Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ogni parte ad ogni parte splende

Over the last few days, I've been reading two books by authors who (supposedly) love books. Both authors come from non-English parts of the U.K. and talk mostly about English literature. Both are recent enough that their lives overlap mine. But despite all they have in common, they leave me with very different impressions.

I finished the first of the two a couple of days ago: Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book. This second number in the Thursday Next series definitely entertains. Channeling The X-Files, Back to the Future, Alice in Wonderland, and Hitchhiker's Guide simultaneously, this series adds to the mix a setting where books each have a (sort of) Platonic existence in their own world of substances. Some readers can jump to that world, see and enjoy details not mentioned explicitly in the work, and even interact with the characters (when they're not "being read" and thus have to stick with their given lines and actions). Any changes made -- say, kidnapping a major character -- will alter all earthly copies of the book. Meanwhile, in Thursday's "real world," Special Ops agents fight vampires and travel through time trying to save all life from changing into whipped topping three days from now. All good stuff.

The problem is that this book has an ongoing joke about boring classics. I'm glad to see that Fforde has Thursday traveling to Great Expectations, The Trial, and Sense and Sensibility. Since Thursday is, as the title tells us, lost in a good book, I take it we can assume Fforde's approval of these classics. But at other times, the book's characters consign many beloved books to the Most Boring list. Tristram Shandy, Pilgrim's Progress, Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and The Divine Comedy all get proscribed. (I can't help but noticing that four of these are classics of Christian literature.) Now I like satire as much as the next guy (if the next guy is a guy who likes satire). Thursday pokes fun at Dickens's coincidences, and I laugh for a moment. Mark Twain draws up a list of rules that James Fennimore Cooper breaks, and I laugh for decades. But just saying that Tristram Shandy is boring doesn't make me laugh. Fforde and his characters offer no evidence, no argument; they simply make their pronouncements and move on. That kind of groundless judgment says more about the judge than about the judged. Tristram Shandy made me laugh way more than Lost in a Good Book; if Fforde thinks it's boring, that's not Tristram's fault. So I'm wondering: If Fforde is bored by five books that others (me included) find among history's most irresistible, what is it he loves when he says he loves books?

On the other hand, the book I recently started, Surprised by Joy, totally convinces me that C. S. Lewis truly loved books. Besides quoting Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy, he peppers almost every page with passages from and allusions to a long and varied list of novels, essays, poems, and plays including children's books by E. Nesbit, Gulliver's Travels, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Trollope, Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Cicero, "Sohrab and Rustum" by Arnold, the Iliad, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, P. G. Wodehouse, The Vicar of Wakefield, Aristotle's Politics, and Boswell's Life of Johnson. I know that I've read Surprised by Joy before, that I like Lewis, and that I'm likely to go to a lot of classics precisely because he recommends them, but I'm really a little amazed at how much of this list I've read and loved in the last twenty years without remembering that they show up in this autobiography.

The one thing I haven't read on that list is Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum," but I recognize the names as those of heroes from the Shahnameh, half of which I read earlier this year. Mortimer Adler said that the great books of western literature form a "Great Conversation" because they refer to the same recurring topics and even to each other. A friend recommended the Shahnameh to me because of my love of the Iliad. The Iliad was one of the first classics I read in my mid-life program to educate myself, mostly because G. K. Chesterton spoke so highly of it in one of his essays. Chesterton's Everlasting Man played a large part in C. S. Lewis's return to Christianity. And now Lewis prompts me to read Matthew Arnold, who clearly loved the Shahnameh enough to write a poetic version of one of its stories. A great conversation, indeed.

I came to these classics in a haphazard sequence, but my knowledge and love for them has grown steadily because of all these connections. Lewis had his own quirky path: "parrot critics," he says, will tell you that Arnold's poem is only for those who understand Homer. But Lewis read "Sohrab and Rustum" as a child and came to the Iliad only much later in life, so it always seemed to him that Homer was for readers who like "Sohrab." "It does not matter at what point you first break into the system of European poetry," Lewis says. "Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else." Then he quotes one of history's greatest books, a book that Jasper Fforde finds boring: "Ogni parte ad ogni parte splende." Every part shines on all the others.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The University's Progress Report

Every once in a while someone asks me if I've seen students get dumber over the years. As long as there have been students, I think some people have thought that the younger ones were dumber than the ones from a generation back. But I'm not one of those people; if anything, I've seen the incoming classes at my university get smarter over my twenty-three years here. I've seen some other interesting changes, too, though. For instance, students now have less time than they did in the 80s; I consider the internet the greatest cause, but an increase in the number of students who have to work also plays a part. I also see today's students as more isolated and self-absorbed, less aware of others around them. Self-indulgent technology again contributes heavily here, but the culture of self-esteem has raised a generation of young people each so busy thinking that he's special and excellent that he has little room left in his thoughts for others.

