On theodicy

fully undeturned

I don’t usually post up poems I’m happy with and this is no different. The occasion seemed good though because I have a companion-piece in the form of some notes on Milton transcribed from a Paperblanks. The two bomblets might just make a blam.

i. m. John Milton

The magictrick we call the ‘full vole’, it enlists
the gluteal through the heart muscles to fold
disappearance and appearance tall in twists,
so you applaud yourself for managing to hold

in you the knowledge of what’s there; feel ashamed
for making it appear, and knowledge and magician disappear:

A magictrick they call the ‘full vole’, it persists
well into the year, or while a batch of cysts
millimetres each and Sundays old
disrupts results the radiologist sold:

‘Bad news and good.’ Persists; half in thanking named:
you for no difficult trick were taken volunteer.

(Not happy: I cannot get the ending right.)


You make a theodicy for comfort, on the assumption of discomfort. Theodicies by definition recognise that theodicies are impossible, and evil is unjustifiable.

Milton’s argument for God’s existence (in DDC) was that without him the world would be evil, therefore God exists! It’s only good if it was created with knowledge that all the evil that proves the creator’s existence would occur!

I want to say: ‘the problem of evil’ so theodicies take evil to disturb our faith. But we believe because of evil—to give it fatherly, orderly sanction, to bring it to the realms of law and logic, to reduce the cost of sadness; say of beareavement. The motion of belief is theodical, but theodicies are always theisms in disguise. (And always incomplete?) And the motion is finally circular: [are we looking for religion to assuage us or merely to justify itself, to reassert its self-consistency or to comfort? are they the same?] should a theodicy complete itself in a mind and justify evil as well as theism, and should evil then happen as it must, the justification is revealed as incomplete and must be rebuilt in a process that as much forgets evil as justifies it. [This is what Danielson would call ‘faculty psychology’. Not that we should trust Danielson.] (We may end up thanking the good God acquitted of evil for the fact the evil was not worse.) We need the process of theodicy because the perfect theodicy is impossible: theodicies only exist because they cannot exist. The irony of a making good of evil the determinant of whose manufacture (and relevance) is evil reflects that of a God created in part to explain and lenify evil, the terms of whose ‘presence’ inaugurate a need to justify evil, to explain and to lenify—as it were, stimulates theodical demand. Religion in the present in the world is never dogma (unless co-opted as the philosophy of an authority) but constitutes a dialectic between world and mind, chaos and reason, whereby faith waxes as the world is most conformable to mind, easiest for intuition to make sense of, and wanes when randomness irrupts, whence the mind retreats to itself to rerationalise and wait for emotions to pass and for things to mean-revert. Imagination watches itself vindicated and faith is sprucer for having survived, till the next test.

The trick, then, is the magic.

But I can’t say.

Julius Caesar: History, heterogeneity. (A satire of criticism, c. 2007)

Caesar inspired Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, a poem told by five voices, and throughout it is marked by heterogeneity of discourse important (I speculate) to represent in small the rich breadth of historical experience. History’s people were of course as diverse as today’s, but dramatic portrayal tends to shrink them as allegorical walnut, leeching individuality for compression’s sake. Thus, in obviation, Shakespeare heterogenises his characters’ language by subtle inflecting of syntax and lexis. To say so is nothing new, but my argument, in trying to differentiate itself from previous, should modify slightly the sense of ‘heterogeneity’. Shakespeare’s ‘heterogeneity’ is not just ‘variety’, not just ‘dissimilarity’. Shakespeare forges difference by recognition of sameness; in each heterogeneous discourse are incorporated elements of parity with others, so as greater to realise the truth of heterogeneity, which is that things differ in the ways they are the same. You could colloquially say this is like ‘sleeping with the enemy’. Once you’ve understood that sameness must be the bass note of difference, as dramatist you’re well on the way to characters vitally, rather than irritably (or indeed mechanically), heterogeneous. And vitality lasts.


And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?

And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way,
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?

Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.


Draw them to the Tiber banks, and weep your tears
Into the channel, till the lowest stream
Do kiss the most exalted shores of all.

They vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness.

These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch
Who else would soar above the view of men,
And keep us all in servile fearfulness.

These tribunes of the play’s first scene might be assumed twins in language, but such is Shakespeare’s historical sensitivity that he heterogenises even trivial roles, like a hendiadys. Their principal similarity is of political rhetoric—bombastic, grandstanding, rather theatrically redolent of apocalypse. But they differ here too. For where Flavius inflates his rhetoric with grandiose, fantastical imagery, Murellus is calmer measured, keeping to simpler, earthbound tropes; even when invoking god his language stays in realms of tangible consequence. We see the tribunes fall back on similar images of the river (Murellus’ Tiber trembles; Flavius’ floods) but, because they are not identical twins but friends, Shakespeare filters each image through a heterogeneous conception of mind: Flavius’ ‘exalted shores’ are kissed by streams, where Murellus’ ‘concave shores’ hear the replication of ‘an universal shout’. Flavius’ ‘tongue-tied’ quite histrionically, with rhetor’s hyperbole, ‘vanish’. ‘cull out’, a Murellian verb form, is wholly unhistrionic, like his soldierly ‘comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood’, describing Caesar, where Flavius swells, ‘Who else would soar above the views of men, / And keep us all in servile fearfulness.’ The most evocative word Murellus can think of to end on is ‘ingratitude’. I’d hazard ‘Let no images / Be hung with Caesar’s trophies’ is his philosophy—though spoken by Flavius, his heterogeneous counterpart. To end glibly myself, on a soundbite (as if there were better ways to end): Shakespeare’s heterogeneity of history is more mellow fruitfulness than season of mists.


Notes to Milton

‘The mind is a terrible master.’

If God is infinite where is evil but in God?
What is will if the choice is rigged?
Since before he’d created us he’d created us
he knew his creatures would freely choose to eat.
‘All-good’ by God’s standard of good?
He chose to set a test he knew we’d fail.
History to him is a static image:
results of a game whose rules you guess.
We should obey what our free will to determine
determines the scripture enjoins we obey.
You discuss God as though a person
by turns, by turns as impenetrable cloud;
by virtue, always, of election to interpret
a book where all is implicit.
You fatten on things you learn:
under trial of things you play in thoughts.

These actually originate in notes to Part V of Christopher Hill. The epigraph is Wallace, almost.


Occasional II

Behind the gleeclub-in-recording, on the pink lastness,
Wanes an unsudden moon,
A tramp not trying to shelter from sleet.



An April Fool a day late
wins cloture on the bill
against a global currency.

O they who might have yachtless tacked the foam,
O who might have retooled
without the dollar the boardroom chairs

consider Bachmann, who was once random and small as due.