequious characters and yet still force them to pay him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him. On the other hand, I often question whether this treatment of his guests isn't more of an instinctive reaction to his lack of knowledge about them. After all, even I forced my way in after a fashion, and maybe he's just too polite to object.
"Nathaniel returned quite a while after I had arrived, and I wondered what all the fuss had been about. I had been pacing laps around the house on the verandah, and from the dreary east during sunset, I made out a figure in the murk emerging from the underbrush. His head was hung low, and as he passed under a tree, he reached up apathetically and plucked a ripe leaf from a low-hanging branch. The branch wobbled slightly and stopped as if it had been disturbed by no more than a slight twirl of air. I leaned against the railing and watched as the figure crossed the yard and, without so much as a glance in my direction, vanished into the house. He must have slunk directly into his room, because none of his ardent followers made any mention of his arrival until the moon had slid so far across the sky that his silhouette was suddenly visible on the southern tower.
"Huck noticed him first and, after squinting in his direction, called out (excuse my poor imitation of his accent), 'Nathaniel, is 'at you?'
"After everybody had called up to him in their own manner, he was finally persuaded to come down into the courtyard and greet everybody. I was introduced as a new arrival who had not yet chosen a name, and he shook my hand without meeting my eyes.
"Over the next week, I saw very little of Nathaniel. What I did see of him imparted to me the unfavorable impression that this sullen mopish figure was the embodiment of everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. He would drift around the house like a ghost, and if he approached you at all, it was as if he believed you were so indefinite that he could pass right through you. Each evening he would ignore the concerned inquiries of his purported friends as he stared off into the woods in the manner of one who is trying to determine what share of the local heavens belongs wholly to him.
"In late August, John came down to breakfast one morning with the news that Nathaniel was not feeling well, or at least not himself, and had requested with all possible submissiveness that we all bring our vacations in his home to an early end. Martin protested blandly, but John insisted that it was for the best and assured us that life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall, and Nathaniel would be his usual ebullient self come spring. The combination of Nathaniel's mysterious demeanor and what was probably an earnest reluctance to leave his host in such a disquieting state of mind with no means of finding out how he fared for at least seven months prompted Huck to refuse the request and storm off in search of Nathaniel.
"I was in my room looking around, feeling as if I should be packing despite my lack of personal effects, when an imperceptible sound called my startled attention to a figure in the doorway. It was Nathaniel, and he did look as if something undefinable was ailing him. Before he spoke, I felt a sudden surge of sympathy for him, as it occurred to me that there is nothing so disconcerting to a healthy man than one who is ill, even a stranger. As if he had read these thoughts, he said in a low voice, 'Listen, old sport, I was wondering if you might be able to stick around for a week or so.'
"The request was completely out of keeping from anything that I could have expected. I, after all, was already picturing my return home; so I stuttered those hasty questions that seem instinctual reactions in order to leave open avenues of evasion should such prove to be the rational mind's inclination, without closing doors of acceptance should the opposite prove true. After he informed me that he had convinced both Huck and Martin, who had approached him a few moments before he came to see me, that everything was fine and that he just needed to be alone, Nathaniel smiled.
"To be honest, my mind had been pretty much made up to leave, but something in this smile made me want to stay. I understood that he must have learned long ago that people would react favorably toward him when he smiled, but that comprehension did not in the least dampen the radiance of the one that now flashed for my benefit. There seemed to be nothing but sincere innocence in this particular smile, and I felt reassured that, even were politics his usual habit, in my case, it was different. Indeed, there was suddenly a pleasant significance in having been asked to stay, and I could not refuse.
"We decided for the sake of appearances that I should take an extended walk about the forest in order to avoid sparking the kind of jealous outbursts that were precisely what he did not need at the time. Having offered farewells to Martin and Huck and even to John, though he assured me that he was not a seasonal occupant I left for a very pleasant romp amongst the trees.
"When I returned, I approached from the west, a sliver of the moon protruding above the roofs of the house. It may seem odd, considering that the absence of two people from a property that commonly houses only four, with the capacity for much more, is hardly a populous decrease, but the silence that issued forth from the hard dark outline against the velvet sky seemed to infiltrate the entire countryside. The windows looked down the hill at me in empty conviction, broken only by the outline of Nathaniel sitting on the roof between the two towers.
"And so it was, because John is apt to disappear for long intervals without notice, that I found myself in Nathaniel's house, and alone."
