Saturday, November 14, 2015

Charlotte Bronte, Villette


Opening Passage:

My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton. Her husband's family had been residents there for generations, and bore, indeed, the name of their birthplace—Bretton of Bretton: whether by coincidence, or because some remote ancestor had been a personage of sufficient importance to leave his name to his neighbourhood, I know not.

When I was a girl I went to Bretton about twice a year, and well I liked the visit. The house and its inmates specially suited me. The large peaceful rooms, the well-arranged furniture, the clear wide windows, the balcony outside, looking down on a fine antique street, where Sundays and holidays seemed always to abide—so quiet was its atmosphere, so clean its pavement—these things pleased me well.

Summary: The narrator of the work, Lucy Snowe, has what we would call an analytic mind, and what she herself would call a philosophical one. Due to tragedy, she is left without means and after some further tragedies finds herself at the age of 23 alone in the city of Villette, in the country of Labassecour, which is a version of Brussels, Belgium, despite not knowing any French. She manages to get a position as a nanny for the directress of a girls' school Madame Beck, and eventually becomes a teacher of English there. All the good things that happen there are temporary, and all the bad things that happen there leave a permanent mark, until we reach the book's famous superficially ambiguous but really quite obviously unhappy ending.

Surveillance, the watchful eye, is a major theme of this work, and in more ways than one. Eye metaphors are everywhere in the book. Madame Beck runs her school on the principle of surveillance, knowing everything that everyone is doing, and even rifling through Lucy's belongings; she is not, however, the only person in Labassecour who lacks a respect for privacy, since one of the major male character, Monsieur Paul Emmanuel, also spies on Lucy. This is connected with the theme throughout of the Catholic confessional, which Lucy sees as a sort of surveillance system in its own right. But it's also notable that surveillance is what Lucy does, as well. Despite her occasionally sharp comments on the Labassecourian surveillance, she spends almost all of her time watching other people, including at times spying on other people while they are spying on her. Lucy Snowe is usually said to be a passive character, but I think this is misleading, because she spends a lot of time observing others, and it is not always a passive observation, even if it is not as blatantly active as Madame Beck's investigations of her affairs. But there's even another layer of surveillance here. Lucy is also often called an unreliable narrator, and one of the major reasons is that, without outright lying, she keeps things from the reader, including, famously, a character's identity which she knew all along. And thus we are caught in the trap. For what are we readers doing in the first place? We are watching Lucy, snooping into all her affairs; we are as nosy for knowing what is in her letters as Mme. Beck or M. Paul; and, I suspect, a lot of readers have a bit of resentment that she insists on keeping some things private. How dare she hide things from our all-pervasive surveillance?

One of the things I found very surprising about the book, particularly given what some people had said about it, is that Lucy Snowe is remarkably judgmental. (I do not include the occasionally anti-Catholic tone with this, which I think mainly serves a different purpose, although at times they can be tricky to untangle.) This, I suppose, is an inevitable danger in an analytic people-watcher living in a foreign land, but she is constantly evaluating people. She will express admiration, but it is often backhanded, and even when it is not it is sometimes a little difficult to tell if it is meant to be straightforwardly or acidically ironic. (It usually seems to be the former, but if it is ever the latter, the edge is taken off a bit by the fact that she seems to direct much of the acid toward herself.) And there are constant swipes at people, said so drily and analytically that it would be easy just to take them at face value, but which are swipes nonetheless. One thing that became very noticeable after a while was how consistently she insinuates that other women are fat. But once you realize that she goes around insulting people, you can easily see that it is pervasive. Even the passing French names are very often insults, although attention is never drawn to the fact -- the kingdom's name is Labassecour, i.e., la basse-cour, the barnyard; the grand capital city of Labassecour is Villette, Little Town; the prince of the kingdom has as one of his titles, Duc de Dindonneau, which sounds like the Duke of Turkeyland. Nor can this be just a bit of light humor; it is even more insulting in French than in English to associate people with barnyard animals, and the author herself could hardly have been unaware of that. It can easily go by without you noticing it, but Lucy Snowe seems to be a little bitter.

