Poetics, humanities, and life

This hour long conversation between Bishop Barron and author Jason Blakely both interviewed by Jared Zimmer had so much in it that I would love to discuss that I’m having trouble thinking which snippet to bring out here as a teaser. Perhaps I’ll drop something of that sort in here later, but I’m hoping others here may get something out of it too by listening in for themselves. It’s about the place of “the story” (poetics) and the humanities in our human experience. I feel like I’ve gotten at least something of a philosophy lesson (as well as a proper introduction -for me- to Bob Dylan) while listening to them talk. Took me a couple days to reach the end of this video because I was always breaking away to listen to this or that Dylan song, and read its lyrics.



The Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Dylan wrote and sang:

They ask me how I feel
And if my love is real
And how I know I’ll make it through
And they, they look at me and frown,
They’d like to drive me from this town,
They don’t want me around
'Cause I believe in you

They show me to the door,
They say don’t come back no more
'Cause I don’t be like they’d like me to,
And I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don’t feel alone
'Cause I believe in you

I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter,
I believe in you even though we be apart
I believe in you even on the morning after
Oh, when the dawn is nearing
Oh, when the night is disappearing
Oh, this feeling is still here in my heart

Don’t let me drift too far,
Keep me where you are
Where I will always be renewed
And that which you’ve given me today
Is worth more than I could pay
And no matter what they say
I believe in you

I believe in you when winter turn to summer,
I believe in you when white turn to black,
I believe in you even though I be outnumbered
Oh, though the earth may shake me
Oh, though my friends forsake me
Oh, even that couldn’t make me go back

Don’t let me change my heart,
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue
And I, I don’t mind the pain
Don’t mind the driving rain
I know I will sustain
'Cause I believe in you

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They get a lot of mileage speaking of the narratives of “homo economicus” and “homo machina”. And it isn’t so much that they put those narratives down as completely evil or wrong. But they discuss how those narratives can find their place and fit within a (the) larger narrative that we’re given, and that we don’t create for ourselves.

An open question for me: While they speak disparagingly of the “self-made” narrative where we just pretend that we are the creators of our own story rather than receivers of an already existing narrative, I still wonder at how much there is yet to explore in the notion of “finding my own role” within the greater story. Isn’t there a legitimate place for this notion that yes - we are granted enough agency to carve out a potentially unique role? I don’t think these speakers would disagree - in fact they speak of our Imageo Dei as us having creative powers shared with us. It seems to me like there is a tension there, though, between that and what they insist is merely our attempt at self-creation of our narrative. Maybe the key is that we shouldn’t forget how to see a place for our smaller narratives (that we do help shape) - how to plug that in to the larger narrative that is above us and before us - both individually and culturally.

Quote from Tillich referenced in this interview:

“A Cezanne still life is more religious than a kitschy crucifix.”

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You know that deserves an equally enlightened response and I’d be happy to offer one, and would if I even the slightest idea what it is you are saying! :grinning:

You mean the Paul Tillich quote? Or the post prior to that?

Assuming you are referring to the longer post - that initial paragraph won’t make sense to many people unless they’ve listened to the linked video in the OP to hear the context. Before that I wouldn’t have known what anybody meant by “homo economus” or “homo machina” either. So I must confess I wrote the response to an audience that had already partaken of this same material. But just briefly what they meant by these terms (that for all I know, Blakely may have coined) is the narratives about what a human being is that have sprung up in these last centuries. E.g. Are we merely shaped by our participation in the economy as producers and consumers? Is our human history shaped by market forces as Marxist or Capitalist ideologues might portray it? That would be Homo Economus. Or another view of the human being: Are we merely the sum of our physical parts (atoms, and their interactions - a ‘mere machine’ if you will). That would be ‘Homo Machina’.

Then there may still be hope for me. Started it but had to sleep. The ebb and flow of creativity is a huge part of why I feel there is something greater than that which is readily under our control. I imagine there is a kind of writer’s block for every creative undertaking. When the muse has nothing to say nothing worthwhile can happen that day.

