Sunday, May 19, 2019

For My 60th I Buried Another Man’s Dog

I recently reached the milestone of my 60th birthday.  In most ways I feel better at 60 than I did at 50.  In other ways I definitely feel my age.  But aging is not for sissies.  I don’t complain (much) and keep as mentally and physically active as possible.  There was no huge celebration with family that day.  We usually wait until Memorial Day and wrap my birthday up with another in our family.  One grill session, one cake; makes it easier on everyone getting together.

At any rate, my plan on my actual birthday was to come home from work, maybe have a run, relax, perhaps drink a ceremonious scotch or two while sitting on my front porch watching the sunset.  But that was not to be.

Jennifer called about mid-afternoon while I was at work to inform me that a ‘big’ dog was dead on my property.  Since we live practically in the middle of nowhere, one has to usually take care of these things oneself; no city or county services to assist.  I could have loaded the dog up on my truck and carried him to a veterinarian to be incinerated, but, since it was late in the day the dog's body was already swelling, that was really more trouble than burying him.

I arrived home after work and assessed the situation.  It was a large dog, well over 100 pounds, and it looked like a collie mixed with something else (Labrador maybe?) mutt that wandered onto my property from my neighbor to the north.  Before I did anything, we contacted the local busy-body who knows all the area gossip to see if she’d heard of a dog missing.  Indeed, it was my neighbor’s. 

So, I ventured over to his house to inform him.  Unfortunately, he is recovering from a series of strokes.  Although he was coherent and functional, he was certainly in no condition to deal with this dog situation.  His son, about 30, answered the door and the father joined soon thereafter.  I asked if they were missing a dog and they indicated yes.  I apologetically informed him that the dog was dead on my property.

As it turned out, the animal had been having strokes recently, like his owner.  There were no signs of wounds or trauma to the dog.  I offered that somehow he might have been poisoned.  The man, a detective by trade, surmised that the dog probably had a heart attack, perhaps related to his strokes.  Whatever, I said I was going to bury the dog but didn’t feel right about doing so until I checked with him first.  He thanked me and we spoke briefly of his illness before I left.  For reasons unknown, I inquired about the dog’s name. It was Trident and had been a rescue dog from the sheriff’s department.  I guess, I felt I wanted to know the name of the animal I was about to bury even if that made no difference whatsoever.

Pulling out of his driveway I couldn’t get the annoying thought out of my head that his son should have at least offered to help me with the situation.  But, he’s a millennial and they definitely operate under different rules of etiquette.  Certainly, not ‘southern gentleman’ material.   He was visiting from Las Vegas anyway.  What the hell do they know about being respectful?!

Anyway, it was 85 degrees out.  My contemplated run turned into a hard work project.  The dog was situated toward the middle of my property.  I wanted to move him closer to the pet cemetery where several of our past animals are buried.  I had mowed the area where he was laying two days previously, so I knew his death had happened in the past 48 hours.  He was covered in flies and stank to high-heaven but at least he wasn’t jellified yet.  I brought a tarp and gently rolled Trident upon it.  Then, with Jennifer’s help, I drug him into the woods with a specific place in mind to make the shallow grave.

She couldn’t stand the stench and the undergrowth of the woods so I was pretty much on my own for the rest of it.  First I had to get my chainsaw and hack through some large branches that had fallen.  Ordinarily, I would have left them there to rot, but this day they were in my way.  I couldn’t drag the heavy tarp over them. 

After I cut the path I pulled Trident to a perfect spot near the back of my property.  For some reason talking to the body helped me as I rolled him off and put him in place.  I covered the body in a large amount of lime we had in the pole barn.  This immediately helped with the odor and cut down on the swarm of flies and bumble bees that crawled and hovered over the poor dead dog.

By now sweat was pouring down into my eyes so badly I could hardly see.  I was in a sleeveless t-shirt and had to pause frequently to wipe my forehead with the bottom of the shirt.  Next I covered the body with a small mound of soil, keeping at it until the dog was completely covered, patting the soil down with my gloved hands to firm things up.  The whole time I was talking to Trident, telling him I hoped he didn’t suffer too much and that my efforts to bury him would be adequate.

Finally, a little over an hour after I got home, the ordeal was over.  This was the second time I’ve had to bury a dog in emergency fashion like this.  The other was back when Nala died.  You never know what strange situation you are going to encounter living in the country.  But you usually have to be prepared to handle whatever it is yourself. 

Afterwards I showered, had dinner, and sat in my recliner listening to classical music.  My plans for my birthday evening were disrupted and I really didn’t feel like a celebratory drink (or anything else) at that point.  Thanks to death of Trident, I will always particularly remember my 60th birthday.  Nothing like dealing with death as you enter your sixth decade.  It’s messy business, however it comes.      

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Metaphors in Proust: The Guermantes Fog

In Search of Lost Time is a highly metaphorical work.  Thus far, I have only briefly touched on the myriad of themes and symbolism contained within the novel.  But here I will give a couple of examples so the reader will know that there is a lot more to Proust’s literary vision and lyrical, long-winded sentences than simply moving the plot forward at a glacial pace.  In The Guermantes Way, Proust uses fog and darkness as metaphors for what the narrator experiences in book three of the novel. He takes his first steps toward becoming a player in proper society and with that comes a great deal of confusion and lack of clarity.

Let's start with the fog. It is introduced at Doncieres in Robert de Saint-Loup's room when the narrator awakens and opens the window to the morning. Proust uses windows a lot throughout the novel for various representational reasons and I'm sure someone somewhere has written extensively about how this metaphor is employed and what it might mean at various points in the story.

At this particular point, however, Marcel opens a window into a world "shrouded, still in its soft white morning gown of mist which scarcely allowed me to make out anything at all." (page 100). There is a great hill before him, he saw it the day before, but he cannot see it now and he can only guess from familiar sounds and matters of habit as to what is going on outside the window. Unlike the scenic, ocean-view window in his room at Balbec, this window – I think for the first time in the novel – reveals nothing but the lack of clarity.

