Saturday, October 29, 2011

Almost Prophetic

Philosophy is a powerful possession. In book 2 of the Georgics, Virgil tells us:
Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
atque metus omnis et inexorabile fatum
subiecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari.

Happy is he who has been able to learn the causes of things
And to tread all fear and inexorable fate
Under his feet along with the roar of greedy Acheron.
That's quite a claim: a good dose of science and wisdom, and you'll be able to ignore fear, laugh at things you cannot change, and despise the call of the death that rushes upon you. But some Christian philosophers have agreed with Rome's golden poet. Aquinas says that the virtue of wisdom knows the proper place and cause of all things and brings peace. In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman goes even farther:
That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.
Of course, Newman knows to say that the wise mind is almost supernatural in its powerful equanimity because he knows that prophecy, knowledge of the heart, charity, faith, and sight of Heaven can only come by the grace of God. But these are God's ideals for the human mind, so it should come as no surprise that true education pursued humbly but diligently should tend in the same direction.

Dr. Johnson put it this way: the state of the philosophical wise man is to have no want of anything. Boswell usually portrays Johnson as having reached that enlightened stage (although he isn't above commenting occasionally where he thinks Johnson wrong), and even just the sixty pages that I read this year demonstrate his possession of Newman's list of virtues rather well. Boswell describes "almost the repose of faith" this way:
I never knew any man who was less disposed to be querulous than Johnson. Whether the subject was his own situation, or the state of the publick, or the state of human nature in general, though he saw the evils, his mind was turned to resolution, and never to whining or complaint.
Johnson's knowledge of history reveals itself on almost every page. Near the beginning of my passage from this year, he rates the previous 125 years of British monarchs, approving Charles II (in spite of his licentiousness), James II (in spite of his desire to turn his subjects into Roman Catholics), and George III (in spite of his troubles with America). Boswell indicates Johnson's "near prophecy" when he says, after Johnson's death, "I am happy to think that he lived to see the Crown at last recover its just influence."

Johnson frequently reveals his knowledge of the human heart. Twice in this year's assignment, he speaks of the need of melancholy people to find diverting occupations for the mind rather than trying to battle the melancholy thoughts, advice this melancholy man has found helpful. He advises a Dr. Taylor not to fight battles for the reputation of a fellow physician: if his arguments prevail, the listener won't call upon the physician anyway because he will only resent being found wrong.

And he is ready with a reasoned opinion on anything that comes up. In these sixty pages, I have read Johnson speak spontaneously about literature and writing, the business of making and selling books, economics, Scottish geography, the proper way to talk about travels (interpretation based on vivid description), the ranking of musical instruments (organ over violin?!), the British constitution, ancient Gaelic languages, whether The Beggar's Opera injures the public morality (no), the ethics of tombstone epitaphs (they may exaggerate guiltlessly), inheritances for daughters (a needed change), the ethics of lawyers seeking a suit to represent (only if the suit is sure to happen), flogging in schools (effective but perhaps not worth the benefit), severe monastic disciplines, the relative roles of aptitude and learning in mathematics, Quakers, Deists, the morality and legality of libelling the dead (occasionally acceptable in the interest of truth), and the joys of taverns.

Dr. Johnson isn't always right about these things, though. He says that Tristram Shandy is too odd to last, but I've read it, and a film version appeared just six years ago.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Judging a Book's Owner by the Cover

Boswell tells about a visit made by Samuel Johnson and the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds to the home of a new acquaintance. When the two men were taken to a sitting room to wait for their host, Dr. Johnson immediately went to the bookshelf and began perusing the "backs of the books," by which I believe Boswell means what I would call the spines.

I've done this same thing many times at homes and in offices. It seems that checking out the books on the shelf should tell you something about their owner. A lot of books by one author is a very good sign that the owner is a fan. The sight of a lot of paperbacks probably indicates a desire for reading that challenges the bank account. Old editions show an interest in collecting and a respect for tradition. The order or disarray, creases in the spines, protruding bookmarks, "used" stickers, dust jackets or exposed hardback cover -- it's all fascinating and informative. And of course seeing a lot of favorite titles could mean that you've found a new friend.