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My goodness! My attention span starts to bog down after about 5 minutes of heady video conversation. A video longer than that … with oral discussion or commentary has to offer a “transcript” for reference to hold my interest, in which case I leave the video presentation and slog through the transcript. Fortunately, the video of the conversation between Barron, Blakely, and Zimmer offers a transcript.


I listened to it a second time and caught more. There is a lot there.

  • The Video.
    • Z = Zimmer; BB = Bishop Barron; JB = Jason Blakely
    • Z: What is “hermeneutics”?
      • BB: The art and science of interpretation. Roots in 19th century biblical interpretation: “What does the biblical text mean?”
      • JB: Agrees and adds, the focus of hermeneutics has shifted from textual interpretation to interpretation of human behavior, i.e. beliefs and practices. Art of interpreting in order to understand humans which often fails to be sensitive to human beliefs.
    • Z: JB, what are “the double ‘h’ effects” mentioned in your book?
      • JB: The double ‘h’ [i.e. hermeneutics] effects are the interpretations of the world and descriptions of the world that enter into the world and, unlike the natural sciences, change the world.
        • E.g. in the natural sciences, a theory of the sun doesn’t change the sun’s position; but in the social sciences, a theory can change human behavior: Marxist theory resulting in people becoming marxists; Freudian theory leading to changes in confessional practices resulting in secuarized confession. In human sciences, a theory doesn’t just describe human behavior, it has the potential to enter and create new realities.
    • Z: So, BB, do you hear a little drifting into scientism?
      • BB: Yes, which is what I appreciate in JB’s book because I deal with scientism all the time. Young people are formed by the view that the sciences describe reality, so knowledge becomes “co-terminus” with the scientific way of knowing the world. And the thing that JB emphasizes in the book is the “narrative, poetic” quality of human behavior that can’t be reduced to something measurable by the scientific method which gets in the way of religious rhetoric. If you start talking in a religious manner, people say: “that’s not science, therefore it must be nonsense. (5:23)”

Thanks for that nicely outlined summary, Terry!

It’s not really a summary. It’s more of an abbreviated version of the first 5.5 minutes of the video.

…Will take what I can get! A nice summary it still is.

Here is yet another interview (also long - and also rewarding) where this time Barron is in conversation with Dr. Jessica H. Wilson (who teaches literature). Again - interviewed by Zimmerman.

They cover a little bit of the same turf - resisting Scientism and such. But here the discussion zeros in quite a bit on Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. I’ve never read O’Connor’s work, but this felt like a pretty good introduction to it.

Couple of questions that I had in the course of viewing that I would like to discuss…

  1. At one point in the video, two different approaches to suffering in the world are contrasted with each other (using Ivan and Alyosha of “Brothers Karamazov” as archetypes). One is the ‘sterile’ analysis or recognition of the problem of suffering - but without any apparent consequential sympathy. Whereas Alyosha, who can’t satisfy Ivan’s intellectual probings, nevertheless enters into the dark suffering of the story to just try to be a comforting presence. The latter is, of course, held up as the more Christian approach to suffering. But this raises a question for me: What if I don’t want somebody suffering with me? What if I want my suffering alleviated instead? After all, we’d quickly find another doctor if we visited and the doctor, instead of treating us, infected himself with the malady as well so that he could suffer along with us. But this isn’t fair of course. Those in this interview do not in any way disavow the need for science and practical application wherever it can work. They are speaking of the sort of suffering (loss of a loved one … or maybe us suffering the consequences of very real sin in our lives) that a mere medical doctor will not be helping us with. Still - when is it ever okay for us to simply presume that we won’t be doing anything to mitigate or help solve somebody’s problem?