Part Two: Chapter Two begins with a foggy day. "…there had been a cold fog which had not cleared until midday: and a change in the weather is sufficient to create the world and ourselves anew." This is one of the more direct passages where Proust connects the fog itself with the narrator’s sense of self. "…the new world in which this morning's fog had immersed me" was known but forgotten by Marcel, now recalled in various moments including the morning at Doncieres, in which the world is "scarcely visible to the eyes that is obliged to adapt itself to a mysterious vagueness…" (page 101) This is not just a vagueness of memory, however, it is an intimate vagueness of the present moment.

Later on the fog thickens (page 534) as Marcel prepares for dinner with the Guermantes. This is an extended section where the fog is referred to often, where street lamps seem virtually extinguished, culminating with: "…the fog had become one of those dangers against which one has to fight, so that in finding our way and reaching safe haven, we experienced the difficulties, the anxiety and finally the joy which safety, so little perceived by one who is not threatened with the loss of it, gives to the perplexed and benighted traveler." (page 546)

Metaphorically speaking, the narrator finds himself increasingly immersed in social activities, in the loss of his grandmother, in the return of Albertine amidst his own growing carnal desires for various other girls and women. This seems to me to be a state of mind Proust is creating for us over the slow progression of hundreds of pages.

Like the street lamps dimmed by the thickening fog, so too does darkness play a role in the narrator's experiences. When he goes out to meet Robert for dinner Proust gives us a passage that is most interesting in tying several threads I am rambling about together. "I proceeded on my way, and often, in the dark alley that ran past the cathedral, as long ago on the road to the Meseglise, the force of my desire caught and held me; it seemed a woman must be on the point of appearing, to satisfy it; if, in the darkness, I suddenly felt a skirt brush past me, the violence of that pleasure which I then felt made it impossible for me to believe that the contact was accidental and I attempted to seize in my arms a terrified stranger. This Gothic alley meant for me something so real that if I had been successful in picking up and enjoying a woman there, it would have been impossible for me not to believe that it was the ancient charm of the place that was bringing us together, even if she were no more than a common street-walker, stationed there every evening, whom the wintry night, the strange place, the darkness, the mediaeval atmosphere had invested with their mysterious glamour." (page 123)

Several things are worthy of note in this passage, which I quoted in my previous post as well. First of all, the way memory and carnal desire and intimacy are all contained within the darkness. Lack of clarity breeds a world within oneself that is partly fantasy of desire and partly recollection of past pleasures. It is also one of the rare moments where the Meseglise path from Swann's Way is directly connected with the happenings within The Guermantes Way.

Page 557 speaks for itself in this context: "So the cataclysm had established even between the smaller room and the bigger, among all these people stimulated by the comfort of the restaurant after their long wanderings across the ocean of fog, a familiarity from which I alone was excluded and which was not unlike the spirit that must have prevailed in Noah's Ark."

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Guermantes “way” itself is a peopled path, not a natural one like Swann's way. Nature is at best something to be recalled or seen from a distance rather than something to be immersed in – distanced by fog and darkness. Just as well, the path of Guermantes is a weaving of social functions, a negotiation of personalities and interaction with other subjective perspectives. This seems to me to be at the heart of the differences between the narrator's more youthful appreciations of Swann's Way and the young adult experiences of The Guermantes Way

The narrator mentions several casual carnal encounters with "common" women throughout the novel outside of his more persistent relationships. One example of this involves darkness in The Guermantes Way. It is a memory about something we are not actually privy to at the time he stayed in Doncieres. A reflection upon something that occurred at the beginning of the volume that was not mentioned at the time.

It will be recalled that, while having dinner alone in his room at the hotel one evening, his lamp goes out, prompting the “serving-girl” to lite candles, which the narrator blows out before instigating foreplay with her and having “physical pleasure” with her over the next several evenings. (pp. 542-543) Darkness is a kind of requisite for pleasure here.  It is a factor in the isolating the narrator and his desires from the public sphere that he is otherwise immersed within.

"Each of us is indeed alone." This famous line from the section regarding the death of his grandmother, is almost an ironic summation of the volume as a whole within the context of fog and darkness and the isolating aspects they have. I see it in the narrator’s observations at the parties and dinners which he attends not so much as a participant but as a witness. I see it in the way memory and reflection starts to play an increasing role in the character of the narrator as he passes youth into young adulthood. The move into society is equally a journey deeper into himself.

I consider the fog and darkness aspects of this volume to be metaphorical of the narrator’s emergence within the social scene. These parties and gatherings can be viewed as a kind of “fog” of their own. He is often observing (rarely actively participating, in fact) the happenings at Mme de Villeparisis's and at the Guermantes with a cautious and often uncomprehending perspective, one of a newcomer not fully appreciative of the happenings and intricacies surrounding him. 
Perhaps the best example of the "vagueness" he experiences in the volume comes through his interactions with M de Charlus. This is actually some of Proust's best writing to this point in the novel - the continuing vagaries of Charlus' actions, his seemingly erratic, highly self-rationalized and passionate behavior. The "official" word on Baron Charlus is that he is a womanizer. He was rumored to be Mme Swann’s lover when he was first mentioned in Swann’s Way.  Yet, however erratic his actions, he has affection for the narrator and desires better relations with him. 

But, the narrator innocently possesses no awe for the eccentric Baron and this is disastrous to their close friendship without the narrator’s (or the reader necessarily at this point, suspicions perhaps) being aware of the reasons why.  This will soon be remedied in book four.

Numerous references to fog and mist and darkness weave through the entirety of The Guermantes Way.  They serve as metaphor and psychological symbol for the narrator as he physically navigates through his emerging new world of society.  These are among dozens of other, similar, metaphors and themes contained throughout the novel.  So the reader can delve very deeply into Proust’s writing beyond the plot and the lyrical/philosophical passages.  There is far more intended than it may appear on an initial reading.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Reading Proust: The Guermantes Way

Book three of In Search of Lost Time is the longest of the novel, weighing in at 819 pages in the Enright editionThe Guermantes Way picks up an undetermined amount of time after where Within a Budding Grove left off.  The narrator is a bit older, around 20.  The title serves as a kind of contrast to Swann’s Way.  In the first book, that “way” was one of two walking paths near Combray, the other being called “the Guermantes Way.”  The latter is only mentioned in passing in the first novel, as the narrator spends much more time along the way by Swann’s country estate.

