Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Let's Blog VALIS! Part 2 of 14

And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king. 


2: In which theodicy happens.

This chapter introduces Horselover Fat’s theophany, without giving a straightforward narrative of the events around it, and starts off by saying that it was mediated in two ways, by the pink beam of light and by the pot made by the high-school girl and dope dealer Stephanie.  Exactly how God slumbered in the pot is not made clear.  Then Fat and PKD go off to argue theodicy with Kevin and David. 

David is never given any very good arguments, which is a pity, because he is identified as a Catholic and I think there are good Catholic arguments to be made in answer to Fat’s questions.

viz. “Being a Catholic, David always traced everything wrong back to man’s free will. This used to annoy even me.”

Now, if I were David, I would have pointed out that this is clearly not true. It’s not all the fault of man’s free will, unless you very broadly define ‘man’ to include, in the classical understanding, many kinds of created beings who are more powerful than we are and have the capacity to misuse their free will. ‘As C. S. Lewis said,’ I would say, in an irritating way, if I were David, ‘Talking about the angel of the sphere of Jupiter: “We don’t realise how far up the ladder of created beings goes.”[1] There are things our instinct would be to worship – that would be indistinguishable to God to us unless we were great Saints – that are far less than the greatest of the angelic hierarchy. If a mere human soul can create suffering on a worldwide scale – think of Stalin – how much harm could the steward of a galactic cluster do? Misery on a scale of billions of years and millions of light years. You should be familiar with this sort of thing, PKD, with your knowledge of gnosticism, but this is fundamentally different: this is not lesser Gods creating an evil world, but created beings – incommensurable with God, who is not a thing, who is unique, who is I AM WHO I AM –created beings screwing up an intrinsically good world.

You cavil at angels? Then try this.  Those guys who carry the oil-smeared one came up with this when they were first year students at university, prompted by one of those Chick tracts about the evils of Evolution.  Without Evolution I would be unable to believe in God, they said. Because Evolution lets God off the hook in a big way.

Let’s say everything has some free will – it doesn’t have to be a lot. Rats, mosquitos, single-celled micro-organisms, electrons, quarks, neutrinos, those ‘branes’ that string theorists postulate got the cozy little thing we call ‘the universe’ started by clashing together; give them all some tiny capacity to co-operate with or reject the intrinsically good plan God invites them to be part of. It is like a big role-playing game with an unimaginably vast number of players where in playing, the players make up the rules for the players who are to come after them. So we end up with a world where not only can Stalin drag you into Siberia and kill you, and not only can the bilharzia worm bore into the wall of your bladder, an earthquake can flatten Lisbon. If everyone/thing had co-operated completely with the divine plan, the rules of the physical universe would be subtly different.  All this evil is because our free will is constrained by the accumulated actions of everyone/everything acting before us, who got it a little bit wrong. We are flawed and broken because we suffer from the original sin of All Decisions Antedating Man. Through EVEnts sin entered the world. 

That’s what I would have said, if I were David.

The name Stephanie comes from the Greek ‘στεφανος’, ‘crown’. This is the highest sephirot ‘above consciousness’ of the Kabbalah of Moshe Cordovero, keter, כתר. “Divine Will to create/Infinite Light of the Creator/the Hebrew name of God “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh-I Am that I Am”

Stephanie is a cypher, having paramount importance in the early part of the story in somehow catalysing Fat’s theophany but then mysteriously vanishing from the novel, in the same way that keter was replaced by daat in the later Kabbalah of Isaac Luria. (I love Wikipedia; it makes this sort of thing so easy...)

A crown is also the archetype of a sacramental artefact. It is an object that serves as a sign of a higher level of reality, which functions to impart power to someone, which can only be used in certain ritual ways by certain select persons. The pot Stephanie gives to Fat is a sacramental artefact: it mediates a higher level of reality. Like the EdFrank artefact of ‘The Man in the High Castle’, it reveals that what the user thought was reality is not reality, that there is another more fundamental level of reality. So those EdFrank artefacts with their mysterious ‘wu’ are the projections of Stephanie’s pot backwards in time, or this idea of sacramental artefacts is one that PKD originally employed in fiction and only later applied to his understanding of real life events.

