Monday, December 31, 2018

Book Awards – 2018

Because Americans love awards, on this last day of 2018, as I have at the end of each of the last several years, I offer you my list of encomiums on the highlights of my twenty-second year of planned reading.

Most Deserving of His Own Category: Charles Dickens
Yes, once again, I enjoyed Dickens so much (The Old Curiosity Shop on this circuit of the merry sun), it just wouldn’t be fair to others in the fiction category if they had to compete with the Inimitable.

Best Reread, Fiction: White, The Once and Future King
And since Dickens has his own category, E. B. White is able graciously to accept this well deserved award. When I first read this Arthurian work, I thought White made up a lot of the zanier material to keep it all a little irreverently weird. After all, in the first part, “The Sword in the Stone,” Merlin lives backwards, turns Wart into a fish, and transports himself by accident to Bermuda. Oh, yeah: and Arthur is called “Wart.” So naturally I thought White made up episodes like Lancelot rescuing a girl from a bath that she had been unable to get out of for five years. But now that I’ve read so many of the original Arthurian sources, I can say, Nope, that’s right from Malory. It just hadn’t been in the children’s version by Lanier that I had read.

Best New (to me) Poetry: Horace, Odes
Speaking of Sidney Lanier, I had assumed for years that I would enjoy all of his poetry as much as I did his King Arthur and the handful of his poems I had read before. But on the whole they disappointed me and certainly didn’t stand up to the Odes by the ancient Roman. Whether singing to the gods themselves, country life, drinking, or a lowly fellow whose girlfriend no longer likes him, the activity and character and presence of the gods is always in Horace’s mind, as are geography and flora and fauna and weather. Here is a man whose mental world is made constantly richer by the ever-present context of both nature and supernature.

Best New Read, Fiction: Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister
This novel of wealth and ethical dilemma in the highest political offices seemed terribly relevant.

Best History: Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny
I learned amazing things on every page about the last two-hundred years in Italy. My only disappointment is that alongside Napoleon, schools, rebels, the Cosa Nostra, bandits, kings, railroads, poetry, Fascists, economics, and football, Duggan didn’t have much to say about food.

Weirdest Drama: Charles Williams, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury
You’d think that Tom Stoppard would win this award with his multiple timelines sharing the stage simultaneously and his plays-within-plays that aren’t really plays. But Williams’s unique (and uniquely opaque) poetic vision coupled with a personified death wins out. In fact, it received 14 of 19 votes in this category, many of which were cast in the Stoppard plays.

Best New Read, Religion: Justin Martyr, “Hortatory Address to the Greeks”
Justin read the classics and taught Greek philosophy. Then he became a Christian and continued to teach philosophy, even opening up his own school in Rome. His basic point in the Address is that no ancient follower of Greek philosophy should have any trouble accepting the truth of Christianity since Plato and company lead us right to the brink. The Roman authorities did have trouble, though, and killed him for his faith.

Best New Read, Nonfiction: C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Since it changed the way I think about reading, I should actually just call it the best new book, period.

Three Others Who Need to Be Mentioned Without Unfairly Competing for Prizes
(1) Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring.
(2) Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring, except here all the swashbuckling adventure takes place within Fanny Price’s heart.
(3) Dante, The Divine Comedy: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring, except here all the adventure takes place literally everywhere in the physical, spiritual, and moral universe.

Who will receive awards in the coming year? Robert Louis Stevenson? Isaac Asimov? Evelyn Waugh? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Abu ‘l-Qasim Firdowsi Tusi? Come back in a year, and we’ll find out together!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2018

Most years around this time, I’ve shared some thoughts about the words to some of my favorite Christmas carols – which is to say, some of my favorite things in this world. (Click here to see posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.) But in my enthusiasm, I set out to write about two different carols a year, and now I’m running out of material!

This year, it’s not a carol that I’ve been concentrating on anyway, but the first chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Here are the original words (possibly by Christian Friedrich Henrici) in German:
Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,
Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!
Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören,
Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!
And here’s a translation to English:
Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
Glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
Sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
Let us honor the name of the Lord!
It is a glorious chorus indeed that Bach serves the Highest with here, one full of the delight and happiness it calls for. The trills and the fanfares and the insistent, repeated tones in the choir, like the merry chiming of a church bell, banish all laments and give us the courage to celebrate and rejoice. The chorus accomplishes what it can of its own injunction and leads us to complete the rest of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

As one whose black humour outflows the red, yellow, and white, I tend toward the melancholy in most things. I feel justified by sober Bible passages like Solomon’s “With much wisdom comes much sorrow,” and I find great comfort in somber lines from carols such as “Rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!” But what the angels sing to me is this: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!” Yes, there is a season for everything, and Christmas – I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know – is a season for joy. If it doesn’t come naturally to me, then I need to listen to those angels, and to Bach’s chorus, and rejoice.

But look how beautifully this chorus, with at first glance no tinge of dust from the weary road, speaks to those like me. Its own celebration doesn’t come naturally, either. It tells me to get up (Auf!) and to abandon despair. Why tell me this if I have no despair to banish? (And why, the Scrooge in me asks, tell me this if I am past all hope!)

So this December I will honor Christ in two ways. Yes, I will treasure the pungency of the four minor chords on “Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices!” And I will still secretly find satisfaction in the few versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that dare use the lyric “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” But I will set these blue shades aside when I hear Bach’s clarion call and with him will praise these gladsome days.

May your days be merry and bright as you honor den Namen des Herrschers.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Authority and Index

In some end-of-year off-list reading, I just finished Gary Scott Smith’s Religion in the Oval Office. A couple of years ago, I read Smith’s Faith & the Presidency, in which the author goes to heroic lengths to detail the religious positions of eleven American Presidents (Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and others), their relationships to religious groups, and the influence of their faith on their policies. After finishing that first book, I thought, “I wish he had included John Quincy Adams, William McKinley, Nixon, and Clinton.” And then I found that Smith had written a second book that included those very Presidents and seven more! Smith is a better researcher than writer: after tracking down hundreds of quotations from speeches, letters, diaries, conversations, and even junior high English essays (!) by each of his subjects, Smith seems to think that the goal of writing a chapter is to get every last note card represented in the text one way or another. Organization, flow, analysis, and reader wakefulness suffer as a result. But the information is extremely interesting and typically neglected in standard biographies, so I’m grateful to Smith for sharing the fruits of his labors with me.

One curious detail in Smith’s commentary on Barack Obama caught my eye and reminded me of something I had read two other times in the last year. After noting President Obama’s statement that his interpretation of the Bible could conceivably change based on what other Christians might tell him, Smith says that Obama’s position implies that conversation has authority equal to or higher than the Bible. I had read a very similar view earlier this year in Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology, and last year in Mark Noll’s America’s God: in those two versions, changing one’s interpretation of some piece of Scripture based on someone else’s argument ascribes to reason an authority higher than that of God’s Word. (The point was Allison’s own; Noll was reporting the position of historical personages.) The idea sounded obviously wrong to me the first two times I came across it, but the way Smith worded it, I can’t see how anybody could believe it. What does Smith think Sunday School lessons or sermons or Bible commentaries are for if not potentially to change one’s mind about what the Bible means? Does he think that once he has an understanding of any given scriptural passage, it is necessarily the right understanding and can never be corrected?

I think the problem comes down to a misunderstanding of the word authority. If authority simply means the reason you think something, then many factors compete with the Bible in authority for a believing Christian: reason, grammatical fluency, the dictionary, memory, eyesight. I believe that in the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God, because the Bible says so. But I know the Bible says this because I’ve read it and remember that it says it. And I believe the words that I remember reading partly because I have an understanding of what those words mean and how they go together grammatically – even if I wonder at the mystery of the Divine Being involving at least two Persons who are at the same time separated (“was with”) and unified (“was”). If these factors determine my understanding of the Scripture and that makes them authorities, well then, I guess I have to recognize many authorities for my beliefs.

But the word authority doesn’t in fact denote any and all things that provide reason to believe and submit. There’s authority, and then there’s recognition of authority. Suppose you’re a child living in fairy-tale land, and you hear there’s a big parade coming through your town. Your mother takes you out to see the spectacle, and as a fine-dressed man on a splendid horse passes by, your mother points and says, “Look! There’s the king!” Now let’s say this man stops, looks your way, and tells you to come near. Your mother has told you never to talk to strangers, and yet kings demand and deserve obedience. So you go, knowing that, as the king, he has the authority to command you. But how do you know he has this authority? Only because your mother told you. So does that make her the actual authority? Ridiculous! Her pointing out the authority to you doesn’t give her higher authority than the king. He is the authority; she is an index to the authority. And, yes, you see your mother as an authority, but clearly it’s possible for one authority to point to a higher one.

