Decision Making Paradigm

Of all the places one would be wise to seek intellectual consistency or at least transparency, what I here call one’s decision making paradigm would seem most important. You’re faced with a dilemma, conundrum, poser – how do you decide? Do you always follow that rule, or are there various rules depending on the nature of the quandry? It seems an honest man with any intellectual pretension at all would first of all be able to explain his position here regarding how he makes decisions. If one were to be honestly skeptical of anything, the purity and reasonableness of the mechanism by which your choices are made would have to be #1 on the list of things to be skeptical about. To do otherwise is slavery or hypocrisy.

Image result for kronk emperor's new grooveI ask today because of the cultivated silence on this issue, a silence in which is hidden how this is supposed to work, by those who don’t like Magisterial authority. OK, so you don’t think the Magisterium can really, truly teach – there are other ways of arriving at truth, or a better understanding, or whatever unstated goal you may have. Got it. Now, tell us how you decide what the issues are that fall outside of Magisterial competence, and how you arrive at your position once you’ve shed the Church’s teaching authority.

It is not an anti-intellectual stance to accept the Magisterium’s teachings even when I don’t understand them or see that they are right. The intellectual stance, the most rational stance of all for a Catholic, is to say: of course I, one tiny, ephemeral man, cannot hope to have as good a perspective as a Church that comprises a couple of billion people living and dead and which has lasted 2,000 years. Her authority is attested to by saints and scholars far more holy and smart and better educated than I. Therefore, I am not abandoning my intellect or my conscience when I choose to follow the teachings of the Church. Rather, my submission to her guidance is the highest exercise of my intellect and will I’m likely to ever make, and my conscience would torment me if I were to place it above the Conscience of the Church.

So, how about it? If you are trying to overturn millennia of church teachings based on something other than simply not liking them or as the price for getting to sit at the cool kids table, spell it out. If you’re cherry-picking – you know, asserting the Apostles didn’t have tape recorders, so we can never know exactly what Jesus said, but only apply this to positions you don’t like – people are going to see that you’re, frankly, lying. If “He who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” got garbled sometime between 30 AD and 60 AD, and Christ really didn’t say or mean it, what about “blessed are the poor” or “turn the other cheek” or that bit about my neighbor maybe being a stinking Samaritan? While we’re at it, all men are brothers in Christ seems a bit of a stretch, and that whole eye of the needle thing is clearly just a gloss by the envious lazy no-accounts. No tape recorder, see?

So, those Catholics disputing the Magisterium’s authority: Give us your method, its limits, and explain how you are consistently applying it to the teaching you love as well as those you don’t.  Otherwise, I call brood of vipers, point to the millstones, and otherwise attempt to shame your weak, pitiful and lying behinds.

Beauty, or Nothing to Talk About

A philosophical thread on beauty expressed in 140 characters or fewer broke out. (Twitter: the thing next up to depart from my life, following computer games, the NBA, and Facebook. Soon, and very soon.) The worthy and serious interlocutors (interTweetitors?) were batting around definitions of good and beauty; Mark Neimeier threw up a post on it.

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Beautiful. Some of the greatest craftsmanship in history, too.

To sum up my position, which (I certainly hope) would be recognized as a callow amateur’s take of Aristotle’s and Thomas’s positions: The natural world is beautiful in its being (ontologically beautiful); when we see beauty, we are getting a glimpse of reality. Now, each of us sees this beauty according to our talents and skills – while all of us experience beauty as a part of our human nature, each of us also has gifts and shortcomings which affect our ability to experience the beauty all around us. I, for example, sometimes get a physical thrill from a beautiful chair or even a beautiful tool, because I understand them in a way most people have no reason to understand them. But ballet is to me beautiful in a way I don’t really understand, and I’m sure I’m missing some or most of what is truly beautiful about it. Further, someone who is seriously damaged morally and esthetically (and we all are damaged to some extent) may hate some beauty and find some ugliness attractive (and mislabel that attractiveness as beauty). This is no different from being physically crippled or having brain damage – that I can’t walk or speak due to such damage doesn’t make walking or speaking any less objectively real.

