Same but Sundered: on Mercury, meaning, and metaphor

I’m still reading Planet Narnia, and enjoying every page. Ward begins his chapter on Mercury with these words from C. S. Lewis‘s poem “The Planets”:

Meeting selves, same but sundered.

—Lewis, “The Planets,” lines 17–18

It should come as no surprise that quicksilver (Mercury) is the metal associated with the Roman deity. Mercury is curious in that it can be drawn apart and then rejoined without a trace of that former division. We see this symbolism in the Mercury-associated myth of Castor and Pollux, identical twins who are “same but sundered.”

But what Michael Ward points out that has captured me is the association of Mercury with masterful use of language. Lewis himself noted that Martianus Capella (a name familiar to scholars of the history of music theory) depicts Mercury as the groom of Philologia in De Nuptiis. Philologia, in its original sense broadly meant “love of learning.” But we can’t help but associate it with the more specific derivative, philology, the study of language through the lens of history.

One of the things Lewis does with allusions to Mercury is use him as a metaphor for metaphor—and I doubt you can get much more “meta” than metaphor-izing metaphor. Ward draws on Lewis’s words from The Personal Heresy. Here Lewis is examining a passage from Keat’s poem “Hyperion“:

Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars…

John Keats, “Hyperion”

Lewis remarks:

We have all seen the trees with branches stretched up in intense stillness towards the stars. We have imagined or been told of people compelled by magical charms to stand as still as trees. Lay the two side by side and add the word ‘earnest’—which is exactly the point where the sensible image [trees, branches] and the idea of insensible ‘magic’ merge beyond hope of distinction—and the whole, like meeting drops of quicksilver, becomes a single perception.

—Lewis, The Personal Heresy, pp. 20–21, emphasis mine

What Ward points out I find to be so satisfying—that even as Lewis alludes to Mercury via quicksilver, the very form of the sentence reflects (a serendipitously apt word when considering quicksilver) the content of the sentence—”Meeting selves, same but sundered.”

Ward remarks on Lewis’s remark (see how deep the rabbit hole goes?)

This is a deliberately fugal [another word familiar to music theoreticians] sentence, in which the idea of two things becoming one is formally conveyed three times:

1. ‘side…side…add’

2. ‘sensible…insensible…merge’

3. phrastically [sic] in the culmination of (1) and (2) in ‘the whole…like meeting drops…becomes’

Thus, the form and the content of the expression are of the same nature, but of sundered manifestation.

In music, this Mercurial influence might take the form of text painting, in which the words being sung are mirrored in some way by the musical structures that ensconce those words. Or perhaps what Richard Cohn calls “introverted motives” (i.e., musical motives that operate on both a microscopic “surface” level as well as macroscopic “subsurface” level of the music) in his essay “‘This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters’: Introverted Motives in Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata” (Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein, 2005, pp. 226–235). Introverted motives are indeed same but sundered, for they help to unite the piece but operate on different depths of the musical architecture.* It may also be significant that Cohn’s essay analyzes the “Tempest” Sonata, named after Shakespear’s eponymous play. Shakespeare was no stranger to planetary allusions in his works.

This is where metaphor comes in, because Lewis reveled in Spenser and Milton and Dante, writers whose rhetorical mastery of symbols and multiple meanings Lewis seems to have thought unmatched. Lewis saw a threat in reductionists’ attempts to remove what they saw as the superfluous language of metaphor by replacing all those allusions with a single word that could denote the same idea. To borrow, as Ward does, from Owen Barfield, even in trying “to cut away and expose all metaphorical usage,” one does not “escape the curse of Babel.” (The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997, p. 64). Ward sums it so well, I will end with a quote from him rather than make the attempt myself:

Metaphor rests on the ‘psycho-physical parallelism…’ that characterises the universe, and therefore to deny or to restrict metaphor (the ‘carrying over’ of meaning
from physical units to metaphysical entities) is a mental move similar to a denial of the relationship between material creation and immaterial Creator. To say ‘There is no such thing as Man, there are only men’ [A line uttered by an antagonist in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength] is to resist the imagination’s power of seeing beyond sensory data; it is to stultify that faculty which operates also in the realm of faith.

