Monday, June 25, 2018

Three Stray Comments and a Joke

Donald Trump walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Mr. President, I didn’t think you drank.” “I don’t,” says the President, “and people ask me all the time. But if you look at what’s going on; and I tell you it’s very simple. See, I give you $5, and all I get: it’s just a glass with a beverage. And believe me, trade deficits are bad.”

Donald Trump never actually had this conversation, and you know it. Dorothy L. Sayers, in the commentary to her magnificent translation of The Divine Comedy posits that Dante’s readers never took his placement of real people in Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven as literal statements, either. The celebrities Dante assigns to one place or another were accepted as recognizable types that helped make the points he was trying to make. As much as I love this classic of classics, I’ve always placed a little mental bracket around what I saw as Dante’s untoward willingness to judge. But Sayers has convinced me that he wasn’t predicting the eternal state of souls much more than someone telling a joke does. In looking up Trump jokes, I found some that put him in Heaven and some that put him in Hell, and I don’t take any of them as prognostications.

That’s the first of just a few stray comments I have to make on my reading this month. Living in south-central Texas for the school year put my bioliogical calendar out of whack. I wake up, go out for a walk on hot, humid mornings, and think, “Isn’t summer about over?” Then I realize that it’s June and that summer has just started. How can this be? Walking has become such a part of my reading routine, it’s difficult to read with full concentration when the walking is so uncomfortable, and I only feel enough energy for disconnected notes.

What can Patrick O’Brian not write about? Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin give their author cause to write about history, naval tactics, geography, anthropology, biology, geology, economics, politics, fashion, music, meteorology, family relations, literature, espionage, and more. In chapter 7 of H. M. S. Surprise we get an experiment in ethics, as Stephen walks around Bombay in amoral observation. He doesn’t judge prostitution, slavery, idolatry, or any other practice his church and countries might tell him to condemn, and as he brings me along into this morally neutral view, he reveals very clearly a new line of morality. Judging institutions he cannot change is pointless. Judging people who have grown up in a foreign environment is pointless. But Stephen must help one little girl who crosses his path.

Somehow, Shelby Foote conveys beauty in the pageant of stupidity and blood that we know as the American Civil War. He does it partly through focusing on individual stories: Lincoln and his yarns, Grant and his self-doubts, Jefferson Davis and his dyspepia, Longstreet and his hubristic disobedience, and a host of generals, colonels, quartermasters, abolitionists, senators, spies, reporters, ambassadors, diarists, soldiers, wives, authors, humorists, slaves, freemen, and others with a story to tell. He does it partly through phrases packed with powerful imagery: the “stars in the courses,” the “awful arithmetic” (did Lincoln actually coin the combination?), “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” and “We are all Americans.” And he does it partly by letting events lead (in stellar courses) toward known conclusions: the reader can sense for scores or even hundreds of pages the coming of the shots at Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, Stonewall Jackson’s death, Pickett’s Charge, the crater at Petersburg, the surrender at Appomattox Court House. The effect is very similar to that of reading Othello or Oedipus the King for the umpteenth time – except that it lasts for three thousand pages.

I complained about the heat earlier in the post. Distraction from adjusting to the first month of retirement may have something to do with it, too. But whether I can put together a train of thought or not, it’s clear to me as I write these stray comments, that my reading has placed in the midst of the disorientation and weariness some profound, unforgettable moments.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

In Which I Declare with 100% Confidence the Direction of Literary History

Many times when I write a post, I think that I know the author well enough to comment confidently on his or her place in literature, in history, in philosophical view and purpose, and in my heart. But I don’t know Sir Walter Scott well enough to do any of that. I know that he was the most popular novelist in Britain in the early nineteenth century, and I know that I read two of his novels before I read Quentin Durward (Ivanhoe when I was about twenty, and The Bride of Lammermoor when I was about forty). But I don’t have a sense of a Scott style or of Scott’s message to the world or what it was about his books that captured the imagination of British readers before Victoria gave her name to an era.

