Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Creature with Memory: Discovering Pasts, Conceiving Futures

“Knowledge,” Joyce Appleby reminds us, “begins with memory.”[1] With the historiographical turn toward postmodern modes of discourse in the early 1980s and 1990s, the epistemological relationship between knowledge and authorial power has characterized the debate over how best to interpret the past. If memory is the beginning of knowledge, then historians must understand how the past has been remembered individually by participants in historical events and collectively by racial and ethnic groups, regions, and nations after these events have passed. Divisive and contentious events such as the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and media-driven modern warfare have created situations in which the “truth” of that experience depends largely on the position of the contributor. Postmodernist theorists argue that this subjectivity of the truth colors all historical writing, and whether or not one accedes to the more extreme positions of these thinkers, it is difficult to deny the subjectivity inherent in using memory as a methodological category. By examining the process through which memory transforms from an immediately lived experience into institutional or collective memory narrated as history, historians may better understand the subjectivity intrinsic to postmodern historiography.

According to Appleby, at its most basic level, the creation of history consists of the continuous process of translating memory into text, and in the postmodern sense of the term “text”, these “written histories are exposed to the critical scrutiny of unknown, unseen outsiders.”[2] In other words, once memory is committed to history, it becomes an object open to the historiographical interpretation of later scholars, regardless of their ability to objectively ascertain the validity of those memories. Postmodern deconstructions of these texts, in the Foucaultian sense, operate by revealing the unconscious omissions of their writers—or “rememberers”—and by acknowledging the multiplicity of meaning derived from even the most authoritative texts. Similarly, the fact that one account of an event can be construed in so many diverse ways indicates that “there is no stability in language” and, perhaps implicitly, none in memory either.[3] If historical texts are generated from remembered events and these texts lack a dependable objective stance, does this suggest that memory, too, is impossible to condense into a reasonably objective account of an event?

In the era of media-driven conflicts and twenty-four hour news cycles, late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century warfare constitutes one area in which individual memory and its relationship with collective memory becomes important. The increased audio-visual documentation of war as an event broadcasted to homes across the United States since the Vietnam War necessitates that the significance of memory become greater for the individual “worm’s-eye-view” than for more omniscient-style of narrative historical construction. In other words, ground-level histories must rely more greatly on memory because this is the “lived” event—less ideologically constructed and more personally constructed—or in Yuval Noah Harari’s terminology, the experience that only the “flesh-witness” is capable of describing.[4] While the traditional methods of viewing the totality of war by analyzing its geopolitical, diplomatic, and strategic aspects remain the primary discursive modes employed to understand the wider repercussions of these events, historians risk ignoring the experiences of the individuals advancing these goals. The reticence on the part of many traditional historians likely stems from the fact that it is difficult to tell a monolithic narrative of an event in warfare from an array of subjective viewpoints. The problem is not only in attempting to construct a narrative that is sensitive to both “sides” of a story but also in recognizing that binary categories for a plethora of remembrances is not enough to create a complete narrative. For example, in The Generals’ War Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor claim that “there has been no attempt to create an omniscient narrator” because that would portend an entirely reconcilable interpretation of events, thus negating their thesis that “cultural differences” among branches of the armed forces and between civilian and military commands led to a mismanagement of the war.[5] Gordon and Trainor skillfully acknowledge the many perspectives in the preparation stages—they do, after all, maintain the plural possessive of their titular “Generals’.” However, they succeed in one sense while failing in another. By drawing together numerous accounts of the planning and implementation of Desert Storm into one coherent narrative, an omniscient narrator foists himself onto the historical account, while at the same time allowing the many distinct voices of the narrative to speak for themselves.

Despite their appreciation for the multitude of interpretations, Trainor and Gordon did not intend to use memory as a methodological tool for understanding that conflict. Since memory begins as an individual understanding of the past, historians must approach it at this level first. The reliability of memory becomes most debatable when external forces such as stress, fatigue, or cognitive dissonance distort one’s personal understanding of a lived past event. The experience of combat exhibits exactly these difficulties. In his autobiography of life in the Marine Corps, One Bullet Away, Nathaniel Fick describes combat as “a form of vertigo” that causes one to “doubt…[one’s] own senses.”[6] This personal memory is, by definition, subjective, and when the story-telling process begins—almost immediately afterward, according to Fick—the remembrance of an event entails a simultaneous reconciliation of one’s own viewpoint with that of others and a solidification of one’s personal rendition of it. This is what Appleby refers to as the “psychological dynamics of knowing,” meaning that memory requires both the maintenance of factual accuracy and the “personal recognition” that “encourages myth-making.”[7] When recalling an ambush while driving through the Iraqi town of al-Gharraf, Fick concedes that “something in the retelling unnerved [him]” because “faith in our senses is what anchors us to reality.”[8] The fact that “five marines told five different stories” that would later coalesce into a unified, grand-narrative of the unit suggests that the subjectivity of memory is still reconcilable.[9] However, the notion that our memories are faulty and unreliable imply that reality itself, and especially the immediately remembered past, may be unreliable as well. On a larger scale, this way of remembering often reflects historiographical emphases on individual wars as well: World War I and Vietnam occupy a cultural space in the American psyche that, according to Harari, “focuses overwhelmingly on the experience of war rather than politics or strategy.”[10] The question, then, is to what extent memory as a methodological tool should be used to reconcile competing points of view. For Fick, this process involves “institutionalizing” memory through “telling and retelling” and “changing and learning” from combat events.[11] This mirrors what Appleby describes as the “winnowing of memory” for the “health of [a] nation.”[12] Perhaps this is precisely the progression from individual to collective memory about which Foucault theorizes.

