Sunday, November 6, 2011

Aimless Reading: The P's, Part 20 (Blaise Pascal)

Pascal, Blaise

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

I remember once, on a visit home during college, after having studied Pascal in an Intro to Philosophy course, being struck by the thought that my mother had somewhere absorbed and believed in her own version of Pascal's "wager," which, I noted at the time, she had been trying to teach me since I first came home from church one Sunday and declared myself an atheist and therefore exempt from the torturous Sunday family ritual of attending mass at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Vienna, Virginia.

From the moment we woke each sunday, my parents would clean, brush, dress and cajole us with admonitions that if we were late we'd never be forgiven. Each Sunday included me getting dressed and coming downstairs, only to have my mother send me back to my room to change into something more appropriate. I would march back up to my bedroom and change one item of clothing, making sure to leave at least one part of me unkempt: a shirt untucked, a missing belt, a collar partly turned up, anything to maintain a modicum of freedom and autonomy.

Once suited up, we'd all go to church and sit as close to the front as possible on the hard-backed wooden pews. Throughout the service, both of my parents would correct our every movement. We were to stand up straight, hands at our sides. We were not to lean on the back of the pew before use. We were not to put our hands in our pockets. We were not to cross our arms (or our legs when sitting). When we knelt, we were not to rest our asses on the pew. We were to put the full weight of our bodies (and, I suppose, our shame) on our knees. We were to close our eyes when we prayed, so to have more intimate contact with God. Closing your eyes showed you were sincere. We were to say all the prayers and sing all the songs clearly and with feeling.

Most importantly, we were to believe that the communion wafer was actually the body of Christ and that the communion wine was actually his blood. This was not a metaphor, it was a true substantiation of the savior. We also had to go to CCD one night a week. And when I was old enough, I was forced to become an altar boy. They spared me Catholic school until high school, but I had no choice when the time came. Unfortunately for them, I chose the Jesuit school, which inculcated me with doubt and provided me with the aptitude to give that doubt a logically reasoned voice.

I remember telling my parents that I did not believe in God. My father, as was his habit, turned red and yelled at the top of his lungs, "What? What? Is that what we are paying those goddamn Jesuits five thousand dollars a year to teach you?" This was followed by a slap to the back of my head.

My mother took a different tack. Each time I repeated that I did not believe in God, she would say back to me, "Well, I'd rather wager that God exists than wager that he doesn't and be wrong." The implication being that you should hedge your bets, in case God does exist, lest you incur his wrath and be sent to hell. Sort of the opposite of Pascal's logic.

(I should note, so you get a clear view of my mother's theological universe, that a few years ago, after seeing the director's cut of The Exorcist, which struck me as a very interesting essay on the suppression of female sexuality, I told her that the thing that really struck about the film me was that...she interrupted me with what she thought was the end of my sentence, "That it could really happen!" Ah, dear mom.)

Which may or may not lead back to why I bought this book. About five or six years ago, the Criterion Collection released a box set of Eric Rohmer's "Moral Tales" on DVD. My favorite of the six films is My Night at Maud's, starring the great Jean-Louis Trintignant.

It's a testament to Rohmer's greatness that he could create a moving, beautiful film, about a bourgeois, anxious, uptight Catholic man struggling with guilt over his sexual desire, the main action of which involves extended conversations on the subject of Blaise Pascal.

It's one of my all-time favorite films. After having seen it, I went out and bought the Pensées, fully intending to read it again through the lens of Rohmer's crisp, black-and-white images.

Alas, I did not.

from Pensées

Part III, note 233
1. "God is, or He is not"
2. A Game is being played... where heads or tails will turn up.
3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
4. You must wager. It is not optional.
5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (...) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

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