Tag Archives: Nihilism

Developing the Dialogue–ETS Paper 2010

I’m continuing my little subtheme of papers addressing Buddhism in some way.  This piece is actually the most direct discussion, but unfortunately it was a fairly hastily written conference paper.  My second conference of the year, and my first time attending that conference, Evangelical Theological Society Conference 2010 was overshadowed for me by the trip I was taking to meet Sarah, my own rapidly growing conviction that the Catholic Church was where the Truth resided, and my almost desperate exhaustion–having transitioned jobs to my second evangelical faculty post, only to face moving on immediately.  A topic I had hoped to give slow, deep reflection to therefore became a quick summary, with no likelihood of an immediate resumption of the conversation.

Still, I think I was getting at something real, here, and I hope to have an opportunity to follow up on it.  Here, then, my rough-and-ready speaking text of my 2010 ETS submission:

The Time of God’s Long Suffering:
Reading the New Testament in Response to a Buddhist Problem

Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society
Atlanta, Georgia
November 17, 2010

Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation[.]
1 Peter 3:8-15

Most of you will, as I do, tend to immediately read this passage with attention to two key contexts: the context of individual reassurance or exhortation, and the context of discussions among various eschatological systems. Obviously, the passage should be read in these ways. Let me ask you, though, to set those aside for a moment, and look more directly at the language of time itself, here. The “thousand years” and “one day” paradox suggests that God’s interactions with time are subject to compression and dilation relative to His concerns. The time frame of calendars and clocks, though part of the order of Creation, is not absolute. Instead, the Epistle’s readers are oriented to a time frame in which “the Lord is not slow […] but patient”; in which God’s reluctance to end the age before “all should reach repentance” will give way very unexpectedly, “like a thief,” and violently, even to the point of a distillation of the material cosmos to its personal, spiritual quintessence.

Perhaps most strikingly, the reader so oriented becomes a participant in this timing, “waiting for and hastening” the end while simultaneously able to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation.” From this brief reading, permit me to extract a framework of four assertions for later use:

  • The time of Creation (world history, the history of the cosmos) is contingent, not ultimate or definitive even for the cosmos.
  • Events within Creation time are more significantly ordered by God’s concern than by clock-and-calendar chronology.
  • God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons.
  • Because of God’s concern, humans also participate in changing significance of Creation time.

I believe a framework like this should permit us to address Buddhist thought on its own terms, while still reasoning consistently from the language of Scripture.
Now, before I proceed, let me hasten to offer three disclaimers—yea, I will give four qualifications. First, I know that just “one small step for a man” from what I’ve just said lies a fruitful and ancient discussion of chronos and kairos in rhetoric and history. I would love to hear from some of you who are more deeply involved in that conversation than I am; I am sidestepping that discussion. Second, I am keenly aware that the readings from 1 Peter, Luke, Romans, and 1 Corinthians that I hope to offer, today, will hardly be groundbreaking—indeed, I hope that I will say nothing absolutely new. I hope only to emphasize certain elements of these texts that speak to a certain juncture in a certain discussion.

Third, when I turn to face Buddhism, I am aware of a double criticism that can be made against my main sources, which are Japanese Buddhists from the Kyoto School. Scholarly Buddhism is not folk Buddhism; and Japan’s uptake of Buddhism is idiosyncratic within East Asian context, even before we turn to Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent. I have done what I may within my background reading and selection of sources to deal with these known issues by using sources from both main traditions of Japanese Buddhism, privileging their direct interactions with Pali source texts, and staying as near as I may to “mainstream” collections of the teachings of the Buddha.

Beyond that, and fourth, I say to you that I very humbly offer these comments as an attempt to mark some clear connections within a Christian conversation that answers to a Buddhist conversation. When I say that these passages provide us with answers, I definitely have in mind neither the insistence of fact against the question, nor the reduction of the question to the scaffolding used to renovate it, but the apologia of a faithful response in another’s conversation, and a hope that can bear questioning.

While my personal hopes definitely have to do with the interaction of committed Christians with East Asian culture, I have also developed a keen interest in the convergence of Continental philosophy with Buddhism. There has been a steadily growing (though very uneven) interaction of Western philosophy with Buddhism throughout the past two centuries, correlating very precisely to the growth of a post-Christian consensus in the societies once comprised as Christendom. Nietzsche’s Antichrist at one point addresses the relationship of Buddhism to Christianity under the very late Nietzsche’s abrasive criticism of both religions. Significantly, Nietzsche compares the two in terms of the theology of sin: “Buddhism is the only really positive religion to be found in history, even in its epistemology (which is strict phenomenalism)—it no longer speaks of the ‘struggle with sin’ but fully recognising the true nature of reality it speaks of the ‘struggle with pain’” (17). Nietzsche does not have a particularly close understanding of Buddhism, but he does identify the difference in emphasis between Western philosophy and Buddhism reasonably well.

Equally imprecise, and apparently contradicting Nietzsche, J. Estlin Carpenter’s 1923 Buddhism and Christianity differentiates the Christian response to suffering from Buddhism as follows:

The revelation of the Rule of God instead of ending “the age that now is” has indefinitely prolonged it. And it has not altered its external conditions. The world is as full of the pains of sickness, the decrepitude of age and the sorrows of death, as it was when the son of Suddhodana first learned of them on his pleasure-drives. […] And we have not the insight claimed by the Buddha to relate each smart to some incident of wrong in a distant life. Christianity can never explain suffering. In the mingled web of pain and joy which is woven into every lot, it can lay no hand upon the ill and say “This is thy desert.” Under the Rule of God it has another word, “This is thy service.” (62)

Of course, from Carpenter’s later and fairly liberal standpoint, Nietzsche’s distinction between “struggle with sin” and “struggle with pain” has fallen into disuse; “sin” is simply one of the “external conditions” in the “mingled web.” What is interesting, however, is that Carpenter appears to believe that the Buddhist idea of karma definitely calls for one-to-one consequences for acts, while Christianity does not do so. Carpenter’s view seems to accord well with Christ’s rebukes concerning the man born blind or the sacrilegious murder of some Galileans, but also seems to ignore the principle of sowing and reaping, as well as the trial by works of Romans 2.

Both Nietzsche and Carpenter have tapped something, though, which is of crucial importance when trying to bring the Buddhist understanding of suffering into contact with the New Testament. As Carpenter’s assertion “Christianity can never explain suffering” suggests, Buddhism regards suffering as the trace, and also the essential determination, of being sentient. Suffering both marks and is the fact which consciousness explains. Christianity, however, has typically taken suffering as indicative, not of the nature of being, but of a defect within a goodness either remembered or anticipated. Christianity typically tries to account for the defect so as to distinguish the ill and its causes from the creature and its goodness (hence the perennial “problem of evil” is accompanied by the “problem of pain”). Buddhism, on the other hand, typically tries to account for sentient being’s apparently intrinsic capacity for suffering.

For Takeuchi Yoshinori, both religious and philosophical efforts have as their focus a “conversion,” the core of which is a shift from thinking of suffering as an individual experience to thinking of the individual consciousness a form of suffering. Takeuchi proposes in The Heart of Buddhism that “conversion is said to begin with self-purification, with a catharsis of soul” for “mystical traditions of all times and places.” He further differentiates “mere morality or ethics” from “purification that follows on conversion” in such traditions, for the latter “stands on a higher plane.” Takeuchi suggests that “such purification is permeated throughout by the problem of the impermanence of all things, by the problem of life and death,” but this problem is not merely a matter of finite lifespan. For this reason, Takeuchi criticizes “neo-Kantianism—along with the liberal theology based on it” for being “fettered to the immanentism of human reason and hence [. . .] only impeding our view of that abyss of death and sin and nihility that opens up under our very feet as the fate of being human” (72-3). Like the Curse of Genesis 3, the problem as Takeuchi takes it up is bound up with all of the joy and suffering of mortal life. For Takeuchi, this understanding of human moribundity tightly links traditions as varied as yogic Hinduism, various Buddhisms, medieval Christian mysticism, and post-Christian existentialisms. The crucial insight, he suggests, is a universalizing of the confrontation with suffering: “Without the memento mori, without an accompanying awareness and appropriation of death in the depths of one’s own being, those reflections become nothing more than pathological abnormalities.” Reflection on suffering which leads one to relate to such suffering as a defining feature of sentient being, rather than merely an unpleasant experience for such a being, is the essence of the “conversion” Takeuchi has in view.

In Takeuchi’s writing, the “turn” involved in this “conversion” hinges on the subject’s becoming conscious of what Buddhists term “dependent origination.” Takeuchi suggests that this conversion is often described in the “fundamental experience of artists and poets,” who in their self-conscious acts of representation may “experience an immediate embodiment of the dynamism of world and body, other, and life prior to the distinction of subject and object” (74). The writer whose characters “take over” the work, the carpenter who sees what the wood “wants to be,” the painter who realizes that he and his painting are illuminated by the sun no differently than the things he paints, are all having experiences that hint at the principle of “dependent origination.” Takeuchi describes “dependent origination” as follows:

the subject that, seen from the world, is part of the world, constructs its own being-in-the-world co-dependently and correlatively with the world, and yet does so as its own activity. [. . .] We may liken it to dreaming: when we dream, we live in correlatedness with the world of the dream and, through the phenomenal identity of dreamer and dream, keep the dream alive; but as soon as we become aware of this correlatedness, we have already awoken. (80-1)

Takeuchi extends this similitude of “dreaming” when discussing the consequences of a developed consciousness of “dependent origination”: “at the moment one awakens, the various sufferings that troubled the world of sleep are awakened to in the realization, ‘it was only a dream; I was sleeping’” (91). He proposes that the conditions for the construction of world and self “are only grasped in their primary sense when their essential determination is sought in terms of their extinction, when they are seen as past essences, as things that were.” The subject having awakened to the understanding that something which suffers—the subject, the self, personally and globally, as self or as deity—has originated through moribund desire, the practice of disassociation from such desire should cause, not a turn within that self, but a return to the world precisely as a universal suffering within which one need not be perturbed.

For Keiji Nishitani, this form of “conversion” is a key distinction between Buddhist and Christian responses to the nihility of secular life (its ultimate negation of its own ground for significance). Nishitani contrasts the Western responses of post-Christian figures such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, in which “nihilism is dealt with on the horizon of the so-called ‘history of being,’” with the Eastern response, in which a nihilistic crisis has not occurred (168). He argues that “the East has achieved a conversion from the standpoint of nihility to the standpoint of sunyata [or Emptiness, No-Thingness].” Rather than picture suffering as a disease or disorder within the individual, Nishitani’s Buddhism describes “the ‘sea of samsaric suffering,’ likening the world, with all its six ways and its unending turnover from one form of existence to another, to an unfathomable sea and identifying the essential Form of beings made to roll with its restless motion as suffering” (169). Thus, although “the nihilism of modern Europe […] could not help but awaken to itself as something pervaded by a Great Suffering,” Nishitani praises the Buddhist response which “goes a step beyond the existential self-awareness of suffering to speak of a ‘universal suffering’ where ‘All is suffering,’ and to recognize in suffering a basic principle.” In fact, Nishitani measures the post-Christian Western response to suffering in the person against Buddhist principles and suggests that “It might not be wide of the mark to suggest that Buddhism’s explanation of suffering as one of its Four Noble Truths—the ‘Truth about Suffering’—be regarded as an advance beyond the existential awareness of suffering to an existential interpretation […] of being-in-the-world.”