Individual memory, of course, has important bearings on later recollections and interpre-tations of earlier events and ideas. The southern Lost Cause—a particular version of Civil War remem-brance—emerged, according to Gaines M. Foster, out of the collective southern desire to ease the social tensions that accompanied rapid social and economic change during Reconstruction. Public celebrations, memorials, and reenactments designed to mourn the loss of the dead and commemorate the honor of the endeavor reduced the psychological impact of southern failure in the Civil War.[13] Some of the earliest iterations of the Lost Cause mentality were expressed in the immediate aftermath of the war, and the commiseration of the military defeat echoed the grievances of personal loss suffered by its “flesh-witnesses.” For example, according to Rod Andrew, Jr., for Confederate general and later South Carolina politician Wade Hampton III, “the Lost Cause message transcended politics and even race—it was personal.”[14] The immediacy of Hampton’s grief over the Confederacy reflected the battlefield anguish he experienced in losing his son. For Southerners in general, the direct memories of the war consisted of “burning homes, pillaging foragers, and dying loved ones,” and by mourning and sanctifying these personal losses, they presaged later deferential commemorations of the Confederacy as a whole.[15] And, as the events of the war itself receded into the past, the horrific memories of solidiers’ experience were supplanted by more heroic notions of honor and valor by the turn of the twentieth century, as personal memory transformed into collective memory.[16] As Robert Penn Warren opined, if “the Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the American imagination,” then memory becomes an ideally suited method to reveal the personal, collective, and institutional interpretations of such a divisive event.[17] The event “lived” personally became “relived” via the national memory.

If southern soldiers were “flesh-witnesses” to the carnage of the Civil War itself, African-American slaves were another sort of “flesh-witness” to the bondage that, in part, precipitated the outbreak of that war. As personal memory gave way to a collective memory among southern whites, it also gave way to a national forgetting of another type. This begs the question: how does a national memory cope with events, institutions, and ideas it wishes to forget? Obviously, slavery and the Civil War were remembered very differently depending on racial and regional identity, and according to David W. Blight, the reconciliationist approach to Civil War memory overwhelmed the emancipationist version and relegated the tragedy of slavery to the margins its interpretation. “The memory of slavery,” Blight writes, “…never fit well into a developing narrative in which the Old and New South were romanticized and welcomed back into a new nationalism…”[18] Blight argues that by framing the Civil War in terms of states’ rights, property rights, and a resistance to the economic domination of the North, white southerners willfully ignored the fact that slavery played an enormous role in its origins, conduct, and outcome.[19] In this way, memory as methodology retains a racial and regional context that historians must confront in order to more objectively resolve these differences in remembrance. Collective, institutional, and public memories are fluid concepts, and nations often take an active role in “molding their citizens’ understanding of the past.”[20] This selective form of memory, as Mary Douglas has argued, causes “its members to forget those events that do not accord with its righteous image,” which certainly describes the historiography of the Civil War, slavery, and racial injustice in America.[21]

Clearly, creating a public memory is a multifaceted process that can be either organic, directed, or a combination of the two. One final issue historians must address when dealing with the interpretive hermeneutics of memory is the question of how much distance—chronological, ideological, or otherwise—is necessary between a historian and an event before a reasonable degree of objectivity may be reached. With reference to diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis, Charles W. Eagles has averred that “writing in the midst of a struggle can lead to a lack of scholarly detachment and an asymmetrical approach” that falls short of the objective detachment necessary for scholarly analysis.[22] Paradoxically, detachment from events at once lends a credible objectivity to historians, yet at the same time reduces their capacity as “witnesses” to an event. By comparing the Cold War and its definitive conclusion following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union with the Civil Rights Movement—an open-ended, ongoing struggle—Eagles argues that modern historians cannot approach the kind of objectivity necessary to discuss such a charged event dispassionately.[23] While this is a valid and important critique, it strains credibility by concluding, as Gaddis wrote, that “this is an abnormal way of writing history.”[24] In a postmodern sense, this is precisely the normal way of writing history, since dispassionate objectivity is theoretically impossible no matter one’s chronological or ideological detachment from the subject. For the twenty-first-century historian, memory remains a compelling methodological structure with which to elucidate a more personal past.

