Monday, September 29, 2014

The Great Conversation

I listened in on a conversation the other day – a conversation between books. Mortimer Adler, the guide and patron saint of my reading project (and the pitching coach of my fantasy baseball team), sometimes spoke of the classic works of literature as The Great Conversation. Across time and space, brilliant writers explore the Great Ideas of truth, justice, being, number, cause and chance, government and democracy, form and substance, will and memory, and many others including, yes, the idea of ideas. The best authors respond to ideas expressed before them, add to them or clarify them, and influence thinkers who come after them.

The metaphor of a conversation makes a lot of sense to me; I experience a conversation between books every day. I discovered a few years ago that I read more and assimilate more of what I read if I keep multiple books going at a time. From the beginning of my current ten-year plan, I’ve always planned to read two books at once, and I read a few pages from each one every day. You can see this parallel nature of the plan in any of the calendars tabbed at the top of this page. In general, one of the books (the ones in the left column on my schedules) is heavier, both in terms of content and of physical weight. These works – typically philosophy, history, and theology – I usually read fairly slowly, sitting down, and taking notes. The books in the right column, on the other hand, I take with me on walks. They’re the books I could read for hours on end (and sometimes do).

In just the last few days, I’ve actually started enjoying portions of three books most days. Getting to my new job involves almost an hour of driving each day, something I wasn’t used to. I listened to music on the drive during the first few weeks in the new situation. But earlier this month, I downloaded an audio version of Phantastes from and listened to about half of it. This pleasurable experience made the commuting time go by quite quickly. So once I finished the MacDonald book, I thought I’d get another audiobook for the car. But what to choose? Everything on the plan for the rest of the year is copyrighted, and I was hoping for something free. So I looked at next year’s plan and picked Tristram Shandy. One, two, three – three books at once. Friday, as geeky as it sounds, I listened to Tristram on the way to work, took Mann’s Magic Mountain on my daily walk, and read in Durant’s The Renaissance during lunch. (Yes, I did some work in between all that reading!)

And that's where the conversation comes in. The conversation I horned in on last Friday had to do with time. Mann has a lot to say about time from the very beginning of The Magic Mountain, especially the difference between perceived time and objective time. Protagonist Hans Castorp, for instance, experiences time flowing quickly when his day is scheduled, plodding slowly as he waits the seven minutes for his thermometer to register his fever, and disappearing altogether as each day, each week, each month repeats the same patterns over and over. Well, during my walk on Friday, I read Mann’s narrator moving this distinction to a literary level. There’s a difference, he points out, between the real-world time taken reading a narrative and the fictional-world time within the narrative. A few seconds of narrative time might take several minutes to read; the split second of action and thought under the train at the end of Anna Karenina came to my mind as an example. On the other hand, years sometimes rush by in a matter of a few words at the beginning of a chapter.

This distinction between reading time and narrative time stayed in the back of my mind all day after that walk, even until I got in the car at the end of the day and turned Tristram back on. And then it happened. The conversation was so stunning, so vivid, so direct, I could practically see Laurence Sterne and Thomas Mann sitting together at a table talking it over. As soon as the recording started, I heard first-person narrator Tristram apologize for taking so long getting to his birth! He’s announced the day, but before he delivers the details, he has to tell the reader about the midwife and the parson who come to the house, about his parent’s arguments about the midwife, about the parson’s horse, about his mother’s desire to have her lying-in in London, about his father’s theory of names (the Shandian System), and so on.

Having read the book before, I know I have a good forty chapters to go before I experience any narration of Tristram’s actual coming into the world. Today, for instance, I heard a digression about the Jesuits’ theory of baptism before birth, a digression about Uncle Toby, a digression on forms of argument, and even a digression on digressions. And it will go on. Several days will lapse before I hear the end of a sentence uttered by Uncle Toby that I heard begin today. Several weeks will lapse before I witness Tristram’s unlucky arrival.