  2. I feel like secularists may be getting unfair treatment here and I can’t put my finger entirely on why those in this interview think the following: Barron at one point declares that he is literally afraid of people who don’t believe in any higher (or imposed from above) meanings - and yet who insist on passionately pursuing social justice issues. “Death camps will always follow that” he says (and the others agree.) I know he’s probably thinking of big and spectacularly failed revolutionary movements of the past, whether Stalinist Soviet Union or French Revolution and such. But still - isn’t this an unecessary overgeneralization about what secularization must always lead to? It seems to me, especially in light of discussion of other threads, that there is insufficient historical evidence to conclude that Christianity clearly prevents death camps, or that apparent secular movement must always be leading to them. That struck me as an unwarranted conclusion, but what does anybody else think?

I begin to unravel when I try to multitask, so I’ll stick with the BB/JB/Z video, although I might wade into the latest video that you linked to for the sole purpose of reading/listening to what’s said about Flannery O’Conner, whom I esteem second after William Faulkner.

And yet, your #1 and #2 are provocative and tempt me to respond to parts of each.

You got my interest up. Do you have a very-favorite-most novel by MS O’Conner? I’m a new convert to fiction with a lot of ground to make up.

Edited to say : OOPS!! Flannery a lady’s name? Didn’t mean to transgender her.

Novel? no. Her novels are, as she acknowledged, "filled with freaks. A quote that she is know for goes like this: "Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

  • Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925. When she died at the age of thirty-nine, America lost one of its most gifted writers at the height of her powers. O’Connor wrote two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), and two story collections, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1964). Her Complete Stories, published posthumously in 1972, won the National Book Award that year, and in a 2009 online poll it was voted as the best book to have won the award in the contest’s 60-year history. Her essays were published in Mystery and Manners (1969) and her letters in The Habit of Being (1979). In 1988 the Library of America published her Collected Works; she was the first postwar writer to be so honored. O’Connor was educated at the Georgia State College for Women, studied writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and wrote much of Wise Blood at the Yaddo artists’ colony in upstate New York. She lived most of her adult life on her family’s ancestral farm, Andalusia, outside Milledgeville, Georgia"

I own “The Complete Stories”, a collection 31 stories, my favorite of which is “Revelation”.

I suppose one might get a small portion of her flavor just reading quotes that she was known for: Flannery O’Connor - Quotes. Note: Flannery was 39 when she died, raised peacocks, and was Catholic.



It sure does seem this way, doesn’t it?

“I write to discover what I know.”
― Flannery O’Connor

I’ve often said something similar, except I’d put “think” for “know”. I write to find out what I think.

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It looks like you’re in good hands with Mr. Sampson with regard to recommendations about Ms. O’Connor. I’ve not [yet] read her either, and so - along with you - have ground of my own to make up.

