Constantly Risking Absurdity
Saturday, April 30, 2005
For those of you who don't read the Paraguayan newspapers...

My dad's article on John Paul II in the Paraguayan daily Ultima Hora has been online for a few weeks now and he never told me. I'll translate it into English (aka "the new Latin," according to Dan) after I finish taking my finals.

Friday, April 29, 2005
The British sure know how to make some wacky political ads.

Thursday, April 28, 2005
Papal Critique-O-Matic 3000(tm)!

This funny little site generates automatic papal critiques.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005
"When St. Paul, in obedience to the warning of a dream, set sail from Troy in A.D. 49 and came to Philipi in Macedonia he did more to change the course of history than the great battle that had decided the fate of the Roman Empire on the same spot a century earlier, for he brought to Europe the seed of a new life which was ultimately destined to create a new world. All this took place underneath the surface of history, so that it was unrecognized by the leaders of contemporary culture...who actually saw it taking place beneath their eyes."

--Christopher Dawson

Monday, April 25, 2005
ln(morality) = 2pi*sin(atheism)/(Jesus!)+e^(mortality*1/2(free will))

Me: Guru, what's the equation for The Brothers Karamazov?
Guru: ln(morality) = 2pi*sin(atheism)/(Jesus!) +e^(mortality*1/2(free will)), plus a constant of integration

Well, aren't we just clever? (Guru wrote his [high school] senior thesis on Dostoyevsky, mostly to impress a certain girl. He now studies physics.)

Sunday, April 24, 2005
Camille Paglia Wants to Save Poetry

Even though I disagree with her on some important things, for a few years now I have admired the literary critic Camille Paglia, first because of her intellectual integrity, her fidelity to the truth, and second, because she writes with a sledgehammer. Consider these lines taken from the preface to her latest book, Break, Blow, Burn, which was published in abridged form (the preface, not the whole book) in the British paper, the Telegraph:

--“The dazzling multiplicity of sounds and word choices in English makes it brilliantly suited to be a language of poetry. It's why the pragmatic Anglo-American tradition (unlike effete French rationalism) doesn't need poststructuralism: in English, usage depends upon context; the words jostle and provoke one another and mischievously shift their meanings over time.”

--“I find too much work by the most acclaimed poets laboured, affected and verbose, intended not to communicate with the general audience but to impress their fellow poets. Poetic language has become stale and derivative, even when it makes all-too-familiar avant garde or ethnic gestures. Those who turn their backs on media (or overdose on postmodernism) have no gauge for monitoring the metamorphosis of English. Any poetry removed from popular diction will inevitably become as esoteric as 18th-century satire (perfected by Alexander Pope), whose dense allusiveness and preciosity drove the early Romantic poets into the countryside to find living speech again…”

(Camille Paglia)

--“A good poem is iridescent and incandescent, catching the light at unexpected angles and illuminating human universals - whose very existence is denied by today's parochial theorists. Among those looming universals are time and mortality, to which we all are subject. Like philosophy, poetry is a contemplative form, but unlike philosophy, poetry subliminally manipulates the body and triggers its nerve impulses, the muscle tremors of sensation and speech.”

--“The sacred remains latent in poetry, which was born in ancient ritual and cult. Poetry's persistent theme of the sublime - the awesome vastness of the universe - is a religious perspective, even in atheists like Shelley.

--“Commentary on poetry is a kind of divination, resembling the practice of oracles, sibyls, augurs, and interpreters of dreams. Poets speak even when they know their words will be swept away by the wind.”

--“All literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader. Criticism at its best is re-creative, not spirit-killing. Technical analysis of a poem is like breaking down a car engine, which has to be reassembled to run again. Theorists childishly smash up their subjects and leave the disjecta membra like litter.”

All of this amounts, I think, to a manifesto for the liberation of poetry, for reclaiming poetry as something to be experienced and judged in light of the human condition, and not by the rubrics and categories of ideologies which serve to do nothing but enervate and confuse the human person.

I used to believe that one had to approach a poem--or any work of art--by attempting to extract an abstract philosophical discourse from it. “What does this mean?” I would ask, and what I demanded as an answer would be something definite, an objective description of the “message” of the poet. This, I now think, was due in part because of a misinterpretation I made of something my dad told me during high school: that behind every work of art is the philosophical worldview of the artist, which inspires that work. “You can glean from the work of art a worldview, and from that, a certain philosophical discourse,” he said, or something like that. In any case, I misinterpreted that to mean that art is reducible to philosophical discourse. Thus I grew into an very impatient reader of poetry.

