7 Quick Takes—02/07/14—Philosophical Cats Edition!

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As I violated my 2-post-a-week resolution last week, I figured I should make amends in a manner sensitive to the cultural mores of the internet. Internet,  I present to you by way of apology this menagerie of philosophical and theological cats. I’m terribly sorry; I’m as guilty as the second cat in this video:

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If I could find a sufficiently large cat picture, and a font size that was highly readable even when very tiny, and I felt like opening up a graphics editor, I would make the following Nietzsche quote into the best philosophical cat meme ever.

Since I’m lazy, you’ll have to settle for this adorable cat picture and Nietzsche’s explanation of what your cat is really thinking. (Technically he’s describing a herd of cows but, you know, same diff…)

This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness … A human being may well ask an animal: ‘Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?’ The animal would like to answer, and say: ‘The reason is I always forget what I was going to say’—but then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent: so that the human being was left wondering.
But he also wonders at himself, that he cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past: however far and fast he may run, this chain runs with him … A leaf flutters from the scroll of time, floats away—and suddenly floats back again and falls into the man’s lap. Then the man says ‘I remember’ and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever. Thus the animal lives unhistorically: for it is contained in the present, like a number without any awkward fraction left over. —Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”

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Seven Quick Takes—01/24/14

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This is what happens when I try and make sensible economic arguments to myself:

 “Hmm, what with this polar vortex nonsense—and my neighborhood’s crappy sidewalk maintenance—I’m kidding myself about sticking with a running program this winter.”

“You could join the school gym.”

“That’s true, but I can barely talk myself—in good weather—into walking out the door to go for a run. Do I seriously think that I’m going to talk myself into driving all the way to campus to work out?”

“Fair point. Plus, it costs so much buy to gym privileges.”

“You know, there is that new Wii Fit version that just came out. And look, it’s on sale on Amazon for less than the gym would cost you and you don’t have to leave the house to work out.”

“That’s a valid, sound, and utterly irrefutable argument for the purchase of a video game and accompanying paraphernalia. Logic compels me…” *click*

WiiFit

UPDATE: As a clear sign of my old-lady-ness, I totally thought the “u” at the end of Wii Fit U meant an update to the Wii Fit program. But, it turns out there’s a whole new Wii console…oh dear. This may take some sorting out…(though, so far as I can tell, the balance board accessory—which is the pricey bit to begin with—should work fine, I just need to get the older program).

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If I can talk myself into things I don’t need, maybe I can also talk myself into doing things I totally should do. Fortunately, The Millions has already helped me along by usefully re-writing the titles of famous novels to turn them into solid-gold click bait. Some of the best: “Watch This Kid Burst Into Tears When He’s Refused Some More Porridge” and “We Thought We Could Beat On Against The Current Without Being Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past. Boy Were We Wrong.” One of my favorites actually comes from the combox: “One Man Goes To Extraordinary Lengths to Catch the Biggest Fish Ever—You Won’t Believe His Age.”

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Like T.S. Eliot? Adore Jeremy Irons? Of course you do!  It expires 13 hours from now, but at the moment you can still stream Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s Four Quartets at BBC Radio 4. The actual reading starts around 7:45 on the recording. If only all the books I read could be narrated in my head by Jeremy Irons…

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And now for something completely different: A cat playing a theremin! (Last second is absolutely priceless.)
 

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Cats (and dogs!) are also remarkably talented at helping you keep track of whether you’re meeting each day’s dissertation research and writing goals:

Cats on Fridge

Stickers worked when you were five and they will work now. Stickers always work.

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As Friday comes to a close, allow me to boast of my great achievement of having finally completed a Monday New York Times crossword puzzle without having to look anything up: 

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Finally, in more serious (and super-exciting) news…well…rumor: John Allen reports that two senior Vatican sources have indicated that Pope Francis intends to visit Philadelphia in September 2015 for the World Meeting of Families! Sounds like it’ll soon be time for me to pay my first real visit to Philly (I don’t think that driving near it on the Pennsylvania Turnpike really counts, which is all that I’ve done so far).