The books on the shelf might be misleading, though. Books on subjects that might demand belief -- economics, politics, religion, and the like -- might indicate interest without commitment. Some books might have been misguided gifts, never to be enjoyed. I have a few misleading books on my living-room shelves. They're scattered around the shelves in no particular order, and I often wonder what guests think of them, although I know that most guests don't love to look as I do. Mostly they're jammed in tightly on low shelves, a good sign that I have tiny grandkids.

Dr. Johnson didn't claim to look at the books in order to learn more about his host, though. Sir Joshua said that he (Sir Joshua) had an advantage: being immediately drawn to the paintings on the wall, instead, he could see entire artworks at a glance. But he asked Johnson why he only looked at the spines without bothering to look inside. The lexicographer answered that by learning titles, he could at least learn more about where to find certain kinds of information. It occurs to me that I look at the shelves for this reason, too. It's almost impossible for me to look up a book in a library catalog and then go straight to that book on the shelf and grab it without looking at all the other titles around it. And I've learned a lot just glancing through bibliographies. Some titles made it to my ten-year plan for no other reason than that I saw them in a list of books compiled by Mortimer Adler.

The same thing happens when I look through a table of contents. I might have opened the book or journal in order to read one particular article, but I usually end up reading something else that catches my eye, too (or instead). And I've learned a lot of music literature just by going through tables of contents looking for the one short piece I intended to study or practice. I had a very intelligent, very talented blind graduate student once who revealed what I thought was a tragic consequence of his condition. For many great composers, he could name only one piece. His piano teacher had assigned pieces, and he had requested Braille versions of them from the Library of Congress. But he had never had the joy of searching a table of contents slowly.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dining with Dr. Johnson Again

It is half past twelve o'clock as I enter the Literary Club. The sign above the door of the establishment says "Wendy's," but that is only the outward and visible sign. I carry a special book in my hand, and today the place takes the form of the Literary Club. It has been about a year since last I dined with Dr. Samuel Johnson, and I am happy to renew his pleasant and inspiring company. After I order a repast at the bar, I look around and find the table I want. There sit many of the illustrious members of the Club: Mr. Beauclerk, Mr. Langton, Mr. Charles Fox, Mr. Boswell, and of course the honorable man of letters, London's most illustrious citizen, Dr. Johnson.

As I seat myself at the table, several of the interlocutors turn to me somewhat taken aback. "You are dressed strangely, sir," says Beauclerk. "I come from the twenty-first century," I reply, "where these clothes are normal." I fail to mention the fact that academic-shabby with a Cardinals t-shirt might be considered eccentric even for my century. "Well, you are welcome, sir," rejoins Beauclerk. "We are just now discussing the recent turmoil in America."

As Dr. Johnson begins to speak, I am immediately reminded of his peculiar mannerisms. With a squint and a jerk of his torso, he informs the group of his opinion: "They are a race of convicts. The Colonists can with no solidity argue from their not having been taxed while in their infancy, that they should not now be taxed. We do not put a calf into the plow; we wait till he is an ox." Mr. Boswell expresses his surprise at a view he characterizes as "unsuitable to the mildness of a Christian philosopher." "I was sorry to see you appear," he says, "in so unfavourable a light in your recent pamphlet on the subject. I could not perceive in it that ability of argument, or that felicity of expression, for which you are, upon other occasions, so eminent." Dr. Johnson responds with a Latin quotation:
Fallitur egregio quisquis sub Principe credit
Servitium; nunquam libertas gratior extat
Quam sub Rege pio.
After asking him to repeat the aphorism more slowly, I surprise and delight myself at believing I have understood it: Anyone who thinks himself in servitude because subject to a prince errs egregiously; liberty nowhere extends itself more graciously than under a pious king. I venture to point out that Mr. John Wesley has written a letter to the American Colonists pleading with them to understand that they enjoy more freedom than citizens of any other country, and more so even than he. Dr. Johnson replies to me, but since I have neither his "felicity of expression" nor a facile memory for quotations verbatim, I can only report the sense of his remark, which is that he finds Methodists misguided but not hypocritical, such as are the nonjurors.

