Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Quiet Battles

I’ve read about several battles in the last couple of weeks. While I finished this year’s assignment in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Clovis and the Franks battled the Burgundians, Theodoric the Ostrogoth defeated Odoacer in Italy, and Justinian’s forces subdued Isaurian raiders near Constantinople. And this morning, while reading Plutarch’s life of Dion, I witnessed a coup in Syracuse.

These battles came with lots of fanfare – literal fanfare – and other noise. But I’ve also been reading about a number of quiet battles in many ways more dangerous and tense than those of the military type. In Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (a rare example of a Trollope novel that I don’t entirely enjoy), poor, feckless Lord Fawn gets himself engaged to the widow Lady Eustace before discovering what a scoundrel she is and then watches as the battle between wisdom and socially approved behavior rages on in his mind. Can he marry a woman who claims a £10,000 diamond necklace as her own when legal experts say otherwise? Having made an offer of marriage and received acceptance, though, can he honorably withdraw from the engagement?

Another internal battle begins when Lord Fawn announces at the dinner table that Frank Greystock is no gentleman. Lucy Morris, dining with the family because she serves as governess to the two youngest Fawn daughters, is engaged to said Frank and tells Lord Fawn that what he says is untrue. Now, Lucy knows that accusing a gentleman of telling an untruth is, socially speaking, a worse sin than telling an untruth to begin with; but can she see her beloved’s reputation suffer abuse and let the incident go by unnoticed? The battle then spills over into Lady Fawn’s mind. Is she to defend her son and dismiss Lucy or honor Lucy’s devotion to her future husband and counsel her son to overlook the scene?

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I recently slipped in between planned books, is about almost nothing but internal battles. How does dying pastor John Ames pass on wisdom to his seven-year-old son? What wisdom should he include in the extensive letter he writes? And is it even wisdom? How should he represent his feuding father and grandfather in the memoir? How does he speak to his brother, who has departed from the faith? And perhaps most importantly, how much should he warn his wife and son about Jack Boughton, a man with a troubled past who hovers around the soon-to-be-fatherless family like one of Penelope’s suitors? All these dilemmas, each with its own transcendent, eternal consequences, duke it out in Ames’s mind while the quiet life of Gilead, Iowa goes on around him.

Considering that minds all around Gilead are engaged in their own battles, though, is that life really so quiet?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Christian Modernism

I have a regrettable habit of assimilating striking ideas without remembering where I read them. I very clearly remember reading a few years ago that Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and J. R. R. Tolkien had come to various conclusions about the way to merge Catholic faith with writing in the modernist era: Tolkien chose to avoid the problematic aspects of the style by writing in the genre of fantasy, while Greene and Waugh decided to embrace the disillusioned, broken characters of the modernist style but openly to attribute their empty chests to spiritual sickness. The author whom I can’t recall made these choices sound deliberate and even suggested that Waugh and Greene discussed the decision explicitly. I would love to read this analysis again to see if I remember it correctly, but I can’t because I don’t remember at all where I read it.

The picture certainly appears plausible to me, though. Greene, for instance, often portrays modern life as a tragic choice whose salutary alternative, if rejected, will forever lie out of reach, save by an act of grace. His short stories consistently feature characters faced with binary choices, with characters living on heavily guarded borders (figurative or literal), characters with dilemmas that, like the riddle of the apple of Eden, each force a decision with lifelong consequences. If asked, Greene probably would have said he hated allegory just as much as Tolkien. So let’s just say that his tiger-or-lady situations symbolize spiritual dichotomies.

Waugh, on the other hand, usually presents his characters as well embedded in secular lives of self-constructed meaning and morality. I take it that he puts the choice of life and death in the reader’s hands. He achieves his goal often by reducing the cultural emptiness of his fictional creations to the absurd, eliciting dark fits of wry laughter. If he succeeds in making us laugh at a married couple’s bizarrely casual conversation about the wife’s lover, then he has made us recognize the standard by which to judge the characters’ actions, has made us admit that a sacred alternative exists in which we could live should we, by the grace of God, choose to do so.

