Monday, January 13, 2020

The Poetry of Broken Sentences

OK, I’ve seen some movies written by David Mamet, but I had never read one of his plays. Were the films I saw full of the interruptions, fragments, and grammatical solecisms of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow? There may not have been a single complete sentence in either play.

The characters in these dramas are as shattered as their grammar; they certainly talk in the manner of people who want to make sense of life and pronounce principles without having been disciplined to read, think, and listen coherently. But does this diminished argot really make for better art than iambic pentameter does? I didn’t like Glengarry Glen Ross. I felt sorry for the dejected realtors trying to separate fools from their money by joining them to specious plots in Florida. But Death of a Salesman it was not, and so the steady flow of linguistic shards got tedious.

By the end of Speed-the-Plow, on the other hand, I found the bumpy cadence of the lines contributing integrally to a moving, pathetic portrait. Here, it’s movie producers, working in a medium that conveys meaning but constrained to create a work that a mass public will pay to see. Two of the three characters find themselves confronted with the opportunity to make a movie with a message that has a hope of changing viewers for the better, but they each alloy their altruism in various ways enough to disillusion each other, and crass commercialism wins out in the end. And yet at least now they know that commercialism is crass and that there’s a contest. In my mind, the realization moves them from being two-dimensional machines into being fully rounded tragic figures.

 In the same week, I read Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough from 1798, having planned it thinking it had some connection with Mamet’s play. Apparently it has none except mutual inspiration from an old saying about God’s eagerness to bless industry. In Morton’s play, everyone works hard to keep secrets, marry the right person, and end up with some money: all the requirements of a good farce. And for good measure, there’s a literal plowing race.

 I much preferred this classical comedy to Mamet’s biting cynicism. Maybe I just don’t want my art imitating life too closely right now. A death and a will have a way of bringing out the worst in people, and I need some happy endings.

A happy post-script: I just found out that today, the first Monday after Twelfth Day of Christmas, is traditionally known as Plough Monday. Well, let’s all get to work!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Book Awards -- 2019

The good old Earth has spun around the good old Sun once more, and so again it’s time for me to present my awards for some good old books.

President of the Awards Academy: Charles Dickens
In 2019, I read one of my favorite Dickens novels, Dombey and Son; and one of my least favorite, Barnaby Rudge. I read A Christmas Carol about two-and-a-half times in preparation for a series of adult Sunday School classes I taught this last month. And I revisited Cricket on the Hearth for the first time in over thirty years. Dickens is so especially good that even some passages of Barnaby were better than anything I read by anyone else this year. Fortunately, the Great Man took himself out of the running for these awards so others would have a chance.

Most Confusing Reread: Charles Williams, Descent into Hell
Ten years ago, I wrote to myself that this book was like a firehose of stew: most of it went down my neck not understood, but what landed in my mouth was hearty and nutritious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Charles Williams, including the fact that his friend and champion, C. S. Lewis, thought that his figures were sometimes so individual, so impossible for the reader to unravel, as to risk being literary mistakes. So I may have swallowed more this time around, but the vegetables and sauce left on my neck just felt like a mess!

Best History: Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty
Every chapter of this history of the United States from the end of the Revolution until 1815 was full of surprising nuance. The most interesting point, made in the last chapter and led to by a thread that started on the first page, stated that neither Jefferson nor Hamilton, the two rivals on Washington’s cabinet, holding two rival agendas for the country, got their way in the end. Hamilton’s vision of entrepreneurs borrowing from banks and inventing new manufactures to trade internally certainly became more of a reality than Jefferson’s nation of agrarian gentlemen. But the people who created these businesses were not the educated elite Hamilton foresaw but common, middle-class citizens – sometimes even the farmers that Jefferson so loved. I also know that if you write to Gordon Wood with praise for his book, he’ll write back to you!

Best Pseudo-History: Ferdowsi, Shahnameh
When I read the first half of this book around ten years ago, I loved the legends. But within pages of starting the second half last January, the legendary heroes gave way, and the living legend, Alexander, came on to the scene. From then on, there were far fewer magical feats and, the editor assures me, more of something that approximates what archeology can corroborate. No more women with bodies like cedars that touch the star Canopus, but I still loved reading the ancient stories from an area we all need to understand more.