Another thing that fueled this rationalist temperament--which I think is really what’s behind postmodern critical theory, a rationalist temperament--was my rejection of the epistemological relativism I saw among the English faculty in my high school. “No objective truth exists,” was a slogan I would never believe, because, as a religious believer, I couldn’t. So I grew wary of what I thought were overly-speculative and subjective discussions of literature. “There is an objective answer to every question!” I would think. I was very suspicious of anything deemed “subjective.”

I suppose a lot of things worked towards eventually overthrowing that tyrannical mentality in my mind. I remember specifically pondering something Pablo Neruda tells his postman in Il Postino, that when poetry is explained, it becomes banal. But in the end, I rejected that too, because, if Neruda is right, then poetry is nothing but ornamentation, something we do to make the banal more bearable. But poetry, I was determined, must be something more than that.

Now I realize that I did not understand poetry until I began to grasp the religious experience. I use the words “understand” and “grasp” wrongly here, of course,. The whole point is that poetry cannot be understood. Nor does it mean, pace Writer’s Workshop Seminars everywhere, that poetry must be “felt.” No. Poetry is an act of the person in response to the mystery of reality and his or her’s confrontation with it. This, too, is part of the religious experience, because this confrontation with reality demands answers from it. And our demands are addressed by poetry, sometimes, and at others by philosophy. But they are both incomplete, and both irreducible to the other.

This is why I am so happy to see that Camille Paglia, who is an atheist (“Atheist admirer of religion” is what she told C-SPAN) can see that poetry is intimately linked to the religious experience. I feel vindicated. I also feel vindicated in rejecting the relativist ideology of my teachers: ideology imposes its own criteria on the mystery of reality; authentic poetry, and authentic philosophy, is open--though not always passive--before it.

Ironically, now that I “understand” poetry a little better, I can’t write it. I am too afraid to try, of being too self conscious in the process. This is because, I think, in order to “understand” poetry, I assumed the position of a philosopher, and it is hard to do both, poetry and philosophy. The great Jacques Maritain said that he relied on his wife Raissa's experiences in writing Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, because she was a poet, and because he did not believe "that a philosopher would dare to speak of poetry if he could not rely on the direct experience of a poet." Perhaps all philosophers should marry poets, to keep them in touch with reality. Poets or economists.

Paglia’s book, in the end, is an attempt to recapture reality, the human experience in reality. And now I understand why the new pope distrusts theologians who "do not love art, poetry, music, nature: they can be dangerous."


Related Links:

The New Criterion has a review of Paglia's latest book.


Saturday, April 23, 2005
Matty's Ratzinger Report

"So what’s the deal? First a Polish Pope, and now this! Cardinal Ratzinger – I must say, is a remarkable person! Heck, I was in his fan club ( , own a couple of steins and mugs, and gave countless ones away as gifts! But why would this obscure Bavarian become the head of the Roman See? I want to state that, in my opinion, this German Shepherd is the perfect choice for the new present Pontiff. I see him as the legacy-holder. He holds as the most brilliant Cardinal alive, the legacy of European Catholicism, which is about to be handed over, at our own giving, to the third world Catholics of the world – where the future Popes will hail from. So I need to begin early in history--perhaps more than one century. Bear with me, as I will soon get to the point of my discussion."

I knew Matty back in the day when he worked as a youth group leader and was a guitarist for some Christian band, before he discerned his vocation to the priesthood and joined Mundelein Seminary. I am glad to see he is blogging. He has a nice post recounting the theological history of the Church in the twentieth century, with a special emphasis on B16's evolution as a thinker. Very interesting. He is very happy.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005
B-16 Has Taste

Sandro Magister says,

"He has been this way since he was a child: 'The Catholicism of the Bavaria in which I grew up was joyful, colorful, human. I miss a sense of purism. This must be because, since my childhood, I have breathed the air of the Baroque.' ”

Well, we all have our own Cross to bear.