The reader will remember that I was discussing a conversation and an apology. When I heard his apology, I laughed out loud. It wasn’t the first time I laughed out loud while listening to this audiobook. I’ve done it several times. Now, you may not understand the significance of the statement or the reason for my repeating it unless you know that I usually don’t laugh out loud. I have a well developed sense of humor, and I laugh. Sometimes I laugh hard. I have convulsions as good as anyone’s. I just normally don’t make any sound. Sometimes my family wonder why I’m not enjoying myself watching a funny movie. “Don’t you like it?” they ask. “Of course, I like it. It’s funny.” “Then why aren’t you laughing?” “I am laughing.” “I didn’t hear you laughing.” “Ah, but did you see me laughing?” “No your chair was turned around.” I often sit on a swivel chair when we watch movies together. Or I did. Now that we’ve moved, I have a recliner.

Speaking of the time it takes to read a narrative, might I interrupt my pleasant relaxation on the recliner and stop my silent, merry shaking long enough to tell you that Magic Mountain is too long?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parallel Stories, One Lesson

Plutarch’s great compilation of brief biographies, the Parallel Lives, as it is sometimes called, proceeds usually by telling the story of one Greek and then the story of one Roman, followed by a comparison. I almost always encounter the Roman half of the pair with some familiarity, but most of the Greeks I know nothing about apart from Plutarch’s contribution. Why is this? Movies and television both create and reflect our culture’s (somewhat) common knowledge of such characters as Cato, Pompey, Cicero, Marc Antony, and Brutus. And of course everyone knows about Julius Caesar. But what average American knows Lysander, Nicias, Agesilaus, Phocion, or Cleomenes? Why is this? I don’t have an answer. But in general, when we think ancient Greece, we think of the mythology, while Rome still stands vividly in our imaginations as a solidly historical culture.

Unlike most of the entries, Plutarch’s rendition of the life of Tiberius Gracchus focuses on just one story. As a tribune, Tiberius tries to pass a bill dividing conquered land among many of the poorer citizens of Rome, necessarily taking some of it away from the richest families. But he is opposed by another tribune, Octavius, who has fallen under the control of the upper crust. Any tribune can veto any proposal. So, trying to serve the plebeians, Tiberius has Octavius deposed. But ironically, the people turn against him for violating the sacredness of the office. In the end, Tiberius finds himself in the middle of an agitated crowd in the Forum and puts his hand on his head as a signal to his friends out of the range of hearing that he needs protection. But others mistake the gesture as a request for a crown, and Romans saw kings as the most dangerous of all possible threats. Tiberius doesn’t leave that crowded Forum alive.

Poor Tiberius! He tried to do the right thing and lost the support of the very people he tried to serve. Just a few pages earlier, in the life of Agis, a Greek reformer whose story parallels that of Tiberius very well, Plutarch offers a general lesson concerning popular leaders. Those who seek public office, he says, merely run after vain popularity, become slaves of the people they seek to lead, produce unnatural actions, and usually acquire a degree of madness in thinking that whatever is glorious is good, instead of understanding that what is good is also truly glorious. He doesn’t apply this lesson pointedly to Tiberius Gracchus, though. Did Plutarch think him a little mad? Did he think Tiberius pushed for reform only for the empty glory of popularity? Maybe. But he certainly praises Tiberius’ courage and even temper. And these qualities form the heart of a yet more general lesson, perhaps the thesis of Plutarch’s whole biographical project: “In political animosities, a noble nature and a temperate education stay and compose the mind” and “avail to conquer any affliction.” And “though fortune . . . may defeat the efforts of virtue to avert misfortunes, it cannot, when we incur them, prevent our bearing them reasonably.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Searching for Plot in Fairy-Land

We generally think of memories getting “fuzzy” as the years wear over them. But some memories do just the opposite: they contract and become focused on one or two details. For instance, I lived in Georgia for a few months when I was six and seven years old, and I had a best friend that I hung out with every day. We must have done a lot together, but I only remember three things about him (other than that he was my best friend): (1) his name was Len Matlock, (2) he liked drawing monsters, and (3) he thought it was rude to say “Thanks” instead of “Thank you.” That last memory stands out in my memory very vividly indeed, even though almost everything else has disappeared.

