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.