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Ash Wednesday

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:22 AM

I've posted it before for Ash Wednesday, but I thought I would link to it again: T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday is well worth taking a few minutes to read and what better day to do it on?

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us


By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:28 AM

Stephen Greenblatt in Marvelous Possessions writes,

Anecdotes then are among the principal products of a culture's representational technology, mediators between the undifferentiated succession of local moments and a larger strategy toward which they can only gesture.

The definition is subtle, but here you can see a hint of Greenblatt's program of tying literary devices to the slippery thing known as “history.”

iBooks Textbooks

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 7:29 AM

Besides being interested in Apple technology generally, I am very intrigued by the new iBooks textbook functions premiered today from the standpoint of a teacher. The idea of being able to produce a highly interactive textbook that tie in with iTunes U sounds marvelous to me. That Apple seems to be working hard to drive down the price of textbooks only makes the whole proposition sound even better.

I think the one thing that is disappointing (though I can hardly expect Apple to fix it) is that the iBooks platform remains iOS-only. To me, a truly good e-textbook platform needs to work at least on Macs and PCs in addition to tablets and phones. Being able to use the Kindle app on my Mac to quickly cite materials I have highlighted is invaluable.

Relatedly, mobile device compatibility is also an issue. While iBooks works on iOS, the Kindle book platform works on iOS, Android, WebOS, BlackBerry OS, etc. In as much as one must have an iPad to use the new iBooks functionality, it seems to me that professors could only take advantage of the technologies Apple showed off if all students received an iPad as part of their tuition package.

That's unfortunate.

Grammars of Deconstruction

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:25 AM

Steiner adeptly picks up on this with his critique of the modern tendency toward exhibitionism (319). The “fish-bowl” that modern popular culture revels in offers no greater insight into reality, for, at best, it simply shows us reality as we already see it, or, at worst, corrupts our understanding of reality further. On the contrary, the artist goes beyond our perception of reality, yet brings something back to tell of it. “If I believed that my reply were made / to one who could ever climb to the world again, / this flame would shake no more,” Guido Da Montefeltro remarks in Canto XXVII of Dante's Inferno. Dante, and later Eliot, who invokes those verses in “the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” both serve that purpose in bringing to the reader that which otherwise is beyond our reach. The poet is to reality what the explorer is to the frontier: one who goes beyond the known world and yet returns to report. The exhibitionistic impulse is a cheap imitator, an imitation not based on the necessity of relaying truth previously undiscovered, but of creating a new middleman for that which we already knew. It is a tautology and thus is unable to create new beginnings or grammars.

The commonality of poets' reports surely point to the singular creation from which we come. The “archetypes” of Jung are a part of Natural Revelation, the aftershocks of God's creative speech act. Having acknowledged Freud and Jung, Steiner admits that the “imaginary” is bequeathed a “controlling source and inventory” in reality (167). Yet, he wishes to claim that in the artistic process, there is a big-G God-like creative capacity (for little-g gods were never creative in the sense that Steiner wishes to discuss). The artist, however, is within the creation and never creates ex nihilo. As Steiner observes, the “divine precedent empowers him or her to make fruitful a process whose innermost springs remain impenetrable” (174). The “divine precedent” is key. Creation is a sui generis event in the divine sense. While human beings, formed as we are in the imago dei, are creative, we are creative in a subordinate sense. When the artist creates a character, she is reenacting at a microcosmic level to the divine creative act, but unlike the first day, the first day of Hamlet's Denmark was made of preexistent stuff, stuff ultimately created on the first day.

If it were otherwise, the human's creation would be unintelligible. I started this quarter's reflections by citing T.S. Eliot's “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and I think it is fitting to end there as well. Eliot recognized that art created purely as new, as a novelty that spurned tradition, would be completely unintelligible. Instead, the great artist is, to use his metaphor, a catalyst to tradition, transforming that which was into that which will be. In some sense, we might say that the artist is gifted not to follow God's acts of Genesis 1, but rather his continued historical acting, in which he has continued to providentially care for his creation through that creation and not by further ex nihilo acts.

