Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Education Machine

A few weeks ago in class, I got to talk about one of my favorite subjects: the medieval educational curriculum. Justifying a Roman outline by the words of Solomon in Proverbs 9:1, the medieval scholars adopted the seven ancient liberal arts as their seven pillars of wisdom. Beginning with the Trivium (whence our trivial, originally meaning “elementary”), students in the Middle Ages mastered Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic. In other words, they learned the mechanics of language so they could read and write, they learned to write eloquently and persuasively, and they learned how to think clearly. The graduate of these courses could call himself a Bachelor. Once books and rational argument were opened to them by these arts, students proceeded to the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. These mathematical fields revealed the way in which the world works and holds together, and the conqueror in these fields earned the title of Master. These seven pillars in turn supported four different doctoral programs: Philosophy, Theology, Medicine, and Law (the sources of our Ph.D., D.D., M.D., and J.D., respectively).

The system fits together so nicely, like a well-tuned machine that graced medieval Europe as a lovely, noble, and useful institution for a thousand years. Every piece plays a part, and the whole circumnavigates the world of knowledge. True, the curriculum has no place for practical arts such as engineering and architecture, painting and dance. But virtually any other field a present-day college student can major in is there, at least in spirit. Physics falls under Astronomy, Political Science under Philosophy. Communications corresponds to Rhetoric, and History can be found in Grammar, since much of what the student of Latin Grammar practiced on were the chronicles of Caesar, Livy, and so on.

This past week, I read two short works that praised universal systems of learning only to pull up their foundations. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost begins with three young scholars ready to sign an oath to study the great books with the King of Navarre for three years and make his court a “little Academe.” The problem is, the agreement includes one clause prohibiting girlfriends and another that insists on a weekly fast. As young Biron explains while he hesitates to sign, a woman’s beauty and a good meal are two subjects most worthy of study, so why ban them from the academic discipline? And, he goes on, a walk in the night is no more pleasant for knowing the names of the stars. Now I disagree with Biron on that last point, but if the pompous Don Adriano de Armado represents the goal of study, then he and his friend the King of Navarre would do well to quote Ecclesiastes to each other three times every morning: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost is the least accessible of all of Shakespeare’s works. The scholars in its story are made dangerous by their little bits of knowledge, and the middle acts with their relentless badinage of topical puns and misquoted philosophy just don’t make much sense anymore. I’d read Titus Andronicus five times before I read LLL again. Descartes’ Discourse on Method, on the other hand, speaks readily and charmingly to today’s reader. The French scientist and rationalist describes near the beginning of his tract how much he loved school when he was young and recognized his studies’ value:
I was aware that the languages taught in them are necessary to the understanding of the writings of the ancients; that the grace of fable stirs the mind; that the memorable deeds of history elevate it; and, if read with discretion, aid in forming the judgment; that the perusal of all excellent books is, as it were, to interview with the noblest men of past ages, who have written them, and even a studied interview, in which are discovered to us only their choicest thoughts; that eloquence has incomparable force and beauty; that poesy has its ravishing graces and delights; that in the mathematics there are many refined discoveries eminently suited to gratify the inquisitive, as well as further all the arts an lessen the labour of man; that numerous highly useful precepts and exhortations to virtue are contained in treatises on morals; that theology points out the path to heaven; that philosophy affords the means of discoursing with an appearance of truth on all matters, and commands the admiration of the more simple; that jurisprudence, medicine, and the other sciences, secure for their cultivators honors and riches; and, in fine, that it is useful to bestow some attention upon all, even upon those abounding the most in superstition and error, that we may be in a position to determine their real value, and guard against being deceived.
But, as he goes on to explain, he became dismayed at the rampant disagreement among experts on any ideas outside of mathematics. So he set himself on a mission to lay aside all his opinions and look for a new starting place for knowledge, an idea that he could not possibly doubt. He discovered his foundation in the thought that he, this Descartes doing all this doubting, must exist.

