Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Book Awards -- 2019

The good old Earth has spun around the good old Sun once more, and so again it’s time for me to present my awards for some good old books.

President of the Awards Academy: Charles Dickens
In 2019, I read one of my favorite Dickens novels, Dombey and Son; and one of my least favorite, Barnaby Rudge. I read A Christmas Carol about two-and-a-half times in preparation for a series of adult Sunday School classes I taught this last month. And I revisited Cricket on the Hearth for the first time in over thirty years. Dickens is so especially good that even some passages of Barnaby were better than anything I read by anyone else this year. Fortunately, the Great Man took himself out of the running for these awards so others would have a chance.

Most Confusing Reread: Charles Williams, Descent into Hell
Ten years ago, I wrote to myself that this book was like a firehose of stew: most of it went down my neck not understood, but what landed in my mouth was hearty and nutritious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Charles Williams, including the fact that his friend and champion, C. S. Lewis, thought that his figures were sometimes so individual, so impossible for the reader to unravel, as to risk being literary mistakes. So I may have swallowed more this time around, but the vegetables and sauce left on my neck just felt like a mess!

Best History: Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty
Every chapter of this history of the United States from the end of the Revolution until 1815 was full of surprising nuance. The most interesting point, made in the last chapter and led to by a thread that started on the first page, stated that neither Jefferson nor Hamilton, the two rivals on Washington’s cabinet, holding two rival agendas for the country, got their way in the end. Hamilton’s vision of entrepreneurs borrowing from banks and inventing new manufactures to trade internally certainly became more of a reality than Jefferson’s nation of agrarian gentlemen. But the people who created these businesses were not the educated elite Hamilton foresaw but common, middle-class citizens – sometimes even the farmers that Jefferson so loved. I also know that if you write to Gordon Wood with praise for his book, he’ll write back to you!

Best Pseudo-History: Ferdowsi, Shahnameh
When I read the first half of this book around ten years ago, I loved the legends. But within pages of starting the second half last January, the legendary heroes gave way, and the living legend, Alexander, came on to the scene. From then on, there were far fewer magical feats and, the editor assures me, more of something that approximates what archeology can corroborate. No more women with bodies like cedars that touch the star Canopus, but I still loved reading the ancient stories from an area we all need to understand more.

Best Short Story: Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Lantern Bearers”
OK, it may have been the only short story I read this year. But I thought about it often and found encouragement in its brilliant image.

Best Theology: Richard Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity
Hooker argues for a Church that recognizes difference of opinion without giving up central beliefs such as those in the Nicene Creed, and he does it all without calling his enemies childish, stubborn, or traitorous. It is such a welcome relief to find that Christians can be Christian.

Best Mystery: Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise
Except that Harriet and Bunter don't appear, this is the perfect Peter Wimsey mystery! First, the book lacks the mistakes of the Wimsey novels written just before it. No onslaught of times. No onslaught of essential information in chapter 1. The hidden information is there and doesn't need to be recalled in detail in order to understand the solution. But the novel has plenty of positive virtues, as well. Peter's athletic prowess and sense of fun comes out more than ever. Dialogs between people of various classes and professions are full of interesting detail. And the book is replete with philosophical ruminations about the ethics of marketing. Is advertising, as Jack Gilbert said of poetry, a kind of lying, necessarily?

Best Longfellow Poem: Longfellow, “The Ladder of St. Augustine”
I wrote earlier this year about “The Bridge of Cloud.” But today, partly to mention something new, and partly because my year has been filled with such stress (a year that ends tonight!), I’ll give the award to “The Ladder.” (Longfellow can be upset if he wants to, but he still gets the statuette.)
            [Do not] deem the irrevocable Past
                  As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
            If, rising on its wrecks, at last
                  To something nobler we attain.

A lot happened this year, and I barely finished my reading list for 2019. There wasn’t even time to blog about anything in September, October, and November. But now the awards are handed out, and tomorrow, once the after-ceremony parties are over (Dorothy Sayers’s is usually pretty good), I’ll get started on a New Year of reading and a New Year of blogging. I hope your New Year is full of some good old books!

