Friday, July 31, 2015

Don Quixote’s Foil

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is famous for one book, and that book is one of the greatest in the history of literature. But Cervantes wasn’t always so successful. Earlier in his life, he wrote and published just half of an earlier book, La Galatea, a pastoral book about shepherds and shepherdesses who fall in love and then die of broken hearts. The book didn’t sit well with someone – the public, the publisher, or the author – because Cervantes never completed it. The author himself makes fun of it in a book-burning scene in Don Quixote, although we can’t tell if the joke came from proper literary judgment or from some kind of modesty. I haven’t read it; I have no wish to. So I can’t begin to say if it’s a bad book. But someone thought Cervantes’s pastoral writing bad, or else we would have a completed novel.

So why did Cervantes include pastoral side stories in Don Quixote? The translator of the version I’ve been enjoying recently condemns these passages as boring and advises readers to skip them so they don’t get bogged down and give up on the extremely long novel (423,813 words: somewhere between David Copperfield and War and Peace.) It’s hard for me to skip parts, though, and the digressions at least interesting as historical artifacts. So I’m reading them (quickly). But still I kept wondering: why did Cervantes include them?

I have a couple of theories. First, perhaps he included the pastoral stories because that's what you had to do at the time to sell books. More likely to my mind, though, is the theory that Cervantes knew the flaws of this genre and included the stories as a foil to the much superior story of Don Quixote. The shepherds and shepherdesses die because of unrequited love, a thing no one to my knowledge has ever done. Meanwhile, Don Quixote performs crazy antics in imitation of the dejected Orlando of Orlando Furioso, publicly making a fool of himself and causing himself pain in order to show his beloved Dulcinea what torture “she” is putting him through, a thing thousands of teenagers do every day.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

More Reflection

I intended to blog about more than one of the essays in Christian Reflections two posts back but ended up writing so long about my experience in Miss Diamond’s Social Studies class that I didn’t have time to talk about more than just one. So for today, here’s a quick rundown of some of the ones that grabbed me hardest without any preamble (other than this preamble stating that I won’t add a preamble).

"Christianity and Culture": This was the essay that most directly hit important aspects of my daily life. Identifying himself as a “culture seller,” Lewis recounts his post-conversion search for clarity on whether he should spend time and get paid for promoting something that doesn’t lead to salvation and may in some cases even hinder it. As a music professor, I too am a culture seller, and I’ve gone through many of the same questions and read many of the same sources Lewis read in search of answers. He continued to teach literature after becoming a Christian, so obviously his questioning led to a positive answer, but his essay ends with what seems like an unsettled, tentative accord. I wish I could have directed him to Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine and to consider Philippians 4:8.

"The Funeral of a Great Myth": The Great Myth in question is the on-the-street view that the universe and life and intelligence and humanity and morals all evolved and will continue to evolve, making life, the universe, and everything better and better and better – until entropy takes over and everything dies. Lewis never lost his love of the Norse myths of heroes who fought nobly in spite of the inevitability of Ragnarok, so of course he also respects the beauty of the evolution-as-betterment myth even as he sees it going out of fashion. It does seem to have gone out of fashion; Hitler and terrorism seem to have convinced the general public that humans aren’t improving morally with each generation. The myth hung on in the various Star Trek series, but I’m not sure where I’d look to find it today.

"On Church Music": An excellent article!!!! The worship wars had already started in Lewis's time. (They’ve probably been around for centuries.) Here he gives sound advice on how to handle the tension. Why haven't all the Protestant churches that respect Lewis promoted and devoured this essay?

 "Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer": Why does the New Testament teach both that our prayers are answered only when they are in God's will (the proper form being "if it is your will" or "not my will but thine") and that whatever we ask (or command!) will be done? How wonderful that Lewis expresses his ignorance and truly writes "without an answer"!

Friday, July 24, 2015


Yeah, that was the perfect name for the translation of Emma to the contemporary world of Alicia Silverstone’s movie. Emma is clueless about what makes Robert Martin a worthy man. She’s clueless about what makes Mr Elton an unworthy man. She’s clueless about what she does to Harriet. Above all, she’s clueless about both the qualities and the affections of Mr Knightley. Not that she’s as ignorant or air-headed as Silverstone’s Cher. Emma understands much of human natures and thinks carefully and analytically about herself and her friends. It’s just that she starts with pet premisses and then can’t ever let them go.