In other words, the Buddhism represented by Nishitani and Takeuchi affirms that suffering seen or experienced by the individual provides a hint toward a higher understanding, a re-interpretation of the cosmos from the standpoint of suffering. If suffering, whether by undesireable inflictions or unsatisfied desires, affects all things—and if death bounds every individual life within suffering—then suffering must be a more fundamental principle of sentient being than the pain and disease that bring it into consciousness. From this standpoint, the enlightenment for which the Buddha received that name is the belief, psychologically necessary and consistent with our humanity, that suffering is the reality of which particular individual thoughts, desires, concerns, lives, deaths, and discontents are the shadows. To perceive the world from the standpoint of all suffering would be, ironically, to cease to suffer any particular pains as any particular person. As a common Zen-inspired tea scroll says, “Nothing happens”; or rather, as the implied commentary says, “Things happen, but they happen to no one.”

One key problem for the Christian, of course, is that this brilliant psychological strategy seems to amount to an evacuation of Creation—if all sentient beings were to achieve this enlightenment, then the world as we know it would cease to be full of people. If we remember the four tentative principles we extracted from the language of time and suffering in 1 Peter 2, though, I believe we can speak to the necessity which inspires the Buddhist to seek the life of a Buddha precisely by affirming the nature of our suffering as such. Let me review those assertions, briefly:

  • The time of Creation (world history, the history of the cosmos) is contingent, not ultimate or definitive even for the cosmos.
  • Events within Creation time are more significantly ordered by God’s concern than by clock-and-calendar chronology.
  • God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons.
  • Because of God’s concern, humans also participate in changing significance of Creation time.

I believe these can be proposed to the Buddhist as an alternative response to the understanding of the universality of suffering. We may, for starters, accept the standpoint of all suffering as a profound expression of the reality of a fallen world, in which every sentient being suffers and is both actively (in actual sin) and complicitly (in original sin) a contributor to the suffering, even noting the very close correspondence of key Buddhist texts to the truth expressed in James 1:2-21. Verses 14-15 are especially on point: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (The language in James 4 about the origin of social conflict in spiritual conflict is also very helpful, here.)

We will not, however, propose a practice aimed at assuming the standpoint of all suffering, a “conversion” in which all things personal are taken to be shadows obliterated by one’s turning to see them. We know that, in the process of repentance and mortification by which we are conformed to Christ, we will come to exclaim with Paul that “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ lives within me” (Gal 2:20). Yet we will find ourselves compelled to confess that God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons. Suffering, especially unjust suffering, not only stresses our sense of God’s justice and goodness; it also reinforces our understanding that, in giving good gifts, God is never concerned merely with our separate, inner, immanent happinesses. In Luke 18:1-8, in fact, Christ’s teaching that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart” deals not only with the participation of believers waiting for vindication in the divine economy of justice, but specifically affirms God’s own impatience on the subject: “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” This impatience to vindicate Himself and His people over against the violence of human sinfulness, and to bring an end to suffering, is also the proper theme of the language in Romans 9 concerning the “vessels of wrath, doomed to destruction,” which God “endured with much patience.” We are, as Peter says in his Epistle, to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation.” Vindication—itself the urgently personal defense of those who cry out for deliverance from suffering and injustice—waits because of the similarly urgent and personal desire of a God who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

Because God is concerned with relationships among divine and human persons, the “turn” for the Christian believer is not from a world of personal suffering to a world of suffering impersonally, but from a world of personal suffering to a world of suffering with Christ for others. This is the lesson of 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, especially “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. […] Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” The historic Christian affirmation of the communion of the saints reflects exactly this economy of suffering, proclamation, and intercession, which is also enacted in “the communion of the body of Christ.” As many other texts in Scripture teach, particularly those most concerned with communion (both as a sacrament and as koinonea in its manifold meanings in the Body Life), to become a believer in Christ and a follower of Christ is not to become merely a member of a voluntary organization for the promotion of common goals; it is to become part of a divinely managed historical order whose interrelations—like they myriad interrelations of your body and mine—are real in complex ways which defy our efforts to reduce them to manageable lists of principles, visions, or sociological constructs.
There is urgency to this understanding, however. For just as the Buddhist who realizes that laughter makes no sense when the whole world is burning must proceed to enlightenment or live in madness and misery, we must not leave our friend in possession of our understanding without awakening him to the whole timetable; the insistency of an divine and human interpersonal norm on an eventual righting and reckoning of things, and the choice that requires of those who realize it. In Romans 2:1-8, Paul reminds us of the right ordering of time once more, most pointedly when he asks, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

As I have said, these are not the final thoughts, nor the answers which make the questions stop, in this conversation. I do believe, though, that by focussing on the language concerning our participation with God in God’s long suffering as constitutive of the time during which we live, we will make ourselves available to Buddhist thinkers as interlocutors who—unlike the god-talking atheists who primarily represent Western and even “Christian” thought to East Asian intellectual historians—believe the language of the New Testament itself speaks directly to the concerns Buddhist teaching seeks to respond to. And that, at least, must be an enriching of our discourse with the very words of truth.

Not Nihility—Mishima, Lovecraft, and a little Buddhism

I’m connecting this piece from 2012 to my series of posts that develop my running side-theme of interaction with Buddhism, though that is not necessarily the focus of the piece.  This conference paper is another that was unfortunately written under great time pressure, and it features some very coarsely edited material from my dissertation and my thesis.  I was trying to bring these two into conversation, and I think that generally I achieved that in this piece.  Given time, I would someday like to make a smoother version of this work; I am convinced that it gets at something common to all my major scholarship, and something very basically human.

Here, then, my paper prepared for a panel I shared with Geoffrey Reiter at a Science & Science Fiction conference held at ORU in Tulsa:

ORU Conference on Science and Science Fiction
April 12 & 13, 2012

When East and West Collide:
Hope and Imaginary Bodies in Mishima and Lovecraft

Absolute selfhood opens up as nonobjectifiable nothingness in the conversion that takes place within personality.  Through that conversion every bodily, mental, and spiritual activity that belongs to person displays itself as a play of shadows moving across the stage of nothingness.  [. . .]  It is the field commonly seen as “outermost” by the personal self and referred to as the external world actually present in the here and now, ever changing.  [. . .]  The “outer world” emerges here as a self-realization of nonobjectifiable nothingness, or, rather, makes itself present such as it is, in oneness with nothingness.

The field of true human existence opens up beyond the outer and the inner, at a point where the “shadowy man” is in oneness with absolute selfhood.  We have here an absolute self-identity.  Thinking, feeling, and action are, on every occasion, entirely illusory appearances with nothing behind them, the shadowy heart and mind of the shadowy man. 

Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness


There are few obvious similarities between Yukio Mishima and H. P. Lovecraft, but at first glance many readers will be hard put to tell which author penned the following lines:  “It naturally followed that when it did show itself unmistakably as a terrifying paradox of existence—as a form of existence that rejected existence—I was as panic-stricken as though I had come across some monster, and loathed it accordingly. ”  These words from Mishima’s Sun and Steel describe a phase of his development as man and writer in which his “stubborn refusal to perceive [his] body” could be accounted for by his longing for “the ideal body” that would “be absolutely free from any interference by words.”  Mishima’s idealization of what Shu Kuge calls “‘existence’ not yet translated into discursive language” could bear comparison to Lovecraft’s dream fantasies, his life-long memory of his childhood terror of “Night-gaunts,” and his fascination with things we cannot conceive before, beneath, and beyond our individual and collective consciousness, things that might turn out to be (literally) unutterably significant.  Focussing on Lovecraft’s story “The Outsider” and selections from Mishima’s Sun and Steel, I want to look at the ways that bodily experience of consciousness expresses nihility in both.

In bringing these two writers together, I am not only bringing an American and a Japanese writer onto the same stage, but attempting to build a bridge between various elements of my own research and teaching.  (In keeping with that goal, let me point out that significant portions of this paper are derived from earlier works whose arguments I am here advancing.)  In Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” then, we are looking at a quasi-autobiographical work from the Coleridge-Poe-Lovecraft tradition which has helped to invest much of the field of science fiction, fantasy, and horror with significance.  In Mishima’s Sun and Steel, we are looking at a quasi-autobiographical work situated squarely at the confluence of Romantic and existential “Western” thought with the “Eastern” though of Japanese Shinto-Buddhist culture.  As with the works of Coleridge, or of Friedrich Nietzsche or Antonin Artaud, these radically global and personal works of Lovecraft and Mishima both assert and reject a radical opposition between life as articulated in significant actions and utterances and life idealized as an inarticulate, pre-discursive unity.  Like Mishima’s “I,” the first-person speaker of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” finds his whole body of experience nauseating when he finally perceives his body.  We will begin by looking at how Lovecraft’s “Outsider” responds to such self-knowledge, then proceed to draw the parallel to the response Kuge reports from Mishima:  “The surface is not a representation or reflection of what is hidden beneath.  The surface is everything.”

“The Outsider”

The foremost editor and promoter of Lovecraft’s work, S. T. Joshi, characterizes Lovecraft’s 1921 story “The Outsider” as “haunting and inexhaustibly interpretable” (85).  Yet Joshi seems to find the story difficult to interpret, saying that “on the face of it, the tale makes little sense” and that “it is still hampered by conceptual difficulties, excessive derivativeness, an unfortunate reliance on overheated prose, and a ‘surprise’ ending that cannot be much of a surprise to many readers” (87).  It seems odd, though, to single out “The Outsider” as an example of “overheated prose,” as Lovecraft’s penchant for overwriting persists throughout his career.  Lovecraft did acknowledge that the story “represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its height” (qtd. in Joshi 86), and this accounts for much of its difference from Lovecraft’s later work.

More importantly, though, this dependence on Poe answers Joshi’s protest that “The Outsider” elicits no surprise at the end.  On this point, Joshi seems inexplicably insensitive to the conventions of the genre.  Both Poe and Lovecraft would tell him, in their critical writings, that the effect of such tales as “The Outsider,” in the tradition of Poe’s “William Wilson” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” is not surprise at all, but dawning awareness.  The reader does not experience a sudden and unexpected reversal of expectations; rather, the reader experiences a sudden confirmation of a pattern suggested but not proven by the events of the tale.  The mind, sensing the pattern, is drawn to look for confirming evidence, always suspecting the possibility of a reversal; as the evidence mounts, the conclusion begins to seem inevitable and the progress of the narrative at once inexorable and seemingly interminable.  When the sudden confirmation comes, all the evidence and suspicion–and the terror of the imagined possibilities which are not confirmed–is allowed to fall into place, effecting a sudden transformation in the reader’s perspective on the story.  Careful reading of such a story, then, should pay careful attention to problems of memory and perception that might appear as “conceptual difficulties” upon a first reading.

