Saturday, January 28, 2017

Ayako Sono, Watcher from the Shore


Opening Passage:

Ten years had passed since Sadaharu Nobeji had found a bit of land where he could build his obstetrics and gynecology clinic. The place was as close as he could get to the ocean. He'd been born where the scent of the Pacific Ocean was always in the wind, even though one could not actually see the water. As though he had the instincts of some amphibious creature, when it came to build his own home he sought a place where he could hear the sound of the sea.

Summary: In fact, Sadaharu cannot get such a place; people do not go to see obstetricians and gynecologists in remote places, so he settles for some land high enough that he can just see the ocean in the distance. It is likely, though, that this given-up hope is a factor in Sadaharu's regular visits to his old friend, Yoko Kakei, who does live in precisely such a place. It is through Yoko, who is Catholic, that he meets Father Munechika, a priest, who becomes a common friend.

Sadaharu's clinic sees a continual and routine stream of the ordinary things. There are plenty of births, check-ups, and health emergencies. He also does quite a few abortions; as it is Japan in the mid-twentieth century, they too are rather routine. He tries to do well by his patients, but he also tries to remain detached and clinical, and often does not even remember his patients' faces. However, a series of events lead him to be more reflective about what he is doing. He is a person of fairly stable temperament and his personal philosophy is to take everything a bit lightly, so there is not a great deal of drama about it, but it does raise a great many questions for him. The most significant of these, although not the only one, is when he happens to run into a woman who had come to him for an early abortion and who had discovered that it had failed. She was still pregnant, and has decided to keep the baby. Failed abortions occasionally happen, particularly with the technology of the day when doing such an early-term abortion, and certain medical conditions can increase the chances -- Sadaharu thinks that in this case it was bicornuate uterus, a condition in which a woman's is forked, thus misleading him into thinking that the uterus had been emptied. Other cases, of unwanted children and deformed babies and yet other difficult cases, will intensify the reflection. Sadaharu will not change his views or ways, but one can hardly deal with matters of life and death in the context of birth and not come face to face with questions about the value of human life and the inconsistencies in practice with which which we express, and fail to express, that value. If you actually deal with the actual problems of actual people, with all their difficult decisions, with all their follies and worries, you find yourself in messes. It is not avoidable.

The Japanese title for the work, The Dirty Hand of God, refers to a painting that Sadaharu that Father Munechika shows him not long after Sadaharu learns about his failed operation and discusses it with the priest. Sadaharu had remarked that, while in the priest's view of things his bringing life into the world made him an instrument of God, he is a rather dirty instrument. It is a picture of Jesus as a carpenter in Nazareth, repairing a broken cart amidst all the mess of a real carpenter in the middle of a job. It is a somewhat simple painting, like one might find in a children's book, but what strikes Sadaharu most, and pleases him most, about the painting is that Jesus' hands are dirty. When Sadaharu points it out, Father Munechika remarks (p. 148), "But even the hand of God is dirty when He is at work. If His hands are not dirty, then He is not actually working."

The English title for the work, Watcher from the Shore, connects to another image threading through the work. He happens to get into a discussion with Yoko and Father Munechika about the Flood, and reads some of the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Given his lifelong love of the sea, it is perhaps not surprising that he likes the story; he thinks of himself as a sort of Utnapishtim. One of the things that puzzles him, however, about both the story of Noah and the story of Utnapishtim is that there is no indication of people trying to get onto the ark. Noah has nothing but his family, Unapishtim's ark includes the families of the craftsmen as well, but there is no fight and chaos as people fight to get onto the ark. It is puzzling; it should be there.

