Sunday, September 29, 2013

Returning to Many Dimensions

I’ve groaned for a long time at the weakness of the title of one of my favorite books: Charles Williams’s Many Dimensions. Both words are vague, and the combination is vague. Just think how much better it would have sounded had Williams anticipated the 60s singing group and called his book The Fifth Dimension. To flip the coin, think how silly Dickens would have sounded writing A Tale of Some Cities.

But starting the book again has me so excited, I can see value even in its title. After all the book does start with talk about nearly instantaneous translation in both time and space. But the word dimensions might actually apply better to the layered dimensions of both the characters and the narration.

The novel begins in medias res with a conversation about the crown of “Suleiman ben Daood,” a term that instantaneously transports the typical reader of this book to a new dimension of King Solomon’s character: his depiction in the Qur’an. One of the characters, Sir Giles Tumulty, has bought the crown from a Persian. But the Persian’s nephew (it seems every male character in the book is either an uncle or nephew to another) demands that Sir Giles give the crown back, calling the transaction “theft by bribery,” adding a new dimension to the idea of a purchase transaction. The crown contains a stone with miraculous properties, including the aforementioned power of travel, and stockbroker Reginald Montague only wants to make money off of it. “By God,” he says, “you’ve got the transport of the world in your hands,” unwittingly telling the truth in his swearing and restoring the literal dimension to what had become in England at that time an empty oath. Another unconscious dimensional link occurs when one character says he ought to know more about the son of Daood, by which Williams no doubt means to suggest that the man should know more not about Solomon but about Jesus.

The character (or as I suppose I should write it, Character) displaying the most dimensions is God Himself. The stone in the crown has the letters of the tetragrammaton in it . . . or on it, or they are it. (Yet again, many dimensions.) So the stone represents God in the story, and the characters’ relationships to the stone represent their relationships to God. Sir Giles wants to contemplate the stone with fascination. Reginald wants to make money from it. Persian Prince Ali Khan wants to regain it to restore honor to his family. Each of these characters recognizes virtue in the stone, but only for selfish motives. Each wants to use the stone, to become master of the stone, or in essence to become God’s god. They each want the stone to give something. But two characters (I don’t remember their names and probably shouldn’t spoil things by telling you if I did) eventually realize that the existence of the stone demands that they give themselves to it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Commitments Sublime and Ridiculous

I often finish a classic novel in possession of an idea of a theme. I know the book is “about” its characters, its plot, and even its message. But I usually latch on to a situation or abstract concept that comes up over and over. Thinking in this way, I characterize David Copperfield as a novel about marriage: good marriage, bad marriage, fake marriage, substitute marriage, wished-for marriage, first and second marriage, determination to avoid marriage, and so on. Similarly, Pride and Prejudice is about . . . okay, too obvious.

When recognizing these motifs, I congratulate myself for having noticed something significant. But I wonder sometimes if I haven’t just obsessed on one of the many threads that are bound almost by accident to run through any rich book. I feel pretty safe in seeing pride and prejudice as central to Elizabeth Bennet’s tale. But marriage in DC? What novel did Dickens not fill with marriages?

So I won’t claim to make a definitive statement on The Theme of Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, but I definitely ended the book thinking that every character and subplot involved some variation on a lifetime commitment: commitment in marriage, commitment to a religious life, commitment to the conventions of a social class, or financial commitment to dependents. Some characters first appear on the pages having already made a commitment. Some, like the Earl and Countess de Courcy, regret the commitment they’ve made (marriage in this case). Some, like the Lupexes with regard to their boarding house, act as though no one should ever change his mind on any decision whatsoever, even when so many of their fellow residents wish they would move on.

The strangest lifetime commitment in the novel is made by Lily Dale, the heroine Trollope’s narrator says we must love. Lily falls in love with Adolphus and consents when he proposes marriage. Just one week later, he asks a second girl to marry him, before even breaking his engagement with Lily. When he marries the second girl, all of Lily’s family and friends tell her about the ocean and other fish. But Lily says her love is a lifetime commitment and that love never changes, even when the beloved turns out to be a heel and asks another girl to marry him. She claims that in her heart she has married him. (No one points out that her stance makes a bigamist out of Adolphus.) As the novel ends, months later, Lily remains determined. Of course, everyone who’s ever been jilted feels this way at first. I myself once felt that I would never, ever love anyone else ever, ever again for almost four weeks.  But Trollope seems to leave us with the idea that Lily really means it. I suppose that in the nineteenth century, such romantic martyrdom might look slightly less ludicrous than it does to us. But even still, no other character approves of Lily’s decision, and I don’t think her author does, either.

