Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Puzzling Over the Glorious Cause

Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause The American Revolution, 1763-1789 left me scratching my head for at least three reasons. First, it’s a long book, and Middlekauff had me wondering a few times how I was going to finish the book without putting my yearly schedule behind (again). More importantly, he leaves out strange information, as if he’s merely organizing a review outline for readers who already know everything. There are no strategic maps, for instance. He might just casually mention that the British troops are headed toward Ninety-Six, as if (a) I know that Ninety-Six is a town, (b) I know where that town is, and (c) I know why any army would want to march there. Curiously and to my great confusion on at least two occasions, he refers to a subordinate officer named James Washington by last name only. (At least I think it was James: I can’t remember since the author didn’t use his first name often enough!) A reference to “Washington” in a book about the American Revolution raises exactly one monumental figure in any reader’s mind, and any other officer unfortunate enough, historiographically speaking, to share that surname should find compensation in having his first name constantly in attendance on his last. And he dismisses Benedict Arnold’s treason, surely an important part of the story of the Revolution, to a subordinate clause: “Arnold, who had defected to the British . . . .”

But the biggest head-scratcher is that this volume in the Oxford History of the United States accepts unquestionably the epithet “Glorious Cause,” a phrase used by Washington (you know which one!) in accepting the leadership of the Continental Army. Loyalists simply could not see the “inevitable conclusion,” Middlekauff states without nuance, that Britain’s policies were intolerably destructive of liberty. My response: if taxation without representation makes subjects into slaves, then the District of Columbia is full of slaves. Well, OK, I actually sort of believe that that’s in fact the state of DC. But their condition is not intolerable to the point that those citizens have been driven to any “inevitable conclusion” of rebelling against the national government that operates in their city. Loyalists, then, were not so blind as Middlekauff would make them. And yet he offers nothing from diaries, correspondence, or journalism that might help the reader examine the motives of those who stayed true to their King.

I set up my calendar this year so that I would read another account of the American Revolution just after finishing Glorious Cause, the second being the fictional presentation by Kenneth Roberts called Rabble in Arms. Roberts’s view of the complicated struggle is much more to my taste. Here are good people tainted with evil spots and rotters with redeeming qualities. Here are the weak American generals and the mercenary militiamen and the Continental soldiers who have doubts about any cause other than protecting their homes and plenty of law-abiding Americans who just sit on the fence because they don’t want their children to be hanged as traitors by whichever side wins. In other words, this is a story about realistic human beings trying their best to make their way through a crazy world. Roberts believed in liberty as much as the next American, but he had no illusions that those who fought on the side of Independence all marched with a vision of the Glorious Cause before their eyes while the British could only field inept generals who tortured their captives every chance they got.

And Roberts has the courage to portray Benedict Arnold, before changing sides, as a great and heroic leader whose actions on Lake Champlain in 1776 probably saved the Glorious Cause for “Patriots” like General Horatio Gates, who literally ran away after losing a battle somewhere in the Carolinas (close to Ninety-Six, for all I know). Arnold’s name is synonymous with “traitor.” He is considered such a pariah that Middlekauff only follows a long tradition of minimizing his presence in history books. But surely we’re past an American historiography that must avoid Arnold’s name like the Tetragrammaton. Ours is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But the Conceivers and Dedicators were humans, not angels, and they didn’t enjoy a monopoly on liberty. From Oxford Press, I expected a history that let people be people, with both nobility and baseness shared all around, engaged in a conflict with not just two sides – the Right and the Wrong. But I had to turn to fiction for the vision I wanted. And now I’ll just have to hope for better things from the next volume in the Oxford series: Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Dante, Charles Williams, and Echoes of the City

When I first read Charles Williams’s Many Dimensions, it immediately became one of my favorite books. (It remains high on my list and has grown with each rereading.) So, like all readers discovering a new favorite author, I looked at the other titles by Williams with great hope. Now, hope usually sets one up for disappointment. (I waited fifteen years to find out that young Obi-Wan needs to negotiate with a Trade Federation?!) But when I turned to other Charles Williams books, I mostly just experienced confusion. The little bits I understood, I enjoyed. But what to make of visions of masses of hands? Women who are also local hills?

