Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Tale of Two Mysteries

Twenty years ago or so, a friend of mine from the economics department introduced me to a professor from the English department. “You two should hit it off,” my friend had said. “You’re into Dickens, and he’s published work on Dickens.” His prediction made sense, so I looked forward to meeting Prof. Lawrence Frank, author of Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self. But when we got together, Prof. Frank didn’t seem to want to talk much about our shared interest. “I do Freudian stuff with Dickens,” is all he said about his work. Of Dickens himself, he only said that David Copperfield was an astounding achievement, without providing any further details.

Curious about the reticent Prof. Frank, I checked out his book and started reading. I read the lengthy first chapter and didn’t understand it. I read it again and thought I understood it. I read it a third time and decided that I did in fact understand it but couldn’t believe it. There is no such thing as a self, says Frank; no person is an individual. A series of texts exists having issued from a series of disconnected phenomena all collectively going by the name Charles Dickens. But that a unity named Charles Dickens lived continuously for sixty-some years is an illusion, a convention of language. This type of postmodern critique of the self was completely new to me, so I had a hard time coming to terms with seeing such ideas in black and white. But even more unacceptable to me was the statement that Dickens himself (that can’t possibly be the way he put it, but I don’t know how to say it any other way) believed that the self was an illusion and that he wrote his books as a demonstration of that fact. Just look at chapter 2 of A Tale of Two Cities, Prof. Frank argued. The passengers in the Dover mail coach are all wrapped up so that no one can tell who anyone else is. Dickens is showing us that personal identity is unknown, unknowable, and nonexistent.

Lawrence Frank can believe what he must believe. I understand now that people (mostly academics) believe such things. But to say that Dickens believed selfhood was a fiction or that his books demonstrate it is simply to misread Dickens. Chapter 3 of “Book the First” of A Tale of Two Cities begins by saying that “every human creature is” a “profound mystery and secret to every other.” Secret, not illusion. The death of a friend, the narrator goes on to say, closes the door forever on “the secret that was always in that individuality.” Always, not intermittently. Individuality, not disconnected series. So those passengers on the coach in chapter 2 may have been “hidden under almost as many wrappers from the eyes of the mind, as from the eyes of the body, of his two companions,” but they definitely exist. Illusions aren’t hidden.

Secrets, codes, hidden messages, spies, and mysterious people, in fact, constitute the driving theme of the novel. Why does Mme Defarge always knit? We find out that in the pattern of her stitches she registers names and descriptions of aristocrats she wants to see guillotined. How did Doctor Manette end up in the Bastille? We find out when the letter he hid in the chimney is found and read. So of course Dickens would play out this theme consistently with characters as well as objects and events. To claim that Dickens meant to say that no concrete secret lay behind the code of human appearance is to claim that Dickens didn’t know how to write a unified novel. No one knows what Miss Pross is capable of – not even Miss Pross – until Mme Defarge confronts her. But Miss Pross's capability exists; it is latent, not illusory. The reader doesn’t at first know what Jerry Cruncher does at night, but Jerry Cruncher has a very definite nocturnal profession. And Sydney Carton! Sydney’s past, present, and future come together one night on the Pont Neuf when he finds hope in the words “I am the Resurrection and the Life” and purpose in his determination to sacrifice himself for Lucie’s happiness. He is a unified individual, not an empty shell. Almost no one knows Sydney’s heart, but he has a heart. Lucie knows that there is a man behind the curtain, because Sydney confides the secret of his heart to Lucie. And a soulless illusion doesn’t confide the secret of a nonexistent heart.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Tale of Two Discoveries

[Disclaimer: I don’t know why anyone would want to read this post. In order to explain my love for the book that stands as it subject, I have to remember and record the thoughts that drove my adolescent self. In doing so, I reveal a great deal of foolishness and ignorance. But if you want to read a ridiculous person’s autobiographical musings about the most ridiculous time of life, go ahead. But you’ve been warned.]

