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Lost

You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

Walker Percy

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

Katie van Schaijik

What is criticism?

Mar. 26, 2010, at 12:45am

Many and many is the time in my adult life I have tried to wave the banner for criticism—tried to rally fellow Christians to do it more, accept it more.   Socrates explained why way back: The one who proves me wrong is my greatest benefactor—because nothing is worse and more damaging to the soul than to commit wrong. It follows that those who show me where I’m going wrong do me great good.
Christians—so conscious of our imperfections and enjoined to be humble—should recognize that reality all the more, shouldn’t we? Don’t we know we are blind to our own faults? Don’t we see how many good works and good institutions have gone awry because they have shut their ears to honest criticism?
Yet, endlessly, those who criticize (I know because by vocation I’m one of them) are rejected for being “negative” and accused of “attacking” when we mean only to challenge or correct or admonish. The mention of an offense is received as an outrage—proof of non-friendship: “Obviously, you don’t like me”. The pointing out of a substantial flaw in approach is treated as Satanic persecution of a “good person” or a “work of God”. I’ve never understood this. I’ve been shocked and depressed by it. I’ve lost friends, and had to sever ties with certain causes and institutions because of it.
And, being a self-critic too, I sometimes suppose the break must be my fault. And sometimes it is. (I criticized without grace or sensitivity perhaps.) But sometimes it’s not. Regardless, criticism itself remains highly called for.
I have just come across a quote from a film critic (in a First Things article) (hat tip Arts and Letters Daily), Pauline Kael, that captures the point perfectly: “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising.” That’s it!
The critic plays in community the role of conscience in personal life—abuse-stopper, bogosity detector, discriminator, prophet. Without him we’re too prone to sensation and manipulation. Also, without him we’re all too likely to be content with mediocrity.

In this connection, I have to say that Roger Kimball’s Notes and Asides in the current issue of the New Criterion is worth the price of a year’s subscription to that excellent journal. Here is a sample paragraph (referring to Anthony Daniel’s critique of Ayn Rand, which I mentioned and excerpted in a post below.)

The New Criterion is primarily a journal of criticism. Anthony Daniels’s essay on Ayn Rand is a percipient exercise in that art. This is something that Rand’s acolytes cannot abide. Never mind that, early on in his piece, Dr. Daniels enumerates what he takes to be Rand’s virtues: “She was highly intelligent; she was brave and uncompromising in defense of her ideas; she had a kind of iron integrity; and, though a fierce defender of capitalism, she was by no means avid for money herself. The propagation of truth as she saw it was far more important to her than her own material ease.” The fact that he goes on to dilate on her limitations and vices puts him beyond the pale for the Randian faithful. Dr. Daniels has assured us privately that the followers of Virginia Woolf are even more intolerant of criticism than the followers of Ayn Rand. Perhaps. If so, their intellectual sclerosis must be complete.

I am sorry to say that in my experience the brittle intolerance-of-criticism of Ayn Rand devotees is not unlike what I have found among many Christians.


Katie van Schaijik

What is conscience 5

Mar. 25, 2010, at 5:12pm

See below for the 5th and last part of the comments elicited by Katie's post on Conscience

Katie van Schaijik

What is conscience 4

Mar. 25, 2010, at 4:12pm

See below for the 4th part of the comments elicited by Katie's post on Conscience

Katie van Schaijik

What is conscience 3

Mar. 25, 2010, at 3:12pm

See below for the 3rd part of the comments elicited by Katie's post on Conscience

Katie van Schaijik

What is conscience 2

Mar. 25, 2010, at 2:12pm

See below for the 2nd part of the comments elicited by Katie's post on Conscience

Katie van Schaijik

What is conscience

Mar. 25, 2010, at 1:12pm

A friendly behind-the-scenes dispute with a Linde reader on the topic of religious liberty has reminded me once again how widespread is the confusion about the nature of conscience in our day. Many take it to be nothing other than a license for religious and moral subjectivism. The duty to act according to conscience is twisted into a right to do whatever I want so long as I don’t see anything wrong with it.