A few years ago, I got a huge assist in understanding Williams through the commentary by his friend C. S. Lewis on Williams’s Arthurian poetry. (Any of you wanting insight on the relationship of this pair, Williams’s outlook on life and the the meaning of the universe, or modern takes on Welsh Arthurian legend should read Taliesin Through Logres. But start with part III, Lewis’s part, and let him be your Virgil as he guides you through the labyrinth of parts I and II all out of order.) Two revelations that stand out in my memory are Williams’s love of Dante and his view of the City as a symbol for divinely endowed human fellowship. In fact, as I read Dorothy L. Sayers’s commentary on The Divine Comedy earlier this year, I became even more aware of the connection between these two themes, as Williams seems to have picked up his idea of City directly from Dante.

I grew up thinking of cities as, frankly, evil places. I saw them as ugly, dirty, poor, and full of crime. As a child, it didn’t occur to me that my vision was one of a corrupted city that could be redeemed. I simply thought it was obvious that when my family left our suburban home for a vacation, we would get away from people and go to beautiful wilderness locations. Dante and Williams, though, while of course recognizing God’s good presence in National Parks, would, if they could talk to me directly, warn me about my urge to get away from people. People are meant to interact, to be sociable, to trade and do business, to love and share with one another. For both, the emblem of the culmination of this purpose is the well working City. (Obviously, I could add Plato, Augustine, and Dickens to the crowd of favorite authors who have worked so hard to get me to see the importance of the City, but today my topic is Dante and Williams.)

This morning I started my third reading of Williams’s All Hallows Eve, my first after Taliesin Through Logres. And Dante’s presence couldn’t have been clearer. Lester Furnival finds herself newly dead (although she doesn’t know it for the first five pages) in a strangely empty London. The City (I’m following Williams’s habit of capitalizing the word) stands silent as a result of Lester’s pattern of life. She admits to herself that she has hated everyone but her husband, Richard. Lester, thy will be done. But the seeds of human compassion lie in the soil of her attitude toward Richard. It isn’t truly love, says the narrator, but at least needing and wanting are on the right road. I thought of Dante putting the illicit lovers in the highest circle of Inferno because, he says, at least their sin was directed toward others. But, as Sayers points out, Paolo and Francesca are blown about incessantly in the winds of Hell, unable to interact. (Traitors, who destroy the fellowship of the city altogether are put in the lowest circle.) Similarly, Lester sees the still-alive Richard briefly but can’t touch him.

The examples go on. Lester begins her spiritual journey of redemption in the place of the dead. She looks at the stars. She even references the famous sign on the gates of Inferno in her fears that she will find the città dolente if she goes to an Underground station. Dante is everywhere in the first chapter.

I don’t remember exactly where it all goes, but I think Lester has a Marleyesque mission of connecting with a few select people among the living as a way of spreading the light of love. In any case, the first chapter ends with Lester taking the hand of her friend, killed in the same accident, a sign that she recognizes her need for human interaction. I also believe I remember that the book involves a painter who creates a nightmarish view of the City. I’ll be interested to see if the artwork corresponds better with Dante’s Inferno or my childhood impression of cities.

By the way, the Bible begins in a garden but ends in a city. I should have seen that as a child. But the New Jerusalem has at least one park, an area of amazing twelve-fruited trees along the River. Perhaps all tastes in travel can be satisfied in Heaven.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Baseness and Nobility in G. K. Chesterton

I’ve found it difficult the last two or three years to get around to writing these blog posts. The dwindling numbers in the chart in the right column of this window tell the tale. I know several reasons the change has occurred, but a new factor recently came to mind. My third decade of scheduled reading consists mostly of (1) things I like, (2) things I liked when I was a teenager, and (3) things I believe I will like when I finally read them. And the now rather obvious idea occurred to me the other day that ideas for writing generally come much more quickly and forcefully when I disagree with what I’m reading. Perhaps the pen is mightier as a sword.

In the last week or so, essays by G. K. Chesterton have provided both catalyst and examplar of my breakthrough in self-awareness. Chesterton wrote brilliantly with the prophet’s vision, the humorist’s deft mixture of hubris and humility, and the epigrammatist’s flair for piercing new turns of phrase. But he was almost always complaining about something, arguing with an opposing critic, exposing an immoral illogic in politicians’ programs. And here I am these days reading only things that I like. I know I was scolded earlier in the year by C. S. Lewis saying that literary people don’t just read for comfort; but I find myself in a situation, perhaps merely a swing of a pendulum, in which I don’t have the patience or energy to read much of what I know I won’t agree with.

