August 28, 2005

Development, Chapter 13 (p. 234-241)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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When Sybil dashed onto the north tower, breathless less from exertion than from excitement at having found Nathaniel, she realized that she hadn't a thing to say. Compliments are often thus, most difficult to give to strangers — more so when they are honest. When the beneficiary of a compliment, or affection for that matter, stands shadow-like in the distance, even if only the distance from the Pequod's eastern stairs to its sunset-profiled northern tower, the compliment's giver is free to imagine scenarios of warm reception, but in the face of the actual giving, rejection rears its head along with an impersonal reality against which the imaginary connection of an admirer seems but a specter.

So, when Sybil had risen to Nathaniel's position, she found herself unable to do otherwise than delay by feigning an interest in the spectacle of the setting sun. As the last rays of daylight slipped across the land, Nathaniel spoke: "I don't know how many times I've watched the sunset from this house, but it's never dulled."

Once Sybil realized that Nathaniel had initiated a conversation, she asked, "But do you ever see any change?"

"Only in me," Nathaniel responded, a strange, sad look coming over his face with a reflective smile. He looked magnificent. Then he began to talk to Sybil — to explain, though at first she thought she understood already. "The sunset is a quick change as far as the Earth is concerned. In the time it takes most people to commute from work to home or to take a bath, the sky can change from day to night. But still, if you stand here and watch the sun slip behind the mountains, the change is hard to notice. You have to look away for a while to see any change. In a way, it's like watching a child grow: the only way to appreciate the difference is to give up a fair claim to a gradual miracle in order that you may return to it having already happened. A man released from prison after a long sentence must feel the same about the changes of history. But then even history is nothing when compared to nature. The change about which I think you were asking. We have no way to watch that incrementally, so we feel that it doesn't change.

"But we do see changes. Otherwise we wouldn't have the word, change, a word that only makes sense when we add perspective. No, I haven't seen these hills change, even if only because the city hasn't reached here yet, but I've seen me change. Back when I preferred the other tower, I used to see faces in every mountainside. I don't see those anymore. Even with just the slight change from there to here, images that stood out so clearly that I thought they must be real, even intentional, just disappeared. But even if I could see them, I don't think they'd be the same. Instead of monsters or women, they'd be animals or children. What about you? Do you see any change?"

"Yes," Sybil told him. "In everything."

They both looked out at the mountains, only sprawling shapes against the darkening sky, with sporadic shadows where the moon had begun to delineate what the sun had left obscure. Then, with no forethought or intention, Sybil blurted out, "Why haven't you published that book?"

"What book?"

"That Value of Breathing book. Any publisher who you could get to read even the first few pages would probably jump at the chance to attach her name to it."

Again that sadly pensive look crossed Nathaniel's face. "What makes you think so?"

"It's fantastic," said Sybil, blushing a bit at her forthrightness. "I mean it's amazing what you've managed to do with it."

Laughing a bit sardonically, Nathaniel explained, "A long time ago, I wrote an essay of the same name and with basically the same ideas, but as masterfully put as I had language to manage. But I might as well have burned it for all the change that it effected. I have a feeling the first few lines may have been read by some editor, somewhere, but the edges never creased, and it was never accepted. At the time, I fancied that I had tried to do too much and had left the door open for misunderstandings, so I decided to make it a challenge, mostly for my own amusement, to refine it until it was so simple that it could not be misunderstood, even by the greatest fool."

"I think you've done it!" Sybil assured him. "You should get it out there."

Nathaniel hesitated. "I guess I feel that whatever is good about it now was good about it then, and that, no matter what tricks I may have imparted accidentally to make it passable literature, if the intelligent version wasn't good enough to be published, then this one isn't either."

"Well that's just silly." She wasn't sure why she was suddenly so agitated.

Seeming a little ashamed at his first answer, Nathaniel made another excuse, "I guess what I'm really afraid of is that they'll still misunderstand it. I can't do any more than I have. What if they still don't get it?" Then under his breath, "Or what if they do?"