Similarly I have my reasons for recognizing authority in the Bible. That the Bible is authoritative to life is not a self-evident truth like “The whole is greater than or equal to any of its parts.” If it were, every sane person would acknowledge it as soon as the idea is presented to the mind. But they don’t, so believers must have reasons for believing. These reasons indicate the authority (which is why I’m calling them indices); they don’t trump the authority.

Now if a fairy tale makes this distinction clear, how can so many American Christians get confused by it?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Puzzling Over the Glorious Cause

Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 left me scratching my head for at least three reasons. First, it’s a long book, and Middlekauff had me wondering a few times how I was going to finish the book without putting my yearly schedule behind (again). More importantly, he leaves out strange information, as if he’s merely organizing a review outline for readers who already know everything. There are no strategic maps, for instance. He might just casually mention that the British troops are headed toward Ninety-Six, as if (a) I know that Ninety-Six is a town, (b) I know where that town is, and (c) I know why any army would want to march there. Curiously and to my great confusion on at least two occasions, he refers to a subordinate officer named James Washington by last name only. (At least I think it was James: I can’t remember since the author didn’t use his first name often enough!) A reference to “Washington” in a book about the American Revolution raises exactly one monumental figure in any reader’s mind, and any other officer unfortunate enough, historiographically speaking, to share that surname should find compensation in having his first name constantly in attendance on his last. And he dismisses Benedict Arnold’s treason, surely an important part of the story of the Revolution, to a subordinate clause: “Arnold, who had defected to the British . . . .”

But the biggest head-scratcher is that this volume in the Oxford History of the United States accepts unquestionably the epithet “Glorious Cause,” a phrase used by Washington (you know which one!) in accepting the leadership of the Continental Army. Loyalists simply could not see the “inevitable conclusion,” Middlekauff states without nuance, that Britain’s policies were intolerably destructive of liberty. My response: if taxation without representation makes subjects into slaves, then the District of Columbia is full of slaves. Well, OK, I actually sort of believe that that’s in fact the state of DC. But their condition is not intolerable to the point that those citizens have been driven to any “inevitable conclusion” of rebelling against the national government that operates in their city. Loyalists, then, were not so blind as Middlekauff would make them. And yet he offers nothing from diaries, correspondence, or journalism that might help the reader examine the motives of those who stayed true to their King.

I set up my calendar this year so that I would read another account of the American Revolution just after finishing Glorious Cause, the second being the fictional presentation by Kenneth Roberts called Rabble in Arms. Roberts’s view of the complicated struggle is much more to my taste. Here are good people tainted with evil spots and rotters with redeeming qualities. Here are the weak American generals and the mercenary militiamen and the Continental soldiers who have doubts about any cause other than protecting their homes and plenty of law-abiding Americans who just sit on the fence because they don’t want their children to be hanged as traitors by whichever side wins. In other words, this is a story about realistic human beings trying their best to make their way through a crazy world. Roberts believed in liberty as much as the next American, but he had no illusions that those who fought on the side of Independence all marched with a vision of the Glorious Cause before their eyes while the British could only field inept generals who tortured their captives every chance they got.

And Roberts has the courage to portray Benedict Arnold, before changing sides, as a great and heroic leader whose actions on Lake Champlain in 1776 probably saved the Glorious Cause for “Patriots” like General Horatio Gates, who literally ran away after losing a battle somewhere in the Carolinas (close to Ninety-Six, for all I know). Arnold’s name is synonymous with “traitor.” He is considered such a pariah that Middlekauff only follows a long tradition of minimizing his presence in history books. But surely we’re past an American historiography that must avoid Arnold’s name like the Tetragrammaton. Ours is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But the Conceivers and Dedicators were humans, not angels, and they didn’t enjoy a monopoly on liberty. From Oxford Press, I expected a history that let people be people, with both nobility and baseness shared all around, engaged in a conflict with not just two sides – the Right and the Wrong. But I had to turn to fiction for the vision I wanted. And now I’ll just have to hope for better things from the next volume in the Oxford series: Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Dante, Charles Williams, and Echoes of the City

When I first read Charles Williams’s Many Dimensions, it immediately became one of my favorite books. (It remains high on my list and has grown with each rereading.) So, like all readers discovering a new favorite author, I looked at the other titles by Williams with great hope. Now, hope usually sets one up for disappointment. (I waited fifteen years to find out that young Obi-Wan needs to negotiate with a Trade Federation?!) But when I turned to other Charles Williams books, I mostly just experienced confusion. The little bits I understood, I enjoyed. But what to make of visions of masses of hands? Women who are also local hills?

A few years ago, I got a huge assist in understanding Williams through the commentary by his friend C. S. Lewis on Williams’s Arthurian poetry. (Any of you wanting insight on the relationship of this pair, Williams’s outlook on life and the the meaning of the universe, or modern takes on Welsh Arthurian legend should read Taliesin Through Logres. But start with part III, Lewis’s part, and let him be your Virgil as he guides you through the labyrinth of parts I and II all out of order.) Two revelations that stand out in my memory are Williams’s love of Dante and his view of the City as a symbol for divinely endowed human fellowship. In fact, as I read Dorothy L. Sayers’s commentary on The Divine Comedy earlier this year, I became even more aware of the connection between these two themes, as Williams seems to have picked up his idea of City directly from Dante.

I grew up thinking of cities as, frankly, evil places. I saw them as ugly, dirty, poor, and full of crime. As a child, it didn’t occur to me that my vision was one of a corrupted city that could be redeemed. I simply thought it was obvious that when my family left our suburban home for a vacation, we would get away from people and go to beautiful wilderness locations. Dante and Williams, though, while of course recognizing God’s good presence in National Parks, would, if they could talk to me directly, warn me about my urge to get away from people. People are meant to interact, to be sociable, to trade and do business, to love and share with one another. For both, the emblem of the culmination of this purpose is the well working City. (Obviously, I could add Plato, Augustine, and Dickens to the crowd of favorite authors who have worked so hard to get me to see the importance of the City, but today my topic is Dante and Williams.)

This morning I started my third reading of Williams’s All Hallows Eve, my first after Taliesin Through Logres. And Dante’s presence couldn’t have been clearer. Lester Furnival finds herself newly dead (although she doesn’t know it for the first five pages) in a strangely empty London. The City (I’m following Williams’s habit of capitalizing the word) stands silent as a result of Lester’s pattern of life. She admits to herself that she has hated everyone but her husband, Richard. Lester, thy will be done. But the seeds of human compassion lie in the soil of her attitude toward Richard. It isn’t truly love, says the narrator, but at least needing and wanting are on the right road. I thought of Dante putting the illicit lovers in the highest circle of Inferno because, he says, at least their sin was directed toward others. But, as Sayers points out, Paolo and Francesca are blown about incessantly in the winds of Hell, unable to interact. (Traitors, who destroy the fellowship of the city altogether are put in the lowest circle.) Similarly, Lester sees the still-alive Richard briefly but can’t touch him.

The examples go on. Lester begins her spiritual journey of redemption in the place of the dead. She looks at the stars. She even references the famous sign on the gates of Inferno in her fears that she will find the città dolente if she goes to an Underground station. Dante is everywhere in the first chapter.

I don’t remember exactly where it all goes, but I think Lester has a Marleyesque mission of connecting with a few select people among the living as a way of spreading the light of love. In any case, the first chapter ends with Lester taking the hand of her friend, killed in the same accident, a sign that she recognizes her need for human interaction. I also believe I remember that the book involves a painter who creates a nightmarish view of the City. I’ll be interested to see if the artwork corresponds better with Dante’s Inferno or my childhood impression of cities.

By the way, the Bible begins in a garden but ends in a city. I should have seen that as a child. But the New Jerusalem has at least one park, an area of amazing twelve-fruited trees along the River. Perhaps all tastes in travel can be satisfied in Heaven.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Baseness and Nobility in G. K. Chesterton

I’ve found it difficult the last two or three years to get around to writing these blog posts. The dwindling numbers in the chart in the right column of this window tell the tale. I know several reasons the change has occurred, but a new factor recently came to mind. My third decade of scheduled reading consists mostly of (1) things I like, (2) things I liked when I was a teenager, and (3) things I believe I will like when I finally read them. And the now rather obvious idea occurred to me the other day that ideas for writing generally come much more quickly and forcefully when I disagree with what I’m reading. Perhaps the pen is mightier as a sword.

In the last week or so, essays by G. K. Chesterton have provided both catalyst and examplar of my breakthrough in self-awareness. Chesterton wrote brilliantly with the prophet’s vision, the humorist’s deft mixture of hubris and humility, and the epigrammatist’s flair for piercing new turns of phrase. But he was almost always complaining about something, arguing with an opposing critic, exposing an immoral illogic in politicians’ programs. And here I am these days reading only things that I like. I know I was scolded earlier in the year by C. S. Lewis saying that literary people don’t just read for comfort; but I find myself in a situation, perhaps merely a swing of a pendulum, in which I don’t have the patience or energy to read much of what I know I won’t agree with.

