Friday, October 31, 2014

Transcontinental Sidetrack

Having gained some time in the main line of my reading schedule, I took the opportunity over the last couple of weeks to take a sidetrack with Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World. This book gave me everything I expected from Stephen Ambrose and the story of the transcontinental railroad: both the good and the bad.

First, the bad. Ambrose’s writing mechanics could stand some work in the roundhouse. I read too many sentences (one would have been too many for me) starting with “This was because.” Why create a whole new sentence only to begin it with the vague and grammatically imprecise “this” and the dull “was”? What’s wrong with a simple “because” joining a new clause at the end of the previous sentence? Or why not use a participial construction? I suppose I could have started today’s post this way:
I took the opportunity over the last couple of weeks to take a sidetrack. This was because I had gained some time in the main line of my reading schedule.
But I wouldn’t have been happy with myself.

I know Ambrose needs to keep things a little folksy to reach a broader audience. And maybe reaching that goal means keeping his sentences fairly short and simple. I don’t even mind the colloquialisms he tosses into his commentary now and then. But I rolled my eyes when I had to read “Good luck with that” twice within two pages.

Come to think of it, Ambrose repeats himself a lot. Maybe he wrote the book in little chunks as he researched the various topics and then put it all in order at the end. Doing things that way, he might easily forget what he’s already mentioned in other places. But of all Ambrose’s faults, this is the most forgivable. If Stephen Ambrose wants to repeat stories, he should repeat them, because Stephen Ambrose tells great stories. Nothing Like It in the World has the story of Hell on Wheels, the portable city of vice that followed the end of the Union Pacific line as it progressed across Nebraska and Wyoming. There’s the story of the Chinese immigrants who worked tirelessly on the Central Pacific without skipping to Nevada after their first paycheck to mine silver. There’s the story of Doc Durant and his crooked scheme for siphoning the profits of the Union Pacific to his own pocket.

The best story in this book is one that Ambrose repeated, and I’m glad he did: the second telling is much better. The story centers on a competition between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific to lay the most track in a single day. The UP laid four miles one day, so the CP came back with six. When the UP laid eight, thinking the achievement untoppable, the CP came up with a scheme to assure victory. Waiting until the Union Pacific came within about eight miles of the designated meeting place at Promontory Point, the Central Pacific workers laid ten miles of track in one day. The rival company couldn’t even try to beat the mark since they didn’t have ten miles left to lay.

In spite of all the stylistic clunkiness, Ambrose’s histories instruct and entertain. He celebrates hard work, ingenuity, honesty, bravery, the multicultural roots of the United States, and other ideals I celebrate with him – at least in the books of his that I've read: Nothing Like It in the World, Into the Wild Blue, and Undaunted Courage. (I don’t know what he does in his books about Nixon.) So I’ll probably take another sidetrack with him somewhere a couple years down the line.

And that wraps up the review of my recent ride on (warning: silly pun in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . ) the Reading Railroad.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fourth Grade’s Tail and Will Durant’s Dog

When I was in the fourth grade, I didn’t have to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways. But I did have to study geography and write reports occasionally on a state or region of the U.S., listing the capital, size, population, chief geographic features, chief industry, and chief agricultural export. It seemed tedious at the time; I didn’t even know what the word industry meant and barely had an idea about export only because it had the handy antonym import. But I remember learning that Florida grew oranges, that Texas had cattle, and that Ohio made tires.

Was that pittance of knowledge worth all the tax money allocated to the schools? Well, keep in mind that this wasn’t the sum total of my fourth-grade education. I also learned the multiplication table (although I still have to think about 6x7); I learned that when asked to spell post office in a spelling bee, one must say “space” in between “tee” and “oh”; and I learned that I could not do more than three push-ups total or even more than one without calling forth peals of laughter from the other fourth graders. In any case, these geography lessons converted tax dollars more productively than our current day's exercises to clarify personal beliefs regarding whether states should be part of the United States.

