Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Selling a Good Book

I had a typical meeting with a graduate student the other day concerning the proposal for his dissertation. He's perfectly intelligent and has plenty of interesting things to say, but somehow he doesn't quite say these things in his proposal. So I tried to help him find a way to begin his book, and in doing so, I brought up the examples of David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

When the four words "John," "Adams," "David," and "McCullough" appeared on the cover of a new book twelve or so years ago, I and a million other people who saw that cover knew immediately that we had to read the book. Yet McCullough still carefully spends time at the beginning of John Adams convincing prospective readers to spend hours of their lives on his efforts. And then the narrative begins with an arresting tableau: John Adams sitting on a horse in a snowstorm somewhere between his home in Braintree and Philadelphia, where he will attend the Continental Congress. The vivid, concrete picture captures the imagination and suggests the significance of the moment as the local farmer travels for the first time to help found a new republic, typifying a time when the scope of many people's political thinking suddenly exploded from the provincial to the national.

Everybody who saw Doris Kearns Goodwin on Ken Burns's Baseball was charmed by her, and everyone charmed by her wanted to read Wait Till Next Year as soon as it came out. But again, the master storyteller spends time at the beginning of her book making the sell. She tells about all the baseball questions she started fielding on her lecture circuit, and she tells about becoming an historian by keeping score while listening to the Dodgers games during the day and recounting the events for her father when he got home from work. Again we get a concrete picture that hooks us and at the same time suggests the significance of the theme of the book.

Good books begin by wooing readers. It's just one of the social graces. You don't go out on a first date, sit down to the table, and launch into your life story beginning with the details of your birth -- not if you want a second date. And books that want to be read don't begin by opening the floodgates of factual detail.

A few days ago I began a good book, one that begins by convincing the reader to continue reading. It makes the sell twice in fact: once through the words of the original author and once through the words of the translator. I've known for a long time that I would read the Church History of Eusebius. I love history. I love ancient books. I love the Church. So my encounter with this book was sealed in fate, and it began with the author and translator convincing me I had made the right decision.

Translator Paul L. Maier begins his introduction by calling Eusebius the father of church history and comparing him to Herodotus. As Maier explains it, Eusebius was the first to write a church history (after the biblical authors), and no one in ancient times copied his effort. As a result, many details and much quoted material are known to us only because of Eusebius. Maier goes on to describe Eusebius' life and his close association with Constantine, to list Eusebius' long catalog of works, and to explain what niche his new translation fills (it abandons the complex ancient sentence structure in favor of smoothly flowing modern English rhetoric). The introduction ends by saying, "Here then is the most important work of the most voluminous extant author, pagan or Christian, of the late third and early fourth centuries: the first history of the church ever written." I finished the introduction much clearer about the significance of the book I was about to start.

Eusebius himself then begins his book with an explanation of its contents and their importance. First he indicates that he will record the most important events in the history of the church and describe the most distinguished leaders in the most famous locations. Clearly the topic is weighty. Then he explains his method of poring through great numbers of documents and humbly indicates his debt to previous authors, pointing out, though, that he is the first to assimilate all this material. And then he begins his history of the Church not with the events of some mundane date but by going outside of time and recounting of the Bible's teaching on the Church's Founder as the preexisting Word and Wisdom of God. Eusebius could not describe a more important subject.

I've read almost half of the book now, and it has not disappointed. I'll have more to say about the contents in a future post.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Geneva Conventions

Today I come to a subject I've been dreading writing about since I started this blog last year. As part of my ten-year reading plan, I wanted to read all of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, and each year I read one-tenth of it. Now I know a few Calvinists (it feels like a very small number) that I can have good conversations with, people who are interested in saying what they think, hearing what I think, discussing the angles, keeping a friendly tone, and departing as Christian friends. But I have encountered a large number of vocal Calvinists who have made me feel very uncomfortable through what seems like a belligerent determination to make it clear that their devotion to Calvin's teaching is greater than their devotion to me as a friend and to our mutual bond in the Body of Christ. On a number of occasions Calvinists with whom I was unacquainted have contacted me on the internet and taken the initiative to straighten out the errors in what they presumed to be my theology. I want to record some of my thoughts about this year's portion of the Institutes, but I don't relish receiving more online assaults. So for today I will try to restrict all my judgments to statements about my thoughts and reactions to Calvin, and not statements about either Calvin himself or his book. I may also have a few more statements about my reactions to Calvinists.

I decided to read Calvin first because I want to see what all the fuss is about. I want to read the original (OK, the translation of the original) presentation of the theology that seems to make some people mad with self-confidence, but I also read because I suspect that the people who have irritated me so much don't entirely agree with Calvin or even know exactly what he said. Mind, I don't pretend to say that they are truly mad with self-confidence, that the theology has made them this way, or that they are ignorant of Calvin's true ideas; I only say that affairs seem this way to me, and my view of everything in the world, including Calvinists, suffers the usual human distortions from self-interest, desire for stability and easy answers, limited mental faculties, and the whims and feelings of the moment.

I found some confirmation of a disconnect between Calvin and his present-day followers in this year's reading. My hazy impression of a faulty memory of one conversation tells me that some Calvinists sitting in my living room once told me that the unsaved could do no good works. That theological tenet may conceivably be true, but I can't see how. Common sense tells us that people all over the world of every religion and of no religion do good things every day: parents feed and teach their children, traders honor their contracts, employees perform their jobs with skill, and their employers pay them. Added to this (probably unduly rosy) view of the world are the words of Jesus. When He says, "What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? . . . If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children . . . ," I take it as an indication that the Son of God acknowledges that even evil people do good things for their children. As I read it, Calvin supports my view. In chapter 4 of book 3, he says (1) that unbelievers have various "excellent endowments" as gifts from God, (2) that common sense shows us a difference between, for instance, Trajan and Caligula, (3) that God "visits those [unbelievers] who cultivate virtue with many temporal blessings," and (4) that God uses these virtuous actions to preserve human society. Calvin then makes what seems to me a responsible distinction when he goes on to say that unbelievers perform good works from motives other than that of serving and glorifying Jesus Christ and that they do not earn favor with God by these works since salvation comes by grace through faith. This all seems like reasonable, biblical teaching, but then I have no seminary training.