At this last, puerile comment, Sybil felt her admiration for Nathaniel slipping away; how could his neuroses coincide with the altruistic, open beauty of his writing? It couldn't. But it was not long until Sybil changed her mind yet again.

Nathaniel continued, "I've written the thing, and I know for myself that it is brilliant! Why should I seek or avoid confirmation from people who would never take the time to really understand it — who have system upon system of logic by which to pervert its meaning into whatever their preference might be? They will make of it what they want, even if it is the exact opposite of that which I meant to say. And what I wanted was to give an answer, a simple answer, as it must be — an incontrovertible truth, as all answers should be. As a society, today, we want answers, but we don't want them to be unarguable. We want ambiguous truths."

"So we don't want answers at all, then."

"Exactly. Don't you agree?"

"I don't know. I certainly don't want to agree."

"I don't either. But it's true that we don't really want answers. We just want to think that we're getting them. If answers are never impregnable, then any will do. We can decide what we want to be true before we think about it. It becomes a faith. Therefore, we layer complications on our answers after we've decided what is to be true, adding infinite rules and variables to force anomalies to fit. From here we observe that only that which is complex can be true and that the simple answers are too obvious or attractive to be right. Maybe we go through all this because we don't want to admit that somebody who seems simple to us can know better than we do. But if this is our reason, it is mistaken. The answer must be simple, but the work to find it, difficult. It is the work that reveals the answer, and it is also the work that keeps it hidden. Furthermore, believing that a complicated or difficult-to-accept answer must, intrinsically, be more true is easier than realizing that your question never had to be asked. So when it comes down to it, I think the limited segment of the world who would read the book will make a conscious effort to not understand me. Just as they make a conscious effort to misunderstand each other."

Sybil tried to take it all in but felt something pulling her away from the conclusion to which Nathaniel was headed. "So how have we managed to keep it together for so long."

"But we really haven't. Humanity, maybe, but there's always been somewhere to which it could spread."

"Like America."

"Yes. But now there's nowhere left on Earth, and we haven't found anywhere else to go. America itself is but the blink of an eye in the life of history. But our country is starting to have a past, and a hectic, frantic one, at that, and we haven't a clue how to accept it."

"I think you do, so I still don't understand why you don't want to clue the world in. It wouldn't cost you anything. In fact, it'd probably pay you dividends."

Nathaniel laughed, but cordially. "No, that's where you're wrong. It would cost me everything and benefit the world nothing. Suppose the world understands every word. By my own argument, the world can only be saved by some change that is contrary to that on which we've come to build our very definitions of self, which are exactly the center of our new philosophies. So again, I would be contradicting the basic subject of 'the faith' and would be dismissed.

"But, purely for the sake of argument, suppose that I'm believed. Imagine that great masses of humanity break their recent pattern of narcissism, suddenly, on the basis of my ideas. Then imagine the despair and hopelessness when they find they've left themselves nowhere to go from that shift! I almost didn't live through it, and I had the relief of having made the discovery. I've been down that road: thoughts of suicide, a need to lay blame on somebody. What if I was only saved because I had nobody to blame but the whole of society? What if they blamed me?

"No, I can't help enough to make up for the risk. Humanity must change, voluntarily, at its core, and if it does so, it will be with or without me... it will be a natural inclination, though I've little faith in that. Or, rather, I've too much faith in the potential with not enough faith left in me to handle watching myself proved wrong. I really do care and feel too much for humanity. I vastly overestimate them. I couldn't bear to admit that I've been wrong to do so because, to me, that would mean that all the horrors of society are voluntary."

Sybil felt as if there was some hole, some missing explanation. "If it's true that the horrors of society bring with them a reason for personal growth, then maybe it shouldn't matter why they exist."

