Constantly Risking Absurdity
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Soccer, Mozart, Hiatus


I will be travelling westward tomorrow morning on a weeklong retreat/vacation, sponsored by these people. I'm going on a media fast, so no blogging 'til I return (I doubt I could get access to a computer over there anyway). I will be driving to my destination, which of course means packing a copy of this book with me, because to read On the Road on the road is just too cliche not to do. Sort of like discussing Radiohead in a college dorm.


This rendition of the Requiem is worth the price just for the essay by Luigi Giussani found in the liner notes. It's called "A 'Fount of Mercy' for Making Man Anew." An enticing passage:

Every phrase of the Requiem (as the music makes evident) begins with the undisupted affirmation of the dominion of justice and truth, and then is as though suddenly interrupted by something that comes in and mitigates unexpectedly the harshness of justice, the acrid affirmation of truth, softening it in a request, a supplication that knows it can be made.

I can't find the essay online, so you'd probably have to buy the CD to read it.


From Zenit:

German Soccer Defers to Pope's Trip
ROME, MAY 25, 2005 ( Benedict XVI's visit to Germany for World Youth Day has led to a change in the country's soccer championship calendar. All games scheduled for Aug. 20 and 21 have been postponed to the following week, the German Soccer Federation announced. The Pope is scheduled to travel that weekend to Cologne, for the event expected to attract hundreds of thousands of young people. Both first- and second-division games have been deferred. Soccer is Germany's national sport.

It really tells you something about the Great Game of Soccer when a simple rescheduling makes for international news. I read somewhere that that great Argentine, Jorge Luis Borges, famous writer and famous soccer hater, deliberately scheduled a conference at the same time as the World Cup Final--when it was being held in his own city of Buenos Aires in 1978--as if to say, "There are greater things in the world than even this, the World Cup Final." A consensus on whether there actually is something greater than the World Cup Final--or better than winning the World Cup Final---probably does not exist among soccer fans worldwide. But it's nice to see that the Bundesliga (the German soccer league) respects the sacred enough to defer to it for this important occasion. They exhibit a sort of existential humility that Borges himself may have lacked.

(A Note to the Purists: I understand that many of you may cringe at my use of the word "soccer." It's football, I know. But here in America that word has not caught on yet. I am sorry.)

More Soccer

Watching AC Milan's breakdown and debacle in today's Champion's League final with an authentic Rossoneri from Milan was not easy. My poor, frustrated Italian friend Carlo had been yelling at Andrea Pirlo since the 40th minute of the game, but Pirlo did not listen, did not pick up his game, and, alas, missed a key penalty in the tie-breaking shoot-out. Shevchenko's miss was more of a surprise. On the other hand, Liverpool's rally from three goals down--unprecedented in the history of the Final--is as inspiring as any sports-themed Disney movie ever made, with the added bonus that there was no silly sideplot, no saccharine music score, and, of course this really happened.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Revenge of the Sith, One More Time...

I promise, no more after this! But the Star Wars universe is strangely seductive. Some links:

John J. Reilly was nice enough to link to me in a very interesting roundup of reflections on
"Manicheanism & World Order."

Mary of
View from the Corner draws different conclusions from my own on the line, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." She links to sci-fi novelist Orson Scott Card, who takes a view closer to my own:

Good and evil are in a constant and nearly equipoised tug-of-war in the Star Wars series. But in the more recent movies, it seems that the goal of good people is not to wipe out evil, but rather for there to be a balance between the Light and Dark sides of the Force.

The new movie itself asserts a kind of equivalence. When the evil Palpatine says, “Good is a point of view--the Sith and the Jedi are almost the same,” we can dismiss this moral relativism as part of the deception of the dark side.

But in a pivotal scene, Obi-Wan says what amounts to the same thing: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Isn’t that odd? The only thing both sides agree on is that people who believe in absolute good and evil are bad!

Though I argue that Lucas can't escape his own universe, Scott Card doesn't seem to think so. In any case, I still like Star Wars.

Sunday, May 22, 2005
A Few Corrections

I just saw Revenge of the Sith again tonight (some friends came into town who hadn't seen it yet ;) ), and I noticed that in my previous post I got a couple of the lines wrong.

1.) When Obi Wan asks Anakin: "Can't you see that Palpatine is evil? Anakin replies, "The Jedi Council is evil from my point of view." Obi Wan then replies that if Anakin really thinks that way, then he is surely lost.

2.) It's "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." Why is that so hard to pin down?