(A paragraph-long parenthetical:) Actually, as I write this, another new explanation occurs to me, and the calendar bears this out. For the last two years and more I have in fact obsessively read things and read about things that I don’t agree with in reading the daily news. But I would hardly classify any of that material with the “Great Books.” Partly I’m a victim of my rubbernecking urge to view the train wreck of grammar, punctuation, rhetoric, and truth that has built up in a particularly spectacular way since 2016. While my disbelief and anger mostly point in one direction, the journalists are far from innocent in the collision. Maybe I’m just too exhausted from that reading to take on more thoughtful and eloquent writers who disagree with me or challenge me. Maybe I should congratulate myself on sacrificing my intellectual improvement out of a civic duty to try to understand the bewildering state of our nation and do my best to help. My next project for helping is going to involve reading with kids.

(Picking up the frayed thread again:) On the other hand, reading and then writing about opposing ideas isn’t always the best medicine for the soul. A few years ago I discovered that during the Great War Chesterton devoted all of his weekly columns to that conflict, and they haven’t been pleasant to read. I used to be able to count on G. K. Chesterton to get me out of depressive funks caused by insanity at my job, but these war articles (not to say Articles of War) drive me into the funk. The experience certainly did not bring out the best of him, and I’ve seen one of my idols teetering dangerously near the edge of the quite elegant pedestal I’ve installed him upon. Let’s begin with the Germans. Chesterton saw the war as a continuation of the barbarian wars that destroyed Roman civilization fifteen hundred years earlier. The Germans, he says often between 1914 and 1918, are barbarians, not Europeans. New Chesterton knew enough history to know how much those barbarians, crossing the Rhine and Danube and sailing through the Pillars of Hercules, intermingled with the peoples of the crumbling Empire and created a new Europe. Ironically (I’m sorely tempted to say “paradoxically” because it’s Chesterton, but he and I would agree that it would be an incorrect use of the epithet too often applied to him) he only launches his accusations of congenital bloodthirstiness to the descendants of the more sedentary Goths, who stayed north and east of the Roman boundaries. Going on from the Germans, I’ll only briefly say that he made me cringe often in talking about the Jewish heritage of Marx (while discussing the Russian Revolution) and about black Congressmen during Reconstruction (connected in some way that I’ve thankfully forgotten to a political situation he wished not to see after the Peace).

On the other side of this coin, I found out last week that as soon as the peace was signed and Chesterton felt the liberty to return to engaging with Shaw and Wells and English Socialists and American commercialism and “futurist” movements in drama that ignore how much they simply revive conventions of Shakespeare, he became the GKC I love once more. I read last year in the letters of Tolkien, my other favorite twentieth-century British Catholic author, that he (Tolkien) didn’t balk much when finding out the sinful side of great writers but simply acknowledged to himself that the good writing must certainly have come from more noble aspects of the author’s soul.

Today I read several pieces in a row flowing up from the more noble wellsprings in Chesterton’s soul. In one he defended a sane view of nationalism (OK, this is a different man in a different country at a different time: this word here has everything to do with love of home and nothing to do with racist history), distinguishing it on one side from a contemporary fashion of “internationalism” that seemed popular only in England (delicious) and on the other from a straw-man view that nationalism must mean that all people in a nation are alike. (Do you think the people using the word in the U.S. today could sustain a coherent analysis of the disinctions between three different definitions of the word?) No, he says, in a nation, the cultural atmosphere everyone breathes is alike and has its various effects on its citizens’ amazing and welcome variety. (I wish now I hadn’t become so excited over an essay about a word that has become extremely controversial in our times. Moving on to other Chesterton highlights now.)