As if he had been trying to make good time in his telling of the yarn, Nick produced his watch and repeated the dramatically indifferent flick that lay it bare for his inspection. "Well," he said, "would you mind if we concluded our colloquy in the evening?"
There it is, the assumption that social conservatives have ulterior motives when it comes to the same-sex marriage debate:
One version of this argument would hold that Class B so reviles Class A that they will, at the margin, want less to do with any institution Class A has contaminated. Social conservatives on their best behavior are at pains to avoid this one.
You've got us, Jim Henley, we don't actually believe the arguments we make. They're all just cover for the easily dismissible argument that none of us save the liberal-manufactured strawmen in our midst have made. Actually, this social conservative can shake the impression that liberals are merely assuming that we're doing that which they observe about themselves.
The impression originates with the underlying one that liberals don't take this debate as seriously as conservatives do. I don't mean seriously in the sense of wanting to win the issue; if anything, most of the strongest proponents of same-sex marriage have a more direct emotional desire for victory. I mean seriously in the sense of wanting to find the right answer in the sense of taking opposing arguments seriously enough to understand them as rational ideas from a particular perspective. Instead, SSM proponents' minds are made up, correct by definition, and all the rest is just, to borrow Henley's pun, fencing.
Take the man himself: as intelligently and compellingly as Henley's post is written, he mischaracterizes, deliberately or not, just about every argument that his opposition makes about same-sex marriage. Consequently, he misses the fundamental aspect that makes his position wrong. To begin with the limited, here's what he believes social conservatives on their "best behavior" argue:
Instead they argue that marriage is deeply attractive because it is an opportunity to "step into an explicitly gendered role," as Megan puts it, and opening the institution to Class A, gay couples, compromises that.
I don't think that's the point that Megan McArdle (herself not a social conservative) is making, but whether it is or not, her phrasing is adequate to describe the social conservative view:
... social conservatives reply that institutions have a number of complex ways in which they fulfill their roles, and one of the very important ways in which the institution of marriage perpetuates itself is by creating a romantic vision of oneself in marriage that is intrinsically tied into expressing one's masculinity or femininity in relation to a person of the opposite sex; stepping into an explicitly gendered role. This may not be true of every single marriage, and indeed undoubtedly it is untrue in some cases. But it is true of the culture-wide institution. By changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage we might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning.
It isn't that young men pursue wives because it's a "deeply attractive... opportunity" to behave explicitly masculine. Believe me as a man who's spent time in a fraternity as well as working on the docks and on the construction site such opportunities abound. What marriage does, in this circumscribed aspect of its function, is to define what the explicitly gendered role should be in relation to women and in relation to children. The importance of gender to marriage isn't its utility as a sales and promotion vehicle, but as a matter of definition. And the importance of marriage to society is not that it fashions a garment for role-playing, but rather that it tethers with cultural accessories a feature that opposite-sex relationships uniquely have.
Here, Henley builds on his flawed interpretation:
Furthermore, this will, if anything, strengthen, not weaken, heterosexual marriage as an institution for child-rearing. Right now a heterosexual man hungry for a "gendered role" has two obvious options open to him - father children out of wedlock, or within. ... His choices are "kids within marriage" or "kids outside of marriage." Gay marriage means the marginal straight guy, the one looking for any excuse to avoid The C-Word, ladies, sees that many fewer "kids outside marriage."
The third option that Henley ignores is "no kids" whether that means no kids born or no kids binding. Children are entirely a matter of choice for the homosexual couple; they are a matter of potential consequence for the heterosexual couple.
Heretofore, most compassionate social conservatives whom I've read have seen committed gay couples with children as bearing the unfortunate burden of the larger social necessity that marriage remain male-female. But it may be that Henley has unearthed a reason that such couples would be a detriment in their own right. What gay marriage means to the marginal straight guy yes, the one looking for any excuse to avoid commitment, whether to women or to children is that it doesn't matter whether his children's mother is married to him, just that she's married to somebody. Or even that their parents are married, whoever they are.
This relates to Henley's dismissal of one of McArdle's historical "case studies," the easing of divorce laws. McArdle writes:
When the law changed, the institution changed. The marginal divorce made the next one easier. Again, the magnitude of the change swamped the dire predictions of the anti-reformist wing; no one could have imagined, in their wildest dreams, a day when half of all marriages ended in divorce.
And Henley responds (emphasis his):
Needless to say, allowing homosexual marriage doesn't remove legal barriers to ending marriages; it removes legal barriers to starting them.
