On Intention (part 2)

(read part 1)

Tim: It’s just… Let me ask you this—did Beethoven write the ninth symphony “rationally and thoughtfully”?

Zak: I imagine he did.

Tim: And Einstein, was he mad and absent-minded when he discovered Relativity?

Zak: I see no reason to believe so.

Tim: And what about that calculated feat of engineering, was Mr. Andrews at all perfunctory when designing the Titanic?

Zak: No, I suppose he was not.

Tim: Then explain to me this. Why on earth, when to all appearances these men acted perfectly reasonably and in good conscience, why or for what shortcoming did their respective works become the foundation of the atomic bomb, the boat grave of more than 1,500 people, and a favorite music to unify that certain nationalist party during the former half of last century? What moral fault did these failures reflect?

Zak: Well I don’t know.

Tim: So Good intentions, at least in this case, don’t equate to Good ends?

Zak: In this case they do not.

Tim: Zak, have you ever been to a frat party?

Zak: My school was too Christian.

Tim: Have you seen the way some people hug each other when they’ve been apart for a few minutes?

Zak: You’ll have to be more specific.

Tim: That absurdly over-the-top gesture. You know, some people think it makes them look high class. They seem like they’ve had too much coffee or something.

Zak: hmm.

Tim: In Milan people kiss each other. Right cheek then left. But sometimes they just kiss the air, sometimes it’s a very empty formality… like a woman finally telling a man for the first time after ten years that she loves him, thereupon only to leave him.

Zak: That’s very specific.

Tim: The point is, what’s the moral weight of those words: “I love you”? Are Good gestures always equivalent to Good will?

Zak: I suppose they are not.

Tim: So Good outcome does not entail Good intention nor Good intention Good outcome.

Zak: It risks appearing so.

Tim: “It risks appearing so?” Now you just sound silly; if only there were an effective way to translate those Platonic Greek phrases.

Zak: εὖγε!

Tim: Further to that point, I’d like to take a moment as the author of this dialogue, to personally apologize for its aesthetic failures. I assure you that they are not the outcome of bad intention, only of bad planning. Usually I like to make my characters vague and mysterious enough that the reader can’t tell if they’re boring. In this case, I didn’t have the time or energy, so the secrete’s out: my characters are two dimensional at root.

Zak: Are you calling me shallow?

Tim: Not you, just your persona.

Zak: Got it. Well I’m sure the readers can overlook that. The philosophic pedantry is entertaining enough in itself.

Tim: That’s very generous of you. I guess sometimes bad writing is better than good writing. Anyway, as I was saying, we appear to have very little control over the outcome of our actions.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

We’re all caught up in this massive structuralist mechanism. I wouldn’t call it a machine, but I understand why some people might have a predilection for that image. As each of us slowly parishes from this life, we are overwhelmed by external forces over which we exhibit no agency. All this runs contrary to intuitions about our moral capacity for action.

Zak: Moral action is impossible?

Tim: Well the issue is essentially this: I may have control over my own use of language, but insofar as significance is predicated on context, I cannot control that, because I can’t control the language of those around me. In that case, what’s the point of being able to control one’s own words in the first place?

Zak: I’m not sure I follow.

Tim: Perhaps Beethoven wrote a symphony which, to him, expressed the beauty of the human experience and the brotherhood of man. For all that intention, he could do nothing to stop posterity from contextualizing it as an expression radical nationalism… nor, for that matter, from repurposing it yet again, this time as the official anthem of the United Nations. At the present moment the piece may happen to enjoy good fortune, but the whole case just speaks to the fact that language is whore. She submits freely to anyone and everyone.

Zak: Indeed, context matters. But usually I’m the one to point out the futility of the arts. Where are you going with this?

Tim: I have no control over where I’m going.

Zak: Hmm. Then let me ask you this—why do you compose music? Is it just to dwell on the powerlessness of human existence?

Tim: It’s a good question. A very strategic one.

Zak: So what? Is composition just another thing you can’t control? You would stop if you could?

Tim: I have no way of knowing what I would do if I could. But the whole crises forces us to reconsider what it means to be an author and what moral duty is involved, if any. Like Aeneas, the author is tossed and thrown at the whims of the high sea. He has essentially no control over where he will end up, but he may have an intention.

Zak: So authorial intent is important?

