Thursday, December 30, 2010

Looking Forward

Each December as a part of my annual routine, I review the closing year by rereading my notes from the past twelve months, and I start to look over the next year's book list with anticipation.  This year I think back over the fun and learning and even the disappointments of 2010 with great satisfaction and no regrets, and 2011 promises to be another pleasurable, fulfilling year.

Each year begins with Greek classics, and 2011 begins with a return to some favorites.  The three plays by Aristophanes are among his most accessible for the reader of 2500 years later.  Many college students of today read Lysistrata and discover great troves of humor.  I can't help but think that the name of Thesmophoriazusae is all that keeps its sneaking and crossdressing and silliness from entertaining today's youth.  And The Odyssey tells one of the world's greatest stories.  I talk about it at least once every year to my music classes as an iconic model of a plot that works well in music also: the journey is full of adventure, and more dangerous surprises await even after we get home.  Beethoven and Homer are not all that different.

The philosophical selections always require a lot of pondering and note-taking, but I love getting stumped on some given day's six-page assignment, pondering and wondering during the rest of the day, having a moment of clarification the next morning, and then reviewing the notes of the last few days to see how much clearer the whole thing seems – including passages that I was too clueless about even to be stumped on.  Sometimes the moment of clarification comes, not just a day, but years later.  Reading Aristotle's Topics for the first time made much in his other works clearer.  (It will probably have this effect again this year.)  Reading Aquinas often makes Aristotle clearer and vice versa.  And Kant is nearly indecipherable on first reading, so I know rereading a crucial part of his most important treatise will light a lot of bulbs.

I don't know if I'm going to enjoy Hegel or not; I'm hoping to understand him at least.  Having read his Philosophy of History, I recognize some of the ideas when his name comes up in other (usually academic) reading.  But I don't get it – and not just because it's not the kind of philosophy I'm not going to agree with.  Plato talks of a world soul, and I get it.  Spinoza talks of the universe as a unity, and I get it.  Darwin talks about all life forms evolving through undirected variation, and I get it.  I don't believe any of these ideas, but their authors make the ideas clear enough that I know what it is I don't believe and can see why others do believe it.  But Hegel talks about a single universal consciousness that evolves, and I don't get it, perhaps because he seems to write in terms that made sense only to him, not to me.  I'm hoping that both the variety of selections and the editor's notes in the anthology I chose will help.

Most of the fiction and history for the year is fated to give me great pleasure and understanding.  David Copperfield is one of the world's very greatest novels, and my second favorite book by my favorite author.  If there were fewer books in the world, I could read David Copperfield once every year for the rest of my life and not get tired of it.  O'Brian, Plutarch, Thackeray, Durant, Williams, Catton, Trollope, and Waugh have all entertained me greatly in the past, and I'm sure the books of theirs that I've picked for 2011 will please.

Then there's Richard Blackmore's Lorna Doone.  Both names are rather famous today: the first as the name of a member of the rock band Deep Purple, and the second as a cookie.  Neither is a household name in reference to literature, though, so I don't have high expectations in this quarter.

The most wondrously glowing item on the reading list for 2011 is the beginning of Orlando Furioso.  Twenty years ago or so, I was reading something or other by C. S. Lewis, and he mentioned Orlando Furioso as an example or analogy that he assumed was familiar to every reader.  My heart ached as I read the passage, and I had my last really angry regret about my weak, space-age education.  Just after thinking, "Why weren't my schools better?!" I thought, "You can read all the classics you want to.  Just start reading."  Soon afterwards, I began my search for the right set of books and the right reading plan.  I settled on the Britannica set and its ten-year reading plan, and I loved the experience so much I drew up my own second ten-year plan, some of the fruits of which you are enjoying (or at least experiencing) now.  But as much as I felt I was finally getting the education in classical lierature I had always wanted, it occurred to me that I had not read the book that started it all.  This year, I go back to the beginning and start Orlando Furioso.

It will be a great year of great literature and the first full year with my blog.  Happy New Year, and thanks for sharing part of the experience with me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

And the Winners Are . . .

While Hollywood studio execs rush to get out all the movies they hope the Academy will remember long enough to give awards to, I'm enjoying the calm and quiet of the week between Christmas and New Year's and remembering all the reading I've done for the last twelve months.  I think I'll give some awards as well: the ex libris magnis awards for 2010.

