Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Awards – 2012

The end of the year has come, so it’s time for a review, once again in the form of awards. I don’t have consistent categories in mind for these. I just make up the awards so I can talk one last time about some of my favorite reading from the past year.

Out of the Running for Any Category Because He’s in the exlibrismagnis Hall of Fame
Charles Dickens. ’Nuff said.

Best New Read: History
Durant on the Florentine Renaissance. After living an hour from Florence for four-and-a-half months, I came home to find that my Durant for the year covered the Renaissance there. I’d call it the perfect coincidence except that I wish I had read it just before we went, if only so I could have known that I needed to go just one block from where I stood several times to a church with some masterpieces by del Sarto. The voice of LOST’s Jack Shephard has been in my mind for months: “We have to go BAAAACK!”

Best New Read: Religion
Sermons by John Chrysostom. The Golden Mouth goes verse by verse, sometimes phrase by phrase, through the book of Romans and reveals nuances, implications, attitudes, and excluded alternatives. The last twenty to fifty percent of each sermon builds on the Biblical text to give wisdom and exhortation to lead a better life. "It is not suffering ill, but doing it, that is really suffering ill."

Most Pleasant Surprise
Don Juan. Byron’s poem had all the lush imagery and beautiful language I expected plus all the humor, philosophy, and morality I didn’t.

Best New Read: Drama
Wild Duck, Peer Gynt. Ibsen seemed to have changed a lot between college days and now. When I was twenty, I didn’t see why Hedda Gabler needed to shoot herself. But this year I read plays with deep, nuanced, and very sympathetic characters.

Best New Read: Fiction
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. I think the title exerts undue influence on some reviewers: the affair is only a small part of this beautiful tale of Everyman’s descent into sin.

Best New Read: Biography
Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes. Just this Thanksgiving, I played a game with my family called Evil Baby Orphanage, in which each player tries to take care of naughty little babies who will grow up to become infamous villains. Hitler, Caligula, Lizzie Borden, and all their bloodthirsty little baby friends are there. But so is Rutherford B. Hayes. “Oh, you know what he did,” says the card cryptically. I was horrified – but not by Baby Rud. OK, so he promised to pull occupation troops out of the southern states in return for their agreement to give him the electors in our history’s most disputed election. But, first, those troops had had only negative influence on long-term respect for Black’s voting rights. And second, the confusion in that election far outstripped the weirdness of 2000, and no one else had any workable solutions. Other than that deal, Hayes just appointed many women to federal posts, brought on an economic boom, stood against monopolies, and worked tirelessly for prison reform, citizenship for Indians, and civil rights and education for Blacks. Hardly evil.

Best New Read that Crosses Categories
Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Theology, history, economics, philosophy, politics, cultural studies: every angle is fascinating.

Best Offroading
Roy and Lesley Adkins, The War for All the Oceans. Hefty quotations from source material feature on every page of this history of the naval side of the Napoleonic wars. It was a little strange to read several pages on the Battle of New Orleans and only a few lines on Waterloo, but then all the British troops in Louisiana came directly off of ships, and it is a history of the war for the oceans. It was also a little strange reading about the War of 1812 from a British point of view: they call it our Great Mistake.

Almost Perfect Fantasy
Summa Elvetica by Theodore Beale (Marcher Lord Press). This Christian fantasy book centers on a theological debate over whether elves have immortal souls, worded in Latin and patterned after the dialogical arguments of Thomas Aquinas. A novel's premise could not possibly appeal to me on more levels. If only it weren’t missing an absolutely essential “non” in a couple of crucial places!

Best Reread
Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion. I didn’t know enough about theology, Plato, psychology, or life to understand this book the first time I read it. I don’t understand it all now, either, but I definitely got more. Just hold your bucket under Williams’s wild, spraying fountain of mystical light. Most of it will miss your bucket, but what you catch will cleanse and satisfy.

And that’s it for 2012. Readers, may your New Year be filled with great books!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas with Anthony Trollope

On Christmas Day, I read a charming little story by Anthony Trollope called “The Mistletoe Bough.” Ironically, Trollope’s frequent admission of fictionality in his narratives usually couples with some of the most realistic characters in nineteenth-century fiction. And I certainly found this true in “The Mistletoe Bough.” The story begins with a gentle argument between mother and daughter, and the narrator says after just a few lines, “The point in dispute was one very delicate in its nature, hardly to be discussed in all its bearings, even in fiction.” Even in fiction. If characters on stage break the fourth wall, what do characters in a book break? The cover?

The subject of the argument? Whether to hang mistletoe in the dining room of Thwaite Hall for the holiday visit of some young acquaintances of the Garrow family. Mrs. Garrow is for it, her daughter Elizabeth against it. It seems that Bessy (as her friends call her, and I consider myself a friend) has broken an engagement with one of the coming guests, Mr. Godfrey Holmes. So naturally she doesn’t want to find herself in an embarrassing situation at dinner one evening.

You can call the end of that story right now, and its predictable sweetness would be too precious, except for the reason Trollope gives Bessy for breaking the engagement. Bessy has decided not to be “vapid, silly, and useless” like most girls but instead to lead a life of religious purpose, which involves, in her view, a great deal of self-denial. In Bessy’s mind, self-denial itself is the goal of a pious Christian life, so clearly she can’t marry the man who loves her and makes her so happy.  (On the other hand, she takes it as an insult when her brother calls her a Puritan.) Trollope says it is as though she carries a fox under her tunic biting away at her just so she can have some suffering that she can stoically bear. Perhaps, like me, she has recently read Byron’s Manfred, and, inspired by the titular character, takes a morbid comfort in a self-inflicted punishment that can even go into Heaven. If so, it’s possible she should have done some other reading from my list for 2012. She could have learned from Peer Gynt that true Christian self-denial serves only to reveal the true self “with Master's intention displayed like a signboard.” Or maybe she could have read Descartes’s and William James’s searches for the self. Even better, Bessy, read Aquinas on ordinate and inordinate love!

I’ve known many, many believers whose most interesting characteristic consists of such venial heresies: eccentric beliefs that they hold proudly because by believing in them they feel especially spiritual. Trollope’s doctrinally passionate characters seem so utterly real to me, I sometimes think he openly declared them figments of his imagination just to keep their very nonfictional originals from complaining. In any case, slightly weird theologies make for such interesting drama, I wonder that more novelists haven't capitalized on the idea as much as Trollope did.

By the way, the last line of “The Mistletoe Bough” goes to an undramatic character: Kate, who must be one of the vapid, silly, and useless girls Bessy uses as a negative example, takes full advantage of the Mistletoe in partnership with Bessy’s brother, Harry.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2012

I love Christmas. I love music. I love reading. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that I love reading and pondering the lyrics to Christmas carols. I’ve written two previous posts (here and here) on great carols. This year, the words to “Joy to the World!” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” have been rolling around in my mind: one by a great, influential hymn writer and the other the product of generations of street singers.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Many, many times in my life, church people who think they know me have tried to get me to justify for them their belief that popular styles of music are inherently bad. I said they only think they know me. Ten or twelve years ago, several people sent me a poor internet joke about the difference between hymns and “choruses,” ending with this supposed punch line: “So if it’s repetitious, you know it must be a contemporary chorus.” To which I always responded, “Or a piece by Handel.” The looks I got when I pulled the rug out from under their stupid argument! Repetition has nothing to do with quality. Both beuatiful songs for today’s post repeat lyrics, and one of them, as it turns out, has music by Handel.

Of the many wonderful virtues of “Joy to the World!” what’s striking me this year is the sympathy of nature with our musical outpouring of worship. While we employ our songs, the fields and floods and hills and plains sing right along. (How can anyone object to the repetition of a line about nature repeating the sounding joy?) In the first verse, in fact, both Heaven and nature sing along with us, a three-tiered alignment of purpose and praise. Actually, the first line reminds us that we don’t start the carol; just as fields and floods echo our joy, we ourselves merely echo what Heaven sends to us in the first place. “Joy to the World! The Lord is come!”

I always imagine “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” to be the carol that A Christmas Carol tropes. It has five lines, as Dickens’s ghost story has five “stanzas,” and when I read the story, I always sing one line of the song after every section. As the great author would say, “the wisdom of our ancestors” is in the carol. And their wisdom puts a comma between “merry” and “gentlemen.” When I was a child, I interpreted the wish as directed toward polite people of a sanguine disposition. But now I understand that the adjective “merry” goes with the prayer, not with the gentlemen. I love that turn of phrase: “God rest ye merry.”

The young me also puzzled on the phrase “let nothing you dismay.” I don’t remember exactly when I figured out that it was an inversion of “let nothing dismay you,” but I remember feeling happy to have discovered this wonderful new poetic possibility in my language. And I remember understanding the song’s message quite clearly: “Don’t let anything worry you, because the infant in the manger has freed us from Satan!” Why do we have such trouble honoring these tidings of comfort and joy and following their advice?

May you lead the rivers and the mountains in a song of joy today! May nothing you dismay! And God Rest Ye Merry!

Monday, December 24, 2012

William James and Fox Mulder

In a long chapter about self and identity, the chapter I read this year, psychologist William James naturally has to explore cases of people who forget their identities or who have multiple personalities. He starts with a blend of the two: instances of people who wake up one day having forgotten their past and exhibiting instead a different personality with different characteristics, preferences, and mannerisms. I found out that the old movie trope of the character who switches back and forth between personalities (Powell and Loy’s hilarious I Love You Again is my favorite of these) has a basis in fact. One woman he studied grew up melancholy and then one day became a different, giddy person. The two personalities exchanged places a few times over the next few years, but eventually the second settled in, although curiously, it gradually became less manic.