_____

*Fractals and the Mandelbrot set also come to mind as structures that could be thought of as Mercurial.

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Would You Kindly?: in which we consider the role of religion, faith, and theology in Bioshock Infinite

In yet another installment of what is becoming a series on themes in Bioshock, I’m turning in this post to Bioshock Infinite‘s appropriation of Christianity as an element that fleshes out the game’s setting. I have no intention of declaring creative director Ken Levine a man who is “out to get the Christians,” as some have wondered. If 2007’s Bioshock didn’t make Levine an automatic atheist-hater, then Bioshock Infinite cannot be said to be indicative of anti-Christian sentiment per se. I’ve been writing and rewriting this post since my last entry, so it’s taken me some time to nail down exactly what’s on my mind grapes.

The first card of the Rorschach test

As the man [Levine] himself has suggested, the games can be thought of as a Rorschach test. People will only be able to think of butterflies after playing. People take away a message that they are already inclined to believe. So here’s my butterfly.

“DIES, DIED, WILL DIE”: FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM

Midway through 2007’s Bioshock we learned that the writers had co-opted a convention that is, to my knowledge, entirely unique to this medium of story-telling— “complete given objective to progress.” At this midway reveal, we learn that our character has been psychologically conditioned to do what he’s been told when he hears the words “Would you kindly…” And we, like our character, realize that we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we had chosen to perform those tasks. The antagonist manipulates the character into doing his bidding by maintaining the illusion of free will. Ken Levine did the same to us by maintaining the illusion of our agency in the story’s unfolding. We had suspended our disbelief at the artifice of objective-completing, because that’s just the way video games work. Well played, Mr. Levine. Well played.

Infinite treats the determinism/free-will dichotomy more directly. The idea of choice, especially moral choice, has been something of a fad in video games. Any RPG that gives dialogue options is ostensibly giving the player choices. BioshockFallout 3, Mass Effect (1, 2, and 3), and others enhance the players sense of agency in the story by giving the impression of moral or ethical choice that will affect not only the short-term outcome of a conversation or mission, but, potentially, massive end-game consequences. For the most part, these “massive consequences” amount to a “good” ending or a “bad” ending that reflect your moral choice. [begin rant] Mass Effect pretended to give three endings. Rather than “good” or “bad,” we got red, blue, or green tints to the ending cinematic. I really wanted the blue ending, but boy-howdy, when my screen turned green, I REALLY felt the weight of my choices two games back. I mean, wow, green! [end rant]

There can be only one.

In the end, every player ends up finishing amid a finite number of possible endings. There is no other way. The architecture of a game and the limitations of technology require a limit to the number of possible endings. Thus choice, ultimately, is an in-game illusion. Infinite throws this up in the air for all to see. Throughout the game, we are given what seem in the moment to be significant choices. They are all different (in counterpoint to the repetitive choices of Bioshock): heads or tails, throw a baseball at an interracial couple or the guy making sport of them, the bird or the cage, interrupt the guy on the phone or let him stab you through the hand (I know that one sounds like a no-brainer, but the situation is more ambiguous at the time). These choices make alterations to characters or environments, but they are always minute and cosmetic. In the end, we learn that there is only one path to solving the problems the story presents.

This same difference in philosophy frequently splits Protestant Christianity into the camps of Arminianism and Calvinism (frequently called Reformed Theology). I wish to avoid making a caricature of either, so it will suffice to say that one of the differences between the two is the very question of free will versus determinism (or predestination). It’s a sticky wicket to be sure: does God make us do everything we do? Or do we have the ability to freely choose? Or is it some mixture of the two, and if so, how can that be? You can see why it is difficult to agree on such questions because some find the notion of predestination comforting, while others find it restrictive. I am of the opinion that, as in so many spectra, the truth lies between extremes. The appropriate term here, I think, is antinomy, a paradox (which fits nicely with the universe-bending of the story). The Kingdom of God is both now and not yet; Jesus was both fully God and fully man; the Trinity is three, yet one; God is wholly sovereign, yet in His sovereignty, He does not infringe upon our choice. All are antinomies, paradoxes that are true but seem contradictory. And this is not exclusive to discussions of faith. Systems that rely solely on rational argument have their own share of antinomies and paradoxes (see the antinomy link for Kant’s use of the term). E.g. …