So Good It Wouldn't Be Fair to Include Him in the Running for Any Other Awards
Charles Dickens.  Dombey and Son was twice as good as I remembered it, and his delightful but little-known Christmas stories taught me a lot about Dickens and about Christmas.

Best New Read: Fiction
George MacDonald, Sir GibbieWhile I loved the first two MacDonald novels I read (by which I mean adult, nonfantastic novels: Robert Falconer and Thomas Wingfold), the last one was a bit of a disappointment (David Elginbrod).  So I was glad to find another one that worked for me.  Chapter 6 is amazing, with little Gibbie learning last lessons from his dying, drunken father.  Through Gibbie's eyes (and MacDonald's) we see that an alcoholic can love and be loved even while his addiction horrifies us.  Many other characters also mix good and bad traits like real people; MacDonald's narration scolds the Sclaters, for instance, for their religious humbuggery, and yet they end up doing good things for Gibbie.  Have they truly met God?  We aren't told.  The book is full of quotable quotes, like this one for instance: "There is no forgetting of ourselves but in the finding of our deeper, our true self -- God's idea of us when he devised us -- the Christ in us.  Nothing but that self can displace the false, greedy, whining self, of which, most of us are so fond and proud.  And that self no man can find for himself; seeing of himself he does not even know what to search for."  Having read Sir Gibbie, C. S. Lewis's reverence for MacDonald finally makes sense to me.

Best New Read: Religion
Tie: Upanishads and Barth's Dogmatics in Outline.  The challenging and helpful central idea of Dogmatics is that the Church is here to proclaim, not to prove; that people have the message to proclaim is proof enough.  It does no good, Barth says, to look at the world and try to prove God as a Creator; right thinking starts with God and sees the world as the amazing thing.  What we read in the newspapers and in history -- especially Church history -- is bad.  Only God is good, so proclaim Jesus, and learn to see the world his way.  For a bit on the Upanishads, see an earlier post.

Philosophy Most Likely to Pop into My Mind from Day to Day
Wittgenstein.  I love Aristotle and Aquinas and can barely wait to read more of each of them each year.  They probably quietly influence my thinking more than any other philosophers, but Wittgenstein's analysis of language and communication will come vividly to mind many times over the years to come.  (For more on my adventure with Wittgenstein, see an earlier post.)

Best Reread
Tolkien's Silmarillion.  This book is like a cathedral in a prairie.  It offers truth whose stony solidity cannot be ignored, boisterously teeming images whose beauty fascinates, dizzy heights that raise hopes, and tragic tombs whose silence evoke shame and humility.  And it does it in a form that is unlike anything else around it.  (For more on Tolkien's fantastic history, see the previous post.) 

Best Recommended Offroading
I read quite a few things not on The List this year.  One of the greatest surprising treats was The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde.  In this cross between magical fantasy, science fiction, and literature review, people can jump into and out of fiction.  When one steps out of a novel (or is taken out against his will), every copy in the world of that book changes to reflect the absence.  In order to save Jane Eyre (both the character and the novel), heroine Thursday Next (not the wackiest name in the book!) must enter the fictional realm, get into Rochester's house, and alter the course of events before Grace Poole starts the fire.  Mix Harry Potter, Peabody's Improbable History from Bullwinkle, and TV's Eureka, and you have Jasper Fforde's weird, wonderful world.  If only Mr. Fforde would match nouns and pronouns by number ("If anyone forgets their instructions . . . ." AAARRRGH!), I could say I loved every word.

Biggest Disappointment on The List
The Education of Henry Adams.  The book starts great; in telling of his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, walking him forcibly to school, Adams writes, "He violated the inalienable rights of boys and negated the social compact," thus dismantling the New England spirit of rebellion and the sacred words from his great-grandfather's time all at once.  But the book quickly becomes a series of confusing metaphors and unexplained topical references.  "His [the historian's] object is to triangulate from the widest base possible to the furthest point he thinks he can see, which is always far beyond the curve of the horizon."  Does that sentence actually make sense?  "The interference of the German and Russian legations, and of the Clan-na-Gael, with the press and the Senate was innocently undisguised."  Huh?  None of this -- none of this -- is explained.  I wish someone had told me to read the first few chapters, up to where he explains the first part of his point -- that eighteenth-century education did not prepare him for twentieth-century capitalism -- and then jump to chapter 29, which finishes up his point: that all previous forms of education taught the student to seek unity, while Adams's experience had shown him only multiplicity.

