Monday, October 24, 2011

Agora: Beginning

The little shop sits on the slope of a small hill, looking down into a long, busy street that shoots straight into the heart of downtown. At the end of the street, blocks and blocks away, the old courthouse sits, delicate and ancient, surrounded by looming black skycrapers. Out here, though, the buildings are a bit less crowded and a bit more reasonably sized. This one sits at the edge of what used to be a boutique shopping district, and formerly housed an antique store with a horribly florid name: "Exilene's Land of Lovely Long-Ago Rarities" or something like that. The new owner slapped on a coat of dark blue paint to obliterate most of the sign, but left a few of Exilene's delicate, decisively serifed letters:

Ago Ra

Agora's storefront is entirely glass, allowing patrons inside to observe the commuters outside, and vice versa. On sunny days, someone occasionally drags a table out the front door and situates it on the sidewalk -- a little land grab into the commuters' territory -- but today it's a bit chilly, the west-facing storefront will be in shadow most of the day, and nobody seems terribly interested in rubbing elbows with pedestrians.

After passing through the front door, customers end up in the big main room, a few hundred square feet in size but partitioned into smaller spaces by roughly plastered walls. The partitions and plaster make the place feel a bit like a southwestern mission, split into cells populated by urban monks with a taste for joe and overstuffed Goodwill furniture. Parts of the bar are visible from the front door, but the path from here to there is less than direct. A heavy wooden door near the bar leads out to a patio.

The bar itself is formidable, festooned with both coffee mugs and glassware, because Agora is an unusual mix of coffee shop and bar. It sells mostly caffiene in the morning and mostly alcohol in the evening, but everything is available all the time, and given the human variety in a city this size, it's not unusual to see the barista serving shots of whiskey at 5 in the morning, or a double shot of espresso at midnight.

Of course, baristas aren't strictly necessary these days. The place has a matter feed, a sleek gray rectangle tucked away on one corner of the bar, but it's primarily there as a concession to a certain sort of customer, usually a guest of a regular who won't take his beverage any other way. But most folks come to Agora precisely because they like things done in the old, aromatic way, with shining, hissing metal cylinders, multicolored bottles half-full of multicolored liquids, jiggers and shakers and plenty of steam.

Today, the man tending bar is a moderately scruffy, sandy-haired grad student named Will. Will spends a lot of his time reading, sometimes tending bar with a glass in his left hand and a book in his right. He also makes a tasty Irish Coffee. At the moment he's wiping down the bar with a white towel and whistling what sounds like a Beatles tune.


crystal said...

Beth walks into the Agora, greets Will, takes a seat at the bar, orders coffee with nutmeg and cream - yum :) - and asks Will what he's reading.

Matthew said...

Will straightens, tosses the towel over his shoulder and sets down his paperback.

"/The Once and Future King/," Will says as he prepares Beth's coffee.

"I'm rereading it. I recently realized that, I dunno, maybe half of the things I think come out of that book, so I figured I'd better read it again, see if it's really everything I make it out to be."

Will dusts the coffee with nutmeg, then hands Beth her cup.

"I don't suppose you've read it?"

Vincent said...

“T H White,” murmurs Vincent, who admires this author, but is uncertain whether he would be welcome to join this conversation.

“England have my bones!” he says more loudly, as if addressing his glass of Anchor Steam beer--and as if expressing his own yearning at this moment.

Will and Beth look up with interest and a certain apprehension.

“It’s a memoir by the author of The Once and Future King,” he explains. “A back-to-nature journal, with a lot of fly-fishing in it.”

Vincent said...

The response from Will and Beth is encouraging. They ask Vincent about the book, but he claims to remember little of it. "I was more interested to know about the thoughts that you ascribe to The Once and Future King," he says to Will.

crystal said...

"I did read it" Bath says, sipping her coffee and smiling at both Will and the newly arrived Vincent. "But it was long ago and I don't remember a lot of it ... just that he writes that the best thing for being sad is to learn something." And Wart getting turned into animals, of course :)

Matthew said...

Will nods at Beth, smiling a rueful half-smile. "Yeah. But a lot of the time, learning something makes you sad."

"I haven't read the memoir," he says to Vincent. "I'd like to, though. I'll see if I can hunt it up."

He glances at Vincent's beer, checking to see how soon he might be ready for another.

"What thoughts am I talking about. Hm."

"Well, the idea that seems the biggest in my brain is 'might does not make right'." Will pauses, thinking.

Paul Martin said...

John Cates has come in for coffee and characteristically seated himself somewhat to the left of Beth. Looking at no one in particular he looks up from his cup and says almost as though to himself:

“’Might is right’ or ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ Seems to me like in the end everyone goes with some version of one or the other...”

Vincent said...

