Overcoming Low Elf-esteem

I grappled with a lot of issues in writing my new ebook To Create a World.

One of the biggest was elves.

The novel is contemporary fantasy rather than high fantasy, but it still needed elves in it and that presented an unforeseen challenge.

Tolkien.

How do you write elves in a post-Tolkien context without becoming painfully, transparently derivative? I defy you to turn your hand to the task without suffering recurring nightmares of J.R.R. sitting smoking a pipe and wryly mocking you in Sindarin. You know, one of the Elvish languages he created before, during, and after writing his epic books.

If you’re not a professor of linguistics and you don’t already speak half a dozen languages, you’re at a disadvantage. I have a pretty good working knowledge of English and a passing familiarity with two other languages…and zero interest in creating new languages.

Not a problem, I decided. Nobody expects anyone to replicate Tolkien’s philological exploits. That’s clearly above and beyond.

And all was well, until the moment came in which an elvish character required a name, and I realised two things:

First, that all Elvish influences in the depths of my mind can be directly or indirectly traced back to Tolkien.

Second, that each and every Elvish name (make that every name) in Tolkien’s universe will undoubtedly have an etymological pedigree backed up by his enormous, unnecessary, unassailable body of fictional languages. I didn’t have to check. I just knew that names like Celeborn, Galadriel, and Glorfindel would have a watertight linguistic provenance.

For some authors this poses no problem. Just shrug your shoulders and come up with something that sounds cool. And if you need to name a second elf, just come up with something else that sounds cool. Bonus points if the two cool-sounding names are phonetically similar.

Which is all fine, until you discover that your idea of what a cool elf name should sound like is also transparently derivative of a certain over-achieving philologist.

If you still don’t see the problem, consider for a moment if someone asked you to come up with a Chinese-sounding name, or an American-sounding name, or a Scottish or Indian or Arabic-sounding name, without actually using existing names from those language groups, or using their languages to create new names.

What would you end up with? You would end up with an unspeakably shameful and racially provocative parody.

In contemporary fiction making human character names consistent with real cultural and linguistic sources is fine.

But try it with elves and dwarves and suddenly you’re writing LOTR fanfiction.

One solution that comes to mind is to have Tolkien’s fictitious peoples recognised as States under the UN, and his linguistic work rendered public domain forthwith, so we can all pretend it’s just part of our shared global culture.

The other solution is to not take it so seriously in the first place. Allow your elves to have whatever names they like, and not stress too much about their etymological integrity.

Incidentally, I think that’s why authors like J.K. Rowling began with overtly silly names for pretty much everything in their magical universe. The names seemed to become more serious as the series continued, matching the tone of the books (and increasing age of its readers). At the same time, names that were there from the beginning like Dumbeldore, and even Hogwarts itself took on different emotional resonance as our experience of them grew throughout the series.

Giving things silly names implicitly lowers expectations and takes the pressure off, as well as offsetting the shock of Harry’s entry into a parallel magical world. And if even a silly name like Hogwarts can become infused with meaning and gravitas, there’s no need to stress unduly about the quality and internal coherence of naming schemes for mythical races in the first place.

Just in case that’s what you were doing…

Now go buy my book. It has elves with linguistically arbitrary naming conventions!

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Beautiful writing

What makes writing beautiful?

It is not enough to use beautiful-sounding words or avoid crude and ungainly ones. Beautiful writing is more than empty form. Beauty implies a relationship between form and function: beautiful writing is not vain or ostentatious; and since the most noble function of writing is to convey the truth, truly beautiful writing must be true as well.

To write the truth and do it beautifully is a worthy goal. But such writing takes time, effort, and insight. What is it, apart from truth, that makes writing beautiful?

There are evident mistakes: excessive convolutions such as unnecessary adverbs, or an overly confusing structure that includes too many subjects and objects in complex relationship. There is a simplicity to beautiful writing, or rather, simplicity is one aspect of beauty, where simplicity is in proportion to the aim. Beautiful writing should be neither too simple nor too complex for the truth it conveys.

Nothing I have written so far is especially beautiful, and that is because I am not taking the time to fully grasp the truth I wish to convey, and to translate it into its most fitting written form.

I am not taking the time because I do not think it is worth the time, and that in itself reveals assumptions, faults, and errors in my own thinking and attitude. If it is worth doing, is it not worth doing well? If beautiful writing is a skill worth having, should I not take the time to investigate and practice it?