This response neatly sidesteps the apposite clause: "the institution changed." As McArdle goes on to explain, when you enter into modern marriage, "you aren't really making a lifetime commitment; you're making a lifetime commitment unless you find something better to do." And in that, Henley's new vision for marriage and parenthood makes divorce even easier. Creating children need not be a lifetime commitment to them or to their mother, because the institution for commitment marriage is no longer defined for the purposes of one man and one woman and the children that they may create. It is defined for the purposes of one person and another person and any children that they may or may not acquire.
We're not talking strict legality; we're talking culture and social meaning. And contrary to Henley's narrow requirements for analogies, one can't separate the meaning of a marriage's beginning from the ease with which its members dissolve it.
The broader view brings us to the mutually agreed upon wisdom of an image suggested by Chesterton, as Henley quotes:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.
Henley sees this as a test requiring the formulation of some reason, but the social conservative here, the "intelligent reformer" is insisting on the reason. In its totality. With the issue at hand, in particular, I've noted a tendency among the other side to break marriage into a series of discrete considerations and to address them each in turn. This part is invalid; this part is outdated; this part makes no sense; this part is religious; and this remaining part is arguable... so there is no rational basis to oppose our proposed massive change. This is simply an insufficient approach. Marriage, in particular among social institutions, is effective and crucial most profoundly in the way in which its various parts have been honed to work together.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Henley's argument is his mention of a non-gendered reason for marriage (emphasis his):
It is probably as important on the other end - as a way by which children separate themselves from their parents on reaching adulthood. Every marriage ceremony I've ever attended has been quite clear on this, as is the Bible. ("The wife shall cleave to the husband.") We know that this is important for genetic mixing. I'd argue it's also important for social mixing. Marriage as separator of offspring from forebear makes society less clannish. The search for and taking of mate widens social circles and enlarges trust networks while at the same time militating against mere atomism. You don't just separate from the old family, you cleave to a new one.
Indeed, I'd cite this as a compelling reason for another defining restriction of marriage: proscription of consanguineous marriages. And it's true that the social mixing will remain intact even should the genetic mixing be withdrawn from the essential definition of marriage. However, McArdle's point about each step making the next easier comes starkly into play: there are currently two reasons for the fence against consanguineous marriage: procreative and social. At the very least, same-sex marriage would invalidate the former, leaving only vague notions of clannishness that a society (or judiciary) that takes individual choice as the supreme principle would surely deem an inappropriate basis for the law.
Stepping outside of the narrow point, though, we observe that Henley has made the repeated assertion that he is leaving out the "justice claims" of same-sex marriage supporters. Those claims, and every other argument that Henley puts forward on behalf of same-sex marriage, would apply equally to any other couple or group that wished to have the government recognize its relationship as "marriage."
Jim Henley closes his post by de-emphasizing his objective. His "isn't even an argument for taking the fence down," but rather "for adding another gate." To the contrary, just as he is wrong to insist that historical "form-factors" must match modern problems perfectly in order for lessons to be drawn, he errs in treating his closing distinction as a difference of kind. Whatever social liberals might say (on their best behavior), each gate makes it more plausible to add another, until the fence has been removed with neither understanding nor even, truly, conscientious awareness that it has been done.
(via Marriage Debate Blog)
When you fill four days with nonstop 4:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. work-and-necessities, it's very hard to make productive use of the fifth day.
Posts are a-comin'... at some point. Taking a longer view, I'm trying to bang my days into a schedule more conducive to writing (and mental health). As I've been asking everybody I know: please bear with me.
For a page design that might be easier to read, click "Turn Light On" at the top of the left-hand column.
What is the opposite of "pragmatic"? Noah Millman suggests "principled," but that doesn't seem quite right. A person can be a principled pragmatist, emphasizing practical steps toward a goal without permitting that goal to reduce principle to a nicety.
The opposite of "pragmatic," in common usage, is "idealistic." Compromising, working the system, somebody who is pragmatic seeks efficient means toward some objective a good that offers justification. Somebody who is idealistic, in contrast, behaves as if the objective requires only a declaration, with all obstacles simply invalid. Pragmatism describes realistic means toward an end; idealism presents a peremptory end in search of means.
This correction, though it may seem quibbling, has implications related the column by Jonah Goldberg to which Millman is responding. Although he doesn't go into great detail about the mechanism, Goldberg's central observation is that raising pragmatism to a principle making it Pragmatism has undesirable consequences, chief among them Relativism and overweening protection, even celebration, of the deviant willing to exist in a ridiculous reality.
