28 February 2008

Recent readings on psychology, religion, and politics

Even in mundane situations, the individual must act in order to discover what he is and he must act in order to continue experiencing aspects of himself which he values and enjoys. If he thinks of himself as a businessman, a parent, an athlete, an intellectual, he must engage in behavior appropriate to this self-image. If he does not, he must redefine himself, or he will be left feeling anxious and needful. (Here is the reason for the psychological shock of retirement; the man who has retired may find that suddenly he can no longer be that which he most valued himself for being.)

Past actions through which he sought to know and to accept the self are not capable of satisfying this need in the present. Recalling the past can only remind the individual of what he used to be. The erstwhile football hero who is still reliving the big game fifteen years later, or the ex-campus queen who tries to give meaning to her life by clinging to her reign over the prom of a decade ago, are pathetic figures. As the existentialists have pointed out, man must act in order to be, and what he becomes is largely the summation of his actions.
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Paradoxical though it may seem, it is when the individual is with others that he is best able to enjoy and expand many aspects of himself, to refine and verify his self-image.
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Men hate in others those things - and only those things - which they despise in themselves. It is possible to disapprove of other people in a rational and dispassionate manner, but to hate them is an irrational and impassioned act. The passion betrays the underlying self-contempt.
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Distance enables the lover to see his beloved purely in terms of the projections he hangs on her.
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The general rule is that people who enjoy life enjoy marriage. Some people would be unhappy with any spouse, for they do not allow themselves happiness.

Snell Putney and Gail J. Putney
--The Adjusted American

That hatred springs more from self-contempt than from a legitimate grievance is seen in the intimate connection between hatred and a guilty conscience.

-Eric Hoffer

Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.

-Friedrich Nietzsche

If our faith is real, it must encroach upon our life. The Christian Confession in its original Church form will always be exposed to the misunderstanding that the Christian regards the Creed as a matter of heart and conscience, but that here on earth and in the world other truths hold good. The world lives in this misunderstanding; it regards the whole of Christianity as a friendly 'magic', connected with the 'realm of religion', which is respected and which ought to be left untampered with; and so we get rid of the matter! But this misunderstanding might even have come from within; a Christian might quite well wish to have this realm for himself and to guard faith like a sensitive plant. The relationship between the Church and the world has been widely understood as a question of a fixing of frontiers, whereby each secured itself behind its own frontier, although from time to time it came to a skirmish. From the Church's standpoint, however, such a fixing of frontiers can never exhaust its task. By the very nature of the Christian Church there is only one task, to make the Confession heard in the sphere of the world as well.
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Let us beware of remaining stuck where we are and refusing to advance to meet worldly attitudes. For instance, in Germany in 1933 there was plenty of serious, profound and living Christianity and confession.... But unfortunately this faith and confession of the German Church remained embedded in the language of the Church, and did not translate what was being excellently said in the language of the Church into the political attitude demanded at the time; in which it would have become clear that the Evangelical Church had to say 'No' to National Socialism, 'No' from its very roots.

Karl Barth
--Dogmatics in Outline

26 February 2008

Recent readings on religion and culture

He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed.
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Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.
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Let us give the name hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead. A live hypothesis is one which appears as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature, - it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Mahdi's followers), the hypothesis is among the mind's possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.

William James
--"The Will to Believe"

The distance, and as it were the space around man, grows with the strength of his intellectual vision and insight: his world becomes profounder; new stars, new enigmas, and notions are ever coming into view. Perhaps everything on which the intellectual eye has exercised its acuteness and profundity has just been an occasion for its exercise, something of a game, something for children and childish minds.

Friedrich Nietzsche
--Beyond Good and Evil

The perspective of the 'unbeliever' on the traditional forms of belief has seldom been welcomed with any enthusiasm inside the communities of faith, but in spite of that it has provided an invaluable service to them. If one were to write the history of modern reform movements within the several world religions, the critical outsider would have to be accorded a substantial position in such a history.

Jaroslav Pelikan
--The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought

Many of today’s churches have bought the culture’s lie that religion is not about sex or anything else of much importance. But, as theologian Sarah Coakley has so brilliantly said, ancient Christian reflection on desire shows that Freud is exactly wrong: Talk about God is not repressed talk about sexuality; talk about sex is, in fact, repressed talk about God. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, porn users are not to be rebuked for desiring too much but for desiring too little.

--Jason Byassee, "Not Your Father's Pornography" (First Things, January 2008)

25 February 2008

Great lines from recent reading

It is impossible to think - seriously - with words like Classicism, Romanticism, Humanism, Realism. ...One does not get drunk nor does one quench one's thirst with bottle labels.

-Paul Valery, quoted in C. Milosz, The History of Polish Poetry

Beauty is momentary in the mind -
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

Wallace Stevens
--"Peter Quince at the Clavier"

At no moment during my work did I feel boredom; indeed, I was playing more than toiling, and several passages preserve, I hope, a trace of my smile.