I observe that I have just read a passage in a book by Mr. Anthony Trollope . . . . "Who?" asks Mr. Langton. "He is an author, sir, of novels and lived . . . or will live . . . or lives in the nineteenth century." "He bears an unfortunate surname, does he not?" asks Dr. Johnson. "Yes, sir, but the connotation of the word that I believe you have in mind has fallen almost completely out of usage so that those who hear his name -- a group that is sadly far too small, I'm afraid -- no longer think of it in that tainted light." "Be that as it may," says Dr. Johnson, "you were about to tell us of the future. What does this Mr. Trollope say?" "I had in mind a passage in which a young woman, who has spent several months conversing regularly after services with an unmarried Anglican clergyman, finds that the clergyman has not implied any thoughts of marriage in his attentions to her, as she has previously believed, and that as a consequence she decides to become a Methodist." "Why should a man imply anything?" Dr. Johnson asks with a rather frightening roar. (Again, I cannot attest to the exact accuracy of the wording.) "A man should scrutinize and clarify his thoughts with sound moral judgment and careful reasoning, and then speak what he believes without apology. It is my consistent practice, and I have never been sorry for it." "The nineteenth-century English believe discretion in language necessary for the maintenance of social relationships." "Nonsense! By 'discretion' you mean 'hypocrisy.' Social ties were never strengthened by hypocrisy. I speak what I believe, and I find that these good gentlemen continue to dine with me. Boswell there does not agree with me on the age of Ossian, and he and I have never been more fond of each other." Mr. Boswell blushes.

The conversation turns to the recent journey of Dr. Johnson and Mr. Boswell to Scotland and the former's celebrated published account of that excursion. Mr. Langton points out that Dr. Johnson's statement in the book that he has come away from the North willing to believe in second sight has excited some ridicule among his readership. Mr. Boswell responds: "He is only willing to believe. I do believe. The evidence is enough for me, though not for his great mind. What will not fill a quart bottle will fill a pint bottle. I am filled with belief." I am reminded of my (and Charles Schulz's) favorite Peanuts strip. Then, debating the literary merits of Jonathan Swift, various members of the club name titles that I should add to my plan, perhaps instead of rereading Gulliver's Travels.

Dr. Johnson tells the constellated luminaries (and me) that Sheridan was wrong in granting a medal to the author of Douglas. "If Sheridan was magnificent enough to bestow a gold medal as an honorary reward of dramatick excellence, he should have requested one of the Universities to choose the person on whom it should be conferred." I tell him that in my time, universities confer awards only in the hopes that the honoree might return the honor in the form of money. "What?" he exclaims. "Do not the institutions of learning in the twenty-first century continue to guide the publick in the studied, rational judgment of the arts?" "That practice continued into the twentieth century," I reply. "An exemplary case is Prof. C. S. Lewis, who was, like yourself, a Christian philosopher and who, like yourself, enjoyed an ability of argument and felicity of expression. But it is very difficult for anyone in my time and in my country to judge either artistic works, actions, or human character. Expanding freedoms have made the pronouncement of judgment politically dangerous." "Ah," he says with a jerk, "everyone does what is right in his own eyes. Is that it? Humph!" His face disappears in a storm of spasms. "Race of convicts!"

At half past one o'clock, I must leave the Club and wend my way back to my office, which is located in another building. As I walk across the campus, a conversation I overhear between two undergraduates playing catch with a football returns me with a jolt to my own era:
She: When is your birthday?
He: What?
She: Your birthday. Is it in July?
He: No. August.
She: That's what I said. August.
He: You said July.
She: No, I said August.
I must return to the Literary Club tomorrow.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Looking Forward to 2012

I know. It seems a little early to be looking forward to next year. Maybe it's the lingering heat of a sweltering summer that has me longing for winter even more than usual. Or maybe it's just that the last book I need for next year arrived the other day. But for whatever reason, I'm looking at my list and thinking eagerly about starting it in January. In a few weeks, I'll post my 2012 calendar under a new tab. But for now, to see what I'll be reading, just look at the tab marked "The Plan." Since 2012 is year 6, I'll be reading everything marked with a 6: Hecuba and other Greek plays, Timaeus and other Platonic dialogs, and so on.

The Patrick O'Brian book I read this summer ended on a cliffhanger. The story in this series becomes increasingly continuous with every book, and I commented in a previous post that I'll have to read the next volume this year and two more next year so I don't lose the thread. Well, I have all three of the next installments now: I'll start one in a couple of weeks and the other two next summer. I love sailing with Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, so I'm happy about getting through the series more quickly.

