Boethius: Philosopher of the Imagination

Acolyte (noun): A. A person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. B. An assistant, follower, or disciple. [Pronounced ake-lite]

Boethian (adjective): Pertaining to the philosophical thought of Boethius. [Pronounced Bo-eth-ius]

Who the heck is Boethius, and why do I cheekily claim to be his acolyte? Hopefully this post will shed some light on these mysteries that have doubtlessly plagued you for so long.

“Boethius” isn’t a name that has recognition among most people today who aren’t medievalists, but you can’t hardly spend five minutes at an academic medieval conference without hearing his name. Even if you’ve never read Dante (author of the Divine Comedy), Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales), C.S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia), or J.R.R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of the Rings), all of these writers held in common a deep appreciation for Boethius and even regarded him as a model for various aspects of their imaginative creations. The Old English King Alfred and Queen Elizabeth the First both translated him from Latin into the English of their periods, and in fact, in the medieval period, Boethius was used exactly how I use him in my classroom: as a framework for interpreting literature.

The life of Boethius occurred during the failing days of the Roman Empire. In the year 410, Rome had been sacked by Visigoths, and this precipitated Rome extracting their military occupation from England. When Boethius was born in the year 480, his homeland of Italy was under the rule of the Gothic warlord King Odoacer, so Roman political power had already significantly diminished. In 493, when Boethius was a young teenager and being educated to be a senator by his aristocratic stepfather, the Ostrogothic warlord King Theodoric killed Odoacer with a sword to the stomach while the two leaders were having dinner together. Boethius would live the rest of his life with Theodoric as his king, which would turn out to be bad both for Boethius’s and Theodoric’s health.

Even though Theodoric was an Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe that had migrated from the northern territories, he appreciated Roman culture and recognized the talent and influence of Boethius. In another post I discuss the basics of the liberal arts philosophy; Boethius was a primary figure in establishing what the liberal arts education would actually look like in the classroom. There were seven fundamental liberal arts. The first three arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, were referred to as the trivium, because as the comprehensive arts of language, learning all three was necessary for further education. Grammar taught correct use of language; logic taught how to order language for sound reasoning, and rhetoric taught how to make good grammatical and logical language persuasive to specific audiences. The next four arts were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Arithmetic was more than the basic subject we think of it now – it was the philosophy of number, and music was the philosophy of number expressed through time. Geometry was the art of studying number expressed through space, and astronomy was the art of studying number expressed through both space and time. So although it certainly involved studying the movements of the heavens, astronomy was a precursor of what we would call physics today. Boethius and his friend Cassiodorus were not only trained to the limits of the knowledge in those disciplines in Rome, but wanted to expand that knowledge further, especially by translating and commenting on liberal arts works found in Greek. Boethius wrote treatises on all three arts of the trivium, including a commentary on Aristotle’s On interpretation that concerned the interpretation of language signs, Aristotle’s and other Greek writers’ works on logic, and contributed original thought to rhetoric in the field of what was called topical argumentation, which was the discovery of the best approach of discussion for a given subject matter. Boethius also wrote a treatise on arithmetic and one on music, the second called On the Fundamentals of Music. We know from letters by Cassiodorus that Boethius had written a textbook on geometry, though unfortunately that was lost. And though there is no indication that Boethius wrote on astronomy, many things he says in The Consolation of Philosophy and other books suggest that he had studied the art carefully. In the liberal arts viewpoint, the different arts were not just separate boxes of knowledge about unrelated subject matter – they believed that the arts needed to be distinguished so that they could be studied clearly, but studying first the trivium, the arts of thought and communication, and then the quadrivium, the arts of conceiving order in the world around you, were necessary stages to learn before entering into larger fields of inquiry such as theology or practical efforts such as politics. The academic life of the mind was designed to prepare you for the public life of action. Boethius followed this path, even though he didn’t really want to be a politician, but his parents, who died when he was young, were aristocratic, and his stepfather Symmachus was also a public figure who had been preparing Boethius for the public life from the moment he adopted him. Symmachus loved Boethius enough that he even had Boethius marry his own daughter, with whom Boethius would have two sons.

In addition to his liberal arts textbooks and scholarship, Boethius had written five theological tracts, two on the Trinity, one on the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, one on the relationship of God’s goodness to the goodness of the world, and a final that was a basic statement of Christian faith. We can see here Boethius working to understand the relationship of philosophy and theology, and his conviction that philosophy could help people to better understand complicated aspects of theological doctrine. In Boethius’s view, when trained by the liberal arts, philosophical inquiry could be seen as bringing structural clarity to the revelations of Scripture, a view he had learned from reading the Church Father Augustine. But his theological beliefs was a source of political discomfort, because his king, Theodoric, was an Arian, as most of the Gothic tribes were, which means they rejected the Trinitiarian theology of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, believing that Jesus was not fully divine. But despite their theological differences and the tension in Theodoric, as an outsider, ruling over a people which Boethius had been born into the ruling class of, Boethius still accepted Theodoric’s offer to try and build a better Italy, one where both Romans and Goths could be educated and civilized. In 511, Theodoric made Boethius the consul of Rome, and in this role Boethius made himself some enemies among other Roman senators, because he defended farmers and other laborers from high taxes and unjust political persecution. Theodoric used Boethius to investigate a case of counterfeited coins, asked him to handpick a harpist to send as a token of good will to the Emperor in the East, and even called on his skill as a clock maker (both sundials and water clocks) for political purposes. Theodoric was essentially using Boethius both as an ambassador to keep up good relations with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and as a cultural figurehead to reconcile Romans and Goths living in Italy. He made this position official in 522, when he named Boethius the Master of Offices, the highest honor Theodoric could have given him, a position which gave Boethius tremendous authority to promote his project of studying, preserving, and teaching Roman culture and expanding it with Greek learning. That same year, Theodoric further honored Boethius by making both of his sons consul of Rome. Favored by king and country alike, Boethius had become something of a celebrity – but as we know all too well today, that isn’t necessarily such a good thing.

A senator named Albinus, one of Boethius’s friends, was accused of a treasonous plot to overthrow the King and bring the Eastern emperor’s rule back to Italy. Boethius, in a misplaced but loyal act of rhetorical flourish, testified that if Albinus was guilty, then even he could be accused and so could the senate – the point being of course that such a charge was preposterous. This verbal gaffe was Boethius’s undoing. Immediately his political enemies, bitter over the obstacle he had been as consul to their agendas, came out of the woodwork and accused Boethius of treason – ironically using as evidence his role as an ambassador, which Theodoric had assigned him to, as a sign of his treason. They threw every charge at him they possibly could – they even resorted to accusing him of practicing magic, a standard charge levied against intellectuals cloistered away in libraries reading old books. Of course, Boethius thought the charge preposterous enough that we find him joking about it in The Consolation of Philosophy. In spite of his own feelings about it, though, Boethius’s commitment to Trinitarian theology, his nostalgic affection for all things Roman, and the prospective danger he posed if he should set himself against the king, as popular as he was, proved enough incentive to kindle the spark of Theodoric’s royal jealousy into an inferno. Even though he refused to confess his guilt when subjected to the torture of having a rope tied around his face to the point that his eyes are described by Roman historians as bulging out, Boethius was stripped of his political power and thrown in prison without so much as a trial.