The irony, though, is that, later in the work, when Sadaharu thinks of his own situation in terms of the ark, while he does imagine people struggling to get on, he does not imagine himself as one of them. Sadaharu is one of the people not on the ark. Yoko and Father Munechkin, and the little deformed babies dying after two days in the world, and his patients, and others, but Sadaharu imagines himself outside the ark, on the shore, just watching the ship depart. Sadaharu has no answers for the moral difficulties he faces through his work. He does not believe in any overarching standard; he just tries to help as he can, and is well aware that this does not solve the problems into which it gets him. He does not, however, have any desire to believe, or any thirst for salvation. He finds the viewpoint of Yoko and Father Munechika interesting, and admires the good it leads them to do, but it is not his own. When the ship departs, he will not struggle to get on board but simply stand there as the wind beats around him, watching from the shore.

Favorite Passage:

He hung up the phone and wished this was a case he could be spared from dealing with. If examination of the amniotic fluid was done properly, one could tell beforehand whether there was a chromosome or metabolic abnormality in the fetus. And if the shoot was bad, it could be plucked early. In the old days, out of natural selection, people were born indiscriminately, mysteriously, but now parents and doctor could participate in the child's right to life. Strangely enough, even pacifists who agonized over the deaths of common people and prime ministers who spoke of the sacredness of human life whenever there was a hijacking--all these humanistic voices were silent regarding this kind of situation. It came down to a conspiracy of silence, a kind of passive participation in the idea that somehow there exists a mechanism of selection that ought to eliminate persons who are not well made.

Sadaharu himself was one of those people. But more precisely, in his mind he found himself saying to people in the same position as his: Can't we at least admit it to ourselves when we kill someone? (pp. 308-309)

Recommendation: Recommended.

Ayako Sono, Watcher from the Shore, Putzar, tr. Kodansha International (New York: 1990).

Angelic Doctor

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church.

From his commentary on the book of Romans (c.8 l.6 §696), on the claim that all things work together unto good for the saints:

To realize this we should consider that whatever happens in the world, even if it be evil, accrues to the good of the universe; because, as Augustine says in Enchiridion: God is so good that he would permit no evil, unless he were powerful enough to draw some good out of any evil.

However, the evil does not always accrue to the good of that in which it is. Thus, the death of one animal accrues to the good of the universe, inasmuch as by the destruction of one thing something else begins to be, although it does not accrue to the good of that which ceases to be; because the good of the universe is willed by God according to itself and to this good all the parts of the universe are ordained.

The same seems to apply to the relationship of the noblest parts to the other parts, because the evil affecting the other part is ordained to the good of the noblest parts. but whatever happens to the noblest parts is ordained only to their good, because his care for them is for their sake, whereas his care for the others is for the sake of the noblest: as a physician allows a malady in the foot that he might cure the head.

But the most excellent parts of the universe are God's saints, to each of whom applies what is said in Matthew: he will set him over all his goods (Matt 25:23). Therefore, whatever happens to them or to other things, it all accrues to the benefit of the former. This verifies the statement in Proverbs: the fool will be servant to the wise (Prov 11:20), namely, because even the evil of sinners accrues to the good of the just. Hence, God is said to exercise a special care over the just: the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous (Ps 34:15), inasmuch as he takes care fo them in such a way as to permit no evil to affect them without converting it to their good.

This is obvious in regard to the penal evils which they suffer; hence it says in the Gloss that in their weakness humility is exercised, in affliction patience, in contradictions wisdom, and in hatred good will. Hence it says in 1 Peter: if you suffer for justice's sake, you will be blessed (1 Pet 3:14).
[Saint Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, Larcher, OP, tr., Mortensen and Alarcón, eds. The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine (Lander, WY: 2012): 231-232.]

Friday, January 27, 2017

Moral Posturing and Temptation

Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion--this is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms.

Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil--no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism: What's real is what is right there in front of us--power and bread. By comparison, the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs.
[Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Ignatius Press (San Francisco: 2007), 28-29.]

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Let Placid Slumbers Sooth Each Weary Mind

An Hymn to the Evening
by Phillis Wheatley

Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main
The peals of thunder shook the heav'nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From zephyrs wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats
Through all the heav'ns what beauteous dyes are spread,
But the west glories in the deepest red;
So may our breasts with ev'ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!