There is also more evidence that the Sith are the relativists: Palpatine tells Anakin that there isn't really much difference between the Sith and the Jedi, that they are both after power. Anakin replies that the Jedi are selfless, and use the Force only to help others. Palpatine is not fazed. "Good is a point of view," he says, or something like that. The Empire is most definitely an Empire of Lies. Dare I say it? It is a dictatorship of relativism.

Saturday, May 21, 2005
Deep Thoughts on Revenge of the Sith

Before the film came out, A.O. Scott of the New York Times claimed that Lucas took some political jabs:

Mr. Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders. At one point, Darth Vader, already deep in the thrall of the dark side and echoing the words of George W. Bush, hisses at Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." Obi-Wan's response is likely to surface as a bumper sticker during the next election campaign: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes." You may applaud this editorializing, or you may find it overwrought, but give Mr. Lucas his due. For decades he has been blamed (unjustly) for helping to lead American movies away from their early-70's engagement with political matters, and he deserves credit for trying to bring them back.

Neither Scott nor I can know whether Lucas was intentionally jabbing his light saber at Bush, but after watching the film, I can safely say that, even if he was trying to be anti-Bush, he failed. If being anti-Bush means to be against “thinking in absolutes,” then all the Jedi knights are Bushites. Lucas can’t suppress the absolutist, quasi-Manichean structure of his own Star Wars universe. And he can't suppress the biblical patterns that keep informing his plots, either.

“Only a Sith Deals With Absolutes”

Take the famous line that Scott cites: “Only a Sith deals with absolutes (1).” The line that precedes it--“If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy”--probably is an affront to Bush’s “You are either with us or against us.” But Obi-Wan’s reply makes no sense in the larger context of the film. Earlier, Palpatine (AKA Darth Sidius), as he tries to seduce Anakin into the Dark Side, tells Anakin that the Jedi Council takes a “dogmatic” and “narrow minded” view of the Force, and that he prefers a more broad-minded approach, one that can appreciate the Dark Side and all of its enticing gifts. Anakin doesn’t give in yet, but the very biblical offer is already on the table: “Ye shall be as gods…”

So what is Obi-Wan doing, lamenting Anakin’s absolutist thinking? For no more than a few minutes later, Obi has some absolutist remarks of his own. He tells Anakin, “Can’t you see that Palpatine is evil?” Anakin replies like a good moral subjectivist: “Not from my point of view,” or something like that, I can’t remember exactly (it was a very forced line). Who is the absolutist now? Obi-Wan, who speaks of “evil” (much like George Bush), or Anakin, who says that evil is in the eye of the beholder?

This is the universe that Lucas created: the Dark Side is evil, the Jedi Council is good. The Jedis are selfless servants (Anakin says so early the film), and the Siths are selfish and evil (again, as Anakin tells Palpatine early in the film). Palpatine tries to seduce Anakin by using relativistic language: Take a broad-minded approach, don’t be dogmatic. He also acts as a sort of serpent in the Garden of Eden: he tells Anakin that, if he practices the Dark Side of the Force, he can defeat death and become all-powerful. The Empire, defended by relativistic rhetoric, is an Empire of Lies: lies about the Force, about the Jedi Council, and lies told to the Trade Federation, who are betrayed in the end.

And Palpatine is right. The Jedi Masters (especially Yoda) exhibit nothing if not dogmatic certainty in every judgment they make. I can see Socrates giving them the Euthyphro treatment.

A Biblical Fall

Anakin’s fall also takes a biblical pattern, that of Satan, the fallen angel, who was once God’s most beautiful angel. Anakin was the greatest of the Jedi knights. Obsessed with himself, and not wanting to trust the will of the Force or the will of the Council, he chose to join the Dark Side and pursue omnipotence. Thus Obi-Wan’s admonition to the beautiful Padmé, that he was trying to “save [Anakin] from himself.”

Childbirth v. Cyborg

Lucas chooses to juxtapose Anakin’s excruciating operating-table metamorphosis into Darth Vader with Padmé’s painful childbirth and slow expiration. Again, the light/dark, good/evil dichotomy is all too absolutist—and again, Lucas sees no conflict between it and Obi’s earlier remark. Anakin is the sign of selfishness and darkness. In contrast, childbirth is a sign of hope—Padmé suffers and dies for her children, who are, as we have already seen, A New Hope.


