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News of This World and the Next
Conversion, Reversion, &c. Plus, Send Some of That Sweet Zoophilia Traffic My Way!
My goodness, there is so much happening in the world right now! Sometimes it all just makes a fellow want to get on the internet and write about it — you know, to get his opinions and impressions out there in the mix. I’d estimate that on Earth alone at least a thousand sextillion discrete events have taken place over the past 24 hours: somewhere an anaerobic bacterium quivered when it absorbed a bit too much nickel; the milk I poured into my wife’s coffee momentarily took on the appearance of an interstellar nebula; the neo-Warholian avant-garde artist Sean “Diddy” Combs —who once took a commonplace object, “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, and “transfigured” it into his own art-work by sampling it unaltered in its entirety— settled with Cassie over sexual-abuse allegations. I just can’t keep up!
But let me attempt to cover at least some of these goings-on, before they slip forever into the past: not the first past, the one that still echoes in the present, but the second and final past, where it will forever be as if they did not happen at all.
Item! Ayaan Hirsi Ali has converted to Christianity. She has given reasons many find bad, but fortunately for her coming up with good reasons is not a requirement of conversion. I’m Kierkegaardian enough to accept that as long as we’re operating in the space of reasons at all, every reason for faith is going to be a bad reason. There’s something indeed to be said for doing it anyway.
Once I was walking in East Jerusalem with a friend, a woman dressed in secular garb, who from her appearance is very obviously of Northern European descent. She also happens to be a convert to Islam, at first for reasons of marriage, then slowly also of conviction, though as far as I was able to see that day she remained entirely her old Midwestern American self. When some men gathered outside of one of the several mosques clustered there began to tell us in a decidedly unwelcoming tone that the churches were that-a-way, she said back to them, confidently, in Arabic: “I am a Muslim”. They nodded graciously, and encouraged us to continue on our walk. She explained to me that in Islam one is expected to take co-religionists at their word. I myself barely believed her, and yet these total strangers accepted her claim without flinching. I think theirs is a good precept, and one that Christians should adopt as well, and extend to all self-proclaimed Christians, no matter how much a stretch their proclamation may appear to be from the outside.
I myself am not a convert but a revert, to Catholicism. After almost forty years away, I now look forward to going to mass every Sunday, and with some wise guidance I am taking the steps to return in the full sense and to participate in the sacraments. In order for that to happen, there is going to have to be at least one round of confession first. Yikes! What is that going to be like? I don’t quite know, practically speaking, how I can possibly enumerate all the sins of these past many years. Can I package them somehow under general headings? It seems to me as if my sins form a literal continuum, like time itself, such that there are always more sins to be picked out at will between any two given sins. Can I enumerate all the instants in time that have occurred since 1985? No? Then how can I enumerate all my sins? I’ll have to try, somehow, even if that means I’ll need to resort to transfinite set-theory to pull it off. (If I have understood Georg Cantor correctly, this approach might not be entirely foreign to the spirit of his own life and work.)
My reasons for being Christian are, to say the least, not the same as Ayaan’s. I can’t stand to think about the “civilizational” dimensions of it in the same fell swoop as the spiritual dimensions. I can’t imagine ever entertaining a thought, for even a nanosecond, about the incorrectness of another person’s faith. I see the church as obviously imperfect, because made up of human beings. But I see it nonetheless as an expression of the truth trying to come out in history.
I can’t imagine worrying about deviations from dogma, about hairsplitting theological quarrels, or even, all that much, about blasphemy. My mom has a Catholic friend who doesn’t want to go see Madonna with her on the grande dame’s “Celebration Tour” (my mom has several puzzling items on her bucket list). Her friend is still upset about certain controversies involving reportedly blasphemous iconography that some of you may remember from the previous century. But I think this is misguided. I think on the face of it, for example, if you were to show me the video of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”, and also to show me some randomly chosen episode of Sex and the City, and then to ask me, “Which of these two is further from God?” I would not hesitate to say that it is the latter. “Like a Prayer” exists in a world where blasphemy is at least possible; a mockery of prayer is still, in some sense, well, like a prayer. Sex and the City depicts a world where blasphemy is not even a recognized category, where the devil has succeeded in convincing everyone he does not exist, and so is free to take sundry forms, now as a desktop iMac, now as a Cosmopolitan, now as a pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps, but always diligent in his work of ushering these evanescent beauties towards permanent death.
This is a point that I think was made most compellingly by Simone Weil: “Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other.” Atheism, she says, can have a purificatory power. Most of secular modernity is not even atheist, as it doesn’t even know what it’s missing.