What my investigations tell me is that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

This sentence is not especially beautiful. I can pick its faults, beginning with the word “what”. “What” is redundant. It also subverts the sentence structure, bringing the yet-unknown subject to the forefront.  It would be sufficient to write:

My investigations tell me that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Another fault: it is not necessary to preface the substance of the text with “my investigations tell me”. This reflexive statement is overly descriptive. It brings me twice into the text. It makes “my investigation” the subject, the matter at hand, and thereby diminishes the authority of the subsequent words:

Beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Parsing for additional faults: “should” and “shall” denote obligation. Obligation implies that beautiful writing ought to, but might not reflect reality. Is this what I mean to say?  Would it not be stronger and more accurate to state that:

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

Is it a fault to follow “the reality” with “the truth”? Is either term redundant, or do they together imply more than either would alone?  In this instance, offering an equivalence of reality and truth implies a realist interpretation of truth: reality is true and truth is real. Far from being redundant, the two terms encompass a whole philosophical outlook between them.

Now that we have removed all the obvious faults, we might consider if the same meaning could be conveyed differently. We have reduced the statement to its essential ingredients; is this their best arrangement?

Writing is beautiful when it reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

This arrangement draws our attention to the inclusion of “is”, which subtly alters our focus. It is as if someone has asked “when is writing beautiful?”  Giving the impression of having answered a question can add value to a phrase under certain circumstances. It may enhance the authority of the statement, by bringing to mind the unspoken question. But as an aphorism the former is superior.

Could we go further?

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

I would not change beautiful or writing. I would not change the reality or the truth, since the definite article implies an objective standpoint. What about reflects, or behind?

Here it is useful to consider in greater depth the truth we are trying to describe. In this case, I am trying to describe how beauty relates to the function of language. But the function of language is a controversial subject, and I approach it from a preconceived philosophical perspective. Not only am I a realist, but I hold to a correspondence theory of truth, and a teleological view of language as primarily a truth-telling enterprise. In other words, I believe that:

  1. There is an objective reality.
  2. ‘True’ means ‘corresponding to objective reality’.
  3. The purpose of language is primarily to communicate truth.

The third proposition should be considered broad enough to incorporate or at least be sympathetic to elements of Wittgensteinian “language games”.

In this context, reflects and behind appear to be appropriate metaphors for the relationship between beautiful writing and reality.

People with diverse and divergent philosophies would not agree with my statement that “Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.”  Perhaps they would argue that the beauty of writing is an entirely subjective phenomenon, or a socialised construct, or that beauty itself is a construct, or God knows what else.

I do not undertake this procedure whenever I write. Clearly I have not applied this level of rigour and parsimony to the whole of today’s post. In practice it seems best to aim first for the deepest truth we wish to communicate and to dwell on that truth until we are confident in expressing it as simply, appropriately, and therefore as beautifully as we might.

Quid est Veritas?

More from Sertillanges:

Is it not natural…that the man of vocation should put away and deliberately forget his everyday man; that he should throw off everything of him: his frivolity, his irresponsibility, his shrinking from work, his material ambitions, his proud or sensual desires, the instability of his will or the disordered impatience of his longings, his over-readiness to please and his antipathies, his acrimonious moods and his acceptance of current standards, the whole complicated entanglement of impediments which block the road to the True and hinder its victorious conquest?

I was going to continue on from the previous post’s conclusion, but it struck me as I transcribed Sertillanges’ text that he capitalised ‘True’, and yet of course he was writing in French and would have used vérité.

Why does this matter?

Well the etymology of ‘true’ implies ‘steadfast, solid, firm’, whereas the etymology of vérité appears to imply instead a compact or a bond, a relational basis of trust.  This might be splitting hairs, but the Greek term used in philosophy and apparently in the Gospel is alethea, which has in turn a third implication of being ‘unhidden’ or disclosed.

I have a tentative theory that these kinds of etymological peculiarities are significant even if we do not fully understand them explicitly or in everyday language.

That is: there are subtle differences between truth, vérité, and alethea, which alter how we conceive of the object behind the word.

What is truth like? Is it like a solid, firm, steadfast object, or a deep and trustworthy bond, or is it a disclosure, a remembering, something entirely unhidden?

When Christ says “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” I think it does make a difference to understand truth as alethea.