  • light behaves as particles, yet light behaves as waves.
  • “I always tell lies”—if it’s true then it’s false, and if it’s false then it’s true.
  • I shoot an arrow from point A to point B. If I divide that space in half, I create a point (C) between A and B. I can continue to divide these spaces in half ad infinitum, creating an infinite number of points between A and B. With an infinite number of points through which to pass, the arrow should never reach point B. And yet it does.

“His dying breath has brought me life.”

For all the story’s initial reinforcement of predestination, the end would seem to point to the possibility that the unending deterministic cycle can be broken by … wait for it … love. I know I’m reading my own meaning into this, but bear with me. Granted, the story is not an allegory (for which I have a particular distaste), but there is symbolism here. A Father willingly sacrifices himself to save his child from a pattern of hurt, evil, and death—to break the cycle—and it is she who “drives through the nail,” so to speak. Sound familiar?

“THE LORD FORGIVES EVERYTHING, BUT I’M JUST A PROPHET… SO I DON’T HAVE TO”: ABSENCE OF ACTUAL CHRISTIANITY

The depiction of Christian-esque-ity in Infinite is clearly from the perspective of one on the outside looking in. Controversy erupted before the game was even released because of rumors of negative depictions of Christianity. And I’ll be honest: I’m allergic to the “hay fever” brought on by Straw Men. However, Bioshock Infinite does not portray Christianity per se.

“THE WORD OF THE PROPHET”: CHRISTIANITY AS CULT

I.e., the Book of Mormon

Infinite‘s depiction of Christian-like symbols and lingo cannot be taken as indicative of true Christianity. It is intentionally, I think, a caricature of American Christianity as seen through a modern lens. The bigotry and jingoism depicted in the game doubtless bears some truth, but those are not the trappings of Christianity, but of the culture of the time. In fact, the beliefs of the Founders party seem to bear closer resemblance to heretical offshoots of Christianity such as Mormonism. These sects often claim Christianity, but Christendom doesn’t claim them. Z. H. Comstock, our villain, maintains a cult following through self-serving propaganda and deception, exalting himself to near-divinity. Simply put he’s a charlatan, and there have been countless prominent figures of similar character who have led churches. But it is folly to conflate the man and the message.

Interestingly, the camp opposed to the Founders party, the Vox Populi, quickly regress from the oppressed to the oppressors. With a cult-like adherence to ideology, they violently enforce their equally extreme perspective on the citizens of Columbia. In short, it seems the message is that extremism of any kind, regardless of what side of the aisle you prefer, is detrimental. Certainly, we can agree that blind adherence to any ideology is fraught with danger.

“WHEN A SOUL IS BORN AGAIN, WHAT HAPPENS TO THE ONE LEFT BEHND IN THE BAPTISMAL WATER?”: BAPTISM AND FALSE CONVERSION

Baptism itself is purported as the means of salvation. Christ’s work isn’t mentioned.

The notion of baptism is key to Infinite‘s plot and characters, both overtly and covertly. Over and over again, we see the imagery of immersion. As many know, immersion is not the only method of baptism within the Christian church, but it is a very powerful image. There are numerous Old Testament instances in which the sea, submersion, etc. are used as indicative of or allusions to death, the grave, and judgement. (E.g., the Red Sea overrunning Pharaoh and his chariots in Exodus, or Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the whale.) Baptism in the New Testament takes up the same symbolism, and I should note that baptism is just that—a symbol, a public, outward sign of an inward, spiritual change (or at least the beginning of one). In immersive baptism, one is plunged beneath the water as a sign of the dying off of the sin. Like many Christian ceremonial practices, it is intended as a reminder via reenactment of something Christ did for us. By His literal  death and reemergence, He opened a way for man’s redemption. In so doing we formally and publicly acknowledge our intention to imitate Him.

