Saturday, October 31, 2015

Comedy Is not Pretty

Evelyn Waugh is often described as a comedic author. If he is, then his novels must be categorized as extremely dark comedies. I laughed twice during A Handful of Dust, but only twice. And yet much of the powerful effect of the novel comes from jarringly conflicting elements juxtaposed in a comedic way. So the traditional label does make sense. Brenda Last develops a thing for Mr Beaver and asks Tony Last for a divorce. Everyone “agrees” (I’m not sure how) that it will be “convenient” for Brenda to be the plaintiff in the court case. So Tony’s solicitor hires detectives and Tony hires a woman to spend a weekend with him at the beach – and then he consults with the detectives on what he should do so they can “catch” him. Detectives don’t make plans with their targets, right?

When I was about nine years old, my parents took me to see The Cactus Flower. I remember laughing out loud at the line “That’s my wife, all right. And with her boyfriend.” I also remember my parents giving me a look that said, “That is not anything to laugh about.” But I was nine. I didn’t know what any of it meant. I just saw the crazy juxtaposition, so I laughed. Every nine-year-old knows that a person’s mouth is not a radio. But Gilligan’s mouth becomes a radio, so it’s funny. Every nine-year-old knows that people don’t make cages out of water pipes. But Curly Howard traps himself in a maze of plumbing, so it’s funny. Every nine-year-old knows that married women don’t have boyfriends. But in The Cactus Flower, they do, so it’s funny. I don’t know why my parents didn’t see it.

But of course I do know why they didn’t see it. Sadly, although we never lose our understanding that mouths are not radios and that plumbers don’t make cages, we all find out soomer or later that many wives do indeed have boyfriends. So the line in The Cactus Flower is both funny (I wasn’t the only person in the theater laughing) and tragic. And in this way, A Handful of Dust is both funny and tragic, even if you want to cry more than you want to laugh.

Another way to put it: If comedic scenes like the one from Gilligan’s Island and the one from the Three Stooges work by putting on screen a mad situation that conflicts with the standard of reality, can’t it be funny to focus on a mad situation from real life that conflicts with a higher standard of how things could be – or even should be? And Waugh does exactly this. He portrays modern society in all of its veneer-crusted emptiness, and yet his narration and pacing always carry an undertone of criticism. By making his scenes and characters excruciatingly realistic, he writes satire, because modern life itself is a satire. And whether I laugh out loud or not, I see satire as funny.

Yes, I know that by recognizing comedy in a story of divorce, I’m laughing at the Fall of Man. But somehow, scowling at sin in a story often ends up feeling judgmental, while laughing at sin in a story seems to keep me aware that I’m one of the good old sinners, too. Thanks for reminding me, Mr Waugh.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

An Honorable Man

I picked that title for today’s post and then immediately thought of the funeral oration from Julius Caesar. But when I say Harry S Truman was an honorable man, I’m not using Mark Antony’s air quotes. Truman was the straightest of straight arrows. He was the kind of man who could actually say, “Polls don’t matter. All that matters is right and wrong,” and mean it sincerely.

What makes his virtuous story even more remarkable is that he climbed the ranks of public service in one of the most corrupt political machines of the early twentieth century: the Kansas City of T. J. Pendergast. Pendergast once instructed the future President to grant sinecures to a list of people who had done him favors. Truman just said “No.” I don’t know how he got away with it or why Pendergast continued to support him. But a few years later, Pendergast’s Democratic machine got Truman into the U. S. Senate. His fellows in the upper chamber avoided him at first, saying that there was one senator from Missouri and one senator from Pendergast. But he ended his first term with the respect of his colleagues, and in his second term, during the War, he headed a committee that rooted out waste, negligence, and fraud in military contracts, saving the U. S. billions of dollars and untold numbers of lives.

Listening to David McCullough read his biographical account of No. 33, it occurred to me that Truman seemed to deal with corrupt politicians in an unusual way. In McCullough’s account, Truman neither walked in the way of the sinners nor railed at them. He knew other politicians regularly received payment for votes or appointments. He knew crooked deals routinely placed unqualified people in public office. But he didn’t engage, and he didn’t go on crusade. Perhaps knowing that he could never stop these practices, it seems he simply didn’t let it bother him. Instead, he just kept on doing his own good work.