Here the “way” is not near Combray, however.  It refers to the way of life of Parisian high society in the form of the Guermantes family’s aristocratic manner and social being.  The book begins with the narrator’s family moving into “a flat forming part of the Hotel de Guermantes” seeking improved conditions for the narrator’s grandmother, who has taken ill.  The book is divided into two parts of near equal length.  Several interesting things happen in Part One.  

The narrator is impressed with his new quarters within this world of the wealthy class.  He attends another performance of Berma where he spends most of the time voyeuring the women of the Guermantes family in their fancy private box.  He experiences Berma again; this time within the context of his meeting Elster at Balbec.  Unlike the first time he saw Berma, when he applauded simply because others did, this time he applauds with a new personal aesthetic for her work. But, he doesn’t remain aloft in that experience of art for long.
He becomes obsessively infatuated with the Duchess Oriane Guermantes, a completely inaccessible married young woman of minor royalty.  Over time, he makes a comic fool of himself inventing reasons of be out on the street exactly when the Duchess takes her morning walk; always walking by and saying “hello” to the Duchess, who happens to be the aunt of our narrator’s new friend Robert de Saint-Loup.  A plot is hatched to visit Robert and convince him to secure an invitation for the narrator to meet his aunt under the pretense that there are a couple of Elster paintings in their magnificent section of the Hotel.  

So the reader is taken to the military camp at Doncieres, where the narrator spends a period of several weeks as the guest of Robert, an infantry officer.  This is a big moment for the narrator because it marks the first time he has been away for an extended period from his mother and grandmother.  During this time military history is examined with several famous battles mentioned.  The military art is a big theme over dozens of pages.  Also, the Dreyfus Affair is introduced, a controversy that split France at the time Proust wrote the novel.  Robert is a Dreyfusian, supporting the defendant.   But most in the military and upper class are anti-Dreyfusian, believing the defendant is guilty of treason.  Robert vaguely agrees to mention the narrator’s interests in the paintings to his aunt.

In Search of Lost Time takes place while the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane were all invented and became widely available.  From Doncieres he engages in a telephone conversation with his grandmother, a new experience.  “And because that voice…reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was; perhaps indeed it had never been so sweet as it was now, for my grandmother, thinking of me as being far away and unhappy, felt that she might abandon herself to an outpouring of tenderness which, in accordance with the principles of upbringing, she usually restrained and kept hidden.

“Was it, however, solely the voice that, because it was alone, gave me this new impression which tore my heart?  Not at all;  it was rather this isolation of the voice was like a symbol, an evocation, a direct consequence of another isolation, that of my grandmother, for the first time separated from.” (page 176)

The narrator returns to Paris immediately to be with his grandmother.  Robert soon joins him, on leave from Doncieres.  Robert has a mistress in Paris, which turns out to be Rachel, a young woman the narrator met the time Bloch first showed him a brothel.  The three of them hang out and have lunch together.  Robert is enraged at Rachel for various reasons that make him jealous.  (For Proust, love seems impossible without jealousy.)  At one point, Robert, who is described as very attractive in his uniform, beats up a guy for propositioning him while walking the street.

The remainder of Part One, some 180 pages, is devoted primarily to a single afternoon party held at Mme de Villeparisis’s home.  Although on the social decline, she can still draw the likes of Mme de Guermantes.  Robert is invited and asks the narrator to come along.  Here the reader is exposed to the nature of snobby afternoon parties in Paris at the time when the telephone was first invented.  They are filled with conversations about art and politics.  The Dreyfus Affair is prominent again throughout this section.  Beyond all this, there is plenty of humor and gossip.

Circumstances result in Mme de Guermantes sitting down beside the narrator at one point during the party.  After hundreds of pages of trying to have a conversation with this woman, humorously, the two of them initially sit in silence.  At length she is the one who speaks first.  But the conversation is brief and is soon overtaken as Mme de Guermantes gossips with others at the party.

Later at the same party he meets Baron Charlus, the man who he had a brief, strange, almost wordless encounter with at Balbec as he was swimming in the ocean.  He discovers that M de Charlus is the brother of the Duc de Guermantes and, therefore, the brother-in-law of the Duchess.  Charlus now takes a greater interest in him and offers to be his mentor.  Charlus states “I shall need you every day, and to receive from you guarantees of loyalty and discretion which, I must admit, you do seem to offer.” (page 401) 

Part One ends rather abruptly.  Though ill, his grandmother is still able to take walks along the Champs-Elysees.  The narrator is accompanying her when she suffers a slight stroke.  This length of the novel contains very little of Proustian lyrical writing.  His philosophical musings are also subdued.  For this reason, even though a great deal of importance happens, I find this section more difficult to connect with than the rest of the novel.