But enough – books have been written. Here I want to point out something from one of the very earliest posts on this blog: the argument that beauty is subjective – that it exists only ‘in the eye of the beholder’ is a self-defeating argument. What do we talk about? We just walk around stating what we do and do not like or find beautiful? To try to show someone else what it is we find beautiful in this or that is to tacitly admit that there’s something beyond my opinion which makes a thing beautiful. If it’s all subjective, then there’s nothing to talk about, and no point in talking.

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Not so much. But somebody paid $141M for it. Probably likes pink SciFi, too.

On a more subtle level, the true, the beautiful and the good are not separable in practice – we can, if we want, talk about them separately, as aspects of a thing, but you can’t have one without the other two in any existing thing. Insofar as a thing exists, it is good and beautiful; any ugliness or badness exists only as a falling short of the intrinsic beauty and goodness of the things. Thus, traditionally, Satan has been viewed as the greatest of Angels – his evil lies in how far he has fallen short of his nature. But his existence, in itself, is good, beautiful and true.

Finally, nature, in the philosophical sense, admits of degrees of goodness and beauty. A rock or a plant is natural, but far less natural, and therefore far less beautiful and good, than a humans being. People possess the rock’s nature as a physical object, and possess the plants nature as a living thing. We even possess animal nature, where we can see and move around. But we can also know things in a way no rock, plant, or animal can, and act on that knowledge in a way only angels (that we know of) can. Each of the ‘natures’ man has – mineral, vegetable, animal, human – have aspects of of the good and the beautiful  peculiar to them. Man, as the most natural thing in the Universe, has all those aspects.

We are most beautiful and good when we freely act out of faith, hope and love.

Bringing it back around to SFF, a book or story will be good and beautiful insofar as and to the degree it is true to life. It’s possible to write a good and beautiful story with no real moral content – a rollicking yarn, fun, entertaining. I can’t think of any, off hand – every story that is any good I’ve ever read has somebody somewhere facing a moral dilemma of some sort. In comedy (as classically understood) the good guys win in some manner; in tragedy, they lose. What makes it tragic are human failings that led to people not acting selflessly and bravely. (Much of Mike Flynn’s stuff is a good example of modern SFF tragedy.)

Much more beautiful would be a fun, rollicking story where the hero acts heroically, heroically meaning, for the last couple millennia, virtuously – selflessly, bravely, for a loved one or an ideal.

I think we kid ourselves if we think we’re going to write good stories that are morally neutral, just fun and adventurous. If Frodo doesn’t risk death so that the Ring might end up in the Cracks of Doom, if Luke doesn’t risk all to save his father and the Rebellion, heck, if Corbin Dallas doesn’t tell Lelu he loves her and thus saves the world – well, it’s just not much of a story. Or if we’re not shedding a tear when the character’s failings lead to inevitable tragedy.

Brownson’s American Republic: Last Thoughts (for now)

As mentioned in the last post, over the last 20% or so of The American Republic, Orestes Brownson changes from description and apologetics to prophecy. He moves from fleshing out and defending a position he attributes to Lincoln, that the United States as a nation precedes the Constitution and even the Declaration, to describing what he sees as the all but inevitable spiritual and political destiny of America.

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Brownson: Proof one does not need to be a Marxist to have a righteous beard. 

Brownson has great faith in Providence. He sees nations not as glorified tribes run by flawed and feeble men, but as acts of loving Creator, meant for some higher goal. The United States, as brought into focus and matured by the Civil War, are Providentially destined to absorb into their beneficent arms all the remaining states in the Western Hemisphere, not by conquest, but by nations one after the other coming to realize the mutual benefits of Union.