He offered the wonderful thought experiment of watching Randolph Hearst and an English publisher (whose name I could look up if you insist) walk down a sidealk arm-in-arm and asked if I wouldn’t know immediately which was the Englishman. And I believe I would! In my mind, while both deport themselves confidently, dress smartly, and smile at passersby condescendingly, I see Hearst walking more urgently, more aggressively. Now I don’t know the appearance of Hearst any better than I know the appearance of the English publisher whose name I can’t even recall (I assume he looked no more like Welles’s Kane than old Kane looked like old Orson Welles). But the fact that they do differentiate themselves so quickly in my mental picture shows that I have an idea of national identity, a notion of nation, and I don’t think that that notion comes from nowhere. In any case, this article was fun and instructive, took down irrationalities taken seriously by people who should know better,  and demonstrated that cultural identity and individuality are both real and can both be dignified. This is the best of Chesterton.

Another reason I quit blogging so much in 2016 is the discouragement I felt when I found out that most of my blog’s hits came from Russian bots – and I learned this months before hearing about other nefarious activities of Russian bots that year. Some national traits are not dignified.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Reforming the Reformation

Movements, systems, and factions need names, I suppose, just as much as plants or geographical formations or tools or cookies. But the problem I find with names of the objects first mentioned is that they usually mean something else as well and end up misleading.

For the sake of context, consider the word tree for a moment. If I’m two years old, I have to learn what that word means, what kind of object it denotes; later in life I may have trouble deciding whether crepe myrtle fits into that genus, but that question doesn’t make me doubt my basic understanding of the word tree. Tree doesn’t mean anything else before it means the woody plant that puts shade in my yard.

When I’m twenty-two years old, on the other hand, I have to learn the word dualism and learn to apply it to a religious or cosmological view that good and evil each have independent and balanced existence. Or perhaps I learn that the term refers to a philosophical position associated with Descartes, a position some university professors I’ve known like to allude to without understanding it. Or maybe I learn to associate the word with a certain epistemological concept, or with a particular principle of political structure. And there’s the problem. Dualism means too many things because it already means something before it gets applied to anything specific enough for professors to get confused about: it has the clear but uninteresting meaning that something has two something elses. If you tell me you bought a tree last weekend, I feel confident that the picture I have in my head is close to the true situation. But if you tell me that you had lunch with a Dualist last weekend, I don’t at all know what ideas dominated your dining partner’s speech. Although I do know that I feel very bad about the torture you suffered during your meal whichever way that conversational tree fell, all I know about the specifics of your friend’s hobby horse is that it divides whatever it divides into two.

Reformation is one of those words for me. From the mere shape of the word, all we know is that something that has had some certain shape in the past is being remolded into another shape. OK, you say, but history uses this word pretty much for only one thing: a European cultural and intellectual movement in the sixteenth century. Yes, but I’ve found that various figures identify different elements as the key among all the reshaping that occurred.

When I first heard the term as a teen (from a friend whose high-school European history class had actual content, unlike mine), I learned that Martin Luther started the movement, and I was surprised to find public-school history class so concerned with Christian theology. Maybe my American history class should have covered Methodism, Great Awakenings, and Fundamentalism, but it steered clear of the topics entirely. Well, it turns out this theological change brought on a war or two, and history classes love war. But they were wars, I believed or was led to believe, over theology; still, in my mind, the word Reformation meant the rise of Protestant doctrine. But outside of history class, which doctrine? And does Luther really have anything to do with it? Catholics may prefer to think about the Counter-Reformation. Some Calvinists co-opt the word for their own stripe of dogma and would balk at calling a Lutheran “reformed.” (“Reformed.” Ugh. Are you, Calvinist friend, saying that you, personally, were once Catholic and have been reformed into a Protestant?)

I meant for this post to be about Will and Ariel Durant, and I’ve finally come around to them. The Durants have plenty to say about Christian doctrine in their chapters on sixteenth-century Europe. But for them, the main thrust of the Reformation is that states came out from under Church control. The primary structure being reformed, in their view, was the political structure of Europe. More power to the State means more freedom . . . .

Wait, stop right there. More power to the State means more freedom? A revolutionary proposition and definitely true to a certain extent. Maybe what was being reformed most in the sixteenth century were habits of thought about politics rather than the structures themselves. We now resume our regular broadcasting. . . .

More power to the State, say the Durants, means more freedom for philosophy, more freedom for art, more freedom for science. The Durants don’t do anything as facile as pit faith against science, as I’ve heard some pastors and some scientists do. They recognize the faith of Galileo, Copernicus, and other players in the drama of the scientific revolution and the role that faith played in their work. But they certainly tell the tale of conflict between a particular Church and a few particular scientists. And the tale is not pretty.