In Oklahoma, the corn is not actually “as high as a elephant’s eye”, but the wind does come sweeping down the plain. And sometimes it comes sweeping in violent circular motions. After the tornadoes of 2013, I now have a bag ready to grab in case of emergency. The bag holds three treasures: recommendations to my parents by a University of Georgia professor from when I was seven years old, a notebook of song lyrics I wrote as a teenager, and a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. When I was about twelve, my dad’s brother gave me a box of books he had found (who knows where): books that had belonged to my dad when he was a teenager. The collection included several Tarzan books, an odd miscellany of adventure novels that I had never heard of, and my now-precious little blue copy of Dickens’s great classic of revolution, love, death, and resurrection. I had heard of A Tale of Two Cities, and somehow, the combination of the ring of the renowned title, the sensation of the blue cloth binding, the musty smell of my new little library, and the reverence I had even at a young age for classic titles told me that I now held in my hands the greatest book in the world. Did I end up loving this book because that experience disposed me to? Did I just make a stab in the dark that happened to hit? Or did I have a precociously accurate sense of the true, the good, and the beautiful? I don’t know. I only know that I fell in love with the book before I ever opened the cover and that I’ve never fallen out of love since.

I had no way of knowing what wonders I would find when I did finally open the book. I had never experienced anything like it. Reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time was like seeing Star Wars for the first time, or seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. I just didn’t know such a thing was even possible. I think I read most of the Tarzan books first. I think I had also read some Jules Verne and maybe Treasure Island. But nothing had led me to expect Charles Dickens. First, I remember thinking that I had never experienced a plot so complex and so integrally interwoven. Treasure Island had taught me the power of secrets and twists and mounting perils. But I didn’t know that the storming of a prison in 1789 could result in the discovery of a letter written in 1767 by a man imprisoned by a Marquis in 1757 and that would be read at a trial in 1793 that condemned a man who happened to be the Marquis’s nephew and who denounced his uncle in 1780 and then married the letter-writer’s daughter in 1782 after meeting her by chance in 1775 just after her father had been released from prison by his old servant who would storm the prison in 1789. Once I had experienced it, though, I realized that the plot wouldn’t work if even one part of that formula were left out.

And reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time opened my eyes to much more than complex plots. I had no way of knowing before that the opening sentence of a novel could be challenging, puzzling, and poetic. No pirates and no feuding Africans, as bloodthirsty as the pens of Stevenson and Burroughs might have made them, could have prepared me for Madame Defarge, a woman who desires to see her enemies killed not in order to gain money or safety but simply because she enjoys seeing them dead. I knew about good guys and bad guys, but I didn’t know a story could pit bad guys (revolutionaries) against bad guys (aristocrats). I learned that a sentence could be as long as “The obscurity was so difficult to penetrate that Mr. Lorry, picking his way over the well-worn Turkey carpet, supposed Miss Manette to be, for the moment, in some adjacent room, until, having got past the two tall candles, he saw standing to receive him by the table between them and the fire, a young lady of not more than seventeen, in a riding-cloak, and still holding her straw travelling-hat by its ribbon in her hand.” I learned that I could read a sentence that long and understand it. I learned that word choice and sentence structure could add a tone or attitude that conveyed a meaning just as important as the straightforward meaning conveyed by the vocabulary and grammar.

These are just some of the literary lessons I learned on that first encounter with my favorite book. On rereading it a couple of years later, themes started appearing to me, and I learned yet another way that great literature holds together. Above all, the theme of resurrection stood out. Dr. Manette is “recalled to life,” brought up from the grave of prison. Jerry Cruncher is a “resurrection-man,” a grave robber, a body snatcher, a supplier of corpses to physicians. Charles Darnay finds release not once but three times from death sentences. Sydney Carton recites the words of Jesus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

For quite a while, the book got better and better every time I read all or even part of it, every time I thought about it. And then a setback. I had recognized earlier that Sydney Carton does his far, far better thing empowered by his hope in Jesus. Now the thought occurred to me that Sydney, besides being inspired by Jesus and following Jesus, was actually like Jesus in that he died to give Lucie hope and to give Charles life. And approximately-sixteen-year-old me got concerned about blasphemy, although I wasn’t sure if the fault lay with Dickens for writing the book or with me for drawing the sacrilegious parallel. OK, so neither my untrained literary criticism nor my untrained theology had much sophistication. But I kept growing, and within a few months, my worries of blasphemy having been overcome, I had learned to see the deep respect and devotion with which Dickens drew the Christian analogies and had begun to view A Tale of Two Cities as an allegory of redemption richer and more rewarding – to my mind at least – than John Bunyan’s tale of two cities, Pilgrim’s Progress.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Top 100 – Part IV

Today marks the four-hundredth post on exlibrismagnis. For my hundredth post a few years ago, I briefly considered listing my one-hundred favorite books but had trouble right at the start deciding what “favorite” was going to mean. I finally decided instead to write a little bit on just seven parts of books – seven scenes or ideas that I think about often. Every hundred posts I’ve followed up on the same idea and provided seven more descriptions of oft-pondered vignettes. You can find the earlier “Top 100" posts here, here, and here.