Nevertheless, while the artist cannot create a “grammar” all his own, living in a world that has the Grammar Writer as its creator, the creative human can at least follow the Creator in defining a framework within his meta-framework. Our “grammars” are, to use the phrase Steiner cites from Duchamp, “a ready-made” (331). We can construct something that is different, but just as any physical object is built with atomic particles that we ultimately can only form, not materialize, we can only form, not materialize the substances of cultural grammars. “Only God is deemed capable of making out of non-being,” Steiner adds.

With this in mind, in a god-less universe such as the one posited by Steiner, creation “in its classic sense” must be seen as a “fruitful invention” (334). Hence the possibility for multiple beginnings in Steiner's worldview - his concept of “beginning” is an equivocation from the sense we normally think of. If we are both unable to bring being out of non-being and lacking one by whom we can even mime such an act, grammars would necessarily always be a mere process of forming frameworks of purposeless being. Perhaps the greatest “creation” in such a world - using creation in the sense the modern employs the word “magic” - is the very concept that creation is even possible. It is the mere building of a facade that infuses some element of meaningless existence with an evanescent flash of purpose.

Cut adrift from any properly creative act, human creativity can become degenerate from the perspective of one who judges it from a framework of belief in God. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” can no longer be uttered with an intrinsic meaning when nothing is intrinsic but only a facade over an atheistic universe. Just as truth can be defined by whomever has enough power to do so, so too can beauty with regards to creative activity. Thus, the Michelangelos of the past are replaced with the Duchamp urinals of today.

Steiner, for his part, believes this problem is serious but surmountable. He shows an excitement for the new grammars that may be formed in the creative fiction of the world no longer backed by a Divine imprimatur. The natural world void of room for questions concerning the supernatural still deserves to be questioned and creatively explored, he asserts (338). Though he seems to be less than certain that a “Michelangelo fresco or King Lear” can be produced in a world that no longer believes in the transcendent, he is engrossed by the possibility. He does not seem to believe a world without an Absolute foundation is on the verge of skepticism, but is potentially a new frontier worthy to be explored.

Yet, we must ask if this can truly be so or whether he takes up this quest enthusiastically only because to deny its possibility is ultimately to crush an intrinsic part of the human soul. If Steiner does not wish to acknowledge the nihilistic result of the picture he paints, could it be because the essence of humanity is archetypally aware of the necessity of a Creator?

After Apple Picking

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:33 AM

A little Robert Frost seems apropos to me tonight.

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

A Second Language

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:51 AM

The ever interesting Stanley Fish wrote awhile back on students wanting to observe their own “dialects” and “styles” instead of proper English grammar:

And if students infected with the facile egalitarianism of soft multiculturalism declare, “I have a right to my own language,” reply, “Yes, you do, and I am not here to take that language from you; I'm here to teach you another one.” (Who could object to learning a second language?) And then get on with it.

I don't always agree with Fish, but here is one place we are in perfect agreement.

Creativity is Critical

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 10:20 PM

Richard Paul writes in Critical Thinking:

When a mind does not systematically and effectively embody intellectual criteria and standards, is not disciplined in reasoning things through, in figuring out the logic of things, in reflectively devising a rational approach to the solution of problems or in the accomplishment of intellectual or practical tasks, that mind is not 'creative.'

An astute comment often overlooked, especially in poesy. The good poet is creative not because he vomits raw emotion onto a page and calls it “art,” but rather because he labors tirelessly on the meaning of each word until a collection of words transcend themselves and becomes something more. A poem.

The Waste Land for iPad

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:17 AM

This looks just too good. The real value of an e-book is finding ways to do things with a book that a normal book can't do. I think this might be such an e-book.

Whan That Aprill

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:48 PM

Personally, I longen to read this in April.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

The Times' Spring Cleaning: Books Stay, What of Papers?

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 7:53 PM

The Times reviews those potentially outdated “gadgets” one may be able to do away with, finishing with a well argued point about books:

Keep them (with one exception). Yes, e-readers are amazing, and yes, they will probably become a more dominant reading platform over time, but consider this about a book: It has a terrific, high-resolution display. It is pretty durable; you could get it a little wet and all would not be lost. It has tremendous battery life. It is often inexpensive enough that, if you misplaced it, you would not be too upset. You can even borrow them free at sites called libraries.

Well said. Too bad the Times fails to include newspapers in the list of technologies that can be increasingly replaced by superior electronic alternatives. Maybe that's because their own electronic alternative is absurdly priced.

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