Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

For the feast day of blessed Fred Rogers

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Fred Rogers, yes that Fred Rogers, and in my own devotions, it is a Holy Day.

I have been working on a post off-and-on for a year to note this day, and by an accident of the internet, some mistake of mine has intersected with the design flaws of Blogger, and the post is gone. Solid weeks of work. The kind of thing that reduces me to helpless, indignant, this-is-not-acceptable spluttering egotism in the face of the indifferent state of affairs. Well, what would Mister Rogers do?

Start over, of course.

And so. This is not the post I wrote before. I'm going to state the case baldly: Fred Rogers was, I frankly and un-ironically maintain, a Saint in the technical theological sense. (Christianity is the tradition I stand in, as it was Rogers', but feel free to substitute "Tzadik" or "Bodhisattva" or "Really really good person", and forgive me the inexactitude of these comparisons for now.) The main entry in the hagiography is a justly famous article by Tom Junod, first published in Esquire. (This is essential reading. If you haven't read it, go do that now.) I have little to add to it; all my impressions of Rogers come via his children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, whose surreal and simple vision differs from that of nearly every other children's show in that it had no two-tiered audience strategy, no eye winking at the adults over the kids' heads. This (and Rogers' unobtrusive ahimsa) set it apart from Looney Tunes, from Disney, from Rocky & Bullwinkle, even from Sesame Street, whose mutations have proven it to be a bellwether of liberal culture. With Mister Rogers, you never graduated to the Oooh-I-get-the-joke level. He was entirely (and this was what made him so increasingly aberrant in the age of ironism) sincere, to use a word that is easily said and not easily attained. What you saw on television was, by all accounts, what you met if you shook his hand. He had no TV persona.

Anecdotes of his unassuming, ordinary, jaw-dropping goodness are plentiful. They are easy to yawn at if that's the way your jaw drops. Many of them are unverifiable. But, because of the aforementioned lack of persona, they're pretty much superfluous. They all exemplify one trait, over and over; Rogers was indefatigably interested in everything, and in particular in other people.

Rogers' lack of pretense went hand-in-hand with his mastery of pretending. Pretending, or "make-believe," was Rogers' general term of art for a certain joyful and indirect self-teaching. There was nothing undisciplined about it, and nothing manipulative. If you forget everything you know about Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the surrealism of it will astound you. An enormous mantelpiece clock is inhabited by a gentle, young tiger-cub. In a "Museum-go-'round," which is exactly what it sounds like, lives a semi-curmudgeonly woman curator who may, in a fit of pique, use her magical boomerang to invert the whole world. Many inhabitants are named with puns: the neighborhood is ruled, from a powder-blue castle, by King Friday XIII; an ingenious rodent named Cornflake S. Pecially lives in a factory next door; an indeterminate distance off, in "Someplace Else," a donkey ("Hodey") lives in a windmill. We are closer to The Wind in the Willows or the Hundred-Acre Wood (think of Piglet's grandfather, Trespassers W., whose name adorns a broken sign in front of Piglet's house), than we are to Sesame Street or The Electric Company. Among the human beings who live here are a jack-of-all-trades, a chef, and the crush of my young life, "Lady" Betty Aberlin. What strikes you when you stop taking it for granted is how weird it all is -- but without that terrifying undertone that affects, say, Alice in Wonderland, or PeeWee's Playhouse. You get here on a mysterious trolley car (with whom characters regularly converse, easily comprehending its back-&-forth dance on the tracks and its whistles). You can make calls from a telephone booth which occasionally descends out of the sky and then re-ascends. When an extraterrestrial Purple Panda, visiting from vast distances, breaks one of the rules of his home-world by sitting in a rocking chair (!?), how do his fellow-aliens, the indistinguishable Paul and Pauline, point out his error? Why, by chanting: "Sixteen! Sixteen!" Which makes all the sense in the world, right?

All these characters are shown having the ordinary kinds of relationships that obtain between people who usually get along and sometimes don't. They visit each other, surprise each other, get in arguments, work things out. They plan and execute long-term projects -- no less than thirteen full-scale short operas were put on by these characters, with episodes devoted to writing, planning, practicing, and performing them. (Rogers, who had a degree in music, composed them.) In short, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is a consistent secondary world, and because it is richly imagined and coherent, it retains its pertinence to the world the child lives in, without ever becoming just a pedagogical annex to it.

This is important, because Rogers took very seriously his responsibility to children in a way almost unparalleled, without ever talking down to them and without trying, per impossible, to erase his adulthood. He was, after all, Mister Rogers, not "Fred." With this authority, he was able to assure children they could not go down the drain; with his childlike awe, on the other hand, he was able to see and absolutely respect the need for that assurance. This need arises in many other contexts, which can give the best-intentioned adults a deer-in-headlights stare. Rogers dealt with divorce, death, poverty, war, and disability, with the same calm and open gravity he brings to the going-down-the-drain conversation.
The world is not always a kind place. That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand.
Rogers' way of helping is marked by his complete lack of condescension. I have spent many years working with children and teens, and I have seen many teachers. I can testify that this lack of condescension is the mark of a past master. Rogers attained it because he was unfailingly himself, and refused to be embarrassed into a false, teacherly front:
The best teacher in the world is somebody who loves what he or she does and just loves it in front of you,
Not that I live up to it, but this pretty much sums up my pedagogy, with all due weight on understanding the word love.