Am I getting off to a bad start here? I mean, both in this ‘stack, where it had been my intention to review the news of the world, and in my return to Catholicism, where the whole point is kind of just to accept and obey? Oh well. It’s not like I can simply take off the purple robes of the Pythagorean sect and change them for a brown tunic. We are who we have become: a bedrock truth that explains both my enduring attachment to at least some vision of rationalist philosophy, as well as my ultimate reversion to Catholicism, as opposed to a conversion to some other faith. I actually thought about Mormonism briefly, since I am directly descended from prominent figures in the LDS church; it’s part of my heritage, and I kind of vibe with their whole wild sci-fi approach to religion, to be honest. But they lost, and Catholicism won.
I found Ross Douthat’s recent piece on the sources of religious commitment rather compelling (in fact I’d give his occasional pieces on this topic perhaps 20% of the credit for my own recent turn), and it made me realize something very important about myself: I have been dangerously close in the recent past to signing up for some zany UFO cult or other. What can I say? I just have it in me. Over the past few years I have arrived at a direct, first-person, indubitable awareness of the weirdness of the world, and of the inadequacy of flatfooted naturalism as an account of certain of the ideas I find innate within me. This awareness is going to come out some way or other.
In my worldly activity, I find that willy-nilly it is increasingly coming out in the form of science-fiction, where indeed UFOs are not altogether off the agenda (though in fact I should point out that I strongly disagree with Ross’s particular conjectures about the causes behind recent UFO-related news). As a way of processing spirituality, I see UFO cults and other such recent slapdash efforts as related to Christian theology in roughly the same way OCD symptoms are related to millennia-old rituals: again, it’s going to come out some way or other, and I suppose I am just of the sort of disposition that would rather allow it to come out in a form that is tempered by tradition. As I argue in the UnHerd piece linked above, extraterrestrials really are just the modern rebranding of angels and other celestial divinities, and honestly, as with pretty much everything else, I “prefer the original”.
Centuries are not eternity, of course, but to have a few of them backing up the credos and rites one latches onto in this brief life can do much to help catch a glimpse of it. It is perhaps significant here that the common phrase annexed to the Lord’s Prayer, in saecula saeculorum, typically gets translated into English as “forever and ever”, but also contains the Latin word that gives us the French (and Spanish, etc.) for “century” (not to mention the word “secular”). We time-bound creatures seek out eternity where we can, as best we can. One promising pathway for finding it is in things that are really old.
Anyhow as I’ve said I’m inclined to think any reasons one gives for one’s particular faith are going to be bad reasons. I admire St. Thomas Aquinas and others more optimistic about the usefulness of philosophy, but as for me it was only when I became what I am now, an aspiring ex-philosopher, that I arrived at agreement with him about certain basic truths. Yet I can at least, I think, give a compelling account of why I, personally, am a revert to something I already was and not a convert to something else.
In my own way of thinking, now, asking how you know your religion is the right one seems something like asking how you know your family is the right one. It’s right because it’s yours. You can try to move in with your neighbors if you want, but in most cases that’s just adding needless complications. To think otherwise about religion is ipso facto to move into the secular space of reasons, and to give non-belief a home-field advantage it does not deserve.
Religion is not a consumer choice, or a career choice, or a choice of majors. If you Google “Which religion should I join?” you will find sites that tell you to go “try a few of them on”, to go “shopping” as they now say about university classes before the final drop-date has arrived. In fact, if I were to treat the matter as a consumer choice, I would probably end up going with Anglicanism, or maybe Quakerism — those are much closer to my natural aesthetic vibe. I always found incense made me nauseous; I am no great Italophile; if I’m being honest I probably have some lingering ethnic prejudice in me that makes me feel a bit of displeasure in the presence of a guy named, say, Vincent, with a gold crucifix around his neck. (At my Catholic elementary school, I realize now, there was a well-defined ethnic hierarchy, and those at the top of it, the Catholic kids of German and English descent, were precisely the ones who were most indistinguishable from Protestants). These are not, I feel, naturally my people.
But then I go to mass, and I am surrounded by Africans and Filipinos, and at least a few ethnic Franco-Gauls, and when we get the chance to say “Peace be with you”, I find that, indeed, supernaturally, these are my people, and I am so glad I did not give in to the grave mistake of treating this matter as one of consumer choice, or of anything as vulgar as an ethnonational “affinity group”. (I am aware that the the center of gravity of both Anglicanism and Quakerism has moved to Africa as well, but the idea of these denominations remains anchored in England and in the American colonies, just as the idea of Catholicism will always be anchored in Rome.)
