Wednesday, July 31, 2019

War and Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 24, 2019

A Dr. Johnson Wannabe

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

My Doppelgänger, Joshua Chamberlain

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

Exploring the Corners with Aquinas

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

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

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

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.