While I read Calvin for information, I also hope for spiritual teaching and encouragement; I want my experience with Calvin to make me better, not just more knowledgeable. And I've found several uplifting passages in my reading this year. Quickly reviewing the chapters from last year, I reread excellent passages on giving help to everyone who asks and on suffering all hardships with cheer amidst the pain and grief. Both points depend on remembering and identifying with Jesus and his suffering for us; why should we not gladly help the most annoying, loathsome person when he is marked with the image of God, and why should we not show patience under adversity when Jesus submitted to his Father's call to the cross? I also enjoyed passages praising God's continual mercy to the believer in showing favor on his imperfect attempts at living righteously. I found Calvin helpful in pointing out that after James says, "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works?" the next uses of the word "faith" refer only to what the man says he has. And I think Calvin is correct in pointing out that commitments to legalism naturally deepen; the man who calls it a sin to drink a pleasant wine will go on to outlaw wine altogether and end by looking down on fresh water.

The good parts, though, are somewhat scarce for me. I find Calvin's polemical tone and name-calling tiresome, and they weaken the power of his message in my mind. Calvin can hardly outline a doctrine without railing against people of opposing views. "Our endeavour must rather be," he says in the chapter on Christian liberty, "while not suppressing this very necessary part of the doctrine, to obviate the absurd objections to which it usually gives rise." This statement makes it sound to me, in fact, as if his primary goal is destroying objections, not laying out the doctrine itself. Calvin does not seem to me to follow his own advice on cheerfully serving people who rub us the wrong way; he calls them "insane," "childish," "absurd," "hallucinatory," and "pestiferous." At one point he calls his opponents knowingly deceptive since his own doctrine is so "obvious." I wonder why such an "obvious" doctrine needs 1300 pages of explication and combative defense; my wonder only increases in chapter 19 where he says, "Their follies are scarcely worthy of refutation." And I can never read Calvin without remembering the deaths that many dissenters received in Calvin's Geneva.

I know that I'm as bad as Calvin; I can't talk about him without complaining about Calvinists that have annoyed me. My concern that the Unknown Calvinist will come trolling my site and launch a missile is probably exaggerated. These are only my impressions and reactions, and I would think it difficult for someone to argue that I don't indeed have the impression that I say I have. But if someone wants to argue, I'll try to show good cheer, following Calvin's advice rather than his example.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Planet Narnia

In 2008, I had the pleasure of attending the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute for the second time. Traipsing around Oxford, visiting the Bodleian library, eating at the Eagle and Child, attending service at St. Mary's, and browsing for books at Blackwell's make for a very pleasant holiday. Add the academic sessions, the evening presentations of music and drama, and the other Lewis devotees attending the Institute, and the experience can't be topped.

Among many other optional activities and events, participants at the Institute can choose one of several three-day seminars to attend in the afternoon. Three years ago, while several topics on the seminar list looked promising, a series on The Chronicles of Narnia really caught my eye. The description spoke of connections between the Narnia books and the traditional characters of the planets, a topic of interest to Lewis as anyone who has read his space trilogy knows. The blurb went on to say that the session leader, Dr. Michael Ward, would base the sessions on his recent book, Planet Narnia. So I sent in my reservation for that seminar, checked the book out of the OU library, and was blown away.

Ward says in his introduction, essentially, "I know this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, but I believe I have found the secret principle of the organization of the Narnia books." The idea struck him, he says when reading a poem by Lewis on the planets, a poem containing these lines about Jove (i.e. Jupiter):
Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master . . . 
Ward thought, "That sounds like the plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Studying the seven novels in the Narnia series and everything Lewis wrote about the planets, Ward continued to find parallels that ultimately convinced him he had found the secret. And then he wrote a book that convinced me; each detail in the theory seems fortuitous in isolation, but the consistency of the parallels proves overwhelming in the end.

Take The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for instance, which Ward links with the Sun. The Sun gives light and is traditionally associated with gold; in the book, the heroes sail along a sunbeam and at one point discover a pool of water that turns everything it touches to gold. The Magician's Nephew with its creation story draws inspiration from Venus, long associated not only with love (of various kinds) but also with birth, growth, and creation. In traditional, Ptolemaic cosmology, the sphere of the moon divides the universe into the perfect world above and the changeable world below. In The Silver Chair, readers find an underground world ruled by a witch who denies the truth of the glorious world above; in the meantime, Prince Rilian has been turned into a luna-tic and sits in a chair made of the metal alchemists linked to the moon.

In reading The Last Battle last week, I kept in mind Dr. Ward's linkage of that book and the character of Saturn, a god of death, coldness, and judgment. In Greek, Saturn is Kronos (or Time), and at one point in the book, Aslan calls upon Father Time to bring an end to Narnia. In this book about the end of the world, I wasn't surprised to come across many references to death and judgment, but I hadn't remembered how how many times silence came up. Many times the heroes have to move silently and work at whispering without saying S's, whose hiss might give them away. Some characters stay reticent by choice, while others are silenced supernaturally. Lewis also associates Saturn with silence (and time) in a passage from That Hideous Strength describing the sensation of weight that fills the room when the angel of Saturn descends to earth:
It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.
I looked up that quotation because I remembered the silence, but it surprised me just now to see mention of a "mountain whose summit never comes into sight," an image that comes up again near the very end of The Last Battle. That find deepens my conviction that Michael Ward has indeed found the secret of The Chronicles of Narnia, but I'm sure my few examples won't convince anyone else who's never heard the theory before. If you're interested in finding out more, visit Dr. Ward's website, and then read the book. If you're like me at all (and who wouldn't want to be?), you'll find that this theory deepens your reading of both the Narnia series and the space trilogy.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Further Up and Further In

This morning I finished reading The Last Battle, the final installment of the Chronicles of Narnia (no matter which ordering you're used to). Even on this third reading, it moved me physically as it has before. It has me pondering, crying, and worshiping all at once. And now I'm writing about it. Wordsworth famously defined poetry as an expression of "emotion recollected in tranquility," so I should be cautious about writing before my emotions become tranquil. But then I remember that my goal is not to write anything like Wordsworthian poetry, so I press onward.