And now, here are seven more. These favorites moments come to my mind fairly often in conversation, during events that remind me of them, and sometimes just in my wandering train of thought.

• Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn: Any time someone tosses me something that I catch in my lap, I think of Huck dressing up in girl’s clothes on one stop in his journey down the Mississippi. His hostess tosses an object into his lap and detects that Huck is a boy when he clamps his legs together rather than spreading them, as any girl, accustomed to wearing a skirt as she woul be at the time, would do habitually.

• Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples: In volume I, the man who saved the West from the Nazis naturally wants to discuss another English leader-hero who tried saving Britain from an earlier Germanic invasion: King Arthur. Churchill addresses the problem explicitly: can a historian rightfully speak of the wielder of Excalibur? We can’t be certain that a man behind the myth ever actually existed. But, Churchill concludes, Arthur should have existed, so let us declare it so. Yes, let us.

• Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers: The quintessential depiction of the character of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis takes place at the seige of La Rochelle. They make a wager that they can eat breakfast at an abandoned bastion in the middle of the field. Taking d’Artagnan with them, they make their way to the battered remains of protection and, bullets flying all around them, their comrades back at the line cheering and saluting them, they stay an hour and enjoy their repast. An inspiring model for all of life, n’est-ce pas?

• Jules Verne, Off On a Comet: In the most improbable book by the father of science fiction, a small number of French people – together with a small patch of France – find themselves transferred to a comet that has had a glancing pass with the Earth. As the inhabitants learn to cope with shorter days and weaker gravity, they soon discover that the comet’s path is taking them farther and farther from the sun, and the little bit of atmosphere that came with the little patch of France is getting colder and colder. But why isn’t the little bit of the Mediterranean freezing? The smart guy on the comet explains that freezing requires motion and that the lack of wind on their tiny planetoid has left the sea perfectly still. So he has a young girl toss a pebble into the sea, and the rest of the crowd watches as the frozen surface forms and spreads all the way to the (admittedly very close) horizon. OK, so motion actually retards freezing. But the image is stunning, and I think of it often when I see a frozen lake.

• Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers: The former chief curator of the Library of Congress tells mostly about Europeans and Americans, but has substantial things to say about Asian – especially Chinese – ingenuity. The Chinese value inventiveness so much, he says, that one emperor upon taking power ordered the destruction of a machine created under his predecessor’s rule just so his servants could design and build a new one. They were unable to match the feat, however, as were their successors for several hundred years. Sadly, this machine purportedly predicted the movements of all the planets to a degree of accuracy unmatched until Kepler’s day.

• G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man: Chesterton loves to dismantle theories of the psychological and spiritual details of prehistoric life. No one can study that life directly, he argues, only the detritus, and interpretation of the artifacts often says more about the interpreter than it does necessarily about the prehistoric people themselves. In The Everlasting Man, he takes on the the theory that the paintings of animals in the caves of Lascaux show that the Paleolithic people worshiped the animals. How do you know, counters G. K. C. brilliantly, that we’re not looking at the children’s play room?

• Lewis Carroll: Somewhere in the adventures of Alice, some character comments on Alice’s imprecise turn of phrase and distinguishes what a book is, what it is called, what its title is, and what its title is called. But I don’t remember which book the passage is in, or what the book is called, or what its title is, or what the title is called.

Now seriously, don’t at least six of these seven moments encapsulate common oddities of this weird and wonderful life? I don’t suppose I’ll get through this day without coming across three or four situations in which allusions to these matters would be appropriate. If it were only four days ago, I know I would have thought of Verne’s little girl as I walked around our neighborhood lake.

Monday, February 17, 2014

On On the Soul

Aristotle’s On the Soul defines soul as that which makes actual a natural body (as opposed to a man-made body) that potentially has life. Without it, the body isn’t alive and, in fact, slowly quits being a body. The soul is the form of which body is the matter.