In reading “The Outsider,” the most significant such memory problem concerns the status of the narrator.  The story’s first-person narrator repeatedly speaks of the oblivion-inducing “nepenthe” which comforts him; he says of the climactic moment of the tale that “in the supreme horror of that second I forgot what had horrified me” (5); and the opening line of the final paragraph says that “nepenthe has calmed me.”  It is strange, then, that the very same paragraph closes with the narrator’s description of the “supreme horror” of the tale’s climax.  Upon a first reading, it seems impossible to explain the narrator’s ability to tell the story of an experience which he claims, while telling it, to have forgotten.

The speaker in “The Outsider” begins with a melodramatic pronouncement bewailing his memories:

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.  Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. (1)

From the very beginning, the typical Lovecraftian disposition toward memory is established:  it is a burden, even a curse, that the speaker would escape if he could.  Other examples abound:  the narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time” finds it a source of hope that “my experience was wholly or partly an hallucination” (275).  The narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” opens his account by saying, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.  We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” (52).

“The Outsider” intensifies this horror of memory by passing from the “fear and sadness” of “memories of childhood” to a horror even deeper:  “And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other” (1).  The main tension of the story unfolds in the space created by these two statements about memory:  no matter how unhappy the slice of reality depicted by his conscious memories may be, the speaker would rather “cling desperately” to those memories than allow his “mind […] to reach beyond to the other.”  The speaker then describes the tale of his own growth and exploration of his surroundings, his descriptions giving the reader a clear understanding of what the speaker refuses to clearly acknowledge: 

I know not where I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible […].  The stones in the crumbling corridors seemed always hideously damp, and there was an accursed smell everywhere, as of the piled-up corpses of dead generations. (1)

The narrator clearly signals his unreliability when he follows a statement about selective memory with a description beginning “I know not.”  In fact, the speaker’s memory is to be doubted at every turn, with the “smell […] as of the piled up corpses” being, in fact, a literal description rather than the metaphor intended by the speaker.  That the speaker found “nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons that strowed some of the stone crypts” reinforces the reader’s impression that the speaker has, himself, grown up in the crypts or catacombs beneath an ancient castle.  That the speaker considers these things normal clearly flags the distance between his perceptions and those of his audience.

The narrator’s circumlocutions leave the reader to piece together the significance of “the other” which the narrator is so eager to forget.  Progressively revealing elements of the unsurprising “surprise ending,” the narrator prepares his audience for a sudden transformation from suggestive uncertainty to confirmation.  In keeping with the genre and Poe’s example, the confirmation is delayed until the very end, even at the cost of some awkwardness.  The reader finds the narrator in a place so dark “that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief” (1) and follows his ascent, beginning when

in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky.  And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day. (2)

Having never seen the light, except that of candles and the gradations of twilight that exist even in the darkness of his world, the speaker nevertheless hungers for light; in this he echoes Poe’s critical appeals to a “thirst unquenchable” based on a “prescience of glories beyond the grave” which underlies all aesthetic appeals.  (Both of them, of course, are also refracting Plato’s parable of the cave through a lens of Christian apocalypticism.)  “The Outsider,” of course, is himself in the grave.  For the narrator in the story, the search for light will take him back up out of his grave, emerging into the world of the living in the first of the revelations for which the reader has long been prepared by the hints of the narrator:  “The sight itself was as simple as it was stupefying [. . .] there stretched around me [. . .] nothing less than the solid ground” (3).  In climbing the long tower up from his “castle,” the speaker has reached, not “a lofty eminence,” but the surface of the earth.  He emerges through a church, finding that “my mind, stunned and chaotic as it was, still held the frantic craving for light” (3).

As he emerges, the speaker becomes “conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory that made my progress not wholly fortuitous” (4).  Here the narrator’s and the reader’s journey coincide:  both are becoming aware that this is not a quest after knowledge, but after memory; something has been forgotten which will be recalled.  As the speaker continues, he arrives at a “castle [. . .] maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me.”  Approaching the castle, he sees “open windows–gorgeously ablaze with light and sending forth sound of the gayest revelry [. . .] an oddly dressed company, indeed; making merry, and speaking brightly” (4).  Here, it seems, is what he has been longing for; yet the reader is already prepared to ask whether this is “the other” to which the speaker referred; the audience is invited to wonder why the “latent memory” which guided him to this sight, the light for which he longed, was termed “fearsome.”

The answer is not long in coming:

I now stepped through the low window into the brilliantly lighted room, stepping as I did so from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realisation.  The nightmare was quick to come; for as I entered, there occurred immediately one of the most terrifying demonstrations I had ever conceived. (4)

“The nightmare” begins with all of the revelers fleeing in “clamour and panic” as the speaker enters the room (4).  Afraid of whatever could cause such a disturbance, the narrator looks around and approaches an archway, screaming “the first and last sound I ever uttered” as he sees “in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious fugitives” (5).  The speaker “cannot even hint what it was like,” but calls it “the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.  God knows it was not of this world–or no longer of this world.”  Of course, the reader familiar with the genre will have predicted what the story reveals in its last sentence:  the speaker “stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame [. . .] and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass” (6).

“The other,” then, is himself–is a view of himself in a mirror.  The usage of the phrase at the beginning of the tale, though, implies more.  “The other” is a thing “my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to,” analogous with but not identical to the physical reaching of his hand to the monster.  Hence, also, the speaker’s plunge is “from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realisation.”  “The other” represents a whole scheme of repressed knowledge.  As the speaker says at the moment,

In that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single and fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory.  I knew in that second all that had been.  I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own. (5)

The speaker, having been dead, has returned, less than human but still animated, to his home; his memories are dim and antiquated, but very much his.  Having once been a member of the “merry company” of the living, he has fallen into decay.  He cannot help but look at the brightly-lit revel, and risks everything all he knows to see its beauty; but he cannot see the beauty without being shown, immediately and drastically, his unfitness to participate in that beauty.

Elsewhere I have traced the relationship between Lovecraft’s horror fiction and the aesthetics of apocalypse in the Christian tradition that Lovecraft energetically defined himself against.  We may note one simple distinction between the Lovecraftian protagonist and the response of prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition at this point.  A prophet would follow this horror with a promise of restoration, a message of hope centered in the apocalyptic transformation of the believer into a being fit to behold God with loving desire.  In Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism, however, there is no place for hope and no grounds for such a transformation.  The only fit solution for “realisation,” then, is unreality.  Immediately following the moment of “soul-annihilating memory,” the speaker continues by saying,

But in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe.  In the supreme horror of that moment I forgot what had horrified me, and the burst of black memory vanished in a chaos of echoing images.  In a dream I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently in the moonlight. (5)

The “chaos of echoing images” could itself be a description of Lovecraft’s fiction, works which attempt to perform the sleight-of-hand whereby a culture which seeks to repress the irrepressible may both look on the “merry company” and forget the horror of its own unfitness.  Hence the central image, the all-important “realisation,” is always “inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable”; the speaker “cannot even hint” at it, but knows it for “a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny [cf. unheimlich], unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable,” a “nameless, voiceless monster” which earns “the first and last sound” of the speaker:  “a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause” (4-5).  The expression must be inarticulate because to articulate the “realisation,” to provide details of the life which the speaker remembers and then represses, would be to defeat the repression.  With no hope of transformation, Lovecraft’s narrator finds the only adequate response:  “In a dream I fled.”


Lovecraft’s 1926 essay “The Materialist Today” helps to generalize the significance of the narrator’s responses in “The Outsider.”  Ironically, the passage is bracketed with statements which, taken alone, would seem to run exactly counter to the fictional narrator’s flight into dreams:  “It is most sensible just to accept the universe as it is, and be done with it. [. . .] He will get most satisfaction in the end by keeping faithful to these things.”  The sentences between, though, tell the story:

All is illusion, hollowness and nothingness–but what does that matter?  Illusions are all we have, so let us pretend to cling to them; they lend dramatic values and comforting sensations of purpose to things which are really valueless and purposeless.  All one can logically do is jog placidly and cynically on, according to the artificial standards and traditions with which heredity and environment have endowed him.

Lovecraft here recommends to his reader precisely the course of action taken by the narrator of “The Outsider”:  the reader should “pretend to cling to [illusions]” just as the speaker escaped “in a dream.”

Such efforts to avoid certain kinds of knowledge at any cost are typical of Lovecraft’s “cosmicist” philosophy.  The universe, he claims, is purposeless; but the illusion of purpose is necessary for human conduct and emotional stability.  In a 1927 letter to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales magazine, Lovecraft defines “cosmicism” when he says

all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large. […] one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. […] when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown–the shadow-haunted Outside–we must remember to leave our humanity–and terrestrialism at the threshold. (209)

Ultimately, the nihilism from which some of his characters wish to protect the world is precisely what Lovecraft seeks to inculcate.  Lovecraft believes that, by facing the horror of a universe in which man does not matter at all, the reader will be forced to discard his illusions (among which, of course, Lovecraft would place religion) and to “jog placidly and cynically on.”  In Lovecraft’s materialistic universe, hope of the sort described by the Christian tradition is ridiculous; instead, as he wrote to Helen Sully in 1935,

What most persons can rationally expect is a kind of working adjustment or resignation in which active pain is cut down to a minimum. . . . This, therefore, should be the only norm in matters of expectation and endeavor (304). 

The experience of Mishima, and the troubling abandonment to dark fantasy of the living-dead narrator in “The Outsider,” suggest that this resolution is fraught with moral and bodily hazards.

The speaker’s flight is, indeed, an escape into a dream-world:  he joins “the fiendish ghouls that ride the night-wind”; but, after his “burst of black memory” has “vanished,” they are “the mocking and friendly ghouls” who “play by day” in exotic, faraway places (5).  Readers of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fiction, the dream-fantasies which revolve around his story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” will recognize the ghouls and their typical haunts.  While Lovecraftian ghouls may live in the subterranean reaches of the waking world, as in “Pickman’s Model,” and often haunt places where Lovecraft is wont to find stairways and gates between waking and dreaming, they are primarily creatures of the dream-world; only in a dream can the speaker “ride the night-wind” (5).  When we have taken a look at the parallel between this part of Lovecraft’s work and some elements in the work of Yukio Mishima, we will return to Lovecraft to build on this analysis, and hint toward a more general approach that will reach beyond the strictly post-Christian and Western horror fictions of Lovecraft.