Other old favorites coming up include Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Durant, Aquinas, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Boswell, Trollope, Williams, Lewis, Chesterton, James, and of course the Great Man himself: Dickens. But I'm especially excited about some of the selections. Plato's Timaeus, in the pipes for 2012, includes a creation myth, ideas about tuning a musical scale with the music of the spheres, and a theory of matter that includes atoms in regular polyhedrons. I've played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games the last few years, and I always think of Plato when I pick up the dice. Then I'll have my first big portion of Orlando Furioso. I waited almost twenty years to begin reading the book that started this whole project and loved what I read, so I'm looking forward to wandering the woods of medieval France again with Ariosto's knights. I first read Charles Williams's The Place of the Lion while on pain medication, so it should make more sense this time. (But who knows? Maybe reading about Platonic forms becoming material made more sense with drugs) And it's been far too long since I first read Bleak House, the book Chesterton called Dickens's best novel (although he nuanced that judgment by saying cryptically that it was not the best book among his novels).

A few things on the list look daunting, and I know I'll have to take notes and find sources of longsuffering and tenacity to get through some of them. I found Tacitus' Histories dry and difficult, and in my limited view scholars seem to prefer him to Suetonius, so The Twelve Caesars may really test my resolve. I skipped the fourth book of Gargantua and Pantagruel when it came up on the first reading plan. These books are hilarious, but as with (I feel fairly certain I'm the first person in history to make this comparison) Green Acres, a little madness goes a long way. But I think often of two parts of the first three books that I really enjoyed, so I hope some parts of book IV charm me, too. I've heard a lot about Jonathan Edwards and Religious Affections, so I want to read at least parts 1 and 2, but if it goes on and on in that methodical, passionless way that writers from the Age of Reason tended to favor, I may find myself counting the pages and the days. And I'm concerned that Alvin Plantinga's God and Other Minds may simply be too hard for me to understand.

But I imagine I'll enjoy most of the selections that are new to me as much as I've enjoyed Eusebius, Ariosto, Wordsworth, Animal Farm, Christ in Shakespeare, and the Shahnameh this year. I look forward to Chrysostom, Sun Tzu, Confucius, and Greene's The Heart of the Matter. I'm prepared to love Byron's language if not his message. On the other hand, with Forged in Battle, a book about the black regiments in the American Civil War by an author whose name escapes me, I have to say I'm prepared to love its message if not its language. And I've seen Dionysius referred to so many times in medieval books and books about medieval writing, I can't wait to read his visions of the structure of heaven and the hierarchy of angels.

But the book that I'm most looking forward to is Hoogenboom's Rutherford B. Hayes. I've hyped the book to myself so much in my mind, it can't possibly live up to its press. Hayes intrigued me a few years ago when I listened to an audio book about the American Presidents. That book left me haunted by a comparison between Franklin Pierce, who left his tragic Presidency hated by both North and South and then drank himself to death, and Hayes, who used his influence as former President to start schools for black children in the South. People sometimes call Carter our greatest ex-President, but from what I know, I'd vote for Hayes. I know the biography will reveal him for the flawed human he was, so I hope my bubble doesn't burst too loudly.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Follow-Up on Trollope and Augustine

I was unhappy with my last post. I totally failed to convey the reason for my excitement about the first few chapters of Anthony Trollope's Doctor Thorne. The first three chapters set up a rich world, partly mental, that imbues all the dialog that begins in chapter IV. After we know what kinds of things the characters are thinking, everything they say sounds different. All conversation takes place at two levels, and all characters negotiate their relationships through a veneer that is only words deep.

Examples occur in almost every verbal exchange: Frank hints at thoughts of marriage while talking to Lady Dunstable, and Lady Dunstable hints coyly and ironically in return. Only once Lady Dunstable finds out that Frank's attentions have been given just to spite Lady de Courcy -- that his subtext is as much a sham as his overt text -- can they drop the facades and laugh at their common nemesis. In another scene, the dissipated, dying Sir Roger tells a visiting clergyman that his mind is comfortable and later explains to Doctor Thorne: "What else could I say when he asked me? It wouldn't have been civil to have told him that his time and words were all thrown away."