"Of course! But I think the rules have changed. I can't say for sure whether it happened for money or if it's been marketed for some other reason, but the horrors have become all the rage. They sell, whatever it is that they sell. What I'm saying is that sin and sorrow can teach us nothing if we revel in them... without repentance or, at least, a struggle to overcome them. Sin and sorrow have become the too simple and too attractive truths. They please quickly and come as easily as the ability to slip from a high wall.

"Paradoxically, we allow this to be by believing that a harsh reality must be more real. Once we accept the unacceptable or, more likely, drive it from our minds, we are free to do anything; the two conflicting pulls of this paradox, the excuse for simple sin and the faith in the more-realness of a harsh world, begin to tumble over each other, making transgression the easy pleasure that makes life harsher, making it more real and excusing more vices. Eventually, we'll corrode the foundation of belief that allowed us to consider options at all and not go mad."

Trying to push the conversation from abstract philosophy to the real book that she had discovered, Sybil asked, "But you don't even want to try warning them? Are you so sure that you're right in some beliefs that you'd have to be wrong in others?"

"Well," said Nathaniel, apparently drawing the conversation to a close for the time being, "wherever I'm right and wrong, I have come to value those things that are now deemed antiquated. I feel, in my heart, that if we do not have to turn back from the path that we've taken we at least have to tread more carefully, meaning slowly, and I am too young yet to be falsely accused of unthinking conservatism. Besides, I am no longer the only person to consider while designing my future. I really have enjoyed our conversation, but it's getting late, and I'm very tired. Good night."

He smiled in such a way as to assure her that the reason that he had given for excusing himself was an honest one and began climbing down the spiral stairs.

There's something that doesn't fit, Sybil thought. She wrinkled her forehead and looked toward the western mountains then called after Nathaniel.

"Yes?" he asked, his head rising above the floor.

"What happened to you after you left Sal?"


"On the road. When you hopped out of the old man's pickup truck and started walking east."

A look of inapprehension sunk into his face, "I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about. I've never gone anywhere with Sal."

"Oh," said Sybil, and when he saw that she had nothing else to say, Nathaniel continued down the stairs.

The following morning was bright and cheerful, with the birds chiming in their chirps and an airy mist slipping between the trees and pouring into the dells. The mist would, on occasion, spill onto the portico of the Pequod and swirl around, but for the most part, it splashed up the stairs only to dribble down. Sybil watched from behind the French doors of the north hall as the grass became visible from obscurity and then dimmed again. After-breakfast kitchen sounds penetrated into the corridor along with the occasional murmur of masculine voices, not yet entirely awake.

She had strolled idly into the hall after she had eaten to compare her impression of Jake's paintings with that which she'd had after her first viewing, and now Sybil strolled away from the scene of nature across the porch to look at the rest. It occurred to her that she had not yet looked at the one in the decorative frame, so she skipped the others, perhaps with the vain hope that she could view this last once, step away for just a few minutes, and then return to it as if for a second time.

The painting disturbed her. It was dark and eerie, yes, but it was also the spitting image of Nathaniel, perhaps looking more like him than a photograph would. Even so, it seemed to Sybil that this picture bespoke a time past. The gauntness and despair were more dull in the actual man, like lingering phantoms of a person who once was or could be. But the bumps by the ears were grotesque and out of place. If anything, she thought, there should be pointed ears or a wreath of twigs around his head.

She reached out to touch one of the bumps but stopped when the spiral staircase in the ballroom began to clang. Nathaniel descended and said, "They're not real; I've tested them myself."

"I didn't think..." Sybil began, as if covering for an indecorous act, but let her words spill away. Nathaniel crossed to her side and, with his hands behind his back, looked judiciously at his portrait.

"Now that I've met you, I see Jake has done a marvelous job capturing your resemblance," Sybil told him.

"Yes, a greater likeness I have never seen of a man who is not me," he replied.

The pair stood, inspecting the painting as if it might change before their very eyes. The wind whistled through a crack somewhere, and Sybil felt herself shiver despite the warming season.

Seeming to have noticed the shiver, though he was immersed in the image, Nathaniel quoted, "We hear not the airy footsteps of the strange things that almost happen."