So that's a brief look back at 2010.  Like Janus, in the next post I'll look forward.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Mingling of the Lights

In March of this year, I read The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien for the fourth time.  One of the few books I had ever reread before the start of this ten-year plan, The Silmarillion was Tolkien's great, central, yet unfinished tale, nothing less than the history of the first two ages of Middle Earth, beginning with creation.  The project began with his invention of two languages, Quenya and Sindarin.  But since Sindarin was supposed to have derived from Quenya, he needed a history to go with the languages.

Tolkien worked on this history for decades, expanding and revising at various times, and eventually interrupting his work to try his hand at a commercially viable tale about one year-long adventure in his imaginative world.  He called the tale The Hobbit, and publisher Stanley Unwin put it out because his ten-year-old son read the draft and approved it; thank goodness Master Unwin liked fantasy!  When The Hobbit proved commercially viable indeed, Tolkien followed up with The Lord of the Rings, complete with tantalizing timelines, glimpses of ancient battles and heroes, and poems in constructed languages.  Totally unaware of the author's plans for a greater history, readers wondered what it all meant and longed for more detail.  A few years after Professor Tolkien died, his son, Christopher, studied the notes, filled in some gaps, and at last published the history that fans had been waiting for.

The stories in this masterpiece make up one of the most realistic fantasies I know of.  They may tell of Valar, elves, and dwarves, but the beautiful pain and the devastating glory they relate are the ones we are all too familiar with.  Because it is a realistic book, Tolkien begins with God: "There was Eru, the One."  Just as Genesis tells the creation story in a couple of ways, so too The Silmarillion.  The second part begins, "In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Ilúvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him."

Many of the images of the book are familiar and unique all at the same time.  My favorite occurs early in the book.  The world created through the great Music is dark at first, but then Yavanna, one of the Ainur, the Giver of Fruits, thinks a new thought and asks Aulë, the great smith, to realize her idea.  Together, they build two great pillars, one at the extreme south of Middle Earth, the other at the extreme north.  (Later, when these towers tumble through the treachery of Melkor, the Enemy, we learn that their fall stirred the oceans to a frenzy and changed the shape of the land forever; these were tall towers indeed!)  On top of the each pillar, Yavanna places a great light, and the whole world begins to bud forth: grasses and moss at first, and then immense trees with their feet planted firmly in the ground and their heads soaring above the clouds.  Their growth is greatest in the center of the world, where the lights mingle.

Now for these two lights to mingle and yet illuminate the whole land, the world must be flat.  Suddenly the image coalesces in my mind.  A giant land mass lies before me; like our world yet flat like a map, I see it all in one comprehensive glance.  It is as big as Eurasia, yet every detail of every blade of grass seems clear.  Lights atop two pillars perhaps thousands of miles high shine through atmosphere clearer than any post-Industrial Revolution human has ever breathed.  I have never seen such a sight, and yet I know the exact shades of green, I feel the warmth of the great lights, I smell the soil, and I see the magical twilight that hovers beneath the leafy canopy.

The world is made brokenly beautiful by the catastrophe of the pillars, beautiful but unbearable to the Ainur.  So they retire to the realm of Valinor, where Yavanna again makes two great lights.  Only this time, rather than trees coming from the light, the light comes from two trees: Telperion with its dark green leaves shedding silver light and Laurelin with its spring-green leaves and golden light.  The luminescence of each tree slowly pulses, and the darkness of one coincides with the full brightness of the other; the greatest glory comes every six hours when, again, the lights mingle.  Before Melkor spoils this wonder, the elf Fëanor crafts silmarils: exquisite jewels that capture the light of of the trees.

In the years since the first publication of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien has published many of his father's working notes, earlier versions of the history, and unfinished tales.  Recently though, he published a polished, book-length version of the story of one of the chapters (The Tale of the Children of Hurin) and announced that it was one of three stories from The Silmarillion that his father deemed great enough to flesh out.  Another Tolkien trilogy?  If MGM can recover from bankruptcy, they will put out Peter Jackson's version of The Hobbit in the next couple of years, his second monumental attempt to bring Tolkien to film.  But since Jackson's screenwriters have announced that they believe Professor Tolkien made mistakes in his stories that they need to correct, I pray that this announcement of a trilogy of Silmarillion chronicles doesn't lead to yet another series of Peter Jackson films.  If he and his friends didn't understand Aragorn and Faramir, how could they begin to comprehend the profound wisdom and beauty of The Silmarillion?