Filled with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav'nly, more refin'd,
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night's leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Evening Note for Wednesday, January 25

Thought for the Evening

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle. We actually have two stories of the event in the Acts of the Apostles, one as given by the narrator in Chapter 9, and the other as given by Paul himself in Chapter 22. This doubling is surely intentional, and structures the work. Before the Ascension, Jesus tells the disciples, "you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and through Judaea, in Samaria, yes, and to the ends of the earth" (1:8). After Pentecost, Peter and the other apostles begin to preach to the people of Jerusalem and Judea (2:14). The community flourishes, but begin to come into conflict with the Judean religious authorities. This culminates first in the conflict between the apostles and the Sanhedrin (5:17ff.), a near catastrophe that is defused by Rabban Gamaliel (5:34ff), "who was held in esteem by all the people", and then in the conflict between Stephen and the same (6:7ff) and thus Stephen's martyrdom (7:54ff). The reason for the double conflict, I think, is that the former brings the Judean phase of the Christian expansion to its high point. But the martyrdom of Stephen marks a new beginning. At the tail end of the tale of Stephen we get a single line: "Saul was one of those who gave their voices for his murder" (7:59). One line. We move on to discuss Philip, an associate of Stephen, and the Samarian phase of the expansion of the Church, which is very briefly covered, and which ends with Philip and the Ethiopian (8:25ff). Then suddenly (9:1) we are back to Saul, who, we learn, has through this entire period been trying to destroy the Church. Saul converts on the road to Damascus, and then we have the Vision of Peter (10:1ff). These three events -- Philip and the Ethiopian, the Conversion of Paul, and the Vision of Peter -- give us an account of the form that the expansion to the ends of the earth will take. (Namely, it will continue to spread among Jewish communities dispersed through the nations, as was the case with Ethiopia, and Paul, after Peter's vision begins the conversion of the Gentiles, will continue giving force and form to both.)

Persecutions intensify, but Paul and his companions preach ever more widely throughout the Empire over the course of several missionary journeys. After various adventures, Paul finally returns to Jerusalem, knowing (21:13) that it will mean his imprisonment and death. He is imprisoned, and then we get the second iteration of the story of his conversion, as Paul speaks to the people after his arrest. From this point on, as the Romans discover that Paul is a Roman citizen, we move to Rome -- the gateway, one might say, to the ends of the earth -- and the works ends with Paul in Rome for two years preaching the Gospel. The two conversion narratives, then, mark two significant stages in the expansion to the nations -- in a continuing stage of which, of course, we still find ourselves.

Notably, too, the conversion of Paul is as it were a template for how much of the actual spread of the Church will go: the peoples who give their voices for the murder of the saints will find themselves asked the question, "Why are you persecuting Me?" And then they too will carry the faith to the world.

Gamaliel plays an interesting role in all of this. Rabban Gamaliel I was, from what we can tell, perhaps the greatest rabbi of his day; in saying he was well respected the book of Acts is engaging in a bit of quiet understatement. He was the grandson of the great Hillel and solidified the importance of the school of Hillel for the rabbinical tradition. Much of his greatness seems to have been with his administrative abilities; from our sketchy evidence, he seems to have done much to unite various Jewish factions in a rather tumultuous time, as well as navigate the complexities of local politics. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia has a very interesting remark that I think probably sums this up:

The tradition that illustrates the importance of Johanan b. Zakkai with the words, "When lie died the glory of wisdom [scholarship] ceased," characterizes also the importance of Gamaliel I. by saying: "When he died the honor [outward respect] of the Torah ceased, and purity and piety became extinct" (Soṭah xv: 18).

Johanan ben Zakkai is the link of the Jewish tradition that will contribute to the Talmud; Gamaliel is never mentioned in this chain, although some scattered comments from him survive. But Gamaliel is great in that during his life "the honor of the Torah" was great; he was the high point of the Jewish community before the destruction of the Temple, and one who helped shore up the foundations for that community to survive the dispersion.

