On Space. Architects are Taoists. As proof, juxtapose the following quotes:

Solid-void theory . . . holds that the volumetric spaces shaped or implied by the placement of solid objects are as important as, or more important than, the objects themselves.

— Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (thing #5)

Thirty spokes are united around the hub to make a wheel,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the carriage depends.
Clay is molded to form a utensil,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the utensil depends.
Doors and windows are cut out to make a room,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the room depends.
Therefore turn being into advantage, and turn non-being into utility.

— Lao Tzu, Tao-te ching, chapter 11 (translated by Wing-Tsit Chan)

Chan, Lao Tzu’s translator in the philosophically and historically rigorous The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te-ching), states in a comment that “this chapter alone should dispel any idea that Taoism is negativistic, for non-being — the hole in the hub, the hollowness of a utensil, the empty space in the room — is here conceived not as nothingness but as something useful and advantageous. . . . It was because of the Taoist insistence on the positive value of non-being that empty space has been utilized as a constructive factor in Chinese landscape painting. In this greatest art of China, space is used to combine the various elements into an organic whole and to provide a setting in which the onlooker’s imagination may work. By the same token, much is left unsaid in Chinese poetry, for the reader must lay a creative role to bring the poetic idea into full realization.”

It seems to me that Lao Tzu is using non-being in these three examples in a physical sense as a way to predispose his reader to a more abstract understanding of non-being. But I guess the little I know about the Buddhist idea of Emptiness, which came a bit later to China, predisposes me to think that the Taoist notion of non-being is surprisingly utilitarian. Of course, the Tao-te ching can come across like Machiavelli’s The Prince sometimes with its seemingly cynical advice to rulers. But I do like how Lao Tzu’s notion of non-being works in architecture, painting, poetry, and spoons.


On Why I’m a Whig. This quote from Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics cracked me up today:

. . . What it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action[?] Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise.

I’m no great thinker — I don’t have a philosophical intelligence or frame of mind — but I can relate to Aristotle’s rueful (well, rueful if Aristotle were an American politician) “the many do not give the same account as the wise.”

I’m not up for Aristotle’s class-structured government, and Aristotle’s teleological understanding of happiness is a tough sell in a democracy dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But I agree with his teleological understanding of happiness, and I agree that, usually, “the many do not give the same account as the wise.”

I think Lincoln agreed with both, too. In fact, I think he lived out this paradox. A democracy is blessed if its leaders, during a critical time such as our Civil War, demonstrate wisdom consistent with a high notion of what Jefferson called “societal happiness.” Lincoln is the last United States president, I think, who was critical of his nation’s spiritual condition and got away with it, at least in the eyes of history. (See his Peoria speech and his Second Inaugural.)

The quote, and some further thoughts about it, added a new #15 to the (now) 26 reasons why I’m a Whig.


On Philosophy in fiction. Roland Barthes puts it this way (as only he could have):

There are those who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the “dominant ideology”; but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text (see the myth of the Woman without a Shadow). The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro. [Emphasis original]

The Pleasure of the Text, page 32.


On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.


On Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting. Susan Sontag: “. . .Barthes invariably performs in a affable register. There are no rude or prophetic claims, no pleadings with the reader, and no efforts not to be understood. This is seduction as play, never violation. All of Barthes’s work is an exploration of the histrionic or ludic; in many ingenious modes, a plea for savor, for a festive (rather than dogmatic or credulous) relation to ideas.”

Barthes’s strategy of linked aphorisms is part of his “exploration of the histrionic or ludic.”

Barthes’s world feels like a circus, under the big top and at sunrise, too, when the trapeze artist, assigned a month into the season to pick up the park because the clown during a card game told the men that he had seen her lying on the grass and listening to the dawn chorus, pokes the cups with her stick. Barthes’s circus is the poet Robert Lax‘s circus, a world of vocation and honest living.


On Philosophy in fiction. How does Shakespeare use ideas in fiction? On Friday, a friend referred me to a couplet I’ve never thought about, though I’ve taught Romeo and Juliet for eight straight years:

She’s not well married that lives married long;
But she’s best married that dies married young.

With these and other reflections on life and love, Friar Lawrence in act 4, scene 5 seeks to comfort the Capulets over Juliet’s ostensible death. The view of marriage expressed by this couplet seems to contradict those Lawrence expresses in act 2, scene 6 while counseling Romeo about marriage:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(Is “love moderately” another of Romeo and Juliet’s oxymorons? After all, even the lover Jesus scolds in Revelation, “I would thou wert cold or hot.” But I think Lawrence’s advice here hinges on what he might mean by moderation: develop other interests in one’s marriage besides sex, and develop other interests in life besides marriage. (But what kind of play would such a life afford us?) Lawrence here also touches on another Romeo and Juliet idea: the link between sex and violence.)