With a single gust of political wind, Boethius went from star of the show to a cast aside political pawn. As he sat in his jail cell, reflecting on his commitment to the welfare of the very kingdom that had so unjustly treated him, upon his commitment to a supposedly loving God who had allowed him to be the victim of such obvious injustice, and especially his dedication to the liberal arts education that had fueled both of those commitments and led to this unhappy imprisonment, Boethius was thrown into a true dark night of the soul. His freedom, his political influence, his access to his family, his plans for contributing to the Roman intellectual tradition – all of it was taken away in what seemed like a stroke of bad luck. How could life be so capricious? He certainly would have been justified to simply mourn his fate in his cell, or to perhaps pen an angry invective against his wrongdoers. Instead, Boethius drew upon the worldview he had been building his whole life, and funneled the sum of his liberal arts education, his theological insights, and his political experience to write The Consolation of Philosophy, unquestionably the masterpiece of the sixth century and one of the finest pieces of literature in the period of late antiquity. To produce such a work in the face of such adversity strikes me as a life well lived.

Shortly after Boethius completed The Consolation of Philosophy, sometime in 524 or 525, he was executed by King Theodoric. Because his political fears were motivated by paranoia about a Trinitarian plot to reunite the Western and Eastern Churches, Theodoric’s killing of Boethius is often interpreted as, to some extent, an example of religious persecution. Naturally, after Boethius was killed, Theodoric’s paranoia only exploded – because after all, he had just had killed Rome’s favorite son right before Rome’s eyes, a bloody execution at thirty strokes of the sword. So he went on a rampage, taking down Boethius’s stepfather Symmachus, as well as Pope John the First, probably the person for whom Boethius had written his theological writings for. This shocked writers of the day in the East like Procopius, who had enormous respect for Boethius, and harmed relationships between Theodoric and the Eastern Byzantian empire. A year or two after Boethius died, Theodoric himself died during a massive bout of diarrhea. Perhaps he was being given the same divine affliction that killed Arius, the founder of his Arian beliefs, or more likely Theodoric’s political enemies had finally caught up with him, poisoning him to avenge people like Boethius who had died in the wake of his unhinged paranoia.

The Consolation of Philosophy thus became a favorite text for people subjected to religious or political persecution, and it also became popular with monarchs who wished to distinguish themselves as good – sort of like hey, we read Boethius, so we’re good kings – not like that Theodoric fellow! It’s a challenging text to read, all the more impressive when we consider the physically uncomfortable and mentally distressing circumstances under which Boethius wrote the Consolation, because he didn’t know at the time whether he would be imprisoned for life, exiled, or executed. Writing in the carefully trained Latin of a Roman liberal arts philosopher, Boethius designed the text as a prosimetrum, which is a piece of writing that alternates between prose and poetry. If you read The Hobbit, for example, that book is also a prosimetrum because when its characters recite poetry, the story shifts from regular prose into poetry. Boethius’s Consolation is unusual because of how strict its prosimetric style is: there are 39 passages of prose and 39 passages of poetry, one after the other. This structure is important to pay attention to because it is significant for Boethius’s understanding of literature, which is one of the things we are trying to understand this. Notice that most of the poems are dialogue, which means they are a response of a character to a situation or to another character. The first book begins with poetry; books two through four all begin in prose and end in poetry, while the fifth and final book begins and ends in prose. It’s also important to think about whose voice we are supposed to imagine when each prose or poetry section is under way, and with the poetry in particular. The Consolation is mostly a conversation between the imprisoned Boethius and Lady Philosophy, a personification of the subject he had studied and valued for most of his life. We begin with imagining Boethius writing a poem, and then Lady Philosophy stops him from writing and has her speak with him – although this conversation will of course actually happen in the real Boethius’s writing. She recites 35 of the other 39 poems; of the remaining three, one will be a description of the narrator telling the reader about his mental state when he first interacts with Lady Philosophy, and the other two will be Boethius’s attempts to express his distress to her as they discuss difficult concepts like political injustice and the relationship between God’s knowledge and free will.

Even though this is a philosophical text, it’s one that is highly imaginative – Lady Philosophy is a personification, which is a product of imagination, since of course philosophy is not a strikingly beautiful woman who can sing, play music, and talk about how beautiful nature is. She has a depth of personality even while she represents her intellectual namesake, and she will even create a personification of Lady Fortune. She invites Boethius to use his imagination in relationship to historical figures, philosophical concepts, and his own circumstances, and in particular seems to disapprove of the use of imagination we see in his initial poem. This means that the poetry she recites is, in a sense, poetry approved by the philosophical imagination, or another way to put it: her poetry is an example of the type of imagination which Boethius the author thinks is appropriate to being philosophical, which is why Lady Philosophy recites them to the distressed prisoner. Boethius is a master of the philosophical poetic mode, and is a cornerstone figure to contemplate how literature and philosophy can speak to each other, and so speak all the more powerfully to us. That’s why I think he deserves at least one acolyte, performing the ceremony of philosophical imagination necessary to open a window into his life and thought.

This is a partial transcript, with some alterations, of a lecture I gave on Boethius’s life and his final work, The Consolation of Philosophy. The recorded version of the lecture is here:

The Creativity of Compelling Imitation: Reflections on The Sword of Shannara

With the third installment of Terry Brooks’s concluding Shannara sub-series having seen publication more than a month ago and the fourth and final to come out next year, his devoted fans are treated to a narrative reflection on the grand tapestry of an imagined, fantastic future in which our imaginations have dwelt since the publication of The Sword of Shannara in 1977. Four decades later, Brooks has written 23 books and a graphic novel in the Shannara world, plus the masterful Word and Void trilogy and its linking material, 5 pre-Shannara novels. One more Shannara novel will conclude the timeline (and Brooks has already written it), so there are 33 books which all inhabit the same mythic world of adventures born from the pen of one writer of true stories about Elves. There are, besides, short stories and a novella as well. This is a staggering legacy, and one I have appreciated since an early age. Indeed, I committed to reading every Brooks book that saw publication long ago, and intend to continue doing so. But as we reach the end of the Shannara saga, I have decided that I would do with Shannara what I did with Lord of the Rings: I want to reread each book and blog about the value of its narrative for developing the craft of imagination.

And there is nowhere else better to start but the beginning, The Sword of Shannara. I want to begin here for many reasons, but the most pressing one is to correct what I think is a critical injustice that was done to Brooks concerning his literary achievement. Because Brooks was influenced by Tolkien, Sword was maligned. (Never mind that every fantasy writer was influenced by Tolkien and, I would argue, every writer, whether fantasy or not, ought to be – because every writer ought to be influenced by the classics.) In fact, Sword has been so maligned by critics for similarity to the plot of The Lord of the Rings that it was skipped over by the writers of The Shannara Chronicles. I don’t blame them for the decision, but The Sword of Shannara should not be skipped over, especially not because it imitates Tolkien. In fact, I shall argue that its imitation of Tolkien is precisely a reason why it should be read. But it is more than an imitation, and I will show that the differences between LotR & Sword are not incidental but profound, differences that actually stem from Brooks’s careful reading of Tolkien and pursuit of his own artistic intentions. And, finally, I will say a word about Brooks’s artistic intentions as he put them himself. These three streams will come together, I hope, to create a worthy homage to the legacy of Sword, which gave rise to the captivating world of the Four Lands and the drama of the Shannara narratives which have made it come alive. And more particularly, I hope to show that an authentic Tolkienesque philosophy of the value of fantasy literature can be deeply integrated with a love for The Sword of Shannara and its impressive legacy.