The Christian tradition gives much more credit to Gamaliel's teaching, because of Paul. When we first hear of him, still called Saul, we know nothing of his connection to Gamaliel -- we know very little of him, in fact. It is only in the second telling by Paul himself that we get the famous claim that he sat at the feet of Gamaliel. We don't know precisely what this meant, beyond the fact that Paul uses it to insist that he was thoroughly imbued with the teachings of the Torah; the most natural way to read it is to take it as saying that he was a direct student of Gamaliel, but it's possible that he meant it in a looser sense that he was a junior member of the broader circle of which Gamaliel was the undoubted leader. But it, as well as Gamaliel's earlier intervention to save the apostles, have led the Church through the ages to think fondly of the great rabbi. He is in fact commemorated as a saint on Catholic and Orthodox calendars. There is a legend that in the fifth century, he appeared in a vision to a priest named Lucian, saying, "I am Gamaliel, who instructed Paul in the law"; he told the priest to go to a certain place in Jerusalem, and there were discovered the relics of St. Stephen, St. Nicodemus, St. Gamaliel, and St. Abibas (who in some traditions was the son of Gamaliel, and in particular the son of Gamaliel who became Christian). This gives us day of his feast, depending on which tradition, his feast day is usually August 2 or August 3 -- making him, I believe, the latest rabbi mentioned by name in the Talmud to be regarded by Christians as a saint.

There are the inevitable legends that spring up about this, that he was a secret Christian already, or that he later converted. But to some extent it is probably just the early Christian tendency to respect those who could recognize something of the truth, and thus is part of the same movement of thought that leads Pontius Pilate to be commemorated as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, or Claudia Procula his wife to be commemorated as one by the Eastern Orthodox. But regardless of the sociology of it, he is there. So it seems fitting on the Feast of St. Paul's Conversion to say, "Saint Gamaliel, pray for us."

[Bible quotations are from the Knox translation, put out by Baronius Press.]

Links of Note

* Caterina Dutilh-Novaes on the history of logic.

* Peter Suderman explains the Underworld movie franchise.

* Onora O'Neill, Public Value and Public Goods in Broadcasting

* Tom Simon, The Memory Problem

* Bill Vallicella raises some questions about the analogies among intentionality, potentiality, and dispositionality.

Currently Reading

* Ayako Sono, Watcher from the Shore
* G. R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
* Mary Beard, SPQR
* Kurtis Hagen, The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction
* Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth

High White Star

On January 25, 1839, the red, white, and blue Lone Star Flag was officially accepted as the national flag of the Republic of Texas. It replaced the previous flag of the Republic of Texas, a single yellow star on a blue background, usually known as the Burnet Flag. (The Burnet Flag continued to be used as a military ensign.) When Texas joined the United States in 1846, it of course became the official flag of the State of Texas.

The character of the flag, including the allegorical meaning of its colors, is precisely defined by the Texas Flag Code:

(a) The state flag is a rectangle that:

(1) has a width to length ratio of two to three; and
(2) contains:
(A) one blue vertical stripe that has a width equal to one-third the length of the flag;
(B) two equal horizontal stripes, the upper stripe white, the lower stripe red, each having a length equal to two-thirds the length of the flag; and
(C) one white, regular five-pointed star:
(i) located in the center of the blue stripe;
(ii) oriented so that one point faces upward; and
(iii) sized so that the diameter of a circle passing through the five points of the star is equal to three-fourths the width of the blue stripe.

(b) The red and blue of the state flag are:
(1) the same colors used in the United States flag;
(2) defined as numbers 193 (red) and 281 (dark blue) of the Pantone Matching System.

(c) The red, white, and blue of the state flag represent, respectively, bravery, purity, and loyalty.

If the U.S. flag and the Texas flag are on the same pole, the U.S. flag is the higher one, but in all other circumstances, the flags are to be of equal height and size, with the U.S. flag raised first and the Texas flag lowered first.