I’ve just been dealing with the Moen company. They made a faulty faucet that ruined our floor, and now they’re lying to keep from being responsible. That’s not a billion dollars, and no soldier’s life is at risk. But it’s corrupt business. I wish someone at that company understood the nobility of saying, “The buck stops here.” And I wish I could just not let it bother me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Forward to the Past

Reading about the Reformation is sad. I’m grateful for many of the lasting effects of the Reformation: having the Bible translated into English from the original languages and understanding salvation by grace through faith sit at or near the top of my list. But the story of these achievements makes for grim reading. I spent a couple of years with Will Durant’s account of the Renaissance, including his depiction of the corrupt state of the visible Church: the simony, the fornication, the hypocrisy, the power politics, the murders, the draining of money from the people of Europe to fund a cesspool of immorality in Rome. But cleaning up this mess wasn’t easy, and reading this year about the power politics of the Protestants, their intolerance for each other, and their rancorous rhetoric hasn’t exactly provided a happily-ever-after ending to the tale.

Take the Peasants’ War, for example. Luther published statements saying that the German princes and the leaders of the established Church should watch their backs and that they deserved all the violent reaction they might receive. The German public read these observations as a call to arms.
So then Luther’s press releases called for an end to the violence of the peasants and encouraged the princes to execute the law and restore order. This public position, of course, prompted a horrific response from the authorities. Between 1524 and 1526, 130,000 peasants died in the conflict. And all in an effort to purify the worship of the Prince of Peace.

Human history is rarely pretty. But ideas are not the people who speak them. And truths sometimes proceed from the mouths of murderers, in spite of themselves. I love reading about the ideas, and I’ve been continually fascinated with the interplay of the characters: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon (who comes out looking pretty good), Erasmus (who looks even better), Francis I, Henry VIII, Charles V, Clement VII, Marguerite of Navarre, Catherine of Aragon. With two more weeks of Reformation history to go, I’m ready for things to get worse. But I’m hoping for at least one more Melanchthon.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Aquinas and the Reformation

I can’t pin Will Durant down. Does he think anything about he Renaissance needed correction, or doesn’t he? Although he was a fan of the artistic and literary achievements of the Renaissance, he strongly disapproved of the ecclesiastical immorality and aristocratic abuses of the period. In the first part of his volume on the Reformation,which follows his Renaissance volume, he again clearly outlines the political and social problems in fifteenth-century Germany clamoring for revolutionary change. But once he gets to the actual Reformation, he can’t seem to find any respect for its reforms. The reformers definitely brought new problems along with their solutions, but (as far as I can see from what I’ve read, anyway) Durant can’t see any virtue in the solutions, only that, as he says more than once, “the Reformation killed the Renaissance.”

Durant often lumps all belief in the supernatural together as “superstition,” so I don’t expect him to approve of any specific Reformation doctrine. But his blanket rejection makes it hard for me to tease out two surprises I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks. Both have to do with doctrines Durant links to the Protestant movement: predestination and the notion that the recipient of a sacrament has to have faith in that sacrament in order to receive the benefits. The surprise comes in that I’ve read both teachings in Thomas Aquinas, who, as a Doctor of the Church, can supposedly be trusted as offering pure Roman Catholic doctrine. So why does Durant call the doctrines Protestant?

OK, just because Aquinas is declared a Doctor of the Church doesn’t mean that every Catholic theologian knows everything he ever said – especially not the theologians among the corrupt clergy of Durant’s Renaissance Church. Just because one given Catholic theologian might know what Aquinas said doesn’t mean he believes it. As a non-Roman, I can add that just because a Doctor of the Church says something doesn’t mean it truly aligns with or shapes actual Catholic doctrine. I know I’m not usually going to see the nice straight lines I desire so much to discover in human history. But I’d at least like to know where these lines got broken.

Thomas Aquinas observes that God gives some humans goods that He does not give to others. One is beautiful while another is not, for instance. One has two working hands while another is born with only one. Extending this understanding to invisible gifts, Aquinas teaches that God gives some people the grace to turn from sin back toward their Maker and denies it to others. A human can only be saved through grace, and some simply are not given this saving grace. This is precisely the doctrine of predestination.

Now Calvin sees every action and every thought of every being as having been predetermined by God, even laying the evil plans of demons at God’s door. Aquinas, on the other hand, leaves humans in possession of free will. Everyone has total freedom of will to sin in any way whatsoever. And everyone who by grace is turned to God freely chooses Him because He is so obviously Good. So maybe the Catholic polemicists of the sixteenth century disapproved of Calvin’s version of predestination or Luther’s version. But Durant doesn’t recognize the nuance. He simply says that Catholics viewed predestination as a Protestant heresy and quotes Catholics denouncing the doctrine. So where is the disconnect? Does Durant not understand the distinction? Did he only cite the theologians ignorant of Aquinas’s teaching? Were the theologians themselves ignorant of Aquinas’s teaching? Or did they know about it and yet disagree? I don’t know that I’ll ever get the answers, but when I read over and over that predestination was a Protestant dogma, I can’t help but ask the questions.