These different etymologies all point to the same thing, and the differences are minor. Still, I think the weight of English leaves us with a sense of ‘the truth’ as something solid, untarnished, but very much an object out there in the world, waiting to be discovered.

For me alethea denotes something more immanent, a state of knowing and of recognition yet to be attained. It is, after all, a supposedly a negative, with the prefix a- making it not concealed, not hidden. Truth is something we dis-cover, and it therefore implies also an element of subjectivity…not relativity, but the existence of a knowing subject to whom the reality is no longer concealed.

 

 

 

Has “natural” been de-natured?

My latest MercatorNet piece looks at the supposedly lost meaning of the word “natural”:

We are so deeply in agreement on the actual quantities of numbers that there is no room for controversy in basic mathematics, only for error and correction. Yet when it comes to language our capacity to bend and distort the meaning of words undermines even the efforts of a wise man like Socrates to appeal to the reason of his interlocutors.

By analogy, it is as though most of us are not entirely sure how many is “two”. We know that two is usually less than five, but we’ve never taken the time to work it out precisely. In a society where two can be several different quantities, math cannot really take priority, and the insistence of a Socrates that two is always and everywhere 1+1 will be viewed as merely a firmly held belief, one opinion among many.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/why-natural-is-not-a-meaningless-word

My passive self

A sociology PhD candidate and fellow blogger whom I follow has written a couple of posts on the definition of ‘passion’ and its contemporary significance.

The etymology of passion is one of my favourite examples of how our culture has lost or forgotten its ancient bearings. We generally encounter passion as ‘excitement’ or ‘enthusiasm’ or strong emotion. Only in the arcane religious context of “the passion of the Christ” do we catch a glimpse of the full context of the original word.

In brief, the strands of Greek philosophy that were retained through Christendom and thereby shaped the modern world observed a dichotomy of activity and passivity in things. To use a rough example: when fire heats water, the fire is active and the water is passive. That is, the fire causes change while the water undergoes change. Heating is, in this sense, an action of fire and a passion of water.

In a human context, passions are what we now tend to call emotions, yet the word ’emotion’ is comparatively recent and carries the original meaning of ‘stir up’. By contrast, passion originally meant ‘to suffer’, yet suffering in turn does not refer only to painful or harmful changes, but to changes generally, or rather to things ‘undergone’.

Our emotions are changes wrought in us by external circumstances, objects, and considerations, as well as our own thoughts and ideas about such considerations. We are ‘passive’ in regard to our emotions insofar as they are changes ‘undergone’ by us.

In contemporary language people say things like “I’m passionate about the environment” to signify that they care enough about such issues as to undergo emotional changes in response to them. The original meaning of passivity is implicit here. But the meaning is entirely lost when the language shifts and people say things like “I guess the environment is my biggest passion”.

Does the original meaning matter? Apart from being able to understand that “the passion of the Christ” refers to his suffering and undergoing change rather than Christ being really enthusiastic about dying on a cross, there are also aspects of ancient anthropology or psychology that have informed our present civilisation and still make sense if we take the time to unravel the knots and tangles that our culture has made of them.

For example, various schools of Greek philosophy valued reason to such an extent that it took on divine or transcendent qualities. Yet, like the classical theistic understanding of God, reason is not passive.  Reason does not undergo change through the influence of other entities or forces. Understanding both reason and/or God as perfect, as beyond change or growth or the fulfillment of potential, this perfection is in some sense available to humanity insofar as we can embody reason in our own souls.

Yet as experience attests, our adherence to reason is challenged most significantly by the passions and the power they exert over us.  Depending on the particular philosophy, humans were viewed as enslaved by the passions through the lower appetite, or enslaved by the passions through the influence of false and irrational beliefs. A rational and virtuous man is not controlled by external objects, and not susceptible to the demands of his passionate nature.

In this sense, the passion of the Christ is significant not because a God-man went through some painful experiences, but because it is (or should be) metaphysically impossible for God to suffer in the first place.  This is, I think, a good example of how even a middling knowledge of metaphysics underscores the significance of Christian doctrine in a classical theistic context.

Or to put it another way:

“ the humble is the stem upon which the mighty grows, the low is the foundation upon which the high is laid.”

 

 

 

 

Islam and violence: how stupid are we really?

