Earthquake Weather Book Review

Dionysus would rather you had a drink

Dionysus would rather you had a drink

Earthquake Weather
by Tim Powers
Orb Books 2007
$15.95; 414 pages
ISBN 0765318229

Earthquake Weather is Tim Powers' third book in the Fault Lines trilogy. Powers wraps up all the weirdness of the first two into something even stranger than either. In much the same way Last Call and Expiration Date were about the Fisher King and the sad not-quite-life of ghosts, Earthquake Weather is about a desperate quest to appease Dionysus, god of wine and death.

Also, much like Last Call and Expiration Date, this is also a novel about mental illness, and the indignities and injustice of our attempts to treat the most serious cases, in the mold of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Janis Cordelia Plumtree, sufferer of multiple personality disorder, and unwilling ward of the state of California, personifies the mostly invisible struggles of everyone whose mind is broken in some serious way. 

Multiple personality disorder is no longer considered a serious diagnosis, a fact noted by Angelica Sullivan in the book, but with magical means Powers is able to make it more real than the real world. Plumtree doesn't just have different personalities, she has different people inhabiting her body on a daily basis. Janis tries to keep a bottle of mouthwash handy, because she finds it disturbing that someone else's spit is in her mouth. In this case, that is a totally reasonable thing to do, and the oddly specific nature of this complaint makes me wonder if Powers stumbled on this example in his research for the book.

Janis and the exceptionally ill-fated Sid Cochran meet up with all of the characters from Last Call and Expiration Date to complete the quest for Dionysus. What follows is typical Powers, and I won't explore the plot here, because I think the grand concept of the whole trilogy is more interesting, and also more subtle. The first time I read this book, I found it both strangely disturbing, and a little ho-hum. As Powers' books go, the plot doesn't seem as tightly wound, and the large ensemble cast from the previous two books can be hard to keep track of. That explains the ho-hum feeling.

It is the disturbing part that I only recently figured out. I find the quest to win the favor of the god Dionysus horrifying, because the boons he offers seem to be worse than enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. For example, the pagadebiti, Dionysus' wine of forgiveness and a central feature of both the backstory and the quest, exacts a steep price: you must surrender to Dionysus every memory and emotion you have regarding he person involved. For Sid Cochran, his role in the quest is to offer up his beloved and freshly dead wife Nina [who it turns out was really married to Dionysus using Sid as a proxy] and their unborn child to Dionysus as a peace offering or gesture of goodwill.

This strikes me as very odd, but I didn't realize why until the third time through the book. The key bit in that realization was a story told about St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. St. Margaret started having visions of Christ. In a prudent move, he approached her confessor and told him about them. The confessor, a stolid sort who knew that most reports of visions were just fantasies or hallucinations, asked her to query Christ in her visions and report back to him. St. Margaret dutifully did so, and the confessor was surprised to find his questions had been answered accurately. At this point, he got suspicious, since Catholics take Satanic temptation seriously. He asked St. Margaret to ask Christ what sins he had confessed last week.

By Turgis - Turgis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45719762

By Turgis - Turgis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45719762

St. Margaret reported back: "He told me he did not know. He said he had forgotten." The priest was dumbfounded by this, because he had expected to have his sins thrown back in his face. What he got instead, was mercy. The sacrament of reconciliation, popularly known as confession, only asks for honesty and penitence. The only forgetting that happens is apparently on God's part, as mysterious as that sounds. I used to think that it was a burden to remember all the sins you have been forgiven, but Powers showed me that it is not.

What I think Powers has done with Earthquake Weather is to write a negative theodicy. A complaint often advanced against theism in general, and Christianity in particular, is that a just god could not allow for so much unjust suffering in the world. If God were truly good, and truly all powerful, then it would be simple to alleviate the cries of the poor, for example. 

 

Using myth, Powers has written for us the world that would result from the attentions of a god that is good, after a fashion, but willing to force his intentions onto people to guarantee results. By the end of Earthquake Weather, nearly every character has been found to be the pawn of Dionysus in some fashion. Even Sherman Oaks, the villain of Expiration Date, is in his service. I also realized that Dionysus is so terrible because he is so just. Everyone gets what they deserve. Precisely.