The book is one of remarkable contrasts. Three fourths of it take place around a small stable on a hill (with a couple of excursions to a nearby tower), yet the final quarter unfolds as a race across an infinite land, large beyond imagination. The story starts with an ugly, lying ape and ends with a beautiful Lion Who is Truth Itself. And along the way people make choices of the starkest contrast. They find that, no matter what their apparent religion or irreligion, in the end they all serve one of two masters: the good, glorious Aslan or the evil, hideous Tash. Actually, we discover that even Tash serves Aslan, although unwillingly, so that those who live for this dark, baroque copy of the Master err partly in worshiping a subordinate. They don't look past the creature to the Creator.

This idea of subordinates and copies fills the latter portion of the book, where all the good children and kings and Talking Beasts go "through the door" into the new Earth and the new Heaven. From their safe position next to Aslan on the bright side of the door, the children watch life disappear from Narnia and then see the world go dark as the stars fall to the ground and the sun and moon are extinguished. But they turn around to discover that the new bright world they're standing in is Narnia, too -- an even better Narnia. And yet it also reminds them of the best childhood memories they have of England. A professor explains to them that the England and Narnia they knew were only copies of the true lands. And sure enough, from one high vantage point, they see all of the true Narnia laid out below them: the same as the old and yet bigger and more colorful and better. And then they look across a great valley (with new eyes able to see detail even at the greatest distances) and see the true England where "no good thing is destroyed."

The long passage gives the most vivid demonstration of what is perhaps C. S. Lewis's greatest idea: the argument from desire. Lewis explains in several books an experience he calls joy, a sense of delight in an earthly thing that nevertheless raises a desire for something transcendent. Other human desires are directed to existing objects, he points out: hunger, for instance, tells us we need food, and food exists to satisfy the hunger. This desire for the transcendent, he argues, must also point us to something real. Every time the children in the Narnia series have seen something in either England or Narnia that was good or beautiful, they were seeing a copy of Aslan's true land, a copy that made them long for the reward they enjoy at the end of The Last Battle.

We need the earthly things -- the copies -- to stir up the desire, and the Narnia books do just that for me. The Last Battle is an earthly thing, but it makes me long for a heavenly land. I want to be in Narnia, even at 52. And yet the good professor in this book tells me that Narnia itself is only a copy of something even greater. And the children learn as they go through Aslan's true world that its paths always lead upward to realms even truer. The children mystically rise through a waterfall that casts two rainbows, an image that reminds me of Dante ascending through the different colors of light in the heavens of Paradiso. At the top, the river leads them to a walled area with golden gates, but when they pass through they find a world even bigger than the one that contains the wall. Every world is larger than the one that contains it, again much like the heavenly circles in the Divine Comedy.

And that is the part that excites me the most: even after the children see Aslan's face, their story isn't over. A flying eagle keeps urging them to go "further up and further in," and the farther they go, the more they find that the worlds get bigger and bigger. Aslan, it seems, has an eternity of blessed, growing service for all his followers. By this progression to infinity, Lewis wonderfully raises in me a longing for things beyond my powers of comprehension. I want to go through those golden doors, so surely something like them exists. But until I find out what they are and what worlds lie behind them, I will have to take what adventures Aslan sends me.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Three Points off the Larboard Beam

A few years ago while traveling to or from the AP Music Reading, I was browsing at a bookstore in the airport and noticed a cover with a picture of a sailing ship. I think those vessels, with their complexes of spars and ropes and all those white curves, may be the most beautiful instrumental things ever made by human hands. And I like historical adventure. So I picked the book up to check it out. It appeared to form part of a series, and the blurb on the cover said the New York Times Book Review thought they were "the best historical novels ever written." This was the New York Times, not the Dixon Pilot, and "best" and "ever" didn't each have capitals and periods, so the blurb really caught my attention. I felt the call: this was something I had to read.

The book was part of the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. I don't remember which volume it was, but a comparison between the list inside and the shelf in the store showed me they didn't have the first: Master and Commander. So I didn't buy then. I waited until I got home, tried a library copy, and loved it. I've been reading one a year ever since, for eleven years.

The books present three hurdles to the new reader that might make the series seem a little daunting at the outset. First, O'Brian fills the narration with technical terms, topical references, and period slang. Chapter two of this year's selection starts with a good example of sailing talk:
The caravel Nossa Senhora das Necessidades, a very old-fashioned square-sterned vessel, was taking advantage of the in-shore breeze to approach Needham's Point; but unhappily she was doing so on the starboard tack and the moment she crossed the line of white water separating the local breeze from the trade-wind she was brought by the lee -- the north-easter laid her right over and the Caribbean sea gushed in through her scuppers.
O'Brian's knowledge of the times is amazing. The period-specific language and topics come so quickly and consistently, it seems to me while I'm reading that O'Brian is not just an expert but a time-traveler. I read just the other day in a bit of narration -- not even dialog, mind you -- a reference to "both innate and acquired habits," just the kind of thing a (conservative) man of letters from 1812 might casually slip into his account. But if you don't know starboard from larboard or stem from stern or what a tack is or a scupper, the thought of three-hundred pages of this kind of thing can be intimidating. Help is available, though. I've learned a lot about early nineteenth-century sailing and the Napoleonic Wars from A Sea of Words by Dean King and friends: a guide to the Aubrey/Maturin series.