Sherri appears in this chapter, but she is not named at first – she is just a girl the narrator once knew who was dying of cancer. This is since it is the Fat personality that knows her, not PKD, I guess. The name ‘Sherri’ comes from French ‘cheri’, beloved, so is actually the same name as David, which comes from a Hebrew root דוד meaning ‘beloved’. So the two explicitly Christian characters have the same name, but are otherwise totally opposite: Male/female, good/evil, vague/particular, laconic/verbose, lives/dies. They could embody different sides of loving-kindness, chesed, חסד, one of the primary conscious emotions in the Kabbalah of Moshe Cordovero, the sefirot which by getting out of balance with judgment, gevurah, גבורה, brought evil into the world.

I am puzzled by the rosary next to Sherri’s hospital bed here, since while she is obviously a member of a sacramental Church where Communion is the central feature of worship, we are told her priest is married so everything else points to her being an Episcopalian. I did not grow up praying the rosary but they have been praying it before Mass at the Cathedral here for October, the month of the Rosary, and there is a line in a prayer that is part of it that has been going around and in my head puzzlig me since I first heard it: “Save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.” My knee-jerk reaction to this, which I thought was orthodox, is that surely all souls are equally in need of God’s mercy? But this is an old prayer supported at the highest levels of the Church. And why mention heaven and hell separately? Why us and everyone separately? And why not the other way around: ‘Save all souls from the fires of hell and lead us to heaven.’ I think this prayer will continue to confuse me/us until I/we realise that it is pointing to the atemporality of reality, again: somehow we can all be in heaven and all in danger of the fires of hell and this can be a contingent state of affairs and at the same time a state existing in eternity.

Kevin is from Gaelic meaning something like: ‘kind/honest/handsome born’. He says that he is racially Celtic in Chapter 9. I think this is a hint at the basically good-hearted but naive nature of his position in the discourse. He only sees the superficies of everything, and is motivated by the love of a cat: he is like a faerie, a creature does not have Man’s knowledge of Good and Evil, that is somehow less than Man. So I think  ‘honest born’ is an appropriate name for him.

And little Christopher is here, of course. The carrier of the anointed one. The vessel through which the truth of the revelation is made manifest, fulfilling the role of John the Baptist in making straight the way of the Lord in the desert, but with a name pointing also to the atemporality of the revelation: for Christopher came after Christ, and was (1 Jan 1970, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mysterii_Paschalis) ruled mythological, and removed from the calendar of the saints. In the next chapter we find out his mother’s name is Beth – and John the Baptist’s mother’s name was Elizabeth. ‘Beth’ just means ‘house’ and isn’t a biblical name, but Eli+Zabeth means either “GOD is promise” or “GOD is Seven”.

[1]:  http://ohdoubters.tumblr.com/post/103014942396: For this was great Glund-Oyarsa, King of Kings, through whom the joy of creation principally blows across these fields of Arbol, known to men in old times as Jove and under that name, by fatal but not inexplicable misprision, confused with his Maker-so little did they dream by how many degrees the stair even of created being rises above him.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Let's Blog VALIS! Part 1 of 14

Vivat Hispania! Domino Gloria! Don John of Austria has set his people free. (G. K. Chesterton, Lepanto). 

1: In which Gloria shows rationality at the service of non-being.

This first chapter is all about Gloria, and her self-destructive behaviour in which she tries to make as many others complicit as possible. She is made to seem like the un-man in Perelandra: a husk with nothing inside, trying to negate the people around her as she goes down.  I find it very difficult to read which is why I have only managed to read this book twice; normally I start re-reading but only get a very little way, giving up on this chapter.

Chesterton: “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings; it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He canot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer.”

Nuff said.