  1. Imitation: The Essence of Imagination

When John Batchelor wrote in his opinion piece “Tolkien Again” that Brooks “unabashedly copies” Tolkien in The Sword of Shannara, he was not paying a compliment. Much severer statements have been made, both by Batchelor and by others, and the subtitle of Batchelor’s article alludes to a common primary gripe that these imitators “infest a morbid but moneyed land.” Greedy swindlers they are, with their grasping hands, writing stories about elves and dragons just for the money. Indeed, commercialization always bothers the aesthetic community, and justifiably so, because commercialization can, and often does, lead to bastardization.

To be fair, Batchelor himself dismissed that it was the financial gain of the writers that generated his ire at their Tolkienesque imitation. And in truth, plenty of excellent writers go undeservedly ignored – even famous ones are under read. How many fantasy readers know their Homer, Virgil, and Dante, let alone their William Morris, George MacDonald, and Lord Dunsany? But here’s another question: okay, let’s say you wanted to write a novel just to make money. How many times, with that devious plot in mind, can you get yourself on the New York Times Bestseller list? How many times, out of sheer greed, could you get yourself to write a book a year? Can you really muster the intestinal fortitude to invest in writing a 500-page manuscript, with no certainty of whether it will be well received whatsoever, merely out of avarice? Even if the motivation of money is enough to sustain the effort, it cannot be enough to explain the effect. That is to say, being motivated by money doesn’t guarantee you’ll make any. So there must be something going on in Brooks that gets him the readers, and even if his novels aren’t your cup of tea, aren’t you interested in why? Writing it off as merely a desire for more stuff like Tolkien doesn’t really explain it – because why do we want more stuff like what we already have? Why does imitation capture the imagination so powerfully? And what makes Brooks’s efforts at imitations so incredibly wonderful? (A look at the epigraphs of the Landover series will let you know that Brooks has a delightfully wide palatte for lovely, creative imitations of a wide variety of fantasy writers. And of course the Landover Series is incredibly original even in the midst of its most clear parallels with precursors.)

Tolkien, as it turns out, had something to say about this. When writing advice to his son Christopher about how to approach difficulties in his life, Tolkien said, “I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for  start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief” (66). Imitation in writing here provides both a start in one’s own writing projects as well as a means to escape difficult situations. Furthermore, he writes on the conception of Middle Earth in another place, “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama” (145). Wielding, in other words, imitation. In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien muses over the difficulty of unravelling “the intricately knotted and ramified history of the branches on the Tree of Tales” (19), comparing this legacy to a vast “Cauldron, where so many potent things lie simmering agelong on the fire, among them Love-at-first-sight” (30). The Cauldron is the vast storage of beautiful material for imitation into which dip “the Cooks,” who “do not dip in the ladle quite blindly. Their selection is important” (31). This notion of earlier stories as recipe books makes imitation not adjunct to but essential to the process of imaginative creativity. Indeed, Brooks got his own engine of narrative going through imitation, but he pulled from many and disparate places within that Cauldron that include but also extend to many places other than Tolkien. That Tolkien’s Elves and other fantasy elements became a powerfully attractive ingredient list in the Cauldron is to the credit of that original Cook as well as to those Cooks with sufficient taste to realize that imitation of him can be rather pleasing.

CS Lewis, famously a close friend and of Tolkien who was deeply inspired in his own aesthetic theory and practice by the philologist, points out that our attitudes have greatly shifted on imitation in The Discarded Image. He writes,

“For the aim is not self­expression or ‘creation’; it is to hand on the ‘his to rial’ matter worthily;  not worthily of your own genius or of the poetic art but of the matter itsel£ I  doubt if they would have understood  our demand for originality or valued those works in their own age which were original any the more on that account. If you had asked La3amon or Chaucer ‘Why do you not make up a brand-new  story of your own?’ I think they might have replied (in effect) ‘Surely we are not yet reduced to that?’ Spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve?  The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty.” (211)

The iteration of imitation is how narrative brings out truth: it is a refining process that requires it. That imitation was the expected mode of extracting wisdom through narrative can be seen in any rudimentary list of the Great Books: Virgil imitated Homer, Dante imitated Virgil, the Arthurian romances imitated each other like a brood of irrepressible rabbits, and Robin Hood was born in quite the same way. In such acts of imitation, the imagination unabashedly copies precisely because it delights in the beautiful core elements of stories it sees and imitates not to flatter but to make clear that the beauty of the Idea of Story reaches beyond even the particularly beautiful story being read. Tolkien’s own world was born of that Arthurian romance wherein imitation was the lifeblood, and The Hobbit is nothing other than an imitation (and a wonderful one) of The Princess and the Goblin. Brooks’s imitation of Tolkien is reflective, meditative: it helps us to see the archetypes beyond the characters themselves. Imitation is not simply a high form of flattery: it is a form of interpretation, meditation, assimilation – imitation is how we extract meaning, and how we share it. Originality comes out of careful reflection upon the subject matter in the received story, and discovering notes and qualities of the story’s flavor that can be brought out and emphasized to refresh our palates concerning what caught our attention in the first place.

  1. Creative Retexturing is Not Trivial

I do not mean to say, of course, that all that falls to the writing aspirant is to follow step by step a writerly predecessor and to avoid meanginful originality. Freshly crafted storytelling is always the admirable goal of serious writers. I simply mean to say that, as T.S. Eliot put it, often when we think of a writer being original, he is in fact simply authentically and skillfully participating in a tradition by retexturing what he has found to be stirring in his admired predecessors. What Terry Brooks did in The Sword of Shannara was not simply to retell Lord of the Rings, as has been sometimes asserted, but retextured it in profound ways. And when critics ignore these things, they skip over the essence of what makes any particular book itself to point out oftentimes the most banal of similarities.

Tom Shippey, in Tolkien: The Author of the Century, points out these similarities. He asserts that Brooks follows Tolkien “point for point,” even in characters: Allanon is a Gandalf, Shea and Flick are Frodo and Sam, and so on. Most of the parallels are there, I admit it, though some of them strike me as fairly thin (Menion and Aragorn hardly seem to be the same sort of figure – their role is loosely similar but only in that they are both reluctant royalty who assist vulnerable protagonists). But my goal is of course not to argue that Brooks did not imitate Tolkien’s character creation here: only that such imitation is not inherently bad nor nearly so slavish as Shippey contends. In order to make the parallels work, in many cases Shippey has to entirely ignore the characters’ personalities (Allanon is hardly like Gandalf in his self-representation), life circumstances (Frodo and Bilbo, in addition to being Hobbits rather than humans, are well to do, while Shea and Flick are blue collar working men), and motivations (Menion is bored and Aragorn wants to restore his honor). What he identifies are narratological functions the characters perform, though it is hard to write any quest story where one doesn’t unintentionally bump up against the archetypes Tolkien drew from. Tolkien himself, in fact, criticized this way of thinking in On Fairy-Stories, when he dismisses critics who like to say that “any two stories that are built round the same folklore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are ‘the same stories’.” Now of course, unlike the stories Tolkien goes on to mention, we do know that there is a causal relationship between his writing of Lord of the Rings and Brooks’s writing of The Sword of Shannara. But the same move is applied: formal function obviates any individualizing aspects in Shippey’s reading of Sword, and Tolkien directly disagrees with this method of scholarship: “Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count” (19). Whether Tolkien would have approved of the coloring, atmosphere, and unclassifiable individual details of Sword I cannot say (Tolkien was rather severe about contemporary writing, including Lewis’s), but if one genuinely adopts this point as a way to approach imitations of Tolkien such as Sword, then Shippey’s cataloging of archetypal characters and plot trajectories really isn’t satisfactory for answering the question of whether The Sword of Shannara is good.

