*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Jesuits for Jews?

I am an atheist.  Keep that straight.  If I sound Catholic, that's cultural. The following is an idea for an 'alternate history'.

The notion is absurd, but imagine if the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church' saved the Jews of Europe?  Now just imagine if Pius XII had simply said all Catholics are required to treat Jews as brethren of Christ, ex cathedra (papal infallibility).  Not to resist, even unto martyrdom, with all means available the expropriations, deportations and worse would have been a mortal sin under Catholic dogma.  The Shoah could not have functioned anywhere but Northern Europe, maybe not even there.  Bastard wouldn't. Thinking about it makes me wish I believed in hell.

No, that's altogether too absurd, so imagine if the Jesuit Order had saved some Jews, clandestinely using the Church's assets and infrastructure.  Still a long shot.  Imagine if a splinter within the Jesuit Order did so.  Not such a long shot: Liberation Theology was exactly such a phenomena, so far as taking the Gospels as an ultimatum to act in the face of evil.  Why Jesuits?  What other order could have pulled off anything of the sort.  Jesuit loyalty to Rome?  Elite soldiers tend to be too smart not to have their own ideas.  Jesuitism trends to casuistry and orthopraxis, not orthodoxy: context and deeds speak louder than dogma and faith (a Jesuit would equivocate, 'not louder than dogma and faith, but they inform dogma and faith').  This is as close to the line of heresy as you can get within Catholicism, so it is not incidental to the fact that only the Jesuit order is well represented at Yad Vashem.  Jesuits acting clandestine to Rome and to the German State, even to their vows of loyalty to the order?  Plenty of precedent and Jesuit casuistry for that.  The Church, and within it the Jesuit Order, had the widest and most secure intelligence structure in Europe; perhaps still do.  There really wasn't another organization in Europe that could have taken this on.  Also note that the Danish nation very nearly achieved such heroism.

The story would require a hell of a lot of research into the time, the Order, and Augustinian and other philosophy.  What I need to do is to learn much more about the Jesuit Order, and the Jesuits involved with the Theology of Liberation.  The Order to write characters more believably, and to find the accurate motivations for mid-century priests of different nationalities, and also to accurately portray their methods of communication and hierarchy, as well as the learning both sacred and profane that would give them the determination and skills to succeed.  I'd be interested to see if any of the priests in the history of Liberation Theology were in Occupied Europe in the Thirties and Forties.  If yes, depending on their age, I can write them in as major or minor actors (fictionalized?) in the drama.

Don't know what I'll do for the Latin, as I nearly failed my one year of it...  They would not have used plain Latin as code, mind you, as mid-century not a few educated Europeans could still read it.  Something more obscure like a code based on Aramaic?  God help me.

The narration would start from a real Jesuit, ideally one with some connection to the Jewish community - apostate or friendship.  He'd have to read the Gospels as a social-revolutionary document (predating Liberation Theology, not incidentally a Jesuit movement) which it is still slightly heretical to do.  He'd have to be disgusted with Pius XII's equivocation (it's argued he saved fewer than a million Jews in various ways - including hiding them in Roman monasteries - but obviously did not go far enough for the other six million).

A Jesuit could fabricate an apparition: something like Fatima.  The content would be a message from God/Mary/Jesus about saving the Jews.  To fabricate this would be a mortal sin, but what is the meaning of one person's 'immortal soul' in the midst of hell?  Also allows a starting point for Jesuit 'ends justify the means' casuistry .  The Jesuit could also be something of a realist/modernist who sees the end of the Catholic Church as a certainty, so why not use its remaining influence for 'the Greater Glory of God'?  He could be consistent with his own faith, and be a believable character doing this.  He could also be an atheist himself, or struggling enough with his faith to be as good as.  Finally, why not 'Christlike', if he is not Christ himself?

So why fabricate an apparition?  It's the only way I can think to hijack Pius XII's papacy.  The content of an apparition is not considered dogmatic, thus it does not challenge the authority of the Church, but it is considered the word of God, so must be obeyed (usual sort of Kierkegaardian absurdity).  A challenge to the Jesuit Order's or Church's hierarchy would be summarily eliminated.  A Jesuit high enough to authorize a fabricated apparition would be above challenge, really.  Also, Catholic believers love that shit and would follow it.

The book wouldn't really be about the Holocaust, or even Judaism past or present, so I don't think it would be offensive.  It would be a narrative vehicle for all of the things that I am interested in: philosophy, ethics, casuistry, orthopraxis vs. orthodoxy; imagine if someone felt forced to actualize their own self-concept.


