Revisiting: Other People’s Epics

Every Some third Saturdays of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “Other People’s Epics.” The first sentence is no longer quite true, but otherwise I think it holds of reasonably well. I spun out this theme quite a lot, possibly ad nauseum, at the Thinking Grounds. Immediate sequels included “Other People’s Mystery Novels” and “Other People’s [Insert Genre]s.”


Briton Riviere’s Una and the Lion. Una is the romantic interest of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Book One. Source: Sofi at flic.rk/p/ftjgXA

Other People’s Epics

One of my recurrent pastimes is to imagine what another person’s epic might look like.

As far as genres go, the epic is one of my favourites to think about. No individual epic counts among my favourite books (though, you know, Paradise Lost is pretty great). The reason I like thinking about them is that, at least in the English tradition, they have become a kind of formal game, thanks to the humanists of early modern England. (Note to readers: “early modern” is the new PC term for “Renaissance;” in England the early modern period spans the 1500s and 1600s, but it got started earlier in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc.). Let’s dive into a bit of history, shall we?

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Revisiting: On Mystics and Postmodernists

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “On Mystics and Postmodernists,” which is somewhat more frankly autobiography than usual.

Source: fusion-of-horizons at

Source: fusion-of-horizons at

On Mystics and Postmodernists

This post will barely rise above the autobiographical, but perhaps despite that it will be of some use to someone; I intend to discuss the way in which my (mostly former) interest in mysticism has been related to a sympathy for (but lack of identification with) postmodernism.

I remember, towards the end of high school, engaging with certain skeptics and atheists among my classmates. When I say, “engaging,” I should really say, “imagining engagements,” since I do not think I ever tried my arguments out against my classmates, prefering to debate my imagined versions of those classmates. One of my arguments I later learned was already famous as Pascal’s wager, which I have subsequently found less than compelling; another was that humans, being finite and imperfect, could not reason accurately about God, who was infinite and transcendent. As evangelism, this argument is a non-starter; as defensive apologetics, it suffices, but hardly. I admit I was naïve. For a pre-existing and self-critical faith, however, the idea that humans cannot accurately reason about God is almost certainly a necessary component, so while I’ve stopped using it (or imagining that I use it) to defend my faith against critics, I’ve found it a fairly good idea to hold on to.

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Revisiting: A Dating (Multi)Culture

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. What I’m sharing today comes with a bit of backstory, but it explains that itself; what I should say about “A Dating (Multi)Culture” from The Thinking Grounds is that it was one of my attempts to figure out multiculturalism, and less what it is than what it could be.

Source: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives at

Source: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives at

A Dating (Multi)Culture

Leah Libresco is kvetching about dating woes at her blog Unequally Yoked, in some conversation with other bloggers. One of these other bloggers, Thomas Umstattd, critiqued the courtship culture he had spent some portion of his life promoting and offered as a substitute a 1950s-style model of casual dating. In this model, people do not go out on a date with the same person twice in a row. If a guy takes you out for ice cream on Monday and you want to take him up on his invitation to the Saturday night dance, you need to get a date with someone else during the week. This way, accepting a date or asking someone out on a date doesn’t imply anything much, and you get to know a number of people in a romance-possible context without feeling like you’re leading them on. After all, if I know my date is seeing another guy two days from now, I can hardly feel entitled to her attentions or affections. What we call “dating” was called “going steady” or “exclusive” back then, and it meant that you’d then only go on dates with that one person. By the time anyone proposed marriage, you had gone on dates with rather a lot of people and had a sense of what you were looking for in a partner.* Continue reading

Revisiting: At the Feet of the Arkans

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting “At the Feet of the Arkans” from the Thinking Grounds, a bit of multiculturalist fantasy asking what we could learn if the Cainites, a people who are always conjoined twins, had a civilization of their own.

