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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

the virginia tech massacre

Yesterday, LI just couldn’t leave the news from Virginia Tech alone. We were transfixed.

There’s a famous story in the Fourth book of the Republic. Socrates and Glaucon are discussing the soul and its vagaries, with the aim of trying to anatomize it. Socrates suggests that the soul is composed of a rational part and an irrational part. The irrational part, characteristically, desires – Socrates uses the example of the desire to drink. Thirst might not be irrational in itself, but it gains its power from the irrational part of the soul. However, that desires are not enacted immediately is, for Socrates, evidence that something - and Socrates tries to show that it is the other part of the soul, reason - impinges on the irrational part:

“S: And the forbidding principle is derived from reason, and that which bids and attracts proceeds from passion and disease?
G: Clearly.
S: Then we may fairly assume that they are two, and that they differ from one another; the one with which man reasons, we may call the rational principle of the soul, the other, with which he loves and hungers and thirsts and feels the flutterings of any other desire, may be termed the irrational or appetitive, the ally of sundry pleasures and satisfactions?
G: Yes, he said, we may fairly assume them to be different.
S: Then let us finally determine that there are two principles existing in the soul. And what of passion, or spirit? Is it a third, or akin to one of the preceding?
G: I should be inclined to say--akin to desire.
S: Well, I said, there is a story which I remember to have heard, and in which I put faith. The story is, that Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.
G: I have heard the story myself, he said.
S:The moral of the tale is, that anger at times goes to war with desire, as though they were two distinct things.”

In the ancient world, the instruments of the senses were sometimes given character, as if they existed as persons in their own right. That famous saying of Jesus – “if thy eye offend thee, pluck it out” – comes out of this background. There is a deeper background in the Upanishads – as Paul Deussen writes:

In the beginning, Atman alone existed. He resolved to create the worlds and created as such the four spheres [the flood of the heavenly ocean; the light atom of space; earth as death; and the ur-water]… Further the Atman creates eight 'world-guardians', when he out of the ur-water brings forth the Parusa (ur-man the primeval man) and first creates out of mouth nose eyes ears skin heart navel and the generative organ the corresponding psychical organs (speech, in-breathing, sight, hearinghair, Manas, out-breath, semen) and out of these Agni, Vaya, Aditya, quarters of directions, plants, moon, death and water as world-guardians. But immediately, weakness overcomes these world-guardian gods.”

We pretend that we have escaped from this mythology, and we talk of the senses being “personified” – as though, on one side, there is the myth, the eye god, and on the other side there is rationality, the person. But the person will never lose the mythic caul with which he came into the world.

And so it is in the herky-jerky of that merger of media and murder yesterday. Depressingly but inevitably, the thing will be called a tragedy – for we have never devised another category for these outlier acts of beserker violence. And we want – for understandable reasons – to instill some dignity into the bloody spasm that ended so many lives that no aesthetic form can catch. The phrase from the Vietnam war – fragging – is much more appropriate. However, like a peculiarly fascinating film, LI can’t turn away his eyes. We all know Leontius’ peculiar discovery about himself, and what can we do? Well, we will turn the whole thing into the site of an argument of some kind – already Glenn Reynolds, with the boldfaced and thuggish stupidity that is his trademark, has suggested that if more students had been packing, the shooter would have shot fewer. Rather overlooking the fact that … oops, sorry. LI was about to address Reynolds as though he were making an argument.

It is the advantage of religion that it is prepared for these cases. The religious can say, (and do, all the time) my prayers are with you. As if praying were an activity, a form of work, a rolling up of the sleeves. If people said what they meant: I am going to say some words out loud, or think them, that relate to what I saw on tv – we would have a fairer sense of why the promise of ‘prayer’ is so infuriating to a non-believer. Myself, I am not such a non-believer – prayers, trances, spells, poems, equations, diagnosis, they are what we have.

15 comments:

patrick said...

Depressingly but inevitably, the thing will be called a tragedy –

I can see nothing depressing about calling it a tragedy. It's the event itself that is depressing as always, not whether people don't know how to be kewl and detached from it. What is depressing is getting big analysis about it, such as commentators at Lenin's Tomb bullshitting about 'why there are more irresponsible people in America than elsewhere', a totally ignorant student-idealist crock of dog turd. It needs no 'socialist analysis' to be understood--especially not at first. Now the Socialists are still talking about the 'conditions that were knowingly created' that caused the poor sad person, might as well have been John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Daumer, to 'pull the trigger' not once, but scores of times.