There was no statesmanship in proclaiming the “Monroe doctrine,” for the statesman keeps always, as far as possible, his government free to act according to the exigencies of the case when it comes up, unembarrassed by previous declarations of principles. Yet the doctrine only expresses the destiny of the American people, and which nothing but their own fault can prevent them from realizing in its own good time. Napoleon will not succeed in his Mexican policy, and Mexico will add some fifteen or twenty new States to the American Union as soon as it is clearly for the interests of all parties that it should be done, and it can be done by mutual consent, without war or violence. The Union will fight to maintain the integrity of her domain and the supremacy of her laws within it, but she can never, consistently with her principles or her interests, enter upon a career of war and conquest. Her system is violated, endangered, not extended, by subjugating her neighbors, for subjugation and liberty go not together. Annexation, when it takes place, must be on terms of perfect equality and by the free act of the state annexed. The Union can admit of no inequality of rights and franchises between the States of which it is composed. The Canadian Provinces and the Mexican and Central American States, when annexed, must be as free as the original States of the Union, sharing alike in the power and the protection of the Republic—alike in its authority, its freedom, its grandeur, and its glory, as one free, independent, self-governing people. They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.

“They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.” This is the key feature, the one that did not survive 3 years after the Civil War: that states would retain all rights and powers to manage themselves after a fashion suitable to the local customs and traditions and the nature of the people therein, while only those rights and powers proper by nature to the Union would be surrendered. Mexico, to stick with Brownson’s example above, was destined to see the harmony and prosperity and benevolence of the U.S., note their lack of interest in, indeed, abhorrence of the very idea of imposing non-Mexican government on them in regards to all local matters. Defence, interstate commerce, settling disputes between states – those powers would be mutually shared and exercised through the federal government. The Mexicans would gain much, and lose nothing.

Except that the ink was not yet dry on this book when the spectacle of the North forcing passage of the 14th Amendment on the Southern states as a condition for reentering the Union showed the world exactly how wrong Brownson was. This, on the heels of a bloody war (of conquest, it would look like from the outside and the South), would certainly cause Mexico or anybody else to have serious doubts about the harmlessness of intentions of America. The Civil War preserved the Union, or at least something visually similar to the Union, and freed the slaves, but it did not advertise peace-loving American benevolence.

Brownson assumed the Reconstruction would be swift, fair and relatively painless, and lead to an economic boom. Brothers welcoming prodigal brothers home. He didn’t quite get that one right, either.

I almost think I hear a man horrified, as so many were, by the Civil War, trying to make sense out of it by appeals to destiny and Providence. Rather than the death of the very American ideals he so fervently hoped to see realized, he sees a renewal, a Phoenix rising. All the blood and wealth Lincoln describes as spilt and dissipated in Divine Retribution over slavery in his Second Inaugural Address Brownson believes rather paves the way to a glorious future.

A contemporary critic accused Brownson of arguing vehemently for ideas he wished he, himself, could believe in. I’m wondering if that critic didn’t have a point. Brownson ends the American Republic:

But the American people need not trouble themselves about their exterior expansion. That will come of itself as fast as desirable. Let them devote their attention to their internal destiny, to the realization of their mission within, and they will gradually see the Whole continent coming under their system, forming one grand nation, a really catholic nation, great, glorious, and free.

Micro-Review & Brownson Reading Update

From the ridiculous to the sublime:

1. Read, as in listened to, the audiobook of, The Adventures of  Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, a Larry Correia joint, read by an enthusiastic and amused Adam Baldwin – yes, that Adam Baldwin. (Audio of this was offered free about a year ago, so I took it. Not really an audio guy myself. Mr. Baldwin’s fine work made it all special.)

Image result for The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance AgentHilarious. Correia’s pacing is so fast and humor so thick that you never get bored even when, as I suspect is case for me, a lot of cultural/gamer/pop references are flying right over my head.

The conceit: an insurance agent, possibly the dullest, least inspiring white-collar job in this iteration of the multiverse, might be, through dogged dedication to superior customer service, a mech-driving, attack-nanobot-wielding, cyborg-kung-fu-master superhero. In a Men’s Wearhouse suit. Tom Stranger, of Stranger and Stranger Interdimensional Insurance, lives for positive customer satisfaction survey responses, and is willing to brave any horror and almost certain death to get them. He gets stuck with possibly the lamest intern in history, a slacker with a gender studies degree, by what appears to be an administrative oversight. Tom tries, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to keep Jimmy the Intern alive while providing superior customer service to his clients in various dimensions as they suffer attacks by the likes of zombie hordes and flying purple people eaters, all while Tom’s arch-nemesis, Jeff Conundrum, tries to ruin the party.

