22 April 2017

Pointless video post - ‘Dead Revolution’ by Hammers of Misfortune

It’s been awhile since I posted one of these. But I’ve been on a prog bender for awhile now; Hammers of Misfortune is an old favourite of mine (quirky af heavy metal drenched with Hammond organs and cowbells and a seventies retro vibe); and the lyrics from the title song of their most recent album (as well as John Cobbett’s commentary on the same) reflect much of my current mood.
Drag me into your exhausted future
Do I have a choice?
Your revolution has gone on so long
Heed your master’s voice
Never realise the tyranny is coming from the inside
And an evil eye has opened in your own private sky
Born on the wrong side of the divide
Million miles across
Are you still waitin’ for your invitation
Maybe it was lost
And every teardrop falls
Like Moses coming down from the mountain
And an evil eye has opened in your own private sky
Lenses and mirrors, a looking-glass world
Shot from every side
The next contestant to try and survive
Maze of your design
The better world you are trying to build
Is laughing in your face
The better world you are trying to build
Is on fire

21 April 2017

Many happy returns

For Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s ninety-first birthday. God save our gracious Queen, and grant her many, many years!

19 April 2017

The prophet Solzhenitsyn

I just finished reading The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century, written 23 years ago now, and once again I find myself stunned by Solzhenitsyn’s perspicacity and profundity on the topics of modern geopolitics, œconomics and even the climate. He speaks with a moral clarity, urgency and conviction that few in his own day, let alone ours, can hope to match.

Here is what he has to say on the topic of the environment and climate change:
When a conference of the alarmed peoples of the earth convenes in the face of the unquestionable and imminent threat to the planet’s environment and atmosphere, a mighty power (one consuming not much less than half of the earth’s currently available resources and emitting half of its pollution) insists, because of its present-day internal interests, on lowering the demands of a sensible international agreement, as though it does not live on the same earth, then other leading countries shirk from fulfilliing even these reduced demands. Thus, in an economic race, we are poisoning ourselves.
On the dangers of capitalist materialism:
The ruble-dollar blow of the Nineties shook our character in yet a new way: those who still possessed the kindly traits of a bygone time turned out to be the least prepared for the new way of life, helpless useless losers, unable to feed their families (a horrible feeling for parents before their own children!), and, suffocating, goggled at a new breed steamrolling over them with a new cry: ‘Booty! booty at any price! no matter if through fraud, rot, depravity or the sale of Maternal wealth!’ ‘Booty’--became the new (and how paltry!) Ideology. A smashing and destructive alteration, which has as yet failed to bring any good or success to our economy and does not promise soon to do so--thickly breathed decay into the national character.

God forbid this decay become irreversible.
And again:
We must build a moral Russia, or none at all—it would not then matter anyhow. We must preserve and nourish all the good seeds which miraculously have not been trampled down in Russia. Will the Orthodox Church help us? It was ravaged more than anything else in the Communist years. In addition, it was undermined internally by its three-century-long subordination to the State and lost the impulse for strong social actions. Now, with the active expansion into Russia of well-funded foreign confessions and sects, with the ‘principle of equal opportunities’ for them and the impoverished Russian Church, the process of pushing Orthodoxy out of Russian life altogether has begun. Incidentally, the new explosion of materialism, this time a ‘capitalist’ one, threatens all religion.
And still again:
We have allowed our wants to grow unchecked, and are now at a loss where to direct them. And with the obliging assistance of commercial enterprises, newer and yet newer wants are concocted, some wholly artificial; and we chase after them en masse, but find no fulfilment. And we never shall.

The endless accumulation of possessions? That will not bring fulfilment either. Discerning individuals have long since understood that possessions must be subordinated to other, higher principles, that they must have a spiritual justification, a mission; otherwise, as Nikolai Berdyaev put it, they bring ruin to human life, becoming the tools of avarice and oppression.
On the Ukraine:
Leaving aside the swift turnabout of Ukraine’s Communist chieftains, we have seen the Ukrainian nationalists, who in the past so staunchly opposed Communism, and in all, it seemed, cursed Lenin, sorely tempted from the first by his poisoned gift: eagerly accepting the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchev). Ukraine (like Kazakhstan) immediately set upon a false imperial path.

