Author: joy and matthew steem

Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C. S. Lewis and Gender with Monika Hilde (interview)

Monika Hilder’s insights on feminism and our chauvinistic culture have long intrigued us—she’s a respected educator, author, and speaker. Essentially, her argument boils down to this: our culture is biased toward characteristics typically associated with “masculine” behavior like self-assertion, conquest, and autonomy. She suggests that as long as we measure success by these flawed characteristics, we are buying into a chauvinistic mentality. …

Source: Fathom Magazine – Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C. S. Lewis and Gender with Monika Hilde (interview)

Cut by Coleridge

While writing on such a grandiose personage, it’s hard to not aspire to touch on a great many magnificent things. And what numerous numbers there are! Ashamedly, I have not read much Coleridge before. I knew of him historically speaking, and what he was known for and with whom he hob-knobbed, but I had read little past “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and a few others. Then I landed his Aids to Reflection.

Brilliant, Completely brilliant. Plus, moving—and that last part is important!

As with any good collection of aphorisms—whether from Pascal, Erasmus, Joseph Joubert, Montesquieu etc.—a reader can be informed in all manner of things: philosophy, imagination, morality, spirituality etc. Coleridge covers … well, being human, which is fairly large. But for as many of the thick things he ponders on—often doing so in single sentences which extend for more than a quarter of a page—what has taken the precedence of my attention is my own self reflection. This might sound nice at first, however it wasn’t quite that for me.

If you are human, you have probably had the experience of reading something of an explanatory nature, say psychology, and then upon acquiring knowledge of a specific problem, your mind, quicker than greased lightning, speeds to a family member who “suffers” from this defection? “Oh, yah, [insert person] totally has a problem with being overly assertive,” or “wow, that’s why [insert name] can’t see why they do [insert annoying habit].”

While this demonstrates some ability to reflect, it’s just not quite as good as self reflection. James Schall, the Jesuit scholar, suggests that a true moralizer does not look outward with a critical eye towards the world and its apparent wrongs. No. The true moralizer first looks inside themselves and asks, “how am I making things worse. How am I seeing things wrongly. How am I judging the motivations of others askew”? (When I read this, I was, like, “ouch.”)

And so to Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection.

Right at the start he bangs away on the importance of reflection, on being able to be alone, on thinking, on pondering S   L   O   W   L   Y. On not just being able to quickly recollect—that’s for novices, he chides. On and on he goes, and the whole time I was like, “yah,” you tell ‘em Coley! You tell modern day people in a age which worships speed of right and proper importance of careful rumination. I should have known that my ego was teetering too tall: like a Jenga tower with its middle hollowed out. Coleridge weighs down on me …

Too many take the ready course to deceive themselves; for they look with both eyes on the failings and defects of others, and scarcely give their good qualities half an eye, while on the contrary, in themselves, they study to the full their own advantages, and their weaknesses and defects, (as one says), they skip over, as children do their hard words in their lesson, that are troublesome to read; and making this uneven parallel, what wonder if the result be a gross mistake of themselves!

While reading Coleridge, this happened more than once for me. And, after the cutting, it was a grand thing. In this complex work, he covers a massive amount. But over and over I found his balancing blade revealing not only what I see at fault in others, but also in me. I highly recommend it. Just tread across the pages with a spirit of humility, because Coleridge’s wit and wisdom cuts everything that stands high.

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Consequent Horribles of Hobbled Philosophy: Chesterton’s Cogitations

Self-portrait of G. K. Chesterton based on the distributist slogan "Three acres and a cow".

Self-portrait of G. K. Chesterton based on the distributist slogan “Three acres and a cow”.

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency.
G.K. Chesterton

Any reader of Chesterton knows that he is quite quotable; however, sometimes his quotidian nature can also stump and confound. Take the above for instance: while we can appreciate the need for good philosophy [think C.S. Lewis] what are we to do with the “horrible things” that Chesterton stands against? After all, in our culture isn’t practicality a good thing? And that goes for being progressive and efficient too, not?

We want practical money managers; progressive medical technology; and surely, efficient cars and refrigerators.

But it is not these things that Chesterton warns about.

G.K’s primary concern is that these traits become ends in and of themselves without reflection on their potential consequences. Take for instance his gripe about “a practical man.” For Chesterton, the practical man cares only about the final results of an endeavour (whether that be in business or politics or whatever) and not what took place in the interim (the steps which were taken to achieve the end result: an example would be the food industry using GMO food without considering the potential consequence). Chesterton posits, “When will people see the simple fact that practicality is a question of means, not of ends?”