As also happens in quasi-autobiographical works from Coleridge, Nietzsche, and Artaud, Mishima’s works foreground a struggle between the self of utterable, lived experience and the self idealized as prior to that discursive being.  In Sun & Steel, Mishima seems to echo Lovecraft’s “Outsider” in what we are meant to take as a critical commentary on Mishima’s own development:

Interestingly enough, my stubborn refusal to perceive my body was itself due to a beautiful misconception in my idea of what the body was.  I did not know that a man’s body never shows itself as “existence.”  But as I saw things, it ought to have made itself apparent, clearly and unequivocally, as existence.  It naturally followed that when it did show itself unmistakably as a terrifying paradox of existence—as a form of existence that rejected existence—I was as panic-stricken as though I had come across some monster, and loathed it accordingly.  It never occurred to me that other men—all men without exception—were the same.

[. . .]  Never dreaming that the body existing in a form that rejected existence was universal in the male, I set about constructing my ideal hypothetical physical existence by investing it with all the opposite characteristics.  And since my own, abnormal bodily existence was doubtless a product of the intellectual corrosion of words, the ideal body—the ideal existence—must, I told myself, be absolutely free from any interference by words.  (Mishima 11)

The “ideal body” in this passage represents the hoped-for unity prior to the discursive formation of the self.  The effort to construe the human subject in this way, in Mishima as in Lovecraft or modern Western metaphysics, leads to “a terrifying paradox of existence” which leaves him “panic-stricken” before a global problem:  “other men—all men without exception—were the same.”  Mishima’s response to this is helpfully summarized by Shu Kuge:

The “body” in Mishima’s thought is a metonymy for “experience” that is not yet translated into discursive language.  Mishima once clamored:  Why don’t people realize the importance of the depth of the surface?  The surface is the depth; in other words, the surface is not a representation or reflection of what is hidden beneath.  The surface is everything.  (Kuge 66)

For Mishima, the “terrifying paradox” of “the body existing in a form that rejected existence” (the very crux of Nietzsche’s assault on Christianity, and his critique of Buddhism, in The Antichrist) is ultimately resolved, beyond the naïveté of simple oppositions, by an insistence on the surface—on the very skin itself—as the phenomenal being, here, now, than which nothing else can be meaningfully represented.  This ultimately meant, for Mishima, that only the act of ritual suicide by cutting into the skin with a sharp blade, only at the peak of physical perfection, and only at the historical moment when he (vainly) hoped his public political act would lead to revolution, could be meaningful.

The example of Mishima thus presses the urgency of the problems from which Lovecraft’s “Outsider” flees into narrative oblivion.  As Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel points out, drawing a parallel between the bodily experiences of Pier Paulo Paolini, Michel Foucault, and Mishima, the “terrifying paradox” passage marks a “horror of incarnation” in response to which “the author undertakes a quest for an incorruptible ‘ideal body’” (218).  The metal of weights that Mishima uses in body-building transform him so that “his muscles” can be seen as “the steel that becomes the sword for his disembowelment.”  As Chasseguet-Smirgel describes it, such extremes as Mishima’s may “constitute the culmination of mute unconscious gnostic ideas” which “is often allied with an unleashed eroticism that does not accommodate itself to the limits of the body” or to any of the differences which mark bodily experience and ground discourse in living bodies.  Like the problematizing move which authorizes the dead narrator of “The Outsider” to repeat for us a tale which denies his memory and his death, such radical experimentation attempts to realize the unthinkable, to experience that which is inconsistent with the conditions of bodily life.

As a result, this radical experimentation (whether sexual, political, literary, or religious) repeats the moribundity of the desire which founds the discursive being in more radical fashion:  such radical experimentation “can lead not only to murder—an absolute possession of the object—but also to suicide—an absolute dissolution of the subject” (219).  If “the surface is everything,” then fatally piercing the surface, in a final physical refutation of discursive being, appears as a conclusion which is not only logical, but emphatically actual.  Thus suicide comes to be, as it is represented repeatedly in Mishima, something akin to “apotheosis” (220), at least in some wish-fulfillment fantasies.  Chasseguet-Smirgel concludes that such a “Foucauldian body” provides us with “a particularly striking example of the wish for a body that is disorganized, without hierarchy, and with perfectly interchangeable parts.”  Such a body is not merely local in its conception and representation; the rupture of the body, which in lived experience never achieves or recovers this idealized inarticulate state, seems to achieve what it represents, the “dismembered body” that “is projected upon society or even onto the cosmos, so that the frame of the world collapses and the heavens are disemboweled.”

Lovecraft’s “Outsider,” who is already dead, flees his unfitness for the beauty of life in a life-rejecting oblivion of abandoned fantasy; Mishima’s “I” in Sun and Steel flees his own discursive being, his life as a particular body situated within the world, through a program of intentional idealization by which body and words were whetted for their own extinction.  Confronting the bodily experience of consciousness with any degree of artistic and intellectual honesty within a framework that insists on a reductive solution to the mind/body problem, that is, poses both moral and physical hazards of the first order.  Under such a schema, the bodily experience of consciousness must be treated as an illusion or error, rather than (as the Christian tradition would suggest) a flawed experience of a really present unity.  Under the reductive schema, this illusion or error must be corrected by efforts to achieve or recover an inarticulate unity of thought and sensation, a wholeness without difference.  Lovecraft’s “Outsider” mimics the hero of a Platonic allegory in his ascent to enlightenment, but finds “soul-annihilating memory”; Mishima’s words describe the hardening of his body which prepared him to protest his integrity with his life, leaving us with the dilemma of an entire discourse reduced to a single term—its last, the gesture futile in its political meaning and abortive in its self-rejecting personal and literary significance.

We may return to Lovecraft, then, to see once again that this is not a condition unique to Mishima’s personality or culture.  I apologize slightly for deviating from my proposal to discuss “The Dunwich Horror,” which would have provided me with a more obvious alien-monster hook for a sci-fi conference.  I think the significance of the parallel between “The Outsider” and Mishima’s work is elaborated much more clearly by revisiting Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fiction, writings about outlandish worlds of outer and inner space which have a very different flavor than Lovecraft’s very late stories of interplanetary aliens and advanced pre-human civilizations.  In particular, the somewhat obscure story “Celephais” and the prose poem “Ex Oblivione” rather neatly connect the ambivalence of Lovecraft’s “Outsider” to the decisive rupture of bodily and discursive being in Mishima.

“Celephais” and “Ex Oblivione”

Given Mishima’s example, we need not be surprised to discover that the escape into illusion is represented as a suicidal journey in Lovecraft’s fiction, as well.  “Celephais” and “Ex Oblivione,” both written within a year of “The Outsider,” show clearly the relation between death and dream in Lovecraft’s tales.  “Celephais” begins with the following evocative passage:

In a dream Kuranes saw the city in the valley […].  In a dream it was also that he came by his name of Kuranes, for when awake he was called by another name. […] he was the last of his family, and alone among the indifferent millions of London, so there were not many to speak to him and to remind him who he had been. […] he did not care for the ways of the people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams.  What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he showed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write. […] Kuranes sought for beauty alone.  When truth and experience failed to reveal it, he sought it in fancy and illusion, and found it on his very doorstep, amid the nebulous memories of childhood tales and dreams. (26)

Like the narrator of “The Outsider” or Mishima’s “I,” Kuranes is fixated on a solitary pursuit of beauty.  Both are repulsed by society, and both turn to illusion instead of truth, leaving behind articulation.  Whereas the already-dead narrator of “The Outsider” has no real options, though, Kuranes is very much living; his escape into dreams is, like that recommended by Lovecraft in “The Materialist Today,” a deliberate choice based on what he takes to be a failure of revelation.  That “truth and experience” do not disclose beauty to Kuranes begs the question whether they “failed to reveal it” or whether he, like “The Outsider,” found it intolerable, repressed it, and escaped into dreams.  On Lovecraft’s view, of course, the question does not arise; revelation will fail, and the escape into illusion is “all one can logically do.”

Kuranes finds himself increasingly drawn into his dreams, so that “the more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been quite futile to describe them on paper” (26).  Indeed, so fully does he escape into illusion that “he grew so impatient of the bleak intervals of day that he began buying drugs in order to increase his periods of sleep” (31).  The drug element, somewhat unusual in Lovecraft (though not unique), is strictly instrumental to the process of withdrawing from the world into dreams.  Kuranes, having reached the point where he no longer functions in the real world, eventually walks out of it:

Then one summer day he was turned out of his garret, and wandered aimlessly through the streets, drifting over a bridge to a place where the houses grew thinner and thinner.  And it was there that fulfillment came, and he met the cortege of knights come from Celephais, to bear him thither forever. (31)

“Fulfillment,” of course, is a word which, like “salvation” or “enlightenment,” makes a teleological claim; and in the texture of the work, this suggests the ascent to paradise of a spiritual seeker.  Only by understanding that the dream-world is in no way susceptible of articulation in the world of “truth and experience,” by noticing that it is utterly neglectful of body and the realm of embodiment, can the reader discern between the poetic fantasy of the tale and the horror which lies beneath its surface.

“Celephais” does not follow any of the conventions typical of a horror tale; but it is precisely this absence of horror elements that makes the fantasy’s completion of the dream-escape trajectory begun in “The Outsider” so dark.  The language is beautiful, the images rich and exotic, and the story richly communicates a longing for transformation, the desire to gaze on sublime beauty.  The dream, though, is death itself.  The story ends by saying,

And Kuranes reigned thereafter over Ooth-Nargai and all the neighbouring regions of dream, […] and will reign happily for ever, though below the cliffs at Innsmouth the channel tides played mockingly with the body of a tramp who had stumbled through the half-deserted village at dawn; played mockingly, and cast it upon the rocks by ivy-covered Trevor Towers, where a notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer enjoys the purchased atmosphere of extinct nobility. (32)

It is possible to conceive of this as a sort of afterlife, and indeed in Lovecraft’s later story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” Kuranes re-appears and interacts with the protagonist.  At the same time, this afterlife is in the “regions of dream,” places of very questionable metaphysical status.

Like “The Outsider,” though, “Celephais” explicitly enacts its central illusion; for the reader is given fair warning that “it would have been quite futile to describe [the dreams] on paper” (26).  Whatever reality the dreams have is strictly the product of the reader’s willingness to suspend not only disbelief but memory itself; to leave behind even the demand for verisimilitude in order to gain a series of verbal impressions, beautiful enough in their way but deriving their true power only from what they conceal.  On the story’s own terms, the only communicable details of the protagonist’s experience are these:  a lonely, nameless dreamer quit working, quit writing, spent more and more time escaping into dreams, took drugs to enhance the dreams, and eventually walked off a cliff and died.