Whatever Peter Jackson does or doesn't do with Tolkien's history of Middle Earth, I will always have the books.  Like Fëanor, Tolkien captured some of the light of Ilúvatar and crafted it into his literary gems.  The light of Ilúvatar shines in our world, as well.  And the beauty is greater when the lights mingle.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wittgenstein Was a Beery Swine

Suppose a friend points a finger and asks, "What is that?"  Do you answer, "A finger"?  Of course not.  You look in the direction of your friend's finger at something else.  But what exactly do you look at?  Your friend doesn't know what it is and can't name it.  Nevertheless usually you find the same thing and can converse about it.  Maybe you don't know what it is, either, but you know it is an it.  And after all, your friend has a name for it: he called it that.  You both have some idea that an object exists to point at, but that primary idea cannot be communicated.  Somehow we simply already know it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote of this unlearnable knowledge that comes before communication, wrote for years on the philosophy of language, and in fact defined philosophy as an examination and clarification of language.  Significant things are not as they appear, he says, and yet traditions in language keep us from seeing things clearly.  Philosophy must find these "grammatical knots" and untie them; the exercise, he says, is both as urgent and as difficult as getting a hair out of your mouth.

As far as I know, Wittgenstein was not a beery swine, although the Monty Python song that claims it is extremely funny.  Earlier this year I read a collection of excerpts from his works (Wittgenstein's works, not Monty Python's) and found them far too thoughtful to be the product of a dizzy sot.  These anthologies (the Blackwell Reader series, the Portable series from Penguin, etc.) generally contain writings from throughout a thinker's life, and critical notes to help make sense of it all.  This way, the fellow who wants to understand one philosopher's ideas doesn't have to get entangled in the details of a large book, only to find that he doesn't understand the work and doesn't know how important the ideas in that particular book are to the writer's entire philosophy or whether the thinker ever changed his mind.  I found out in this anthology, for instance, that, after having laid out in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus a systematic philosophy showing that every conceivable state of affairs in the world should have a clear parallel in language, Wittgenstein later rejected the idea.  I've read similar anthologies for Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in recent years, and in each case, I ended up glad I had not read just one of the books excerpted.  I plan to read one for Hegel in 2011.

Like William James, Wittgenstein believed there is in us no will to move, say, an arm apart from actually moving the arm.  Unlike James, he said that we cannot even think without speaking or at least imagining speaking.  (Try it!)  On the other hand, we have feelings, experiences, and interpretations that we cannot communicate in speaking at all.  I don't know if the sky looks the same to you as it does to me; I only know that we both say it looks "blue."  But your blue could be my red, and we could never know it; your saying it doesn't really convey to me the image you get.  Similarly, we do and should help someone who appears in pain, but we can never know if his feeling of pain is the same as ours; no amount or precision of language can ever convey the exact impression.  You can be sure that blue looks like blue to you, but to try to explain it to me, you have only one source to draw on: your experience.  How could you ever check one source for accuracy, Wittgenstein asks.  That would be like looking in the same edition of a newspaper over and over to check the veracity of a story.

In passages on religion and faith, Wittgenstein says that all religious statements are similes, and that we can't find what they are similes for.  This view seems right to me; God's true nature is ineffable.  We say He is everywhere, but we know that as spirit, He does not occupy space (if anything, we should say that space is in Him rather than that He is in space), and that when incarnate, He occupied one particular tiny part of space at any given moment (in a manger, in a tax collector's home, on a cross).  So God is not actually everywhere the way air is all around us, but God is not nowhere, either.  What exactly are we trying to say?  Wittgenstein says that faith is possible in spite of our inability to voice precisely the ideas we believe in, and that these problems only show the limits of language, not the limits of God's existence.

