Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Ahead to 2014

The end of Year 7. The beginning of Year 8. It doesn’t seem like eight years ago that I put together this decade-long plan of reading Great Books. Eight years ago I poured over each category time after time, adjusting, adding, subtracting, but mostly reordering. The process of deciding what book to put in what year made for quite a dilemma. On the one hand, I reassured myself that I was finally going to get to Euripides’ Electra, the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, and Mann’s Magic Mountain: works I strongly desired to read but would probably never get to if I lived out the rest of my life picking up my next book solely based on my feeling at the moment I ended the previous one. Most people dislike the books their schools require them to read precisely because they’re required, but I never noticed any lost joy in books because a teacher had assigned them. I certainly didn’t like every book I had to read. But I often finished the ones I didn’t like glad that someone had made me read it; “the achieve of; the mastery of the thing” felt good, and I was happy to know about a classic book and to be able to say why I didn’t like it. In the 1990s, I started making myself one-year plans and found that my own assignments worked in the same way: the mere presence of a list motivated me to complete it, I enjoyed most of the books I’d assigned myself, and I felt other benefits from the few I didn’t care for as much. So as I approached the finish line of Mortimer Adler’s ten-year plan for the Britannica Great Books after just eleven years, I decided to put all my literary wishes and experience into one master regimen. It took many months of planning, but eight years ago today, I looked at my completed schedule with great satisfaction knowing that in 2014 (provided I stayed on course) I would finally read some Tertullian.

On the other hand, I asked myself, “Can I really wait?” (Will I reveal something pathological if I admit that I actually normally talk to myself in the second person? To be completely honest, I asked myself, “Can you really wait?” Oh, I’ve probably already revealed something I should have kept hidden by admitting that I talk to myself at all.) “Can you really wait until 2014 to read the Arabian Nights? Phantastes? The poetry of Keats?” But January 2007 came, and I had to commit to some order, or the project would never get off the ground. So I put off finishing the Koran for eight years and got started. But now, here it is. The faithful sun has risen in the east 2555 times, and I’m about to read Aristotle’s On the Soul at long last.

Of course I have some concerns about the coming twelvemonth. At some point around fifteen years ago, I started reading Husserl’s Crisis of Modern Science and gave up (not a frequent occurrence for me), despite having heard so many academics drive me crazy by saying how important Husserl was without being able to say anything specific and clear about what Husserl taught – except that everybody misunderstood it all. I know I’ll have to work extra hard at it, but I want to finish the book, if only so I can finally be one of the everybody that misunderstands it. So here comes Husserl and his Crisis, split up into two smaller segments in February and April. And as much as I love G. K. Chesterton, I’ve found his anti-Hun diatribes from the World War I era very tiresome, so I’m expecting a few frustrating days in November as I read his Illustrated London News columns from 1916. At least I’ve paired them with 1921 so I have some pumpkin pie to enjoy after the dry turkey.

Mostly, though, I’m just really excited about what’s coming up for me. I bought Malory’s Morte d’Arthur thirty years ago and loved the first third of it. Why has it taken me so long to get back to it? (“Yeah, why has it taken you so long to get back to it?”) I can already taste its delicious soup of fifth-century pseudo-history, high-medieval chivalry, late-medieval French vocabulary, and early-modern English spelling. I already feel 50% of the inspiration of reading Aquinas’s teaching on Love. I already feel 60% of the excitement of wandering once more into the winding, branching labyrinth that is the plot of Orlando Furioso. I already feel 70% of the intellectual satisfaction of starting Durant’s account of the Reformation. And I feel right now, this very moment, exactly 83.33...% of the warmth that The Last Chronicle of Barset will blanket me with in August.

On top of all those rewards, 2014 will be for me a rich year of rereading. Beowulf! Augustine’s Confessions! Moby Dick! Sense and Sensibility! The Greater Trumps! I simply couldn’t type the words without the exclamation marks. But above all, my favorite, my treasured, my beloved Tale of Two Cities. (The blessing here is far too sacred for a tawdry excess of punctuation.) Next to the Bible and a few silly textbooks I’ve taught from, it’s the book I’ve reread the most. I’ll have so much to say about it, I should begin writing the posts now.

At the end of this past August, I completed two-thirds of The Plan. At the end of this coming June I’ll reach the three-quarter mark. And by a year from now, I’ll be four-fifths of the way through my decade-long reading agenda. (Does English have the word legenda? It should. Come to think of it, I’ll use the word right now and increase the size of the English vocabulary.) By a year from now, I’ll be four-fifths of the way through my decade-long legenda. It’s starting to look as though I might actually finish this ten-year plan in ten years. On the other hand, I’m retiring from one job this coming August and starting another job that has yet to reveal itself. We’ll leave our home of twenty-five years for a new, as yet unknown city. (Ooh! Trollope in August will provide just the remedy for the stress of moving!) How much time and effort will the relocating process take from my reading? How busy will I be in the new job? The whole outcome hinges on Year 8.

And with that overly dramatic observation, I bid 2013 adieu and wish you a New Year full of Happy Reading.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Awards – 2013

Over the last twenty-five years or so, the media have changed their approach to the end of the annual calendar in many disappointing ways. I remember as a child getting to stay up and watch the ball on Times Square (which is actually a triangle, but then again St. Peter’s Square is a circle, so I guess I shouldn’t look for geometrical accuracy here) – as I was saying before I was interrupted, I used to watch the ball on Times Square descend at 11:00 Central Time, and then again at 12:00 Central Time, when the generous and thoughtful New Yorkers celebrated New Year’s a second just for me, and then again at 1:00, when they celebrated on behalf of Boise, Idaho. But I don’t think the networks have shown the ball drop more than once per year since I reached adulthood. I also used to watch Dick Clark host a great concert with top acts. All aspects of that formula have sadly passed. I used to count on television to offer a review of the top news stories, which some years was the only way I kept up with the news. I gave up on the Time Man of the Year when they offered the title to a computer. Then I really gave up on the magazine when they couldn’t find a place for Walt Disney among the top 100 entertainers of the twentieth century, a man who mastered multiple media and invented several major forms of entertainment.

But readers of can count on the end of December offering new Book Awards. And without further hubbub, here they are.

Master of Ceremonies: Charles Dickens
I look for a way each year to put the Great Man at the top of the list of awards, mostly so someone else can win in the fiction category.

Best New Read, Poetry: Shelley’s “A Summer Evening Churchyard”
Silence and Twilight come creeping hand-in-hand into a church graveyard, and Shelley, the great atheist poet, gets a glimpse, a whisper, a hope that perhaps his poetic vision isn’t just the product of material forces after all but a glimpse, a whisper, and a hope of a Reality beyond Death.

Best New Read, Philosophy: Charles Peirce
Justus Buchler’s selection and introduction made for a very readable approach to the system of the man generally known as the United States’ greatest philosopher. And since the system includes ontology, epistemology, theology, anthropology, science, ethics, mathematics, and logic, a good guide is essential.

Best New Read, Theology: Anselm, Proslogium
Anselm didn’t offer the Ontological “Proof” as a proof. Who knew? (Apparently not any of the philosophers and historians whose words about Anselm I’d read.)

Best New Read, History: Gibbon
Gibbon’s award results from a combination of (1) providing information on a period of Roman history I knew nothing about and (2) abundantly overcoming his century’s tendency to dryness.

Most Surprisingly Clear and Interesting German Philosopher: Schopenhauer
Overcoming both his century’s (and his country’s) tendency to convolution and my grave concerns after so much recent German philosophy, Schopenhauer presented his dour outlook with great clarity. Again, having a selection arranged by an expert helped.

Best Reread, Fiction: Gulliver
Edging out Charles Williams this year is Jonathan Swift, whose music-theory-loving Laputians hit painfully close to the heart.

Best Reread, Drama: Eumenides
A moving defense of conscience and guilt.

Most Clarified on Rereading: Spinoza
I had read all of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics before, but it made no sense until I read it all at once, in order. What was Mortimer Adler thinking when he drew up the reading plan for the first ten years?

Best Offroading: John Michell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare?
By the time I finished the book, Michell had convinced me that no one could have written Shakespeare’s works: not the actor from Stratford, not Sir Francis Bacon, not the Earl of Oxford, not the Earl of Derby. Then, remembering that someone did in fact compose the plays, it occurred to me that the sense that no one could have written them was tantamount to the view that anyone could have written them. In other words, a mind this brilliant could have arisen even in a country town and could have overcome the limitations of a bad school.

Well, that’s how exlibrismagnis wrings out the Old Year. Next time, we’ll start ringing in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2013

The birth of Jesus Christ has elicited poetry from the beginning. A few weeks before the scene in the barn behind the inn, Jesus’ uncle Zechariah heralded the appearance of the unprecedented by singing about a dawn sun that would appear at the zenith (the “dayspring from on high”). Today we sing of angels bending near the earth, of love’s light beaming from the face of the Infant, and of a Savior with healing in his wings.

One of the most common poetic effects of the lyrics of Christmas hymns is the placement of the singer in the midst of the events of two-thousand years ago. And while we stand with shepherds in the field or with animals next to the manger or with Simeon in the Temple or with two other kings on the road from Persia, we sing to all manner of folk and even thing that we don’t normally talk to in the course of the rest of the year. We sing Christmas songs to the Christ Child, to the angels, to Shepherd and Sages. We sing to a star of wonder. We sing to a little town in deep and dreamless sleep. And once per year, Protestants pray to saints when they sing, “Mary, Joseph, lend your aid.”