Those are changes I've seen in the past twenty-five years. But I've recently had the chance to compare today's students with those of nine hundred years ago: in my yearly reading of Durant, I've some to a section on education and the rise of universities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The comparisons run the gamut: in some areas, students of today come out looking better, while in others the first university students take the prize, and in yet others, the two groups seem very similar.

Early university students definitely rise above ours in devotion to their studies. The word "student" comes from the Latin studere, which means "to be eager for," and the early students appear very eager as Durant paints them. The only entrance requirement for many of the first universities was a knowledge of Latin. Any person who had given several years of his life to the study of the language of education and then showed up asking to be taught knew what he wanted, and so he was admitted. Apparently, the word "university" first referred to associations of students who asked for professors, because they wanted to hear lectures. Hundreds begged Abelard to begin teaching again after his humiliation in his affair with Heloise. And his lectures weren't easy. The Church considered Abelard's mind one of the best -- even if one of the most frightening -- minds in Europe. St. Bernard refused to confront Abelard on his almost-heretical thinking because he knew he would be bested by the scholar who had studied logic for forty years. But crowds of teenagers sat and listened to him carefully cite Scriptures and passages from the Fathers to support opposing answers to various theological questions. (According to Durant, Abelard virtually always ended up with the orthodox answer; it was his dependence on reasoning that worried the Church.)

Students of today look better than their medieval counterparts when it comes to interacting with the people and businesses of their college towns. Oxford students seem to have murdered townsfolk on a fairly regular basis. Today's student, raised in a (mostly) less violent culture and in possession of more cash, has less inclination to kill local shopowners and more inclination to make them more prosperous shopowners. On the other hand, the first students at Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere seem to have been no more fascinated with sex and beer than those of today. They paid a steep price for their vices, though: undergraduates went through a comprehensive examination before graduation then, and more failed on moral grounds than were denied on the basis of poor scholarship.

My last comparison has to do with those first student congresses called "universities." Durant reports that they used their money and teachers' public rankings to determine which professors received and retained posts. Soon afterwards, the term "university" began to apply to guilds of professors banded together to determine the fates of students. I can't help but wonder whether Durant didn't smile at the original power structure as a quaint idea that, soon corrected, got buried under 800 years of proper order. But the old ways are coming back. What would Will Durant have thought of the student protests in the 60s? What would he have thought of rateaprof.com?!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Logic of Father Brown

Chesterton's Father Brown stories may seem like detective stories on the surface, but different forms flow through their deeper streams. Maybe the first hint that these aren't the typical who-dun-its lies in Father Brown's reasons for solving crimes. He cares little about seeing earthly justice done; he's too aware of divine justice to fret much about putting criminals behind bars. Instead Father Brown seems to want only to help people. When someone approaches him disturbed by a mystery, the frumpy cleric starts looking for answers, but he never forgets the anxiety of the person originally asking the questions. And of course, when he finds the criminal, he often finds someone else who needs spiritual ministrations. " 'I have helped a few murderers in my time, it is true,' said Father Brown; then he added, in careful distinction, 'not, you will understand, helped them to commit the murder.' "

The stories also provide Chesterton with another way to treat some of the themes he explores in his essays. One motif that has shown up in several of the stories I've read this month is the power of God in creation, even in aspects humans have tried to tear away from the authority of the Creator. "All things are from God," says the little priest, "and above all, reason and imagination and the great gifts of the mind. They are good in themselves; and we must not altogether forget their origin even in their perversion." Father Brown praises a character who exposes psychic frauds -- praises him because he upholds reason. But Brown has advice as well: "Look here, don’t think I’m speaking disrespectfully of you or your work. You are a great servant of truth and you know I could never be disrespectful to that. You’ve seen through a lot of liars, when you put your mind to it. But don’t only look at liars. Do, just occasionally, look at honest men." About the power of marriage between unbelievers, he comments: "It is just because the strength in the thing was the strength of God, that it rages with that awful energy even when it breaks loose from God."

Many of the mysteries center around people's mistaken impressions. We filter what we see and hear, Chesterton reminds us, through our experience and expectations. One character, expecting an intruder, shoots at his own image in a mirror. In another story, Father Brown says, "Now we know who shot Mr. X," but his collaborators think he says, "Now we know who killed Mr. X." When the stories involve religious characters (Christian or pagan, sincere or self-serving), the theme becomes more pointed: proclamations about ultimate things often divert the attention from our distorted understanding of the raw facts of the immediate world.

