“The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality” by Morgan Meis

This is a strange little book. It begins with the author explaining that he was living in Antwerp, in Belgium, because his wife was working on a project there. He had nothing in particular to do, but after realizing that the 17th century, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens had once lived in Antwerp, he decided to write a book about Rubens. It’s not a biography of Rubens though. It’s a series of brief meditations on the art of painting, ancient history, Greek mythology, Greek tragedy, hundreds of years of European history, especially Europe’s wars, and Rubens’s family, in particular the affair that Rubens’s father Jan had with Anne of Saxony, who was William of Orange’s wife, and how William of Orange and Rubens’s mother Maria reacted to the affair. There’s a lot about Friedrich Nietzsche, too. And other things.

The book’s central thread goes something like this. Silenus was a minor god in Greek mythology with a gift for prophecy. He was the very wise tutor and companion of Dionysus, the much more important god of the grape-harvest, wine, fertility, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theater. Silenus is best-known for something he once told King Midas (who was apparently a real person, but couldn’t turn anything into gold). Midas asked Silenus what is the most desirable thing for a human being. Silenus told him the best thing is not to have been born.  But if you have been born, the best thing is to die quickly.

Peter Paul Rubens’s father Jan was the legal advisor to Anne of Saxony. They had an affair, the affair was discovered and Anne’s husband William threw Jan in jail. Jan eventually got out, was forgiven by his wife Marie, but died a broken man. Their son Peter Paul grew up to become the most influential artist of the “Flemish Baroque” tradition. 

Around 1616, Rubens painted “The Drunken Silenus”. It shows Silenus stumbling along, surrounded by some of Dionysus’s retinue, which included nymphs and satyrs.

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A couple years later, Rubens painted “Two Satyrs”, two more of Dionysus’s pals.

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A lot of history went by. Millions died during the Thirty Years War. Hapsburgs and Bourbons went at it. The nations of Europe slowly assumed their current positions.

Then, in 1872, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. Wikipedia says:

Nietzsche found in classical Athenian tragedy an art form that transcended the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence. . . .

. . . Nietzsche discusses the history of the tragic form and introduces an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (very loosely: reality as disordered  . . . versus reality as ordered). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity.

Which brings us back to Silenus and Dionysus, the nymphs and satyrs, especially the satyrs. And goats. The author of The Drunken Silenus thinks Nietzsche valued the wild and crazy Dionysian approach to life more than the calm and collected Apollonian. I think the key chapter of The Drunken Silenus is “Is God a goat? What possibly could that possibly mean?” 

The way Nietzsche tells it, when Silenus finally reveals to Midas the greatest thing for man, that it is best for man never to have been born and second best for a man to die quickly, Silenus lets out a shrill laugh. Silenus laughs because in telling King Midas the best thing, he actually tells him the worst thing . . . 

Nietzsche thinks the ancient Greeks — the Greeks of the satyr plays and the songs in the forest, the Greeks who came before the classical period of Plato and the brilliant days of Greek rationalism — those Greeks were bold enough to make a health of their pessimism. . . .

The olden Greeks, the ancient Greeks, thinks Nietzsche, understood life under the principle of the goat, the young goat kicking and bucking in the woods. . . Even to ask the question of what is good or bad for a man is to lose touch with the primary intuition that God is a goat. That’s to say, God is not transcendent, imperturbable, untouchable, unknowable. God is none of those things. God, if God is the God of the world, has to have the characteristics of the goat, the randiness and unpredictability, even the stupidity of the goat. . . 

And so, the question of good and bad for man is canceled before it can be asked. It is preempted. The satyr would never think to ask that question. . . . Goats don’t ask questions like “what is the best thing for goats?” Goats just go out and express goatlieness [35-38].

Getting back to Rubens, I suppose Rubens’s father and Anne of Saxony (who was also imprisoned by her husband) were the Dionysians. Rubens’s forgiving mother Marie was the Apollonian. And Rubens himself, the great artist, was a proto-Nietzsche:

When Rubens took to painting Silenus he wasn’t grabbing randomly at the bits of ancient mythology floating around in the intellectual breeze. Rubens had a whole program of satyrs and Dionysus and Silenus. . . Rubens was being very Nietzschean here, if we can be anachronistic — literally anachronistic, since it was . . . Rubens who came first and Rubens who first painted Silenus as a central figure within this story of Dionysus.

