Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sonnet 65

My post on Shelley’s “A Summer Evening Churchyard” has received more views than any other post from the last four months. I never know what makes one post more interesting than others to internet surfers, but I can’t help but think that the popularity of that particular post is due to the current general ignorance of poetry in our society. I know I went through twelve years of public school with very little study of poetry and no instruction on ways to appreciate the beauty of its music. I started learning about poetry only in my senior year of college. I’ve continued to pick up ideas here and there, but have only gained any real confidence with poetry in the last six or eight years. I hope that with my post from February, I’ve helped some homeschoolers or lifelong learners gain a little understanding of that bit of lovely language.

Here’s a short list of the milestones in my journey of poetic discovery:
• Jack Gilbert, “Poetry is a kind of lying” – The first line of the poem announces the main point: poetry is not to be taken literally. But keep reading! Poetry nevertheless tells the truth.
• G. K. Chesterton, “Sound and Sense in Poetry,” Illustrated London News, May 30, 1931 – Chesterton uncovers a world in the analysis of one line of poetry.
• William Mouser, Walking in Wisdom ($403.47 new on Amazon?!?!) – This brilliant little book made the biblical Proverbs fifty times more interesting to me than they were before. Among its treasures is a section on figures of speech that explained to me what my high school English teachers should have.
• Laurence Perrine, Sound and Sense – I feel like I earned a minor in poetry by going through this excellent guide.
• Carper and Attridge, Meter and Meaning – The best explanation of poetic meter and scansion I’ve found.

I hope that list proves helpful. I’ve been putting off writing in detail about a Shakespeare sonnet, concerned that I’m not up to the task. So I wrote a few days ago about one aspect of the poems without getting into any actual poetry. And today I wrote a long introduction to delay even further the moment of truth. And now I’m writing an explanation of the delay tactic in order to delay yet more. One last delay: here’s the poem itself that I’ll have a couple of things to say about momentarily . . .
Shakespeare, Sonnet 65
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt'ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays?
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil or beauty can forbid?
  O none, unless this miracle have might,
  That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
The first clause is a bit odd: it seems to lack a verb. But who wants to begrudge the Bard a dull and lifeless “There is”? In any case, there is no piece of brass, nor stone, nor plot of earth, nor ocean that does not eventually meet with decay and dissolution. As with most lists in good poetry, this one has an intesifying progression: each item in the list is larger than the last, each death a little harder to believe. I can easily imagine a brass gewgaw in the trash heap, but the death of the Pacific Ocean? Unfathomable. (I’m groaning, too.)

But then the defensive power suddenly diminished: least powerful of all against the ravages of death is the beauty of a human form and face. The words Shakespeare associates with beauty contrast poignantly with those he uses to describe time and mortality. Beauty gets “flower” and “summer” and “honey” and “jewel.” There’s not a hard stopped consonant in any of those words; they are sweet both in sound and in sense. Time on the other hand gets the k’s and t’s of fierce words like “wrackful” and “decay” and “batt’ring” and “swift foot.”

And now, a last point that may sound a little crazy. Many music theorists have at least a mild fascination with the Golden Section, a division into two parts of some length in such a way that the ratio of the smaller part to the larger is the same as the ratio of the larger part to the whole.  Mathematicians would probably point out the error in my explanation, since that“ratio” involves one ir-ratio-nal number, a number very close to but not exactly equal to .618. Divide a mile into two parts: the first part .618 of a mile long, and the second .382 of a mile long (the amount left over when you subtract .618 from 1). The ratio of the smaller part to the larger is also approximately .618. (Try it!) Many ancient Greek sculptures and buildings display this ratio. Musicians get interested when they find an especially pleasing piece has its climax 61.8% of the way through. (Disney’s Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land gives the best possible explanation and visual demonstration of the Golden Section.)