In one of the most indispensable of Christmas hymns, we stand in some impossible position (at the center of Heaven?) and sing to every worshiper both human and angelic of God Almighty. O Come, All Ye Faithful. Come from every corner of Heaven and Earth, from all the span of time and from the spanless reaches of eternity. Come with me and adore Christ the Lord. Come and adore the King of Angels. Come and adore the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

What good this song does! What leaven it introduces to our contemporary lump! Because of this hymn, I learned some Latin verse from Bing Crosby when I was about five. Because of this hymn, the Latin language sings out for one month in the year over car radios and mall muzak systems. Because of this hymn, twenty-first-century Americans say the word “exultation” at least once a year. Because of this hymn, today’s church-goers even in some CCM megachurches sing imitative polyphony once a year. And because of this hymn, a few blessed souls in nonliturgical congregations – provided they sing the traditional second verse – sing part of the Nicene creed

I’ve written on other great Christmas songs in earlier posts. Just look through December in each of the years past for more articles entitled “Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol.” I hope you sing all of them with joy and triumph this season.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

More on Attention

In the previous post, I gave an account of William James’s description of my struggles with attention, especially attention while reading. (Yes, my struggles – he seemed to have no one else but me in mind.) This time, I want to report some of the solutions James offers in his chapter on attention in The Principles of Psychology.

His first but, in my view, least promising solution is simply effort. The will, according to James, is nothing but an effort made to pay attention to certain things and actions, and character, he says, is maturity of will. So, William James, I’ve been trying to be a man of character. Instead of letting the unread paragraphs go, I make a determined decision to read them again and a conscious effort to pay attention. I’m so determined, I’ve reread some paragraphs these last few months as many as four times. But I’m fifty-four, and the habit of mind-wandering is deeply ingrained. So while this line of attack sometimes finally gets a particular passage into my memory, I don’t know that it will ever make me generally more attentive.

James’s second solution involves association with other objects of interest. Schoolboys, he points out, don’t seem to listen to anything the teacher has to say until an anecdote begins, and then the unruly boys are all ears. Obviously they were listening at some level, or the first spoken words of the story wouldn’t have entered their heads enough to attract attention. But neither the words themselves nor the teacher are the objects of interest in this case; the boys like stories because they come with adventure, puzzles, laughter, or terror.The pleasure they’ve learned to associate with stories draws them in. This solution has only a little more promise than the first for me. The associations I make with classic literature – mental stimulation, historical interest, plot tension, satisfaction at achieving something long desired – have carried me through for fifty-three years, but not so much lately. Have my distractions simply begun to outweigh the positive associations I make with literature? Or do I need to invent new associations? Offer myself rewards for attention?

The first two solutions may not bring me much hope, but three other methods of heightening attention seem more likely to work for me. No one can spend a long time with an unchanging object, James says. Constant novelty makes a long attention span possible, and an intelligent person provides his own novelty by asking new questions and considering his object in new ways. I’ve found that stopping every sentence or two literally to ask a question about what I just read keeps my attention focused. In some reading, I’ve tried to keep a key phrase from a topic sentence in mind and then repeat it after a sentence from the middle of a paragraph, looking for connections.

Solution no. 4 is similar to the third. James also notes that attention is stronger and reaction time quicker when we anticipate what we experience. This pattern suggests that after asking myself about what I just read, I could also ask myself a question concerning what I’m about to read.

James’s final note about heightened attention explains a solution I found long ago. James theorizes that what goes in the mind must go out again, be “discharged” in one way or another. When he observes that some children can pay attention to their studies more successfully when fidgeting with a repetitive motion of the hand or foot, he explains the situation by saying that all the surrounding distractions flow out of the mind through the muscular movement. Because the motion is repetitive, it can proceed by habit, without entering conscious thought and providing yet one more distraction. I read this explanation and immediately thought of my walking. My attention span on the contents of a book increases dramatically when I walk as I read, which I try to do each morning. I’ve long realized that, although I’m aware of surrounding buildings and trees and the direction of the sidewalk as I read and walk, those things don’t distract me from the task at hand. I’ve felt that my awareness of the surroundings is directed and, yes, even discharged through the rhythmic motion of my legs.

Two or three days ago, a man walking his dog passed me on my morning constitutional and asked, as so many have before, “Isn’t it hard to read while you walk?” I answered simply, “Not so hard, really.” My complete thought was far too long to tell a stranger in passing: “On the contrary, each makes the other easier. Reading gets me through lengthy exercise each morning, and walking focuses my attention on the reading.”

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Paying Attention to William James

I wrote earlier this fall about my diminishing powers of attention I feel the stress of this change fairly deeply. As much trouble as I have with attention to begin with, I’ve always had the characteristic, and yet I’ve always found a way to pursue my love of books in spite of it. But now I’ve set myself on a ten-year journey to read a long list of particular books, many of them difficult reads, and I find it harder and harder this fall to focus, making me start to wonder if I’ll be able to finish the race, not to mention starting on the third decade that I already have laid out starting in 2017.

Then I come to the last assignment of this year, turn to page 260 of William James’s Principles of Psychology, and discover that I set myself the task seven years ago of reading a chapter entitled “Attention.” My focus is suddenly laser sharp. The material in the chapter richly rewards my rapt attention, but I have to lay some general groundwork before discussing the particulars. Here and elsewhere, James argues that our mental life consists of a series of thoughts experienced one at a time. Against atomist psychologists, who teach that my thought about the plant sitting on my desk is actually a complex of simultaneous thoughts about elemental ideas of green, leaves, stalk, shape, number, etc., James sides more with what a little later will be called Gestalt psychology, claiming that I can have one thought about the whole complex object. I can then focus my attention on the color, or count the leaves and think about the total: attention, he says, is “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.” But the process starts with a single thought about a complex object. In this chapter, the author says that maturity and experience are processes of focusing and learning to focus on certain details of the complex presented to our senses and to our minds.

William James has an eerie way of describing me to myself, especially regarding aspects of my thinking that I didn’t think anyone else could know about. It’s as if he has powers to look behind my mental curtains and expose my secrets. I guess his ability simply shows his success as a psychologist. But this chapter especially seemed all about me. The first passage that felt like a mirror actually had to do with distraction and lack of focus. He describes a state I’ve experienced many times, when my eyes go out of focus and “the sounds of the world melt into confused unity.” Memories of these kaleidoscopic experiences convince me of the idea that we have one thought at a time: my single thought at those moments is completely sensory and involves the whole chaotic manifold of sights and sounds. No train of ideas comes up, nothing urges me to move, because the single thought is of a disorganized field of things too random to mean anything. James notes that small children are especially subject to immediate sensorial stimuli; granting that each species has a natural tendency to focus on some things, he nevertheless theorizes that infants spend more time in the distracted state than adults and, without developed ideas to guide their focus, gravitate toward whatever is louder, brighter, etc. In the second passage seemingly written with me in mind, he posits, “This reflex and passive character of the attention . . . never is overcome in some people, whose work, to the end of life, gets done in the interstices of their mind-wandering.” “The interstices of my mind-wandering” is now a phrase I’ll use often to describe myself, which I’ll do now and then in the interstices of my mind-wandering.

James’s familiarity with my peculiar mind gets really uncanny when he describes an experiment done by Wilhelm Wundt. To show how difficult it is to pay attention to two things at once, Wundt constructed a device with a sweeping hand that spun on a dial about once a second, and then asked subjects to identify the exact location of the hand when a bell was struck. I wasn’t surprised at all to learn how inaccurate people’s answers were, because I’ve done a similar thing many times in trying to locate a skip on an LP and found the exercise extremely difficult. As a teenager, I used to try to find skips and fix them by adjusting a tiny bit of the plastic wall of the groove with a needle, or by deepening the groove itself. It worked often enough that I kept doing it. But most skips are irreparable. Still, in recent years, as I have been recording my LP collection to mp3, I’ve tried to fix some of the worst skips by dropping the needle in the one round of the spiral groove that gets missed and then cutting and pasting in a sound editor. The first step in this process requires locating the skip by watching the spinning label while listening to the record and trying to determine which part of the label aligns with the skip. Now you might ask why I don’t just spend a buck and buy the separate track online. For one thing, I’d be out a buck. For another, I wouldn’t have this story to tell. And James already makes me feel bad enough by saying that my attention problem comes from a lack of maturity. So let’s just let me have my habit of finding skips.

Actually, William James doesn’t make me feel all that bad in this chapter. He does admit that mind-wandering usually increases with age, which at least makes me think that I don’t have something abnormally wrong with me. And in fact, he highly praises my intelligence in another passage that he writes directly to me. People who deal with the-not-totally-accurately-named ADD or with children who have the trait know that attention “deficit” often results in very long commitments of attention to what seems personally interesting or stimulating. In explaining the phenomenon, James talks about geniuses like Archimedes incessantly working without any awareness of the war going on outside his window. In the same way, he says, people of great intelligence find their minds wandering while reading because the topic of the book raises up personally interesting associations that the thought then pursues. The eyes continue moving out of habit, and the words on the page actually even enter consciousness one-by-one momentarily but aren’t stored in memory. Suddenly a reader can finish a paragraph and realize he can’t remember anything he just read. And that is me and the problem I’ve had reading this fall. But is it a problem? After all, James doesn’t label me with a disorder. (Why do the acronyms of all my psychological traits have to end in D?) Instead, he puts me in a camp with Archimedes, Newton, and Pascal. Pretty good company.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Latin Lessons from Dr. Johnson

I wrote last week of life lessons offered in James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. But Dr. Johnson shone in the era named after him for greatness both in moral philosophy (taught and lived) and in letters. So today I have some Latin lessons I picked up in the sixty pages I read this fall.

The glory days of Latin scholarship for children have sadly passed in these last hundred years or so. Goodbye, Mr. Chips, indeed! But Johnson and Boswell, of course, grew up in the traditional curriculum and could recite Ovid and Juvenal, Horace and Cicero word-for-word, because they had done so innumerable times in class. Their knowledge ran so intimately deep, they tossed off ancient phrases as easily as our high-school students spit out snarky comments of disdain for, well, just about everything. Boswell, for instance, says in a footnote that an advocate he knows ingenuas didicit fideliter artes: he earnestly learned the liberal arts. (In this way, he praised his classical education and demonstrated it at the same time!) The remark slightly modifies a quotation from Ovid, Ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes Emollit mores nec sinit esse feros: learning the liberal arts earnestly refines the manners and prevents us from being like wild brutes. Similarly, Johnson casually quotes the historian Tacitus at an opportune moment. Omne ignotum pro magnifico est, he says: Everything unknown is taken for (or is imagined to be) something magnificent.