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  • Continued from the video at 5:23)
    • BB: “Those are the two options (i.e. the scientific and the narrative, poetic description of reality) so I like the recovery of that more mythic, poetic, scientific contingent, open-ended quality when looking at human behavior. It can’t be reduced to the scientific mode.”
      *JB: “I think that’s actually one of the forms of knowledge that we’ve lost in the modern world is that basically narrative, the art of interpretation, is if you’re like connected to a set of wisdoms or wisdom traditions–some of them are conflicting–but we’ve reduced or there’s a tendency
      to reduce everything to sort of scientific knowledge, law-like explanations, and so the notion that a story has something to teach you is sort of relegated to childhood; you know, “stories are for children” and that, of course, does intersect with the major religions, with catholicism, the notion that there’s a story that is actually sort of the key explanatory element to understanding the human situation. If you think that you always need a scientific explanation and the stories are for children then you’re going to be very closed to hermeneutics. you’re not going to see anything for you in hermeneutics, it might be fine for children, it might be fine for students in college, who are studying these texts, but why do I need hermeneutics to understand my neighbor, my own desires, or what’s going on in my society, and that loss is really an impoverishment I think it does have to do with the falling away of the word “wisdom” which a lot of people are confused by on the street today, but they know what they mean by “knowledge”, right? “knowledge is scientific”, there’s a marquee. We’re all after that, but “wisdom”? what’s that? No one has wisdom anymore, and stories are for children, so we’ve kind of blocked ourselves off from certain profound sources of how to live and how to decipher, how to pursue goals and construct a society.”
    • BB: something I do–it’s interesting–in those conversations with people on the on the web, you know, and trying to explore the religious reality. And they’re stuck in a scientistic view and I’ll say: well, look at Plato’s “Republic”, or look at “Hamlet”, or look at T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”, I said, "yes, they’re literary artifacts; and yes, they’re of historical interest, but do they tell you nothing true? like there’s nothing true being conveyed to you by Plato’s “Republic” or by “Hamlet”? And I think people are compelled to say "well, yeah, I guess they do say true things. Well, therefore, there must be a non-scientific way of conveying truth. Philosophy fits in there, you know: a philosophical mode which is a rational mode of discourse, but not a scientific mode of discourse; which is why we talked about this before, I think that’s an important bridge in the sort of science-religion debate. It’s not to just propose that you know the binary option, but in the middle of those two. With something like philosophy, or these meaning-making narratives and forms of argument even, it’s a philosophical argument. It’s not a scientific argument, not based on the scientific method, but yet entirely rational, that has been compromised a lot, I think, in our educational system and in the popular culture. So right, the binary there is science or for kids. You tell the kids: “oh yeah, the sun goes to bed at night”; but then, when you grow up, you study Stephen Hawking, you know, but there’s something between those two options, you know.
    • Z: Yeah, we’ve, you know, been known as meaning-makers. And I love that you bring that up several times in the book, and it seems to me that whenever we sort of get rid of these kind of more poetic routes of epistemology of the human person and you purely focus on the scientific, you start to use individuals and that goes into this kind of vision of economics being one of those “double h” effects, and “interpretation of the world” as just sort of resources that we can use. So I’d love to hear more about kind of why economic vision really shaped a lot of our consumer culture that we have today.
    • JB: Right, exactly. So a lot of the book consists of examples of “double h” effects of different theories that have sort of entered into our life, world, if you like and have changed it and
      restructured it. One of the ones that I go into is homo economicus is the way that, in around mid-century, basically neoclassical economics proposed a vision of human beings that was highly idealized. It said that human beings were basically “preference maximizers” and they ranked their preferences and behaved more or less like on a market. And that vision of human beings which philosophers call “homo economicus”, which just means, is Latin, for human beings as economic creatures, actually started to change the lifeworld. It started to change the way people interpreted themselves. It started to change, if you like, the stories they lived to connect it to the point we were just making. So people thought: “I have this science of
      economics. We could discuss, you know, we could have a long debate to what degree is neoclassical economics a science, to what degree is it not. But what interests me in the book more than that was to bracket that question and ask: But what does it look like when I try to become more like that theory? Yeah, and one of the things that’s fascinating is if you look at say the early 00s, the late 90s, big books were things like “Freakonomics”, and there was sort of the construction of a popular scientific authority, and it interested me the way in which human beings try to mimic that authority in their relationships, in their communities, local life, etc. And so, something that worried me, … and this comes from my position, in fact, as a catholic. I don’t think you have to be catholic. You can have a common meeting ground on hermeneutics, on the inside, that human beings are storytelling animals that live out stories. But, as a catholic, one of the things that worried me is exactly what you’re saying, which is: if I view all of my relationships as interactions on a market, what happens to the dignity of the human person? what happens to the notion that I can’t calculate some relationship? Some relationships are, if you like, incalculable. They don’t fit within a market grid because homo economicus tends to think: I can swap things out: I’m tired of this spouse so, if you like, I maximize my preference with a new spouse. And what happens to these relationships that if I lose them, they do great damage to me in some sense that is not calculable, because they do something to the intrinsic meanings that comprise my story, who I am, and so one of the worries in the book, … underlying–I don’t state it outright–is that there’s a loss of a kind of personhood through some of these theories.”
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Wow - a transcript in the making! This is impressive.

I suppose that sentiment has some legitimate place as a concern today, but it seems a bit bleak and over-dramatic to me. No wisdom at all? That sounds a bit to me like the clarion call of every older generation about its children. And every time they are proven wrong. And right.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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