The story of Galileo is grim enough. But even more disgusting is the story of Giordano Bruno. A Dominican, skeptic, and mystic, Bruno believed in an infinite universe with an infinitude of Copernican systems. Good-bye to the debate over whether the sun or the earth is at the center of the universe! He also taught the Platonesque doctrine that God is the Divine Mind whose body is the universe. Yes, that idea makes him not a Christian teacher. But the Church, instead of defrocking Bruno and clarifying to the world that he was not one of the orthodox, arrested him, held him for seven years with sporadic hearings sometimes a year apart, and eventually burned him alive for his views on the Trinity and Incarnation. I don’t even have to look at this story through the Durants’ secular-humanist lenses to see the point clearly: if anything needed reforming, it was the political power of the Church to hold and torture people for their beliefs. And profession of Protestant doctrine didn’t do much to reform that structure, or we wouldn’t have had Calvin’s Geneva. Now if only we could prevent the State from torturing people for their beliefs!

Now, to end with a note of clarification, I’m a man of great faith: I believe I am a part if the Church that Jesus taught about. I also believe that in some way Jesus spoke truthfully when He said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Friday, September 14, 2018

Where Have I Read This Before?

I’ve read this story somewhere before. A very rich man comes to the highest political office in a powerful country. His wife, perhaps not feeling the attachment to her husband as keenly as some married women do, has her own home and tries living there for a while. Meanwhile, the new leader discovers to his annoyance that he cannot do or say whatever he wishes but must defer sometimes to the advice of his Cabinet. Then certain newspapers become concerned when they discover that he has tried to hush up a payment that suggests improper influence in the election that brought him to power. In spite of his wealth and position, he is thin-skinned, and everyone around him learns that they must coddle him.

Yes, these points of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister sound very familiar, and yet . . . and yet the lessons of the story are so very different. Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is scrupulous to the point of impracticality. He does nothing apart from principle – will not, for instance, endorse any candidate whose election would tend to sustain his – the Prime Minister’s – tenure in office. His wife, however, has no such hesitations and encourages Mr. Lopez to run: or to “stand,” as the English say. (Oh, yes, feelings of discomfort held toward a man with a Latin name play a part in the tale.) When Lopez loses and applies to the Duke for repayment of his campaign expenses, P.M. Palliser finds himself in a moral dilemma and writes the check because he believes Lopez to have been deceived. Everyone with a moral sense believes Palliser to be an upstanding man. Even his political enemies refrain from making any personal accusations about the payment.

I’m only about 60% of the way through the book, but the biggest theme so far seems to be power and compromise: how they work together and how they are opposed. While Plantagenet Palliser can see, for instance, that he must compromise and defer at times with his Cabinet, he can’t see at all that his wife, Glencora, has her own mind that he must sometimes defer to. Now it could be that, the Victorian era being what it was, Trollope would just accept the domination of a man over his wife however much he may sympathize with the woman whose husband doesn’t use his oversight justly. After all, as far as I’ve read, Glencora doesn’t get her way on her most important project and must simply learn how to deal with the situation. Maybe Trollope, as a Victorian author, expected his audience to share Glencora’s acceptance of her position.

But I don’t think so. The same dynamic happens with another couple in the book, and there Trollope doesn’t let the cultural norm stand. Emily Wharton’s husband has none of the Prime Ministers virtue’s, and she becomes miserable soon after her marriage when she discovers the true, dastardly character of the man she has given herself to. Emily indeed believes (as surely many women at the time did) that she must acknowledge that she has ruined her life and must simply suffer the just consequences by dutifully living out her life of misery. But her father – the old guy – the old conservative guy – wants her away from the scoundrel and devises a scheme of payment that will assure the separation be permanent.

Trollope received a lot of criticism for The Prime Minister when it was published. His position in the book isn’t radical feminism by our standards, but it appeared so in the 1870s, and the newspapers and journals (written mostly by men, of course) let him know about it. I don’t know what his mostly female readership thought of the idea of separating from a cruel, deceitful husband. I suppose I don’t actually know that Trollope won’t side with the Y chromosome by the end of the book. But I doubt it.

By the way, Trollope tells us that Emily’s husband doesn’t know that he’s a bad person or that he disgusts her. He thinks spending money he doesn’t have and defaulting on loans is just a way to do business. Yes, I’ve heard this story somewhere before.