OK, that only makes so much sense to me, especially when Aristotle starts saying that part of the soul is immortal and can live without a body. What’s more interesting to me in On the Soul, today at any rate, is the Philosopher’s orders of living beings. According to Aristotle, soul has several powers or faculties: nutritive powers, sensitive powers, and calculating powers. They come in that order, and no living thing can have the second category of powers without the first, or the third without the second. All living things have nutritive powers (which he sometimes calls the nutritive soul). They consume food to grow, maintain their bodies, and reproduce. And that’s as far as plants go. Animals, on the other hand, have sensitive powers in addition to nutritive power. Some animals have only the sense of touch. Some also have hearing or smell. Some have all five. But humans have reasoning powers in addition to all those. Aristotle sometimes calls these human reasoning powers “psychic” powers (psychikos in Greek).

Interestingly, in I Corinthians, Paul uses Aristotle’s term, psychikos, and contrasts to it yet one more order of earthly life: the pneumatikos, the spiritual. I love to see that a Biblical author used the pagan philosopher’s ideas and didn’t so much refute them as simply add to them. Because Aristotle is fascinating even when he’s wrong. For instance, in going over the sensitive powers, he argues extensively that sight must have a transparent medium: either air or water. A white card doesn’t appear white when placed right against the eye, he points out. Yet how can it affect the eye at a distance? The color must set in motion the air right next to it, which in turn sets our eye in motion. If “interspace” were a vacuum, he speculates, we would not be able to see the stars on the vault of heaven. I wanted to shake my head and chuckle at his mistaken logic and silly thinking until I read him say in the next paragraph that sound works exactly the same way.  Not so silly after all. With regard to sound, 2500 years of science have supported Aristotle’s view. Movie history supports him, too. In space no one can hear you scream.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dickens and Christianity Again

Happy Sixth Day After Dickens’s Birthday! Yes, just a little extra planning would have cut that first exclamation by fifty percent and leant it a more powerful compactness. But I spent my planning efforts of the last few days on a different kind of preparation. In anticipation of the return to My Favorite Book (about which more in the coming weeks), I squeezed in a recent volume called God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author, by Gary Colledge. A pastor and an instructor at Moody Bible Institute, Colledge doesn’t always go into a great deal of nuanced depth, and repeats himself often like a man giving a sermon: I think he could have cut the book by the ratio I would like to have applied to my opening sentence, without any damage or loss at all. But even after having read Dickens and thought about his Christian message for forty years (you can see some of my thoughts on the subject here), I still learned several things from God and Charles Dickens.

I understand why Colledge says he’s recovering Dickens’s Christian voice. Many critics don’t find Dickens’s Christianity convincing or important, either personally or with regard to the plots of the novels. Colledge also points out the consistency with which even the best recent BBC adaptations excise Christian expressions by the characters. And I have to admit that over the years, I’ve occasionally wondered whether the author of A Christmas Carol actually did anything more than add a veneer of Christian terminology to a sentiment for joviality and ethical action. After all, this is the man who wrote to his children, “It is Christianity To Do Good always,” a man who flirted with the Unitarians for a while. But Colledge pointed out several new facts to bolster my confidence in Dickens. Dickens, for instance, had volumes of Christian theology in his library and spoke about them in some detail from time to time in letters. He also says at various times in his correspondence that Jesus was divine and that He died on the cross to save humanity. In the light of this evidence, it’s very difficult to maintain, as some critics do, that Dickens rejected the basic beliefs of the Church. On the other side of the problem, Dickens explains in a letter that he worked with the Unitarians for a couple of years because they practiced charity, saying nothing about their differences in belief. All this documentation was new to me, and I have Colledge to thank for introducing me to it. (I have the Dickens letters on my plan for the Third Decade.)

The question remains whether Dickens should have expressed orthodox tenets more clearly in his works rather than giving some readers of later centuries the impression that, for him, “Christianity” was no more than his name for being nice. The first, obvious answer is that the brilliant creator of Bill Sikes, Wackford Squeers, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber, and Sydney Carton can say as little or as much about doctrine as he thinks appropriate and has no obligation to satisfy my notions on how much of such matter a great novel needs. But Colledge turns again to some letters to offer more specific explanations. Dickens spent his career in the context of an Anglican Church concerned more with determining for its priests what to wear and which direction to stand for prayers than in relieving the plight of the poor, the homeless, the fallen, the ignorant, and the ill that filled the streets of London. As Colledge explains, Dickens didn’t aim to reform society in some generic sense. He addressed his novels and stories to a specifically Christian society and to a specific established Church. And, this Christian society not being in need of correction on basic theology, Dickens delivered the urgent tocsin: “Wake up! Imitate Christ! Do!” To minds that see the doctrine of salvation as the only Christian topic worth thinking about, I suppose this looks like a statement of belief in salvation by works. And hence some of the doubts about Dickens’s orthodoxy.