In one of the best examples of a general view that ignores the facts, Father Brown sees through a fake Anglican clergyman because he makes himself out to be a puritan, even calling himself a "Puritan." Most clergymen, Father Brown points out, aren't self-righteous moralizers, and especially High Church Anglicans. But many people outside the Church assume that all men of the cloth fit the stereotype. "That is exactly the vague venerable old fool who would be the nearest notion a popular playwright or play-actor of the old school had of anything so odd as a religious man." Maybe the prejudice isn't all that antiquated, even now, sixty years later: I saw a Puritan on Law and Order just the other night.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Durant's Retrospective

The biggest philosophical hurdle to belief in God is the problem of evil in the world. How can an almighty, all-loving God allow evil? C. S. Lewis wrote about the question in The Problem of Pain. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's Ivan puts the question most poignantly as whether the harmony of existence is worth the sufferings of one little girl. Augustine and Aquinas partly answered the question by proposing evil as a privation, not as a positively existing thing (as darkness isn't an existing thing in itself, but rather the absence of light). So many beautiful, honest, scarred words devoted to this principle conundrum!

And yet practically speaking the existence of evil, pain, and suffering is not the greatest hurdle to belief. Many people turn to God only in times of great suffering. Ten years ago this month, churches started filling and stayed packed for several months. And, as they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. No, practically speaking the greatest hurdle to faith is the character of the Church. "The Church made me feel too much guilt." "What a bunch of hypocrites." "Why should I believe in a God who sanctioned the Crusades?" "Without the Church, we would have seen liberty, letters, and science grow in the Middle Ages, and we would never have had the Inquisition." These are the things I've heard most often from nonbelievers. The theologians wrestle with the existence of evil in the world, but the world is more concerned with evil in the theologians.

I once went on an Alaskan cruise coordinated by a certain famous television preacher. Hey, these things happen. When the side excursions went on sale, I walked to the bursar's desk to stand in line, only to find all the Christian saints pressed in a mob around the desk, each reaching out a hand in front of another's face, clutching a filled-in request ticket, and hoping the bursar would see that justice demanded him to assist anyone other than the person standing at the front of the "line." I was never more ashamed of the Church. What face of Christ did the bursar see in us that day?

I've reached a place in The Age of Faith where Durant has finished recounting events in the history of state and church and has moved on to matters of morals, manners, and art. And at this transition, he includes a section called "Retrospect" summarizing the legacy of the high Middle Ages, when the Roman Church held a good degree of political sway over western Europe. In a way, I could say that Durant shows us in this section what face of Christ he sees in medieval Christians, and the vision is alternately inspiring and sobering.

In a post from last year, I pointed out that Durant gave credit to medieval Christendom for the establishment of hospitals, courts of law, and universities, and for the preservation and application of ancient philosophy. In this "Retrospect" he acknowledges other contributions. The Church, he says, prevented several wars between Christian states, although she of course encouraged several others against Muslim states. She kept the kings of the emergent nations constantly aware that their desires should not be sovereign but should always conform to a higher authority. Western European courts were the most just of their time. The monasteries and nunneries offered education and charity to people of all classes and both genders, and the various orders of clergy offered to all men, without any regard to pedigree, careers with the possibility of advancement -- advancement even to the most powerful seat in all of Europe. The Church "stopped infanticide, lessened abortion, and . . . steadfastly rejected the double standard in sexual morality." In a passage that surprised me, Durant praises the Church for tolerating "diverse, even heretical, views" as long as they were confined to discussions between academics at the universities and never threatened to dismantle the social order. And he sees the medieval Church inspiring her people "to raise the noblest works of art in history." All in all, he says, the Church did "its best . . . to establish moral and social order, and to spread an uplifting and consoling faith, amid the wreckage of an old civilization and the passions of an adolescent society."

But the picture isn't all one of justice, charity, and understanding. There was all that wreckage and adolescence, after all. Durant finds the average Christian of the time an inveterate liar, although no worse than humans of other civilizations. He also finds the medieval people crude, violent, and sensual. "Apparently the fear of hell," he theorizes, "had less effect in raising the moral level than the fear of public opinion or the law has now." And he calls the Inquisition one of "the darkest blots on the record of mankind," worse than the Roman persecutions of Christians (after reading Eusebius, I might want to argue with that view) and topped only by the brutality of the twentieth century (no argument here).