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

7 Quick Takes, er, Quotes

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I’ve been MIA on the blog for some time now (though, on the plus side, I have managed to finish my dissertation prospectus, and I’m halfway through a draft of chapter 1!). But while I’ve been neglecting my writing, I’ve not been neglecting my reading. Thought I’d use this Quick Takes to share with you a few of the quotes that have been most haunting me over the past couple of months. I leave it to you, dear Reader, to trace their connections and inhabit their tensions.

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Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is short (the text runs a little shy of 40 pages), but still completely worth purchasing because, like O’Connor’s short stories, it packs a big punch in a short space. The following is one of its most powerful moments:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

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7 Quick Takes—07/26/13

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closet

I can see the bottom of my bedroom closet floor! I realize that this is hardly news in the life of most folks, but I’m not most folks when it comes to cleaning. (I’ve written previously about my complicated relationship with squalor.) But after an entire week of schlepping a hamper full of laundry down to the ol’ laundry mat every day for a week, I finally dug myself out of a closet full of laundry—and produced four bags worth of clothes for the Salvation Army! I’m not sure if this newfound cleaning streak is the result of some late-20s crisis, procrastinating to avoid finishing the dissertation prospectus or what, but I hope it keeps up. I am much indebted to one of my commenter’s who pointed me towards “FlyLady”—I find the site’s penchant for self-help jargon to be cringeworthy, but I have to confess that the system does seem to work.

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 Now that I’ve actually got the closet empty-ish, I’m faced with those eternal questions that arise around clothes. Do I give away beloved clothes that are just a bit too tight, especially while I still nurse dreams of dropping a couple of dress sizes? What about the thing that’s just slightly too large, especially since that seems to be the direction that the weight generally likes to march? And am I obligated to keep clothes given as gifts?  (Actually, this question always haunts me regardless of what I’m decluttering: can you give away gifts? I’ve generally answered in the negative, but I’m starting to change my tune out of sheer necessity.)

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In other apartment news, my renewed decision this summer to stick it out and not buy an air conditioner has, at last, been rewarded by temperate weather. The midatlantic heat wave finally broke and now it’s so temperate that I don’t even have to run a fan. I’m pretty sure that my delight at this situation is magnified ten-fold in my very fluffy long-haired cat who, at the height of the heat wave, took up near-permanent residence under my bed.

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In news outside of my four walls, it’s World Youth Day! You might have picked up some of the oft-ill-reported buzz around World Youth Day, social media, and indulgences. James Martin, S.J. does a good job of separating the facts from the hype over at CNN with a blog post entitled “Sorry, retweeting the Pope won’t get you out of hell.” 

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This picture of Pope Francis in Brazil needs no commentary because it’s already perfect. However, I did much enjoy Elizabeth Scalia’s description of Francis, based on this photo, as a “big brass band of a pope.” 

PopeFrancis

 

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7 Quick Takes—7/19/2013

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First and foremost: ironists rejoice! For students of literature—and all pedants everywhere—someone has finally fixed Alanis Morissette’s totally un-ironic song “Ironic.”  If you haven’t already encountered it bouncing about the interwebs, here it is:

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If you’re not already aware of Leah Libresco’s “Ideological Turing Test” series, you should check it out—the most current iteration is happening on her blog right now. A “Turing test,” as you might recall, is a test to see if a computer can fool people into thinking that they’re talking to a human when they’re, in fact, chatting with a computer. The concept of an “Ideological Turing Test” was developed by economist Bryan Caplan; in the test, participants try to successfully pass off the positions of their ideological opponents as their own. It’s basically a way to check how well you really understanding the viewpoint of those you’re arguing with.

I’ve found that the “Ideological Turing Test” also makes a great teaching tool. I’ve done classroom experiments in which students were asked to write a paragraph defending a thesis they agreed with and the opposing thesis and their classmates then had to vote about which answer they thought was the “real” one. Freshman are terribly prone to strawmanning, and this is a nice way to get them break out of it.