The book is quite anti-Catholic in tone at times. I think it makes sense in the context of the story. One of the things that characterizes Lucy, and, I suspect, is a reason she is liked by that segment of readers who like her, is that she refuses easy consolation, and as far as she is concerned, that is what Catholicism turns out to be. Lucy Snowe, like Jesus, is in the desert, the wilderness, and the Catholic Church by the end, like Satan to Jesus, comes to her with three temptations: solace, good works, and glory. (The latter is explicitly put in terms suggestive of the third temptation of Christ, from a high place, when he was shown the glory of the kingdoms of the world; and this is made so clear that I suspect there is supposed to be close correspondence in temptations, and that the Catholic Church consoles is to be taken as analogous to the temptation of angels lifting one up, while that it does good works is to be taken as analogous to the temptation of stones to bread.) She refuses them all, even though it is certain to make her life harder (and in fact does). In truth, Lucy, who is a rather Broad Church Protestant, is about as far from being Catholic throughout as one can be and still be Christian. It is perhaps unsurprising that she manages to maintain herself as an isolated individual in a world of 'conspiracy' and 'junta', as she calls it. This is a cold and lonely path, and she feels intensely the need for warm companionship; she is capable of looking past the Catholicism to the decency of the ordinary Catholic. But she will not really find the warmth and fellowship for which she yearns; only coldness and loneliness stretch out before her.

So is this work better than Jane Eyre? There is certainly greater technical virtuosity. The characters are vivid. But I would say that Jane Eyre is still the stronger work. What makes Jane Eyre successful as a story is the interweaving of all the elements of the tale -- the vivid characters, the introspection, and perhaps most of all the story. But while the psychology of Villette is even richer, and the characters, occasionally, more vivid, there is less to the story, and what there is, is perhaps not as impressive as a story. One thinks of the somewhat disappointing handling of the ghostly nun, which is far weaker than anything in Jane Eyre. It is also a more demanding book; it is perhaps not so easy for everyone to trudge along the icy road with Lucy Snowe as it is to rush about in the warmth with Jane Eyre. This is not to say that it is in any sense a bad book, though; it is full of good things. But I think my favors still lie with the earlier work.

Favorite Passage:

Most of M. Emanuel's brother Professors were emancipated free-thinkers, infidels, atheists; and many of them men whose lives would not bear scrutiny; he was more like a knight of old, religious in his way, and of spotless fame. Innocent childhood, beautiful youth were safe at his side. He had vivid passions, keen feelings, but his pure honour and his artless piety were the strong charm that kept the lions couchant.

Recommendation: Recommended.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Purple Moor is Like a Dream

The Shell
by Isabella Valancy Crawford

O little, whisp'ring, murm'ring shell, say cans't thou tell to me
Good news of any stately ship that sails upon the sea?
I press my ear, O little shell, against thy rosy lips;
Cans't tell me tales of those who go down to the sea in ships?

What, not a word? Ah hearken, shell, I've shut the cottage door;
There's scarce a sound to drown thy voice, so silent is the moor,
A bell may tinkle far away upon its purple rise;
A bee may buz among the heath—a lavrock cleave the skies.

But if you only breathe the name I name upon my knees,
Ah, surely I should catch the word above such sounds as these.
And Grannie's needles click no more, the ball of yarn is done,
And she's asleep outside the door where shines the merry sun.

One night while Grannie slept, I dreamed he came across the moor,
And stood, so handsome, brown and tall, beside the open door:
I thought I turned to pick a rose that by the sill had blown,
(He liked a rose) and when I looked, O shell, I was alone!

Across the moor there dwells a wife; she spaed my fortune true,
And said I'd plight my troth with one who ware a jacket blue;
That morn before my Grannie woke, just when the lapwing stirred,
I sped across the misty rise and sought the old wife's word.