Sadly, I need help translating these passages, even after several years of self study. I didn’t have a teacher to guide me when I learned Latin, and I had neither the mind nor the leisure of a twelve-year-old. But even when I get the words translated, I still need help understanding the context. Aphorisms are often pithy and a little cryptic, even in English. We say, “Easy come, easy go,” and we just know we’re talking about money and don’t balk a split second at the mysteriously plural verbs. When we hear, “The more, the merrier,” we know the speaker means people, and we don’t worry at all that the verb is missing altogether. But imagine someone who has grown up speaking a language other than English trying to work his way through these sayings with a dictionary: full understanding of each isolated word wouldn’t make the total meaning at all clear.

It was the same in Latin. The pithy Johnson quotes the pithy Horace, saying, Incredulus odi. The literal translation is, “Incredulous, I hate.” The phrase doesn’t provide an object: so what does he hate? And what does it mean to hate something that I believe doesn’t exist? What Dr. Johnson meant by it is that he didn’t want to have to listen to outrageous stories told as true tales. As another example, he cites Cicero in saying, Omnia mea mecum porto: I carry all my things with me. On the face of it, the phrase could invoke the image of Huck Finn carrying all his worldly possessions with him on the end of a stick. But apparently Johnson and Boswell took the Roman orator to mean that his most important possessions were his thoughts, which no one would take away from him. Virgil makes an appearance with Non equidem invideo; miror magis: Truly I do not envy; rather I marvel. Johnson quoted the ancient poet upon seeing Edmund Burke’s palatial home, so apparently he meant that he was amazed more than envious at his compatriot’s wealth; whether he marveled in an approving way, Boswell doesn’t clarify.

It took me a long time to decipher the meaning behind the meaning of a line Johnson remembers from Eton days. A classmate of his had written Vidit et erubuit lympha pudica DEUM in a free essay, and Johnson remembers that all the other boys really liked the line. Now what stood out about that line that would make Johnson remember it fifty years later above all his friends' other original compositions? My internet search got me to Richard Crashaw, who wrote in a classical-style poem, Nympha pudica deum vidit, et erubuit: The chaste nymph saw a god and blushed. The Eton scholar had changed only one letter: nympha gives way to lympha. A lympha can be a water nymph, so I couldn’t see at all what had earned Johnson’s attention. But I kept looking, and somewhere I found that the boy’s assigned theme was the first miracle of Jesus. Then the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. I remembered that lympha can also mean simply “water.” How did the water turn to wine? It saw God and blushed. I wish I had learned Latin when I was a tot and could have appreciated this very clever witticism without so much effort today. But non equidem invideo; miror magis.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lessons from Dr. Johnson

Conversation filled this year’s section of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Wonderful, glorious, nuanced, witty conversation. Johnson, Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, and many others get together and talk page after page about foreign travel, slavery, city life and country life, keeping a journal, luxury, the obligations of landed gentlemen, laws concerning road repair, religious conversions, old age, death, tea, Quakers, history, emigration, musicians, wine, Latin, sermons, economics, the definition of trim, envy, Latin, Oliver Goldsmith, the difference between men and women, heaven, and plenty of poetry. They talk of illness, too, just as we do in our less refined time, but they treat even that subject with an elegance and intelligence that beatifies all sufferers. And of course they converse about conversation.

I always come away from Boswell wishing I were more like Samuel Johnson. This year, I left wishing I were bolder in speech. Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more cautious about what I say, keeping opinions to myself, speaking slowly through every sentence to make sure I use the right words. But the Great Man always had a reasoned opinion ready at his lips. He sometimes offended his interlocutors with his blunt statements, but then he granted others the freedom to speak their mind, and when he felt he was in the wrong, he apologized and reconciled. Why can’t I do that more? If someone is offended just by finding out what I think on a subject, what loss is that to me? And after all, how logically consistent is it for me to be offended upon discovering that my neighbor’s thought includes his offense upon discovering my thoughts?

Here are just a few of the other lessons I heard from Dr. Johnson in the last few weeks:

• There’s no reason to keep repeating words of regard and affection for others and no reason to demand reassurances from them, either.

• An excellent statue of a dog is worthy of our attention; people enjoy seeing or contemplating achievements that show what we thought humans could not do.

• A futile speech in a deliberative body still does good. It may well shape the faulty proposal before going into effect. But in any case, “They shall not do wrong without its being shown to themselves and to the world."

• The man who takes up an instrument and does nothing else undertakes a “small thing” and never has the time to undertake "great things."

• A man brings back understanding from foreign travel in proportion to his taking a ready mind.

• Philosophy does not have to be somber.

I need these lessons. Some of them suggest a correction in action or thought; I depend too much, for instance, on words of approval. Others encourage me to stay the course; I may seldom have occasion to observe a statue of a dog, but the greater lesson – that humble ends achieved with great skill deserve attention and praise – plays a central role in my musical aesthetic. I find great comfort in the lesson about futile speeches after having delivered many in faculty meetings. (I was once actually on the winning side in a big vote, but the Powers did what they wanted anyway.) And I don’t know exactly how to address publicly Johnson’s view of instrumental musicians except to say that that passage received the most vigorous highlighting of this year’s reading.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

But Do You Like Me, Like Me?

Love is such a difficult network of concepts, we can’t even seem to settle on a word for it. If we can love hot dogs, what thought, feeling, or state (we aren’t always sure of its genus, either) do we mean when we say that we love a person? In junior high, we distinguished degrees of attachment by using the word “like” either once or twice. “I like you, Winnie.” “What do you mean, Kevin? Do you like me, like me?” When I was a teenager, I once decided that saying I liked someone counterintuitively meant something more special than saying I loved someone, since I was bound by Christian teaching to love everybody but not to like everybody.

Ancient Greek had four different words for love. Paul chose agape to designate the Christian virtue he described in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. Supposedly agape means sacrificial love and philia brotherly love or friendship. But I don’t know that the Greek speakers consistently used the first word to indicate a deeper or holier love than that meant by philia. The Apostle John, for example, used the two words interchangeably in the several places he describes himself as the disciple Jesus loved. More than the word itself, it was the whole phrase that indicated a special bond: surely Jesus loved all his disciples in one sense, but John was special enough to eat next to Jesus, to go up mountains with him, and so on.

On the other hand, John does seem to differentiate and use these two words to distinguish depths of love in his account of a conversation between Jesus and Peter near the end of his gospel. Jesus first asks Peter twice if he has agape for Him, and Peter replies that he has philia for the Master. I think Peter was torn between considering the words equivalent and treating them as different. It seems he wasn’t ready to adopt the term Jesus used but perhaps hoped that his switch wouldn’t be noticed. Jesus next asks, though, if Peter has philia for Him, and John reports that Peter was grieved that Jesus put the question this way the third time. The context here makes philia sound like a weaker grade of love. (I have no idea how this conversation plays out in Aramaic, which may well have been the language actually used by the two speakers.)

Bible translations don’t always distinguish the words in this exchange; versions that use “love” throughout make it sound as though Peter felt distress simply because Jesus asked him three times. But I think Peter’s anxiety stemmed from the change of terminology. Dorothy Sayers agreed, and preserved the distinction when she presented the dialog in the last play of her cycle called The Man Born to Be King. But she also met the dilemma caused by the multifaceted twentieth-century English use of the word “love.” If she has Jesus ask first whether Peter loves him and has Peter respond that he likes Jesus, she risks the problem my younger self noticed: Peter’s response could sound stronger and more personal than the original question. And if she has Peter respond, “Lord, I’m your friend,” that problem only deepens. Her solution, as she explains in her explanatory preface to the plays, is actually to switch the traditional Greek meanings of the words. Jesus first asks if Peter is his friend, which sounds to us as though the Lord is asking for confession of a personal bond. But Peter can only respond with the generic “You know I love you.”

Just after finishing Sayers’s plays, I began Cicero’s On Friendship according to my reading schedule, and there again was the use of “friendship” as the highest form of love. Writing in Latin, where he can show that love (amor) and friendship (amicitia) have the same root, Cicero proceeds to describe friendship in a way that makes it sound astonishingly like Paul’s agape. Friendship involves complete accord. (Love does not insist on its own way.) Friendship involves mutual goodwill and affection. (Love is kind.) Friendship is an attraction of one virtuous person to another. (Love does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.) In friendships of people with differing status, the poorer or less powerful friend must not be envious. (Love is not jealous.) And the richer or more powerful friend must ignore the difference and treat the other as an equal. (Love is not boastful.) Finally, friendship means loyalty and constancy. (Love never ends.)

Friendship of this kind is indeed a rare, precious thing. Many relationships I’ve thought were friendships have come to an end over the years. Sometimes the fault lay with me, at other times with the other person, and at yet other times with both of us. Accord, mutual goodwill, virtue, lack of envy, and the like are indeed the signs, and constancy is indeed the proof of true friendship. Yet we use the word “friend” as casually as we do “love.” “Will you friend me on facebook?” means something about as shallow as “I love that pen.” So I have many friends (my computer screen says, in fact, that I have 522) but only a very few friends friends.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Great Conversations on Old Age

Mortimer Adler called the corpus of Great Books the “Great Conversation” about the grand issues and questions of life and our world. So I’m used to seeing the same topics coming up again and again in my ongoing attempt to give myself a liberal education. But rarely do I experience such direct interplay between two authors as I have this last week, reading both in Cicero and Boswell’s Life of Dr. Johnson about the subject of old age. Sometimes Johnson agrees with Cicero, but more often he departs from the Roman statesman’s views.