This is where Rogers is usually caricatured, to say nothing of being blamed for fostering an "entitled" generation. As to blame, I can only pity those who argue this way, as if concern for children's self-esteem meant unhinging them from responsibility. But the caricature is worth dwelling on for a moment. "You are special," he would tell each person he encountered, young or old, for the first or the hundredth time. He ended each episode that way: "You always make my day a special day for me. You know how? By just your being you." If there was ever an easy target, this was it. The whole thing cried out to be mocked, and it was mocked. (Rogers could appreciate parody; he sought out Eddie Murphy to tell him he had laughed at Murphy's parody "Mr Robinson's Neighborhood" on Saturday Night Live.) "Special," people would roll their eyes. "And how is everyone 'special'?" Yes, yes, you are a unique snowflake. The easy flippancy of this argument is misplaced. Rogers, who had a degree in theology as well as in music, knew very well the paradoxes of particularity. The content of his show is unfailingly intelligent. One could recast this notion of specificity in language more intellectual or more technical, but not more sophisticated. It bears mention that Rogers in saying this to children was carrying on a tradition of sorts: his grandfather had told him this every day. This is not cant, not ideology, but practice. Rogers' doctrine of special-ness is the same as is found in Hopkins:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
This poem of course goes on to invoke Christ, playing "in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his," and Rogers certainly would have invoked Christ under certain circumstances. On his show, I think he did not so much as say the word "God," but a liturgist's precision informs everything (the music, the sneakers, the sweater, every time). For a look into Rogers' spirituality one must read the Junod article, or the briefer notice Junod wrote upon Rogers' death, or this essay by Margaret Mary Kimmel and Mark Collins, which includes a number of details from Rogers' early years. I call these entries in a "hagiography," and with a straight face, not because I think Rogers was without faults or because I want to create a myth of the perfect man, but simply because there's an obvious sense in which we need categories like "Saint" for certain people who vastly exceed -- to the point of provoking either our derision or our tears -- our sense of what good is humanly available. Hagiography has always attracted myths, and Rogers has his share. (He did not serve in the military, and his long sleeves covered no tattoos, no needle tracks.) Nearly all of the unverifiable anecdotes boil down to the same thing: Rogers gave people an experiential glimpse of their worth -- or, in Rogers' language, they felt special. It was not a passing emotional high; Rogers made people feel special because he regarded them as special, and this regard was not a mantra he repeated to himself but a practice he lived. He continued to be in touch for years with viewers who wrote fan letters, with reporters who found they had told him more about themselves than vice-versa, with people with whom he had chance encounters. You can see the powerful impression Rogers had on people unfold in real time if you watch his acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award. He says almost nothing, and what he says is not about him. Always calmly aware of the pernicious potential of television to alarm, overstimulate, or turn viewers into passive receptors, he quietly subverts the occasion of his award to call for ten pregnant seconds of broadcast silence -- and directs his listeners' attention to other people, people who will receive no award, whose name will not be televised, who will never have fame for any fraction of fifteen minutes, but by whose ordinary goodness have "loved us into being." It is a phrase as rife with philosophical import as any in the canon.

It may seem incongruous for a philosophy blog to have spent this much effort on the host of a children's television show. I hope that Rogers' pedagogy, his personalism, and his ingenious facility at navigating the border between worlds -- what he called pretending, what I would compare with metalepsis -- serves as some clarification for why I think Rogers germane. But the reasons go deeper. For, if philosophy means "love of wisdom" in any sense deeper than the merely etymological, it behooves philosophers to pay heed to an exemplar of wise love.
O God, Who dost exhort all to especial care of Thy little children, and didst grant to thy servant Fredrick Rogers the vision of the unmatched worth of every soul, making him a bearer of the knowledge of this love, grant us to know ourselves wholly precious in Thy sight, and to bear to each of Thy children witness of this joyful surety, by the grace of Thy Son Jesus Christ, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit, now and forever, Amen.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is it even "down" all the way down?

There is a story told about Wittgenstein, that one day someone remarked to him about the folly of those who had believed the sun went around the Earth. No doubt, Wittgenstein is said to have replied, they were certainly wrong. But what would it have looked like to them if they had been right?

The punchline is implicit, as is often the case with philosophy, which, as Wittgenstein said, ought not to wish to spare people the trouble of thinking for themselves.

I had a rather analogous moment the other day when someone asked me, What was it the ancients thought the world rested on? Wasn't it an elephant? Or a turtle or something? I responded with a reference to 1 Samuel 2:8, a locus classicus regarding the "pillars of the Earth." And what were the pillars "set" on, my inquirer wanted to know?

Those silly ancients!

