Tag Archives: essays

Words against reality

Here’s a gift of insight for all things personal and political:

“The power of words over reality cannot be unlimited since, fortunately, reality imposes its own unalterable conditions. The rulers of totalitarian countries wish, of course, to be truthfully informed, but time and again they fall prey, inevitably, to their own lies and suffer unexpected defeats. Entangled in a trap of their own making, they attempt awkward compromises between their own need for truthful information and the quasiautomatic operations of a system that produces lies for everyone, including the producers.”

— Leszek Kolakowski, “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie” (1983)

Also see: “Auden Explains Poetry, Propaganda, and Reporting” and “Christianity as propaganda; Christianity versus propaganda



When You’re Certain You’re Right

Is it possible to know you’re right on a controversial subject and not be proud? Are certainty and pride just peas in the same pod?

Is it possible to believe in a position, stance, doctrine, law, worldview, etc., with certainty while also having real empathy and understanding for someone who does not see the same way? If you are certain about a stance on a controversial issue, do you really have the capacity for empathy and understanding of someone who differs?

Is it possible to write a blog post without a sense of certainty?

Are certainty and pride, or certainty and humility, always operating together? Is either pair ever operating together?

If I say I am submitting to the authority of a school of thought, or to the authority of a text, doesn’t my appropriation or my interpretation ultimately reflect back on me, the appropriator, the interpreter?

Does my decision to submit to an authority, of any kind, ultimately become self-referential? (I decided to submit, after all.)

Can I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs that are open to correction, clarification, modification, and addition?

If I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs, am I certain? Hopeful? Squishy? Humble? Indecisive? Uncommitted? Judicious? Poor in self-esteem?

Maybe just arrogant enough to get through the day?


Marilynne Robinson on ‘The Accidental’ as a Basis For Interpretation

In her book Absence of Mind, in the essay “The Strange History of Altruism,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson reviews some of the popular books about science. In the excerpt that follows, she makes an interesting observation about the consequences of two outlooks. I’m guessing most of my readers will agree with her point of view, but even those who won’t agree could see something valuable in her take:

“The comparison that is salient here is between the accidental and the intentional in terms of their consequences for the interpretation of anything. In the course of my reading, I have come to the conclusion that the random, the accidental, have a strong attraction for many writers because they simplify by delimiting. Why is there something rather than nothing? Accident. Accident narrows the range of appropriate strategies of interpretation, while intention very much broadens it. Accident closes on itself, while intention implies that, in and beyond any particular fact or circumstance, there is vastly more to be understood. Intention is implicitly communicative, because an actor is described in any intentional act. Why is the human brain the most complex object known to exist in the universe? Because the elaborations of the mammalian brain that promoted the survival of the organism overshot the mark in our case. Or because it is intrinsic to our role in the universe as thinkers and perceivers, participants in a singular capacity for wonder as well as for comprehension.”

Food for thought.

Meanwhile, Robinson has written an interesting analysis of Donald Trump for the Guardian.


Marilynne Robinson on ‘the felt life of the mind’ and beauty and strangeness

Marilynne Robinson’s Calvinism is an alternative to The Gospel Coalition’s Calvinism


A new poem and a new essay

Jason W. Johnson is a sharp guy, a wild poet, and a personal friend of mine. Please read his new original poem “Annus Mirabilis” at LiturgicalCredo.

And I’m continuing to file a weekly column, called Strange Days. This week’s dispatch is “Shop or your neighbors will lose their jobs” — call it a strange look at our economic situation.

George Orwell’s letter to Malcolm Muggeridge

Picture of George Orwell which appears in an o...

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“The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.” — George Orwell, in a letter to Malcolm Muggeridge, found in this new article in the New York Review of Books.

Shop Amazon – Thanksgiving Dinner and Desserts – Prepare the Perfect Feast

‘Small Kingdoms, Lost and Won’

Rebecca McClanahan was one of my professors in graduate school. It was a huge privilege to work with her and learn from her. For the Spring 2009 edition of Waccamaw: A Journal of Contemporary Literature, she wrote a fantastic essay entitled “Small Kingdoms, Lost and Won.” Be sure to read it.

Relating a line by Longfellow to a line by Lewis

At the beginning of my Major American Writers class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I open with a quote that I hope will help the students understand why we bother with literature and why literature matters.

I usually tap an American literary figure, but last week, a line by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had me thinking about something C.S. Lewis wrote.

Tell me if I’m off-base here.

In “A Psalm of Life,” Longfellow wrote, “Art is long, but life is fleeting”.

In “On Stories,” Lewis wrote, “In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to capture in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I think I was fairly responsible with the comparison and contrast. I made it clear that I did not think there was a perfect critical fit between the two quotes. Even so, I wanted to use the quotes to draw attention to a couple of thoughts. One, while life moves along, in its chronological sequence, we still value certain things that seem eternal, that stand outside of ourselves and our time. Two, that art can sometimes open us up to a sense, feeling, or impression of something eternal, something beyond us.

A powerful example of that sense or impression was related by the poet (and Lewis friend) Ruth Pitter in one of her BBC broadcasts, entitled “Hunting the Unicorn,” which was aired decades ago now. Pitter said:

I was sitting in front of a cottage door one day in spring long ago, a few bushes and flowers round me, bird gathering nesting material, trees of the forest at a little distance. A poor place, nothing glamorous about it. And suddenly, everything assumed a different aspect, its true aspect. For a moment it seemed to me that truth appeared in its overwhelming splendor. The secret was out, the explanation given, something that had seemed like total freedom, total power, total bliss – good with no bad as its opposite, an absolute that had no opposite. This thing, so unlike our feeble nature, had suddenly cut across one’s life and vanished. What is this thing? Is it, could it be, after all, a hint of something more real than this life? A message from reality, perhaps a particle of reality itself? If so, no wonder we hunt it so unceasingly, and never stop desiring it and pining for it.

I did not include the above Pitter quote in our class discussion. While I was trying to explain the Lewis quote, however, I noticed some of the students were moved and surprised by what I was saying. My explanation probably had more in common with Platonism than Christianity, and yet just expressing the possibility of an impression from something beyond our material framework was stirring for me, and it felt counter-cultural to talk about such things.

-Colin Foote Burch