So that’s The Drunken Silenus. You might find it interesting, but I should mention that, even though it’s a short book, it’s repetitious. The author likes to repeat himself, often in the same paragraph. It also gets tedious near the end, as he starts getting more abstract and paradoxical, suggesting that life is death, and reality is unreal, that kind of thing (I’m not quoting here). It’s the kind of book that’s hard to put down until it’s easy.

The Silence by Don DeLillo

This is Don DeLillo’s new novel, his 18th. It gives the impression that DeLillo, who is 83, has run out of gas.

Five characters confront an unexplained crisis in 2022, during which civilization, at least the parts that rely on electricity or the internet, suddenly stops. A man and woman on a flight from Paris to Newark run into trouble. They eventually make their way to a New York City apartment where two friends, a husband and wife, live. The husband was planning to watch the Super Bowl. The only other character in the novel is the wife’s former student.

Nothing much happens after that. The characters express their fear and confusion by talking in brief bursts, sentence fragments, all sounding the way Don DeLillo often writes (which I usually enjoy). From two randomly chosen pages:

“The semi-darkness. It’s somewhere in the mass mind,” Martin said. “The pause, the sense of having experienced this before. Some kind of natural breakdown or foreign intrusion. A cautionary sense that we inherit from our grandparents or great-grandparents or back beyond. People in the grip of serious threat.”

And:

She thought for a moment. “The painted ceilings. Rome,” she said. “The tourists looking up.”

“Standing absolutely still.”

“Saints and angels. Jesus of Nazareth.”

“The luminous figure. The Nazarene. Einstein,” he said.

It’s a very short book, only 117 pages, with plenty of white space on every page. Maybe it would work as a play. It’s formatted like a typewritten script in what looks like Courier New. There are only five characters. They talk a lot. The play would only need four sets (an airliner, a clinic, an apartment, a street). I’m sorry to say it doesn’t work as a novel.

Beyond Moral Judgment by Alice Crary

Sometimes you (I mean me) finish a book and decide you shouldn’t have bothered. I’m not sure about this one.

It began with an interview. Richard Marshall spoke with philosophy professor Alice Crary as part of his End Times series. This is part of what she said (or wrote, since the conversations are at least partly via email):

“Moral realism” is a label that I deliberately don’t use in describing my image of ethics. Not that . . . the term is obviously ill-suited to capture things I believe. It is, for instance, a conviction of mine that that there are morally salient aspects of the world that . . . lend themselves to empirical discovery. A case could easily be made for speaking of moral realism in this connection. But that would likely generate confusion. When I claim that, say, humans and animals have moral qualities that are as such observable, I work with an understanding of what the world is like, and of what is involved in knowing it, that is foreign to familiar discussions of moral realism. These discussions are often structured by the assumption that objectivity excludes anything [related to] human subjectivity. Moral realism is frequently envisioned as an improbable position on which moral values are objective in this subjectivity-extruding sense while still somehow having a direct bearing on action and choice. . . .

A great deal of my work has been devoted to investigating the grip on the contemporary philosophical imagination of conceptions of objectivity—of the sorts operative in these conversations about moral realism—that take the expulsion of everything subjective as their hallmarks. I have repeatedly argued that restrictions these conceptions impose on what kinds of things count as objective are not justified . . . I have tried to show not only that we should reject the restrictions but also that doing so is urgent because necessary for getting morally and politically salient aspects of our lives into view. . . .

 I favor a “wider” conception of objectivity. I mean a conception loose or wide enough to encompass, inter alia, ethical values. . . .

I attack the view—which I describe as narrowly rational—that it is in theory possible to grasp any real connection of thought from an abstract, ethically neutral vantage point. I do so to show that there are ethically decisive considerations that this view leaves us unequipped to recognize, and I take an interest in work in the different humanities, as well as in literature and the other arts, because such work affords resources for uncovering things inaccessible to an abstract gaze. . . .

