Friday, September 30, 2016

A Congeries, an Olio, a Farrago, and a Gallimaufry

I’ve been working lately on increasing my active vocabulary. Just because I recognize words doesn’t mean that I use them, and I’m the kind of guy who enjoys using a variety of vocabulary, especially unusual locutions. So I’m working on a list of terms I’ve culled from my reading; I consult it from time to time and look for opportunities to use one or two of the entries. I’ve presented some recent acquisitions in the title today: a hodgepodge of words that all mean potpourri. And today I have a grab bag of observations from recent reading.

1) I recently reread Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization aloud to my wife in the car on the way to my 40-year high-school reunion (one of the reasons I’m behind in posting this month and reduced to presenting a crazy quilt of brief, disconnected comments). I can’t recommend the book enough for people who love history, books, ancient languages, or education, of for people who have Irish heritage or who have visited Ireland. Since I fall into all these categories, I naturally love the book. We had a wonderful time with it, breezing through some passages with a smile and stopping at others to gaze in awe at the wondrous sweep of western history.

But Cahill gave us each an abrupt start by saying that Will Durant was an unoriginal thinker with a flair for writing. I love Will Durant, and Nancy knows it. I’m in the process right now of finishing his volume on the Reformation, and I thrill at what I learn on every page. His observations are, to my inexperienced eye anyway, often quite original. But Cahill’s comment came in a passage on philosophy, so maybe he meant to critique Durant only on his work in the Science of Wisdom. And at least he acknowledged Durant’s way with the pen.

2) Will Durant sure does have a flair for writing! In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read that Timur “dreamed of empire with his mother’s milk,” that Persian rugs employ “a contrapuntal harmony of lines more intricate than Palestrina’s madrigals, more graceful than Godiva’s hair,” that “the names of even the ‘immortals’ are writ in water,” and that Orlando di Lasso died “triumphant and insane.” The cool weather has arrived, and I’m going out on my deck in just a few minutes to read some more.

3) Way ahead of schedule in 2016, I’ve been off-roading recently with George Eliot’s Adam Bede. Eliot, authorities have assured me, rejected the beliefs of the Christianity of her youth and retained only the love of its forms. Critics sometimes characterize her as a humanist or an atheist, and I’ve read that a common theme of her books is the belief that we should look to our human nature for moral guidance, not to God. Since a Methodist preacher plays prominently in the story, the reader of Adam Bede finds out quite a bit about Eliot’s religious outlook. Given her lack of faith in the redemptive power of the death and resurrection of Christ, she finds the best she can find in her preacher. A not-too-careful reader might even see orthodox Christian devotion in the multiplicity of words given to sermons, Bible quotations, and theological talk in the novel.

Still, Eliot boils down the Christian message to one of developing the proper emotions (not a surprise in a nineteenth-century book) and does indeed say that we must find the promptings for these emotions in our natures. But she does not say that God has nothing to do with the path to this good life of cultured feeling. Instead, she makes a point that I wish more believing Christians understood: that God created us and our nature and can use that nature as his instrument. A mother’s love for her baby may be a natural phenomenon, but God is the Master of natural phenomena, so the mother’s love is no less a spiritual grace for arising “naturally,” even in mothers who reject certain elements of Christian dogma.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Skewering the Flaccid Calf

I read a few more short stories by Evelyn Waugh this week and loved them. I wasn’t sure I would: I have to admit that the first story in the volume was almost incomprehensible to me, and as I stumbled my way through it earlier this summer, I started to think I’d regret having used up a slot in my reading schedule in this way. But beginning with the second title, I found exactly what I had hoped for when I planned ten years ago to read Waugh’s short stories in year 10.

This week’s stories began with “On Guard,” an excellent comedy about a dog who deliberately interferes with his owner's love affairs. You see, Hector has bought the dog (whom he has eponymously named Hector) to give to his “fiancée,” Millicent, while he goes away to start his career, and has given little Hector careful instructions to guard his (the elder Hector’s) interests while he is away. Millicent abandons her attachment to her soul-mate after two brief letters and sees many eligible men, so her new pet has quite a lot of work to do. Even though Millicent feeds him, the canine Hector works against her flirtatious ways per the instructions of the man who purchased him because, as Waugh’s narration tells us, the dog respected money.

Yes, Waugh is the kind to make us ask: What do the paterfamilias of a crumbling earldom and a dog have in common? The author loves to ridicule upper-class values by putting them into the minds of animals, neurotics, and lunatics. In “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing,” Lady Moping sees nothing odd or distasteful about her husband going to the asylum (except that he has made his suicide attempt in front of the guests): the asylum serves quite suitably as a new home for her beloved because it separates the accommodations according to social station. And in any case, the situation puts the annoyance of a husband aside for a few years. Conversely, Lady Moping’s daughter sees nothing to fear from an inmate who acts every inch the gentleman – until she succeeds in getting him a day’s outing and he plays the psychopath again. But not to worry about the corpse left behind: Mr. Loveday will go back to the asylum, where he can enjoy the lovely garden that only the patients with true blood are allowed to visit. The tale’s breezy tone makes its caustic message all the more pointed.

