Teletubbian Existentialism

Day 104: Monday

Good morning Zak,

I understand you’re moving into a house. That’s a major decision—like the time I decided to start brushing my hair before shaving instead of the other way around. We’re all making big changes.

Does your new house have space for the famous library you’re going to build us?

IMG_1798

You’ll get why this picture is here in a minute…

Speaking of books, in an old Italian book from the seventies I remember seeing the phrase fare quattro chiacchiere show up. It means “to make four small talks.” These kinds of expressions are common in Italian. In Italy, you never make just one of anything. You can also “make two steps,” to take a walk, or “make two tosses,” to play catch. These days it’s always two, not four. No one has time anymore to make four whole small talks.

I’ve also started watching a television program called the Teletubbies. For those unfamiliar, the Teletubbies is a high quality show produced in a serialized format for the purposes of both entertainment and learning. Aesthetically, I find it to have a lot in common with the music of Claude Debussy. Nothing ever happens, but somehow you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. For example, there will be a moment of great suspense as one waits for Tinky-Winky’s reaction to Po, who is just getting ready to pull an orange lever that makes a loud sound. Hardly occurrences, these kinds of thespian situations are typical of the series, giving it its defining charm.

The character Po is, in my view, a mischievous little devil. She’s small and innocent on the outside, but like most of us, she’s actually very troubled within. In fact, I would argue that Po’s socio-psychological issues and paradoxical comportment constitute one of the central premises of the series—which is ultimately a study in character and identity rather than development and plot.

I’m teaching my Latin students about the locus amoenus, “pleasant place,” in the Aeneid I.157 ff. That’s the part of the poem where Virgil literally wastes fifteen lines on an idyllic description of the Carthaginian coast. Nothing happens. It’s completely unnecessary, as if Virgil wanted to throw a big wrench in the face of classical aesthetic principles. Oddly I feel one almost gains more insight into the meaning of the text from those fifteen lines alone than from the whole rest of the poem…

IMG_1822

…told you it would make sense.

Hiking in the alps, I met an elderly man who lives on the mountain in a former monastery. He invited me into his idyllic home, introduced me to his family, and made something like eight small talks that really weren’t that small. He said he used to work as a train conductor in the city, but he’d helped voluntarily to move debris with a horse and wagon, back when they were digging a tunnel through the mountain. Though completely unnecessary, the anecdote provided some insight into what kind of person this Mountain Man actually is.

Zak, sometimes I’m afraid the purpose of most of life and poetry is only to defer the Existential Question. The present is only the necessary consequent of the past and the antecedent of the future. It’s nothing in itself. Aristotle says that each event in a play ought to follow by causal necessity from the thing before it and ought to necessitate everything that comes after it. There’s no room for waxing lyrical about pleasant landscapes.

But the Teletubbies are an affirmation of life. They believe in running around the ever-sunny Elysium of Teletubbyland without any particular goal. Teletubbyland is a symbol deeply embedded in the human consciousness. It’s that place, flowing with milk and honey, where one day human nature, no longer a slave to necessity, will reveal itself for what it actually is. It’ll be like Mountain Man—acting simply out of his nature and not out of compulsion.

I’m not sure how much truth there really is to radical Teletubbianism. Is it really necessary to do away with antecedent and consequent all together in order to arrive at the innate nature or purpose of a thing? We’ll see how long I can stay interested… In the meantime, I expect to see an idyllic and pointless library when I get back to the States.

’Till next time,

Tim

Advertisements

On Intention (part 3)

(read from the beginning)

Tim: On this rare occasion, while I’m in the lead, allow me to reciprocate your question from earlier. Why do you pursue your profession? Why are you in the health care business?

Zak: To help people. A lot of adults are forced to work just for money. I count myself fortunate that my line of work can also be altruistic.

Tim: That sounds generally reasonable, but less so in the context of our current discussion. What if your actions don’t effect the good ends you have in mind? What if your company just devolves into another one of many cases of corporate greed in America? Then you would be only another business man.

Zak: So you’re a communist?

Tim: No, today I’m too busy being a fatalist to be anything else. I don’t propose a solution to systemic avarice, I only recognize it as a problem.

Zak: But you’re not only a fatalist, you’re also a miscreant. This “massive structuralist mechanism” of yours, if it’s not a machine, then what is it?

Tim: It’s the fatal consequence of a vast web of interdependent states.

Zak: Interdependent states? States of the world?

