Category Archives: philosophy

Certain and deep green clover.

I drove more than an hour round trip to the dentist today and listened to A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton on the way. At the same time I was drinking in the information all my senses were sending me, especially the visual. Glory!

I stopped on the way home to take pictures, in the only spot that gave me room to pull over, and where there happened to be some fava beans growing in the field, maybe “drop-ins” (as my Syrian neighbor used to call volunteers) left over from a long-ago planting.

I was sad to hear on the recording about Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360–270 BC) and how, according to this admittedly simplified and somewhat satiric introduction, he constantly doubted his senses and intuitions and even what common knowledge had been handed down through the ages. He focused on man’s inability to know anything for sure. Many funny legends — such as, his friends had to protect him from falling off cliffs, etc, because he couldn’t trust what his eyes were telling him, that he was on the cliff’s edge — are told about Pyrrho, who wrote nothing and probably was not as crazy as his Skeptic philosophy might have made him if carried to extremes.

I thought about what G.K. Chesterton said about modern skeptics: “It is assumed that the skeptic has no bias; whereas he has a very obvious bias in favour of skepticism.” 

As I was looking at the poppies and the green fields, the cows and blue sky and the clouds, yes, I was certain that I was not hallucinating. That was truly deep green clover and a purple flower. And I knew that God meant for me to receive all these gifts from nature and the Creator without doubting everything at the outset. We should protect our children from the skeptical mind which does pervade modern society in more subtle ways, so that their natural human receptivity to the world and inclination to believe are not deadened. The best way to guard their minds against error is not to teach them to doubt, but to nurture them in beauty and truth.

Kusamakura

Kusamakura is a complex novel, a small expression of the broad literary and artistic vision of its author, Natsume Sōseki; he said he took one week to write it. Sōseki was born in 1867, on the brink of the historic moment of the opening of Japan after its 250 years of isolation. This story written about 30 years later is a hearkening back to the classical and inward culture even as it portrays a protagonist in a world that has quickly changed and will never be the same.

The unnamed artist narrator, no doubt somewhat autobiographical, is not the sort who might move the action of the story. He doesn’t really do much but philosophize about beauty and art.

His plan for his holiday is to paint, and to maintain a detached, disinterested perspective on everyone he meets, so that he can fit them into the mental painting or poem he imagines, his artist’s way of seeing the world. There the humans might be on a plane with nature, which “…instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry.”

You can hear how elevated his opinion of his own spirituality is, and his pride at knowing true art, as contrasted again and again with particular behaviors and with phenomena tangible or intangible that he calls “vulgar.” But he does truly have an eye and a feeling for beauty, demonstrated in many instances throughout the book.

He muses in detail about every aspect of the beauty of the the old woman who hosts him at a wayside inn. When he gets drenched by a rainstorm, he transforms the miserable aspects: “If I picture myself, a sodden figure moving in this vast inkwash world of cloud and rain shot through diagonally with a thousand silver arrows, not as myself but as some other person, there’s poetry in this moment.” When Sōseki wrote that scene in Kusamakura I wonder if he was thinking wryly about the attitude he might have had toward his own miserable years that he later pictured poetically: “Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”

Of such described scenes and experiences my favorite is this: “…times when the ineffable beauty around one, some presence one can scarcely grasp, mysteriously masters the heart….” For several pages he tries to capture with words this “ecstatic motion,” that “does not originate from outside,” and is tenuous only in that it is “ungraspable.”

With abandon the Painter describes pottery, landscapes, food and people, at times in such a way that a tea-sweet becomes food porn. Humans are considered, to use his image, heartlessly: “I shall aim to observe the people I meet from a lofty and transcendent perspective, and do my best to prevent any spark of human feeling from springing up between us. Thus, however animatedly they may move hither and yon, they won’t find it easy to make the leap across to my heart….”

This coolness is maintained even toward the forward and unattached young woman of the inn where he stays. They have occasional conversations and several provocative encounters, and she seems herself to be the sole element of potential plot, while he remains impassive. He is, however, very interested in her as a sublime object to be painted, if he could just figure out what is  missing from her face.

Elsewhere he muses over a question I had never heard posed before, and in the end I thought this dilemma was significant, too: “…whatever has motion is always finally vulgar…. Should we depict motion or stillness? — this is the great problem that governs the fate of us artists.”

I think that the Painter’s familiarity with the wider world and the culture of the West have made him a bit smug. He judges the West by the refinements of Japan, yes, but he also seems to have lost the modesty and restraint that are part of the Japanese expression of beauty, and can’t help revealing his arrogance to the reader.

Having recently read the reverent Book of Tea, written by a contemporary of Sōseki, I was shocked when the narrator ranted about this Japanese art form, the tea ceremony: “No one is more assiduously pompous than a tea ceremony master, who will fancy himself the quintessence of elegant refinement. Your typical tea master is deeply conceited, not to mention affected and fastidious to a fault. He ostentatiously clings to the cramped little territory he’s marked out for himself within the wide world of sensibility, savoring his bowl of foam and bubbles with a quite ridiculous reverence.” And then I realized that it was the Painter who “fancied himself the quintessence of elegant refinement.” He breathes deeply of the vapors rising from his bowl of peeves and perceptions, and is pleased. On the other hand, doesn’t ranting at least border on the vulgar?