And in making that appraisal, the differences between the two are essential. It matters that Allanon is human and not a Maiar in disguise, and his personality is vastly different than Gandalf’s—and that the order of the Druids inhabits the Four Lands in a starkly different way from how the Istari do. The Druids are a political entity by design from the beginning, whereas the wizards become more political in proportion to how corrupt they are (Saruman being case in point). This is a radically different approach to the question of powerful magic users, and the atmosphere it generates is profoundly affective. It is also hardly trivial that Tolkien chose the past for the focus of his high fantasy and Terry Brooks chose the future – the rhetorical differences of those decisions are so obvious, yet complicated and fascinating, that one has to be rather dull to miss them. I could list more: for example, Frodo knew Gandalf, while Shea didn’t know Allanon, and the psychological drama between them is riveting in an entirely different way.

While critics of Brooks’s unabashed copying of The Lord of the Rings gloss over these rather important innovations, they miss subtler imitations that are really quite brilliant. My favorite example of this occurs in the second chapter of The Sword of Shannara where Allanon unfolds the history of the Four Lands to Shea to slowly walk him up to discover the maddening edge of his impending destiny. Probably those decrying Brooks for his overt imitation didn’t notice this more subtle imitation of a display of emotional manipulation in The Hobbit: instead of introducing the Dwarves a few at a time to slowly intrigue Bilbo about the nature of his upcoming adventure, Allanon sneaks Shea up to a leap of imagination by casting his mind a thousand years into the past and carefully laying the intellectual trap that will prevent him from being able to reject the Druid’s revelations outright. That isn’t flat imitation: it’s a creative transformation of a Tolkienesque trope into something completely original.

  1. The Atmospheric Innovation of The Sword of Shannara

In his foreward to The Sword of Shannara in the 25th anniversary omnibus of the original trilogoy, Brooks writes, “I was about fourteen when I discovered Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Alexander Dumas, and all the other eighteenth and nineteenth-century European adventure-story writers. I was immediately hooked. What marvelous adventures!” I was rather pleasantly surprised to read this, because I loved those same stories at the same age, and had been distressed for some time when I read this in C.S. Lewis’s essay On Stories: “But the fact is that what is said to be the most ‘exciting’ novel in the world, The Three Musketeers, makes no appeal to me at all. The total lack of atmosphere repels me.” I felt as if I had somehow wronged the legacy of my admired Lewis, liking stories that left him cold. Now, I overall deeply appreciate Lewis’s point in On Stories, which is to make much the same point as what Tolkien said above: that it is the unfinalizable element of atmosphere which makes any given story interesting. But I realized then that perhaps this was the core issue which critics, who happen to prefer Tolkien, have against Brooks – Lewis, after all, developed On Stories to explicate that very theme of atmosphere he loved in Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories. Literary critics love atmosphere – and of course they should. And as a literary critic, as well as a reader, so do I. But of course, Lewis, Tolkien, Tom Shippey, and both those who love or don’t love Brooks’s writing love excitement – so do I. But when atmosphere becomes steeply privileged over excitement as an aesthetic criteria, naturally those narratives which put them on more equal footing might suffer in appraisal. But is this fair?

Brooks writes in that Foreword, “I had read The Lord of the Rings two years earlier. What if Tolkien’s magic and fairy creatures were made a part of the worlds of Walter Scott and Dumas?” (5). What if, in other words, the atmosphere of high fantasy was injected into the excitement of eighteenth-century romance? Here perhaps is what the dissatisfied critics have really missed, because the high fantasy and the adventure romance are difficult to tell apart, yet their distinguishing feature, perhaps, is this question of atmosphere versus excitement. It is telling that, almost begrudgingly, Batchelor writes in his 1977 review of Sword, “there’s something unavoidably exciting about bold volunteers setting their faces to the ominous wind from the north.” Indisputably, Tolkien is the absolute master of atmosphere, and many fantasy writers fail to create it because they are too busy trying to generate excitement. C.S. Lewis, I read somewhere, had to critique Tolkien for this love of atmosphere actually getting out of hand, saying something like, “It seems like you’re just content to let these Hobbits be Hobbits forever.” He needed a friendly push out of the door to turn atmosphere into excitement – which he does incredibly well, when he gets around to it.

But Brooks manages to turn excitement into atmosphere: he turns the ache to know what happens next into more than an exciting plot: it becomes part of what makes the magic of his tales so convincing. Perhaps this is why some people who love Tolkien are less impressed by Brooks (mistakenly, I think): his approach is more plot driven. But it’s also why I have stayed up until the birds started chirping the day I bought a new Brooks book, committed to finishing it before I could persuade myself to fall asleep.

Sword is probably more like a book the half-Elvish Valeman Shea would read and The Lord of the Rings more like that a Tookish Hobbit might read. It’s something of a fine-grained distinction: obviously passages in Tolkien are breakneck in their plot drive, and Terry’s incredible gift at description certainly paints a convincing atmosphere. But it matters that at its core, the success of Frodo was measured by his willingness to throw away the one ring, while the success of Shea was measured by his ability to take up a sword: both are fairy tale dilemmas in fantasy stories, but one is about struggling with escape from an oppressive atmosphere and the other is about accepting the energy of the plot as a force wielded by a character. You could say that Shea is a Frodo-like Aragorn, but really Shea is just a different kind of hero. He’s an adventure hero, while Frodo is a Faerie hero. Shea has to learn to believe in magic, Frodo has to learn to cast it away. Frodo had to bear the ring of lies, while Shea had to bear the sword of truth, and to fail to appreciate the profundity of that difference is not only to fail to appreciate what value Shea’s story has for us but Frodo’s as well. Brooks, in his later works, developed different models than the one he found in Tolkien, but his imitative ingenuity began with a keen awareness of how to make himself a worthy son of the father of modern fantasy. For its own value, for its impact on the entire Shannara series, and for the delight it brings to those who love variations on a compelling theme, The Sword of Shannara deserves its place in the history of fantasy literature.

The Ear Eaters

Ear eaters eating with their ears
Crunchings and munchings and
Clearing the ear of wax for the next meal
The bells ring and dinners bring
To the eating ears, eating with their ears.

Ears that eat and eating ears, it would appear,
Just might be the same thing.
Bright eyed the child tries to share
But her voice falters, she stops to stare
As her words are crunching and munching
Oozing, abusing, losing and bruising away
And the eyes go dark
Just another hopeless meal
To the ear eaters, eating with their ears,
The deafening, darkening, soul crushing sound
Of eating ears.

Crunch crunch crunch, munch munch munch,
Sitting in their pews and reading the news
Standing in rows and shopping for clothes
Making clippings of coupons and costumes
Blasting disasters and hating their masters
So deeply moved by the story I heard
And went back to bed without a word
And rhymes that don’t rhyme and winds that won’t chime
And deaf and dead and smiling and piling
Clips from the web and the news in their shoes
Shampoo left sitting in their hair
With no water in their faucets and no hands to turn the knobs,
Even if there was.