So when a traditionalist Catholic hears someone (like me) claiming (as I do) that religious liberty is an imperative of human dignity, he thinks he is hearing a defense of relativism. When I say (following Newman) that conscience is the voice of God speaking in the human soul, he understands me to absurdly and dangerously identifying all sincere ideas and intentions with the voice of God.

My desire to clear up the misunderstanding sent me back to Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk section on conscience. In it Newman clearly distinguishes between a false and contemptible notion of conscience popular in his day (and ours) and the truth about conscience.

When [today] men advocate the rights of conscience, they…do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.

If this is a person’s idea of conscience, it is no wonder that he thinks that the notion of religious liberty threatens the objectivity of truth! In fact, though, conscience properly understood, is nothing other than the subjective apprehension of moral truth and its implication for me as a free moral agent, answerable before God for my actions. Here is Newman again [my bold]:

I say, then, that the Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels. “The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding {247} the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” (Gousset, Theol. Moral., t. i. pp. 24, &c.) This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;” and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience. “The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran Council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.’”

So, as I put it to my traditionalist partner in dialogue:

The thing to do, when conscience is so widely and badly misconceived is to correct the misconception, not give in to it, and then treat conscience as something dangerous and doubtful and needing to be kept on a tight leash by authorities.

It is a great mistake for Catholics to think they can advance the cause of Truth by suppressing or downplaying or curtailing the rights of conscience. Only a laity with strong, free and clear consciences can possibly meet the emergency of our times. That’s why Vatican II made it so central a part of its teaching. A legalistic ethos that renders Catholics immaturely dependent on external authority will not answer.

Like Newman, my interest in freedom has everything to do with my interest in Truth and my interest in persons. Conscience is where Truth (highest, most momentous Truth) and persons meet, in the intimate interior of the soul. Hence, those who want to stifle conscience or limit its scope are—whether they realize it or not—calling for the oppression of persons—calling for them to be less intimate with God, less personally unified with Truth, more dependent on external authority.

You want consciences to be well and properly formed. Very good. So do I. But to do that we have to know what conscience is in the first place, viz. the voice of God in the human soul.


Katie van Schaijik

The nanny becomes a bully

Mar. 23, 2010, at 10:46am

The Australian think tank Institute of Public Affairs has published an insightful article by Patrick Basham (hat tip Mark Levin) foretelling the coming of the bully state. Governmental paternalism leads inexorably to governmental strong-arming. Concern for public health rapidly becomes demand for “healthy behavior”, quickly followed by all manner of coercion.

The past generation of welfare statism saw the unduly protective Nanny State bleed into every sinew of our daily lives. Sociologist David Marsland explains that, ‘Once you have a big welfare state in place, the excuse for state nannying is infinite in scale’, he says. ‘This ... continues the process of reducing self-reliance and handing responsibility for ourselves to external bodies.’

Yet, just when you thought things could not get worse, they did. Two years ago, Oxford University’s Nuffield Council of Bioethics published a seminal report that provided the international public health establishment with the explicit rationale for a dramatic change in the relationship between the citizen and the State.

Of course, the implications of the Nuffield Report extend far beyond health. Given the expansive way in which health is now defined, the state’s power to enforce behavioural change on individuals reaches considerably beyond the current notion of what falls within health care.


Katie van Schaijik

Power vs. service

Mar. 18, 2010, at 3:32pm

A quote from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (posted at the Corner by Andy McCarthy just now) expresses the cynical opposite of authentic personalism as well as the Christian gospel.

It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principles but act on power principles; a world where we are always moral and our enemies always immoral; a world where “reconciliation” means that when one side gets the power and the other side gets reconciled to it, then we have reconciliation[.]

Personalism seeks to replace the dynamics of power with the dynamics of love and service, because these are the only dynamics worthy of the dignity of persons, the ones we were made for, the ones in which we can flourish.