Solomon said that God has placed eternity in our hearts.  Augustine said our hearts are restless until they rest in God.  Pascal said the human heart has a hole in it like a lock and that only Jesus is the perfectly fitting key.  I think Wittgenstein must have seen the soul's restless abyss and asked, "What is that?"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol

Obviously, I read things that aren't on The List: academic books and articles, student papers, detective fiction, children's books, things friends recommend.  Lately, like millions of others, I have been reading Christmas carols.  Or am I like millions of others?  I suppose many people sing them every year without much thinking about the words except as markers of happy memories and pious feelings, and I have no agenda to denigrate this function of language.  But I actually sometimes just read the texts, without singing or hearing the melody, and ruminate on their lessons.  (Such a pre-postmodern thing to do!)

I think "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" might really be the greatest song in existence.  With lyrics by Charles Wesley and music by Felix Mendelssohn, the song is bound to be beautiful.  But in this instance, each artist produced something especially good, and their separate contributions fit together like key and lock.

Wesley's original hymn begins, "Hark! How all the welkin rings!"  This effective figure of speech (a metonymy, I believe) raises the singular image of an entire sky filled with the sounds of celebration.  But "welkin" has become unfamiliar, and some helpful person has taught us instead to refer directly to the angels and their function as messengers.  After this change in the opening line, what we sing annually is almost pure Wesley, and the great hymn writer packs into the tableau the theology of redemption and the entire history of Christ's relationship to mankind: after a long war between God and sinful humans, the Desire of Nations has come, the Reconciler, the Prince of Peace, born of a virgin and completely righteous, the fullness of Deity born in human flesh after humbly emptying Himself of glory in order that we may have a second birth and avoid the Second Death.  If the nations truly understood this news, they would surely rise to join the welkin's triumph.

Mendelssohn's music combines the classic stateliness appropriate to a congregational hymn with the loveliness of the Romantic musical language.  In giving us a second key, its proper modulation in the phrase leading up to the midpoint presents a picture of two warring worlds (just in time for us to hear that these two worlds have been reconciled!), and its accented embellishments ("angels SI - ing," for instance, and "glory TOOO the newborn King") raise in us a longing to partake of this reconciliation.

But Mendelssohn's extraordinary contribution comes just after that midpoint, with the repeated unison D's ("JOY - FUL  ALL").  I remember playing this song soon after I learned to play a keyboard instrument (with a method that emphasized chords) and puzzling over the lack of harmony on these notes.  I tried a G major chord; it didn't sound right.  I tried a D major chord; it didn't sound right, either.  And of course nothing more exotic would fit at all.  These notes taught me something new under my dim sun: a melodic figure that truly had no harmony, either explicit or implied.  I'm accustomed now to all the pop-flavored recorded versions, with their tepid tonic harmony at this place.  But Mendelssohn's bold genius offered something infinitely better.  These insistently repeated, unison D's sound a clarion call that seizes our full attention and focuses it on the King.  Eminently suitable to the joy and triumph of verse 1, the regal fanfare befits even better the commands of verse 2: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!  Hail th'Incarnate Deity!"
Meditating on the same scene and urging us to listen to the same angels, "It Came upon the Midnight Clear" nevertheless portrays and evokes a completely different emotional spectrum.  Like many of Dickens's Christmas stories (see a post from earlier this month), this sweet song portrays a world of "solemn stillness."  Far from filling the welkin with noisy triumph, the angels in this carol sing so quietly, we must block out all the inner noise and listen hard in order to hear them.  (Check the little-known third verse here.)  And instead of proclaiming joy, the tender lyrics recall the pain of our lives and provide some much-needed talk therapy; it seems that every year I need to hear again its sympathetic urgings: "O ye beneath life's crushing load, . . . rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing."

They are bending near the earth still.  One is there, just at your shoulder.  Step off the weary road for a moment, and listen to the song.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Periodical, Episodical, and Methodical

Every fan -- probably about half the population of New York City, although it seemed like everyone -- every fan, as I say, wanted to know: Is Nell Dead?  The story's followers had been left with a cliffhanger and had to wait two months to learn the outcome.  They discussed the topic with friends and strangers, on the street and at dinner; they read the reviews and prognostications in the newspapers.  You ask: was Nell a character on a nighttime soap?  Was this suspenseful interruption a ratings-boosting trick by television producers that the public just doesn't remember as well as they remember wondering, Who shot J.R.?

No, this happened in the winter of 1841, and Nell was a character in a book.  Throngs of fans went to the piers in New York harbor looking for British ships and calling up to passengers and crew: "Is Nell Dead?"  The scene repeated itself each day until the new copy of a periodical called Master Humphrey's Clock showed up on one of those ships, and the Americans at last found out the answer to their question.