With her it was the milking time, and while she milk'd the goat,
I ask'd her then to spae my dream, my heart was in my throat—
But that was just because the way had been so steep and long,
And not because I had the fear that anything was wrong.

"Ye'll meet, ye'll meet," was all she said; "Ye'll meet when it is mirk."
I gave her tippence that I meant for Sabbath-day and kirk;
And then I hastened back again; it seemed that never sure
The happy sun delay'd so long to gild the purple moor.

That's six months back, and every night I sit beside the door,
And while I knit I keep my gaze upon the mirky moor;
I keep old Collie by my side—he's sure to spring and bark,
When Ronald comes across the moor to meet me in the dark.

I know the old wife spaed me true, for did she not fore-tell
I'd break a ring with Ronald Grey beside the Hidden Well?
It came to pass at shearing-time, before he went to sea
(We're nighbours' bairns) how could she know that Ronald cared for me.

So night by night I watch for him—by day I sing and work,
And try to never mind the latch—he's coming in the dark;
Yet as the days and weeks and months go slipping slowly thro',
I wonder if the wise old wife has spaed my fortune true!

Ah, not a word about his ship? Well, well, I'll lay thee by.
I see a heron from the marsh go sailing in the sky,
The purple moor is like a dream, a star is twinkling clear—
Perhaps the meeting that she spaed is drawing very near!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Philosophers and Welders

Marco Rubio has ruffled some academic feathers by comments on philosophers:

For the life of me, I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

A lot of articles have noted that, whether you mean (by 'philosophers') 'people with philosophy majors' or 'philosophy professors', the median wage for philosophers is higher than that for welders. But this is not a perfectly intuitive result -- lots of philosophers by both criteria also make less than a typical welder, particularly since the market for philosophy professors is glutted, so it could certainly seem like welders make more than philosophers -- lots of welders do make more than philosophers. But this is a minor issue; it's not a matter of importance whether welders make more than philosophers. If there are any academic philosophers getting into a huff over this part, perhaps they should use the time instead to look around and work a bit harder to make sure their adjunct colleagues are being paid well. It's not as if their contributions to this end have been particularly impressive.

It's at least arguable that we, as a society, need more welders and fewer philosophers. It's a matter that should be addressed rationally and not by knee-jerk tribalism, as if there were somehow a rivalry between Team Welding and Team Philosophy. Being miffed that philosophy is being chosen as the representative of non-vocational higher education would be absurd -- philosophy is an excellent representative of non-vocational higher education -- so the only thing one could get miffed about is the fact that Rubio is making a comparison between vocational education and non-vocational higher education to the detriment of the latter. But if we are talking about what's good for society, especially economically, there's plenty of room for genuine argument on both sides. It's entirely possible for philosophers to be of value and yet for us not to need as many as we have, and entirely possible that we need more welders. This is a matter for rational argument, and not something about which it makes much sense to get irritated about. (Without feigning any sort of expert assessment, just through looking at a number of different sources, it seems clear enough that we do have a serious shortage of welders and a clear market glut of philosophy professors, to the detriment of both professions; the academic philosophy market is likely to grow faster than the welding market over the next several years, but the welding market is already a vastly larger market than the market for philosophy professors. It's hard to factor philosophy majors into any such comparison, because the philosophy major gets its value in the workplace from being a substitute degree -- philosophy majors aren't usually hired to do philosophy but because a degree in philosophy is usually treated by employers as a reasonable substitute for a very wide variety of other degrees. The primary advantage of a philosophy degree, in fact, seems to be a combination of its very extensive substitution value and the fact that it is sometimes taken by employers as a sign that someone might be easier to train.)

But it is quite clearly true that our society's tendency to look down on vocational education is ridiculous. Skilled labor is important. There is nothing shameful about a vocational education. It is often to be encouraged, and, to be entirely frank, there's a good argument that a lot of people who end up at universities because of prestige would be better served by trade school, and that it is ridiculous that they are shamed into pouring money into an educational path that will do little for them while there is another in which they could thrive.