And yet, Sōseki himself did write about this book that he intended it to be a “haiku-style novel,” and that “all that matters…is that a certain feeling, a feeling of beauty, remain with the reader. I have no other objective.”

I felt more confident of my idea that Sōseki intentionally imbued the Painter with these ironic aspects after I read on the Literary Hub site about the author’s stay in Britain, where the government had sent him as “Japan’s first Japanese English literary scholar.” During his two unhappy years there he read constantly, and one tome he devoured and evidently thoroughly comprehended was the three-volume Tristram Shandy, which I have only read about, and doubt that I would be able to grasp the satire of it. In his first book, I Am a Cat, his cat narrator makes fun of the intellectual humans, speaking “with Sōseki’s voice, now bitingly critical, now cynically amused.” 

Kusamakura may be a book about the feeling of beauty, but the human relationships naturally get our human attention. My own philosophy and theology are that beauty originates in the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To try to know and appreciate another human by seeing them “objectively,” in a non-emotional or detached way, will never work. You will not see them truly. The Painter is perceptive enough in this case to realize what he isn’t able to do.

Indeed, that “something missing” in the face of the woman the Painter wants to paint, because she is so beautiful, he doesn’t discover until the very end of the story. Perhaps that is the plot, the character development and the problem solved, all on the last page. In a moment of emotion, a motion of the heart toward another person, if you will, he sees in her face the beauty that will make it worth painting.

Integrated into a large choreography.

Reason, in the classical and Christian sense, is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of martial manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into large choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom.

In Christian tradition, reason was praised as a high and precious thing, principally because it belonged intrinsically to the dignity of beings created in the divine image; and, this being so, it was assumed that reason is also always morality, and that charity is required for any mind to be fully rational. Even if one does not believe any of this, however, a rational life involves at least the ability to grasp what it is one does not know, and to recognize that what one does know may not be the only kind of genuine knowledge there is.

-David Bentley Hart, from Atheist Delusions

It’s about light and seeing.

This was a Sunday extra-full of intellectual stimulation, so much so that I feel I must write in order to debrief and process the swirling thoughts. (The church property was also graced with thousands of manzanita blossoms, with which I am decorating my post.)

As I have mentioned before, we are reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis this year in the high school class that meets, as they all do, after we have partaken of the Holy Gifts, toward the end of Divine Liturgy. Today I was amazed at the scope of philosophy and questions we touched on in half a chapter of the book: What is a person? What purpose should art serve? How can we resist the urges from without and within to imbibe and conform to the culture we are born into?

The fictional story is of ghosts who get a chance at Heaven by taking a bus trip from Hell. They have been in the process of becoming more or less human for a long time. Is it hundreds or thousands of years? Hard to say. Our narrator’s guide by the middle of the book is none other than George MacDonald himself, who explains a great deal of what is going on.

About one ghost who appears to the narrator not to be really wicked, but only “into a habit of grumbling,” MacDonald says, “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman — even the least trace of one — still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

The blessed spirits journey for ages to meet the excursionists from Hell, and try to persuade them to cast off whatever hinders, and to stay in Heaven. Today’s reading included such an interview, between two men who had known of each other in the previous life, where they were both artists. When the ghost arrives, he looks around briefly and immediately wants to start painting.

“I shouldn’t bother about that just at present if I were you,” says the blessed spirit, and goes on to explain, “When you painted on earth — at least in your earlier days — it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came…. If you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

I wonder if George MacDonald struggled to keep his artistic focus on “telling about light,” if he ever found himself writing for the love of his own voice and to promote his reputation as a writer and storyteller. If so, he must have noticed, and repented. The glimpses of heavenly realities he was able to give have helped thousands to keep their eyes toward their life-giving Lord.

As often happens, the homily we had heard an hour earlier contributed to our lesson. This time Father John was telling us about the word peculiar in the King James translation, used in I Peter when the apostle is speaking to us who have been “called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It comes from a Greek word that tells us we belong to God; we are possessed. We mused about how this fundamental truth about our personhood can help us to come back again and again to that light, His light, and not get distracted forever from our purpose, and from His life-giving Spirit.

I was not through being challenged to think, and to try forming my thoughts into speech fast enough to contribute to a discussion, because our women’s book club from church was gathering around my table mid-afternoon. We certainly didn’t need to eat, but you know how it is, one may rarely have a gathering of any sort in our society without serving food, and it is fun! …so I did put out a few snacks, and tea things and mugs.

We were discussing The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. A couple of the younger women had read it 20 years ago, and liked it then. But they have changed, and did not enjoy it much. None of us thought it was great, and I only read half, and won’t say more about it here. Next time we are reading Wounded by Love by Elder Porphyrios, picked from a half dozen suggestions of literary sustenance for our Lenten journey coming up in a few weeks.

Okay, now I’ve made my little report, and I hope I caught a ray of light somewhere in it. At least from the darling manzanita.