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.”

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Scottish and English in George MacDonald

As much as C. S. Lewis professed a debt to George MacDonald, he says (somewhere), “Few of his novels are good and none is very good.” I know that my reading project centers on the “Great Books,” but I also enjoy visiting satellites of those marvelous lights. I have Tom Clancy on my list for this year, after all! So maybe I could be allowed to write today on a nineteenth-century author whose novels aren’t “very good.”

Last year, I didn’t say anything about MacDonald, because I thought the book I read then, Malcolm, didn’t even rise to the level of “not very good.” Part of it had to do with the nearly total lack of the Wise Christian Teacher who so often features in MacDonald’s novels, a void replaced by a soap opera involving a marquis and his brother (who was also the marquis at some point), wives possibly dead and possibly alive (which makes for possible bigamy), the question of which character is whose child, the question whether two of these younger characters with a possibly budding mutual attraction might be siblings (Hello, Luke and Leia!), and the further question whether such children are legitimate – the last point depending on whether a certain wife was dead or alive when . . . . Oh, it’s all too confusing.

It’s not enough that the potboiler’s pot boileth over. Most of the answers to the mysteries of the plot are given by characters speaking in Scottish dialect. Now I’ve read enough MacDonald to have a good familiarity with the language of his rustic Scottish characters, but here we have a character, a piper, with a stranger than usual patois, a linguistic idiom whose origin I can’t explain. This piper might say, “She’ll pe seein’ a’,” when he means, “I see everything.” Among his quirks, he uses she for the first-person singular pronoun, future continuous verb constructions for all tenses, and voiceless consonants for all stopped consonants: p for b, t for d, etc. Add to this confusion the fact that the piper is blind and yet talks about seeing things, and I found myself almost always in the middle of the North Sea when he spoke. So why, oh, why did MacDonald place the solution to the main conundrum of the wives in the mouth of this piper?

Today, on the other hand, I finished reading The Marquis of Lossie, the sequel to Malcolm, and I’m ready to say that the joy I had in the end was worth all the confusion of the first book in the dilogy. (Dilogy? Really?) I got not just one Wise Christian Teacher, but two. I also found a nineteenth-century female character not defined simply by her degree of chastity in relation to men but by her philosophical doubts and struggles. I enjoyed a plot set mostly in London, where Malcolm did his best to speak the Queen’s. And I faced many needed challenges to my complacent Christianity, which is really why I read MacDonald. Just one example: Which is worse, to doubt the existence of God, or, believing He exists, to doubt his importance to every moment in life?

Before I sign off, a word about the 1980s editions of MacDonald novels “retold for modern readers,” complete with new titles and covers that make them look like today’s Christian romances. Of course, I’m reading MacDonald’s original versions, but I don’t look down my nose at these reworkings. I read my first MacDonald novel in a book club that used the updated, abbreviated version, and I’ll always be grateful for that introduction. Editor Michael R. Phillips, knowing his audience, shortened the books and toned down their Scots vocabulary considerably. But by doing so, he introduced a new generation to stories with lessons deeper than any found elsewhere in their section of the Zondervan Christian bookstore, even if MacDonald’s spiritual pupil, Lewis, thought the books weren’t “very good.”

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Stray Bits

No overarching point this time. Just two disconnected comments on some good recent reading, beginning with The Early Baroque Era from the Music and Society series. I mentioned last year that I was hoping this volume would be better than the one on the Renaissance, and my hope was fulfilled. For instance, in the best chapter, on music in London in the early seventeenth century, I learned that music was similar all over England since the nobility that hired the composers and players moved frequently back and forth between city and country, that boys in the Chapel Royal or other large church choirs were given admission to university when their voices broke, and that John Playford – the Mel Bay of his era – took advantage of unwatched legal loopholes to publish books on music theory and on how to play various instruments even while the Puritan Parliament was outlawing theater music and smashing organs as “superstitious monuments.” Personal details such as these are exactly the type I look for in this new style of music history, focusing as it does not on the composers still famous to us today but on music as experienced by laborers, shopkeepers, politicians, aristocrats, clergy, teachers, and teenagers. When I was in school, music history of the late Baroque era centered on the two titanic figures of Handel and Bach, so let’s hope that the volume I read next year resists the temptation and dwells instead mostly on mortals.