The first time I read the Discourse, many years ago, I concentrated on Descartes’ discipline of systematic skepticism and rational discovery. This time through something different jumped out at me: the safety net he provided for himself while he leaped across his abyss of ignorance. Descartes gave himself four rules to live by while he searched for truth:

(1) To obey the laws and customs of his country and the Christian faith, and to act according to the most moderate opinions (so as to avoid the most extreme errors).
(2) To stay true to a course of action once chosen so as to get somewhere rather than to remain lost.
(3) To be content, knowing that a man can change his thoughts more easily than he can change most external circumstances.
(4) To live the life of a philosopher with no regrets.

These rules suggest that Descartes held other indubitable truths without recognizing them. It appears to me that he believed that truth and error exist, as well as a moral right and wrong. It also seems that he couldn't escape the notion that pain is to be avoided (except, of course, in the interest of a greater good). Finally, and perhaps most obviously, he believed that finding the right way of life was a worthwhile pursuit.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Jane Vogel, Thomas Hardy, and Regret

A dozen years ago, in looking for academic writing on Christian allegory in Dickens, I came across a strange, wonderful book on the subject by Ithaca professor Jane Vogel. For Prof. Vogel, every word in our language bears rich treasures of history, connotation, implication, and hidden meaning. She sees a page of Dickens as a magic forest, with spirits and powers hiding behind every leaf and under every rock. The prose with which she reveals this complex world she sees beneath the surface is necessarily dense and reminded me when I read it of a movieworld conspiracy theorist’s room, full of red string crisscrossing the space to connect details from a thousand newspaper clippings. I wish I could offer a sample, but I’m writing this post in Italy and don’t have access to her book, and I could never recreate any part of it from memory. But I learned a lot from it, and it enriched the way I’ve read Dickens ever since.

Through some correspondence with Prof. Vogel, I also became acquainted with Thomas Hardy, whom she highly recommended to me. In one of her letters, Prof. Vogel included copies of some of Hardy’s poetry, which, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t read until just a few days ago. And now I regret the delay. I brought those few pages with me to Italy, and I’ve read them over several times now. I know that if I have the chutzpah to write a blog on classic literature, I should have a clever, eloquent way to describe these poems, but I have to admit that my first reaction to them was simply saying “Wow” over and over.

According to Prof. Vogel, Hardy filled his works with Christian allegory, too, but unlike Dickens didn’t believe the Christianity he alluded to. As she told me, Hardy cried for help through his works, “but there was none to save.” And indeed these poems are filled with regret and an anxiety for, if not life after death, at least reputation after death. For instance, three of the four stanzas of “Overlooking the River Stour” describe a lovely rural afternoon, and then the reader discovers in the last stanza that the poem’s persona remembers the scene from his viewpoint inside a house looking out a window and regrets not turning around to see the unnamed, greater wonder behind him. Is it a woman? A child? In “Afterwards” the poem’s speaker ponders whether after his death his acquaintances will know that he enjoyed the sights of the neighboring countryside. Why doesn’t he just tell them while he’s alive? Or didn’t he in fact tell them by writing a poem that questions whether they will know? Did they read the poem? Melancholy mysteries upon mysteries. “Had You Wept” regretfully blames a woman for not shedding the tears that would have caused the persona to render some needed sympathy. “During Wind and Rain” depicts merry young singers and then envisions the raindrops that will one day slowly slide down over the names carved in their tombstones. And “In Tenebris” declares that death has no power to frighten one who has utterly lost all hope. Yes, the tenebrae of these poems are as pitch dark as the deepest cave. And yet they know they are dark, a knowledge that implies a light. Hardy seems to be saying that nature, music, beauty, and human sympathy mean nothing. And yet by singling them out, he’s also saying that their meaninglessness is meaningful. Wow.

I owe a lot to Jane Vogel. She introduced me to Hardy. She enriched Dickens for me. I shared with her some of my ideas about allegory in A Tale of Two Cities (about which, according to The List, I’ll reread and no doubt blog extensively in 2014), and she encouraged me to write them up and propose a presentation at a particular literature conference she had in mind. I did it and got accepted. In turn, my interest in Prof. Vogel’s work encouraged her to propose a talk for the same conference, and she, too, was accepted. We met and, since our papers both had to do with religion and so got placed together by the programming committee, read our papers on the same session (along with a woman who gave a beautiful talk on Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well).