One passage, however, is dense with lyrical/philosophical prose.  It is tinged with nostalgia and examines everyone’s ultimate separation from everyone else as well as how the effects of our actions are beyond our control.  “Each of our actions, our words, our attitudes is cut off from the ‘world,’ from the people who have not directly perceived it, by a medium of permeability of which is infinitely variable and remains unknown to ourselves; having learned from experience that some important utterance which we eagerly hoped would be disseminated has at once, often because of our very anxiety, been hidden under a bushel, how immeasurably less do we suppose that some tiny word which we ourselves have forgotten, which may not even have been uttered by us but formed along its way by the imperfect refraction of a different word, could be transported, without even being halted in its progress, infinite distances and succeed in diverting at our expense the banquet of the gods!  What we remember of our conduct remains unknown to our nearest neighbor; what we have forgotten that we ever said, or indeed that we ever did say, flies to provoke hilarity on another planet…” (page 368)  

Part Two is translated as one whole by Kilmartin.  Enright chooses to divide it into two chapters, the first of which is, at 46 pages, one of the shortest sections in the novel.  It deals entirely with the gradual decline and death of his grandmother.  Here we get a bit of lyricism.  “I stood on the landing gazing at my grandmother who was doomed.  Each of us is indeed alone.  We set off homewards.  The sun was sinking; it burnished an interminable wall along which our cab had to pass before reaching the street where we lived, a wall against which the shadow of horse and carriage cast by the setting sun stood out in black on a ruddy background, like a hearse on some Pompeian terra-cotta.” (page 432)

When her death finally comes he is deeply affected by her face.  “As in the far-off days when her parents had chosen for her a bridegroom, she had features, delicately traced by purity and submission, the cheeks glowing with a chaste expectation, with a dream of happiness, with an innocent gaiety even, which the years had gradually destroyed.  Life in withdrawing from her had taken with it the disillusionments of life.  A smile seemed to be hovering over my grandmother’s lips.  On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl.” (pp. 470-471)

Chapter Two contains another favorite part of the novel for me.  In Proust’s philosophy of love often that which attracts the lover only becomes interested after the lover has become indifferent toward that person, after the attraction has become mute.  Such is the case with the narrator at this point in the novel.  He is corresponding with Gilberte, who he used to love.  His hopes for relations with Mme de Guermantes have dwindled.  He is pursuing another young woman with whom he has planned a fancy dinner date on a river island restaurant.  His attraction is even stronger because this same girl was indifferent toward him at Balbec.  Accepting his dinner invitation will allow him to at last be with someone with whom he is falling in love.  But that doesn’t work out for him, of course.  She reneges and declines the invitation at the last minute.

And just when he has become indifferent toward Albertine, she reenters his life.  He sees her differently.  “There were other more attractive novelties about her; I sensed, in this same pretty girl who had just sat down by my bed, something that was different;  and in those lines which, in the look and the features of the face, express a person’s habitual volition, a change of front, a partial conversion, as though something had happened to break down those resistances I had come up against in Balbec one long-ago evening when we formed a couple symmetrical with but the converse of our present arrangement, for then it had been she who was lying down and I by her beside.  Wishing and not daring to ascertain whether she would now let herself be kissed, every time that she rose to go I asked her to stay a little longer.” (pp. 482 – 483)

This eventually leads to him convincing Albertine to try tickling him, that he isn’t the least bit ticklish.  She moves toward him on the bed.  At that exact moment, Francoise, the family’s principle house help, barges into the room to offer a lamp for light.  After a moment of panic, finally through 18 pages, the two kiss following a rather humorous discourse on how our faces are ill suited for kissing with our eyes and noses always in the wrong places.  In fact, although it is not described in the narrative, they apparently “indulged” in “brief relations” enjoying “the kisses we had exchanged.” (page 506)  So there was more than a kiss on the cheek involved here.

Even though the island restaurant date never materialized, Proust’s use of Mme de Stermaria as an object of desire serves to reveal more of the erotic nature of the narrator.  “What I wanted was to possess Mme Stremaria:  for several days my desires had been actively and incessantly preparing my imagination for this pleasure, and this pleasure alone;  any other pleasure (pleasure with another woman) would not have been ready, pleasure being but the realization of a prior craving which is not always the same but changes according to the endless variations of one’s fancies, the accidents of one’s memory, the state on one’s sexual disposition, the order of availability of one’s desires, the most recently assuaged of which lie dormant until the disillusion of their fulfillment has been to some extent forgotten.” (page 525)

By this point in the novel, the once vague sexual experiences of the narrator are crystallized into those of a 20 year-old.  His eroticism becomes more pronounced, as it was back in Part One when Proust writes: “I proceeded my way, and often, down a dark alley that ran past the cathedral, as long ago on the road to Meseglise, the force of my desire caught and held me; it seemed that a woman must be on the point of appearing, to satisfy it;  if, in the darkness, I suddenly felt a skirt brush past me, the violence of the pleasure which I then felt made it impossible for me to believe that the contact was accidental and I attempted to seize in my arms a terrified stranger.” (page 123)

Reflecting on his time at Doncieres: “The lamp went out during dinner and the serving-girl lighted a couple of candles.  Pretending that I could not see very well as I held out my plate while she helped me to potatos, I took he bare forearm in my hand, as though to guide her, without saying a word, pulled her towards me, blew out the candles and told her to feel in my pocket for some money.  For the next few days physical pleasure seemed to me to require, to be properly enjoyed, not only this serving-girl but the timbered dining room, so remote and isolated.” (page 542 – 543)

And when he first learns of the declination for dinner at the island restaurant: “I should have made an appointment for later that same evening with Albertine, in order to forget, during an hour of purely sensual pleasure, holding in my arms a body of which my curiosity had once computed, weighed up all the possible charms in which in now abounded, the emotions and perhaps the regrets of this burgeoning love for Mme de Stermaria.” (page 531)

“When I found myself alone again at home, remembering that I had been for an expedition that afternoon with Albertine, that I was to dine in two days’ time with Mme Guermantes and that I had to answer a letter from Gilberte, three had loved.  I said to myself that our social existence, like an artist’s studio, is filled with abandoned sketches in which we fancied for a moment that we could set down in permanent form our need of a great love, but it did not occur to me that sometimes, if the sketch is too old, it may happen that we return to it and make a wholly different work, and one that is possibly more important than what we originally planned.” (pp. 533 – 534)

Finally, he gets to attend dinner with Mme de Guermantes.  He finds the two Elsters that he wanted to see and, humorously and inadvertently, holds up everyone else – ignorant of the fact that a dinner can only begin once everyone is at his or her seat.  The dinner proceeds for about 180 pages with a lot more banal gossip, political discussions and snobbery by which the narrator gets introduced to dining in the highest society style.  