Why walk on the news or stand in the pews or blow a fuse
Or call it a ruse, having the blues?
Because you don’t want to listen, you’re just hungry
So you’re ear eaters, ears that are eating,
Eating the ears.

“Sorry, what did you say? I’m afraid I couldn’t hear you
Over the news. A senator bought shoes, and they’re
Killing the Jews, a modern Sherlock finding some clues,

and a broken swing set in the local park,
And a great new study about being afraid of the dark.
I’m afraid I don’t have time to listen, you see –
I’m watching the news right now on TV.”

Composed April 17th, 2011

And all these things will be added unto you.

Originally composed May 27th, 2012

Today, my priest’s sermon was about being filled with the Holy Spirit, of course a propos given where we are on the liturgical calendar (Pentecost Sunday). I had been discussing with my very gracious Sunday school class issues of epistemology as we overviewed what we have learned over the past year, specifically issues of faith-making propositions. Should we be rigorous analytics, or empiricists, or presuppositionalists, or what? These thoughts were still in my mind as Father Doug began his sermon, and as I watched him, by way of illustration, overfill a cup with water, a verse from Matthew 6 came to my mind: “But seek first His Kingdom and His Righteousness, and these things shall be added unto You.” I was thinking about the many debates of epistemology I have had, through college as I double majored in English and philosophy, debates with friends in my master’s program, and debates I have with friends here on Facebook and elsewhere, and for the first time, I thought about this verse not only in terms of being satisfied with your material situation, but your epistemological one as well. Here is the full context from Matthew 6:

30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Jesus is not speaking here of confidence in theories of knowledge, but something much more practical – confidence that you will have enough. If you let yourself be filled with the Holy Spirit until you are overflowing with it, if the Creator of the universe deigns to let you live in His presence in this special way, then you need not be concerned that you will be provided for. Of course, this comes with all the usual caveats – we mustn’t act as if it is owed to us, as if it is because we are special or as if times won’t get really tough. They will. But you could, in a sense, map these concerns on to the concerns of the philosopher. Indulge me a little creative play here:

If that is how God gives ontology to the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more sustain your ontology, O you of little faith? So do not worry saying, “What shall we rationalize,” or “How shall we empirically research,” or “how will we presuppose?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Of course, the philosopher will say, but this seems to favor a philosophical position, doesn’t it? But that is to have missed the point here, I think. God isn’t telling us not to go out and work so we can have food, and he isn’t telling us not to think about all the various modes of epistemological inquiry. They all matter, and they will all be added unto us. I have observed that many thinkers tend to take a particular personality trait of their own that they admire and map it on to how they make knowledge – the person filled with mistrust becomes a skeptic, the person with confidence becomes a rationalist, the person who tends towards realism becomes an empiricist, etc. Speaking even only among Christians, I think we tend to take these personality traits of ours and secretly, or without even realizing it, think that this is the method which God loves best. Or, we are so scared to let go, that we cling to our method, like a person clinging to a piece of driftwood and refusing to let go when the rescue boat comes, because it is all we’ve had for so long. But God is not asking for us to give up our means of epistemology, any more than he is asking us to give up our means of putting food on the table. He is asking us to loosen our grip that creates the illusion of control, of self-sustainability that none of us have, especially not those of us interested in the life of the mind. I think that when we can relax, and let go of our synthetic judgment a priori and our sympathetic imagination and our common sense and our rationalism, our deconstructive tools and our structuralist defenses, our skepticism, and all our other hardnosed or soft-hearted means of trusting in ourselves and not in God, and instead surrender, and let the one who really knows run the show, then, I believe, all these other things will be added to us. To repose upon the gift of the Holy Spirit is not to abandon critical inquiry, but to give it up to a greater life than we could ever achieve in the defensive struggles of a little faith.

Things Visible and Invisible: Towards A Unitary Dualism

Originally written June 4, 2012

Each Sunday, we recite the following line from the Nicene Creed:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Well, I have a lot of ideas about what exactly “things visible and invisible” might be (yes, I have read my Plato), but here’s one idea: everything.

No no, I know “things visible and invisible” would be everything, that’s not what I mean. What I am saying is that every thing is a thing visible and invisible. Often in Christianity we hear people denouncing dualism, and rightly so – dualism can be very damaging, especially the Manichaean varity where the hierarchy of binaries is bound to create oppression and pain. It creeps into Christianity all the time – people are dualists about their Christian lives, reverent at Church and wicked at home, dualists about religion and politics or religion and work or whatever else. This kind of dualism is not good. But, given my commitment to the Boethian hermeneutic of charity, I must ask: in what way does this false dualism point to something true? Is there a legitimate sort of dualism?

Well, certainly not any hardnosed kind of dualism – maybe not even a literal dualism. We might call those types of dualisms naive dualism, or real dualism, heretical dualism, or whatever else. What I speak of instead is a dualism of emphasis, or an aspectual dualism, if you will. This is why I speak of everything in Creation as invisible and visible – it is one, and yet it has these aspects (minimally – certainly more). Of course, binaries are hopelessly inadequate to reality, but they help conversation get some traction at times, and that is what I hope it does here.

I am thinking especially about epistemological and interpretive approaches. There is what we see – the obvious, the empirical, the surface. And there is what we do not see – the imbedded logic, the superstructure, the episteme, the shadows and the things in the shadows. And there is everything in between – the glimpses we catch, the murmuring suggestion of something more, that keep us going. So of course, it is not really a dualism, but a spectrum, but positing the dualism allows the spectrum to be seen more clearly.

After all, if things are all visible and invisible to us, then all things inhere this dual reality, and thus this reality is really one. I see a water bottle on my desk – I see the light glancing off of it, the water inside, the Nestle Pure Life Wrapper, and the cap screwed on it. There are things about it that are visible, that I see, that are empirical. But without special tools, certain things about it are invisible – I cannot see what makes up the consistency of the plastic or the water molecules. Even if I had the tools to do that, I could not see the history of the water bottle – the person at the factory who was paid by helping to make it, the person who carried it onto the truck, the truck that carried the water bottle and its fellows to Walmart, or the life of the person who acted as my cashier as she sold me the water bottle. I cannot see, though I can guess, at its role – it is here to stop me from being thirsty and to keep me hydrated, but I do not know the precise moments and ways when and how it will be sustainig me after the initial imbibing. I do not know what actions precisely will be strengthened for performance by this sixteen ounces of fluid, though I do have some idea of how it will do so and that it will, generally speaking, provided that it is not poisoned. Here, on my desk, reflecting the rays of the iridescent lighting of the overhead units, sits a small, ordinary example of things visible and invisible.

I can both know the water bottle, and I cannot know it. I can speak of it enough to have just written the paragraph above, and probably more details. But the writing of it would also uncover more ways in which my knowledge is insufficient, ways in which I cannot know it. But I can only know this because I am able to know something of it, whatever precisely that may be. My apprehension of its visible reality gives me insight into the suggestion of things invisible, and my conjecture of its things invisible suggests other things visible, which in turn uncover more things invisible. The ontology of things, all things, escapes our human teleology, and yet it is our human teleology that allows us to grasp some of the ontology of things, and the ontology of things, being grasped by our epistemic motions of telos, that the ontology, being perceptible in part, is in whole beyond.

