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May 19, 2013


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Imagining torments can be interesting because it’s mind-bending, and can be mind-bending more easily than imagining paradise can be, I suppose. Torments involve the absence or alteration of the basic conditions we normally take for granted, such as the number of limbs at our disposal. Images of paradise can also challenge basic background assumptions, but maybe real challenges in that direction are harder to pose because they tend to involve adding rather than subtracting.

My first thought about paradise is that finally I would have enough time to read, and the proper chair. I’d be in that juggurat in the ideal La-Z-Boy with my back to the window.

But I might lose much of my reason for reading. In paradise there might be no long-range business to take care of. How much of paradise is taken care of without depending on our decisions, our intelligence, our work, our non-interference? Perhaps it’s not that one can’t mishandle one’s friendships in Paradise, but only that one wouldn't, because one is the sort of person they let in, or they fix people at the door. But does friendship really make sense if there are no more objective challenges and dangers?

And will I be allowed to keep my portrait of Rasputin?

Bill, you brought up so many great points that-- indeed-- I think you earned your laz-z-Boy chair in the juggerat! Interestingly, I think it's in Paradise where the major subtractions take place. If you think about it-- all those images were things that are already part of my mind (they already exist) and then I just "dumped" all the other stuff! In contrast, to imagine inferno I would be imagining more by induction-- I think, thereby implying addition.

On your even more intriguing point about the need for obligation, I couldn't agree more. i think in Dante's Paradiso there is a scene where angels are dancing in the air forming Latin letters in the sky in pure delight perhaps? Well, I too, immediately think-- for what purpose?

Can a life (or an afterlife) with no obligation or no embodied commitment to someone or soemthing have meaning?

(Yes, I am still reading Kierkegaard).

In my Paradiso-- there is the Calendar 暦. A pageantry of events, I think they keep things moving in a way similar to that we experience in time...But, to answer your question: Yes, I do think objective challenges are important-- even in Heaven.

That is to say: Friendship always makes sense.

Finally and verily-- no matter how many infinite possible heavens I imagine, I just don't see you be allowing to keep your portrait of Rasputin!

Thanks so much for your comment Bill!

I was confusing Paradise, which isn't by definition forever, with Heaven, which sort of is. Paradise could be an occasional vacation, so that it's pleasures could still be grounded in facts about us that reflect earthly needs.

Diane Keaton put together a strange film about how people imagine heaven, though unlike your post, Peony, the film isn't a joy:

I know it's a question to be answered in volumes of books-- but I was interested that you (like me) immediately worried if you wouldn't be under-stimulated in heaven (or Paradise even) without "outside pressures" (which I call meaningful commitments/obligations)

Can a life (or an afterlife) with no obligation or no embodied commitment to someone or something have meaning? Paradise by definition is the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people-- well those who actually make it that far-- but then what about your question?

And speaking of mysteries... Diane Keaton is a real mystery, don't you think? I can't quite figure her out...

I wanted to re-read that book on the Good Life (ancient Greeks)..Bernard Williams centered an entire class around it-- do you know it?

I agree that it’s easy to imagine a paradise by subtracting troubles, but I think that’s not the kind of imagining that really bends the mind.

By ‘obligations’ some people just mean moral oughts, and other people (me) mean a subset of those: when one morally owes something to someone in particular (e.g. because one has promised or because she is one’s child). I was thinking of things like global warming (about which something has to be done) and the need to grow food, neither of which falls under my narrow sense of the word ‘obligation’, so I didn’t know where you were coming from right off.

I don’t know anything about Diane Keaton, alas!

Maybe the book you mean is Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”? In Books 8 and 9 of that book, Aristotle says there are three kinds of friendship:

Pleasure-friendship (hanging out together for fun, perhaps because they both enjoy bowling)
Utility-friendship (interacting with each other because they useful to each other)
Virtue-friendship (sharing the effort to live excellent admirable lives).

He says only the third is true friendship. He thinks it goes with caring about the other person for her own sake, because a person’s happiness = her morally excellent activity.

Maybe the kind of friendship available in permanent paradise depends on the nature of the difference between beauty and candy. That is, there may be no place for moral nobility in permanent paradise, because nothing great is at stake; but there may still be room for beauty. Or maybe not. I think beauty might be rooted in objective needs just as moral nobility is. I haven’t really thought about this.

I wonder whether there can be something beautiful about a person if there isn’t anything especially virtuous about her.

If paradise is just like watching really good TV and eating really good candy, then I think that would be better than nothing. Imagining that kind of life by subtracting the rest is indeed as mind-bending as imagining a torment.