For Chesterton, being practical is linked to being progressive. So back to the example of GMO: a perfect example of progress. Progressives look ahead to solve current problems without doing the hard work of fixing something now. A good example might be the average power consumer being unwilling to lower their power outage by 15%, instead trusting that the power companies will, with scientific aid, be able to simply reduce the amount of pollution that is created. Or, the desire to increase crop production through GMO – instead of tackling the uglier and slightly more work intensive trouble of consumer waste (stats proclaim that we waste between 30-40% of our food). Chesterton doesn’t approve of putting one’s trust in the future when we could take action now.

Lastly, efficiency itself is value neutral; as a tool it can be employed for either good or bad. Further, once turned into a process, it can be easily used for control. Most of us know that the Nazi death camps were pristinely efficient. It was this very efficiency which palpably made the death camps so heinous. Euthanasia is efficient as were the desired outcomes of eugenic programs. Less nasty examples were the assembly line productions which turned workers into automatons. Efficiency is a means, but it is not an end in itself. It’s a handy tool that can make our lives better, but it must be placed in its proper hierarchy—i.e. below us. Ultimately, Chesterton wants us to ascertain, whenever efficiency is employed, what is the end game? And whom does it ultimately serve?

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Cheez Whiz and The Inklings

It’s been said that Cheez Whiz is one molecule away from being plastic, and I actually don’t like it at all, but the song is catchy right?

Cheez Whiz has nothing to do with the Inklings because I am certain none of them would have deigned to touch it with a ten-foot pole. “Not authentic enough,” perhaps Tolkien might say. Or he might have been suspicious that it was made with a machine. (George Sayer relates, “[J.R.R. Tolkien] said whimsically that he ought to cast out any devil that might be in [a recorder] by recording … the Lord’s Prayer.” Tolkien hardly even used a typewriter and Lewis wrote everything by hand.) However, while Cheez Whiz might add personality, the Inklings most assuredly had personality. And happy ones at that! And it’s something that might be overlooked when reading their works. This is notable because it’s relevant to recognize that these literary heroes were also people.

It’s easy to assume that since a C.S. Lewis or a Charles Williams wrote such serious material, they were serious people. (i.e. seriously un-humorous.) Just crack open Lewis’ The Discarded Image or English Literature in the Sixteenth Century and let me know if too many smiles slip past your cheeks. Similarly, for Williams’ The Image of the City and Other Essays. Others associated with the Inklings like Dorothy Sayers etc., don’t often come across as overly mirthful either. They are serious. They deal with serious topics. Terry Lindvall, writing on Lewis, comments on a deleterious approach to levity,

When reading religious writing (or, what is often worse, writing by a religious person), the last thing we expect to discover is laughter. We expect the religious writer to handle truth, ethics, and other serious concerns with appropriate decorum. Treating issues of ultimate reality with levity is the habit of the fool, the mocker, the jester, the idiot.

This is all rot. (By the way, Lindvall’s book is most excellent.)

Consider that Charles Williams not only had a cockney accent (very different from C.S Lewis’ and Tolkien’s prim and proper intonation) he had a hilarious side to him that often burst out in theatrics. (He also loved the theatre.) Similarly, Lewis after settling down with a pipe and pint, had no problem with guffaw. Lewis mentioned in The Four Loves that “In a perfect Friendship … each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before all the rest… each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others.” I was so pleased to see that “funniest” was included in the best.

I try to keep reminding myself when I read other important authors that the hefty ideas and concepts are not the only connections with such people—they had humor as well. Theirs was a personality not limited to just the serious, but also the seriously humorous, because a good personality will most likely include humor. G.K. Chesterton—you will remember that he played an important role in Lewis’ conversion—ysaid “being serious is much easier than being frivolous and light.” He also asserted that “seriousness is a vice … It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. … For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

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Creativity Connects

Suzanne Szasz, 1915-1997, Photographer

Lunchtime Classical Concert in Bryant Park – Suzanne Szasz (1915-1997)

I was in a porn film. The previous sentence is actually factually incorrect, but it’s an attention grabbing introductory line, right? Where substance doesn’t grab us, spectacle usually does the trick. I seem to recall coming across a McSweeny’s Internet Tendency entry that suggested a simple fail proof way of attracting (and keeping) more readers: insert GIFs of jiggling breasts throughout the text. For those of us who laugh, is there a ring of fatigued disillusionment in it? As song writers or poets or visual artists or composers our creations feel sterile without some type of social interaction, or at least recognition. Having an audience is nice.