The book was The Old Curiosity Shop, and it was published (as were all of Charles Dickens's novels) serially.  Master Humphrey's Clock presented two of his early novels and a handful of his stories in its monthly numbers.  Later, after his popularity and wealth were secured, Dickens started his own journals: Household Words in the 1850s and All the Year Round in, roughly, the 1860s.  Each issue of these periodicals offered the subscribers a new portion of the current Dickens novel; portions of one or more other novels by, say, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, or Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame); various vignettes; and short stories, sometimes even just one part of a short story.

Now, in some of his novellas, including several of the lesser-known Christmas stories I've been reading this month, Dickens let Collins and others write some of the interior chapters.  As we've seen recently on television series with single overarching plots -- X-Files, Buffy, or LOST, for instance -- the story, characters, tone, and theme can remain coherent and consistent even if the creative genius who starts the story lets others write occasional installments, always stepping in again at crucial episodes, especially the last.  For nineteenth-century subscribers, "Dickens's" novellas appeared as seamless as these television series seem to us.  But for any reader since the 1890s, when these novellas were first collected and published in book form, giant gaps appear; the chapters by other writers simply aren't included, not even in online sources of the books such as Project Gutenberg.  My response to the predicament has always been divided: part of me wishes I knew how the story got from point A to point D, and part of me remembers that I'm reading these stories for Dickens's special style -- for everything he could do with or without a plot.

But a great, blessed event has occurred in just the last couple of months.  The University of Buckingham has completed its labor and given birth to Dickens Journals Online.  Every issue of Household Words and All the Year Round has been scanned and posted online.  These lovely, clear reprints are probably available in multiple places, but the most convenient entryway I've found is at  (Just search there for "Dickens Journals Online.")  Now I can read all the missing parts to these novellas, all the stories by other writers.  If I wanted to, I could log on once a month (both in the sense of "sign in" and in the sense of "put a log on") and read a novel the way it was first read.  Maybe for my third ten-year reading plan!

By the way, Nell died.  (I know, it's really not nice to give away plots.  The next thing you know, I'll be telling you that Rosebud is a sled.)  Twentieth-century critics have denounced the scene of Nell's death as sentimental, and so did I on my first reading of TOCS, in the early 1980s.  But when I reread the book a couple of years ago, the scene struck me as beautiful and completely justified.  First, sentimental looks different at 50 than it does at 25.  Having children and grandchildren probably contributes to that change.  Second, I know more about Dickens's method now and what he was trying to say with his death scenes.  In almost all that he wrote, and especially in those scenes, Dickens tried to inspire each reader to examine his life, to find the points at which he had strayed from the path, and to let go and give over to sanity again.  To Dickens, every person is Scrooge.  Third, after Nell walks with her grandfather through the fires of Hell and then leads him into the safety and rest of the Church, what else was a good writer supposed to do with her?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pleasure and Sorrow and Heads of Pins

I have heard people say that medieval philosophers spent pointless time arguing about pointless questions and should therefore be ignored.  You all know the supposedly pointless question about heads of pins.  In reading Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica over the last fifteen years or so, I suppose I must admit I have read a question or two whose point did not jump out at me.  But mostly I see discussions (based on reason, observation, and authority) about vital and interesting issues in theology, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, law, and other point-full fields.

My section of Aquinas for 2010 included a series of questions on pleasure and sorrow.  According to Thomas, a human is a composite of body and soul that has a faculty, called appetite, that operates in both parts of the composite.  Our body has desires, preferences, pleasures, and pains, and so does our soul.  Pleasure can and does result from two related events: (a) attainment of a good (a good object, a good feeling, knowledge, etc,) and (b) knowledge of that attainment. 

Now right from the start we have a terribly interesting proposition.  If Thomas is right, my life can be better because of some factor of which I'm not aware, and then my life can be even more pleasant if I become aware of that pleasant factor.  (He calls this second pleasure, the pleasure of knowing about pleasure, enjoyment.)  I might even know something that benefits me without knowing that I know it, and then find joy in learning that I know it.  It sounded a little confusing at first until I started thinking of examples.  I grew up not knowing that I had what seem a king's riches when my middle-class suburban home was compared to the way most humans have lived (and still do).  My life was undoubtedly pleasant because of the warmth, food, toys, entertainment, books, and travel opportunities that I grew up with.  But as I continually become aware that I have no right to take these privileges for granted, they become even more valuable.  As another example, I might watch a movie, see a painting, or read a book that seems good even if I can't explain why; the experience brings me pleasure.  But how much more pleasure do I derive when someone explains the lighting technique, the organizing form, the hidden reference!