(A paragraph-long parenthetical:) Actually, as I write this, another new explanation occurs to me, and the calendar bears this out. For the last two years and more I have in fact obsessively read things and read about things that I don’t agree with in reading the daily news. But I would hardly classify any of that material with the “Great Books.” Partly I’m a victim of my rubbernecking urge to view the train wreck of grammar, punctuation, rhetoric, and truth that has built up in a particularly spectacular way since 2016. While my disbelief and anger mostly point in one direction, the journalists are far from innocent in the collision. Maybe I’m just too exhausted from that reading to take on more thoughtful and eloquent writers who disagree with me or challenge me. Maybe I should congratulate myself on sacrificing my intellectual improvement out of a civic duty to try to understand the bewildering state of our nation and do my best to help. My next project for helping is going to involve reading with kids.

(Picking up the frayed thread again:) On the other hand, reading and then writing about opposing ideas isn’t always the best medicine for the soul. A few years ago I discovered that during the Great War Chesterton devoted all of his weekly columns to that conflict, and they haven’t been pleasant to read. I used to be able to count on G. K. Chesterton to get me out of depressive funks caused by insanity at my job, but these war articles (not to say Articles of War) drive me into the funk. The experience certainly did not bring out the best of him, and I’ve seen one of my idols teetering dangerously near the edge of the quite elegant pedestal I’ve installed him upon. Let’s begin with the Germans. Chesterton saw the war as a continuation of the barbarian wars that destroyed Roman civilization fifteen hundred years earlier. The Germans, he says often between 1914 and 1918, are barbarians, not Europeans. New Chesterton knew enough history to know how much those barbarians, crossing the Rhine and Danube and sailing through the Pillars of Hercules, intermingled with the peoples of the crumbling Empire and created a new Europe. Ironically (I’m sorely tempted to say “paradoxically” because it’s Chesterton, but he and I would agree that it would be an incorrect use of the epithet too often applied to him) he only launches his accusations of congenital bloodthirstiness to the descendants of the more sedentary Goths, who stayed north and east of the Roman boundaries. Going on from the Germans, I’ll only briefly say that he made me cringe often in talking about the Jewish heritage of Marx (while discussing the Russian Revolution) and about black Congressmen during Reconstruction (connected in some way that I’ve thankfully forgotten to a political situation he wished not to see after the Peace).

On the other side of this coin, I found out last week that as soon as the peace was signed and Chesterton felt the liberty to return to engaging with Shaw and Wells and English Socialists and American commercialism and “futurist” movements in drama that ignore how much they simply revive conventions of Shakespeare, he became the GKC I love once more. I read last year in the letters of Tolkien, my other favorite twentieth-century British Catholic author, that he (Tolkien) didn’t balk much when finding out the sinful side of great writers but simply acknowledged to himself that the good writing must certainly have come from more noble aspects of the author’s soul.

Today I read several pieces in a row flowing up from the more noble wellsprings in Chesterton’s soul. In one he defended a sane view of nationalism (OK, this is a different man in a different country at a different time: this word here has everything to do with love of home and nothing to do with racist history), distinguishing it on one side from a contemporary fashion of “internationalism” that seemed popular only in England (delicious) and on the other from a straw-man view that nationalism must mean that all people in a nation are alike. (Do you think the people using the word in the U.S. today could sustain a coherent analysis of the disinctions between three different definitions of the word?) No, he says, in a nation, the cultural atmosphere everyone breathes is alike and has its various effects on its citizens’ amazing and welcome variety. (I wish now I hadn’t become so excited over an essay about a word that has become extremely controversial in our times. Moving on to other Chesterton highlights now.)

He offered the wonderful thought experiment of watching Randolph Hearst and an English publisher (whose name I could look up if you insist) walk down a sidealk arm-in-arm and asked if I wouldn’t know immediately which was the Englishman. And I believe I would! In my mind, while both deport themselves confidently, dress smartly, and smile at passersby condescendingly, I see Hearst walking more urgently, more aggressively. Now I don’t know the appearance of Hearst any better than I know the appearance of the English publisher whose name I can’t even recall (I assume he looked no more like Welles’s Kane than old Kane looked like old Orson Welles). But the fact that they do differentiate themselves so quickly in my mental picture shows that I have an idea of national identity, a notion of nation, and I don’t think that that notion comes from nowhere. In any case, this article was fun and instructive, took down irrationalities taken seriously by people who should know better,  and demonstrated that cultural identity and individuality are both real and can both be dignified. This is the best of Chesterton.

Another reason I quit blogging so much in 2016 is the discouragement I felt when I found out that most of my blog’s hits came from Russian bots – and I learned this months before hearing about other nefarious activities of Russian bots that year. Some national traits are not dignified.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Reforming the Reformation

Movements, systems, and factions need names, I suppose, just as much as plants or geographical formations or tools or cookies. But the problem I find with names of the objects first mentioned is that they usually mean something else as well and end up misleading.

For the sake of context, consider the word tree for a moment. If I’m two years old, I have to learn what that word means, what kind of object it denotes; later in life I may have trouble deciding whether crepe myrtle fits into that genus, but that question doesn’t make me doubt my basic understanding of the word tree. Tree doesn’t mean anything else before it means the woody plant that puts shade in my yard.

When I’m twenty-two years old, on the other hand, I have to learn the word dualism and learn to apply it to a religious or cosmological view that good and evil each have independent and balanced existence. Or perhaps I learn that the term refers to a philosophical position associated with Descartes, a position some university professors I’ve known like to allude to without understanding it. Or maybe I learn to associate the word with a certain epistemological concept, or with a particular principle of political structure. And there’s the problem. Dualism means too many things because it already means something before it gets applied to anything specific enough for professors to get confused about: it has the clear but uninteresting meaning that something has two something elses. If you tell me you bought a tree last weekend, I feel confident that the picture I have in my head is close to the true situation. But if you tell me that you had lunch with a Dualist last weekend, I don’t at all know what ideas dominated your dining partner’s speech. Although I do know that I feel very bad about the torture you suffered during your meal whichever way that conversational tree fell, all I know about the specifics of your friend’s hobby horse is that it divides whatever it divides into two.

Reformation is one of those words for me. From the mere shape of the word, all we know is that something that has had some certain shape in the past is being remolded into another shape. OK, you say, but history uses this word pretty much for only one thing: a European cultural and intellectual movement in the sixteenth century. Yes, but I’ve found that various figures identify different elements as the key among all the reshaping that occurred.

When I first heard the term as a teen (from a friend whose high-school European history class had actual content, unlike mine), I learned that Martin Luther started the movement, and I was surprised to find public-school history class so concerned with Christian theology. Maybe my American history class should have covered Methodism, Great Awakenings, and Fundamentalism, but it steered clear of the topics entirely. Well, it turns out this theological change brought on a war or two, and history classes love war. But they were wars, I believed or was led to believe, over theology; still, in my mind, the word Reformation meant the rise of Protestant doctrine. But outside of history class, which doctrine? And does Luther really have anything to do with it? Catholics may prefer to think about the Counter-Reformation. Some Calvinists co-opt the word for their own stripe of dogma and would balk at calling a Lutheran “reformed.” (“Reformed.” Ugh. Are you, Calvinist friend, saying that you, personally, were once Catholic and have been reformed into a Protestant?)

I meant for this post to be about Will and Ariel Durant, and I’ve finally come around to them. The Durants have plenty to say about Christian doctrine in their chapters on sixteenth-century Europe. But for them, the main thrust of the Reformation is that states came out from under Church control. The primary structure being reformed, in their view, was the political structure of Europe. More power to the State means more freedom . . . .

Wait, stop right there. More power to the State means more freedom? A revolutionary proposition and definitely true to a certain extent. Maybe what was being reformed most in the sixteenth century were habits of thought about politics rather than the structures themselves. We now resume our regular broadcasting. . . .

More power to the State, say the Durants, means more freedom for philosophy, more freedom for art, more freedom for science. The Durants don’t do anything as facile as pit faith against science, as I’ve heard some pastors and some scientists do. They recognize the faith of Galileo, Copernicus, and other players in the drama of the scientific revolution and the role that faith played in their work. But they certainly tell the tale of conflict between a particular Church and a few particular scientists. And the tale is not pretty.

The story of Galileo is grim enough. But even more disgusting is the story of Giordano Bruno. A Dominican, skeptic, and mystic, Bruno believed in an infinite universe with an infinitude of Copernican systems. Good-bye to the debate over whether the sun or the earth is at the center of the universe! He also taught the Platonesque doctrine that God is the Divine Mind whose body is the universe. Yes, that idea makes him not a Christian teacher. But the Church, instead of defrocking Bruno and clarifying to the world that he was not one of the orthodox, arrested him, held him for seven years with sporadic hearings sometimes a year apart, and eventually burned him alive for his views on the Trinity and Incarnation. I don’t even have to look at this story through the Durants’ secular-humanist lenses to see the point clearly: if anything needed reforming, it was the political power of the Church to hold and torture people for their beliefs. And profession of Protestant doctrine didn’t do much to reform that structure, or we wouldn’t have had Calvin’s Geneva. Now if only we could prevent the State from torturing people for their beliefs!