Allegory in Dickens has two reviews on Amazon. Neither reviewer likes it. They both say Prof. Vogel can’t write, and one (identified as “Henry Green, M.D.”) says she’s a little crazy, although he says it in these words: “She is know around the campus as the one with a lose screw.” So I’m not sure that Dr. Green is the best judge of writing skill. I agree that the book is dense and difficult to read, but I learned a great deal from it, so rather than call Jane Vogel screwy, I’d rather credit her with a little mad brilliance.

Friday, March 23, 2012

King John and Dilemmas

I didn’t remember Shakespeare’s King John being so good. I didn’t even remember that the Magna Carta doesn’t show up in the play. But the Bard didn’t need the scene at Runnymede. He shows plenty of other bad choices and character flaws that bring about John’s downfall: calculated power-grubbing, willingness to murder children, impiety, and more.

The play is filled with dilemmas. It opens with John having to decide an inheritance case involving an elder son who may be the product of adultery and a younger son who clearly resembles his father. An issue involving a somewhat larger inheritance, the primary conflict of the plot comes up in Act II, when we find that young Arthur, son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, is still alive. Is Arthur the heir to England? John comes up with a clever solution to the first problem, one that both serves justice and satisfies each of the brothers. But when it comes to the throne, he tosses justice and peace aside, and simply declares himself rightful king.

Most of the dilemmas involve oaths, and many a character struggles, in the words of the play’s Salisbury, “Between his purpose and his conscience, Like heralds ‘twixt two dreadful battles set.” For instance, Philip, the King of France, arranges a marriage of the Dauphin with one of John’s relatives in order to secure peace. But when a legate of the Pope arrives and excommunicates England, Philip must choose between oaths (to John and to the Pope). Again, King John tells Hubert to burn out the eyes of young Arthur and then kill him, so naturally Hubert must decide in a frightening and moving scene between obeying John and preserving the life of an innocent boy (and possibly rightful King of England). In fact, it seems everyone struggles but John, who only seeks his own comfort.

I can’t help wondering if Queen Elizabeth fought any pangs of conscience when she saw the play. Like John, Elizabeth had a rival claimant to the throne: Mary, Queen of Scots. And like John (at least the John in the play), Elizabeth ordered the execution of her rival. As a final parallel, Elizabeth was declared excommunicate from the Catholic Church, as was John. Which monarch served as mirror for the other? Did audiences of Shakespeare’s time see John’s stance against Rome as a foreshadowing of Elizabeth’s (and her father’s) patriotic claim of independence? Or did seeing John’s rascally nature give them second thoughts about Elizabeth’s piety? The situation probably caused some audience members to struggle with their own dilemmas a bit. And of course, many others probably just enjoyed the edgy audacity of Shakespeare’s drama.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jokes from Aristotle

As I pointed out in a post last year, if the Great Books constitute a Great Conversation, as Mortimer Adler said, then “everything will lead you to everything else,” as C. S. Lewis said. And so I shouldn’t be surprised when coincidences come up in my reading plan. But it’s still a pretty special moment when I read one book that directly refers to another I have just read. And just such a moment happened last week when I read Sophistical Refutations, in which Aristotle addresses some of the arguments of Zeno and Parmenides -- arguments that form the core of Plato’s Parmenides, which I read just this past January.

Parmenides’ tricky arguments show up several times in Aristotle’s book. For instance, the Philosopher says, don’t let anyone argue that, since some objects are like each other and different from everything else, they are all both the same and different. In another place, he surely has Plato’s dialog in mind when he declares that a thing that grows is not therefore both greater and shorter than itself. And thinking of Parmenides but anticipating an argument of Hegel as well, Aristotle explains that “What is-not” is not a thing just because we can say and think the phrase, and that Being is not nonexistent just because it is nonexistent in some respect.

