Let me preface this by saying that the only news I’ve heard in the last week involves either the Final Four (Tom Izzo, go kick some Tarheel ass for me, would ya?), North Korea (really guys?), and that apparently Ichiro has a bleeding ulcer (ouch).  Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the New York Times on the Iowa gay marriage ruling:

“The new decision says marriage is a civil contractand should not be defined by religious doctrine or views.” [Emphasis mine — JLW]

Which is to say, the reason I’m wary of court decisions — as opposed to legislative action or ballot initiatives — encapsulated.  Having ctrl-F’d the decision itselffor the word “contract” (three of my last seven days have involved air travel; go easy on me), it appears the editorial is working from this passage:

“This contrast of opinions in our society largely explains the absence of any religion-based rationale to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban. Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring government avoids them. See Iowa Const. art. I, § 3 (“The general assembly shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . .”). The statute at issue in this case does not prescribe a definition of marriage for religious institutions. Instead, the statute declares, “Marriage is a civil contract” and then regulates that civil contract. Iowa Code § 595A.1. Thus, in pursuing our task in this case, we proceed as civil judges, far removed from the theological debate of religious clerics, and focus only on the concept of civil marriage and the state licensing system that identifies a limited class of persons entitled to secular rights and benefits associated with civil marriage.” [page 65; emphasis mine — JLW] 

Now, I don’t have a problem with the opinion of the court that they should approach civil law as civil justices.  The problem is that the means require they modify marriage as a contract, as it is as defined by state law.  But this codification of marriage does not encompass the entirety of marriage (and was not meant to be more than a legal approximation) — marriage is a societal institution.  The court has no authority to treat it as such an institution — it must treat, and modify it as defined by the law: that is, as a contract.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Only society itself can modify marriage as a societal institution.  The citizen body votes on a ballot initiative; their elected representatives — with authority that stems from society — pass laws.  The law itself, I hear you say, defines marriage as a contract, etc.: but again — the definition of marriage as a societal institution goes beyonds the limits of the legal code’s authority.  It is a social institution; it is part of the tradition; the tradition is not simply what is defined by government.  The institution can only (? is best?) understood within the legal code as a contract: that does not mean that, as a societal custom, it is nothing more than a contract.  It is, then, a legal approximation of marriage.

So back to the original point.  The difference between a legislative means and a judicial means is how marriage is (must be) treated: as a social institution, or as a legal contract.  This is a problem — or something to cause a touch of worry — only if you believe, as I do, that to define marriage socially as a contract is to devalue it.  The decision doesn’t do that, and nothing I’ve said should be taken as any sort of comment about the validity of the decision itself.  But the decision does give the Grey Lady cause to declare in an editorial: “marriage is a civil contract.”  The thing to be wary of is that the approximation becomes the meaning.  If that happens, I think a lot of people who have fought a very long time for gay marriage will look around one day and realize that what they won was only an approximation of what they wanted.

Now on to the things that matter in life, like Opening Day.

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Will Herberg poses a situation in which a man is forced to choose between killing one man (an enemy aviator) or letting that man destroy an entire town by taking no action — both result in responsibility for death and violation of the sacredness of every life.  “Why is it he is compelled to violate the divine law?  The compulsive factors are obviously not of the natural order…” (Judaism and Modern Man, p. 217)  To answer, he brings up that (often problematic) line of Scripture: “The Lord visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children unto the third and fourth generations.”  His use might be more commonplace than I realize, but I find it fascinating nonetheless:

“What men have done at other times and places, what men do elsewhere in our own time, what we ourselves have done in the past, enter into the conditions that compel us to take life, to live by exploitation, to eat while others go hungry — just as what we do now adds to the burden of sin that will beset the men of time to come and cruelly restrict their freedom of action.  […]

“The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children not merely in the sense that one generation has to bear the consequences of the deeds of another — ‘Our fathers have sinned. . .and we have borne their iniquities’ (Lam. 5:7) — but in the far more important sense that the sins of the fathers create a situation in which the children, too, do evil, if only because, in the concrete circumstances, no course of action is open to them that is not to some degree infected with it.  There is no escaping the solidarity of sin because there is no escaping the solidarity of mankind.” (Judaism and Modern Man, p. 218)

Every year, there’s at least one obligatory article at Northwestern profiling Roger Carlson and Bookman’s Alley.  But this article goes beyond that and profiles Evanston’s very-much-dying used/independent bookstore scene, and it’s an excellent piece for anyone interested in reading about books, bookstores, and the changing ways we buy and sell them.  (Or if you’re just feeling nostalgic.)