James moves from there into what I believe we would now call multiple-personality disorder. In the cases he examined in his practice and research, the most commonly manifested personality wasn’t aware of the others, which seemed to emanate in a nested order: number 2 aware of number 1 and herself but not of number 3, number 3 aware of herself and the first two but not of number 4, and so on. Most curious to me was the tendency for each personality to have a separate name, but James had no theory for it.

The wildest part of the chapter dealt with what James calls “mediumships” and “possessions.” In these cases, the second personality often claims to be dead. Some cases of mediumships involve automatic writing; James includes a long testimonial by a member of the U. S. Congress who dealt with constant urges to write and found that what came out of his hand had nothing to do with his own thoughts. That congressman had me thinking already about The X-Files, when on the next page James really shocked me by saying he had seen evidence of mediumships or possessions by actual dead people, manifesting with accurate information that the host could not have possibly known. Then James himself seems to channel not a departed spirit but the future television personality of Fox Mulder when he says that only “soi-disant ‘scientists’ refuse to explore” these explanations (Mulder would call them “extreme possibilities”) because of “a priori ‘scientific’ prejudice.”

I love William James, and not least for his willingness to set aside such prejudices and at least to acknowledge “extreme possibilities” of spiritual realities. He even goes so far as to speculate briefly on whether God could give a separate afterlife to each personality housed in one earthly body. His very speculative answer is an affirmative one, based on his theory that each human personality is grounded on a separate stream of thought with its set of linked memories. The eternity of the self, he argues, must include a stream of thought and memories if we are to receive our proper enjoyment of it. Wow! Why wasn’t that in my college psychology book?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Oh, It’s What You Do to Me

The university that employs me pays me once a month. At the beginning of this month – a month that includes Christmas, by the way – I received over $400 less than I usually do. I called up and heard this detailed explanation: “It must have been a mistake.” No apologies or offers to correct the mistake. Enjoy the Holiday. Yours, Uncle Ebenezer.

The woman on the other end said someone would call me back. No one did. So I called a second time and heard (1) that someone would call me back (they never seem to get tired of that line) and (2) that the mistake would be corrected at the end of December. But I checked online this morning and found out that my next paycheck doesn’t include any correction or bonus. So I looked the office up to see if I could find a name of someone in charge that I could send an email to. But I found only lists of offices and phone numbers. The Human Resources department doesn’t lay claim to any humans.

Words have such great power. You know what they say: sticks and stones just break my bones, but words can really hurt me. OK, well, that’s what they ought to say, because that’s the real truth. The words from the Human Resources object (it doesn’t consist of people, so let’s just call it an object) don’t merely convey or fail to convey information. They reach out through the phone and through the computer screen, grab me, and put me in my place. I am an irrelevant nuisance trying to insinuate myself between the Payroll division of the Human Resources object and its mission, which apparently doesn’t include the payrolling of  my $400.

So I started thinking about my reading plan along these lines, pondering what the books I read this year did to me, what position they put me in. Calvin for instance, by consistently taking a polemical tone and throwing insulting names at people who disagree with him, makes me an adversary. I want to learn about his theological system and would love to enjoy agreeing with him. But instead, he leaves me only two choices: kneel in fear before his lightning-filled fist, or stand up in defiance. And I’m just not much of a kneeler. (If The Avengers were true, I’d be that corny guy who stands up to Loki.)

Dickens, to take the opposite extreme, makes mankind my business. He assembles the human family – sweet nieces, swaggering uncles, eccentric aunts, brave cousins, senile grandfathers, good Samaritans, black sheep, and all – and drops me right in the middle of their holiday party. While and just after reading a Dickens novel, every person I meet comes from his world; he makes me more sympathetic and the world more worthy of sympathy. From Dickens I learn to love people I wouldn’t give much thought to in my usual world.

Aquinas buys me a ticket and welcomes me right onto his train of thought. Even when I don’t completely agree with him, I just keep riding along because the comfortable line runs on schedule, and because I know his train takes me to my destination. Trollope draws me into his sitting room, sits me down by his fire, and talks to me intimately about his favorite people and his most cherished beliefs. While I read his words, I am the close friend of a wise moral teacher. Greene turns my heart inside out and exposes some dark, festering corners to the healing influences of the light and the air. Charles Williams turns the world inside out and reveals the spiritual power behind every object, thought, and cultural mannerism. And Aristotle makes me an eager student, thirsty for knowledge.

Well, even if mankind isn’t the business of Human Resources (despite the name), it is my business. So I’ll end today by calling it a department again and wishing its unidentified people a Merry Christmas. Then while I wait until that office opens up again in January, I’ll just read a couple more books.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Uplifting Reading

As clichéd as it sounds, I want to say today that I enjoy reading C. S. Lewis as much as I do because he lifts me up. The more I think about it, the more fitting I find the phrase “lifts me up”: his writing lifts me up in so many different ways. I have to begin with my college days, when I spent a lot of time with many Christians who not only were of no more than moderate intelligence, a situation they couldn’t help, but believed intelligence worked against Christian faith. They were suspicious of me with my books and my “long” words, so naturally I doubted myself and worried about my state of grace. But then there were times when I would open up a Lewis book and read just one page and say to myself, “They’re wrong and I’m right: you can be smart and be a Christian.” It isn’t too much to say that I sometimes felt as if this dead author were my only friend. (Of course, I know now of scores of intelligent Christian writers from throughout history, but the Zondervan bookstore didn’t have Aquinas and Pascal on their shelves, so I didn’t know about them.)

Then Lewis is uplifting in that he teaches me. I’ve learned about medieval literature from him, and about Renaissance allegory. He’s taught me vocabulary and theological arguments and the ways of British public schools in the first part of the last century. He taught me about Ariosto in a remark that started this whole reading project. But even before the content comes off the page, he lifts my mind by expecting me to be an intelligent reader. Even in his Narnia books he writes with the assumption that the children who read them (as well as the adults!) have the capability to think and in fact will think about what they read. He speaks to me as if poetry matters, and so naturally it does matter. He writes as if every aspect of life and culture should be scrutinized, every pleasure acknowledged, every peccadillo confessed, and so of course I start to pay more attention to the details of life.

The final essays and addresses from The Weight of Glory demonstrate this uplifting tendency as well as anything he wrote. In “Is Theology Poetry?” Lewis attempts to answer a question posed to him without really knowing what the question means; his solution is to answer every meaning he can think of. His response to what he considers the most likely intended meaning, “Do you believe in God merely because the story is attractive?” is somewhat surprising: that can’t possibly be true, he argues, because so many pagan theologies and mythologies are so much more aesthetically pleasing. Once again he has me thinking in new ways, in this instance thinking about Christianity as aesthetic object. (I can’t agree with his conclusion at this time of year: the infant incarnate God lying among farm animals with a star shining above Him and kings bowing to Him is the most beautiful picture from any theology I know.)

The same address gives a short account of his conversion from scientific naturalism to Christianity, complete with shortened forms of his “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument (he doesn’t consider the Liar option in this version) and his “The Problem with Naturalism” argument. This latter argument, which he explores more fully in Miracles, says basically that if every phenomenon has a natural, deterministic cause, then the reasoning process that leads to that conclusion cannot be based on nonmaterial laws of logic and therefore has no support. The roof declares that walls don’t exist. Lewis compares the mental disconnect to the absurdity of dreams, and says that becoming a Christian was like waking up. He ends the essay with these penetrating words:
I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.
In “The Inner Circle,” Lewis gives some old-fashioned moral advice to college students: Don’t bother trying to enter the Inner Circle when you are employed. If you will do your work honestly, you will find yourself admired by the only circle that matters in your profession. In “On Forgiveness,” he points out that forgiving does not mean making excuses. In “A Slip of the Tongue” Lewis warns his readers not to dabble with the spiritual life when God wants us, not a certain number of minutes of our time devoted to spiritual things."Failures will be forgiven; it is acquiescence that is fatal." What could be more uplifting? Combined, these messages say that even the humblest of us can lead divine lives: every moment of the day, every casual remark, every mundane task, every honest day’s work can be sacred if enacted in service to God. In “Membership,” he describes the goal of this divine life on earth. Christianity, he says, is neither a matter for individuals nor for collectives. We are called to be members of a living Church, each with a unique task. It’s not that God finds out what I’m good at and then finds a place for me in the organism: the position existed for eternity, and God created me to fill that position and perform its function. As a result, he says, we shall each find our true personality by finding our place in the Church. I’d call that beautiful theology.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Monarchs and Memories

Earlier this month, I wrote about some problems with Dickens’s Reprinted Pieces, problems I wasn’t necessarily enjoying wrestling with. But today, I have only wonderful things to say.

The book lies before me on my table now, and as I open the cover, ghostly images rise from it and pass before my eyes. Here is a small child gazing up at a star and calling to his departed sister. I can hear only the echo of the breath of his voice; the precise content of his tender words is private matter. The boy’s image fades, and the ghost of a grown man takes his place. He wears a long beard and a satisfied smile and reminds me briefly of his story: once a favored model for painters of historical scenes, he grew tired of sitting in studios and of being constantly recognized on the street, so he solved both problems with one growth of facial hair.

Now up from the pages rises an enclosed carriage ringed with red curtains. Inside I find our friend Charles listening to the reminiscences of a bill-sticker. This princely laborer has achieved his regal status through hard work and innovation. He tells of trends in advertisements and the history of paper sizes. After dismissing a vassal with an order to procure more tobacco, he announces that he concocted the idea of posting announcements on the underside of bridges – for the benefit of water travellers, of course – and invented the expandable tool that allows him to reach so high. It occurs to me that his dynasty continues even today the noble policy of finding new locations for notices so that we need never fear turning our gaze in a direction that does not include at least one advertisement.