If you've lived in Christendom your whole life, you probably don't expect this. Neil Gaiman's books helped me realize that people playing at paganism in the United States and Europe are almost always just lapsed Christians. These, and the internet atheists, are the quarters from which complaints about God's goodness usually come. As Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man, they haven't actually managed to get far enough away from Christianity to judge it accurately.

In his way, I think Powers is trying to help.

 

My other book reviews

The Long View: Name the Present, Name the Future

Integrated rococo carving, stucco and fresco at  Zwiefalten

Integrated rococo carving, stucco and fresco at Zwiefalten

The identification of the present with nominalism ascendant is plausible, especially if you combine that with its handmaiden antinomianism.


Name the Present, Name the Future

 

The term "postmodern" is an unsatisfactory way to refer to the last few decades of the 20th century. (The era itself was not altogether satisfactory, either, though not for that reason.) Postmodern is a definition-by-negation, which is rarely a good idea: consider the sad example of those atheists who devote their lives to combating their nonexistent god. Moreover, there never really was much evidence that the period was moving beyond the modern era in any serious sense. In both its popular and elite forms, the "postmodern" spirit is largely a matter of living off the achievements of the modern age by making fun of them. Postmodernity is just modernity's late phase, rather like the rococo is to the baroque.

But then, what of the term "modern" itself? Strictly speaking, any era can (and does) call itself modern. When we speak of modernity, we usually have something more specific than "the present" in mind. Even so, the term is elastic. Modernity can mean the 20th century after the First World War, or the 19th and 20th centuries, or everything after Columbus. The macrohistorian William McNeill once plausibly suggested that the modern world system actually began in 11th-century China.

It makes most sense, I think, to consider that our modern world began with the French Revolution. The era is an episode within the Enlightenment, some of whose possibilities it realized and some of which it has forever precluded. Modernity has had a great deal in common with the Hellenistic Age of the Classical West and with the Warring States period in ancient China. It is a good bet that, like those epochs, it will last rather less than three centuries. Probably some watershed like 1789 lies in the 21st century, more likely in its second half than in its first. On the other side of it, history flows in another direction.

The future will look after its own nomenclature, but I for one find it hard to resist speculation about how the future will characterize our modernity. Even if we entertain the notion that there have been analogous periods in the past, still every such era must also be unique. "Warring States" would not be appropriate for the modern West, for instance, since the era has not been one of continual warfare, but of unusually long periods of tranquillity, punctuated by apocalyptic explosions. Herman Hesse made a better suggestion in "The Glass Bead Game," where modernity is seen from the future as the "Age of Feuilletons." That is just strange enough to happen.

Certainly the name would have to evoke the tendency toward analysis and reduction that has characterized the West these last two centuries. The great movements in intellectual life, from philosophy to economics, have been toward atomization, even as sovereign states multiplied in accordance with the principle that every little language must have its own country. The modern era is really the Age of Nominalism. As for its postmodern coda, these decades are simply the stage when nominalism achieved its natural culmination in solipsism, of language speaking itself.

This brings us to the age to come. There is ample precedent for naming undiscovered countries. "Brazil" and "Australia," for example, were appearing on maps before the territories were discovered to which those names finally stuck. ("Brazil" was a Celtic paradise, and "Australia" was the generic name for a southern continent.) In naming the future, it seems fitting to proceed with a little help from Hegel. Historical epochs really do tend to react against the excesses of their predecessors, though that is never all that they do. If the Age of Nominalism is the thesis, then any medievalist can tell you that the obvious antithesis will be an Age of Realism.

Maybe already we see the advancing shadows of a future that is more interested in synthesis than in analysis. These adumbrations take various forms, from the proposals for a "final theory" of physics to the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress toward world government. Perhaps we see a hint of the mind of the future in E. O. Wilson's ambitious, metaphysically naive, notion of "consilience," a universal structure of knowledge that would have a sociobiological backbone. More ambitious and not at all naive is the project outlined in John Paul II's "Fides et Ratio," which looks toward a harmonization of our understanding of all levels of reality, something not seen since the Thomistic synthesis. None of these projects is likely to have quite the results their proponents have in mind, but they may tell us something about the cultural climate of 2100.