This, for instance, is one store that I’ll regret never having known (and that lonely sign for it was already vaguely unsettling before I knew what, exactly, it was the ghost of):

‘According to Howard Cohen, owner of Howard’s Books, Great Expectations was “the best philosophy bookstore in the United States for many years.” Whereas Barnes & Noble might carry three or four books by Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, Great Expectations would fill three or four shelves.

Once a Northwestern undergraduate and now a history professor here, Jeff Rice was the last owner of the store. He paints a romantic picture of it, a place where professors would meet, famous writers would come and go (Saul Bellow got kicked out of the store “for being an asshole”) and people would get into political arguments and shouting matches while a Cubs game played in the background.’

My eternal problem with buying books online is that you can’t really browse — at least not the same way you can in an actual book store.  And what makes an independent or used book store so much better for browsing than a chain store is the sheer variety and eclecticism of the collections: they keep the authors who don’t sign large advances alive.  (Not to mention that they’re about the only places you can find decent poetry/philosophy sections, though some chain stores do better than others on this front, normally — in my experience — depending on how close to a college they are.)

Consider: Andrew Sullivan recounts discovering Michael Oakeshott accidentally while browsing in a used book store; Paul Breslin, an English professor here who is a leading scholar on Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, discovered Walcott in a used book store in New York because there were palm trees on the cover and opened it to find poems that left him, he says, stunned; Ezra Pound was in a bookshop on the Paris strand when he stumbled onto an old edition of the Latin translation of the Odyssey that he then translated and adapted into the first of his Cantos — and, in a great “What If?” for lovers of the Modernists — he was forced to choose between it and a translation of the Iliad because he could only afford to buy one.

Though none of my used book experiences have been quite so momentous, I came across Saul Bellow’s Herzog — which is among the best postwar American novels I have read — before having read a word of his; the story is the same with Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism — both not at all what I was looking for.  And most of my books related in any way to Classical authors — in original or in translation — have come from only slightly more deliberate browsing sessions.

I guess what I’m saying is, if we didn’t have these eclectic little shops to wander in, the accidents of history (or at least of recent thought) would be that much more homogenous, and that much the worse for it.

Andrew links to a study showing the rate of tree deaths in America is accelerating. It makes me think of this passage from Wendell Berry’s essay, “A Native Hill”:

“It occurs to me that it is no longer possible to imagine how this country looked in the beginning, before the white people drove their plows into it. It is not possible to know what was the shape of the land here in this hollow when it was first cleared. Too much of it is gone, loosened by the plows and washed away by the rain. I am walking the route of the departure of the virgin soil of the hill. I am not looking at the same land the firstcomers saw. The original surface of the hill is as extinct as the passenger pigeon. The pristine America that the first white man saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea. The thought of what was here once and is gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.”

My paternal family, my grandmother says, can be traced in America in part to before/around the time of America’s founding. What they saw – what so enamored them of where my family is of today – is gone. Part of that loss is natural with time; part of it is the failure of prior generations and this generation: there is a part of the Creation that we have failed to bequeath to our children despite not being able to claim much good from its absence.

I recognize, of course, that man in civilization and nature do not coexist well or easily. But when we have so decimated the sight that drew us here, and are doing it now for concrete and steel and pavement – let me put it this way: the Creation is God’s handiwork, and physical civilization is man’s. The beauty of the latter will never be comparable to that of the former.

Paul Dean, reviewing Geoffrey Hill’s critical writings in December’s TNC:

“If language is fallen, yet can be God-bearing, has it been redeemed, and if so, how? Was language, too, saved on Cavalry? (That is not a flippant question.)”