The last pages of the book turn, and as the bill-sticker’s carriage turns to smoke and wisps away, a numinous Christmas tree rises before me. Next to it sits a man with Victorian dress and beard, holding a pen and writing as he watches the Yule tree slowly spin. The writer’s face gains a wistful smile as toys appear on the lowest branches: a rolling acrobat, a jumping frog. On the other side of the tree, I see toys from my past: building sets and trains and games. Then books begin to appear, hanging from the green boughs. The spectral author gasps a little as a turbaned sultan gives a menacing look and a wave of a scimitar. The tree spins and presents other books and other characters, ones from my past. Many of these books bear the name of the very author whose past first conjured this tree of memory. From one comes the image of a tall, lean man in a thin scarf and worn hat, a tiny boy seated on his shoulder and carrying a little wooden crutch. If this blessed Season inspires me each year to celebrate with the humble joy of Bob and to remember the Miracle Worker that Tim loved, no small part of the credit must go to the Great Man who gave us his tales of poor clerks and eccentric bill-stickers and trees with the mystical power to bring the dead past back to life.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

William James’s Soul

My yearly visit with William James for 2012 took me through his theory of the Self, which he compares with three other prominent theories. (1) The substantial Soul of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas may be real, but we never perceive it, so empirically we have no evidence of it. We can say we know it by its operations (i.e., the thoughts we perceive), but how do we know that the It that thinks these thoughts is a separate substance? (2) Hume’s associationist theory – that a self is nothing but the string of thoughts, each composed of stable, simple ideas that combine in sometimes new and sometimes habitual ways – doesn’t work, James reasons, because (a) no idea is the same when it is thought a second time, and (b) there must be a tertium quid to connect the thoughts, since, for instance, the thought of four and the thought of three don’t combine to make the thought of seven. (3) Kant’s view he dismisses with a hint of disdain: “Does one seriously think he understands better how the knower 'connects' its objects, when one calls the former a transcendental Ego and the latter a 'Manifold of Intuition' than when one calls them Thought and Things respectively?”

In contrast with these three views, James suggests that the scientist should accept the current Thought as the Thinker.  My current Thought certainly seems connected in some way with my surroundings and memories in a way that I could call “awareness.” In fact, in saying that I’m aware of my current thought, it seems that my current thought consists of awareness of itself. So perhaps the current Thought is the I that thinks it.

James really has me puzzling over this one. Of course, “Who am I?” is one of the greatest, most puzzling questions of the human condition. It is one of the great problems of philosophy, and I’m not going to solve it for all my fellow humans any time soon. But James has me thinking, and I’m leaning his way right now. Naturally some problems occur. For instance, the current Thought is fleeting, and I seem to have longevity. James answers this critique by saying that the current Thought inherits a “title” from the previous thought, an authority that comes with the ability to perceive, judge, and choose, and to remember all that the previous Thought remembered. This view of the revolving authority makes sense to me until he says again that, while he believes in a Thinking Self, he doesn’t see a reason to place it in a non-phenomenal world. In other words, he wants empirical validation of the Self, and the current Thought is the perceptible thing. But then where is this “title”? I certainly don’t perceive it. I have an inclination to say, “Does one seriously think he understands the tertium quid better when one calls it a ‘title’ rather than a ‘substance’?” (He’s comfortable with the word “soul” and uses it provisionally, with the caution to the reader that he doesn’t mean by it what Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas meant.)

One of the things I love about William James is that he seems to be in love with the fascinating human mind as much as with the quest of understanding it. Religion plays a huge part in human life, and James embraces that facet. He says for instance that humans can’t help but pray. His argument goes this way: My reputation with others occupies a vital place in my sense of self, and when I choose to make of myself something my family or culture doesn’t approve, I still want recognition and vindication from some outside Judge. Since the society I’m going against can’t provide that positive reinforcement, I turn to an ideal Judge. He doesn’t say that God does or does not exist, i.e., whether the ideal Judge of my imagination might correspond to Fact, only that such a question “carries us beyond the psychological or naturalistic point of view,” thus making it the subject for a different book.

Aware that many of his readers will, like me, believe in God and hope for eternal life, James anticipates and answers two potential theological problems with his location of the Soul in the stream of thought rather than in a separate, supra-sensible substance that “has” the thoughts. First, he asks, would a righteous Judge punish a soul for acts committed when delirious? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that God will judge each person for what he chooses and remembers in his conscious stream of thought? I don’t know. David prays for forgiveness of hidden sins, which I’ve taken to mean hidden even from David himself. James’s second point, though, has weight to my way of thinking. Would we really want, he challenges, to live eternally as simple substances without a train of thought to experience the blessedness? And if the train of thought is what I hope will be in Heaven, isn’t the train of thought my Self? As I said, James has me thinking – thinking about the me that he has thinking.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Transposition, Not Musical

Last month I said a few words about C. S. Lewis’s great address “The Weight of Glory.” But the eponymous little volume in which that essay is found contains eight others, including one that equals the first, if in fact it does not surpass it.

Immediately following “The Weight of Glory,” “Learning in War-Time” records a sermon Lewis gave to students at the Oxford University Church of St. Mary. Is it frivolous to study poetry or obscure details of history when one’s countrymen fight on the front line? No more frivolous, says Lewis, than at any other time. A carefree situation for study will never come in this lifetime, so pursue your interests, knowing that even the soldiers at the front take time to play cards and write home. The important thing is offer do whatever you do to God. “Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organisation which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials.” As a scholar who has questioned the propriety of studying harmonies in pop songs during times much less urgent than the defense of my country against Nazi invasion, I found this sermon especially comforting.

In “Why I Am Not a Pacificist,” Lewis makes at least two interesting, helpful points on ethical reasoning. First, most ethical diatribes mistake heartfelt positions for self-evident truth. People who say that all war or all drink or [fill in your own contemporary example] is evil, pure and simple, have both the teaching of great philosophers and the common sense of most of humanity against them. If the position were as self-evident as the campaigner says, then why must he campaign? Second, the first point can’t be taken too far since humanity is broken and doesn’t always see what is ethically self-evident. Therefore, we can only have confidence about most ethical reasoning, not certainty.

In the fourth essay, “Transposition,” Lewis addresses a critique of skeptics who say that religion can’t truly point to anything outside this life since it always ends up talking about light, praise, blood, punishment, chariots, fire, gold, gardens, and other all too earthly things. His basic answer points out that any higher system expressing itself in a lower must use the terms of the lower, must be “transposed.” His very interesting example notes that both joy and anguish (from the “higher” realm of emotion) can produce the same twisted gut (in the “lower” realm of sensation). In the same way, love and lust lead to the same conjugal act. The person who doesn’t believe in love sees only lust in every loving couple. And the skeptic with no view of the divine realm cannot see anything but earthly objects and emotions in a believer’s life. “Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.” The ramifications of Lewis’s theory of transposition touch upon incarnation, sacraments, and one his favorite topics: truth in myth. These twenty beautiful pages are too little known; if my post inspires just one or two people to read them, I shall have done some good in my world today.

I once had the joy of sitting in the St. Mary Church at Oxford and listening to the visiting Bishop of Liverpool praise C. S. Lewis as practically a prophet who foresaw and addressed issues of our times. I don’t think C. S. Lewis foresaw me in particular, but I know that these three essays speak to issues important to me seventy years after he wrote them.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Exploring the Dark

Two posts back, I mentioned a variety of genres found in Dickens’s Reprinted Pieces: a variety founded on the varying identification of the first-person narrator. But the set contains variety of other sorts, as well: character study and travelogue, humor and tragedy, tender reminiscence and scathing satire. Under the first head, the best example is a piece in which Dickens meets a bill sticker who rides like a prince in his own curtained carriage. Travel numbers include, for instance, “Our French Watering-Place,” a picture of a French resort town with more English residents than French and a delightful landlord who lavishes soldiers assigned to his hotel with such luxury that he risks going bankrupt because, as he says, “It is a contribution to the State!” Dickens laughs with a new father who can’t get along with the nurse taking over his home and cries with the remnant survivors of a fearsome shipwreck. He remembers his old school with fondness, and tears apart the bureaucracy of the British patent offices with impish relish.

Least entertaining, perhaps, but most enlightening about Dickens’s life is a long series of dark pieces about walks in the night. Dickens tells some about his habit of searching out the underbelly of London by lanternlight in Sketches by Boz, and here we get further glimpses. “Three Detective Anecdotes” tells of a conversation with several police detectives whom Dickens invited to his home. They tell such vivid stories of the ratty pubs and flats they explore in search of criminals, Dickens can’t be satisfied until he spends a night on patrol with a certain Inspector Field. Together they visit noisome alleys, a thieves’ hideout, lodging-houses, a workhouse, and a prison. In every place he witnesses and reports on wrecked humans whose characters and conditions call forth both horror and pity.

What compelled this man to continually seek out the darkest recesses of humanity? What compelled the miserable people he met to answer his questions? From the account he gives, it seems doubtful that they had any notion they were talking with a famous author who might make them famous. At one point, Dickens and Inspector Field visit Waterloo Bridge and speak to the caretaker, who tells matter-of-fact stories of suicides, even giving his opinion on the most effective locations from which to jump. He, too, seems not to know or care about Dickens’s reason for curiosity. He simply knows Inspector Field and honors his request for some stories, with something like professional pride in his horrific knowledge.