Best Short Story: Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Lantern Bearers”
OK, it may have been the only short story I read this year. But I thought about it often and found encouragement in its brilliant image.

Best Theology: Richard Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity
Hooker argues for a Church that recognizes difference of opinion without giving up central beliefs such as those in the Nicene Creed, and he does it all without calling his enemies childish, stubborn, or traitorous. It is such a welcome relief to find that Christians can be Christian.

Best Mystery: Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise
Except that Harriet and Bunter don't appear, this is the perfect Peter Wimsey mystery! First, the book lacks the mistakes of the Wimsey novels written just before it. No onslaught of times. No onslaught of essential information in chapter 1. The hidden information is there and doesn't need to be recalled in detail in order to understand the solution. But the novel has plenty of positive virtues, as well. Peter's athletic prowess and sense of fun comes out more than ever. Dialogs between people of various classes and professions are full of interesting detail. And the book is replete with philosophical ruminations about the ethics of marketing. Is advertising, as Jack Gilbert said of poetry, a kind of lying, necessarily?

Best Longfellow Poem: Longfellow, “The Ladder of St. Augustine”
I wrote earlier this year about “The Bridge of Cloud.” But today, partly to mention something new, and partly because my year has been filled with such stress (a year that ends tonight!), I’ll give the award to “The Ladder.” (Longfellow can be upset if he wants to, but he still gets the statuette.)
            [Do not] deem the irrevocable Past
                  As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
            If, rising on its wrecks, at last
                  To something nobler we attain.

A lot happened this year, and I barely finished my reading list for 2019. There wasn’t even time to blog about anything in September, October, and November. But now the awards are handed out, and tomorrow, once the after-ceremony parties are over (Dorothy Sayers’s is usually pretty good), I’ll get started on a New Year of reading and a New Year of blogging. I hope your New Year is full of some good old books!

Saturday, August 31, 2019


A little change can sometimes make a huge difference. Jon Meacham’s histories, by including even short examinations of the religious beliefs of their main characters, end up feeling completely different from most other histories on the same subjects. Recently he wrote a book called The Soul of America. Using the word soul in a title is an unusual choice, one that indicates an acknowledgement of a transcendent world of value and even perhaps a scale of righteousness. It’s not that Meacham wants to pronounce judgment on his subjects as good or bad servants of God, but that recognizing his subjects’ desire to be good servants of God allows him entry into new realms of evaluation.

Take Andrew Jackson, for instance. In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House Meacham concludes by suggesting that the slave quarters still standing on the Hermitage grounds serve to remind us that “evil can appear perfectly normal to even the best men and women of a given time.” The point, while implicitly calling Jackson one of the best men of his time, recognizes that he did great evil. In an earlier chapter, he says, “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson's Indian policy.” Meacham doesn’t ultimately have to say that Jackson was either a good Christian or a bad Christian or, heaven forbid, not a Christian. He tells us the seventh President was a man who did great good for our country, imposed and perpetuated great evil on our country, and did many history-changing things the value of which we can debate about (letting the Bank die, for example).

One biography may try to convince the reader that its subject is worthy of emulation and eternal honor. Another biography may aim to debunk a commonly held favorable view of its subject. Yet another may attempt a dispassionate, nonjudgmental presentation of facts, telling the reader, “Your world is different because of the events outlined in these pages. You decide whether you like the changes.” But Meacham pronounces clear judgment on the deeds of Jackson while leaving the unitary judgment of the man to the Lord. You may think Jackson is a good guy, Meacham tells us, but he once shot a man in the street because he didn’t like his brother. You may think he was a bad guy, but he fought the Nullifiers and kept the Union together. Meacham undermines all simple judgments and leaves me fascinated by a man who is neither black nor white nor gray but a chessboard of deep black and bright white.