Missing the mechanism, Millman interprets Goldberg's argument as saying that "Pragmatists drained us of belief in Truth, and once we stopped believing in Truth we no longer could make distinctions." Consequently, free speech has degenerated into an absolute right to deviant expression and only a conditional right to political speech because we "no longer jealously defend our ancient liberties."
That isn't the implication of Goldberg's thoughts, as I read them. He begins by describing Oliver Wendell Holmes's legal theorizing as an attempt to cut through moral superfluities in order to apply the law more efficiently. In part, this requires the discernment of an ideal or, in Holmes's words, an "external standard" personified in a "reasonable man" a hypothetical "intelligent and prudent member of the community."
The problem, as Ben Franklin quipped around the time of our nation's founding, is that "a reasonable Creature [can] find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do." With a "reasonable man" at its head, what Goldberg calls the "collective intelligence" can concoct whatever rules it wills. A moral society requires a standard that is external to the community itself, hence the importance of moral language in the law. Pragmatism is best kept as a strategy in the service of, not a guide to, truth.
As such a guide, Millman explains, Pragmatism holds that the "meaning of any statement... is limited to the consequences of that statement in terms of action." The pragmatic truth of a stated belief, in other words, depends on what it accomplishes in the believer. Therefore, a belief that enables a person to achieve some desirable end peace of mind, motivation, fortitude is pragmatically true for that person.
This approach is fine, as long as we're aware of its limitations. If belief in an eternal soul increases one person's sense of purpose, while disbelief in eternal soul allows another to justify impulsive behavior, we may know what's pragmatically true for each of them, but we've no basis for coming to a conclusion about whose belief is correct. To answer the question of whether the soul is, in fact, eternal or at least which truth society ought to prefer would require some external criterion that this Pragmatism doesn't provide.
Pragmatism, however, smuggles in the implicit sense that there is no relevant truth beyond itself. Millman presents an example when he suggests that if the concepts of "individuals, rights, the people, the nation are real... they are only pragmatically real." The consequence of that "only" is that, if nobody behaves as if something exists, then it is not pragmatically real, and theoretically, any truth, anything conceptual, can be ignored.
Pragmatism becomes, in a word, Relativism. To the argument that the eternal soul is a reality because it acts in bringing comfort, the Pragmatist qualifies that belief therein is "only" pragmatically true. But the trick works in reverse. If not believing makes real the nonexistence of such things as eternal soul and rights, then that is "only" pragmatically true.
It begins to become apparent that Pragmatism is not pragmatically true in most cases. Being aware that one's belief in eternal soul may only be true because it brings comfort undermines the comfort. Understanding that disbelief may only be true inasmuch as it justifies impulsive behavior lessens its utility as a justification. Believing that rights are only real if we act as if they are real invites behavior that takes advantage of their underlying unreality.
As Millman admits, this presents the moral Pragmatist with a difficulty. After wading through all of the practical consequences of Pragmatism, it appears that one must resolve, having duly acknowledged it, to ignore it in order to allow perpetuation of a good end. Millman refers to an "elect" who "know that much of what we believe is... only true pragmatically, ... because it works, not because it's True in some absolute sense unrelated to human psychology." Morality keeps society functioning, so those "smart people" who realize that it's hooey pretend that it's not.
For Pragmatism to deserve its capital-P, however, its adherents must believe it to contain Truth. Goldberg quotes Charles Beard as saying that "the means can make the ends." For Pragmatism to be pragmatically true, it must have a practical outcome, so what truth does it make?
Since Pragmatism challenges the objectivity of any principle that's coupled with a rational goal, it devolves into an idealism of whim. It is, itself, Pragmatically true only for causes that don't require willful belief, for impulses. Providing, as Millman applauds, "warrant for... reasoning to a premise from a conclusion," it is an efficient philosophy for achieving irrational desire. This is why a pragmatic approach to law wound up allowing profanities, but disallowing political speech. It wasn't that "Pragmatism drained us of belief in Truth," as Millman suggests; rather, it was that Pragmatism makes Truth out of whatever an individual or a political cohort wants, whether that means kinky sex or unthreatened power.
