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.

No comments:

Post a Comment