In 1933, the State of Texas also accidentally passed a pledge of allegiance to the Burnet Flag:

Honor the Texas flag of 1836; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one and indivisible.

This was a typo; it was almost certainly supposed to be 1839, not 1836, but it wasn't until 1965 that the error was legally corrected. In 2007, "one state under God" was added after "Texas".

The Lone Star Flag is, I think, one of the better contributions to the heraldry of nations and states: it is neat and clean, easy to reproduce, and easy to recognize.

Texas state flag.png
Public Domain, Link

A Texas Hymn

The birds woke me at the sunrise hour
when grass was dewy and all was pale
beneath the light of a high white star;
it sang the message that all was well.
And I in the breeze (it trickled down
the blades of grass then quickly wound
around my legs to tickle my feet) --
I knew the light, and it was sweet.

The thirsty drink from flowing spring
and come to life, made quick by source;
as I, when I hear mornings sing
in bird, or wind in winding course,
know, as rolling sun will rise,
a Spirit lives, God's very breath,
who lightens sky and human eyes
and raises souls like mine from death.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Gentleman Saint

Today is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church, sometimes called the Gentleman Saint due to his unfailing politeness even in difficult situations. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but he wanted to be a priest; so, just as many young people deliberately appeart to go along with their parents at first while not really going along with them, he studied both law and theology, and after he was done began refusing the positions and nice marriage that his father had set up for him. It took the intervention of the Bishop of Geneva to work out the inevitable mess, and Francis became provost of the cathedral at Geneva. It was a field of opportunity for a young priest, as almost the entire area had become Calvinist. He threw himself into missions, and had some patchy success at first in trying to get them to return to communion, but eventually the locals agreed with each other to stop listening to him at all, and a handful of the more enterprising tried to kill him. Undeterred, he started writing tracts and slipping them under their doors. It's unclear from the evidence whether this worked any better. After becoming coadjutor bishop of Geneva, he was sent on a mission to court, where he both stood out like a sore thumb in the midst of excess and loose customs, but was also remarkably popular for precisely that reason. He then ascended to the see of Geneva; because Geneva was Calvinism central, he was never able to set a foot in Geneva itself (he was headquartered in Annecy, where he is buried). A significant contributing factor to his becoming recognized as one of the great theologians of the Church was his recognition that the laity had a great need for spiritual works written specifically for them; in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries there was an increasingly educated and active laity that had difficulty at times adapting spiritual works written for monks to their own situations. So St. Francis began to make up the difference by keeping laypersons in mind when writing. He also carried on a famously profound correspondence with St. Jeanne Frances de Chantal, with whom he founded the Order of the Visitation of Mary.

From Treatise on the Love of God Book I, Chapter XV:

This pleasure, this confidence which man's heart naturally has in God, can spring from no other root than the affinity there is between this divine goodness and man's soul, a great but secret affinity, an affinity which each one knows but few understand, an affinity which cannot be denied nor yet be easily sounded. We are created to the image and likeness of God:—what does this mean but that we have an extreme affinity with his divine majesty?

Our soul is spiritual, indivisible, immortal; understands and wills freely, is capable of judging, reasoning, knowing, and of having virtues, in which it resembles God. It resides whole in the whole body, and whole in every part thereof, as the divinity is all in all the world, and all in every part thereof. Man knows and loves himself by produced and expressed acts of his understanding and will, which proceeding from the understanding and the will, and distinct from one another, yet are and remain inseparably united in the soul, and in the faculties from whence they proceed. So the Son proceeds from the Father as his knowledge expressed, and the Holy Ghost as love breathed forth and produced from the Father and the Son, both the Persons being distinct from one another and from the Father, and yet inseparable and united, or rather one same, sole, simple, and entirely one indivisible divinity.