I’m now in Boswell’s wonderful account of 1778. Johnson is sixty-eight years old at this point, his writing has slowed down immensely, and he and Boswell have become close friends. So most of the text reports the lively, multifaceted conversations between these two, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, actor David Garrick, author Oliver Goldsmith, and other illustrious figures of the day. And Dr. Johnson, never without an opinion on any subject, has a lot to say about the senectitude that has overcome him slowly but surely. Although I’m absolutely positive the great lexicography had read Cicero’s essays, he doesn’t cite him by name in these conversations, but he certainly seems to have Cicero in mind.

In the first mention of the topic, Johnson sides with his predecessor. Cicero’s essay on old age delivers an unstinting encomium on the latter stage of life. Weakness, blindness, mental incapacity – all the complaints against old age, he says, are not the fault of age itself. Some people of advanced years don’t have any of these problems and find their dotage quite pleasant, while some young people do suffer these debilities. And with those two premises granted, we have to agree with his conclusion that old age itself isn’t a problem. Cicero even says that a person can deliberately avoid some of the problems associated with old age; a man can keep his mind sharp by exercising throughout his life. And Johnson agrees: “It is a man’s own fault, it is from want of use, if his mind grows torpid in old age.”

Dr. Johnson had no special relish for the winter of life, though, and he leaves it to Boswell to agree with Cicero most of the time. “I value myself upon this,” Johnson says, “that there is nothing of the old man in my conversation.” Boswell’s philosophical reply: “But, Sir, . . . he who is never an old man, does not know the whole of human life; for old age is one of the divisions of it.”

In another conversation, Johnson disagrees with Cicero in his valuation of what might happen after death. Cicero says he is convinced that the soul is immortal, but observes that he doesn’t worry about the possibility of being wrong, since in that case, he won’t exist to regret his mistake and certainly won’t care about the skeptics having been proven right. Johnson, too, talks about this possibility. Some Christians of the last forty years have objected to John Lennon imagining there’s no Heaven, but the good Anglican Johnson and the good Quaker Mrs. Knowles had no qualms at all discussing the supposition. Mrs. Knowles opines that it is absurd to fear annihilation, “which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.” Johnson’s rejoinder: “It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.” I can’t entirely side with either statement, but I appreciate Johnson’s nuanced division of the question later in the conversation: “The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful.”

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stale Bread

In the last section of Edward Rutherfurd’s Russka, an American of Russian descent visiting the Motherland finds a small restaurant in which a woman serves consistently stale bread. Every morning she bakes a fresh loaf but still serves the day-old bread until every crumb is gone. The visitor suggests that if she threw out the stale bread just once, her customers could enjoy fresh bread. Each loaf would run out by evening, but the next day’s lunch customers would have a new, fresh treat to enjoy.

In keeping up this blog, I often feel like the owner of that restaurant. Many times during the year I finish one book without having written a post about the previous book. When I do finally write the post, my thoughts obviously aren’t as fresh as they were when I was interacting with the book daily. Then after I’ve written it, I’m on to yet a third reading assignment without blogging about the second. If I would skip writing about just one book, my posts could perhaps come across less stale. But I don’t want to skip writing about any of the items on my list.

I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that a big part of my problem has to do with memory. My wife is reading a Charles Williams novel now that I read just last year, but as we talk about it, we both notice that I can’t remember the characters’ names or what they did. I only remember pictures of a few salient scenes and an idea or two. I read a lot, and I have a job, and maybe I just shouldn’t expect myself to remember all the details. But I’m fifty-four, and memory is definitely starting to weaken. We heard “Everybody Hurts” today, and I couldn’t remember the name of the band. I could remember other songs: “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion.” I could remember the name of the album Automatic for the People and even the name of lead singer Michael Stipe. But I couldn’t come up with R.E.M.

This morning, as I read On Old Age, Cicero told me that aged people don’t have to lose mental acuity if they exercise their minds. I thought of the nuns I’ve read about who seem to stave off Alzheimer’s by doing crossword puzzles. The Pythagoreans, according to the Roman statesman, improved their memories by reciting aloud each evening the things they had done, read, seen, and heard that day. In an astonishing coincidence, I read this later today in Boswell: “We talked of old age. Johnson (now in his seventieth year,) said, ‘It is a man’s own fault, it is from want of use, if his mind grows torpid in old age.’ ”

As you can see, I’m well into two items on my reading schedule that I haven’t substantially blogged about yet (more than the brief but admittedly fresh snippets in the present post) Most recently, I wrote about Dorothy Sayers – a couple of days after I had finished reading. And now I’m spending time writing about how I can’t always find the time to keep up with the blog. I’m not going to catch up any time soon. So I’m just going to have to work on my memory. It’s getting late. I should post this squib, then tell myself out loud about the things I read today. Then I think I’ll do a crossword puzzle.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Play’s not Necessarily the Thing

Between December 1941 and October 1942, the BBC aired a new cycle of twelve radio plays by Dorothy Sayers dramatizing the life of Jesus Christ. When publishing the scripts as a book, The Man Born to Be King, Sayers included with the plays a long introduction explaining her aims and defending her means, as well as fairly substantial introductions to the individual plays, mostly consisting of her notes to the director and actors. I enjoyed reading the book, but I’m not sure the introduction isn’t actually better than the plays.

The plays have little tripping points. To make coherent drama, for instance, Sayers couldn’t just let Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea show up at the right time to say the lines required of them by the Gospel narrative. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, and Joseph may have been; in any case, he had high enough connections to march into Pilate’s court and request the body of the crucified Jesus. So Sayers has these men take part in Sanhedrin discussions, and to do this she has to decide their characters, even to the point of deciding the level of their devotion to Jesus. Nicodemus never quite commits in Sayers’s view, and Joseph backs off after the body he has buried disappears. I like these men better as the open-ended stubs of the Gospels, sockets I can plug myself into and imagine how (why did I start this metaphor?!) my circuits would run in their poistion. Sayers even rounds out Judas and gives him a definite reason for betraying his Rabbi. In short, while Sayers says she wanted simply to put the story “on stage” and let it speak for itself, she also admits that she had to fill out and shape the story, and that second process only worked so well for me. Soldiers, innkeepers, and party hosts who get names and lines help establish setting and atmosphere for the plays. Fleshed-out representations of particular people with known names, on the other hand, toss me out of the atmosphere and back into my world, where I’m thinking about the play rather than thinking along with it.

But Sayers received a lot of negative criticism for these plays, and I don’t mean to align myself with her detractors. Apparently, most of the Christians who objected at the time felt either that it was sacrilegious to portray Christ at all in a drama, or took offense at portraying Him and his contemporaries in language less lofty than that of King James’s translation. I don’t agree at all, and I’m sorry to some extent that the broadcasts drew this reaction. But maybe the criticism is what compelled Sayers to write her explanatory introduction, and for that I should be grateful. Sayers explains right away the sound theology of her decisions. The dramatic portrayal of Jesus displays his full humanity, his historical actuality. And giving Matthew, for instance, a Cockney brogue takes him out of the mythical space of stained-glass windows and gold-leaf illuminations and places him in the world he actually lived in: our world.

Sayers says that she wanted to restore the shocking nature of the story and to show her audience that God was murdered in the most routine way by people like ourselves. While for many listeners only the first goal was met, with me Sayers fulfilled her whole wish.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Milestone

I achieved a milestone yesterday. No, I didn’t complete a degree, run my first marathon, or even discover the unified field equations. (I’m close on the last one, though, and feel fairly certain that there’s a 4 in there somewhere.) But I did finish Augustine’s City of God after twelve years of reading excerpts.

Suitably, at the end of his monumental treatise, Augustine discusses the end of the human story. In the antepenultimate book, he offers his view of the timing of events according to his interpretation of eschatological passages of the Bible. If I understand him and the terms correctly, Augustine was a post-trib amillennialist, although he admits that we don’t really know the order of events and can’t have complete certainty that we understand prophecy until it’s fulfilled.

In book XXI (of twenty-two), Augustine discusses the fate of the damned. He concentrates on a problem raised by a very literal interpretation of hell fires (an interpretation he accepts without question): how can flesh suffer eternal fire? In other words, how can the human body, like the Bush Moses saw, burn without being consumed? Apparently the fifth-century pagans who scoffed at the bishop’s Christian faith had no trouble accepting either the immortality of the soul or the eternal punishment of the wicked. But they balked at the idea of resurrection of the flesh and complained of the absurdity of neverending physical punishment. Augustine reponds with reasoned arguments. (1) From magnets to diamonds to lime, our world is filled with phenomena we can’t explain, so our inability to understand eternally burning flesh doesn’t mean it can’t exist. (2) God is omnipotent and can make a new kind of flesh if He wants to. (In a most curious coincidence, one day a couple of weeks ago I read Donne’s Holy Sonnet no. 1, which ends “Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art / And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart,” and read the very next day Augustine’s description of lodestones and diamonds, in which he distinguishes the two by pointing out that diamonds don’t draw iron. I smiled to think of Donne and me reading the same lines.)

In the last book, Augustine treats of the eternal reward of the Blessed, and again he dwells a long time – too long in my view – on unbelievers’ doubts about the possibility of an eternal human body. Here his biggest concern centers on the text “Not a hair of your head shall perish.” If believers really receive back all the material of their bodies with no hair left unrestored, all those curls left on the barbershop floor over a lifetime will have to be regathered. And really, he asks, where would be the beauty in that? Augustine’s solution is to say that God will use all the same material we enjoyed on earth, but will reproportion it in perfect harmony. Thus, he points out, the fat and the skinny will both find a happy medium. A more serious matter in this part of the book involves the appearance of people who have died as babies. Augustine thinks they will appear as they would have been had they lived to be thirty years old. But again, he has to admit that he doesn’t really know more than that the Blessed will be happy with the results.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Geoffrey’s Medieval Enigma

I had wanted to read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain for decades. I have loved the story of Arthur ever since Christmas Day of my eighth year, when I opened my new copy of Sidney Lanier’s version of the tales, and gave up after reading, “It befell in the days of King Utherpendragon.” I didn’t know the word “befell” and didn’t know what to do with the mind-blowing discovery that a word could have as many as fourteen letters. But the language sounded beautiful, and I wanted to be able to understand it. When I finally did read the book, I read about a Christian king who met a tragic end, and I loved him for the ideals he held in his heart and pitied him that he could not hold them in all his actions. Naturally when I heard of Geoffrey’s twelfth-century source of part of the Arthurian legend, I determined that I would take it on one day. I didn’t know how much it would puzzle me, how long a story it would tell, or that it would show Arthur’s tragic fall as emblematic of the entire thousand-year story of the Britons.