I’ve been sporadically gaining ground in Waugh’s collected short stories all year rather than saving them all for one steady October blitz. Yesterday I read a story, a version of which I had already encountered in his novel A Handful of Dust. I like Waugh, and I love Dickens, so I was bound to enjoy Waugh’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens.” The story involves a Mr McMaster, who has grown up in the Amazon jungle and who, although illiterate himself, loves to listen to the novels of Charles Dickens being read to him. One day an explorer named Henty comes by, exhausted and in need of medical attention, and, to boil the plot down to its essence, McMaster tricks him in various ways into reading Dickens’s books to him over and over for the rest of his enslaved life. Henty has no more power over his insane situation than Kafka’s beleaguered K. McMaster blithely goes on with empty, immoral life and calls it happiness because he recognizes no authority he must answer to. But all the time, the two read words of life and sanity in Dickens, who, as McMaster admits, believes in God and shows it in his works. McMaster acknowledges and approves of the narrator’s judgments of the characters in his favorite books, but he never applies the judgments to his own life. Apparently Dickens’s world of light is for both the men as old and lifeless as Brideshead or any other of the decayed institutions that fill the stage in the theater of Waugh, but only because they themselves have chosen to douse the light. But, of course, they can’t fully hide the holy flame. By mercy, the darkness can no more overcome the light than can Scrooge permanently extinguish the glow of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ups and Downs

In one particularly dreary subplot of Gilmore Girls, Richard Gilmore moves into his pool house with not a lot to do. In one episode, he reports to his granddaughter that he has finally finished The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For a show that loves books as much as this one does, the tone was surprisingly negative, as if spending the time to complete Gibbon’s monumental history showed Richard to have hit rock bottom in life. On the contrary, it sounded like a good use of his quiet hours to me and made me momentarily reconsider my decision to stop at the end of volume 1, at least for a few years.

But maybe the Gilmore’s writers just used the book for the emotions suggested in its name. Here at the end of my ten-year plan, I’ve reached the focal point of the book. (I almost said “the climax,” but of course it would have to be a nadir, wouldn’t it?) The Empire has fallen. And the calamity definitely raises emotions. (Or does it lower them? I feel like Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure. “Down is up!”) In any case, it moved me to a meager sadness, a resigned regret like the sag you feel when you see kitchen mess the morning after a big party. You know the thing happened, but you feel the emptiness in your gut when faced with the evidence.

The story brought many surprises. I didn’t realize, for instance, how quickly the Visigoths and Burgundians became Christian. I didn’t realize how chummy they got with Rome and the Church, even allying with them against other intruders from time to time. I suppose those historical relationships make themselves apparent in France’s use of a language derived from Latin. If the barbarians who conquered Gaul hadn’t been willing to adopt Roman ways and Roman religion, the French would be speaking something more like Dutch or German today.

The biggest surprise came at the official moment of dissolution. I knew as a memorized fact that Romulus Augustulus was the last Emperor of the West and that his reign ended in 476. But I had assumed that he stepped down unwillingly at the point of an Ostrogothic sword. Actually, he resigned willingly, uninterested himself in ruling and satisfied that the Gothic king Odoacer would run the Italian peninsula just fine. The Roman Senate actually wrote to the Eastern Emperor and told him they were happy with the new arrangement. I couldn’t help but think of Eliot’s lines: This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Six Years Ago

Another year already? Six years ago this month, I was laid up for several weeks with not much to do, and my wife told me to start a blog. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know if I would like it. I certainly didn’t know if I would stick with it. But, at her suggestion (and after quickly discovering how easy it was to do), I started to write on my self-assigned ten-year reading plan in classic literature, and I’ve kept it up all the way until year 10. (I started the blog in year 4.)

It’s been an event-filled six years. My reading plan and blog have gone to Italy, Canada, and Ireland with me. I’ve written during illness and after surgery. I’ve written in times of stress and in times of joy. I’ve written about books I loved, and I’ve written about books I hated. This site has had over 50,000 hits (although I don’t know how many of those came from Russian spambots), and at least two friends have received inspiration to write up their own multi-year reading plans.

Here are just a few of my favorite posts from the last twelve months:

The Conclusion of Hume’s Book
Tolkien’s Historical Perspective
A Reasonable Man
William James Knows Me So Well
The Seventeen Stages of Grief
Monuments of Literature, Literature of Monuments
Oh, What Could Have Been!
Ariosto Speaks and I Hear Violins: It’s Ma - a - gi - ic!
Austen and Role-Playing
The Fortituous End of Kant
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me

I probably won’t add to the blog much or at all once 2016 goes into the books. I have a new decade-long reading plan drawn up that I’ll be starting on in January. (I’ll actually probably cheat and begin a few days early, during the Christmas break in December.) But it includes a lot of literature that’s less than “great”: Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and so on. It contains little in the way of difficult reading and absolutely no German philosophy. So I don’t know how well it would fit with what comes before. I certainly don’t feel any special need to share with the anonymous world my thoughts while reliving my adolescence. But I’ll keep it up until the last week of December. Until then, keep checking back, and happy reading!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Word by Word by Word x 106