The upshot is that [for many philosophers, or most] there appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics. Within my ethical writings, alongside showing that this contraction is philosophically unjustifiable, I bring out how it is morally disastrous—among other things, by identifying harms to human beings and animals that it leaves us incapable of registering.

So I bought and read her book.

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To sum it up, if I can, Prof. Crary says that being ethical and understanding ethics both require us to pay more attention to our feelings or “sensitivity”, what might be called our human reactions to what we experience as we go about our lives, and less attention to strictly ethical propositions, concepts and rules. She discusses cases in which people’s pre-existing ethical views (for example, that ethical people must follow certain rules) make it impossible for them to properly appreciate and evaluate people’s behavior, including their own. 

I’m not sure if her views are controversial among philosophers. The idea that feelings underlie ethics has a very long philosophical history, going as far back as ancient Greece (or consider, for instance, the title of Adam Smith’s 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments). That’s one reason I’m not sure I should have read her book.

Another reason is that the book isn’t well-written. It’s repetitious, with lots of descriptions of what she has already argued and what she’s going to argue next. Her sentences also tend to go on and on, requiring frequent backtracking to see how the various clauses relate. I kept reading party because I expected her to show how her approach to ethics yields different ethical views. But the chapters that primarily provide examples amount to saying that various characters in literature deserve more understanding than they get from other characters (works by Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Henry James portray people who are too “moralistic”) and that feminism requires awareness of the social, cultural and economic contexts of women’s lives.

But Prof. Crary may have the (edited) last word (almost):

The idea is that, if the person’s thinking . . . expresses her moral outlook, then, even where it deals with what we are inclined to think of as a “non-moral” topic, it is rightly brought under the heading of moral thinking. . . [Being indifferent] to subject matter . . . allows [moral thought] to range over . . . any topic (e.g. the ways in which humans live and work with animals, the role of luck in human life, the role of . . . games in the cognitive development of children, the manner in which sibling rivalries . . . affect major life choices, etc.) . . . I submit that once we remove ourselves from the artificial atmosphere of academic moral philosophy , where a preoccupation with moral judgments is generally granted the status of a disciplinary requirement, this broad understanding of moral though will strike us as entirely natural . . .

Within contemporary moral philosophy, it is generally assumed that moral differences take the form either of disagreements about whether to apply a moral concept or of disagreements about whether some moral concept . . . is one we ought to operate with in the first place. In contrast, . . . moral differences may exist between people who inherit and develop different ways of thinking and talking about the world even where there is no question of a disagreement of either of these types. . . . 

Once we acknowledge the possibility of these additional kinds of moral differences, we are obliged . . . to consider not only individuals’ moral judgments but also mode of thought and speech that do not employ moral concepts, and the sensibilities that inform these additional modes of thought and speech. What becomes apparent is that proper respect for . . . moral conversation involves concern with . . . individuals’ entire personalities, the whole complicated weave of their lives [44-45].

I don’t disagree.

Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo

A book editor named Gerald Howard believes Don DeLillo deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature:

By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile. 

He says DeLillo’s case for the Nobel rests on four propositions:

1. “No American novelist has examined more broadly and with greater insight and originality our postwar history and experience”.

2. “The astonishing and unmatched string of four midcareer masterpieces: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). [All] permanently lodged in the record of American literary greatness.

3. DeLillo’s influence:  [His] work is currently available in forty-three languages and/or countries. He is a true global phenomenon. . . . In the anglophone and domestic spheres, there is no writer more revered than DeLillo.

4.  “The dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. . . . He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career”.

I’ve read the four novels mentioned above and several of his others. DeLillo is clearly worthy of the Nobel Prize. It’s too bad the Swedish Academy marches to its own peculiar set of drums.