"He is distrustful of theologians who 'do not love art, poetry, music, nature: they can be dangerous.' He loves taking walks in the mountains. He plays the piano, and favors Mozart. His brother Georg, a priest, is the choirmaster at Ratisbonne, one of the last pockets of resistance for the great tradition of sacred polyphony and Gregorian chant. "

Ahh! Amen, amen! I have always been taught that "if you can't sing about it, it can't be true." I am glad to see our pope concurs. And Mozart!

"His was a strange conservatism, in any case. It was apt to disturb, rather than pacify, the Church. One of his favorite models is Saint Charles Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan who, after the Council of Trent, did nothing less than 'reconstruct the Catholic Church, which was almost destroyed in the area around Milan as well, without returning to the Middle Ages to do so; on the contrary, he created a modern form of the Church.' "

There must be some mistake. I've been told that our new pope has already bought the first train ticket back to the Middle Ages. Sandro is losing his touch. ... Really, these words are great.

John L. Allen writes this:

"Whatever one makes of his theological positions, Ratzinger is almost universally recognized as one of the preeminent Catholic intellectuals of his generation, a man of vast culture and refinement. He plays the piano in his spare time, and his brother Georg served as the director of the Regensburg choir. Ratzinger once said of Mozart that his music 'contains the whole tragedy of human existence.'"

He must have been referring specifically to the Requiem. Everything one can feel about love, life, death, said in that piece of music.

Not for a Godot, but for a St. Benedict(?)

Alisdair MacIntyre, the British philosopher and convert from Marxism, wrote in 1981:

"What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages whcih are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict."

Yesterday, the redoubtable Roger Kimball put two and two together: "Well, perhaps the elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI is a fulfillment of MacIntyre's wish." I don't know if this is what the Pope had in mind when he chose his name. But Kimball's comment raises in my mind two questions:

1. Does our new pope agree with MacIntyre's assessment of the present state of the moral condition?

2. What will be his approach to reforming it?

The answer to the first question is, I would venture to say, Yes. I think, though, that if Pope Benedict XVI is anything like our last pope, he would frame the present-day decay of moral discourse in anthropological terms. The starting point for ethics is the human person. Modern philosophy handicaps our ability to know anything true about the human person, and this is why morality today is reduced either to relativistic fluff or to a Kantian imperative. This is also why Karol Wojtyla decided to write The Acting Person; as he explained to Father de Lubac:

"I devote my very rare free moments to a work...on the mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out at that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order...."

The moral problem is the result of an anthropological problem--it's about the human person. But as for the second question on the approach: there are two approaches to the moral problem, I think, or two types of Christian witness. According to Michael Novak, anyway:

"Some Catholics commit their lives to an eschatological witness, some to an incarnational witness. The former (Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day) believe that the world is sinful, broken, even adversarial, and they choose to light within it the fire of the love of God, while having as little to do with the things of this world as they can. Those who choose the incarnational witness try to see in every moment of history, in every culture, and in every place and time the workings of divine grace, often in ways that are hidden like the workings of yeast buried in dough. And they lend their energies to altering that world in its basic institutions, even if ever so slightly, in the direction of caritas. Both traditions are legitimate."

This brings me back to my second question. Yes, Pope Benedict would agree with MacIntyre's diagnosis of the moral condition of the world--Novak probably would as well. But would Pope Benedict opt for the more eschatological approach of MacIntyre (who thinks we should start from scratch, with small communities like the previous passage suggests) or would he trust in the incarnational approach of somebody like Novak, who thinks that the "yeast" of the Gospel is still at work in history, even within non-Christian institutions?

Contrast MacIntyre's passage with this one from an article that Novak wrote about the French Thomist, Jacques Maritain:

"Yet Maritain does not say that Christianity exists in the world solely as the Church or the body of believers. Rather, he sees 'Christianity as historical energy at work in the world. It is not in the heights of theology, it is in the depths of the secular conscience and secular existence that Christianity works in this fashion.' He is equally far from asserting that Christians brought modern democratic institutions into existence: 'It was not given to believers in Catholic dogma but to rationalists to proclaim in France the rights of man and of the citizen, to Puritans to strike the last blow at slavery in America.' He gives credit--by schematic suggestion, not comprehensive detail--where credit is due: 'Neither Locke nor Jean-Jacques Rousseau nor the Encyclopedists can pass as thinkers faithful to the integrity of the Christian trust.'”