By contrast, Amelia Roper, when also discovering that her first love will never marry her, decides to move on. She says near the end that she still loves the first fellow, but finds a satisfactory second love and decides she’d rather be happy than right. Now, the silly Amelia provides much of the comic relief in the story, and the narrator never tells the reader that he has an obligation to love her, as he does with Lily. And yet doesn’t she provide the model of sensible behavior? I don’t know that I love Amelia Roper, but I know I respect her more than I do Lily.

I realize I’ve given away a lot of the ending of the book here, but I guess I’ll make it my commitment to finish the job and tell you that Johnny Eames asks Lily Dale to marry him twice after she has made her commitment to Adolphus – once while she only anticipates an offer from Adolphus and once after he’s married and out of her reach forever – and that both times, she rejects Johnny Eames. As a result, Johnny Eames decides that the commitment of his heart to Lily Dale from the time he was nine years old has made his life a joke. He, too, decides he will never love again, even though friends tell him to keep asking Lily until her stony stubbornness wears down under his constant dripping. But very near the end of the novel, we’re told simply that Johnny Eames makes a determination finally to become a man. Now, I think Trollope wants us to interpret that message to mean that Johnny has indeed decided to continue asking Lily until she consents, the readers having to imagine for themselves the happy ending they’ve looked for from chapter 1. But I think Johnny Eames deserves better than Lily, so I’m making my own commitment to the theory that what Johnny Eames decides is that a nine-year-old love doesn’t commit anyone for a lifetime, and that it is no betrayal of anyone or anything to realize it’s time to move on.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Through Thick and Thin

A ten-year reading plan. Serious business. That’s three-thousand six-hundred fifty-two days of reading, not all of it easy. Sure, I’ve given myself some leeway here and there. But still, I’ve made a commitment to myself to get through about forty weighty books (or substantial portions of books) each year for ten years. When I catch a virus, that schedule is still there. When I travel, the schedule is there. When I have a stack of troublesome papers to grade, the schedule is there. In year 2, before I was blogging about my experience, we had a major family trauma. At the end of the year when I looked at my personal notes on my reading, I found not only that I hadn’t taken any notes since about May, but that I didn’t even remember much of what I had read. I remember more details about comic books I read that year than I do about Kant or Spenser. But still I read Kant and Spenser.

For the last month or so, I’ve been having trouble focusing again. There’s no ugly trauma this time. I do have to deal with the stress of retiring from one job and looking for another, but that’s a happy stress. Maybe I have a problem with literal focus: I’m not seeing close-up as well as I used to. So maybe I need reading glasses. Maybe it’s that the campus Wendy’s closed, and the food court in the student union is too full of food and students for a fruitful lunch-time visit with a good book.

Whatever the problem is, it’s been making Plutarch hard to read. When I catch myself not knowing what my eyes just went over, I try rereading a sentence slowly; but then I get caught up in the details and the grammar of each word and lose sight of the overall flow. So then I try to read fast, but I miss the significance of all the details. Maybe it’s John Dryden. Dryden’s translation isn’t the easiest to read, I must admit. He tries too much, I think, to follow the sentence structure of the original Latin, but he doesn’t always deal with the grammatical nuances that get lost in the translation to English. Latin has more pronouns than English for instance. Dryden has Plutarch saying, “Pompey rendered Demetrius less odious to others,” and then uses the pronoun “he” often for the next couple of paragraphs. I always can’t tell which person the pronoun refers to, but I think it sometimes stands for Pompey and sometimes for Demetrius. What I do know is that Latin provided Plutarch with several ways to say “he” – is, hic, ille, iste, ipse, etc. – and I’m guessing that he used at least two of them to make the story clearer than it was to me.