Geoffrey has the Britons descending from Aeneas. That pedigree tells us two things right away: that the Britons had noble blood and that they were doomed to fall, like their ancestors, to a less noble people. (The Romans should have seen both sides of that coin when they claimed also to descend from the Trojan prince, but then they never were very good at heeding soothsayers’ warnings.) After a few centuries of sacking Rome and taking France, Norway, and Iceland into their realm, Geoffrey’s Briton monarchs become Christian Romans (Constantine is one of the kings) ruling over the Island of Albion in wisdom and justice. But then Vortigern invites Saxons named Hengist and Horsa to Britain to assist him in battle. They might as well have brought a giant, hollow, wooden horse filled with soldiers, because the story follows a path of deception and destruction by the Saxons from this point on. The Saxons betray Vortigern and poison King Aurelius Ambrosius (Uther’s brother) after making vows of loyalty to him. Then, just as Arthur is about to force the Roman emperor to pay tribute to Britain, he has to rush home to face an alliance of the Saxons with his wicked nephew Modred. In just another couple of generations after Arthur’s time, the Saxons have pushed the noble Britons back into Cornwall and Wales and occupy all the rest of the southern part of the island. The Britons may not like their fate, but they accept it with grace knowing that they are receiving just punishment for their sins.

The book begins with Aeneas, includes the story of Vortigern finding two dragons living under a lake, and has Britain ruling almost all of Europe just before the Dark Ages. It seems totally mythical despite the author’s claim to its historicity. And yet Geoffrey ties several historical figures into his narrative thread and has the general outline of the story of the Britons right (coming from the Mediterranean to settle the island, mingling with Romans, becoming Christianized, retreating to the western peninsulas in the face of Saxon advances). Did he believe any of it? He claims to have found his story in “a very ancient book” written in the British tongue. Did such a book actually exist? An author presenting what he knows is a fanciful tale as actual history seems totally out of character with the Middle Ages, as familiar as the technique is to us. But what else could this book be?

Whether disingenuous history, whimsical poetic creation, or simply grossly uncritical acceptance of earlier writing, Geoffrey’s is a good tale. It begins with the calamity of exiles from the fallen city of Troy and ends with exiles from the fallen kingdom of Britain. And yet in the middle, the protagonist – the race of the Britons as a whole – finds truth and hope that give meaning to even the saddest of earthly fates.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Game Ideas

I love games. Card games, classic board games, word games, war games, party games, euro-style board games, computer games, role-playing games – I love all kinds. As a child, I preferred games to toys, even though I had no siblings. I would pull out a game, set it up on the floor, and move around from one side of the board to another taking turns for several positions. I had something of a desire to play well, but of course I couldn’t develop much of a taste for winning, since every victory I earned also gave me a loss. I was really more interested in the design of the game, its dynamic, its economy.

This interest has led me to invent several games during my life, as well. Often a good book is what inspires the creative urge. Everybody wants favorite books to go on and on. For most people, rereading the original, reading sequels, and watching movie adaptations is enough to satisfy the longing; but I sometimes want to live inside the book by turning it into a game. Twice this year my reading has suggested game ideas to me. Neither has progressed so far as even a single rule or sketchy board design, but both have me thinking about basic assumptions of games that could stand rethinking.

After speaking of the moral decline in Renaissance Italy, Durant says this about the political situation in the early sixteenth century: “France, Spain, and Germany, weary of sending tribute [in the form of Church revenue] to finance the wars of the Papal States and the luxuries of Italian life, looked with amazement and envy at a peninsula so shorn of will and power, so inviting in beauty and wealth. The birds of prey gathered to feast on Italy.” In my ears, these words sound a clarion call for the creation of a game. The board is rather obvious. The situation of three kingdoms battling each other over neutral ground is obvious. But what roles do the players take? If the game pits France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire against each other, what controls Italy’s conduct? Is the weak defense of the Italian city states represented by rules or by a player? Or should players take the cause of Venice, Ferrara, Florence, and the Church, with the other European forces coming in randomly and anonymously to make things more difficult? But perhaps players wouldn’t play governments and armies at all. Maybe they could each represent an ideal: papal political power, Church reformation, Italian unity, money, and artistic achievement. Each of these players may find the need to make and break alliances with any of the others in order to meet the changing exigencies of foreign invasion, New World discovery, and plague.

Earlier this year, I read in Gibbon about a period in Roman history in which the people of the city had very little to do with selecting emperors, instead, legions deployed all across Europe proclaimed Roman rulers at the drop of a toga. At one point, no fewer than nineteen separate monarchs had arisen at once, each with some power over lands, money, armies, and citizens. Some of these rogue leaders marched on Rome in the attempt to become Caesar, but others just stayed in their corners of the Empire, content to be “first in a small village rather than second [or dead!] in Rome.” This section of the Decline and Fall got me thinking about goals in wargames. When we engage in war around a kitchen table, we normally assume that the contest will have one winner. We might even accept the premise that that sole winner will rule the whole world, and all the losers, nothing. But real life isn’t like that. Each player in an actual political struggle may have a different goal, and one person achieving his goal doesn’t necessarily preclude anyone else from achieving his own. What if one game of four players could have any number of winners from zero to four? Maybe each player could draw a card at the beginning of the game to see how broad his aims are. Or maybe everyone just needs to remain alive. That last scenario wouldn’t necessarily result in players never attacking each other. Sometimes people or legions revolt if a leader doesn’t show enough ambition. Maybe petty king A needs to attack petty king B just long enough to get what food he needs to feed the people of province A so that they don’t stage a bread revolution. And maybe Caesar needs to depose A to keep the trust of his legions, but if Germans are pouring over the Rhine, the Emperor may be just as happy to let A rest quietly on his rebellious throne.

The more I think about it, the more I like this last game. And if I invented it and played it against myself, I might even learn how to win, since I wouldn’t necessarily have to lose.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Before He Was Famous

Last spring, it so happened that I visited Florence several times and then read later that year about the Florentine Renaissance in Durant. I hadn’t planned to visit Florence to coincide with the reading plan I’d made six years earlier; it just happened that way. This spring, I visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. (It was my fiftieth state. But this was no surprise to either the park ranger or the attendant at the state visitor center. It seems North Dakotans are used to their state being the last one fifty-staters get to. They have certificates congratulating travelers on reaching their fiftieth state, and one state tourism website has a page of pictures of everyone who has received the certificate.) And as it happened, this fall I’ve been reading David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback, which includes an extended section on Teddy Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota. I didn’t plan the trip around my reading, and I didn’t pick up Mornings on Horseback because I visited to North Dakota; it just worked out that way.

McCullough’s biography has the unusual feature of covering only the formative period of his subject’s life: the first thirty years or so. But the plan makes sense. Most Americans (well, most Americans who would pick up a book by David McCullough) know the Rough Rider, the conservationist who established so many national parks and national monuments, the Trustbuster. But how did a rich Manhattanite dandy become this famous character? This is the story McCullough wants to tell.

Devoting a whole book to the less famous half of Roosevelt’s life allows the McCullough to indulge himself in the periphery: some entire chapters center on people other than the twenty-sixth President. He devotes about one seventh of the text, for instance, to Roosevelt’s parents. One chapter concentrates on asthma, a disease from which “Teedie” suffered for most of his childhood. And yet it all clearly tells the story of one man. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. – the President’s father – for instance, exhibited and taught his family responsibility, truthfulness, public service, and the obligation of the rich toward the less fortunate, all traits his son is known for, as well. But the man who rode up San Juan Hill, the rich man who rounded up his own cattle on his North Dakota ranch, also had a mother. Mittie Roosevelt came from the Bulloch family of Georgia, southern aristocrats who valued physical courage, horsemanship, and military honor.

Can a person’s story unfold so straightforwardly? Can a man’s character be read so clearly in the circumstances of his family history and childhood conditions? Apparently it can if the man is as single-minded as Theodore Roosevelt. While it’s tempting to think that McCullough falsely simplified his story by selecting only the events and ideas that make sense of his subject, the man who said “Bully!” seems to have been particularly determined to shape himself according to his family’s expectations. Living up to both the tireless altruism of the Roosevelt’s and the demanding adventurism of the Bulloch’s wouldn’t come to a scrawny asthmatic without unflagging effort. And so his father counseled him when he was ten. Theodore, Sr. told young Teedie that he had the mind for greatness but not that body and that if he were ever to leave a mark on the world he would have to overcome his physical debilities. It may have been the most effectual father-to-son talk ever given in the history of the world.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It Tolls for Donne

Over the last week or so, I’ve been puzzling over John Donne’s “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.” Each figure and image works powerfully, but it seems to me the poem has too many figures and images. Only about twice as long as a sonnet, Donne’s hymn has four times as many leading metaphors, which is to say, it has four, since a sonnet, such as one of Donne’s, typically has only one.

In the first stanza, Donne talks of death as a door to the choir room of Heaven. But rather than speaking of participating in the music, he looks forward to the time when “I shall be made thy music.” God is making an orchestra, and Donne himself is one of the instruments. One might fuss about Donne combining “choir” and “instrument,” but a group of instruments from the same family is sometimes called a choir. And in any case, I wouldn’t want to lose the line about tuning the instrument at the door.