Now, to end with a note of clarification, I’m a man of great faith: I believe I am a part if the Church that Jesus taught about. I also believe that in some way Jesus spoke truthfully when He said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Friday, September 14, 2018

Where Have I Read This Before?

I’ve read this story somewhere before. A very rich man comes to the highest political office in a powerful country. His wife, perhaps not feeling the attachment to her husband as keenly as some married women do, has her own home and tries living there for a while. Meanwhile, the new leader discovers to his annoyance that he cannot do or say whatever he wishes but must defer sometimes to the advice of his Cabinet. Then certain newspapers become concerned when they discover that he has tried to hush up a payment that suggests improper influence in the election that brought him to power. In spite of his wealth and position, he is thin-skinned, and everyone around him learns that they must coddle him.

Yes, these points of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister sound very familiar, and yet . . . and yet the lessons of the story are so very different. Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is scrupulous to the point of impracticality. He does nothing apart from principle – will not, for instance, endorse any candidate whose election would tend to sustain his – the Prime Minister’s – tenure in office. His wife, however, has no such hesitations and encourages Mr. Lopez to run: or to “stand,” as the English say. (Oh, yes, feelings of discomfort held toward a man with a Latin name play a part in the tale.) When Lopez loses and applies to the Duke for repayment of his campaign expenses, P.M. Palliser finds himself in a moral dilemma and writes the check because he believes Lopez to have been deceived. Everyone with a moral sense believes Palliser to be an upstanding man. Even his political enemies refrain from making any personal accusations about the payment.

I’m only about 60% of the way through the book, but the biggest theme so far seems to be power and compromise: how they work together and how they are opposed. While Plantagenet Palliser can see, for instance, that he must compromise and defer at times with his Cabinet, he can’t see at all that his wife, Glencora, has her own mind that he must sometimes defer to. Now it could be that, the Victorian era being what it was, Trollope would just accept the domination of a man over his wife however much he may sympathize with the woman whose husband doesn’t use his oversight justly. After all, as far as I’ve read, Glencora doesn’t get her way on her most important project and must simply learn how to deal with the situation. Maybe Trollope, as a Victorian author, expected his audience to share Glencora’s acceptance of her position.

But I don’t think so. The same dynamic happens with another couple in the book, and there Trollope doesn’t let the cultural norm stand. Emily Wharton’s husband has none of the Prime Minister's virtues, and she becomes miserable soon after her marriage when she discovers the true, dastardly character of the man she has given herself to. Emily indeed believes (as surely many women at the time did) that she must acknowledge that she has ruined her life and must simply suffer the just consequences by dutifully living out her life of misery. But her father – the old guy – the old conservative guy – wants her away from the scoundrel and devises a scheme of payment that will assure the separation be permanent.

Trollope received a lot of criticism for The Prime Minister when it was published. His position in the book isn’t radical feminism by our standards, but it appeared so in the 1870s, and the newspapers and journals (written mostly by men, of course) let him know about it. I don’t know what his mostly female readership thought of the idea of separating from a cruel, deceitful husband. I suppose I don’t actually know that Trollope won’t side with the Y chromosome by the end of the book. But I doubt it.

By the way, Trollope tells us that Emily’s husband doesn’t know that he’s a bad person or that he disgusts her. He thinks spending money he doesn’t have and defaulting on loans is just a way to do business. Yes, I’ve heard this story somewhere before.

Monday, August 27, 2018

An Arthurian Theory

I first started reading The Mammoth Book of King Arthur two years ago and only finished it this month. It’s mammoth, after all. Author Mike Ashley covers all the original references to King Arthur, all the possibilities of historical characters who might have served as the original of the legends, and then all the threads of development, from Geoffrey of Monmouth through Chrétien de Troyes, Malory, Tennyson, and Monty Python together with hundreds of other stories, poems, novels, plays, operas, and films in between. The result was well worth the two years it took to read, but I’m glad I took some careful notes on the early parts.

I’ve loved King Arthur ever since it befell me in my seventh year that I did read, in Sidney Lanier’s version for children, these words: “It befell in the days of the noble Utherpendragon, when he was King of England, that there was born to him a son who in after time was King Arthur.” Like most Arthurophiles, I want the great King to be real. Sir Winston Churchill said, in words close to these: Arthur ought to have been real, so let us declare him to be so. (Did Churchill’s appearence in the Darkest Hour represent the long awaited return of Arthur? It ought to be, so let us declare it so.) But definitively locating a real Arthur in the spotty chronicles of a mostly illiterate Dark Age Britain is impossible; names similar to “Arthur” show up rarely and in stories that conflict with each other. Ashley’s solution as to the identity of the Ur-Arthur was disappointing: after promising to locate the winner of the Battle of Badon, ca. 500 AD, he ultimately identifies the source of the beloved legend in two Welsh kings, one from the seventh and one from the eighth century, whose stories got told and confused in a centuries-long game of telephone.

But I have a theory much more satisfactory to myself – a theory based on one of the most curious inconsistencies of the medieval record. A fellow from the ninth century named Nennius lists twelve battles led by Arthur against the Saxons, who to Britain did pour, culminating in the Battle of Badon. According to Geoffrey (in the twelfth century), after finally ridding the realm of invaders, the great victor then reigned over a pax Arthuriana, supposedly the beginning of the legends of the Round Table of chivalric knights. A monk named Gildas, writing in the early sixth century, also wrote about a series of battles ending in Badon, which he says happened in the year of his birth (probably in the 470s). So, if Nennius and Geoffrey have anything right about Arthur at all, Gildas should have grown up under the rule of King Arthur. Yet – and here’s the inconsistency that drives the legend hunters wild – he doesn’t mention Arthur, instead giving credit for the victories against the Saxons to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a character that Nennius and Geoffrey both name as well.

Now, just about the time Geoffrey wrote his Historia regum Britanniae, one Caradoc of Llancarfan wrote a Life of Gildas, in which he most definitely says that Gildas not only lived during Arthur’s reign but knew him and helped him retrieve Gwenevere after she was abducted by the King of Glastonbury. What to make of it all? Gildas is the one writer who should be able to give us a definitive contemporary description of the great, original King Arthur whom other authors place in his time and even in his acquaintance. And yet he doesn’t mention him.

OK. Suppose that an oral tradition passed down stories from the fifth century that didn’t always make their way into books in timely fashion but came down to Nennius and Caradoc and Geoffrey. And suppose that someone with a name like “Arthur” (maybe Riothamus, as Geoffrey Ashe theorizes, or perhaps Athrwys ap Mar, a descendent of Coel – the Coel that the nursery-rhyme describes as a merry old soul with fiddlers three), with help from Ambrosius Aurelianus, really led victorious battles including the Battle of Badon and became a great king whom “everyone” in “England” loved and respected. Finally, suppose that this king’s queen really was kidnapped and that Gildas was called upon to help his king get her back. Might not Gildas have been disappointed to find that the glorious warrior who was already a legend in his own time couldn’t protect his own wife? Might he not have become disillusioned when the man whose reputation was built on strength, courage, and prowess in battle asked a bookish cleric to help him out against his rotten neighbor? I’ve read several authors from our time puzzling over Gildas’s not mentioning Arthur, but no one acknowledging this rather obvious explanation. Gildas didn’t want to add his voice to the rousing chorus of praise for the invisible clothes on the naked king.

Alternatively, here’s a less obvious explanation. What if Arthur asked Gildas for aid precisely because he was a frail, scholarly monk? What if the mighty soldier had learned to regret his bloody ways and wished to meet the kidnapping crisis with spiritual ammunition? Maybe the kidnapping even forced him to face the wickedness of the violence he had so long embraced. He might have asked Gildas to preach to the King of Glastonbury on the need for repentance, hoping to win back his queen by appealing to his fellow monarch’s sense of righteousness. Would not an Arthur of this humble frame of mind have asked his confidant not to name him when he came to write his history of the evils of the time? In fact, if Gildas was Arthur’s confessor, would Gildas not have been bound to keep his name from the record? Let us declare it so.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Force of Destiny

In my experience, no one loves paperwork like the Italians. Over the course of a semester teaching in Italy, my wife and I, with our proper national visas, never got complete approval to live in the town we in fact lived in. We were called in to one office in town twice to fill out paperwork. Before, in between, and after these two visits, we were given assignments to collect various forms and stamps verifying these forms; one legally necessary step involved purchasing a particular stamp available only at tobacco shops.