 

End

 

An edited version of this piece appeared the symposium, "What Can We Reasonably Expect?" (First Things, January 2000)

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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The Last Superstition Book Review

This book review was accidentally taken down in a site update. This is the most popular book review I have ever written, so it seems worthwhile to revisit. I've long been a fan of Ed Feser, and I recommend his work. The tone of The Last Superstition has been offputting to some, but Feser knew what he was doing. If you think Feser is bad, you should read the things his critics have said about him. At least Feser feels the need to prove his assertions. If that isn't your cup of tea, he has written plenty of books with a more academic tone. Philosophy of Mind is well done. I haven't yet read Aquinas, but I managed to acquire two copies already.


The Last Superstition
by Edward Feser
ISBN 978-1587314520; $19.00

Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a polemical work. However, this should not be surprising for two reasons. First, Feser is dealing with amounts to not mere nonsense, but nonsense on stilts. Second, Feser once wrote an essay entitled, "Can Philosophy be Polemical?", pondering whether it is appropriate to engage in polemical debate over philosophical questions. In this book, Feser answers that question in the affirmative. He freely admits in the preface, "If this seems to be an angry book, that is because it is." (TLS, x) Feser regards the creed of the New Atheists as dangerous both personally and socially, and his response is écrasez l'infâme.

The Last Superstition is the book I had been wanting, not because it is a tract against the New Atheism, but because it summarizes the best arguments for an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics in the face of modern objections. This metaphysics is presented as it developed historically, beginning with the pre-Socratics, on through Plato and Aristotle, to its full flowering among the Scholastics. Feser covers change, actuality and potency, form and matter, the four causes, arguments for the existence of God, and the rational foundations of morality.

By succinctly providing this history, Feser is providing a service to all those who have forgotten, or never truly knew what are the main features of an Aristotelian philosophy. For Feser's most damning criticism of Richard Dawkins et al. is that they have simply not bothered to do their homework. By not collecting the relevant data, they have sinned against the spirit of the science in whose name they crusade. To publish a scientific paper without any evidence would be scandalous, but is precisely the case that Feser makes against them. None of the New Atheists demonstrates any familiarity with the actual arguments of historical theist philosophers except for Rev. William Paley, who functions as a convenient whipping boy.

By way of example, Feser quotes the admission of philosopher Antony Flew in 2004 that he now believes in the existence of God despite a lifetime of argument to the contrary. Flew admitted that he had never actually considered the Aristotelian arguments for the existence of God, and was forced to admit their cogency upon doing so. Those whom Feser targets in The Last Superstition have not yet bothered to consult the texts. Feser documents this amply through quotations from the New Atheists' works.

The weakest part of Feser's argument is in the section on natural law. The difficulty is not that the best contemporary formulation is not presented. The difficulty is that contemporary natural law arguments use human, homo sapiens, and person univocally. These are not just different things, they are different kinds of things. To use the Scholastic terminology, each belongs to a different genus. However, this failure leaves Feser's main argument untouched, because Aristotle and Aquinas were alike able to discern rational foundations for morality without the benefit of a modern doctrine of natural rights that makes use of equivocal terms.

Feser's references are very good, providing further information for the many points which could be elaborated upon. Covering as much ground as this book does would be impossible without considering a great many complicated and subtle topics briefly. However, this is not to say that Feser does not adequately address his topic. He makes short work of the New Atheists due to the poverty of their arguments, and then briefly presents arguments that modernity is more comprehensible if one considers modern problems in light of broadly Aristotelian philosophy. In particular, many of the perennial questions of modern philosophy, such as the mind-body problem or the validity of inductive reasoning become explainable with Aristotle's more robust account of causation. Feser's task is made easier here by the latent Aristotelianism lurking in every corner of Western Civilization. We do not notice our debt to Aristotle for the same reason that fish do not feel wet.

Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is a worthy introduction to the realist philosophical tradition, and is enlivened by Feser's sharp wit. Good for anyone who would like to know more about Aristotelian philosophy.