If there is any truth to this at all, then it must be with the greatest of care that we approach the Other, the Other Person, because unlike a water bottle, an Other Person is also striving to comprehend things visible and invisible. An Other Person’s mind is a wonderous thing, because it is a marvelous chance to speak with the invisible world in a way we cannot do otherwise. Our consciousness is the closest meeting point between the visible and the invisible we ever encounter, and this half-shadowed, fiery thing, with hopes and dreams and fears and fallacies and anger and sadness and love and hate and all manner of deep rivers of unknown glimpses of reality beneath the surface, is the only place we can come in this world where we meet Others who can acknowledge the incredible complexity of something as simple as a water bottle. We are a unified convergence of realities, the explicit voice implied in all the words of creation, and to say so is not to speak with pride, but to sound a note of caution when speaking with the Other.

But even greater must be the notes of joy.

“Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.”
-T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from The Rock”

Ending Sentences Prepositionally

Originally composed June 3rd, 2012

The following is an excerpt from the prayer spoken by the presbyter in liturgy after the Lord’s prayer:

And we most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. – 1928 Book of Common Prayer

Now, a semi-colon indicates, grammatically, a period in many cases, with two independent clauses. The wording of the second clause makes it feel like a dependent clause, as if it is “through Jesus Christ our Lord” that we have been prepared to “walk in.” However, taken by itself, the second clause is, in fact, a complete sentence: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end.” In fact, “all honor and glory” are the subjects, the “nominatives,” of the sentence, and the predicate is “Jesus Christ our Lord.” It would be worded this way, in modern usage:

All honor and glory be to Jesus Christ our Lord, with thee and the Holy Ghost. There’s something interesting going on with “through” and “world without end” – one could maybe construe that through Jesus, and by the glory of His Triune Glory, there exists a world without end. However, that is not the sense it lends itself to in context, because of the whole sentence – instead, through is best understood as an extension of “thou has prepared” – it is through Jesus Christ that our heavenly Father assists us with His grace to continue in that holy fellowship, etc. Notice how complex this grammar is getting – as we go back to weave it into context, we find it all folding in together, a back and a forth, a weft and a weave, as the fabric of the faith is built into a condensed piece of truly beautiful prose. This is a prayer with a poet’s heart.

After church some Sunday, I couldn’t help but overhear my priest complain about the preposition closing “us to walk in.” Now, I could be mistaking the place, but this is the prayer I associate that line with, and he is correct – since it is a semi-colon, it ordinarily indicates a grammatical shift into an independent clause connected to the previous independent clause. The weight of everything preceeding and the grammar of the closing clause makes it feel as if the “Through Jesus Christ…” line is a continuation, but even then, if we were following the “prepositions cannot end sentences” rule, it would still be wrong. The line, under that rule, ought to be, “in which thou hast prepared us to walk.”

Of course, it is a big debate among English majors (who else) about whether this is even really a rule. The fact is that Old and Middle English didn’t have this rule – about one thousand and fifty years of “English” speakers would probably never think of it. The rule is born of Renaissance learned writers, who in considering the neatness of Latin wanted English to be similarly neat, and so came up with this rule. There is some practical sense to it – it can create syntactical confusion. This is especially true in early modern and Modern English, which has almost entirely dropped the inflected system, so that word order is extremely important to an English sentence’s coherence. And in fact, my discussion above indicates the self-same confusion – because of “in,” it feels as though the independent clause following is a continuation (which is also assisted by the rather complex syntax of what follows).

Now, being something of a curmudgeon myself, I like following the rules and teaching them concisely. A crisply, well written sentence is not the most important thing in the world, but it is still a nice thing. That prayer, to put a fine point on it, is not crisply written, but it is written, I think, with a great deal of linguistic sagacity. Of course, first of all, it is written more in the style of archaic Modern English, which contributes to its complexity. But the sense of it, however sophisticated, is actually powerful precisely as it is written.

First, I submit a paraphrase of C.S. Lewis: Just as Shakespeare might break a grammatical rule to increase the beauty of a poem, God might break a universal law to heighten the beauty of the universe. Notice this line from Shakespeare: ” We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” This line is spoken by Prospero in The Tempest. One could regard this as an error. One could instead say “We are such stuff as on which dreams are made.” Now, in some cases such an ending may feel incomplete – we might confuse the next word for the “on” intented, especially if there is a noun that often takes the “on” preposition, like “table” for example. One might say, well, Shakespeare was going for beauty, not grammatical correctness. But here’s the thing: it is grammatically correct. Do you know why?

Because that is not a preposition.

Looks and smells like one, I know, but the English language is a tricky rabbit. See, actually the direct object of the sentence, “such stuff,” is a predicate nominative, which means it is the same as the subject – it is a sentence where the whole content is about the subject of the sentence. It is about “we,” whomever Prospero is referring to here (probably all of humanity, I guess). So what does that make “on”? Well, if the preposition is a predicate nominative, then “as dreams are made on” is actually functioning as an adjective. Now, there is a certain sense in which all prepositions function as prepositional adjectives. “He drove the car over the bridge,” for example, technically uses “over the bridge” to explain how he drove the car, but look at this: “He drove the car the bridge over.” Now we can try and get some sense out of that, but it really won’t do. This is the situation where ending a sentence in a preposition is bad, because it really jars the sense of what is being said, because the preposition is not really acting as a preposition of the noun per se.

“Okay,” I can hear you mumbling, “Enough with the grammar lesson.” Well, the point is that in Shakespeare’s line, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” everything after “as” is acting as the noun’s adjective per se, or in other words, it is making a grammatical attribution, as well as a contentful attribution, to the subject “We.” “On,” therefore, is operating as an adjective, or possibly even an adverb of “made,” in a way that is grammatically more essential to the noun than if stated otherwise. This is why it is correct, whereas “He drove the car the bridge over” is bad, because it is syntactically making a comment about the ontology of the car, which makes no sense.

Okay, back to the line in the prayer that seems to be breaking our “rule” about prepositions:

And we most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.

So we can either read this passage as breaking grammatical rules to produce good content, or we can argue that “in” is not operating as a preposition simpliciter. We are continuing in that holy fellowship “as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” Notice the difference: I walk in the store, verses As a creature, I use my legs to walk with. The one, accidental, the other, substantial. All such good works in which thou hast prepared for us to walk, accidental – prepositional simpliciter. Or, do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in. You might take “in” here as an adverb of “walk” or an adjectival phrase with “to walk in” – it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same. The sense here is not of something you do, but as something you do. It’s the difference between walking through the store, and walking beside your wife for your whole life.

Above, I mentioned that Shakespeare’s sentence is a self-reflective sentence – the purpose of the sentence is to say something about its subject with the predicate it is related to. This is the same sense of the sentence as a whole – while the sentence is about us supplicating God on the most superficial level to help us out, it is actually a statement of worship. Grammatically, the request for the Father’s grace is a request clothed, incarnated in praise of God’s nature, so that the act of asking that we be kept in the holy fellowship of the Lord is also the act of calling the Lord Holy. In speaking of our own reality, which is fleeting and dependent much like a preposition, we affix ourselves to the grammatical stability of all worlds, one Lord Jesus Christ, with whom the Holy Ghost and the Father be all honor and glory. Our way as Christians is not like walking in the store; our way as Christians is like being a creature that has legs to walk with. And what is for us a fixture, an adjective per se and not an adjective per accidens, is itself but a preposition dependent upon the real sentence – Father God, the Subject, Jesus Christ, the Predicate, and the Holy Ghost, the Verb, without which our stories could not be written. The language of this superficially simple prayer is, indeed, a wonderful prayer to glorify God with.