This is why Maritain--and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Novak--is so controversial. There is a considerable difference between the two types of "wtiness"--the incarnational one, perhaps, lends itself more to a cautious optimism. But judging by this quotation, it looks like Pope Benedict is closer in his thinking to MacIntyre:

"[The Church will] become small, and will to a great extent have to start over again. But after a time of testing, an internalized and simplified Church will radiate great power and influence; for the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely…and they will then discover the little community of believers as something quite new. As a hope that is there for them, as they answer they have secretly always been asking for."

I guess we will soon find out how he thinks.

Sunday, April 17, 2005
A Portrait of the Pope as a Young Artist... or something like that. Will blog more one test and two term papers from now.

Saturday, April 16, 2005
Huzzah! I'm now a member of St. Blog's!

Thursday, April 14, 2005
The Excitement is Palpable... might even say it's papable. Michael Novak says:

"Now that the Italian press is reporting that Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, a hero of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and perhaps the closest intellectual associate of Pope John Paul II during the past 25 years, has already received the support of 40, maybe 50 cardinals, out of the 77 votes needed to be elected the next Pope, it is time for the American media to begin searching into the mind and heart of one so close to JPII....

And, actually, my own sources in Rome now suggest that the number of cardinals supporting Ratzinger is closer to 55, leaving him at this early point some 22 short. Some caution should be exercised here, since in Rome counting of this sort is in most cases not actually by head, as is done in Washington by a Senate or House whip. In Rome, estimates are usually made by inference from known connections of cardinals and their close associates. However, some people in Rome (not necessarily with experience in American mayoralty elections) do know how to count votes. Those I know of in this camp are keeping their cards close to their chest. But they do not dispute the published numbers, except to hint that the true number is higher."

Monday, April 11, 2005
Gregory Wolfe's piece on Monsignor Giussani

Gregory Wolfe is editor of Image and an essayist for the webzine Godspy. The following comes from a piece commemorating the passing of Monsignor Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, who passed away about a month before the Pope:

When he entered the classroom, instead of giving his students predigested bits of Thomas Aquinas, he read the poetry of the dark, despairing, Romantic Giacomo Leopardi with them. They spoke of the poet’s unfulfilled desires, his sadness and sense of mystery. And then he would ask them to consider Aquinas’s belief that this sadness might be “the desire for an absent good.” And so a companionship began.

In his funeral homily, Cardinal Ratzinger said of Giussani: “from the start [of his life] he was touched—or, better—wounded, by the desire for beauty.” He believed that art provides the best analogy for the moment of recognition that is our experience of the Event. The spiritual life, he said, is “the development of a gaze.”

--Gregory Wolfe, "Current Events," Image Journal, Issue # 45, Spring 2005

Friday, April 08, 2005
APRIL 11, 2005:

APRIL 8, 1966:

Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Attention Students of Latin and Greek!

Some wonderful people at Tufts University have set up the Perseus Digital Library. Among their many "tools" are complete vocabulary lists for classical works in Greek and Latin, from Plato and Aristotle to Quintillian and Boethius (and including the Vulgate). This was a life saver for me when I was translating the Apology earlier this semester, and it saved hours of my time. Sure, you have to transliterate the Greek letters into Roman ones, but it's not too hard. And if you're searching through Latin works, that's no problem. See also their Greek and Latin catalogues of morphological analyses, their English-Greek and English-Latin dictionaries, and their historical maps of London (Andy you should like this).

We should all write emails to the good people of Tufts and give thanks.

And speaking of resources on the web, my friend Mary has some excellent links posted up.

Terry Eagleton on the Pope

This is the strongest criticism I've read about the pope so far:

"He was one of the greatest disasters for the Christian church since Charles Darwin."

Sheesh! But did Charles Darwin really wreak havoc on the Christian church? I mean, really? Who did we lose, besides a few Victorian intellectuals, and my brilliant friend, Andy? On the other hand, I guess Darwin is responsible for spawning all those fundamentalist creationist books...