It’s unclear to me whether Aristotle addressed Sophistical Refutations to students of logic, to what we might call debate competitors, or to budding lawyers. All of the above can use its advice, though, to combat specious arguments and to prepare defenses against the traps of sophists. But, even though Aristotle mainly seeks to train a defense against sophistry, he also has to teach the opponent’s methods, and in doing so, he presents the reader with an entertaining catalog of ancient tricks, riddles, and jokes.

One of the first examples involves what Aristotle calls a “fallacy of combination,” meaning a trick involving a phrase that can modify more than one word. His example essentially runs this way:
I saw the man being beaten with my own eyes.
Really? How can a man be beaten with your eyes?
In his weekly e-newsletter World Wide Words, Michael Quinion often shares examples of published mistakes of this kind. (I had to edit that sentence to make sure I didn’t commit the error myself and make it sound as though Quinion made the mistakes himself.) Recent cases include these gems:
We are making a short 3 minute comedy/drama about God coming down to earth to enter into competitions and film festivals throughout the UK. 
Woman Hit by Triathlon Cyclist in Coma
For syllogisms that involve a  fallacy of Accident, Aristotle provides the following example:
This dog is mine.
This dog is a father.
Therefore, this dog is my father.
Finally, in a chapter on ambiguity, he offers the following humorous exchange:
Which cow will calve afore?
Neither, both will calve behind.
I have thought of one more potential audience for Aristotle’s instruction: writers of children’s magazines. Did you ever see a fish bowl? Did you ever see a man eating tiger?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The End of Peer Gynt’s Ditty

If Ibsen’s Wild Duck set my mind puzzling over nuanced dilemmas of truth and dreams, it didn’t prepare me for the greater enigmas of Peer Gynt, for which Ibsen leaves the realistic renditions of middle-class drawing rooms and enters a world of legend and fantasy. This lengthy play has the boyhood pranks of Huck Finn, the trolls of Tolkien, the mystical encounters of Faust, and the spiritual journey of Pilgrim’s Progress. It all seems like a crazy quilt of haphazard episodes for 95% of the way. But then Ibsen surprises the reader with a theme. And, as Peer himself says in the play, “It’s the end of the ditty that all depends on.”

Peer says consistently that he always and only wants to be himself. But then he lies about his adventures (riding a stag over a cliff, for instance) and takes on the roles, at various times, of sultan and prophet. Like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Peer tries comfort, power, sex, and wealth, but he doesn’t see until the end of his life that this search for a self has precluded actually being himself.

As his life draws to a close, Peer meets a button-molder, who is something like an angel of death with a giant spiritual ladle. The button-molder says that Peer, far from distinguishing himself over the course of his life, has been just like every other average person, and decrees that when when Peer dies, he will melt him down and blend him with all the other ciphers. Terrified by this doom, Peer asks what he could have done differently. The button-molder responds by saying that being oneself means “to slay oneself” and “to stand forth everywhere with Master's intention displayed like a signboard." And with that, suddenly the play takes on a specifically Christian character. Of course this solution to one of the puzzles of the play only defers the enigma to Jesus’ teaching that one must die in order to live and lose one’s soul in order to gain it.

Not wanting to lose his identity in the ladle, Peer begs for the chance to prove that he has been himself, but comes up short three times. Then he meets a parson who may or may not be Satan. Evidence for: the parson has a horse hoof in the place of one foot. Evidence against: he gives Peer some helpful advice. The weird parson tells Peer that a person can be himself in a negative way and can be recovered, just as a photographer can recover an image from negative film. (The idea that one might fulfill his special design in a negative way by sinning in a way special to himself reminded me of a passage in Kierkegaard, who influenced Ibsen, where he says that choosing evil at least represents the choice to leave the aesthetic world and rise to the ethical world, where God can convict with the heart.) Perhaps the parson is indeed Satan, tempting Peer into a life of unremitting sin through the offer of his life’s goal of being himself. But from the exchange, Peer decides that he wants to recover his positive image and discovers that in order to do so, he must admit that he is utterly sinful instead of confessing to half sins.