Tim: If you like. Or of the language that construes human experience within that world.

Zak: But how are they interdependent? There is structure, but what kind of structure? Is it communist or monarchical?

Tim: Well…

Zak: I’m almost afraid to ask: returning to language specifically, does one linguistic decision determine those that follow, in some kind of hierarchy, or are all decisions created equally?

Tim: Have you seen the way I write poetry?

Zak: That’s why I was afraid to ask.

Tim: But I will concede. Generally speaking, in order for language to function, a society or an individual must make some decisions before others, and those preceding decisions necessarily limit the ones that follow.

Zak: For example?

Tim: For example. When the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes collectively decided that the porto-english language would not adopt the Romantic system of grammatical gender, they may have limited the structural function that gender could play in the society at large. Not all nouns would necessarily carry a feminine or masculine connotation, the attribution of adjectives would be more ambiguous, and male/female would be more of a private distinction than a social institution.

Zak: And hence the gender distinction is supposed to apply not at all to public social functions, like the work place, the family etc, but only to the bedroom.

Tim: Somehow that is supposed to be the case at present, although this structural mechanism will continue to guide society toward its natural consequence. We have proto-english speakers to thank, at least in part.

Zak: Ok. So each structural choice is predicated on the ones that come before it.

Tim: Where are you going with this?

Zak: Precisely where we should have begun: providence.

Tim: I knew you had a trick up your sleeve.

Zak: In fact. This whole structuralist mechanism of yours consists in a series of contingent entities. New words are predicated on old ones, subordinate clauses depend on main ones, etc. But the chain of dependency can’t regress infinitely—

Tim: —Or can it?

Zak: I’m a classicist, so no: there must at some point be a primal Word from which all language derives its meaning. A Word which means nothing other than itself. Fate, then, is not actually fate at all. The whole universe is really one massive Text, written by the authorial hand of providence.

But the will of Zeus was carrying out its end.

‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, plans to give you a hope and a future.’

One must wonder whether your philological notion of textual “corruption” is not blasphemous to the Divine Intention, which is, of necessity, fully realized through the intelligent manipulations of the structure that recontextualizes and redeems human fallibility. Is not the authorial intent of man rather a corruption of the all encompassing Text written by the hand of God?

Tim: Then all human effort is vain?

Zak: How does that follow?

Tim: All literature written by men is like a palimpsest from the medieval period. Just like a medieval scribe, God intends to, and will, scrape off the original writing to make space for a new text. Then what’s the point of writing the original?

Zak: You’re the one that bothers with that. You should tell me, what’s the point of composition?

Tim: It’s pointless.

Zak: Have you read Boethius’ On The Consolation of Philosophy?

Tim: I’ve read the menus at some very fateful steakhouses.

Zak: Then what about Seneca’s essay On Providence.

Tim: With equal regret, I have experienced providence’s intentions for that much meat.

Zak: You should really learn Latin. Get some culture in your life.

Tim: A fair critique.

Zak: Anyway, we mustn’t suppose that recontextualizing is the same thing as undermining or invalidating the original. It is, in fact, much more artistic. It’s about finding unusual uses for preexisting material. God is a master jazz improviser who allows himself the liberty to make mistakes, always with the foresight and virtuosity to work around those indeterminacies so that they don’t result as mistakes at all. A “wrong note” or a “corruption” might easily turn into a highlight of the whole composition.

Tim: You make me feel unconscionably warm and fuzzy.

Zak: If to contradict the Divine was a mistake on the part of man, that blemish rises to something more beautiful in the context of soteriological sacrifice. Contradiction, after all, presupposes that the entities involved are not one in the same thing; when the Divine substitutes himself on our behalf, this presupposition is rendered false, and the contradiction that follows becomes ineffectual.

Tim: So the significance of human action depends on the structural context determined by Providence.

Zak: Precisely.

Tim: But it’s strange, isn’t it?

Zak: What?

Tim: Do you really think that context and structure are the source of meaning, or is it the other way around? Is my meaning the consequent of the relationships between words, or are those relationships determined by what I intend to express?

Zak: Maybe a bit of both. Why?

Tim: If Providence is sovereign over structure, my intentions do not factor in at all, because in the face of Divine Imperialism they are powerless to determine meaningful linguistic relationships. This is all very existential. It means that we have no access to the authorial intent of our fellow man.

Zak: I do suppose you’re right… I do… unless those intentions and the strategy of Providence should result in one and the same thing.

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)