Baptism in Infinite never even alludes to this understanding. The act is treated as the salvation itself, not the symbol, effectively implying works-righteousness. Biblical Christianity is based on the very opposite of salvation-by-works: salvation by grace through faith. This treatment of baptism may confuse players who lack much understanding of  Christian doctrine, but in the end it says more about the player than it does about Christianity.

Infinite perfectly reflects the problem with a great deal of the American church, and indeed, with secular society’s ignorance of orthodox Christianity—a lack of the Gospel. While the game appropriates the trappings of Christian-esque culture (the buzz words like grace and forgiveness) for the characters who are religious extremists, those characters lack any genuine understanding of the nucleus of their “faith,” which is the Gospel message.

Ironically, the game does parallel certain elements of the Gospel in the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, albeit without the definitively encouraging ending that the Gospel gives. But I think that one should take care before announcing that the game attacks Christianity when, in fact, it seems to defame a cheap imitation—what many modern secular Americans perceive to be Christianity. They’re taking issue with a ghost, not the Holy Ghost.

Some References and Resources:

“Designing the Cast of Bioshock Infinite.” GameSpot. 26 February 2013. (relevant material around 5:00 mark)

“Does David Barton, Evangelical Host, Think ‘Bioshock Infinite’ [sic] Has Anti-Christian, Anti-Conservative Undertones?” Huffington Post. 26 April 2013.

Holt, Mytheos. “Is the Video Game Being Called the ‘Best Game of the Year’ Anti-American and Anti-Conservative?” The Blaze, 29 March 2013.

Lahti, Evan. “Interview: Ken Levine on American History, Racism in BioShock Infinite: ‘I’ve Always Believed That Gamers Were Underestimated.’” PC Gamer. 13 December 2013.

McGrath, Tori. “Player Recieves [sic] Bioshock Infinite Refund Over Religious Themes.” Game Breaker. 17 April 2013.

Petitte, Omri. “BioShock Infinite Artist Almost Resigned over Game’s Depiction of Religion,” PC Gamer. 1 March 2013.

Musings on Musica Universalis: in which we consider the quadrivium

The Seven Liberal Arts

Music is a science of melos [complete musical complex of melody, rhythm, and text] . . . But we define it more fully in accordance with our thesis: ‘knowledge of the seemly in bodies and motions.’

—Aristides Quintilianus, On Music (1.4), trans. Thomas J. Mathiesen

The quadrivium has been on my mind the last few months, although I didn’t know it. “What’s that?” you say. “What sweet wine are you squeezing from your mind grapes now—this quadrilater-wha?”

Quadrivium is Latin for “the four ways” [from quad(r): “four” and via:”way/road/path”], and it consisted of arithmetica, geometriamusica, and astronomia. Coupled with the trivium [grammatica, dialectica (logic), and rethorica (rhetoric)], it formed the seven liberal arts, which were preparatory for the serious study of philosophy and theology.

In our modern understanding of these subject, music might seem to be the odd one out (à la Sesame Street’s “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others“). After all, it’s an art, right? It’s all emotional and subjective and open to debate. Not like science, the immutable pillar of our society, based on facts and empirical evidence. The term music here is problematic, which comes from the same root that gave us the word muse, a word we associate with creative process in general. Indeed this word was often associated with the Greek word for art: tekhnikos, a word the modern reader would be more likely to align with “technical” fields like the sciences and mathematics. But back in the day, they weren’t so concerned with studying the practice of music (what we would consider musical study) as how musical relationships, like mathematical, geometric, and celestial relationships divulged the universe’s underlying order. This is where that whole “harmony of the spheres” idea came from.