The next three stanzas pursue a metaphor of geography. Maybe the extent of this section is what has me puzzled. If Donne could carry out the conceit for fifteen lines, why not all thirty? Or why not write a poem of only fifteen lines? Why pick up the image of maps suddenly in line 6 only to drop it again near the end? Disjointed or not, though, this section makes the poem great. Who has not lain helpless and naked and felt that doctors are treating him as a mere object? In Donne’s case, perhaps the physicians were drawing on his skin and measuring distances, or perhaps he had recently seen a flat map of the round earth and thought of its relation to his flat position. Either way, the doctors struck him as cartographers, and from there come all the wonderful, punning uses of the word “straits.” All this world’s most beautiful, most heavenly places are reached by straits, he points out, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the next world, too, lies beyond a strait, a strait through which the waters flow only one way. The best part of this best section compares the meeting of the western egde and eastern edge on a map of the world to the identity of death and birth in the experience he’s about to undergo.

The third figure, the comparison of Christ and Adam, has a geographical connection: Donne begins stanza 5 with the odd assertion that Eden and Calvary occupied the same place on earth, despite Jerusalem being nowhere near the source of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2. But Donne puts the idea to good use invoking allusions to I Corinthians, linking biblical trees, and comparing sweat and blood. And it isn’t his only geographical inaccuracy in the poem: apparently the “Anyan” strait of stanza 4 refers to the mythical Northwest Passage.

In the last stanza, Donne returns to the idea of making the transition to Heaven: the Lord raises him, receives him, gives him a crown. Maybe the form of the whole poem mimics the flat map of the globe: just as east touches west, the first and last stanzas both treat of Heaven, while those in between talk about Earth. Or maybe the poem is meant to wander the way the mind of a very sick person wanders. Or maybe Donne wrote the “Hymn to My God” during the sickness that actually killed him, and he just never got the opportunity to tighten it up.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Death of the Rebirth

Last fall, Will Durant and I had lunch together quite often (I in person and he in the form of a book), and one day he told me a story I shall never forget: the Renaissance, when defined as the rediscovery of and renewed interest in ancient Greek culture by scholars of western Europe, began with a Christian conference. Yes, the art of the Renaissance incorporated nudity, the political philosophy embraced utility over virtue, the poetry recalled pagan mythology, and all of it tended to celebrate Man more than God. But these may have been accidental rather than essential features. Because Christians started it. Cosimo de’ Medici called an ecumenical council in 1438, inviting Greek-speaking clergy from the Orthodox Church to meet in Florence with Roman Catholic officials for the purpose of discussing ways to heal the Great Schism. The healing never came about, but the West learned that Plato had survived, and nothing has been the same since.

This year, Durant and I renewed our lunch meetings, and I recently heard the end of the story. And a sad story it is. Even after recovering from a “Babylonian captivity” in Avignon and then a schism in which two and sometimes three men held the post simultaneously, the Papacy still continued its strange, tragic descent. In his telling, Durant concentrated on the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, who brought incest and murder to the office (or at least the strongest suspicions of these crimes), then Julius II leading his army on horseback to attack fellow Christians over control of Italian towns, and then Leo X, who sold indulgences in order to build a cathedral but inspired a Reformation along the way. For a few brief months, Pope Adrian VI tried his own internal reformation of the Roman Church. “He put an end to simony and nepotism,” said Durant, but his housecleaning naturally made him unpopular, and his death was welcomed rather than mourned by his people. Perhaps the saddest statement in the whole sad tale: “It was a pity that Adrian could not understand the Renaissance; but it was a greater crime and folly that the Renaissance could not tolerate a Christian pope.”

Durant ended with the story of Clement VII, whose spiritual and political failures resulted in his capture in 1527 and the violent sack of Rome by the forces of the “Holy” “Roman” “Empire.” By the end of his life, both the Lutherans and Henry VIII had made clean breaks with Rome, “and Italy had submitted to a Spanish domination fatal to the free thought and life that had for good or evil marked the end of the Renaissance.”

I sat back when he had finished, and I heaved a sigh of wonder and regret. The story had all the mounting tragedy of Lear (another monarch who saw his realm fall to pieces before he died) but the extra edge of being actual history, not mostly legend. The Renaissance began with an attempt to restore the visible unity of the Church and ended with the further dissolution of the Church. That’s not a story I’d ever heard before. By this time next year, when Durant and I start getting together again, I will have recovered enough for him to go on, and I’ll be eager to hear his tale of the Reformation.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gems in the Dock

Last year about this time, I read The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays by C. S. Lewis covering a variety of topics and offering on each one several nuanced, thought-provoking, and sometimes profound ideas. This year for my Lewis reading, I took on God in the Dock, a larger set of essays and addresses that, while quite good, proved less stunning. Part (or most) of the problem is due to editor Walter Hooper’s decision to bring together many short pieces not easily attainable before 1970 and to group them according to theme. Of course Prof. Lewis repeated himself in his public lectures, letters, radio talks, and contributions to small periodicals. But here the reader must experience the repetitions in a way the original audiences did not.

While the gems come loosely strung in God in the Dock (as opposed to the thick, sparkling clusters in the slimmer volume), they still shine brightly. Here is “Myth Became Fact,” one of the best expositions of the idea that Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien discussed with Lewis on one momentous  midnight stroll on Addison’s Walk in Oxford, the idea that led to Lewis’s acceptance of the Christian faith. Myth, he explains, transcends both thought and feeling. When we think of pain, we think only of a memory of the experience, and when we experience pain, we can’t think about it. Myth, however, opens a door to knowledge at a level that integrates both thought and feeling. This definition has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with effect, so, as Lewis discovered, there’s no intellectual barrier to seeing the story of Christ, which looked to him like so many other myths, as historical fact, a feature no other myth enjoys.

Here, too, is “On the Reading of Old Books,” which could serve as the mission statement for my reading plan. Lewis spoke and wrote often about era-ism, a prejudice toward the thinking of one’s own era. We all need to read books from other times in history, he says, in order to get perspective on our own time and the assumptions it pushes on us. “To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good as a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” He even warns his audience that they should read less C. S. Lewis and more Augustine and Aquinas. I try to read some of all three each year.

And here is the very important “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in which Lewis distinguishes “looking at” and “looking along.” His illustration, which I won’t try to recreate here, helps make sense of a lot of his other writings; Michael Ward depends on the notion in his excellent analysis of the Narnia books.

These three essays would provide an excellent quick intro to Lewis’s thinking, so I think I’ll wrap it up here. But I considered writing about several other pieces in God in the Dock, because I’m tempted by shiny things.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Many More Dimensions

I’ve written before about the power of hype to shape my reaction to something. To give a couple of cinematic examples (and to show my age fairly precisely), after hearing so much about Ishtar being history’s worst movie, I enjoyed it. On the other hand, after hearing so many positive things about Dances with Wolves, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. It works on me so well, that I get concerned sometimes when I come back to a book I’ve enjoyed before. With my memory touting the book so highly, I fear that I’ll become the victim to my own hype and end up finding that the book couldn’t possibly live up to the reputation I’ve built up for it in my own mind. But Charles Williams's Many Dimensions did not disappoint at all. It’s been a couple of weeks now since I finished it, but I can’t let it go without saying more: just two things that I love about the book that I can’t quite find anywhere else.

Okay, the first aspect appears in other books, but they’re all by the same author, and that’s the way Williams makes the familiar exotic and puts the supernatural back in what seems merely cultural. For instance, in this very Christian book, the most devout believer is a Persian Muslim. No English person in the novel seems ever to have read the book of Kings or to have heard of the boy who slew the giant with his sling or of his son who showed his wisdom by threatening to split a baby in half. So when they hear of Suleiman ben Daood, they encounter a bigger-than-life potentate wrapped in the mystical glory of ancient times and faraway lands. Watching through their eyes as we read, we too encounter Solomon son of David for the first time. The Persian speaks of the Mercy, the Peace, and the Protection. The definite article and initial capital lifts each characteristic to divine status and brings the reader, through a few marks of ink on paper, to an understanding of a God Who Is What He Has. The Muslim even hints at the basis of the Trinity by explaining that “the Way to the Stone is in the Stone.” The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

What I enjoyed most this time through, I had completely forgotten about: the mystical Stone’s own personality and mysterious ways. The supernatural focus of the plot is a small Stone that embodies the power of God. Inscribed with the tetragrammaton, it can transport people bodilessly, reveal the thoughts of others, and heal the sick. Characters may argue over who owns this marvelous, wonder-working Stone, who has paid for the Stone, or who has rights to the Stone. But after all, it is just a small stone, and small stones can be lost. While one of the best characters, Cecilia Sheldrake, rides down a country lane in an open roadster, admiring the Stone her husband bought her – or rather admiring herself for being the one person in the world who deserves to have such a powerful object – the Stone flies out of her hand. She and her husband search for the Stone, but perhaps they should have asked themselves whether the Stone was searching for them. Along comes Oliver Doncaster, who, with no notion of what’s going on, spies the stone immediately, picks it up, and walks away. When he arrives home, his landlady’s dying mother rises from her bed completely healed. Most of the characters have strong intentions concerning what to do with the Stone, but in the end human intentions have very little to do with what the Stone itself does.

Writing a Christian novel is such a terribly tricky business. Portraying spiritual states faithfully requires a careful eye and an imaginative eloquence. But sooner or later, if the novel is to be a novel, some character’s spiritual state has to change, and spiritual change, if the novel’s theology be sound, must come from God. How can the author presume to know what God would do in the situation he has subcreated? I’ve wondered sometimes if the inclusion of God as a character in a story, even if only implicitly, doesn’t flirt with violating the Commandment against likenesses. What I do know, though, is that I remember no other novel that displays more clearly the principle that those who strive for control of their lives never change, while those who do change do so only by submitting their wills to the Stone. Whoever loses his life will preserve it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Offroading with Stephen King

In four weeks it will have been a half a century since the assassination of President Kennedy. Not so much coincidentally, I had planned to read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 this fall, so I carved some time out my regular reading schedule and read it over the last two weeks, finishing it up this morning. I can’t say it’s a Great Book with capital letters, but I certainly thought it worth a mention here in the online journal of my reading adventure. I could have done with less of the type of language I associate with the junior-high boys’ locker room, and the final crisis disappointed me a bit (it seems time travel causes problems in the fabric of reality, not exactly a startlingly innovative idea worth hiding for eight hundred pages). But I thoroughly enjoyed the ride back and forth between the Teensies and the Sixties and heartily approve of the morality of the sacrifice hero Jake Epping has to make in the end.