Czeslaw Milosz
--The History of Polish Poetry

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
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And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Wallace Stevens
--"Sunday Morning"

I got away with half my heart - no more.
Barely a trace of my old gaiety.
The crowd like market cattle bore
Me along. The world was loathsome to me.

Cyprian Norwid
--"Nerves"

With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings.
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This above all - ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question with a strong and simple "I must," then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
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Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty - describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.
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A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.
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Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn, - it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.

Rainer Maria Rilke
--Letters to a Young Poet

23 February 2008

Quotes from Joyce's "Ulysses"

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldham's hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

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-History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
-The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
-That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whirrwhee!
-What? Mr Deasy asked.
-A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

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For that are you pining, the bark of their applause?

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Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun's flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands.

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Our souls, shame-wounded by our sins, cling to us yet more, a woman to her lover clinging, the more the more.

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Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn, travel round in front of the sun, steal a day's march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day old technically.

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-Thank you, sir. Another time.
A speck of eager fire from foxeyes thanked him. He withdrew his gaze after an instant. No: better not: another time.

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To smell the gentle smoke of tea, fume of the pan, sizzling butter. Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.
Quick warm sunlight came running from Berkeley Road, swiftly, in slim sandals, along the brightening footpath. Runs, she runs to meet me, a girl with gold hair on the wind.

James Joyce
--Ulysses

05 February 2008

Quotes from Jim Harrison's "True North"

The main feature of the Kingston Plains was the thousands of acres of white pine stumps, some of them very large, which had been cut at waist or chest height probably during the winter when it was easier to skid the trees out on snow-covered trails which they dampened to form ice so that the draft horse-drawn log sleighs could be more easily pulled. ...I swiveled around until I had completed a 360-degree view, suppressing any anger I felt over the idea that they might have left a few trees for those in the future to look at. Maybe to try to imagine the trees was like asking a contemporary Lakota to imagine a million buffalo.
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It occurred to me that you could explain everything away but the behavior remained.
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Frankly I wanted to be useful in this life and that could be defined only by work, not good intentions.
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I felt absurdly happy when I entered Michigan just north of Toledo, though I was already lonely for Riva.
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Being at the university through the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. ending with the more recent Kent State butchery had often made academic studies seem problematical and remote. How upsetting to see your professor break down in tears in your Chaucer class the day after King was murdered. My return to religion was a defense against the insanity of the time, a way to avoid standing there simply screaming like the girl in the famous Kent State photograph. I recalled the day when I was a junior at Michigan State and Cynthia had called to say that she had heard our ex-paper boy had died in Vietnam. He was a poor kid and never seemed dressed warmly enough in winter when below-zero winds blew in off Lake Superior. ...He put a face on an insane war.
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How soiled and tawdry poor Jesus was compared to the theological school where the self-interest of the human intelligence smothered prayer, and the abstractions in the history of theology were a virtual fire extinguisher on the Gospels.
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Every location has its classic Greek chorus muttering, chattering, moaning in the background.
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Fred says that when he sees a politician who has further crushed the poor pray in public he wants to pick up a gun.
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I was cold and exhausted and went back to the motel room, drew an easy chair up to the window, then fell asleep staring at the frightening whiteness of the world. It was clearly a blank canvas on which you could paint your life if you cared to. Just before sleep I imagined sitting at the cabin window and painted the interior of what would be my cabin, including the front window from which the only visible thing was Lake Superior and the line of the horizon, but there was the nagging idea Fred had explained that as a putative Christian I had to learn how to function in the world before I earned the right to retreat.
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We were jittery when we rigged our fly rods and flipped a coin for the first cast. Glenn won and caught a two-pounder and then it became apparent that the fish weren't gun-shy so we could both cast. We caught a dozen before dark and released all but two which we kept for a midnight snack and ate with a six-pack of beer Glenn had stowed in the cold creek. The northern lights were astounding, whirling sheets and cones of rose and green and bluish lights so strong they gave off a tinny metallic sound.
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Naturally during the act of love you're undisturbed by reality, a grace note I also found in trout fishing, but then lovemaking and fishing don't manage to dominate your life like you wished they could.
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We gave up our heavy talk and spent two days rowing. In my own life strength has come from unfolding, subtracting, rather than adding.
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Clarence said a striking thing about rowing that I've always valued, the upshot of which was that he liked rowing because you were approaching life backward. You could clearly see the past, and you glanced quickly at the future over your shoulder mostly so you wouldn't run into anything destructively immovable. Too much of the future was predestined by the behavior of others for you to be in control. The most you could hope for is to be ready and attentive.

Jim Harrison
--True North

(I picked up True North at the Dawn Treader Book Shop (one of my favorites) in Ann Arbor, MI yesterday, and it has sucked me in and engrossed me in a way that hasn't happened in awhile. I read 50 pages in one sitting last night and another 150 pages on the train from Ann Arbor to Chicago this morning. I don't know how it ends yet, but it's highly recommended.)