The conditions under which that kind of life could be sustainable in the long run seem a very long way off. Our intuitions are rightly built from experience in a different sort of world from that. I wouldn't choose such a life for myself, I think, but partly that’s because I’m all built around the sense that there are things that need to be done. If I set aside all those concerns the result would be so different it wouldn’t be me. So if I were to sign up for such a life it would be like dying to benefit somebody else. It’s hard to feel the objective value of dying to benefit somebody else, especially if he’s just a couch potato.

The Painting is by James Tissot. He was mostly known as a "Society painter" but I love his attention to detail. The rendering of the clothing & (by Peony's standards, a touch meager) tea itself ~ not to mention the overall tonality & composition of the painting ~ are quite lovely. Apparently he was also very fond of chestnut trees in autumn as they appear in quite a few of his paintings.


Hi Bill

Regarding obligations-- I noticed you added the word "moral" and at first that rather threw me. The obligations I was referreing to are more the types of occupations written about by guys like Heidegger or Kierkegaard, and probably are not _by necessity_ moral (in either sense of the term as you sketched it above). No, I was talking about commitments or obligations really that one makes in one's own heart 決心 that are to someone or to some project, thing or aim. "Commitments" might be a better perhaps/ though one friend mentioned "occupations of the heart" which I liked as well. To me, these things are not always moral per se but rather lead to feeings of happiness (that professor in Chicago whose name I cannot spell with all the consonents called it "flow" or flow experience)

Concerning this-- I think like you it is absolutely hard-wired into my brain that it shoud be something that connects me with others (even if just one other) I too am just built with a sense that things need to be done, and, perhaps like you, it is really a concept (sense of "contribution")that I might require in paradise too.

I would also require Japanese hot springs-- which I forgot to mention!

"Can there be something beautiful about a person if there isn’t anything especially virtuous about her?"

I would say (and I bet you would agree) that it absolutely depends on the person doing the looking. Speaking personally, while I don't consider beauty to be equivalent to virtue, still I doubt whether I would see something or someone lacking any virtuous qualities (as I perceive it) as being beautiful. Especially with people, character is essential.

This is one reason, in fact, that drew me to Confucianism as well as to Chinese Art (and Japanese tea ceremony).

Not that long ago, a friend had asked me what it was that drew me to Confucianism (which is a question I would really like to ask you someday!), I tried to answer my friend in this post Talking to Confucius -- in which I mentioend the linking of wisdom with virtue (as displayed in action) as something that is really attractive to me (not just about Confucius but about Aristotle as well).

From that tradition, the lives of artists and the works of artists are often talked of as linked together (In China for example)-- I described that in this post about Huizong where I recounted the story of the evil minister's calligraphy.

Art (or philosophy) as something that exists in an eternal realm is an idea from Kant (inspired by Plato but really "worked out" by our man Kant) that maybe is not the only understanding possible about art (or philosophy) the philosophy professor I work for is doing a lot of work to try and get his discipline (aethetics) to move beyond these concepts of "fine art" (because of course in japan ceramics has long been considered the art par excellence) as well as that of objective viewing of art (rather than of art as practice, which is really how art exists in most places of the world). One of his points-- and Chinese may be the same-- but until recent times the Japanese word for body, included the concept of Self (or heart) 身体 (In contrast, in modern Japanese "karada" or body, is written without the 身 self portion-- as 体)→ this implies we are (not what we eat) but what we do! And this is beautiful (or not).

In Paradise-- like in Bali-- art is a way of life.

Hi MW,

Thanks for the link! Did you see this one

I thought it was Sargeant at first but then wondered if it wasn't an American artist...

MW, that’s a remarkable painting, thanks. It seems to convey calm leisure by showing that the people don’t feel they have to be engaging each other. I’m not sure whether it matters that the man has his back to the pool. That’s not tea she’s pouring, is it?

Peony, I could seem to have been suggesting that your picture of Paradise is the conception of a couch potato, and that I am an effective agent of social change (or of anything else). The two ideas are rivals in absurdity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His son Mark Csikszentmihalyi has recently published a really excellent book (“Material Virtue”) on some newly discovered texts in pre-Qin Chinese philosophy.

More later.

I just have a very hard time imagining Paradise. I was reading something here in Tang Dynasty Times, following a link, and another link, and thinking to myself that Chang'an must really have been like this, overwhelmed by the immensity and variety, and thinking this is itself a picture of a paradise of learning, when suddenly popped into my head David Bowie's lines from "Five Years": "My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare, I had to cram so many things to store everything in there." So I wondered about learning and finitude. If I had no end of time, would I rush to learn or would I put it off? And if the things to learn are not about the real histories and cultures of a finite world of struggle, but rather an infinite kaleidoscope, then is the knowledge really knowledge at all?

Maybe I should just stick to imagining particular good things.

Ithaca itself stands for paradise in a way, not just for those of us who enjoyed our years in the New York town of that name. But once in Ithaca ...