Source: Kurt Komoda at

Source: Kurt Komoda at

At the Feet of the Arkans

At the Weekly Wonders two weeks ago I posted about the Cainites. There have been lots of versions of the descendants of Cain—vampires, monsters, non-vegetarian barbarians—but I was looking at a specific, and very obscure, tradition from Jewish mysticism. It was said that Cain’s children were led by God into a dark cavernous world or place and where each given two heads. Their bicephaly was possibly a reminder of Cain’s brother Abel, who he killed, and thus the need for peace between siblings, but in the stories it usually seems to be a symbol for internal conflict. Solomon rules that Cainites are merely two-headed people rather than sets of twins sharing a body, and so the fact that one head is often pious while the other is wicked is taken as an external, visible sign of every human’s dual nature. Solomon, however, was wrong: two minds in two brains means there are two people. That is all the evidence you need. The land in which these Cainites were said to live is usually called Arka, so I tend to think of them as the Arkans.* Continue reading

Revisiting: Symbol Confusion

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. Today I am sharing “Symbol Confusion” from The Thinking Grounds, in which I consider the way certain common symbols don’t work for me.

a black and white photograph of a dog in the fog

Source: ArTeTeTrA at

Symbol Confusion

When I visited my (first) alma mater a season after graduating, I had tea with some of the staff from my old fellowship, and one of them told me he thought of the recent-grad situation as being rather like a swamp. I think he was trying to say that people tended to get lost in that time period, perhaps even stuck, without knowing which way to go; maybe he was trying to evoke unstable ground, and general lack civilization or guideposts. But I had to shrug and say, “You know, I’ve always liked swamps.” Continue reading

Revisiting: On Pilgrims and Aliens

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This time I am sharing “On Pilgrims and Aliens,” from Dreamtigers and Silent Skies. It was verbose for any blog, let along for a tumblr. Still, I like some of what I did in the middle of that piece, so I will bring it to your attention.

Source: Deane and Natasha Schulze at

Source: Deane and Natasha Schulze at

As with most of my earlier attempts to understand people like Northrop Frye and H. P. Lovecraft, I think part of my problem with this sort of thinking is that what W. Paul Jones would call World One runs exactly opposite to my intuitions. In the past I had difficulty sympathizing with people who saw the natural world as indifferent or Other and therefore disliked it, since the world’s Otherness is one of the things I like most about it. I am better, now, at sympathizing with this worldview… but I still see a connection between that way of seeing things and hostility to cultural or ethnic Others, and I feel that it is worthwhile to explore that connection further.

If I were to write this again, I would probably try to use more nuance with the term “alien,” considering how it is politicized today in citizenship debates and considering how these attitudes of demonizing Others contributes to those politics.

On Pilgrims and Aliens

This post is way too long for Tumblr, but I said I’d talk about some of this stuff again—especially H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, and what it has to do with his cosmicism—and anyway I might just as well get this out there. Pace yourselves, I guess. There are three sections.

For Christmas I asked for and received Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking; based on the jacket, I assumed it would be an intellectually rigorous examination of the role walking played in the thought of philosophers such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Kant, and Gandhi, but it turned out to be an overly generalizing and mostly unsubstantiated hymn to walking. It has been a disappointment. I wrote a thing elsewhere raging about how it ignores the role community, revision, conversation, and argument play in good thinking; Gros repeatedly sneers about books written in the light of other books, saying they smell of mildew and are heavy, cluttered, stuffed with citations and references and annotations. He prefers books composed after a good walk, formed from contact between the foot and the solid earth, in the fresh clean outdoor air. But those last books are composed alone, without contact with the history of thought, without checking in that his own assumptions aren’t mistaken, that other people’s experiences don’t contradict his generalizations. I wrote that thing, but let’s not share it here; I want to talk about something else. Let’s talk about pilgrims, and let’s talk about the great alien world.

1. Gyrovagues

In his chapter called “Pilgrimage,” Gros writes, “The primary meaning of peregrinus is foreigner or exile. The pilgrim, originally, is not one who is heading somewhere (Rome, Jerusalem, etc.), but essentially one who is not at home where he is walking.” And then, “We are all, say the Church Fathers, fleetingly on this earth, passing through, and so we ought always to provide a night’s shelter in our dwellings, to see our possessions as a disposable burden, and our friends as people met by the wayside.”