So I’ll just comment briefly on my first, tentative thoughts about how Scott fits in with the stream of English-language fiction as seen in my mind. And Tentative Thought No. 1 is that his use of archaic language seems like the beginning of a trend. Words like cortege and tabard and dint elicit a complex depth of flavor in my mouth, and lines like these rain sweet showers on the desert that the age of politics in 280 characters has scorched into my brain:
Have I not crossed swords with Dunois, the best knight in France, and shall I fear a tribe of yonder vagabonds? Pshaw!—God and Saint Andrew to friend, they will find me both stout and wary.
Now this kind of language starts to sound a little silly in Hollywood swashbucklers of the 1930s. But all trends do begin to feel stale after a while. The point is, I don’t think it felt stale in 1823. Part of my willing suspension of disbelief in reading a novel like Quentin Durward is my attempt to put myself in the position of the reader of that time, in this case, to feel the old vocabulary as if it felt archaic for the first time – as if it were newly old. (Owen Barfield says this, oh, so much better in Poetic Diction, which I’m scheduled to reread next month.)

If I remember correctly, Robinson Crusoe and Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield also speak this way a literary generation or two earlier. But, although the conversation of Boswell and Johnson and friends (friends including Oliver Goldsmith) proves that such language is no longer the London fashion in the late eighteenth century, I parse thee and thou and yonder as within the realm of possibility for devout down-country folk of the time like Crusoe and Vicar Primrose.

With Scott, though, I get the idea (partly because the characters are actually supposed to be speaking French) that the heirloom language is offered not as a stab at realism but as a conventional sign and reminder that the book is a work of historical fiction. And I can imagine that, as a nineteenth-century reader, I would want my fifteenth-century characters to speak in an antique way even if it weren’t precisely accurate. If I read a historical novel written this year, 2018, about, say, Lincoln, I wouldn’t demand that the language perfectly mimic the President’s manner of speech, but I would balk less at “These matters are weighty indeed” than at “This information is key.”

As I started rereading the Tarzan books last year, I was surprised at how often I encountered formal or archaic words and turns of phrase. I don’t remember any specific vocabulary at the moment, but a quick glance just now through the first two or three novels uncovered these quaint constructions:
What they are doing I know not.
They would but laugh in their sleeves.
The stern retribution which justice metes to the murderer.
“I am not married, Tarzan of the Apes,” she cried. “Nor am I longer promised in marriage.”
Now, again, I’m just hypothesizing a connection in the history of literature out of my own head. Maybe the world of literary scholarship has already noticed this pattern and either established or disproven it. I don’t know. I enjoy reading literary criticism from time to time, but ideas taste sweeter if, as George Washington would have said, I chew them myself. So here’s the hypothesis: what Scott did to signal past times began, over the course of a century of historical novels, to be taken as the lofty speech of the courageous heroes of those costume dramas. Burroughs, then, to make his point that a loincloth-clad man raised by an ape can act as nobly as an English lord, had him speak like an eighteenth-century lord.

Of course, Tarzan is in fact an English lord, and I don’t know what Tarzan’s creator meant by it all. Whether ape is nature and blue blood nurture or vice versa – whether civilization is merely clothing for evolved apes or the true biological standard from which criminal types have devolved – I’m not sure even Burroughs knew. But the point is that the archaic cadences represent nobility.

OK, Tentative Thought No. 2 will actually fulfill my promise of brevity. I read Quentin Durward close to the time I listened to Galsworthy’s “Indian Summer of a Forsyte,” and a difference in the use of characters struck me that I believe might actually indicate a historical direction. Galsworthy presents characters as shaped by circumstance, genetics, and culture; they struggle with themselves. A Galsworthy character’s dialiog is sometimes a surprise even to himself. Scott, on the other hand, presents characters as set, not needing any explanation. They are chess pieces whose move types are given, known, and unchanging. Where Galsworthy has characters speak so he can reveal them, Scott’s characters speak to reveal something external. The two approaches seem emblematic of, respectively, a classical time when psychology categorized personalities and a modern age in which psychology explained the making of personalities. In the intervening time, the hero of a Victorian writer like Dickens is neither given nor shaped wholly by envorinment but must shape himself. David Copperfield must discipline his heart.