How epic is this? Chuck Norris shows up and kicks an evil alien’s head so hard he turns him inside out. Yikes.

If you need a quick, fun diversion from this vale of tears, highly recommended.

2. My regular readers, who by now may number well into the double digits, like maybe 12 or even  13, may recall my partial reviews of Orestes Brownson’s The American Republic, some of which can be found here and here. What happened is that the book got weird, I had to think about it, shiny objects intruded into my field of visions, and, well, here we are.

Over the last 20-25% of the book, Brownson lays out his vision of America’s future. In retrospect, Brownson’s views seem either wildly optimistic to the verge of delusional, or, from another political perspective, dangerously theistic.

Brownson was an adult convert to Catholicism. He was raised among kindly Calvinists, but found their beliefs too dark and dreadful, even if the rural Presbyterians held them were personally kind. Before he was 20, he’d parted ways with the church of his childhood, and proceeded to ping-pong around between various flavors of Unitarianism and even quasi-atheistic theism (if that makes sense – and it sort of does). After a couple decades of this wandering in the desert, he comes to the conclusion that only a church that ‘teaches with authority, and not like the scribes’ could be the true Church.

His almost pugnacious enthusiasm for theological disputes, honed as an editor and writer for various Unitarian-leaning publications, never left him – his brand of apologetics is often bracing, especially in these be-nice-so-you-don’t-offend times. I can’t imagine it was much less so even in the mid-1800’s.

Brownson believes that the Civil War has settled some issues about what, exactly, the United States are. Writing immediately upon the conclusion of the Civil War and prior to passage of the 14th Amendment, Brownson never fails to refer to the United States as a plural, as was always done by earlier writers, a practice that soon passed out of useage after the Civil War. That War, and the 14th and subsequent Amendments,  impressed upon the minds of all the primacy of the Nation as a whole over the States as ever more subservient parts.

Brownson’s arguments in the American Republic support this view to a large extent. He argues that nations are formed naturally when a people in a territory recognize their common destiny and begin to act together. This commonality is usually but not always seen in language, religion and culture, but always includes a territory. Thus, the Swiss could be a single natural nation, while English-speaking Anglicans in South Africa, England and the US could not.

Therefore, Brownson argues that the United States were already a single nation when the Constitution was ratified – they must have been, since there must already be a nation to create a constitution for it. The people already recognized their common fate, and acted to best preserve and promote their common interests and protect the Republic which that common wealth brought into being. He writes at some length disputing the notion that a document could bring a nation into being, and cites the futility of such efforts throughout history. If a natural nation does not already exist, efforts to create one by fiat through a written constitution will always fail. (An Empire is another beast altogether.)

Brownson, writing in that thin slice of time right after the war and before the full intent and misery of the revenge of the North upon the South became obvious, could still believe that the States were being preserved more or less intact, that the war had been, as Lincoln always said, about preserving the Union. The states were still, in his view, sovereign, each within its proper realm, only surrendering to the United States those specific powers which by nature devolved to it. He thoroughly believed that there was and could not be a conflict between the federal and state powers, now that the War Between the States had so dearly and emphatically made them clear.

The state of affairs, whereby the greatest common wealth held by the Commonwealth that is the Nation that wrote the Constitution, are the recognition of the divine origins of Man’s rights and duties, and of the state’s existence to foster the growth and fruition of that divine order and as the expression of the divine fruitfulness. After the manner of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, in the secular realm, political life flows from the state and is ordered to it. Here he stands Fichte on his head: the sovereignty flows from the People to the State, which is informed and acts by virtue of the virtue of the People, thereby reinforcing their sovereignty and virtue.