Dickens may have sought out the dark recesses of his own soul in at least one number. “The Noble Savage” is actually a protracted diatribe against the idea given in the title, a scathing denouncement of all “uncivilized” people as ugly, brutish, irrational, cruel, cannibalistic heathens. Can this truly be Dickens speaking for himself? Apparently, some members of less- . . . , hmm, let’s say less-clothed societies had been introduced in recent years to Londoners at various events and exhibitions. The public showed interest in learning about them, and it wasn’t like Dickens to be behind the public in showing compassion. How can the man who wrote so mercifully of the paupers, prostitutes, and thieves of London write so mercilessly about the chiefs of foreign lands? Am I just incredulous because I’m so inured to politically correct talk of tolerance? Or was the piece intended as a satire whose layers have been irretrievably jumbled in the upheavals of changing thought?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Levels of Translation

Meaning happens on many levels. Take the simple phrase, “It’s raining.” It seems on the face of it that the two words convey information about the atmospheric condition. And someone might well say it to convey that information. “What’s it like outside?” “It’s raining.”

But the two words might be uttered or written outside the context of a query about the weather or the meteorological segment of the local news. And that’s because I might say the words for purposes other than that of conveying information. Suppose I’m standing next to a stranger on a corner waiting for the pedestrian light to change when the sprinkles start. I might say, “It’s raining” just to break the ice and make a human connection; certainly the other fellow can see the rain for himself and doesn’t need me to inform him. If my friend goes out in the rain without an umbrella, even though he knows why he’s wet, I still might shout “It’s raining!” to mean, “Take an umbrella!” or “Are you crazy?” I might even mutter the words to myself when I get caught in a downpour just to express my dismay. And I might write “It’s raining” not to convey information about rain but to call blog readers’ attentions to the possible levels of meaning in those two English words.

I’ve just been updating my list of Latin phrases that I come across in my reading, and an aspect of their use by William James, C. S. Lewis, James Boswell, Lord Byron, and others struck me with new force: as with “It’s raining,” the full range of possible meanings of each one of these phrases covers more than just its translation. Boswell quotes Johnson saying, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes,” and of course it translates as “I fear Greeks even when bearing gifts.” But did Johnson really fear Greeks? Of course not. So what is expressed, what communication takes place by the use of these words? Let’s cover Boswell first. He writes the words to tell his readers that Johnson used them previously in a letter; Boswell certainly doesn’t intend to express his own fear of gift-bearers. Johnson, on the other hand, wrote them to Boswell as a humorous comment on some marmalade Mrs. Boswell had sent him: Boswell’s wife didn’t much like Dr. Johnson at first, so he facetiously suggested that he should be wary of any attempt at poisoning. But if he could have done so by saying, “Tell your kind wife that I shall taste her marmalade in small portions at first in the event that she has tried to poison me,” why bother to quote Virgil? Using the line from the Aeneid added to the joke by magnifying a domestic squabble to epic proportions.

Finally, Johnson’s use of Latin strengthened his bond with Boswell by referring to their common education. And this is the aspect that struck me this morning: while I sometimes have to look up the meanings of some words in these Latin quotations and almost always have to look up their source, the writers that throw them around so easily knew the sources and knew that their original audiences knew the sources, because they remembered studying these quotations in school when they were kids. To them, the quotations probably didn’t sound so erudite as they do to me; this was the stuff of grammar school. I suppose that if I wrote, “I cannot tell a lie,” a reader from outside the U.S. might think I had a prodigious memory for historical detail (which I don’t), when really I’m just repeating a phrase familiar to me from grade school (and one, by the way, not particularly historical).

In any case, knowing that the translations only begin to indicate the meaning of these phrases, I offer nevertheless a quiz on some Latin phrases I encountered this year in James, Lewis, Boswell, and Byron. Can you match each phrase with its (loose) translation?

1. Beatus ille procul negotiis.
2. Bos piger!
3. Crede experto!
4. De minimis non curat lex.
5. Et sepulchri immemor struis domos.
6. Mirabiles supra me.
7. Noscitur a sociis.
8. Nunquam enim nisi navi plena tollo vectorem.
9. Omne tulit punctum, quae miscuit utile dulci.
10. Totus teres et rotundus.

a. All the loose ends are tied up.
b. Get the meaning from the context.
c. Happy is the man who stays far away from business.
d. He who says something both useful and sweet has won the debate.
e. Heedless of their graves, they build houses.
f. I never cheat on my husband unless I’m pregnant.
g. Lazy ox!
h. Take it from somebody who knows!
i. The law does not concern itself with trifles.
j. Wonders too high for my comprehension.


3-h, literally “Believe an expert!”
7-b, literally, “It [the word] is known by its associates.”
8-f, literally, “I never take on a passenger unless the ship is full.” Said by Macrobius of Julia.
9-d, literally, “He has won every point who mixes the useful and the sweet.”
10-a, literally, “Everything is smooth and round.”

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Quirky Quirks in Reprinted Pieces

In between Thanksgiving dinners, car trips, and visits with grandchildren over the last two weeks, I've been reading Reprinted Pieces, a ragbag collected from Household Words, the weekly literature magazine Dickens published in the 1850s. I scheduled them for this time of year because I thought they might just provide some simple, fun, and interesting reading during the holiday-and-end-of-semester bustle. But these and other shorter pieces by Dickens don't just offer smaller portions of the same aesthetic and moral pleasures found in the novels; by their nature, they present some unique problems, possibilities, and puzzlements.

For instance, I’m not even quite sure what it is I’m reading. Although the periodical identified the authors of the  serialized novels appearing on its pages, it published smaller works anonymously. This situation seems to have afforded Dickens the opportunity to explore different narrative voices. In most of the pieces, the narrator makes explicit reference to himself by means of the first-person pronoun. But the identity of the "I" remains a bit of a mystery, even assuming that tradition and research have accurately picked out the pieces by Dickens from those by Wilkie Collins and other regular contributors. And this curtain hiding the man behind the voice leaves the very genre of each piece in question. In some cases, for instance, it seems that "I" is truly Dickens himself, making these particular titles autobiographical essays. But "BIRTHS. Mrs. Meek, of a Son," on the other hand, begins with the lines "My name is Meek. I am, in fact, Mr. Meek"; by explicitly naming its imaginative narrator, this number establishes itself as a piece of fiction. The first line of "A Poor Man's Tale of a Patent" also marks it as fiction: when a Dickens piece opens with the words "I am not used to writing for print," I know “I” can’t be taken as representative of the prolific author. These examples are clear, but what about “Lying Awake,” a first-person account of insomnia? No doubt Dickens had insomnia from time to time; an author who never suffered from the affliction that has me writing this post in the wee hours of a Thursday morning couldn’t have authored such a spot-on description. But do the peculiar details of this narrator’s stream of consciousness – hot-air balloons, Benjamin Franklin, an audience with the Queen, Niagara Falls, a monster chalked on a church door – reflect the actual thoughts of Dickens during one sleepless night? Or is “I” a semi-autobiographical character here?

Another strange problem I’ve noticed concerns repetition. Any author, but especially Dickens, might repeat some given motif several times in a novel for purposes of theme, unity, or tone. The odd moments of repetition in Reprinted Pieces, though, seem unplanned. The use of the term “watering-place” for a resort town, complaints about begging-letter writers, men who offer directions by pointing with pipes in impossible directions. Surely the multiple appearances of such a weird assortment of notions arose only because they had crossed Dickens’s path in real life during this period and had formed temporarily obsessive grooves in his mind. These reiterations irritated me as I came across them, but they also gave me a new appreciation for Dickens’s teeming imagination. The quirk of pointing toward the ocean while telling someone how to get to a certain inn has that marvelous, unforgettable Dickensian quality, and I can easily imagine it appearing in a novel. (Did people ever learn to be cautious around Dickens, knowing that any irrational habit stood a good chance of being immortalized as the signature motto of some ridiculous minor character in the next book?) But the man who constantly catalogued quirks in his capacious mind would never have let this one appear in two novels, much less two characters in a single novel. Nevertheless here it is, a characteristic of two separate figures in one book of collected essays and stories. Of course Dickens never intended for this book to be a book; people might or might not read any given piece, so he could carelessly repeat himself here and there, perhaps in order to meet a weekly deadline, without diminishing the integrity of some work or body of works. I read them in the artificial proximity of a posthumous collection, so the repetitions stood out to me as problems; but didn’t they make me appreciate all the more the hundreds of distinctly differentiated second players in the novels!

Friday, November 30, 2012

My Poetry Anthology

Possessing the conflicting characteristics of reading slowly and wanting to read a lot, I constantly run the risk of becoming satisfied with having read a book once. Getting reread by me is a luxury few books enjoy. And books can by no means presume that I will absorb and remember them.

For some kinds of literature, one read is enough. Fiction, for instance, can present such vivid scenes that the characters, tone, main plot, and lesson often stick even in my Crisco-lined mind after just one time through, in many cases for decades. I could never forget Huck dressed as a girl or Aunt Betsey chasing donkeys off her grass. But a poem is not made just so readers can remember facts about it. As with songs, poetry should be experienced again and again. It doesn’t make sense to say, “Ah, yes, that’s the classic rock song with the unusual choral parts at the beginning and in the middle. I remember its structure and its theme of regret during incarceration.” No, Queen’s song demands hearing. If we remember it, we remember hearing it; memories of the actual sounds go through the mind. (And this from a guy whose business it is to analyze musical structure!)

In the same way, poetry should be read and heard over and over. So I’ve come up with a way to work against my poor memory and restless reading schedule: I’ve started making my own poetry anthology. My goal is to end up with a collection of poems that have excited or moved me in the past so I can occasionally open it up and just read at random, finding inspiration again, making the familiar even more familiar, and perhaps even (I’m not making myself any promises) memorizing some lines.