Speaking of shooting someone in the street, it’s amazing how Donald Trump has made every Presidential biography obliquely about himself. Of course, Trump himself has drawn this particular parallel, perhaps thinking that he is like Jackson in being a populist. (I don’t have to decide whether Trump really is a populist or even understands populism.) But does Trump know that Jackson did shoot a man in the street and got away with it? Does he know that Jackson had a young couple from his family working at the top levels of government (a nephew and his wife, in Jackson’s case)? When Jackson deals with nonwhite races, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson deals with fiscal policy, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson develops a party machine that congeals loyalty to himself, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson fights with South Carolina over a tariff, I have to think of Trump. Sometimes Old Hickory is surprisingly like our current President, but sometimes he is very different. The contrast that moved me the most in our time of polarized political thought was Jackson’s persistent view that America (OK, white America) was one and that the different factions would have to compromise in order to preserve the protection and open trade of a unified nation.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

War and Fate

As I did last year, once more I’ve found myself behind on blogging. Only this year, I’ve fallen behind on reading as well. There’s some bad (death in the family) and some good (moving to a beautiful new house) in the cause of it, but still I’m behind. It’s actually December as I write, although I’m dating the post in July (because I want to talk about a couple of books I read in July), and I’ve had to double or even triple up my reading some days in the last few weeks in order to get my list for the year finished. And then that extra reading kept me from keeping up with the blog. But how can I not say something about Tolstoy?

If a million men had not wanted to march across Europe toward Russia, says the philosophical author (loosely), Napoleon could not have made them do it. Great leaders do not shape history, or else the exception would be the law. (Napoleon wasn’t all that great anyway, the Russian patriot assures us.) And yet, we find in a deeper layer of the mystery, the varied wishes of the individual soldiers don’t have any causative effect, either. They only appear to each person the reasons for the great army’s migration. Of course you can choose to raise your arm or to think through a mathematical proof, but as soon as your will comes into contact with the will of another person, you are no longer free. You don’t decide to go. Napoleon doesn’t decide to go. Why do you go to Russia? Because it is inevitable.

Now sometimes Tolstoy seems to say that “the inevitable” is an impersonal fate, and sometimes he seems to say it is the will of God. I think he ultimately thought God directed the events, although, as Tolstoy’s fellow countryman famously asked, who would want to think that God directed the torture of a young girl? On the other hand, a brighter side of Tolstoy’s coin says that if we understood how little freedom that annoying fellow in the office had, we would more readily forgive him. But then, I want to ask, am I free to forgive the other guy if he isn’t free to stop harassing me? What good would understanding him do? Determinism is so very circular, even if it does attempt to step outside the circle in order to point out that nothing but the circle exists.

I don’t know if Napoleon moved la Grande Armée, but I know that Tolstoy moves me, even when he leads me into circular conundrums of snakes eating themselves. The story of young people in love and full of promise getting caught up in a tremendous war and trying to keep their individualities and free wills within the seemingly predetermined cataclysm brings me to the edge of all meaning. It shows me the infinite and the infinitesimal within us: the head that is large enough to encompass the globe and the heart that is too small to entertain a neighbor’s needs for a moment. He convinces me that, even if the great General Kutuzov was too insignificant to affect the battles he seemed to lead, the humble Marya is worth all of Josephine’s jewels and more. At the end of the book, she is, her author tells us, so happy she feels sad “as though she felt, through her happiness, that there is another sort of happiness unattainable in this life.” Behind the noise of battle stands Marya. Behind her stand her feelings. Behind her happiness stands a blessedness of another world. The battle plans and marches and bungled orders and meetings between emperors and childhood marriage vows and houses being sold and humanitarian societies and all the rest – these are only line drawings on a curtain behind which the real drama takes place just outside our total comprehension.

If history is predetermined, can it be foreseen by human eyes? Some people, Tolstoy points out, seem to understand great movements, to have the ability to pinpoint key influences and to predict battles. But, he explains, there are always plenty of people predicting one thing or another, so that eventually every outcome is predicted. As a result, when the actual outcome happens, there's always someone to say, “I told you so.” At the same time I was finishing up War and Peace, I also read the central part of the central book in Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War, which naturally told about the central battle of the War, and I couldn’t help finding Tolstoy’s view critiquing Foote’s. One could read this account of the events in Pennsylvania and come away with a Great Man theory of history. The U.S. won the war because it won Gettysburg, and it won the battle of Gettysburg because it held Little Round Top, and it held Little Round Top because Joshua Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge when his troops were out of bullets. Thank you, Joshua Chamberlain.