At the end, he returns home with Baron Charlus, who immediately and inexplicably treats him badly again, becoming so critical that an argument ensues and the narrator walks out – only to return at Charlus’ pleas that he truly likes the narrator and can’t believe that he initially thought of him as “insignificant.”  Two months pass and Charlus arranges for the narrator to receive an invite to dine with the Princess de Guermantes.  The narrator’s climb up the Parisian social ladder continues.

After a long absence, Swann reappears near the end of book three.  The narrator discusses the Dreyfus case with him.  Part of the Dreyfus controversy revolved around the defendant being Jewish, like Swann.  Anti-Semitism is touched upon.  The Duke and Duchess are preparing to leave for yet another dinner invitation as Swann meets them.  Swann abruptly tells them that he only has a few months to live.

Just then the Duke notices that the Duchess’ black shoes are inappropriate with her red dress and asks her to change them to a matching red.  The book concludes with them gathering their things to enter their carriage.  Being aristocrats they deflect Swann’s plight by simply disbelieving him so as to not bog down their exit.  The doctors are never right about these things, Swann is told.  “You’ll bury us all!” the Duke shouts as the carriage pulls away.

I am 2,153 pages into the novel.  About halfway with four books to go.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Home Improvement: A New Terrace

For this Mother's Day Jennifer got a new backyard terrace.  Actually, it was planned back in February but, due to a very rainy spring among other obstacles, construction was delayed until recently.  The original terrace was made at the time the house was built back in 1993.  (I accidentally ran over the ties with my - then - new mower back in 2008.  Not my finest hour but it gives the reader a good look at the original terrace.)  The cross-ties were all rotting, of course.  It was time for an upgrade.

What transpired was about two weeks of semi-chaos, with the ripping up of the original feature and a great deal of high-impact activity by heavy equipment.  Our gravel driveway was more or less destroyed, but was put back together again in the end.  For a few days the whole project was a great annoyance.  Usually I freak out during such intrusive occurrences on my property.  But this was tolerable because I knew it wouldn't last long.

The end result thrilled Jennifer.  I think it is a great improvement as well.  So happy Mother's Day. I hope this is the last time something of this magnitude happens on the otherwise tranquil property we call 'Twin Oaks.'

Here are photos of the progress from start to finish.

The original terrace as seen out the den window before construction started.
Initially, things looked like a bomb went off.
Then the equipment arrived and the heavy landscaping began. 
Despite the high-impact of the construction, the workers were very considerate of the space and limited their footprint as much as possible, though it was still substantial.  You can compare this angle with a photo take in the 2008 link above.
The foundation for the first rock wall is laid.  This is facing south.
At the other end facing north.
By the second week things were starting to take shape.
Fresh top soil and soil amendments were brought in to improve the red clay of the original terrace. 
The initial wave of new plants are in place and new grass was seeded where the equipment took its toll.
I really like the curve of the front wall, which actually gives more room for grass outside the den windows, affording a more spacious feel that helps offset the 'heaviness' of the big rocks.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

How Human Reason Surpasses the Bible

I have mentioned before how much I enjoy reading National Review as a representation of conservative views.  The publication has been frequently critical of the Trump administration and has published articles and op-ed pieces featuring more moderate candidates. But, its attempt to articulate the perspective of what I would call "Eisenhower Republicans" is nevertheless housed in a regressive mindset, as is the nature of conservatism.  Which is fine, I like to consider issues from all points of view. Conservatives generally try to preserve policies and institutions.  Conservatism is not inherently innovative.  It is, in fact, the antithesis of innovation.

The distinction between preservation and innovation is a topic I think deserves more attention in the future.  It can go a long way toward better framing the polarity in American politics today.  But, for this post, I want to focus simply on an example of how regressive thinking works.  A case in point is the recent article "Why the Left Mocks the Bible" written by Dennis Prager, a prominent Christian thinker and apologist.  Fundamentally, the article states: "The Bible tells of a greater source of truth than human reasoning.  The Left can't handle that."

While it is true that the Left is inherently more skeptical about religion than the Right, the claim that the Bible is the "greater source of truth than human reasoning" is, of course, absurd.  For one thing, it discounts the majority of religious people on the planet who have never read the Bible and, indeed, hold other texts such as the Koran or the Bhagavad-gita to be (for them) more valid forms of truth than the Bible.  For another, Prager's simplistic diatribe is not so much an advocacy of Biblical teaching as it an attack on human reason and the Age of Enlightenment itself.  

The innovators of the Left are not a collection of mindless, chaotic, ill-conceived freaks.  These people (I am more libertarian yet I count myself more Left than Right) would hold the Enlightenment as, at worst, a compliment to Christian thought and, at best, as more applicable to the world today than Biblical thought.

Let me start by addressing the statement quoted above.  I'm not interested in convincing any practicing Bible-thumper that human reason is a greater form of the truth than the alleged "word of God."  That is pretty much impossible.  But, Mr. Prager will readily acknowledge that he frames the Bible as something that surpasses any truth or accomplishment that can be achieved via human reason.

As Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari have pointed out, it is human reason and the Enlightenment that has constructed the modern world.  Prager sees this world as inherently godless and immoral.  Well, it might be the former but it clearly and factually is not the latter.  The historical truth is that human reason has eliminated the world's most deadly diseases.  It has eliminated war between nations, reducing it instead to a few civil wars and terrorist actions.  Though malnutrition still persists, mass famines that killed millions of people as recently as 50 years ago are gone.  Despite misinformation most of humanity has more knowledge available to them than ever before, enabling dynamic decision-making processes on a myriad of challenges across the globe.  This is not the hallmark of immorality.

Overall, the world is better today than it was  in 1959, the year I was born.  No generation in human history could make that claim before the end of World War Two.  All of this has occurred in a remarkably short span of time.  Given that the Bible has influenced human civilization for more than 2,000 years and has been the inspiration for all sorts of acts of love and compassion, it is an undeniable historical fact that none of this truly epic improvement in the human condition has happened from a strictly Biblical approach to the world.  None of it.  Every single instance of massive human improvement has its roots in the Enlightenment, not the Bible.  If the Bible were going to make the world a better place it had ample opportunity to do so ever since Constantine accepted Jesus as his personal savior.  