The contours of hidden layers show even when Trollope doesn't make them explicit. When the wealthy Sir Roger hints that his drunken son, Louis, should marry, we suspect that he has our heroine, Mary, in mind. When Doctor Thorne argues against helping Louis marry, he lists every reason except the two most important: that he's an unreliable alcoholic, and that Mary deserves better. When he mentions Louis to Mary, we tremble as we imagine his reason for doing it. When Mary asks what Louis is like, and Doctor Thorne responds, "I never know what a young man is like. He is like a man with red hair," we know he's hiding Louis's reprobate character. And we can imagine that Mary knows that her uncle is hiding something. It's as if the characters translate every line they hear to its actual meaning, imagine the appropriate the response to that meaning, and then retranslate into the language of polite conversation.

Well, now I have at least described what I wanted to describe last time. I probably haven't yet conveyed my enthusiasm for it. But I love every bit of seemingly dry description and every line of seemingly banal dialog, because all the juicy description and highly charged dialog continue to echo there. The story is good, too, by the way. Mary should get married if she is to be taken care of in this society, but Doctor Thorne is anxious about the position he's put his niece into. As the daughter of a relationship out of wedlock, she can't marry into the aristocracy. Without money she can't marry any of the nonnoble landowners. But with all the education her uncle has provided, she can't marry the poor. I have no doubt Mary will get some money and marry Frank, but I have no idea where the money is coming from. Inheriting some of Sir Roger's wealth has been dangled too conspicuously to be anything but a false lead.

Although I loved the Confessions and the first four years' doses of The City of God, I found this year's passage disappointing. In books XV-XVII, Augustine covers Old Testament history and explains it in light of the teachings of the New Testament. But, as much as I'd like to enjoy it, the comparisons too often seem arbitrary. Where he simply uses his metaphor of the two cities to sort the figures who serve God and those who don't, it works for me. But when he suggests that the three levels of the ark represent faith, hope, and charity, I don't see the point. Even Augustine thinks the connection is somehow arbitrary, though: he also suggests that the three stories represent the thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and hundred-fold harvests of the gospel, or even chaste marriage, chaste widowhood, and virginity. So maybe I don't understand arbitrariness or why Augustine and others of his time drew these connections.

And I should say that this portion of The City of God had its good moments. I enjoyed seeing Augustine wrestle, for instance, with tough scriptural passages that critics might scoff at: Why did the first men wait until they were 100 to have children? Why does Methuselah's age seem to reach three years beyond the flood? And Augustine called my attention to two very interesting details. (1) In the book of Galatians, Paul compares the sons of flesh and law to the son of Hagar and the sons of promise and grace to the sons of Sarah. That means that he took Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, to represent the Jews, and Isaac, a father of the Jews, to represent Christians. (2) Solomon became king before David died, so the prophecy of David's son in II Samuel 7:12 can't refer to him.

Nevertheless, the passage as a whole is slow. I read it once before as a part of the first ten-year plan. It took me about eight months to read and, as a result, single-handedly turned the ten-year plan into an eleven-year plan. This time, I got through it on schedule.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Some Thoughts Are Worth More than a Penny

Usually I hate third-person narrative that reveals a character's thinking. To begin with, I can't help wondering who this omniscient, or at least multiscient, narrator could be. (Multiscient: a word I just made up meaning "knowing a lot of things." Maybe mentiscient, "knowing minds," or cogitatiscient, "knowing thoughts," or absconditiscient, "knowing hidden secrets" would work even better.) I don't mind hearing that Prince Charming thinks Sleeping Beauty the most beautiful girl he's ever seen. The narrator's knowledge of Prince Charming's secret opinions just contributes to the story's overall aura of fantasy: we aren't expected to think of a fairy tale as true while we hear it. But if I'm supposed to suspend my disbelief while reading a more realistic novel, then I have to believe that some third party could realistically have told the tale. On top of this problem, I've just seen too many lazy examples where inner dialog replaces vivid description. Don't tell me Fred is worried; show me Fred is worried. Tell me about his wrinkled brow or his drumming fingers. I'll know Fred better if you tell me he gives himself a neckrub than I will if you tell me that he's thinking, "What am I going to do?"