So should I look for a newer translation? Probably not right now. Dryden has worked for me for several years. But even more important than that, if I set Dryden aside while I shop for a different translation and while I wait for it to arrive, that schedule will still be there, and I want to keep to it. I just have to remind myself that over the course of three-thousand six-hundred fifty-two days, I will reach periods when I’m not fully ready to assimilate everything I read. Life has its rhythms. Its times and tides wait for no plan.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fragmentary Heroes

Some book series cannot be read exactly once. I’ve never met anyone, for instance, who has read The Lord of the Rings one time and one time only. If they’ve opened up the trilogy to begin it at all, they’ve either read it multiple times or given up on it before finishing it the first time through. I’m one of the few people I know who has read the Harry Potter series once (all the others being over forty). And as far as I can tell from online sources, Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles works the same way. Of course everyone who has read the six-novel set multiple times had to have, at one time in history, read it only once. But they don’t seem to write about it online at that point in their lives. I, on the other hand, because I’ve committed to blogging about my ten-year adventure, must share my impressions with the world before finishing the series, and even in the middle of each of the books.

Today, I’m just over halfway through The Little House at Allington, so I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But based on my experiences with ten other Anthony Trollope novels, I’ll enjoy the ending, whatever it proves to be. Right now, I’m fascinated with the diverging judgments of two characters on parallel courses. Adolphus Crosbie has become engaged to two women within two weeks, without even breaking off the first engagement before making the second offer. Johnny Eames also has professed his love to two different women, although without formal engagements, and has even kissed one of them. The two story arcs aren’t all that different: neither character understands himself, and both say things to women that they immediately regret. And yet Trollope treats the first as a scoundrel and the second as an endearing “hobbledehoy.”

So far, that is. I’m keeping an open mind. Trollope may reverse either judgment, or both, before tying up the threads. He tells the reader up front that the book has more than one hero, or rather that “that part in the drama will be cut up, as it were, into fragments.” And since he says this while introducing Mr Crosbie, he seems to imply that Mr Crosbie will play the role of one of those fragmentary heroes. So I’m ready to forgive him, since I know that Trollope might forgive him (dramatically speaking), as well.

And that knowledge lies at the foundation of my love for this now-neglected Victorian author. Ironically, the man whose narrations admit to the imaginary status of the characters they portray, ends up delivering surprisingly realistic people. And that means that anything can happen. My beloved Dickens would probably treat the man who engages himself to two women at the same time as a bounder, a cad who gets his just deserts at the end of the story. But Anthony Trollope, by presenting two fickle-hearted characters in the same book and showing that the difference between shameful and forgivable conduct is one of degree, invites the reader to see each weak-willed character as one of us and to show mercy. What other author writes such psychological, internal drama, puts all the suspense and mystery within the human heart, and yet leaves us shaking our heads in good-natured sympathy? It’s as if Dostoevsky had decided to try to make us chuckle.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Kant Improves with Age

At least since William James’s time, we’ve known that some of human memory is recorded outside the brain. Common parlance refers to “muscle memory,” although I think the pertinent sciences would actually place motor memory in the nervous system. More than this, though, I’ve had to accept the fact that significant portions of my memory reside outside my body altogether, in my notes. I’m not as bad off as the fellow from Memento, who can’t hold any memories internally for more than about ten minutes and has to tattoo the information he wants to retain onto his skin. But I’m amazed and humbled sometimes when I look over my reading notes to find lines in my handwriting that I don’t remember writing, about ideas I don’t remember reading or even ever thinking about.

When I opened up Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason a couple of weeks ago, I was extremely glad to find the notes I had taken the first time I read the book, almost ten years ago. They guided me as I made my way through the dense material for a second time, and it seemed to me as I read that I’d done a good job summarizing and restating the main points of the work. But it disappointed me to discover (a) that I hadn’t remembered most of what I had written down in 2004 and (b) that several of the memories I did have of the Critique were wrong. Or maybe I just picked up different details this time, but Kant's views on happiness and God, especially, seemed different during this second reading – and different in a good way.