Since the Nation is a natural thing, an outpouring and maturation of human nature, then, as human nature is a divine creation, so, too, is the Nation, at least potentially.  Here is where Brownson’s optimism is given full reign. Since the Catholic Church is the guardian and source of truth – of natural law, in this case – then a properly constituted natural nation must needs reflect and manifest the teaching of the Church. Brownson believes that, now that the war had forced America out of its long adolescence into mature statehood, we as a nation would more and more adopt the teachings of the Church on human nature, rights and duties both individual and societal, and, in short, convert. Any other route would take the nation further from reality, creating friction and issues that would soon be corrected – the great forward momentum of the now-mature American Republic would see to it.

He answers the Church and State issues in the same way he answers the Federal and State questions: there will be no conflict because the role of each is clear. In this, he echoes Dante, who yearned for a world in which the church and the state had separate, clear roles and stayed out of each other’s way. All the problems of the past were due to less perfect realizations of the idea of a Nation, leading to corruption of both church and state. America was poised to become Catholic and avoid all church and state problems as it realized the small ‘c’ catholic roots of all its founding principles, and moved toward the large ‘C’ Catholic Church as a result.

Finally, for now, in the midst of all this optimism and enthusiasm, Brownson despairs of Europe and the rest of Christendom. He notes that all contemporary Catholic states have got the Church on a short leash, and hate it even when they cannot -yet- do without it. Only in America, as a properly constituted Republic, would the Church be free to be itself. By being itself, it would convert the nation.

Brownson died in 1876, 11 years after writing the American Republic. I wonder if he recognized how far by then the nation had departed from the path he laid out for it, and where its true path would lead.

Just wow. I’m planning to retire in about 7.5 years – maybe then I can do the proper chapter by chapter review of this fascinating book.

 

 

The Uffizi and What Makes Western Civilization Special.

This weekend, with any luck, younger daughter will get to visit the Uffizi Gallery. She is on a semester in Rome trip from Thomas More College, and this weekend is going to Florence, her one shot to visit, since all other weekends are booked through the end of the semester. (The poor dear will have to make do with visits to Assisi, Prague,  and other magnificent yet lesser beauties before heading off to Paris, Lourdes, Ireland and England before wending homeward. Kids these days.)

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Taken most likely from atop Giotto’s bell tower, looking west over the Baptistry.

She only has a day or two, which is roughly 6 months, 5 years or a lifetime too little to have spent in Florence, depending on how you want to figure it. I’ve gotten to spend roughly 6 weeks of my life in Italy, 2 weeks in Florence – which is pretty crazy for a sheet metal guy’s son from Whittier. I’m not complaining. Those 6 weeks blew my mind and impressed upon me that 6 weeks is hardly enough, laughably so.

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Facing the Uffizi from the Piazza della Signoria, a five-minute walk from the Baptistry in the picture above.

The Italians, when they weren’t too tied up scheming or actively killing each other, took time out to produce about 1/2 of the truly great art mankind has ever produced, a vastly disproportionate share of which lives in Florence. The last Medici Grand Duke, a complete degenerate but semi-decent Grand Duke named Gian Gastone de’ Medici, managed to separate out the artwork from the rest of the wealth of Florence before he died, and leave it to his sister, Anna Maria Luisa. For the previous 300 years, the Medici family made no distinction between the wealth of Florence and their personal family fortune – there was little practical difference. But once it became clear to Gianni that he was the end of the Medici line as far as Grand Dukes went (the Great Powers of the time weren’t interested in letting his sister Anna Maria rule as Grand Duchess, and there were no male potential heirs)  he very wisely decided that the art the family had collected over the centuries should be considered the family’s, left to his sister – and left in Florence. I don’t how likely it was that Francis of Lorraine – Gianni’s successor as Grand Duke – would have hauled off the good stuff to his palaces as Holy Roman Emperor, but I’d guess that over the years stuff would get reallocated by Frank or his successors after the manner of people’s stuff always and everywhere. Anna Maria left the collection to the city of Florence, with the restriction that it stay there.

Thus, thanks to Gianni and his sister Anna Maria, the greatest collection of great art in the world – The Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and other bits and pieces elsewhere in Florence – stayed put in Florence, where we can see and enjoy it to this day. (Although it would have been small loss if Frank had grabbed a bunch of Sustermans on his way out of Dodge. Just saying.)