Saturday, August 31, 2019


A little change can sometimes make a huge difference. Jon Meacham’s histories, by including even short examinations of the religious beliefs of their main characters, end up feeling completely different from most other histories on the same subjects. Recently he wrote a book called The Soul of America. Using the word soul in a title is an unusual choice, one that indicates an acknowledgement of a transcendent world of value and even perhaps a scale of righteousness. It’s not that Meacham wants to pronounce judgment on his subjects as good or bad servants of God, but that recognizing his subjects’ desire to be good servants of God allows him entry into new realms of evaluation.

Take Andrew Jackson, for instance. In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House Meacham concludes by suggesting that the slave quarters still standing on the Hermitage grounds serve to remind us that “evil can appear perfectly normal to even the best men and women of a given time.” The point, while implicitly calling Jackson one of the best men of his time, recognizes that he did great evil. In an earlier chapter, he says, “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson's Indian policy.” Meacham doesn’t ultimately have to say that Jackson was either a good Christian or a bad Christian or, heaven forbid, not a Christian. He tells us the seventh President was a man who did great good for our country, imposed and perpetuated great evil on our country, and did many history-changing things the value of which we can debate about (letting the Bank die, for example).

One biography may try to convince the reader that its subject is worthy of emulation and eternal honor. Another biography may aim to debunk a commonly held favorable view of its subject. Yet another may attempt a dispassionate, nonjudgmental presentation of facts, telling the reader, “Your world is different because of the events outlined in these pages. You decide whether you like the changes.” But Meacham pronounces clear judgment on the deeds of Jackson while leaving the unitary judgment of the man to the Lord. You may think Jackson is a good guy, Meacham tells us, but he once shot a man in the street because he didn’t like his brother. You may think he was a bad guy, but he fought the Nullifiers and kept the Union together. Meacham undermines all simple judgments and leaves me fascinated by a man who is neither black nor white nor gray but a chessboard of deep black and bright white.

Speaking of shooting someone in the street, it’s amazing how Donald Trump has made every Presidential biography obliquely about himself. Of course, Trump himself has drawn this particular parallel, perhaps thinking that he is like Jackson in being a populist. (I don’t have to decide whether Trump really is a populist or even understands populism.) But does Trump know that Jackson did shoot a man in the street and got away with it? Does he know that Jackson had a young couple from his family working at the top levels of government (a nephew and his wife, in Jackson’s case)? When Jackson deals with nonwhite races, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson deals with fiscal policy, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson develops a party machine that congeals loyalty to himself, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson fights with South Carolina over a tariff, I have to think of Trump. Sometimes Old Hickory is surprisingly like our current President, but sometimes he is very different. The contrast that moved me the most in our time of polarized political thought was Jackson’s persistent view that America (OK, white America) was one and that the different factions would have to compromise in order to preserve the protection and open trade of a unified nation.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

War and Fate

As I did last year, once more I’ve found myself behind on blogging. Only this year, I’ve fallen behind on reading as well. There’s some bad (death in the family) and some good (moving to a beautiful new house) in the cause of it, but still I’m behind. It’s actually December as I write, although I’m dating the post in July (because I want to talk about a couple of books I read in July), and I’ve had to double or even triple up my reading some days in the last few weeks in order to get my list for the year finished. And then that extra reading kept me from keeping up with the blog. But how can I not say something about Tolstoy?

If a million men had not wanted to march across Europe toward Russia, says the philosophical author (loosely), Napoleon could not have made them do it. Great leaders do not shape history, or else the exception would be the law. (Napoleon wasn’t all that great anyway, the Russian patriot assures us.) And yet, we find in a deeper layer of the mystery, the varied wishes of the individual soldiers don’t have any causative effect, either. They only appear to each person the reasons for the great army’s migration. Of course you can choose to raise your arm or to think through a mathematical proof, but as soon as your will comes into contact with the will of another person, you are no longer free. You don’t decide to go. Napoleon doesn’t decide to go. Why do you go to Russia? Because it is inevitable.