A second hurdle: O'Brian's narrative style involves sudden shifts of scene or perspective without warning. You're reading along in a conversation between, say, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin about, say, music. The tags disappeared a page ago: you know which words belong to Jack and which to Stephen because the speakers alternate conventionally with each indentation -- and because they have distinct voices: Stephen with his eloquent philosophy and classical allusions and Jack with his bluff navy cant and awkward attempts at wit. Then at the next quotation mark you read, "It's got to be ostrich eggs this mornin', which I mean ter say he don't never eat 'em afore they're cold." The first hundred times this happens can be disorienting, but this time you're used to it and you know: the time and scene have shifted abruptly, and this is the steward, Preserved Killick, grumbling as he prepares the captain's breakfast.

The third hurdle involves Stephen's mysterious activities and sidetrips, which go unexplained for a couple of volumes. But patience is rewarded, and the race becomes a pleasant trot after these hurdles are cleared. Of course, reading a book is not the same thing as an Olympic race: the reader can opt not to jump and simply walk around the hurdles. Skim over the technical jargon and just consider it all atmosphere. Laugh off the sudden changes with the assurance that all will be explained within a page or two. And enjoy Stephen's unexplained adventures as part of his rich character. For it's the characters living and breathing in this atmosphere that capture the imagination. Jack can go straight from playing a tune by Thomas Arne on his violin to a disciplinary hearing that ends with some poor hand getting fifty lashes for stealing grog. He covers the globe to follow orders or search for a prize ship, but he spends a quiet hour alone reading any time a port has a letter for him from his beloved wife Sophie. Stephen knows several languages, botany and zoology, medicine, and politics, but he can't remember starboard from larboard (or even stem from stern) and can't step into a tender without falling into the water. The two go to sea for different reasons and they often quarrel, but admire and trust each other and play beautiful music together whenever possible.

Are these the best historical novels ever? I don't know: A Tale of Two Cities is Pretty. Darn. Good. But I'm hooked on Aubrey and Maturin. I finished The Reverse of the Medal yesterday, and it ended with a cliffhanger. O'Brian always works a summary of the situation into the first chapter, so I've been doing fine reading one a year. But the overarching story has been getting more and more continuous with each volume, and now I'm left with a government official climbing the stairs with a message for Stephen and Jack already with a new ship, a crew, and a mission. I'll have to read volume twelve this summer, and I may have to speed up my schedule on these. Two a year? Three?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Screen Adaptations: Go Back to the Book

My daughter already has her ticket for the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie. She's very excited about it even though she doesn't much like the films. I've seen every one of them with her, and after seeing each movie, we always have a debriefing: I tell her what I liked and she tells me what she didn't like. Mostly what she doesn't like involves changes from the original storylines. I've read all the books, too, but I don't remember the details enough to catch all the differences, so maybe my bad memory helps me enjoy the movies more.

But watching film adaptations is a tricky business; the whole point of making such a movie is to take advantage of the book's fans, and yet a movie isn't a book, so the adaptation is almost certain to disappoint. But surely -- so contend book fans like my daughter and me (at least concerning books I remember better) -- surely staying more faithful to the original plot and characters makes for a better movie, one that will please both readers and nonreaders alike. Gone with the Wind provides the devotedly faithful example that keeps me scratching my head, wondering why other adaptations stray so far from their models. I know that in adapting a novel for the screen the narrative format has to change, that visuals have to give information provided verbally by the book's narrator (and fill in a lot of information not given in the book), that dialog must be featured, that scenes must be trimmed, and so on. But why must filmmakers substantially change elements as if they know how to improve the story or its message?

These concerns kept me from watching movie versions of favorite books for a couple of decades. But I've come around lately. I've watched a lot of screen adaptations in the last few years, and for the most part I've truly enjoyed them. I just finished the old eleven-hour version of Brideshead Revisited and came away amazed at the time, money, and respectful care the makers put into that miniseries; I'm so glad that the producers were willing to make the investment on the hopes that some audience would watch a slow, sprawling story about people whose dramatic turmoil takes place mostly behind the facade of English stoicism. I loved seeing all the scenes in Oxford after having visited that city three times, and the outrageous size of the castle they used for Brideshead boggled the mind. The performances were stunning, especially Phoebe Nicholls, who played Cordelia totally convincingly at both twelve years old and twenty-five. I had trouble watching the few energetically painful scenes, though. Anthony Andrews, for instance, played Sebastian's disastrous alcoholism too well; reading about it provides an emotional buffer welcome on a lazy summer morning.

I also very recently enjoyed a version of Anthony Troillope's The Barchester Chronicles. Again these made-for-television productions, many of which show first on Masterpiece Theater, tend to indulge in the details of the original, no matter how subtle or unsexy, a practice commercial theaters usually frown upon. The local cineplex would never show the six-hour story of an Anglican clergyman who quits his position because the newspapers say his salary is scandalously too high only to agonize over the decision because it may have shown a lack of courage. Many scenes unfold slowly as two people sit on a stone bench by a moss-covered wall, the birds merrily chirping, sometimes more than the people talk; much of the drama takes place in the sighs or held looks of the participating characters. Among the excellent cast, a young Alan Rickman stands out. (He plays despicable so well.)

Dickens is my favorite author, and after the Nicholas Nickleby stage show from the early 80s, most film versions bothered me, the main reason I stayed away from adaptations so long. But in the last year I've watched excellent versions of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, and The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens was a very vivid writer, and sometimes I wonder that other people don't see the characters as I see them; their faces pop from the prose so clearly. In more rational moments, I understand that some people won't see them at all as I do; in my understanding, naturally, these people just don't get it. The people who made the 80s versions of Bleak House and David Copperfield definitely did not. But then I'm amazed all over again that the filmmakers who do "get it" in fact see Dickens's world almost exactly as I see it. I've sometimes seen a picture of a cast and have been able to tell who plays which character just from their looks.

