Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Love: a Tough Business

I know I said I wouldn't be posting again for a while but I decided to take a moment anyway to put up a couple stanzas from a poem I like. In doing so, I offer you my inaugural procrastination post. Presently I am avoiding a short paper for our Medieval Philosophical Texts course, for which we are supposed to develop conceptions of Creation in the work of different medieval Islamic philosophers. I know, the idea made me yawn too. Jeremy is still yawning and he finished his paper hours ago.

So this comes from a poem by W. H. Auden, and it's pretty serious.

O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless. 
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You must love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart. 
- W. H. Auden, from "As I Walked Out One Evening"

As Auden sees it, we're real bastards, mostly, and to love one another in spite of ourselves is both necessary and miraculous. There is some comfort in the idea that, although loving another person purely may be impossible on this side of the eschaton, it is nonetheless true that "if you do not love, your life will flash by." I suppose that a person's understanding of this idea approaches its resonance frequency in her life when, against all naiveté, she also comes to understand that by choosing to love, she is opting into a tremendously difficult and frequently unpleasant business. Tough crackers for those of us who would rather rid ourselves of all the garbage that goes along with living in our scummy world, and carve out a perfect space in which we may love perfect people perfectly without a shred of selfishness or doubt. Tough crackers for us. 

The poem is worth reading in its entirety if you have a couple minutes, which should be sufficient for giving it a visual sweep and a few seconds of reflection. Be warned, it's a very sober delving into the ceaseless march of time, through us and always away from us. In example:

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.'

So, love: a tough business, yeah, and I suppose the situation is made all the more serious by how little time we have. That's all.

Brief Intermission

Seeing as our academic obligations are ramping up in view of the end of the term, I'm afraid I am going to need to put this blog on a temporary hold. I hope to continue putting up brief posts here and there, perhaps some pictures, but my conscience demands that I spend more of my "free" time reading for thesis research and developing a more detailed outline for the project, and I'm not of a mind to go against conscience in this case. 

Thanks for being the best blog followers around, you guys. See you again soon. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Roof With a View

We have one. Please enjoy the following pictures, which I snapped using the camera that Rachyl sent me. Seriously, my friends are the best.

our point of access

we will rotate to the left, so as to give a sense of the full sweep

still some autumnal color in the trees

wonderful place to enjoy a glass of wine at night ...

... or paw through a philosophical tome during the day 

Justus Lipsius college is the beautiful background building

in the distance you can just make out the cathedral and old town hall

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How Everything Stands for Everything Else

Names have not been changed but modifications have been made to the following events, to protect the identities of those involved.


This morning, I stood holding a plastic cup of juice behind Jeremy, who sat at his desk in his padded chair reading his book about who knows what, and I thought to myself as I stood behind Jeremy with my plastic cup, "with my free hand, why not tickle Jeremy," and since I do so much better with commands, I re-thought, "with thy free hand, thou shalt tickle Jeremy," so with my free hand I tickled Jeremy, in the rib area for about one and a half seconds to be specific, and I should say here that at this point my conscience was clean, as it would remain.

Of course, I had forgotten our pact of mutually-assured destruction, and in accordance with our treaty he whipped his head towards me without sound but full of fury and he punched, and in the absence of a sippy-lid my juice didn't stand a chance against Jeremy's fist which is precisely why, when Jeremy socked my juice (its innocence notwithstanding), we almost baptized the hanging kitchen light in sticky kiwi-mango-strawberry spray.

And when the juice fell like a bursting translucent dome and slapped on the grey plastiwood floor all at once, and when I looked at my speckled hand and my empty plastic cup, and when Jeremy realized what he had done and we all started to laugh, at that point life was simultaneously beautiful, tragic, and hilarious for the play of light, the loss of juice, and the clean cut-away of act and consequence, the abyss separating Jeremy's original intention from the puddle on our floor, a congealed mess of hair and dust and crumbs and sweet, sweet nectar that I could still taste even as I looked down upon it, laughing and mourning, welling with tears of jouissance and regret.