Durant's final assessment of the medieval Church, though, is positive. He notes that under the Church of the 1200s, "Europe achieved for a century that international morality for which it prays and struggles today" and also that the public opinion and law which he sees (in the 1950s) as such successful upholders of social morality were formed largely by the Church. Bonhoeffer says that, if Jesus didn't choose a lovely human body for incarnation, we shouldn't be surprised He didn't choose a lovely corporate body for a church. Durant holds up a mirror for us, and just as with the image we see in the bathroom mirror, we can only change so much and mostly just have to deal with what we see. And we can thank God that our foolish blunders don't hinder his will. Jesus hung shamefully between two thieves, and still his action achieved its end. In the thirteenth century, Jesus' work continued amid and through and despite inveterate liars and lechers and torturers. So I guess Jesus' work won't be stopped by a few self-centered, impatient cruise-goers, either.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Dimension Not Only of Sight and Sound, but of Mind

After finishing Catton, I sneaked Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland into my schedule last week. I heard about this book from somebody when I was a kid; likely it was my uncle Russell, who used to give me mathematical brain teasers. I knew that the story involved a creature from a two-dimensional word who watched a sphere pass through his universe, and that the story eventually went to our world and challenged the book's readers to imagine a world of four dimensions. But Abbott surprised me with some other worlds of the imagination as well.

The most surprising world had nothing to do with geometry and everything to do with politics. In Flatland, all men are polygons, and the size of their interior angles indicates their mental capacity. The most menial laborers and guards are isosceles triangles with apexes of only a couple of degrees. The most advanced men have so many sides, they are practically circles; each angle of such a creature is almost 180 degrees. But at least the men have brains. Women are all just straight lines -- no interior space at all, no interior angles, no brains. The men tell the women that they adore them and talk to them of love, duty, right, wrong, pity, and hope. But behind their backs, the men say what they really think: women are mindless, and these women's topics are "irrational" concepts with no existence. They keep up the fiction with the women, explains the square first-person narrator, only "to control feminine exuberances." Women and small-brained men are disposable; the society kills them without hesitation if economics or state security suggests the deed. I know some real-world people tend to think this way, but to envision an entire culture living out this creed requires almost as much imagination as picturing the world of four dimensions. Doesn't the circle who kills a useless line who believes in duty throw the game by having done his duty?

After a full half of the book covering these social conditions of Flatland, I found the geometrically challenging images I expected in the second half. One day in moving around Flatland, the square finds a community of one-dimensional creatures living out their lives in a single line. The square talks to the one-dimensional king and tries to explain the second dimension to him. "Imagine space stretching out to the right and left," he says, but the king has no way to imagine right and left. The square tries moving in and out of the line to demonstrate his extra dimension, but the line king (I realized how that sounds only after I wrote it -- this is one of the few times you'll find the words "no pun intended" spoken truthfully) only sees a creature appear and then disappear. When the sphere visits Flatland and tries to tell the square to imagine space going up and down as well as north to south and east to west, he finds his task just as hopeless. Then when the sphere passes through Flatland, the square just sees a circle appear, get bigger, get smaller, and then disappear. So the sphere takes the square to Spaceland (three-dimensional space), where he suddenly gets the big picture. Interestingly, it's the square who tries to explore the idea of four-dimensional space, and his speculations make no sense to the sphere.

But the square's real audience is the reader, and his arguments and analogies worked on me to an extent. The first comment that conjured the vision in my mind had to do with what we consider "inside." In Lineland, people see each other as points; every person considers the line between his endpoints as his inside. But the square sees the lines in their entirety. The square himself has four linear, visible sides; since he can't see his interior area, he considers that his inside. But the sphere sees the square from the vantage point of three-dimensional space and sees the whole square at once. A cube, he points out, has six, two-dimensional, visible sides, and a three-dimensional interior volume hidden from view. But, says the square, if I see the inside of the king of Lineland, and you see my inside, wouldn't the cube's inside be visible to a creature from a four-dimensional world?

Notice that people always see one dimension fewer than the number they exist in. All creatures must infer the nth dimension by other means. The lines of Lineland see each other as no-dimensional points. They infer length and distance by sound. The polygons of Flatland see everyone as luminous one-dimensional lines (put your eye even with your table top and see how a piece of paper looks). They infer distance and shape by the fact that closer objects appear brighter. We in Spaceland see two-dimensional pictures; otherwise we would not be able to mimic our visions on paper, canvas, or computer screen. We infer the third dimension from shading, focus, and the diminishing size of receding objects. So people from the fourth dimension would be able to see three dimensions at once. Again, every part of the cube, "inside" and out, would present itself to them at a glance.

The sphere and the cube discuss the progression of figures from one dimension to the next by means of imagining one shape creating another. A no-dimensional point, for instance, moving in a consistent direction would trace a straight, one-dimensional line. In turn, this line moving perpendicular to itself for a distance as long as itself would trace the area of a two-dimensional square. The square on a table if lifted up for a distance equal to the length of its sides would leave a wake in the shape of a solid cube. Finally, a cube moved perpendicularly to itself (that's the direction we Spacelanders can't quite imagine) would trace the four-dimensional figure. The side of each of these shapes has the form of the previous shape. The line's two ends, for instance, are points. The square's four sides are lines. The cube's six faces are all squares. The book didn't completely explain the implications of this pattern, but it stands to reason that the four-dimensional figure would have eight sides all in the form of complete cubes. The only way I could begin to imagine this was with an expanding cube. The original cube forms one of the eight sides. Each of the six square faces as it moves outward traces something like a cube (a cube fatter at one end than the other). And the final, expanded cube forms the eighth face of this figure.