Now Disraeli’s Coningsby. I loved the first third of the novel, while Coningsby is growing up, and the last third, while Coningsby is falling in love. But I had difficulty in the middle third, which concentrated on Disraeli’s special area of expertise: politics. If the beginning reminded me of Dickens and the end made me think of Austen, I might have guessed that the parallels between the heart of the book and the parliamentary novels of another of my favorites – Anthony Trollope – might have portended greater enjoyment on my part. But maybe Disraeli was too close to his subject. Unfortunately, he assumes his readers know the details of British political history in the years just before the novel, a fair assumption to make about the first generation to become acquainted with the book. But when he complains about the “Arch-Mediocrity” without naming him, I find it difficult 180 years later and an ocean away to appreciate his concern. I can look it up and find that he had Lord Liverpool in mind, but that doesn’t help me feel what Disraeli wants me to feel about the drama that unfolds in the central chapters of the novel. Still, I can’t imagine any of our current American politicians writing a novel so eloquently and sensitively exploring the human heart while coming of age, and I’m eager for Tancred in year 10 of my current Plan.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Bakhtin the Future

Yeah. That title isn’t like the pun that’s so bad you enjoy groaning. It’s just bad. I thought about finding a pun on the antiseptic spray, but even after watching some ridiculous old commercials on Youtube, I came up with nothing. So we’re left with this one.

Which at least connects Bakhtin with broad notions of time. I’ll let you look up all the biographical information on Makhail Bakhtin that you’d like. For my purposes, I put him on my reading list because he was a literary critic with a musical metaphor at the front of his most famous observation about novels. And as it turns out, that observation has everything to do with broad outlines of time.

I chose The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays to put on my plan because it sounded like a shortish introduction to Bakhtin’s literary theories. As it turns out, though, each essay was about as long as I thought the whole book would be. But I read the introduction and first essay completely and skimmed the rest and felt that I learned exactly what I was hoping to learn. Bakhtin’s main points are these:
(1) While the epic is a settled genre, the novel is constantly critiquing itself and evolving.
(2) The novel includes multiple types of language.
(3) The novelist lets characters speak for themselves in “polyphony” without always judging or correcting their views.
(4) The novel historically springs from humans laughing at themselves.
The first point seemed immediately obvious to me, but the details quickly became fresh and exciting. What intrigued me most was Bakhtin’s recursive analysis: the epic is a fixed genre about a story and values that are themselves fixed, while the ever-evolving novel is about characters who evolve and readers who evolve with them. With remarks like these, I gained a lot of insight during most of Bakhtin’s comparison of epic and novel.

I couldn’t quite go along with him, though, when he said that the epic’s fixed past is completely separated from us – that we neither trace lines to it nor wish to be in it. Let’s consider just a few prominent examples. Bakhtin says an epic is about origin stories: could we agree then to include among epics The Iliad, The Aeneid, Genesis, and Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? Bakhtin explicitly included the first three, and I think I can add the fourth by his definitions. All of these suggest links to our historical timeline. Many Greek and Roman families firmly believed they were descended from characters – whether human or divine – found in the poems of Homer and Virgil. Genesis (along with subsequent books of the Bible) uses genealogies to connect the reader to the record of nonepic histories. And Tolkien had a whole vision of geological cataclysms that turned Middle Earth into Europe and tried on multiple occasions to incorporate the medieval European Aelfwine into the narrative thread as the preserver and translator of the ancient books. Doesn’t the concept of origin story in fact come with its own connection? Such tales tell the origins of things the reader is familiar with: the earthly dominance of the Greeks and then the Romans, the existence of the earth and its inhabitants, the traveling motion of the morning star. (Ah! Eärendil, sailing the skies with the Silmaril upon thy brow!) And as for wanting to be there: I guess I wouldn’t want to be Hector getting dragged around Troy, but I would love to walk the streets of Priam’s city before the war, to see ancient Egypt in operation, and to rest under the light of the trees of the Eldar.