Now sometimes Tolstoy seems to say that “the inevitable” is an impersonal fate, and sometimes he seems to say it is the will of God. I think he ultimately thought God directed the events, although, as Tolstoy’s fellow countryman famously asked, who would want to think that God directed the torture of a young girl? On the other hand, a brighter side of Tolstoy’s coin says that if we understood how little freedom that annoying fellow in the office had, we would more readily forgive him. But then, I want to ask, am I free to forgive the other guy if he isn’t free to stop harassing me? What good would understanding him do? Determinism is so very circular, even if it does attempt to step outside the circle in order to point out that nothing but the circle exists.

I don’t know if Napoleon moved la Grande Armée, but I know that Tolstoy moves me, even when he leads me into circular conundrums of snakes eating themselves. The story of young people in love and full of promise getting caught up in a tremendous war and trying to keep their individualities and free wills within the seemingly predetermined cataclysm brings me to the edge of all meaning. It shows me the infinite and the infinitesimal within us: the head that is large enough to encompass the globe and the heart that is too small to entertain a neighbor’s needs for a moment. He convinces me that, even if the great General Kutuzov was too insignificant to affect the battles he seemed to lead, the humble Marya is worth all of Josephine’s jewels and more. At the end of the book, she is, her author tells us, so happy she feels sad “as though she felt, through her happiness, that there is another sort of happiness unattainable in this life.” Behind the noise of battle stands Marya. Behind her stand her feelings. Behind her happiness stands a blessedness of another world. The battle plans and marches and bungled orders and meetings between emperors and childhood marriage vows and houses being sold and humanitarian societies and all the rest – these are only line drawings on a curtain behind which the real drama takes place just outside our total comprehension.

If history is predetermined, can it be foreseen by human eyes? Some people, Tolstoy points out, seem to understand great movements, to have the ability to pinpoint key influences and to predict battles. But, he explains, there are always plenty of people predicting one thing or another, so that eventually every outcome is predicted. As a result, when the actual outcome happens, there's always someone to say, “I told you so.” At the same time I was finishing up War and Peace, I also read the central part of the central book in Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War, which naturally told about the central battle of the War, and I couldn’t help finding Tolstoy’s view critiquing Foote’s. One could read this account of the events in Pennsylvania and come away with a Great Man theory of history. The U.S. won the war because it won Gettysburg, and it won the battle of Gettysburg because it held Little Round Top, and it held Little Round Top because Joshua Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge when his troops were out of bullets. Thank you, Joshua Chamberlain.

But Foote also tells about James Longstreet, who, while Pickett charged the center of the bluecoats’ line on the third day, sat on a rail and watched the disaster, which he had forecast to Lee. But did Longstreet really know what would happen? He was right, as it turned out. But I could say that it’s raining in Kyoto just this minute and be accidentally right without knowing whether it’s raining in Kyoto. Tolstoy would say that the only reason a story as boring as that of a man sitting on a fence rail for a day survives is that Longstreet merely proved in the end to have guessed correctly. Everybody predicted something that day, and if Pickett had made it through the lines – which doesn’t seem an impossibility to me even though I don’t think he personally would have had much to do with the changed outcome – some other general (Pickett himself, perhaps) would have said to Lee, “See? I told you so.”

Which did Foote believe? Did he believe that Chamberlain was the great man because he established history? Or did he believe that great men only recognize the futility of will and the inevitability of events? The title of his Gettysburg section, “The Stars in the Courses,” suggests the latter, even if the view is adopted only to make the reading as compelling as the fate behind the events.