The importance that Holmes placed on the "marketplace of ideas" ceases to be a matter of Truth, and other points of view can be dismissed. Insisting that the ideal must be pragmatically correct, its advocates turn their blame on others for not being sufficiently true believers. An undesired outcome (e.g., men's disproportion in mathematics departments) is taken as conclusive proof of the suspected and invalid cause (sexism). Conflicting speech is invalid because it hinders the new ideal. That seems to be Jonah's argument: that Pragmatism leads to Relativism in a perpetual cycle of corrupt idealism. Pragmatism is a razor that cuts clear through to mushy primal impulses.
Of course, we've learned to the detriment of generations that human beings can behave as if things that are True are not for a time. Jumping off a cliff, one can deny gravity for a brief moment and then deny that falling indicates moving toward something until... well, splat.
I do have posts I'd very much like to write, but I'm just absolutely exhausted and stressed out. Hopefully tomorrow, after I get out from under an editing.
How much influence John Paul II had on my sense of the world is, I regret, absolutely impossible for me to say. Just as Ronald Reagan was the personified Mr. President for people of my age, Karol Wojtyla defined the character of The Pope. For me, however, the difference is that political conversation was in the air surrounding my family, whereas only the periodic intersection of politics and religion brought the latter within view of my unreligious youth. Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I began thinking of the Pope before Paul Anka and Reggie Jackson among people with whom I share a birthday.
This is all to say that the central emotion evoked by the passing of this man for whom the media has held a deathwatch for as long as I can remember is regret that I wasn't very aware of John Paul II while he walked the Earth. But as in everything, there is hope buried beneath such regrets: so much of Wojtyla's life and works are left for me, along with countless generations, to discover fresh and alive, an echo, we can hope, of the immortality of which the man himself spoke on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 1979: "Human life is precious because it is the gift of God, a God whose love is infinite; and when God gives life, it is forever."
A precious life to be sure. Pray for us, Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, Holy Father.
It likely happened that the increasing warmth in each breath of a day, with the green light of life that it brought, pushed D. past the desperate urge to leave. It wasn't so much that, once her canine guardian had delivered her from the clutches of perceived immediacy, she forgot that it had been her intention all along to not stay, nor did she relinquish this intention, but perhaps she caught herself in the leaves of books and, having no more compelling reality upon which to call, diminished the effort that she insisted be put forth toward her escaping. Whatever the case, the days went on and the forest burst forth its essence in increasing time until single breezes ticked out each underlying beat of the season's rhythm.
The elapse of hours became a blur to her. Fully three days, or six days, or a week, drifted in lethargically cyclic shadows across the pages before her, the turning of which sounded maracan sub-beats. A cloud would block out the sovereign eye of the sun and then release its hold, allowing the rays to grace D.'s smiling lips as she entertained reveries elicited by whichever tale she happened to be perusing: each titter a reaction to the light that certain words shed upon her specific situation and upon life in general. Or perhaps the inverse was true. Still, these reveries provided an outlet for her anxiety and sufficiently convinced her that the concrete world was founded no more securely than on the wings of fairies that she allowed herself to ignore the unreality of her predicament.
In the evenings, various combinations of the cast would perform discourses and soliloquies for the company on multifarious topics. If the theme was of art or literature, John and Huck would recite the bulk of the lines, with an occasional quip from D. Were societal diatribes the order of the day, Martin would slither from his room and offer an erroneous opinion or two. However, and such was the case on one of two nights that stifled the stream of D.'s awareness adequately for moments to endure as memories, a conversation concentric on Nathaniel would draw the entire abbey to the courtyard for the hearing.
Of course, it merits mentioning, the lingering menace to D. loitered further and further from the group's consciousness, until he seemed to cease his lingering and sink into the distant ground as a high mountain will appear to shrink as it drifts toward the horizon and, if the traveler cannot deny that it persists of itself in an equal capacity, still he knows also that it is only so for somebody traveling after him.
So it was that the troupe seemed huddled together in passive motion one evening. D. sat against the willow reading a book, the view of which she attempted to obscure from Martin whenever he strolled by. John lay tipsy snoozing in his chair, a telling critique of the thriller that lay open upon his lap. Huck sat at the piano, flailing a capricious, almost accidental, blues (although it is possible that he was trying for ragtime), with Jim at his feet occasionally lifting a watchful eye to D. Martin sidled before the bookshelves reading titles under his breath with an amusement that was either childlike or Alzheimeric, repeating those that he found to be the more interesting if only by virtue of the shapes that they forced his lips to make.
It was Martin, tired of waiting for the inevitable opener, who burst out, "It seems to me that Nathaniel used to be here directly on the equinox every year."