My second-to-last flight of fancy concerned Einstein's theory that time is our fourth dimension. We say that we "move" through time; it's not too hard to imagine a point leaving a linear trail on this journey. And if space itself is truly expanding through time, maybe my vision of the expanding cube isn't so fanciful. Once I thought of this, I noticed several other comparisons between time and the spatial dimensions as described in Flatland. The most notable has to do with perceiving the extra dimension. The sphere points out that the second and third dimensions really are present in Flatland and Lineland, or else its inhabitants would not be able to see each other. The square sees everyone as one-dimensional lines. But if the lines really had no thickness, he wouldn't see them at all; they must be at least as thick as the spider's web I ran into this morning without having seen it. Similarly, residents of Flatland see the Z-dimension; it's just too narrow to be measured. In the same way, I've read that we don't perceive the present as a point in time, infinitesimally dividing past from future. Augustine thought of the present as a point, so he couldn't locate it even though he intuited it. Well, maybe we intuit the present because it has some appreciable length -- a length, though, that's immeasurable by human means.

My last flight of fancy concerned God existing in a fifth dimension and seeing all of time and space at once. The sphere saw all of Flatland at once, and the square first thought of him as a god. I see two differences between God and the sphere, though. First, as the sphere moves away from Flatland, he sees more of it but in less detail; God on the other hand can see all things and all details at a glance. Second, the sphere has its existence entirely in the two dimensions he sees plus a third one, while God's existence does not depend upon the four (or more) dimensions He sees. Like the sphere, though, He can move into our space and exist in it for at least thirty-three years.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Peabody's Improbable History

The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show almost always included a segment called "Peabody's Improbable History." Every episode started with a bespectacled dog saying, "Peabody here. And this is my boy, Sherman." The ingenious Peabody would then describe a famous moment in history and take Sherman into his invention, the Way-Back Machine, to travel in time and witness the event first-hand. Of course, things were never as Peabody expected, and he spent most of the episode trying to "fix" history -- teaching da Vinci's model, for instance, how to give a half smile. Hence the Improbability.

The American Civil War offers many tales of improbable history, and in a curious coincidence, some of those improbable tales involve a man named Sherman. (According to the interwebs, Mr. Peabody even went to visit General Sherman once. But I don't see a synopsis of the episode, and I don't remember it.) Bruce Catton tells a part of the improbable history of William Tecumseh Sherman in A Stillness at Appomattox. In this final installment of his history of the Union's Army of the Potomac, Catton follows his main character -- the Army itself -- through a story arc that starts with glorious hope, moves through disillusionment and then acceptance of a new style of war, escalates to a determination that will keep men fighting day after day without even food or sleep, and then finishes with a most unexpected celebration of victory.

The motivating element in this plot is the new kind of war. The years 1861-1864 saw two wars between blue and gray. In the war everyone thinks of, the opposing armies wore those colors. The other war Catton writes about was a struggle between romanticism and utility, between a view of war as pavilions and pennants under blue skies and and a view of war as a dark, descending road paved with gray headstones. Both North and South started the Civil War with volunteer armies singing "The Battle Cry of Freedom." Both ended with drafted armies whose members knew the ultimate cost of desertion. According to Catton, as the Army of the Potomac lined up for its last charge (a charge preempted by Lee's surrender), "the sunlight gleamed brightly off the metal and the flags, and once again, for a last haunting moment, the way men make war looked grand and caught at the throat, as if some strange value beyond values were incomprehensively mixed up in it all." The men glimpse a memory of the Golden Age, but the incomprehensible value beyond values is only a ghost by this time, replaced by Grant with a grisly acknowledgement that the side with the most men and guns must simply fight continually, accepting daily death as the cost of inevitable victory. It's not a pleasant philosophy to hold, but it works in war. It was the philosophy that stormed Normandy. Catton says that while many of the veteran soldiers in the army still worshiped the dashing and inspiring General McClellan and agreed that the quality of the army had deteriorated since 1862, they also agreed that if Grant had been in command from the beginning, the war would have ended three years earlier.