Waugh’s upper-class characters live in a world of hollow traditions and act according to established forms void of any interpersonal sentiments. Engagements are amusements that last a week or so. Correspondence between separated friends, fiancés, and spouses always tapers off; their early assurances of devotion are all lies anyway and usually go unread. The image is one not of meaningless chaos but rather one of faded glory, of the flaccid skin of a once-fatted calf now starving, of a good world gone bad. But Waugh has a grander tragedy to tell as well. His effete lords of society serve as both symptom and symbol of a Christian world that has lost its Way. Sometimes when I read Waugh I laugh. Sometimes I cry. And sometimes I just stand powerless, like ancient philosophy’s horse attracted evenly by two equidistant piles of hay.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Like and Unlike

Okay, so I didn’t like The Eustace Diamonds so well. I’ve enjoyed all thirteen of the other Trollope novels I’ve read. So, since I’m weeks ahead of my 2016 plan, I have taken the opportunity to insert Anthony Trollope’s autobiography into the schedule, an extremely pleasant extracurricular that I’ve put off for far too long.

In the Facebook era, today’s title sounds as though it might indicate my judgment on various Trollope books. (Even Facebook has finally faced the fact that “to like or not to like” is not the only question.) But it actually refers to ways in which I’ve found myself like Trollope and other ways in which I see myself as unlike him. Like Trollope, I look back on my school days with disappointment. My chief frustration, again like Trollope’s, lies in my school’s total neglect of Latin. Sadly for my fellow scholar, his school’s stated mission actually centered on instruction in Greek and Latin, so he carried the extra injury of having been lied to. Like Trollope, I taught myself Latin as an adult. Like Trollope, I spent many years working for the government: he as a clerk for the Royal Post Office, I as a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Like him, I tried to infuse clarity and eloquence into every mundane memorandum I had to write. Like him, I view my writing skills as moderate. And like him, I have tried to use those writing skills in the attempt to earn some extra money.

Unlike Anthony Trollope, though, my writing skills actually are only moderate. And unlike him, my income from the pen has not come close to tripling my annual salary. Most surprisingly, in reading the autobiography I found myself unlike Trollope in my opinions regarding some of his novels, especially what is perhaps his most famous these days: The Warden. Trollope says that when an author takes on a controversy, he has to take a side, and claims that he should either have made the warden (a clergyman in charge of a hospice for the elderly in this case, not a prison overseer) a bumbling, lazy fool or have portrayed the newspaper editor who complained about the sinecure as a thundering misanthrope. But one of the things I like best about the novel is that it shows deep interpersonal conflict while naming no villain. Septimus Harding never intended to make money undeservedly and gladly gave up the position once the story came out. And the newspaper didn’t set out to ruin a good man’s life, only to right a public wrong.

Did Trollope really see things this way? Or did he offer his self-critique all with tongue in cheek? Perhaps the passage refers elliptically to Dickens, who took on public controversies with a good amount of satire and through the portrayal of decided villains. Curiously, I love both authors, as different as they may be. In fact, I think they attract the same part of me by being honest, perceptive, caring, comic, tragic, morally minded, and articulate: authors who found the rainbow in the dusty backyard, the transcendence in the human clay.

I’ll close with an observation on one similarity I have to G. K. Chesterton: he also admired both Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Call Not Plutarch Happy Until You’ve Read to the End

All year I’ve been finishing volumes of my beloved Britannica Great Books set. Greek drama. Plato. Volume I of Gibbon. This month I’m finishing up Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. I enjoyed the ancient biographer’s account of Brutus immensely when I read it last week. It might have helped that I knew something about Brutus already – and had known for quite a while. But here he isn’t just the side character who delivers the most unkindest cut in someone else’s story. Here Brutus is the main attraction. And in Plutarch’s hands, his story just builds and builds in a most compelling way.