(Of course, Christian discourse has no interest in making the world as a whole a better place.  Rather, it is centered around gathering as many individuals under the banner of Christianity as possible.  The world is full of sin and is, therefore, to be damned.  Christian thought only applies to individual "souls."  So part of the disconnect between the Bible and the Left can be found in the fact that the Left is inclusive and the Bible is clearly exclusive.  But I digress.)

While the Bible obviously has tangible individual human benefit (it can sooth certain persons in times of distress, uncertainty, and death), it has failed miserably in improving the human condition as whole.  Why is this?  For precisely the same reason Prager attacks human reason, which I will get to in turn.  For now, it is a historical fact that the betterment of humanity over the last five decades has not been driven by the Bible at all.  Though there is certainly a religious component to the Enlightenment, it is science, not religion, that has most pervasively improved the world.

On the contrary, religion, specifically Christianity but other religions as well, has led to countless wars, disruption of food and medical supplies to "heathens", and the burning, hanging and torture of many human beings.  Look at the violence in the Middle East and in Africa for examples of wars and misery directly caused by the "greater truth" of the Bible.  Look to Myanmar as an example of how the usually peaceful religion of Buddhism is also contributing to mass human misery.  Throughout recorded history and into today, religion has inspired as much misery as it has comfort.  This isn't even something that we can be skeptical about.  It is fact.

I know facts don't matter where the Bible is concerned.  This source of "greater truth" is, in fact, not even original for the most part.  The story of the flood, for example, was a common myth throughout multiple cultures at the time it was written.  The Bible simply appropriated the story from other cultures and put its own spin on it, calling that new spin "truth."  In fact, the truth is there might have been some sort of flood but it had little to do with how the Bible tells it.  It is a borrowed story.  It is the same with the creation myth as told in Genesis; same with the story of Jesus' virgin birth and resurrection.  It was all told before and the Bible is not the original source of any of it.

Regardless of that, it could still be argued that the Bible contains wisdom whether it is original or not.  And I can accept this.  I am not saying the Bible is without "spiritual" merit on a personal or even community level.  What I am saying is that that merit has not translated into a better world, whereas the works of the Enlightenment most clearly have produced a world with less overall human suffering through reasoned breakthroughs in medicine, education, ethics, and food production and distribution.

But let's get to a point-by-point review of Prager's perspective in the article.

1) "The biblical view is that people are not basically good. Evil therefore comes from within human nature. For the Left, human nature is not the source of evil. Capitalism, patriarchy, poverty, religion, nationalism, or some other external cause is the source of evil."

I am beyond good and evil.  I possess no concept of "guilt" or "sin."  Human beings are not inherently one way or another.  If institutions are evil then the Church itself is no less evil with its swindling of people's money, its instigation of war, and its battle with contemporary ethics.  I see all truth as a competition of value judgments.  "Good" and "evil" are outmoded concepts, but they will be around as long as the Bible regressively preserves them.  Institutions are a reflection of those who build them.  But then, due to the nature of function, most institutions take on a life of their own almost completely beyond human control. 

Moreover, long before the Enlightenment, the Bible had its chance to do as much collective good in the world as any force in history.  But the burden of history behooves us to admit that the Bible caused as much misery as betterment during its time of monopoly, prior to the rise of the Enlightenment's secular humanism.  If we take away the concept of good and evil then both the preservers and the innovators are just expressions of humanity as whole dynamically finding its way.  Nothing more.

2) "The biblical view is that nature was created for man. The left-wing view is that man is just another part of nature."

I touched on this recently.  In brief, humans are products of evolution and, therefore, a part of nature.  The only thing special about us is that we have developed the ability to reason beyond belief.  And that has led to better things in the world.  The Biblical thinking that man has "dominion" over nature is demonstrably crazy.  We have practically destroyed the earth mostly through our belief in our own dominion.  We are now correcting that mass behavioral flaw through reasoned action, not belief.

3) "The biblical view is that man is created in the image of God and, therefore, formed with a transcendent, immaterial soul. The left-wing view — indeed, the view of all secular ideologies — is that man is purely material, another assemblage of stellar dust."

Yeah, well there is no evidence of a soul.  We believe there is a soul but that belief has not historically led to a better world.  The fact that the Earth is made of stardust and we ourselves are components of the same process is really not even legitimately questionable.  The "image of God" is a belief the meaning of which even Christianity itself can't agree on anyway.  If true, then God is a twisted dude - for all manner of "evil" has been perpetuated on others who don't believe as we believe.  Wars, persecutions, psychology harm through concepts like "sin" and "guilt" are abundant.  In all likelihood what we believe to be our "self" is a multiplicity.  The "soul" is a collection of habits and instincts which are in many ways beyond our control regardless of either belief or science.

4) "The biblical view is that the human being has free will. The left-wing view — again, the view of all secular outlooks — is that human beings have no free will. Everything we do is determined by environment, genes, and the matter of which we are composed. Firing neurons, not free will, explain both murders and kindness."

Here's a good sentence explaining why, yet again, the Bible is wrong.  It isn't wrong because it is a sacred text of wisdom.  It is wrong because the people who wrote it were unenlightened and used folk psychology that is no longer tenable.  We now know that there is no such thing as "free will."  This is a fundamental blow to Christianity and all religions teaching that there is a sinful soul to be "saved" or some substance to be reincarnated.  Again, facts over mere beliefs.

5) "The biblical view is that God made order out of chaos. Order is defined by distinctions. One such example is male and female — the only inherent human distinction that matters to God. There are no racial or ethnic distinctions in God’s order; there is only the human sex distinction. The Left loathes this concept of a divine order. That is the primary driver of its current attempt to obliterate the male-female distinction."

Let's lump this with this...