I had remembered accurately that Kant said the only reasonable ethical motive is duty, not pleasure. We can’t award anyone any bonus virtue points for helping out people just because she likes helping people, Kant says; that seemingly kind person is really only trying to make herself feel better. And I remembered that he didn’t want to credit anyone as acting from duty if any feelings of happiness at all crept into the situation. But remembering only those details left me thinking that Kant saw the virtuous life as sober and unpleasant. What I didn’t remember is that he relented in a couple of ways to find a place for happiness in his scheme. First, he admits that children should be trained in proper moral behavior by rewards and punishment; let the understanding of duty come later. Second, he admitted that a just God will reward a good life with eternal happiness even though he looked with suspicion (with some right, I think) on the man who serves God only to get the happy reward.

Another change. The Kantian God that I remembered was a cold, distant, impersonal cipher, a mere philosophical “postulate” whose existence we have to accept in order to provide a ground for our sense of right and wrong. But then last week I noticed that Kant clearly outlined the limitations of philosophy to say much about God’s character, and the need for revelation to fill in more details. He even cited passages in Romans both as samples of that needed revelation and as support for the doctrine that natural theology can only get us so far. And citing the Bible, of course, implicitly opened the door to all its teaching of the personal, relational attributes of its God. I finished up thinking of the book not as offering the tiny, disappointing sum of everything that can be known about God’s moral will, but as the philosophical grounding for accepting everything that God reveals about it.

So Kant has improved with (my) age. And yes, I took notes on the changes, and the next time I read those notes, I can say I remember what I learned.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What Makes a Good Gentleman

In the preface to Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis mourns a change he observed in the use of the word “gentleman.” No longer using the term to refer to a person of a well-defined class, some people in Lewis’s time apparently called a person a “gentleman” if he behaved in a praiseworthy manner. The problem, Lewis argues, is that such a definition makes the word useless; it moves “gentleman” from the objective realm to that of the subjective, and applies it to a situation for which we already have words. While it’s difficult for an American to appreciate the issue, Lewis says it’s much better to let the word remain as a reference to a man of certain property holdings and, if he misbehaves, call him a “bad gentleman.”

Implied in that argument is that to be a good gentleman requires both the right breeding and the right behavior. In The City of God, Augustine adds a third ingredient. In book XI, he says that to be good at anything (“anything” presumably including being a gentleman), one needs ability, education, and practice. In parallel passages, he uses the terms power, knowledge, and purpose. It seems obvious to me. I will never be able to type quickly because I don’t have the right fingers. I can’t speak Mandarin because, although I have the tongue and lips required, I don’t have the knowledge. And I can’t speak Italian well because, while I learned some before spending a semester in Italy, I haven’t put what little I know it into practice for over a year.

Imagine what Plato’s dialogs would have been like if Socrates had thought along these lines. He wouldn’t have said over and over that someone knowing what’s right will do it. After all, what if this educated person hasn’t practiced doing the right thing? What if she doesn’t even have the natural or spiritual ability to do the right thing? Where would drug education or “safe” sex education in this country be if the Emma Pillsburies of the world knew students needed power and purpose in addition to the “facts” printed in their cliché-ridden posters and brochures?

Having just read these passages in Lewis and Augustine the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking about ability, education, and practice a lot. And Jane Austen made me really happy by chiming in to the conversation with certain passages in Pride and Prejudice that resonate with Augustine’s trifold analysis. Darcy feels shame at Lady Catherine’s “ill-breeding,” suggesting that, even supposing titles truly indicate a natural aptitude (element no. 1) for virtuous action, aptitude will atrophy without practice (element no. 3). But, of course, Austen doesn’t believe that only aristocrats have noble natures, since her most sympathetic characters almost always reside in the middle class. P & P deals with education (element no. 2) in its picture of the Bennett girls. The narrator calls Elizabeth’s youngest sisters “silly and ignorant.” Since they inherit the same natural ability from their parents that Elizabeth does, their silliness can only be blamed on their lack of education. And Elizabeth says that the girls were all urged to read and that “such of us as wished to learn” could do so easily. So the younger siblings’ ignorance might be blamed on their failure to put into practice their father’s instructions. On the flip side, both Mary and Mr Collins have all the education one could want and end up intolerable prigs.

