John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright
johncwright

SEHNSUCHT, AUTUMN SUNSETS, AND PSYCHOLOGICAL COMFORT

This is what I would have posted had I been doing a daily post, but since I have two books or more overdue at the publisher’s, not to mention working a day job, I can only summarize.

So just imagine the following points were explored, dwelt upon, and ranted about for several pages, perhaps illuminated with video clips of Hammer’s SHE or Fogley’s GIRL GENIUS, and seasoned with really long and obscure words (words like ‘nuncupatory’ – a Jack Vancean word, and ‘cyclopean’ – a H.P. Lovecraftian word in more ways than one, and ‘urticate, salpinx, bordereau’ – words so remarkably Gene Wolflike in character, that they are as rare as an onager with a dulcimer).

Had I been writing in my Livejournal:
  • On Monday, I would have gotten into an argument with F.P.Barbieri. The topic would not matter: he and I are both argumentative.
  • On Tuesday, not wise enough to leave well enough alone, I would have discussed whether or not the word “pervert” or “deviant” were derogatory swearwords in the sense that the word “nigger” is derogatory. Naturally, like a good lawyer, I would have rested my case on controlling authority, that is, I would have resorted to quoting the dictionary. (Short version: “nigger” is noted as being perhaps the most offensive term of opprobrium in the English language, according to current use, whereas “pervert” is not: the term carries opprobrium, but because of the thought the word represents, not because the word itself is slang or swearing.) Quoting the dictionary seems (for some reason) not to convince those firmly wedded to the notion that words mean only what the listener wishes them to mean. The convenience of their posture for the rhetorical purpose of putting words into the speaker’s mouth cannot be over-estimated. And that is to their glory—and by “glory” I mean, there is a real knock-down argument for you.
  • On Wednesday, I would have written my long-ago promised review of the STAR TREK movie. Short version: the Spock-Uhura thing was fine with me; I liked the guy they picked to play young Bones McCoy; I thought the actors playing young Kirk, young Spock, and especially young Scotty did a splendid job; we got to see Sulu swordfighting; and the idea of doing a ‘reboot’ Marvel Ultimates style in a parallel timeline was sheer storytelling genius, for it shakes off the nickpickers and continuity hounds in one fell shrug. According to the “World Wrecker Hamilton” school of story telling, a space opera is not legit unless at least one planet is obliterated with a superweapon, and by that yardstick STAR TREK passes. Plusses? Half-naked green animal-woman from Orion. Also, no mention of money-free futuristic socialism. Minuses? Too much lens flare. Note to cameraman: shining lights in the camera does not add drama nor realism, it is just annoying. Also, not a single Space Princess. Things to make you go huhn? (1) Romulans who do not act or look like Romans In Space (which is their shtick) (2) Building a starship on the ground in Idaho, rather than in orbit.
  • On Thursday, discussing the significant-for-fifteen-minutes yet soon-to-be-forgotten topics of the daily news, I would have written about South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shouting “You Lie” during the State of the Union address. You know where I would have come down on this, dear readers. (1) Civility, and a certain degree of unity of mores and manners, is a necessary precondition for a republic to function. A monarchy, I suppose, can be catholic and multi-cultural; and if the monarch’s power is hemmed in by a strong aristocracy, an active and popular clergy, and a middle-class and local authority jealous of their natural rights and ancient prerogatives, I suppose you can have a polity that does not share a common language or a common set of morals and manners. (2) The president was indeed lying, and it is right that someone said so. I recall many lies from the Clinton years, but not about the content of a bill before Congress, which can be verified by examining the bill: the sheer audacity of the lie is what makes its astounding. (3) Equity allows his fellow Republicans to criticize the outburst, but if a Democrat voices discontent with incivility, either this proves that we do not live in a universe where a critical mass of pure hypocrisy causes spontaneous combustion and explosion of the skull, or, if we did live in such a universe, the nation’s capital would be strewn with blazing brain matter and skull fragments, and several important national monuments would be afire. An utter lack of shame and a total disregard of consistency is an important personality characteristic for the Progressive movement.