Is it necessary for historians to reach a sort of “new” consensus history in order to reconcile all of the diverse and conflicting memories borne out of past events? This seems as unlikely as it is unfeasible. When using memory as a practical means of comprehending a historically relevant past, the retention of a multiplicity of viewpoints is both desirable and inevitable, and as a by-product, the fierce individuality of subjective memory accords with recent postmodern trends, whether historians wish to identify themselves with that movement or not. Race, region, chronological proximity to events, and varying degrees of privilege afforded by eye- and flesh-witness accounts all affect personal memory and the collective and institutional memories that follow. The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana quipped that “a creature without memory cannot discover the past; one without expectation cannot conceive a future.”[25] Although this aphorism is often distilled into clichés condemning those who do not “learn from the past” to historical repetition, Santayana understood that the entire bedrock of history consisted of the human ability to remember “what happened” and that the knowledge gained through this endeavor allows us to construct meaning out of these events. Ironically, the fragility of memory—as well as the fragility of human life—has made the historical apparatus of memory a distinctly subjective tool. Historians should not lament this non-positivistic approach, though. Santayana also conceded that “knowledge,” and thus memory “is not truth,” and within the postmodern historiographical context, this subjectivity may be a virtue and not a curse.[26] The past is, after all, lived individually, and therefore, interpreting it through the lens of individual memory may be as valid as many other methods.

[1] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994), 258.

[2] Ibid., 266.

[3] Ibid., 267.

[4] Yuval Noah Harari, “Armchairs, Coffee, and Authority: Eye-witnesses and Flesh-witnesses Speak about War, 1100-2000,” Journal of Military History 74, no. 1 (January 2010): 75 and passim.

[5] Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995), xii and 472.

[6] Nathaniel Fick, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 219.

[7] Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 261.

[8] Fick, One Bullet Away, 219.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Harari, “Armchairs, Coffee, and Authority: Eye-witnesses and Flesh-witnesses Speak about War, 1100-2000,” 57.

[11] Fick, One Bullet Away, 219.

[12] Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 307.

[13] Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 62-87.

[14] Rod Andrew, “‘My Children on the Field’: Wade Hampton Biography, and the Roots of the Lost Cause,” in Cimbala and Miller, eds., The Great Task Remaining Before Us: Reconstruction as America’s Continuing Civil War (forthcoming, Fordham, 2010), 17.

[15] Ibid., 17 and 23-24.

[16] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 179.

[17] In Matthew J. Grow, “The Shadow of the Civil War: A Historiography of Civil War Memory,” American Nineteenth Century History (Summer 2003): 77.

[18] Blight, Race and Reunion, 4.

[19] Ibid., 6-30.

[20] Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 297.

[21] Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (Syracuse, 1986), 112, quoted in Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 297.

[22] Charles W. Eagles, “Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era,” Journal of Southern History 66, no. 4 (November 2000): 815.

[23] Ibid.

[24] John Lewis Gaddis, “The New Cold War History: First Impressions,” in We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford and New York, 1997), 281-295, quoted in Eagles, “Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era,” 4.

[25] John McCormick, George Santayana: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988), 348.

[26] Ibid., 357

Friday, June 4, 2010

Physicality Understood Spiritually: The Pious Weeping of Margery Kempe

One of the most striking features of the autobiography of Margery Kempe is the outward manifestation of piety demonstrated most memorably through her continuous, unrestrained weeping. During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, mysticism and other more direct methods of communing with God arose, and Margery’s distinct manner of faithfulness reflects the shifting attitudes of this period. Her feelings toward this external expression of her faith vary throughout The Book from outright resistance to qualified approval to an actual desire that this weeping continue for the sake of Christ. Rather than serene, monkish piety, Margery’s was visceral and physical. Margery believed her tears were conferred upon her by God. Despite the fact that she regarded her weeping as a form of suffering, she acknowledged it as a gift because it reminded her of the continuous presence of God in her life. In the first mention of her weeping, Margery described the process as a form of “bodily penance” in which “our merciful Lord visited this creature with tears of contrition day by day.”[1] She expressed her penitence through this weeping, and at times it is clear that this process was between her and God alone. Margery defended herself from charges that “she was a false hypocrite” who “wept when in company for advantage and profit” by allowing a priest to examine these convulsive acts.[2] According to the priest, “she wept copiously” in the presence of no one “but himself and the clerk,” indicating that these paroxysms were not pretense but legitimate.[3]