Monday, June 24, 2019

A Dr. Johnson Wannabe

I am a Dr. Johnson Wannabe. Samuel Johnson had a wide circle of interesting friends and acquaintances. He had a vast knowledge of languages, history, and literature. He was a strong Christian and known for his great moral sense. His contemporaries considered him the most eloquent speaker and writer of his time. He was a supreme conversationalist and said what he wanted without regrets – and when he did have regrets apologized for the misstep humbly and with clear remorse. He was always ready with an answer to any question on any subject: logic, politics, poetry, ethics, Christian apologetics, travel, food, friendship, learning, history, Latin grammar, diplomacy, and more. And today Samuel Johnson is still referred to as Dr. Johnson. That description may not grab you as a model for life, but it does me.

I’ve read Boswell’s Life of Johnson twice; for this ten-year reading plan, I’m just rereading passages I’ve highlighted in my volume – and there are many highlighted passages. This month I read a long quotation of Johnson from July of 1763 that seemed to summarize just about everything I admire in him so much. It begins with this observation:
We can have no dependance upon that instinctive, that constitutional goodness which is not founded upon principle. I grant you that such a man may be a very amiable member of society . . . ; and as every man prefers virtue, when there is not some strong incitement to transgress its precepts, I can conceive him doing nothing wrong. But if such a man stood in need of money, I should not like to trust him; and I should certainly not trust him with young ladies, for there there is always temptation.
To begin with, Dr. Johnson recognizes a difference that some very intelligent people I have known have missed: the difference between being nice and being good. In the twenty-eighth Psalm, King David asks the Lord, “Take me not off with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.” In casual conversation, these people seem great, but would they help you in a pinch? Would they support you when you call out corruption in supervisors? Would they turn down a raise offered for their silence? Would they?

OK, I obviously still care about that a little too much. Let’s move on.

Dr. Johnson next criticizes David Hume for putting forward arguments against Christianity, not because of the arguments per se, but because he (Hume) wrote as if had newly discovered the issues. Johnson then frankly admits that all of Hume’s objections had occurred to his own mind in moments of doubt, but that he didn’t think them worth making a quid from by publishing them. He then goes on to answer some of Hume’s critique of belief in miracles by using logic, observation of then means of human knowledge, and the history of anti-Christian polemic.

But then comes my favorite part of Boswell’s remembrance of this July evening. After all this heady talk about faith, psychology, reason, fame, and letters, Dr. Johnson suggests that he and his biographer go for supper to a humble establishment known as the Turk’s Head. “I encourage this house,” explained the Great Man, “for the mistress of it is a good civil woman, and has not much business.” Here’s a man who did not just speak peace, but who lived it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

My Doppelgänger, Joshua Chamberlain

I’ve written in these posts before about similarities I see between myself and various people famous for their talents and virtues: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien come to mind. Having no shame, today I have the audacity to point out things I have in common with Joshua Chamberlain.

Now, from the days right after the battle of Gettysburg, the view has been proffered that Chamberlain provided the leadership necessary at the key moment of that battle, thus keeping the Confederates from winning what is plausibly viewed as the deciding battle of the American Civil War. Put succinctly but hyperbolically, Joshua Chamberlain single-handedly saved the Union.

Now I haven’t been solely responsible for anything so magnificent as winning one of the most consequential battles in American history. My greatest public achievements have gone no farther than offering some points about the teaching and grading of music theory in certain limited circles. And yet . . .  And yet there precisely begin the parallels that I see between myself and the Hero of Gettysburg. Chamberlain, like me, was a college instructor. Like me, he had an impediment affecting the very subject he taught: he was a language and speech teacher with a stutter, and I was a music teacher with a gimpy hand. Like me, he used his weaknesses to look at difficulties from the learner’s point of view and prided himself on developing new teaching techniques that worked, we both hoped, better than the standard methods. Like me, he was a Christian with a relatively conservative theology (if believing that the Apostle’s Creed speaks literal truth is conservative) with a liberal educational philosophy (if believing the science is cool is liberal). As President of Bowdoin College, he tried to get a Bachelor of Science curriculum accepted, saying that scientists were seeking God's truth even if they didn't know it, and he spoke for women's education: two controversial, forward-looking policies in nineteenth-century America. And, like me, Chamberlain found promotion both hard to come by and yet only so important.
But, no. I have never found myself among enemy soldiers and used a southern accent to ride away safely. (Chamberlain did it three times!) I have never spent a night surrounding myself with the bodies of fallen comrades to protect myself from enemy fire. And I was never selected by the General-in-Chief of the American Armies to oversee the actual surrender of weapons by every member of the conquered force at Appomattox Court House.

