“poetic precedent”

I used to marvel at the author’s godlike ability to let be the inevitabilities within his characters. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky’s narrator depicts Gogol as throwing his arms up “in amazement” at Lieutenant Pirogov and his puff-pastry, as if the writer had not known what the character would do.

Now I get angry when a character in a television series does something that he really couldn’t (mainly in a moral sense) have done. (I think, in particular, of the distortion of Andrew Foyle in Foyle’s War, made necessary by Julian Ovenden’s choice to leave the series.)

Carl Eric Scott contrasts the “poetic precedent” of Middle Earth with that of the Star Wars universe in a similar context:

Contrary to what Canavan tries to imply, there is nothing remotely wise or tragic-sensed about this betrayal of the original magic of those films, particularly the first one. It is only “adult” in being jaded. Compare and contrast what Canavan reveals about Tolkien’s quickly-aborted attempt to write a piece set in his “Fourth Age” of Middle-Earth. Tolkien says he “discovered” several things about what would happen in Gondor, including the emergence of a secret Satanic cult. It’s always weird to read Tolkien saying he discovered this or that about his own imagined world, but what he apparently means is that following through on the logic of human (or elvish, etc.) nature and events, that this or that would follow. Middle-Earth (Arda, strictly speaking) was a literary world constructed carefully enough, and upon real wisdom and poetic precedent enough, to invite and sustain that kind of thinking, and that kind of discovery. The Star Wars world never was. Tolkien wisely chose to be silent about what would have to happen in the Fourth Age, in part to be true to the beautiful ending of The Lord of the Rings, but there was no literary necessity for the Star Wars world to go this way or that.

He goes on to offer this Spenglerian explanation for J.J. Abrams’ failure to “discover” anything:

Rather, there was another kind of necessity at work, as Pete suggests. One about money.

A couple of Spengler’s comments on money his Decline of the West:

It was in the conception of money as an inorganic and abstract magnitude, entirely disconnected from the notion of the fruitful earth and the primitive values, that the Romans had the advantage of the Greeks. Thenceforward, any high ideal of life becomes largely a question of money. […]

Money has become, for man as an economic animal, a form of the activity of waking-consciousness, having no longer any roots in Being. This is the basis of its monstrous power . . . .

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TOB: General Audience of 10/24/79

Man is a “totality.” He “belongs to the visible world,” a “body among bodies,” and is, at the same time, alone in the world. His self-knowledge and self-determination do not precede and are not possible without his bodiliness. Genesis links “man’s original solitude with the awareness of the body, through which man distinguishes himself from all the animalia . . . and through which he is a person.”

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TOB: General Audience of 10/10/79

The meaning of man’s original solitude.

a) There are two sorts of original solitude. There is the solitude of man (male) before the creation of woman. This is derived “from the relationship between male and female.” There is also the existentially prior solitude of man (male and female) that is derived from “man’s very nature.” Thus the original solitude about which JPII wish to speak (at least for the moment) is that solitude which man experiences qua man, that is, qua not-plant-animal-or-world.

b) Man’s subjective dimension first appears in the second creation account when God “sets the conditions” of his covenant: “Thou mayest eat thy fill of all the trees in the garden except the tree which brings knowledge of good and evil; if ever thou eatest of this, thy doom is death” (Gen 2:16-17). Then God “tests” man by bringing him animals and birds “to see what he would call them.” By naming animals man “gains the consciousness of his own superiority, that is, that he cannot be put on a par with any other species of living beings on the earth.” Man’s “negative” self-definition is a “positive aspect for [his] primary search,” before God, for his own being:

Self-knowledge goes hand in hand with knowledge of the world, of all visible creatures, of all living beings to which man has give their names to affirm his own dissimilarity before them. Thus, consciousness reveals man as the one who possesses the power of knowing with respect to the visible world. With this knowledge, which makes him go in some way outside of his own being, man at the same time reveals himself to himself in all the distinctiveness of his being. . . . Man is alone because he is “different” from the visible world, from the world of living beings.

c) Here, JPII introduces the term “person” as a positive definition of man, but he does not yet begin to analyze “the proper subjectivity that characterizes the person.”