So, in short, I don't think there's anything here to go into fits about.

[ADDED LATER: As Frank Wilson notes, the issue is complicated further by the fact that philosophy extends well outside the population of people with philosophy degrees. There would be people doing philosophy even if there were no philosophy degrees at all; and we have had periods in the history of philosophy during which a very significant portion of all serious and important philosophical work was done by people without degrees in philosophy.]

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lion of Rome

Today is the Feast of St. Leo the Great, who was named Doctor of the Church by Benedict XIV. Two passages from his letters, one on the humanity of Christ and the other on sacramental reconciliation.

Letter 59:

Hence whosoever confesses not the human body in Christ, must know that he is unworthy of the mystery of the Incarnation, and has no share in that sacred union of which the Apostle speaks, saying, "For we are His members, of His flesh and of His bones. For this cause a man shall leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and there shall be two in one flesh. " And explaining what was meant by this, he added, "This mystery is great, but I speak in respect of Christ and the Church." Therefore, from the very commencement of the human race, Christ is announced to all men as coming in the flesh. In which, as was said, "there shall be two in one flesh," there are undoubtedly two, God and man, Christ and the Church, which issued from the Bridegroom's flesh, when it received the mystery of redemption and regeneration, water and blood flowing from the side of the Crucified. For the very condition of a new creature which at baptism puts off not the covering of true flesh but the taint of the old condemnation, is this, that a man is made the body of Christ, because Christ also is the body of a man.

Letter 108:

The manifold mercy of God so assists men when they fall, that not only by the grace of baptism but also by the remedy of penitence is the hope of eternal life revived, in order that they who have violated the gifts of the second birth, condemning themselves by their own judgment, may attain to remission of their crimes, the provisions of the Divine Goodness having so ordained that God's indulgence cannot be obtained without the supplications of priests. For the Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, has transmitted this power to those that are set over the Church that they should both grant a course of penitence to those who confess, and, when they are cleansed by wholesome correction admit them through the door of reconciliation to communion in the sacraments. In which work assuredly the Saviour Himself unceasingly takes part and is never absent from those things, the carrying out of which He has committed to His ministers, saying: "Lo, I am with you all the days even to the completion of the age :" so that whatever is accomplished through our service in due order and with satisfactory results we doubt not to have been vouchsafed through the Holy Spirit.

Hume on Moral Evaluation of Single Actions

If any action be either virtuous or vicious, it is only as a sign of some quality or character. It must depend upon durable principles of the mind, which extend over the whole conduct, and enter into the personal character. Actions themselves, not proceeding from any constant principle, have no influence on love or hatred, pride or humility; and consequently are never considered in morality.

This reflection is self-evident, and deserves to be attended to, as being of the utmost importance in the present subject. We are never to consider any single action in our enquiries concerning the origin of morals; but only the quality or character from which the action proceeded. These alone are durable enough to affect our sentiments concerning the person. Actions are, indeed, better indications of a character than words, or even wishes and sentiments; but it is only so far as they are such indications, that they are attended with love or hatred, praise or blame.

Hume, Treatise A very strong claim, and when Hume makes a claim this strong, he means it seriously.

Monday, November 09, 2015

We Passed in Silence

The Unnamed Lake
by Frederick George Scott

It sleeps among the thousand hills
Where no man ever trod,
And only nature's music fills
The silences of God.

Great mountains tower above its shore,
Green rushes fringe its brim,
And o'er its breast for evermore
The wanton breezes skim.

Dark clouds that intercept the sun
Go there in Spring to weep,
And there, when Autumn days are done,
White mists lie down to sleep.

Sunrise and sunset crown with gold
The pinks of ageless stone,
Her winds have thundered from of old
And storms have set their throne.

No echoes of the world afar
Disturb it night or day,
The sun and shadow, moon and star
Pass and repass for aye.

'Twas in the grey of early dawn,
When first the lake we spied,
And fragments of a cloud were drawn
Half down the mountain side.