In his prose-poem “Ex Oblivione,” Lovecraft puts the same elements in simpler, more direct form.  In the middle of his troubled life, the poetic speaker seeks “the irradiate refuge of sleep” and finds in dreams “a little of the beauty I had vainly sought in life” (2).  As the dreams grow more vivid, “the days of waking became less and less bearable from their greyness and sameness” (3).  Eventually, he learns of a drug which will enable him to pass the gates of sleep permanently, becoming forever a resident of the dream-world.  The drug must be taken while awake, of course, which means it affects the body; and the speaker, upon having taken it “last night,” now tells the reader,

I drifted on songfully, expectant of the glories of the land from whence I should never return.

But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of the drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space.  So happier than I had ever dared hope to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity and crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour. (4)

As with “Celephais,” the words sound beautiful; the desire to gaze on beauty is aroused.  The arousal, however, is strictly pornographic; this false beauty can never be revealed in the realm of “truth and experience.”  If the reader wishes to be rapt by the beauty of the text, he can do so only by repressing several key truths:  that it is impossible for the speaker to be telling the tale if he has merged with infinity; that the text plainly despairs of all joy in bodily life, as the speaker claims that “oblivion” makes him “happier than I had ever dared hope to be”; that, at its most prosaic level, the entire piece is no more than a suicide note.


Given human mortality, a life of illusion and a suicide amount to the same thing.  Kuranes, who lives in his dreams only to die in reality, and the speaker in “Ex Oblivione,” who commits suicide in order to live in his dreams, in the end achieve nothing which the “notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer” of the last sentence of “Celephais” does not also achieve.  Lovecraft’s fictional speakers may dislike the secular illusion, may be dissatisfied or even tormented by the mundane, but they do not improve on it.  Seeking sublime beauty, “The Outsider” finds only his unfitness to participate in that beauty, represses the memory, and escapes into illusion.  The significance of the ambivalent dark fantasy of “The Outsider” is clarified when Kuranes’ body washes up on the shore, or when we realize that the body of the speaker from “Ex Oblivione” was eventually found lying in his bed.  Similarly, the idealization of the “surface” that led Mishima to hone his body and his words into razor-sharp instruments for destroying his bodily and discursive being did not survive his death; not even in the form of literary immortality, for the literary specimens we call “Mishima’s corpus” are only the preparatory strokes, the hesitation marks, before the act which those words declared significant.  Immortality for Mishima’s corpus would refute the violence with which he rejected bodily and discursive being in favor of the razor-sharp, honed surface tested to destruction by his final act.

Despite the intentions of their authors, these texts amply warn us of the nihilating tendency inherent in confronting the bodily experience of consciousness from a reductively idealist or physicalist perspective.  Having rejected any possibility that the significance the bodily experience of consciousness calls for is determined in a way that makes human acts and words participate in a personally significant, globally relevant enacting of history, and confronted with the incoherence of efforts to reduce the bodily experience of human consciousness within the scope of mere bodies or mere words, one risks being faced with a choice between mere illusion and frank suicide—a choice frequently offered, for example, in TV shows like House.  The nihility which grounds all uncreated being, if there be any such thing, can take place in history only as fictional rationales for postponing or hastening death; the works of Lovecraft and Mishima stand together in asserting that it lacks by definition the potential to create life.

Why I failed to be Libertarian, and why I regret to say you should, too.

I defy any red-blooded American of my generation and upbringing not to experience a thrill when reading these words:

And, in all sincerity, can anything more than the absence of plunder be required of the law? Can the law — which necessarily requires the use of force — rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting it and, consequently, turning might against right. This is the most fatal and most illogical social perversion that can possibly be imagined. It must be admitted that the true solution — so long searched for in the area of social relationships — is contained in these simple words: Law is organized justice.

Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law — that is, by force — this excludes the idea of using law (force) to organize any human activity whatever, whether it be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any one of these would inevitably destroy the essential organization — justice. For truly, how can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its proper purpose?

(source: The Law, by Frederic Bastiat)

I re-read The Law at least three times between the ages of 16 and 21–and probably more than half-a-dozen times.  In this it outranks Locke’s Second Treatise, which I read either two or three times; the First Treatise, which I read only once; the extensive discussion of praxeology in von Mises’ Human Action, the work that was the pinnacle of my early inquiry into political economics (and that occasioned my last profound struggle with doubt in the existence of God).  I think Hayek is an essential modern thinker.  Milton and Rose Friedman were probably the strongest influence on my interpretations of contemporary political economy through the middle ’90s (along with William E. Simon).  I followed the Cato Institute in arguing that even “Who will build the roads?” was not necessarily a call for government intervention (which, actually, I really do think remains arguable).

And if I didn’t really extend “Mark from Michigan” much credit, even as a teenager in the early ’90s, I was sufficiently inclined to be vigilant about threats to the liberties of Americans that friends of mine were passing me his “briefings” on the “black helicopters” with conspiratorial whispers.  (I was just joking to my wife how easy it would be to take some snaps of some 727s being repainted at our local airport and start a conspiracy theory about “black airliners” and some sort of resettlement plan or other.  Circa 1992, a couple grainy, photocopied photos would pass for “evidence” pretty easily.)

So I’m really serious when I say that I wanted badly to be libertarian, and that in many respects my default frame of reference for interpreting American politics is still libertarian–for better and for worse–and that it’s not an accident that, when pressed, I described myself as “civil libertarian” during the decade or so when my only professed politics were a satirical “Vote for me when I run for Emperor” and an avoidance of entanglement with government that came near to Quietism.

(If you can check on Facebook, I currently have “Feudalism” for my political views.)

And I do not like ill-aimed attacks on various things under the name “libertarian,” including some actual libertarian and Libertarian-Party ideals, from Catholic thinkers who often seem to have a confused understanding of the relationship between Catholic social teaching, American political liberalism, Fabian socialism, and real political economy.  Some of the points in these critiques are good, and I have some sympathy with many of the ideas loosely grouped under the heading “Distributism”; but the Distributist Review has a terrible habit of just using “libertarian” as its bete noir in a misguided effort to define Distributism as a functioning American political movement.

But as I said in a recent post, I find it impossible to support the Libertarian Party–even at my most professedly libertarian, even in years when I have chosen to vote for the Taxpayer’s Party or Constitution Party to register dissatisfaction with the donkeys and elephants.  In that post, I did my best to explain the principles I’ve evolved for dealing with political decisions, principles which lead me to conclude that I cannot vote for the Libertarian Party’s current leaders and platform:

  1. Always advocate the top-shelf good, that is, call for and demand just action on the highest priority issue for which you are able to articulate some proximate just action, some corrective to evil that promotes the common good, in the near term.
  2. When apparently stymied on top-shelf issues, then advocate a temporary and tentative settlement for a “least-worst” if and only if the approach, person, or party you settle for does not advocate against the top-shelf good (or for intrinsic evil).

And given that approach, it is simply not possible for me to imagine supporting, in good conscience, a Libertarian Party that directly backs the legal protection of the slaughter of unborn innocent children.

But let me get down into specifics a little bit.  I can imagine three basic reasons to actually support the Libertarian Party, rather than merely use them as a vehicle to register a protest (something I can imagine doing precisely insofar as they are unlikely to win, and my protest unlikely to be registered as durable support).

  1. Libertarianism has very real philosophical appeal, as I noted above, because it enunciates a clear vision of the limitations natural law imposes on the use of force by those with political power or authority, something that modern absolutists and modern totalitarians–the polarity of statism–consistently fail to take seriously.
  2. Libertarianism has appeal as an alternative to typical partisan politics, and in fact positions itself precisely as the refutation to the nonsensical “If you don’t vote for Donkey One you support Elephant Two” zero-sum game.
  3. Libertarianism also appeals to our desire for a pragmatic response to a rapid and disastrous slide into fascism into our society, to an ideological and bureaucratic focus on the utterly isolated and atomized individual made naked in every department of life to the unrestricted surveilling and intervening regime.

So let me take a look at all three of these appeals.  Again, I feel each of these strongly, myself–but when I weigh it out, the answer never comes up in favor of the Libertarian Party.


This could get deep, but let’s keep it simple.  The Libertarian Party is one claimant to the heritage of “classical liberalism,” which leads to passages that make my heart sing, like this one:

The prescribed role of government is to protect the rights of every individual including the right to life, liberty and property. Criminal laws should be limited in their application to violations of the rights of others through force or fraud, or to deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Therefore, we favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes” without victims, such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes. We support restitution to the victim to the fullest degree possible at the expense of the criminal or the negligent wrongdoer. The constitutional rights of the criminally accused, including due process, a speedy trial, legal counsel, trial by jury, and the legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty, must be preserved.

(source: Platform | Libertarian Party)

(I omit the jury-nullification plank, because that’s an issue with too many layers of back-and-forth.)

The challenge, of course, is that every claim of “force or fraud,” and every judgment of what “application” is appropriate or necessary, and every claim about what are the “rights of every individual,” and every attempt to enumerate in constitution or statute what is entailed by “life, liberty[,] and property,” rests on some understanding of these essential realities:  what is “property”?  what is the distinction between “fraud” and “privilege”?

That is why efforts to delineate a consistent libertarianism always end up renegotiating the metaphysical boundaries of an ideological commitment to an anti-metaphysical stance:

the libertarian will usually reply: “Well, I believe in a limited government, the government being limited to the defense of the person or property or the individual against invasion by force or fraud.” I have tried to show in my article, “The Real Aggressor” in the April 1954 Faith and Freedom that this leaves the conservative helpless before the argument “necessary for defense,” when it is used for gigantic measures of statism and bloodshed. There are other consequences equally or more grave. The statist can pursue the matter further: “If you grant that it is legitimate for people to band together and allow the State to coerce individuals to pay taxes for a certain service — “defense” — why is it not equally moral and legitimate for people to join in a similar way and allow the State the right to provide other services — such as post offices, “welfare,” steel, power, etc.? If a State supported by a majority can morally do one, why not morally do the others?” I confess that I see no answer to this question. If it is proper and legitimate to coerce an unwilling Henry Thoreau into paying taxes for his own “protection” to a coercive state monopoly, I see no reason why it should not be equally proper to force him to pay the State for any other services, whether they be groceries, charity, newspapers, or steel. We are left to conclude that the pure libertarian must advocate a society where an individual may voluntarily support none or any police or judicial agency that he deems to be efficient and worthy of his custom.

(source: Are Libertarians “Anarchists”? | Mises Institute)

One always needs to find the boundary, or the grounding; for the very limiting principles that make libertarian thought truly itself need justifying in order to actually limit anything. And so we find broad claims like this in the Libertarian Party platform:

Individuals should be free to make choices for themselves and must accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make…No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government….  Individuals own their bodies and have rights over them that other individuals, groups, and governments may not violate. Individuals have the freedom and responsibility to decide what they knowingly and voluntarily consume, and what risks they accept to their own health, finances, safety, or life….  We oppose government actions which either aid or attack any religion.