Fast forward twelve years. As a young adult trying to build a library (I’m now an aging adult trying to dismantle a library so the next move isn’t so hard!), I purchased an antique history of the United States from 1907. As I sat down to read it, I opened to the first page thinking I would read about explorers, since Columbus and Hudson and their pals started out every general American history book I’d ever read. To my surprise, I found this instead:
In the present chapter will be found a brief description of the great natural resources which a kind Providence has placed at the disposal of the inhabitants of the United States. Without this knowledge, the student will seek in vain to understand the history of the American people.
First of all, a kind Providence? Yes, if public education has changed in the fifty years since my fourth-grade experience, it also changed in the sixty years prior. No less shocking to me, though, than the allusion to the Deity was the statement that geography affected history. I’ve tried to be honest in these posts about how ignorant I am and about how long it takes me to learn some things. So I have to be honest again and say that it was a total revelation – although it seemed obvious immediately afterwards – to discover that the mountains in Colorado, the timber in Oregon, the fish in Maine, and the grain in Kansas might have shaped history. Maybe those fourth-grade reports weren’t so pointless after all. I just hadn’t learned to put things together. History as my schools presented it to me consisted of lists of political movements and events, inventions, and wars. But I didn’t get any narrative sweep with causes and effects. (A possible exception: I think one teacher in elementary school tried to teach us that the cotton gin caused the Civil War. Hmm.) For the first time as I read this antique history volume, I started to think of one event in history causing another down the road.

OK, that intro ended up longer than I thought it would be; I’d better move on now to the dog so the tail can wag it. And the tiny dog is just this: Will Durant does a marvelous job moving back and forth between detailed stories and descriptions on the one hand and grand visions and explanations on the other. The other day, I read that the Papacy’s move to Avignon helped lead to the Hundred Years War and paved the way for Wyclif. Why should we, reasoned the English, send all our church taxes to France where they’ll only fatten the purses of the Dukes across the Channel? And why should we, reasoned Wyclif, give lip service to theology we can’t conscionably accept for fear of the recriminations of a mere pawn of the fat-pursed French Dukes? Simplistic? Yes. But the connections definitely do have a basis in fact and certainly help me remember that these were all events of the fourteenth century.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

World War Which?

Germany develops a plan for war and cultural domination. German leadership speaks of needing more room for the people whose glorious reign will extend far into the future. The German assault begins as a quick thrust through Belgium with the hopes of subjugating France before dealing with Russia. German soldiers, forgoing individuality, fight with the efficiency of a machine. And backed by purported science, the whole endeavor is proclaimed as serving the purpose of freeing the blonde-haired Teutonic race throughout Europe from the oppression of inferior races. The story sounds extremely familiar. But the date of the story may be surprising. It certainly was to me. I’ve been reading about this war in essays by G. K. Chesterton dated 1916. That’s right: from the time of the Great War, Double-You Double-You Single-Aye.

Now I’ve read (and I think I heard this in a college history class as well) that nobody wanted this war, that WWI slipped in almost accidentally. The avalanche, so the simplified story goes, started as a snowball of an assassination rolling inexorably down a snowy slope of innocent treaties. But if Germany didn’t want this war, why did they have an attack plan? If the Kaiser commandeered Belgium only to get to France, which was the ally of Russia, which was the ally of Serbia, whose national killed an archduke of Austria, which was the ally of Germany – if the elimination of the sovereign government of the free state of Belgium was really only an unfortunate knot in a diplomatic tangle, then why all the talk of freeing the Teutonic Flemish “race”?

I fell in love with Chesterton’s essays from the Illustrated London News back in the 80s. In the 90s, I bought the whole run: all thirty of years of weekly essays. In the 00s (I call them the “Oaties”), I compiled a multi-year reading plan and determined then that if I was ever going to read them all, I just had to start going through them systematically from front to back. But in the 10s (the “Teenies,” of course), when I first discovered that Chesterton’s ILN essays would never stray from the war for the whole period from August 1914 to November 1918, I was disappointed. After the novelty of the first few weekly numbers waned, the series got very tedious. As much as Chesterton rails against jingoism in several numbers, his war analysis sure sounded jingoist to me: Germany could do no right, England could do no wrong. So I decided to leave the strict chronological plan, reading one year of essays from after the war in between each year of essays from during the war.

But in the last week, after thinking I’d just have to force myself through 1916 in order to reward myself with 1921, I found that Chesterton’s war-time journalism suddenly got really good. Instead of just railing generically about the evil Germans, he quotes German press and propaganda about racial superiority and destiny to dominate and other hideous nonsense. Instead of just praising England’s righteous ways, he outlines (and deplores) specific English faults, and then compares specific statements by the English government and press about English mistakes to statements by the German government and press regarding German mistakes (which they don’t admit to). Sure enough, the comparison makes the Germany of 1916 look self-righteous, irrational, inhumane, and evil. And sadly, the knowledge of what would happen in Germany over the next quarter century tells me that Chesterton wasn’t just finding weird misstatements by irrelevant persons to display and deplore.