Eagleton's hatred is a bit dissapointing, especially since Paul J. Griffiths last summer wrote such a compelling essay comparing John Paul's critique of capitalism to Eagleton's own. Look at this:

"Eagleton identifies capitalism and liberalism as the main enemies of this way of understanding ourselves. Capitalism is committed, in his opinion, to the idea that humans are infinitely plastic, that our appetites can be shaped into ever-new forms without constraint by nature. The market requires such a view so that it can educate our desires into inexhaustibly new patterns of need and consumption. And liberalism is the enemy of virtue-theory, he thinks, because of its subjectivism and its tendency to be unable to commit itself to anything other than a formal set of constraints upon what human beings should do. Capitalism and liberalism are among Marxism’s traditional enemies. But as so conceived they are also, in considerable part, the enemies of Catholicism. Pope John Paul II’s objections to the empty formalism of successive drafts of the prolegomenon to the European Union’s Constitution are in essence the same as Eagleton’s objections to liberalism; and the critique of unconstrained capitalism found in such papal encyclicals as Rerum Novarum or Centesimus Annus would not be out of place in the pages of After Theory."

I wonder if Eagleton knows about this--he used to be Catholic. "The path from the Tridentine creed to Trotskyism is shorter than it seems,” he wrote. His Catholic upbringing made it easier, he has said, to reject classical liberalism and capitalism. But apparently he had no love for the late Holy Father.

Sunday, April 03, 2005
This is the Official Statement from Communion and Liberation on the Passing of the Pope:

Press Release - Milan, April 3, 2005
A note from Communion and Liberation for the death of John Paul II
“The glory of God is man fully alive”

“My friends, let us serve this man, let us serve Christ in this great man with all our existence.” These were Giussani’s words to us as he left his first audience with John Paul II at the beginning of 1979. We have tried to realize these words in all these years of the life of the movement of Communion and Liberation, according to the task that the Pope himself entrusted to us on the occasion of the 1984 audience, “’Go forth to all the world’ (Mt 28:19), is what Christ said to His disciples. And I repeat it to you, “Go out into all the world to bring the truth, the beauty, and the peace that are encountered in Christ the Redeemer.” This is the charge that I leave to you today” (for the thirtieth anniversary of the birth of CL, Rome, September 29, 1984). Grateful, we bow before the completion of the life of the Pope, who exercised his authority first of all as a personal testimony to Christ – “center of the cosmos and of history” (Redemptor hominis) -, a testimony offered to the world with untiring dedication and self-sacrifice.For the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of this pontificate, Fr Giussani wrote John Paul II, “Following the Pope’s life over these last 25 years, what is most noticeable is that Christianity tends to be truly the realization of the human. All his travels, like a long march towards death, have had as their reason the evident unity that corresponds to the genius of Christianity: “Gloria Dei vivens homo”. The glory of God is man who is alive.”The Pope leaves the world fuller of the humanity of Christ and the Church more conscious of being herself “movement”.


And here is my friend Dan Darling's (of Regnum Crucis) piece at Winds of Change. He credits his conversion to John Paul II, whom he saw during World Youth Day in Canada a few years back.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Hans Kung Talks Smack About Me In His Article on the Pope

In Spiegel, he writes:

"The major regional and international youth events sponsored by the new lay movements (Focolare, Comunione e Liberazione, St. Egidio, Regnum Christi) and supervised by the church hierarchy attract hundreds of thousands of young people, many of them well-meaning but far too many uncritical. In times when they lack convincing leadership figures, these young people are most impressed by a shared "event." The personal magnetism of "John Paul Superstar" is usually more important than the content of the pope's speeches, while their effects on parish life are minimal."

He's right: we are impressed by a shared Event. But it's not what he thinks...

"In keeping with his ideal of a uniform and obedient church, the pope sees the future of the church almost exclusively in these easily controlled, conservative lay movements. ..."

What does "conservative" even mean in this context? Yes, we are easily controlled & conforming automatons... I leave my brain at the door of the church, etc. Oh, come on, Hans! I personally invite you to hang out with me next weekend. We'll go to a coffeeshop, discuss the Eternal Questions, and tell each other about our hopes and fears (but please no complaining about Ratzinger--I don't care). Afterwards, you tell me whether I am easily controlled, conservative, and impressionable.

Then again, if Karol Wojtyla doesn't impress you, I doubt I would.


Friday, April 01, 2005
Am I the only one that found that tagline on Fox News hillarious? It read: "Medical Experts Say/ No More Hope For the Pope." I laughed out loud. I think the Pope would have laughed with me.

The intimations of a mild-mannered Paraguayan undergraduate, studying Eng. Lit. and philosophy in a small, midwestern Jesuit college.

Email Me: constantlyrisking [at] yahoo [dot] com


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