Letting a jangling verse hang in the air in expectant incompletion, Huck responded, "Has that passed a'ready?"
"Yes," patronized Martin, "it was last week."
"Well, I always miss it. Mebbe he'll a-be here for the solstice. That'n's a little more o'vious."
"What makes you say that?"
"I'd say it's a darn sight easier to pick out the longest day than the middle-mos'. The first'n goes on an' on, an the second just ain't much different than the two around it."
"But," interjected D., noticing Martin's quandary, "by that method, it is only easier to know that you've missed it. It wouldn't do you any good for scheduling."
"Well," rejoined Huck, "I reckon Nathaniel wouldn't bother schedulin' hisself 'round nothin' so flighty as the sun, anyhow. He's a-gonna git here when he wants ta git here."
Martin, who seemed not to have understood how his simple observation could have gone so awry, said, "All I was saying was that he's been arriving later the last few years."
"Well," suggested Huck, "a man's gotta work, I reckon. He's got a life to live. Ain't no young man ever drifted out'n nowhere only to direct a castle. Least not to my knowin'."
As innocently as was possible, D. inquired as to what, if anything, those present knew of their good friend's livelihood. Huck indicated that it was Nathaniel's affair and that none of the party especially when it was considered that they had all, with the exception of John, arrived as uninvited guests had any right to question after it.
Mostly for the audience of D., Martin crowed, "I've made somewhat of an endeavor to find out." And then qualifying, "Not that I assume to be always amended in my assumptions."
"Oh?" Huck tilted his head and leaned forward.
D. asked what Martin's educated conclusion was.
"Well," he stammered, "I may not be the smartest person in the world, and... well, I can be fairly intuitive, on occasion. I don't know, but I believe Nathaniel might be note that I say might well, I believe that it is possible that he's a politician."
Huck sent him reeling in perplexity with a simple request that he justify his statement, and Martin, something pathetic in his concentration, appeared to nibble on memories and expectorate his murmurous thoughts. "He." His lower lip thrust outward as he measured the potency of his revelation. Then, to the reception of much supercilious laughter from Huck, "Well, he just has that sort of smile."
A handful of fluid days later (but who's to say it wasn't closer to a week?), Martin was performing his characteristic nose-pinching as he satisfied John's inquest into the current events of the world at large, with the often utilized aide of a news magazine that John had just read. The entire discussion had the air of a ritual one that was apparently appropriate unless, and the absence of this quality could only have been an incessant pique to Martin, the news concerned one of the members of the household.
Following a dubious compendium reflecting the moral state of the American presidency reported by Martin, John burst forth the violent ejaculation, "Civilization is going to pieces! For my part, I am ever more gratified that I haven't left these premises these many years."
"The real question," stated Martin, "is whether or not we're becoming too extraneous in our treatment of details. The activities of men in power have always been flagellous, and I can't help but deduce that the longevity of the practice proves its equity."
Shaking his head in perturbation, John questioned Martin's choice of words.
"Oh," Martin delayed, producing his fortuitously located dictionary from the ground behind him where he sat. He flipped through the pages and recanted, "Oh, excuse me. I meant to say 'flagitious.'"
"Whichever word you should use to describe it, it is a travesty that our leadership should be so adulterated."
To which Martin responded, "Let's not forget that the American system, one which must be proper and correct because it is the only successfully American one on the planet, justly allows for men of greater means and education to hem and haw their way outside of decency. What would be the reward for success if it were not so? No, I maintain that it is an earned privilege of the exultant to be fallacious."
"I hope for the sake of the final vestiges of patience that I have for you that you say that facetiously."
Martin whisked through the crisp pages of his antique dictionary and amended, "Oh, excuse me. I meant to say 'factitious.'"
D., who had been passing above them on the balcony called down, "The real problem would be solved if the most accurate 'f' word to describe men were 'flaccid.'"
Martin and John, not having realized that they were being overheard pricked up at the female's voice. "Well," offered John, "perhaps if women weren't so insouciant with their attire and activities..."
"Then men wouldn't be so quick to show their true selves and brandish their cigars so flagrantly."
The intercourse being beyond him, Martin could only testify, "I never..."
John, apparently more aware of current events than Martin, who lived among them, chortled, "Well, now we're discussing a humidor enveloped in public hairs."
"Where exactly do you stand on the issue of the presidency?" Martin attempted to reinstate himself into the conversation.