Speaking of the succeeding years, hindsight is apparently not the only way to see the inevitable repeat of the European conflict. Chesterton sounds a chilling, prophetic tocsin several times through the essays from 1916: the Allies must secure an absolutely devastating victory over Germany, because without one, the way Germany’s leaders talk, they’re bound to attempt the domination of Europe all over again. Chesterton calls the conflict in 1916 the Great War and a World War, but this observant, prescient man never calls it The War to End All Wars.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Plots

Already read The Chronicles of Narnia, the Out of the Silent Planet space trilogy, and Til We Have Faces? The Dark Tower and Other Stories, says editor and one-time Lewis secretary Roger Lancelyn Green, will complete your experience with all the known fiction of C. S. Lewis. The collection may complete the catalog of Lewis’s fiction, but the items in the collection are not themselves complete: two of the “stories” are unfinished novels. In fact, all of the entries seem unfinished in a way, like first drafts. Now granted, C. S. Lewis writes a pretty fine first draft. But the short stories in the set as well as the chapters of the second novel are all unusually brief; they lack the depth of detail and character we know Lewis could provide. The conversations mostly provide exposition, and the narration mainly supplies plot. But then all these items seem experiments based on an idea or plot twist, so perhaps history and Lewis's fireplace left us only the bare minimum necessary to get the main idea across.

The theme and tone of some of these experiments might seem a little surprising to someone expecting more of Lewis’s apologetic, allegorical, or moralistic writing. In “Ministering Angels,” for instance, he explores the idea that the only women who would want to go to Mars for the astronauts’ – er – social needs would be failed prostitutes. (Interestingly, Lewis seems oblivious to the idea that the astronauts of his future might themselves be women.) This story, however, is the only one in the set to reach an explicitly Christian theme, as one of the astronauts begins to imitate Jesus’ merciful dealings with practitioners of the world’s oldest profession.

“The Shoddy Lands,” very interesting but perhaps a little cruel, explores a jump into the mind of a vapid girl who sees trees only as green blobs and other women only as moving blocks with fine clothes. If the story has a spiritual theme, it is the latent message that we none of us appreciate the fulness of the wonder of creation. “The Man Born Blind” again barely hints at Lewis’s theological ideas only if we accept Green’s helpful suggestion that the story goes with the essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” and its discussion of seeing light vs. seeing by means of light.

“The Dark Tower” – what is the proper way to format the title of an unfinished fragment of a novel, by the way: italics or quotation marks? – which takes up the bulk of the slender volume, is a weird tale that starts out like a Wells novel, with the great scientist revealing to his colleagues a machine proving a strange new theory. Or so he thinks! Dr. Orfieu believes that human memory and visions result, not from stored impressions or from imagination, but from actual, direct perception of the past and future. All he need do is locate the area of the brain that does the sensing of other times, reproduce its material, shine a light through his artificial organ, and start watching the past – or maybe it’s the future – unfold on a screen. But what he and his circle observe involves a society led by pallid men with stingers on their foreheads who turn the stingerless folk one by one into automatons by piercing their spines. How could this be either the past or the future of the human race? Mysteries! The plot thickens when one of the characters, Scudamour, sees on the screen, first, his own double and then his girlfriend’s. He runs toward the flickering image and finds himself, his consciousness that is, in a stinger-headed body in the other world.

Soon afterwards, the draft breaks off. Green hypothesizes that Lewis eventually would have had Scudamour (1) decide that Otherworld Girlfriend is a better person than the one he knows and supposedly loves, (2) find a way to bring her back to his original world, and then (3) discover that she is actually a person from this world who, as a small child, found herself strangely transferred to the parallel world, while the real Otherworld Girlfriend took over the body in this world, grew up in it, and eventually developed a relationship with Scudamour.

Does that make any sense? I’m afraid it doesn’t. But I had to explain that much in order to say what I wanted to say about the other unfinished novel, “After Ten Years.” In this yarn, Menelaus climbs out of the Trojan Horse and locates Helen, the woman for whom the Greeks have fought for ten long years, only to discover that she is not the most beautiful woman in the world anymore, but instead a somewhat overweight, less-than-lustrous, middle-aged woman. The passage of ten years, after all, does sometimes do such a thing to human bodies. We don’t know exactly how the Spartan lord’s disappointment plays out because the draft suddenly jumps to a later time and to the land of Egypt, where the now-victorious Menelaus hears (Lewis takes up a twist of Euripides here) that the gods didn’t really let Paris take Helen to Troy. They made a copy, an eidolon, of Menelaus’ wife and sent the fake over to Asia with the Trojan prince. The real Helen, the beautiful Helen, Menelaus is told, has been hanging out in Egypt all this time. The Greeks have fought for a decade over an illusion.