It will take me a while to compile my anthology, I’m sure. A couple of months ago, I started with a variety of poems I remember from many years past. Then I reviewed some works from my current plan and added some poems and excerpts from the first two years. As of today, it’s thirty-four pages long. It includes some standards found in almost any English-language collection of poetry: “To Lucasta, going to the Wars,” “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” “The Second Coming.” But I wouldn’t need my own anthology if it read just like any publisher’s One Hundred Favorite Poems. So it also includes Sidney Lanier’s “A Sunrise Song,” which begins:
Young palmer sun, that to these shining sands
Pourest thy pilgrim's tale, discoursing still
Thy silver passages of sacred lands,
With news of Sepulchre and Dolorous Hill
And Henry Vaughn’s “The World”:
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
       All calm, as it was bright;
And “Tegner's Drapa” by Longfellow, the poem that gave a young C. S. Lewis a life-altering rush of the longing he called “joy”:
I heard a voice, that cried,
"Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!"
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.

I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.
And this by Jack Gilbert:
Poetry is a kind of lying,
necessarily. To profit the poet
or beauty. But also in
that truth may be told only so.

Those who, admirably, refuse
to falsify (as those who will not
risk pretensions) are excluded
from saying even so much.

Degas said he didn't paint
what he saw, but what
would enable them to see
the thing he had.
Poetry is a form of lying. The palmer sun pours a tale? It isn’t a palmer, it doesn’t pour, and it tells no tales. Three “lies” already. But truth may be told only so, and I need to read these lying truths, because I want to see what the poets have seen. I want to see the ring of Eternity.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Weight of The Weight of Glory

If a volume of essays weightier or more glorious than C. S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory exists, I should like to know about it. One slender volume. Nine modest addresses. One-hundred thirty-two thin pages. Yet here are war, forgiveness, Heaven, education, theology, and poetry. And here are angles on Lewis’s great ideas regarding joy, myth, and the argument from desire.

The first essay lends its title to the whole volume. “The Weight of Glory” begins with the correction of a modern misconception that self-denial is the ultimate Christian virtue. Lewis blames Kant for starting the error. Long before I had even heard of Kant, I thought this way. “Deny yourself, and follow me,” said the Lord. Could it be any clearer? Seeking what God wants is good, and seeking my own good is bad.

Well, the problem with that interpretation is that it only makes sense if God doesn’t want my good. But when I began to read in Plato and Aristotle that the virtuous person has a natural duty to seek his own good, I hadn’t yet seen through the mistake. Then I read the very Christian Augustine and Aquinas agreeing with their Greek predecessors, and I had to rethink things. From them I learned (or realized what now seems obvious) that the selfish good Jesus bids us to deny is as nothing to the good that God wants for us. So perhaps the principle problem involves not having a correct definition of good in view. As Lewis puts it, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.”

The essay goes on to explain the difference between natural and “tacked on” rewards. We might say, for instance, “He’s only marrying her for her money,” but it makes no sense to say, “He’s only marrying her for a lifetime of love.” Money is a tacked-on reward of marriage, while the lifetime of loving unity is the natural reward. So we must see Heaven, he says, as the natural reward of our relationship with God, not as an arbitrary enticement to mercenaries who need tacked-on motivation for doing good. From that understanding, the rest of the ideas fall into place. (1) The desire for our natural end resides in us from our creation. A love for beauty in poetry, for example, is the desire for Heaven not turned directly to its natural end. (2) Where the biblical descriptions of Heaven seem the most strange or unenticing, we must pay all the more attention. Those passages don’t exist to bribe us but to teach us our purpose. (3) Hearing praise for serving our purpose can conceivably be pleasurable without stroking our vanity. (4) Everyone we meet is either on the path toward the glory of the proper, heavenly reward or not on that path.

If I were put into the highly hypothetical position of having to choose which seventeen pages of Lewis would survive a book purge, I should probably choose “The Weight of Glory.” “By ceasing for a moment to consider my own wants I have begun to learn better what I really wanted,” he says at one point in the essay. And to my mind, reading “The Weight of Glory” furthers the learning of that essential lesson.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Dr. Johnson’s Ready Arguments

It's not the best thing for someone who talks for a living to have to admit. But somewhere in the last twenty years or so, I lost my confidence in speaking. Not that I'm afraid of getting in front of a crowd. On the contrary, I do better the more people I have listening. When I say I've lost my confidence, I mean that I've developed a habit of overanalyzing and second-guessing everything I say, even while I say it. The most obvious . . . result of my . . . diffidence is an annoying . . . pause before every . . . noun. (That joke works better when it's spoken. You may just have to trust me on it.)

I've written several times in this blog about my admiration for Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century scholar who single-handedly wrote a dictionary of the English language. (See for instance "Re: My Hackles.") In spite of his many faults (he was human, after all), he had a strong Christian faith, was seen by his culture as a teacher of morality both in word and deed, read widely, and amazed people consistently with his intelligence and eloquence. More succinctly, James Boswell said his attraction to Johnson was based on "Genius, Learning, and Piety."

The issue of eloquence has come up several times in the passage of Boswell's Life of Johnson I've been reading this fall, and I can't help comparing the lexicographer’s verbal fluidity against my halting cadence. Boswell applies these lines from Douglas by John Home to his great friend's ready wit:
    On each glance of thought
Decision followed, as the thunderbolt
Pursues the flash!
Johnson's rapid flow of polished prose makes his biographer's accomplishment all the more mind-boggling. In fact, Boswell admits in this section to not having always done justice to Johnson in the quotations he provides. How could he possibly get all the details down during a conversation (a conversation he contributed to, in fact) or remember the words accurately after the fact? Superman can catch a speeding bullet, but could Boswell capture Johnson’s speeding thunderbolts? The task was so difficult, he even humbly includes the following observation from a fellow dinner guest, words that must have stung a bit when he heard them and again when he inserted them into the monumental biography: "O that his words were written in a book!"

Of course speech following thought as thunder does lightning can cause its share of problems. Boswell says that Johnson was "sometimes too desirous of triumph in colloquial contest." But part of Johnson's secret for quickness of speech was his taste for disputation in the interest of exercising his mind: he enjoyed arguing either side of any question, so long as it involved neither morals not core Christian tenets. His friends knew this and forgave him for his occasional combativeness. And why shouldn't they when, assured of his friendship, they could view these incidents simply as instructive displays of logic from an astonishing mind. Friend Edward Dilly wrote to Boswell, "Few men, nay I may say, scarcely any man, has got that fund of knowledge and entertainment as Dr. Johnson in conversation. When he opens freely, every one is attentive to what he says, and cannot fail of improvement as well as pleasure."

Sometimes I look at my own blog in amazement. The stream of words runs so much more smoothly than it does when I’m speaking – or, more to the point, thinking and hesitating in between trying to speak. It appears that I do have strongly held ideas and can express them boldly. I'm sure I'm wrong about many of the things I write here and that I'm simply ignorant of the fact or argument that would quickly change my mind on some issues you can find on exlibrismagnis. But my friends, like Dr. Johnson’s, will forgive me, as I'm sure they would forgive me if I spat out my thoughts more quickly in conversation, even if less than fully formed. Who knows? They may prefer hasty conclusions to all those . . . pauses.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Writing and Spontaneity

Thirty years ago, I tried not to repeat myself in prayers. But at some point since, I have learned the value of repetition. One discouragement in my youth was the idea that I shouldn’t have to pray something a second time if I believed it the first time. I shudder to think how long it took me to realize that that argument works only if prayer is just a mechanism aimed at getting stuff.

Matthew 6:7 also kept me wary of repetition for a long time. Bible translators differ in their view of the meaning of the original. Perhaps Jesus only warns against trust in prolixity. One translation says He instructed us not to “heap up empty phrases.” Another says, “don’t babble on and on.” But the King James translation says, “Use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do,” and many other translations use similar wording. As obvious as the phrase may be to some people I’ve known, the practical syllogism of the command isn’t entirely clear to me. I know the major premise: that I should not be like the heathen. But I don’t know the minor premise or premises. All repetition is heathen? All repetition is vain? All heathen prayers are vain? If I don’t know the minor premise, I don’t know the conclusion. Does Jesus tell me not to repeat, not to pray vainly, or not to repeat vainly? I don’t precisely, but I have decided that He doesn’t mean the first option.

One argument for saying that all repetition is vain (which would lead to the conclusion that we must not repeat prayers) begins with the idea that repeated phrases have no meaning or aren’t heartfelt. But my experience tells me just the opposite. We repeat ourselves most when our hearts are full: “Why? Why? Why?” “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Who would ever say to someone, “You must not be sorry. If you meant it the first time, you wouldn’t have repeated yourself”? If at least some repetition is meaningful, then perhaps Jesus proscribes not all repetition in prayer but only meaningless repetition.

A view just as wrongheaded as the prohibition of all repetition says that it does no good to write down prayers, to read your own prayers, or to read someone else’s prayers. If you’re in the middle of proposing marriage, I suppose it wouldn’t go over so well to stop and say, “Let me write this down instead,” or “My friend Jack said this better than I could. Let me read you his proposal to Debra.” But written letters can come from and can convey deeply held feelings and thoughts. And I feel certain that everyone reading this blog post has on more than one occasion read someone else’s words and thought along these lines: “She said it so much better than I could, I didn’t even realize I thought this way until I read it in her words.”

Yesterday, as on many days when reading Boswell, I read a prayer Dr. Johnson wrote out. You can’t read the Life of Johnson without coming away convinced that Samuel Johnson had the most spontaneous eloquence of any English speaker in history. Yet even a man of this great verbal command felt the need over the years to write a long notebook of prayers and meditations. Far from seeing these written prayers as dry and empty, I find in their power a helpful reminder of the forgotten common sense that writing helps organize the thoughts and can make knowledge firmer, feelings warmer, and belief stronger.