But then in my lifetime, I’ve never had the opportunity to take up arms in a war testing the proposition that all men are created equal and seeking a new birth of freedom for millions of people. I do have a vote, though, and I won’t get any more political today than to say that I believe that Lincoln’s “unfinished work” is still unfinished.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Exploring the Corners with Aquinas

When constructing my second ten-year reading plan fourteen or fifteen years ago, I wanted to finish reading all of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. But I ran into a couple of problems concerning size, including the discovery that about one hundred questions (roughly equivalent to chapters) were missing from the Britannica Great Books set. So I prioritized for my plan. I picked and chose sections here and there simply based on how crucial the titles of the questions sounded, scheduling about 80% of what was left in the volumes I had. I didn’t know: I thought I might end up satisfied at the end of ten years, even though gaps remained in the ToC.

But when the time came to put together my third decade-long legenda (a word that doesn’t appear in any dictionary but should, meaning “things to be read”), I found I wasn’t done with the Dominican “ox” and put all the stray questions into the new plan. Considering my experience over the first three years of this third reading plan, I’d say I did a remarkably good job picking the salient questions for the previous list; all the portions I’ve read since 2017 have covered nitpicky details: just tidying up hidden corners. For instance, several years ago I read Aquinas’s explanation of the Hypostatic Union, the fact that Christ is both God and man: a cornerstone of Christian theology. This year, by comparison, I read sections that deal with the semantics of talking about the Hypostatic Union. We may say that Christ suffered, for instance, but only if we understand that He suffered in his humanity, not his divinity. And in a point that surely must have made more sense in Latin, Aquinas takes pains to assure us that while it is acceptable to call Jesus “Lord,” it just doesn’t work to call him “lordly.” Yep. I’d say I did a pretty good job dividing the important doctrines from the not-so-important.

So reading Aquinas has become a tad bit tedious the last three yeas. But what a beautiful highlight I discovered this month in a section on the properties of the bodies of the Blessed! The titles made me think it would all be about whether people in Heaven will be able to walk through doors and how brightly they will shine. But then Aquinas reaches the problem of why a body of a saved soul in the presence of God would want to move at all. We’ll have no imperfections, no needs. So what lack could we have that would motivate us to move from some celestial here to some celestial there? His two answers brought tears to my eyes. The first reason will be simply that the Blessed demonstrate and celebrate the divine gift of motion. Why have a reason? Just enjoy what God has granted! The second answer was even better in my estimation: "that furthermore their vision may be refreshed by the beauty of the variety of creatures, in which God's wisdom will shine forth with great evidence." Will there be a Grand Canyon in the New Earth? We can visit it, examining every nook and cranny and climbing over every rock without fear of damaging either the landscape or ourselves! Trees appear in Revelation; if there are a billion species in the next life, we’ll all become botanists and study every one with joy! But Aquinas is careful to point out that all this eternal sightseeing won’t constitute an abandonment of the Vision of God: everywhere they explore, the Blessed will always see God, “for He will be everywhere present to them.”

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Scottish and English in George MacDonald

As much as C. S. Lewis professed a debt to George MacDonald, he says (somewhere), “Few of his novels are good and none is very good.” I know that my reading project centers on the “Great Books,” but I also enjoy visiting satellites of those marvelous lights. I have Tom Clancy on my list for this year, after all! So maybe I could be allowed to write today on a nineteenth-century author whose novels aren’t “very good.”