Since DeLillo has a new novel coming out (The Silence), The New York Times interviewed him this month. They gave the interview this title: “We All Live in Don DeLillo’s World. He’s Confused By It Too”:

A permeating paranoia. Profound absurdity. Conspiracy and terrorism. Technological alienation. Violence bubbling, ready to boil. This has long been the stuff of Don DeLillo’s masterly fiction. It’s now the air we breathe. For nearly 50 years and across 17 novels, [he] has summoned the darker currents of the American experience with maximum precision and uncanny imagination.

The interviewer asked a question about DeLillo’s 1976 novel, Ratner’s Star. It’s not a well-known book, possibly because it’s been called “his weirdest novel” and “famously impenetrable” (which must mean “famously” among a small group of readers and critics). A footnote to the Times interview says it’s an “intricately structured semi-sci-fi romp”. That was enough for me to get a copy and start reading (I had a copy years ago but it’s long gone).

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For the first 275 pages, Ratner’s Star didn’t seem impenetrable at all. It’s about a 14-year old math genius who (coincidentally) has won the Nobel Prize. He is invited to a secretive, well-funded installation where lots of brilliant, generally strange people are trying to decipher what appears to be a message from an alien civilization. DeLillo writes beautifully and the plot is interesting. Will young Billy Twillig (formerly “Terwilliger”) from The Bronx (where DeLillo is from) figure out what the message means? Does it mean anything at all? I liked this part of the book and its amusing conversations and technical explanations and foresaw no problem reading the rest.

Then the plot takes a detour. Billy descends into a cavern far beneath the installation with a small group whose purpose is to create a purely logical, universal language. They hope to use this new language to communicate with the alien civilization (assuming there are aliens out there). Since the little group’s purpose makes no sense, the novel’s suspense disappears. There is frequent stream of consciousness. The point of view suddenly changes from one character to another. There are tangents and long passages that feel pointless, as if DeLillo is treading water. Billy becomes a secondary character.

Something eventually happens in a section called “A Lot Happens”. Something else happens in the next section, “I Sit A While Longer”. But between those two developments, a peripheral character spends several pages exploring a cave because he’s fascinated by bats and a journalist decides her manuscript’s many blank pages are fine because she knows what words belong there. The plot resumes in the final pages; before that there’s rough going. Anybody interested in DeLillo’s work should start elsewhere, maybe with one of the four novels that would justify giving him the Nobel Prize.

Quantum Reality by Jim Baggott

The author is a former academic physicist with a leaning toward the experimental side of physics, as opposed to the theoretical side. From the preamble:

I know why you’re here.

You know that quantum mechanics is an extraordinarily successful scientific theory, on which much of out modern, tech-obsessed lifestyles depend. . . .You also know that it is completely mad. Its discovery forced open the window on all those comfortable notions we had gathered about physical reality . . . and shoved them out. Although quantum mechanics quite obviously works, it appears to leave us chasing ghosts and phantoms, particles that are waves and waves that are particles, cats that are at once both alive and dead, lots of seemingly spooky goings-on, and a desperate desire to lie down quietly in a darkened room.

But, hold on, if we’re prepared to be a little more specific about what we mean when we talk about “reality” and a little more circumspect about how we think a scientific theory might represent such a reality, then all the mystery goes away [Note: not really] . . . 

But . . . a book that says, “Honestly, there is no mystery” would . . . be completely untrue. For sure we can rid ourselves of all the mystery in quantum mechanics, but only by abandoning any hope of deepening our understanding of nature. We must become content to use the quantum representation simply as a way to perform calculations and make predictions, and we must resist the temptation to ask: But how does nature actually do that? And there lies the rub: for what is the purpose of a scientific theory if not to aid our understanding of the physical world.

. . . The choice we face is a philosophical one. There is absolutely nothing scientifically wrong with a depressingly sane interpretation of quantum mechanics in which there is no mystery. If we choose instead to pull on the loose thread, we are inevitably obliged to take the quantum representation at face value, and interpret its concepts rather more literally. Surprise, surprise, The fabric unravels to give us all those things about the quantum world that we find utterly baffling, and we’re right back where we started.