The idea here is a riff on 'Solaris', the book.  Yes, I have seen the Soderburgh movie, and if it were not a remake of a seminal Soviet movie, or of a far deeper Polish novel, it could have been judged as a decent movie on its own.  I saw it before I read the book, and I have not seen the Soviet movie yet.  I had heard of the Soviet movie before it was remade in Hollywood. It's very difficult to mine a new vein in science fiction, if not harder here than elsewhere.  The saw is that 'science fiction is about ideas', and because of that, or because so many of the early pulp works were novellas or shorter, there's a prodigious literature of ideas.  I may not be coming up with anything entirely new, but I hope I am not merely derivative.

Reduced, my story is an interstellar voyage tale, that includes the possible discovery of life.  Expended, it is about how a human, alone, reacts to something they cannot process in any way.  Much like 'Solaris', right?  There will be many differences in the technologies, which I will keep 'black-boxed' as much as possible, since they are not the point of the story.  There will be many differences in the state of the Earth and humanity left behind in the Terran solar system, and the purpose of the visit, which will be far more utilitarian than in 'Solaris'.  There will be differences in how the alieness of the planet's possible life is manifested.  The fundamental difference will be that the human reaction to alien life is recoil.

Why wouldn't it be? Doesn't it seem that the more alien the Terran environment, the more repulsive the way life manifests itself?  Disgust is an effective adaptation so that we do not try to eat insects that live in feces, among other dangers, and an adaptation that will not leave us.  Come up with your own examples, but it would have to be thus: we evolved in particular environments, that although varied are all relatively similar: no ocean sulphur vents, mammalian colons or guano deposits.  If those are so alien to us, on this planet, how much more alien will alien life be?  This field has been mined, but to different purposes: in the book and Soviet movie of 'Solaris' to illustrate how impossible communication would be, and other alienating effects on the human psyche; and in Star Trek to do a pastiche of the communication issues only.  I just don't think that would be the primary problem.

We'll never discover alien life, unless alien life is so widely seeded that we can find it soon in our own solar system.  Soon, because our time looks suicidically limited.  Nearby, because the physics just don't support inter-stellar travel for humans, or for our technology.  I can imagine we will, because that's the prerogative of writing science fiction.  Science fiction has always been about present humans.  I will not indulge meeting intelligent life, because there's too long a string of infinitesimal chances that would get one of us to an alien planet with life on it that I won't throw two more infinitesimal chances on that such life is recognizably intelligent, and concurrent with our species.

The details of the human inter-stellar technology do not matter, except that apart from the miracle of such travel at all, I'm not going to add many more: and there will be no spirituality or voodoo.  The observable universe is plenty interesting enough that we don't need to use our tiny human imaginations to fill in the gaps we are too lazy to properly investigate.*  The technology will limit the freedom of the protagonist in many ways.  It will take an eon to get there, so most of it will be spent in suspended-animation.  Two-way communication with Earth will not exist, for the same reason.  The primary mission will be to send a message to Earth, with no way of knowing if any humans will receive it, or be able to use it, because the gap from departure from Earth, to his message reaching Earth from the other planet, will take anything from a century to a millenia.  He'll be alone, because that far reduces the payload, the fuel and the mission-complications of ship-borne society, and allows the organization that sent him to put one egg in each of many baskets, since it's such a faint-hope proposition to look for another human-inhabitable planet.

This creates unique problems for the mission.
How do you communicate to an Earth a millenia older than the one you left?
- Your message is reduced to a 'bother to come', or no message if 'don't bother to come'.  You send a repeating signal.  That, not the content, is what makes the signal known.  The simple way to make it a human-to-human message is not just to use primes, which another intelligence might, but to do something like prime-plus-one**, as it is imaginable for a human organization to remember to look for that signal a millenia later.
- The probe cannot be large enough to send a signal to Earth for any duration, and remain small enough to overcome the physics of near-to-light travel.  You have to use the materials of the target system, without making that system uninhabitable for the found life, or the humans who would come later.  Some easy way to lens some of the star's light or radio waves?
- Though humanity may/not have spread from Earth, the only known common stellar reference point for humans is Earth.  No matter its condition, that's where you have to send the signal.
- The pilot/probe would have to be cybernetic.  Humans decay too quickly and require far too much life-support.  AI will never be up to the task.  There are ethical issues subdued by a combination of volunteerism and terminal-condition (non-neural).
- The probe sends smaller probes to different parts of the planet, but remains in orbit for practical purposes as well as to avoid contaminating the planet with Terran biology.