On Leah’s blog, Christians and Atheists—whose true identities will be revealed at the end of the series—are composing both a “real” and a “fake” response to questions about the ethics of polyamory and euthanasia. Readers have the opportunity to vote on whether they believe each entry to be a true representation of the person’s position or not.

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7 (Belated) Quick Takes!

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First and foremost, happy Feast of the Visitation! I particularly love this feast day because the mass reading includes the Magnificat, one of the most wondrous and beautiful of all the passages in the Bible. And if you haven’t heard (or haven’t heard lately!) Bach’s setting of the Magnificat, now’s the time:

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While we’re on the topic of beauty, this week’s America magazine reprints a fine quote from Pope Francis on the very topic. In April, the Holy Father urged his audience to reject the thinking of ideologues in part because they cannot recognize beauty: “The ideologues falsify the gospel. Every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from—from (whatever side)—is a falsification of the Gospel. And these ideologues, as we have seen in the history of the Church, end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness—and let us not so much as mention beauty, of which they know nothing.” On this Feast day, when we can’t help but be floored by the sheer beauty of Mary’s joy, let us remember that we need beauty. For at the moment that we are not allowed to speak of the beautiful, the moment in which we cannot think in aesthetic as well as moral and philosophical terms, then we are left with a regime of thought that is ultimately cold and sterile.

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Beauty has the power to arrest us, if we let it. I’m not a huge fan of Norman Rockwell, but the Pope’s comments reminded me of one Rockwell painting that I’ve always loved, one that seems to capture how the hustle and bustle of work and of thought, if it cannot see beyond itself, misses the point. Lift Up Thine Eyes [follow the link to see the painting; I’m not reprinting here since it’s not in the public domain] depicts St. Thomas’s Church in NYC—crowds of pedestrians, sketchy and flat, wander through the streets staring at the sidewalk as a church worker finishes setting the letters on the church sign. The title of the day’s sermon is, ironically, “Lift Up Thine Eyes.”

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I had my own “arresting” moment of beauty this week. I often pu Classical music on in the background while I’m doing academic working. This was the case a couple of days ago; however, when Samuel Barber’s indescribably gorgeous setting of the Agnus Dei came on (if you’ve heard Barber’s Adagio for Strings then you’ll recognize the melody). At a certain point I couldn’t let it be background anymore—I had to stop and had to “lift up my ears” as it were. To let its beauty be both marginalized and instrumentalized into “background music” felt downright wrong.


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I wrote in a previous Quick Takes about hoping to get my campus’s Catholic grad student reading group on board with Brideshead Revisited as our summer book. Well, Brideshead didn’t win, but another one of my recommendations—G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy—did and, frankly, I’m pleased as a peach. Heck, everyone ought to read Chesterton at some point! Meanwhile, Brideshead has officially become part of my own summer reading list.

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Speaking of Chesterton, his 137th birthday was this past Wednesday. In celebration, here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about a conversation between (the heavyset) Chesterton and his friend (the rail-like) George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton says to Shaw: “To look at you, anyone would think that a famine had struck England.” To which Shaw retorts: “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”

I’ve always much admired the friendship of Chesterton and Shaw. In an age of ever-tightening ideological bubbles, it’s nice to remember that there was—and perhaps can be again—a time where people who harbor deep differences in their intellectual and spiritual commitments can nonetheless build lifelong friendships. And perhaps the “nonetheless” is unnecessary; perhaps it is the ability to disagree—to care about one’s ideas and the ideas of another enough to dispute with them—that builds those friendships in the first place.

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In other literary news (albeit news that’s about 200 years old), I discovered today just how much Samuel Taylor Coleridge hated light reading and light readers. As part of my research, I’ve been reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and I just discovered, in one of Coleridge’s footnotes,  this little gem of a rant about “circulating libraries” (whose readers would pool resources to buy and share books, usually popular fiction):

…as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement […] from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth and hatred of vacancy.

I can’t imagine that Coleridge approves of the things I’m reading when I’m not reading Coleridge . . .