Pain, conversely, comes from a lack of good and from the perception of that lack.  Some pleasures bring a kind of pain by being incomplete.  If I'm simply not satisfied with the riches I have, that pain is a bad thing; but if my pain is sorrow from the knowledge that not everyone can enjoy the riches I have, that pain can be a good thing -- especially if it leads to a good, charitable action.  (The only complete pleasure, by the way, is union with God and knowledge of -- or enjoyment of -- that union.  Remember the Westminster Catechism: "The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever."  And see the post called Happiness with Aquinas below.)

If you still think Thomas's questions sound pointless, consider his section on the remedies for sorrow and pain.  (1) Any kind of pleasure assuages any kind of sorrow, as bringing rest to weariness.  Think of a backrub after a hard day.  (2) Tears assuage sorrow as a release.  Practical!  Give yourself time to cry; you'll feel better.  (3) A friend's sympathy can assuage sorrow: the display not only seems to bear some of the burden; it also demonstrates love, which itself is pleasant to think about.  So talk to a friend.  (4) Think about God.  Or in fact, think about anything else but the pain.  Meditate.  Do Lamaze breathing.  Listen to music.  Go to a movie, and get your mind off the pain for a while.  (5) Go to sleep.  (6) Take a bath.  Does this sound like a fussy, ascetic monk arguing abstruse, pointless questions?

Thomas Aquinas's great book has a section on angels.  I read that section last year and did not find anything about heads of pins.  Knowing that people complain about Thomas in ignorance causes me sorrow.  I'm going to assuage that sorrow now by going to a friend's house and having a good meal.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dickens's Christmas Encounters

It would be a gross understatement to say that Christmas is my favorite day.  "One man regards one day above the rest.  Another regards every day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind."  I am fully convinced that I am One Man and not Another.  Christmas celebrates the birth of God on Earth, his appearance in flesh, his encounter with all humanity.  And in that celebration -- with the church services, the greenery, the lights, the candles, the decorations, the four weeks of anticipation, the food, the beautiful music, the cheesy music, the presents, and the prayers -- I most sense God's encounter with me.

It seems Dickens thought the same way, and his pious giddiness for Christmas transformed our world.  He wrote a special book or story for Christmas almost every year; his most famous story is only the pudding in a copious feast of Christmas dishes (although the "Christmas Carol's" bright rum-drenched blaze rightly remains the focal point of the meal).  In any one of those years, many an English family eagerly paid two shillings for the Christmas number of Dickens's current periodical, closed the doors and shutters against Winter's icy onslaught, sat around a glowing fire, and read aloud the latest story, which often featured a family taking refuge from Winter's icy onslaught and sitting around the fire glowing with familial love and Christmas cheer.  As natural as it seems to us now, Dickens practically invented this association of warmth, family, and cheer with Christmas and through his beautiful tales spread it around the English-speaking world; his description of the Ghost of Christmas Present shedding Christmas joy from a cornucopia was autobiographical.  When Dickens started his career, the Christmas card was virtually unknown; by the end of his career, the exchange of Christmas cards was as standard as it is today.

I'm in the middle of two of the Christmas stories right now: "The Haunted House" and "Tom Tiddler's Ground."  Neither has anything obvious to do with Yuletide; the first recounts the adventures of a couple who can't keep servants in the house because they keep hearing noises in the night, and the second tells of a man who has dropped out of society and everything that comes with it, including windows and bathing.  Why on earth did Dickens publish these stories in December, and how on earth did they contribute to the cultural pervasiveness of Christmas and the popularity of Christmas cards?  I believe at least part of the answer lies in the sounds of nighttime and solitude.

