Good Morning, November 17, 2016

So, consistent with my intention of writing something off-the-cuff each day, here goes. 🙂

It’s amazing how much work is involved in doing the simplest thing in an older house. In the upstairs there are some recessed fluorescent fixtures which look like they date from the 1950s when our house was built (I just looked it up; fluorescent lights were commercialized in the 1920s) and the ballasts are probably original. (If you don’t know, fluorescent lights work by passing electricity through an inert gas which excites mercury vapor to emit UV light which gets absorbed by a coating on the glass which then fluoresces in the visible spectrum. The problem is that as the gas becomes progressively ionized it becomes a better conductor, so on its own it would behave like a short-circuit and blow your circuit breaker in moments. The ballast prevents this by limiting the current to the maximum operating current.) Anyway, the lights have been deteriorating, and recently stopped working altogether. I had taken one out in order to blow some insulation into the attic, and so I finally replaced it.

Or rather, modified then replaced it. I had ordered some LED tube replacements which fit in place of the old fluorescent tubes but require the fixture to be rewired so the bulbs are directly wired to the house current, bypassing the ballast. That was the easy part. Unfortunately some previous owner of the house had taken the light fixture out before, and the old metal-clad electrical wiring only just stretched to the box; so instead of taking the trouble to put it back in, they just spliced in some NM cable (NM stands for non-metalic, it’s the plastic-jacketed wiring that one is used to seeing in new residential construction) and left the splice open above the ceiling. This violates the national fire code rather badly in two ways:

  1. Junctions between electrical wires should always be in electrical boxes (there are a few exceptions for special devices which are not relevant here).
  2. Those electrical boxes should always be accessible without having to rip out drywall. Decorative covers are fine, but it is not OK to bury a junction box in a wall. (Again, there are a few devices approved for that sort of thing, but it’s not relevant here.)

So I did go to the trouble to actually pulling the metal-clad original wiring back into the box. Given that the light fixture was essentially wedged between two joists and a tight fit with the plaster, this wasn’t easy, and moreover it would have been great to have an extra arm or two, but eventually with a fair amount of sweat and dirt falling on my head, it was in, and wired correctly. It’s nice having light in the upstairs hallway again. I can recommend those LED replacement bulbs, by the way, if you have any 2 foot fluorescent fixtures to replace. There aren’t many options that I can find, so I’m very glad of that. By contrast if you want to replace 4ft bulbs, there are tons of options, including ones stocked at local home improvement stores.

I also had an interesting conversation recently with a friend about a youtuber’s commentary on a Star Trek episode, and how this commentary seemed very at odds with the person’s often aggressively-taken political stance. Using fiction as escapism is a very common thing, but I think we mostly think of it as escaping the details of life. Whether it’s the stress of too little money or too much work or boredom or problems in a relationship or whatever, these are all specifics that one wants to escape from. But I think that there are also people who use fiction to escape from the hideous consequences of their philosophies of life. For example, I suspect that most Materialists suspend their disbelief in free will and read fiction as if the choices the characters made are real choices, and are not pre-determined by the initial configuration of the matter which makes up them and their environment. This is somewhat analogous to what Chesterton said in Orthodoxy about how poetry nearly saved Cowper:

Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

(For those not familiar with Chesterton, he is only arguing in favor of mysticism in its proper relation to reason; he is not denigrating reason. In fact he wrote a biography of Saint Thomas Aquinas which was very high praise of perhaps the most reasonable man who ever lived, and Chesterton very specifically praised Saint Thomas’s use of reason.) There is a great deal of pseudo-intellectualism in our day, which I think accounts for the popularity of reductionist philosophies. Materialism reduces everything to matter, Marxism reduces everything to economics and class conflict, Freudianism reduces everything to sexual instincts, and so on. (These are not perhaps the most popular forms of reductionism today, at least in name, but the modern forms are mostly just variants of these older forms.) The basic pattern of reductionism is simple: it’s hard to understand the world, and it’s much easier to understand the world if we shrink the world down to one idea. Why people want to understand what is obviously just a phantasm in their head inspired by the real world, I cannot say, but I think it’s related to so many people going through so much schooling where fairly ordinary people are told that they’re very smart. Trying to make sense of being very smart but the world not being very intelligible results, I think, in solving the cognitive dissonance by shrinking the world. I suspect this is done not so much because people want to think well of themselves, but because they want to think well of the authorities in their lives, and those authorities can only be thought well of if they themselves are as smart as they’ve been told. So far from hubris, I think it’s a very mis-placed humility; at its heart is trusting the world far more than it should be trusted. When Socrates was told that he was the wisest man, his conclusion was that it was because he knew his limits. It’s a good lesson for all of us, though Socrates lived in the wrong time and place to benefit from God’s self-revelation to us.

Anyway, I think that many people who are trapped in these reductionist systems feel the strain of being a human being living in a box that isn’t big enough for a worm, and they are desperate for some relief. And this is a role that fiction plays for them. It lets them, for a time, escape the cramped universe they’ve been stuffed into. Pray for them.

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