Tim: I don’t know how important it is from the perspective of the reader, but the creative processes certainly presupposes some form of intention. One may defer causation to a plethora of external sources, but at some point, supposing that even in a small way the author is a liberal agent, he must exercise a certain degree of will in every action, including that of poetry.

Zak: Then he has an intention, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Tim: But it does.

Zak: How so?

Tim: It simply does—as simply and surly as Beethoven is not accountable for World War II. Why outcome should matter is what needs explaining. Intention, as our intuitions tell us, is the central subject of moral discourse; if an intention is good, it is Good without reference to anything outside itself.

Zak: Go on.

Tim: If we are honest, it’s easy to recognize that the best kind of goodwill is the kind that’s indifferent of the object to which it is referred. The Just man donates to charity not because he thinks his money will be useful, but only because he wishes to express that he cares. That willful act of expression stands for itself. It relies on no audience (rhetorical or otherwise) and even no actual beneficiary. The potential situation, which exists inside the mind of the man donating, suffices as context to give the action meaning.

Zak: But the actual outcome is irrelevant?

Tim: The Just man’s intentions, not his fortunes, are what we have in mind when we call him a “good” person.

Zak: Then reading consists in uncovering that first intention, that potential situation, which has been corrupted by external circumstances, such as social context and error in textual transmission.

Tim: Now you’re thinking like a philologist. And I thought I was the one living in Italy for too long.

Zak: So you accept this word, “corruption.”

Tim: I’m a fatalist, aren’t I?

Zak: Today you are. Tomorrow you’ll be something different. I meanwhile will keep on strategizing over my same chess game.

(continue reading)


On Intention

Zak: I went down to see the Peiraieus yesterday with Glaucon son of Ariston.

Tim: Who? You saw what?

Zak: Not much.  There were some rocks that used to be a building I think.  I guess punctuality is kind of important when it comes to attending sacred rites.

Tim: You…

Zak: Relatively speaking I wasn’t late.  I’ve seen what time your family shows up to church on Sundays.  Then again, not all sacred rituals are the same.

Tim: How’s that?

Zak: I mean… things would be different if I’d shown up late to your sister’s wedding…

Tim: You mean your wedding?

Zak: Do you know the legal ramifications of someone saying ‘I do’ with no one else at the alter?

Tim: Wait, are you referring to ancient Greece?

Zak: But you do find it curious then.

Tim: Curious?

Zak: The way context affects language.  The way ‘do’ doesn’t mean the same thing in the restroom as it would at an alter…

Tim: Oh, now I see where this is going.  Before—

Zak: —An unfortunate phrase.  At least in this context.  Anyway, my point is this: language is at once the omni-subsuming stage where all moral dramas take place and also the most relative, contextually-dependent instrument available to human use.  It couldn’t be more relative if it were a series of very expensive slits cut into a blank canvas.  Nothing could be more morally involved than the decision to say ‘I do’ at the alter, but saying it in the bathroom is only embarrassing.

Tim: Point taken.  So morality is relative?

Zak: Not at all!  Life is guided by a bus driver who’s drunk himself silly, but he knows exactly where he’s going.

Tim:  I’m confused.  Isn’t that a paradox?

Zak: Life’s full of paradoxes.

Tim: But you usually aren’t.  You’ve got a trick up your sleeve.

Zak: I do… I do… but like a good chess player, I’m saving it for later.

At this point, the conversation lingered as the participants took a moment to appreciate the exquisitely subtle use of foreshadow on the part of the author.

Tim: Okay, then riddle me this.  How does one define the Good in relation to linguistic arbitration?

Zak: Go on.

Tim: If we suppose that language consists in a hierarchical structure of paradigmatic opposition—

Zak: Wohoo, wohoo, wohoo.  Don’t get too excited.

Tim: I only mean from a semiotic—

Zak: Bless you!  Here’s a tissue.

Tim: Well what words can I use then?

Zak: Most of them.  I just happen to know you really wanted to say “semiotic” for no good reason.

Tim: I guess that’s fair.

Zak: As you were saying, language consists in a series of contrasting sounds.  (We like to call those sounds “words” where I come from.)

Tim: Fine.  And these different words have meaning in relation to other words.

Zak: Sure.  Like the word “loquacious” or “pedantic”…

Tim: Yeah, or “laconic” or “philistine” or “Podsnappery”…

Zak: And not to be overtly patronizing, but how exactly do all these words “have meaning in relation to other words”?

Tim: Well they contrast with them.