But given the circumstances, Dickens said exactly what an orthodox Christian should have said. The difference in importance between feeding the poor on the one hand and the size of a priest’s collar on the other is like the difference between a rhinoceros and the fading memory of the smallest gust of wind. Just this morning I read in Lewis’s Mere Christianity, “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.” And, as it happens, I also read in the prophecy of Amos this morning: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” These two passages echo Dickens’s message exactly, yet no one endlessly debates the sincerity of their authors’ beliefs.

PS Blogspot's text editor recognizes "Ebeneezer," "Scrooge," and "Micawber" but not "Wackford" or "Squeers."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Four Foote Deep

Over the last week, I read four passages of interpretation in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War that especially caught my interest. The first is just a phrase: the South, he says, started a “Conservative revolution.” The historical events that the word revolution most readily calls to my mind – the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution – all involve (theoretically) large segments of society overturning a smaller, privileged aristocracy. The leaders of the southern American states of 1861, by contrast, fought as an aristocratic minority. Foote’s simple phrase helped me see that rather astonishing difference.

Next comes a character summary of William L. Yancey, an Alabamian sent by the Confederate States to Europe to try to gain the support of France and England. “Nothing in his personality,” says Foote, “had shown that he would be armed with patience against discouragement or with coolness against rebuff, or indeed that he was in any way suited to a diplomatic post.” I don’t care so much about Yancey himself (except in that I’m happy that his mission failed) as I do about the generic description of diplomacy. If I judge myself honestly according to Foote’s short list of criteria, I have to blame myself for some past failures in negotiation.

The last two comments concern arguably the most fascinating figure in American history. Abraham Lincoln, the only American ever to lead military operations in the field while President, studied strategy textbooks in the first year of the War. Gen. George McClellan humored his Commander-in-Chief’s recommendations for battle plans, but as Foote tells it, Lincoln was the first Northener to understand the overall strategy that geography and population dictated: the South could quickly concentrate forces to win battles, so the North would have to make simultaneous attacks in multiple theaters. Well, if anyone else saw saw that truth earlier, it certainly wasn’t the cunctative McClellan. Lincoln, though, may only have been the first one with any authority to see the big picture. Neither Grant nor Lee were in charge of much by the end of 1861, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they were already thinking grand strategy themselves.

Any time I see a mention of Lincoln’s melancholy condition now, my attention is piqued. Joshua Shenk’s examination of Lincoln’s temperament (I wrote a little bit about it here) changed the way I think both about the sixteenth President and about myself. When Foote reports Lincoln’s statement from near the end of 1861, “The bottom is out of the tub,” he says that bemoaning the end of all hope was only Lincoln’s way of dealing with his melancholy, a plaint uttered to make reality seem less dire by comparison. “Lincoln was his own psychiatrist,” he comments. I know the danger in speaking out fears and doom. But I also know that some vocal worrying often jump-starts the process of solution-finding. I’m glad to see Foote recognize the possibility and praise Lincoln for it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Shelby Foote’s Tragic Muse

Every time I start an account of the American Civil War, I get the feeling that I’m entering into a scripted tragedy. It helps that nineteenth-century people, especially public figures, spoke as if a playwright were crafting their words for posterity. So many memorable phrases pepper the exposition leading to Civil War: Calhoun’s “peculiar institution,” Seward’s “irrepressible conflict,” Lincoln’s (OK, actually Jesus’s) “house divided.” Seward and Lincoln together came up with “the better angels of our nature.” But sometimes the lines ironically sound too scripted to come from an author. What playwright would have dared to put John Brown on the scaffold and give him the line, “I John Brown an now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood”? Or how about Lincoln telling his friends at Springfield, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return”? It’s so improbably stilted and sentimental, he must have actually said it. (Come to think of it, maybe the nineteenth-century authors that sound so stilted and sentimental to us now were strict realists.)