Katie van Schaijik

The de-personalizing Legion of Christ

Mar. 16, 2010, at 11:35am

I’ll have more to say on this article soon.


Katie van Schaijik

Christians in public

Mar. 11, 2010, at 12:51pm

A friend pointed me to this recent address by Denver Archbishop Chaput on religion and public life. He approaches the subject by way of a thoughtful critique of a landmark speech by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to a group of Protestant ministers fifty years ago—a speech designed to allay fears about Kennedy’s Catholicism influencing his politics.

To his credit, Kennedy said that if his duties as President should “ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.” He also warned that he would not “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.” But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that. It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties. And it set “the national interest” over and against “outside religious pressures or dictates.”
For his audience of Protestant ministers, Kennedy’s stress on personal conscience may have sounded familiar and reassuring. But what Kennedy actually did, according to Jesuit scholar Mark Massa, was something quite alien and new. He “‘secularize[d]’ the American presidency in order to win it.” In other words, “[P]recisely because Kennedy was not an adherent of that mainstream Protestant religiosity that had created and buttressed the ‘plausibility structures’ of [American] political culture at least since Lincoln, he had to ‘privatize’ presidential religious belief – including and especially his own – in order to win that office.”

The archbishop, again following Massa, points out that the secularization that followed as a consequence of Kennedy’s stress on separation of church and state is partly the fault of Protestant resistance to Catholics in public office.

[S]ome of the same people who worried publicly about Kennedy’s Catholic faith got a result very different from the one they expected. In effect, “the raising of the [Catholic] issue itself went a considerable way toward ‘secularizing’ the American public square by privatizing personal belief. The very effort to ‘safeguard’ the [essentially Protestant] religious aura of the presidency . . . contributed in significant ways to its secularization.”

Then he shifts to the remedy: A renewal of Christian action in public life—action grounded not on a theory or program, but on the personal influence of (mostly) laymen living lives rooted in a personal relationship with Christ.

Christian faith is not a set of ethics or doctrines. It’s not a group of theories about social and economic justice. All these things have their place. All of them can be important. But a Christian life begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ; and it bears fruit in the justice, mercy and love we show to others because of that relationship.


Katie van Schaijik

Satanism in the Vatican

Mar. 10, 2010, at 11:01pm

The only part of the story about the chief exorcist’s claims that Satan is at work in the Vatican (including among Cardinals and Bishops) I find impossible to believe is this comment from another Roman exorcist repudiating the charge:

“Cardinals might be better or worse, but all have upright intentions and seek the glory of God,” he said.”


Katie van Schaijik

Freedom has to come from within

Mar. 9, 2010, at 12:34pm

I was a supporter of the Iraq invasion at the time. But a comment by Daniel Pipes in the Corner this morning expresses well my worries now.

“It takes a cynical mind not to share in the achievement of Iraq’s national elections.” So writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board today. I’m no cynic, but my mood about Iraq could variously be described as depressed, despairing, despondent, dejected, pessimistic, melancholic, and gloomy.

That’s because the Iraqi regime (along with those of Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority) is a kept institution that cannot survive without constant American support. As long as Washington pumps money and sacrifices lives to maintain the Baghdad government, the latter can hobble along. Remove those props and Iranian-backed Islamists soon take over.

Tehran has aspired to seize effective control of Iraq since the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. With many levers at hand, from mosques to schools to militias to politicians, the Iranian despots are well placed to inherit the country.

It does no good to remove a tyrant militarily if the moral conditions that allowed his rise to power remain in force on the ground.  We would have done much better, I now think, to support internal resistance.


Katie van Schaijik

Al Qaida calls for more murder

Mar. 7, 2010, at 2:52pm

Speaking of fanaticism and intimidation in religion, now this.