This morning during my walk, I read the first of Dickens’s Reprinted Pieces. In that essay, he says that he is sitting by a fire on New Year’s Eve and that as he watches the flames flicker, ghostly voices and images from tales of travel that he has read parade before him. Did it actually happen this way? Since he writes it all in the present tense, one thing is certain: if these stories really came to him spontaneously that winter’s night and he used the present tense literally, he left out one important detail in his description of himself: the pen and paper he used to record the event. I have to wonder whether the fire or the pen actually did more in conjuring up the memories. I know that even with all the starting and stopping and editing that takes place as I write this blog, the act of writing, by reining in my thoughts, ironically gives them the freedom to be spontaneous and heartfelt. Perhaps I should begin writing out prayers.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Looking Forward to 2013

The weather is getting cold, and the sun is now setting before 6:00 pm. It must be time to read Boswell. My reading pattern has an annual, cyclical rhythm to it, so it feels right to join my friends for a pint and brilliant conversation in the Crown and Anchor as this year’s cycle draws to a close. I’m actually three days into Boswell’s Life of Dr. Johnson now, and other than finishing that pleasant task, I only have William James, C. S. Lewis, and Dickens left to read in 2012 – three of my very favorite authors to go with my favorite time of the year.

With so few items remaining on my plan this year, I’m naturally starting to look forward through Janus’s door into the schedule for 2013. I’ve purchased all the extra books I need, and they’ve all arrived, either in my mailbox or in my Kindle. I’ve made out the schedule and posted a copy of it on this site (under “2013 Calendar” near the top of this web page). I’m ready to go.

Some aspects of this plan have me a little worried. I’m not fond of what little I know about Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and nineteenth-century Germans have caused me trouble in the past, so I expect The World as Will and Idea will tax my fortitude. What little I know about the system of American philosopher Charles Peirce, on the other hand, I like a lot. But his ideas and prose can be dense, so I expect his work will tax my intellect. To make it through the assignments, I split both of those authors up in the schedule and placed Dickens, a Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War history, and the delightful Ariosto against them in the second column. When my brain gets overheated from one book, I’ll pick up the other to blow away the smoke.

The other factor that has me a little worried is the density of that second column. I’m not sure why I ended up with so many more titles for 2013, when I have the same number of basic categories every year. But the titles stacked up, and setting aside longer periods for the long novels, that leaves me with a round estimate of only ten days each for The Song of Roland, a giant chunk of Orlando Furioso, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, and twelve other items. But the pace always looks daunting at the beginning of the year, and still it always ends up much easier than I thought – easy enough in fact to allow me to fit in some mysteries and other popular books.

As intimidating as the pace and a couple of the selections may be, I know that the year will, as Horace said good literature should do, both delight and instruct me. I just read in Durant about the Roland tales in medieval and Renaissance literature, and I’ve been reading Ariosto’s Italianate rendering over the last couple of years; to start off the coming year I finally get to read the classic French version of that story (in translation!), which has waited patiently on my shelf for over two decades. Then at the other end of the year, I’ll read Geoffrey of Monmouth, one of the classic sources of the other great medieval hero cycle: the Arthurian legend. In the spring, I’ll visit two early medieval Christian theologians, Anselm and Basil the Great; trying to tease out the culture from the religion in such works teaches me more about each, often including details whose absence today seems regrettable. Two of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, come up in 2013; O that I were a glove upon that hand! Shelley, Cicero, O’Brian, Faulkner. Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Sayers. And my favorite Charles Williams book. My mouth is watering.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Peace in the City

Every time I see the “COEXIST” bumper sticker, I get mixed feelings. Like a face illuminated by flashing lights coming from different angles, it presents me with a rapidly shifting series of wildly different aspects. As sure as it looks beautiful at one moment, it looks menacing the next; then the clever ingenuity of the use of the various symbols as letters shines out briefly, followed by an inane and ridiculous fake smile. The idea that people of different faiths could live in peace sounds wonderful: we could learn from each other and accept the various faiths’ leadership in keeping the world moral. But then sadly we know from history and from the newspaper that the world’s religions don’t in fact get along peacefully. So does the sticker, apparently calling for drastic change, suggest that all the religions are fundamentally flawed? Is it for or against religion? I can't tell. Someone (a quick Google search says it could be anyone from Dostoevsky to Charles Schulz) said, “I love humanity; it’s people that I can’t stand.” And this sticker seems to say something equally contradictory: I love the idea of religion, but I can’t stand any of the particular instances. These thoughts quickly pass from my mind, though; in the end I see the sticker as simply pointless since it doesn’t actually say any of these things but only asks for simultaneous existence, which will continue with or without the driver’s approval.

Augustine was the most respected Christian teacher of his time, and his words still inspire and inform both Protestant and Catholic theology. (They may well still inspire Orthodox and Nestorian theology as well, but I don’t know enough to say.) In reading book XIX of The City of God over the last several days, I kept thinking that if the lay members of today’s Church still read and followed the saint from Hippo, the Church would look quite different. The most striking difference might be that the Church would acknowledge the leadership of an African. But close behind would come a reasoned understanding of the value of other religions and their philosophies and a desire for peace between the earthly city and the city of God.

Everyone wants peace, Augustine says. Animals want peace between body and soul: in other words, freedom from pain and want. But in addition, rational animals, i.e. humans, desire civil peace and peace of the soul itself: a "well-ordered harmony of knowledge and action." Where the Christian differs from other humans, he explains, is in living toward a goal of eternal peace and directing all earthly good toward that transcendent goal. But we all want earthly peace, and the Church should logically desire civil harmony with its culture. Augustine spends a lot of words in the first several books of CoG outlining exactly what was wrong with Roman culture, so it’s not like he’s asking his readers to pretend the evils of the world away. Unlike the empty cant of today, Augustine’s position sees tolerance and judgment as entirely compatible. Disagreement we will have with us always, but conflict, he says, should arise only when the religious law directs a Christian to worship a false deity. Otherwise, Christians should not scruple about any custom, law, institution, dress, or manner of life directed toward earthly peace and may even conform to them so long as they are not indecent.

Coincidentally, I also read in just the last few days a passage in Chesterton saying something very similar. When someone says all religions should be equally free, Chesterton points out, he can’t logically and consistently mean all religions. He actually means "that given a society with a common morality about most important things, anyone must be allowed to promulgate, by the ordinary activities of that society, his own version of the origin or sanction of that morality." In other words, just as Augustine says, people of different faiths can live together in harmony so long as they agree on moral customs that lead to civil peace. But what Augustine only briefly alludes to in book XIX and what the bumper sticker – perhaps simply for lack of space – doesn’t say at all, Chesterton spells out with a pointed example: when someone espouses a religion that demands the sacrifice of babies, the cooperation and equal freedom of the faiths must come to an end.

Chesterton then warns that certain factions of modern western civilization are in fact arguing for the return of baby killing, thus upsetting the moral harmony. With that note, in the interest of civil peace, I will leave the reader to decide whether Chersterton’s warning had any foundation in his time or any pertinence to our own.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

More Missing Classics

Several days ago, I wrote an explanation for the absence of some classic books from my plan. Now and then over the last six years, someone has looked at my reading list and, mistakenly thinking of it as a complete liberal curriculum, suggested a book I should read. Almost always, my answer has been that I’ve already read the book (this is the second decade of a formal plan, after all) and don’t recognize a need or desire to reread it. Anyone looking for a Great Books list to begin working on would do much better to start with either the Britannica plan or the St. John’s curriculum.

Many of the classics absent from my current list deal in science and simply go into too much technical detail – detail either too difficult for me to completely follow or too far outside my normal realm of thought to rate a second visit. The theories of light put forward by Huygens and Newton provide good examples. I remember that Newton held light to be made of particles, while Huygens viewed light as a wave. The mathematical and geometrical arguments they employed to support their respective theories, though, were taxing enough the first time through to keep me from reviewing them, especially in light of (pun very definitely intended) the current understanding that light sometimes acts both ways, especially (I think) when you’re not looking.

I feel much the same way about Gilbert and Faraday. The creative ingenuity with which they pursued the first systematizations of the knowledge of magnetism and electromagnetic fields amazed me. But now I’m duly inspired. I have a better knowledge of the history of the scientific endeavor and greater appreciation for the scientific spirit. And I’m satisfied having that reading behind me rather than before me. Harvey’s work on the circulation of the blood is similar except that, where I could see myself trying to build an electric motor like Faraday’s, I can’t imagine using scalpels and tourniquets to recreate Harvey’s brilliant experiments. Galileo, on the other hand, inspired actual experimentation in the Stephenson kitchen. The kids and I built a ramp, for instance, and measured the increasing speed of a ball as it rolled down. Now that I’ve been to the Galileo museum in Florence and seen some of the interactive models there, I’m even tempted to try it again.

These scientific treatises, as daunting as they were, made for easy going compared to some of the philosophy and mathematics in the first ten years of my reading plan. The Conic Sections of Apollonius of Perga lay entirely beyond my comprehension. Sharing space in the land beyond my comprehension is Mortimer Adler’s thinking in placing Apollonius in his original ten-year schedule. I note with relief that the updated Britannica plan (linked to above) skips him. While I could have done without Appolonius, I’m extremely glad that I read Plotinus (although one “Ennead” would probably have been enough); his neo-Platonism plays a big part in European history, and his religious theory of emanations helps in understanding some of the history of Christian theology. But hacking through his trackless jungle of intertwined ideals exhausted my mind. I eventually found a good commentary, by a fellow named Pistorius, that not only guided me through the convoluted knot but reassured me with the statement that Plotinus was the hardest of all philosophers to read and understand.

