March 18th, 2008

Books (Trinity College Long Room)

Theological Notebook: Donald Gelpi and C.S. Lewis – On Creativity in Thinking

From my current dissertation reading, which I was able to do maybe a whole 60 pages of while babysitting the nieces since Thursday the 13th (more on that later):
In the course on Blondel, John [McNeill, S.J.] basically taught us his dissertation. He told us that when he first read L'Action, he thought it the most original philosophical work he had studied. When, however, he completed his analysis of the philosophical sources on which Blondel drew, John wondered if the book contained a single original idea. John's analysis of the sources of L'Action gave me a sound insight into the way the human mind creates, and that insight ultimately shaped my own approach to creative speculation. I did not deem Blondel's dependence on other minds for basic insights unusual or exceptional. I rather suspected that most original thinkers remain significantly beholden to the thoughts of other minds. That fact, however, did not make them any the less original; for human originality derives not so much from the novelty of one's ideas individually and separately considered but from the novel way in which one synthesizes previously unrelated insights. Blondel had written a very creative philosophical work because, even though he derived most of his basic insights from other thinkers, no one else had put those ideas together in the precise manner in which he had. Thereafter, I took Blondel's approach to creativity as my model.
Donald Gelpi, S.J., in Closer Walk: Confessions of a U.S. Jesuit Yat, p. 108.
This insight into creativity reminded me of another passage where an author articulated the same basic insight:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
– C.S. Lewis, in "The New Men," chapter 11 of Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity in Mere Christianity.

Personal: Babysitting the Nieces

My time with the girls over the last several days was pretty much what I'd come to expect: lots of cuteness and chances for me to adore my nieces, a reminder of how much more exhausting it is to keep up with and take care of them than it is to go through graduate school, and a chance to be amazed at the things that come out of their mouths, and thus to be reminded of things of my own childhood that I'd long since forgotten. On the debit side of the equation, though, their increasing age makes their attagonisms all the more maddening, and as my Mom put it, Grace and Haley have mastered being able to push one another's buttons. And since they're coming up on 6 and 4 years old, they are all complaints about their own violated justice and absolutely no sense about just staying away from one another when these moods seize them, thus giving the other every opportunity to work them into a rage. That got old very quickly. Later, observing this with Leslie, I could see that the two of them are separated by Grace being in kindergarten every school day is a real relief in this respect.

So I tended to spend more time with Grace and Haley while my Mom watched over baby Sophia and took care of her feedings. That was definitely the harder job of the two, complicated by the fact that Sophie was sprouting one of her upper front teeth and was therefore a drooling machine in a bad mood. It wasn't until Saturday, or perhaps even after Jim and Leslie returned Sunday afternoon that she was willing to play a bit with me. Otherwise, she kept a suspicious eye on me as an unknown factor. Still, it was good to see her, to here some of her early word vocalizations and her occasional smile and laughter, and to see how much she both looks like her sisters as well as having something distinct about her. I honestly think that I see a lot of Sweeney in her in particular, in the shape of her head perhaps. Something, at least, kept reminding me of Mom or her family.

Friday had been a bit difficult for me, still trying to adjust to the schedule of the girls instead of the grad school night schedule that I can still get away with right now. I had originally thought that Mom might be staying at her place, a few miles away, and coming over in the day, and so that I would be solely responsible for sending Grace off to school in the morning and the like. This was just laughed off by my sister and Mum, the both of whom clearly had no intention of trusting me with Sophia's nighttime feedings and such, which was probably just as well given how it takes a few days to really adapt to an earlier schedule, which I never really managed over the weekend.

So Grace was away at school on Friday and that left me time alone with Haley, who still needs time to adjust to me each visit – and often each day – and will shyly hide away from me if possible, or just ignore me and anything I say. The way around that is a few simple games I figured out with Grace as a little girl which will pull her out, or in Haley's case, asking her nonsense questions, which provokes a certain outrage in her that demands an immediate response. ("Is that an ... elephant sandwich?" "No!") She had clearly learned a few new pet phrases in the last few months, which were hysterical to hear her use. In talking about different kind of foods, I discovered that she rather found crabs to be scary animals. When I said that they could be yummy to eat, even if they were creepy to watch scurry around, she responded with an impassioned and repeated. "That's disgusting!" which was adorable in her little voice. She thought the same regarding things like the baby octopuses I ate when I was in Rome. But Haley and I spent some of that first Friday afternoon out playing golf and swinging in the backyard, until we were joined by Grace after she arrived home from kindergarten and Daisy Scouts.

It was kind of amazing to hear and see the changes happening in Grace. She adores school, and she's soaking up ideas like a sponge. She brought up and fully initiated little conversations on Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, which they had apparently tried to copy in class, on Saint Patrick, and, when I described a little more of the life of Patrick for her (I had to define "slavery" for her in basic terms, to which she responded with a shocked and quiet "That's so mean!"), she then made a free comparison Patrick to Martin Luther King, Jr. I don't know who this "Mrs. G." kindergarten teacher of hers is, but I'd like to congratulate her.