I do not wish the burden of great power status upon Russia, nor upon Ukraine. I sincerely express the best wishes for the development of Ukrainian culture and distinctiveness, and genuinely love them; but why begin not with the restoration and spiritual strengthening of the national nucleus, not with cultural work within the bounds of the Ukrainian population and territory
propre, but with an impulse to become a ‘Great Power’? … Do the current rulers of Ukraine and of her public opinion fully realise what a gigantic cultural task lies before them? A sizeable portion of the ethnic Ukrainian population itself does not even use or have command of the Ukrainian language…

Meanwhile, we read accounts of discrimination against Russian schools and even kindergartens in Galicia, hooligan-like attacks on them; of the suppression in places of Russian television broadcasts; even bans on librarians to converse with readers in Russian—can this truly be the path of development for Ukrainian culture? We hear slogans like ‘Russians out of Ukraine!’, ‘Ukraine for the Ukrainians!’—although numerous ethnicities populate Ukraine. Practical measures have been implemented as well: those who did not become Ukrainian citizens are experiencing constraints in employment, pensions, ownership of real estate, and are not allowed to take part in privatisation—but these people did not come to Ukraine from abroad, they have always lived there…
And on the topic of empire generally, from the Letter to the Soviet Leaders:
The aims of a great empire and the moral health of the people are incompatible. We should not presume to invent international tasks and bear the cost of them so long as our people is in such moral disarray.
May we learn wisdom from the words of this prophet of our times.

God’s personality, at Bethlehem shown

But than to affirm that the Divine Will is thus solely and without cause the author of their condemnation, what greater calumny can be fixed upon God? and what greater injury and blasphemy can be offered to the Most High? For that the Deity is not tempted with evils, and that He equally willeth the salvation of all, since there is no respect of persons with Him, we do know; and that for those who through their own wicked choice, and their impenitent heart, have become vessels of dishonour, there is, as is just, decreed condemnation, we do confess. But of eternal punishment, of cruelty, of pitilessness, and of inhumanity, we never, never say God is the author, who telleth us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. Far be it from us, while we have our senses, thus to believe, or to think; and we do subject to an eternal anathema those who say and think such things, and esteem them to be worse than any infidels.
- Patriarch Dositheos II (Notaras) of Jerusalem, The Confession of Dositheos, 1672

18 April 2017

The Resurrection and the œconomy of kenōsis

In this Bright Week we are celebrating the rising from the tomb of Our Lord. Having witnessed the Pascha and the Holy Fire as it was brought out from the altar this year, let me tell you that it is a truly sublime experience – eerie, otherworldly, awe-inspiring. Just as it should be when a dead man returns, past all human expectation or hope, back to life. The Resurrection is an interruption; indeed, it is a eucatastrophic overturn of the entirety of our experience of reality, and the Liturgy breaks upon us in exactly the same fashion – shaking us wholly out of our routines and our mundane understandings of creation. This eucatastrophe, this overturn, of the entire fallen order – this utter defeat of death, the one certainty of that fallen order – has profound implications across the entirety of our lived experience. Why, then, in light of this bold defiance of death and Hell by the Son of Man, should we then be hesitant to speak a few words on how it impacts (or should impact) the material dimension of our lives?

It is to be understood, first, that the Incarnation, and secondly that the Crucifixion, are both acts of sublime self-emptying (or kenōsis, to use the Greek). The very Logos of God – that is to say, the divine and eternal principle which underwrites the entirety of the created order from the beginning – limited Himself, confined Himself within a suffering, bleeding, ageing, mortal human body, descended into the existence of a poor, working-class Jewish man under Roman rule. He took on Himself every single one of our physical and emotional weaknesses – hungering, thirsting, heat and cold, anger and fear – with the exception of sin. And for the sake of the world He gave Himself up to mockery and public scorn, to be subjected to the most humiliating and excruciating forms of public execution reserved for enemies of the Emperor, traitors and bandits. And thus He died. The ultimate expression of self-emptying love.