It occurs to me that English-sonnet form might take advantage of the Golden Section. Many of the sonnets take some sort of turn after eight lines. Our sonnet today interrupts itself with the exclamation “O fearful meditation!” after its eighth line. Any sonnet has fourteen lines, and 8 divided by 14 is approximately.57143, a little low for the Golden Section. The last six lines, though, also have a dividing point: after four lines, the alternating rhyme scheme is replaced by a couplet that renders the culminating point of the poem. The ratio of 4 to 6 is approximately .6667, a little high for the Golden Section. But average the two, and you get .619, close enough to allow any power this time-honored mathematical relationship might actually have to work on our psyches.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What Does Shakespeare Mean?

I admit that it’s a little unnerving. In any case, I can’t read Shakespeare’s sonnets without noticing and feeling distracted by the fact. Yes, the first 126 of them are addressed to a beautiful young man. Many scholars and critics have published their speculations about who the fair youth is, as if assuming that he is a real, particular person, and not a character. And of course, there is much speculation as to Shakespeare’s sexual preferences in light of these poems. What does it mean?

It certainly could mean that Shakespeare had homosexual desires for a young man. Such things happen. But the young man of the poems could be a character. Or the “I” of the poems could be a character. I remember watching an episode of The Andy Griffith Show in which Andy sits on the front porch and sings “Black, Black, Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” the “true love” in the song being explicitly a “he.” And I remember concluding, not that the actual man Andy Griffith was a homosexual, not that the character Andy Taylor was a homosexual, but that “Black, Black, Black” is such a beautiful song, it would be a shame if half the human race were barred from singing it.

Or it could mean that “love” doesn’t always refer to sex. I know that’s hard to believe in our day and society, but some cultures have held such a view. Maybe Shakespeare or his poetic persona truly admired the beauty of a young man without that love involving any intimate desires. In fact, several of the sonnets urge the man to find a wife and pass on his dazzling beauty to a new generation.

But, as I said, the issue feels like a distraction. Shakespeare’s sonnets mean so much more. They mean, My love for you is so great that the words “I love you” are not adequate. They mean, Time may win over beauty every time, but I still prefer beauty. And they certainly mean, I have found some gorgeous language and I want to share it with the world.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Another Happy Day with Algebra

Every once in a great while I actually check the feed on facebook. When I do, I always see a lot of joyous or funny things that I enjoy. But I also usually see at least one thing that sticks in my craw. About a month ago, as I was smiling at pictures of kids and silly jokes and announcements of various blessed milestones in friends’ lives, the post that burst my bubble of joy came from a former graduate student. It read, “Well, another day has passed and I didn’t use algebra once.” My immediate response was, “Why not?!”

My student, of course, meant it as a dig at time she thought her high school had wasted, but I saw it only as a sad commentary on herself. High schools waste countless hours of teenagers’ time, I agree. But the time spent teaching algebra is not among the wasted hours. I don’t know if Paul Simon would agree, but algebra is not part of the crap. If my student spends day after day without using it, I can only say that she’s the poorer for it.

I use algebra almost every day of my life. I compare prices. I estimate fuel costs. I’ve enjoyed programming little computer games for about thirty years now, and the code to determine scores or the placement of objects on the screen consists of nothing but algebra. And of course I calculate grades, estimate grades, average grades, figure the minimum grade a panicked student needs on the final to get an A or a C. (Hardly any student worries about getting a B instead of a C.) I use algebra all the time.

But why should I even accept the terms of this silly quip? Why assume algebra is to be used, like a tissue you throw away once you blow your nose with it? To see that an algebraic equation works is to put into action that part of ourselves which was created in the image of God, and thus to see into God’s mind. And the vision of God is happiness.

Why do A? In order to do B. Why do B? In order to do C. But why do C? Aristotle points out that if this search for reasons has no end, I’ll never do A in the first place. There must exist some goal, he reasons, about which we do not ask, Why? And that goal is happiness. I do algebra because it brings me happiness.

I just finished book VIII of Euclid’s Elements yesterday, and I was surprised to see that, like the two or three chapters just before, it leaves rigorous geometry aside for a while longer to continue with number theory and algebra. At least, I can turn it into something that looks more like algebra to me. I wish I knew more about the history of mathematics. I wish I knew for sure whether Euclid could conceive of ratios (comparisons of whole numbers) as fractions (parts of units). And I wish I knew if algebra proper depends on the concept of fractions. But what I do know is that if I turn Euclid’s prose into algebraical symbols and use fractions to represent his ratios, things start to make sense to me.