There has been no shortage of recent scholarship connecting music with mathematics (the Society for Mathematics and Computation in Music even publishes the Journal of Mathematics and Music and hosts a biennial conference). Transformational theory borrows heavily from algebra; musical set theory borrows from mathematical set theory. Furthermore, there have been neato connections made that directly link geometry to pitch, like Chladni figures and cymatics (a nice introduction to both can be seen here).

What’s remarkable is how . . . remarkable . . . we find these connections to be. It’s not unusual for modern man to dismiss the cultural, social, educational, religious, or philosophical bent of an earlier age. But Boethius was seeing these connections in the 6th century, and he was just realizing the ideas Plato had in The Republic! Before Plato, the Pythagoreans certainly toyed with the idea, although more in the creepy-secretive way than in the public-education way. But the underlying principle, in whatever form it took, seems to be that “everything is connected.”

We live in an age that likes to divide things up. Some call it pigeonholing, others putting people in a box. We don’t just have “science” any more; we have geology, astronomy, physics, biology, etc. Do we even have categories as broad as “biology” any more; we have neurobiology, botany, zoology, microbiology, and on an on. I’m not just a professional in the fine arts; I’m a musician . . . a music theorist . . . specializing in transformational theory . . . specifically geometric conceptions of harmonic space. Also, I like bacon, but enough about me.

I get it—division into categories helps us process information. How Aristotelian of us! But what happens when an idea straddles the line between, say, sculpture and dance, or between technology and biology. Well, then you need to know something about both. Truth be told, theoretical physicists have been trying to come up with a “theory of everything” for a while now (albeit in a very different sense).

So, to the five of you who will read this (or perhaps I’ve given myself too much credit), expect a few more posts on this topic as I roll ideas around for what I hope will be a fruitful research project. And what better place than in service to this blog’s “mission,” or, at the very least, excuse for existence—the intersection of seemingly disparate ideas, somewhere between theology and physics, music and metaphysics, geometry and philosophy.

Digging Deeper into Film: in which we examine the underlying worldview of 2009′s Star Trek (Part 2)

Technology in Star Trek is rather impressive. I think the transporter is one thing anyone, hard-core fan of the franchise or not, can come away with thinking, “I wish that were real!” Nearly instantaneous travel across long distances—who wouldn’t want that! (Check out other wish-it-were tech from sic-fi here.)

The idea behind it is the disassembling of a person (or item) at the molecular level (kind of like the TV room in Willy Wonka) and transmitting them electronically over a distance.  It’s basically like faxing yourself. Besides possible horrific results, like in the 1958 film The Fly, the transporter raises ethical questions, treated powerfully in The Prestige. Remember, fax machines copy a page and transmit it electronically to another place, where it is copied. The original document never travels, so you’d basically be making a copy of yourself. But more than that, it assumes that all there is to a person is matter.

I’m not talking about the mind per se  so much as the notion of the human soul. In some sense, memory and personality are encoded in neural pathways and [insert impressive brain words], but concept of the soul is not connected with any specific organ or part of the body. The implication of Star Trek’s transporter, then, is that there is no soul.

Star Trek, to my knowledge (which is fairly extensive with regard to Star Trek: the Next Generation, it’s movies, and Star Trek: Voyager, and adequate among the other series), never address the state of religion among humanity. (They also never address waste management and toilets, but that’s another conversation entirely.) They encounter the belief systems of alien races frequently, but I cannot remember a single instance in which they directly address the belief system(s) still practiced among humans. There are weddings and funerals in the show, and both these types of ceremonies often contain religious language or implication—but no.

Are we to assume that since none of the human characters ever practice any religious observance, their entire society is homogeneously atheistic? That’s patently absurd; we might as well assume that humans have evolved past the need to void their bladders because the show never even shows a toilet in crew members’ quarters. No, my guess is that the writers wished to avoid alienating parts of their fan base. Regardless of the intention, the existence and extensive use of transporter technology in Star Trek seems to imply a stance on that worldview. That mankind does not possess a soul and can therefore be disassembled and reassembled somewhere else.

Don’t check your brain at the door.