Darwin gets his own paragraph today. But I don’t want to say too much about him. My thoughts on evolution posted elsewhere have occasionally elicited smug comments from Darwinian believers trying to show me how closed-minded or stupid I am. But here are some facts that really can’t be argued with. (1) Darwin is my least favorite of all the authors of so-called Great Books. (2) His phrase “the descent of man from some lower form” is geometrically confused. (3) His comparison of Africans and idiots to “lower animals” is extremely difficult to read. (4) It would be unseemly and unfair to enumerate the fallacies in his argument that many “periodic processes” in vertebrates such as “the gestation of mammals, the duration of fevers, &c.” last a given number of “whole weeks” and that this mathematical coincidence “betray[s] to us the primordial birthplace of these animals” in the tidal pools of the distant past.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Best Chesterton Year Ever?

I hate the phrase “of all time.” It would work as a hyperbole if the users had any sense of the order of magnitude of their exaggeration. But they generally don’t. If the phrase were used as a rhetorical bloating of the concept “all of history,” I’d gladly buy into it. But almost all of the people I ever hear using the cliché seem to have only a few years in mind, decades at the most. Randy Jackson loves to say that so-and-so is one the greatest singers of all time. But since every singer he ever mentions is someone with whom he has worked and whose name he feels the urge to drop, “all time” clearly only refers to singers active in the last twenty years or so. I witnessed the most egregious use – OK, I’ll say it – the most egregious use of all time on MTV once in the 80s. (Stop looking at me that way. Cable was new, and I was young. I’ve since outgrown the habit.) The VJ introduced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as the greatest video in the totality of that extremely lengthy era known as “all time” when MTV was just two years old.

So I won’t say that 1920 saw the publication of the best Chesterton essays of all time. I even hesitate to say that they are the best in all of his output, since I haven’t read all of them. But although I’ve read many volumes of them, I have never read such a concentrated streak of wisdom and eloquence; he could hardly have a higher batting average. And since he takes on Freud, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, education, political liberty, determinism and free will, the decline of journalism, the rise of mass entertainment, and religion in a pluralistic society, he could scarcely address topics either more important or more pertinent to readers ninety years later.

I won’t attempt any more grand synthesis of Chesterton’s output for the year. Instead, I’ll just hope that this disconnected list from my reading notes begins to explain my enthusiasm for the 1920 ILN collection.
• No doubt an unconscious exists, but to found a fatalistic view on it or to use it as a scapegoat for our bad actions would be a mistake.
• Modern democracies like to legislate the use of certain things (alcohol, guns, etc.) in order to save its people from themselves. But every prohibition of a thing rather than of its abuse denies literal self-government and replaces liberty with slavery. (Anyone else thinking of the current move to ban large cups of soda at restaurants?)
• All education is based on dogma; it has to teach something, even if that thing is simply what everyone agrees is true. But today we teach doubt. We don't teach history, we teach doubt about history. Eventually, without teaching any unified view of history to doubt, students will have nothing to direct their doubt toward.
• Science also has turned to doubt, no longer confident in a unified picture of everything. (Chesterton doesn’t mention Heisenberg, but that scientist’s discovery that the parameters of a particle can never all be known at the same time indeed changes the literal meaning of the word “science.”)
• The problem with the cinema is its indication that modern people can no longer amuse themselves and instead must be amused by someone else and someone else’s machines.
• Both pessimists and optimists agree that mankind is subject to fate, and both are wrong. The truth is that we are free to make our world.
• Marxism is bourgeois in that it only makes sense in cities.
• Industrial capitalism is one of the worst ills in the history of mankind. But the remedy for one country may be different from that of another.
• Progressives are often glad about remedies as improvements without admitting regret for the maladies that necessitate them. Neither pessimism nor optimism is the right view. Neither Puritanism nor Paganism will answer our ills. Only repentance will start true reform.
• New England is not the extension of England. The most English state is actually Virginia, with its noble history including Washington and Lee.
• Doubts about Genesis are nothing new and don't undermine faith. People don't base belief in Original Sin on belief in Genesis; it's the other way around.
And one last example. A couple of weeks ago I apologized (not entirely sincerely) for looking forward to rereading Burroughs’s Tarzan adventures. But in “Popular Literature and Popular Science,” from October 9, 1920, I found not only the defense of my love for that particular pulp but the purpose statement of my whole reading plan:
Every man ought to have read enough good literature to know when he is reading bad literature, and to go on reading it. He ought to have had what is rightly called a liberal education, that he may know the largest purposes to which human language has been put. But the object of a liberal education is to make him liberal, not merely to make him fastidious. He should be able to recognise the ideas that have been clarified and codified by the utterances of great men, when they appear in a more fragmentary fashion in the utterances of ordinary men. But if he has lost all interest in the utterances of ordinary men, he had far better not have been educated at all.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Augustine and Varro

I like parallel historical charts. I still get out the old Timetables of History sometimes, even now in the internet age, and pore over its pages. Historical narrative should make connections and draw conclusions, but the Timetables make no point other than that certain events took place in the same year. Beyond that, it leaves me the freedom to look for my own patterns and causes.

In book XVIII of The City of God, Augustine offers his own parallel history by aligning the timelines of the two societies, or “cities,” that form his subject: the people of God and the kingdom of earthly power. I was interested and a little surprised to see that he centered earthly power before Rome in the Assyrians, skipping the Greeks entirely. But his argument has some sense: the Assyrian empire was larger than that of the Greeks and lasted much longer. We just know more about Greek civilization, he says, because they had good writers. With this view in mind, Augustine records which Assyrian kings ruled during the time of Abraham, the time of Moses, and so on. Unlike The Timetables of History, however, Augustine notes at least one significant pattern in the parallel tracks: God gave Abraham promises and a covenant at the time of the founding of Assyria, and then through the great prophets whose canonized words fill the last portion of the Hebrew scriptures, He spoke of the new covenant, just at the time of the founding of Rome. I’m more reluctant than Augustine to declare the divine purpose in history with any certitude, but the great African saint sees the coincidences as a sign that God knows where earthly power will reside and anticipates its rise with fresh presentations of his offer to reject the world.

Augustine performed his synchronic alignment without a visually helpful chart, and in fact without numbered years. He cites as the source of all his information the Roman writer Varro, who recorded the dates of his history according to the names of the consuls in power for any given year. After reading about Varro’s method, I wondered how he thought he could know the dates of Assyrian kings living before the days of Roman consular elections. I also read with great interest and curiosity about Varro’s accounts of the historical humans behind the legends of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods: the real Isis, the real Mercury, and so on. Augustine sometimes a proper skepticism of the reliability of source texts, but he takes Varro’s word as fact. And so naturally I got interested in reading Varro’s original account and learning more details about what he believed about pre-Roman history and the origins of the gods.

In looking him up, though, I quickly learned to my great disappointment that most of Varro’s works, including the history that Augustine depended on, have been lost. Aaak! How could the course of events do this to me? Just last month I read in Durant of the Renaissance scholars who, excited by the ancient Greek texts recently made available to them, got interested in ancient Latin works as well and started digging through local monasteries. Their searches recovered (what a strange word – shouldn’t that be “reuncovered”?) Quintilian, Cicero’s letters, six books of Tacitus, and many other classics. The Benedictines may have become uninterested in ancient Roman literature by the fifteenth century, but their brothers from an earlier era were the ones who carefully copied all these works and deposited them in their libraries to begin with. Knowing of that history makes me think that if Augustine had access to Varro’s history in the fifth century, it probably still exists on some forgotten shelf in some monastery. But, alas, for now at least, the book remains a gossamer wisp in the imagination, as shadowy as the true identities of Perseus and Andromeda.

P. S. Thanks to those monks who copied Latin, the Renaissance scholars who found a lot of the works, and Merriam-Webster online, I’ve uncovered the source of “recovered” and discovered a distinction that makes sense of the word. It seems that while most English appearances of the combination c-o-v-e-r come from cooperire, to close or overspread or hide, the last five letters in “recover” come from capere, to take. So recovering an ancient manuscript (not to be confused with recovering a worn chair) is not to hide it again but to take it again.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Seedbed of War

I finally made it through Chesterton’s ILN columns from 1915 and started 1920. What a relief! As I explained a couple of posts ago, when I found out that he wrote about nothing but the Great War while it was raging, I decided that as a prize for making it through one year of war essays, I should treat myself to a post-War year. The path through the rest of 1915 continued to be almost as bleak as a road through No Man’s Land, so my decision still makes sense. But why did he write so narrowly during this time? Chesterton himself suggests an explanation for the problem in a 1920 piece I read just yesterday: politics is topical but religion is eternal. Of course religion shows its nose here and there in his 1915 pieces, but he emphasizes politics, and as long as he emphasizes politics, his writing remains mortal; he writes to readers familiar with the latest events and editorials and German edicts, but that readership disappears soon after the era in question. As a case in point, GKC wrote several times in 1915 about pessimism and optimism, but it was only in September that he mentioned the existence of a pessimist press. If I had known earlier who had a habit of speaking pessimistically, I would have understood the earlier essays; his contemporaries, on the other hand, would have known the background situation and didn’t need any explanation.