Frankly, I know it was Dick Cheney and Porter Goss (unemployed, I think) who forced the trigger to be pulled.


'It is the advantage of religion that it is prepared for these cases. The religious can say, (and do, all the time) my prayers are with you. As if praying were an activity, a form of work, a rolling up of the sleeves.'

It is in the immediate aftermath of such things, even though I don't think I've ever prayed.

'If people said what they meant: I am going to say some words out loud, or think them, that relate to what I saw on tv –'

Because that is NOT what they meant. They meant precisely what they said, that they were in their own ways of thinking--praying.

'' we would have a fairer sense of why the promise of ‘prayer’ is so infuriating to a non-believer.'

We don't need 'a fairer sense of such an abstruse construction, the point of comforting people in a catastrophe is not to give intellectual comfort to the 'infuriated non-believer'--who is not even worthy of a mention, even though the 'non-believer' includes me. That's just not the fucking point. And why should it ever matter about what the non-believer feels about prayer, if all the smarties only apply it to American hick-Christians and won't face the fucking facts about the seriously serious religious BEING of the fucking Islam, where nothing but mad primitive religion rules day in day out and fallen-souffle Marxists have adopted them all in their vileness of religion in order to keep the ghosts of nerds like Karl and Vladimir and
Uncka Joe alive.

'Myself, I am not such a non-believer – prayers, trances, spells, poems, equations, diagnosis, they are what we have.'

So why complicate things so needlessly. Reflections beyond the immediate emergency are pretty suspect--which doesn't mean they shouldn't be gotten to soon enough, but not the first couple of days. Why don't people just say what they really mean? that they don't really give a shit what happened and that they need further theoretical analysis so they can stay comfortable in their respective politicalisms.

roger said...

Patrick, good. You are in a wrestling mood. So am I.

Depressingly - there can be many different depressing things at once. For instance, my parents may die on the same day I have a car crash. Both are depressing. In the context of the sentence, the depressing thing is the inability to find a word to describe a thing that happens frequently enough to demand a term. That is what is depressing about mass murder.

"If people said what they meant: I am going to say some words out loud, or think them, that relate to what I saw on tv –'

Because that is NOT what they meant. They meant precisely what they said, that they were in their own ways of thinking--praying."

No, that is what they mean, as per your last phrase - own ways of thinking doesn't mean some special form of thinking. Thinking out of their head? Thinking in a special color? No, it means saying words or thinking as a special form of action. It takes on, then, a performative coloring, but it doesn't have any performative force. Pray tonight that all the murder victims come back to life to morrow. See if that happens. Make this experiment as many times as you like.

"We don't need 'a fairer sense of such an abstruse construction" - what we are you talking about? I have read many a non-believer express fury at the notion of prayer. You haven't?

"So why complicate things so needlessly." It is not a needless complication, it is a movement from one moment of thought to another. Like any movement in prose, it refers back to itself. It is one of the commonest of all tropes. It is especially common in funeral orations, where we press our noses up against that glass through which we see darkly. It has nothing to do with socialism, Lenin's tomb, or the elephants of Kilamanjoro.

patrick said...

'It takes on, then, a performative coloring, but it doesn't have any performative force.'

Yes, it does, if the victims and their families are believers. It doesn't bring anybody back from the dead, but it comforts those who sympathize with this sort of thought. That's it's banal and probably untrue, but not demonstrably so (try scientifically proving the death of God, for example), is beside the point. It's for the specific group.

'I have read many a non-believer express fury at the notion of prayer.'

Of course, and when I was in the hospital in the 80s after a traffic accident that broke my ankles I put signs on the doors keeping the Alabama preachers out, because they had come in and said shit stupid prayers over me. But the people 'offering prayer' for the Va. Tech people first are at least offering it to people they think want to be supported by it, and when such bloody hysteria occurs anyone is actually grateful for whatever kind of concern is expressed, even when it is not their own orientation and belief. If someone tells them to back off, they have no choice but to do so. But concern over the infuriation of non-believers regarding prayer is something so removed from the event that it is almost toffee-nosed--unless there happen to be unbelievers among the victims and related ones; but abstract 'non-believers' are a leftist trick put into debates to make it sound like concern for this has not warranted the kind of passion that leftists reserve almost exclusively for across-the-board attacks on anything that has the scent of that Evil Monster, the U.S., on it.

