The Good, the True, the Beautiful, and Jersey City: excerpt from WIP


I write this stranded in the lobby of an apartment building in Jersey City.  I can nearly– very nearly– see the harbor from where I sit; on the bench beside me is a bottle of very inexpensive Chardonnay and somewhere in the apartments above me is the friend with whom I’d been planning to share it.

Thomas Pangle, in the book open underneath this moleskine on my lap, is quoting Heidegger:

“It is for me a decisive question, how in general a political system, and which one– can be adopted to the technological age.  To this question I know no answer.  I am not convinced democracy is the answer.

“…I would indeed characterize the political strivings of the Western world, and thereby democracy, and the political expression of the Christian worldview, and also constitutionalism, as halfway measures, because I see in them no actual confrontation with the technological world, since behind them I always see standing, from my perspective, the assumption that technology in its essence is something that humanity has in hand.  In my opinion this is not possible.  Technology in its essences is something that humanity on its own cannot control.”

I am controlled by technology, here, as well as by my own carelessness: I have left my smartphone in my other bag; I had written down the address wrong and it took borrowing someone else’s smartphone and logging in to his facebook app to check the address to determine that fact; and then, of course, I hadn’t memorized my friend’s phone number or written it down because one doesn’t do that anymore; it’s stored on my phone.  So all I could do was facebook message her: “I’m in the lobby! Come rescue me!”

Clearly Heidegger is on to something here.  And Pangle is aware of the validity of his critique, although on an official level he is setting up Heidegger to be disagreed with– H’s thought is an origin of postmodernism, which is, in its destruction of any hope of external, non-subjective truth or justice, or real communication between humans, a genuinely horrific and anti-humane movement.  As well, of course, Heidegger never really renounced the fascism that he’d hoped would be a source of transcendence, a well of meaning or an answer to a flattened, technologized modern culture.

But the turn to irrationality, and away from the Christian call to love of all of one’s fellows, that that path entailed ended up depositing its adherents more firmly than ever in the banality they were seeking to escape, and the anti-modern back-to-nature Nazi movement imprisoned itself in technology turned to evil.

And yet modernism is no answer– Heidegger’s critique of modernism is a valid critique, though his diagnosis and prescription are both wrong.  He, Heidegger, criticizes something that should be criticized.  The Kantian aridity that instructs us to perform a good that we do not love, to entirely divorce goodness from beauty, agape from eros– the striving towards a capitalist-managerial end of history that pretends not only that we can escape the need to take sides in the real battle being waged between good and evil, but that avoiding taking sides is the “grown-up” thing to do– the fantasy that a world without politics is either possible or desirable– these Heidegger rejects– and Pangle does too.  Heidegger may also be right to reject democracy and constitutionalism if they are held to be ultimates, attempts to live out the meaning of life: democracy doesn’t get at ultimate truth, because truth is not subject to majority rule; and a constitution may be written that establishes an unjust basic law.

But what Pangle cannot affirm, because it is both actually self-contradictory and profoundly unsatisfying, is Heidegger’s rejection of rationality and his analysis of what Heidegger calls monotheism.  The rejection of reason, like all rejections of reason, cuts itself off at the kneecaps trhough self-stultification.  And the monotheism that Heidegger criticizes is not the monotheism of the New Testament or even of the Old– it’s something more like a rationalized ahistorical gnostic Unitarianism, where a god without passion who scorns immanence and particularity rejects all that is humane and meaty about us.  That may be the god of the deists, of Adams and Madison– it is not the God of Abraham and Isaac; not the God Who gave us His flesh to chew, who had the wind knocked out of him with grief over the death of Lazarus; who sweated blood out of passion for us on Calvary.

The odd thing is that in their anxiety to preserve God’s transcendence in the as-opposed-to-immanence sense, the Boston Unitarians of our American heritage eliminated in their experience His transcendence in the sense of his being …uncanny, the source of our yearning for the truly Other.  They made Him into a technologist only, or even a technology: God is what you use to get the universe started.  But the God of the Old Testament, the Father of our Lord, is a great King.

It is true that we must guard against idolatry.  But we must not guard against it more than God does– or rather, we must not apply a via negativa that does not do anything to increase our relationship with Him.  Islam does not regard Christianity as properly monotheistic– we know that– but what we may not have know is that it doesn’t regard Judaism as properly monotheistic either, because although God is one, He is spoken of as a Father.  Even speaking of Him as a king would, I imagine, be a problem in Islam– these analogies minimize, in their eyes, his utter otherness.

That we do not regard them as analogies does not make matters better.  We don’t regard God as “like” a father– if anything, His fatherhood is the original to which human fatherhood is an analogy.  We don’t regard Him as “similar in crucial ways to” a great King– he is the King, and all Kings on earth ought to be darn sure they are making themselves and their governments similar in crucial ways to His– not to transgress on or usurp his power or his ultimacy, but to match the derivative to the pattern in a way that honors both.

Longinus, in On the Sublime, insists, says Pangle, that “the apparently elevated quickly withers unless it arouses, in and with elevation, sustained critical wonder and rational thought.”  The elevated, the Sublime, that is God, is not like our other instances of sublimity– a sunset over the Hudson (if you are back on the New York side, that is) that catches your heart; a window-display in Anthropologie that implies a cluttered grandmother’s attic full of beauty and family history to be discovered and lived into; a loaf of bread from Zabar’s or somewhere heated in an oven and broken open, with cool butter to complement the warm crumbling of the crust.  He is not even like the same sunset seen over the African savannah by our long-ago parents, or the real grandmother’s attic that is full of real family treasures, or a loaf of bread baked by your own hands or by someone who loves you, and shared.