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TOB: General Audience of 9/26/79

a) What “normative conclusions” can be drawn from the revelation that the “first divine order”–man’s situation of “original innocence”–has not “lost its force”? This revelation occurs as a reference by Christ to the sacred text that speaks about man’s “theological prehistory” (143), that is, to Genesis. That reference is also, according to John Paul II, a kind of “order” for his interlocutors (and therefore man) to “pass beyond the boundary” that separates historical man from the situation of original innocence (141). Christ’s words “allow us to find an essential continuity in man and a link between these two different states or dimensions of the human being.” According to the way both JPII and Benedict XVI read the Bible, this “good news” is not only information:

Christianity was not only “good news”–the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative.” That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known–it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. (Spe Salvi)

How does historical man experience this performative dimension of the Gospel? Christ’s ordering appeal must somehow man capable of discovering here and now the force of the “first divine order.” Is it possible to enact the link between man’s two original situations otherwise than “in speech,” that is, through (or elsewhere than in the dimension of) the interpretation of Scripture?

The state of sin is part of “historical man,” of the human beings about whom we read in Matthew 19, that is, of Christ’s interlocutors then, as well as of every other potential or actual interlocutor at all times of history and thus, of course, also of man today. Yet, in every man without exception, this state–the “historical” state–plunges its roots deeply into his theological “prehistory,” which is the state of original innocence. (143)

b) In this audience, JPII goes so far as to emphasize that Christ makes this performative appeal to the beginning “with words that he speaks with his own lips.” To these words “we have the right to attribute at the same time the whole eloquence of the mystery of the redemption.” Immediately after the fall, man begins “to live in the theological perspective of redemption.” That this redemption involves the body–and therefore man’s theological prehistory–is indicated both by the bodily speech of Christ and by the hereditary nature of original sin:

[The] perspective of the redemption of the body guarantees the continuity and the unity between man’s hereditary state of sin and his original innocence, although within history this innocence has been irremediably lost by him.

c) In section 4, JPII broaches the subject of the relation between revelation and experience: “our human experience is in some way a legitimate means for theological interpretation and . . . an indispensable point of reference to which we must appeal in the interpretation of the beginning.” In the footnote he points to man’s experience of “limits, sufferings, passions, weaknesses, and finally death itself” as the substance of his relation to “another and different state or dimension.”

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TOB: General Audience of 9/19/79

On the second account of the creation of man. 

The first account of the creation of man has a “powerful metaphysical content” that can form the basis for a metaphysics, an anthropology, and an ethics “according to which ‘ens et bonum convertuntur.'” In it man is defined “primarily in the dimensions of being and existing.” He walks “the familiar ways and by-ways” of creation and appears in the midst of the aspect of value. All creation is familiar to him. His procreation and his dominion are exercised in accord with creation itself. So far: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” This is the beginning to which Christ appeals, but it is not yet the man to whom Christ appeals. It is in the second account that we encounter the man for whom this beginning is strange ground, the man who almost has to be ordered back to it.

According to John Paul II, the second account is “subjective in nature and thus in some way psychological.” It contains “almost all the elements of the analysis of man.” In this account we come upon the two “original situations” of man and also the boundary between them. The first we have dealt with above. It is the state of “original innocence in which man (male and female) finds himself, as it were, outside the knowledge of good and evil.” The second is

that in which man, after having transgressed the Creator’s command at the suggestion of the evil spirit symbolized by the serpent, finds himself in some way within the knowledge of good and evil. This second situation determines the state of human sinfulness, contrasting with the state of primeval innocence.

The boundary is, of course, the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Historical man exists in this second situation and it is from within this knowledge that the heart of man hardens and makes “the law” necessary. For Christ’s interlocutors, the law is the extent of man’s recollection of “the familiar ways and by-ways” of our original situation–only through the law can man reclaim the imago dei and relate properly to himself, creation, and God. Inquiry into the propriety of divorce is therefore delimited by its lawfulness. The Pharisee cannot “go behind his father’s saying.” For the Christian, on the other hand, the law is a gift that belongs entirely to the order of this second situation. Something else, in Augustine’s words, “lives by faith in this fleeting course of time.” As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “if we can be justified through the law, then Christ’s death was needless” (Gal 2:21). Christ’s saving action (which also “saves” interpretation) opens a way back to our first situation:

When Christ, appealing to the “beginning,” directs the attention of his interlocutors to the words written in Genesis 2:24, he orders them in some sense to pass beyond the boundary that runs, in the Yahwist text of Genesis, between man’s first and second situation. He does not approve what Moses had allowed “because of hardness of … heart” and appeals to the words of the first divine order, expressly linked in this text with man’s state of original innocence. This means that this order has not lost its force, although man has lost his primeval innocence.

According to John Paul II, a theology of the body must “draw the normative conclusions” from Christ’s revelation that the “first divine order . . . has not lost its force.”