Trollope grants himself an exception, though, when he says upfront, as he so frequently does, that the characters of the present novel are inventions of his imagination. He -- or at least his narrating proxy -- often addresses the reader directly and tells her how much he knows of the character that graces his creative mind, how much he doesn't know, how much he knows but won't tell, and how much he will leave to the reader. (Trollope sometimes refers to readers with feminine pronouns and sometimes with masculine. I'm not sure which is more surprising given the century in which he wrote.) In Doctor Thorne, he says that Mary Thorne must be exceptionally beautiful because everyone expects the heroine to be flawless in appearance. But he goes on to say that he knows more about and is more concerned with her temperament, which definitely has flaws. Once Trollope establishes that the characters are pure imaginations and then declares his interest in their inner lives, I expect to hear their thoughts, and I want to hear their thoughts.

And his characters' thoughts are fascinating. I believe I've come across only one murder so far in the ten or so Trollope novels I've read. Some fans of Victorian fiction might this lack of action makes for boring books. But reading about Lady de Courcy's secret thoughts, I find that she thinks people of a lower class are less human than she, and doesn't the Sermon on the Mount teach that such thoughts are tantamount to murder? When the inner life forms the stage, every thought, every feeling, every decision, every hesitation becomes an action in the drama.

And this drama is full of action. When Augusta admits to herself that Mr Moffat is not a man of birth, she doesn't go so far as to remember that he is in fact the son of a mere tailor. Mary, unconscious of any internal contradiction is "armed to do battle against the world's prejudices, those prejudices she herself loved so well." When asked if her husband gambles, Lady Arabella replies "very slowly" that she doesn't think so, and a world of doubt lies in her slow tempo. And when the Honourable John de Courcy sighs in looking at his cousin Frank's humble birthday presents, we learn that he is thinking about "what small hope there was that all those who were nearest and dearest to him should die out of his way, and leave him to the sweet enjoyment of an earl's coronet and fortune."

In a novel that exposes minds, Trollope can even tell us what one character knows about what another character knows. Early in Doctor Thorne, Squire Gresham says this to Doctor Thorne:
"My father left me the property entire, and I should leave it entire to my son;--but you don't understand this."
     The doctor did understand the feeling fully. The fact, on the other hand, was that, long as he had known him, the squire did not understand the doctor.
But these imaginary characters are severely realistic and are not privy to each other's minds; they must rely on the verbal cues and body language that, in any other author's work, I prefer. In one scene, the reader knows that Augusta mentally sweeps the nagging inconsistency in her thoughts under the rug of pride in being an heiress. But her brother Frank doesn't know what's going on. "Well, what is it?" he asks her. "What makes you stick your chin up and look in that way?"

Thursday, October 6, 2011

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

How to begin? How to cross that terrible threshold between not-saying-something and saying-something? Preachers often begin with a joke. Some newscasters say a quick "good evening" before reminding their viewers that lawmakers are still myopic and that the rest of mankind is still murderous. Complainers always begin with "I don't mean to complain, but."

For fiction writers, general wisdom and tradition says to follow the advice of Horace's Ars Poetica: begin in medias res, or in the thick of action. Consider the opener of The Sound and the Fury: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." No introductions. We don't know what fence it is, who "I" is (am?), or who "they" are. But whoever "they" are, "they" are already hitting when the book opens. Or take a look at the first line of Catch-22: "It was love at first sight." Part of what makes that such a good first line for a novel is that in lesser hands it would work so well as a second line. "Once a guy named Arnie was standing at a street corner when a beautiful girl in a blue '72 'Vette drove up and stopped. It was love at first sight." In any case, novel writers usually start in the middle of the action. Unless you know how to finish a chapter that starts "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," you don't begin a novel with a chapter of exposition and background.

Anthony Trollope begins Doctor Thorne, the book I started two days ago, with three chapters of exposition, although he calls it two chapters when he apologizes for it. So he breaks the rule, miscounts or lies about the severity of the infraction, and then calls attention to his misdeed with the apology . . . and I love it. Trollope knows he's making a joke, and he makes sure the reader is in on it.