Tennyson, "Ulysses"

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Oh, that's what you meant ...

読 is the version used in Japan now in place of 讀 (except in certain places like Yomiuri's proper name) -- up until some time in the Meiji era (or was it the Showa? Don't quote me on this one...) the latter was used. You might also notice that the bottom of 巻 is a 己 rather than a... erm, I can't reproduce the Chinese version on its own ^^; Lots more of these "variants" exist.

Ah, the glorious complications of 漢字 *grin*

All this Poetry, Art, & Philosophy is wonderful, however the really important question is:

When do we eat!

Exactly-- and how do we decide: pizza with a view or a Persian picnic? By the way, MW, you'll have to tell me how you came by your Kashmiri shawls.

Yesterday was Culture Day here, and my two best friends and I always go out in kimono to an art exhibition. It was pretty cold, and I wondered how I was going to survive without a jacket when your message arrived--and I remembered I also have two shawls from Kashmir. One has only a little bit of embroidery and is so thin it is actually transparent-- but it is surprisingly warm. I grabbed it running out the door and it looked perfect with the kimono (in shimmering blue, of course). When my two friends saw my shawl, they both dashed back in their houses and pulled out shawls and one of them had this really beautiful antique velvet shawl with embroidery while the other friend (Sachiko of this post) had a shawl from Kashmir that she couldn't remember if I had given her or her mother-in-law had given her (!!)

Anyway, thanks to you-- it turned out very well...

Another surprisingly nice Aramco article, this article by Eric Hansen (of the orchid book) about pashimina shawls was really well done, I thought. And, it was nice reading that even as late as 2002 (when the author was there) the industry was surviving the war. My Kashmiri friend-- who I wrote about in this post -- had long ago moved to Goa, and had told me that very few carpet and shawl dealers are able to live in the valley full time any longer.

Aramco obviously has deep pockets-- but it kind of nice they put out this beautiful magazine-- which is free. I am on their list and they even mail to Japan.

Hi again! I finally decided to commit on a final version to the ddj passage (please see the bottom of the rokujo post in green). You will note that the only major change was swapping spirits for ghosts, which I did to try and shorten the English (as using ghosts allowed me to crop "of our dead ancestors") and to distingish between 鬼 and 神者.

To be honest, I am still dis-satisfied with Bill's explanation of the five ding 五鼎. There has got to be a better explanation....That is on my list of things to do.

Finally, Bill, I just listened to a great show on Alan Sander's Philosopher's Zone that your students may enjoy on Chinese philosophy. I linked to it in the Rokujo Post (in khaki)...



OK, your illiterate servant sees five kinds of food which appear to be five kinds of sacrifice, presumably one in each pot, perhaps reflecting ministerial rank, and maybe something about death as the alternative? One thing I found while looking at all examples of peng in ancient Chinese texts was that it seemed kind of common for a minister to make a play for influence by saying something like "Either accept these (following) words or boil me to death ..."

Bill, I truly couldn't ask for a better (or more illiterate) servant!! 謝謝!! So, yes, according to an online Japanese dictionary 5 kinds of meat were put in each ding (1 kind of meat in one ding) as offerings to god 神. There is beef, mutton, pork, fish, and elk (moose?)... But my question is about numerology. I already traced the significance of the 9 dings as far as I possibly could given my limitations, and am wondering why 5 dings and not 9?

Some days I really feel like there is so much more to learn about dings (like everything I ever wanted to know could be found inside one). I have a really good book around here somewhere too... I'll email after I find it.

They are so beautiful, aren't they-- Chinese University has some nice vessels-- but there is a small private museum in Central-- have you been? I can look up the name if you haven't...which I recall had a few gorgeous Zhou tripods

By the way, I bought the Nussbaum book. Thanks! And now if you can just tell me why I wanted to re-read it so badly???

Moose! I shall hold my tongue. That's doe (a deer, a female deer). A high counselor has 5 dings, and the speaker of the sentence was a high counselor. Some of the Nussbaum book is about hedonism. Gotta run -- back later.

I know it seems a bit unlikely but wouldn't deer be 鹿? And my handy online 漢字辞典 dictionary has elk or moose.... Don't they have moose somewhere in all of China?

Roger on the Nussbaum book.

My modern Chinese dictionary gives 麋(麋鹿), also known as a 四不像, as "Père David's deer" (Elaphurus davidianus), a species of deer native to China.


Classical Chinese would likely have it as simply 麋, without the 鹿.

I was speaking from memory of vocabulary notes for the Mencius, imbibed long ago in a language textbook. My memory could have been wrong, and Legge doesn't back me up. He says: "a species of deer, distinguished for its size and strength, and that sheds its horns (sic) in winter." Lands now mooseless may well-elked of yore have been.

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