For instance, one of the main points of book VIII is that between any two square numbers, say A and B, lies exactly one number C (one whole number, not a fraction or irrational number) such that C/A = B/C. And that number is found by multiplying the square roots of the two original numbers. As an example, take 4 (2 squared) and 9 (3 squared). Multiply 2 x 3 to get 6. And, sure enough, 6/4 equals 9/6. I hope I expressed it clearly; it’s clear to me, at least. But here’s part of Euclid’s proof:
Let A, B be square numbers, and let C be the side of A, and D of B. . . . Let C by multiplying D make E. Now since A is a square and C is its side, therefore C by multiplying itself has made A. For the same reason also, D by multiplying itself has made B. Since, then, C by multiplying the numbers C, D has made A, E respectively, therefore, as C is to D, so is A to E.
And it goes on. In a geometrical proof with the handy diagram and its labeled points, I can usually follow Euclid’s prose. But in these algebraical sections, I get lost easily. So I translated some of the proofs of book VIII into terminology more familiar to me in order to see their methods and conclusions more clearly. This one could look something like this:
Given c • c = a, d • d = b, find e such that e/a = b/e.
1. e/a = b/e   (Given)
2. e = (b • a)/e   (Multiply both sides by a)
3. e • e = b • a   (Multiply both sides by e)
4. e • e = d • d • c • c   (3: Substitution with given facts concerning a and b.)
5. e • e = d • c • d • c   (Commutative property of multiplication)
6. e • e = (d • c) • (d • c)   (Associative property of multiplication)
7. e = d • c   (Take the square root of both sides.)
Reverse demonstration, or check proof, after e has been found:
1. e/a = b/e   (Given)
2. a = c • c   (Given)
3. b = d • d   (Given)
4. e = d • c   (Found above)
5. (d • c) / (c • c) = (d • d) / (d • c)   (1, substituting 2, 3, and 4)
6. d / c = (d • d) / (d • c)   (Reduce left fraction)
7. d / c = d / c   (Reduce right fraction)
I know, I know. I paid attention forty years ago as almost none of my classmates did. But now, thanks to eighth-grade algebra class and Euclid, I see something I didn’t see before, and it brings me happiness.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Meanwhile, Back in Damascus

Ariosto begins canto XIX of Orlando Furioso by telling a story about Angelica, who finds a brave warrior lying on the battlefield and nurses him back to health. Ariosto describes the beginning of their further travels this way:
They clamber down the mountain slope straightway
And with the shore to leftwards, make their way
Towards Barcelona; not far had they gone
Before a madman lying on the shore,
His body caked with mud, they came upon.
. . . . . . . .
He leapt towards them, menacing attack.
But let us to Marfisa now turn back.
And with no further ceremony than that, Ariosto whisks Angelica and the madman from the pages for quite a while.

These sudden transitions make me smile. I’ve wondered why Ariosto doesn’t use cantos as chapters, telling one substory under one heading. Instead, one thread usually continues from the end of one canto (usually about a hundred eight-line stanzas) to the beginning of the next, only to be jarringly replaced by a new thread. But I started to develop a theory when I noticed that many cantos end with a note suggesting that some delay should occur before the next one begins. Here’s the end of canto XVII:
For it is time, my lord, to finish this,
Of which the length perhaps excessive is.
And the end of XIX:
But what the name is of the cavalier
In my next canto you must wait to hear.
Ariosto addresses his epic to Ippolito d’Este of Ferrara, and he writes sometimes as if Ippolito is listening rather than reading. I don’t know if Ariosto ever actually recited the poem to his patron, but these end-of-canto lines maintain at least an illusion that they mark the end of a long evening of entertainment.