As a second example, most people call Ishtar the worst big-budget film ever made. But even though I’ve forgotten almost everything about the movie (maybe because it was the worst ever made; I don’t know) my clear and present memory of one detail serves me very faithfully: Ishtar contains the funniest song-writing scene ever made. When all has faded, that one scene is now what Ishtar means to me. My memory of that scene is the drawer in which my impression of the whole movie is stored.

I didn’t like George MacDonald’s Phantastes the first time I read it. Until about three weeks ago, thousands upon thousands of the details had escaped my active memory entirely, but still I held on to an impression of the book, a headline that all my memories had coalesced into. What I called my memory of the book was simply this: near the beginning the protagonist finds a magical woman who runs away and hardly ever shows up again, a salient symptom of the complete absence of coherent plot. For about twenty years, that was Phantases in my mind: a book I didn’t like because it had no plot.

This time through, though, MacDonald’s fantasy pleasantly surprised me. Anodos found the woman (it turns out she was made of white marble), and she took off, and I said to myself, “Don’t expect to see her again anytime soon.” And then, freed from this weird assumption that one particular living statue would have to lie at the center of a narrative structure, or that there would be a unified linear structure at all, I went wandering with Anodos through the woods of his Fairy-Land and enjoyed every scene, including all the diversions and stories within stories.

Suddenly just a few days ago, while thinking about how much I enjoyed wandering through Fairy-Land this time, it occurred to me that I had written blog posts about “wandering through the woods” with characters in other books – books I absolutely love. Faerie Queene. Le Morte D’Arthur. In fact, just last month I blogged about how much I enjoyed the scarcity of plot in Moby-Dick. And yet all my memories of Phantastes had boiled down to “I didn’t like it because it didn’t have enough plot.” What was I thinking?

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Virtually every day, I take a walk outside with a book. Why the obsession? Sure, I exercise my mind and my body at the same time. Mens sana in corpore sano. But the advantages go deeper than that. Exercise raises levels of endorphins, which help combat depression (or let’s call it melancholia – see the third bullet in this post, as well as dopamine and serotonin, which relieve ADD. And outdoor air does it all much more effectively, supposedly because of negative ions of oxygen. People I pass while walking sometimes ask me how I can concentrate on a book and read at the same time; they generally don’t understand when I tell them that walking actually helps me focus on the book.

But, alas! I’ve hurt my foot and can’t take my daily walk outside today. I’ve been sitting indoors for hours trying to read my daily portion of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and it’s going at least twice as slowly as it normally goes.

Ironically, I’m reading about people who are enjoying the negative ions I’m missing out on. The magic of Mann's mountain comes from the effects of its air on human health. Tuberculosis patients come to the Swiss Alps and Dr. Behrens’s Berghof for a cure. Most actually stay until they die of their disease, but they all find their lives changing in other unexpected ways. The first is the suspension of the feeling of the passage of time. Away from the responsibilities of the “flatlands,” the patients come to find that the month is the smallest useful period of time.

Even more remarkable is the level of philosophical discussion at the sanatorium. Freed from the constraints of time pressure and buoyed on the brain chemistry of alpine living, the inhabitants of the Berghof discuss love, anatomy, the perception of time, Freudian psychology, politics, religion, and more. Some characters talk like teachers everywhere they go, confident in the systems they’ve converted to. There’s Dr. Krakowski, who gives weekly lectures explaining that love equals disease equals life equals death. There’s Settembrini, who preaches the coming of a humanistic utopia. And there’s Naphta, who wants to bring back the Middle Ages with twist and see a unified world of communism led by the Pope.

What they all agree on is that human suffering must be relieved. They’d want my foot to heal, too.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Song

A long time ago, before there were any galaxies, even before there was any far away, there was a globule of blazing matter, a cosmos in a bead, expanding at breakneck speed, stretching space with it as it grew.

All was even at first, featureless, every bit just like the bit next to it.

And then the One, the Merciful, the Wise sang. His divine note coursed through the exploding world, its waves compressing particles here, separating them there, in glorious series of concentric spheres, each emanating and crossing the others on its journey across the spreading universe.