I think the reasons Ayaan gave for her conversion are “bad”, but, again, I don’t think reasons are necessary. I have been saying I am Christian for about fifteen years now, and for most of that time the reasons I offered, I see now, were bad ones too. I recognize conversion happens, and must not be doubted from the outside, yet in my own experience any attempt at conversion would be underlain by the fundamental error of treating faith as a consumer choice, as something for which reasons can or should be given.
To offer such reasons, it seems to me, is something like accommodating the demand of a stranger who would accost you to ask that you prove your spouse is objectively more worthy of your love than someone you have never met. The only appropriate response to this is that you have not entered into a love relationship with him or her on the basis of any argument for or against the viability of their candidacy. Your spouse is not an employee you’ve hired, and there was no CV to look at. Of course early on there might be some such rational calculation in the great majority of relationships, and consideration of objective traits might help many to attain a certain degree of stability with their eventual mate choice. But a posteriori the calculations fade away, and you are left simply with the fact of the love, and the absurdity of any argument in its defense.
Sometimes, “This’ll do” is experienced not so much as “settling”, but as the hard-won apprehension of a great transcendent truth.
Item! I heard recently of someone who got a referee’s report back on a submission to a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. It said something like: “This author is attempting to make a contribution to the philosophy of love, but has not engaged with the recent literature.” Do you understand how ridiculous that sounds? To hell with “the recent literature”! Get out of here with your momentary blip of an intellectual subculture!
Item! Looking to see and be seen this season? Have you thought about an open letter? Everyone, and I mean everyone, is signing them.
I have lost count of the number of letters signed by academic philosophers, in particular, in protest of the atrocities in Gaza, and of all the fine degrees of difference between them, of which ones didn’t denounce Hamas strongly enough, which ones went on too long about the pragmatic implicature of “From the river to the sea”, etc. There was one that stood out to me however for the strange angle it took on the precise sort of authority with which an academic philosopher might speak in opposition to violence and oppression in the world — it cited recent efforts within the discipline to satisfy various DEI imperatives! Thus: “Our discipline has made admirable strides recently in confronting philosophy’s historically exclusionary practices and in engaging directly with pressing and urgent injustices. To this end, we call on our colleagues in philosophy to join us in overcoming complicity and silence.”
Now, I know and love some of the letter’s signatories, but come on! The diversification of philosophy is just obviously, manifestly, a downstream effect of vastly larger social and economic shifts, and invoking it establishes no authority at all. It is roughly as if a dentist’s office, having complied with new rules about using lead pads when taking x-rays, were on this basis to send a collective letter in protest against nuclear energy. It betrays a gross misunderstanding not only of what sort of things confer moral authority, but also of the scale of our administrative concerns in comparison with other people’s concerns, elsewhere in the world, about matters of life and death. It is ridiculous.
These reflections bring back a curious memory for me.
I was never as impressed with Sidney Morgenbesser’s Socratic one-liners as I was supposed to be. These days I have to try very hard to conceal my inner eye-roll whenever some philosophy tyro asks me, yet again, if I ever heard the one about the double affirmation that yields a negation. Curiously, if I were to answer “yeah, yeah”, this would be both an affirmative answer to the question, and an expression of my strong desire not to have to answer the question at all — I don’t know if that really counts as a “negation”, though it is at least a negative volition. I suppose this schtick is slightly better than having to endure, yet again, some eager youngster attempting to summarize the Monty Python skit with the philosophers playing soccer, if only because, when it comes to unraveling the DNA of the vocational humor of American philosophy, I much prefer those strands leading us back to the Borscht Belt to those that originate at Oxbridge. The eye-rolls cannot but come out in the open every time I encounter yet another American grad student in philosophy who has made a brief passage through England and is already eager to “grab a pint”, or to share his enthusiasm for “football”. Talk about the excessive zeal of the convert! Lads, bros, countrymen: be true to yourselves!
But anyhow I do recall once in grad school I was going through some boxes someone had stored in a departmental broom-closet, when I landed upon some old group letter that Morgenbesser had signed, alongside Hilary Putnam and others of that generation, and that had been published in the New York Review of Books shortly after the My Lai Massacre. This added a real gravitas to Morgenbesser that I had never detected before. I was impressed; he went up in my estimation.
What explains the difference when I see group letters signed by academics on issues of the day in our present era? Do I value the lives of innocents in Vietnam more than in Gaza? Or am I perhaps guilty of the same act of recuperation that we see now on the American right in relation to the legacy of Martin Luther King, where the patina of pastness takes the radical charge away, and all that can be detected after a certain amount of time has passed are the classical virtues, and nobility of character?