Zak: In the sense that, if I looked up “loquacious” in the dictionary, right beside your picture I’d see a string of other words: perhaps “using large, unnecessary vocabulary, long since rendered obsolete in the post-Hemingway age.  Antonyms: laconic.”

Tim: Exactly.  Words having meaning relative to other words.

Zak: And your question is?

Tim: My question is what constitutes the Good when it comes to linguistic decisions?  Which word does the Just man choose between those we’ve just cited?

Zak: Well it depends on context.

Tim: Walked right into that one.  But suppose the context is known.

Zak: But it isn’t known.  What’s that poetic mind of yours good for if you only use it to obsess about bow ties?

Tim: Fine… The context… Suppose you showed up late to some kind of sacred ritual…

Zak: What kind of ritual?

Tim: An ancient Roman sacrifice.

Zak: Delicious.  What’s on the table?

Tim: A two-year-old Heifer.

Zak: Nothing but the finest.  The gods must be huffing away on their lard fumes.

Tim: But you missed the whole thing.  The procession, the liver examination, the anal retentive… well… everything.

Zak: An inauspicious beginning.  So what’s the language decision?

Tim: The priest decides to cut you some slake in the form of a nice juicy rib—heifers have ribs, right?

Zak: It’s a good thing you’re a humanist.

Tim: Anyway, there’s an old lady there who’s just appalled at the whole thing.  She’s been complaining the whole time that you, the priest and the heifer were all going to tick off the divinities.

Zak: Naturally.

Tim: When everyone starts to dig in she’s all, “so how’s the meat, need some tardy sauce?” or something like that.  How does the Just man respond?

Zak: Well how is the meat?

Tim: What do you mean?  It’s fine, or whatever.

Zak: Spoken like a just man.

Tim: So the Just man just says “it’s fine?”  But why?  How does he make that decision?

Zak: I presume he makes it the same way one makes any moral decision.  He weighs all possible outcomes and chooses the one that’s most favorable.

Tim: So the one that benefits the most people to the greatest extent?

Zak: If you like, I suppose.

Tim: But how the heck is he supposed to know that?  What if saying the meat is fine will throw the crazy lady into a fit of righteous indignation in which she sets fire to the temple—

Zak: Stone doesn’t burn.  It’s a good thing you’re a humanist.

Tim: Or replying, “it’s terrible.  My appetite is spoiled by profound guilt.” would lead her to depression.

Zak: Then you better not say that.

Tim: But how are you supposed to know?

Zak: Tim.  Morality is just like chess.

Tim: I can’t play chess to save my life and you know it.

Zak: I’ll have to think about how the Just man would respond to that statement.  In the meantime, let me explain a few things to you.  Life is about anticipation.  The whole assumption that life has any meaning at all presupposes a certain human capacity to anticipate the future.  Chess is only interesting if you can anticipate your opponent’s moves to a certain extent.  In other word, the Just man would respond to the lady by making a carefully reasoned calculation of the densely interrelated chain of causality that would follow from each possible linguistic choice.

Tim:  And if he miscalculates?  Do you mean to suggest that all bad chess players are reprobates?

Zak: Not at all.

Tim: What then?  You’re on very thin ice.

Zak: We needn’t presume that morality as an experience and morality as an object are necessarily one in the same thing.  It’s perfectly conceivable that the criteria by which we may, at least in theory, objectively evaluate a moral action are independent of those by which we undergo moral experience.  The Just Man is someone who makes decisions that turn out to effect the greatest possible Good, but he may just as well do so without playing chess like a boss, or at least, without doing so presciently.  He might not consciously perform any kind of “felicific calculus.”

Tim: Bless you.

Zak: Frankly, how he comes to those decisions is none of our business.  It’s enough that he approaches it rationally and thoughtfully.

Tim: Hmm.

Zak: What’s that look on your face?

Tim: What?

Zak: Come on.  You couldn’t be smugger if you’d sold a solid grey canvas for a million dollars.

(continue reading)

The Modern Man

Day 51: Monday

Good morning Zak,

“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.”

-Steven Wright


One of the so-called Elgin Marbles, British Museum

Do you ever wonder what’s with that?  Like, what on earth happened to about half the limbs on these statues?  Well, most of the damage can be accounted for by factors you would expect, like weather, other natural forces, accidents…  But not all of it.  Some of the changes to these statutes are the result of a very intentional human process: bowdlerization.