The book changes tone several times. I might even say it changes from genre to genre as it unfolds. Starting as a character study (“I’ve never been a crying man”), it shifts rather soon to a fantasy when Jake’s friend Al shows him a time portal to 1958. Their conversations and Jake’s first experiments with the portal bring out the reader’s inner geek, as we try to figure out how the portal works and look for clues as to whether each new trip truly resets all the changes the time traveler has made.

Then in one long section called “Living in the Past,” Jake realizes that he isn’t just on a five-year mission to save John Kennedy; he has changed residence and now thinks of the Age of Tail Fins as home. Here are the book’s best moments. The mediocre football player who finds out he can act. The librarian who has an abusive husband but doesn’t know it. The drive-in theater. Service-station attendants in uniforms. King says he especially enjoyed recalling the sounds and smells of the times, and they’re all here in vivid force: the coins in the pay phone, the fumes of a pre-EPA diesel bus, and so on.

Then Oswald returns from Russia, and the novel transforms into a detective thriller that begins with Jake trying to buy surveillance equipment made in the days before microchips and ends with a history-defying race up the stairs of the Texas School Book Depository Building. Here, King has to make a decision, has to come down on one side or the other. He doesn’t have anything to say about the grassy knoll. But he does show us Lee Harvey Oswald alone in the southeast corner of the sixth floor with a rifle in his hands. And stopping him really does save the President’s life. Oh, come on. I’m not giving anything away. Even I knew that the crazy scheme would achieve its primary goal. But a hero who saves the life of a President standing with him on the ever-sliding frontier of the unknown future is one thing. Going back in time to save the life of a President who has already been killed in one thread of reality is another thing entirely. So the bow isn’t tied too terribly neatly at this point, and the book finally has to become the supernatural thriller that we expect from Stephen King.

Speaking of coming down on one side or the other, I’ll come down myself and land right next to King. Reading the novel got me also reading and watching historical (and pseudo-historical) accounts of the tragedy. I’m thoroughly convinced that Kennedy and Connally were hit with the same bullet just before Zapruder frame 224, and that the fatal shot also came from behind. Johnson told the Warren Commission to quash all conspiracy theories, supposedly to allay the public’s fears. I think the Commission then did exactly the wrong thing and, instead of pursuing the idea that is to be disproven as good scientists do, fudged and inflated the case for the lone gunman. Naturally this strategy made it look as though they were hiding the truth and so ended up fostering the conspiracy theories they were meant to dispel. Perhaps someone could write a story about a time traveler who goes back and tries to get the Warren Commission to do the job right.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Charles Williams’s Twist on Time Travel

Like a lot of readers who grew up in the last century and a half, I love time-travel stories. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve laughed at the literary and (for obvious reasons) cinematic cliché that time travelers take their clothes with them. If I remember correctly, Wells’s time traveler took along everything within the volume if the machine, air included. But his invisible man didn’t take anything else with him into invisibility: an observer could see even the food he ate, sitting in his stomach but apparently floating in air, until his body assimilated it and it became him. So why couldn’t his time traveler show up in the past naked and gasping for air?

In Many Dimensions, Charles Williams explores the idea that a time traveler doesn’t even take his body, let alone his clothes. The time travel situation, though, involves a complication that might make more sense if I explain a different kind of travel first. The plot of Many Dimensions centers on a stone that embodies the power of God and contains all of space, time, and personality within it. People who hold the stone can will themselves into different locations, times, and minds. Those who use the stone to read other people’s minds travel mentally to their target’s location; the traveler’s body conveniently remains behind, preferably seated comfortably while its captain leaves the ship momentarily. The mind free from material underpinnings, then, is able to observe what the target personality observes. But the mind traveler in the book doesn’t become the other person; he retains his own train of thought and knows it as his own, while simultaneously observing the other’s train of thought with some kind of objective distance.

Observing the train of thought reminded me of the Principles of Psychology of William James, in which I read last year that the train of thought is the thinking thing. There is no higher observer, James says, that constitutes the “I” that has the thoughts. “I” is the thought. But Williams remains consistent with his psychological model involving an ego-mind dichotomy, and the dichotomy causes some interesting problems when people try time traveling with the stone. One character who travels to the future finds first that the clock appears to have moved rather quickly, but then realizes he has memories of the intervening minutes, although the memories seem detached and hazy. It seems that Williams has both the body and the train of thought live without interruption and moves only the higher “I” ahead, causing a disturbing conflict in the character of remembering both living through and skipping over the intervening time.

Williams isn’t entirely consistent, though. One poor fellow tries to go back in time, only to live the same few minutes over and over, since each time he gets to T-Time, he again relives the choice to go back in time. His body doesn’t travel back, and he doesn’t meet himself: the usual, McFlyesque scenario. But in this case, the body disappears. No captain, no ship this time. What’s more, when the heroes of the book recover the fellow through some clever manipulations of will and thought, he doesn’t seem to have any higher self that has observed the looping train of thought, the way the person moving forward in time observes the memories of the time he skipped.

Now I can call this inconsistency, and blame Williams for not thinking it through carefully enough. Or (and since I love the book, I’m more inclined to choose door no. 2), I can say that it’s Williams’s imaginative world, and that he can have it as mysterious and unexplained as he wants. But I am disappointed that when characters use the stone for mystical, instantaneous travel through space, they take their clothes with them.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Kindle’s Speech

I had four hours of driving to do on Friday, two hours to a conference in Tulsa and two hours back home to Norman. A perfect opportunity to listen to part of a book, preferably a long book. I have enough margin built up in my schedule this year to read something off-list, so I thought I’d start Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I bought the Kindle version earlier this year, and I planned to while away those four hours by letting the Kindle read to me.

Yeah, I know. The Kindle’s text-to-speech function is a far cry from, for instance, listening to Jeremy Irons read Brideshead or Bill Bryson reading one of his own travel books. But the robotic cadence of Amazon’s wonderbox actually works for me in short stretches – say, two hours to Tulsa and then two hours back. I knew my Kindle Fire didn’t have text-to-speech, but I’ve done this before: transfer the book to the old Kindle and press the magic button. So the day before the conference, I got on the Amazon site, delivered King to the old Kindle, pressed the button to try it out and heard . . . nothing. Silence.

Now this should come as no surprise from a man who gives himself a ten-year- reading schedule and then sticks to it, but it’s hard for me to change plans. I’d had King’s time-traveling thriller in my mental agenda for several days. I can see the calendar in my head now, and there the book sits, in the sixth box of the week, waving to me and smiling, acknowledging our deal to start our acquaintance on precisely that day. I hated to disappoint it. But I had no choice. The Kindle wouldn’t read it to me. I wasn’t sure why, but there it was, and there was nothing I could do about it. I apologized and changed my plan: I’d listen to McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback instead. So I got it on the old Kindle, but text-to-speech was grayed out on it, too.

Now I saw a clear pattern, so I looked it up. The young people use a thing called Google these days, and I thought I’d try it out. Sure enough, lots of people were complaining online that they couldn’t listen to recent bestsellers, like the latest Stephen King or David McCullough. As it turns out, the most prominent publishers have decided they don’t like Kindle’s text-to-speech function because they’re afraid of losing audiobook sales. Really?! If I wanted the audiobook, I would have purchased the audiobook. But I didn’t. I wanted a book to read with my eyes, and I wanted a robot to read six percent of it to me while driving for a few hours on I-44. If someone wants to hear the whole book, she’s going to spend her fifteen dollars on a recording of a living human actually reading, and she’s not going to purchase a black-and-white version. If someone like me prefers to read but wants the audio only occasionally to relieve some boredom, he’s going to pay the publisher for the visual copy. He’s not going to pay twice just for a few minutes of weird convenience; if the audio isn’t available, he’s just going to go to another book.

And that’s just what I did. I listened to half of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain instead . The twelfth-century classic was free on the internet, so I guess no publisher cared.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Romance of Home

Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a strange little book. Written in 1904, it provides a look at the Orwellian year of 1984. In Chesterton’s vision, modernism’s takeover of England involves a culture of no imagination or romance and a constitution headed by a randomly selected king. And then one day the random selection process elects as king a fool critical of dry modernity. King Auberon tries to create a facetious veneer of medieval pageantry by inventing histories for the boroughs of London, designing new, colorful symbols for each, and encouraging them to do battle with one another in a show of patriotism.

By placing patriotism in the city, Chesterton has finally revealed to me why that sentiment was so important to him. The details that brought it all together for me come in Book III, about halfway through. The random selection process works also at more local levels, and it picks out Adam Wayne for provost of Notting Hill, and Adam Wayne is an actual romantic. There’s no veneer here; Wayne is a true patriot. He writes a book of poetry about the city unlike any written before; in his book, instead of “paying a compliment to a hansom cab” by comparing it to a spiral seashell, he pays his compliment to a whirlwind by comparing it to the hansom cab. In other words, wandering clouds and virgin woods don’t supply the ground of his romantic view; the city does. Having grown up in the city, “he saw the street-lamps as things quite as eternal as the stars.” “Nature puts on a disguise,” Chesterton’s narrator says later, “when she speaks to every man; to this man she put on the disguise of Notting Hill.” And elsewhere: “A street is really more poetical than a meadow because a street has a secret. A street is going somewhere.”