Latin is a dense language. As in good poetry, every word tells. Sometimes a single Latin word expresses what would be an entire relative clause in English. Take the famous announcement of the Roman gladiators: Ave, Caesar. Morituri te salutamus. Even the seemingly straightforward “Hail, Caesar” actually means “May good health be to you, Caesar.” The next word, morituri, packs in just as much. The -tur- element in a Latin verb indicates something that is going to happen or about to happen; the future is a thing that is going to be. So morituri are people who are about to die. Now this word might have sounded like the subject of the sentence to Augustus, but the -mus at the end of the whole thing forces its way into that role in English. We have to translate the phrase “We salute you.” And so morituri has to become a relative clause: “We who are about to die salute you.”

Edward Gibbon read a lot of Latin in order to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A lot of Latin. And he followed his extensive sources closely. I know he did (1) because of the voluminous footnotes and (2) because so much of his English prose carries the echoes of Latin sensibility. Since Gibbon represents his sources so thoroughly, reading his work is for the English-speaking reader almost like reading one ancient historical account after another in translation. That’s a good situation if you want to read a detailed history of Rome without having to track down translations of Eubanius and Eunapius and Sozomenus and scores of other ancient historians I hadn’t even heard of before reading The D and F.

But to gain this advantage, you have to pay some prices. Oh, I can put up with eighteenth-century historical method and biases; while our method has improved over the centuries, we’ve only swept away the old biases to let in seven new ones of our own. The much higher price comes in the form of having to read learned eighteenth-century prose at its most eloquent – eighteenth-century prose informed by Latin prose and its high density. You have to pay attention to every word. I can pay attention to every word in a sonnet by Wordsworth. But there are about a million-and-a-half words in Gibbon's literary monument. And it takes every bit of self-training and discipline and recalled advice from my dad for me to keep up with it. (My public-school education certainly never taught me to read at this level.)

Consider this example from book XXXV:
His rich gifts and pressing solicitations inflamed the ambition of Attila; and the designs of Aëtius and Theodoric were prevented by the invasion of Gaul.
It’s a relatively long sentence with many multi-syllable words. Based on those features alone, the sentence comes out at 25.796 on the Flesch Readability Scale: “Very difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.” But the density of information makes it even more challenging. The gifts and solicitations come from Genseric, King of the Vandals. But all Gibbon has said before this point about Genseric and Attila is that the former “armed” the latter. Instead of next saying, as a twenty-first-century writer probably would, that Genseric offered Attila rich gifts and pressed solicitations, each action luxuriating in its own verb, Gibbon compresses those two actions into a single subject-phrase and with his predicate indicates Attila’s response; his ambition became inflamed. And note: Gibbon never describes the gifts Genseric offers and only identifies his solicitations after the semicolon. Fully understanding that postsemicolonic (hey, I can push my Flesch-Kincaid score with the best of them) second half of the sentence requires the reader to keep track of the ever-shifting relationships between Aëtius, Theodoric, Genseric, and Attila. I admit that I don’t fully understand; I don’t actually remember what “designs” these two Romans entertained at this stage or even whether their respective designs were complementary or conflicting.

But the real kicker comes at the end of it all. The point, the weightiest fact of the sentence sneaks in on the breeze of that last, verbless prepositional phrase: “by the invasion of Gaul.” Gibbon doesn’t say bluntly, “Attila invaded Gaul.” In fact, he doesn’t even say here that it was Attila’s invasion; the reader merely has to infer it from context. And I must confess that I totally missed the significance the first time I read the page. The news comes at the end of a long, detail-ridden paragraph, and I flew past the words, assuming them the final, dispensable, prepositional nuance of an episode I thought I was done with. If the sentence had read “After Genseric’s gifts and solicitations, Attila decided to invade Gaul,” I definitely would have caught it: the main point occupies the main clause of the sentence. I would even have been OK with “In order to distract Aëtius and Theodoric from their plan of invading Vandal territory [if that was indeed their plan], Genseric bribed Attila and solicited him to invade Gaul”: at least the key information gets an infinitive verb. But I live in an age of subtitles: Attila Decides to Invade Gaul. I live in an age of voiceovers and helpful musical scores: “The designs of A and T were prevented by – Dut-dut-DUUH – [turn up reverb] the invasion of Gaul.” By contrast, Gibbon lived at a time when trained readers routinely exercised close attention and constant inference, so he could expect their exercise. He could expect it for a million-and-a-half words. And from certain passages in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I know that Gibbon got his wish in some cases.