Friday, June 21, 2013

“Clear verse about dark matters”: Thoughts on Book 1 of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius

Fools have more love and admiration, always
For things their blindness sees in hidden meanings;
They base their truths on what can sometimes tickle
Their ears, or what is soaked in sweetish sound.
(p. 38)*

Lucretius really lays into fans of Heraclitus in the preceding lines for the folly of believing that all things are made of fire rather than of a mixture of matter and void. Lucretius: If things are made of fire, then why don’t they get hotter the denser they are? You just got served.

**********General context************

9780253201256_med Around the time of the fall of the Roman Republic, Lucretius the philosopher/scientist/poet must have stumbled upon the philosophy of the Greek stoic, Epicurus, and thought it offered the most coherent and simple explanation there was for the behavior of observable reality. So he turned that philosophical system into an epic sort of poem. I’ve just finished the first of six books, and thought I’d share a few thoughts.

So instead of being filled with high drama, heroes, reversals of fortune, vicissitudes of fate, etc., The Way Things Are sings of scientific proofs, like: that nothing comes from nothing, that matter is indestructible, things are composed of matter and void, that matter resists motion and void makes way for movement, and that atoms must not be infinitely small but rather must be indivisible.

Frankly, I get why someone might find it boring. If you’re not an historian of science, the plainly didactic content of the poem is a pretty dry lesson. Much of Book 1 consists of Lucretius refuting the arguments of competing theories of nature. (The one refutation that got me to laugh out loud a bit concerned the idea that when a log is set on fire, then fire must have already been contained within the log before igniting. Lucretius basically asks, “then why, when we grind corn, doesn’t blood pour out? We eat the corn and it sustains us, so the blood must already be in the corn, but where’s the blood?”)

**********Critique of Religion************

Much more interesting to me is the critique of religion and superstition throughout the poem. Lucretius, true to the epic form, opens his verse with an invocation of Venus. However, his invocation, perhaps more than petitioning the goddess for inspiration, is primarily a request for Love to neutralize War, and give the human race some time and space to calmly think.

Ah, goddess, pour yourself around [War], bend
With all your body’s holiness, above
His supine meekness, drown him in persuasion,
Imploring, for the Romans, blessed peace. (20)

An anti-invocation, perhaps? Later Lucretius refers to that “grim Religion” that once forced human life to grovel until Epicurus dared “raise his mortal eyes / Bravely against this menace” (21), and he describes priests as fear-mongers, offering nothing but terrifying fantasies “to overturn your sense / Of logic” (22).

Plain about his intentions, Lucretius describes the purpose of the poem thus:

                                     I teach great things,
I try to loose men’s spirit from the ties,
Tight-knotted, which religion binds around them. (46)

So perhaps then, after all, there is something of high epic drama about The Way Things Are in the way Lucretius configures himself in opposition to the gods, as a liberator of human life from the foul tyranny of capricious overlords, except—you know—the gods are just bullshit, so no Krakens get released, no committees of elves and hobbits need forming, no cosmic battle require mythical weaponry, or anything like that.

**********Poetry as Sweetener************

Such epic framing, and yet when it comes down to it, the action of the poem is basically Lucretius saying: “Have a seat and make yourself comfortable. Let me tell you about these things called atoms. Now some guys are going to tell you that you can just keep cutting stuff in half forever, but those guys are idiots! Obviously….”

In fact, looking again at the epigraph at the top of this post equating “sweetish sound” with junk science, I wonder whether the choice of poetic form doesn’t overly-adulterate and thereby undermine the lesson. The Way Things Are is “edu-tainment,” and Lucretius admits as much:

Just as when doctors try to give to children
A bitter medicine, they rim the cup
With honey’s sweetness, honey’s golden flavor,
To fool the silly little things, as far
As the lips at least, so that they’ll take the bitter
Dosage, and swallow it down, fooled, but not swindled,
But brought to health again through double-dealing,
So now do I, because this doctrine seems
Too grim for those who never yet have tried it,
So grim that people shrink from it, I’ve meant
To explain the system in a sweeter music,
To rim the lesson, as it were, with honey,
Hoping, this way, to hold your mind with verses
While you are learning all that form, that pattern
Of the way things are. (46-7)

For Lucretius, obviously, the Epicurean system is true in any form, founded on clear logic and reason. The poetry merely conveys—does not corrupt, presumably because Lucretius knows his own intent is not disingenuous. But will this be the case? Will the pure and clear knowledge of ungodly nature not suffer violence from the mouth of the poet? Will the quiet serenity of the philosopher not give way to dithyrambic frenzy when aesthetic reason commands it?


*All quotations come from:

Lucretius, Carus Titus. The Way Things Are: The De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969. Print.

which was purchased from Another Story Used Books in Allentown, PA for a buck seventy-five.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

We Must Do Something, Even If It Makes Matters Much Worse

And that is why our war in the Middle East is going to start all over again.