Eventually, length, breadth, and width unfolded enough to leave gaping holes in the humming mass. The largest ripples then subsided and their ultimate effect appeared: clumps of matter scattered over the material realm in virtually random, mathematically chaotic fashion, every clump held together by gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong force, and yet separated from all the others by the silence of distance.

But the motion of the song went on in the urgent rotation of these massive clouds of stuff. Great spinning galaxies coalesced, the symphonies of the sky. Within the galaxies, spinning suns, like motives within a melody, fell in on themselves and burst into nuclear flame. Around these suns, spinning planets and comets gathered.

Still the song continues. The morning stars sing. Night calls to night. Sitting here on one of those spinning planets revolving around one of those suns in one of those galaxies, we don’t hear the divine music. But why? Because we have forgotten the tune? Or to the contrary, because we are inured to its persistent presence?

Either way, were we to hear the melody, we might not be able to comprehend it. The song might well strike us with a power beyond our human capabilities to perceive, like a light too bright for us to discern its color.

Anodos, the protagonist from George MacDonald’s Phantastes, hears the song occasionally. He hears it in the water of the magical land he wanders through. He hears it from the lips of fairies and of living statues. He hears it, but he can’t reproduce it, although he can sometimes translate its import into poetry. For that matter, the poetry he hears in fairy land is in a language too lofty to register in his memory, and again he can only render the impression it makes on him into new verse, which he apologizes for.

So what enters my ears when I read Phantastes is at best only Anodos’s rendition of the memory of the performance of the song. Or maybe my experience is even farther removed from the true Source. Maybe the words in the book offer George MacDonald’s recasting of the impression made on him by the utterance of the invented man in his mind, who renders the memory of a performance of the original song. Six degrees of separation.

But still, I think I can hear the echoes of the song.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Serenity in Barsetshire

I participated in and contributed to church music for forty years, which is to say that I suffered and contributed to disheartening, shameful controversy for forty years. It isn’t pleasant to talk about; it isn’t pleasant to think about. I only mention it to explain that I have a special connection to Trollope’s Barchester series, an insight into his world of ecclesiastical debate, bickering, and intrigue. A cynical outsider might see Trollope’s depiction of infighting among clergymen as confirmation that the Church is only a worldly club. A sanguine church-goer might see the stories as unrealistic or as a pitiful example of things that unfortunately happen “sometimes.” This believer sees it as a brutally realistic picture of the flawed institution for which he and Trollope share a tender love.

In reading The Last Chronicle of Barset recently, I derived the greatest pleasure from meeting up with old friends from the mythical Barsetshire one last time. As I predicted several months ago, they provided just the homely comfort I needed to remove a good deal of the stress of the last few weeks of unpacking, learning a new job, paying utilities in two cities, and wondering which of the umpteen still-taped-up boxes the level is hiding in. I was disappointed at first at the appearance of the London chapters with their very unrural characters and scenes. But Trollope is so good at both the spiritual and the mundane, that they drew me in. For one thing, some of the young women in Barsetshire come dangerously close to being too virtuous at times. But in London, the author is able to come up with Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, who speaks love to painter Conway Dalrymple, warns him of her husband’s jealousy, and sets him up with Clara Van Siever in order to protect herself and her virtue – but all as a bit of play-acting, just because she needs some adventure and excitement in her life.

If I had time, I could go on and on about Mr. Crawley, who can’t remember where he got a check for twenty pounds clearly enough to defend himself from the accusation of theft; about the return of the wonderful Johnny Eames, who succeeds in business without really trying but can’t succeed with Lily Dale; or about the woman readers love to hate, the overbearing Mrs. Proudie, the end of whose story arc is both utterly perfect and maddeningly unsatisfactory. But with only a little time, I’ll be content to say that I wish (as I have wished while reading the earlier volumes) that I could be Septimus Harding. In this last chronicle of Barset, the title chracter from the first chronicle of Barset sits on his deathbed playing Cat’s Cradle with his granddaughter Posy and smiles as he thinks how happy his life has been. As he moves the criss-crossed string back and forth between his own age-withered hands and Posy’s fresh little fingers, he doesn’t seem to have any memory at all of the time the London papers unjustly vilified his name for several weeks.