On a much different scale from that of the miniseries I've been watching and praising, Douglas McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby from 2002 is the best two-hour version of a long Dickens novel since David Lean's offerings in the 40s. (That judgment leaves aside adaptations of A Christmas Carol. The one with Patrick Stewart is the best of those.) It has all the key scenes, all the most important characters (not all of whom have many lines), and all the joy of the book. The film looks great and the actors are wonderful, but again the key to success for me is the film's faithfulness to the novel. In McGrath's commentary he twice mentions parts of the novel that stand as some of the funniest fiction ever written. That kind of reverence for the original carries over even into the parts that he had to condense or alter for the medium of film, so I enjoy even the changes as sincere tributes to the Great Man.

By comparison, somewhere in the days of special features in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of Peter Jackson's co-writers (Philippa Boyens, I think) gives a very unsatisfactory explanation of their alteration of the character of Faramir. In the movie, after Faramir captures Frodo and discovers he has the One Ring, Faramir holds it and considers using it to help in the war and perhaps to earn his father's favor. In Tolkien's book, though, Faramir wants nothing to do with the Ring, saying, "If I saw it lying by the side of the road, I would not pick it up." According to the featurette, the screenwriters made the change because they thought "Professor Tolkien made a mistake." As a result of this attitude of superiority, we have a series of movies whose very strengths frustrate the book's fans: everything that made them wonderful to behold will keep anyone from attempting a faithful adaptation for at least a generation. Thank goodness for Ian McKellan, who, in one of his interviews, claims that any time Jackson showed frustration that a scene wasn't working, he (McKellan) would advise the director, "Go back to the book." According to McKellan (and I believe him), Tolkien's original treatment solved the problem every time.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Socrates vs. Aristotle

I think I have lamented earlier in these posts about our culture's devotion to Socrates' theory of ethics and knowledge. According to the Socrates -- as Plato depicts him in his dialogs, in any case -- no one wants evil: as long as they know what's good, they'll pursue it. I doubt that there's actually any direct connection between American television and Socrates, but our public service announcements blare away in the happy hope that if we just tell kids that drugs are dangerous, they'll refrain from trying them. With the same hallucinating faith (is that even worse than blind faith?), the schools teach America's youth about "safe" sex, thinking that as long as high-school students (or middle-schoolers!) know about condoms, teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs will decrease.

How refreshing the other day to read Aquinas explain just why Socrates was wrong! In his section on sin, Aquinas has to battle this old theory that only ignorance can cause it, and he makes his first attack not with Bible verses or a line from Augustine but with Aristotle's Ethics. In book VII, "the Philosopher" (as Aquinas reverently calls him) points out that knowledge is not always actual: we know a lot more than we have in consciousness at any one time. I know, for instance, that the square of any even number is even and the square of any odd number odd, but I hadn't actually thought about it in a very long time. So a person with all the right knowledge can still sin: sometimes we just forget what's right and what's wrong, and sometimes passions distract us from actively considering the right knowledge.

With the aid of the Bible and other Christian authorities (including Augustine), Aquinas's analysis of sin goes a little farther. The first step involves defining sin. Following Aristotle, Aquinas agrees with Socrates that no one chooses evil per se. A sin is the choosing of a temporal, changeable good against reason or eternal law (or both). Earlier in my life, with little theological or philosophical training, some things that Aquinas calls good seemed neutral or even evil to me. Trying to be virtuous, I wouldn't have called money good twenty years ago. But money is good. It can't buy happiness, but as George Bailey says, "It comes in pretty handy." It can buy shelter, food, clothes, gifts, beautiful things, tickets to nice places, and so on. Money in itself is good; only its improper use is evil. Pleasure, too, is good. A life lived entirely for pleasure is not good, and without having thought it through, I would have said earlier that as a consequence, pleasure itself is not good. But of course it's good. Pain is evil, or else we wouldn't take pain reliever, and pleasure is good, or else we wouldn't ask for backrubs.

The key to understanding how we sin by choosing something good is in the hierarchy of goods. Goods of the soul rank higher than physical goods. Eternal goods ranker higher than temporal goods. A good that is used (like money when I use it to buy ice cream) ranks lower than the good I use it for (i.e., the ice cream). And so on. People regularly opt for some kind of pain (i.e. evil i.e. loss i.e. lack of good) as the price for a good. I might take nasty medicine to improve my health, for instance. I don't choose the evil (bad taste) for itself; primarily I choose the good thing (health) and accept the evil as a rational trade-off. Health is a higher good than pleasant feelings in the mouth, so this is a good trade. The Christian Scientist thinks exactly the same way when he makes the opposite choice. Given his premise that taking medicine hurts his soul, he chooses the disease of the body as the cost for the health of his soul, which is a higher good.

But what if I choose to steal your car to go for a thrill ride? My goal is the thrill (which is good: it's fun to be thrilled), but the cost I pay is faithfulness and right standing with the law. In this case I have given up higher goods for lower. According to Aquinas this happens when the sensitive appetite influences the will toward a changeable good and reason fails to offer the right thinking (or fails to "come to the rescue" as he says in one place). This breakdown can occur in any one of those three parts of the soul. The sensitive appetite might long for some good it perceives with passion so great it simply overwhelms the reason. The reason might be impaired (through lack of sleep or drunkenness, for instance) or, yes, it might be ignorant of some act being a sin. And the will might simply deliberately choose the lower good and accept the greater evil, a sin of malice.