Settling back in his chair, John reflected and explained, "It has little effect on me. I stand alone on this final boundary of civilization throughout the entire year, and when I was a mendicant of the grandest metropolis in the world, I was even less prurient. Therefore, I am an impotent arbiter."
Perhaps these were the songs that called to D. Strange to hear, but who's to say? When thoughts of escape hinted at the edges of her mind, they may have been overwhelmed in repartée and allusion, the incomprehension of either of which left her ineligible for commencement.
Yes, she was immobilized by curiosity. Who could guess what mellifluous speech would be presented in the evening? And increasingly intriguing was the pregnancy of each day with the possibility of even more entertaining company perhaps even the arrival of that one expected person who would, by his inimitable nature, blot out the relative doldrums of these many hours.
As time progressed, D. found herself further removed from fear and drawn closer to interest, and so, with no compelling reason not to stay, she resolved, at the very least, to diminish her efforts to escape.
Not too many days subsequent to this poignant exchange, but certainly not before or concurrent to it, D. decided to take in the sunset from the towers alone for the first time. Partially because she did not believe Jim capable of the climb, she had been afraid to risk the venture, but her newfound complacence suffered her to rise to the northern height.
A curious tinge of melancholy gained purchase within her as the salacious rouge that coated the western lip of the sky inherited the day's ducat in exchange for a cold silver dollar to the east. Just as welts along her arms responded to the iniquitous swap and the chill air that marked its decrement, John's head appeared through the hole in the floor.
"Nick?" he called, and looking around at D., "Have you seen Nick?"
D. began to tell him that she hadn't met the man when a bronze voice wafted over the wall: "Are you looking for me, John?"
Stumbling up the final steps to the platform, John looked anxiously across the roof at a man on the southern tower. "Nick, my boy, you seem to have forgotten something in your car."
Nick laughed heartily. "And what might that be?"
"Well, I'd hate for anything to spoil. The weather is quite a bit warmer this evening than it's been."
Nick informed him that there was nothing perishable left for him to deliver, but that if John was impatient to augment the variety of his diet, then he could collect the keys and get whatever he desired for himself.
"You know that I can't do that," John protested.
"Sure you can. A little divergence from your code might prove edifying."
Nick held as fast to his stance as John to his, and the latter went away somewhat dejected. Even from her distance and through the dark, D. could tell, if only to the satisfaction of her expectations, that Nick nodded suavely at her and sauntered nonchalantly to gaze off after the remnants of the sun.
He was dressed all in white, but some enchanted trick of light gave his silhouette an ethereal green tint. With the effervescent stars above and circling around him on his perch, he gave the impression of an olive in an upended glass of black champagne.
D. looked off into the graying West.
When at last she glanced again in his direction, Nick had disappeared, as if dissolved into the moist darkness. Following the perimeter of the platform, D. gazed down upon John settling into his chair in the courtyard. The balcony adjacent to Martin's room appeared to flicker with the candle light that flowed in spurts through the doorway, and the hesitant ticking of his typewriter pecked at the serenity of the evening. In the distance, she could hear the straining of pipes as somebody, most likely Huck, pumped water into the dish basin in the kitchen. As the pumping abated, a raucous snore filled the aural void, but, as branches blocked her view of John's face, she could not tell if the sound rose from the courtyard or the open room, as the successor of the now desisted typing. An owl called out to the evening company, and metallic footsteps began to rise to her position.
Turning, with a slight patter of heart, D. watched Nick's head levitate into sight. His hair was a straight and neatly combed brown, and a thin matching mustache pointed downward toward the stiff white collar of his shirt. Hanging from his shoulders was an unclasped white velvet vest, offset, in color only, by smooth strands of protruding chest hair. The hair of his forearms, exposed by virtue of up-rolled sleeves, proved to be of an equally silken texture, so calm in hue as to be nearly invisible against the well-tanned skin. In one hand were two champagne glasses, and in the other was an anonymous bottle.
"I thought that you might like some company," Nick explained. "These enchanted twilights can cede to a haunting loneliness sometimes."
Slipping into form, D. responded, "I find it more peaceful than haunting."
Nick, who had gained the tower by this point, smiled and placed the glasses upon the masonry. "Ah, but calmness is seldom an end in itself."
"I find it romantic," offered D., amending to quench innuendo, "or solacing."
Nick's lips parted as if to begin a phrase but only released a wisp of air.
"Yes?" asked D.