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Botticelli, La primavera, 1482. This photo makes the painting look perhaps saccharine and stiff; in person, it is jaw-dropping beautiful. No reproduction I’ve ever seen remotely does it justice.

It was years ago that that I heard it stated as a truism that 1/2 of all the great art that exists exists in Italy. I have no reason to doubt it. Here is a thought experiment: Take any great work of art from anywhere outside of Italy. Then set aside a comparable masterpiece from Italy. Repeat this process until you’ve exhausted one supply or the other. Well? Do you think you’d run out of Italian masterpieces well before the ‘all other’ masterpieces? Seems unlikely to me.

To the title of this little brain dump: How does this thought experiment work if you run it Western Art versus All Other? I can admire the vigor of a polynesian mask or the intricacies of a Persian rug as much as anyone, but neither compares to the beauty and sophistication of even fairly minor works of Western Art. (Western Art for our purposes here excludes the vast bulk of post-Bouguereau works. Once the conscious decision to be both stupid and proud of it took over the art world, Western Art effectively ended except for the occasional throwback. There are signs of life, however. Let us hope.)

Why is this so? Certainly, the Italians and Christendom in general were no more wealthy and peaceful nor technically accomplished nor blessed with resources nor victorious in war than, say, the Chinese or Turks, for all but at most a couple of centuries over the last 2,000 years. During much of that time, from 634 to 1492, Christendom was for the most part shrinking, getting conquered and displaced by Islam across all of north Africa, all the Levant and Turkey, and most of the former Yugoslavia and some of adjoining Slavic lands. If you are looking to military might, it was a one-way street from East to West – until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571! Then it was a draw for a few centuries. Then, finally, in the 19th century, Western military might was generally better than that of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire didn’t fall until 1917.

A huge portion of the greatest Italian art comes from periods of great internal and external unrest, the 13th to 16th centuries (and, frankly, unrest in the form of wars and invasions was the order of the day during almost all of its post-Roman Empire history from 410 – the Visigoth sacking of Rome – until the last 70 years). Contra what Jared Diamond may think, the comparative glory of Italian and Western art is not the result of Guns, Germs and Steel. For comparatively little of its history has the West had the best military, the healthiest people or the best technology. On the tech side, and subsequently on the military and health side, things began to change in the early Middle Ages, but didn’t become decisive for many centuries. Only in the last 150 to 200 years would it have not been foolish to bet on the West in a war with anyone else based on technology alone.

I suggest that there is one area where the West did far outstrip the rest of the world over the last 2 millennia (except, in an ironic reversal, the last 2-3 centuries): Philosophy. We thought about things better, deeper and with more understanding than anywhere else in the world. Science, it may be said, is the ghost of medieval philosophy animating a shell of math and gadgets. But it’s the persistent conviction that the world is understandable and that we are capable of understanding it that has driven technological and scientific advances.

But much more than that, the Christian-infused Aristotelianism that is the Perennial Philosophy of the west provides both motivation and inspiration for Great Art. The explosion of Great Art in the west – and its subsequent recent decline – is the result of how well we understand, accept and act on that philosophy.

A Poverty of Relationships

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“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

  • Matthew 25: 37-39

Two books reviewed here, both highly recommended, are made up of stories about human relationships that are becoming increasingly uncommon or threatened. In my review of Awake in the Night Lands, by John C. Wright, I said:

In the first story, we are presented with the true love of friends; in the second, the true love of brother and sister, in the third, the true love of father and son. In this fourth story, we get, finally, to the true love of man and wife. Using the horrors of the Night Land, and the honor and humanity of the people of the Last Redoubt, Wright explores love – and everything that can go wrong with it, even among those who love truly.

At last, he touches, like Dante in the last cantos of the Paradiso, upon the love of God for Man.