So now Orlando’s structure appears to me as analogous to that of a television series with an ongoing story, each canto working as an episode. After a week’s wait, I tune in (wow, there’s a phrase that dates me!) to a favorite program with expectations. First, I hope that I’ll get at least a brief update on all my favorite characters and their subplots. Second, I can expect that any cliffhanger from the previous episode will be dealt with right away. Suddenly it all makes sense: both the sudden changes mid-canto and the continuity between cantos.

Much of what I’ve read so far this year has involved two main subplots: the seige of Paris by the Saracens and the adventures of five Christian knights in Damascus. The narrative path weaves back and forth then between a huge battle with large forces on the one hand, and individual challenges and duels on the other. (Of course even in the scenes in Paris, great heroes, both Christian and Muslim, get the spotlight for a while.) The technique is a good one and has survived into our time in, for instance, The Lord of the Rings (Frodo struggles with the Ring at Mount Doom while other heroes fight a giant army of orcs on the plains before Minas Tirith) and Star Wars (Luke flies down the trench while great fleets fight it out around the Death Star). Who knew that a poem from the sixteenth century about legends from the ninth century would still make such sense in the twenty-first?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Traveling with Gulliver

I’ve just been looking on IMDB at summaries of various filmed versions of Gulliver’s Travels. Many only cover his first trip, to Lilliput. And when people hear Gulliver mentioned, I suppose most of them immediately think of the image of Lemuel Gulliver laid out on the grass, pinned down with hundreds of tiny threads and his hair staked to the ground. But Gulliver had three other adventures that fewer filmed versions treat. Most of those, I see, are marked as being in the family genre and rated, at most, PG. One summary of Jack Black’s recent portrayal says that in the end people finally look up to him. Awww, isn’t that a nice ending? Yet the point of Swift’s account of his hero’s journeys is satirical indictment of the physical, moral, and intellectual weakness of the human race. And some of the scenes, while readable by mature children, probably wouldn’t work on screen in a family film.

I reread the first two sections of Gulliver’s Travels on my own recent travels. After Gulliver escapes from Lilliput, where he towers over the other people, he is shipwrecked in Brobdingnag, where everyone else is a giant, and Gulliver is the tiny one. Each section puts humanity in a new light by changing the perspective of the observer. Through Gulliver’s eyes, readers see themselves in new ways.

The key to Part I, the sojourn in Lilliput, is found in a royal letter that begins this way:
Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue, most mighty Emperor of Lilliput, delight and terror of the universe, whose dominions extend five thousand blustrugs (about twelve miles in circumference) to the extremities of the globe; monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men; whose feet press down to the centre, and whose head strikes against the sun; at whose nod the princes of the earth shake their knees; pleasant as the spring, comfortable as the summer, fruitful as autumn, dreadful as winter . . . .
Gulliver gives us the altered perspective with his note that five thousand blustrugs don’t really reach all that far in our terms. Clearly the emperor’s boasting is a pipe dream made possible only by his ignorance of the size of the world. But don’t human emperors talk this same way? For that matter, doesn’t each one of us at one time or another think his own accomplishments the delight and terror of the universe? But what excuse do we have? We have a dim conception of the vast size of the universe. And we know, if we would only pause to think about it, that if we were to travel but one percent of one percent of the way to even the nearest astronomical body, our moon, almost none of the works of our species could be seen. (City lights on the dark side of the earth, I believe, would provide the only exception.) None would be heard or felt, and none would make any appreciable difference in our lives.

The key to Gulliver’s second voyage, to the land of the giant Brobdingnagians, comes when his first hostess uncovers her breast to feed her baby, and Gulliver, close by on the kitchen table, gets a close look at it. That’s a shot you couldn’t include in a family film, and children wouldn’t totally understand the point anyway. What from Gulliver’s new point of view he now finds repulsive and nauseating is that part of human anatomy he would normally consider the most attractive. What he assumed to be uniform in color is actually mottled with blue and yellow, and what he once thought of as smooth he sees to be in reality riddled with unsightly bumps and cavities. The checkout-aisle tabloids like to show celebrities without make-up. They could instead just take grossly magnified photos of the starlets’ skin, make-up and all.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thinking of Participles

Day seven of The Decameron didn’t turn out to be my favorite, that honor probably going to the fifth day, with, among other tales, its wonderful story of Federigo and his falcon. The ten stories I read this year, year seven of my plan, all had to do with women who trick their husbands with lies so they can get a little something on the side. I definitely chuckled here and there, but I certainly couldn’t root for any of the characters.