Like a Bauhaus architect, Trollope leaves all the vital works of his edifice showing: he talks explicitly about himself, his choices, and the reader's choices. The first sentence announces that "before the reader is introduced to the modest country medical practitioner who is to be the chief personage of the following tale, it will be well that he should be made acquainted with . . . the neighbors among whom our doctor followed his profession." He then proceeds with a chapter about the Greshams and explains that the story will begin with a coming-of-age party held, in honor of young Frank Gresham, in the park of Greshamsbury. Near the end of the chapter, after providing some geography and a lot of back story, Trollope says "we have kept the Greshamsbury tenantry waiting under the oak-trees far too long," but still the story does not begin. In chapter 2, he says with a wink, "A few words must still be said about Miss Mary before we rush into our story." Two chapters later, he reminds the reader again that the story is to begin with the party. I'm now 18% of the way through (according to the Kindle), and the "main" narrative thread still sits on Frank's twenty-first birthday.

The reader's part in the jest is revealed at the beginning of chapter 2: "As Dr Thorne is our hero -- or I should rather say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to all my readers -- and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to anyone, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner." And here's another layer in the joke: even though Trollope at various times refers explicitly to the characters as creations of his own mind, he treats them with all the respect afforded to his flesh-and-blood readers, obeying all the niceties of social intercourse and making all due obeisances to class. At one point he asks the reader's indulgence as he attempts to drop "Lady" from references to Lady Alexandrina simply for the easier flow of the prose. But two pages later he finds that his pen will not allow him to take the liberty. Sly dog, that Trollope: the device is both a piece of self-referential humor and a not-so-subtle nod to the democratic reforms that Lady Alexandrina's family fears.

Of course the comedy works because the first chapters are anything but dull, despite Trollope's protestations. But before I rush into that story, I must rest the pen and enjoy a night's rest.

post scriptum The words of my title, often considered the worst opening line in the history of literature, do not open Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford. Chapter one begins in fact with a poetic epigraph suggesting that dark and stormy nights forebode evil times. To the reader belongs the privilege of deciding whether this information makes the opening of that novel better or worse.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In Honor of St. Francis

MOST high, almighty, and good Lord: Grant thy people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world, that, after the example of blessed Francis, we may for love of thee delight in all thy creatures, with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So goes the traditional Anglican and Episcopal prayer for today, October 4, the Feast of St. Francis. As I read those words this morning, I enjoyed noticing the resonance between the prayer and what I've read in several books this year, even just yesterday in Augustine's City of God.

How can we both renounce the world's vanities and still delight in creation with perfect joy? It's what Francis did, and it's what the prayer asks God to do for us. But it's easy to miss the mark. Some Christians have renounced the world so completely, they despise the creation. Looking solely to the unseen world sounds spiritual enough, but how can someone who does it also think about "whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise"? It's even easier to fall off the other side of the balancing wire: many Christians revel in the creation at the expense of worshiping the Creator.

I read last year in City of God a part of Augustine's answer to the problem. We tend to judge created things, he says, according to their utility for us and our comfort. Because a desert is inhospitable to us, for instance, and a wild animal is dangerous to us, we are tempted to think of these things as absolutely bad. But God called all that He created good, so any existing thing is good in that it was created and has its existence from God. On the other hand, wealth makes life pleasant, so we tend to think of wealth as absolutely good. But making any created thing the goal of life is evil, not because the thing is evil, but because by it we have turned away from God, Who is the proper end of our life. We should learn to look at all things, Augustine says, according to their created purpose.

Yesterday, I found the keystone of Augustine's view. All created things are good, he says, but they are ordered in a hierarchy. We should always prefer the higher goods and seek the lower goods only as means to the higher. The City of Man seeks peace to enjoy earthly pleasures. "These things . . . are good things, and without doubt the gifts of God." But anyone who believes them the only desirable things and neglects heavenly goods will end up miserable. Of course, most people don't entirely neglect God; most pay attention to Him only long enough to ask Him for earthly goods. Good people, Augustine says, use the world that they may enjoy God; the wicked use God that they may enjoy the world.

Last week I read C. S. Lewis saying almost the same thing about his childhood view of God. The young Lewis prayed to God for things, and then, to be honest, hoped that He would leave him alone. He had no thought of God as Savior or Judge, only as magician. The week before that, I read about Francis in Durant's Age of Faith. Francis saw a Church enamored of earthly possessions, so he determined to be poor and to go about preaching. But while he gave up the things of the world, he didn't live in a cave, either. He went out into the world and famously taught people to thank God for the rich blessings of the sun and the moon.