Gros introduces me to two new words: gyrovagues and xenateia. Gyrovagues were itinerant monks, who went from one monastery to another, calling none home: in their wandering, they signified the pilgrimage that is mortal life. Xenateia, which I assume is Greek, is “the condition of foreignness to the world.” We all share xenateia; we do not all admit it. Xenateia implies another phrase which I have discovered in this book: peregrination perpetua, the eternal pilgrimage.

This following passage shows some of the overgeneralization I found disappointing:

You walk to have done with it all and purge yourself: to have done with the world’s clamour, the accumulation of tasks, the wear and tear. And there’s nothing better than forgetting, for not being here anymore, than the great boredom of the roads, the limitless monotony of forest paths. Walk, cut yourself off, depart, leave.

Not everyone walks this way. Not all walks do this for me. But, I must admit, there is in this passage some of the appeal the natural world has for me: it gets me out of myself, it clears away all the concern I have with how I appear to others. That is indeed a reason for me to walk: to clarify, to clear myself out of myself.

(The word ecstasy means being or standing outside of oneself.)

When he writes diatribes against conversation, Gros is perhaps rejecting the habit of writing without living, or thought without reference to lived experiences. That is indeed a hazard of academy; there is lots of good scholarship which is grounded in both conversation and experience, but there is also bad scholarship which is not grounded in experience at all. There are indeed reputation games, speculation that seems detached from life; writing can be cramped, can lack dynamism and life. Perhaps Gros exaggerates to shock us out of poor writing. Still, Gros goes too far, rejects all conversation. But as walking is one way of engaging the Other, so is conversation, so is mixing with other people, delving into the world of citation and annotation and reference, of chatter and talk, the school and the town. The gyrovague goes from monastery to monastery, but he does not spend all his time between them; he stays with the other monks, too. And the pilgrim comes home, or to the home-on-this-earth, bringing that experience back to others; or the pilgrim sets out in company, travels in communitas, the community on the road. Go out, walk, clear your head; then bring your clear head back to us.

2. Xenateia

The other side of an alien world is that we are aliens in the world. If there is a gulf between us and the world, in its strange Otherness, its apparent indifference to us, its lack of clear meaning, then are we the same to it? Maybe not; often we are nothing to it; maybe it has no perspective. But sometimes there are animals that seem mystified by us; closer to home, we are often mystified by each other.

What does it mean to imagine ourselves as eternal pilgrims, as foreign here? To the early church, it meant that we “are in the world, but not of the world”: that was a metaphysical and a moral statement. Metaphysically, we were made for Eden, in the image of God, but the whole world had Fallen with us, and in our mortal lives we were alien to our own natures and to the broken wreck of the universe around us; at the end of things, the final reconciliation, we and the world would be redeemed and brought back into God’s design, and then we would be home again. Morally, we must act as though we are citizens of Heaven and not citizens of the world’s nations; we must live here, and we must not remove ourselves from the world—in the world—but we must live according to the rules of our true allegiance—but not of the world. We must fully engage with the world’s suffering, we must not turn our backs on sinners and victims, but at the same time we should live according to the will of God. (Indeed, being in the world is the same as not being of it when we take care of the stranger.) We do not need to accept Genesis’s metaphysics to see the moral interpretation’s strength:xenateia means that we do not need to live entirely by the world’s crueler laws, that we can live by a standard more than that of survival, or celebrity, or comfortable conformity.

But are we not of the world? Our bodies and brains are made of its stuff. Our actions affect it; our waste lies in it. To imagine ourselves as separate from the world might in one sense be a tremendous arrogance, almost a crime. This world might be different from us, alien, but we and it are bound together, enmeshed; our actions can doom the world, and if we doom it we doom ourselves. We sustain ourselves of the earth. It is our mother: a cold, distant mother, maybe, which leaves us to fend for ourselves, but nonetheless it is from the earth that we get all our sustenance. Thus we can only say that we are not of the world in a particular sense; we must also remember that in another sense we are of the earth, that this is our home, whatever that might mean.