Lewis’s efforts stopped here. With no more to go on, Green theorizes that his famous friend, had he finished this book, would have put a twist on Euripides’ twist, revealing that the beautiful Egyptian woman was in reality the eidolon, and that the frumpy version was the real thing after all. It surprises me that Green didn’t notice the link between his two theories. Isn’t this really the same as the proposed plot of “The Dark Tower”? Boy loves Girl. Boy sees Girl in distant place. Boy goes to distant place to get Girl. Boy finds out Girl is not Girl. Then Boy discovers that Girl is actually Girl after all. It makes perfect sense for C. S. Lewis. It’s even essentially the same as the plot of yet another Lewis book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. (Why didn’t Green include this in his supposedly exhaustive list of Lewis’s fictional work?) The Pilgrim, if I remember correctly, sets out from home to find Truth only to discover, like Dorothy Gale, that what he truly sought was the home he had rejected in the first place. Seen in this light (or should I say, by means of this light?), the two unfinished novels become Christian tales, since the journey of rediscovery Lewis retells several times is a spiritual journey ending in Christ.

Now that I think about it clearly enough to write about it, I guess I’ve recreated the plot myself. I picked up The Dark Tower and Other Stories thinking I would read some little-known Christian fiction by one of my favorite authors. Then I found myself surprised and slightly disappointed with space-traveling trollops, stinger-headed tyrants, and faceless fashionistas. But in the end, I decided I had found what I was looking for to begin with.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Roller Coaster of a Read

I’ve been looking forward to revisiting Charles Williams’s The Greater Trumps for many years now. If so especially eager for this one, why did I place it as late as year 8 when I first drew up The Plan? I can only answer myself by saying that I look at the Tolkien/Williams category of my list and wonder what else I would have delayed to make room for it.

But I did have a special anticipation for this one. I first read it while I was in bed with the flu one time in the 90s. Now the problem is – well, it’s a beauty and a wonder if you’re in good health and a problem only if you have the mental diffuseness that comes with a fever – the problem is that Charles Williams covers his prose with a layer of mysticism. And three or four times in each book, that mystical patina digs deep down into the body of the drama where one or more characters undergo a transcendent encounter with the weird. These passages, usually five to twenty pages long, are hard to follow in the best of conditions. I generally treat them the way I treat the giant drops on a roller coaster: I tense up, realize I’m going to lose control to an overpowering force, and hang on while I enjoy the free fall knowing it will be over soon. In the semi-delirium of 102 degrees, though, I lost my grip on the lapbar of The Greater Trumps and ended up getting thrown out into the trees.

But this time, fifteen or more years later, I climbed onto the ride much better prepared to follow its track all the way to the end. Not only did I enjoy my full faculties, but just last year GAMES magazine ran a story on the history of the Tarot cards, the main prop, if you will, of this Williams fantasy. It turns out that the stories about the cards’ origin in ancient Egypt were fabricated in the nineteenth century. Their medieval or early-modern Christian provenance is actually quite clear. The Hierophant wears a Pope’s mitre and sits over the keys of Peter. The Ace of Cups is the chalice of the Lord’s Table. The Judgment involves an angel with a trumpet and bodies rising from the grave, right out of I Corinthians. The Priestess sits between two pillars marked J and B, the Jachin and Boaz of I Kings. The World is surrounded by the traditional symbols for the four gospel writers. And on and on. This knowledge made it much easier for me to buy Williams’s fictional conceit that the cards represented the eternal dance of the biblical God’s creation, that their figures were symbols or types of objects and attributes from the eternal world.

Williams had his own set of types that he drew on in writing his novels. All his stories seem to have a character of a faith so strong that it is almost sight of the Blessed: a character with a Marian acceptance of every adventure of God’s will. In The Greater Trumps, Sybil plays this role, the woman for whom “nothing is certain but everything is safe” because God is in control. They all have the young person entirely ignorant of the ways of the Lord, totally inexperienced in the supernatural, but ready to learn at each new surprise. Such is Nancy in this book. They all have the worldly skeptic with a “rational” explanation for everything (Lothair Coningsby here), the person who believes but only wants to possess the Power (Aaron), and the pagan ready to worship the Power but under the wrong name (Joanna).