Monday, August 27, 2018

An Arthurian Theory

I first started reading The Mammoth Book of King Arthur two years ago and only finished it this month. It’s mammoth, after all. Author Mike Ashley covers all the original references to King Arthur, all the possibilities of historical characters who might have served as the original of the legends, and then all the threads of development, from Geoffrey of Monmouth through Chrétien de Troyes, Malory, Tennyson, and Monty Python together with hundreds of other stories, poems, novels, plays, operas, and films in between. The result was well worth the two years it took to read, but I’m glad I took some careful notes on the early parts.

I’ve loved King Arthur ever since it befell me in my seventh year that I did read, in Sidney Lanier’s version for children, these words: “It befell in the days of the noble Utherpendragon, when he was King of England, that there was born to him a son who in after time was King Arthur.” Like most Arthurophiles, I want the great King to be real. Sir Winston Churchill said, in words close to these: Arthur ought to have been real, so let us declare him to be so. (Did Churchill’s appearence in the Darkest Hour represent the long awaited return of Arthur? It ought to be, so let us declare it so.) But definitively locating a real Arthur in the spotty chronicles of a mostly illiterate Dark Age Britain is impossible; names similar to “Arthur” show up rarely and in stories that conflict with each other. Ashley’s solution as to the identity of the Ur-Arthur was disappointing: after promising to locate the winner of the Battle of Badon, ca. 500 AD, he ultimately identifies the source of the beloved legend in two Welsh kings, one from the seventh and one from the eighth century, whose stories got told and confused in a centuries-long game of telephone.

But I have a theory much more satisfactory to myself – a theory based on one of the most curious inconsistencies of the medieval record. A fellow from the ninth century named Nennius lists twelve battles led by Arthur against the Saxons, who to Britain did pour, culminating in the Battle of Badon. According to Geoffrey (in the twelfth century), after finally ridding the realm of invaders, the great victor then reigned over a pax Arthuriana, supposedly the beginning of the legends of the Round Table of chivalric knights. A monk named Gildas, writing in the early sixth century, also wrote about a series of battles ending in Badon, which he says happened in the year of his birth (probably in the 470s). So, if Nennius and Geoffrey have anything right about Arthur at all, Gildas should have grown up under the rule of King Arthur. Yet – and here’s the inconsistency that drives the legend hunters wild – he doesn’t mention Arthur, instead giving credit for the victories against the Saxons to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a character that Nennius and Geoffrey both name as well.

Now, just about the time Geoffrey wrote his Historia regum Britanniae, one Caradoc of Llancarfan wrote a Life of Gildas, in which he most definitely says that Gildas not only lived during Arthur’s reign but knew him and helped him retrieve Gwenevere after she was abducted by the King of Glastonbury. What to make of it all? Gildas is the one writer who should be able to give us a definitive contemporary description of the great, original King Arthur whom other authors place in his time and even in his acquaintance. And yet he doesn’t mention him.

OK. Suppose that an oral tradition passed down stories from the fifth century that didn’t always make their way into books in timely fashion but came down to Nennius and Caradoc and Geoffrey. And suppose that someone with a name like “Arthur” (maybe Riothamus, as Geoffrey Ashe theorizes, or perhaps Athrwys ap Mar, a descendent of Coel – the Coel that the nursery-rhyme describes as a merry old soul with fiddlers three), with help from Ambrosius Aurelianus, really led victorious battles including the Battle of Badon and became a great king whom “everyone” in “England” loved and respected. Finally, suppose that this king’s queen really was kidnapped and that Gildas was called upon to help his king get her back. Might not Gildas have been disappointed to find that the glorious warrior who was already a legend in his own time couldn’t protect his own wife? Might he not have become disillusioned when the man whose reputation was built on strength, courage, and prowess in battle asked a bookish cleric to help him out against his rotten neighbor? I’ve read several authors from our time puzzling over Gildas’s not mentioning Arthur, but no one acknowledging this rather obvious explanation. Gildas didn’t want to add his voice to the rousing chorus of praise for the invisible clothes on the naked king.