"And what almost happened?"

Nathaniel thought for a breath then switched his gaze to Sybil. "I don't know," he confessed, then walked to the French doors and threw them open. "Come with me; I want to show you something."

Pausing irresolutely, for her feet had already begun to move, Sybil asked, "What is it?"

Nathaniel didn't answer at first but cast his hearing off into the distance. He shushed her, though she hadn't been so much as breathing heavily, and told her to listen. Sybil humored him but didn't hear anything. When it became apparent that Nathaniel was not going to tell her what she was listening for, Sybil asked him.

"There is a moral whispering through the branches," he told her, "but I can never quite make it out. What do you suppose it's saying?"

Sybil tried to listen but heard only the wind, tranquil and calming. "I don't know that it's saying anything."

With a short, amused laugh, Nathaniel bade her follow him.

"Where are you taking me?"

"To show you why I don't want to publish The Value of Breathing."

August 22, 2005

Closing in on the End

Well, I'm sure nobody who has ever done major house projects will be surprised to learn that I'm still working on mine. I should finish this week, though... that's a reasonable prediction this time, not pure optimism. A Whispering Through the Branches will resume next Sunday, as will (I can only hope) my sanity.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:25 AM
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August 19, 2005

Bias or Tone-Deaf Headline Writer?

Having been deliberate in ignoring the initial letter to the Providence Journal on the matter of women priests because it was basically a press release from a liberal Catholic group, I couldn't help but notice that bias and/or a tone-deaf headline writer ruined the Projo's attempt at balance. Tell me: which side do you think a letter with the following title supports?

This is why only men should be priests?

The author — whose point of view is generally taken for headlines — writes with an explanatory tone, not a questioning, hypothetical, or curious one. Adding a question mark to the title, at best, suggests the mainstream media's typical biased objectivity or, at worst, a naked and sarcastic incredulity.

The Providence Journal's editorial pages have been admirably balanced (considering their regional market). One hopes that heretofore subtle indications of a shift prove illusory.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:47 PM | Comments (2)

August 18, 2005

Not Sure What to Say

Perhaps something will come to me in the night, but upon first reading, I'm simply left speechless by this:

STATE SEN. Marian Walsh (D.-Dedham) has filed legislation requiring churches in Massachusetts to submit annual reports to the state detailing their collections, expenditures, funds on hand, investments, real-estate holdings, etc.

The proposed law would apply to all religions, and their churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, tents or storefronts. But the clear impetus for the bill was two cataclysmic events in the Roman Catholic Church: the long-running sexual-abuse scandal and the closure of many venerable parishes in the Boston Archdiocese.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:11 PM | Comments (2)

August 17, 2005

Teaching the Boundaries of Science

My latest column, "Life in an Unfinished World," takes up the evolution v. intelligent design dispute. The religious-like fervor of those who oppose intelligent design raises the question of whether they think any aspects of society rightly impinge on science. Contrary to frequent insistence that intelligent design be taught — if at all — in religion or philosophy classes, no more important lesson can be taught to American schoolchildren than that science has culturally and methodologically defined boundaries.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:06 AM | Comments (25)

August 14, 2005

Development, Chapter 13 (p. 227-233)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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It rapidly became Sybil's opinion, if not immediately after the initial brilliance of the moment that sprang, along with the sunlight, out of its limited circle, then certainly as the entrance hall, which none had as yet found cause to leave, began to dim, that Nathaniel was intensely, nearly terribly, ordinary. Oh, he was handsome in a friendly neighborhood boy type of way and had a spark of intelligence emanating from his face, but whether or not this intelligence — the sole saving grace of he who can boast only modestly about an appearance that lacks notable faults because it evinces no noticeable risks toward radiance — would prove to be the brilliance of genius was a question about which she was skeptical.