In a similar way, in Captive Dreams, reviewed briefly here (I want to do a more detailed review, but this may have to do), Mike Flynn builds his first story, Melodies of the Heart, around a doctor’s (eventual) love for an old lady, parents’s love of their dying child and the child’s love for them, a caregiver’s love for that same child, and the old lady’s memories of all the loves gone by in her long life. Each successive story has, at its core, human relationships: The title story, Captive Dreams, hinges on difficult mother-child relationships across three generations;  Hopeful Monsters investigates another, different but not so different mother-child relationship; Places Where the Roads Don’t Go is about a difficult lifelong friendship; Remember’d Kisses explores a widow’s devastation at the loss of his wife; and finally Buried Hopes is about a crew member’s love of crew, captain and home. (1)

Wright and Flynn write very different stories in very different styles – Wright is shooting for myth-making of epic proportions, and so his heroes, heroines and villains are much more heroic or villainous than mundane life generally allows, while Flynn’s characters are painfully flawed and realistic. Yet I was struck by how much both sets of stories are built around relationships that were once much more common and generally deeper than they are now.

In Captive Dreams, all the stories are set in a single neighborhood. From what he’s written on his blog, we know that Flynn grew up in a classic neighborhood, where everybody knew everybody else on the block (and were generally related to each other), which, in turn, is a reflection of the sort of village life 90% of people would have grown up in up until the last century or so.

Such neighborhoods these days seem to be unusual. I’ve lived in the same house for 21 years, and I know well exactly 2 of my neighbors, and even know the names of only 2 more. More than one house away might as well be in the next state. I wish this were just a symptom of modern California suburbia, but it seems to be a much more general phenomenon. The neighborhood Flynn describes in Captive Dreams seems to be much more like mine than the one Flynn grew up in.

So, in the background against which all the flawed relationships of all the perfectly human and therefore damaged characters are set, we already see a larger social effect of this damage. With few exceptions, the characters in the stories do not turn to their neighbors for comfort, support, or advice. In what sort of world are the people you live with in the most direct geographical sense not your tribe or clan or, really, neighbors? Who fills that cultural role in your life? Sadly, the answer is clear, both in the stories and in real life: no one, or the first snake oil salesman that comes along. (2)

Man was not meant to be alone.

Wright’s stories take an opposite approach, in a way: his relationships – his friendships, families and marriages are, if anything, too strong, too good for the world. Instead of the flaws of a tragically tiny soul which lead a woman to have her own child euthanized because he is not likely to make her happy as in Flynn’s stories, we have men and women willing to risk death and worse than death just for a chance to redeem a relationship. The flaws governing (if that’s the right word) the characters in Flynn’s stories seem small, but are life and death; the flaws in Wright’s characters are epic, but boil down to the utterly personal love of son for father or brother for sister.

The scripture quotation with which I began is that list of things by which, we are told, we shall be judged worthy of everlasting life. Note that only the first three are, strictly, the providing of material things to those who need them. food, drink and clothing. The last three are much, much harder, at least these days: establishing a relationship. We need to welcome the stranger, and comfort the sick and imprisoned.

Human life is built – I almost wrote used to be built – on natural human relationships. And everybody knew it. Government and society and culture all, in a way, were understood to flow from these relationships and to aim toward them. Those relationships would have stood as water to a fish: we hardly notice it, because that’s where we live our lives.

An extended family and its family friends would have contained all the relationships upon which human life rests and toward the realization of which it moves. Everyone except the tragically deprived would know first or second hand what being a son, brother and father or daughter, sister and mother looked like. Spinster aunts and unmarried uncles would not be viewed as flawed, necessarily – no more than anyone else, at least. Friendships would be cultivated and treasured.

These relationships were carried on for a lifetime, and sometimes longer! Just look at the letters that have come down to us, exchanged by Abigail and John Adams, or Paul and his companions, or even soldier in the field with their loved ones back home. These give evidence, if any is needed, that the state of these basic human relationships has declined over time. Talking with old folks (3) often gets back to these relationships – they are what lasts. In Flynn’s Melodies of the Heart,  part of the tragedy is that this old lady has cut herself off not only from relationships she might have now, but from the ones she really had in the past.

