Saturday Morning Coffee, Pen in Hand

This dreary Saturday morning (a perfectly good day in March, but we’ve had a week of sun and close to summer weather), I have uncapped my fountain pen, gotten out my journal, and done some writing.

This, in turn, had me thinking back on the conversation I had recently that emerged around older technologies and the joy of slow and manual things.

It’s caused me to make the time to take a look at some of my other writing over the past few year, both by pen and on the screen, and to see it “with new eyes”.

One of the things I do from time to time is compose a haiku and post it on Twitter. I don’t pretend for even a moment that these are of any poetic value (since I don’t confuse “retweets” and positive feedback with literary merit).

However, in looking through these, I discovered that my subconscious had evidently been busy in the background — so I’d like to share the subconscious observation that was the unknown spark behind each of these haiku from 2010:

“Opinions ‘R’ Us”
I will keep talking
until you take one to like.

Hidden behind the whole notion of Opinions ‘R’ Us is a sense of what informal media has become, triggered by the columns of Rick Salutin (at The Globe and Mail in 2010, and now at The Toronto Star).

I can agree, from time to time, with Salutin; more often, I disagree, but that’s not the hidden thought.

The hidden thought was that to do something I will do here — praise him for his writing — would, for the vast majority of readers, come across as me saying “I agree with Salutin”.

Moreover, their response would be formed out of whether they did, or didn’t agree with that position: responding to him as a writer would almost never happen, although the responses will take the form of doing so.

This, in turn, corresponds to something that’s quite observable daily by looking at the comments attracted to a newspaper article on a paper’s web site, or the comments a blog post attracts. Few people either try to judge the position of the author and respond to it. They respond instead with their preconceptions and beliefs. (Almost no one tries to contribute to the author with new information on such sites.)

Go one step further. Google Reader, for instance, allows its users to share their list of RSS feed and turn it into a consolidated feed. I’ve asked many people for such feed links — seldom have I been turned down! — with an eye to seeing how widely cast is the net of reading. Over 85% of the feeds received have been highly concentrated, with little “dissent” included. This may be comforting, but it means we talk past each other most of the time.

One last buried thought that emerged while writing these words: it was noted back in the early 1980s that people who quoted statistics were assumed even then to “support” the finding. (In other words, to quote the lasted political poll that shows a shift in support is to support the party that benefitted from the shift.)

How we are supposed to learn without dealing with facts, data and information without assuming the author’s stand is something we had better (re)learn quickly, because without it we will tear our society into actively hostile fragments that can’t be forged into a new whole.

World’s not black and white
Neither, endless shades of grey
Yin/yang complements.

Back in the late years of the Western Roman Empire, the tail end of a major struggle for control of the social order emerged between the Orthodox Christian Church — the filoque debate that splits Orthodoxy from Catholicism was still a half a millennium in the future — and the Manichaeans.

The followers of Mani — whose birth was celebrated on December 25 — were a reformed derivative of the Zoroastrians and carried into the religion of Mani the intense dualism of that faith.

One of the great thinkers of Manichaean belief converted and became a Christian and the only Church Father of note to write in Latin: St. Augustine of Hippo.

All of Western Christianity — Latin Orthodox, Latin Catholic, Roman Catholic and the various Protestant communities — can (as per Lawrence Brown in The Might of the West) be seen as the tension between the Celtic Christian forms of Pelagius, which does not take a dualist form (and therefore ignores “Original Sin” as a predestination) and the dualism inherent in St. Augustine.

“Either/or” thinking has been the heart of Western thought ever since. As we are learning, however, many problems are not black-and-white, or either/or, in nature. Whole classes are “both/and”. The Pelagian-derived saying “there are only endless shades of grey” tries to get at that.

I have come, however, to see that when one such as Aristotle (and his successor, St. Thomas Aquinas) held that evil was not an opposite to good, but merely a sign that “good was missing” left residual oppositions in place that don’t reflect reality. Instead, under it all, we have complementarity (with appearances of dual pairs of opposites being extreme/special cases seen only partially, in a profile, but not holistically).

The most famous complement is expressed in the Yin/Yang symbol, in which the other is embedded in and a critical part of whichever one you are looking at, but the most important part is that these aren’t dualistic.

This is far closer to “original Aristotle”. I say “original” because much of Aristotle as we have his writings today was edited by dualists during the late Roman Empire, both east and west, and in the Islamic civilisation of the Caliphs. Our indications of this are in the odd reference quoting Aristotle elsewhere, plus patterns of interpretation of text starting with Spinoza and through the Higher Criticism of the 19th century.

Aquinas did not question the dualism, since he was also concerned with not negating Augustine.

The more we think in opposites — including the blending together of factors in an effort to be “politically correct” and “not offend” — the more we miss reality.

To be becoming
you need only be human,
destined unto death.

When I wrote this, I was recalling my best friend’s aphorism, “Man is constantly in a state of becoming”.

Yet, buried underneath, was the sense of time as destiny rather than a field of causality that I take from my view of history. I see history as a field of cyclical units in play, with lines of progress and regress working through them as differentiation is gained and lost. We are in a balance of complementary domains, which shift the horizon of interpretation in which “truths” are found.