“Your quote on learning as the best thing for sadness,” [per link on Crystal’s comment] mused Vincent, “reminds me what I like best about White: his very original use of language, quite clean of cliché: ‘Learn why the world wags and what wags it.’ What a miniature jewel-box that sentence is! You make me want to open the whole box. I have a nice edition of the first volume, The Sword in the Stone. Should I finish that, do you think, or skip to The Once and Future King?”

Vincent said...

“I wonder where White stood on ‘might is right’?”, he continued addressing John Cates in particular, distractedly pushing his empty glass towards Will. Then he fumbled for his wallet. Will thought he was about to settle up, but he pulled out a faded water-colour drawing, smoothing it out on the counter.

“What do you think his picture reveals about that?”

Paul Martin said...

“Hmm…” John Cates has asked to see the drawing. He considers it carefully and then tells Vincent and Will:

“I think it’s trying to say that everyone ends up going with either ‘Might is right’ or ‘Beauty is truth.' And that being in freefall, what with mortality and all, leaves you free to go either way."

Matthew said...

Will nods, agreeing with Vincent.

"Yes," he says. "I envy White's prose a little."

"If it were me, I think I'd go on to The Once and Future King, even though I might miss some bits by hopping over to the compilation."

Will cranes his neck to get a good look at the watercolor.

"That is fascinating," he says. "I wish I knew who the guy in red was."

After peering at the watercolor for a few minutes, he straightens.

"I think I see what you're saying about truth and power," he says to Cates, "but dichotomies make me nervous. Anytime anybody says it's either this or that, I have a hard time buying it ... unless maybe you can convince me that those two things are opposite and, more to the point, mutually exclusive?"

He begins tinkering with one of the shiny coffee-making machines.

Vincent said...

"I can't decide if the guy in red is Kaiser Wilhelm or the ArchDuke Ferdinand," said Vincent. "And the portrait the angel is holding could be King George V or Tsar Nicholas II. But then again, either of them could have been almost any European man of their class at the time. Fortunately White stuck to writing as a career. But see how he is fascinated by perspectives, both spatially and metaphorically!

"You have persuaded me to be bold and skip the Sword in the Stone, forward to Liber Secundus: 'The Witch in the Wood'.

"And as for opposites, and mutual exclusivities, you've caught my interest there. People get confused with them, as for example with Free Will vs Determinism, which as far as I can see are neither opposite nor mutually exclusive. But never mind them, I've been discussing those topics in another bar, & think they lead nowhere."

crystal said...

Beth asks Will, "Any biscotti?"

Then she turns to John. "I don't think truth and beauty are equivalent. As Augustine said (eek - I can't believe I'm quoting *him* :) "Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked."

Bath sips her coffee as she responds to Will's thought: that might doesn't make right.

"I think that's true in the world - power and goodness aren't intrinsically linked. But what about in a religious sense? My spiritual director asks me sometimes if I think God always gets what God wants. He thinks he doesn't, but as Keith Ward mentioned in a recent sermon, ‘for God all things are possible’. I'm not sure who's right."

Beth pulls out a book and lays it on the bar. "This is what I've been reading - Doomsday Book... in the near future, an Oxford historian travels back in time to the middle ages and the Black Death. A lot of terrible suffering ensues that love can't eliminate but only ameliorate. Is love enough?"

Vincent said...

"So I wonder if you see a common theme in the two books--Arthurian legend and time-travelling SF novel," said Vincent, turning to Beth: "how to ameliorate situations? And whether love or might is the best way. Does this theme reflect something that bothers you generally?"

Paul Martin said...

John Cates to Vincent as Beth considers Vincent’s question:

Books schmooks. My guess would be that Beth is looking at a kind of universal dichotomy that we all face. In life as we know it, Might seems to steamroll right over the stuff that looks most precious to us, whether you think of that as beauty, goodness, or love.

So in one form or another, in one way or another, folks generally try to take the view that ultimately beauty – or goodness, or love – is truth. Even if, as often as not, they conduct themselves according to “might is right.”

Should we move to a table? My neck hurts from looking over to the side. Also, I feel like we should be smoking pipes. I’ve never joined a philosophical society. Shouldn’t we be smoking pipes?

Vincent said...

Vincent to John Cates:

"Sure, I don't mind moving to a table. I haven't smoked a pipe since I was nineteen, but I'd be happy to join you in any kind that's legal in these parts, tobacco, cannabis or opium. Or even if illegal. I've taken a vow to live more dangerously, since my brain has started to wear out and I'd prefer for the rest of me not to outlive it.

But if you want to discuss philosophy, I'll just sample another of your interesting local beers. It's really literature that interests me, and since Will mentioned The Once and Future King it's intrigued me so much I've downloaded it on to my Kindle, thanks to the free Wi-fi you have here. You've probably heard enough from me already. But I'll listen out to what everyone has to say."

Matthew said...