His hair was a lively, entangled mass of bronze locks that seemed to have pretensions to a golden hue; his lips were thin, tending to evaporate entirely when he smiled; his chin neither projected strongly forth nor sank weakly beneath the rest of his features; the whole of his face, in short, was unextraordinary in every way — a face that might pass in a crowd without eliciting more notice than a dull leaf in the midst of autumn.

Nor did his attire, consisting of a dark, collarless shirt and beige slacks, seem intended to do otherwise than accentuate Nathaniel's plainness. From the short period of Sybil's observation, she found only his eyes to have intrigue enough to merit more than a moment's consideration. Even with these two windows of the soul, however, she wondered if it wasn't some process of reflected light, culminating in its contact with Nathaniel's glasses, that imparted a twinkle that might be mistakenly assumed to exude from within rather than to be impressed from without.

Whatever the case, it would have been unfair of Sybil not to admit to herself the part that she played in her own perception of Nathaniel. She hadn't realized the extent of her expectations of this man about whom she had heard so much. She would, it must be owned, have been less surprised had he walked through the door and pronounced the most profound words ever uttered.

And so, she realized, now, that it was more the petty conversation that had followed his appearance than his plain visage that left her in disappointment. Whether he were extremely handsome or terribly unbecoming, had his mouth released words of great truth and import upon his materialization, she would not likely have noticed his appearance at all. Moreover, moderately inspired ideas issuing from the very face that she could plainly see belonged to him would have propelled that face into gorgeousness. But even on this count she had to admit that her hopes had been too high when it was considered that he had made his way not twenty minutes ago into a society where all conversation must be based solely on either the whole grand world itself or the limited company present in the circumscribed sphere of the Pequod. No matter her reasoning, however, she was unable to shake the feeling that some vision that recent tales had managed to create of Nathaniel had been done irreparable harm.

Just as these thoughts had found voice within her mind, Sybil began to suspect that she was not alone in her feelings. Despite many interactions with him, every inhabitant of the Pequod had had three full seasons to build up an image of Nathaniel that was, to varying degrees, disproportionate to the reality of the man, and only a handful of the guests seemed to understand the emotion, either having become accustomed to being perennially disappointed or sagely realizing that Nathaniel was, despite what tricks the memory might perform, only human. Perhaps it was by reason of a general lack of this realization that the crowd in the hall began to disperse as mobs are known to do when some calamity has been too efficaciously averted or some promised boon had been given without the ostentation that had been the true impetus of the gathering.

Whether or not Nathaniel, the center of all this inadequately recompensed attention, was cognizant of his failure to make an impression, he seemed content to postpone any sermon that he might have intended to muster and excused himself from his few remaining auditors in order that he might reacquaint himself with his surroundings and rest from his long journey. After Nathaniel had passed into the courtyard, Martin leaned toward Sybil and whispered:

"Isn't he even more exhilarating in person?"

Whereas the others, as they had arrived, had quickly divided into their own cliques or casts and filled their time with their own interests, Nathaniel spent the first week of his visit allotting his days so evenly that his schedule was nearly curricular. Sybil observed as Nathaniel unobtrusively approached each man in his turn and joined whatever activity had been in progress, giving her to fancy that she was a child in day care and Nathaniel the dutiful instructor, or more appropriately, she thought, she was another guest in an asylum and he, in his evenness and closeness to the human norm, the therapist, imparting what lessons he could subtly while he kept the inmates distracted.

In the evenings, after a charitably prepared dinner, usually courtesy of Huck or Nathaniel himself, or the random self-fending meal-time gatherings in the kitchen that were more common (once Sybil had cooked for the others, though the impetus, she had to admit, had been found more in boredom than in goodwill), Nathaniel made himself available to all in the courtyard, where he gently played the piano or quietly read, offering brief and noncommittal Socratic rebuttals to the inquiries or statements of discussants.

Overall, Nathaniel had brought with him a pervading sense of calm and indolent relaxation that seeped into the habits of everybody present. Partially due to the stories that she had been told, and, in larger part, by the demeanors of her companions, Sybil thought that Nathaniel's tranquillity was out of character and that some of the others kept their peace, as it were, holding back issues and emotions that they secretly hoped need not fester for much longer, out of shock that they should feel inclined to be restrained at all.