I plan, at a future point, to spend more time on the sense of destiny. It is not fatalistic, simply a recognition that not everything is given to us to change. Utopia cannot be built, and not even approached.

It is a sense of Time as History (George Grant’s Massey Lectures of 1969) and of the big picture. (There are a stack of “big history” studies waiting to come to the top of my current reading pile.)

Not only do we die individually, but eventually the functions we cast loose into the world to continue to exercise our plans, will and structures into the future also wear down, under the hypocrisy of institutional deviation. At the large scale, this is the death of whole civilisations.

We are in a time when the bigger structures that have formed us are sliding toward death, even though we as individuals may be growing, prospering, becoming.

Some of these structures, in turn, shift to complementary forms that allow them to continue on with new growth. Others tip toward failure. Their scope, in turn, determines how many others fail in their wake.

Emphasis and relative strength change. Some things are lost, while others once relegated to the closets of our civilisation become available for growth. It’s why I’m not depressed about the state of the world, yet not an optimist either.

William Barrett, in writing about Heidegger and his work Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), said that the term Heidegger introduces there — Dasein, or “being there” — is best thought of as a character in a play (and “all the world’s a stage…”). Adding that subjective element helps bring out what Heidegger is getting at.

Our destiny is part not only our dasein, but our Being Dasein, the ultimate character we play in our lives. And (as Nietzsche might add here): we play many roles, wear many masks. We are fractal and carry multiple identities.

You can’t have either/or and be like that.

Global Arctic spell
From Borealis’ fury
Gods, deliver us.

So many who have been seized with the Anthropogenic Global Warming, Radical Climate Change, etc. messages (whether to worry about them and support radical action to forestall or minimise them, or to deny them in favour of an “I’m All Right, Jack!” approach) use weather patterns to argue for their view. Yet climate is in many ways a statistical abstraction.

The amateur “big picture” geologist in me knows how much of our sense of climate is formed from the geological record, where we do see shifting averages and that which a scientist calls “catastrophic” change (i.e. sudden changes from one stable state to another).

Our world has at one point in its past been “Snowball Earth”, apparently totally glaciated and iced over; at another point it had a green sky and subtropical trees grew abundantly north of the Arctic Circle. Evolutionary die-offs and new pulses of evolution can be correlated with these (and other) periods. The sense that time is fleeting that animates the “we must dictate change” view is easily supported by this.

Yet things are not as settled as they seem: the Mediaeval Warm Period was a time with — according to the rock and ice core records — less “greenhouse” effect than in the Little Ice Age that followed it. To make the “hockey stick” temperature graphs work wiping that Warm Period out of the data (and Wikipedia) was an essential. (How one wipes out the obvious archaeological sites at L’Anse aux Meadows, in Greenland, etc. is another story.)

The (Northern Hemisphere) winter of 2010 started with an Arctic Oscillation that has placed cold winds, ice and snow in bulk in regions that usually fare better; a solid (although not record-breaking) El Niño in the Pacific, and an apparent suppression of part of the heat transfer via the Gulf Stream to the North Atlantic-Norwegian Sea region. 2011 returned to something a little closer to “normal”, then 2012 repeated the 2010 cycle.

That neither supports nor opposes the thesis of climate change.

Weather is (as always) merely a daily grumble and data point to later enter into the averages. The Mediaeval Warm Period, in turn, brings the anthropogenic portion into question — not a “proof against”, but something to devise other tests “for”.

All this adds up to the old English hymn and prayer, recalling the years of Viking invasion and raid that destroyed much of the residue of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon culture and wiped out the residue of learning from Celtic Christianity, summed up in the line “From the fury of the Norsemen, Good Lord, deliver us.”

The role of the older Scandinavian and European Gods in the lives of the Vikings and the predecessors of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, along with the constant surprise found in Britain when truly adverse weather shows up, gave rise to this line of thought.

I firmly believe that only a fool fouls their own home. We ought not to treat the atmosphere, the waters and the land as dumping grounds. At the same time, we are a part of nature, with as much “right” to be here as any other part of it.

We would be wise to change. But the steady exhaustion of non-renewable resources, in particular the hydrocarbons on the back of which we have sevenfolded global population since the time of Malthus, will force us in short order to dump less that we do.

In other words, one needn’t accept or reject the whole climate change story in order to see the need to do the right thing. Big structures — and seven billion people qualify as “big” in my book — take a long time to shift. There is where a sense of urgency should come from, not shrieking special pleaders of any sort.

Oh, yes, what was the buried thought? Memories of England.

The usual British Rail, London Tube, etc. PA announcement that “the points have seized due to leaves/wet/whatever on the rails”, as though leaves didn’t fall in the autumn, it never rained, etc. The willingness of officialdom of all types of avoid simply saying “it broke down, sorry, here’s what we’re doing about it” gave rise in Britain to the grumble “wrong sort of leaves”. I guess this winter has given them the “wrong sort of snow”.

Spending some time with your own thoughts — doing a little writing or sketching, then seeing what lies behind your creations — may give you some surprises, and joys, too.

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