I’ve given Obama a lot of credit for his seeming reluctance to involve the US in military conflicts. A McCain or Romney administration, I’m sure, would have had boots on the ground by this point. But the Liberal Interventionists in the administration, such as Susan Rice and Samantha Power, so traumatized by the failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide and as helplessly compelled to view all conflict through the lens of that failure as the previous administration was compelled to view all conflict through the lens of the success of the Cold War, and operating under the doctrine the UN now calls “Responsibility to Protect” but which was once known as the White Man’s Burden, seem to have made a winning case for dipping a toe into the tar pit.

Now that we’ve determined (to “a high level of confidence”) that Bashar al-Assad has used sarin gas several times over the past year, we’re going to fix it by handing out guns to the “moderate” rebels. It’s a slam dunk. I wonder, if we offered chemical weapons to the rebels, whether they would use them. I suspect they would.

Rebel General Idris: “Give me 200 antitank missiles, 100 antiaircraft weapons, and half a million bullets so that the killing can stop.”

Now that we’ve selected our proxy (an incoherent faction within an even more incoherent faction), it will be that much more difficult to resist the pressure of calls for escalation when half-measures inevitably fail. Those half-measures will turn into full-measures, and the civil war that perhaps Assad could have cruelly won will be invigorated now that his opposition has a high level of confidence in US support. We will prolong the suffering and provide a whole new set of motivations for men to kill other men in the region.

In “Nonviolence and Peacemaking Today” (1997), an essay in which Michael Nagler endeavored to establish the concept of peace as an activity and not merely as the absence of an activity, “violence is [defined as] a failure to perceive the living web of unity that binds attacker and victim.” Violence, more than the application of brute force, is a form of blindness. What can restore our sight?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Vilem Flusser and the Vampire Squid

Peter Godfrey-Smith, writing at the Boston Review, recently considered the value of what he calls “what it’s like” philosophical hypotheticals in a recent essay, “On Being an Octopus” (via Andrew Sullivan). Defending against “materialists” who may regard the practice as misguided (for we can never truly know how some other thing experiences its experiences), Godfrey-Smith suggests that such thought experiments help to strike the right balance between thinking of our minds as either more or less private and mysterious than they really are.

Vampire_squid Even if such investigations into the cognition of other species is as misguided as those materialists may claim, I think that Vilem Flusser (1920-1991), whose recently translated treatise on Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, commonly called the “Vampire Squid", partakes of that genre, may be acquitted of the charge.

I wrote a little about Flusser about 2 years ago, in a post on Madmen and subjectivity. Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is a short essay (about 75 pages) he wrote in 1987 and that has just recently been translated by Valentine A. Pakis and published by the University of Minnesota Press as Volume 23 of Cary Wolfe’s great Posthumanities series.

Flusser’s attempt at assuming the mind of a vampire squid is explicitly a fable and his reasoning explicitly metaphorical and deliberately non-scientific:

Certain aspects of human Dasein [Being] are evident in this structure [vampyroteuthic Being], and certain others appear in it utterly distorted. Perhaps then a game can be built out of distorting mirrors that would enable us to recognize the basic structure, distorted and from afar, of our own Dasein. By playing a “reflective” game of this sort, we should hope to gain a new perspective of ourselves that, though distanced, is not “transcendent” [my emphasis]. It will not be transcendent, that is, because its standpoint will differ from that of science, which would adopt an “objective” position by floating above the world and looking down upon mankind. On the contrary, our analysis of humans will be made from the perspective of the vampyroteuthis, which coexists with us in the world. It is our co-being (Mit-sein). (9-10)

Two impulses animate the prose of Vilem Flusser in my estimation. The first is his sense of adventure—he equates philosophy with exploration and expedition and laments the use of well-worn concepts and the consolation of familiar ideas. The second, related to the first, is his insight that familiar things—customary, habitual things—render themselves invisible. Home and habit, he writes in “Taking Up Residence in Homelessness", “like a cotton blanket, …cover up all phenomena.” And “custom”, he writes in Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, “is a shroud that conceals everything” (36).

I definitely relate to this second impulse—the idea that when things grow familiar they grow invisible. It is the same to say “you never know what you have until it is gone,” although in Flusser’s case, “what you have” are habits of thought.

So the idea behind the essay Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is to estrange ourselves from our customary ways of thinking—to look at ourselves from the perspective of the alien and to render visible the too familiar patterns of behavior in which we engage. “The further removed a phenomenon is from its describer, the more objectively describable it is” (16).

And ironically, over the course of the essay, the vampire squid comes more and more to represent the human unconscious and those tendencies towards dissemblance, cannibalism, suicide, and fascism that we judge, from the comfort of our civilized, liberal well-lit sitting rooms, to be monstrous.

In other words, what Flusser attempts is a critique of the ego from the perspective of the id.

Significantly, however, and perhaps in agreement with Peter Godfrey-Smith, Flusser ultimately recommends striking a balance between the arrogance of regarding the vampire squid part of ourselves as savage and in need of redeeming, and the pull to identify too strongly with that part. In either case, the risk is to lose sight of some essential part of ourselves—to consign that part to the abyss and trust it to behave itself there, unwatched.

On the contrary, Flusser endeavors to render the mind absolutely visible and in that pursuit must render the mind absolutely strange.