No, this wasn’t a Bush-bashing film. Lucas couldn’t have made one even if he tried—he can’t escape his own universe. If anything, this film is an argument against Richard Rorty and his school of “ironists,” because it favors moral absolutism, objective standards, and a metaphysical foundation for society. Those who blame Bush for being an absolutist who clings to outdated notions of "good" and "evil" should find no support from this film. I agree with Dan that the Empire looks a lot more like the totalitarian “Lies” of the twentieth-century (Nazism, Fascism and Communism) than any contemporary regime. What Michael Novak recently wrote about Communism could've be said about the Dark Side. Just substitute “Party” for “Dark Side” (comments in red are my own):

What helps the Party is moral; what hurts it is immoral [i.e., "If you're not with me..."]; any other moral principle is an illusion. Metaphysically, this is not nihilism, for at least the Party has ontological status as the dynamo of history and measure of moral progress. But for the participating individual it requires a relativizing of every other moral code. An emptying out of the moral individual, so that the Lie may occupy that place [Anakin was "emptied out" by the Dark Side's own "purgatorial fire," and Darth Vader is the Lie that has come to occupy his former place as the Chosen One.]

Now I am reading way too much into this, and I should stop. But some questions linger.

Free Will?

Does Anakin’s demise mean that Qui-Gon Jinn’s reading of the prophecy was mistaken? And where did Anakin’s dreams come from? Was his fate sealed by the prophecy, or by his dream?


Footnote: (1) Scott got the line wrong. It's not "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes," but, "Only a Sith deals with absolutes." I wonder if the future bumper-sticker manufacturers will take note.


On a related note: Jonathan V. Last a couple of years ago wrote a defense of the Empire. He'd probably disagree with me on the nature of the Empire. Then again, I'm pretty sure his essay is tongue-in-cheek.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

I just replaced and updated my blogroll on the sidebar. The rest of the sidebar will be reconstructed in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005
"I decline to accept the end of man."

This speech is a good reason to explore the mind of Faulkner:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Saturday, May 07, 2005
Student Essays to Be Graded by Computers

"COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Student essays always seem to be riddled with the same sorts of flaws. So sociology professor Ed Brent decided to hand the work off - to a computer.

Students in Brent's Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Missouri-Columbia now submit drafts through the SAGrader software he designed. It counts the number of points he wanted his students to include and analyzes how well concepts are explained.

And within seconds, students have a score."

To paraphrase Nietzsche: "What are these standardized tests, these five-paragraph essays, these scantron sheets, if they are not the tomb and sepulchre of man?"

Thursday, May 05, 2005

"In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us--opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church's rightful liberty were concerned.

"We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.

"Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era. We must recognize here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing men's efforts, whether they realize it or not, towards the fulfillment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church's good."

--Pope John XXIII - Address at the Opening of Vatican Council II - 11 October 1962

Monday, May 02, 2005

What did I do to my sidebar?? Ahh! Alas.

This will be fixed after next Wednesday. Meanwhile, prayers to Blessed Alcuin requested.

One of the Promised Paraguayan Poems

"Buscar el pan"
por José Luis Appleyard

Buscar el pan.
Correr tras él.
Correr. Dromir. Amanecer.
Volver a ser.
Correr. Buscar.
Comer. Dormir.
Y nada más.
Buscar el pan.
Correr tras él.
Llevarlo tembloroso hasta la boca.
Comer el pan.
Andar y desandar por calles viejas.
--para comer--
con los dos pies.
Mirar los ojos con la boca amarga
de una saliva torpe que adelgaza
duras migas de pan.
Correr tras él.
Luchar por él.
Herir por él.
No renacer.
Eso es vivir.
Pero vivir
ya no es pensar
ni amar ni ser.
Mejor morir.

Pretty dark. And deceptively simple, but of course that makes it that much more difficult to translate. That's not something I'm going to do today ;). A prize (an e-card, maybe?) to anyone who makes a brilliant translation.

Sunday, May 01, 2005
Theologians: What do they know?

From Wilco's latest album, A Ghost Is Born, the song "Theologians" brings a smile to my face:

Theologians don't know nothing
About my soul
About my soul
I'm an ocean
And this emotion
Slow motion
Slow motion

Illiterati lumen fidei
god is with us everyday
That illiterate light
Is with us every night

They don't know nothing
About my soul
Oh they don't know

Sitting weary-eyed at night over some very turgid old text, or sitting restlessly in class at school, sometimes I get the same feeling.

Of course, Wilco's poetry should not be taken literally. Dick Staub has a nice reflection on the song and on the slack that theologians have to take today.

Come to think of it, the turgid texts that make me restless these days are mostly written by literary critics or philosophers. And those books are usually not more than twenty or thirty years old.

How much do these two agree?

The clouds of my grief dissolved and I drank in the light. With my thoughts recollected I turned to examine the face of my physician. I turned my eyes and fixed my gaze upon her, and I saw that it was my nurse in whose house I had been cared for since my youth - Philosophy.

--Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in philosophical propositions, but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries.

--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

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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