The opening two words of the novel are ‘Horselover Fat’, which I have realised – I mean, which Those Guys Who Carry the Oil-Smeared One have realised is meant as a hint that we should find out the meaning of the names of all the characters appearing in the novel. Gloria is dead easy, since it is obviousl just ‘glory’. ‘Knudson’, her last name, means ‘son of the knot’. The other characters appearing here are Gloria’s husband, Bob Langley, which has to be Robert, hrod beraht, ‘bright fame’, ‘long glade’. And her mother is Carmina, which seems to come from Carmen, which has something to do with ‘song’ but is ultimately a corruption of the Hebrew Carmel, כרמל ‘plantation or orchard’. I thought the Timothy – Τιμοθεος, ‘honouring God’ - in this chapter was the same as the David who appears later (since I recall reading that IRL David was Tim Powers, author of the Anubis Gates), but he is introduced as someone Fat doesn’t know. Glory is the sephirot hod, הוד, one of the secondary conscious emotions in the Kabbalah of Moshe Cordovero.  She is described as having been at Mt Zion (Hospital), but has left it as the story begins, so eschatologically this chapter may be all about the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.

Oh, and there is one more name, the cat, Chairman Mao. is the character in Mao Zedong’s name, which also means ‘hair’; the ‘mao’ that means ‘cat’ is the character .

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Laudato Si Hotfix

I have drafted elsewhere the letter George W. Bush ought to have written in response to the letter he received from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Here I intend to do something much more arrogant. As a recently returned Catholic who had felt threatened and disturbed by last year’s Papal Encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ - but having read through it is more or less okay with it now - I would like to suggest two small additions to it.

The first addition is intended to assuage the concerns of those, such as myself, who are concerned that a preoccupation with the threat of anthropogenic global warming distracts from more important environmental issues and is a convenient rod for technocrats to beat the backs of the poor. The second addition would address a certain elephant in the room. 

‘Laudato Si’ is not primarily concerned with ‘climate change’. It begins with a long list of different environmental problems, some of which are undoubtedly serious, others less so. Pope Francis does not prioritise them. This is a particular bugbear of mine – the failure to prioritise – but in this case I can see both a good excuse and a good reason why this should be the case. The excuse is that it is so much easier. Though not technically written by a committee (I assume), an encyclical necessarily takes on some of the characteristics of any document written by a committee, which means it is much easier to get some additional topic included vaguely than to get a firm plan with priorities and actions and deadlines. In the interests of avoiding interminable to-ing and fro-ing about priorities,  and coming up with a final draft before 2056, I think not putting priorities on the litany of environmental woes can be excused. The good reason I can think of is that the Pope is humbly and clear-headedly aware that he does not have the skills and knowledge to prioritise these environmental concerns. Realising that even the whole apparatus at his command does not have the appropriate skills and knowledge, it is reasonable for him to refrain from offering priorities in the encyclical. What I suggest be added is an explicit statement of this difficulty, combined with a clear statement of the need for someone to prioritise to challenges listed. I propose something along these lines, to be inserted at the end of paragraph 62, the end of Chapter One: 

“Mindful of our Saviour’s exhortation to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your mind (Matthew 22:47; mark 12:30; Luke 10:27), we recognise that balancing the social and economic needs of humanity with the needs of the Earth is a difficult task, in which it will be necessary to employ the fruits of scientific inquiry and of the economic calculus, and to exert in extraordinary ways the abilites of humanity granted to us by God. We pray that our leaders be granted the discernment to respond in these challenges in a way that will heal our common home without adding one jot or tittle to the suffering of the poor.”

That is all. That would effectively neuter any concerns about ‘Laudato Si’ as a leftist stalking-horse clothed in Catholic rhetoric, at least as far as I am concerned. (For what it’s worth, having read it I am convinced it is the other way around: it is primarily an attempt to yoke certain fashionable causes to the plow of traditional Catholic social teaching.)

Now, to move on to the second addition. In paragraph 106 Pope Francis makes the following statement: “This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.[Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 462.]”