I also read just last week that Boccaccio, for all his silliness, was considered by the literati of fifteenth-century Italy to be the model of Italian prose. I learned enough Italian a couple of years ago to get by in Arezzo for four-and-a-half months, but I certainly don’t know enough to judge the quality of seven-hundred year old writing in the language. But from reading the modern English translation Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, I imagine it might have to do with the length and complexity of Boccaccio’s sentences. Maybe nothing this involved had ever been written in a modern romance language before:
And while he was living there, certain knights returning from the Holy Sepulcher happened to come across a group of young men, one of whom was Lodovico, arguing about the relative beauty of the women of France, England, and the other parts of the world, and after listening to these young men, one of the knights began to tell them that in all the parts of the world he had visited and of all the women he had ever seen, there had certainly never been any woman equal in beauty to Madonna Beatrice, the wife of Egano de’ Galluzzi from Bologna; and all his companions, who had seen her with him in Bologna, were in agreement.
The sentence has three main clauses and several subordinate clauses together with various other modifying phrases. I like especially the phrases headed by present participles: returning and arguing. Participles are like magic words; they particip-ate in two parts of speech, like a magician’s rabbit appearing in two places at once. As adjectives, they modify nouns: the knights are returning and the young men are arguing. But as verbs, they can take all the modifiers usually associated with verbs. In the sentence “I saw a girl reading a book,” the word reading modifies girl as an adjective, but it also takes book for an object, as verbs do.

I’ve been fascinated with present participles since long before I knew what to call them. Sometime probably around junior high, I remember reading a sentence something like this: “Mr. Smith, grabbing his hat, stumbled out the door.” I should say I misread it, since what I first saw was this: “Mr. Smith grabbed his hat, stumbling out the door.” Realizing my mistake right away, I reread the sentence, puzzling over it a long time and wondering what difference in meaning, if any, my misreading had caused. I also tried to change both words to finite verbs – “Mr. Smith grabbed his hat and stumbled out the door” – quickly deciding that either of the first two versions was better, and vastly superior to the clunky “Mr. Smith grabbed his hat, and he stumbled out the door.” I sometimes use the lesson I learned that day with my graduate students, suggesting to them that they turn an occasional verb into a participle to smooth out a stretch of awkward dissertationese. And I still apply the lesson to myself: in fact, I just went back and changed at least four clauses in this post into participial phrases.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Who Talks like Shakespeare?

In the previous post, I wrote about contradictions and contrasts in Romeo and Juliet. Most of the self-contradictory wordplay comes from Romeo. He may not be clever enough to figure out that a girl with a bloom on her cheek even after two days in a crypt probably isn’t dead, but he’s terribly clever with words. His first streak of oxymorons comes in some melancholy banter he offers Benvolio. With dismay, he asks Benvolio why he doesn’t laugh, so clearly he thinks of his stream of verbal conflicts as clever and, with a sunnier delivery, potentially humorous.

We need some explicit reinforcement like this for confirmation that Romeo himself knows he has a way with words: we might be tempted to credit all the linguistic skill in the dialog to Shakespeare himself. The bard may well have had the most linguistic skill of anyone who ever lived. No one I have ever met speaks as eloquently as Shakespeare. But in his plays, everyone we meet talks like Shakespeare. So how are we supposed to take all these characters that speak his poetry? When we watch or read a Shakespeare play, are we being transported to an alternate universe in which everyone has amazing eloquence? Or are we instead supposed to take what we see as something of a translation of a more realistic story? In other words, is the lovely language just Shakespeare’s way of letting us see more deeply into the heart of the characters, or are the characters themselves capable of improvising in iambic pentameter? In Romeo’s case, the answer is clear to me: he is well versed in verse, as fully equipped for wordplay as for Swordplay. (I thought that was pretty good.)