O loss of fruit, O impotent towel, O ways in which we do not do what we want. His second punch landed truly, the moment after he apologized for the mess, and in spite of my clean conscience I knew that he was perfectly entitled to it because when he hit me I represented the universe.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Thesis Topic: Chosen

I'm writing on the phenomenology of prayer. God help me, right?

Prayer is unique because 1) it may be considered the religious phenomenon par excellence,* a foundation for religious practice generally, and 2) prayer offers (in my nascent perspective) one way of imagining the possibility of a point of contact with the transcendent that may come under true phenomenological description. This is important because more traditional phenomenology brackets away transcendence for being outside phenomenology's proper field of application, which comprises only what is immanent. So, as the subject of this sort of analysis, not only does prayer help to clarify the nature of religious experience, but if a methodologically sound analysis of prayer is possible and can even proceed on prayer's own terms, then there could be implications for the ongoing phenomenological project generally. This is only a tentative hunch, of course.

The idea is connected to a larger, ongoing debate in contemporary French phenomenology over the apparent movement towards more overtly religious themes and ideas, which has roughly occurred within the last thirty or so years. Prominent, traditional phenomenologists regard the exploration and description of prayer, transcendence, and related phenomena as a corruption of phenomenology, a theologizing—"[phenomenological] heresy,"** even. But the philosophers who have taken phenomenology in this transcendent direction, by interrogating the "givenness of the given" itself or by searching for an invisible ground for the domain of the visible, tend to regard their work as being more faithful to the core tenets of the discipline than the traditional phenomenologists themselves, for reasons that are as complicated as the context in which they are given.

Who knows which side of this debate is correct, if that's even a useful question? For my part, I wish only to re-tread a fresh but fairly well-trod path, hoping for illumination from whatever source will give a little light as I try to understand what it is that happens when we open our mouths and address ourselves to an invisible God.

* Jean-Louis Chretien, "The Wounded Word: The Phenomenology of Prayer"
** Jacques Derrida, leveling an accusation against Jean-Luc Marion, a phenomenologist associated with French phenomenology's purported "theological turn," for his belief in the possibility of the "saturated" phenomenon, unbounded by a horizon or the constitutive gaze of the subject. One species of "saturated phenomena" would be theophany.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Leuven Town Hall & Adjacent Cathedral

Just thought I'd put up a picture of Leuven's town hall. There are also two pictures of St. Peter's Cathedral, which is across the square. I do not have the rights to any of these pictures.

each alcove contains a uniquely sculpted figure

they don't make churches like they used to

it is helpful to use the people at the bottom for scale

Friday, November 4, 2011

Glory Be

Once again, I owe an enormous debt of love and gratitude to a friend in the states. The way that a material thing can become such a tangible expression of an immaterial reality, such as a person's kindness - well, it's just something that seems to come under more satisfactory description in the terms of the participatory ontologies of centuries gone by.

the title already hints at the sequel

Last week, I received The Tree of Life as an early Christmas present from Josh, who is a great guy, a real class act. Josh was with me when I saw this movie for the first time, and also the third time, so he's seen me in all my brooding, teary-eyed glory. He is an all-around great dude, and a talented photographer to boot!

Oh man, The Tree of Life. This movie affected me like no other movie I have seen; it met me so perfectly that in weak moments I've been tempted to see film itself as a completed enterprise, as though the artistic and spiritual potential of the medium has been brought to perfect consummation. I don't believe this is really true, or even can be true on account of the ways that truth works through art, but I've been tempted to think it nonetheless. I was tempted anew a few days ago when I gave The Tree of Life a fifth viewing, this time in the company of Jack, Berthold, and my roommates. I am generally unaccustomed to tears so when I get them it makes my face tired. 

And so. In addition, of course, to freaking out about my thesis proposal, which is due on the 15th of this month, I have started work on what could become a two- or three-part review of The Tree of Life. Not a real review (because [1] it's too personal, and [2] I don't have the technical and historical knowledge of film that would help me to write a real review), but an essay, perhaps. There will also be a sort of prolegomena intended to help contextualize my response to it. We'll see how personal it gets. 