Alternatively, here’s a less obvious explanation. What if Arthur asked Gildas for aid precisely because he was a frail, scholarly monk? What if the mighty soldier had learned to regret his bloody ways and wished to meet the kidnapping crisis with spiritual ammunition? Maybe the kidnapping even forced him to face the wickedness of the violence he had so long embraced. He might have asked Gildas to preach to the King of Glastonbury on the need for repentance, hoping to win back his queen by appealing to his fellow monarch’s sense of righteousness. Would not an Arthur of this humble frame of mind have asked his confidant not to name him when he came to write his history of the evils of the time? In fact, if Gildas was Arthur’s confessor, would Gildas not have been bound to keep his name from the record? Let us declare it so.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Force of Destiny

In my experience, no one loves paperwork like the Italians. Over the course of a semester teaching in Italy, my wife and I, with our proper national visas, never got complete approval to live in the town we in fact lived in. We were called in to one office in town twice to fill out paperwork. Before, in between, and after these two visits, we were given assignments to collect various forms and stamps verifying these forms; one legally necessary step involved purchasing a particular stamp available only at tobacco shops.

Back in the office that casually dealt with approving all these papers and stamps, the smiling woman behind the glass took our completed, stapled, stamped packets and put her own ink stamps on them: she placed her mark on every page, carefully stamping the meeting of each consecutive pair of pages over the staple, and even – with particular relish – stamping the stamps. It was all important enough to her and her organization to spend at least four months on the task of clearing us to live in the lovely town of Arezzo but not important enough to bar us from actually living and working in Arezzo while waiting for the approval. Clerical mania seemed to me simply part of the Italian character.

But Christopher Duggan’s The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796 taught me that, if there even is such a thing as a national character, it came about only very recently. Now I knew that Italy had existed as a country only since the middle of the nineteenth century. And I knew that the process had something to do with Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Cavour: names of piazzas and streets in every town we visited told me that much. But surely, I supposed, there had been, for centuries before, an Italy yearning to cast off the French and the Austrians and to breathe freedom. But Duggan tells the story of an orchestrated celebration in Naples in 1860 in which many people in the crowds encouraged to shout, “Viva L’Italia!” believed Italia to be the name of their new queen.

Did the peninsular wars of the 1860s really create a unification? North belittled South, South disdained North, and both looked with distrust to Sicily. The cities that fought together to oust their imperial overlords had long histories of killing each other. The leaders of “the” movement sometimes battled each other in the field. Only twenty percent of the population knew the Italian language. No, using the word “unification” is a stretch for a process that essentially turned regional warfare into civil war, as armed bands arose in many localities to resist the only discernible change brought about by the birth of the new nation: national taxes.

So Mazzini et al. spoke after political unification of the need for “moral unification”: the meeting of minds and hearts rather than simply of geographical regions. As I was reading about the struggle for “moral unification,” a seemingly silly thought occurred to me: if only the revolutionary leaders had thought to introduce a national football team! And then I came to the chapters on Mussolini.

Of all the tragic ironies in this history, the most tragic is that Mussolini did actually unify the thoughts and wishes of the Italian people – in fact made them an Italian people. He unified them by murdering all the elected Socialists and then outlawing all parties other than the Fascists. He unified them by getting all those non-Italian speaking children into schools and making sure they learned in one of their first lessons the words il duce. And, lo and behold, he unified them by encouraging youth to play football and then creating a national team for everyone to back. He arranged to bring the newly created World Cup to Italy in 1934 (I wonder what paperwork he had to fill out), and in the most astonishing fashion, the national team won the championship in overtime. It was an ending so improbable, if they made the story into a movie, some character would be bound to say, “If they wrote this in a book, no one would believe it.”

In the end, though, Mussolini unified (nearly) all of Italy in an intense desire to join the Allies and expel him and his Nazi pals out of the country he made. We lived near a deeply touching monument mourning a local German atrocity, and in many lovely piazzas we visited all around Italy saw plaques thanking the Allies for liberating their country. But even if Italians turned against il Duce, his football idea stuck. Italy has won the World Cup four times, more than any other country except Brazil.

Note from Sept: I just read an essay by Chesterton from 1924 on Mussolini. Chesterton saw from the beginning, as I suppose every observer did, that Mussolini had finally achieved the supposedly impossible task of unifying Italy. He also saw that one sometimes must credit positive achievements to cruel madmen.