Will dips down further under the bar, continuing to tinker with something. His voice echoes strangely.

"Plenty of tables," he says.

"Yeah, Vincent, everything you might want to smoke is legal, but of course you'll have to pay for it and any apparatus you need. And you'll have to get everything from the feed." You can imagine Will's nose wrinkling when he says feed.

A hand pokes up above the bar and points at the gray box, a Giemens matter-feed endpoint, ubiquitous in this part of the world.

"Free will, determinism, love, truth, power, coping, a few books" Will mutters from beneath the bar. "That's a lot to munch."

Remembering something, he gropes with the hand above the bar until he finds a chocolate-dipped biscotti, then extracts it from its tray and hands it in Beth's general direction.

"I don't trust Augustine any farther than I can throw him," he says, gesturing with the biscotti. "I think there's something to Keats's claim that beauty and truth are the same thing. But ..." there is a decisive clank, and he emerges from beneath the bar.

"But I'm not sure just how far it goes. 'Beauty' and 'Truth' are different words, they point to different ideas in our brains, and while they may be closely intertwined, surely they're not identical."

crystal said...

Beth takes the biscotti from Will and munches it while peering at the Giemens matter-feed endpoint.

"If we oder something, I vote for cocaine - opium puts me to sleep."

She turns to Vincent and answers his question, "Yes, me wondering about the suffering stuff, might and right, is personal. I still can't fix the paradox of a good and powerful God who allows suffering."

"But about beauty - I just don't trust it, I guess. We seem wired to believe what's beautiful is also good (and true?) but that isn't always so. I think connecting beauty and goodness/truth is really just an evolutionary survival mechanism - there's no real trascendent basisi for it."

Beth uses one of the cafe's terminals to find a Baudelaire poem she's remembered, and then reads it to the others ...

"I am as lovely as a dream in stone;
My breast on which each finds his death in turn
Inspires the poet with a love as lone
As everlasting clay, and as taciturn.
Swan-white of heart, as sphinx no mortal knows,
My throne is in the heaven's azure deep;
I hate all movement that disturbs my pose;
I smile not ever, neither do I weep.

Before my monumental attitudes,
Taken from the proudest plastic arts,
My poets pray in austere studious moods,

For I, to fold enchantment round their hearts,
Have pools of light where beauty flames and dies,
The placid mirrors of my luminous eyes."

Matthew said...

"It's a poet throwdown, Baudelaire vs. Keats!" Will crows.

"I'm all for beauty," he says, "so long as we don't just mean the easy kind of beauty. I want to take an approach to beauty like ... who was it, Locke? ... no, it was Mill ... took to pleasure. He said that it makes sense to think about different kinds of pleasure, easy, cheap ones and higher, more valuable ones. Intellectual pursuits, I think, were among the high pleasures."

"It just seems like sometimes it takes a little work or time or empathy to see something as beautiful, but when you do the experience of beauty is no less -- sometimes I think it's more -- than beauty of the other sort. You know," he smirks, "pied beauty and all that."

Vincent said...

Vincent to Will & Beth: "It's not that I want to smoke anything, only to be convivial & join in."

And then to all three, especially to John Cates, remembering the invitation to philosophy, and his own refusal to go there, which might have come across as too abrupt:

"Yes, Keats is often quoted as though this beauty/truth thing was some core belief. It was a couple of lines in a poem, not a manifesto. Baudelaire is more complex, with his collection titled 'Flowers of Evil' and he may have consciously mingled ideas of beauty, sex, death & evil. He certainly started a fashion with it.

"I agree with you, John, if you're saying that books are just books, and not expressions of their authors' great insights. I agree with you, Will, about not trusting St Augustine. I see him as over-reacting rather hysterically to the sins of his youth.

"But Beth, I'm wondering how you manage to maintain this idea of an unresolved paradox. One the one hand a good and powerful God; on the other, the manifest suffering that exists in the world and always has (unless you take the Garden of Eden rather literally).

"Either God is good and powerful because you have experienced him to be so. Or he is good and powerful because you believe what you have been taught. If the latter, then the paradox should be enough to make you modify your belief, if you feel free to do so. If your beliefs are binding, then that is what I'd call 'baggage' - too heavy a burden to carry through life.

"I have experienced stuff which could persuade me to express it in terms of an unseen God, who has power to soften blows, make things tolerable, bring some joy into life and help one feel a sense of purpose. But I would only express it in those terms if surrounded by others who spoke that particular dialect, so to speak. It's perfectly clear, to me at any rate, that this power and goodness doesn't go roaming round the world by itself like a comic-book Superman, righting wrongs wherever it sees them.

"God is a personal experience that some persons have and others do not. All the rhetoric and claims are in the nature of sales talks and mantras to help persons have this experience; or sometimes to further less worthy ends.