Dr. Thomas Bowdler was a physician and social activist of the 18th and 19th centuries.  He’s best remembered for his 1807 publication, The Family Shakespeare.  This was like the P.G. version of Shakespeare.  All the offensive material had been removed, making it appropriate for children.

Since then, Bowdler’s name has been turned into a verb: to bowdlerize, meaning “to expurgate, or censure inappropriate material.”  For example, the medieval church bowdlerized some classical statues by covering up or removing the private parts.

One day people will speak also of timothizing and zakifying things… I’m not sure what it’ll mean.

Anyway, here’s a question: what is the significance of bowdlerism from a purely artistic point of view?  Is The Family Shakespeare just as good as the original?  Or does it maybe lose something, inhibiting the full breadth of Shakespeare’s original poetic vision?

Shakespeare’s plays are of course heavily influenced by the plays of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Those guys were a little more liberal than the Christian society of Bowdler’s 19th century England… especially when it came to things like sex, violence, nudity…  But sometimes we tend to think of the cultural difference too dualistically—as if the ancient Pagans were some kind of wild hippies compared to the restrained Christian society that followed.

The truth is, even the ancient Greeks had their forms of censorship.  Physical violence and other obscene acts were considered an abomination to Dionysus, the god of theater, and were not permitted to take place on stage.  On the other hand, Christians are not always so restrained.  Occasionally in Christian literature, poets will attempt to glue the missing genitals back on to our concept of man:

“Pleasant and fitting both their use will be
When time and mode and measure do agree,
Else withering from the root all lives would fail
And that old Chaos o’er the wreck prevail.
Conquerors of Death! they fill each empty place
In Nature and immortalize the race.”

-Bernardus Silverstris, De Mundi Universitateº

Other poets too have since tried to piece together our broken form:


One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Until tomorrow,


º Ed. Barach and Worbel, Bibliotheca Philosophorum Mediae Aetatis, II.xiv.155

Dover Beach


Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.


From Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold


Sophocles pondering the metaphorical “turbid ebb and flow” of human misery

This has been a surprising Saturday something: a series of somethings that surprisingly happens on Saturdays sometimes.

Dark Sayings

Day 23: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

I noticed that while 16 people liked my “Pigeons Rummaging” entry there were proportionately very few plays of the sound recording.  As I see it these data could only mean one of two things: either people are not that interested in the sound of pigeon feet crinkling leaves in the park, or the people who liked the post didn’t necessarily read it all the way through.  Zak, since the first of these possibilities is clearly ridiculous, I’m going to assume that most people simply didn’t read far enough to realize that they would have the opportunity to indulge in the distinct auditory pleasure that is pigeons stepping on dry leaves.


Question marks, a common symbol of mystery

Your question, Zak, is quite a puzzle. To use the ancient Greek word we might even call it an ainos, that is, a “riddle or proverb,” or to use the classical Hebrew,  a ḥîdah or “dark saying.”  The Greek is cool ‘cause it gives us the word “enigma,” but I have to say I prefer the meaning of the Hebrew.  I mean, dark saying?  Is there any cooler sounding concept in all the languages of the world?  I wish English had a word that meant “dark saying.”

So in 3rd grade, Jimmy and Sally S. got together one time.  I think most people only heard about it through the grape vine.  They tried to keep it a secret at first, but as I understand, the turning point came when they almost spent half of recess together.  Obviously, that got people saying things, which is how I heard about it in the first place.  They broke up after school, and Sally S. is still single at the moment.  At least that’s what I heard.  Other people say they’re still together.

I bring this up as an illustration that third graders a very wise individuals.

It takes the light of wisdom to discern the secrets of a dark saying.  The ancient world is brimming with stories of wisemen who uncover the hidden meaning of enigmas and cryptic riddles.  There’s Solomon who discerned the dark sayings of the queen of Sheba, and then there’s Oedipus, for example, who solved the enigma of the Sphinx.  We all know the famous riddle of the Sphinx:


…Or do we?


Oedipus (right) answers Sphinx (left, in darkness)

You see there’s a slight problem.  There are actually many different contradictory versions of this story preserved by different ancient sources.  Kind of like gossip.  No one can say for certain exactly what it was that the Sphinx asked Oedipus.  It’s quite an enigma.