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TOB: General Audience of 9/12/79

a) The first, chronologically later, account of creation. Man is created imago dei but also “in the world and in time.” John Paul II imagines the Creator pausing, “enter[ing] back into himself,” before deciding to make man “in our image, in our likeness.” That pause when the Creator enters back into himself would be different from his rest on the seventh day which is the culmination of the goodness of each day, a final return to that zenith from which he saw that creation was good. His “halt,” on the other hand, would prefigure the binding of the imago dei to contingent being.

b) Man is defined by his “relationship to God” and cannot be reduced to the world. The imago dei is the means of remaining in and with “the beginning.” It is what de Lubac called the “unique image,” as if man is a “single being” according to the perspective of both creation and redemption. It is the communio by which we contingent beings remain with the beginning both by knowing the Word of God by heart (a communio of tradition) and by being fruitful and multiplying (the family).

c) The “powerful metaphysical content” of the first account:

Despite some detailed and plastic expressions in this passage, man is defined in it primarily in the dimensions of being and existing. He is defined in a more metaphysical than physical way. To the mystery of his creation (“in the image of God he created him”) corresponds the perspective of procreation (“be fruitful and multiply”), of coming to be in the world and in time, of “fieri,” which is necessarily tied to the metaphysical situation of creation: of contingent being (“contingens“). Precisely in this metaphysical context of the description of Genesis 1, one must understand the entity of the good, that is, the aspect of value. In fact, this aspect returns in the rhythm of almost all the days of creation and reaches its high point after the creation of man, “God say everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” This is why one can say with certainty that the first chapter of Genesis has formed an incontrovertible point of reference and solid basis of a metaphysics and also for an anthropology and an ethics according to which “ens et bonum convertuntur” [being and good are convertible]. Of course, all this has its own significance for theology as well, and above all for the theology of the body.

In the beginning, the “entity of the good” and the “aspect of value” are the same. The look of things, their being-there-in-the-first-place, is sufficient for a determination of their goodness. From the perspective of the beginning, then, the good is a natural unity to which all created things belong by virtue of their being at all. In light of the beginning, having-been-created is sufficient for participation in that goodness. In the beginning, man understood himself as participating in that goodness in his very being. But the entity of the good is also an aspect of value. Such participation is also a being-in-relation to that to which the “aspect of value” appears–to God. Furthermore, as imago dei man is privy to that aspect. From the beginning, his being-in-the-world is always already ethical. Historical man finds himself caught up in the problem of a having-been-good that is also somehow linked to a having-been-related-to-the-divine.

d) One of the basic questions of the Theology of the Body is whether and how the ought or as it should be of the “aspect of value” is still in force in creation after the fall, when the good for man seems to appear only in the “perspective of the redemption of the body.” How do we remain from the beginning as we await that redemption?

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TOB: General Audience of 9/5/79

This post begins a series of reflections on each of the Wednesday audiences that make up John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” I am using Michael Waldstein’s translation.

a) As Christ and the Pharisees discuss the problem of divorce, they do not have a copy of the text of Genesis before them. As JPII points out, both Christ and the Pharisees known Genesis “by heart.” Christ’s question, which begins, “Have you not read . . .” is rhetorical. It is meant to show that the “hardness of heart” that forces Moses to allow divorce in Genesis is still at issue in the Pharisaic way of knowing (even though that knowing is also a knowing “by heart”). “From the beginning it was not so.” This declaration encompasses both the problem of divorce and the problem of hermeneutics. John Paul II’s “theology of the body” is therefore also a study of the relation of the body to knowing. Man and woman became “one flesh” in the beginning. Hearing the Word of God and keeping it truly over time were also one flesh in the beginning. Man’s way of knowing is always already a communal keeping and having-kept. Pharisaic knowing (and, of course, our knowing) keeps the beginning–even the exact words of the beginning–in what JPII calls the wrong “dimension,” a dimension delimited by the “hardness of heart.”

b) Because of this hardness of heart, because we no longer dwell in the beginning, Christ is almost forced to give a “normative” meaning to words that, in Genesis, were “statements of fact.” The is of the “most ancient revelation”–Genesis–can no longer be heard without the addition of the ought, the “let not man separate” of the New Testament. JPII points out that “Christ does not limit himself only to the quote itself, but adds, ‘[. . .] let man not separate.'” His addition to Genesis is in keeping with the beginning, with “what Genesis speaks about.” Also, the normative meaning of “let man not separate” refers not only to the joining in marriage of man and woman, but also to the joining of normative and “factual” truth. The identity of ought and is is also part of the “most ancient revelation.”

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