This creates unique psychological issues for the pilot.
Won't he go mad?  He is alone, and no longer has most of his physical body.
- Ultimately, yes.
- Mission designers and astronauts are as arrogant as any humans, and will plan many ways around this. They will ultimately fail.
- The main way to keep him sane, and I know this is in 'The Matrix', is to create a virtual-reality environment to retreat into when needed.  This will be normal for all humans when he is sent, since the Terran natural environment will be long gone.
- As he is cybernetic, he can choose also to be virtually present in the vantage point of the orbiting mother-probe, as well as the planetary-landers.
- There is an interesting conflict with making it possible for him to commit suicide, or not: ethically, and from a mission-centred point of view.
- Xenobiology will prove to have been an exercise with no more validity than a Borgesian fiction.

However, the overview of the story is that you cannot expect you know what you will find, when you explore, and that the universe not only doesn't suit human purposes, but has none.  Human purposes are entirely tied to the environment in which humanity evolved, which once gone, removes all meaning from continued existence.

*That should be a motto.
**I think I prefer Fibonacci numbers.

'Suck it up!' Fairy Tales

We lie to our children.  We deceive them with morality tales to make them behave conveniently for their supervision.  I've come to see that the morality tales I swallowed, including the Gospels, left me unsuited for living among the humans, few of whom are as scrupulous. Why should I leave my son so poorly prepared?  Why not write a set of stories about who really prospers, the `psychopath in the corner office', the kid born to wealth and connections, or the heartless arriviste, rather than anyone with empathy?  My cynicism shouldn't turn him into a sociopath, but even if it should, I'm just setting him up to succeed!

A fine template for a book of short stories, or a picture book.  Whether the characters are animals, a la Aesop, or some other archetype, I can assign a simple characteristic to each `winner' and `loser'. I just need to avoid giving all of the `good' losers an obvious shared physical characteristic, and so with the `bad' winners: glasses, or their lack, in `Crimes and Misdemeanors'.

A Dovecote

It helps to know what a 'dovecote' was:
They generally contain pigeonholes for the birds to nest.  Pigeons and doves were an important food source historically in Western Europe and were kept for their eggs, flesh, and dung.
It struck me that the modern condominium is nothing less than a dovecote for humans: a structure designed to take as many resources from the occupants as possible, without them becoming aware enough to flee.  All depreciate as they age, never mind that this is the end of the condominium bubble in Toronto, and even if it is not (despite condominiums costing what houses with land do), all bubbles eventually burst.  All condos have fees that include costs for future renovations, which are never made enough by the developer so as not to hurt sales, and need to be raised drastically after each decade as the building gets frayed, making them even less attractive to a buyer.

Having rented in one, it also struck me that there were many classes of occupants: owner/occupiers single, married or with children, starting a family or downsizing, gay, straight or other; local renting students one to a bedroom, or foreign several to a room; the requisite subsidized units filled with single mothers, religious families not using birth-control, and patients no longer under the care of the state for their mental/addiction issues; the foreign wealthy putting their wives and children out of the reach of The Party, should their house of cards fall.  It's a rich vein to mine.  It reminds me of Balzac's 'Comédie humaine'.*

How convenient to take on the vast project of a social overview of Toronto, standing in for any Anglophone city, all under one roof. How much more plausible to have the occupant interact with each other, no matter the gender, sexuality or marriage status, race, language, religion or class, because outside of living in the same building people of all of these origins avoid interacting in a city like Toronto, despite its vaunted 'diversity'.  Too easy to make people archetypes, or stereotypes, so I am thinking that the way out is to make each character's virtues stereotypical, and vices particular.

I'll also be able to indulge my hate-on for Toronto, which I only got from living there!  How soulless a city, how skinflint its inhabitants with the public-realm, unimaginative politically, alienated from anything but their workplace and how they conspicuously consume...  I fucking hate that city, and I have to go back.  Even the winters are uniquely useless, not just because they are cold, but they are not consistent enough to keep skiing snow or outdoor rinks, and there's no elevation worth the skiing besides!  You cannot get anywhere by transit, the driving is gridlocked and the cycling made dangerous by twats who think cyclists cause gridlock.  I have lost the plot.

As I do not have an entire life to give to it, short stories is the way, maybe very short stories of not more than ten pages, but that creates its own challenges.  I'd need to plot-out the characters, what each represents, and how I will make each characterization challenge the reader, because that is the point, isn't it?  A reader is either intelligent enough to require the author challenges his presumptions, or so stupid that it is a public service to do so.  I'd have to plan each character's interaction with several, though not all, other characters so that they are all connected by a given limited 'degrees of separation'.  I already have a very particular individual I've met who I need to characterize in a manner of 'plausible deniability': about the most odious I have met - works for a PR firm, or did when they covered the ass of a criminal member of Canada's establishment.

*Sure I have only read 'Le Père Goriot', but it supplied me with one of my favourite quotations: "At the origin of every great fortune lies a crime."  I should learn what that was in French...  "Derrière chaque grande fortune se cache un crime": I love the Internet!