I'm amazed at how much of this language ends up in our current legal practice. OK, to be more honest, I'm amazed at how much of this language ends up in television's depiction of current legal practice. I haven't spent a lot of time in a courtroom, thankfully. We talk of "crimes of passion," we hear that "ignorance is no excuse," and we hear sometimes that a suspect "did with malice aforethought" commit some crime. It all makes so much sense that even commercial television gets it. So why can't the schools figure it out?

Friday, June 10, 2011


Summer break started this week, and it allows some time for reading beyond my list. I've seen several vampire movies and watched a lot of Buffy and Angel, but I'd never read Stoker's Dracula, so I got a copy and started reading it this week. I found some surprises and some expected things, some fun parts and some extremely creepy parts.

Literary analysts say vampire stories are really about sex. But criminal psychologists say rape isn't about sex; it's about power. But theologians say desire for power is really a spiritual matter. So I think someone can read this novel several ways. You might even read it as a story of a guy who needs blood and has conveniently sharp teeth. But surely these other levels are present for anyone who wants to think about them.

I've liked horror stories ever since I first read "The Pit and the Pendulum," and I've enjoyed horror films ever since I first saw The Blob on late-night local TV. But for a long time I got no enjoyment out of vampire movies at all and avoided them; they were just too creepy for me. The idea that a person could be doomed to an eternity of evil with no choice in the matter but solely through the momentary action of another was too horrifying to be entertaining. Following this understanding, the vampire seems as powerful as God, and that dualist view bothers me.

Comedy settings could make the legend tolerable for me. Whether involving Gilligan or Abbott and Costello, the story's assurance of a happy ending meant that the victims had hope, that goodness had the greater power. These examples show the essential spirituality of the happy ending in even the most shallow of comedies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer got me looking at the legend in an entirely different way. In Buffy, vampires can by their own will and actions only weaken or kill, not take the soul. And that frightening situation is just the world we live in. Our bodies and their life-sustaining fluids are held together by thin membranes that can be ruptured by common objects surrounding us everywhere we go, and virtually anybody could mortally violate a person's fragility at anytime. When I think about stumbles and fumbles around rocks and sticks and kitchen knives, I wonder sometimes that we live at all. So I can deal with a monster who can destroy the body but cannot destroy the soul. To become a vampire in Buffy, the victim has to drink the vampire's blood as well. As Buffy herself explains it, "They suck your blood. You suck theirs. It's a whole sucky thing." (Interesting that the vampire world of producer Joss Whedon, an atheistic materialist, makes so much more sense to me than the dualist world I used to associate with vampires.)

I was surprised at the spiritual content of Stoker's novel. I knew that crucifixes worked as well as garlic in keeping a vampire away, but I didn't know how pious the vampire chasers would be. Van Helsing and others believe in God and in redemption by the blood of Jesus. They see themselves as equipped by God to stop an evil and restore souls. According to Stoker's mythology, a victim becomes a vampire if she dies while her sire is still functioning. From the time of the attack, her blood is poisoned and her soul is separated from God, despite even a most sincere faith. If she dies in this state, she becomes a vampire. She has two hopes, though: her soul is released from the curse if either the attacker becomes dead-dead (i.e., not even undead) before she dies or someone kills-her-kills-her (stake through the heart, decapitation, etc.). The pious victims in the novel agree to do this for each other if the need arises; they know their duty to free a victim's soul to go to Heaven. They know that circumstances may not work out, though; feeling their divine calling to seek Dracula and try to kill him, they also acknowledge their willingness to risk eternal vampirehood for the cause.

The book provides the source for many familiar tropes: the scientist with esoteric knowledge that must continually ask others simply to trust him, the mind meld whereby one person can have the sensory experiences of another, the monster who travels by changing into a mist. I didn't associate them with Dracula before, but I'll think of this book now every time I see one of them. And see them I'm sure I will. I might even use some more free break time to rewatch some favorite episodes of Buffy. So much Whedony goodness.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Top 100

I wanted to do something different for my one-hundredth post. I first thought I'd list my one-hundred favorite books or (not quite the same thing) the hundred books that I think about most often. But I wasn't sure anyone would want to read that list any more than I relished the thought of making it. But I still want to do something special, so here are some samples from the list that exists only ideally, with a short description of a scene or idea from each that comes to mind often.

First, three books that helped me understand and value my melancholy temperament:

• Blaise Pascal, Pensées. My first encounter with the greatest book never written was actually in Peter Kreeft's Christianity for Modern Pagans, a gloss of what Kreeft considers the "most important" of the fragments and notes that Pascal collected, so maybe I should list Kreeft's book instead. In any case, it is the words of Pascal that follow me. "Between us and Heaven or Hell there is only life halfway, the most fragile thing in the world." His prescient statement that we live lost in the universe between things so small we can't understand them and things so large we can't understand them, his view of mankind as monstrously fallen princes, his analysis of entertainment as a defense against thinking about death, and his explanation of Jesus as the only key that fits the special lock that is humanity -- all showed me the sacred value of sorrow.

• G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. On Christianity's explanation for and acceptance of both sorrow and joy, Chesterton says,
Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy. But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy — that was a discovery in psychology. Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel"; and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel" — that was an emancipation.
That section certainly emancipated me.

• Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln's Melancholy. Shenk doesn't just diagnose and explain Lincoln's melancholy; he argues persuasively that nineteenth-century America saw Lincoln's temperament as crucial to saving the Union. The best story in the book tells of the day Joshua Speed took on Lincoln as both a roommate and a partner in his store based on five minutes' acquaintance with the man and his personality. Speed explained later that anyone so sad must think deeply and give proper attention to details.

I feel quite confident that I am the only person in the world ever to have read all four of the next books.

• Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers. In one scene, the Musketeers dare each other to have lunch in a ruined bastion in the middle of an active battlefield. Their cheek, joy, disdain for their enemies, and confidence in their training make the experience an inspiring model that I aspire to match.