Along the shore a heron flew,
And from a speck on high,
That hovered in the deepening blue,
We heard the fish-hawk's cry.

Among the cloud-capt solitudes,
No sound the silence broke,
Save when, in whispers down the woods,
The guardian mountains spoke.

Through tangled brush and dewy brake,
Returning whence we came,
We passed in silence, and the lake
We left without a name.

Sunday, November 08, 2015


Lee McIntyre has an interesting although not, I think, entirely successful discussion of the distinction between 'skepticism' and 'denialism' at "The Stone". 'Denialism', for those who don't know, is a word that has become popular among people who like to call themselves skeptics but wish to distinguish themselves from other kinds of people that almost everyone calls skeptics. Because it has mostly arisen as a grassroots term there is, as one might expect, some difficulty in giving the distinction a consistent account: sometimes it's made in terms of how people argue, other times in terms of how they investigate, other times in terms of standards of evidence, etc.

McIntyre gives a number of characterizations of skepticism and denialism in the course of the article; it might be handy to sort them out a bit.


* when we believe or disbelieve in something based on high standards of evidence
* must be earned by a prudent and consistent disposition to be convinced only by evidence


* when we are just engaging in a bit of motivated reasoning and letting our opinions take over
* when we refuse to believe something, even in the face of what most others would take to be compelling evidence
* usually have different standards of evidence for those theories that they want to believe...versus those they are opposing
* when we cynically pretend to withhold belief long past the point at which ample evidence should have convinced us that something is true
* doubting the overwhelming consensus of scientists on an empirical question, for which one has only the spottiest ideologically-motivated “evidence”

There are three interesting things about this rough sorting of the list. The first thing is that the characterization of skepticism seems to require that you cannot call yourself a skeptic unless you have good higher-order evidence that you are intellectually virtuous: your belief/disbelief is based on high standards of evidence and you are dealing with evidence in a consistently prudent way. It makes skepticism a characterization of someone's character. It's unclear what else is supposed to be added to skepticism beyond this consistent rigorous prudence in inquiry, if anything, but the characterization does require that calling oneself a skeptic requires attributing virtues to oneself.

The second interesting thing is that the characterizations of denialism are rather different. For instance, the first, third, and fourth are psychological; the second and fifth are sociological (they refer to a larger population -- "most others" in the second and "scientists" in the fifth). This is not necessarily an inconsistency, since it's clear enough that some of these are probable 'warning signs' of denialism, or specific kinds of denialism, rather than essential to denialism as such. Another difference is that the first attributes denialism to motivated reasoning -- which everyone engages in and which has to be compensated for since it can't be eliminated -- while the fourth attributes it to cynical pretense and the fifth attributes it to ideology. These are very different kinds of motivation that can be combined or separated in different ways; for instance, they do not reflect on one's character in the same way. Presumably these are just common motivations rather than integral to denialism itself, but they don't really give us much of a clue as to what causal account is going on here, beyond the fact that they are all leading us astray somehow. But it does seem clear enough that denialism, opposing skepticism as a kind of good character, has to be a kind of bad character.

The third interesting thing is that from none of these characterizations is it possible to determine whether someone is a skeptic based simply on the topic or any position they take on it. Even the second and fifth characterization depend on things that are not intrinsic to a topic -- what most others take to be compelling can change (and can even depend on who you are counting as 'most others'), and scientific consensus builds slowly and occasionally shifts. Nothing about this account prevents the skeptic from being highly dogmatic, as long as this dogmatism is prudent and based on high standards of evidence. Rather interestingly, the one time McIntyre uses the word 'doubt', he is talking about denialism, not skepticism. Nothing about this account prevents someone from sliding from skepticism to denialism and back again, although presumably the 'consistent' in the account of skepticism prevents it from happening in the course of a single argument.