Chesterton observes the insane reversal of modern life: we seem to insist these days that freedom is somehow a public right to be guaranteed by the state (and goodness,  would Chesterton’s jaw drop to see how that’s played out over the last 75 years since he wrote) instead of freedom being something we exercise in our private lives. We want government at best to help us resist efforts to take that quiet enjoyment away from us, and at worst to at least stay out of our lives itself. Because we are human and therefore social, our freedom is best, perhaps only, expressed within our circle of family and friends. I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating:

If the Duchess does want to play leap frog, she must not start suddenly leaping in the manner of a frog across the ballroom of the Babylon Hotel, when it is crowded with the fifty best couples professionally practising the very latest dance, for the instruction of society. The Duchess will find it easier to practise leap frog to the admiration of her intimate friends in the old oak-panelled hall of Fitzdragon Castle. If the Dean must stand on his head, he will do it with more ease and grace in the calm atmosphere of the Deanery than by attempting to interrupt the programme of some social entertainment already organised for philanthropic purposes.

But the hospitality of a house will always be different from the hospitality of a hotel. And it will be different in being more individual, more independent, more interesting than the hospitality of a hotel. It is perfectly right that the young Browns and the young Robinsons should meet and mix and dance and make asses of themselves, according to the design of their Creator. But there will always be some difference between the Browns entertaining the Robinsons and the Robinsons entertaining the Browns. And it will be a difference to the advantage of variety, of personality, of the potentialities of the mind of man; or, in other words, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Chesterton,  THE DRIFT FROM DOMESTICITY, The Thing

We need these relationships to not only show us how to welcome the stranger, but to give us something to welcome the stranger into. We need to visit the sick and imprisoned from someplace. If we, together with the sick and the imprisoned, understand our chief relationship to be with the state, we all already share that place – I may have a different role from the sick and imprisoned, but we are already part of the one family the state has longed to pretend to become. From what, to use modern semi-gibberish, have the sick man or imprisoned criminal, been alienated from? If we all are already part of one big state family, playing our different parts, what cause do I have to visit?

Instead, if the state is, as it historically has often been, a creature of families for families, that those already in relationships with their loved ones and neighbors set up with them to protect and foster those relationships, then a sick or imprisoned person has something to go back to, some place to be visited from. I’ve read over the years about the problems of recidivism in released prisoners, how those who do not have loved ones to go back to are almost certain to end up back in prison very shortly. How could it be otherwise? The prison is, or might as well be, their family, if they have no other. Similarly, it is not just cost control that motivates hospitals to get people out and back home – people really do heal better when among their loved ones.

So, as a primarily spiritual effort with inevitable Incarnational effects in the social world, we – meaning me, first of all, I’m not pretending I’ve gotten even an inch down this path so far – have got to cultivate family, support relationships, build friendships, support each other, provide that place where true freedom can be expressed. The path we are on, and have been on for 200 years, is to think that rights primarily mean public rights, like voting or assembly. But those are clearly secondary – we demand those rights for the sake of other, more important and human rights – the right to be ourselves with those we love.

Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and clothing the naked are things the state can do, however well or badly. In this day, those needs can be easily addressed – we are not likely to go hungry or naked ourselves if we give to someone in need. But the simple mechanical provision of these goods to those who need them is not enough to gain eternal life – that would be too easy. Instead, we need to do the personal part, loving our neighbor (and our enemy – as Chesterton said, they are usually the same people), creating and nurturing relationships. We must love the unloveable.

One last thought: our efforts in this direction will almost certainly be a disaster. So? As Mother Teresa put it: we are called to be faithful, not successful.

  1. In the best Sci Fi tradition, in Captive Dreams the technological advances are examined from the perspective of how they affect human relationships. That’s what makes stories as different as Canticle for Leibowitz and Starship Troopers, for example, so memorable – not the cool tech, but how people deal with it. And why otherwise great stories such as The Neuromancer are not quite as good.
  2. The reader is of course free to speculate on political snake oil salesmen, and the substitution of politics and political identity for culture and clan. I’m taking the day off from that.
  3. Defined as 75+ to handily exclude me