Plutarch gives Brutus the best possible treatment. During the scrap between Julius Caesar and Pompey, Brutus changes sides but finds favor with Caesar after Pompey’s death because Caesar knows he had the purest motive for siding with the enemy. But then the people start calling for a descendant of Junius Brutus, the kingslayer, to free them from a return of royalty. If the reader wonders, even after learning of this tremendous social pressure, how Brutus can participate in the assassination of the man who has forgiven him so generously, Plutarch answers with a positive spin: Brutus loved his country and hated tyranny so much, he even consented to killing a man he personally admired. The country seems grateful at first until Marc Antony turns them against Brutus with his funeral oration the next day. (Are we surprised that Shakespeare altered the documented chronology in order to suit his dramatic purposes?) So poor Brutus, a victim to mob opinion once more, flees Italy. What’s more, he now finds that “young Caesar” (i.e. Octavius Caesar, soon to be Caesar Augustus) may be just as bad as his predecessor, so he gathers an army in the East and approaches the capital. When captured, he falls on his own sword. All these actions Plutarch commends as most virtuous. In his eye, Brutus is indeed “an honourable man.”

Not everyone agrees, though. I’m preparing my first lesson on The Divine Comedy for the world-lit class I’m teaching to home-schoolers. Just after finishing Plutarch’s account, I opened up Inferno to a random page, and my eyes fell immediately on a passage reminding me that Dante placed Brutus and co-conspirator Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell: the place devoted to sinners who broke faith and betrayed others.

As good as Plutarch’s story of Brutus is, I find my mind wandering as I read the next life in the book, that of Achaian League champion Aratus. Why do I care about finishing this book? I asked myself. In one nostalgic fit of wool-gathering, I held my place with my finger and turned the pages back to the first few biographies, just to see what notes I had written in the margins nine years ago. There I found exactly the kind of story that led me to read all of Plutarch: the account of Croesus and Solon. I first learned of King Croesus of Lydia in Herodotus’ wonderful Histories. But I’ve seen his name invoked many times since, especially in novels. I think he must have been much more commonly known in the past; I’m sure one of the Austen girls describes some local gentleman as “rich as Croesus.” Croesus was rich indeed and proud of his riches. When meeting Solon the lawgiver, he took offense that the philosophical Solon refused to praise him on account of his amassed wealth. Did this petty man not know greatness when he sees it?

But, as Plutarch points out, all the king’s riches did nothing to stop Cyrus’s Persian tide from rolling westward. As Cyrus prepares to kill Croesus, the captive king shouts out Solon’s name three times. Curious, Cyrus halts the proceedings and asks who or what this Solon might be. Croesus identifies him as a teacher who once tried to warn him not to take pride in uncertainties nor to think himself happy until he came to the end of his life. Wondering at such great wisdom made manifest before his eyes, Cyrus releases his captive and showers him with honors the rest of his life. Thus, concludes Plutarch, “Solon had the glory, by the same saying, to save one king and instruct another.”

Monday, September 5, 2016


For a couple of years, I called myself “semiretired.” I had retirement income coming from one state university and a three-day-a-week adjunct instructor position at another. Now I’m working even less, and some musicians (including, I would hope, those who took my first-semester theory course) as well as some cruciverbalists will get the joke when I say that I’m now “demisemiretired.” I hope I may never have to call myself “hemidemisemiretired.” At some point I want to be rocking-chair-and-vacationing-whenever-I-want retired.

Among my demisemiretirement activities, I have the wonderful privilege of teaching a World Literature class at a local home-school co-op. The kids are smart and willing to talk and, truth be told, make the class more fun for me than one in which I teach what a hemidemisemiquaver is. A few days ago, in preparation for the class’s assignment next week, I read two short stories with some interesting parallels: Tolstoy’s “Where Love Is, God Is” and Hesse’s “Augustus.”

Tolstoy’s story essentially shows an old man living out Jesus’ statement that those who have served the least of his brethren have served Him. It all seems a rather straightforward, simple, pious tale of a man who consciously decides to obey Jesus’ words. And yet when I think of what it would mean to live this way every second instead of just looking back at some scattered shining incidents, the story becomes radical and extremely convicting.

Hesse called his story of Augustus a fairy tale, and indeed it does involve a couple of magic wishes. But Augustus lives a life with all the twentieth-century angst, dissociation, and unsatisfying immorality of a Jay Gatsby or a Rabbit Angstrom or a Sebastian Flyte. Hardly the stuff of Cinderella and Prince Charming. The problem is that Augustus’s mother, given one wish, wished that everyone would love him. The troubles he then develops in living a life with no checks brings into question the meaning of the “love” everyone shows him.

I think I did a good job pairing these two stories for my class. As different as they are, they share much on common. Each story finds its main character losing everyone in his family, making the lessons of love all the more powerful. Both stories have winter scenes, which to my mind help bring out the spiritual dimensions of crises. Winter scenes sure work for Dickens. And both stories involve apparitions and help from beyond the grave, another characteristic they have in common with Dickens’s most famous winter story. My wife and my children are all alive, it’s hot outside, and I haven’t seen any ghosts lately (that I know of). Can I apply these lessons of love today without having to experience the deprivation my fictional friends did? In other words, can I honour Christmas in my heart and keep it all the year?