Now here's the improbable part. Near the end of the war, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman met to discuss the final strategy. "It was a curious business," says Catton. "The Confederacy had no more effective foes than these men. . . . Yet it was these three who were most determined that vindictiveness and hatred must not control the future." While many in the northern Congress and Cabinet wanted to see Jefferson Davis and his like hanged after the conclusion of the war, Lincoln in his second inaugural asked Americans to show malice toward none and charity for all. Grant responded to Lee's surrender by letting the southern soldiers return to their farms with their guns and horses, declaring, "We are all Americans." The attitude of the leaders trickled down to the men in the ranks. Their unexpected form of celebration? According to Catton, an "enormous silence" and then a band playing "Auld Lang Syne."

But then there's Sherman. It seems very strange to hear Sherman described as "determined that vindictiveness and hatred must not control the future." Soldiers and civilians all over the south hated Sherman for generations. I've heard southerners tell me they hated Sherman, and I was born ninety-five years after the Civil War ended. But the character of the man who cut a 60-mile swath of destruction through Georgia and South Carolina may perhaps best be seen by the reaction of his last professional foe, Confederate General Joe Johnston. Johnston faced Sherman several times in northwest Georgia and then surrendered his small army to Sherman in North Carolina, over two weeks after the much more well known surrender at Appomattox. One might think that the great Confederate leader who witnessed two states going up in flames, who held on for two weeks after hope was lost, and who was forced to humble himself before what seemed like the grim reaper himself would spend the rest of his life harboring hatred for William T. Sherman. But, in the most improbable turn of all, the two ended up lifelong friends: Johnston served as a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral in 1891.

Monday, September 5, 2011

They Turned Right

It's been a long, hot summer here in central Oklahoma. We had a record number of days in triple digits; the highs hovered around 105 degrees for two months, when we're used to an average of about 95. I got used to the heat, of course, but it made my morning reading walks a little less than pleasant; I tried all summer to get out before the temperature hit 90, but I didn't always make it. During the last couple of weeks the inevitable change started, though; the thermometer has been closer to 80 in the morning, sometimes even in the 70s.

But this morning represented a decisive break in the pattern. I wore a jacket. The temperature was 62 degrees, and it felt wonderful. The physics of the thing have been working toward this moment for weeks. I know that, even though I haven't sensed it. As the tilted earth continues its journey around the sun, the energy that has bombarded the northern hemisphere for the last few months inevitably moves south; by the end of this month, Australia will be seeing more daily light than Oklahoma. But from my perspective it seems like a sudden change that changes everything. A cool walk means an invigorating start to the day that makes everything else that happens seem more enjoyable (or at least more tolerable).

Maybe human perception is just geared for seeing turning points, these instants in time that seem to change everything. History is full of them. In his account of his travels to China, Marco Polo relates that, in response to the Khan's request that the Pope send one hundred scholars who could teach Christianity all around the empire, the Pope said his teachers were too busy. I read that twenty-five years ago and haven't stopped pondering what the world would be like today if the leader of western Christendom had sent the requested teachers. The book What If? has essays by professional historians on several turning points. For instance, what if Alexander's lieutenant hadn't taken an arrow for him one day early in his career? No Greek empire. No use of the Greek language for trade all around the eastern Mediterranean. No rapid spread of the New Testament.

Civil War historians love to locate decisive moments, actions or decisions that seem to condense the whole history of the war and the fate of the nation(s) down to an instant. One of the most common involves the Union signal corps stationed on Little Round Top, just south of Gettysburg, on the morning of July 2, 1863. If Longstreet's corps of Confederates had taken the hill that morning, his artillery could have fired straight down the line of the northern army. The Meade of the imagination would have had to retreat, and the Lee of the imagination would have had on open path to Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and the C.S.A. would be a nation today. But, says the human mind looking for decisive moments, none of this happened because the signal corps saw Longstreet's men coming, waved semaphores to ask for reinforcements, and -- more importantly -- waved false signals that Longstreet could see making the defenders look like a much larger group than they actually were. As a result, Longstreet waited, his eventual attack failed, the Federals won the battle, Lee went back to Virginia, and the north took the initiative and didn't let go until the surrender at Appomattox.

Bruce Catton loves to bring out these decisive crossroads of Civil War history, even while he makes the ultimate outcome sound like a matter of fate. Like a good theologian, he holds to both predestination and free will. The other day, I read in A Stillness at Appomattox about some miscommunication in Hancock's Union division as they deployed around Petersburg. "Altogether," Catton comments, "these mistakes added up to nothing much except faulty staff work, and they would not be worth mentioning except that they helped to prolong the war by eight months."