I don't see anything 'depressing' about just calling a tragedy a tragedy. It's this specific tragedy and all other tragedies that are depressing. Calling a tragedy a tragedy is not depressing. If you find it so, be depressed about it. If you want to call it 'fragging', then go ahead. Most people won't know what you're talking about.

patrick said...

http://villagevoice.com/blogs/bushbeat/archive/2007/04/campus_crime_th.php

Here's Harkavy, brought back with the BushBeat miraculously after a year. I don't what the hell's happening at the Village Voice, firing everybody in sight, but that they put BushBeat back startles me. The matter of decision on what to do about the students is pretty amazing. Too many factors play into it so they don't know what to do. Contrast the passivity here with what happened when my high school was destroyed by the tornado about 6 weeks ago: It's not the same thing, of course, but required a decision as to whether to send the students home or keep them in the school building. Most think sending them home (they get tornado warnings so frequently that it's impossible to know what an impending tornado means, of course, unlike with a hurricane) would have resulted in more deaths, because although the tornado struck the school with the most force, it also wreaked havoc all over the area--on the other hand, there was only one other death besides the 8 who died in the single worst collapse of building in the school. So it's not obvious what was the right thing to do. I know the superintendent of schools there, a quite fine fellow, and he's been in a state of confusion ever since he made the decision to keep the students there. But the political dimension was so non-existent that even Bush was able to go there within 2 days and not even behave with his usual idiocy, even managed to go down the death hallways. I frankly would have thought he'd try to stay away from those corpse-imbued areas, given his record. Not that any other president couldn't have done this, as it was relatively very easy: It's actually only distinguished that Bush did it, because he is interested in not doing it properly.

Scruggs said...

Patrick, I wonder if you are ever capable of reading what someone has written without attempting to twist it into a strawman. Roger qualified "depressingly" to make sure there was no misunderstanding, yet somehow you managed. He qualified what kind of non-believer he is, yet somehow you are able to slap talking point psychological insight onto that and attack the "kewl and detached" chimera that stalks through wingnut polemics against their ooga booga leftist "haters of America".

Yes, it does, if the victims and their families are believers. It doesn't bring anybody back from the dead, but it comforts those who sympathize with this sort of thought.

Why wouldn't the banality and sanctimony gall them? Even if they are believers? Belief does not necessarily entail easy acceptance of them.

but abstract 'non-believers' are a leftist trick put into debates to make it sound like concern for this has not warranted the kind of passion that leftists reserve almost exclusively for across-the-board attacks on anything that has the scent of that Evil Monster, the U.S., on it.

Well fuck me. You ghoul. You couldn't resist working in yet another flatulent attack on your own leftist boogeyman.

patrick said...

'Well fuck me.'

Finally, someone has explained what the literally enacted response to 'fuck you' could be if one can do it. Or it could be read as an alloyed invitation that was thought to be slightly less undesirable than being left alone with it.

Roger wrote:

'In the context of the sentence, the depressing thing is the inability to find a word to describe a thing that happens frequently enough to demand a term. That is what is depressing about mass murder.'

That does not explain it. That only says that he doesn't think 'tragedy' fits the occasion (nor had it fit 9/11, if you'll look back into his archive), so that he seems to have some thoughts that 'tragedy' is 'depressing' because it is not accurate. Even if there were an 'inability to find a term to describe a thing that happens frequently enough to demand a term', that's followed with 'that's what's depressing about mass murder', which is NOT depressing because you can't find the right term for it, even if 'tragedy' were not the right term for it. Of course, news coverage of a tragedy can be depressing, but neither news coverage nor insincere prayers found revolting by nonbelievers is really fodder mostly for a sort of pose at this stage. It calls attention to itself, and itself only, and essentially ignores the event. Yes, there is tradition in admitting this interest in one's impression, of the stage in which the event really doesn't matter to you; but it doesn't remain at that point unnoticed as such.