My latest piece on MercatorNet is inspired by our collective ignorance of a religion that has, one might think, been of some significance to Western societies for the past decade or so. Our endless debates about Islam and terrorism are a little like debating the bellicosity of ‘Orientals’ at the turn of the 19th Century:

If only we took the time and the effort to get past our basic ignorance, we would find that the term ‘Islam’ does not refer to a single homogenous thing. ‘Islam’ refers to more than one thing, and our consternation and confusion arises from continuing to debate the matter without settling on a true definition.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/islam_and_violence_how_not_to_answer_a_question

I’m fine; like ‘fine art’ fine.

I often use the expression “I’m fine” or “that’ll be fine” to mean “I’m ok”, “no worries” etc.

But today it struck me, while reading a comment on my latest article, that ‘fine’ has been devalued in many contexts from “pure, unblemished, perfect, complete” down to merely “satisfactory, acceptable”.

Its etymology is in Old French ‘fin’ as in ‘finished’ but with the positive sense of perfection, acme, or end. Fine art, fine wine, a fine thread; they all connote quality, ‘finish’ in the most creative sense – the same sense that gives us a finish in the sense of a veneer or lacquer, the finishing touches.

Fine is therefore suggestive of a teleology or purpose, a direction, not a merely arbitrary ending but a meaningful one, completion in accordance with a goal or plan, the complete instantiation of the essence of a thing.

To be fine is therefore a wonderful state to inhabit. I hope I can achieve it one day!

In the meantime I need to find an alternative way of saying “I’m sufficiently good, thankyou.”

Comparative mysticism at Christmas

When I was young I read a lot of books about religion. Around the same time I stopped going to church as soon as my parents would (reluctantly) allow it.

My approach to religion was quite ambitious in its scope: I believed that religions were a mix of essential and non-essential beliefs and practices, that all religions would converge on the essential, and that by comparing them all I could work out what they had in common and hence what lay at the heart of true religion.

The answer was mysticism: the search for and experiential knowledge of ‘ultimate reality’.

All religions had mysticism in common, and so I concluded that mysticism is the heart of religion and therefore the only thing worth pursuing. Everything else: the rituals, the prayers, the meditation, the complex beliefs; these were at best only a means of inducting people into mysticism and at worst they were misguided accretions derived from culture or lower aspects of human psychology.

I spent most of my time at university reading the works of different mystics and the mystical branches of different religions. I even wrote my Honours thesis on the subject, attempting to show how a set of mystical traditions contained the same basic approach to reality: a recognition that human experience is ‘not right’, identification of a transcendent reality or being that is right, and a method of approaching this transcendent reality that requires a shift in attention away from external, worldly affairs and interests, a ‘quieting’ of the mind, and an openness to this fundamentally different kind of being.

My actual thesis was not a good piece of scholarly work by any means. At that stage in my education I was so focused on this personal search for knowledge that I failed to heed or really comprehend the requirements of philosophy as a scholarly discipline. What I wrote may have been interesting to a small group of people, but all it really showed was that I had a particular belief about religion, and I could find selective evidence to support my belief.

Having seen religion in such a light, it is very hard to ‘unsee’ it. It is difficult for me to pretend that the different religions really are strikingly different where it matters. Yet I’m also conscious that my perspective may be tautological: “religious similarities are similar”; or as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different.

Thus, as a case of the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash. And the other class of similarities were those which simply were not similar. Thus this reconciler of the two religions draws earnest attention to the fact that at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama is rent in pieces out of respect, and the remnants highly valued. But this is the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ were not rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision; and the remnants were not highly valued except for what they would fetch in the rag shops. It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man’s shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man.

These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed matter little if it were not also true that the alleged philosophical resemblances are also of these two kinds, either proving too much or not proving anything. That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

Identifying mysticism as the common core of religion might be similarly problematic. It may be true that the mystics within various religions invoke strikingly similar themes in their disciplines, but this does not mean that mysticism is necessarily central to religious truth. Mysticism might be just an addendum to the truth of a religion. It might be an interesting yet ultimately non-essential aspect of religious practice. After all, if we assume from the outset that mystical experience is the true heart of religion, then of course we will place less emphasis on the cosmological and teleological content of religious beliefs. For the student of comparative mysticism it doesn’t really matter whether we call our goal the realisation of buddha-nature and nirvana, or the beatific vision and the enjoyment of eternal life in heaven; we already accept the mystics’ claim that the experience of ‘ultimate reality’ is beyond words.