Everything fell into place this time, and I felt very comfortable. The characters all seemed familiar according to their types, and the mystical cards worked well as portals to the Other Side. But halfway through, I came across the totally unexpected. The interaction with the uncanny that began around chapter 10 (magic snow storm, glowing mist, a crazy cat, visions of towers made out of hands, a guy who can’t feel his own head – you know, the usual stuff) didn’t last just part of a chapter, not just one whole chapter, not even just two chapters. It went all the way to the end. This plunge of the tracks never let up. I definitely stayed in the car this time, but I was pretty rattled by the time it pulled back into the station. Well, I’ve scheduled the book once more for the next decade, and I’ll be even more prepared for the next ride.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

One Small Corner of Earth

At the end of volume V of The Story of Civilization, Will Durant sums up the Italian Renaissance by first listing charges against it and then presenting a closing argument for the defense. Whatever good came of the Renaissance movement, his indictment begins, was born on the backs of the oppressed. Republican governments generally fell to dictatorships. The Church and its leaders were corrupt and immoral. The painting, beautiful as it might be, was shallow. And the staid neoclassical architecture pinned the imagination to the earth and failed to express either the glory of the ancient past or the exuberance of the contemporary world. In rebuttal, however, Durant points out that the achievements of great cultures always depend on the labor of the masses, that the decadence of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy brought with it an intellectual freedom that we take for granted today, and that the architects at least produced the great domes of Florence and of St. Peter’s and provided space for the sublime work of Michelangelo.

Having lived in Tuscany, the epicenter of the Renaissance, for four months a few years ago, this juror casts his vote in favor of the defendant. I’m not saying the art was worth the moral devastation of the Church or the blood in the streets – much less the spilled blood in the cathedrals. But that highly regrettable side of the past cannot be prevented, no matter how much I swing my head in astonished shame. What I am saying is that the greater part of the legacy is undoubtedly very good.

I remember when I first experienced the Renaissance, not just as a style or as a chapter in a history book, but as a force and as a gift to succeeding ages: we were in a museum room of the Convento San Marco in Florence on a cold day in February. Nancy and I had gone to the Convento to see the frescos of Fra Angelico in the monks’ cells, but little did we know how many paintings by other artists we would see. Picture after stunning picture bore the inscription, “By an unknown brother of the fifteenth century.” And it occurred to me: get one genius into a community, and he can bring out the artist in everyone.

Gather any one hundred clergy in the United States today and ask them to paint or draw a picture, and the chances are overwhelmingly great that the best would look like a child’s scribbling next to the most routine example of one of the unknown brothers of San Marco. But no one in this country expects a Christian shepherd to be able to paint. No one expects him to have skills in mathematics. For that matter, based on my experience in many churches, a very, very few even expect our Christian speakers to use correct grammar. But put one hundred Florentine monks together with Fra Angelico and ask them to paint, and you end up with lasting and moving works of art, because in Fra Angelico’s Italy, everyone with any education at all was expected to be able to paint, and that expectation brought talent and creativity to the surface.

So where did the expectation come from? Was it something in the Tuscan water? Standing in that front room of the convent I started thinking about the torrent of world-changing ideas that came out of this small corner of the earth, especially two cities now just a one-hour train ride apart: Florence and Arezzo. We’ll start in eleventh-century Arezzo, where Guido invents musical notation. A quarter of a millennium later, Petrarch, also from Arezzo, concocts the idea of the Renaissance and even the greater idea of cultural history and change, and begins the wonder of poetry in modern languages. Hop on the train to Florence, and you see Giotto adding human emotion and individuality to painting. A hundred years later, Masaccio perfects the use of perspective. A few years after that, Donatello brings sculpture to vivid life. In the 1430s, Cosimo de’ Medici calls a council of clerics from East and West, and Greek scholarship seizes the Italian imagination. His descendants invent double-column bookkeeping. A century later and back in Arezzo again, Vasari writes a history of art and claims that it has a goal and purpose: Michelangelo. At the end of the sixteenth century, Bardi and his friends of the Florentine Camerata – including one Vincenzo Galileo – invent opera and the new texture of melody and accompaniment. And at the beginning of the next century, just across the Arno, Vincenzo’s son Galileo gives the world the scientific endeavor, guided by controlled experimentation and observation and expressed in numbers and formulas. There’s the modern world of music, art, literature, history, letters, accounting, science, and mathematics, all springing forth over a span of six hundred years in one small corner of the earth.

What was in the water? And how can we get our culture to start drinking from that fountain?