Let me dwell on point 3 by quoting Jay Nordlinger – while this may seem lengthy for a summary, but keep in mind cutting a pasting a few paragraphs only takes me a moment. (http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=YzFiMWUxNjQ5NzI4YzhkM2I3NjY5NTk0YmNhYjg3YTI=):

“I predict that the chairman of the Republican National Committee will never say, “I hate the Democrats and everything they stand for. This [politics, basically] is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good.”

Howard Dean said that about the GOP: “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for. . . .”

I predict that an editor of a conservative magazine will never write a piece called “The Case for Obama Hatred,” beginning, “I hate President Barack Obama.”

A New Republic editor did this, about Bush.

And there is increasing worry about assassination: that someone will take a shot, not just at the president, but at the first black president, which would be extra-catastrophic for the country. A few protesters have carried signs urging violence against Obama, or smacking of violence.

Let me make some more predictions: I predict that a network talk-show host will not show a video of President Obama giving a speech and put the following words on the screen: “SNIPERS WANTED.”

Craig Kilborn of CBS did that to George W. Bush.

I predict that U.S. senators will not joke about killing Obama.

In 2006, Bill Maher had a conversation with John Kerry. He asked Kerry what he’d gotten his wife for her birthday. Kerry said he had treated her to a vacation in Vermont. Maher said, “You could have went to New Hampshire and killed two birds with one stone.” Kerry replied, “Or I could have gone to 1600 Pennsylvania and killed the real bird with one stone.”

This is the same Kerry who, in 1988, said, “Somebody told me the other day that the Secret Service has orders that if George Bush is shot, they’re to shoot Quayle.” Then he said, “There isn’t any press here, is there?”

I predict that a New York official will not tell a graduating class about assassinating President Obama.

Also in 2006, comptroller Alan Hevesi said to students at Queens College that Sen. Charles Schumer, his fellow Democrat, would “put a bullet between the president’s eyes if he could get away with it.”

I predict that no columnist for a leading European newspaper, and leading world newspaper, will write, “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?”

Charlie Brooker of the Guardian did that to George W. Bush.

I predict that no major writer will write a novel debating the morality of killing President Obama.

Nicholson Baker did that to Bush, with Checkpoint.

I predict that no filmmaker will make a “fictional documentary” that fantasizes — and I’m afraid that is the word — about murdering President Obama.

Some Brits did that to President Bush with Death of a President.

Dear readers, I have made very, very safe predictions. If a CBS talk-show host pictured President Obama and said “SNIPERS WANTED,” he would lose his job, of course. He would never work in the media again. I wonder what else would happen to him.”
That being said, however, the criticism of Joe Wilson for his breach of manners is still valid, no matter from what source it comes. The proper response to the President would have been to have Sarah Palin or Ann Coulter deliver the televised rebuttal rather than Charles Boustany, and to have her call Mr. Obama a liar in a polite and even-tempered tone of voice.

But I am not writing any of those editorials! Time does not permit!

But now that it is Friday, I can write a whole and lengthy editorial about, yes, my two favorite topics: SFF and PX! (No, I do not mean the Post Exchange, servicemen! That is a christogram rho chi, it merely looks like a Latin p and an x)

(For those of you interested in plays on words between the two alphabets, a friend of mine has the Greek word for virtue “Arête” written in capital letters on his auto license plate, where is spells APETH, like the thing an Elizabethian who apes something “he apeth my arête!”)

** ** **
SEHNSUCHT, AUTUMN SUNSETS, AND PSYCHOLOGICAL COMFORT
I was reading an article by Matt Cardin (http://theteemingbrain.wordpress.com/2006/10/30/autumn-longing-hp-lovecraft/) about Sehnsucht — that strange and elusive and poignant desire for the ineffable that such disparate personalities as H.P. Lovecraft or C.S. Lewis or Edgar Allen Poe are prone: in sunsets; in the distant sight of a vale of well-ordered farms in misty October mornings; in the peaks and cornices of stately architecture of edifices whose glass windows shine with red, reflected twilight; the haunted echoes of poems; there comes a longing for the joys of something beyond this world, in Elfland or in Heaven, or in some other life or dream-life.

Lovecraft wrote phantasy and horror, in part because that sense of otherworldliness is integral to supernatural horror, and exists in supernatural beauty as well. Lovecraft was an atheist, an lover of the antique, and a fabulist but Lewis, also a writer of fantasist and medievalist, found this Autumn longing leading him toward the Church.