Last year, I didn’t say anything about MacDonald, because I thought the book I read then, Malcolm, didn’t even rise to the level of “not very good.” Part of it had to do with the nearly total lack of the Wise Christian Teacher who so often features in MacDonald’s novels, a void replaced by a soap opera involving a marquis and his brother (who was also the marquis at some point), wives possibly dead and possibly alive (which makes for possible bigamy), the question of which character is whose child, the question whether two of these younger characters with a possibly budding mutual attraction might be siblings (Hello, Luke and Leia!), and the further question whether such children are legitimate – the last point depending on whether a certain wife was dead or alive when . . . . Oh, it’s all too confusing.

It’s not enough that the potboiler’s pot boileth over. Most of the answers to the mysteries of the plot are given by characters speaking in Scottish dialect. Now I’ve read enough MacDonald to have a good familiarity with the language of his rustic Scottish characters, but here we have a character, a piper, with a stranger than usual patois, a linguistic idiom whose origin I can’t explain. This piper might say, “She’ll pe seein’ a’,” when he means, “I see everything.” Among his quirks, he uses she for the first-person singular pronoun, future continuous verb constructions for all tenses, and voiceless consonants for all stopped consonants: p for b, t for d, etc. Add to this confusion the fact that the piper is blind and yet talks about seeing things, and I found myself almost always in the middle of the North Sea when he spoke. So why, oh, why did MacDonald place the solution to the main conundrum of the wives in the mouth of this piper?

Today, on the other hand, I finished reading The Marquis of Lossie, the sequel to Malcolm, and I’m ready to say that the joy I had in the end was worth all the confusion of the first book in the dilogy. (Dilogy? Really?) I got not just one Wise Christian Teacher, but two. I also found a nineteenth-century female character not defined simply by her degree of chastity in relation to men but by her philosophical doubts and struggles. I enjoyed a plot set mostly in London, where Malcolm did his best to speak the Queen’s. And I faced many needed challenges to my complacent Christianity, which is really why I read MacDonald. Just one example: Which is worse, to doubt the existence of God, or, believing He exists, to doubt his importance to every moment in life?

Before I sign off, a word about the 1980s editions of MacDonald novels “retold for modern readers,” complete with new titles and covers that make them look like today’s Christian romances. Of course, I’m reading MacDonald’s original versions, but I don’t look down my nose at these reworkings. I read my first MacDonald novel in a book club that used the updated, abbreviated version, and I’ll always be grateful for that introduction. Editor Michael R. Phillips, knowing his audience, shortened the books and toned down their Scots vocabulary considerably. But by doing so, he introduced a new generation to stories with lessons deeper than any found elsewhere in their section of the Zondervan Christian bookstore, even if MacDonald’s spiritual pupil, Lewis, thought the books weren’t “very good.”

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Stray Bits

No overarching point this time. Just two disconnected comments on some good recent reading, beginning with The Early Baroque Era from the Music and Society series. I mentioned last year that I was hoping this volume would be better than the one on the Renaissance, and my hope was fulfilled. For instance, in the best chapter, on music in London in the early seventeenth century, I learned that music was similar all over England since the nobility that hired the composers and players moved frequently back and forth between city and country, that boys in the Chapel Royal or other large church choirs were given admission to university when their voices broke, and that John Playford – the Mel Bay of his era – took advantage of unwatched legal loopholes to publish books on music theory and on how to play various instruments even while the Puritan Parliament was outlawing theater music and smashing organs as “superstitious monuments.” Personal details such as these are exactly the type I look for in this new style of music history, focusing as it does not on the composers still famous to us today but on music as experienced by laborers, shopkeepers, politicians, aristocrats, clergy, teachers, and teenagers. When I was in school, music history of the late Baroque era centered on the two titanic figures of Handel and Bach, so let’s hope that the volume I read next year resists the temptation and dwells instead mostly on mortals.