Al-Qaida’s American-born spokesman on Sunday called on Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces to emulate the Army major charged with killing 13 people in Fort Hood…

“Nidal Hasan is a pioneer, a trailblazer and a role-model who has opened a door, lit a path and shown the way forward for every Muslim who finds himself among the unbelievers,” Gadahn said.
In the latest video, Gadahn said those planning attacks did not need to use only firearms like Hasan, but could use other weapons. “As the blessed operations of September 11th showed, a little imagination and planning and a limited budget can turn almost anything into a deadly, effective and convenient weapon.”
Gadahn said fighters should target mass transportation systems in the West and also wreak havoc “by killing or capturing people in government, industry and the media.”


Katie van Schaijik

Intimidation vs. freedom in religion

Mar. 7, 2010, at 1:58pm

Several years ago Jules and I heard Cardinal Schönborn give a lecture about the then newly released Catechism of the Catholic Church. Afterwards, someone in the audience asked the Cardinal what the Church was going to do about dissenting theologians and catechists. He answered with moving humility that he himself, who had headed the group that had authored the catechism, had been unable to stop the teaching of heterodoxy in his own diocese of Vienna. Then he told us that he had recently found himself sitting beside a highly-placed Muslim cleric on an airplane who had asked a similar question: Why did the Church not crack down on dissent within its ranks? His response was to point to the mystery of freedom in the Christian vision.

Yesterday I spoke with a friend who had just run into a friend of hers and discovered that he had left the Church months ago. She was full of sorrow for him and remorse that she had not even known—had done nothing to reach out to him. She prayed with him on the spot and recommitted herself to being a better friend from here on out.

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali was asked whether she was concerned about the influence of fundamentalist Christians in our society, she said (paraphrasing from memory), “No. When Christians ask me if I’m a believer and I say, ‘no’, they don’t try to kill me; they say they’ll pray for me.”

After posting the entry below, I found (by way of the Drudge Report) another article, this one in the New York Times, on Scientology and its defectors. It featured a young couple who had been raised in Scientology, who had been true believers and had dedicated themselves to working for it for years. Over time, witnessing the way staff were treated, and sensing the whole thing was a giant sham, they grew disillusioned and wanted to leave. But,

They could not just up and go. For one, they said, the church had taken their passports. But even more important, they knew that if they left the Sea Org without going through the church’s official exit process, they would be declared “suppressive persons” — antisocial enemies of Scientology. They would lose the possibility of living for eternity. Their parents, siblings and friends who are Scientologists would have to disconnect completely from them, or risk being declared suppressive themselves.

“You’re in fear,” Mr. Collbran said. “You’re so into it, it’s everything you know: your family, your eternity.”

I am appreciating more and more the place of freedom in personal life, and the wrong of all forms of coercion and intimidation in religion. And I am thanking God for the radical difference on that score between Christianity and other faiths.

UPDATE: Later in the NYT article, a current spokesman for the church of Scientology defends their practice of shunning apostates this way:

Mr. Davis, the church’s current spokesman, said Scientologists are no different from Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Amish who practice shunning or excommunication.

“These are common religious tenets,” he said. “The very survival of a religion is contingent on its protecting itself.”

Excommunication in the Catholic Church, as I understand it, is not something the faithful do to the sinner, so much as what the sinner does to himself. In any case, it does not entail shunning the ex-communicant personally. It means rather that he may not receive the Sacraments of the Church unless and until he repents.


Katie van Schaijik

Son of Hamas fingers Allah as the source of Islamic terror

Mar. 7, 2010, at 12:08pm

The Wall Street Journal has an article today about Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of one of the founders of Hamas, who spied for Israel and later converted to Christianity. I found the last few paragraphs especially interesting.

As the son of a Muslim cleric, he says he had reached the conclusion that terrorism can’t be defeated without a new understanding of Islam. Here he echoes other defectors from Islam such as the former Dutch parliamentarian and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Do you consider your father a fanatic? “He’s not a fanatic,” says Mr. Yousef. “He’s a very moderate, logical person. What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic or not, he’s doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn’t matter if he’s a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God. I know this is harsh to say. Most governments avoid this subject. They don’t want to admit this is an ideological war.

“The problem is not in Muslims,” he continues. “The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to.”