Back in the office that casually dealt with approving all these papers and stamps, the smiling woman behind the glass took our completed, stapled, stamped packets and put her own ink stamps on them: she placed her mark on every page, carefully stamping the meeting of each consecutive pair of pages over the staple, and even – with particular relish – stamping the stamps. It was all important enough to her and her organization to spend at least four months on the task of clearing us to live in the lovely town of Arezzo but not important enough to bar us from actually living and working in Arezzo while waiting for the approval. Clerical mania seemed to me simply part of the Italian character.

But Christopher Duggan’s The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796 taught me that, if there even is such a thing as a national character, it came about only very recently. Now I knew that Italy had existed as a country only since the middle of the nineteenth century. And I knew that the process had something to do with Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Cavour: names of piazzas and streets in every town we visited told me that much. But surely, I supposed, there had been, for centuries before, an Italy yearning to cast off the French and the Austrians and to breathe freedom. But Duggan tells the story of an orchestrated celebration in Naples in 1860 in which many people in the crowds encouraged to shout, “Viva L’Italia!” believed Italia to be the name of their new queen.

Did the peninsular wars of the 1860s really create a unification? North belittled South, South disdained North, and both looked with distrust to Sicily. The cities that fought together to oust their imperial overlords had long histories of killing each other. The leaders of “the” movement sometimes battled each other in the field. Only twenty percent of the population knew the Italian language. No, using the word “unification” is a stretch for a process that essentially turned regional warfare into civil war, as armed bands arose in many localities to resist the only discernible change brought about by the birth of the new nation: national taxes.

So Mazzini et al. spoke after political unification of the need for “moral unification”: the meeting of minds and hearts rather than simply of geographical regions. As I was reading about the struggle for “moral unification,” a seemingly silly thought occurred to me: if only the revolutionary leaders had thought to introduce a national football team! And then I came to the chapters on Mussolini.

Of all the tragic ironies in this history, the most tragic is that Mussolini did actually unify the thoughts and wishes of the Italian people – in fact made them an Italian people. He unified them by murdering all the elected Socialists and then outlawing all parties other than the Fascists. He unified them by getting all those non-Italian speaking children into schools and making sure they learned in one of their first lessons the words il duce. And, lo and behold, he unified them by encouraging youth to play football and then creating a national team for everyone to back. He arranged to bring the newly created World Cup to Italy in 1934 (I wonder what paperwork he had to fill out), and in the most astonishing fashion, the national team won the championship in overtime. It was an ending so improbable, if they made the story into a movie, some character would be bound to say, “If they wrote this in a book, no one would believe it.”

In the end, though, Mussolini unified (nearly) all of Italy in an intense desire to join the Allies and expel him and his Nazi pals out of the country he made. We lived near a deeply touching monument mourning a local German atrocity, and in many lovely piazzas we visited all around Italy saw plaques thanking the Allies for liberating their country. But even if Italians turned against il Duce, his football idea stuck. Italy has won the World Cup four times, more than any other country except Brazil.

Note from Sept: I just read an essay by Chesterton from 1924 on Mussolini. Chesterton saw from the beginning, as I suppose every observer did, that Mussolini had finally achieved the supposedly impossible task of unifying Italy. He also saw that one sometimes must credit positive achievements to cruel madmen.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Three Stray Comments and a Joke

Donald Trump walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Mr. President, I didn’t think you drank.” “I don’t,” says the President, “and people ask me all the time. But if you look at what’s going on; and I tell you it’s very simple. See, I give you $5, and all I get: it’s just a glass with a beverage. And believe me, trade deficits are bad.”

Donald Trump never actually had this conversation, and you know it. Dorothy L. Sayers, in the commentary to her magnificent translation of The Divine Comedy posits that Dante’s readers never took his placement of real people in Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven as literal statements, either. The celebrities Dante assigns to one place or another were accepted as recognizable types that helped make the points he was trying to make. As much as I love this classic of classics, I’ve always placed a little mental bracket around what I saw as Dante’s untoward willingness to judge. But Sayers has convinced me that he wasn’t predicting the eternal state of souls much more than someone telling a joke does. In looking up Trump jokes, I found some that put him in Heaven and some that put him in Hell, and I don’t take any of them as prognostications.

That’s the first of just a few stray comments I have to make on my reading this month. Living in south-central Texas for the school year put my bioliogical calendar out of whack. I wake up, go out for a walk on hot, humid mornings, and think, “Isn’t summer about over?” Then I realize that it’s June and that summer has just started. How can this be? Walking has become such a part of my reading routine, it’s difficult to read with full concentration when the walking is so uncomfortable, and I only feel enough energy for disconnected notes.

What can Patrick O’Brian not write about? Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin give their author cause to write about history, naval tactics, geography, anthropology, biology, geology, economics, politics, fashion, music, meteorology, family relations, literature, espionage, and more. In chapter 7 of H. M. S. Surprise we get an experiment in ethics, as Stephen walks around Bombay in amoral observation. He doesn’t judge prostitution, slavery, idolatry, or any other practice his church and countries might tell him to condemn, and as he brings me along into this morally neutral view, he reveals very clearly a new line of morality. Judging institutions he cannot change is pointless. Judging people who have grown up in a foreign environment is pointless. But Stephen must help one little girl who crosses his path.

Somehow, Shelby Foote conveys beauty in the pageant of stupidity and blood that we know as the American Civil War. He does it partly through focusing on individual stories: Lincoln and his yarns, Grant and his self-doubts, Jefferson Davis and his dyspepia, Longstreet and his hubristic disobedience, and a host of generals, colonels, quartermasters, abolitionists, senators, spies, reporters, ambassadors, diarists, soldiers, wives, authors, humorists, slaves, freemen, and others with a story to tell. He does it partly through phrases packed with powerful imagery: the “stars in the courses,” the “awful arithmetic” (did Lincoln actually coin the combination?), “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” and “We are all Americans.” And he does it partly by letting events lead (in stellar courses) toward known conclusions: the reader can sense for scores or even hundreds of pages the coming of the shots at Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, Stonewall Jackson’s death, Pickett’s Charge, the crater at Petersburg, the surrender at Appomattox Court House. The effect is very similar to that of reading Othello or Oedipus the King for the umpteenth time – except that it lasts for three thousand pages.

I complained about the heat earlier in the post. Distraction from adjusting to the first month of retirement may have something to do with it, too. But whether I can put together a train of thought or not, it’s clear to me as I write these stray comments, that my reading has placed in the midst of the disorientation and weariness some profound, unforgettable moments.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

In Which I Declare with 100% Confidence the Direction of Literary History

Many times when I write a post, I think that I know the author well enough to comment confidently on his or her place in literature, in history, in philosophical view and purpose, and in my heart. But I don’t know Sir Walter Scott well enough to do any of that. I know that he was the most popular novelist in Britain in the early nineteenth century, and I know that I read two of his novels before I read Quentin Durward (Ivanhoe when I was about twenty, and The Bride of Lammermoor when I was about forty). But I don’t have a sense of a Scott style or of Scott’s message to the world or what it was about his books that captured the imagination of British readers before Victoria gave her name to an era.

So I’ll just comment briefly on my first, tentative thoughts about how Scott fits in with the stream of English-language fiction as seen in my mind. And Tentative Thought No. 1 is that his use of archaic language seems like the beginning of a trend. Words like cortege and tabard and dint elicit a complex depth of flavor in my mouth, and lines like these rain sweet showers on the desert that the age of politics in 280 characters has scorched into my brain:
Have I not crossed swords with Dunois, the best knight in France, and shall I fear a tribe of yonder vagabonds? Pshaw!—God and Saint Andrew to friend, they will find me both stout and wary.
Now this kind of language starts to sound a little silly in Hollywood swashbucklers of the 1930s. But all trends do begin to feel stale after a while. The point is, I don’t think it felt stale in 1823. Part of my willing suspension of disbelief in reading a novel like Quentin Durward is my attempt to put myself in the position of the reader of that time, in this case, to feel the old vocabulary as if it felt archaic for the first time – as if it were newly old. (Owen Barfield says this, oh, so much better in Poetic Diction, which I’m scheduled to reread next month.)

If I remember correctly, Robinson Crusoe and Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield also speak this way a literary generation or two earlier. But, although the conversation of Boswell and Johnson and friends (friends including Oliver Goldsmith) proves that such language is no longer the London fashion in the late eighteenth century, I parse thee and thou and yonder as within the realm of possibility for devout down-country folk of the time like Crusoe and Vicar Primrose.

With Scott, though, I get the idea (partly because the characters are actually supposed to be speaking French) that the heirloom language is offered not as a stab at realism but as a conventional sign and reminder that the book is a work of historical fiction. And I can imagine that, as a nineteenth-century reader, I would want my fifteenth-century characters to speak in an antique way even if it weren’t precisely accurate. If I read a historical novel written this year, 2018, about, say, Lincoln, I wouldn’t demand that the language perfectly mimic the President’s manner of speech, but I would balk less at “These matters are weighty indeed” than at “This information is key.”