Though I’m not exactly of authority to hazard a response to that question in its particular form, I’ll do it anyway: If language is fallen, I wouldn’t place the fall in connection with Original Sin (as Hill, apparently, does) or, more specifically, with “the serpent’s use of specious argument to win Eve over” (as Dean does). Babel, rather, seems the proper setting for its (literal) Fall: the Fall involved punishment, but language was not punished until after Babel, when it was made imperfect and scattered out of a unity.

Of course, I have trouble with what I’ve just been saying, mostly because language of “the Fall” and “fallenness” isn’t something I’m perfectly comfortable with. They are, to my ears, inextricably linked with the idea of Original Sin-and therefore, like it, not Jewish terms. I understand them, of course, and have developed an aesthetic appreciation of the concept – I have to if I intend to live within the Western literary tradition (and have to if I intend to appreciate so many of the works on any meaningful scale). But to truly believe the language, one needs (I think) a Christian sensibility.

My preference is to couch discussion of post-Edenic existence in terms of loss, not fall. Between that and a (more Jewish) belief in an inherent imperfection in man (a state caused by not being divine, or The Divine, rather than resulting from a Fall), there’s enough common ground that I can read (for example, since his book is on my desk as I’m writing) Peter Lawler and sense that we agree on the present state of man’s fallibility and imperfection, while disagreeing on how he got there and where he’s going from there/how he’s getting out of it.

So I would say that language is less Fallen than humanly imperfect; that its fall from the peaks of Babel represents not a Fall but a brokenness — a loss, if you will, of wholeness.

And if we’re going to talk about the merits of the term “Judeo-Christian tradition,” or, more specifically, a Judeo-Christian political tradition, it stands to point out that the two traditions define the origins (and therefore the particular nature) of man’s imperfection differently. Such differing opinions regarding the meaning of the expulsion from Eden and the validity of Original Sin/whether we are specifically fallen, are not negligible, and any common conservative politics (as opposed to worldview or disposition), or (more aptly?) dialogue of conservative politics in/for a shared arena, can’t be established without some sort of contingent superstructure built (precariously?) above it – though that structure may merely be acknowledgement of this difference.

(I suppose you could argue that a similar endeavor is required for non-religious conservatives; though I wonder whether background in the Christian/Jewish/other tradition wouldn’t play an important role here – possibly so much so that merely being a non-religious conservative from the Christian tradition would provide more common ground – on this single matter – than if one were religious but coming from the Jewish tradition.)

This post of Conor’s (“Is Western culture really in ruin? […] To say that we are in the ruin of Western culture implies an age in which things were better. Does that age exist?”) is well worth reading – as are the comments. I’m certainly not exempted from this habit of playing chicken-little; it’s been more or less constant to bemoan the decline of Western culture since its inception (date it when you will).

But I’m not sure that it always matters whether that foreboding of doom is accurate. My copy of Love in the Ruins isn’t on-hand for reference, but I remember beginning to wonder as I read it whether that corner of Louisiana existed in “dread latter days” of existence anywhere outside of Tom More’s mind. The scenario of psyche-altering doom he sees everywhere is so bizarre that it seems reasonable for no one to believe him, especially given his penchant for Early Times and technical status as an escaped ward of a mental institution. And from More’s perspective, the dangers he sees would prevent those affected from knowing what had happened. It’s never fully clarified, and his severe allergic reaction to multiple gin fizzes during the “present” of the novel doesn’t help matters.

Still, it doesn’t seem to matter whether More was seeing reality or imagining doom. What he learns from the experience of that half-week enables him to live more easily in the world – he’s not without discomfort in it, but he’s more alive than when things began. Maybe taking the idea of Percy’s “aestheticized religious mode” of bourbon-drinking works as an example: by the novel’s end, More isn’t drinking out of habit, physiological necessity, or to blot out the unpleasantries of modernity, but for the specific purpose of enhancing the religious experience of a Sunday afternoon.

* * *

John gives an important addendum to the whole discussion of “Is the West in decline?” when he writes:

“[N]or is it helpful to refuse to acknowledge the ways in which the genuine gains that humankind has made have involved some significant losses, too.”

If we start reframing a lot of our discussion of “decline” (which can’t be going on all the time, obviously) in terms of “loss” just what it is that we’re missing – and how to repair this, if we can – becomes a little more clear.