Martin and Holden seemed to be at a loss as to how they should be acting, if not what to consider proper truth. Sal restlessly hovered over Nathaniel at the piano with his horn poking about futilely for a way in which to make an entrance into the ethereal music. But the darkest mist, which seemed to be lingering just out of reach of the sunlit atmosphere, could be felt swelling and churning itself into a thunder cloud between Nick and Jake, who scowled furtively at one another with each passing. Sybil was probably not alone in her belief that Nathaniel might at any moment sweep in and disperse this cloud with a quick gust of mediation. Still, he had been thus far successful both in holding the storm at bay and in staying calmly out of it.

Sybil was quick to assess her situation and realize that Nathaniel, though among the most courteous men she had ever met, would not be of any use entertaining her until it became her turn to occupy a handful of his hours, and perhaps, for all she could tell, only for her apportioned time. She decided that she would wait until Nathaniel had come around to her, so that her departure would not be entirely anticlimactic, and then she would simply leave — an act that this diluted reality of the folklore Nathaniel would probably quietly accept, if he noticed at all. In the meantime, she began to occupy herself in much the same way as when she'd had no end in sight: she talked to Nathaniel's other guests, wandered around the house and surrounding forest, worked her way lazily through a book, and explored what crevices of the house she could make of interest to herself.

On the third day, it rained like spittle dribbling down from the sky in dreary mists. The house was closed up and stagnant, without the benefit of howling winds or claps of thunder. Sybil felt stifled and sat in her room, restlessly watching the words on the page infront of her undulate with her boredom. Tossing the book on the bed, she stood and said to herself, "I need some fresh air."

The courtyard, though occupied by several of her fellow loafers, had a vacant feel and seemed only the more silent for the slight patter of rain on its canopy. Through the house, she could hear the occasional echo of Sal's horn as he idly bounced discordant toots off the walls. She made her way to the entrance hall.

As she crossed from the stairway to the doors, she heard the murmur of voices on the portico.

"So what do you think?" somebody said in a calm voice that had sunk into her consciousness, though she knew not when or how, as Nathaniel's.

Following a brief moment of apparent thought, the slinky voice of Alex answered, "Why are you asking me?"

Sybil tiptoed quietly toward the door and peeped through the old-fashioned keyhole. Alex was facing away from her in a posture that bespoke a confident haggler, while Nathaniel, with an uncommon look of anxiety on his face, watched him.

"Because it is the solution that lends itself."

"To what?"

"To it all, Alex. Don't you see, it would tie it all together perfectly."

"But why? And why me?"

"Look, I can't stick around forever, and you just happen to be a perfect fit."

Suddenly, without waiting for further response, Alex simply stated, "I'll think about it," and slid down the steps, entering the mist on his way south. Nathaniel walked after him.

Creeping stealthily into the dining room, Sybil separated the closed curtains just enough to allow one eye to peer out into the dark green leaves. The two men walked into view, and D. thought how strikingly they looked like brothers. Nathaniel caught Alex by the arm to stop him and made what appeared to be an offer in too low of a voice for Sybil to make out, but that exhibited an unprecedented amount of vehemence. Alex smiled and looked at the window, behind which Sybil shivered. With a dismissive glance toward the house, Nathaniel led Alex through the thicket and out of sight.

Very curious, thought Sybil, as she slipped into one of the creaky chairs to imagine some possible implications of the scene that she had just witnessed. It was, after all, a dull and dreary day. Finding no crags of reality around which to swirl her bouts of emotion, Sybil soon tired of the sport and glanced around the room. The company ate an occasional meal here, but it was more often empty or occupied by a lone diner. Nonetheless, given that she was the only female on the premises, she was surprised not to find crusted dishes spread across the table. In fact, without an exhaustive inspection, the single box of Nathaniel's writing that she had not moved was the only untidiness.