But worse is her penchant for meddling and her occasional thoughtlessness. I cringe when she nearly ruins Harriet’s best chance for happiness, and her insult to Miss Bates is excruciating to read. In some ways, she’s the least likeable of the Austen heroines. But then she sees the error of her ways in the end and actually repents, and if she hadn’t done so many terrible things, we shouldn’t care so much about that repentance.

My favorite aspect of the book this time through was the deft way in which Austen handled all the misunderstandings. Chapter after chapter, she gives her characters lines that very naturally express exactly what the speaker wants to say and yet very naturally sound to the hearers as if they mean something completely different. What a tour de force!

Once a year in first-year music theory, I find one opportunity, when some melody or chord progression or key scheme that we’re studying resolves to C, to say, “That’s right, it goes to C. Just like the third son in a Jane Austen family.” The class is silent but attentive. They know there’s a joke in there somewhere, but they don’t get it yet. After a moment I explain: “You know. The first one gets the estate, the second one goes into the church, and the third one goes to sea.”

I’ll make a paragraph break to leave readers an appropriate amount of time for laughter.

Now, I’ve done this schtick for at least twenty-five years. And for the first twenty-four of those years, I got the same response: continued silence from most of the class, but giggles and groans from several girls and, usually, one guy. That’s OK. I like strengthening a bond with an elite few, and I get to make a pitch for one of my favorite authors to the students who haven’t read her. But this last year, the class gave me nothing at either stage of the routine; they didn’t laugh at the set-up before the pause, and they didn’t laugh after the pun was revealed. So I asked them, as usual, who had read any Jane Austen. Again, for twenty-four years, I had received an encouraging response: several students always attested that they had read some Austen, and they agreed with me that the books are as wonderful as books can be. But this year, only one student had read any (or was willing to admit to it), and he (that it was a “he” only added to the string of surprises) only shrugged his assessment. Ahí, caso acerbo! Another treasure of civilization gone from the consciousness of our youth!

Friday, July 17, 2015

A Reflection

I think I was in ninth grade when I had social studies with Miss Sandra Diamond. Whatever grade it was, she was terrific. She branched out from the crimped curriculum handed to her by the school and thought clearly about creating lessons designed to help us think clearly. One day one student asked what Watergate was all about (OK, if I think about it a minute, that detail should pin down the grade); she ditched the lesson plan and told us. I probably wouldn’t have remembered the canned lesson; her offroading, on the other hand, got me into current affairs and made me an actively thinking American.

One of Miss Diamond’s units dealt with religious freedom. She actually told us that she didn’t like the prefabricated lesson plans (which pleased me to no end then and still warms my heart now) and that she had come up with something new. First we listened to some of Jesus Christ Superstar (we all definitely approved of that part of the new deal) and discussed – actually discussed – the trial before Pilate.

Then Miss Diamond gave us some dilemmas involving religious freedom. One concerned a hypothetical Christian Science family who had let their child die rather than receive a transfusion. Most of the students were horrified; it may have been the first time any of us had heard that such things happen. But Miss Diamond didn’t want us just to classify it as “wrong” because the outcome shocked us; the whole point of the lesson was to see the case from the side of religious freedom. She kept pushing, but as far as I remember, I was the only one willing to admit that the parents had done the right thing given their premises that the child would suffer eternal damnation if they had allowed the procedure.

Over the last few days, we’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’s Christian Reflections in the car. In one of the essays, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Lewis’s argument reminded me of that discussion in Miss Diamond’s class. Lewis suggests that neither Aztec human sacrificers nor Massachusetts witch hunters had different morals from us, just different beliefs. We send our young people to die in war when we think the greater good of the society demands it, just like the Aztecs; but the Aztecs believed they had to appease the gods to keep their society afloat, while we believe we have to confront our flesh-and-blood enemies. Similarly, we also hunt out threats to the state and execute them just like the folks in Salem; it’s just that we believe our traitors tell lies under orders from foreign nations while the witch hunters believed their traitors told lies under orders from Satan, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same. The evil in each case lies primarily in the false belief. And the difference in each case lies in the belief.

“People should never let their children die if it can be helped” is neither a religious statement nor one which we, as a whole, agree with – considering the wars we get ourselves into. So repugnance at the loss of the child is not a question of religious freedom. Whether the state can tolerate the particular belief that leads to the death of the child is the question of religious freedom, and Miss Diamond helped me see that. Thanks, Miss Diamond!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Here I Can Grovel

G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy once played a leading role in a pivotal scene in my life. For several years, I’ve assumed I would write a long blog post about the book when my ten-year reading plan got to it. Maybe several long posts. But as time and life and reading schedules would have it, Orthodoxy came up on a long road trip (I read it to my wife as we headed north to Canada), and between driving, editing photos, whale watching, and listening to live Celtic music, there’s just not that much time for blogging this month. So I’d better hit the high point while I have a moment.

