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!