But Foote also tells about James Longstreet, who, while Pickett charged the center of the bluecoats’ line on the third day, sat on a rail and watched the disaster, which he had forecast to Lee. But did Longstreet really know what would happen? He was right, as it turned out. But I could say that it’s raining in Kyoto just this minute and be accidentally right without knowing whether it’s raining in Kyoto. Tolstoy would say that the only reason a story as boring as that of a man sitting on a fence rail for a day survives is that Longstreet merely proved in the end to have guessed correctly. Everybody predicted something that day, and if Pickett had made it through the lines – which doesn’t seem an impossibility to me even though I don’t think he personally would have had much to do with the changed outcome – some other general (Pickett himself, perhaps) would have said to Lee, “See? I told you so.”

Which did Foote believe? Did he believe that Chamberlain was the great man because he established history? Or did he believe that great men only recognize the futility of will and the inevitability of events? The title of his Gettysburg section, “The Stars in the Courses,” suggests the latter, even if the view is adopted only to make the reading as compelling as the fate behind the events.

Monday, June 24, 2019

A Dr. Johnson Wannabe

I am a Dr. Johnson Wannabe. Samuel Johnson had a wide circle of interesting friends and acquaintances. He had a vast knowledge of languages, history, and literature. He was a strong Christian and known for his great moral sense. His contemporaries considered him the most eloquent speaker and writer of his time. He was a supreme conversationalist and said what he wanted without regrets – and when he did have regrets apologized for the misstep humbly and with clear remorse. He was always ready with an answer to any question on any subject: logic, politics, poetry, ethics, Christian apologetics, travel, food, friendship, learning, history, Latin grammar, diplomacy, and more. And today Samuel Johnson is still referred to as Dr. Johnson. That description may not grab you as a model for life, but it does me.

I’ve read Boswell’s Life of Johnson twice; for this ten-year reading plan, I’m just rereading passages I’ve highlighted in my volume – and there are many highlighted passages. This month I read a long quotation of Johnson from July of 1763 that seemed to summarize just about everything I admire in him so much. It begins with this observation:
We can have no dependance upon that instinctive, that constitutional goodness which is not founded upon principle. I grant you that such a man may be a very amiable member of society . . . ; and as every man prefers virtue, when there is not some strong incitement to transgress its precepts, I can conceive him doing nothing wrong. But if such a man stood in need of money, I should not like to trust him; and I should certainly not trust him with young ladies, for there there is always temptation.
To begin with, Dr. Johnson recognizes a difference that some very intelligent people I have known have missed: the difference between being nice and being good. In the twenty-eighth Psalm, King David asks the Lord, “Take me not off with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.” In casual conversation, these people seem great, but would they help you in a pinch? Would they support you when you call out corruption in supervisors? Would they turn down a raise offered for their silence? Would they?

OK, I obviously still care about that a little too much. Let’s move on.

Dr. Johnson next criticizes David Hume for putting forward arguments against Christianity, not because of the arguments per se, but because he (Hume) wrote as if had newly discovered the issues. Johnson then frankly admits that all of Hume’s objections had occurred to his own mind in moments of doubt, but that he didn’t think them worth making a quid from by publishing them. He then goes on to answer some of Hume’s critique of belief in miracles by using logic, observation of then means of human knowledge, and the history of anti-Christian polemic.

But then comes my favorite part of Boswell’s remembrance of this July evening. After all this heady talk about faith, psychology, reason, fame, and letters, Dr. Johnson suggests that he and his biographer go for supper to a humble establishment known as the Turk’s Head. “I encourage this house,” explained the Great Man, “for the mistress of it is a good civil woman, and has not much business.” Here’s a man who did not just speak peace, but who lived it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

My Doppelgänger, Joshua Chamberlain

I’ve written in these posts before about similarities I see between myself and various people famous for their talents and virtues: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien come to mind. Having no shame, today I have the audacity to point out things I have in common with Joshua Chamberlain.

Now, from the days right after the battle of Gettysburg, the view has been proffered that Chamberlain provided the leadership necessary at the key moment of that battle, thus keeping the Confederates from winning what is plausibly viewed as the deciding battle of the American Civil War. Put succinctly but hyperbolically, Joshua Chamberlain single-handedly saved the Union.