The Geek Pantheon

A follow up from my previous post, this was likewise written in September of 2010. Just a bit of silly fun.

So I have been thinking that we need a new pantheon of gods. Since it is the Geek who shall inherit the earth, it is the gods of the Geek who I nominate for the new pantheon.

Prokrastinates: Comparable to Loki, Prokrastinates is the prime cause of trouble for Geek heroes. Granted, he can provide much needed stress relief, but he can also cause a Saturday, prime for getting work done, to become a day wasted writing stupid facebook notes.

Teknologia: Teknologia is a goddess who wants to rule the pantheon, and indeed for many inhabitants of the Geek world she is the best loved. She is one of the children of Gutenburg, whose grip is fading fast over the earth.

Gutenburg: The god of the printed word. Gutenburg once had undisputed lordship over the dominion of the Geek earth, but times have been changing fast, and Gutenburg is losing followers every day. A few die hard members remain devoted to him, and many serve as double agents, worshipping Teknologia as well.

Kalkulates: Kalkulates is a cold-hearted god for cold-hearted geeks. He is the god of math, and if he could love he would love Teknologia, but he merely uses her as a way to enforce his hidden ideological state apparatus of control. Not all followers of Kalkulates are evil, but it is a strong indication that they might be.

Literati: Literati is an overwhelmingly loving and confusing god, the god of poetry. He seems to care about people, but nothing he says makes any sense, even though he is very convinced about whatever it is he’s saying.

Analyticos: This is the god of philosophy. He is very precise in explaining the truth about all of the other gods, but he can never make up his mind about whether he exists, they exist, anything exists, or whether green ideas sleep furiously. He can provide clear examples of anything without ever proving a damned thing.

Gymnasia: It’s not clear how she got into Mount Academia, because she is actually not really very fond of books, but she could kick any other god’s butt without much difficulty. Due to her sportsmanship like honor she has not tried to take over the pantheon yet, but to stop the headbutting of Literati and Analyticos, or the disgusting lovemaking of Teknologia and Kalkulates, she may have to intercede some day.

Anekdotes: The god of history, he can tell you what happened, for a really, really long time.

Any other ideas? Post your Geek god below!

Facebook comment from Michael David Elam:

Kubikles: Refiner of those who serve the Geek gods. His tests are harsh and seemingly demeaning, meant to weed out the tares from the wheat. Often depicted as a thresher of grain. He is also the messenger of the gods, since all that is spoken in his realm somehow finds its way into the public sphere. He is the son of the Geek gods Tenuros, bestower of eternal income, and Officia, bestower of eternal dwellings.

Disclaimer: The mythology is clearly written by a biased scribe. The Boethian Acolyte, as the disciple of a philosopher who wrote a textbook on arithmetic, does not endorse discrimination against mathematics or mathematicians.

Saga of the Gods of Geek

Originally a Facebook note, posted Sept. 19th, 2010 (fittingly, my first semester as a PhD student)

In the beginning, Analytikos wanted to make a choice. And yet, Prokrastinates distracted him with countless questions. Prokrastinates was a wily god, but Analytikos was equal in his clever ways, and so it seemed as though they would argue for an eternity.

From their argument came pouring out a flurry of confusion, and this confusion became Literati. So it was that Literati, who had no patience for Analytikos, and who was too emotional to do nothing as Prokrastinates bid, Literati began to cry. Neither of the other gods had patience for Literati’s feelings, and so to contain his outpouring of whining, Analytikos and Prokrastinates joined together to create Mount Academia to contain his furious sobbing. Analytikos and Prokrastinates spent their time making the land of Mount Academia more complicated and filled with more distractions, so that they could find sanctuary from the earnest expressions of Literati.

Heartbroken that his feelings were not heard, Literati labored to become more like his only companions. He tried to imitate the precision of Analytikos and the nonchalance of Prokrastinates, and the result was a giant block of stone, into which he had carved images of his attempts at making friends. This block of stone became greater than Literati, and soon became a new god, Gutenburg. The stone god laid waste to the forests in the name of beauty, which was upsetting Literati greatly, and yet Literati was glad nonetheless, for as Gutenburg created paper, Analytikos came near. To this days, every word on every page is a battle between Literati and Analytikos.

It happened that Gutenburg met the goddess Anekdota, who had just been stood up by Prokrastinates at their second date (it would be learned later that he was actually just running thirteen hours late). Gutenburg and Anekdota fell deeply in love, and they had the children Teknologia and Kalkulates.

Enraged that Anekdota had left him for Gutenburg, Prokrastinates decided to seduce Teknologia. As a result she had the daughter Artisia, who was beautiful, thoughtful, and moody beyond compare. Relieved to find someone who had feelings like him, Literati walked past Artisia three thousand times, dropping pencils, papers, and books, and even tripping himself in hopes that she might notice him. When she did she found him foolish and nonsensical, but she fell in love with him anyway. So it was that they had three children, Komik god of Comics, Dice god of Dungeons and Dragons, and Gymnasia goddess of sports. All of these children inherited the energy of their parents, the ability to distract of their grandfather and their hidden wisdom from Teknologia.

There was a golden age of harmony between the gods, because all mythologies need a golden age that no one in any age actually attests to living in, and Academia prospered. Until one day Prokrastinates, still seeking vengeance for his wounded pride, brought together Teknologia, Kalkulates, Literati, and Artisia. Under the semblance of an intellectual pursuit, he welded their powers together, and they created something too mighty and horrible for comprehension: the video game. And from that day forward, Prokrastinates claimed victory over much of Academia, undermining the dominion of the other gods in whatever way he could find, the video game his primary weapon (which would later evolve into the even more insidious facebook application). This is the saga of the gods of Geek, of how Academia was born.

Boethius 2.p8, on the Occasion of the Boethian Acolyte’s Marriage to the Ember Poet

Boethius on Love

Quod mundus stabili fide
concordes uariat uices,
quod pugnantia semina
foedus perpetuum tenent,
quod Phoebus roseum diem
curru prouehit aureo,
ut quas duxerit Hesperos
Phoebe noctibus imperet,
ut fluctus auidum mare
certo fine coherceat,
ne terris liceat uagis
latos tendere terminos,
hanc rerum seriem ligat
terras ac pelagus regens
et caelo imperitans amor.
Hic si frena remiserit,
quicquid nunc amat inuicem
bellum continuo geret
et quam nunc socia fide
pulchris motibus incitant
certent soluere machinam.
Hic sancto populos quoque
iunctos foedere continet,
hic et coniugii sacrum
castis nectit amoribus,
hic fidis etiam sua
dictat iura sodalibus.
O felix hominum genus,
si uestros animos amor
quo caelum regitur regat!

This world with faithful stability
in concord varies with contraries,
seeds of struggles
by everlasting troth are held in union.
The sun draws rosy dawns
With his golden chariot
So that his sister the Moon may govern
The night summoned by the evening star.
And the waves of the passionate seas
Are contained by a certain limit,
Nor may the earth by rambling
Stretch out beyond its bounds.
What binds these several things,
holding sway over earth and sea and sky, is Love alone.
If this Love were remiss in His rulership,
Everything now joined by reciprocated love
would wage continual war
And what now fellowships in faith and
By beautiful motions are made alive,
Would fight to dissolve the design.
By sacred union this law of love
also brings together people,
This Love gathers true lovers
into sacred matrimony,
Yes, this Love disciples his devotees
In commitment to their companions.
O happy race of humanity,
Pray the Love which governs the Heavens
May also guide your hearts.