How different are Buddhism and Christianity really? More to the point, how are we to determine what are and aren’t meaningful differences? If the ultimate reality transcends language, then we must accept that the contradictions may only be skin deep. Chesterton’s knowledge of Buddhism was admittedly superficial and mediated apparently by the idiosyncratic interpretations of his contemporaries – Buddhism under the influence of Theosophy and Orientalist popularisers; but one needn’t be well-acquainted with Buddhism to realise that there is a danger in upholding the common ground between two faiths as the only ground worth inhabiting. To interpret everything through the lens of similarity begs the question, diminishes differences before we even get to them.

Nonetheless, the reality of mysticism is compelling, and the ubiquity and consistency of it throughout human religious experience is hard to deny. Conversely, adopting the perspective of comparative mysticism distances us inevitably from the formal, exclusive, and particularist aspects of any one religious system. It doesn’t mean we can’t critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of different religions – and even come to recognise truly unique and revelatory elements within a religion; but it will always be somewhat distant, the observations and understanding of an outsider looking in.

To have this perspective and not promote it as necessarily superior, objectively true, and appropriate for others puts me in an unusual position. There’s not much I can say about it, and since most of my friends and acquaintances are either strongly religious or not religious at all, I tend not to discuss it with anyone. But it is nonetheless a view I have formed, examined, and considered over and again for more than half my life, and to which I keep returning, or should I say: it keeps returning to me. As indistinct as it may be in my own daily life, I have to acknowledge it as a profound influence on all aspects of my view of the world.

As Christmas approaches I can’t help but see it through this lens: the incarnation of that ‘ultimate reality’ within the utterly humble and unspectacular domain of ordinary human existence. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity, not in as something that denies or refutes the past, but as fulfillment and reaffirmation of what has gone before. Not only God incarnate in its own terms, but a kind of ‘metaphor incarnate’ if we can set aside the misleading implications of such a phrase. To me this is the greatest sense I can make of it; a sense that grounds the metaphysical and ontological mysteries in the lived experience of the individual. An incarnation that mirrors the presence of the ultimate reality in the microcosm of the individual human being.

Decisions and choices

In addition to being a bit of a philosophical quietist, I’ve also adapted an approach to language that appears somewhat idiosyncratic yet is, like everything about me, intensely interesting and inestimably valuable.

I haven’t had a chance to develop the theory formally, but in essence: I believe we can use etymology to identify the reality underlying the words we use, and thereby clarify and sharpen our thinking.

I suspect that in many cases the original meaning of words and their complex inter-relationships remains intact despite our ignorance of them.

In other words, our language contains more knowledge than we can consciously convey, and by reducing our terms to a reality-based definition we can eliminate most of the confusion and ignorance in our own minds.

Take for example the words decision and choice. What is the difference between a decision and a choice? The two appear more or less synonymous, yet they carry the subtle implication of different emphases.

Does a decision seem a little weightier, harder, heavier than a choice?

Already we may sense that the words have slightly different meanings: ‘choice’ can refer as much to the act of choosing as to the various alternatives from which we choose, whereas ‘decision’ is typically singular: we make a single decision amidst a range of options.

Perhaps we also recognise on some subconscious level the heaviness of the word ‘decision’. Do we sense the deeper meaning implied by its cousins incision, excision, precision, and concision?

All of them derive from the suffix -cide from the Latin “to strike down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay”. It’s the same root in homicide, suicide, and regicide.

Incision cuts in, excision cuts out, precision cuts short, concision cuts up, and decision cuts off as in cutting off possibilities and alternatives.

Choice, by contrast, from ‘choose’ and the Old English ceosan originally means ‘taste’, ‘test’ or ‘relish’. It’s a subtly different meaning from the harshness of cutting off options, and perhaps suggests more of a positive preference rather than a definitive conclusion.

Is this difference reflected in contemporary use? Is it more romantic to tell your wife you chose her, or that you decided to marry her? At other times, say picking a meal from a menu, it seems to make little difference whether we are ‘still choosing’ or ‘still deciding’. But there is definitely a contrast between a person who is ‘choosy’ and one who is ‘decisive’.

English is overflowing with these points of etymological interest. I can, and maybe will, go on about them for a while. Nothing incides complex and convoluted argument like finding the cold hard reality behind the words. Nothing cuts through obfuscation and verbal trickery better than the reduction of language to its final constituent parts.