As I started rereading the Tarzan books last year, I was surprised at how often I encountered formal or archaic words and turns of phrase. I don’t remember any specific vocabulary at the moment, but a quick glance just now through the first two or three novels uncovered these quaint constructions:
What they are doing I know not.
They would but laugh in their sleeves.
The stern retribution which justice metes to the murderer.
“I am not married, Tarzan of the Apes,” she cried. “Nor am I longer promised in marriage.”
Now, again, I’m just hypothesizing a connection in the history of literature out of my own head. Maybe the world of literary scholarship has already noticed this pattern and either established or disproven it. I don’t know. I enjoy reading literary criticism from time to time, but ideas taste sweeter if, as George Washington would have said, I chew them myself. So here’s the hypothesis: what Scott did to signal past times began, over the course of a century of historical novels, to be taken as the lofty speech of the courageous heroes of those costume dramas. Burroughs, then, to make his point that a loincloth-clad man raised by an ape can act as nobly as an English lord, had him speak like an eighteenth-century lord.

Of course, Tarzan is in fact an English lord, and I don’t know what Tarzan’s creator meant by it all. Whether ape is nature and blue blood nurture or vice versa – whether civilization is merely clothing for evolved apes or the true biological standard from which criminal types have devolved – I’m not sure even Burroughs knew. But the point is that the archaic cadences represent nobility.

OK, Tentative Thought No. 2 will actually fulfill my promise of brevity. I read Quentin Durward close to the time I listened to Galsworthy’s “Indian Summer of a Forsyte,” and a difference in the use of characters struck me that I believe might actually indicate a historical direction. Galsworthy presents characters as shaped by circumstance, genetics, and culture; they struggle with themselves. A Galsworthy character’s dialiog is sometimes a surprise even to himself. Scott, on the other hand, presents characters as set, not needing any explanation. They are chess pieces whose move types are given, known, and unchanging. Where Galsworthy has characters speak so he can reveal them, Scott’s characters speak to reveal something external. The two approaches seem emblematic of, respectively, a classical time when psychology categorized personalities and a modern age in which psychology explained the making of personalities. In the intervening time, the hero of a Victorian writer like Dickens is neither given nor shaped wholly by envorinment but must shape himself. David Copperfield must discipline his heart.

Yes, that was relatively brief. But I feel the need to conclude by going back to TT No. 1 for a moment. Whatever the elegant, eloquent, patinated language of Defoe, Goldsmith, Scott, Dickens, Galsworthy, and even Burroughs means, I need it – maybe not as much as I need sunshine, air, and water, but as much as I need companionship and confidence and mental stimulation. But I don’t find it in the news. I don’t hear it in church. I don’t see it in the classroom. I certainly don’t read it on internet message boards. I’m swimming in a fetid swamp of ineloquence, and I can only hold my breath so long before I come up to the surface to fill my lungs with the freshness that makes me “both stout and wary.”

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Greatest Briton of All Time

So said the British people in a BBC poll in 2002. So says Gary Oldman, who recently played the Prime Minister in, as they say, a major motion picture. Martin Gilbert’s biography of Winston Spencer Churchill, while not a hagiography by any means, certainly makes the reader consider him at least in the running for Greatest Briton of All Time. I don’t know what to do but list some of the moments in the book that astonished me the most.

• Churchill’s father told him he would never amount to anything.

• He went to South Africa as a reporter, helped when a supply engine came off the tracks in a battle, was captured, escaped, and then wrote the camp commander to say his escape was not the fault of the guards.

• Elected to Parliament for the first time, he soon broke from the Conservatives because – and this is the interesting part considering more recent politics – he believed in Free Trade.

• The disaster at Gallipoli occurred because the Cabinet wavered and didn’t support the invasion with the proper troops. Many blamed Churchill for most of his life, but Prime Minister Asquith, chief supporter of the invasion, suppressed the documents proving the truth.

• Churchill coined the terms “seaplane” and “tank.”

• He believed that capitalism was good only for the rich and that the government should get every family up to a line that made housing, food, and health care secure.

• Over and over during World War II, he took the flight just before or after a flight that was shot down.

• And the most astonishing: In June of 1940, he held papers that would make one country of the U.K. and France, papers which French Prime Minister Reynaud and General de Gaulle supported. Two further French signatures were needed, however, and the unification, obviously, didn’t happen.

While I’m on the subject, let me grind my ax about Darkest Hour. Apparently many people disapproved of the scene on the Underground because Churchill never actually took such a ride to read the temperature of the public. But, while I certainly wondered throughout the scene whether such a thing could possibly be factual, I also couldn’t get Shakespeare’s Henry V out of my head. Did the great king (OK, he’s never going to win any poll, but shouldn’t Henry V always be a part of any Greatest Briton discussion?) actually go out in disguise the night before Agincourt to see what his troops really thought? I don’t know, and I don’t care any more than I really care about the historicity of the Underground scene. Churchill did know the general sentiment of the British populace, and possessed of that knowledge announced that Britain would never surrender. Darkest Hour tells a truth in a nonliteral way that fits right in with the very best tradition of British historical drama.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Three Great Days

During the third week in February, I enjoyed one of the best three-day stretches of my whole experience in scheduled reading. First, I started Mansfield Park, which was even better than I had remembered. Then I started Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism, which had two stunning effects. First, the basis of his experiment is directly exemplified and verified by Austen's characters (and once he even refers to Austen), as if one were the demonstration of the other. Second, he said something on almost every page that provided that moment when you see something with import to your whole life that you hadn't thought about before and yet immediately seems obvious. Sometimes he challenged everything I thought about literature and made me feel I had been reading incorrectly my entire life. But then just as I would begin to abandon all hope, he would make another remark that made me feel pretty intelligent after all. The unassuming title hides the importance of what he has to say! The book doesn't present a throw-away idea that you might try out on a Sunday afternoon; it explains What It Means To Be Literary.

The experiment is this. Instead of beginning with criticism of books and then defining good readers as those who like the right sort of books, let's begin with criticism of readers and define good books as those that appeal to the right sort of reader. The first step in defining different kinds of readers is to see that they don't “like” different kinds of books. Using the same verb suggests that the same process is going on in various readers’ heads and that what makes a nonliterary reader is a taste for bad literature. But who has a taste for the bad? What the many nonliterary people do with books is simply not the same as what the few literary people do with books. Let's say that the many use books while the few receive them.

Those who use books want plot with exciting events. Description has to be just interesting enough to set the stage and must use hackneyed phrases: "her blood ran cold" cues the reader to register the idea of fear more strongly than “she was afraid” but does nothing to describe a particular fear in a particular situation. Those who use books want excitement, happiness, drama, tragedy or any other effect that will entertain, confirm, and present visions of possibility for the reader's life. But they don't grow by them; they always want to agree with what they read. They read books once and set them aside as accomplished tasks.

Those who receive books, on the other hand, enter into the world of the book as it is. They appreciate the artistic form of the work, and, while they may not change their mind on any position, they find out to their benefit what it is like to think differently. The users criticize immediately; the receivers defer judgment. Receivers read the same works “ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” (Oh, dear. It doesn’t sound very good for me right now.) Literary readers hear the sounds of the words. (Whew! I’m literary again.) They have life-changing reading experiences akin to religion, love, and bereavement. (Now I’m very literary.) What they read keeps a prominent position in their minds, and they think about, quote, and mutter their favorite lines.

If I continued the summary at this pace, I would nearly have to reproduce the length of the book. So I’ll end with just a note about conclusions. Lewis’s main conclusion is that a certain kind of book rewards the kind of reading that literary people perform: such a book can be read several times and grows with each rereading, it challenges and changes readers’ ideas, it has beautiful, memorable, and speakable lines, and so on. But the conclusion that most struck me this time (I’m sure I will have to reread this book about rereadable books!) had to do with the related topics of agreement and judgment. I was feeling quite nonliterary for a while as Lewis talked down a reader being too quickly critical about works he doesn’t agree with. I have opinions, after all. Maybe I’m the reader Lewis is talking about. But then once more he reconfirmed my status in his club by proving me wrong about myself using my favorite example: Lucretius! I agree with hardly a single sentence in all of De natura rerum, and yet I love it. Lucretius’s theory of atoms gives me a vivid picture of an atheistic, materialistic world and helps me experience what it’s like for a brilliant, eloquent mind to think that way. Now I should inspire myself by my own example to take on a repertoire I don’t have much sympathy for or understanding of: contemporary poetry. I should read swaths of it and remind myself just to let it be what it is, entering into it without judgment and letting it help me see the world through the contemporary poet’s eyes. Just because.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Aristotle and Dickens

Speaking of villains (as I did nearish the end of the previous post), I promised in the last post of January that I would have to write someday about Aristotle and Dickens’s three types of villain. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me when I wrote that post that my opportunity would arrive in the very next weeks.