(source: Platform | Libertarian Party, emphasis added)

Now, I’ll mention without nit-picking the confusion over whether “individuals” already “have the freedom” or “should be free,” one that speaks to a deeper question of the relation of “freedom” in fact, “liberty” at law, and the proper nature of freedom.  But in the passage from the platform above, I’ve emphasized the serious philosophical incoherence at the heart of Libertarian Party expressions of libertarian political philosophy:  the notion that “individuals” are somehow proper subjects of law apart from “their bodies,” such that “their bodies” can be regarded as objects they “own,” is a metaphysical belief about the nature of human creatures, the nature of property, and the foundations of justice–and it is one that simply cannot be true.  In fact, the idea that a human creature’s proper subjectivity is radically distinct from bodily existence is a constant threat to the possibility of a binding natural law that addresses humans as they actually are.

All human creatures are embodied before they become capable of responsibly exercising their freedom, and live their whole lives in relationships, in varying degrees of dependency, which condition their freedom; no responsible law or standard of justice can possibly address humans as though they existed in a state of radical or unbridled subjectivity, or as though the human body was a negotiable economic instrument.

In fact, this denigration of the body to a merely instrumental role in human existence, and the concomitant treatment of a disembodied will as the proper subject of the laws, reverses the Lockean derivation of property rights from which it–especially the peculiarly American treatment of private property–nominally descends.  Rather than “property” being a necessary condition for each human creature’s freedom to live securely in society with other free creatures, and hence a moral imperative intrinsically related to each one’s basic needs and flourishing in society, “property” becomes a hypothetically natural and absolute responsiveness of the real to each individual’s subjective inclination.

If one contemplates the situation, it will be seen that the slave relationship is wholly improper for it presumes to transfer the control of one living man into the hands of a second living man. The condition is contrary to nature and can only be maintained if both play their specific assigned roles. The slave must act as though he did not control himself, as though, indeed, the slave-master did control him. The slave-master must act as though he really could and did control the slave. But the slave always controls himself, even though he may do so in harmony with his owner’s wishes. It is simply impossible for the owner to exert control.

By no process of the mind can the owner of the slave cause the slave to flex a single muscle. The only process open to the slave owner is to impose force or the threat of force. If obedience is obtained, it is because the slave elects to do as he is told. But he must be the actor in respect to his own energy. His owner cannot generate or control the slave’s energy. A condition of slavery must be classified as one instance of incorrect ownership. In this condition, a man seeks to control another man as though he were a property and not a man.

(source: Self-Ownership | Mises Institute)

But this reasoning simply will not do; it does not help us to distinguish one real condition from another, but simply declares that one real condition differs from another real condition–“real” insofar as they express intelligible relations of intelligible bodies that condition intentional behaviors of human creatures–in that one is a fiction because it cannot express the purely hypothetical unfettered subjectivity of each individual.  In fact, however, nothing can:  to deny that a slave has really lost freedom, and that the justice or injustice of that loss is a proper subject of inquiry, is to respond to social conditions like the Christian Scientist or Scientologist responds to physical or mental conditons; it is to attempt to live in denial.

Taken to an unhealthy extreme, the libertarian position ends up with slogans like “taxation is theft” which can justify any government action only as a pragmatic “lesser evil” that assumes an ultimate nihilism in which the regime can never be anything but the best deal negotiated among conflicting interests, each using force or threat of force to achieve their ends.  It is not hard to trace the relationship between “taxation is theft” and Proudhon’s “property is theft,” even when a sincere effort to distinguish the two is made.

Must we then convince ourselves, and each other, that the only authentic regime is a proceduralized Bellum omnium contra omnes, in which every individual is regarded by the regime as a social atom bound to other social atoms by the weak force of contracts enforceable only insofar as they implicate only the potential concerns of a social atom that have been made intelligible to the regime?  If so, then I am at a loss to see how libertarianism differs except in its moment on the trajectory of practical politics from the Romanticism that gives us Progressivism and American liberalism–these are, after all, logically indistinguishable offshoots of the Enlightenment reasoning that gave us not only the best of Locke but also the worst of Comte….

Because I believe that humans must be governed according to their natures, I cannot subscribe to the metaphysical nonsense that is adduced to justify Libertarian Party libertarianism.

I will continue with parts 2 and 3–the appeal of the Libertarian Party as an alternative to donkeys and elephants in our party politics, and the pragmatic use of libertarian policies by those not philosophically aligned with them, in another post soon.

OK, then, What To Do? (Part One)

Not a few of us are frustrated, these days, with the way our politics have been distorted by a spirit of lawlessness and violence, a willing embrace of tyranny and mob rule (which are one and the same), a lashing out in bigotry that threatens what is left of our culture’s denatured sense of decency.

I’ve had a lot to say about that, actually, and could say a lot more:

We are not wrong to recognize our frustration–literally, the lack of efficacy or support for our intentions, their failure to achieve fruition, and our sense that the indifference of some, the excuse-making of others, the fecklessness of many, and our own lack of resolve are all part of the problem.

It is very important to take the measure of the situation.  I think we all need a much heavier dose of sobriety than we are usually given, in popular culture or even at church:  [see “The Problem of Nihilism in Public Discourse” Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and “The Banality of Nihilism” for more.]

But at some point, some good person always asks the right question:  what, then, are we to do?  The question is perennial, and gets asked from many angles.  There are plenty of resources to suggest a direction for tackling this question.

Still, This “what to do” question is harder to answer that than to be dismayed at the difficulty of answering.  It takes time to dig down into the faith, into the hope we really do have, to find its subtler connections to our everyday situation–the options between martyrdom proper and practical-atheist complacency that we navigate creatively together in pursuit of our holy calling.

Herewith, then, a few steps.

1. Sober up

“Realism” should not make you ignore the big picture–the really big picture, the one with God in it and your responsibilities to your family and your neighbors in it, the one where your prayers matter but cannot be unmoored from your concrete obligations, the one that is true even if the statistics and the promises and the conjectures of the chatterers and the pitchers and the candidates, Hucksters and Trumperies and all, prove as false as their all-too-human (and often corrupt and criminal) opposition claims.  You are not choosing between options presented you on TV, unless you have succumbed to the mistaken notion that TV is a window on reality, forgetting that TV news exists to sell your attention span to advertisers.  That’s right, folks.  The mass media buy and sell your attention spans as surely as markets for the securitization of debt buy and sell the poor.

So stop believing them.  Stop judging things in their terms.  Find out who makes the real decisions, and focus your attention and advocacy on their reasoning and actions.

Do not believe that you know something about reality when you know what “wins the game” in horse-race handicapping of campaigns, or in hypothetical vote counting and prediction, or in staging the confrontations and feeding the “narratives” that make for good attention-span sales and bolster the self-importance and saleability of those with the media muscle to make or break celebrity brands.  What you know is how to manipulate the delusions of others.  If you need to do that, then do it knowing that is what you are doing; do it effectively and ruthlessly, all the while *also* being sure that you are honest with yourself and about yourself.  This is light years away from what happens when most people enter politics, or from what we naively assume in typical news-driven political conversation.

Quit thinking in cliches, even if you have to spout a slogan here and there to rally the troops.

2. Think your way in from the edges

We don’t want, and shouldn’t want, to live in fantasies of “what might be” or to spend too much time on our pipe dreams.  (Much as I love pipe dreams and Modest Proposals, and wish I had time to flesh them out more.)

But we also cannot make realistic judgments if we do not understand the parameters of the situation.  For this reason, reframing the question is a basic move in political debate, and the frame of various mass media (and social media) conversations ends up seeming more important than any of the actual decisions or the relevant data.  Not a few problems are much simpler than anyone involved has any interest in allowing them to be, sadly (e.g., bathrooms).  And some problems are constantly reframed as a debate over “solutions” when in fact nobody involved seems to have any serious idea what is to be done (e.g., entitlement reform).

Reframing isn’t bad, any more than any other rhetorical gesture is; the problem with this, as with any move from “slippery slope” to “appeal to authority,” has to do with the substantive question at hand and the effects of the gesture on our habits of thought.  When you can show us that beyond a certain threshold there is nothing that will prevent a predictable bad result, you are quite right to make a “slippery slope” argument–and that does not protect you in the least from being wrong about any particular one.  Rhetorical gestures are not magically “true” or “false”; they are honest/dishonest and apt/inapt, and always entirely contingent upon our knowledge of reality.

So in keeping with “Sober up,” we need to be ready to engage in proper reframing of our own.  When someone comes at you with a false choice, or assumes that X is inevitable unless you do Y that seems unacceptable, then you need to stop and analyze the total set of knowns, unknowns, and possibilities more carefully.  Has X really been decided, or can you reasonably advocate for Z (even if Z is unlikely) when you find Y unacceptable?  If so, you ought to do so.

And that means that you must become accustomed to doing something that is not acceptable in formal logic and academic debate, but essential in public discourse:  you must regularly, even habitually, reject the premise of arguments presented to you.

When people try to logic you into a corner, you must always suspect a false choice, interrogate them to understand the nature of the enthymeme, and search for an alternative that enables you to reject the (usually suppressed, because often implausible if stated) premise.

Therefore, a dialogue:

Jimmy:  We have to unite around Trump, because otherwise Hillary will get to pick the next Supreme Court Justices!
Jerry:  Do you think Trump can really beat Hillary?
Jimmy:  Well, not if we don’t unite around him!
Jerry:  Why don’t we reject him and pick someone else?
Jimmy:  But a convention fight would only weaken the GOP!
Jerry:  But wouldn’t Trump weaken the GOP?
Jimmy:  But Trump is our best chance for beating Hillary!
Jerry:  But will Trump actually be any better than Hillary?
Jimmy:  But he’ll have to rely on the GOP to win!
Jerry:  Why don’t we reject him and pick someone else?
Jimmy:  But whatever we do that weakens Trump helps Hillary!
Jerry:  How so?
Jimmy:  Well, you have to vote, don’t you?
Jerry:  Uh, no….
Jimmy:  But if you don’t vote, your vote gets wasted!
Jerry:  And if I vote for someone I think is bad for the country, my vote gets perverted, right?
Jimmy:  But not voting for Trump is the same as voting for Hillary!
Jerry:  Oh, really, how’s that work out mathematically?
Jimmy:  Well, if 100 people vote, and each side would have 50/50, and you take away two votes from one side, that make it 51/49 percent against that side!
Jerry:  Hmmm.  I’m not saying I would think it made sense substantively or morally even if those numbers were right, but…how are you getting your 100 people voting?  I mean, it’s not like we select exactly 100 voters per district or something…right?
Jimmy:  But however many people live in that place, that’s the total, and whoever doesn’t vote for one side is helping the other.
Jerry:  What if most of the people, or even a sizeable plurality of the people, don’t vote?
Jimmy:  Well, then we just count the ones who are voting.
Jerry:  But if we only count after the vote, and only count the ones who voted, then how does your “take away” work?
Jimmy:  No, see, you start with the polls of likely voters, then you move from there to what actually happened, and your decision not to vote changed that “likely voter” poll outcome to be what really happened.  Your not-voting is like a vote for Hillary!
Jerry:  I’m pretty sure you just conflated fiction with reality, there.  Who’s buying the next round?