I don’t know why anyone reads these musings, but since you are reading this one at least, I might as well confess to you that I struggle with depression. At least I used to struggle. These days I really should use the word “manage.” And Chesterton’s Orthodoxy deserves a lot of the credit for the change.

(OK. Essentials. High points. I can do this.) Twenty years ago, I was sad about things – a lot of things – and I believed I was justified in feeling sad about things. But most of the time it felt terrible; being right really didn’t help that much. Friends told me to be happier. Counselors told me to be happier. The Bible told me to rejoice always. But then the Bible also told me that with much wisdom comes much sorrow, and doesn’t God want us to be wise? Why did no one else see this? (Well, no one but Sally Sparrow.)

Then Chesterton came my way with an autobiographical book all about his search for the philosophy that would allow him to love the world enough to see how wrong it is. Christianity, he said, doesn’t promote a Stoic grim acceptance of the world’s conditions, doesn’t seek the Aristotelian golden mean between sorrow and joy. Instead, it encourages both emotional responses in the greatest intensity. Christianity, he said, preferred pure red and pure white, never pink. But each at its proper time and in the proper context.

Here finally was someone, a good Christian, telling me not to trade in sadness for joy, not to water down sorrow for the world and for my sins with joy, but to add joy to the sorrow. “Here you can exult,” as he explained his own discovery, “and there you can grovel. And that was a liberation.” It was a liberation for me, as well.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Will is Weird

Measure for Measure is a weird play. Check any source, and you’ll read about the troubling lack of freedom for women or the problems categorizing the play or some other such problem. But I’m  not really referring to these traditional critical problems. I just think the main premise is weird. Vincentio, Duke of Vienna (Will was never very good at mainland geography), puts his second-in-command in charge and pretends to leave town in order to see how he’ll do.

This situation has always reminded me of Jesus’ parables of the kings and masters going away on a journey and coming home suddenly. But what seems weirdest to me is the Duke’s disguise. He dresses up as a friar, gives advice and spiritual solace, and takes confession. He also comes up with a crazy plan involving sex with the wrong woman (who is actually the right woman) in the dark – not as crazy as Friar Laurence’s scheme for Juliet and the sleeping potion, but pretty crazy and, I would think, out of character for a man of orders. And isn’t it a little sacrilegious, or at least disrespectful to the cloth, for a layman to impersonate a friar and hear confession?

But something occurred to me reading the play this time. Maybe Shakespeare was making a Protestant point. Maybe he intentionally made his friars a little outrageous as a minor anti-Catholic rant. Maybe he wanted to show a layman hearing confession to demonstrate the priesthood of all believers. Perhaps he did it all to please his very Protestant queen.

But then I’ve read that he probably wrote the play in 1603 or 1604, just as the much-less-Protestant James I came to the throne. Well, now I see another problem.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Sometimes Shakespeare Gets Better on Second Reading

I’m traveling and have slightly less time than usual for blogging. On the other hand, I’m behind: I’ve finished several things that I haven’t posted anything about yet. So the next few offerings will probably be short.

The first time I read 2 Henry IV, I found it harsh and confusing that Harry would renounce Falstaff when he ascends to the throne. They make such a good pair in the first Henry IV play, it was just terribly disappointing to see the break-up. I don’t remember what I thought the second time I read the play. But this time through, the renunciation seemed like the inevitable conclusion from the beginning of the show. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” King Henry tells us. And young Prince Harry knows it; he says throughout the play that he’ll have to give up his roving ways when he becomes king. He even announces in the first play that he’ll give up his pals when his father dies.

Falstaff on the other hand shows no sense of responsibility whatsoever. He spends the whole play bragging about how much forgiveness and promotion he will enjoy when his partner in crime becomes king. It never occurs to him to think that the ruler of a nation shouldn’t perhaps fraternize with petty criminals. But I don’t think Harry’s rejection actually hurts Falstaff; he just goes on trying to rationalize the new monarch’s public words and planning what to do when the “true” news comes to him privately. So the rejection is the ultimate proof of the rotund rogue’s happy-go-lucky character; of course it had to happen.