Yes, that was relatively brief. But I feel the need to conclude with TT No. 1. Whatever the elegant, eloquent, patinated language of Defoe, Goldsmith, Scott, Dickens, Galsworthy, and even Burroughs means, I need it – maybe not as much as I need sunshine, air, and water, but as much as I need companionship and confidence and mental stimulation. But I don’t find it in the news. I don’t hear it in church. I don’t see it in the classroom. I certainly don’t read it on internet message boards. And I can only hold my breath so long before I come up to the surface to fill my lungs with the freshness that makes me “both stout and wary.”

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Greatest Briton of All Time

So said the British people in a BBC poll in 2002. So says Gary Oldman, who recently played the Prime Minister in, as they say, a major motion picture. Martin Gilbert’s biography of Winston Spencer Churchill, while not a hagiography by any means, certainly makes the reader consider him at least in the running for Greatest Briton of All Time. I don’t know what to do but list some of the moments in the book that astonished me the most.

• Churchill’s father told him he would never amount to anything.

• He went to South Africa as a reporter, helped when a supply engine came off the tracks in a battle, was captured, escaped, and then wrote the camp commander to say his escape was not the fault of the guards.

• Elected to Parliament for the first time, he soon broke from the Conservatives because – and this is the interesting part considering more recent politics – he believed in Free Trade.

• The disaster at Gallipoli occurred because the Cabinet wavered and didn’t support the invasion with the proper troops. Many blamed Churchill for most of his life, but Prime Minister Asquith, chief supporter of the invasion, suppressed the documents proving the truth.

• Churchill coined the terms “seaplane” and “tank.”

• He believed that capitalism was good only for the rich and that the government should get every family up to a line that made housing, food, and health care secure.

• Over and over during World War II, he took the flight just before or after a flight that was shot down.

• And the most astonishing: In June of 1940, he held papers that would make one country of the U.K. and France, papers which French Prime Minister Reynaud and General de Gaulle supported. Two further French signatures were needed, however, and the unification, obviously, didn’t happen.

While I’m on the subject, let me grind my ax about Darkest Hour. Apparently many people disapproved of the scene on the Underground because Churchill never actually took such a ride to read the temperature of the public. But, while I certainly wondered throughout the scene whether such a thing could possibly be factual, I also couldn’t get Shakespeare’s Henry V out of my head. Did the great king (OK, he’s never going to win any poll, but shouldn’t Henry V always be a part of any Greatest Briton discussion?) actually go out in disguise the night before Agincourt to see what his troops really thought? I don’t know, and I don’t care any more than I really care about the historicity of the Underground scene. Churchill did know the general sentiment of the British populace, and possessed of that knowledge announced that Britain would never surrender. Darkest Hour tells a truth in a nonliteral way that fits right in with the very best tradition of British historical drama.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Three Great Days

During the third week in February, I enjoyed one of the best three-day stretches of my whole experience in scheduled reading. First, I started Mansfield Park, which was even better than I had remembered. Then I started Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism, which had two stunning effects. First, the basis of his experiment is directly exemplified and verified by Austen's characters (and once he even refers to Austen), as if one were the demonstration of the other. Second, he said something on almost every page that provided that moment when you see something with import to your whole life that you hadn't thought about before and yet immediately seems obvious. Sometimes he challenged everything I thought about literature and made me feel I had been reading incorrectly my entire life. But then just as I would begin to abandon all hope, he would make another remark that made me feel pretty intelligent after all. The unassuming title hides the importance of what he has to say! The book doesn't present a throw-away idea that you might try out on a Sunday afternoon; it explains What It Means To Be Literary.

The experiment is this. Instead of beginning with criticism of books and then defining good readers as those who like the right sort of books, let's begin with criticism of readers and define good books as those that appeal to the right sort of reader. The first step in defining different kinds of readers is to see that they don't “like” different kinds of books. Using the same verb suggests that the same process is going on in various readers’ heads and that what makes a nonliterary reader is a taste for bad literature. But who has a taste for the bad? What the many nonliterary people do with books is simply not the same as what the few literary people do with books. Let's say that the many use books while the few receive them.