But besides this affinity of likenesses, there is an incomparable correspondence between God and man, for their reciprocal perfection: not that God can receive any perfection from man, but because as man cannot be perfected but by the divine goodness, so the divine goodness can scarcely so well exercise its perfection outside itself, as upon our humanity: the one has great want and capacity to receive good, the other great abundance and inclination to bestow it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Two New Poem Drafts


I knew your face, I think, your glancing eye.
The limpid waters waved beneath the sky.
The moon was shining bright; it glowed within;
aloof, it wanly smiled on blessed men -----

----- and yet we never met; I never knew
the color of your eyes; your face is new.
No past that I forget, paths never crossed
now bubble in my mind, like children lost, -----

----- and yet I knew you well, before I ever knew;
your face was heaven's sky, your eye was true;
the splendor of your light my eye enthralled.
We met again just now, who never met at all.


Tell me, O breath of the girl I love,
how widely did you roam?
How many leagues of voyage swept
from paradise, your home?
In Africa or Asia,
in Europe, on the sea,
how many years of journey passed
before you came to me?
Or did you drift from futures far
where springs unborn have bloomed?
Or darker times when steel and stone
all crumble in the gloom?
Was it through valleys of the earth
that your whisper fled,
or distant stars by man unseen,
or realms of shades long dead?
Tell me where to find the girl,
the queen who has my heart,
that I may finally meet the soul
of which you are a part.

A Word to the Wise...

...which needs continual reiteration but will nonetheless clearly be unremembered and unregarded in the sectors of society that need it most:

The first and most basic and most essential form of politics is reasoned discourse. This follows directly from the fact that human beings are rational and therefore social creatures; it is the actual structure of functional civilization; and it is a requirement for any just society. If you have any political view -- and I mean any political view, however clever the sophistry and rhetoric with which you fancy it up -- that does not treat reasoned discourse as the heart of civilization, then your view is a politics of coercion and violence, based on a principle that might makes right. At this level there is no third option: either politics is, in its foundations, by reason or it is by force.

There are, of course, other aspects of political life. The world being as it is, people will sometimes attempt to shut down reasoned discourse by force; and thus reasoned discourse must sometimes be protected by a countervailing force. But the point must be to protect reasoned discourse, because that is what it is to protect civilization. People will sometimes not participate in reasoned discourse in good faith, deliberately manipulating it in ways inconsistent with itself; this might, once one has established clearly that it is occurring, require things like protesting, or shunning, or shaming, or even rioting or revolution. But if you are just, the point of these things will be to restore the priority of reasoned discourse. And if the point is not to do that, you are unjust.

It is by interacting rationally that we receive common good as a legacy; it is by interacting rationally that we form common good as moral progress; it is by interacting rationally that we protect and preserve common good against political corruption. If you have any political view, if you perform any political act, that does not recognize rational communication as the fundamental kind of politics, you are not on the side of justice, no matter how loudly you insist that you are. Indeed, you are not on the side of justice even if you are advocating a thing that happens to be just; you are simply a snake in the grass. In anything and everything, the just will give shared reason its due. Anything else is sophistry -- literally, in fact.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Immortal Things

West Wind in Winter
by Alice Meynell

Another day awakes. And who—
Changing the world—is this?
He comes at whiles, the winter through,
West Wind! I would not miss
His sudden tryst: the long, the new
Surprises of his kiss.

Vigilant, I make haste to close
With him who comes my way.
I go to meet him as he goes;
I know his note, his lay,
His colour and his morning-rose,
And I confess his day.

My window waits; at dawn I hark
His call; at morn I meet
His haste around the tossing park
And down the softened street;
The gentler light is his: the dark,
The grey—he turns it sweet.

So too, so too, do I confess
My poet when he sings.
He rushes on my mortal guess
With his immortal things.
I feel, I know, him. On I press—
He finds me ’twixt his wings.

Due to some accidents of schedule here at the beginning of term, I think the fortnightly book will be delayed to next weekend, to avoid having to rush it.