These are all dangerous words. Of the threats issued to his life by Islamists, he says, “That’s not the worst thing that can happen to you. I’m OK with it, I’m not afraid. . Palestinians have reason to kill me. Some Israelis may want to kill me. My goal is not to defeat my enemy. It is to win over my enemy.”


Katie van Schaijik

Josef Seifert calls on PAV President to step down

Mar. 5, 2010, at 4:48pm

Personalist Project Adviser Josef Seifert is the seventh member of the Pontifical Academy for Life to call for its president, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, to step down or be removed from office over public comments that “appeared to condone the abortion of the unborn twins of a nine-year-old rape victim in Brazil.”
Here is an article about the scandal.
See also Professor Seifert’s open letter on the question. The whole thing is more than worth reading, but below is a sample paragraph, responding to the Archbishop’s published suggestion that the moral status of such “therapeutic abortions” was a difficult question addressed to the consciences of those directly involved.

He even said that it was an act of mercy and life-saving, given the alleged danger the girl had been in and the terrible abuse the girl had suffered and the pains she might have had to suffer in the future. All of this implies that it was even a good act under the circumstances. All of these and similar statements are in full tune with a moral theological position that has been widespread among many Catholic moral theologians for decades and still is held by many, mainly among those theologians who opposed Humanae Vitae. This ethical view is called proportionalism or consequentialism. According to it, there are no intrinsically morally wrong acts which to commit is sinful under all circumstances. There is no intrinsically wrong act at all, according to this opinion, that could not be justified by its consequences, i.e., if it’s foreseeable good consequences outweigh the bad ones. This position, which also I have criticized in many articles and an unpublished book, would undermine the basis not only of Church doctrine but of Socratic ethics and of morality itself, and was clearly condemned in Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Veritatis splendor, which taught unambiguously that this position (defended by Fuchs, Demmer, Böckle, Schüller, and many other Catholic moral theologians), is gravely false and contrary to Catholic ethical teaching.


Jules van Schaijik

Intimacy without love: an illustration

Feb. 28, 2010, at 11:22pm

Katie’s recent post about intimacy without love (better read it before this one) reminds me of a passage in Jane Eyre, which beautifully illustrates her point. St. John, a zealous clergyman who also happens to be Jane Eyre’s cousin, has just asked her to be his wife and to accompany him to India to do missionary work. He frankly admits that he is not in love with her; he wants her by his side mainly because of the important role she can play in his missionary activities.

‘God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must - shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you - not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.’

Remarkably, Jane actually considers the proposal. After some serious soul searching she decides that, though it would be very hard on her and almost certainly lead to her premature death, she could go to India with St. John and serve him well (‘He will never love me; but he shall approve me’). But she cannot go as his wife. It would be wrong. About that she is both certain and adamant.

‘Consent, then, to his demand is possible: but for one item - one dreadful item. It is - that he asks me to be his wife, and has no more of a husband’s heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock… He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon, and that is all. Unmarried to him, this would never grieve me; but can I let him complete his calculations - coolly put into practice his plans - go through the wedding ceremony? Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent? Can I bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous. I will never undergo it. As his sister, I might accompany him - not as his wife: I will tell him so.’

When Jane thinks of the proposed marriage as a “monstrous” martyrdom, she expresses the same truth as Vivian Gornick: that “to live without intimacy in the most intimate of circumstances is to sustain permanent damage to the spirit.” It is not a noble self-giving but a lamentable self-squandering.


Katie van Schaijik

Bill Buckley on the morality of the last days

Feb. 27, 2010, at 1:15pm

NRO’s Corner today marks the second anniversary of the death of William F. Buckley, Jr. by posting a remarkable note of his to a friend, written about something he had published in 1962.

