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.