"I'm interested in personal experience in all its variety, with no urge to establish a consensus and call it Truth. That's why I declared a preference for Literature above Philosophy. Sometimes I will read philosophy as literature.

"I'm certainly not reading The Once and Future King for the sake of its author's beliefs."

Then abruptly, Vincent blushed and fell silent, remembering his promise to keep quiet.

crystal said...

Beth resonds to Vincent -

"I guess I maintain the paradox because I have no overwhelming evidence about whether God is good or not, all powerful or not, existing or not. The only experience I've had is that suffering is really awful and that God loves us - it seems contradictory. But I notice I act mostly as if God does exist and is good, whether all powerful or not."

Vincent said...

"Then I'm with you entirely," replied Vincent. "Paradox gives life its fizz. This brings us straight back to the style of The Once and Future King, which is full of it - the big paradoxes of whether might is right, and the throwaway asides, such as 'when Gareth nervously brought white heather to [his mother's] bedroom as an apology for being whipped'. Or there is the elaborate paradox of making a pantomime Questing Beast with two knights inside, operating the front and back end, in the continued absence of the real one; which then attracts the real one, a female, which falls in love with 'him'.

"I don't mean to labour the point of paradox, only to point out that it's fun. Together with slapstick, it's one of the basic elements of humour.

"One of the oddest paradoxes is how Christianity blames Man in situations where it's clearly a frame-up by God. Original sin, for example. Or the big problems in the world like hunger, global warming, pollution and peak oil.

"Let us cheerfully blame God for making us the way we are. And let me personally--designed as I am to have separate consciousness even though I am an integral part of the One--let me take ownership for my own misery. Let me alleviate it by not feeling guilty about being me, not punishing myself for anything."

At which point it was appropriate to say, "Now, Will, the next drinks and nibbles are on me! What's everyone having?"

Matthew said...

"I don't think I believe in paradox," Will says, grinning, "but I'll be glad to make myself a cup of tea."

He fiddles with jars of tea leaves for a moment, selects something, then grabs a French press.

Vincent said...

"And I'll take a tincture of your best ale, for the celebration of life and the loosening of the tongue," said Vincent. "Good health, everyone!

"You don't think you believe in paradox but it was you who got me reading The Once and Future King, which is stuffed full of it.

"I wonder what you make of this? [He reads from his Kindle machine.] 'Lancelot put up his sword and went back from the knight, as if he were going back from his own soul. He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind.'

"A fundamental paradox within the character of Lancelot, as portrayed by the author. I wonder if you feel able to believe it."

Matthew said...

Will pours Vincent's ale.

"Sure, I believe in that sort of paradox," he says. "An interesting incongruity that pops up because of fuzziness in language. If you look at it in the right light, I guess those sorts of paradoxes are all puns. Maybe we could call them 'software paradoxes.'"

"The ones I don't believe in, though, are 'hardware paradoxes.' Paradoxes that exist out in the world, that are described using language that is very bare, stripped down. Like an apple that is all green and all red. Or a marble that is both very hot and very cold. Or a thing that is x and not-x. I don't think those really exist. I don't even think we can really imagine those things."

He slides the ale to Vincent.

Vincent said...

Vincent regarded Will with a little puzzlement.

"Do you really feel that my example of Lancelot was a language-based paradox? The author is telling us that the real reason for Lancelot's being brave and kind in his behaviour, is that inside, in his private consciousness, he sees himself as cruel and cowardly.

"It's a paradox because it goes against what we would tend to think. It's like when we learn about letters in which Mother Theresa confesses her lack of faith: her sense of utter separation from God, which lasted for years on end. And yet her work in Calcutta was based on faith that God's love needs to be shown to everyone.

"These are paradoxes based on human psychology: that when we fear the lack of something, we make extraordinary efforts to establish a superabundance, instead of mere adequacy.

"A paradox is when something is in the constant tension of turning into its opposite. In human beings, the not-x can indeed turn into x, because below the carefully-constructed surface is something much more complex. The self-flagellating ascetic is beset by almost uncontrollable sensual desire."

He stops, blinks as if waking from a trance and gazes at the amber liquid in the glass in front of him on the counter. How did that get there? He lifts it gratefully. "Your good health, everyone!"

Matthew said...

Will scratches his head, looking puzzled.

"I guess you use the word 'paradox' differently than I do," he says. "I thought it meant a contradiction had already arrived, rather than merely threatening."

Will waggles his finger at Vincent, grinning.

"You're not trying to redefine words on me, are you?" he asks. "Because I hate that."

As he turns to shelve some coffee cups, he gestures at the matter compiler.

"Looks like somebody's order is done," he says. "But we don't have a den, so you should probably smoke that opium out in the garden."

On the front of the gray box a jolly green thumbs-up symbol is glowing. Perfectly normal operation, except that nobody remembers ordering anything.

[next scene]