In a variation on the theme, Catton tells earlier about an instant, not perhaps when everything changed, but when the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac knew that everything had changed. After the battle of the Wilderness, in which the men in blue were surprised, shaken, and humiliated for the umpteenth time, their new commander, Grant, had them withdraw east, toward the north-south road that had borne this army several times before advancing into Virginia and then retreating. Expecting to turn left, or north, to find a place closer to home where they could nurse their wounds, physical and temperamental, the troops found to their surprise and delight that Grant had them turning right, deeper into the Confederacy and closer to Richmond. Suddenly a sound licking wasn't cause for brooding humiliation anymore but simply part of the price paid for ultimate victory. The soldiers cheered as they hadn't cheered for years and found new depths of determination within themselves on that southward march. Whether single events really change everything or not, changes in outlook certainly do.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Will Durant and Faith

Will Durant, the author of a monumental series called The Story of Civilization, was not an orthodox Christian, but I love to read what he says about Christianity. In 1905, after being raised in the Catholic Church, he "exchanged his devotion for Socialism," as willdurant.com puts it. His "Declaration of Interdependence" refers to a "Divine Father," but in his Dual Biography he said, "I am still an agnostic, with pantheistic overtones." His wife Ariel, who co-authored the last several volumes of TSoC, spoke once of "that sentimental, idealizing blend of love, philosophy, Christianity, and socialism which dominated his spiritual chemistry." So his faith and mine have substantial differences, yet when I read his accounts of Christian history, I learn about my faith -- "faith" both in the sense of religion-as-historical-movement and in the sense of understanding-of-God-and-relationship-to-Him.

That I can learn so much from him is possible first because of the humility and respect with which he writes about not only Christianity but Judaism and Islam as well. In his preface to the volume on the Reformation, he says concerning religion: "It is a fascinating but difficult subject, for almost every word that one may write about it can be disputed or give offense. I have tried to be impartial, though I know that a man's past always colors his views, and that nothing else is so irritating as impartiality." Durant never takes any opportunity for either hasty generalization or easy sarcasm. In what I read yesterday, for instance, he says that "five churches in France vowed that they held the one authentic relic of Christ's circumcision" with no comment other than the wry smile couched in his euphemistic turn of phrase. A page later, he lets a contemporary do the math, noting that Abbot Guibert of Nogent said that John the Baptist must have been a hydra since several churches claimed to house his decapitated head.

"In many aspects religion is the most interesting of man's ways, for it is his ultimate commentary on life and his only defense against death." From the first sentence of this year's reading, Durant had me thinking about my faith and about religion in general. I've learned that the medieval Catholic hierarchy put limits on the people's reverence for relics and that the Fourth Lateran Council recognized the abuse of indulgences and tried to stem it. Durant points out that while medieval faith seems fairly uniform (most writers having been churchmen), dissent of all kinds can be found: from skepticism about saints' tales to out-and-out atheism. According to Durant, hocus pocus comes from Hoc est corpus meum; apparently some of these dissenters, not convinced of transubstantiation, found these words from the liturgy of the Mass little more than the formulaic patter of an illusionist.

Durant sees the Church alternating in its history between emphasis on Hell and emphasis on mercy, according as it saw the need. Early medieval theology, early Protestant preachers, and General Booth of the Salvation Army, he points out, all taught the dangers of Hell to great effect. But the medieval people had a great craving for mercy. Again Durant gives me new perspective when he shows that the typical parishioner of the Middle Ages saw the Father only as the vengeful God of many Old Testament stories and Jesus only as the strict Judge. Looking for mercy, they found Mary weeping at the foot of the cross and made her the most popular figure in all of human history. Durant calls the cult of Mary a new religion and sees the Catholic Church assimilating it. Now Spengler also saw a new religion in medieval Europe. But in my recent reading of The Decline of the West, I found Spengler saying that the new religion was one based on Teutonic mythology that had adopted the terms of Christianity, replacing the original religion, perhaps as stone replaces wood in a fossilized tree. I found that account of a new religion hardly worth considering. By contrast, Durant's idea has me thinking. Apart from whether I think he's right, at least his interpretation deals with the fact that medieval theologians still read and agreed with Paul and Augustine.

"I am skeptical not only of theology but also of philosophy, science, history, and myself," he said humbly. "We are all fragments of darkness groping for the sun. I know no more about the ultimates than the simplest urchin in the streets." Put that way, I would find it hard to disagree.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Glory Is Out of Date

It seems the ancient Greeks never tired of hearing about the Trojan War. From Homer's ninth-century epics to the great Athenian tragedies of the fifth, the Greek poets examined the war from every angle. The most amazing thing to me about this fascination, though, is that the Greeks' favorite tale doesn't make the Greeks look good. For one thing, the Greeks lose the war. And they seem to lose partly because of stark differences in character: the Greek hero, Achilles, spends most of the Iliad pouting over a slave girl he doesn't get to keep, while the Trojan hero, Hector, beautifully says farewell to his wife and child before going out to sacrifice everything for his country. As Chesterton points out somewhere (The Everlasting Man?) the Iliad's generous sympathy for its author's (or authors') enemy is reflected in the popularity the name Hector enjoys over the next three millennia as opposed to the relative obscurity of the name Achilles. How many people have you known or heard of named after Hector? How many named after Achilles? Clearly the Greeks admired the victors who humiliated them. I suppose they felt the need for the sobering effect each new hearing of their national tragedy brought them.