My train of thought put it all together in this way. The poetical yen looks for secrets; it tries to find the mask “Nature” has put on so it can pull that mask off. That mask might take the civilized form of a street or a street light, but Chesterton would have to admit that for a poet, of course, even a meadow has a secret to reveal. The romantic hears the whisper from beyond and sees whatever surrounds him as the local mask. If he grows up in a city, the mask of mystery is an urban mask; if in the country, a bucolic one. His home, then, always holds a special place for him because its features, be they gas lamps or dark forests, represent the conduits through which he first hears the Voice.

Chesterton’s view makes sense to me now, but the romantic streak didn’t show itself that way in me at all. I don’t feel much patriotism for the St. Louis suburb I grew up in. I think I may have heard the whisper in the backyard trees, but as far as geography goes, a much louder voice called to me from distant mountains. My heart salutes Montana more readily than it does Missouri. Some romantic rumblings, though, come independent of location. Even in my adolescent home, I certainly heard the voices of the Muses, especially Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, and Urania. The first time I heard Chicago’s “Make Me Smile,” I felt an overwhelming call from a distant homeland I never knew I belonged to, and I suppose I should say that I’ve had a patriotic devotion to that band ever since. Similarly, the first piece of literature that completely captured me with its charms was A Tale of Two Cities, so a substantial portion of my patriotism is directed toward the Kindgom of Dickens.

I don’t think I’ll come back to Napoleon of Notting Hill, but it’s taught me a few things. I’ll see the patriotism more clearly in Chesterton now, and I’ll see Chesterton in the street lights. More importantly, I hope to see the Homeland more often in all these things.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Great Book that Hasn’t Been Written, but Should Be

The film-producer character in Argo says, “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be an award-winning fake movie.” In a similar vein, I’d like to announce today that I’m pretending to write an award-winning novel. It’s a completely derivative book, this imaginary, award-winning novel. And the book I’m deriving it from is Charles Williams’s Many Dimensions.

In Many Dimensions, characters deal with the amazing properties of a cubic stone imprinted with the Name of God. Most of the characters see the stone as an object to possess, buy, steal, or legally confiscate. They treat the miraculous virtues of the stone as powers to be manipulated and used. Others see the stone as an incarnation – or, to coin a parallel word (as long as I’m being derivative) using the Latin word lapis, an inlapation – of God, an entity not to use but to submit to.

All of that second set of characters and some of the first discover that the tiny stone, which appears to fit in the palm of a human hand, actually holds the whole world within it. As one character observes: the stone is not in time, time is in the stone. Several characters have visions of being inside the stone. In one vision, the light in the stone radiates to become the other objects in the room. The character receiving this vision comes to realize that everything in our world exists only by the creative and sustaining power of the stone.

It’s that last vision that got me started writing my new book. I’ve experienced the presence of God in music many times. It’s not just that I’ve had a spiritual epiphany while listening to music, but that the music itself seems the very echo – a viscerally solid echo – of a primordial Sound from an immaterial dimension. Imagine being under the water in a pool and hearing the dim, muffled sound of music playing from a radio on the deck above. As the beautiful sounds coming out of the speaker plunge into the water to join you, they take on wetness. They get thicker and spread more slowly and enter your water-logged ears as the muffled, wet translation of the crisp, clear music ripping through the dry air above. Well, when I listen to music in the normal, nonswimming way, I often get the sensation that the sounds have plunged into our material world from an even drier realm, that our gross atmosphere has muffled the unimaginably coruscating music of Heaven itself.

In the opening chapter of my award-winning novel, a musicology professor named Brister McConnell has found a glassy shell on the beach of Martha’s Vineyard. (His family is rich; he could never afford to summer on the Vineyard on a musicology professor’s salary.) The shell thrills in his hand as he holds it. And when he puts it to his ear, he hears a noise whiter than the whitest white noise he’s ever heard before. The professor wants to analyze the sound with a spectrograph and finds that the mystifying shell registers frequencies beyond the capabilities of the microphone.

Prof. McConnell doesn’t run the experiment himself, of course. He has his graduate assistant, Lucy Graves, do all the work. And when Lucy puts her ear to the shell (she can’t bring herself to say that she puts the shell to her ear), she has a different experience. Rather than hearing blended noise, she finds that she can hear every frequency individually, as if an aural prism separates all the colors for her. In time, she learns that she can hear the frequencies moving from one to another, and that she can in fact focus in on individual lines of the infinite counterpoint to hear any piece of music ever played, any line ever spoken. She hears Lincoln’s voice delivering his Second Inaugural. She discovers how Caesar pronounced both his name and his famous three-word report. (There’s a definite labial buzz to the opening sound of each word. Pace classical pronunciationists.) In one mystical experience, she perceives the divine sound to be emanating from the shell and becoming the sounds of her voice, of the cicada in the tree outside, of the hum of the fluorescent light and the whisper of the air rustling through the air-conditioning vent. Before she falls into a blissful coma from which she never recovers, she utters ecstatically her claim that the blessed shell bears the Voice of God, the master Melody with which every symphony has only made the attempt to sing along.

Prof. McConnell goes to prison for attempted murder, unjust charge though that may be. The university’s lawyers, however, are unable to abrogate his tenure on the grounds of something as slippery and inconsequential as a felony, so he continues to teach and direct dissertations online from his cell.

My book will receive all its awards posthumously in the year 2063.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Singular Problem

In the linguistics videos we’ve been watching lately, Dr. Anne Curzan, descriptive linguist that she is, defends the use of they in reference to a singular antecedent. “Each student had completed their homework,” she says, is perfectly acceptable. To get away from the peculiar complication of using a word, each, that refers to a group while being grammatically singular, she offers another sentence she approves of: “My friend gave me their pen.” She smiled slyly as she said this, and I know she was smiling at people like me. I won’t say that I never use a plural pronoun with a singular referent, but I don’t have to like it or approve of it. I’m not a descriptive linguist. I try to speak clearly (although I mainly fail, I fear), I edit my writing, and I teach my students to write clearly. So I have to have reasons to judge grammar, and number agreement provides part of my reasoning. I’m not content to describe; I must prescribe, if only to myself.

But while I’m not a descriptive linguist, Dr. Curzan is, so of course she notes the construction, finds it interesting, and tries to find an explanation. And I’m with her that far. The problem is that she refers her viewers to a website that calls the construction “singular their” and that refers to people like me as “pedants.” (Considering the topic of common but annoying linguistic constructions, I considered starting that last sentence this way: “The problem is, is that . . . .”  I decided against it, obvs.) I’m not sure their is singular even in the examples given, and I certainly don’t like to be dismissed as a pedant. So I thought I’d indulge in a little defense.

I’ll credit Dr. Curzan with two victories right up front, though. First, I realize that she meant this segment of the course as a defense of her way of speaking, so to have me talking about defending myself means that she has switched the momentum to her side. Second, when she said that the website listed several examples of “singular their” found in the works of Jane Austen, I told my friends I’d be surprised if any of them were found in the narration, and I was wrong. While most instances of the pattern occur in the dialog, some indeed appear in the narration itself. And before I go on I also need to make it crystal clear that Dr. Curzan seems nice and smart, and that everything she says fascinates me. I think that if we taught at the same school, she could be my friend.

But she still hasn’t convinced me to quit trying to improve and clarify either my own writing or that of my students. To begin with, I don’t like her arguments about the options available on her first sentence. I agree with her in saying that “Each student had completed his or her homework” is ugly. Taking an idea from Chesterton, I suggest that the government should impose a heavy fine on anyone who utters such an enormity. But why are we so concerned about possession at all? Why not “Each student had completed the homework”? Her second sentence, about the friend and the pen, is just silly. Jane Austen’s narrator never identifies a specific person and then uses their; she uses it after generic tags like “each person” and “everyone” and “nobody.” Surely the speaker knows the gender of his or her friend. (Congress is too busy with the shutdown to fine me for that one.) Would Dr. Curzan still accept the sentence if the friend’s name had been specified? “Jennifer gave me their pen.” Ick.

To go farther, I’m not entirely sure their is singular in a lot of the examples used to defend “singular their.” In many of the examples given on the website, a pronoun beginning with th- links back to the word everybody, and I don’t believe that everybody is necessarily singular. The English generally use plural verbs with collective nouns where Americans would use singular verbs: “The family are coming for Christmas,” for instance, as opposed to “The family is coming.” So why should Dr. Curzan and the website she refers to insist that everybody is singular? “Who’s the pedant now?” I ask, with a challenge in my eye. The website actually offers examples clearly demonstrating the plurality of all the words in question, unwittingly undermining its goal of defending “singular their.” One example, from Bishop William Warburton: “Everybody I meet with are full ready to go of themselves.” If everybody and them were both singular, as the website claims, it seems the sentence should read “Everybody I meet with is full ready to go of themself.”

Even everyone can be thought of as plural, despite it ending with the singularly singular word one. Another example on the website, this time from Shakespeare, is cited this way: “1600 SHAKS. Lucr. 125 Euery one to rest themselues [ed. 1594 himselfe] betake.” The site claims that the pedants only started their crusade in the 1790s, but clearly Shakespeare (or his editor) at least recognized the options two hundred years earlier. And the variation seems to me to suggest not that themselves is singular but that everyone (or euery one) can be treated as either plural or singular.

That last example raises the issue of whether history has any normative force on grammar. Between the video and the website, it seems that the argument is that pedants shouldn’t complain against “singular their” because it’s been around for a long time, at least since the 1300s. But why should we speak the way English speakers did seven-hundred years ago? I thought descriptive linguists embraced change. What ground do they have for resisting this particular change? That its proponents are pedants? Pedants speak the language, too. Don’t we count? And why must the website belittle the very presence of logic as the motive behind the desire to make a pronoun and its antecedent agree in number? Is logic categorically barred from having any influence on language? If so, maybe we should give up teaching grammar to children. Why don’t we just tell fifth graders that “Me and Jimmy don’t got nothing” is fine and get on with life? Madness! Madness! If she really wants to defend this prickly practice of number disagreement while attacking the value of logic, Dr. Curzan really has their work cut out for them.