In book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about why people do bad things. He does this in part to combat a mistake his mentor, Plato, makes through most of his career: assuming that a person will act righteously if he simply knows the right thing to do. (Did Plato never go to a middle school? Or to a college faculty meeting?) Aristotle analyzes mistakes that even good people make in their moral reasoning (not seeing contradictions between the universals of knowledge and the particulars of appetite and other such Aristotelian explanations). But he finds three kinds of fault causing evil action that have nothing to do with syllogisms: vice, incontinence, and brutishness. The vicious person knows all about ethics but simply doesn’t care about the pain or happiness of others anywhere near as much as he cares about his own comfort. The incontinent person wishes she could be better but finds herself too weak to resist temptation. The brute on the other hand doesn’t think at all, acting merely to satisfy hunger and anger by the most direct means.

At some point over the years, it occurred to me that Dickens’s villains often come in threes, and that they usually fall into three types. Maybe I first noticed the pattern with the Defarges and their horrifying partner, The Vengeance, in A Tale of Two Cities. Mme Defarge coolly knits the record of her victims, plotting and planning her private Revolution all the way, while her husband, who appears at times to have a good heart, often simply glides along with the bloody tide. On days of execution, Mme Defarge looks on with grim satisfaction, and M Defarge with sad resignation. But The Vengeance cackles with delight: she loves the sight of blood whether it drips from the neck of a nobleman or his innocent charwoman.

In reviewing Aristotle’s taxonomy of evil this year, I saw a clear parallel. Mme Defarge fits neatly into the Philosopher’s category of vice, M Defarge represents the incontinent quite well, and The Vengeance is a paragon of brutishness. And the pattern seems to hold in other novels, as well. In Oliver Twist, Fagin (Vice) uses children in cold blood to line his own pockets, Bumble the Beadle (Incontinence) finds himself unable to act contrary to the law that he calls “a ass,” and Sikes (Brute) beats Nancy to death in animalistic rage. The baddies in the Dickens I read this year, The Old Curiosity Shop, also fit the mold. Sally Brass (Vice) knows just what she’s doing as she calculates to bring misery into the lives of those around her. Her brother Sampson (Incontinence) isn’t smart enough to do any calculation of his own but acquiesces in his sister’s schemes. And Quilp (Brutishness) – okay, Quilp thinks and plots, but his primary motivation is just a kind of bloodlust.

Dickens’s funny heroes don’t succumb easily to categorization; each is uniquely hilarious. This post has gone on long enough already for me to spend much time on the humor of The Old Curiosity Shop. But before signing off, I want to take the opportunity to promote one of the funniest characters I’ve ever come across. Dick Swiveller may be overlooked becomes he appears in a book whose allegorical melodrama hasn’t suited English-language reading fashion for 150 years. But anyone of the weird few who have read this far in this post will be rewarded by becoming acquainted with a character who, in the serious business of making readers laugh and feel happy to be a part of Dickens’s world, stands tall beside the more well-known Sam Weller and Wilkins Micawber.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The World Is a Curiosity Shop

The more I learn about Charles Dickens, the more he amazes me. Brilliant author. Reformer. Midnight wanderer. Actor. Hero at fatal railway accidents. One of the most amazing aspects of his career was his ability to create coherent artistic wholes while writing in a periodical format. The Old Curiosity Shop, which I read this month for the third time in my life, starts out as a vignette about characters met by a first-person narrator on a late-night perambulation through London (no doubt based on some real people Dickens encountered on one of his night-time walks). Only after this short item appeared in print did the Inimitable decide to turn the story into a novel. He even had to make an explicit change of narrators in order to lengthen the story. How could he have kept the whole thing unified?

Yet somehow he did. Several consistent themes run through the entire book and, in spite of the difference in tone and narrator, even incorporate the opening chapters. One such theme is one’s relationship to death. Nell often thinks about her approaching death. Other characters try to put off their approaching death, ignore it, fear it, and cause it.

Another theme explores attitudes of loyalty. Loyalty cannot be simply professed, as Tom Codlin does to Nell and Sampson does to Kit. It must be consistently shown, as with Nell to her Grandfather, the Marchioness to Dick, the Clergyman and the Bachelor, and the Sexton and his assistant. It must sometimes be earned, as with the pony and Kit. (Is this the only Dickens animal whose end is told in the wrap-up chapter as if he were a major character?)

But the theme that struck me most during this reading was that of the Old Curiosity Shop itself. Nell and her grandfather leave the actual, physical shop behind early in the story, and yet Dickens retained the title. Did he have a notion of using that title figuratively at the beginning of his creative process? Nell and her grandfather are certainly seen as curiosities by the first narrator. Or did Dickens decide to make a figurative theme of the title only after the abandonment of the literal Curiosity Shop made that title an inappropriate curiosity of its own?

One way or another, displays of curiosities abound throughout the book. (Humanoid curiosities stood out to me. Perhaps the figurative Curiosity Shop specializes in figurines.) Nell says that the rows of chimneys she sees at night appear to have faces. She works for a while at a traveling wax museum (and sleeps among the historical characters). The crowd at a race are described as being in a panorama, as are a group of pupils in the school, seated all in rows. Puppets make several appearances in the book (once sitting on tombs). And Quilp, perhaps Dickens’s most odious villain, often appears at a window, his bizarre face on display in a frame. All these images lead in the end to the effigies on the tombs in the church where Nell sits alone pondering her impending death (continuing the frequent connection of the curiosity-display theme and the death theme) and the imagined crowd of angels that accompany Nell’s soul to Heaven.

As I think about it longer, though, maybe it isn’t so strange that the title of Dickens’s fourth novel should shine light on a metaphoric thread running through its fabric. All of Dickens’s works are displays of curiosities. It’s the way he saw London, England, the world. He regularly set out in the wee hours to find and interact with social outcasts: prisoners, asylum inmates, the homeless. He did this partly out of a sense of Christian charitable duty (by contrast, I admit, with bowed head, that when I find myself on a night-time errand in a big city, I generally try to avoid human contact) and partly to feed his understanding of the wondrous variety of humanity. Even in daylight, Charles Dickens had an eye for the eccentricity in every human being. The artist René Magritte seems to tell us in his work that individuality, if it exists, is always hidden and that a person always presents as and instance of a type: the Lover, the middle-class Suit, and so on. But the author of The Old Curiosity Shop, like Rembrandt, reminds us that every human we are tempted to parse as nothing more than an embodiment of a category is actually a Dickens character.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Splintered Fragments

It has long seemed clear to me that a Christian can learn from someone of another faith or even of no faith, although many half-thinking Christians have disagreed with me or, worse, looked past me while declaring their purified principles to the air. But which of us Christians hasn’t had a teacher, a professor, a work supervisor that taught us things without agreeing with us on the Being of God? I’ve even learned spiritual things from Hindus and Greek Pagans and Atheists – without coming one step closer to converting. So I’m always happy to find a Christian author who recognizes what seems to me an obvious fact. Paul commending the Athenians for being “in every way very religious” and then quoting approvingly one of their own poets. Augustine declaring that “wherever truth may be found, it belongs to [the] Master.” Lewis calling myth “a splintered fragment of the true light.”

I discovered two more sympathetic souls this month in Lactantius and Justin Martyr. Acting on a tip, the source of which I’ve forgotten, I read just book VII of the Divine Institutes of Lactantius, who was an advisor to Constantine in the early fourth century. At that point in this apologetical work, Lactantius gives arguments for believing in the immortality of the soul and in divine judgment, using Greek philosophers, poets, Cicero, and even the Sibyls as evidence. He goes on to more specifically Christian doctrines, which of course he must support using the New Testament, not Cicero. (Of special interest to me was Lactantius’ belief in a literal Millennium between the reign of the Antichrist and the end of the world.) But starting with the pagan classics was a technique worthy of the Apostle’s sermon on Mars Hill.

Writing a couple hundred years earlier than Lactantius, Justin Martyr also had read the classic philosophers and even opened his own little philosophical college in Rome. Justin believed that some of the Greeks’ “splintered fragments” were pretty hefty shards. He thought that Homer had access to Christian truth that he did not understand and that the Sibyls were inspired by the true God and spoke their oracles unwittingly. Most amazing of all, he believed that Plato had read the books of Moses in Alexandria and understood them in all their prophetic sense to the extent that he could be called a Christian believer before the birth of Christ. Plato’s dialogs, says Justin, don’t reveal his Mosaic beliefs more explicitly only because he had to disguise the truth out of fear for the authorities. Justin himself had reason to fear the authorities: the Romans beheaded him for the doctrines he taught in his academy.