After Peer’s confession, a more simplistic author might have had Peer go to Heaven (or at least to church). But Ibsen lays on more riddles in the person of Solveig. Peer first meets Solveig when, as teenagers, he sees her walking in the village, carrying a psalm book wrapped in a handkerchief. Solveig disappoints Peer by not dancing with him that day, but at the end of the play we find that she has waited for him all of their lives. Peer leaves his confession to find Solveig, singing from her psalm book in a cabin she has kept prepared for him for decades. She tells Peer that the Self he so highly treasured has remained safely in her heart since the day they met. He calls her wife and mother (Solveig is clearly not Peer’s biological mother), and the play ends with Solveig comforting Peer. What is the handkerchief? Is Solveig the Church? How did she know to wait for him? This ending offers the reader many facets, but viewed from any angle it seems that the mysterious scene refracts the light of a saving Mystery.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Speaking of Kierkegaard

Mentioning in the previous post that I had read of a connection between Ibsen and Kierkegaard, it occurred to me that I should say something about the Danish philosopher, since I worked through a selection of his writing in the first year of my reading plan, before I started this blog. I’ve had an interesting time this morning reviewing my notes about Kierkegaard and reading about him in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Kierkegaard is deep and difficult, and I have no confidence that I’ll represent him faithfully, but with diffidence I can at least share a couple of my reactions.

The collection I read through started with large portions of Either/Or, and in the first part of this book, Kierkegaard, whom I had heard described as a Christian philosopher, shocked me with his whole-hearted embrace of hedonism (which he called the “aesthetic” life). If you’re going to be a hedonist, he says in effect, do it right: make your own choices, live passionately, and stay free from external commitments. The second part of the book, though, presented a better way: the ethical life. A human should forego the selfishness of hedonism, embrace responsibility, and make ethical choices – the first of which is to choose to live an ethical life. In other works, Kierkegaard reaches even higher and recommends a religious life, a fully conscious, persistent, passionate choice to believe in Christ despite the apparent absurdity of the idea that an infinite, transcendent God took on finite flesh.

In the last few years, any discussion of a hierarchy of life always makes me think of Aristotle’s hierarchy of the souls: the nutritive, the sensitive, and the rational. According to this division, plants have a nutritive soul only: they live and grow but have no senses and no means of reason. Non-human animals add to the nutritive soul a sensitive soul: they respond to sensations of sight, sound, bodily needs, and so on, but have no means of deliberating and determining, for instance, that a hunger pain should be ignored temporarily for the sake of a higher good. Humans, with their rational souls, find themselves one step higher on this ladder, a ladder whose levels correspond to the arrangement of the human body: the nutritive soul operating most obviously in the gut, the passions of the sensitive soul having their higher seat in the breast, and the rational soul topping the body and residing in the head. While the nutritive soul is beyond control (you can’t choose to stop or start growing), the sensitive soul, Aristotle teaches, needs the disciplined control of reason if one is to live ethically. Aristotle’s two higher souls correspond perfectly to Kierkegaard’s two lower forms of human life: Kierkegaard’s aesthete lives to indulge the appetites of the sensitive soul, and his ethical person keeps the appetites in check through the control of the rational soul.

Aristotle, though, can offer nothing exactly parallel to Kierkegaard’s religious life. To find a recognition of this third level, we’ll turn to the apostle Paul, who may well have read Greek philosophy. Like Kierkegaard, Paul talks here and there about three kinds of people. In Romans 7, he compares a sarkikos (i.e., fleshly) life to the pneumatikos (spiritual). And in the second chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, he compares the psychikos to the pneumatikos. Some translations render psychikos as “natural”; The RSV translates it “unspiritual.” But isn’t it clear that the word comes from psyche? If we translate the word “soulish” (here the generic and specific uses of “soul” make things a little confusing), a system of three levels of human life comes to view:

(1) The sarkikos, fleshly life (= A’s sensitive = K’s aesthetic) devoted to fulfilling every passion and desire presented by the senses.
(2) The psychikos, soulish life (= A’s rational = K’s ethical) in which desires have been shaped and disciplined by reasoned, ethical choices.
(3) The pneumatikos, spiritual life (= K’s religious) in which the Spirit of God reigns over both desire and thought.