And then happened the Resurrection on the third day, the appearance of Christ to His forlorn, demoralised and distraught disciples. In the flesh, so to speak.
O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
So speaks Saint John Chrysostom directly to us, every year on the Paschal feast. These are words of comfort, especially to someone like me who has been so lax and so out of tune with the season. The great Church Father was deeply sensitive to the impact this new reality, this eucatastrophe that renders death powerless and overturns the iron laws of necessity, and his approach to ethics is undergirded entirely by this impact. A reality in which the human, mortal, dying face of God, the face of Christ in each person, is elevated to the eternal, inescapable either now or in the hereafter, Chrysostom comes to understand care for the poor and powerless as all the more pressing:
Let us men imitate the women [who went to the tomb]; let us not forsake Jesus in temptations. For they for Him even dead spent so much and exposed their lives, but we neither feed Him when hungry, nor clothe Him when naked, but seeing Him begging, we pass Him by!
Instead of the reality of the Resurrection being a cause for nonchalance in our care for the very least of our brothers, Chrysostom saw it instead as a call to deepen and intensify the work of Christ in the world and for us to become active participants in that work. The importance of material acquisition in this life, the expectations of enjoyment of œconomic goods here and now, pale utterly and shrink before the demands of the salvific labour in kenōsis to which the Cross and the empty Tomb call us!
The purpose of His dying was not that He might hold us liable to punishment and in condemnation, but that He might do good unto us. For this cause He both died and rose again, that He might make us righteous.
For this reason, taking into account the wise words of the Holy Father John Chrysostom, let us continue to meditate on both the grace that the Resurrection extends to us and also the challenge: that we might become participants in an œconomy of love and an œconomy of kenōsis, rather than continuing in the hopeless logic of death and succumbing to the capitalistic œconomy of philautia (self-love) which our fallen nature and our fallen culture mire us in.

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 5: erōs, art and imitation

Okay, now that we’ve taken some steps in a realist, High Tory direction regarding the irrational or, more correctly, prerational nature of erōs; regarding romanticism and celibacy; regarding the difficulties (and probability) of actual romance; and even regarding the balance between the Hellenising and Judaïsing elements in historical Christian thinking on the subject – perhaps it’s time to revisit one of the problems this series of blog posts actually set out to answer.

Turning to that greatest of metaphysical realists: the Phædrus, the Symposium and the Republic all get at the irrational, prerational element of the erotic urge, and highlight both its dangers and its potentials. Erōs comes from the lower, desiring part of the soul; and untamed (as with Lysias in his written speech) it can bend the higher, willing and noetic parts of the soul to its will in a tyrannical fashion until it becomes something monstrously unlike itself. Plato’s Socrates (depending on to whom he is speaking) holds forth variously that erōs is a brutal tyrant, that it is a philosopher, that it is a divine gift. And his gist in holding forth such a protean and manifold view of sensual desire is that such a love is and can be any of these things – depending on what elements of our soul participate in that love, and how. That is why the chain of being and the idea of the lives of the higher participating in and transcending those of the lower are so important.

But all this is so much useless blather without some concrete considerations. What exactly is wrong with, say, erotic art, and why is it wrong? To get at this question from the realist view, it’s necessary to bring everything we have behind us to bear on it. And here it’s necessary to consider why Plato was so harsh, so brutally unsparing even, on the greatest of poets, playwrights, lyricists and musicians in his Republic. The first considerations of law in his ‘city in speech’, as Socrates discusses with Glaucon and Adeimantus, have to do with everything the poets and dramatists cannot and should not be allowed to say, and all the forms of music the musicians should not be allowed to play.