He is not like these things– because they don’t in themselves sustain either the emotion, the experience, or the analysis we might bring to them.  Load all the love and desire and hunger that these things call up onto the things themselves, and they will disappoint.  Analyze them in the Baconian sense and they will dissolve– into optical effects through clouds, into a good-sized storage space filled with things that might be useful but have no meaning, into toasted carbohydrates.

But ask proper reasoned questions of them and you begin to get somewhere.  What are you for? What kind of thing are you? What do you remind me of?  How did you come to be, and how did humans come to be the kinds of creatures that can make you and delight in you?

Ask these questions– of the sunset, the attic, the shop window, the loaf of bread– and they will become signposts, corresponding to notations on the map you are carrying.  They will become meaningful again precisely as they are allowed to be themselves– and to fulfill their own telos, their own function– to nourish, to stir the imagination, to store wisdom and history, and to point beyond themselves.

Because I said that He was not like these things.  But really he is– and he made these things, and made us who made them, to point us towards the path that will get us to the real place, the true Son, the true Bread.

My friend did come downstairs– I’ve written most of this afterwards, on the train on the way home, and now in a coffeehouse back in Queens– and we opened the wine and talked about Charles Williams and talked about men and agreed ferociously with each other that the conservative movement of Buckley’s era had horribly compromised itself by yoking itself to libertarianism, and put ice cubes in the Chardonnay and played each other songs from the internet– Hades Town, a folk opera she’d mentioned to me before, and Great Big Sea’s cover of Rant and Roar, which plays into my sea-chantey/celtic rock obsession.  After dark she made me go over to the window and look out across the harbor at the Manhattan skyline, a forest of fallen stars.  “During Sandy,” she said– she meant during the whole big event, of course; this is how we talk about it, not as a single evening, but as an epoch in our lives– “during Sandy all of that was dark…”

It had felt like Sandy, when in the lobby I’d Facebooked her to let her know I was there– Facebook was for a while one of the more reliable ways to reach people during that time.  But of course when peoples’ laptops ran out of battery, even that mode of communication was cut off.

Reason and wonder are the wellsprings of philosophy: the ability to ask real questions, to not get bullied into thinking that questions about teleology are passe or meaningless; the ability to see that the law of noncontradiction applies always and everywhere; the desire to seek out wisdom; and the trust that the language we use to speak to each other has meaning.  Without that we are unable to communicate.  We are cosmically late guests, carrying around bottles of wine with no corkscrew to open them, and unable to find our way to the friends with whom we were meant to share them.

Jersey City: I am not a citizen, I am an alien; I am not even in my own state.  In the years before the Civil War I would have felt I was coming to a foreign country as I crossed the Hudson.  But my friend saw the note; she brought me upstairs; and I found myself in an outpost of home.


6 responses to “The Good, the True, the Beautiful, and Jersey City: excerpt from WIP

  1. John Medaille

    Maybe Masonry is the religion of technology; the religion that worships itself while pretending to worship the GAOTU (Great Architect of the Universe).

  2. I am going to a meeting tonight. I sit on the Executive Committee of the organization (more a tribute to my weak-willed acquiescence than to any executive ability.) A continuing problem is “Where shall we meet?” We meet on the last Friday of the month, and every possible venue is excluded because they don’t serve food, or don’t have a room that they can set aside their busy Friday, or are too far from the center of our region, etc.

    I thought I’d finally hit upon a solution: a church fellowship hall! The church would even provide a meal, and it didn’t matter if we ran a few minutes late, and they had handicap access, most of them are available on Friday, etc.

    Nope. “We used to meet in a church, but some of the members objected to making a contribution to a religious organization.”

    Which brings me to my point, finally: there is NO ‘ideologically neutral’ venue. If they have no other ideology, there is at least capitalism, with the attendant issues around distributive and authority justice. We could, I suppose, meet in an area of open wasteland, or an abandoned factory, but it seems that caring is necessary for anything human to exist. And caring is just another aspect of ideology.

    We’re not Masons, but we are mostly technologists.

  3. John: I’d really like to see a Jesuits-vs.-Masons chess set. I think that’d be fun.
    Ron: See, but if you met in a wasteland you’d be making a Rousseauian kind of statement, or at least rejecting the idea that man is by nature an animal that ought to have meetings in cities, where there are electrical outlets and crullers and things. So even there, you’re committing yourself.

    And really I’m not anti-technology at ALL. I’m anti-the technological singularity per Ray Kurzweil, and I’m anti-techno-grandiosity per JH Kunstler, and in general I’m allergic to the idea that the height of our human destiny is the Sleep Number bed (per Garrison Keillor). But basically I was irritated at my own sense of panic at being without a smartphone, and amused by the coincidence of the Heidegger quote, and interested in the ways that we can fail to communicate with each other… and really pleased with Thomas Pangle.

  4. The Amish have an interesting approach: they use technology, but are very leary of being used by it. For instance, they’re allowed to use tractors, but only around the barn.

    Technology isn’t the problem for them, or they wouldn’t allow tractors at all. They only allow them around the barn, though, because otherwise farms would get too big. Big farms are too disruptive to their community, so tractors are limited to “around the barn.”

    If the hay’s dry and the rain’s coming, then the area around the barn might include the entire meadow, and no one sees that as inconsistent or cheating — because it won’t affect the size of the farm or their community.

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