I read some Augustine this month, as well, but it had little to do with Roman gods or God’s truth being found in the mouths of pagan philosophers. In books I-V of his treatise On the Trinity, Augustine began laying out his views on this most important and most mysterious of Christian beliefs. The Bishop of Hippo lived and wrote just after the Church had worked out its teaching on the Trinity at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and had enshrined their conclusions in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed. This creed kept the Latin and Greek churches together for seven hundred years before the two split, presumably over the addition of one word to the Latin version: the word filioque. The Greek-speaking half objected that the word represented a recent idea and, more importantly to them one would hope, a false one. But I was fascinated to see that Augustine very clearly states, six hundred years before the Great Schism of East and West, that the Holy Spirit proceeds both from the Father and from the Son (filioque). As for myself, I agree with Augustine, but I also believe that we understand so little what we mean by “proceeds” that the Churches had (and have) no business hurling anathemas at each other over either the word or the idea.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Notes About Notes

In my second decade of planned reading (2007-2016), I read all of Plato’s surviving works and almost all of Aristotle. For the third ten-year schedule, I decided I would simply read through my extensive notes on all these philosophical works. I thought this exercise would just remind me of the main points and the flow of argument, but some other interesting things have happened.

Take the Republic, for instance. I had read Plato’s blueprint for utopia twice in my life and had some clearish memories about how the dialog felt, how Plato’s version of Socrates got from point A to point B. Some of that flavor made it to my notes, but for the most part I had just recorded main lines of argument and the points stated. As I read through the notes on books I-V ten years after writing them, without the deceptively connective tissue, the arbitrariness of some of the features of Plato’s model society was clearer, the veneer of deductive logic almost transparent. Rulers must come from the military class? Slaves can’t act in plays? (People have to be slaves?)

The genius of Aristotle, on the other hand, seems to shine through no matter how much I condensed his words. In the Prior Analytics, Plato’s most famous student pretty much invents the formal study of logic and then begins to show how to use it in argument before the assembly. His advice covers a wide range: from analysis of your opponent’s syllogisms to knowledge about the psychologically best time to spring your conclusion on the audience. Plato would have dismissed it all as machination in the cause of power rather than truth, but then that’s why he and Aristotle are arguing in Raphael’s painting.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is one of my favorite books of philosophy. Just in books VI-X, which I reviewed this month, he covers many vital topics. He shows me why I sometimes do things I don’t want to do. He outlines the three prototypes of Dickens’s villains (a topic I’ll have to devote a whole post to some time!). He describes various kinds of friendship and helps me understand when and how both to forge a relationship and to break one. He explains why marriages fail (and by extension, how to make them last). His explanation of what a happy man gets out of true friends suggests the reason God, who needs nothing, wants happy people. And if, when Aristotle says in book X that happiness is the virtuous act of contemplation, a Christian recognizes the Triune God as the ultimate object of contemplation, Aristotle’s ending simply becomes a theological treatise on the purpose of creation and life. No wonder Dante gives Aristotle the most honored position among pagan philosophers in Limbo.

Now, to prepare to write this post, I went over the notes I just took this year: notes I took after reading the notes I wrote ten years ago. And now you’re reading my notes about my notes about my notes. You’re so far from actual Aristotle, you should stop looking at my blog right now . . . (hmmm, still here, I see) and read the Ethics for yourself. Of course, what you find there will be a translation of what scholars believe were students’ notes of the master’s lectures. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Top Three

I can’t agree with Stranger Things’s Dustin about the Three Musketeers candy bar. “It is Top Three for me,” he says to his buddies on their Halloween quest for free sugar rushes. Dustin loves his nougat. Me? I think a Three Musketeers bar is a Milky Way that forgot its best part.

The Three Musketeers the novel, on the other hand, I love. It has both the nougat of historical fiction and the caramel of broad comedy, and with the deliciously grim brooding of Athos, it becomes not just a Milky Way, but a Milky Way Midnight Dark. Yum!

A big part of my current list is meant to recapture the passionate engagement of my adolescent reading, and rereading Dumas’s rollicking tale of D’Artagnan and his friends certainly fulfilled that mission. Of course, the experience wasn’t the same as it was forty-two years ago: I’m not the same person I was then. I loved it this year just as much as I did then, but now I think I understand much better why it moved my teenage self so deeply.

In 1976, the characters of Athos and D’Artagnan especially revealed to me a whole new depth of life I didn’t know was possible. I saw in these heroes a nobility that had (I know I understood this even then) nothing to do with their wenching and their drunkenness. As immoral as the Musketeers are in many ways, at their best moments they act by internal principles. Athos especially avoids reacting viscerally to almost all present circumstances; he acts according to the inner man, a core somewhat shaped by past circumstance, yes, but internalized nonetheless. D'Artagnan on the other hand responds in the heat of the moment most of the time, but he can always explain his knee-jerk reactions as following lessons his father taught him or obeying the code of bravery.

As an adolescent, I didn't really know any philosophy of life, any ethic. My Christianity consisted of believing the right things about events commemorated by major holidays and generally feeling pretty good about not making graven images, murdering, or committing adultery (pretty easy to avoid for a seventeen-year-old suburban kid). My daily, hourly, minute-by-minute conduct, however, reacted to circumstance based on feelings, and both the feelings and the reactions were almost entirely out of my control. Of course, I could (and often had to) justify my actions by some quick moral reasoning. But that was all after the fact. These two characters showed me, maybe for the first time, that there is such a thing as character, deliberate character, shaped and honed by adherence to principle and followed by determined practice until it becomes second nature.

My favorite scene in the book was and still is the lunch at the bastion at La Rochelle. The four companions, needing to work out some plans where the Cardinal’s men can’t possibly hear them, wager their comrades in the attacking forces that they can eat lunch in a rocky ruin in the middle of the battlefield. Their compatriots see the escapade as a daft bit of derring-do, but the Musketeers go to their noisy repast in full assurance of ultimate success. This is not the confidence of adolescence: the irrational sense I had at the age of my first reading that nothing could kill me (except rejection by a girl). It’s trust in training. It’s mature knowledge of one’s own strengths and the enemy’s weaknesses. It’s mastery over fear. This scene has stuck with me and provided a model of courage many times in my life – not all of which, I’m afraid, found me faithfully following the model.

As book lovers know very well, reliving an experience is not always the best way to capture a cherished memory. We reread our favorite books over and over, but that activity can’t rebirth the unique moment of seeing Rivendell or meeting Captain Cuttle for the first time. Books in a series, though, provide the next best thing. Why I didn’t read the sequels to The Three Musketeers when I was seventeen, I can’t tell you. But they’re on my list to read now. We’ll pick this topic up again in 2020, when I’ll read Twenty Years After, and by which time, I hope, we’ll have two more seasons of Stranger Things that I can enjoy for the first time.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

In Which I Use the Word “Mobius-Strippy”

During my second decade of planned reading (2007-2016), I began every year with Greek drama. To begin this year – year 2 of my third ten-year plan – I stayed on the stage but moved forward 2400 years and read some plays by Tom Stoppard. I had read The Real Inspector Hound and The Invention of Love and seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare in Love and enjoyed every postmodern, mobius-strippy twist of dramatic logic. So wanting to experience more of Tom Stoppard’s special brand of surreality, I decided, in some way that I’ve since forgotten, to explore Arcadia and The Real Thing in the first few days of 2018.

I hate to be curtly dismissive of the work of an award-winning playwright and critical favorite, but compared to the others I had liked so much, these two plays just didn’t work as well in my view, as much as I again appreciated the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. The Real Thing, for instance, primarily seemed to ask, What is the real thing in relationships? But even the character who believes in romance and commitment divorces his wife and leaves his child. (Maybe romance and commitment aren’t entirely compatible principles.) It's a play about deep moral issues with no foundation other than feelings and ill-trained logic to build on. Living in a post-Christian world is tough for the ethicist, but surely we can’t accept the abandonment of children as the Real Thing.

I liked Arcadia much better, partly because its characters seem more genuinely concerned with the questions it asks: does love intrude on Newtonianism, for instance. But the play offers few answers. It struck me in the end as though Stoppard wanted to delve into the old conundrum of free will and determinism and tried to make it sound original simply by replacing “determinism” with a more specific scientific term (i.e “Newtonianism”). But no less august body of scientists than the Royal Institution named it one of the best science-related works ever written, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. In any case, the non-interacting interaction of characters from different times (Click the timey-wimey link and watch that Dr. Who scene again if you’d like; I’ll wait. —Back? Good, I’ll finish my sentence now. —Yes, I thought so, too.) culminating in a scene in which characters move across the stage like the feet in a cosmic waltz makes me want to see the play in the flesh.

It occurs to me that I’ve liked Stoppard most when the object of his characters’ lines are, recursively, characters and dramatic lines, objects that Stoppard knows very well. Who, ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is writing their lives? Are we watching a play, ask the critics of The Real Inspector Hound, or actually in a play? I have more Tom Stoppard planned for year 5 and year 8 (more details on this page), and I’m curious to see if the pattern of my reaction continues. If only I had my Tardis right here, I’d let you know today.