I’m not sure how to end this post. If my depiction of this ladder makes any sense, no further point could top the conclusion it drives us to: that we all spend a shameful lot of time on the lower rungs.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ibsen Grows Up

Ibsen looks a lot different at 52 than he did at 20. I read Hedda Gabler in a literature class in college, and I simply couldn’t believe that anyone as familiar to me as Hedda would commit suicide or that any reader should receive benefit, instruction, entertainment, or comfort from the play. But three decades later, I’ve lived longer, and I’ve thought about life and thought about death, and I’ve gained some perspective, and . . . and now I have a Joni Mitchell song stuck in my head.

I didn’t revisit Hedda this year; I decided instead to become acquainted with some Ibsen plays I hadn’t read before. The struggle for and with truth that I found in Wild Duck comes up repeatedly in the other plays. The best example occurs in Enemy of the People, where again “truth” seems to mean something more like “full disclosure.” Except this time, two opposing sides both claim to wield truth (like a flail), and each accuses the other of withholding information. The town is looking forward to the business boom that will come when they open their new baths. But Dr. Stockmann has just discovered that the local industry’s refuse poisons the waters, and he thinks the public should know. The mayor responds to this news by telling the townsfolk that Dr. Stockmann has suppressed the truth of the cost of the clean-up. It seems like a vote on a bond issue could have settled the matter, but then we’d have about as much of a play as we would if Romeo and Juliet just decided to run away together.

A lot of the dialog in these plays of Ibsen’s seems to spring from a decayed Christian soil. Characters often quote the Bible or uses pieces of quotations out of context. No character does this more than Peer Gynt, who usually admits afterwards that he probably got the words wrong and can’t remember exactly where they come from. I’ve read that Ibsen admired Kierkegaard, and I can’t help wondering if the Norwegian took from the Dane the view that Christianity dies once it permeates a society.

A Doll’s House doesn’t stack up to Wild Duck and Enemy of the People in my view, but I can see why it enjoys popularity in our times, when the others remain mostly unknown. Nora’s decision to stop playing house and go to school resonates with our women’s movement. I don’t see why she has to leave her husband in order to engage the wider world. But the plays I’ve read lately make it sound as though Ibsen believed that a marriage not based on true love could be – or even should be – dissolved.

Yes, Ibsen looks a lot different at 52 than he did at 20. I judged the Father of Modern Drama quickly and harshly in my first encounter. Now I’m more ready just to listen and mull the issues over, respecting the characters’ nuances rather than seeing them as types for viewpoints, and letting Ibsen’s explorations catalyze my own thinking. And I find that I’m much more likely than before to let some issues conclude in paradox: the way the attitude toward marriage in A Doll’s House, for instance, seems simultaneously a romantic faith and a modern cynicism.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Pull of the Ideal

