I Wanted To Be a Writer

I wanted to be a writer
To tell tales and make fun
Of the world and all its peril
But I was the one undone.
I wanted to be a writer
To prove that I could hum
A tune of such beauty,
It could never be unsung.
I wanted to be a writer
But I never learned to sing.
And so I sit, miscounting meters, pondering
Why I wanted to be a writer
When all I can do is cringe.

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A Villain’s Backstory

I wrapped up running a very long Dungeons and Dragons campaign last week. It’s been two years with the same characters, the same story, and the same goddamn unbearable amazing players.

For the epic finale, I wanted an engaging villain who would be more than just a hit point balloon- that would engage the players in roleplay, not just rollplay. Sadly, the adventure’s prefabricated villain wasn’t quite up to snuff. Azarr Kul, from the classic Red Hand of Doom third edition adventure, isn’t a bad villain but he’s not that complicated (think Napoleon, but he’s half dragon and worships Satan).

So I rewrote him. I kept the canon consistent, he still did all the things Dragon Napoleon did, but I wrote a backstory for him based on an incredible short story (find it free to read or listen to here) by Scott Sigler. The original story has an incredible economy of language: the paragraphs are tight, the sentences always moving the action forward. You almost feel out of breath reading it. I loved it so much, I wanted to try imitating Sigler’s style and story- so I wrote a short little origin story for the new and improved Azarr Kul.

If I did this right, it should stand alone as a mediocre (if unoriginal) piece of fiction. Enjoy (but probably not):

Coughing into the moonlit smoke around him, Angel was aware only of his fear. His eyes watered, but he could still hear. Shouting, marching, the crackle of houses burning, and, still distant, screams. The entire village was on fire.

Angel turned away from the chaos outside his home, but his mother held him at the threshold. He wanted to run behind her, hide his juvenile body behind her height. But she held him fast.

“Let go of him! We have to go and find Hector!” cried Angel’s grandfather, already peering into the fire and dark surrounding their home.

Angel’s mother would let neither of them pass. She breathed slowly, in rhythm with the pulsing light of the fires.

“My … Continue Suffering

Sophistication Beyond Measure: The Limits of Railton’s “Sophisticated Hedonism”

It is a long and storied objection that moral philosophy is only a form of hostile autobiography- a way of dictating rules for the world without embracing it. Meta-ethical debates continue, but it is at least some proof against this claim that contemporary moral philosophy concerns itself deeply with how we live our lives, how friendships, relationships, and the demands of everyday life can be attended to while continuing to be moral. Alienation is just one obstacle among many in such efforts, but it is this obstacle which Railton believes he can dissolve by reworking the way we schematize and apply morality. Railton establishes a subjective/objective duality in interpreting a given moral philosophy and posits that by adopting the objective and dismissing the subjective we become sophisticated and avoid the problems of alienation. While Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism is an innovative and structurally sound approach, it fails to defeat alienation by being impracticable: no human being constrained by the limits of ordinary psychology could possibly live such a life.

If only for a fleeting moment of believability, let us admire Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism. His motive here is a worry that the moral points of view, being necessarily universal and impartial, tends to alienate one from life itself, to create “a kind of estrangement, distancing, or separateness resulting in some sort of loss” of that which “compels his allegiance to life itself” (Railton 134, Williams 18). The strict and upright consequentialist might do all the right things for all the right reasons, but he is still going through life as if following a handbook and a (very undependable) calculator- he has lost touch with humanity.

The solution to this alienation then, is to bridge universalized moral principle (in this case consequentialism) with actions that fully (emotionally and otherwise) acknowledge one’s “special relations” within the world (Railton 136). We begin on the starting embankment of moral law- Railton specifies a pluralistic consequentialism aimed at maximizing a set of goods but notes that the bridge he aims to construct “could be made, mutatis mutandis, by a deontologist” (148). From the bank of ideology we … Continue Suffering

Art’s Sense and Importance: Tolstoy and The Human Value of Art

“It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self… It is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.”

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace’s account of depression:  a solemn display of artistic mastery. From his body of work and biography, we know that the depression Wallace describes is one he himself often felt- and yet, experience with depression is no prerequisite in feeling the power behind his words (Weber). Somehow, through Wallace’s artistic expression, we are able to gain sudden insight into a way of being, a way of feeling, that we may never have comprehended before. This perspective sharing enables us to understand something important about life (depression is, after all, a real thing, which real human beings suffer with) and is a fascinating component of art. Sadly, our study of art often fails to investigate this connection between life and art. The purely formal (“art for art’s sake”) and institutional approaches which can dominate our study do have their own merit, but they never seem to explain this profound link between art and our individual lives.