There is nothing “unrealistic” about insisting that we make the actual decision in front of us without conflating it with mass-media driven narratives about the meaning of polls and the relationship between various blips of reportage and the real decision-making.  Those stories are always going to inflate the importance of whatever aggrandizes the national news media and their corporate overlords, and will do so in a manner that promotes the celebrity brands (and not necessarily the principles or the interests) of those politicians and others who abet them in that highly profitable trade in human attention spans.

So that’s a start:  replace fiction with substance in your discourse and decision-making.  I’ll be back soon with more steps to take.

Perverse Vindication is Vindication Still

This reminds me of one of the footnotes in David Foster Wallace’s “Datum Centurio,” a short story in the form of an imaginary dictionary entry (for the word “date”) from the future: “Cf. Catholic dogma, perverse vindication of.”

(source: Surrogate mother pressured to abort triplets)

I have long been aware of the way that dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction tends, whatever effort to the contrary folks tend to exert, to reinforce the stable understanding of humanity that has remained largely unchanged, fads and fictions in popular philosophy notwithstanding, as long as humans have had leisure to reflect on their nature.  It is no accident that Aristotle and Aquinas largely agree on what humans are, or that they agree with Augustine and Avicenna, or again with Anselm–and on and on, and A to Z of the epochal thinkers of human nature come down to certain basics.

Those who try to re-invent humanity invariably have to re-invent the same features of humanity with different names, under some preferred mode of control that “fixes” their preferred distortions in place.  These built-in features, whose relationship to our biological existence and spiritual significance I describe as “thinking in brains,” mean that we have definite capacities and limitations, definite possibilities of thought and existence and definite boundaries to what conceivable things we can realize.  We can often strike a pose, in our minds or in our most ephemeral fictions, that nobody could possibly hold while actively working and living in the complex web of relationships that define our actual existence, the creaturely being of humans.

And because we are often trying to hold a pose that is not well-fitted to our creaturely being, we find ourselves exposed to certain threats, certain horrors, that we must keep at bay in controllable fictions and in “morality plays” whose theme is our power to finally change humanity, to force all our neighbors into the mold that makes us happiest.  And these fictions, when they are compelling, spell out our fear of what we cannot actually redesign, our fear of what is too real for us to control leaks out in the nervous laughter that turns into farce whenever we try to “repeat an act” of horror.  Horror, it turns out, is “conservative” in its essential underpinnings:  It reflects human nature’s reality beneath the level of our social and technological manipulation, the reality that doesn’t go away when we tell civil lies about it.

This idea, both in my days as a radical occasionalist, voluntarist species of nominalist who believed that post-structuralism offered me the best textual strategy for radically relativizing all human authority to the divine Author’s written Word, and in my recovering sanity as a metaphysical realist who believes that only a concretely realized coordination of the Word written and the sacramental Real Presence of the Word Incarnate suffices to ground us in Creation and nourish us in the grace of Redemption, animates my interest in the way that culture changes, often without regard to our stated intentions, as we compete in our efforts to defend and institutionalize our preferred lies and popular errors.

And so I have been interested to watch the following exchange unfold.  First, Jeremy Neill with an article that I commented on casually when it came out, arguing that eventually the self-destructive forces of inhumane ideology must give way to a consensus on what humanity actually is, but doing so with some assumptions many of us will find ill-considered: Continue reading »

Back to Life, Back to Reality

I’m going to mention this post again, because in light of a stray (and on its own terms quite sensible) remark in an interview with Chicago’s new Archbishop Cupich and other comments I’ve seen, it seems relevant.

There are several word/thing relationships that we really MUST distinguish (not sever, sunder, separate, or believe to be exclusive–but observe that the terms do not refer to precisely the same thing in precisely the same way). Let me just enumerate as briefly as I can manage:

  1. marriage per se, or “natural marriage”
  2. marriage of the baptized, or “sacramental marriage”
  3. civil recognition of marriage
  4. ecclesial recognition of marriage

Each of these deals with either a state of affairs (1 & 2, a describable, observable, intelligible, verifiable condition) or an official notice that such a state of affairs exists, needed in order to adjudicate its consequents (3 & 4, instruments whose meaning is wholly contingent on acknowledgement of a state of affairs).

In dealing with these, we potentially encounter a whole realm of “other” terms, as well, terms which describe states of notification or transition or discovery with regard to #1-4: attempted marriage, putative marriage, nullity, “annulment,” marriage license, divorce, “remarriage,” etc.

What happens to people deeply confused by the radical nominalism that undergirds our entire system of Constitutional laws and classical liberal presuppositions about politics–that is, my fellow children of the Enlightenment (made children of dubious legitimacy by the discovery that we are also Heirs of God in Christ Jesus)–is that we confuse arguing about how to settle arguments about words about things with the actual constitution of things. We barely even notice that we have quit believing we can know things, know them good and well, without our knowing being subject to renegotiation by clever wordsmiths.

I spent over a decade of my life working hard to be a card-carrying post-structuralist literary critic/theorist while also arguing that «il n’y a pas de hors-texte» opened modernity to Biblicist interpretation of divine revelation. I do know well how profoundly we are ensorcelled by our own spelling of words, friends.

But it is quite impossible that any real state of affairs–in a community, in a family, in a nation-state, in a communion–should meaningfully persist across generations merely by continuous renegotiation of words.

We must–it is utterly essential that we do this–return to an understanding in which our language (including our legal language, and especially including our “science” of humanity, which has been so badly vitiated by the separation of the reality from the data) is subordinate to reality, serves our understanding of reality, and therefore can only carry authority to the extent that its claims are demonstrably about reality.

In such an understanding of reality, a cleverly construed counterexample to one register of a word’s meaning would not justify erasure of that word’s connection to the reality which is always, intrinsically, greater than the word. Where such an understanding of reality is institutionalized, nihilism is not permitted to win; it is prevented, with authority backed by power, from doing so. Only such an understanding preserves human life and provides for the flourishing of those who, body and breath, have “become a living soul” and may, by becoming “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” cause others to do the same.

And so, I apologize to those whose critiques of post-structuralist hermeneutics I scoffed at when I, like some who read me now, mistakenly believed that I could see the trajectory better than they. Their vantage was superior, and what I have said above is deeply dependent on the words of others.

But it really does come to this: a state of affairs exists; that state of affairs has consequences; those consequences implicate civil society and ecclesial communion; and the only just way to acknowledge that state of affairs and adjudicate those consequences is one which preserves the essential distinctions between one sort of thing–a marriage, that is, a potentially fecund, indissoluble, voluntary bond between a man and a woman–and whatever other sorts of things you might like to arrange.

It is this distinction, and not any larger “religious” versus “secular” distinction, which is really at issue, here. It is not a question of whose will is to be imposed, though our incoherent politics makes it so, but of what really *is* and whether we plan to compel each other to lie about it.

And it is the situation of this question at present as “you must all lie, or you will be treated as beyond-the-pale, as those who have no claim on justice while you persist in these views” to which the faithful have no choice but to vigorously and vehemently object, and which we are obligated to use all just means to resist, reverse, undermine, and nullify.

Or, as I said in the linked post:   Continue reading »

The Banality of Nihilism

Surveys of self-reported religious identification continue to yield interesting, if not always encouraging, results.  This one has a straight-up Baylor connection:

Forty-four percent of the respondents to a 2011 Baylor University study reported spending no time whatsoever seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19 percent replied that “it’s useless to search for purpose.” In the same year, Lifeway, an evangelical research agency, found that 46 percent of those it surveyed never wondered whether or not they will go to heaven, and 28 percent reported that finding a deeper purpose in life wasn’t a priority for them.

This variety of “none” is more confounding and dismaying. It’s one thing to respond to atheists who think you have the wrong answers or seekers who think you might have part of a bigger answer, but what of those who think you are answering questions that don’t even need to be asked? Higher purpose? Eternal joy? Meh.

(source: From “Meh” to “Amen” | Molly Oshatz | First Things)

Perhaps I can use this research to point out a truth which, though it cuts both ways, still cuts true:

One way this cuts is that there is nothing absolutely new in this situation.  Our moment in history is unique and nonrepeatable, but so are all the others, and it shares with many of those others almost all the essential features of this situation.  “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.”

But the other thing to notice here is that it is essentially this finity of mortal possibilities which leads us to anticipate an illimitable God’s action to radically and finally alter the situation; Continue reading »

Don’t Expect Torch-and-Pitchfork Crowds to Behave Consistently

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVM-tFAdADg?rel=0&showinfo=0]

It’s a long way to Tipperary, and it’s a long way from here to charitable, hospitable Toleration.

Here’s your reference frame:

Last month, as Indiana’s rather tame religious-freedom legislation was being torched by the mob, America’s more devout dissenters were informed that the price of participation in the marketplace was the subjugation of one’s conscience to one’s Caesar. “You can’t opt out of the law,” the agitators explained. “This isn’t the Jim Crow South!” Their core message? That if we all keep quiet about our views — and if we treat commercial transactions as commercial transactions — nobody will end up getting hurt. Or, put another way: “Cater my wedding, you bigot.”

(source: The Tolerant Jeweler Who Harbored an Impure Opinion of Same-Sex Marriage)

So at the time, the range of responses that didn’t require an immediate change of laws (which I think is strongly warranted) and didn’t insist that only bigots could oppose gay marriage described an arc from “go along to get along” to “deal with the problem when it comes to you” to “do business with absolutely anyone, but do it in a noisily Christian way.”

(Actual bigots just don’t get a voice in this conversation, as far as I’m concerned.  But people who treat others according to their real human dignity and yet decline to participate in their delusions and promote their self-destruction need a sensible, lawful, just way to do what’s right.)

All three of the above strategies were recommended by those (including me) who thought that pre-emptively declaring “won’t serve pizza at gay weddings” was unwise.  My favorite is the last, actually.

This case suggests the limitations of such strategies, and what you must anticipate if you adopt it:

a Canadian Christian jeweler custom-made a pair of engagement rings for a lesbian couple, Nicole White and Pam Renouf, at their request. Later, when they found out that the jeweler personally opposes same-sex marriage, they went to pieces and demanded their money back.

Let’s understand what happened here. This Christian jeweler agreed to custom-make engagement rings for a lesbian couple, knowing that they were a couple, and treated them politely. But when they found out what he really believed about same-sex marriage, even though the man gave them polite service, and agreed to sell them what they asked for, the lesbian couple balked, and demanded their money back — and the mob threatened the business if they didn’t yield. Which, of course, he did.