• Sidney Lanier, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This children's version of the great English saga, by an unjustly forgotten American poet, taught me at nine years old the beauty of words and elegant turns of phrase. It begins, "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."

• Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman shows how commercial television contributed to the end of deep thinking and meaningful political debate in America. As an example, he compares the Lincoln-Douglas debates (in which the participants spoke for up to an hour at a time without a teleprompter, while the audience stood for six hours to listen) to modern presidential debates (in which a buzzer interrupts each speaker after two minutes). If television coverage of every disaster must be followed by a toothpaste commercial, our attention spans must shorten and our engagement with what we see must become more shallow. All to say that if you're going to watch TV, something like Gilligan's Island is the best thing you can watch, since its structure and theme actually suit the medium.

• Russell Johnson, Here on Gilligan's Isle.The man who played the Professor celebrates the history of this great television show and the people who made it. Along the way, he demonstrates clearly that the Professor had the ultimate authority on the island: whether it was two beautiful girls in trouble or a captain and a millionaire arguing over who's in charge, they always called for the Professor and looked to him for answers. I'm probably a professor today because of the way Russell Johnson made scholars look important and good.

The best anecdote in the book involves Alan Hale, Jr. Producer Sherwood Schwartz had a hard time casting the Skipper; he knew that only a very special actor could play a character who would remain loveable even though he always yelled at and hit the character kids would identify with most. After seeing Hale by chance in a restaurant, he knew he had found his man. Schwartz's instincts were right on the money: Hale played the part to perfection and identified with the character so much he wore the hat for the rest of his life. Years after the show's run, hearing of a seriously ill boy in the hospital, Hale went to visit him and walked jovially into the hospital room declaring, "Don't worry, son. Everything's going to be all right now. The Skipper's here." Johnson wraps up the story by asking rhetorically, What child wouldn't have believed him?

Well, there's a sample of the one-hundred books I think about most often. Perhaps for the two-hundredth post, I'll talk about seven more.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Macbeth is Down for the Count

While reading Macbeth, I made a list of some themes that seemed to come up often. Here's what I wrote:

     • What you can read in a face (Does a face reveal the heart or hide it?)
     • What makes a man, what makes a woman (Masculinity = courage? Femininity = meekness?)
     • Thought and action (Why hesitate? What happens between thought and deed?)
     • Devils and Angels (Appearances by, influence by, men and women as)
     • Fear and courage (Does it take fear or courage to kill? Does murder cause fear or courage?)
     • Time, being on time (The unchangeable past, the sense of Fate decreeing the moment, etc.)

It occurred to me to run the text through a word-count program to see if sheer statistics would bear out any of my impressions. What I found contained a mixture of the confirming, the thought-provoking, and the trivial. Representing the last category, the most common word in Macbeth is "the," used 647 times. For anyone fascinated with Shakespeare's use of articles, I'll report that, by contrast, "a" comes up only 239 times and "an" a paltry 28.

Moving past the articles, prepositions, pronouns, and common verbs like "is" and "have," the most frequent special word is "Macbeth"; it will not surprise anyone that Macbeth is a main theme in his own play, especially when he shares a name with another important character. The next most frequent peculiar word is "king," again no surprise in a play about a man who kills a king and becomes a king. Then come "lady," "good," and "time," all with over 40 occurrences. The first happens mostly in stage directions indicating Lady Macbeth, and "good" happens mostly in the common phrase "my good lord," but the results seem to show that I was right about the importance of time. A quick search finds these phrases: " 'Tis time, 'tis time," "Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits," "Th' untimely emptying of the unhappy throne," "She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word," and so on.

Weighing in at 35 occurrences is "fear," again confirming one of my observations. "Man" comes just behind with 33. Next, the high frequency of the word "night" (29 appearance) shows me I missed a common reference, but now that I think of it, most of the action happens at night, especially the appearance of ghosts and daggers and such. Similarly, "sleep" happens 23 times, and seeing it high on the results reminds me that Macbeth can't sleep after he becomes a murderer ("I have murdered sleep!") and that Lady Macbeth walks in her sleep. Certainly I should say that night and sleep are thematic to this dark, death-ridden drama. "Hand" and "blood" both come up 23 times; it's pretty painfully obvious now that I should have included bloody hands on my list. (Does anyone else wish they had named their dog Spot just so they could quote Lady Macbeth?)

Even without overwhelming numbers, the other themes on my list still make some sense; "angel" and "angels" come up twice each, and some of the other ideas don't depend on particular words. It's certainly not the most sophisticated method of analysis, but it was a funny experiment to try. Seeing "thane" on the list at 25 occurrences makes me think that the exercise might be better used as the basis of a game. What play yields these results?

     • 99 love
     • 46 sweet
     • 40 night
     • 40 eyes
     • 35 fairy
     • 30 moon
     • 25 wood
     • 19 sleep
     • 14 snout
     • 14 moonshine
     • 9 cobweb

Too easy.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Clichés and Macbeth

Nancy and I once had some friends over to watch Mel Gibson's Hamlet. I wasn't sure what they thought of Shakespeare (or Mel Gibson, for that matter), so I tried to keep things light-hearted. After the famous soliloquy, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: "Well that was just one cliché after another."

And, of course, in a way, it is. "To be, or not to be." "There's the rub." "Shuffled off this mortal coil." "A bare bodkin." "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." These all pop up from time to time in semi-serious literature, conversation, and even comedy monologues. At least I've heard them in these contexts. But the Bard of Avon never heard them in conversation; he made them up, just as he concocted "To thine own self be true," "In my mind's eye," "Brevity is the soul of wit," and a dozen other phrases that people might recognize today without ever having seen or read the play.