I’ll lump the second, third, and fourth points together and say that none of them made complete sense to me until Bakhtin started presenting concrete examples, which came, not from Dostoevsky as I expected, but from Dickens’s Little Dorrit. If Bakhtin's look at my favorite author made sense to me, clearly he must have been right about everything! He showed, with many familiar examples, Dickens’s narration flowing smoothly in and out of political cant, indirect quotations of “Society,” the language of advertisements, and more. He showed characters speaking in different socio-economic dialects, each representing a different view and set of values. He showed characters quoting each other, the same words carrying new connotations when placed in the mouth of another. And as the demonstration rose higher and higher, the master metaphor of polyphony became more and more perfect. I thought often of Palestrina quoting and reshaping a phrase of chant and then quoting his own new melody over and over in a thickening texture until (in my particular imagined example) five voices all sang together, each with distinct contour and rhythm, but all contributing to a single composition.

I love novels. I love to think about the genre developing over time. I love to follow the arcs of characters who grow with events. I love to think about how novels have shaped my own life. And I love to speculate how the genre, the characters, and myself might change in the future. Now Bakhtin’s views will help me with all that thinking, so maybe today’s title wasn’t so bad.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Murder Must Advertise

Among the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors stands at the top of my list. Change ringing fills the book, and change ringing is one of the coolest things in this weird old world. But having just read Murder Must Advertise, I’d have to say it comes in a good second for me. This installment of Lord Peter’s escapades doesn’t feature Bunter at all and merely alludes to Harriet only once – definite flaws. But the story, the mystery, the solution, the setting, and the facts revealed about our detective make it all thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking.

I can’t find the reference right now, but somewhere very recently I read that T. S. Eliot, that surprising and erudite champion of detective fiction, opined that, while he approved of Sayers’s style, he found her plots too improbable, breaking one of the then-coalescing “rules” of mystery writing. In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed Sayers breaking a couple of my own rules – rules, in fact, I didn’t know I insisted on until I saw Sayers flouting them. In reading The Five Red Herrings, I discovered that a mystery novelist must not hide a crucial time among a train-schedule’s cascading flood of times (she could have called her book The Fifty Red Herrings) but should instead conceal it in some otherwise irrelevant detail: the beginning of a side character’s favorite radio show, for instance. And in reading Have His Carcase, I realized that the writer of detective fiction must not in the first chapter introduce five suspects whose exact positions along a hazily described geography are all crucial to the solution of the mystery and must be remembered some four- or five-hundred pages later. But this is all good: I learned some important rules that I will remember to follow when I begin my highly successful career as an author of mysteries next year.

Happily, I may report that Murder Must Advertise broke none of these rules. The layout of the offices doesn’t present itself with anything so clear as a visual diagram, but as long as you understand the position of the stairs down which the victim falls, you’re fine. And it’s helpful to remember who rushed out of which office when they heard the noise, but the most important movement is described often enough and close enough to the solution that the reader has no need to thumb back (or click back) through hundreds of pages to review the pertinent details. And adding to its squeaky-clean record on Literary Laws, Murder Must Advertise takes us into the fascinating world of Sayers’s first career: advertising.

Lord Peter jumps wholeheartedly into his first paying job – which he takes on undercover, of course – and armed with his more-than-slightly cynical understanding of human psychology, quickly proves himself an expert at constructing the verbal red capes that draw the consuming public bull inevitably toward the corporate espada. What I enjoyed most in this book were Lord Peter’s introspections, investigating his own actions and wondering whether it shouldn’t be an act of crime to lie to the citizenry in order to manipulate them into trading money for, to mention a prominent example, cigarettes. Detective, catch thyself! As I think about it now, perhaps this very feature is what kept Harriet Vane out of the book. Harriet to a great extent functions in the series as Sayers’s self portrait, but in Murder Must Advertise, the former ad writer surely worked out enough of her personal turmoil through Peter without exposing even more laundry by including Harriet.