    Who doesn’t feel the pull of the Ideal? If the Ideal is the perfect goal of life, then all people feel its pull. We may not agree on the identity of the Ideal: Is it God? Comfort? Power? Love? Peace? But we can’t help feeling its pull; whatever draws any one person is for him the Ideal.
    People stir up trouble, though, when they start insisting on the Ideal. The word is too vague, to begin with; it represents an abstraction of an abstraction. Five people agreeing in so many words to pursue the Ideal can, and probably will, have five different goals. Henrik Ibsen’s Wild Duck shows some of the problems caused by a devotion to an ill-defined Ideal.
    At the beginning of the play, Gregers Werle, son of the local capitalist, returns to his hometown after several years, claiming to have discovered the “pull of the Ideal.” He naturally shares his happy discovery with his childhood chum, Hialmar Ekdal, and Hialmar can’t argue against the idea of living life in honest, truthful expressions of love. His wife, though, has a secret, a secret Gregers finds out. So what is Hialmar to do? Gregers thinks he should get the (not actually very) sordid history out in the open: if the marriage falls apart, then it wasn’t worth saving anyway. Oh, and by the way, having a daughter doesn’t make any difference; truth is the Ideal, and we must live for the Ideal.
    I’m not sure what Ibsen meant for his audience to get out of the tragedy that ensues; he may have had no goal in mind other than deconstructing some assumptions. I reach two conclusions: (1) A well-kept secret concerning an action taken seventeen years ago that hasn’t recurred since, has no chance of recurring, and doesn’t hinder a current life of devoted love is better kept unexposed. (2) Knowledge is not the same as Truth. A devotion to Truth doesn’t mean having to make sure everyone knows everything.
    Another character, Dr. Relling says that the Ideal is a life-lie, an illusion. Like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Relling thinks people should give up on their pipe dreams. Perhaps inconsistently, but all-too-humanly, Relling tells his patients and friends lies, providing them with other illusions that he thinks will give them a zest for life. So, in opposition to Gregers and his unswerving devotion to truth, Relling has faith in illusion. But this way of life brings no less tragedy than Werle’s: Hialmar’s illusions erect a wall between him and his daughter and set her to thinking of sacrifices she has to make in order to prove her love. I can’t help thinking along the path of infinite regression from Relling’s stance: if illusions are good lies that give us zest for life, how do we know the zest for life itself isn’t an illusion? Or even more pointedly, if the good things we live for are unreal, why have any zest for life?
    Ibsen doesn’t seem to preach any one clear view in Wild Duck. He just puts characters in an interesting situation of intertwining dilemmas. It seems at times that he wants to dismantle some common assumptions of love, family, truth, and sacrifice. But the success of the play depends on its audience’s absolute adherence to one traditional thought: when a teenager shoots herself to prove her love to her father, something somewhere is far, far from the Ideal.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

On the Attack

In one scene in the film Patton, the American general sits atop the escarpment along the Kasserine Pass, positive that the German mastermind Rommel will bring his armored divisions that way. Sure enough, a dust column appears among the rocks, and then the American officers watch as Rommel’s Panzer tanks come around a bend and into view. Patton puts down his binoculars and shouts, “Rommel, you glorious bastard, I know what you’re doing! I read your book!” That line displays a beautiful, intriguing combination of admiration and contempt. General Patton recognized Rommel’s brilliance and learned much from his treatise, but at the same time he saw in that moment at Kasserine Pass Rommel’s foolishness in sharing his tactical theories with the world before the big war.

Over the last month, I’ve read two classic books on strategy: Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Aristotle’s Topics. Both talk about war and attacks – Sun Tzu literally and Aristotle figuratively. Each makes it clear that his only goal is victory – Sun Tzu in the field and Aristotle in the debate arena. I have to wonder: if Rommel caused trouble for himself by publishing his wisdom on strategy, did Aristotle or Sun Tzu ever regret writing down their plans for everyone to read?

The books agree in even more specific details, too. Both authors explain that the successful strategist must be practiced in the basics. Aristotle recommends that the student of dialectic have a ready stock of arguments for common universal propositions, whereas Sun Tzu’s book is all based around memorization of the four keys to success, the five faults, the nine types of terrain, and so on. Also, both authors instruct their readers on knowing when to concede. Sun Tzu advises letting the enemy into rough terrain that prevents easy egress, while Aristotle recommends that a debater concede any point that isn’t relevant to his side.

One interesting parallel deals with deception. According to Sun Tzu, the whole art of war rests on deception: the feinting movement is the attack, and the frontal movement is the feint – unless your opponent understands the principle in which case the frontal feint may become the surprise attack! Aristotle, too, emphasizes the importance of obfuscation: never make your points in order, argue both sides of a question for a while so your opponent doesn’t know which side you will end up on, and be sure to include some arguments that don’t matter to your case all.