Anyway, my last word is to Josh: thank you, Josh, you are an amazing friend. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Axis and Allies and the Best Night Ever

My roommates and I have made two friends here in the past month. Berthold is a Dutch medical student working at a hospital here in Leuven; his English is excellent and he's been so kind as to start helping us learn how to speak Flemish, so that we might at least know how to distinguish the times when people are swearing at us from the times when people are just enthusiastically greeting us and asking us what our names are and how we are today.

Jack is our second friend, as well as our Anglican priest. God's gifts to him include height, volume, and charisma. The fact that he was the dean of a college at Cambridge for over a decade—and by natural extension, of course, that he used to ride out on the fox hunt every Saturday morning, and captained a rugby team, and ate dinner alongside Stephen Hawking for years—sounds extraordinary on paper, but spending time with Jack helps one to see just how much it makes sense. He is the sort of person who seems to be made of tea, biscuits, and tweed. At his apartment a couple weeks ago, I thumbed through his hardbound 500+ page doctoral dissertation, written in French. Seeing it in my hands, he said "it is possible, boys," with an upward inflection on the last word, as British as the Queen. I laid it down on the coffee table, afraid its weight would break one of the wooden legs. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein was also a Cambridge don

Last night Jack picked us all up in a Mini Cooper and drove us to a house in the countryside of Wallonia, where he is taking care of the dog and cats for a few days while the house owner (a Dutch writer) and his family are away. We sat in front of a stone fireplace for tea and wine, and after answering the door to a group of trick-or-treaters (in the Belgian countryside, who would have thought?), we ate dinner in the kitchen. The house was huge, all wood and brick and cut stone, painted in warm colors and stuffed with candles and old books. After we finished off a loaf of bread with Bruge cheese and salmon, Jack fried steaks with an egg on top for each of us. In retrospect, I am quite sure that I hadn't eaten that much protein in the previous two weeks combined, a fact to which my visibly-increased muscle mass seemed to attest today. Unfortunately the effects were only short term and I didn't take any pictures of myself for proof because I am meek. 

I have new culinary experiences here every day 

After dinner, Jack treated us to a very special bottle of liqueur; it had been a gift from a congregant at a church in France where he worked for several years while completing his PhD. Illegally distilled and bottled in the early 80s (according to the handwriting on the yellowed sticker-label), the clear liquid burned from the throat down into the chest, but not before releasing a confusing blend of fruit notes and bits of partly-dissolved cork. Apparently they drink it by the mugful in the region where his church was. 

It was now after ten and we were only on the cusp of the real business of the evening. After another pot of tea, we transformed the finely-appointed living room into a finely-appointed war room for our game of Axis and Allies, the special promise of the night made possible by today's holiday. We unfolded the board, placed our armies, and breathed out whatever blessing the aroma of peach-flavored rubbing alcohol could bestow upon our violently opposed purposes before goose-stepping into the spring of 1942. 

Jack become a more reckless Joseph Stalin, I played Winston Churchill with steely-eyed confusion, and Dan took upon himself the venerable mantle of FDR. Across the table from us, Berthold commanded huge numbers of Panzers and Wehrmacht infantry with an amiability that astonished all of us while Jeremy presided over the empire of the rising sun. He chuckled to himself frequently and made no secret of the fact that he was keeping secrets from us. Berthold benefited from Jeremy's well-tested knowledge of the game, but the hapless Allied novices had to figure things for themselves. This does help to explain an opening Russian offensive. 

Here I tell Dan a joke while Jack reconsiders his decision to attack on his first turn

By the end of the war, Los Angeles had fallen to the battleships of the Japanese, most of Europe had traded hands multiple times, Moscow was still holding fast as Moscow is wont to do, and the sun was just barely starting to rise outside. The Axis powers had won the day, but apparently a new day was already forcing itself upon us so there was no time to mourn the outcome. Jack drove us back, and we returned to our building at roughly the same time as a number of high-endurance partiers. Berthold retrieved his fold-up bicycle from our apartment and pedaled home. 

Getting into bed at 6am this morning, I willfully emptied my mind of strategy and alternate history just long enough to think, "is this really my life?" Getting out of bed in a groggy haze a few hours later, I willfully suppressed my thesis anxiety just long enough to think, "well it sure isn't anyone else's."