But I want to offer another way of looking at this: most life on this earth is bent on survival. Plants, protists, fungi; they are brutal competitors. They strive. Animals sometimes show more than a mere drive to exist; they can have community, joy, affection, even when it is not in service of their genetic imperative. But mostly the world is cruel, and its people are cruel, and all they do is survive and thrive. Our human consumption, production, pollution are artifacts of this; when we damage the world, we are acting according to the laws of the world. Nature is efficient and tribalist and thoughtless, and when we are these things we are not aliens to it. So, perhaps, it is when we try to take care of the earth, act as its custodians, sacrifice in order to sustain or at least not harm it further, perhaps that is when we are most alien to it; perhaps that is when we are in the world but not of it.

The alien is tired and confused and often alone, but the alien is also free. The alien can be more than its place of exile.

3. Alien-nation

The trouble with living in the world is that other people are not like us. We do not always understand them; their ways are strange to us.

Gros only understands this as a bad thing. He repeatedly makes generalizations which might be true of him but are not true of everyone. For the most part, he does not attempt to see the world with their eyes. (Why would he? He has nothing to learn from them, he might say, since they are cluttered with convention, society, books written in the shadow of books written in the shadow of libraries.) But in places Gros’s indifference to other people’s views begins to approach outright racism and ageism. Consider this paragraph:

Among the sources of morning, we find the West. The East is where our memory resides: the East is culture and books, history and old defeats. There is nothing to be learned from the past, because learning from that means repeating former errors. That is why one shouldn’t put one’s trust in old people, or settle for their so-called experience which is nothing but the weighty mass of their repeated mistakes. One should trust only confidence itself: youth. The sources of the future lie in the West.

It might seem a stretch to say that the East is meant to be Asia, but consider what he associates with it: culture, history, books, the past, respect for elders. Are these not the orientalist stereotypes of China and Japan? The West, meanwhile, is the opposite: youth, the future, and, in a later paragraph, the wilderness and the frontier. The West is America. And of course mere experience is no guarantee of wisdom, and so neither is age, but this too is a strange irony: Gros’s entire project is founded on the primacy of experience, and how should his experience be any better? The old were once young, too.

As previously discussed, H. P. Lovecraft saw the world as radically Other, and he reacted with horror; he also saw non-white people and uneducated people as radically Other, and he reacted to them with horror. His cosmicism—the view that we are insignificant in the strange Otherness of the world—is inseparable from his racism. Northrop Frye, whose high view of literature and society comes from a deep fear of the natural world and its apparent indifference to us, had little attention for non-Western literature; I suspect that he suffers from the same sense of the Other, but he reacts by ignoring or delegitimizing, rather than despising, those people whose experiences are too different than his own. In rejecting the Other, both reject people. I wonder—but no more than wonder—whether Gros suffers a fate much like this; he rejects the Other, but misidentifies the natural world as his, owned by the mere fact that he walks into the forest, strains against the wind, drinks from a stream with his hands; in his book he frequently writes that the one who walks owns all that he sees. When Gros does recognize the Other in people he doesn’t quite understand, he rejects them, dismisses them, pities them, at times despises them. And in so doing these men make themselves more alone than they could otherwise be: if they are alienated from society, they seem to alienate themselves.

But if we are pilgrims, there is another way of doing this: gather together, tell stories, try to remember that even while people are Other in some respects—many, fundamental respects—they are also people, with their own integrities and logic and inner spinning worlds. Make a people out of the alienated, an alien-nation. Find those places of connection, use those connections to start understanding how we are different, allow ourselves to be changed by that difference, and, in the end, learn to accept that everyone, always, will be a little bit unknowable.

Revisiting: The Great Silence

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. I want to continue thinking about Fermi’s Paradox and Pascal’s firmament which does not speak, which I did in “The Great Silence” at Dreamtigers and Silent Skies.


Image source: Diana Robinson at

The Great Silence

One of the projects I’m working on is the Weekly Wonder, through which I post a brief entry on something I find interesting according to a five-week schedule of categories: prehistoric animals on Mondays, plants and fungi on Wednesdays, and so on. On Tuesdays I post ideas, and a while ago I posted about Fermi’s paradox; you can see the entry here.