Shaking his head dismissively and smiling again, Nick told her, "Oh, I was reminded of something in what you said, but I couldn't resuscitate the thought."
"A lover, perhaps," it must have been the stars that made her speak so freely, "perhaps a squandered affection?"
Handing her a tastefully half-filled glass, "No, I believe it was more akin to human sympathy having its limits."
Because she was no connoisseur, the tickling champagne seemed pungent. Glancing at her over his own glass, Nick sipped from it and stated candidly, "I don't like mysteries." Sip. "You must tell me who you are."
Thinking that he referred to the frivolous game of aliases, D. told him that she hadn't chosen yet.
"No, I don't mean that. I'm speaking of your type. A name, after all, is merely an arbitrary title."
To dispel her incomprehension, Nick suggested that she might be either a Daisy or a Jordan. "Not the flower for the first, and certainly not the river for the second," he specified.
D. recognized the references. "You'll have to refresh my memory. What would be the difference between the two."
"Well, are you wise enough to let forgotten dreams linger in their proper age, or are you stubborn enough to remain a beautiful little fool?"
D. considered whether to be amused or insulted, then responded, "I don't believe myself to be of either school. I'm afraid Nick, is it? that I'm wise enough to forget and vain enough to pray that I continue to smolder with my memories."
Nick snickered, and something in the sound brought heat to D.'s cheeks. "Very cleverly put! But you can't mean to be a Myrtle: then you'd be left to a chill fall. You can never truly escape the call of the ashes, you know."
Smiling politely, handing over her nearly untouched drink, and thanking Nick for his company, D. made the excuse of intending to help Huck with the dishes. As she drifted down the steps, D. paused in response to a burnished call:
"Have you heard, miss, that all people in this world are either pursued or pursuing?"
"No, sir, I can't say that I have."
"Well, stay busy then. Stay busy or resolve to be weary."
Not to pick on M. Carrie Ruo of North Providence, RI, but her letter to the Providence Journal too perfectly captures an impulse behind the Kill Terri crowd:
For centuries, the husband has been given "God-like" authority over his own family. How many wives have gone to their relatives, priests and other conservative counselors, complaining of abuse from their husbands, only to be told that they should stay in the marriage because it is God's will -- that they should obey their husbands and pray?
In the recent elections, we were told time and again that marriage is between a man and a woman, which conveys exclusive rights to the husband and wife over each other's affairs. Why then, did the same conservatives wish to strip away Michael Shiavo's rights? Last I read, he was still married to Terri.
The hypocrites have made the husband king, but now want to take away his crown, simply because they don't like his decision. Too bad.
What's the argument? That Terri Schiavo had to die because conservatives wish to preserve the opposite-sex definition of marriage? That an objectionable view of spouses' positioning relative to each other that has largely faded in the Western world requires us to honor that precedent for a modern man who wanted his disabled wife dead? I could be reading too much into this, but it seems to me that this particular manifestation of adolescent psychosis offers partial explanation for Western liberals' sympathy for the most retrograde practices of Islamic fundamentalists.
For too many, liberalism has devolved into an ideology for feeling one's own rightness, as compared to the wrongness of Western (particularly Christian) conservatives. If the highest sin that conservatives can commit, in the eyes of liberals, is hypocrisy, then some withdrawn feeding tubes and the slithering of the burkqa onto the Western street are a small price to pay in order to wield the scarlet H.
Even in Terri Schiavo's final moments, a central contradiction of those who thought she should "be allowed to die" surfaces:
Felos disputed the Schindler family's account. He said that Terri Schiavo's siblings had been asked to leave the room so that the hospice staff could examine her, and the brother, Bobby Schindler, started arguing with a law enforcement official.
Michael Schiavo feared a "potentially explosive" situation, and would not allow the brother in the room, Felos said. "Mrs. Schiavo had a right to have her last and final moments on this earth be experienced by a spirit of love and not of acrimony," the lawyer said.
Isn't the whole argument, vis-à-vis the legitimacy of killing her, that she can't experience anything? Perhaps the atrociousness of Felos's grammar indicates an attempt on his part to gloss this contradiction with ambiguity.
Over on Anchor Rising, I've posted a speech that NRO Contributing Editor (and Anchor Rising contributor) Mac Owens gave a couple of years ago relating President Lincoln to the character of the Republican party. It seems to me that Mac captures well the fine line where the various factions contained within the party meet. Unfortunately, we seem to be falling off on either side rather precipitously, of late.