In my previous post, I said that Jane Austen didn’t seem like a Radical although she indulged in various forms of moderate subversion. But by making natural aptitude independent of pedigree and by demonstrating that virtue requires nurture and practice in addition to nature, she puts a powder keg under the intrenched class system’s insistence that blood will surely tell.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Jane Austen, Subversive

Jane Austen certainly doesn’t look like a political Radical to me. Her novels center on characters from the landed gentry, and the final happiness of the books’ heroines always includes an income derived from the labor of others. But she doesn’t just accept the social structure and morality of her times, either. Her subversive streak, in fact, shows through in several places in Pride and Prejudice.

Austen’s criticism of her world can sound quite gentle at times, as when she pokes fun at her characters’ narrow field of interest. When Charlotte Lucas suggests that the four evenings of social interaction shared by Elizabeth’s sister and a visiting man may well have started a real romance, Elizabeth replies, “Yes; these four evenings have enabled them to ascertain that they both like Vingt-un better than Commerce.” In other words, agreeing on the game that will accompany typically insipid conversation hardly assures a lifetime of wedded bliss.

Elizabeth is, of course, a reader. Austen’s lead characters usually are readers, and their friends usually don’t understand it, and Mr. Right usually reveals himself to the reader by being the one person (other than, perhaps, the heroine’s father) who appreciates the mind of the central female character. In one scene, Mr. Bingley outlines the standard view of an “accomplished” woman:
A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.
But then Mr. Darcy, as early as the 11% mark (thank you, Kindle!), seals his fate as hero of the novel and complements both Elizabeth and all his female readers by responding, “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” To declare education an essential point of an accomplished woman does a lot more to overturn early nineteenth-century convention than an observation on games. But I don’t suppose it caused too much of a scandal at the time: certainly all the contemporary women who read the passage agreed that contemporary women should have education sufficient for reading.

Even more bold is Austen’s declaration of the fallibility of the aristocracy. Lady Catherine de Bourgh struts through the pages expecting everyone to show her the deference due to her noble nature. But even her own nephew sees her flaws. Lady Catherine, knowing that la noblesse oblige, invites Elizabeth to come every day and play the piano, but only in a back room where she will “be in nobody’s way.” The author tells us that Mr. Darcy looked “ashamed of his aunt’s ill-breeding.” Ill-breeding? Doesn’t the aristocracy define themselves precisely as people of pure breeding?

Austen hints at undermining a point of morality in Elizabeth’s reaction to her sister Lydia’s upcoming marriage. Lydia, enamored of every man in a military uniform, finally runs off with one, to the dismay of everyone else in her family, including Elizabeth. We don’t know what outcome Elizabeth would prefer, but when the unscrupulous officer agrees to marriage two months later, she comments on the irony that she perceives:
“And they are really to be married!” cried Elizabeth, as soon as they were by themselves. “How strange this is! And for this we are to be thankful. That they should marry, small as is their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice. Oh, Lydia!”
In some of my favorite moments, Austen turns on her own kind to overturn literary assumptions. When Mrs. Bennett tells a story of a man who dropped his suit for Jane after writing her some verses, Elizabeth explains, “And so ended his affection. . . . I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!” So much for that romantic cliché. Austen even reveals twice that she may be damaging her own book by not following the usual course of a novel’s stream. When Elizabeth starts to feel love for Darcy after a long bout with prejudice, the narrator admits that love at first sight is a more interesting “mode of attachment.” Okay, obviously Austen says it tongue-in-cheek, knowing full well – and knowing that we know that she knows – that Elizabeth’s drawn out story is much more interesting. Elizabeth herself gets a chance to criticize her creator in a conversation with Mr. Darcy near the end of the book. The two have finally found the freedom to profess love for one another, but only because Elizabeth has brought up a subject she had said she wouldn’t speak about. And “what becomes of the moral,” Elizabeth asks, “if our comfort springs from a breach of promise?” What! A mere lifetime of happiness between two people of education and good character bound by love based on kindness, gratitude, and esteem comes at the expense of a breach of minor etiquette? Jane Austen, you’re really playing with fire now!