Even earlier this year, I read a passage in Calvin's Institutes that called for a dour (surprise!) view of the world: renouncing the vanities of the world means guarding against taking joy in anything but God. In the margin of this passage, I wrote a note about what I thought would serve as a good rebuttal to this severe outlook: "The Flag of the World," a chapter in Chesterton's great book Orthodoxy. In that chapter, Chesterton says the proper attitude towards the world is something like a healthy patriotism. A man who truly loves his country must love it despite its problems, and he must want to correct the problems without changing what he loves about his country. We should have the same attitude about the world, he says. We must recognize its brokenness and long to see it restored, but we love it as the home God gave us.

Augustine again:
Beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good. When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately. So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love.
"All things should be done decently and in order" -- even love. The prayer for today doesn't say we should renounce the world, but the vanities of the world. When we throw out that bathwater, the baby that remains is an ordinate love for the world. And to love all things ordinately is "to delight in all thy creatures, with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord." Amen.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Just Like C. S. Lewis

Reading Surprised by Joy is informative, moving, inspiring, and fun. In the book, Lewis mostly tells two well-related stories: the story of how he became educated, and the story of how he became a Christian. And I love reading about both. He describes English schools so vividly, I feel like Thursday Next jumping into the world of the book. Of course, part of me wants to jump back out of the horrid schools, but I'm fascinated with the stories of the good English schools where a boy could learn Latin and Greek, classic literature, the art of dialectic, and (ideally) the manners of a gentleman. His theological journey, too, instructs and delights as he tells of changing from childish Christian to dabbler in the occult, from occultist to romantic, from romantic to atheist, and then through moralist, absolutist, and theist to Christian. But I have a third reason to love this book: reading it allows me to sustain for a few days the illusion that C. S. Lewis and I are just alike.

Early in the book, we find that Lewis grew up in a house full of books and had permission to read them all and, after his brother left for school, plenty of leisure time in which to do it. My parents' house wasn't exactly full of books, but they bought me all the books I wanted and had one bookcase full of treasures of their own, and I was allowed to read any of them. Lewis felt clumsy because of a lack of a joint in each thumb, and because of this deficiency, he disliked playing sports and turned toward a quiet life of reading and contemplation. I, too, feel clumsy because of fingers that don't bend, and I, too, give a lot of credit to that "defect" for steering me to an academic life. Lewis was enamored of a season. His was autumn, mine is winter. Lewis loved learning but hated being at school, even a good school, and for the rest of his life resented the way his schools held him back from learning what he was capable of. Click the tab marked "The Project" to read about my very similar experience. As I've become older, I've grown grown to love many of the books Lewis loved: the novels of Anthony Trollope, essays by Chesterton, Dante's Divine Comedy, Plato's dialogs, and Boswell's Life of Johnson, for instance. And as Lewis became older and became a Christian, he came to see how religious Pagans like Plato and Aeschylus have spiritual insights to teach Christians. In all these ways, we are very similar.

But, alas, the illusion only lasts so long. In many ways I'm not like Lewis at all. For instance, while he spent his childhood reading Gulliver's Travels and Shakespeare, I spent mine reading comics and -- oh, why was I born in the twentieth century! -- "children's versions" of classics. I had a children's version of the Bible, of Gulliver, of Robinson Crusoe. I even had -- and here's where the foolishness of the whole twentieth-century "educational" movement becomes clear -- a children's version of The Wizard of Oz. The book was written explicitly for children. Why, only a few decades later, did children need a simplified version? My two main categories of literature merged in the comics called Illustrated Classics. I remember one day looking at the order form on the back of one of these with my dad. When he asked me which ones I'd like to have, I named at least twenty, and then I asked him how many of them I could order. "All of them," he said. "No, really, Dad. How many?" "Every one that you named." I look back on it now and think about 20 comics times 12 cents. It was only $2.40 plus 50 cents for shipping, but my dad seemed impossibly generous to me at the time. My parents really got me all the books I wanted, so I feel like Lewis again.

But here's another way we're not alike. I have published one scholarly book that gets bought occasionally and has been used a few times in classes, mostly ones that I have taught. But after up to eighty years, all of Lewis's professional books are still in print and still used in university classes. Come to think of it, no one is like C. S. Lewis in that regard.