Now I haven’t been solely responsible for anything so magnificent as winning one of the most consequential battles in American history. My greatest public achievements have gone no farther than offering some points about the teaching and grading of music theory in certain limited circles. And yet . . .  And yet there precisely begin the parallels that I see between myself and the Hero of Gettysburg. Chamberlain, like me, was a college instructor. Like me, he had an impediment affecting the very subject he taught: he was a language and speech teacher with a stutter, and I was a music teacher with a gimpy hand. Like me, he used his weaknesses to look at difficulties from the learner’s point of view and prided himself on developing new teaching techniques that worked, we both hoped, better than the standard methods. Like me, he was a Christian with a relatively conservative theology (if believing that the Apostle’s Creed speaks literal truth is conservative) with a liberal educational philosophy (if believing the science is cool is liberal). As President of Bowdoin College, he tried to get a Bachelor of Science curriculum accepted, saying that scientists were seeking God's truth even if they didn't know it, and he spoke for women's education: two controversial, forward-looking policies in nineteenth-century America. And, like me, Chamberlain found promotion both hard to come by and yet only so important.
But, no. I have never found myself among enemy soldiers and used a southern accent to ride away safely. (Chamberlain did it three times!) I have never spent a night surrounding myself with the bodies of fallen comrades to protect myself from enemy fire. And I was never selected by the General-in-Chief of the American Armies to oversee the actual surrender of weapons by every member of the conquered force at Appomattox Court House.

But then in my lifetime, I’ve never had the opportunity to take up arms in a war testing the proposition that all men are created equal and seeking a new birth of freedom for millions of people. I do have a vote, though, and I won’t get any more political today than to say that I believe that Lincoln’s “unfinished work” is still unfinished.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Exploring the Corners with Aquinas

When constructing my second ten-year reading plan fourteen or fifteen years ago, I wanted to finish reading all of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. But I ran into a couple of problems concerning size, including the discovery that about one hundred questions (roughly equivalent to chapters) were missing from the Britannica Great Books set. So I prioritized for my plan. I picked and chose sections here and there simply based on how crucial the titles of the questions sounded, scheduling about 80% of what was left in the volumes I had. I didn’t know: I thought I might end up satisfied at the end of ten years, even though gaps remained in the ToC.

But when the time came to put together my third decade-long legenda (a word that doesn’t appear in any dictionary but should, meaning “things to be read”), I found I wasn’t done with the Dominican “ox” and put all the stray questions into the new plan. Considering my experience over the first three years of this third reading plan, I’d say I did a remarkably good job picking the salient questions for the previous list; all the portions I’ve read since 2017 have covered nitpicky details: just tidying up hidden corners. For instance, several years ago I read Aquinas’s explanation of the Hypostatic Union, the fact that Christ is both God and man: a cornerstone of Christian theology. This year, by comparison, I read sections that deal with the semantics of talking about the Hypostatic Union. We may say that Christ suffered, for instance, but only if we understand that He suffered in his humanity, not his divinity. And in a point that surely must have made more sense in Latin, Aquinas takes pains to assure us that while it is acceptable to call Jesus “Lord,” it just doesn’t work to call him “lordly.” Yep. I’d say I did a pretty good job dividing the important doctrines from the not-so-important.

So reading Aquinas has become a tad bit tedious the last three yeas. But what a beautiful highlight I discovered this month in a section on the properties of the bodies of the Blessed! The titles made me think it would all be about whether people in Heaven will be able to walk through doors and how brightly they will shine. But then Aquinas reaches the problem of why a body of a saved soul in the presence of God would want to move at all. We’ll have no imperfections, no needs. So what lack could we have that would motivate us to move from some celestial here to some celestial there? His two answers brought tears to my eyes. The first reason will be simply that the Blessed demonstrate and celebrate the divine gift of motion. Why have a reason? Just enjoy what God has granted! The second answer was even better in my estimation: "that furthermore their vision may be refreshed by the beauty of the variety of creatures, in which God's wisdom will shine forth with great evidence." Will there be a Grand Canyon in the New Earth? We can visit it, examining every nook and cranny and climbing over every rock without fear of damaging either the landscape or ourselves! Trees appear in Revelation; if there are a billion species in the next life, we’ll all become botanists and study every one with joy! But Aquinas is careful to point out that all this eternal sightseeing won’t constitute an abandonment of the Vision of God: everywhere they explore, the Blessed will always see God, “for He will be everywhere present to them.”