I have stories I want to forget, too. And I have a granddaughter. Her name is Serenity, and I need to visit her and begin to teach her to play Cat’s Cradle. She is aptly named.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Not Enough Time for Locke, but Time Enough for Everything

If I had more time, I’d sit down and write six or seven posts about the John Locke reader I just finished and then publish one a day for a week. He just wrote so much that I didn’t remember. I’d read the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in college. One of the first things I read in the Britannica Great Books set was his second treatise on government, and few years later I read his Letter on Toleration. But of all that material, all I had remembered vividly was the problem of reality set by his insistence that what we see is only an image in the mind. That problem stayed so strongly in my memory because it had raised a real intellectual disturbance in my mind. It held a prominent place in my consciousness as I read Thomas Reid this past March, so as it happens, I blogged about Locke and this epistemological problem earlier this year.

My basic plan for Year 8 told me to review the works of John Locke, and I picked the reader edited by John Yolton primarily because it included large portions of Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity, which I wanted to read but couldn’t find free on the internet. Now I’m especially glad I chose this anthology instead of just reexamining the Essay, because it showed me the whole spectrum of Locke’s interests. Epistemology, ontology, psychology, education, philosophy of science, probability, ethics, politics, economics, literature and hermeneutics, and theology are all here. As far as I know, Locke had nothing to say on mathematics, and he didn’t treat any of these subjects (even probability or economics) with any mathematical figures or precision. But otherwise, his work ranges over almost the entire gamut of philosophical topics.

In fact, covering the sweep of human knowledge was itself one of the topics he wrote on. Near the end of the reader, I found this:
He that will inquire out the best books in every science, and inform himself of the most material authors of the several sects of philosophy and religion, will not find it an infinite work to acquaint himself with the sentiments of mankind, concerning the weighty and comprehensive subjects.
The suggestion that a zealous student can achieve the task (to describe the task by the vague and doubly negative phrase “not infinite” is about as mathematical as Locke gets) forms the hopeful basis of any Great Books program, and I’ve found it to be essentially true. Sure, I’ve added to the canon Mortimer Adler laid out in his set of classics. I’ve assigned myself to read more poetry and more fiction from the last two hundred years. I’ve included in my schedule scriptures from Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I’ve taken on epics from China and Persia that Adler never hinted at. But still my list is finite: it comes to an end in just over two years.

Well, OK, after that I start my third decade of assigned reading. And, yes, the more I learn, the more I see how much I don’t know.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Learning Virtue from John Locke

John Locke, living in a culture in which “education” primarily meant sending a boy to a public boarding school to learn classics, questions the wisdom of that cultural norm. The boys also, he points out, generally learn to be scoundrels at school. Is the acquisition of Greek and Latin really worth the price of a child’s virtue and innocence? As a remedy, Locke advocates homeschooling by a tutor, consisting mostly of training in virtue, and he points out that virtue should be taught by example and the training of habit, not by rules, which may easily be forgotten.

Locke has my sympathy in his admiration of schooling at home and in his advice to train the young in virtuous behavior. But beside the obvious problem of the need to train virtue in children whose parents can’t afford a private tutor’s complete salary, I’m not sure I see Greek and Latin as in opposition to the learning of virtue. The discipline required to acquire a reading fluency in these ancient languages is itself an education in the virtue of perseverance. And if Locke doesn’t want children learning virtue from Homer or Cicero, he can have his Greek and Latin scholars reading the Bible in those languages.

Locke does appreciate the value of intellectual learning; he just thinks it should come later in life. Children should get shallow overviews of each field of study, he says; leave the details to adults. While I don’t entirely agree, he grabbed my attention with this sentence:
A gentleman, that would penetrate deeper, must do it by his own genius and industry afterwards: for nobody ever went far in knowledge, or became eminent in any of the sciences, by the discipline and constraint of a master.
I saw myself in that sentence. I don’t pretend to be all that an English person might mean by the word “gentleman,” but didn’t I start my own liberal education, pursue it by the energy of my own inner vision, and stick with it by the strength of my own persistence? Could I have done this even as a teenager? I don’t see it. But then, maybe, if I had been told from the age of 7 or so that such an education were possible . . . .