So what do we do about this?  One option is to brush the whole thing aside.  You could simply say, “it doesn’t matter, because the Sphinx never asked anything, because, importantly, SPHINXES DON’T EXIST!”  Once you’ve said that, you can go find a third grader and tell them that Santa isn’t real and Christmas is just a capitalist consumerist trap invented by rich business owners.  This approach to literature is known as “Podsnappery.”

Another option would be to read the text anyway.  Sure it contains many contradictions.  Life contains many contradictions.  In fact, the less consistent a story is, the more interesting and realistic it becomes.

“I take a sip of my drink and think about the movie I wanted to write once. Something about a man who goes back in time to kill his dog or something. Oh well, it was too unrealistic.” –Flash365


Deconstructed Church, Michael Jantzen

The duty of a reader is to uncover the light of truth buried in the obscurity of dark sayings.  There’s nothing wrong with being a Podsnapperist, but it’s different from being a reader.  Being a reader means engaging in the heuristic search for the underlying structural integrity beneath the surface of a text; it means, in the words of Solomon, “searching for wisdom as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).  Basically it’s what you did with juicy gossip in third grade.

“We know how to tell many lies as if they were true. But we also know, whenever wish, how to speak the truth.” -the Muses, from Hesiod’s Theogony

Authors tend to hide what is most sacred to them out of view from the Podsnapping public.  But a reader, in the fullest sense of the word, is someone who assumes that a text contains hidden treasures worth searching for, someone who tries to uncover precisely what it was that a nonexistent sphinx said that one time in ancient Thebes.

“If I’m vague, it’s only because upsetting topics distract people from the real issues of the world like coffee cups and muppet babies.” –Rarasaur

Zak, let me ask you a question; maybe you can discern its meaning… Do you believe in sphinxes?

Until tomorrow,


Unusual Uses and Usages

Day 11: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: would words have meaning if there weren’t anyone around to read them?  This is an alternative version of the better-known riddle, “if a tree falls in the woods with no one to hear it, then do I still sound pretentious asking you this?”  Zak, you might feel confident about how to answer both of those questions, but as you’re reading this there’s probably a slight problem.  I’m guessing no one is around willing to hear your answer.

“No one,” by the way, makes a great nickname.  That’s why Odysseus told a cyclops his name was “Cleverness” that one time before he attacked it.  When the cyclops’ friends asked it if everything was okay, it shouted out, “No one is attacking me!”  Get it?

I guess you had to be there… in ancient Greece… where the word for “cleverness” sounded almost exactly like the word for “no one.”  A classic miscommunication.

Classicists are kind of funny people these days.  They’re like Harry Potter fans, only more hipster.  They all have basically the same quirky personality, some of them are under the impression that they’re descendants of gods, and they share all sorts of clever inside jokes and references that mostly just classicists get.  So more or less like Harry Potter fans.  If you, reader, happen to be a part of that niche little audience, maybe you’d like to indulge yourself with a quick poem by Hilda Doolittle.

But while reading out-dated poetry is great, if there are people around to hear you, I would recommend a more social activity.

One great way to spend a stormy evening is playing telephone with your friends.  If anyone is unfamiliar, telephone is a game of transmission: players gather in a circle, and one person discreetly whispers a particular message of some kind into the ear of their neighbor.  The message is then carefully transmitted all the way around the circle.  At that point the original version of the message is revealed for all to hear, shocking participants with how much it has changed.  The purpose of this exercise is evidently to make light of the fallibility of human expression.

But maybe you don’t agree that telephone is such a “great” activity.  That’s cool.  These days, plenty of people disagree about the proper usage of the word “great.”

There was also that time Odysseus was in the underworld and he met a crazy old dude named Tiresias.  Tiresias told him to carry his oar so far in-land that people would think it was a winnowing-fan for separating the wheat from the chaff.  He was assuming the people in the country were so domestic that they would hardly even recognize the accouterments of pirating.  It’s possible this has some kind of deep metaphorical meaning that made it worthy of entering the cannon of classical world literature, but it’s probably just a miscommunication.

“And I will give you a sign, clear indeed: when another traveler meets you and asks whether it is a winnowing-fan you carry on your shining shoulder, plant your handy oar into the earth and offer a sacrifice to lord Poseidon…” Homer

Really, I suppose there’s no reason you couldn’t use an oar as a winnowing-fan.  You could also use a hairbrush as a musical instrument.  Come to think of it, there are a lot of alternative uses for everyday objects.  Like fish, for example.

Until tomorrow,