Intending to finish the task that she had begun some days ago, Sybil hoisted the box off the table and was preparing to prop the door that led to the southern hallway when the topmost notebook in the box caught her eye. Someone, whom she could only guess to have been Nathaniel, had torn the cardboard cover from the front and sketched a tree, very much akin to their willow in the courtyard, on the first sheet. Looking more closely, Sybil noticed that, interspersed with the hanging branches of the drawing, there were cleverly wrought letters that read The Value of Breathing.

Uncurling the bottom edge of the page, which had been folded indecorously, likely by being shoved haphazardly into a box, Sybil could make out the smeared attribution of "by Nathaniel Ariss" and the words "Volume One." Sybil, merely for the sake of passing time, grabbed a handful more of notebooks from the box and laid them on the table. Before her now were volumes three, seven, four, and ten. In all, she found that The Value of Breathing consisted of twelve handwritten volumes, each of which filled its respective notebook entirely, except for the twelfth, which ended with several blank pages remaining, yet still ending definitively, with a script "Finis" after the final paragraph. Taking into consideration the height of the lines and the width of Nathaniel's letters, Sybil guessed that the twelve volumes would probably make for three moderately thick printed paperbacks.

She sat in the chair at the head of the table and sorted the notebooks by volume; then, and only to discern what genre of writing was contained therein, she opened the first volume and began to read. The language was simple and direct, with none of the extravagances of the other piece of Nathaniel's work that she had read. "Oh to take a breath!" it began and broke into what appeared to be either an introduction, an invocation, or both at once. By the end of the first page, Sybil decided that Nathaniel had written an elaborate essay. Too bad, she thought, this type of writing doesn't sell anymore.

But reading further, Sybil found herself forgetting that she had been taking a purely academic interest in the work and became drawn into forgetfulness by the words. By the time the house began to rumble with hungry stomachs, the men who were making their way at intervals toward the kitchen might have heard Sybil gasp "Brilliant truth!" or some other words of praise such as authors solicit for the backs of their books. Before she had truly realized that she had begun to read, Sybil was interrupted in her reading by the sun tearing away its light from the room.

Though she had not reached the final page of the first notebook, she spread several of the other volumes on the table in front of her and flung them open, as if one of them might exclaim on its first page, "You Won!" Each had been given a different title concerning some aspect of life. With the rare excitement of a college student uncovering a potential thesis, she looked back at the volume that she had been reading and saw the purpose that united them all: Nathaniel had written a complete guide to the art of living. Without the pretensions of a self-help book or the complaints of a dogmatic doctrine, he had first put forth, in broad and simple terms, a series of general observations and theories by which the most dim of minds could be enlightened, then he had followed his idea through every walk of life.

Nathaniel was suddenly gorgeous in her mind. He had voiced every vague thought that she had ever been unable to congeal into a concrete idea. It was honest; it was easy; it read like fiction; most importantly, it rang true. It was that ingenuous answer to every question that seemed unanswerable. It was the simple ingenuity against which every thinking person had at one time or another jostled. It could be separated into versions, with different prospective readers in view, each beginning with that first, marvelous essay, and each enabling every reader to understand everyone else because they had all begun with the same basic Truth.

Sybil had to find Nathaniel. Even out here in the middle of nowhere, she had a desperate need to discuss this idea with him. It was as if the world had opened up in truth before her and any breath lost in chasing that honest and beautiful world down was like a suffocating moment before true life begins.

August 9, 2005

Reintroduction of Potentiality

In a continuation of the Corner's beginning-of-life exchange, John Hood makes what strikes me as an underlyingly dehumanizing suggestion:

It seems to me that the definition of when a person exists can only meaningfully be determined for a large number of people — that is, within a political community that does not necessarily share a particular religious faith — by inverting the clearer definition of when a human person is dead.