So ask yourself about scale. Not what the earth stands on, but what is it made of? Duh, molecules! And Atoms! The periodic table of elements! Yes, yes, and the atoms? Despite the etymology, atoms turn out to be divisible into smaller things with, famously, "mostly empty space" between the smaller things. And, indeed, so on and so on. But not ad infinitum, at least not according to current scientific consensus. Indefinite divisibility would seem to leave us with a paradox, but so too does any really indivisible "atom," at least when you try to visualize it. Heisenberg recounted that a bad explanation in an elementary physics book in his youth depicted atoms "latching together" via hooks and eyes, in an analogy whose poor quality made him furious, since it was plain that if an atom could have a hook or an eye, it was not indivisible. In fact, the puzzle isn't about the atoms but about space. Imagine this tiny atom let's make it a sphere, indivisible. Imagine its surface. Imagine a dotted line on its surface demarcating its equator. Per hypothesis, the atom is not "made of" anything (it is indivisible and has no parts), but then what does the dotted line indicate? The puzzle of course means that the idea of space has broken down with the idea of the indivisible. And indeed, this is what happens even when we have surrendered the indivisible atom for the play of fields and forces in quantum mechanics, for, we are assured, at scales smaller than the Planck length, scale itself makes no sense to talk about. Let the performative contradiction here stand aside for the moment. the thing to notice is that in order for our usual explanations of "what things are made of" to work, we have to agree to come to a point where they don't work anymore.

But this is of course what was already at play with the pillars of the Earth, or indeed with the elephant or the turtles or the vast sea with the lotus floating on it and the world in the center, or the great tree Yggdrasil whose roots are gnawed by the Midgaard Serpent. We are imagining vast distances, far "below" or "beyond" our usual ken, and there is no reason to assume that our ordinary experiences are any guide to what we would find there if, per impossible, we were to climb down the trunk of the World Ash Tree or shimmy down onto the actual turtle's fluke.

It was absolutely understood that the terms "pillars," or "tree," or "elephant," was not what we usually meant by such terms, and yet in some manner analogous. Pushing that analogy into the literal in order to force a reductio, ("turtles all the way down" or whatnot) is like painting the dotted equator or putting a hook-and-eye mechanism on an atom. (This is not the same as saying the terms were "symbolic" as if there could be a literal, non-symbolic gloss.) By the time Archytas imagined standing at the edge of the universe and throwing a spear, we had come very far towards losing the sense of this analogical structure.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews II: Glory to God for All Things

My brief review this month is of Father Stephen Freeman's Glory to God for All Things.

An expressly theological blog, Glory to God has I think never been cited by me here, even though it has been on my blogroll from the beginning. (My aim is to include in this series only blogs I don't usually refer to in posts. We'll see how well that goes.) Fr. Stephen is a priest in the Orthodox Church in America, and his writings are examples of the best of contemporary Orthodoxy. There are no punches pulled -- he will leave you with no doubt about where he stands on the state of modern Christianity -- but none of those switchblade-stab asides either, where the critique gets you when you aren't looking. Fr. Stephen can be equally dismissive about the blind side of his fellow Orthodox (e.g. here: "Contrary to modern Orthodox conspiracy theories, ecumenism was not invented in the Vatican. It was invented on the frontiers of 19th century America"). There is no nostalgia for Byzantium or the "Third Rome," and no rallies for social or political "agendas." The theme here, repeated through a thousand nuanced variations but constant and gentle, the only one that matters, is addressed to each human being: metanoia. Repentance. Conversion of heart.

Some of Fr. Stephen's posts are what I'd call long but not too long, but they are all extremely readable. He wears his learning lightly and yet is unmistakable. (I have learned a great deal from reading him, on a purely academic level.) For all that, however, he writes always personally; the voice speaking is one that knows the struggle it articulates. This is why, I find, his always-pastoral concerns never capsize his posts into mere therapy. Typical is his remark in what is, as I wrote, his latest post:
[When] my family and I were received into the Holy Orthodox faith.... I met the day of our reception with fear and trembling, more because of the naked prospect of encountering God than from any other existential angst. I’ve learned since then that the inner life can be exceedingly creative in its efforts to avoid God. I placed myself in an Orthodox arena and found that there is still plenty of room there to play hide and seek.
I recommend this blog as the online place to start soaking in the atmosphere of Orthodoxy. You will have to do some soaking, because the language can be strange. ("The Holy Orthodox Faith"... who talks like that anymore?). Explanations are not usually given directly; it's a question of spending time (a lot of time) listening to the conversation to see how it works. Here one can listen, thankfully, without encountering the diatribes and infighting that beset too many Christian blogs. There are plenty of spots where you can eavesdrop on modern and "traditional" Catholics, Protestants liberal and evangelical, and old-world and new-world Orthodox all bickering. All of that provides us excuse after convenient excuse to look no further. ("See how they love each other!") Glory to God for All Things is not that. It articulates, without apology and without airs, a deep Christian faith steeped in two thousand years of practice. It is generous, guileless, and perennially relevant.