Sunday, September 21, 2008

Slichot Thoughts

I once heard what I have since nicknamed the 'Groundhog's Day Theory of Reincarnation', according to which each soul is brought back into the world again and again until it gets everything just right. I don't really think that I believe this on any metaphysical level (of course, I avoid having any beliefs about metaphysics until I am certain that such beliefs make absolutely any difference to my actual life), but there's something about it that just… chills me. Some poor hapless soul- my soul, to be exact- trying again and again over the course of millennia to finally make it count. And to be honest, this life- I can't see it being the one that does the trick.

I did the traditional evaluating my existence thing last night before slichot. I'm generally honest to myself about myself, so I wasn't able to come up with any deep, wrenching guilt. I don't think that I'm a particularly bad person, or that I've been bad this year. In fact, the whole thing can probably be summed up as "Not bad, but not stellar."

Which, in a way, is worse. Because that's hardly what I want on my tombstone. I am coming to terms with getting B's in my classes, because frankly, they don't matter all that much. I don't want to get a B in life.

But the problem with a B, as opposed to an F, is that I can't put my finger on something solid to fix it. I'm not saying that I don't know what areas of my morality I should be working on; I'm reasonably clear on that. I'm just not sure that addressing them solves the basic problem of kicking things up a notch. Mediocrity is hard to cope with, especially because it doesn't leave you with guilt or anguish or disgust. Just a lingering anxiety, a vague sense that this is not all that it should be.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Is Beaurocracy Evil? Is Evil Beaurocratic?

I just finished reading the first two books in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. They're quite well-written, although of course the blatant ideology coming seeping through infuriates me. But that is another rant.*

I have heard that the books were written to be the anti-Narnia series, and I guess I see that. What interested me more was one fundamental similarity to That Hideous Strength, the third book in C. S. Lewis' science fiction trilogy. In both of the books, Evil (whether it be the Church or the anti-Church) is organized into a brutal beaurocracy, while Good is a less organized group of comrades under a charismatic leader.

In his introduction to the Screwtape Letters, Lewis explains why he thinks hell must work that way. Since devils, according to basic Christian theology, cannot love, one must imagine a form that would enable them to be organized enough among themselves to make mischief, without relying on any bonds of love to do so. A beaurocratic authority structure does so, creating mutual dependencies based on ambition, fear, and obedience to protocol (another form of fear). That Hideous Strength clearly depicts such an organization. Since the players are human, the desire to be accepted/admired comes in too, with people desperately wanting to be part of the 'in-crowd', without being very clear on what that means or entails, and thus doing just about everything they are told.

Such a structure differs from the normal 'beaurocracy breeds evil' theme, which plays more with the idea of de-personalization and diffusion of responsibility allowing atrocities beyond what most normal people would do. Lewis is claiming not that beaurocracy breeds evil (A-->B) but that true evil can only be efficient if it arranges itself in the form of a beaurocracy (B-->A).

It's not entirely clear which one of these Pullman is trying to argue. He uses interplay of committes and politics within the Church as a means by which the Church condones and benefits from evil that might otherwise be bad P.R. But it doesn't really seem that the Church, qua organized Church, is contributing to the evilness of anything or anybody. It is a means for some to gain power, but this doesn't result from its structure, but from its size. Everything the Church does, naturally, is evil, and therefore the more it does the more evil it creates (by simple math). However, it is left unclear whether God would be equally evil if His servants were less efficient or organized in different ways. Nor are there any examples of evil stemming from the beaurocratic structure- good people or qualms quieted by the structure itself.

This may well tie into my more general rant that Pullman does not seem interested in exploring the nature of the evil that he condemns. He creates a giant shadowy body, but he never really enters it or explores the thoughts of those within it. The sole exception to this is Mrs. Coulter, whose motives are (as of book 2) painfully unclear, other than her being firmly anti-original sin. But what is going on in the minds and/or hearts of the Church itself- seems to be beyond Pullman's interest, for all that he is willing to condemn everything about it. Lewis is no less decisive about the nature of his beaurocracy, but he spends chapters within its walls, explaining how it functions, why the people within act as they do, and how Evil operates in the world.

*This one, to be exact: Okay, fine, you want to kill God. It's a cool premise and for whatever reason, Pullman hates religion. Fine. He should live and be well, or whatever. But the reasoning being that because evil things are done in the name of religion, hence religion must be evil? Huh? Especially since the characters fighting on the side of good (that is, anti-God) are just as busy being just as repulsive. I mean, if you're going to use intercision as a measure of evil, you got a decent bit on each team, alright? So chill with the moral justification until you manage to come up with something better than this constant assertion: We all know, of course, that God is evil, without any convincing arguments. Maybe the third book will clear things up. It had better.