I haven't finished the first one, so I don't know if any actual ghosts show up; so far all the noises arise from interactions of wind and gutter.  The wind can blow in any of the twenty-four hours, of course, but the servants only hear the sounds at night.  These sounds, in conjunction with rumors about the house, raise in the servants' minds thoughts and even visions of spirits.  The second tale (a novella) contains a chapter about a girl left completely alone at her boarding school one day.  Kitty finds that she hears every tick of the clock, every click of her sewing needle.  Her loneliness leads briefly to false doubts about the affection of her friends and of her father, but Kitty then makes inspection of her soul and discovers different thoughts both happy and true.  Each story reminds us that certain hushed circumstances heighten both our sense of hearing and our awareness of the spiritual: ghosts in the one and love in the other.

Darkness, winter air, and a blanket of snow provide another such set of circumstances.  The silence amplifies every rustling bird wing, every snap of a frozen twig, every drip from a pendulous icicle.  But the experience, especially to a lone observer, is spiritually awakening as well.  Every crunching step through the crystal crust seems a violation of the sacred.  Of course, December 25 is a cultural convention, and of course cold air and abundant darkness on that date come from an accident of geography and cosmic mechanics.  Christmas is warm and sunny in Sydney.  But we work with what we have, and Dickens confronts his readers again and again with these scenes of solitude, silence, and snow to remind us that numinous encounters can and should happen at Christmas.

To address a spiritual crisis I experienced one winter a few years ago, I listened for months to the same piece over and over in the car: Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium." The CD offered this translation of the text:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia! Lord, I heard your call and was afraid.
I considered your works, and I trembled between two animals.
When I think about that last line, I imagine myself a blessed goat in the cave on that blessed night.  When I look at a creche, a gaily lit tree, or a Dickens Christmas story, the noises disappear, a sacred hush settles on the world around me, the Word of God suddenly becomes audible and clear, and I tremble.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Increase Your Word Power with Dickens

Reader's Digest used to have (maybe it still does) a vocabulary quiz each month called "Increase Your Word Power."  Any time I read an issue, I always take the quiz, always do well, and almost always learn a new word.  I like sesquipedalian words and have a proclivity for learning them.  That dilatory sentence had two; I hope their inclusion has not given this post a prematurely soporific effect.

I have learned many words from Charles Dickens over the years; I keep a list that currently stands at 127.  Dombey and Son proved a veritable catalog of this vocabulary and renewed my joy for the words.  Some of these words I now notice in general (if infrequent) use: assuage, diurnal, mollify, and voracious, for instance.  But others I still associate only with Dickens, and because I like to use them, some of my friends associate them only with me.  Here's a matching quiz on some favorites:

a. large; roomy
b. fawning; falsely agreeable and complimentary
c. commandingly loud (said of a voice)
d. an expression of warm praise
e. cheerful eagerness
f. a fit or attack of bodily symptoms
g. intensive study
h. wise
i. obnoxiously ill-behaved
j. shame

___ alacrity
___ capacious
___ encomium
___ ignominy
___ lucubration
___ obsequious
___ obstreperous
___ paroxysm
___ sagacious
___ stentorian

e, a, d, j, g, b, i, f, h, c

Why does Dickens use these words?  Why not just say "wise" rather than "sagacious"?  I can think of three reasons.  First, both the length and the rarity of the words seem to intensify their meanings.  A sagacious person sounds much more wise than a wise person.  "Capacious" is a bigger word than "big" or "large" or "roomy," so it sounds bigger.  Imagine a misbehaving boy.  Which sounds more expressive of your reaction: "You bad child" or "You obstreperous child"?  And "ignominy" is such an awkward word, it hardly looks like English at all. Where is the accent?  Does it really only have one n near the end?  The word is so misshapen, it surely feels shame in the company of the other words in the sentence and therefore expresses more shame.

Second, these words almost always appear in the narration, not in dialog, and Dickens often uses the tone ironically.  Captain Cuttle, who views all problems as nautical issues, is called sagacious.  What can this mean but that Captain Cuttle is not the quintessential wise philosopher or ethical guide?  His simple remedies are almost always invaluable, though, and the narrator's affection for the kind-hearted mariner shows through the word "sagacious" in a way that "wise" could not match.  When little Paul Dombey's schoolmates see his pretty sister, Florence, the narrator tells us they heap encomiums on her.  Again, the word is funny because we know the eight-year-olds' compliments are not eloquent or original enough to deserve the high-toned word.  And yet, doesn't the use of the word suggest that Florence herself would deserve every poetic praise of the most passionate adult admirer?

Third, I imagine that Dickens enjoyed the words even more than I do and just couldn't resist using them.