Macbeth, too, has its creative combinations that have become part of everyday language. "What's done is done." "The milk of human kindness." "I bear a charmed life." "Double, double toil and trouble." Their very familiarity makes it hard sometimes to appreciate the playwright's achievement. "The be-all and the end-all" is so common, it's easy to fly by it in Macbeth and take it as a commonplace, as if Shakespeare would ever have had to throw in an overused phrase because he couldn't think of any better way to fill seven syllables. Instead, we should stop and marvel at the mind that could come up with a construction both weird and perfectly clear. Yeah, it's weird. People would give me looks if I called someone a do-all or a start-none. We can call someone a "know-it-all," but not a "know-all." We can't even call someone or something simply a "be-all." It has to be both be-all and end-all, or else it just sounds wrong-all.

By contrast "What's done is done" sounds totally pedestrian. But could anything be more powerful than this flat tautology when Lady Macbeth uses it to sum up her advice to her husband to quit worrying about all the people he's killed?

The play is crammed full of great lines, thousands that people don't walk around quoting in casual conversation. Example 1:
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
The blood as symbol of the stain of guilt, the invocation of Neptune's power (or lack of power in this case), the image of  Macbeth's crimson sin turning the color of all the seas of the world -- beauty shines from all directions in this passage. And if I could coin one word as cool as "incarnadine" and include it in even history's worst play, I would live the rest of my days with an assurance of accomplishment.

Example 2:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
With its self-willed command to the flame of life, its mounting images of human existence as meaningless text (eerily presaging postmodernism's concept of empty signifiers), and its devastating last line, fighting relentlessly against the meter only to die two feet too soon, this speech is the most hauntingly powerful declaration of nihilism I know. It's greatness demonstrates the problem with the philosophy of despair, though. How could life signify nothing when such beautiful language exists in the world? The more it convinces, the more it refutes itself.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Remains in the Undiscover'd Country?

In Christ in Shakespeare, George H. Morrison says, "There is a spiritual as well as a material gravitation. Immerse yourself in any study, and you find references to it in every newspaper you open. Let some one dear to you fall ill, with some trouble of which you never heard before, and cases spring to your notice every day." We've all experienced this "spiritual gravitation." Someone uses and explains a strange word we're sure we've never heard, and then we come across it in reading two or three times within as many weeks.

I seem to have created a gravitational well by something I wrote. In a recent post, I asked whether either Christ's wounds or dissonance will remain in Heaven. Since then, I've read several times about what might or might not survive into the Land of Eternal Glory -- mostly in Aquinas where, admittedly, such questions come as no surprise.

According to Aquinas, the Blessed will possess the cardinal virtues -- prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude -- even in Heaven. The temptations and imperfect conditions that call for these virtues cast no shadow on the blissful shores, but the cardinal virtues keep the appetites in conformity with reason, and the appetites of the souls in Heaven will perfectly align with reason. Thus, the cardinal virtues will continue.

Similarly, what Aquinas calls the gifts of the Holy Spirit (qualities listed in Isaiah 11:2-3) will still abide with the faithful in Heaven. Just as the virtues dispose people to obey reason, the gifts dispose God's children to obey his direct promptings. Again, although they won't have to deal with the distractions and doubts of the earthly life any more, they will be perfectly ready to please God when they see Him face to face, so the gifts must remain.

In a beautiful and helpful analysis of the Beatitudes, Aquinas explains that the rewards promised there follow the virtues and gifts. The virtues dispose humans to moderate their desires according to reason. The gifts dispose those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells to renounce earthly delights even farther, to live according to a rule higher than that of reason. But the Beatitudes differ from both the virtues and the gifts as act from habit. The virtues and gifts only dispose us to right action; the Beatitudes refer to the actions themselves -- thirsting after righteousness, being merciful, and so on. Aquinas shows that the authorities disagree on whether the rewards mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew's version) pertain to the present life or the life hereafter. (As I've pointed out before, just a little time with Aquinas should cure anyone of the false notion that medieval Christians believed everything they believed only on the basis of authority. Aquinas cites disagreement among Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom -- just about the three biggest authorities he could name apart from Bible authors -- so he has to appeal to reason.) In Aquinas's view, the rewards of the Beatitudes begin in this life as a type of promise but become more perfectly fulfilled in Heaven.

Curiously, after the nuanced arguments he gives for cardinal virtues and gifts remaining past death, Aquinas teaches that two of the theological virtues will definitely and completely disappear. Charity will grow in the hearts of those who enjoy the presence of God. But faith is firm adherence to imperfect knowledge, and the saints in Heaven don't have imperfect knowledge: they will know as they are known. In the presence of perfect knowledge, faith will disappear. Similarly, hope is a movement toward what one does not possess. But the Blessed in Heaven possess the enjoyment of God, so they no longer need hope.

These conclusions strike me as wrong. In Thomist fashion (my very awkward imitation of it) I argue:

On the contrary the Apostle says: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

I answer that, The Blessed in Glory will not know everything about God, because God is beyond the comprehension of the human mind, even the glorified human mind. Their knowledge will be perfect in proportion to their potential, but not absolutely perfect. Each worshiper, for instance, will know the name on his own white stone, but not that on any other. Since their knowledge will be imperfect, God may well tell them things that they will have to accept in faith. In the same way, while the triumphant saints fully possess the eternal presence of God, they may not possess everything God has planned for them at once. If there is anything like time or growth there, they will surely have the most joyful hope possible.

Because spiritual gravity attracts various broken bits of asteroids as well as major planets, I've also noticed a couple of passages only loosely connected to the theme of things we take into the afterlife. When Pericles finds his daughter again after believing her dead for many years, he claims to hear the music of the spheres,which he calls "heavenly music." And Macbeth both notices some things that Banquo has given up by dying (a ruddy complexion, for instance) and trembles to think what he might have retained (memory of murder).

As the Prince of Denmark says,"What dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause." And so I pause.