By her own account, Margery’s weeping began as a form of atonement for sin, for it occurred primarily “when she contemplated her own wickedness,” but it soon transformed into a multipurpose act directed not only at herself but also those around her.[4] Her tears served a didactic purpose, reminding those who witnessed her own suffering of the suffering of Christ, who endured “hard strokes, bitter scourging and a shameful death at the last for me and all mankind, blessed may he be,” though she was adamant that her own suffering was “truly nothing” compared to what he suffered.[5] Similarly, Christ informed her in one of her visions that her pious weeping reiterated the sorrow of the Virgin, so Christ gave her “great cries and roarings, to make people afraid of the grace I put into you, in token that I wish that my mother’s sorrow be known through you, so that men and women might have more compassion of her sorrow that she suffered for me.”[6] By weeping both alone and in the presence of others, Margery’s hysterics developed a multiplicity of meanings, symbolizing both her personal communion with God and her desire to share this. However, while this morally instructive purpose existed, Margery was clearly uneasy with the boisterous and eruptive nature of her emotional outpourings. In one moment of despair, God informed her that “if you do not wish to suffer any more, I shall take it [her weeping] away from you,” to which she replied, “No, good lord, let me be at your will, and make me mighty and strong to suffer all that you ever wish me to suffer, and grant me meekness and patience as well.”[7]

Eventually, Margery not only accepted her weeping as God’s will, she embraced it as a form of his mercy and was “compelled to believe steadfastly, without any doubting, that it was God who spoke in her, and would be magnified in her for his own goodness and her profit, and the profit of many others.”[8] By the end of her autobiography, she became almost dependent upon these tears, as she was dependent upon God, “for she was sometimes so barren of tears for a day or sometimes half a day, and had such great pain for the desire that she had of them, that she would have given all this world, if it had been hers, for a few tears, or have suffered very great bodily pain to have got them…”[9] By equating her tears with the physical presence of God, Margery welcomed her odd form of piety by conceding “there was no savour nor sweetness except when she might weep.”[10] Margery recognized that her weeping was difficult to comprehend for many who witnessed it, but in the concluding passages of her first book, she stated that “what she understood physically was to be understood spiritually” by others.[11] For Margery, as well as for other mystics and religious lay people of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, piety was to be found in many different ways among diverse people and not merely in those individuals with the sanctioned piety of monasteries and convents.

[1] Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. B.A. Windeatt (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 34.

[2] Ibid., 48.

[3] Ibid., 120.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid., 168.

[6] Ibid., 223.

[7] Ibid., 158.

[8] Ibid., 242.

[9] Ibid., 240.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 261.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"The King's Administration of His Realm": Penance and Virtue in Jean de Joinville's Life of St. Louis

For a nobleman of the High Middle Ages, expressions of Christian faith and piety took on many forms. The rise in the political and economic importance of the feudal system and the spiritual importance of the clergy contributed to a stratified social structure in which “those who worked, those who prayed, and those who fought” each had a specific role to play.[1] Taking up the cross in an “armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem” connected the spiritual to the secular by creating a way in which the Christian noblemen of the Middle Ages could express their faith while at the same time maintaining their feudal obligations and status as bellatores.[2] These crusades reconciled the knights’ Christianity with their inclination toward violence and legitimized the use of force in the name of Christ.[3]

King Louis IX of France embodied the ideal of the virtuous Christian ruler by undertaking a Crusade from 1248 to 1254, following the example of so many Western European kings and emperors before him. However, according to Jean de Joinville, upon returning to France, Louis made a conscious effort to seek peace rather than war. For the king and his biographer Jean de Joinville, what was more important in defining his holiness and piety: the crusade in his earlier life or the steady rule he provided for France over the next two decades? If it was the crusade, why was Joinville so keen on emphasizing the devotion of King Louis to his subjects in France? If it was his munificence as a ruler, why dedicate nearly three quarters of the Life of Saint Louis to the crusade which occupied fewer than six years of his forty-four year reign?
Louis’s distress over the failure of the Seventh Crusade may have led him to a more penitential life after his return to France. Shortly after his landing at Hyères in Provence, a Franciscan friar named Brother Hugues preached to King Louis and implored him to “rule his people in justice and equity that he may ever be worthy of God’s love and that God may not take his kingdom from him so long as he live[d].”[4] For the remainder of his reign, according to Joinville, Louis lived a pious life and ruled admirably, especially in his treatment of the poor, his humility toward his subjects, and his governmental responsibilities. He demonstrated austerity “after [his] return from overseas…[and] lived with such a disregard for worldly vanities that he never wore ermine, or squirrel fur, nor scarlet cloth nor were his stirrups or his spurs gilded.”[5] On one occasion, when Joinville informed Louis that he did not wash the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday, Louis expressed his concern, and admonished Joinville that he “should not disdain to perform such an act, seeing that our Lord had done so.”[6] The king, “who made it his chief concern to find out how the common people were governed, and their rights and interests protected,” commanded respect for them in his ordinances, ruling that “bailiffs, sheriffs, mayors, and all others…will do justice to all, without respect of persons, whether poor or rich…”[7]