I think it’s neither of these things, in fact. What has changed is the information environment. An open letter is plainly little more than a dressed up tweet, and the signatures it collects are its likes or faves. If it is to have any success, this will be in view of the same metricization as attaches to anything else circulating out there. All these letters flying around seem only to add to what to me sounds increasingly like the din of the invisible stadium that the world has built around Gaza. I see no real evidence that the cheers and jeers from the crowd have any impact on those in power, and I even fear that the fullness of the bleachers is itself contributory to the vigor of the combats. When the whole world is speaking “statementese”, when even the dentists and philosophers are looking for an angle from which to assert moral authority, when everyone imagines themselves as some kind of special envoy, when the imperative of universal takesmanship is so strong that it motivates people to stop posting text-only tweets and instead to start posting tweets with links to downloadable pdfs with lists of “electronic signatures” on them — when all these things start happening, you’ll know your war is a hit.
I used to sign group letters, and as recently as 2013 I spearheaded one myself, published in the Times, in protest of an article by Dan Bilefsky that asked, “Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor?” Our letter generated another round of chatter for the Times and its readers, before slipping into “the second past”, where it would have stayed permanently, if I had not drawn it out again today. Meanwhile, the Roma remain poor, not primitive, and utterly marginalized by a rigidly class-stratified continent that positively needs to keep at least one group of people permanently at the lowest rung.
The one good thing to come of that letter was the edifying and memorable exchange I had with the editor who handled it, who at the time had recently adopted a Roma child whom she loved very much. She, and not I, I see now, was engaged in the thing that makes the world go round, and that may sometimes actually succeed in saving innocents from hell.
Item! Many of the complaints I’ve just shared about open letters could extend mutatis mutandis to a recent tweet from Peter Singer, in which he announces that a publication he helps to edit, the Journal of Controversial Ideas, has recently brought out a piece defending sex with dogs. This predictably woke up the hordes of anon yahoos, declaring things like “Sick”, and “Fire this man now” and “Up against the wall, please”.
My own thought was rather different: does Singer understand, at all, how social media work? Does he really fail to grasp that willy-nilly, if this volley of his is going to have any traction at all, it will only be as engagement-bait, and not as a substantive intervention on a controversial issue?
I actually think zoophilia is a fascinating topic. One of my rejected contributions to “The Stone” way back when took it on, in fact. I think as a sort of regulative idea it has played an important role in shaping human society — after all, many ancient and medieval royal genealogies begin with a bear as their first progenitor. As an actual deed, it’s usually rather more uncouth, but even there it’s a worthy subject for investigation by worthy writers and artists. Here I think in particular of the wonderful scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991) when the Roman taxi driver played by Roberto Benigni recounts to the priest in his back seat, who is in the course of having an actual heart attack, how he, the driver, has ascended the scala naturae and gone from fucking watermelons, to sheep, to his wife’s sister. As to the first stage of the ascent, he explains that he moved on from the vegetable kingdom because he was keen on having an encounter with a being “with a soul”, if only a sensitive and not an immortal one. There’s also a great zoophilia scene in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), when a widow’s husband is reincarnated, according to Buddhist belief, as a carp. Cormac McCarthy’s ultra-Catholic novel Suttree (1978) features several compelling scenes of at least phytophilia when, again, a poor rural youth cannot keep himself out of the watermelon patch. This is all rich stuff, and it’s all just going to keep on happening in the real world because, well, farmboys are horndogs.
But whatever that piece in the JCI is concerned with is not our world, neither the phantasms that shape it (e.g., that we are descended from bears) nor the impulses that spoil it. My main complaint about Singer and the work he has promoted is not that it is “sick”, but that it is impotent. It fails to grasp what an interesting topic it has taken on. It makes me at least as alienated from philosophy as any of the angry yahoos online, but, again, for very different reasons.
Singer on zoophilia reminds me of Richard Hanania on Shakespeare. There is an aggressive, willful incuriosity there that just astounds me. Content to walk around on the surface of things, he does not even bother to stomp on that surface hard enough to hear the depths resounding below. But without an initial phase of bathymetry, any investigation, even in questions of morality and other matters of grave human concern, is going to keep ending up tragically inadequate to its purported object.
Item! In the spring I’ll be leading a series of workshops at the American Library in Paris on “Experimental Fiction as Philosophical Experiment”. As I’ve made clear in this space by now, I think, all I really want to do from now on is, as Matthew Arnold put it in “Empedocles on Etna” (1852), to speak truth by fabling. It’s all I care about, really, as far as earthly endeavor goes. I figure my best path towards being able to do it respectably is, so to speak, to take it on the road, and to start promoting this sort of work in public and august venues. So more on that soon enough, but if you’re interested in participating early next year, and are located in Paris, do make a note of it now.
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