Only this view can make the fullest sense of the beautiful exchange between the title characters at their first meeting:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

You kiss by the book.
Romeo and Juliet aren’t just two pretty young faces who get each other’s hormones flowing at a party. If they were, we wouldn’t care about them nearly so much. Romeo is smart, so he needs a smart girl who can match him quip for quip. And Juliet is that girl. Not only can she improvise in rhyming, metrical verse, she flows right along with Romeo’s conceit of the pilgrimage. Imagine what must be going through Juliet’s head. She’s thirteen and has never thought of marriage. And then one night at her dad’s soiree, a handsome boy approaches her and starts speaking beautiful poetry, declaring her a sacred shrine and himself unworthy of her presence. Right away she lets him take her hand without protest, and within four lines he comes up with justification for a kiss. But Juliet quickly finds a way to chastely deny the kiss while still showing her interest in his affections: she accepts Romeo’s role of penitent, makes herself a saint, and reminds him that a touch of the hands is all a true holy pilgrim needs. So Romeo prays for a kiss, which St. Juliet passively grants. But the effect must have been overwhelming, since she suggests a second kiss so that Romeo can take back any impurity he has left on her lips.

I haven’t watched thirteen-year-olds at a party since I was one of them. But I don’t remember anything like this. There was plenty of hand-holding and some occasional shy kissing, but no poetry, much less nuanced, multi-level poetry. Romeo and Juliet have found something very rare and very special, and they deserve to live longer than just three more days.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Oppositions in Romeo and Juliet

In his first scene, upon seeing the aftermath of a street brawl between Capulet men and Montague men, Romeo says
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
Contradictions like these fill Romeo and Juliet; I doubt if any other play of Shakespeare’s contains so many oxymorons. Many of the main characters contribute to the cause; Mercutio tells Romeo, “Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting.” Benvolio offers not a contradiction but simply a stark opposition when, in working to convince Romeo to crash the Capulets’ party and try to forget Rosaline, he promises his friend:
Compare her face with some that I shall show,
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.
Sometimes the opposing terms come with a little extra wordplay, as in this line from Romeo:
Being but heavy, I will bear the light.
And several times the contrasts are presented as the beginning and end of a process of change; Tybalt, for instance, seeing Romeo’s unauthorized but quiet presence at the Capulet ball, says,
This intrusion shall
Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall.
I don’t think Shakespeare just found himself in the mood to express extreme contrasts over and over; the bringing together of opposites is thematic in a play about two kids from feuding families who fall in love. But in addition to mirroring the plot, the motif seems to convey a more general message, as well. Friar Laurence explains:
O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain'd from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
And at the end of the two hours’ traffic of the stage, this is exactly what we’re left thinking. Romeo and Juliet’s mutual love leads to death; their parents’ attempts to nurture the teens completely backfire; and on and on. There is nought so good it cannot be abused. On the other hand, the death of two thirteen-year-olds effects the return of peace to the streets of Verona. Nought so vile that cannot yield some good.

After being told that everything on earth is ambiguous, we’re left without a crystal clear moral. Is death for love’s sake a noble thing? Is Juliet brave or just immature? Is Capulet overbearing or is he simply trying to look out for Juliet’s lifelong happiness the best he knows how? Is Laurence’s plan brilliant or insane? O disturbing resolution! O comforting frustration! One thing’s for sure. We couldn’t possibly have more beautiful language to lead us to these dilemmas.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Theological Surprise

As I did a couple of years ago with a post on Calvin, I’ll try today to confine myself mostly to statements about my impressions of the theology I’ve read lately. It means I’ll be exposing my ignorance more than I would if I blustered through with theological statements of my own like a person who knows what he’s talking about. But I can live with that.