Broadly speaking then (for details will be forthcoming), our aim here is to utilize Tolstoy’s What is Art?, … Continue Suffering

Lamprocles (Novella)

“Alas, my Child! That which saves the lives of others, proves thy destruction, even thy sire’s love; to thee thy father’s nobility has proved no boon”

Euripides, Trojan Women

 

-399 B.C.-

The first man he had brought death to was his father. He brought it to him in a dirty golden goblet, stained purple with the earthy poison it often held. His mother had forfeited the (not insubstantial) silver for the mixture, and the People had been kind enough to provide the goblet itself. Thus was Lamprocles, the fittest of his family, reduced to Death’s delivery-boy.

Despite years of similar service for his mother, he was not a very fast courier: he moved towards his destination in a cautious stabilizing tread. This was somewhat necessary, as he had to overcome the city’s most recent scars- scattered mounds of splintered stone and shredded wood. As he climbed over these remains of the Athenians’ once grand wall, he kept his goblet-hand locked and extended, so as not to spill the mixture. Were he one year younger, he would have engineered such a spill rather than avoid it. He would have run in quiet tears to his mother and claimed there was an accident on the road or an incident at the herbalist’s store. She would have consoled and lightly scolded him, then turned to her father for another loan to pay for the second dose. She would have gone herself the second time, to beg the storekeeper for another mixture at a reduced price so that her children would not be hungry while they mourned. All the shame, dishonesty, and poverty, he would have endured- if only it bought his father the time it took to deliver a second mixture.

But Lamprocles was thirteen years of age, and though not yet a man, he had begun to understand what it was that would make him so. Honor and Duty obligated him to guard the goblet with his life. He was more than willing to lay down his life- he had, in fact, planned to do so, to drink the hemlock himself … Continue Suffering

Aesthetic Self-destruction: Ugliness as Entropy and the Disruption of Order

If, as Socrates wished us to believe, Philosophy is a field of questions, then aesthetics must be the field which asks the question of art. Yet, any study of art leads inevitably to considering art as an exploratory form itself seeking answers, as itself a form of questioning. Perhaps then the concern of the aesthetic philosopher should not be “What is art?” but “What is art asking? What does it seek to explore?”. In the realm of the positive, the beautiful and the pleasing, these questions do not seem to diverge: art is that which is beautiful (or some other positive quality) and its intention is to explore that beauty. In the negative, however, in the manifestation of ugliness and the unappealing, we see art complete its exploration but find as answer something wholly disturbing or unacceptable. We know this unsightliness when we encounter it (a sudden aversion, a headshaking revulsion, a disgusted frown, a provocation to righteous anger- ugliness always manages to engender a response), but what exactly is this negative aesthetic answer? What is ugliness? Taking Ruth Lorand’s account as our guide (with supplements from Michael Carmichael and Frank Sibley) we will attempt to prove here that negative aesthetic reactions, generally, arise from a disruption of order and that ugliness, specifically, is the manifestation of chaos and its inevitable conquest of order (i.e. entropy).

Beginning, as Lorand does, with straightforward ugliness, we can identify the foundational role of disorder quite directly. Lorand equates beauty with order by telling us that already the concept “is implied by many aestheticians” when they say beautiful art is “constructed of parts… fitted to give pleasure and satisfaction” or that the object is “well organized [with] every element is in its right place,” but here we can conceive of order even more broadly (402). Order, taken without specificity, merely implies the existence of some system, some way for the presented elements to be organized. In this sense, both a philosophical theory and a city are orderly, while a dice roll or an explosion are not (or, at least, are less orderly). In essence, … Continue Suffering

Partiality As Life-Philosophy: Reconciling Morality with Life

First, a story. Not mine, Plato’s.

Socrates faces the end of his life. The Athenian jury condemned him to death months ago, the sacred rite during which executions are prohibited ended yesterday, and he has so many times refused to allow his friends to aid in an escape that they no longer bother him with it. But they still come. They come to do what Socrates has always taught them to do: question, postulate, discuss, question again, question again. Phaedo, Apollodorus, Simmias, and Cebes have come, even Crito has found a place to sit and rest his aged legs while he farewells his old friend. The guard, Ctesippus, must come soon, but in the many months of Socrates’ stay at the jail he has come to know Socrates well and wishes to delay his duty as long as possible.

Here at the precipice of his death, Socrates is visited by his family: Xanthippe his wife, Lamprocles his teenage son, and the two babies. Pheado, the teller of this tale, is pre-occupied with the philosophical dialogue at hand and so we do not know what Socrates said to his grieving wife and children. There was speculation (primarily from Xenophon) of much animosity within the family (specifically, that Xanthippe was a harsh mother and argumentative wife), but this is largely believed to be apocryphal (if she disliked him so much, why would she be with him on the eve of his death?). Nevertheless, Plato tells us that Socrates neither labored for money nor visited home very often, preferring the company of his students and the public marketplace- it is unlikely this state of affairs was very conducive to a healthy family atmosphere (especially in ancient Athens, where women could barely leave the house without their husbands). When Socrates returns to the dialogue, he tells his friends “I sent the women away, to avoid unseemliness, for I am told one should die in a good omened silence:” he did not want the grieving of his family to disrupt the discussion and respect of his death (Plato 117e).

If one has come to the … Continue Suffering