Similarly, King Louis was conciliatory in affairs of state. In spite of his councilors’ protests, King Louis made concessions to the King of England and returned to him “so large a part of the territory” that he “and his predecessors had won from him” that his barons considered it a loss.[8] Louis claimed that he was “not bound to surrender [it] either to himself or his heirs” but did so “rather as a means of establishing a bond of love between [his] children and [the English king’s].”[9] In his defense, he only asserted that he wished not “to be at enmity with our Lord” and invoked the words of Christ, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”[10]

However, if Louis truly did experience this sort of volte-face in his later life, one important question remains: If Louis’s penance took the form of non-violent acts, why did Louis attempt another crusade late in his life? Joinville certainly did not approve, and he refused to participate—a Crusade was a way to serve God, not the king, and Joinville told Louis that “if [he] wanted to do what was pleasing to God, [he] should remain here to help defend the people on his estates.”[11] It was also bad for France, which had enjoyed peace and prosperity under Louis. After he left, “the state of the kingdom [had] done nothing but go from bad to worse.”[12] By Joinville’s account, Louis simply possessed an authentically generous personality “right from the time of his childhood” irrespective of his deeds on crusade, and his “compassion for the poor and suffering” was borne out of this moral fortitude.[13] Like most medieval rulers, Louis maintained very different standards for treating with Christians and non-Christians. Louis refused even to speak to a Christian convert to Islam while in captivity in Egypt, and while on his deathbed, he instructed his son “to beware of undertaking a war against any Christian prince without careful deliberation; if it has to be undertaken see that you do no harm to the Holy Church or to persons who have done you no injury.”[14] While the final two decades of Louis’s reign may have been penitential for the failure of a crusade, it was not penitential for the conduct of the crusade. By embarking upon a second one late in his life, Louis attempted to fulfill a lifelong obligation to his faith that remained incomplete despite his virtuous behavior as ruler of France.

[1] C. Warren Hollister and Judith M. Bennett, Medieval Europe: A Short History, 9th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 157-158 and 166. Hollister calls this “tripartite” structure “bad sociology” but “good ideology.” It was created by the clergy to bring order to the nebulous social structure, and it reinforced the “mutual obligations” of its members.

[2] Caroline Smith, ed. and trans., Chronicles of the Crusades (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), xii.

[3] Ibid., xxi.

[4] Jean de Joinville, The Life of Saint Louis, in Chronicles of the Crusades, ed. and trans. M.R.B. Shaw (London: Penguin Classics, 1963), 328.

[5] Ibid., 331.

[6] Ibid., 336.

[7] Ibid., 337-341.

[8] Ibid., 334.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 335. See Matt. 5:9.

[11] Ibid., 346.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 262 and 342.

[14] Ibid., 348.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Picking Up My Cosmic Garments at the LOST and Found: Back in the Bardo, or "The Twenty-Eight Or So People You Meet in Heaven"

"The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason." -Benjamin Franklin

LOST, in part, was an exploration of the tensions between seemingly contradictory notions: reason and faith dominated the first two seasons, fate and free will the next few, good and evil in the last. These dualistic schemata, of course, have contributed to conflict in countless myths, legends, and works of literature in the Western canon, and Sunday night, LOST added to this in its weird, love-festy, after-party, fetishistic sort of way (I half-expected the last shot to fade to white with the word "FOUND" scrolling toward me). The sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes ambiguous symbolism of the show is one thing that kept me thinking about it and coming back to it week after week. The forced and unwarranted simplicity of the good versus evil storyline that characterized the final season, while it had come to the fore only recently, had been backgrounded since the pilot, when Locke sat down with Walt, holding one white and one black backgammon piece, and explained that "there are two is light, one is dark." (What we thought was superficial racial harmony was in fact foreshadowing the great ideological struggle of the later seasons?) I had held out hope, as late as the next-to-last episode that the Jacob/Man in Black conflict was a ruse, a ploy designed to lull us into a false sense of complacency, after which it would be revealed that neither were truly good or evil, that they were each manipulating the survivors in their own way, a la Sirrus and Achenar at the end of Myst (Cuse and Lindelof have remarked how heavily this game influenced their story-telling). Not only was I wrong, but to add insult to injury, they essentially placed the mantra of reason in the mouth of the evilest character on the show: "There are very smart men among us," the Man in Black says, "who are very curious about how things work." What is the lesson here? That trying to reason through things is inferior to having faith? The Jack/Locke dynamic in the first two seasons was so excellent precisely because they interpreted the island oppositely, yet both were very easy to to identify with. Unfortunately, for me, this dynamic was completely ruined in the finale. On this level, the show succeeded for so long because the writers openly and honestly depicted the real-life tensions of nearly irreconcilable conceptions without consciously favoring one or the other or suggesting that one was more powerful or viable than the other. This changed with the finale, as faith alone triumphed, and one of the principal messages of the show seems to have been - to use the now trite and overused phrases of the show - that, by "let[ting] go" of reason, we can "move on" to faith. This is at best simple moralizing and at worst intellectual dishonesty. While I found the finale to be emotionally satisfying, I found it to be extremely unsatisfying on a cerebral level. Indeed, what we got was, in the words of one unforgiving critic, "a prom of the dead in a chapel of love where everybody is farting rainbows, where all the primary Oceanic 815 survivors are redeemed, where a loving 'Dad' opens a Spielbergian door of light to the greater beyond." As the old adage goes, "truth is stranger than fiction." Unfortunately, LOST gave us a comforting fiction. I'll take genuine truth, discovered through reason, any day.