My purpose in this book is (hopefully) . . . to try to explain what it is about quantum mechanics that forces us to confront this kind of choice, and why this is entirely philosophical in nature. Making different choices leads to different interpretations or even modifications of the quantum representation and its concepts, in what I call . . . the game of theories.

Mr. Baggott follows the usual path that includes the work of Einstein and Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger and ends with various theories of the multiverse. He lost me around page 160 in chapter 7. Up until then, I felt like I was understanding almost everything. Given the nature of quantum mechanics, that probably meant I was deeply confused. After that, my confusion was obvious.

He does make clear how anyone trying to understand the reality behind quantum mechanics, or to “interpret” it, ends up veering into philosophical speculation. His strong preference is for interpretations that can be tested empirically. That’s one reason he’s skeptical about multiverse theories, which don’t seem to be testable at all.

I’m glad I read the book, but I could have jumped from chapter 7 to the Epilogue, which is entitled “I’ve Got a Very Bad Feeling About This”:

I hope I’ve done enough in this book to explain the nature of our dilemma. We can adopt an anti-realist interpretation in which all our conceptual problems vanish, but which obliges us to accept that we’ve reached the limit or our ability to access deeper truths about a reality of things-in-themselves. The anti-realist interpretations tell us that there’s nothing to see here. Of necessity, they offer no hints as to where we might look to gain some new insights of understanding. They are passive; mute witnesses to the inscrutability of nature.

In contrast, the simpler and more palatable realist interpretations based on local or crypto-local hidden variables offered plenty of hints and continue to motivate ever more exquisitely subtle experiments. Alas, the evidence is now quite overwhelming and all but the most stubborn of physicists accept that nature denies us this easy way our. If we prefer a realist interpretation, taking the wavefunction and the conceptual problems this implies at face value, then we’re left with what I can only call a choice between unpalatable evils. We can choose de Broglie-Bohm theory and accept non-local spooky action at a distance. We can choose to add a rather ad hoc spontaneous collapse mechanism and hope for the best. We can choose to involve consciousness in the mix, conflating one seemingly intractable problem with another. Or we can choose Everett, many worlds and the multiverse. . . . 

There may be another way out. I’m pretty confident that quantum mechanics is not the end. Despite its unparalleled success, we know it doesn’t incorporate space and time in the right way [it seems to presume absolute space and absolute simultaneity, not Einstein’s relative spacetime]. . . . It may well be that any theory that transcends quantum mechanics will still be rife with conceptual problems and philosophical conundrums. But it would be nice to discover that, despite appearances to the contrary, there was indeed something more to see here.

That’s the end of the book. 

I got a copy of Quantum Reality after reading a very positive review by another physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder. She said it’s “engagingly written” and requires “no background knowledge in physics”. Maybe not, but a background would help, especially when you get to chapter 7.

I did acquire one idea, which fits with an idea I already had. It seems that the famous two-slit experiment, in which a single photon appears to take multiple paths, has a simple solution. When the photon is sent on its way, it’s a wave. It passes through both slits at the same time. Then, when it hits the screen on the other side of the two slits, it becomes a particle. Maybe this is the de Broglie-Bohm theory referred to above, which implies “spooky action at a distance”. But it sounds plausible to me.

The wave instantaneously becoming a particle seems (to me) to fit with the way entangled particles simultaneously adopt opposing characteristics. One is measured and found to be “up”, which means the other instantly becomes “down”, no matter how far away the two particles are. This suggests that spacetime isn’t fundamental. The distance we perceive as being far too great for two particles to immediately affect each other isn’t the fundamental reality. There’s something going on that’s deeper than spacetime. So the way in which a wave that’s spread out simultaneously disappears, resulting in a single particle hitting a screen, reveals the same thing.

So I feel like I’m making a bit of progress in understanding physics. This is most likely incorrect, but it makes me feel better. Now all I have to do is figure out why physicists claim we couldn’t find the location of the Big Bang. Sure, space is expanding in all directions from the Big Bang, they say, but they deny the universe has a center, where the Big Bang occurred (it would make a great location for a museum and a gift shop). I don’t understand their reasons for saying there is no center.

But one small, confused step at a time.