I’ll have to start with my impressions of the Catholic kids I knew growing up. They were strange and exotic from the start, because they didn’t go to school with me. But even in day-to-day details their culture stayed consistently foreign to my sensibility. The boys were generally mean kids, and I was always disconcerted by the weird contrast between their neat outfits of white shirts and black ties and their rough-and-ready, aggressive attitudes. The girls were nicer, and their plaid skirts were completely fascinating. Most importantly, a thick veil of mystery hung between myself and their beliefs. I knew they had to take a religion class in school, but it seemed to me that for most of them religion remained merely an academic subject – a subject lagging somewhere behind algebra in terms of interest to the students. They talked about confession and church attendance as rituals to be observed; I don’t remember them talking about hymns they liked or trips they took with the youth group or life-changing experiences or any of the other things I and my Protestant friends were more used to talking about when discussing church. If their beliefs had a moral effect, it seemed to me a negative one.

So with that shaky basis of knowledge constructed during the impressionable years of my youth, any surprises I’ve experienced about Catholicism later in life could simply be credited to my own blind spots. Maybe everyone else knows these things. But if you had given me two cards a few years ago – one that said YES and one that said NO – and asked me to place them on the words “Catholic” and “Protestant” in such a way as to correspond to the respective camp’s answer to the question “Has any man ever been able to earn eternal life on his own?” I would have assigned NO to the Protestants and YES to the Catholics. (I apologize for the convoluted nature of that contrived scenario. While writing it, I imagined myself as a contestant on a theological game show: “Come on down! You’re our next contestant on The Doctrine Is Right!”)

But I’ve been reading Aquinas’s Treatise on Grace lately, and he surprised me yesterday by answering that question with a resounding NO. According to Thomas, salvation comes by grace alone: God makes the first move, turns the sinner’s heart to Himself, and justifies him as he consents with a movement of faith. He makes it very clear that no sinner can turn his own heart to God, and that faith does not earn eternal life. But to complete the picture, clarify any possible misunderstanding, and tie up one important loose end, the divine doctor addresses Adam in his state of innocence. Without the stain of sin, could Adam have merited eternal life on the basis of his pious action? And again his answer is clearly NO. God made man in such a way that he is intended for eternal glory yet incapable of reaching his proper goal on his own power. Eternal life is out of man’s reach not just because of his corrupted nature, but even by his original created nature. Sin did not create our need for God’s help but only increased it. My game-show performance becomes an even greater embarrassment when I remember that Calvin says explicitly that Adam could have raised himself to eternal life before the Fall.

But again, I’m just surprised at what I’ve found. There are some problems in taking Aquinas to represent the doctrine of the Catholic Church as a whole, much less the beliefs of individual Catholics like those mean kids struggling through religion class. And there a big problems with taking Calvin to represent Protestant theology, as if that could ever be unified. But a player who placed the cards contrary to my way could have made at least one good case in support of his decision.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


I wrote in the previous post about the trials that have hindered keeping up with the blog while traveling. Over the last week, the tribulation of illness made it impossible. I’ve kept up with my reading, but tribulation flowed through my books, too. The most obvious example comes from the chapters of Revelation that I’ve been reading as part of morning prayers. The political turmoil of fifteenth-century Italy that I’ve read about in Durant provides another example. When an Italian pope negotiates with a Muslim sultan for defense against a French king, takes the sultan’s brother for “safekeeping,” and then gives said brother to said French king to avert a French attack on Rome, can the end be far behind?

Reading The Taming of the Shrew is itself a tribulation. I remember the play tasting bitter the first time I read it, and I’m sorry to say that it did not improve with (my) age. The banter involves too many archaic puns for me to appreciate the humor in the dialog. And the story just doesn’t work for me. Petruchio has no business being sure he can tame Katharina before meeting her, yet against all common sense, his confidence proves to be sound. But can his method be believed? Can one unpleasant person realistically learn to submit so quickly to another? To top it all off, how could readers and audience members in the time of England’s Great Queen assent to the moral that women’s souls should be as compliant as their bodies? Romeo and Juliet is next for me, though, and its strong heroine will provide the perfect wine to cleanse all shrewish traces from my palate.