The article did not mention Tolkien, but anyone familiar with his work, might note that his portrayal of his noble, doomed and melancholy elves were practically living personifications of the Autumnal longing for the Hither Shores, far (to borrow Lord Dunsany’s phrase) from the fields we know. No other portrayal of the inhabitors of the land of Faerie before Tolkien held this note of Sehnsucht, William Shakespeare’s Wood Near Athens where Oberon quarrels with Titania has nothing of this tragic sense of joy and loss, nor do warlike kings who dwell in the heaven of Mercury, the magician’s sphere, of E.R. Eddison’s THE WORM OROBOROS. The idea of elves as exiles, destined to dwindle and depart the shores of Middle-Earth was unique to Tolkien, and has a Roman Catholic sentiment: the words of the Salve Regina could have been sung by Celeborn or Galadriel: ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevae (To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.)

Later, Lewis made the idea of the Autumn Longing of Sehnsucht part of his apologetic argument—

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of a copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same."

"A man's physical hunger does not prove that the man will get any bread; he may die of starvation in a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called falling in love occurred in a sexless world."

With all due respect to Mr. Lewis, and gratitude for his guiding lamp that led me out of the darkness of atheism, I must dismiss this argument as weak. Merely because a longing exists does not necessitate that a means exists to satisfy it.

Who has not longed to fly to the stars? What poet never dreamed to speak to the trees and rivers and hills, and learn their lore, or dance with the sun and moon, or wrap oneself in the shining galaxy as with a mantle, or peer into the thoughts of another, or live his life?

What robust man has not, if only briefly, entertained the longing to fight in the eternal melee of the never-slain in Valhalla, or possess the seventy-two glancing eyed houri of the paradise of Mohammed? What sage wearied with wisdom has not longed to quench his sorrows in the oblivion of Nirvana, and achieve unutterable Oneness? But these longings cannot be sated, even if one could chose somehow one's afterlife, for they are contrary to each other. There is no such thing as the Nirvana of Valhalla.

No, for my part, I can think of far too many longings I or others have never to be fulfilled to be comfortable with the conclusion that nature never implants vain longings in us.

One wag, commenting on the article, dismisses Lewis with that typical contempt one finds in minds who assume all opposition is illegitimate. He said: "I find it interesting that these C.S. Lewis types, after their so-called atheistic spiritual adventures, somehow manage to find their way home to the safety and security of their childhood Christian god. I’m sure it’s psychologically comforting, if nothing else."

An odd response, since it seems to assume atheists who convert were only atheists 'so-called'. I have seen a similar argument used by Christians to dismiss the authenticity of Christians who become atheists.

Speaking as an atheist who converted, I submit that there is nothing so-called in the matter, not for devoted, honest, serious atheists. These are men, and I was one such, who are atheists because belief in the supernatural they conclude to be unsupported, unreasonable, preposterous, or even sinister and sickminded. If there is some additional qualification to be counted a real atheist -- such as that one must never thereafter change one's mind on the point -- it is unknown to me.

The means by which a committed atheist comes to another conclusion would make an interesting study, but it is by no means clear that all conversions can be dismissed so lightly as to say no "real" atheist converts. Such an argument would be circular.

Again, speaking for myself, and perhaps for Mr. Lewis, I would hesitate to call the conversion experience psychologically comforting. Indeed, very much the opposite is the case: unlike my atheist self of yore, I am now beholden to a higher authority, who pins me to a standard of thought and deed very much against my nature and inclination.

I invite you to live as a self-centered and arrogant atheist for 35 years, wait until all your mental and emotional habits are set as if in concrete, and then try to obey the call to be charitable, loving, longsuffering, meek. Make the attempt for a day or a week, and then come back and tell me if it increases your comfort rather than the opposite. Tell me how comforting it is to long for the palm of martyrdom, or to rejoice at being reviled in public.

Contemplate the difference between living in a universe where death is merely oblivion, and one where death is a crossroad leading to something further: and the larger path, the easy one, leads to hellfire. If that is what you find comforting, your psychology differs indeed from mine. By any rational Pascalian wager, the universe where death is oblivion contains far less immense risks of far less pain.
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