Where I think it starts getting a little troubling is that a highly moralized account of the distinction, like this one, makes it problematic to use. If skeptics hold themselves to a high standard of evidence, then they can't call someone a denialist unless they have very good evidence that the other person is not reasoning virtuously, and they can't call themselves skeptics unless they have very good evidence that they are in fact reasoning virtuously, and not influenced by ideology or uncompensated-for biases. This is very much like a Kantian approach to morality: you are not allowed to act on incentive, at all, and the only way you count as virtuous is if you act for duty (here it is evidence rather than duty) alone. And it runs into all parallel issues, including the famous one noted by Kant himself: it becomes unclear how you would know you were being a skeptic rather than a denialist, because how often could a human being in most situations actually be sure, to a high standard of evidence, that he or she was driven by a disposition to be convinced only by evidence at every essential stage of inquiry?

It would be possible, of course, to bite the bullet the way Kant does -- you are unlikely ever to know for sure, and it doesn't matter whether you do -- but McIntyre began his discussion by saying that it was in fact important for us to be able to tell when we are skeptics and when we are denialists. This is precisely the one thing we don't ever learn -- McIntyre just never says how we determine that we are virtuous in this context, and while he gives some things he thinks are signs that someone is vicious, it's not very clear how general or reliable these signs are, or how we know enough, to a high enough standard of evidence, to be able to say who counts as a denialist in order to discover these signs in the first place. (Perhaps they are grounded conceptually rather than empirically? I don't know.)

None of this is necessarily fatal, of course; the distinction in the highly moralized form McIntyre presents it just never seems to be shown to be a consistent, well formed distinction that could actually be useful.

Scotus Day

Today is the feast of Bl. John Duns Scotus. Hug a Scotist near you!

From Scotus's De Primo Principio:

Our will can always love and seek something greater than any finite end, even as our intellect is able to know more. And there seems to be a natural inclination to love supremely an infinite good. For this is the sign of the free will's natural inclination for anything that, spontaneously, and without the aid of any habit, it loves this thing readily and with delight. And it seems that in this way we experience a love for the infinite good. Indeed it seems that the will is not satisfied with anything else. If infinite good were really opposed to its natural object, why does not the will by nature hate such a good, just as it naturally hates non-existence?

And from Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of Scotus's most enthusiastic readers, whose poetic concepts of inscape, instress, and pitch have clear and sometimes explicitly linked analogues in Scotus's philosophical concepts of formality, intuitive cognition, and haecceity:

Duns Scotus's Oxford
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

The last line, of course, concerns Scotus's most famous theological contribution, which was to formulate an approach to discussing the Immaculate Conception of Mary that was based purely on ordering of causes; it did not depend on any particular account of how conception occurred, and thus cut through the confusion over the subject that was due to the variety of such accounts.

The Maronite Year II

Depending on when the year begins, there may be one Sunday of the Church or two. When there are two, the second is for the renovation of the Church; when there is only one, the same Sunday doubles its meaning to include both. Renewal of the Church Sunday alludes to the Maccabean restoration of the Temple, and also carries over the themes of the previous Sunday.

Sunday of the Renewal of the Church
Hebrews 9:11-15; John 10:22-42

When Judah rose in victory,
when his brothers crushed the enemy,
to Zion all the army went.
The sanctuary was desolate,
the gates burned, the altar profaned;
thick thorns cracked the pavement of the court.
Laity they chose to stand guard,
pure priests to cleanse the sanctuary,
prepared for future prophecy;
they consecrated all things with light.

Abomination desolate,
O Lord, had taken our hearts in thrall,
but you became our good high priest,
and brought us redemption through your blood,
cleansing conscience from deathly acts.
Peter and the apostles its base,
in your grace you built a temple.
Of old you established your bright Church;
in every age you renew it
and call the peoples to Mount Zion.

On the Feast of Dedication
came Judea, seeking salvation:
"Tell us clearly, will you save us?"
It is clear to all His holy flock.
He gives them life that will not fade,
for He is the Son of His Father
and we are his inheritance.
Rise, shine, O Church; raise a hymn of praise!
O Lord, remove schism from her,
scandal and heresy cleanse with truth.