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Imagine what he would have thought of The Hunger Games . . .

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7 Quick Takes—05/24/2013

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The interwebs have been all aflutter of late over Pope Francis’s statement that all are redeemed. HuffPo (in)famously seemed to spin this as an endorsement of universalism, the belief that all people will eventually be saved. Not to wander too far into the theological quagmire here, but Catholicism—and much of Protestantism—makes a division between redemption (Christ by his death enables all to be saved if they choose) and salvation (the acceptance of this redemption). This is a division that some in the blogosphere have been making quite a lot out of (here and here), sometimes to the point of forgetting that, in Catholic theology, the possibility of the salvation of all is permitted.

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We may do well to recall Catholicism’s middle position between universalism and a conservative Protestant view that all non-Christians are hellbound. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahnar famously spoke of “anonymous Christians” and the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar held that we might reasonably hope that all men will be saved. Fr. Barron does a particularly fine job of clarifying the differences between Von Balthasar’s  position and simple universalism:

(In case you think this is simply the strange notions of a couple of prominent theologians, check out paragraph 16 of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium.)

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7 Quick Takes—05/17/13

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The “weirdest conference ever” seems to have been ripped right from the pages of a Thomas Pynchon novel. If you’ve ever read Pynchon’s fabulously surreal and satirical The Crying of Lot 49, then you’ll appreciate this story from The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Percolator blog. The story is, to all appearances, a clever satire about higher education and capitalism but it is, unfortunately, also true.  In it, a possibly mad—but extremely wealthy—jeweler who claims to have “seemlessly” [sic] joined together the fields of religion and science in a curious self-published tome entitled (wait for it…) the Summa Metaphysica convinces Bard College (yes, that Bard College) to host a week-long conference on his work by making a sizable gift to the school. One anecdote about the oddness of the whole affair: 

I spoke to several of the conference’s participants, including Tammy Nyden, an associate professor of philosophy at Grinnell College, who called the conference “so bizarre.” She felt hesitant about the invitation to begin with, but because it was taking place at a venerable institution like Bard, she decided to go. The conference covered expenses, and it sounded intriguing. But she thought it strange that almost no one attended the presentations, and she was surprised to come across a pile of T-shirts with Summa Metaphysica, the title of Birnbaum’s two-volume work, printed on them. Her brief interactions with Birnbaum did not put her at ease. “It was a very weird experience,” she said. “He keeps saying he has this unifying principle, and it’s ‘potentiality,’ and that’s the most sense I can make out of anything he’s said.”

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So long as we’re on the topic of dubious authors, The Telegraph has a pitch-perfect parody of Dan Brown, in which a day in the life of “renowned author Dan Brown” is rendered in Brownish prose.  A sample:

The critics said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive. They said it was full of unnecessary tautology. They said his prose was swamped in a sea of mixed metaphors. For some reason they found something funny in sentences such as “His eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” They even say my books are packed with banal and superfluous description, thought the 5ft 9in man. He particularly hated it when they said his imagery was nonsensical. It made his insect eyes flash like a rocket.

In addition to immensely enjoying the parody, I was able to finally put a finger on what bothers me about a lot of the prose style in airport books: “banal and superflous description.” It’s downright odd, frankly, that completely plot-driven novels feel the need to engage in lengthy, unnecessary, and flat descriptions when, let’s be honest, no one’s reading it for the scene setting.

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In other book news, I’ve been trying to decide how to sell the Catholic grad student group at my school on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited for our summer book club. First I have to confess that I haven’t read the book, I’ve only seen the fab miniseries with Jeremy Irons (streaming on Netflix FYI). I think I did a rather wretched job trying to describe it the first time round. It went something like this: “Well, it’s about the decline of the aristocracy and about Catholicism and about romance and, well, it’s just wonderful.” One person’s interest did seem to be briefly peaked by the “decline of the aristocracy” bit, so I think I’ve found the right catchphrase now for the next time I pitch it: “It’s Downton Abbey meets Catholicism.”

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