6) "The biblical view is that the nuclear family is the basic unit of society — a married father and mother and their children. This is the biblical ideal. All good people of faith recognize that the reality of this world is such that many people do not or cannot live that ideal. And such people often merit our support. But that does not change the fact that the nuclear family is the one best suited to create thriving individuals and a healthy society, and we who take the Bible seriously must continue to advocate the ideal family structure as the Bible defines it. And for that, perhaps more than anything, we are mocked."

Okay.  Historically the Bible does not reflect order.  It reflects chaos.  Look at all the wrath and war and dissension and even mockery as told in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.  It is full of violence and famine and misery.  Once again, all this misery did not get better because of the Bible.  It improved because of the Enlightenment.  The Bible had 2,000 years to make a better world and it failed completely. The world has only become better from a global perspective with the application of the Enlightenment.  It is the elimination of wars between nations and the reduction of mass disease and starvation that has brought order to the world.  The world is today more peaceful than it has ever been before in human history.  The historical fact is that human beings created order out of chaos - not God.  That process obviously continues today, there is still much work to be done.  But clearly there is a more ordered world today than there was when Jesus was crucified.

Part of the Biblical order is the order of the husband being the head of the household, the wife being subservient to him, and the children to both parents.  This is a regressive perspective, reflective of pre-Enlightenment thinking.  Mr. Prager tries to make his point more palatable by couching it in the concept of the "nuclear family."  But this is a family where patriarchy is clearly the rule.  This is more specifically what the Bible teaches.  It is clearly antiquated.  Moreover, ample evidence factually proves that, say, homosexual parents are as capable of raising their children as the traditional definition of the nuclear family.  Facts show that it isn't the father and mother who rear their children well so much as two responsible parents regardless of their gender.  Again, belief is regressive here, facts innovatively show that kids are perfectly fine raised in any loving home between two loving people.  God isn't necessary in any of this.

7) "The biblical view holds that wisdom begins with acknowledging God. The secular view is that God is unnecessary for wisdom, and the left-wing view is that God is destructive to wisdom. But if you want to know which view is more accurate, look at the most godless and Bible-less institution in our society: the universities. They are, without competition, the most foolish institutions in our society."

Bullshit.  "Wisdom" is not the product of the Bible, although, once again, wisdom can be found there.  There were wise humans before the Bible was written.  There are wise people across all cultures and religions and even without religion.  Wisdom does not begin with belief.  Wisdom begins with learning from your mistakes.  Beliefs are often mistaken and unwise.  Look at the state of the Christian Church today - so many followers fractured into a multitude of disagreeing factions, all proclaiming the "truth of God Almighty" when, in fact, they disagree on how to interpret the Bible.  

As for the "godless" academic institutions, these are the source of our Enlightenment.  They produce the science and the medicine that heals and feeds and lessens the misery of humanity as a whole.  They produce the ethics by which human beings have more individual liberty than ever before.  Contrary to Mr. Prager's best intentions, if you want to know which "view" is more "accurate" look at all the "thought and prayers" that inevitably follow each of America's ever-increasing instances of gunfire mass murder.  The most "foolish institutions" in America are the Bible-thumping NRA and KKK; the so-called "God, Guns and Gold" crowd.  

Human beings are not inherently evil.  What they are is inherently ignorant.  But the Enlightenment is changing this far more than any wisdom of the Bible did over the course two millennia.  A coherent discussion of historical facts over mere beliefs might be taken by Mr. Prager as "mocking" but if that is the case then so be it.  I do not "mock" the Bible. I disagree with it.  Mocking is actually what Mr. Prager does with his insistence that human reason has had a lesser impact on the betterment of the world than the Bible.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Our Planet: The High Seas and Other Thoughts

I recently finished watching Our Planet, a wonderful documentary series on Netflix.  Each episode is filled with surprising, often almost unbelievable, facts and photography.  I have seen many nature programs in my life but the cinematography in Our Planet surpasses all of them.  The shots are often breath-taking and sometimes leave me wondering how the hell they managed to capture particular video imagery.  The series is a visual and educational marvel.   
The series is hosted by the incomparable and ever-enduring David Attenborough, who has been writing and producing material on the natural world since the 1950’s (all of my life).  I was a big fan of his The Living Planet series back in the 1980’s.  I have the book Attenborough wrote for that series as well as the complete series on VHS tapes.   But, compared with that series, Our Planet is a major advance in both content and technical achievement. 

Our Planet caused a lot of controversy in Episode 2 which broadcasts the horrible sight of numerous Walrus’ falling to their death because, due to excessive ice melting, they are able to climb onto higher rock cliffs now but they don’t have the intelligence to climb back down from them.  That particular scene inspired a lot of headlines but it is only the tiniest part of the series and is only one of many incredible natural occurrences featured throughout the eight episodes.

This blog post will concern itself only with Episode 6, “The High Seas.”  It was one of those episodes where I wasn’t expecting much compared with other parts of the documentary with which I have more affinity, but I found my modest expectations greatly exceeded.  “The Hugh Seas” is not only a remarkable hour-long look a lesser understood aspect of nature, it also documents for the viewer the very cornerstone for life on Earth.  Simply put, without the High Seas life as we know it on our planet would not exist.

To quote the episode: “The ocean is the largest living space on Earth and two-thirds of it is owned by no one.  These are the high seas, beyond the reach of national laws….The high seas are vast and deep and dark.  The surface layers are home to more familiar creatures.  Albatross above, fish beneath, tiny krill and giant whales.  Which is most important to protect?  Perhaps it’s the plants.  Phytoplankton, the microscopic, floating plants of the high seas.  What they lack in size, they make up for in numbers.  Plankton blooms can be so dense and vast they can be seen from space.  They are so numerous, they create as much oxygen as all the world’s forests and grasslands combined. 

“In the high seas, essential nutrients are scarce and everything, plankton included, has a tendency to sink to the darkness below where no plant can grow.  Enter the whales.  They mix up the water, flicking the sinking plankton back into the sunlight.  Astonishingly, this mixing by marine animals, from whales to jellyfish, is locally equivalent to the mixing caused by winds and waves and tides.  Whales also make another contribution to the high seas’ circle of life.  They defecate at the surface, fertilizing the sunlit shallows, and fueling the growth of plankton.  The plankton feeds fish and krill, and the fish and krill feed whales.  The whales then recycle the nutrients back to where they are most needed.”