(source: Heads LGBTs Win, Tails Christians Lose) Continue reading »

Like a Roaring Lion

It is not actually all that pleasing to see the tactical nihilism of the Left collapsing back toward the absolute nihilism that has always used ideologues suborned by greed, lust, and the will to power as its catspaw:

Over at Slate, Amanda Marcotte thinks it’s absolutely hilarious that Satanists are challenging abortion restrictions on religious liberty grounds, seeking to expand abortion access. She argues this somehow makes conservative use of religious liberty laws “a little more complicated.” […] I suspect this effort — if it ever gets to court – would stumble on the state’s acknowledged interest in protecting what the Supreme Court has called the “potential life” of even non-viable unborn children. Yet even if the Satanists win, there would be something . . . incredibly appropriate about the pro-abortion Left wrapping its arms around Satan in the quest to preserve abortion on demand.

(source: Of Course the Satanic Temple Embraces Abortion, and Of Course the Left Applauds)

Not pleasing at all, but hardly surprising.  When a faction cheers the willful destruction of the innocent, you can guess what spirit animates their assemblies.

But this is not a winning choice.

And were this world all devils o’er,
and watching to devour us,
we lay it not to heart so sore;
they cannot overpower us.
And let the prince of ill
look grim as e’er he will,
he harms us not a whit;
for why? his doom is writ;
a word shall quickly slay him.

(source: A safe stronghold our God is still)

For Peace, You Must Be Better

When we tolerate and promote willful evil, we get more of it.

When we think we can achieve security and prosperity by making life thinner and less precious, we find that wrath and envy thrive, that life is cheap.

When we tolerate and promote a society whose “common good” is the endless warfare of all against all, where each individual must shout in a unique voice and never sacrifice any desire, yet where race and class and sex can never be eclipsed as social and political forces, then how can we be surprised that we get such incoherent results?

Their very incoherence is their coherence.


Their logic is the logic of nihility.


Their spirit is the spirit of the age.

(San Francisco)

It is the spirit of abortion.


It is the spirit of usury.


It is the spirit of a nation which doubts its right to exist.

(St. Louis)

It is the spirit of a people with reason for their doubts.

It is the spirit of a people who have lost the will to reason.

Sometimes Reason Must Raise Her Voice

Robert George has a trenchant call for the unity of reasonable people in the face of the torch-and-pitchfork crowd’s endless and irrational animus:

The lynch mob came for the brilliant mild-mannered techie Brendan Eich.
The lynch mob came for the elderly florist Barronelle Stutzman.
The lynch mob came for Eastern Michigan University counseling student Julea Ward.
The lynch mob came for the African-American Fire Chief of once segregated Atlanta Kelvin Cochran.
The lynch mob came for the owners of a local pizza shop the O’Connor family.
[W]ho if anyone will courageously stand up to the mob? Who will resist? Who will speak truth to its raw and frightening power? Who will refuse to be bullied into submission or intimidated into silence?

(source: Who Will Stand? | Robert P. George | First Things — links added, PGE)

Of course, George knows that shouting futilely at the darkness is not half as effective as shaming the mob.  Nonetheless, it is important to remember that one of the basic features of mob action, of hateful incitement, is the disinhibiting effect–the intoxication–of being one of the crowd, of yielding to passions without restraint or consideration.  This is most intense among mindless people caught up in a stampede of violence, but it is easier when the disinhibiting effect of pleasing the herd is multiplied by the disinhibiting effect of pseudo-anonymous online interaction.

It is also important to understand that nothing about the way the torch-and-pitchfork crowd operatesat every level–suggests any limiting principle to their lawlessness; its only consistent principle is opportunistic nihilism.  As George says:   Continue reading »

The Problem of Nihilism in Public Discourse: A Case Study (Part 4)

(continued from Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3)

Let the reader be prudent before going on. I am going to simply comment on a few passages from Bakunin that help us to see the nature of the trap, here; then I hope to move on to a few conclusions.

Jehovah, […] expressly forbade them from touching the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He wished, therefore, that man, destitute of all understanding of himself, should remain an eternal beast, ever on all-fours before the eternal God, his creator and his master. But here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. He makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him, stamps upon his brow the seal of liberty and humanity, in urging him to disobey and eat of the fruit of knowledge.

[…] God admitted that Satan was right; he recognized that the devil did not deceive Adam and Eve in promising them knowledge and liberty as a reward for the act of disobedience which he bad induced them to commit

(source: God and the State – Chapter I)

I cite this–the full passage is nauseating in its wrathful calumny–only to note two things. The first is the direct misrepresentation at the base of this retelling of the story: the “tree of knowledge” is not a tree of access to information, but precisely a marker of moral freedom. The misrepresentation is literal, in that “tree of knowledge of good and evil” becomes “tree of knowledge” in Bakunin’s revision.

The other–and this is crucial to grasp–is that Bakunin’s reading is not alien to the text, not a modern and secular questioning of a traditional text.  No, Bakunin is asserting that one position was always already embedded in the text, and that he and all right-thinking people have at last realized the correct perspective within the text.  That is to say, Bakunin has adopted Satan’s logic before he even introduces the name of Satan, just as the Hebrew Scriptures have always already known that God was present and active in the world, before proceeding to name Him and tell of His deeds.

Compare Bakunin’s language above with Satan’s language in the Hebrew Scriptures:  “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  The text presents this as a lie constructed of apparently true words, as God says, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.”  Bakunin assumes from the first the Satanic construction of this passage, that God has attempted to deprive Adam and Eve of some “knowledge” by forbidding them to eat the fruit.

It is important to realize this, because the interpenetration of secular nihilism, religious Satanism, anarchism, and other explicit philosophies of negation is easy to miss behind the camouflage Continue reading »

Point of Comparison (or, Why I Am Not A Turnip)

The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the exhilaration of a vice.  GKC

Note the essential similarity between the logic of Sartre (as discussed in a previous post) and the logic of Chesterton in the following two passages.


when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. [… I]n choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be.

(source: Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sarte 1946)


Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

If then, I repeat, there is to be mental advance, it must be mental advance in the construction of a definite philosophy of life. And that philosophy of life must be right and the other philosophies wrong. Now of all, or nearly all, the able modern writers whom I have briefly studied in this book, this is especially and pleasingly true, that they do each of them have a constructive and affirmative view, and that they do take it seriously and ask us to take it seriously. There is nothing merely sceptically progressive about Mr. Rudyard Kipling. There is nothing in the least broad minded about Mr. Bernard Shaw. The paganism of Mr. Lowes Dickinson is more grave than any Christianity. Even the opportunism of Mr. H.G. Wells is more dogmatic than the idealism of anybody else. Somebody complained, I think, to Matthew Arnold that he was getting as dogmatic as Carlyle. He replied, “That may be true; but you overlook an obvious difference. I am dogmatic and right, and Carlyle is dogmatic and wrong.” The strong humour of the remark ought not to disguise from us its everlasting seriousness and common sense; no man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he thinks that he is in truth and the other man in error. In similar style, I hold that I am dogmatic and right, while Mr. Shaw is dogmatic and wrong. But my main point, at present, is to notice that the chief among these writers I have discussed do most sanely and courageously offer themselves as dogmatists, as founders of a system. It may be true that the thing in Mr. Shaw most interesting to me, is the fact that Mr. Shaw is wrong. But it is equally true that the thing in Mr. Shaw most interesting to himself, is the fact that Mr. Shaw is right. Mr. Shaw may have none with him but himself; but it is not for himself he cares. It is for the vast and universal church, of which he is the only member.

(source: Heretics – Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

I suggest that it is worth meditating on how such a similarity comes to be.

A Pause for Thanks

Manuscript of Handel's Messiah

As some readers will doubtless know, the last week has been eventful in the Oklahoma City area.  Not, I urge, eventful in the same register as Ferguson, Missouri, or the ever-churning region from the border of Egypt to the edges of Turkey and the foothills of the Hindu Kush range.  In a manner not one whit less real, though, there has been an important conflict playing out.

I will continue my Nihilism case study series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), which I think was made exigent by these circumstances, and in that I will explain the responses I could see as justified, and why, including the genius of this legal response.

For now, though, I want to provide some links to give fuller understanding and background information to those who may be interested.  I am, of course, a committed partisan in this matter–but I hope that all people of good will can see something of interest and of use in this confrontation with reality.

Let there be peace.  Let us make peace.  Let us understand what makes peace possible.

All in all, a most instructive episode.  Thanks be to God that the worst seems to have been averted!  And let us be concerned that it can so easily come to this, these days.

The Problem of Nihilism in Public Discourse: A Case Study (Part 3)

You have the words of life.

(continued from Part 1 and Part 2)

Bakunin’s most notable freethought essay is “God and the State” (1883). In it, Bakunin called Jehovah, of all gods, “certainly the most jealous, the most vain, the most ferocious, the most unjust, the most bloodthirsty, the most despotic, and the most hostile to human dignity and liberty.” In this article, later published in English by Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth Publishing (1916), Bakunin wrote: “All religions, with their gods, their demigods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties.” Bakunin called the concept of Satan “the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds.”

(source: Mikhail Bakunin – Freedom From Religion Foundation)

Neutral Is Not A Thing

defenda nos in praeloWhen spiritually and metaphysically real conflict erupts in our community, many people persuade themselves that they can retreat into their private lives, distinguish their profession from their person, and appeal to only secular standards in public discourse. Provided that they don’t see any violence that affects them, many people–public officials especially–consider the situation on par with a dispute over the bar tab or an academic debate.

And, of course, when specific criminal acts–or conspiracies to commit criminal acts–or collusion with terrorism or espionage or racketeering–when something that registers with us as a breach of the peace or an actionable injury emerges, it is perfectly natural for us to see that situation as more immediate and urgent. Were I in Ferguson, Missouri, right now, I would likely not be writing this.

But failing to take the measure of a threat because it does not seem immediate does not protect us. Believing that Islamic terrorism was a fading problem did not protect the Twin Towers in 2001 or the Benghazi consulate in 2008; knowing that Titanic‘s compartmentalized hull made her harder to sink did not protect her officers from bad judgment about speed and icebergs. Moreover, in many cases, the threat is designed to set a trap for us.

[Take, for example, policies requiring “non-discrimination” in membership and leadership of student organizations. Such policies do not allow any group to thrive or fail based on its own organizing principles and their capacity to attract at least some number of people to make common cause on those principles, whatever their other differences may be. No, such policies ensure that a group’s very survival is wholly dependent on its most aggressive opponent’s whim. The second someone determined to eradicate any group’s principles can force the choice between abandoning those principles (and continuing to exist as a group) and disbanding the group (and continuing to hold those principles in isolation), the integrity of all groups and the legitimacy of the system that encourages or subsidizes their existence is seriously undermined. At this point, the conscientious participant in public discourse is placed in a dilemma that leaves no principled option except defiance or defeat. To make it worse, the exemption of certain egregiously arbitrary and exclusive groups makes it quite clear that many administrators are not compelled to adopt these policies, nor eager to ameliorate their impact.]

The case of nihilism is both more and less subtle than such blatant yet banal acts. Continue reading »