"I cannot allow your ignorance, however great, to take precedence over my knowledge, however small." -William James

I fully expected, nay, predicted (the one I made that actually came true), that the series would not really answer the major questions that have so obsessed hardcore LOST fans for the last six years: What was the source of the island's power? What was the meaning behind the numbers? What was the smoke monster made of? What caused the castaways time traveling? And so on. These were questions that could only be answered intrinsically within the show's mythology, not extrinsically through some overwrought pseudo-scientific borrowing from quantum mechanics or string theory. Such an ending would be lost (no pun intended) on the average American television viewer. Despite my love of science fiction, I fully braced myself for the fact that this is not how questions would be answered. But, in one sense, the writers betrayed the entire mythology of the series by implying that these were the wrong questions to ask in the first place. In the end, the moral of the series is that the metaphysical is more important than the physical, the spiritual is more important than the material, and hoping for answers through faith is more important than achieving them through reason. This is unacceptable to me, not because I think faith is, of its own accord, unsatisfactory, but because it is an entirely subjective experience, that gives meaning only individually - thus, while it may "answer" personal questions about the nature of reality, it is not a suitable way of attaining the type of knowledge that, I feel, LOST claimed it was offering. It seems as though Jack's entire character arc consisted of relinquishing reason, being a "man of science," and becoming a "man of faith." It is certainly difficult to disagree with that interpretation if we remember of his conversation with Locke in the first season - in which Locke asks, "Why do you find it so hard to believe?" to which Jack replies, "Why do you find it so easy?!" - with Jack's conversation with the Man in Black in the last episode, in which he tells him that Locke was right about everything from the beginning and says he wishes he'd had a chance to tell him.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -Arthur C. Clarke

Along with faith and reason, fate and free will, good and evil, we might add fantasy and science fiction to the list of strange dualities. These, too, are overlapping genres and creating false distinctions between them may be ill-conceived, but there are some significant differences that created difficulties in attempting to view LOST as true science fiction. For quite a while, LOST did a wonderful job at skillfully melding traditional science fiction tropes, epitomized by the Dharma Initiative, the effects of electromagnetism, and time travel, with typical elements of fantasy. However, LOST always maintained an air of intrinsic plausibility, a world which had a set of specific explanatory rules that did not defy logic in any metaphysical sort of way. In a crude way, one major distinction between science fiction and fantasy is that, in science fiction,"things" are "explained." That is, elements central to the story are not usually taken as given in a particular fictional universe: Transporters are "explained" in Star Trek; magic, in The Lord of the Rings, is not. This is not a hard and fast rule - midicholorians aside, the Force is never really explained in Star Wars, for example, yet it exists within a universe in which things, more or less, are presumed to have a technological explanation. (Star Wars is often called "space fantasy" for this very reason.) In the words of literary critic Gwyneth Jones, science in science fiction
[has] nothing in particular to say about the subject matter, which may be just about anything so long as the formal conventions of future dress are observed. It means only, finally, that whatever phenomenon or speculation is treated in the fiction, there is the claim that it is going to be studied at some point scientifically - that is objectively, rigorously; in a controlled environment. The business of the writer is to set up the equipment in the laboratory of the mind such that the 'what if' in question is at once isolated and provided with the exact nutrients it needs. (Jones, Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction, and Reality, 1999: 4)
Adam Roberts clarifies this by writing that the "truth" of the science in science fiction is unimportant, so long as "the scientific method, the logical working through of a particular premise" is maintained (Roberts, Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom, 2000: 10). For a time, LOST did exactly this. The Dharma initiative is nearly ludicrous in our reality, but within the fictional universe of LOST, it existed as a prime example of the inductive method at work, of cognition through objective reasoning. In the end, however, LOST seemed to eschew even the idea of cognitively plausible ending adhering to the self-contained rules of its universe, opting instead for a touchy-feely, huggy, "everybody-dies-and-goes-to-heaven" ending. To be sure, plenty of science fiction has attempted these quasi-religious resolutions. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its enigmatic and equivocal star child, or Tarkovsky's Solaris, with its highly figurative house on an island, stand as primary examples. But Kubrick used this in a symbolic way, to signify the mental evolution of mankind as we reached out into the cosmos. Not so, LOST. "Everything that's ever happened to you has been real," Christian tells Jack in the final scene. The finale was literal, one-dimensional, and attempted to depict an irrational world devoid of any of the deeper symbolism that might have redeemed this convoluted, lazily-constructed resolution.