I think the contradiction between Lawrence’s endorsement of “long love” in act 2 and his endorsement of what must be called short love in act 4 reinforces act 4’s dramatic irony. No one in the latter scene but Lawrence knows that Juliet is alive. So Shakespeare uses this dramatic irony to work in some thematic irony. Lawrence takes the opportunity while living this lie to aver in the starkest terms the antithesis of his own opinion.

What makes Friar Lawrence’s avowal of short love otherwise so convincing is the play’s focus on young love and the absence from the play of anything like long love (unless you count the long feud as long love by agreeing with Romeo that “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love”). But the play’s treatment of moderation and violence reinforces what the dramatic irony suggests – that Lawrence in act 4 presents the antithesis of his own opinion. This antithesis strengthens both the drama and the theme.

Shakespeare, maybe even more than his devotee Dostoevsky, enriches fiction with ideas.


On Orality and intimacy. Woolf, too:

What has praise and fame to do with poetry? What has seven editions (the book had already gone into no less) got to do with the value of it? Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?

Ong could have used that quote as an epigraph to something. (From Orlando, which I just finished rereading. Harcourt 1956 edition, page 325)

Categorized as Marginal


On Santorum vs. Paul: Lincoln vs. Douglas?  In last night’s Jacksonville debate, Santorum again went out of his way to espouse natural law principles.  Asked how his faith might influence him as president, he immediately veered from the question to make the case for reading the Declaration of Independence as the heart of the Constitution.  He then accused President Obama of what amounts to legal positivism — of seeing the state as the source of our rights. Santorum:

Faith is a very, very important part of my life, but it’s a very, very important part of this country. The foundational documents of our country — everybody talks about the Constitution, very, very important. But the Constitution is the “how” of America. It’s the operator’s manual.

The “why” of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The Constitution is there to do one thing: protect God-given rights. That’s what makes America different than every other country in the world. No other country in the world has its rights — rights based in God-given rights, not government-given rights.

And so when you say, well, faith has nothing to do with it, faith has everything to do with it. If rights come…


If our president believes that rights come to us from the state, everything government gives you, it can take away. The role of the government is to protect rights that cannot be taken away.

And so the answer to that question is, I believe in faith and reason and approaching the problems of this country but understand where those rights come from, who we are as Americans and the foundational principles by which we have changed the world.

Notice the telltale references to both faith and reason, to the distinction between the Declaration as a statement of truths and the Constitution as a means of protecting those truths (Lincoln’s apples of gold in pictures of silver), and to the question over the ultimate origin of rights.  Pure natural law argument.

Of course, the purest form of legal positivism these days comes from the conservatives and not from Obama or other moderates.  The legal positivism of Bork, Rehnquist, and Scalia, among others — the refusal to see our rights as emanating from anything greater than a majority’s sufferance — is partly a reaction to what those judges and justices understand to be a groundless Living Constitution.  For the average conservative jurist, discovering the Declaration’s truths in the Constitution seems just as touchy-feely as Living Constitution’s shifting, generational understanding.

This is why I believe moderates and liberals are closer to the Founders than the conservatives.  “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”  At least the Living Constitution has as its central premise that the Constitution has a heart.  And if moderates and liberals want to stop ceding the Constitution and the Founders to the states-rights conservatives, they may wish to examine natural law, perhaps starting with John Locke and Abraham Lincoln.  After all, few of Rick Santorum’s political views inexorably follow from natural law.

Categorized as Marginal


On Voir Dire (and critic George Steiner’s aversion to critics).  Here’s artist and theorist Wassily Kandinsky on art historians:

Art historians . . . write books full of praise and deep sentiments — about an art that yesterday was regarded as senseless.  By means of these books, they remove the hurdles over which art has long sine jumped, and set up new ones, which shti time are supposed to stay permanently and firmly in place. Engaged in this occupation, they fail to notice that they are building their barriers behind art rather than in front of it.  If they notice it tomorrow, then they will quickly write more books in order to remove their barriers one stage further.  And this occupation will continue unchanged until it is realized that the external principles of art can only be valid for the past and not for the future. . . . Theory is the lantern that illuminates the crystallize forms of yesterday and before. [On the Spiritual in Art, chapter 3]

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. [Matthew]


On Texas’s successive secessions. A potential secessionist is now a potential president.  James Buchanan is considered one of our worst presidents in large part because he didn’t think he could resist secession.  But even Buchanan never suggested secession as an option, as Mr. Perry has.  The issue isn’t patriotism but one of inalienable rights.  At its heart, secession is contrary to the notion that all men are created equal.