In a similar way, I never tire of reading about the American Civil War. War brings out the best and the worst in humans, or at least the very good and the very bad. Stories from the Civil War alternate fairly regularly between demonstrations of courage and displays of stupidity. And like a Greek reading about the Trojan War, my knowledge of the Civil War doesn't make my country look morally superior to me, doesn't feed any tendency toward jingoism or triumphalism. When I read Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote or James MacPherson, I feel them dousing me with a bracing shower of cold truth.

For ages, people have pondered the question, Why do we enjoy tragedy? Why do we seek out an experience that makes us feel bad? One of the good answers, I think, is this desire for the truth. In The Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo two pills: a blue one that will let him live happily in a delusion and a red one that will show him all the painful truth. I suppose there are two kinds of people: blue-pill people and red-pill people. I try to be a red-pill guy. Aristotle famously answered the question differently, with the idea of catharsis: experiencing the pain of tragedy in the controlled environment of a theater provides a safe release. A variation of this theory I've seen in some eighteenth-century writers is the notion that tragic stories provide a training ground for learning how to react appropriately when real tragedy comes.

A fourth answer aestheticians propose for the question responds to the needling fact that tragedy doesn't give us only negative emotions. We wouldn't seek it out if it didn't satisfy some desire for pleasure. Perhaps we read or watch well-written tragedy because we admire the talent of the author who pulls off the difficult job so well. The poetry of Bruce Catton's prose certainly lends credence to this theory. About a Union plan in 1864 to send a cavalry raid behind Confederate lines to distribute leaflets with an offer of amnesty to citizens who wanted to rejoin the U.S., Catton writes:
This venture was a departure from reality, of a piece with the officers' dances at which men and women quoted Byron to themselves and borrowed, for their own beset lives, the tag ends of implausible poetry describing a bloodless bookish war. It was born of a romantic dream and it was aimed at glory, and glory was out of date, a gauzy wisp of rose-colored filament trailing from a lost world.
The alliterative parade of frustrated b's and p's conveys the message no less than the image of the gauzy wisp. And why is the filament rose colored? Because these dreamers saw the world through glasses of that tint, or because the flapping trail of a dream reflected the beams of a setting sun? The passage preaches realism and yet hooks the idealist with its very acknowledgement of glory, departed though it may be. It suggests to the believer a reenactment of the Fall and the loss of Eden. Purporting to describe one moment in American history, the lines pack in a dense picture of the whole condition of the race that Pascal called "fallen princes."

This quotation comes from the first section of the first chapter of A Stillness at Appomattox, the third of a trilogy of books about the northern Army of the Potomac. The title of the chapter, "Glory Is Out of Date," indicates to the reader of the whole set that an abrupt change has taken place in early 1864: the middle book of the three is called Glory Road. And Catton shows that some Americans caught on to this change more quickly than others. Although the quotation compares the confused cavalry raid with a dance held on the campground of the Army of the Potomac in honor of officers' wives, this first chapter shows contrasts between the two events as well, contrasts based on how well the people involved assimilated the grim new face of the war. Where the failed cavalry raid ends with the ignominious death of its leader and leaves Virginians scratching their heads at a force that both burns bridges and distributes tracts offering forgiveness, the ball ends with a compromise, a strategy for survival, a coupling of the romantic and the pragmatic that keeps them dancing as gracefully as any of the human participants. I don't know if the people attending that ball actually quoted Byron or if his mention is simply the case of one melancholy poet invoking the name of another for effect. But the dancers Catton describes clearly know that they're using a terpsichorean tonic to dull the pain of the new age. After one general listens to a woman tell of the death of her only son in some meaningless skirmish, he responds, "Yes, madame, very sad! Very sad! Do you waltz?"

These people stare down both of life's masks -- the comic and the tragic -- and accept them both as necessities. I've heard that food cravings represent the body's knowledge of its need for some indispensible element of a balanced diet. The officer and the grieving mother know they need a helping of gay music to balance out the dirge. Maybe -- in addition to all the other reasons for reading about this tragedy -- maybe I crave reading about the Civil War for a similar reason. I've lived a comparatively very easy life: I haven't had to deal with slavery, cavalry raids, trench warfare, mangled limbs, or dysentery. I've never had to drink coffee made out of peanuts and ground watermelon seeds. I never even had to register for the draft. So maybe something inside me knows I lack part of a balanced diet.