Perhaps mirroring the increasing binarism of the show, the chatter on the Internet seemed to revolved around the false dichotomy of "plot versus characters." While one variety of fan extolled the virtues of the multi-layered, complex characters, the other lauded the impressive scope and depth of its mythologically-driven, part science fiction, part fantasy, story arc. To me, these have always been false choices. The characters worked and were interesting because of the context of the island-story, while it was worth going down the rabbit hole of that twisted plot to begin with because of their intricate relationships. The writers have noted on several occasions that they originally envisioned this whole epic as a character-driven drama, and while I agree that that was what made the story compelling, I feel like attempting to separate them from the plot is pointless. Each is what made the other work, and the almost disrespectful lack of denouement in the finale left me wondering why they'd even created such an elaborate and compelling narrative architecture in the first place.

"The external world and the inner world are...only two sides of the same fabric, in which the threads and all forces and all events, of all forms of consciousness and their objects, are woven into an inseparable net of endless, mutually connected relations." -Lama Anagarika Govinda

What about the actual finale itself? At risk of sounding absurdly obvious, the finale was filled with mytho-logical and religious symbolism, most, though not all of it, Christian. Jack represented a Christ-figure, complete with wounds (or at least dripping blood) on his hands and feet, stab in the side, who eventually is reunited with his (the?) father (named Christian Shepherd, no less) in a happy little church where all of the people who've ever meant anything to Jack are all there waiting for him so they can all be ushered into the light. (Does this make Jacob like Holy Spirit? I thought he was supposed to represent, you know, Jacob.) The power of the island, while never explained, seemed to represent some sort of forbidden knowledge, a forbidden fruit which, if eaten, er, turns you into a smoke monster. The last season even came with its own holy grail, drinking from which gave one the powers of Jacob. Despite this very Christian interpretation, the reunion in the church in the final scene existed somewhere in the borderland between schmaltzy multi-denominational inclusiveness (note the cross, crescent, Star of David, Dharma wheel, Om, and Taijitu on the stained-glass window) and subjective "it-doesn't-matter-what-you-believe-in-as-long-as-you-have-faith." Even more galling was that the writers had been promising the theorists since season one that the overall twist was not that survivors were in purgatory, and lo and behold, the flash-sideways universe turned out to be a sort of purgatory where the castaways were required to atone for their past misdeeds (by reliving them properly?) before remembering their actual lives and being ushered into the next world. (OK, technically the writers were telling the truth, since the theory floating around was that the island was purgatory, which in fact turned out to be little more than a Hitchcockian MacGuffin). The purgatory theory actually works much better, not in the Abrahamic context, but the Dharmic one, in which the castaways are all part of the same jati of souls connected for eternity - and through multiple lives - and are returning to the bardo of Tibetan Buddhism, a liminal or transitional state between life and the next stage: luminosity of the true nature of the universe followed by karmic oneness with that nature. (This also provides another interesting LOST allusion, since the most famous English translation of the Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was made by Ram Dass, nee Richard Alpert.) Of course, in the Buddhist tradition, since the castaways were all deeply flawed individuals, they would likely be reincarnated where they would all meet up again in seemingly coincidental ways made possible by some sort of cosmic synchronicity. But this is just one interpretation. The point is that the island reality, in the very words of Desmond Hume in the finale, "doesn't really matter." Unfortunately, it mattered to a lot of us...

"Is it not time that Christian mythology, instead of being wiped out, was understood symbolically for once?"
-Carl Jung

I'm having a hard time describing my feelings about why I so disliked the way things wrapped up without sounding anti-religious. I'm honestly not anti-religion, I simply cannot abide when people cannot explain something and they attribute it to God. This is more insulting to religion, as it relegates the concept of God to a mere epiphenomenal explanation of the increasing smaller details of existence. I think religion, in its symbolic and psychologically functional way, is extraordinarily important, but when literalism and dogmatism become the foundation for belief, it undermines everything that makes faith important in the first place. What made the ending of LOST so infuriating is that the writers had heretofore done such a great a job of demonstrating the tensions between faith and reason, while not really favoring one over the other. They simply acknowledged that these interpretations coexisted in an uneasy way, that the human condition necessitates reasonable men having to come to grips with the irrational, and men of faith having to deal with doubt. With the finale, the writers reneged on this approach, and said "faith trumps all." As one blogger wrote, "Do you want to believe in the supernatural or in science? That's the point they've always been trying to make. It doesn't matter if you believe in science or faith, or both, just believe in something. We can never know for sure why things are the way they are, we can only put them in the context of our own experiences and understand it the best we can." Maybe... Perhaps I'm being too hard on this show. I'm trying really hard not to let one episode ruin, what to me, was the second best show of the decade (behind Arrested Development). I really did like the bulk of the series, even if it did get clunky and unfulfilling in the final season. After some reflection, the flash-sideways, purgatory universe reminded me a bit more of the nexus from Star Trek: Generations, a place of great joy where we got free do-overs for those thing we'd done wrong in life. But as Kirk said of this purgatory, contradicting both Desmond and Christian, "None of this matters. Because it isn't real." Indeed. LOST promised us the cosmic importance of the power of myth; what it delivered was hackneyed bromides on the power of faith.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sin and "Pure Intention": The Wills of Abelard and Heloise