Those who use books want plot with exciting events. Description has to be just interesting enough to set the stage and must use hackneyed phrases: "her blood ran cold" cues the reader to register the idea of fear more strongly than “she was afraid” but does nothing to describe a particular fear in a particular situation. Those who use books want excitement, happiness, drama, tragedy or any other effect that will entertain, confirm, and present visions of possibility for the reader's life. But they don't grow by them; they always want to agree with what they read. They read books once and set them aside as accomplished tasks.

Those who receive books, on the other hand, enter into the world of the book as it is. They appreciate the artistic form of the work, and, while they may not change their mind on any position, they find out to their benefit what it is like to think differently. The users criticize immediately; the receivers defer judgment. Receivers read the same works “ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” (Oh, dear. It doesn’t sound very good for me right now.) Literary readers hear the sounds of the words. (Whew! I’m literary again.) They have life-changing reading experiences akin to religion, love, and bereavement. (Now I’m very literary.) What they read keeps a prominent position in their minds, and they think about, quote, and mutter their favorite lines.

If I continued the summary at this pace, I would nearly have to reproduce the length of the book. So I’ll end with just a note about conclusions. Lewis’s main conclusion is that a certain kind of book rewards the kind of reading that literary people perform: such a book can be read several times and grows with each rereading, it challenges and changes readers’ ideas, it has beautiful, memorable, and speakable lines, and so on. But the conclusion that most struck me this time (I’m sure I will have to reread this book about rereadable books!) had to do with the related topics of agreement and judgment. I was feeling quite nonliterary for a while as Lewis talked down a reader being too quickly critical about works he doesn’t agree with. I have opinions, after all. Maybe I’m the reader Lewis is talking about. But then once more he reconfirmed my status in his club by proving me wrong about myself using my favorite example: Lucretius! I agree with hardly a single sentence in all of De natura rerum, and yet I love it. Lucretius’s theory of atoms gives me a vivid picture of an atheistic, materialistic world and helps me experience what it’s like for a brilliant, eloquent mind to think that way. Now I should inspire myself by my own example to take on a repertoire I don’t have much sympathy for or understanding of: contemporary poetry. I should read swaths of it and remind myself just to let it be what it is, entering into it without judgment and letting it help me see the world through the contemporary poet’s eyes. Just because.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Aristotle and Dickens

Speaking of villains (as I did nearish the end of the previous post), I promised in the last post of January that I would have to write someday about Aristotle and Dickens’s three types of villain. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me when I wrote that post that my opportunity would arrive in the very next weeks.

In book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about why people do bad things. He does this in part to combat a mistake his mentor, Plato, makes through most of his career: assuming that a person will act righteously if he simply knows the right thing to do. (Did Plato never go to a middle school? Or to a college faculty meeting?) Aristotle analyzes mistakes that even good people make in their moral reasoning (not seeing contradictions between the universals of knowledge and the particulars of appetite and other such Aristotelian explanations). But he finds three kinds of fault causing evil action that have nothing to do with syllogisms: vice, incontinence, and brutishness. The vicious person knows all about ethics but simply doesn’t care about the pain or happiness of others anywhere near as much as he cares about his own comfort. The incontinent person wishes she could be better but finds herself too weak to resist temptation. The brute on the other hand doesn’t think at all, acting merely to satisfy hunger and anger by the most direct means.

At some point over the years, it occurred to me that Dickens’s villains often come in threes, and that they usually fall into three types. Maybe I first noticed the pattern with the Defarges and their horrifying partner, The Vengeance, in A Tale of Two Cities. Mme Defarge coolly knits the record of her victims, plotting and planning her private Revolution all the way, while her husband, who appears at times to have a good heart, often simply glides along with the bloody tide. On days of execution, Mme Defarge looks on with grim satisfaction, and M Defarge with sad resignation. But The Vengeance cackles with delight: she loves the sight of blood whether it drips from the neck of a nobleman or his innocent charwoman.

