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.

Understanding Chivalry: The Origin and Outlook of Medieval Knights

I presented this talk in the Spring of 2017 at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. For now I am just including the slides and the passages of relevant Old and Middle English, but I will add explanatory paragraphs and recordings of me reading the texts when I get a chance.


HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððanærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum weorðmyndum þah,
oð þæt him æghwylc ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan; þæt wæs god cyning!
Beowulf, ca. 800-900 A.D.


Ande quen þis Bretayn watz bigged bi þis burn rych,
Bolde bredden þerinne, baret þat lofden,
In mony turned tyme tene þat wroȝten.
Mo ferlyes on þis folde han fallen here oft
Þen in any oþer þat I wot, syn þat ilk tyme.
Bot of alle þat here bult, of Bretaygne kynges,
Ay watz Arthur þe hendest, as I haf herde telle.
Forþi an aunter in erde I attle to schawe,
Þat a selly in siȝt summe men hit holden,
And an outtrage awenture of Arthurez wonderez.
If ȝe wyl lysten þis laye bot on littel quile,
I schal telle hit as-tit, as I in toun herde,
with tonge,
As hit is stad and stoken
In stori stif and stronge,
With lel letteres loken,
In londe so hatz ben longe.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ca. 1350 A.D.



Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne;
What with his wysdom and his chivalrie,
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
That whilom was ycleped Scithia,
And weddede the queene Ypolita,
And broghte hire hoom with hym in his contree
With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.
And thus with victorie and with melodye
Lete I this noble duc to Atthenes ryde,
And al his hoost in armes hym bisyde.
The Knight’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer 1390 A.D.


Anone all the knyghtes aroos from the tabyl for to set on Balyn / and kynge Pellam hym self aroos vp fyersly / & sayd knyȝt hast thow slayn my broder / thow shalt dye therfor or thou departe / wel said balen do it your self yis sayde kyng pellā / ther shall no mā haue ado with the / but my self for the loue of my broder / Thenne kyng Pellam cauȝt in his hand a grym wepen and smote egrely at balyn / but balyn put his swerd betwixe his hede and the stroke / and therwith his swerd brest in sonder / And whan balyn was wepenles he ranne in to a chamber for to seke somme wepen / and soo fro chamber to chamber / and no wepen he coude fynde / and alweyes kynge Pellam after hym / And at the last he entryd in to a chambyr that was merueillously wel dyȝte and rychely / and a bedde arayed with clothe of gold the rychest that myghte be thought / and one lyenge theryn / and therby stode a table of clene gold with four pelours of syluer / that bare vp the table / and vpon the table stood a merueillous spere straungely wrought / And whan balyn sawe that spere / he gat it in his hand and torned hym to kyng Pellam / and smote hym passyngly sore with that spere that kynge Pellam felle doune in a swoune / and therwith the castel roofe and wallys brake and fylle to the erthe / and balyn felle doune so that he myghte not stere foote nor hand / And so the moost parte of the castel that was falle doune thorugh that dolorous stroke laye vpon Pellam and balyn thre dayes
Le Morte D’Arthur, Thomas Malory 1485 A.D.