So--sure, we can say it's all reducible to some kind of bonding and clubbishness codes. I've nothing against that, although it has never really worked to prove the validity of reaching through the clubbish while remaining clubbish. So that my recognition of new forms of clubbishness was bound to result in frightening exposes of my own psyche from which I may not soon recover--because the complete and utter horror of being called a 'ghoul' on the internet is just too 'depressing' not to require Zoloft futures...

patrick said...

'Why wouldn't the banality and sanctimony gall them? Even if they are believers? Belief does not necessarily entail easy acceptance of them.'

For one thing, not all of it would be banality and sanctimony. For another, people in shock look for any kind of relief, and if the 'banality and sanctimony' were uttered at least with some sincerity of purpose, that might be more comforting than some absurd desire to confront hermaneutics through pools of blood and hospital tubes and procedures.

The 'leftist straw man' you're talking about is quite identifiable as something which is certain to insert cynicism into situations in which it is thoroughly inappropriate. That's why the left is sometimes convincing, and the right as well--probably exactly 50-50, and equally as quilty in the tackiness department.

roger said...

Patrick
a. I don't see what your point is about tragedy. I was inclined to drop it - you see it differently than I do, that's for sure - but what the hell, let's chase around the tree like little black sambo and the tiger once again. Tragedy, in any sense that the word was used in English up until the 20th century, did not designate any bad thing that happens. That it was appropriated by newspapers to mean any bad thing that happens is depressing, if you have any sense for words. It is also depressing if you have any sense for concepts, since it softens the impact of crimes such as these, and deflects our attention from their causes. No change of behavior is going to keep Oedipus from his appointed rounds. The same is not true of this boy Cho, who seems to have been spotted from very early on as a disturbed child.
b. "absurd desire to confront hermaneutics through pools of blood and hospital tubes and procedures" - I don't know what this means.
c. Although you seem to want to make an issue of prayer, you seem to have the same view on it that I do - as you say, you didn't want some Alabama preachers praying over you. Why? Because that seemed a mockery, or insincere, or whatever. At the same time you think prayer can autoerotically induce comfort. Well, I happen to believe both those things too - as I say in my post. The point of the post is to show that one's thought about these things does not come in soundbytes. In fact, those kids who are going to be afraid to sleep for the next few weeks, afraid of crowds and afraid of being alone - who are going to live in that trauma - will, I don't doubt, spontaneously pray. They will use words to calm them down. When I've been traumatized in much lesser ways - a mugging here or there - I found myself doing the same thing. On the other hand, praying-for someone is a different proposition. To say "I'll be praying for you" - which you must have heard as many times as I have, growing up in the South - is an ambiguously embracing gesture at best. Am I supposed to be grateful that someone is praying for me? Sometimes that is how the game is played. Sometimes it simply means: I'm concerned for you. Sometimes it means: I want to stick my nose in your business.
Now, that variety of meanings is all about hermeneutics. I'm not sure why you think hermeneutics happens just in an abstract space ship, and not in a hospital room.
Finally, since my post starts out and makes very clear that I have no desire to make arguments about general political positions using an outlier event, I don't see what leftism has to do with any of this. Unless you want to argue, with Glenn Reynolds, that the students of VT should have been allowed to pack pistols and go mano a mano with the shooter, surely the dumbest thing yet to come out of that putz's keyboard.

patrick said...

'That it was appropriated by newspapers to mean any bad thing that happens is depressing,'

It was not appropriated to mean 'any bad thing'. All extremely bad catastrophes are tragedies.

'if you have any sense for words.'

Yeh, yeh, yeh.

'It is also depressing if you have any sense for concepts, since it softens the impact of crimes such as these,'

No, it doesn't. Not a whit. I'll live with having 'no sense for concepts.'

'and deflects our attention from their causes.'

Which were that somebody killed all these people. But concepts such as 'root causes' are n/a, practically speaking, even for the crying-in-beer types, if they can't get to first base with anybody important. That's where the Socialists come in. They've discovered that Cho was oppressed and exploited by the EEEEVIlll system and, if he hadn't been, why, he wouldn't have done it. Why? Because he was a 'deeper' individual than all those vapid types he killed--in this case, the murdered populace was more the 'melting pot' situation, as was the WTC non-tragedy, whereas there was no story to the Enterprise, Alabama, story, because only whites were killed in an area famous for Wink!Wink! I Really Am A Racist! racism..