The authors agree that the greatest key to success is to know one’s enemy. Know what he knows. Know what he expects. Avoid or concede to his strengths, and attack his weaknesses. And if your he’s as smart as Patton, don’t tell him your strategy.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dickens’s History of the Soul

In looking up some things for one of my recent posts on Dickens’s Bleak House, I came across an article in Christian History & Biography magazine analyzing Dickens’s faith. The author, Stephen Rost, basically says that Dickens’s Christianity does not seem to have been the real thing; the most he can say is that Dickens didn’t hate Christ. And Rost is not alone by any means; most treatments of Dickens and Christianity attempt to separate the two. Unlike the authors, though, who want to distance a religion they reject from an author they love, Rost seems to want to distance an author he rejects from the religion he loves.

As I’ve said before, although I’m comfortable reading Dickens as a Christian author, I’m aware of the problems in his life. I acknowledge with Rost that Dickens devoted himself more to social action than to corporate worship, and I agree with him that the Life of our Lord that he wrote for his children disappoints in its failure to explain the cross as anything other than a moving example. But I disagree with Rost when he says that Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion comes from an encounter with self rather than with Christ. The first half of his critique is certainly true: Scrooge must face himself in the story, just as everyone who turns to Christ must look at himself and see his sin. But how does Scrooge not have an encounter with Christ? The three Spirits of Christmas, who bear the Lord’s title in their names, are, respectively, a creature of light who is ancient of days and yet ever new, a bestower of joy and an abundant life, and an angel of death: Christlike figures, all. And along his ghostly travels, Scrooge must compare his life with those of Bob and Tim Cratchit, who go to church and talk to each other of Jesus’s power to perform miracles.

Scrooge provides just one example of a story that Dickens tells over and over: the story of the soul that has departed from its childlike state of faith and must return. We encounter characters in every book whose hearts are hardened by a fairly consistent set of corrupting influences. Scrooge’s fiancée, Belle, tells him that he has learned to worship a golden idol: greed has turned him from his path. Many rich characters also suffer from the pressure of English High Society to maintain an unruffled countenance at all costs. In Bleak House, the Dedlocks consort with
ladies and gentlemen . . . who have agreed to put a smooth glaze on the world and to keep down all its realities. For whom everything must be languid and pretty. Who have found out the perpetual stoppage. Who are to rejoice at nothing and be sorry for nothing. Who are not to be disturbed by ideas.
Important in the story of almost every hardened heart is what Dickens calls in Bleak House a “distorted religion” that “clouds the mind.” The replacement of “reality” with a distorted religion (whether a severe Christianity or idol worship) “shuts up the natural feelings of the heart like flies in amber and spreads one uniform and dreary gloss over the good and bad, the feeling and the unfeeling, the sensible and the senseless.”

This topic of hardened hearts that need restoration came to my mind in reading Bleak House last month, as I noticed it offering a representative catalog of the influences Dickens usually credits for guiding the return journey of the lost soul. These spiritual restoratives include beautiful scenery, music, and displays of compassion. The birth, life, and death of children play a large role in many characters’ spiritual dramas in the Dickens oeuvre; Bleak House includes a baby whose birth recalls his father to his senses, a baby whose death elicits healing compassion, and a young crossing sweeper whose death Dickens uses to shame the hardened souls of all England. The death of a child with pure faith – Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Paul in Dombey and Son, or Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol – should bring adult characters and readers alike to think of a what a blessing it is to have lived an entire life without succumbing to greed, without growing up to preach a merciless religion, an entire life spent in the freedom to display all the natural emotions of joy and sorrow.

For Dickens, though, the strongest possible healing influence is the story of the life of Jesus. Scrooge hears a part of the story from Tim via his father; Nell takes her grandfather to a church to find peace; and Sydney Carton, the hero of A Tale of Two Cities, finds the courage to sacrifice himself for love in recalling words from the Anglican burial service that quote Jesus’ promise of eternal life to those who believe in Him. And in Bleak House, Dickens’s narration makes it explicit and crystal clear that Jo the crossing sweeper needs Rev. Chadband to stop preaching at him as if dirtiness is next to ungodliness and instead to tell him about Jesus and to teach him to read the New Testament for himself. I don’t know why so many people work so hard to try to prove that the man who wrote that narration wasn’t a real Christian, but I know that their time would be better spent helping Jo to become one.