But tragic drama is not just a series of line. Lines are spoken by characters, and characters push forward a plot. And in the Civil War tragedy, the plot’s events roll down with the pull of gravity to their inevitable cataclysm. Take Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Thirty years of negotiation and compromise in Congress had kept the ripping seams of the nation held together by a few delicate threads. And then Douglas proposes overthrowing the compromise, tossing away the peace, for what? What did he care whether Nebraskans got to vote on slavery in their territory? His home state of Illinois was a free state, after all. And what did he get out of it in the end? A couple of years in the Senate and then an overwhelming loss to Lincoln in the presidential election. But once the blood started flowing on the Kansas-Missouri border, nothing would stop it until the surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Shelby Foote captures all the flavor of the tragedy in his monumental telling of the Civil War. His section on Gettysburg  – this section alone, published also on its own, has the length of a complete book – bears the title “Stars in Their Courses,” a biblical phrase suitable to the whole three-volume work and the predestined somberness that it shares with the book of Judges. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Foote’s achievement is his ability to tell both the character-driven stories and the military actions with equally convincing detail.

The people who played out the tragedy of the American Civil War were my great-great-grandparents. I have pictures of some of them. I’ve talked to people who talked with them. With just two degrees of separation, they don’t really seem all that distant to me. But then Foote shows me just how different they were. When representatives of the seceded South Carolina come to Fort Sumter under a flag of truce, U. S. Army General Robert Anderson tells them he cannot give up the fort without losing his honor, although he knows his situation is untenable. His enemies, the men who will within hours pull the lanyards of the guns that will force the surrender, understand perfectly and shake his hand before departing to start four years of killing. During the bombardment, when after a couple minutes of silence the poorly supplied Federal fort resumes its meager, futile counter-volley, the South Carolinians actually cheer and applaud the determination of their foes. Oh, yes, these people come from a different culture. I grew up during the Vietnam War, and I don’t remember any handshaking or cheering.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Things that Help Me Understand Husserl

I remember when I first heard of Phenomenology: a class in the history of music theory around 1983. The professor assigned a student to give a report, and after the report I could only say that I had heard of Phenomenology. A few years later, in a music theory class at yet another university, yet another professor assigned yet another student to give yet another report on Phenomenology. I think it was then that I first heard the name of Edmund Husserl. The student said that the theory had something to do with bracketing and that Husserl’s byword was “To the things themselves!” I guess that gave me some idea. At least I knew what one pioneer in the field would have printed on his t-shirt. I was still baffled, though. Two professors that I respected thought the topic important enough to share with the class, but neither one, sadly, knew enough about it to say anything himself. Years later, a new acquaintance told me he had lost his faith because of Husserl, but he couldn’t tell me exactly what Husserl said that had had such devastating effect. A few years later still, I told that story to Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, and he said people often say such things, but only because everyone misunderstands Husserl. But then he and I didn’t have time for him to give me a true understanding – or any understanding at all. The slogan on that shirt dripped with irony since, if Phenomenology is the Thing, after all these opportunities I still didn't have the slightest notion of the Thing Itself.

So at some point in the early 90s, I started reading The Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl’s final presentation of his philosophy. I can see by my margin notes that I gave up around page 40. I tried to understand, but never got to the crux of the matter. So eight years ago, when I drew up the Plan, I knew The Crisis had to find its place and that it needed to come near the end. And now I’m glad everything worked out just this way. I’ve had four sessions with the book in the last few days, and it seems to be making sense so far. A lot of things have contributed to making the huge difference between my first encounter with the book and now.

• I’m twenty years older.

• I’ve read Plato and Galileo and Kant and other authors that Husserl assumes I’ve read.

• I’ve read a lot of dense German philosophy and have a better sense of how to get through the trees and find the forest.

• The translator’s preface, noting that Husserl’s unfinished last work is especially disjointed and cryptic, gives me license to fly past the things I don’t understand in detail.

• I’ve learned to deal somewhat with my compulsion to read and understand every word of every book I read. (“How can you say you’ve read the book,” I ask myself, “if you only read 99% of the words? You would never leave off the last three pages, would you? So what difference does it make if you skip the same number of words scattered over three hundred?” “A lot of difference,” I say back to myself, Smeagol-like. “A pitcher who gives up six hits in a row probably loses the game. A pitcher who scatters those six hits over nine innings probably wins.”)

• The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy didn’t exist twenty years ago.

• A new friend who has studied with Dallas Willard gave me some excellent guidance just a few days ago.

• I took a walk this morning in 15 degrees, and the bracing cold got me walking faster, reading faster, and thinking faster.

Now if you’ve been waiting thirty years for a clear, brief overview of Husserl’s system, I’m going to disappoint you today. My chances of getting it wrong will be high enough when I finish the book. But I’ll give it a shot when that day comes, sometime in early April.