We generally identify death as that point when there is no longer any detectable brain activity. The cells of a corpse may still be dividing, and its bodily functions may be sustained for a time by artificial means. But if there is no functioning brain at all, there is no live person anymore.

Mr. Hood declares that his "proposal is intended simply to find a criterion that seems likely to attract a political consensus"; if it would do so, it would be only through a willful lack of consideration. We've all had it beaten into our heads, over the decades of debating abortion, that potentiality is not actuality. But does that mean that it's insignificant? As a Corner emailer argues — and Hood subsequently manages to ignore — a central selling point for accepting that life ends with brain death is its finality.

If there were a method for reviving the brain dead, it would no longer be a suitable marker for the end of life. To rephrase in terms that apply better to beginning-of-life discussion: if the brain dead would recover of their own volition and by natural processes, then that coveted political consensus would simply not exist. Indeed, most citizens would probably think it monstrous to handle such people any differently than if they were sleeping.

In a follow-up response, the emailer notes that the brain activity criterion "means that a person in a coma should be looked upon as a repository of spare parts," but it's worse than that. I suppose I could be wrong, but my sense is that our society attributes different potentiality to those in a coma and those who've not yet been born. A coma is a big question mark. Pre-birth is much more certain, and it comes with a regularly followed timetable of milestones.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:41 PM | Comments (4)

Seeing the Adult in the Embryo

It's been interesting to read John Podhoretz take on the brains at National Review on the matter of when life begins. (Read up from this Robert George post.) In doing so, it has seemed to me, he is offering most concisely an example of the preordained, gut, decisive feeling on which people attempt to layer explanation in related debates.

Note that I don't think this observation supports his apparent thesis that "the presumption that embryos are human beings cannot be proved by science and logic alone." That statement — somewhat ironically — is true only for those who wish to deny what science and logic (and a large swath of the world's religious thinking) conclude.

In this context, something in his final post on the matter strikes me as significant:

An embryo is not a fetus. For that matter, a fetus is not a baby. They exist on a continuum, but they are different -- in a way that say, a baby is not different from a child and a child is not different from an adult.

Mr. Podhoretz, as regular readers of the Corner will know, is a relatively new father. In other words, he has not had that moment, which arrives all of a sudden, at which the toddler is suddenly visible within the baby. Some time later, to my experience, comes another moment when the little boy or little girl becomes visible in the toddler.

No doubt Podhoretz would agree with me that these are magical moments rife with meaning-of-life type stuff. But his rhetoric excluding embryos and fetuses from status as "full human beings" could apply to them, as well.

Just as the adult is visible in the teenager, the teenager visible in the child, the child visible in the toddler, and the toddler visible in the baby, so too is the baby visible in the fetus and the fetus in the embryo. As Podhoretz writes, a human life is a continuum. The problem in his treatment of that continuum is that it leaves the value of the particular human life up to others to determine based on their knowledge and capacity for imagination — for seeing the adult in the embryo. Perhaps as he watches the stages unfold in the development of a human being for whom he has a father's love he will come to understand what it means to say that a child — a human being — is the whole of his or her present, past, and future.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:26 PM | Comments (6)

August 7, 2005

Sunday Note

Having had a very rough week (about which I may muse in general terms later), and very much needing to get my spring/summer house projects off my plate this week, I'm going to take today off on the Whispering Through the Branches serialization. We're at a pivotal point in the plot, with the Exposition finally giving way to the Development (terms that students of classical music will most accurately appreciate), so the timing seems particularly appropriate.

If you haven't been reading the sections as I've released them, you can find the beginning here.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:10 PM
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August 3, 2005

To Stop Religious Terrorism, Permit Religious Politics

For my column — which will now be appearing every other Wednesday — I pondered the formation of London's homegrown Muslim terrorists: "Exploding Across Arm's-Length Tolerance." The bottom line is that the common thread that runs through the astute explanations — the root cause, if you will — is disengagement. And pushing religion, and the religious, away from politics and government will only exacerbate the problem.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:38 PM | Comments (6)