We yearn to connect. It chafes the less mature of us when we see mere scandal and spectacle reap a harvest of readers/watchers/listeners that objects of genuine artistry are likely to never see. Ever. The mean-well people (often non-creatives) who empathetically suggest a genuinely creative spirit doesn’t need any sort of audience because the joy rests in the act of creation are, well, wrong. (In part, Jacque Maritan’s reminder that true creativity is not mere self-expression or cathartic release of personal feelings; rather, it is the building of something for its own good, seems to make sense here.)

We are an interactive people. It’s not mere egotism which drives our desire for communicating our work; it’s the desire to connect, to grow, to truly communicate. This impulse to share is not one that should be repressed or bemoaned, but rather one to be celebrated because it reflects the desire for communion with others. In God Has A Dream, Desmond Tutu relates the concept of ubuntu beautifully: “[ubuntu] does not say, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate I share.’” This insight is especially pertinent for us in a culture that, despite all our communication technologies, urges us towards isolation and the tendency to see success as the achievement of ultimate independence.

In a lecture on virtue based ethics, Bill Dejong suggested that there can be a sinful element in the “in the comfort of your own home” culture. (I.E “Enjoy theatre or gormeau cooking or symphony or whatever in your own home” that we hear from the advertisers of giant television screens etc.) He suggests that to deliberately participate in practices of isolation is to indulge pride: pride that we can be happy and fulfilled only with ourselves—that we don’t need the participation of others in our emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps even physically, isolated lives.

I’ve been thinking that creativity, with its deep longing for resonance, perhaps, could be part of a solution for the dehumanizing idealization of the isolated hero. After all, creativity yearns for relationship, for response, for connection: for the acknowledgement that we are human and that we belong.

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Why Leisure Matters – Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1

For Josef Pieper, leisure is certainly connected to the older Platonic and Aristotelian concept of leisure as contemplation; however, it’s more than just that. For him, in the classical sense, leisure was something tied to the liberal arts: human activities that are separate from the servile works (those works that have a utilitarian purpose) and which have an end beyond themselves—a practicable, utilitarian result.

But leisure is not merely contemplation. Pieper calls it “a mental and spiritual attitude” and “a condition of the soul” that goes against the “exclusive ideal of work as activity.” Instead, this attitude is one “of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being busy but letting things happen.”

It is possible that some may read Pieper’s views and wonder if he considers work ethic alone as a bit … shallow. Is he saying that leisure ameliorates a working life?

No indeed. Yes, Pieper believes leisure can restore a person’s mental, physical, and even psychical state, but its impact is far greater than that. He goes so far as to call leisure “the power of stepping beyond the workaday world, and in so doing touching upon the superhuman life-giving powers which, incidentally almost, renew and quicken us for our everyday tasks.” He sees leisure as a means to opening the “gate to freedom,” where one can escape the world “where work and unemployment are the two inescapable poles of existence.’”

Many times we do not attain leisure precisely because we haven’t a clue about the function of work and what humans are actually placed on earth for. It is a confusion related to issues such as materialism and consumerism.

When another excellent author, Sebastian de Grazia, was asked what his book Of Time, Work, and Leisure was about, he said his questioners laughingly had responses such as: “when you find out where to get it, let me know, because I desperately want some.”

To read Pieper is to rediscover “the point and the justification of leisure.” It is ultimately a pursuit of wholeness.

To be human is to be whole; and work alone will never make us whole. Work is but a part of our life: it contributes to our needs. However, it is never an end. Pieper tells us that if we feel that we must always be working, it may

be ultimately due to the inner impoverishment of [that] individual: in this context everyone whose life is completely filled by his work … has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that [he] can no longer act significantly outside his work, and perhaps can no longer even conceive of such a thing.

This last part “and perhaps can no longer even conceive of such a thing,” seems to speak to many of our culture, no? How tragic. Thomas Merton, who loved silence for its stilling and centering effect, spoke against the seeming need of our society to dull our real human desire to be whole. He saw noise as an opiate.

We want noise because we are not comfortableyet we know something is amiss. You will probably recall that Pascal spoke of this a long while back: “All human unhappiness comes from not knowing how to stay quietly in a room.” Pieper speaks to the silence issue as well. He tells us “leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.”

And so back to the initial assertion about work being divine, and to repudiate it is to commit suicide. This is partly true. We are to take value in work. But this is not the ultimate conclusion of our life. We are to live, and to know why we live requires leisure.

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