Similarly, Aquinas teaches that the recipient of a sacrament has to believe in the sacrament in order to receive its effects. An early Protestant theologian asked a Catholic whether a mouse consuming a crumb of the Host eats bread or eats God. As I read Aquinas, I think he would say that the mouse eats bread. Durant's treatment of this issue prompts all the same questions in my mind as predestination does. But it suggests another layer as well: did the Catholic clergy at the time categorize the doctrine as Protestant rather than Thomist (aka Catholic) only because they saw that accepting it reduced the political power of the priests?

It turns out the history of the Reformation is as messy and complicated as any other history. Go figure. I’m afraid I’ve said enough potentially offensive things for one day, so I’ll quit now.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tolkien’s Historical Perspective

Like most readers of The Lord of the Rings, I think, I've been mystified by Tom Bombadil. Is he Valar, Elf, or Man? He doesn’t seem to fit in exactly with any race of Middle Earth. He isn’t evil, but he seems only concerned with his own life, singing incessantly about his river and the flowers he wants to bring home to his wife, Goldberry. Is he beyond good and evil in some non-Nietzschean (or even Nietzschean) way? The Ring has no effect on him whatsoever when he puts it on, and that circumstance suggests that he has no will, or at least no will toward good or evil as we know them. After all, the only other objects in Middle Earth that seem unaffected by the Ruling Ring when they come into contact with it are insensate: the cloth of Bilbo’s pocket and the chain around Frodo’s neck.

I think I remember reading somewhere that someone asked Tolkien if Tom represented an incarnation or avatar of God. When the Hobbits ask Goldberry who Tom is, she merely responds, "He is." That phrase is so reminiscent of the Name God reveals to Moses, I've considered the same interpretation. But Tom is imperfect in knowledge and in other ways, so that reading just doesn't work.

This time through the great fantasy classic, another view of Tom popped into my head as I was reading the chapters with Treebeard. The chief Ent, described by Gandalf as the oldest living thing, explains to Merry and Pippin that he isn't hasty to take sides, even in a giant war between an eminently good cause and an abjectly evil lord. He explains his position partly by saying that no one is on his side. But the tree shepherd also points out that for one who lives as long as he has, the wars of Elves and Men seem only like brief annoyances.

And that remark made me think of Tom Bombadil. He says he was alive when the Elves came West, making him some thousands of years old. I’ve wondered for forty years what kind of species would act like Tom, when perhaps I should have been looking toward experience rather than nature to explain his quirky, detached character. Maybe any rational creature who lives as long as Tom has lived learns not to be moved by what must end up looking like negligible irritations, learns simply to live and enjoy the lasting goods of life.

In the previous post, I said that Tolkien’s characters have geographical perspective and that he teaches us to have this perspective, too. The same could be said for historical understanding. The Return of the King has timelines in the appendices because almost every character knows the history of Middle Earth, and we readers are expected to know that history, too. The move against Sauron doesn’t make any sense unless we know that Isildur cut off his finger in the battle at Dagorlad two ages earlier.

Historical knowledge doesn’t only do us good in Middle Earth, though. The good-hearted in our world can learn patience and kindness from history, if only by negative example. And knowledge of history may be our only human source for deep wisdom, since no earthling lives long enough to learn from a single life’s experience how to handle all challenges. Tolkien may have written about  a realm that existed only in the imagination, but once again he teaches us how to live in the all-too-real world.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tolkien’s Geographical Perspective

Does any other novel depend on maps as much as The Lord of the Rings does? The squinty stranger from the south. The shadow in the east. The western door of Moria. At least three major mountain ranges. At least four significant forests. At least five notable rivers. The reader needs every one of Tolkien’s maps to keep track of it all.

Understanding the geography of Middle Earth, though, doesn’t just help get us through the plot. The more we know the lay of the land, the more we become like Middle Earthers. The hobbits are the exception to the rule. Everyone else always knows where he is in relation to every road, hill, town, tower, cavern, tavern, and Fortress of Evil in the land. Legolas climbs a hill close to Edoras, and he can see the tower of Orthanc to the west and the tower of Barad Dur to the east – over 400 miles away!

It takes more than just elven eyesight to see an evil tower from a distance of 400 miles. Legolas has the clear air of pre-industrial fantasy, and Middle Earth is flat. On a flat world, no place hides beyond a curving horizon. So from the beginning of The Silmarillion to the last page of The Lord of the Rings, we’re meant to see all of Middle Earth in one glance. Every place is connected. As Bilbo says, there’s only one road, and it goes on and on and reaches every door. Among the many salutary lessons Tolkien offers us, this is one of the most important. Six degrees of separation is about four degrees too many.