This idea of infinite or unlimited growth is not unique to capitalists, however. It is a fundamental characteristic of life. In the words of the Chinese science-fiction author Cixin Liu: “The amount of matter in the universe remains constant, but life grows exponentially. Exponentials are the devils of mathematics. If there’s a microscopic bacterium in the ocean that divides once every half hour, its descendants will fill the entire ocean in the space of a few days, so long as there are sufficients nutrients.” [Cixin Liu, the Dark Forest]

The elephant in the room is of course this. You cannot plausibly advocate for the protection of the environment while simultaneously advocating - or being seen to advocate - policies that lead to exponential population growth. Addressing this inconsistency would require a clear statement of policy, rather than rhetoric alone. But it could be done very simply, without damaging the ecumenical dialogue with the East or leading us down the slippery slope the Anglican Communion began to descend in 1930.  All is needed is a clarification of the existing teaching of the Church on the conditions under which natural family planning is justified, to state that these explicitly include a concern for the environment. I propose something along these lines, to be added at the end of paragraph 50:

“Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humane Vitae, has stated that recourse to infertile periods is a lawful method of regulating procreation, if “there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances”. [Humanae Vitae, 16.] It is now clear that these external circumstances include the clear and serious challenges facing our common home, and we encourage faithful Catholic married couples to remember this.”

That would never satisfy the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, but then nothing will satsify them. To thoughtful people, however, it would signal that Pope Francis is serious about what he is saying in ‘Laudato Si’.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

On Presentism

n. uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

 I saw this mosaic in the Haga Sophia. I had taken my copy of the ‘Alexiad’ with me so I could wave it about enthusiastically and mis-identify Anna Comnena’s nephew as her grandfather. I was feeling kind of drunk on history. This mosaic was made, I am informed by the interwebz, between 1118 and 1122. At that time, if you were someone old enough to have seen the Battle of Manzikert – the event we think of as the beginning of the end of the Eastern Empire - you would be pushing seventy.

When Constaninople fell to the Turks, this mosaic would have been older than James Watt’s first steam engine is to us. It would have been older than the Liberty Bell. It would have been older than the gardens planted by William of Orange to remind him of home when he reluctantly came across the Channel to be king of England. The making of that mural was separated about as far in time from Constantine XI as people living today are from the people who hung, drew, and quartered an octogenarian Catholic priest in Herefordshire with the full blessing of the government.

All of Whig history, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until now – the whole reign of the cult of progress – could fit into the time between when this mosaic was made and the fall of Constantinople.

I am not sure exactly where to go from here. 

I could just mention that all that span of time that suddenly awed me was occupied by a struggle to keep Islam out of Europe, a struggle that had begun an awfully long time before – since the first siege of Constaninople by the Arabs was in 674  – and would extend an awfully long time into the future. And I could say how incredible the presumption of our present day seem to me, that a conflict so deep and ancient, suddenly exacerbated and supercharged by the shrinking of the world by technology, is all the fault of Thomas Herzl or George W. Bush and would not have happened if we mayfly moderns had done something differently.  That it was, more broadly perhaps, all the fault of ‘Western Imperialism’ and that everyone would just get along if it wasn’t for perfidious us.

Or, I could try to enunciate the deeper and more inchoate lesson I felt this sense of awe had for me. For I am sure that there were big differences between the society John II Comnenos lived in and the society Constantine XI Paleologos lived in: they would have sounded funny to one another, no doubt, and dressed oddly in each other’s eyes. But those differences would be negligible, really, compared to things that united them. I doubt there was more change in the liturgy when they worshipped, 300 years apart, than I have seen in my lifetime. It is very easy for us to find fault with their philosophy and the way their society was organised: but these things endured.  While all our mad utopian experiments and fads and this Liberal Democracy that was supposed to be the end of history fit into this span of time that is not so very long. Maybe we are not as smart as we think we are. Maybe we should be a bit humbler before our ancestors. Maybe we should think twice before tearing down institutions that have endured for millennia. Maybe we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that ‘sovereignty derives from the people’ is what almost all of both sides of Christo-Islamic civilisation considered it for thousands of years: a heresy that leads to ruin.
These guys. YES.