It’s possible to overstate this case, of course, since Plato’s Socrates in his ‘mythic’ speech in the Phædrus generously allows artists to stand on the same level as lovers and philosophers in their vision and understanding of the divine truth. But in the Republic he sets himself up as an enemy of imitation – and particularly those sorts of imitation which enslave us to one or other of the ‘bestial’ elements of the soul. I imagine he’d have a word or two to say to me, what with my love of heavy metal music! But be that as it may, Socrates attempts to convince Glaucon – who arms himself with the myth of Gyges – and Adeimantus that what actually is (whether existent or ‘just’) is superior to what merely seems or is widely held to be; this is the thrust of his arguments against the poets. And because he wants to make this point strenuously, he attacks the poets precisely where they are strongest: when using metre and rhyme and rhythm to evoke emotion and pathos in their listeners which is not in accord with their lived experiences!

And the way Socrates counters Glaucon’s myth of Gyges’ Ring (which allows Gyges to disappear and ‘appear’ at will, gaining renown, prestige, fame and pleasure whilst committing the worst deeds of adultery and murder) is with the word-image of the Cave, wherein people are enslaved – chained to a wall with their heads fixed to boards and unable to move left or right, looking at shadows flickering on the cave wall opposite and imagining, through want of experience of anything different, that those shadows are real. In Plato’s view, the really real consists in those ‘forms’ which matter participates in, that is-ness which makes a couch a couch. A singular couch itself is limited by its physical and temporal location, its fragility, its specificity. And the description of a couch, whether in art or in wordplay, is still further removed from reality even than a specific couch!

If Socrates was so harsh on poets and painters, then, for using wordplay and images to evoke feelings and sympathies in people which had nothing to do with their own lives or their own better natures, how then would he think of erotic art? Is such art not something that is much more literally seen in a place of darkness – say, a cave? Is it not, these days particularly, shadows cast by artificially-generated light on the wall of that cave? Is it not an imitation, a facsimile of something real which, if we allow it, enslaves us and binds us in fetters, and fixes our gaze by the urges of the desiring parts of our soul? Isn’t the real problem with it precisely that it is not real, but merely that it seems to be and promises to be (to some lonely and ravening part of our psuchē) real? Doesn’t its very lying promise of reality, aimed at that very ravening element, lead it into more and more ‘dreamlike’ (or nightmarish) states of degradation and violence? Does it not make it more difficult for us to go out and face the harsh light of real reality, lived among other people?

Plato’s Socrates is not a hater of erōs. He is not a Gnostic. If he were, he would not even speak or keep company with Glaucon, let alone such beautiful youths as Alcibiades or Agathon, as in the Symposium. He would not drink with them and hug them and speak with them to draw them out of their ways of life and thinking. Nor is Plato’s version of Socrates actually a hater of the arts, in the main. Otherwise, why would he use so many mythical stories and word-images and poetic turns of phrase himself, particularly when he is being most serious and least ironic? He simply wants us to see art that points people to some reality beyond itself and not confuse itself with what is real. But the first problem he would have with erotic art is precisely that it is an imitation of sex that not only is not and cannot be the real thing, but which invidiously promises a ‘real’ gratification that it can’t provide! Thus such misnamed ‘erotica’ contorts the desiring soul’s expectations of what it can ‘really’ get and how, and it drags the noetic and willing soul along with it and produces… well…

This is the big problem not only with such ‘erotica’, which produces illusions of love. We have an entire œconomy of marketing which produces similar illusions of meaning and fulfilment. We have an entire corporate media apparatus which produces illusions of information. We have an entire industry of CGI and sound effects specialists which produces illusions of mythos. We have an entire industry of think tanks, pressure groups and electoral PACs which produces illusions of civic participation and political community.

Is it really any wonder that the desiring parts of our souls are engorged and out of order?

16 April 2017

Христос Воскресе!

Христос воскресе из мертвых,
Смертию смерть поправ,
И сущим во гробех живот даровав!

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!