In reviewing Aristotle’s taxonomy of evil this year, I saw a clear parallel. Mme Defarge fits neatly into the Philosopher’s category of vice, M Defarge represents the incontinent quite well, and The Vengeance is a paragon of brutishness. And the pattern seems to hold in other novels, as well. In Oliver Twist, Fagin (Vice) uses children in cold blood to line his own pockets, Bumble the Beadle (Incontinence) finds himself unable to act contrary to the law that he calls “a ass,” and Sikes (Brute) beats Nancy to death in animalistic rage. The baddies in the Dickens I read this year, The Old Curiosity Shop, also fit the mold. Sally Brass (Vice) knows just what she’s doing as she calculates to bring misery into the lives of those around her. Her brother Sampson (Incontinence) isn’t smart enough to do any calculation of his own but acquiesces in his sister’s schemes. And Quilp (Brutishness) – okay, Quilp thinks and plots, but his primary motivation is just a kind of bloodlust.

Dickens’s funny heroes don’t succumb easily to categorization; each is uniquely hilarious. This post has gone on long enough already for me to spend much time on the humor of The Old Curiosity Shop. But before signing off, I want to take the opportunity to promote one of the funniest characters I’ve ever come across. Dick Swiveller may be overlooked becomes he appears in a book whose allegorical melodrama hasn’t suited English-language reading fashion for 150 years. But anyone of the weird few who have read this far in this post will be rewarded by becoming acquainted with a character who, in the serious business of making readers laugh and feel happy to be a part of Dickens’s world, stands tall beside the more well-known Sam Weller and Wilkins Micawber.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The World Is a Curiosity Shop

The more I learn about Charles Dickens, the more he amazes me. Brilliant author. Reformer. Midnight wanderer. Actor. Hero at fatal railway accidents. One of the most amazing aspects of his career was his ability to create coherent artistic wholes while writing in a periodical format. The Old Curiosity Shop, which I read this month for the third time in my life, starts out as a vignette about characters met by a first-person narrator on a late-night perambulation through London (no doubt based on some real people Dickens encountered on one of his night-time walks). Only after this short item appeared in print did the Inimitable decide to turn the story into a novel. He even had to make an explicit change of narrators in order to lengthen the story. How could he have kept the whole thing unified?

Yet somehow he did. Several consistent themes run through the entire book and, in spite of the difference in tone and narrator, even incorporate the opening chapters. One such theme is one’s relationship to death. Nell often thinks about her approaching death. Other characters try to put off their approaching death, ignore it, fear it, and cause it.

Another theme explores attitudes of loyalty. Loyalty cannot be simply professed, as Tom Codlin does to Nell and Sampson does to Kit. It must be consistently shown, as with Nell to her Grandfather, the Marchioness to Dick, the Clergyman and the Bachelor, and the Sexton and his assistant. It must sometimes be earned, as with the pony and Kit. (Is this the only Dickens animal whose end is told in the wrap-up chapter as if he were a major character?)

But the theme that struck me most during this reading was that of the Old Curiosity Shop itself. Nell and her grandfather leave the actual, physical shop behind early in the story, and yet Dickens retained the title. Did he have a notion of using that title figuratively at the beginning of his creative process? Nell and her grandfather are certainly seen as curiosities by the first narrator. Or did Dickens decide to make a figurative theme of the title only after the abandonment of the literal Curiosity Shop made that title an inappropriate curiosity of its own?

One way or another, displays of curiosities abound throughout the book. (Humanoid curiosities stood out to me. Perhaps the figurative Curiosity Shop specializes in figurines.) Nell says that the rows of chimneys she sees at night appear to have faces. She works for a while at a traveling wax museum (and sleeps among the historical characters). The crowd at a race are described as being in a panorama, as are a group of pupils in the school, seated all in rows. Puppets make several appearances in the book (once sitting on tombs). And Quilp, perhaps Dickens’s most odious villain, often appears at a window, his bizarre face on display in a frame. All these images lead in the end to the effigies on the tombs in the church where Nell sits alone pondering her impending death (continuing the frequent connection of the curiosity-display theme and the death theme) and the imagined crowd of angels that accompany Nell’s soul to Heaven.