'No change of behavior is going to keep Oedipus from his appointed rounds. The same is not true of this boy Cho, who seems to have been spotted from very early on as a disturbed child.'

That's common enough to find a disturbed child. What should have happened is that those menacing papers that his professors read should have lead to their figuring some way to get Cho summarily dispatched to a facility where he might learn to curb his appetites. As it is, he had a whale of a time and even got to prove that it was his party and he was gonna cry if he wanted to.

So were the causes capitalist oppression and elite ownership and racism? Former Enquirer readers, now National Examiner readers, want to know.

roger said...

I don't know, Patrick. Since you seem to want to talk to yourself here, and not me, do what you want. After all, I'd hate for you to be disturbed by any clarification of concepts or words. Say anything. I really don't care.

patrick said...

'Since you seem to want to talk to yourself here'

Well, that comes naturally when one is dealing one who does precisely that himself. But we can split, since we both see each other that way.

roger said...

Cool.

northanger said...

hey Roger, thanks for this post (& congrats on the book). someone transcribed Nikki Giovanni's convocation poem.

last night i googled Leontius + Socrates & the first link was, Envisaging the Body of the Condemned: The Power of Platonic Symbols. can't read the entire text, but thought the intro was hyperstitionally interesting:

To write a utopia is to invoke an explicit distinction between "imagined" worlds and "real" worlds. Yet commentators on Plato's Republic have typically been dragged down—despite the text's many flights of fancy—into questions of realia when considering the political institutions proposed in the text. They ask, "Can these imagined institutions be put into practice?" which is also to ask, "Can this imagined place become real?" The question of whether the Republic's institutions can be realized suggests that the "imagined institutions" and "real institutions" somehow exist in completely separate cognitive domains; and that the imaginary has to be translated into the "real" before the two can be properly compared or the imaginary world assessed. The real, on this account, refers to the material world. But of course, the "real" does not consist only of the material stuff of the world around us as embodied in "things."

another link, Images in Public Health discusses using images in a public health journal &mdash using images = magazine & non images = scholarly. the article mentions Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others where Sontag discusses Leontius.

prayers, trances, spells, poems, equations, diagnosis.

i've studied the Goetia since 9/11. demonology isn't a comfortable topic — i certainly wasn't comfortable with it prior to 9/11. however, The Valve's book event about Michael Bérubé's What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? made me realize that {a} the collective powers of the Goetic spirits could be considered a liberal arts education, & {b} certain demons are described as teaching Liberal Sciences & Liberal Arts.

the 25th Goetia spirit (Glasya-Labolas), however, always makes me nervous. generating my ... greatest Leontius-like reaction: "teaches liberal arts, inspires murder" (de Plancy); "Author of Bloodshed and Manslaughter" (Mathers). i've always tip-toed around this nervously, but your post (& recent events) made me realize that this isn't just about the desire to kill or murder. it also covers forensic science, crime scene investigation, profiling, police procedures, military strategy, war colleges &, maybe, gun control & Second Amendment issues.

roger said...

North, interesting citings. Goetia, eh? Those are the subsurface vaults under history and lit that I haven't disturbed, because -well, that stuff freaks me out. I've been thinking more of the muses of the senses - from the Vedas to Swedenborg.

I sat in a pizza place and watched CNN today - first time I've seen the stuff tv is putting out. The killer, apparently, was closing down before everybody's eyes, as an interview with the very sensible English prof who tried to alert the university about him makes clear who obviously saw what nobody else wanted to see. And that thing of trying to take illicit photographs of women with his phone camera, and of his female teachers... Talk about a sense-persona that was falling through every circle of hell.

I'm going to be interviewing a man who just published an anthology of Austin literature for the newspaper, here, and there are three separate pieces from three writers about Charles Whitman, the Tower shooter, and quotes from his journal, where he quite calmly wrote about killing his mother and wife before he actually did so.

I hope, though, my interview doesn't dwell on this too much.

northanger said...

believe me, i'm all for the "muses of the senses" approach.