I have a magnet on my refrigerator showing an ad from Dorothy Sayers’s most well known and successful ad campaign. The author may have revealed in this novel that her copywriting days haunted her conscience, but how much harm could she have actually done? I know that while I read about Lord Peter’s adventures in advertising, I smiled every day when I looked up at the happy face of a toucan announcing, “It’s a lovely day for a GUINNESS.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Longfellow’s Optimism

I’ve been reading about mindfulness recently, and the discipline of observing the present moment without distractions from past or future has been helpful in some recent, trying circumstances. But as a way of life, I can’t accept it completely. The past and future possess more than just distractions and anxieties: they offer lessons and hopes, as well. A healthy soul plans – to a healthy degree – for the future and learns from the past – learns how to do things better, learns what not to worry about since one has survived it before, learns how to forgive in other what one has struggled with. As the healthy, reformed Scrooge says, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Longfellow embodies Scrooge’s vow admirably, if he indeed lived the inner life that his poetry represents. He regularly exhibits tremendous optimism based on his belief in God’s righteous justice and a coming kingdom of eternal joy in the Divine Presence. Yet his is no blindered smile-and-ignore-the-truth enthusiasm. Longfellow is no perky ostrich, looking through rose-colored glasses at every grain of sand surrounding his obliviously buried head. He knows the darkness in his heart, in his past, and in his world. “And in despair I bowed my head; // ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”

Of all the beautiful poems I read in the last few days, none struck me quite like “The Bridge of Cloud,” originally published in the Atlantic in 1864 and still on that magazine’s website.

Burn, O evening hearth, and waken
Pleasant visions, as of old!
Though the house by winds be shaken,
Safe I keep this room of gold!

Right out of the gate, Longfellow joins present and past: the hearth has awakened pleasant visions before and is about to do so again. But the visions that Longfellow-of-the-present sees are different from what they were in the unspecified past:

Ah, no longer wizard Fancy
Builds its castles in the air,
Luring me by necromancy
Up the never-ending stair!

But, instead, it builds me bridges
Over many a dark ravine,
Where beneath the gusty ridges
Cataracts dash and roar unseen.

In the olden days, the comforting visions seen in the fire all portended lovely futures of success, happiness, and ease. But his architect was necromancy. What an image! The typical necromancer of tales makes the appearance of life out of what was once living, but Longfellow’s makes the appearance of life out of what is not yet alive.

Unlike those fanciful castles, in the present the unfolding scene is one of a bridge of cloud, bright and soft and fresh in itself, but hovering over a dark past, where, in contrast to the floating hazy water droplets of the cloud, “cataracts dash.” What a perfect phrase! Confusion and chaos abound in those sounds with their four closely packed consonants near the end. Think how much weaker the image would be if instead Longfellow had said, “waterfalls dash.”

And I cross them, little heeding
Blast of wind or torrent’s roar,
As I follow the receding
Footsteps that have gone before.

Nought avails the imploring gesture,
Nought avails the cry of pain!
When I touch the flying vesture,
‘T is the gray robe of the rain.

These last two stanzas are the most cryptic for me. I think that the present Longfellow tends to think of the past as better than it was, gliding over the dark ravines on a bright highway in the sky, but, inspired by the fire that burns to do his soul good, here learns to take an honest look at the trouble the misty clouds tend to obscure. Whose is the imploring gesture? A younger Longfellow, I suppose. But even present Longfellow isn’t sure, I guess, because as he reaches to touch the beckoning hand, the figure proves to be only a gray patch of rain in the clouds. Clouds look so different from different angles. (Yes, I find it very hard to think about this poem for very long without hearing Joni Mitchell. She had the advantage of seeing the tops of the clouds from an airplane, but the earlier poet flew with the airship of his mind.)

Baffled I return, and, leaning
O’er the parapets of cloud,
Watch the mist that intervening
Wraps the valley in its shroud.

And the sounds of life ascending
Faintly, vaguely, meet the ear,
Murmur of bells and voices blending
With the rush of waters near.

Well I know what there lies hidden,
Every tower and town and farm,
And again the land forbidden
Reassumes its vanished charm.

Well I know the secret places,
And the nests in hedge and tree;
At what doors are friendly faces,
In what hearts a thought of me.

OK, here comes the truth. Longfellow leans over the parapets of his nimbus bridge and takes a cold, honest look at his past. What he does with the towns, farms, and people he recognizes is as surprising – to me in any case – as it is exactly right:

Through the mist and darkness sinking,
Blown by wind and beaten by shower,
Down I fling the thought I’m thinking,
Down I toss this Alpine flower.

Oh! If only a younger me could have received an Alpine flower dropped through the heavens from present me! That very wish should lead present me to look up at the clouds and imagine the perspective that future me will have of this troubling time, a vantage point surrounded by asters and edelweiss.