The episode points out that last century human beings almost wiped out the whales.  But we instituted protections just in time.  Still today, other species that contribute to this oceanic ‘circle of life’ are severely threatened.  Populations of Pacific Bluefin Tuna are down 95% in the last 50 years.  Sharks, down 90%.  Wandering Albatross are down 30% in 70 years.  The vast majority of these deaths are collateral damage to humanity’s massive fishing of the seas.  Recently, our dumping of plastics into this vast oceanic area is also a major contributor.  By 2050 there will be, by weight, more plastic in the oceans than marine life.  Overall, one-third of fish species are now extinct due to overfishing and pollution.

The threat to marine life that facilitates the growth of phytoplankton is most significant because this plankton produces half the world’s oxygen.  Astoundingly, phytoplankton are also an important ingredient in the formation of clouds at sea.  These microscopic organisms are actually lifted out of the water and into the air, forming the glue by which clouds form and grow into thunderstorms, which brings fresh water to the land masses to sustain animal and plant life, and makes agricultural enterprises possible.

So the semi-cliché concept of the ‘circle of life’ is not some dumbed-down or popularized notion to make our planet's delicate balance easier to appreciate.  It is reality. 

Inspired by this episode I contemplated the beginning of all food chains, as it were.  Lanternfish and krill are the most numerous animal species on the planet.  They depend upon plankton for their survival.  In turn, these multitudes of tiny fish feed everything from whales to sea birds.  The planet is truly dependent on these seemingly innumerable undersea swarms.  

If you take the ‘circle of life’ all the way back to its beginnings, you find whales and dolphins and tuna keeping the plankton stirred up and fertilized.  The tiny fish eat the plankton for survival and are, in turn, eaten by numerous predators from air and sea, many of which we consume for food.  If the predatory animals, many already threatened with extinction, ceased to exist, the churning and fertilizing of the plankton would cease too, the whole system would collapse.  Not only would a major source of food be lost, but the world’s supply of rain and oxygen would diminish as well.

This is not a recipe for survival.

For me, the big takeaway from this episode is that the smallest things, which are of no direct use to humanity, are nevertheless the most fundamental things for human survival.  According to Genesis, God gave humanity “dominion” over the earth.  If true, this was a mistake and God is not perfect.  For this dominion has been, and continues to be, the most destructive force on the planet, threatening every aspect of God’s creation including the very existence of humanity itself. Humanity's dominion is the madness of a self-conflicted god. 

A more pragmatic and legitimate approach would be for humans to be ‘stewards’ of the planet, to recognize the dominion of the ecosystems themselves.  Western civilization has developed under the influence of toxic behavior.  Being at the top of the food chain, we have no understanding or appreciation for the enormous responsibility that entails.  And we arrogantly assume nature is our servant when, in truth, it is ultimately the other way around. Ask the victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes, of flooding and drought, if they feel empowered.

Yet, as I have mentioned before, humanity nevertheless controls nature to an unprecedented extent.  We have entered the Anthropocene, where we are largely in charge of the health and vitality of the earth.  While we as a species possess a greater understanding than ever before of the interrelationship of life on earth, that understanding is not widespread.  It is, in fact, limited to a few interested nature lovers and academic scholars.  

The mass of humanity knows nothing of the importance of plankton and laternfish.  We don’t eat them directly.  But this is our folly.  Because we collectively have yet to understand that we need to protect the entire habitats of the things we eat and the water we drink and the air we breathe.  As this episode of Our Planet documents, if we are going to be around 200 years from now we must start thinking holistically.  We must consider and protect things most of us never see or use – and that is a trait humanity as a whole does not possess in surplus.

So-called "tree-huggers" are mocked by the mass of humanity.  The cost and inconvenience of protecting habitats and of correcting our destructive behavior as a species is not factored in to our economic systems, which humans prize above everything else.  It isn’t just capitalism that has wrought such destruction.  Historically and all over the world communism and socialist economies historically have been far filthier and environmentally damaging than free market economies.  It is not the specific system that is the problem.  The problem is that the environmental costs of human activity, regardless of which philosophy it is based upon, does not factor the environment into account at all.

But there is hope.  People like Attenborough and TV series' like Our Planet are doing their part to enlighten the masses.  Many species have gone extinct due to human activity, but humanity is slowly learning to avoid the most essential extinctions.  A great number of threatened plants and animals are experiencing a rebound thanks to human protections.  Where our environment is concerned, human activity can be a curse or a blessing.

Fortunately, the earth is teeming with life and diversity.  Unfortunately, our learning process is slow.  So our hope is tinged with the knowledge that more human devastation of the environment is inevitable. And if we learn our lesson is survival in time, there will nevertheless be less diversity of life on earth in a couple of decades than there is today.  

Although Our Planet talks about the impact of human-made climate change through the series, I have not mentioned it in this post.  I wanted the reader to understand that we have fundamental challenges on the high seas and all over the globe even without the issue of climate change, though global warming certainly makes things even more complicated.

People either ‘believe’ in climate change or they don’t.  But there is no denying what Episode 6 is telling us.  The tiniest of things in the oceans are necessary for all life whether the planet heats up or enters a new ice age.  Even without the trendy headlines of melting polar ice caps and record-breaking high temperatures, Our Planet demonstrated in “The High Seas” episode, as with all of its episodes, that habitats are vital and fragile.  

Yet, they are also resilient.  Human protections for whales and other species and habitats have worked and are working to some degree.  We are simply at a point where our addiction to the demands of economic systems can longer be as myopic as it has been for the past 200 years.  Our Planet shows us the way toward addressing this and it shines a bright light on what we as species must do in order to adapt and change our carefree and reckless behavior if there is still to be a wild world out there supporting life itself.