On Saturday we had the great fun of actually seeing Leslie and Jim on the television. They were off celebrating their 10th anniversary with my sister's gift to Jim: a weekend trip away to see the Cubs in their Spring Training exhibition games. So on Saturday we turned on the television to watch the Cubs/White Sox game in hopes of catching a glimpse of Mommy and Daddy while we quietly played in the family room. We had spoken to them on the phone and knew, roughly, where they were seated. I spotted them once, with my sister's face partially obscured by the score banner, but my Mom hadn't recognized her and so expressed her doubts, which was annoying in the way that my childhood ability to be the only other person other than Big Bird who could see Mister Snuffleupagus had been annoying.

But then a piece of luck! A home run landed right in front of them, and we were treated to the spectacle of Jim and Leslie leaping up to scramble for the ball. We weren't sure if it was them at first, but Leslie called right afterwards, confirmed what they were wearing (they had put on orange and blue jackets since telling us earlier that they were just decked out in blue Cubs gear) and also informed us that "rewind" was a standard feature on their video system, and so we rewound the game to watch them again. I then filmed the screen with my camera, so as to catch their high-energy lunge for the ball, where it looked for all the world as though Jim was throwing a block on the guys coming in from their right so that Lesle – whose hair swung around dramatically as she maneuvered – could grab the ball. But no luck there: a kid in front of them ended up with the prize. But the girls were absolutely tickled to be able to see Mommy and Daddy on TV, which might have made it seem that they weren't so far away, after all.

EDIT: Video removed by YouTube on behalf of Major League Baseball.
Books (Trinity College Long Room 2)

Personal: On Writers Dying – Sir Arthur C. Clarke and William F. Buckley, Jr.

I see the news that Sir Arthur C. Clarke has died in his home in Columbo, Sri Lanka. As evidence of our communications technology making the world that much smaller or potentially more intimate, I was interested to discover that he had taped a farewell series of reflections for friends or fans and posted it on YouTube at his 90th birthday, back in December, as he was declining. (Arthur C. Clarke's 90th Birthday YouTube Address/Reflections) It was an interesting thing, I thought, to be able to hear that: to listen to the more-or-less final public thoughts of such an accomplished writer, scientist and futurist, and to think for a few minutes with him about the vision he had nurtured through the bloody 20th century and the hopes he bore for the future of humanity. Those thoughts, along with recent reflections on another noted writer who recently died – this time the conservative political and social commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. – also seemed to be worth noting. One might expect The New York Times to be very hard with Buckley, and they certainly dug in at his weak points, like his early and long-since-spurned support for Southern racist establishment, but I found their article to be interesting reading. Even more so, the article in The Wall Street Journal made for some fascinating reading. (At least, I thought so at the time: the only one I've found, which I link here, is not the one I read in the print edition.)

EDIT: Ah, this was the opinion column I had been thinking of from The Wall Street Journal, by one By William McGurn.
EDIT EDIT: Similarly, here is the original thing in The New York Times that I had read and rather enjoyed, a column by William Kristol that among other things speaks of the circumstances of Buckley's last day. Very human. I include the piece, behind the cut, that he linked to from the website of National Review.

My encounter with these two writers was really quite limited. I've read as well as watched Clarke's famed 2001: A Space Odyssey, and otherwise read only a number of his letters in his long correspondence with C.S. Lewis, as well as his criticism that the Lewis publishing "industry" is not at all taking seriously the substantial evidence of literary tampering with Lewis' estate by the principle executor and publisher of later of Lewis material, Walter Hooper. Buckley I met only once, after hearing him speak at Notre Dame in favour of the legalizing of recreational drugs, apparently invoking the logic of the Prohibition – that the violence of the drug trade, like that of the gangsters of the 1920s – creates a social cost far greater than would be the legalization and government oversight of controlled substances. This was a bit of an eye-opener for me, and not what I expected from a conservative commentator, and so I quietly listened to subsequent conversation, but didn't really take part in it myself. I've always intended to, but still have not yet read his God and Man at Yale. More, I remember getting into the habit of watching his program Firing Line along with Meet The Press on Sunday mornings, but only in the show's last year. I still have a tape copy of his conversation with my Notre Dame ecclesiology professor Richard McBrien as they discussed Vatican II with the unalloyed glee of pundits who saw one another's understandings as hopelessly flawed.

Still, although Buckley certainly played the pundit – and at times simply played in the context of debate – he actually listened to, and weighed, ideas. I can't help but notice the recent passing of serious thinkers of these sorts and assume that, as always, the world is the lesser for their having moved on.

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