Another cause is Chesterton’s faith in rhetoric. In his column from October 16, 1915, he says, “I decided, when private accident put me among those who cannot fight directly for the flag, that there was work to be done for it in the way of intellectual fighting.” In other words, he persistently wrote about the War because he thought it his patriotic duty to fight and found the pen the only weapon feasible for him. But did he truly change minds? Logical arguments rarely convert souls to a faith, and presidential debates sway few voters’ preferences. If in the previous paragraph I maintained that a bullet fired a hundred years ago can have no impact today, having long since fallen and been trampled into the earth, here I’m suggesting that a bullet made from a goose quill usually kills very few enemies even in its own day. I can’t say that words never change minds; if I believed that, I wouldn’t be working through year 16 of a reading plan of great books. But I do believe that words are most effective in the service of two tasks: (1) moving the hearer from no position to some position (rather than shifting the hearer’s already established position), and (2) nourishment of a nascent love for truth, beauty, and goodness. When I read Chesterton, I learn a little bit about his times, but the greatest effect I sense is the renewal and reinforcement of my belief that Christians can be rational and eloquent. I could lament the situation that leaves me in need of that renewal, but that discussion were better left for another day.

Of course, it could be that I just wasn’t in the mood to read about World War I; maybe I should read the war essays in a month when my job isn’t so demanding. Whatever the reason for the dark road, though, the pall of 1915 lifted immediately when I began the first number from January, 1920. Here I found the classic Chesterton again, in an essay replete with, if not his famous paradoxes, his much more common inverses and surprising contraries. In this first column, for instance, he explains that self-described optimists have it all wrong when they see gloom in a religion that offers negative injunctions in its top Ten Commandments. The truth, he says, is that its insistence on only ten prohibitions invites a raucous celebration of the implied liberty; the Old Testament Law permitted too many actions to enumerate. Even further, negative imperatives always have some positive outcome; every action disallowed makes room and time for something else. Sometimes proscribed actions even participate in creation: the man who is not murdered, for instance, goes on to live a life that otherwise would not exist.

This kind of observation works because of the connections that exist between all things. Reminded now about the whirlwind tours across these connections through reality that Chesterton normally leads me on, I regret even more that he kept himself within such strict boundaries during the war years; he gave himself many more than ten negative prohibitions in determining not to write about any topic but war between 1914 and 1918. Just think: if he had for just one week told himself not to write about the war, that negative command would, by his own argument, have given him the freedom to indulge in topics too numerous to list.

Among the many great tragic losses of the Great War, I have to consider now the tragedy that Chesterton couldn’t depart from his chosen theme for even one week in 1915 to write about Christmas. But all things are connected, and aspects of Chesterton’s love of truth must have needed nourishment. So I have to believe that the strict discipline was good for him, as disappointed as I may be, and that he discovered new foundations of joy in the tragedy and nursed a small flame of light during the dark time. After all, Christmas reappeared in his column after the War. We tend to think of disappearance as a sign of weakness. But strength has no greater sign than reappearance, and Christmas is very strong.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Before the Blog

It occurs to me that I should explain a lacuna in my reading lists. After posting information recently about my third ten-year reading plan, I realized that a person always talking about giving himself a liberal education through great books should explain why certain classics are missing. The basic answer is that I have read a lot of the books or authors you might have expected to see on a list like mine, and don't feel the urge to plan on reading them again.

I'll start with some Americans. Where are Cooper, Hawthorne, Irving, Poe, Dickinson, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and Frank Norris? Well, partly they're in my head: I've read them before. I've read "Young Goodman Brown" and The House of the Seven Gables; I've read The Scarlet Letter, and since I didn't read it for school, I enjoyed it. (My favorite Hawthorne story: "The Artist of the Beautiful.") I am a man who likes to read, so I once was a boy who liked to read, and therefore I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; I've read them multiple times. My favorite other Twain book is Life on the Mississippi, and the best Twain essays are "The Awful German Language" (one of the funniest things ever written) and "The Literary Sins of Fennimore Cooper." Oh, and I've read Cooper; you have to show him a lot of grace and love the sinner while hating the sin. I read Call of the Wild when I was a kid and then grew up and realized it wasn't a kid's book. I've read Sound and the Fury and Farewell to Arms and Gatsby and Babbitt. I'll definitely get back to some of these authors; they just don't have to be on my list for further self-improvement. I am eagerly anticipating rereading one forgotten American classic, though: Frank Norris's The Octopus. For all Norris's fame as a "naturalist" author, this novel includes at least one possibly paranormal event and a very satisfying moment of cosmic justice. I can't explain why this entertaining and thought-provoking book has never been adapted for the screen; with its soap-like drama of families and capitalism, it's a wonder no network has made a miniseries out of it.

I was going to talk a little about Hobbes and say that reading Leviathan is like walking through a half-constructed building made of square, smooth stone blocks: everything is a too square and simple to represent reality, and a little shove could knock the whole thing over. Then I was going to compare my Hobbesian architecture to the gothic cathedral of Aquinas, with his overwhelming repetition of figures, alike in basic shape but endlessly varied in detail. I was going to say all this, but then I remembered that I actually put Hobbes on the current plan that this blog records and even enjoyed him more the second time than I thought I would. So I will leave it all for someone else to say.

Machiavelli: I thought the Prince would recommend underhanded plotting, but reading it showed me that the book is more about doing right for pragmatic reasons. That premise sounds immoral only if doing-what's-right and doing-what-works are distinct; since I don't think they necessarily oppose one another, I actually found the book a surprising new defense of the Good.

Smith: For various reasons, basic ideas usually have much more impact on me when I read them from the source, and the pattern was never more true than with Adam Smith. Before reading his book, I already knew that Smith likened the free market to an invisible hand nudging society toward good. I don't remember any details about The Wealth of Nations other than that invisible hand, but after reading Smith's account of it, the image quit being a dry chalk outline on a classroom blackboard and became vivid and powerful in my mind. In honor of the holiday today, I'll say that the hand in my original view was as stiff and laughable as The Crawling Hand, while the three-dimensional picture I got from reading Smith himself had the sophistication of The Beast with Five Fingers.

Marx: I know entire countries and English departments base their policies on Marx's system, but its fatal flaw seems to me to come on page 1 of Capital. Marx says a thing's value comes from the labor that goes into producing it, whereas I say the value of a thing lies in the eye of a person who wants it. You can try all day to sell me your peanut slicer by telling me how much work and time you invested in it, and I still won't want it. Marx is a moving, effective writer when he appeals to the reader's humanity; no profit can justify the way some owners and faceless corporations have treated workers, and no author can make a reader sense this moral lesson better than Karl Marx. But his economic mathematics is worthless, no matter how much time he put into it.

Freud: The founder of psychoanalysis writes endlessly interesting and challenging prose. (The best place to start with Freud: Civilization and its Discontents.) His discovery of the power of the talking cure deserves nothing but praise and thanks. His observation that seemingly disconnected actions, words, and thoughts hang on a unifying thread makes sense of a lot of human mysteries. But his insistence that the common thread is always sex tells us more about the doctor's mind than the patient's.

I’ll provide some more unfairly short summaries of classic authors in a future post. Right now, I’m expecting princesses and ghouls and Spider-man to come to my door, and I have to get ready.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chesterton and the Prussians

On August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany and entered World War I. In his Illustrated London News piece for September 12 that same year, Chesterton wrote about the Germans and, as far as I can tell from the table of contents in the pertinent ILN volumes, continued to write about the war every week for the next four years. In some ways, the decision is unfortunate from our perspective: the monotonous judgment on the arrogance and militarism of the Prussians and the abundance of topical references make for tedious reading. I decided last year that I needed to double my pace on Chesterton’s columns if I was ever to make it through to 1936, but then I hit the War to End All Journalistic Variety. So at the end of my Chesterton experience last year I made the wise decision to read nonconsecutive years for a while; this year covers 1915 and 1920.

Disciplining myself with delayed gratification, I’m trying to get as far as I can into 1915 before taking an advance on 1920's reward. And, sure enough, so far I haven’t quite encountered the Chesterton I so look forward to during the spring and summer. I think of him as part of the annual dessert after the brussels sprouts of a Calvin or a Hegel (or the bitter herbs of a Spengler). But the essays from 1915 only prolong the vegetable course.

In one way, though, the war serves Chesterton and his future readers well: its crucible tests Chesterton’s pet topics, and they come out shining and strong. For instance, although the Prince of Paradox never, to my knowledge, took a swing at another human being, he certainly enjoyed verbally defending his right to do so, and the pacifist protests of 1915 allowed him to argue the morality of fighting when there was some real fighting to do. As another example, he loved drawing national characters, and a Great War involving so many nations gave him the opportunity to employ those familiar characters in his analysis of events.

And there have been a few green knolls along the gray, muddy path. In the three months’ worth I’ve read as of now, Chesterton has made these points, among others:
    • The world state that the liberals want isn’t liberal at all, since it could grant no recognition to a people’s right to revolt against tyranny. 
    • National conscription may force men to fight, but they will be fighting for the wrong reason: to avoid legal consequences rather than to serve their country with a free heart. 
    • Victory doesn’t work as an ultimate goal (the passage reminded me of the Bonhoeffer I read last year), since it is neither permanent nor as noble as honor or goodness. 
    • The English throughout history have always praised the individuality of the warrior hero.
By far the best essay so far, “German Evil and English Weakness” from July 24, delivers the beautiful message that the only right way to respond to German hubris is with English humility. Does the Chancellor say the English are evil people? Then we must admit that he is right and confess our oppression of the Irish and that we have distributed property so poorly as to leave millions of English people without status or rights. The passage continues:
The savage says, “I am a good German.” And the civilized man answers, “I am a bad Englishman, and altogether unworthy of England.” In hoc signo vincet.
I find it difficult to know what to do with Chesterton’s comments about what some contemporary pacifist says that a German thinks about the Turks. But his observations on humility still have immediate effect. For my country engages in war from time to time, too, and she also has enemies – and former allies – who see her as evil, and she also has committed institutional sin. But I’m afraid that one of her sins is the loss of humility and of the understanding of the power of confession, so I don’t know that she can learn from Chesterton’s lesson and see the sign in which she could triumph.