In the passage you quote from Up From Liberalism I intended, indeed, to refer to the religious truth that is our central heritage and to the moral philosophy and human insight that derive from it. Sometimes this position is referred to (in a phrase going back, I believe, to the days of the Roman Empire) as “the morality of the last days”—by which is meant the world-view of men who know that death is close. But, in the long view, we all stand sentenced to death, and whether it comes in 1995 or tomorrow makes no difference. That is why the morality of the last days always applies to what is “finally important in human experience.” All our techniques of social welfare, all our science, all our comfort, all our liberty, all our democracy and foreign aid and grandiloquent orations—all that means nothing to me and nothing to you in the moment when we go. At that moment we must put our souls in order, and the way to do that was lighted for us by Jesus, and since then we have had need of no other light. That is what is finally important; it has not changed; and it will not change. It is truth, which shall ever abide in the future. And if it is “reactionary” to hold a truth that will be valid for all future time, then words have lost their meaning, and men their reason.


Katie van Schaijik

Intimacy without love damages the spirit

Feb. 23, 2010, at 11:02pm

Reading a short biography of the nineteenth century American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I came across an intriguing line of argument in favor of changes in the (then) marriage laws to allow more easily for divorce. Speaking of “English radicals of the Enlightenment,” the author, Vivian Gornick, tells us:

Among people like William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and later, Robert Owen, the French Revolution had sharpened the conviction that beyond the need for political equality [between men and women] lay an equally great need to create the conditions in which the inner life could flourish. First on the list of their demands was a radical revision of the marriage laws. For these remarkable thinkers, marriage without intimacy—that is, the marriage commonly made without friendship or love out of economic and social considerations—was a prime villain in the matter of stunted or deformed inner lives. They saw that, at best, such arrangements promised neutrality of feeling, and they wrote eloquently to demonstrate that neutrality of feeling is a dangerous illusion: to live without intimacy in the most intimate of circumstances is to sustain permanent damage to the spirit. Forced by law to live in the presence of such an absence, one’s inner being closes down—is made cold, defensive, remote—and all too soon one becomes incapable of human empathy: a danger both to oneself and the world. Goodwin and Owen became known as “sexual radicals” as a consequence of writing and speaking endlessly about the death-in-life that is marriage without friendship or love.

Setting aside the question of divorce and laws governing marriage, I find it a remarkably personalistic insight, and one that is deeply true. The same line of thought could, I think, be used to make a compelling case against both arranged marriages and the hook-up culture prevailing in our society today. The objective intimacy of bodily union must be matched by subjective intimacy and self-giving or it becomes positively harmful.
But I’d love to know how it strikes others.


Katie van Schaijik

Kleist’s take on modernity

Feb. 18, 2010, at 12:55pm

A Barnes and Noble review of a new collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s prose ends with a paragraph that succinctly captures a salient feature of modernity.

Fifty years ago, Martin Greenberg tried to determine the particular quality that gives Kleist his startling modernity. He pointed, finally, to “the questionableness at the heart of his world, the almost diabolical ambiguity of its atmosphere, the way things tremble and shift and make one wonder if they are what they seem.” In essence, Kleist consistently subverts our expectations. Like the earthquake in Chile, his fiction causes the apparently solid ground beneath our feet to shudder, crack, and, finally, give way.

I know von Kleist’s name from the story I often heard told in philosophy classes on Kant’s epistemology: that this great 19th century German poet, playwright and story-teller was so appalled by Kan’t theory that the human mind cannot attain objective reality that he committed suicide.

Being an artist of exceptional sensitivity, Von Kleist no doubt felt sooner and suffered more from the spiritual malaise that afflicts the modern world. His despair is negative testimony to the human need for truth, certainty, the metaphysical stability and inherent meaningfulness of reality.

Here is a contrasting sense of reality from Edith Stein, who, as a woman who went from being a Jewish German atheist to Catholic Carmelite nun eventually gassed to death in Auschwitz, knew as much von Kleist about the ambiguities of the modern world.

In the knowledge that being holds me, I rest securely. This security, however, is not self-assurance of one who under her own power stands on firm ground, but rather the sweet and blissful security of the child that is lifted up and carried by a strong arm.


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