As I think about it longer, though, maybe it isn’t so strange that the title of Dickens’s fourth novel should shine light on a metaphoric thread running through its fabric. All of Dickens’s works are displays of curiosities. It’s the way he saw London, England, the world. He regularly set out in the wee hours to find and interact with social outcasts: prisoners, asylum inmates, the homeless. He did this partly out of a sense of Christian charitable duty (by contrast, I admit, with bowed head, that when I find myself on a night-time errand in a big city, I generally try to avoid human contact) and partly to feed his understanding of the wondrous variety of humanity. Even in daylight, Charles Dickens had an eye for the eccentricity in every human being. The artist René Magritte seems to tell us in his work that individuality, if it exists, is always hidden and that a person always presents as and instance of a type: the Lover, the middle-class Suit, and so on. But the author of The Old Curiosity Shop, like Rembrandt, reminds us that every human we are tempted to parse as nothing more than an embodiment of a category is actually a Dickens character.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Splintered Fragments

It has long seemed clear to me that a Christian can learn from someone of another faith or even of no faith, although many half-thinking Christians have disagreed with me or, worse, looked past me while declaring their purified principles to the air. But which of us Christians hasn’t had a teacher, a professor, a work supervisor that taught us things without agreeing with us on the Being of God? I’ve even learned spiritual things from Hindus and Greek Pagans and Atheists – without coming one step closer to converting. So I’m always happy to find a Christian author who recognizes what seems to me an obvious fact. Paul commending the Athenians for being “in every way very religious” and then quoting approvingly one of their own poets. Augustine declaring that “wherever truth may be found, it belongs to [the] Master.” Lewis calling myth “a splintered fragment of the true light.”

I discovered two more sympathetic souls this month in Lactantius and Justin Martyr. Acting on a tip, the source of which I’ve forgotten, I read just book VII of the Divine Institutes of Lactantius, who was an advisor to Constantine in the early fourth century. At that point in this apologetical work, Lactantius gives arguments for believing in the immortality of the soul and in divine judgment, using Greek philosophers, poets, Cicero, and even the Sibyls as evidence. He goes on to more specifically Christian doctrines, which of course he must support using the New Testament, not Cicero. (Of special interest to me was Lactantius’ belief in a literal Millennium between the reign of the Antichrist and the end of the world.) But starting with the pagan classics was a technique worthy of the Apostle’s sermon on Mars Hill.

Writing a couple hundred years earlier than Lactantius, Justin Martyr also had read the classic philosophers and even opened his own little philosophical college in Rome. Justin believed that some of the Greeks’ “splintered fragments” were pretty hefty shards. He thought that Homer had access to Christian truth that he did not understand and that the Sibyls were inspired by the true God and spoke their oracles unwittingly. Most amazing of all, he believed that Plato had read the books of Moses in Alexandria and understood them in all their prophetic sense to the extent that he could be called a Christian believer before the birth of Christ. Plato’s dialogs, says Justin, don’t reveal his Mosaic beliefs more explicitly only because he had to disguise the truth out of fear for the authorities. Justin himself had reason to fear the authorities: the Romans beheaded him for the doctrines he taught in his academy.

I read some Augustine this month, as well, but it had little to do with Roman gods or God’s truth being found in the mouths of pagan philosophers. In books I-V of his treatise On the Trinity, Augustine began laying out his views on this most important and most mysterious of Christian beliefs. The Bishop of Hippo lived and wrote just after the Church had worked out its teaching on the Trinity at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and had enshrined their conclusions in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed. This creed kept the Latin and Greek churches together for seven hundred years before the two split, presumably over the addition of one word to the Latin version: the word filioque. The Greek-speaking half objected that the word represented a recent idea and, more importantly to them one would hope, a false one. But I was fascinated to see that Augustine very clearly states, six hundred years before the Great Schism of East and West, that the Holy Spirit proceeds both from the Father and from the Son (filioque). As for myself, I agree with Augustine, but I also believe that we understand so little what we mean by “proceeds” that the Churches had (and have) no business hurling anathemas at each other over either the word or the idea.