Given the personal calamities that Abelard and Heloise endured, it is understandable that they attempted to explicate their thoughts and actions in the context of sin. Abelard subscribed to the “ethic of pure intention,” meaning that the will of the sinner determined the sin rather than by the act itself.[1] In his Scito te ipsum, Abelard asserted that “our actions must be judged good or bad solely through the spirit in which they are performed,” and this interpretation of sin relocated the importance of moral transgression from the perpetration of sin to mind of the sinner.[2] Throughout their correspondence, both Abelard and Heloise wrestled with the implications of their sinful actions, but more importantly, they contended with the implications of their will to commit these acts. Paradoxically, Heloise considered herself both “wholly guilty” though also “wholly innocent” because she conceded that she had physically sinned with Abelard but maintained that her intentions were pure.[3] Like Abelard, Heloise affirmed that “it is not the deed but the intention of the doer” that defined sin, and she averred that “justice” must take these purposes into account.[4] The seemingly contradictory position of simultaneous guilt and innocence mirrored Heloise’s own situation at convent of Paraclete, where she exhibited piety through her actions while inwardly experiencing only hypocrisy.[5] If sin was in the intention, as Heloise and Abelard believed, then Heloise’s anguish lay in the continual process of sinning through her “lewd visions” and “fantasies” of Abelard.[6] Again, the will was more important than the act: Heloise emphasized that “virtue belong[ed] not to the body but the soul,” and claimed that she could “win praise in the eyes of men but deserve[d] none before God, who searches our hearts and loins and sees in our darkness.”[7]

Although he upheld the distinction between will and action, Abelard believed that his castration allowed for greater exculpation for his sins. Superficially, with Abelard’s desire to sin forcibly mitigated, he seems to have been liberated from the “pure intention” that defined his lust. The castration was performed against his will, but the effect that it had on his soul was beneficial: “I do not incur blame, I escape it. I deserve death and gain life. I am summoned and reprieved; I persist in crime and am pardoned against my will…Truly, the Lord takes thought for me. I will go then and declare how much the Lord has done for my soul.”[8] Did castration remove the will to sin from Abelard, or did it remain? The fact that he “persisted in crime” suggests that the will to sin remained despite his physical state, but Abelard also argued that he “had been freed…by God’s mercy [from] the power to commit…[the] sin” of lust.[9] In this way, Abelard, like Heloise, retained a position of simultaneous guilt and innocence.

Unlike Heloise, Abelard’s penance occurred in one excruciating instance as opposed to the enduring penance of Heloise. Since she believed her sin to be interior, Heloise’s acts of contrition were interior as well, involving personal guilt and shame over her past offenses. She directly compared the brevity of Abelard’s punishment, which he “suffered in the body for a time,” with the protraction of her own, which she endured “throughout [her] life in contrition of the mind.”[10] Heloise implied that Abelard’s inability to sin did not necessarily immunize him from the will to do so: “How can it be called repentance for sin, however great the mortification of the flesh,” she asked, “if the mind still retains the will to sin and is on fire with old desires?”[11] Heloise recognized that, for both of them, the intention to sin remained despite their inability to commit the act. To explain this discrepancy, Abelard recast their relationship as “lust, not love,” which “brought [them] both to sin.”[12] This acknowledgment of lust accorded with Abelard’s notions of sinfulness as “pure intention” because both continued to sin—and pay for these sins—well after the acts were long past.

[1] Betty Radice, ed. and trans. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), xxii.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., 263-64 n.10

[3] Letter 2, Heloise to Abelard, in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, ed. and trans. Betty Radice (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 53.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Radice, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, xxx, and Letter 4, Heloise to Abelard, 69-70. Heloise referred to herself as a “hypocrite” multiple times throughout Letter 4 not only because of her desire for Abelard, but also because she felt that she committed to the convent for the wrong reasons.

[5] Letter 4, Heloise to Abelard, 68.

[7] Ibid., 69. See Psalm 7:10-17.

[8] Letter 5, Abelard to Heloise, 83.

[9] Peter Abelard, Historia Calamitatum, 36.

[10] Letter 4, Heloise to Abelard, 67.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Letter 5, Abelard to Heloise, 86.