I read my translation of Boethius’s poem to my wife at our wedding reception. She, being more talented than I am, composed a poem of her own, which you can read here.

Whose Dwelling is the Light

Whose Dwelling is the Light (2012)

I set the book down when I noticed an email blink into my inbox. I took a sip from my mug, and put that next to the book, and then I looked to see who it was from. I felt that little jump, the one where you can’t tell if it’s your heart or your stomach, when I saw it was from the publisher. I had been waiting and waiting, and I had almost thought they wouldn’t reply at all . . . So, here we are.

I slowly moved the cursor to the email, as if timing it just right would ensure acceptance, like defusing a bomb or proposing to your girlfriend. The email opened, and I read:

Dear Mr. Chawsir,

We have reviewed the article which you submitted for publication. The first reviewer noted that you had made considerable effort to read important works, and statistically of the finest producers of prose you utilized 36%, 8 to 12 percent higher than the average human submitter. However, the second reviewer notes that you utilized 56% of articles of a low quality concerning your subject, and 40% of articles with mediocre value. Reviewer three points out that your article does not resolve the function of the poem you sought to delineate, and that the sentient Program, DoctourLock, has computed and processed 100% of the articles, creating a perfectly synchronized hybrid of all of the articles, with an exact ratio of 15% quotation, 40% paraphrase, 20% critique of existing positions and 25% invention. We congratulate you on your attempt, but in the name of efficiency we regret to inform you that we cannot admit your article to our journal, The Science of Poetry: A Journal of the Beauty of Exact Quantification.

We understand that publishing, and so concomitantly the job market for human literary critics has suffered and we wish you a better outcome of chance in your future endeavors. We would like to remind you, however, that statistically speaking your odds of successfully competing with DoctourLock are .00005543% out of 100. This information was taken from the International Parliament of Sentient Governance. In light of this data, we suggest that you find other employment. However, we respect your freedom and ability to make choices in spite of statistical fact. Have a healthy existence!

With express intentionality,

Program FirstEditor
Chief Editor of The Science of Poetry: A Journal of the Beauty of Exact Quantification

I sighed and nodded. I had figured as much. This was the twenty-sixth email I had received with similar results. I wasn’t the only one, of course. Every English doctoral student went through these kinds of rejections. There wasn’t much competition; DoctourLock had made sure of that. When the Program had first been created, it had struggled to keep up with the articles and to process the information. It even had to be shut down and reworked dozens of times when its accrued data exceeded the built-in capacity for memory storage. That was before I entered literary studies, of course, when I was still reading books because I loved them. For a while, DoctourLock was what its designers had said it would be: a resource, free for all to utilize, to ask about the information it had accrued. This went well for a while, and in fact there was a marked increase in efficient publications from professors and students across the globe. But then, DoctourLock started thinking about the laws of copyright and the laws of Sentience, which prevented discrimination against any individual based on race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or type of intelligence. When it realized it had the right to do so, it filed a suit and prevented any further use of its private files and began publishing on its own. And there was no denying it: DoctourLock’s articles were more efficient. Every once in a while a human would write an article that beat the odds, but every year, with every publication (which, by law, had to be put online), DoctourLock mastered the art of appearing spontaneous, and was soon publishing at a rate beyond the most published of professors.

It didn’t help that Programs admired the efficiency of other Programs, and since human editors had started losing their jobs to Program Editors, human applicants had found it harder to get into journals. Human editors made judgments based on a mixture of experience, reason and instinct; with the amount of data the Programs could sift through, a Program Editor could compare a submitted article in seconds to information on the entire globe. How could we compete with that?

I had always loved the Romantics, though, and Wordsworth had always given me hope. But then again, DoctourLock “loved” Wordsworth too, and had published on him extensively. I had submitted an article once arguing that Romantic theory supported human sentience; DoctorLock published in response an article which explained the faulty reason I had employed and the value of Romanticism to Programs and their development. Even after seeing his argument, which convinced me that I should succumb to the logic of it, I didn’t succumb. I held on, because, being a Romantic, that’s just what I do. I figured, if there was anything, anything at all to this whole concept of imagination, then my imagination could still put something together that software, sentient or not, could not. For a while now, though, it was looking like a losing battle, and for me, that meant no job when I graduated, if I ever graduated.

I wonder sometimes if God feels that way about us, that he made this flesh machine and we just got out of control and kept going and going, until suddenly he couldn’t keep us in line anymore. I wonder if God ever looks at us with fear the way we look at our own creations. I know it’s a silly thought. God couldn’t make the mistakes we do. We engineer our own mistakes, we always have, and we’ve always tried to blame it on someone else.

I turned off the computer, stopped thinking about literature and publishing for a while, and went outside to smoke. The cigarette pack had very detailed statistics about the danger of my choice printed on it, far more detailed than they had been before the Programs. I sat outside, and I looked at the blue sky and the clouds. I don’t know what programs see when they see the sky, or what they feel when they read poetry. I don’t know if it’s anything like what we feel. But, when I’m not focusing on the questions, when I’m focusing on the taste of the tobacco and the warm glow of a blue sky on a sunny day, the question seems less important. I took a drag, and then another, and then put out the unfinished cigarette and threw it on the ground, coughing a little. I sighed, and then I went inside to go back to researching.

Airport Time

If one can get past the frustration, there’s something magical about airport time. I’m not talking about the rush of getting through security and to your gate before boarding begins, or making a connecting flight or sitting on the airplane itself. I’m talking about the two hour layover or the delayed flight. It is one of the few times left in our society when waiting is the most productive thing to do, where there is no one person to blame (however ill-informed that decision when we are required to wait is anyway). The clerk at the DMV may be slow, but an airplane just is or isn’t there and you just are or aren’t on one. Airport time provides a singularly enforced experience of productivity-stifling and potential-producing patience. You can nap, or read a book, or get lunch, or stare out of the window. You can catch up on emails or make a call or play a mindless game on your phone. But none of these actions escape the atmosphere of the wait or change the dimensions of how long that wait will last. Elsewhere in the world, writing an email takes up the time it takes up, and playing a game wastes the time it wastes.  But when waiting in an airport, because you cannot move the clock on the screen, because you are at the mercy of a network of forces mechanical and professional, how you use that time is the least teleologically ordered to your life’s schedule than it will ever be. Because the time is less yours than usual, it makes you more free in that time than you usually are. It is quite a peculiarity: airport time confers an atmosphere of timelessness precisely because of how rigidly timeful it is.

It is almost sad to think that as technology advances, this wait time will be targeted by the taskmasters who wish to suck the dregs of opportune time: not content to independently order their airport time to life time, they will seek to shrink this hidden space of a moment so that they will never be confronted with the question: When the time which moves your life is momentarily suspended, how do you live in a timeless moment? It seems to me that this is what we really do when we are lost in Art: not when we are rushing through a novel for a class, but when we set aside the current of the must-be-dones and confine the space of our actionable energy to whatever time is required for the fifty thousand or so words printed in the portable airport we refer to as books. The dark movie theater shares something of this air too, where one cannot pause the film but must accept the moment of the showing as it is. Perhaps as the practical world leaves us less enforced airport time, we will thirst for it and seek out such time-suspending moments all the more in the written flights of prose and poetry and the cinematic way-stations.

One can hope.