Fermi’s paradox is the strange fact that, on the one hand, the chances that extraterrestrial life exists and is capable of communicating with us are objectively pretty high but, on the other hand, there is no concrete evidence that extraterrestrial life is out there, let alone has come here. Or, as the physicist Enrico Fermi reportedly put it, “Where is everybody?” This is a serious question, or at least a question which is seriously asked and which many people have tried to seriously answer. Some attempted explanations are quite interesting; you can go to the Weekly Wonder to learn about them. That’s not why I’m bringing it up, though.
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Revisiting: Comments as a New Agora?

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs to help readers get to know me better. This month I am posting “Comments as a New Agora?” from Learning to Read the Internet, in which I think about the technical constraints on using comments for public dialogue. Of course there are other factors involved, including issues of human psychology and of public education, but I felt somewhat capable talking about technical affordances. Biographical information mentioned in this post may be out of date.

Comments as a New Agora?

Here’s an idea: on social media, librarians could provide opportunities for conversations rather than take part in them.

The Problem with YouTube Comments

Screenshot of a Khan Academy YouTube video comments section.

Screenshot of a Khan Academy YouTube video comments section.

As I mentioned in my CV, I am studying YouTube comments as a research assistant to Eric Meyers. One thing I’ve learned is that YouTube’s comments space does not have many affordances: it lacks easy navigation, it has fewer sorting options, and so on. For this reason, it can be difficult to have a conversation in the YouTube comments. This is something Eric found in his research before I came aboard: there isn’t much discussion in the comments, and what discussion there is tends to be an entrenched argument between two participants. There aren’t many rich conversations.

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Revisiting: About Dreamtigers and Silent Skies

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs to help readers get to know me better. This week I am sharing “About Dreamtigers and Silent Skies” for my current reblog tumblr, Dreamtigers and Silent Skies. It had formerly been called The Neglected and the Changed, but for certain reasons I chose a new name and wanted to explain it. If I were to summarize my feelings in this post, it would be with these two lines: “Whatever has captured you about the world, especially the world of childhood, cannot quite be made again by art. Yet we try”; and “I exult in the world’s indifference.”

About Dreamtigers and Silent Skies

Why did I rename this blog Dreamtigers and Silent Skies? I’m glad you asked! Both are references to the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, but it might take a bit of explaining.

Image source: Susanne Nilsson at

Image source: Susanne Nilsson at

Dreamtigers refers to the poem/short story “Dreamtigers” (the original Spanish poem has this English title). In this piece, Borges describes his childhood fascination with tigers. His love of tigers has faded with age, he writes, but they still prowl his dreams. The story (or poem) ends thus:

As I sleep I am drawn into some dream or other, and suddenly I realize that it’s a dream. At those moments, I often think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will, and since I have unlimited power, I am going to bring forth a tiger.
Oh, incompetence! My dreams never seem to engender the creature I so hunger for. The tiger does appear, but it is all dried up, or it’s flimsy-looking, or it has impure vagaries of shape or an unacceptable size, or it’s altogether too ephemeral, or it looks more like a dog or bird than like a tiger.
from Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley

I take “Dreamtigers” to describe and lament the difficulty of capturing in art the particular enchantment that reality has over you—or, I should say, the particular enchantment that you have draped over some favoured piece of reality. Whatever has captured you about the world, especially the world of childhood, cannot quite be made again by art. Yet we try. Our dreamtigers are our attempts. Continue reading

Revisiting: Bloom and Creativity

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted blogs or tumblogs: The Thinking Grounds, Learning to Read the Internet, or Dreamtigers and Silent Skies. This one, from The Thinking Grounds, is about one of the things we can learn from Harold Bloom, despite his less-than-glowing welcome in English lit departments these days.

Bloom and Creativity

An Observation

Blossoms (or blooms, if you like) in Vancouver, probably the UBC campus.

I do not have much of a thesis for this post; I just want to record an observation I had some time ago but keeping forgetting.

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