Now Disraeli’s Coningsby. I loved the first third of the novel, while Coningsby is growing up, and the last third, while Coningsby is falling in love. But I had difficulty in the middle third, which concentrated on Disraeli’s special area of expertise: politics. If the beginning reminded me of Dickens and the end made me think of Austen, I might have guessed that the parallels between the heart of the book and the parliamentary novels of another of my favorites – Anthony Trollope – might have portended greater enjoyment on my part. But maybe Disraeli was too close to his subject. Unfortunately, he assumes his readers know the details of British political history in the years just before the novel, a fair assumption to make about the first generation to become acquainted with the book. But when he complains about the “Arch-Mediocrity” without naming him, I find it difficult 180 years later and an ocean away to appreciate his concern. I can look it up and find that he had Lord Liverpool in mind, but that doesn’t help me feel what Disraeli wants me to feel about the drama that unfolds in the central chapters of the novel. Still, I can’t imagine any of our current American politicians writing a novel so eloquently and sensitively exploring the human heart while coming of age, and I’m eager for Tancred in year 10 of my current Plan.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Bakhtin the Future

Yeah. That title isn’t like the pun that’s so bad you enjoy groaning. It’s just bad. I thought about finding a pun on the antiseptic spray, but even after watching some ridiculous old commercials on Youtube, I came up with nothing. So we’re left with this one.

Which at least connects Bakhtin with broad notions of time. I’ll let you look up all the biographical information on Makhail Bakhtin that you’d like. For my purposes, I put him on my reading list because he was a literary critic with a musical metaphor at the front of his most famous observation about novels. And as it turns out, that observation has everything to do with broad outlines of time.

I chose The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays to put on my plan because it sounded like a shortish introduction to Bakhtin’s literary theories. As it turns out, though, each essay was about as long as I thought the whole book would be. But I read the introduction and first essay completely and skimmed the rest and felt that I learned exactly what I was hoping to learn. Bakhtin’s main points are these:
(1) While the epic is a settled genre, the novel is constantly critiquing itself and evolving.
(2) The novel includes multiple types of language.
(3) The novelist lets characters speak for themselves in “polyphony” without always judging or correcting their views.
(4) The novel historically springs from humans laughing at themselves.
The first point seemed immediately obvious to me, but the details quickly became fresh and exciting. What intrigued me most was Bakhtin’s recursive analysis: the epic is a fixed genre about a story and values that are themselves fixed, while the ever-evolving novel is about characters who evolve and readers who evolve with them. With remarks like these, I gained a lot of insight during most of Bakhtin’s comparison of epic and novel.

I couldn’t quite go along with him, though, when he said that the epic’s fixed past is completely separated from us – that we neither trace lines to it nor wish to be in it. Let’s consider just a few prominent examples. Bakhtin says an epic is about origin stories: could we agree then to include among epics The Iliad, The Aeneid, Genesis, and Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? Bakhtin explicitly included the first three, and I think I can add the fourth by his definitions. All of these suggest links to our historical timeline. Many Greek and Roman families firmly believed they were descended from characters – whether human or divine – found in the poems of Homer and Virgil. Genesis (along with subsequent books of the Bible) uses genealogies to connect the reader to the record of nonepic histories. And Tolkien had a whole vision of geological cataclysms that turned Middle Earth into Europe and tried on multiple occasions to incorporate the medieval European Aelfwine into the narrative thread as the preserver and translator of the ancient books. Doesn’t the concept of origin story in fact come with its own connection? Such tales tell the origins of things the reader is familiar with: the earthly dominance of the Greeks and then the Romans, the existence of the earth and its inhabitants, the traveling motion of the morning star. (Ah! Eärendil, sailing the skies with the Silmaril upon thy brow!) And as for wanting to be there: I guess I wouldn’t want to be Hector getting dragged around Troy, but I would love to walk the streets of Priam’s city before the war, to see ancient Egypt in operation, and to rest under the light of the trees of the Eldar.

I’ll lump the second, third, and fourth points together and say that none of them made complete sense to me until Bakhtin started presenting concrete examples, which came, not from Dostoevsky as I expected, but from Dickens’s Little Dorrit. If Bakhtin's look at my favorite author made sense to me, clearly he must have been right about everything! He showed, with many familiar examples, Dickens’s narration flowing smoothly in and out of political cant, indirect quotations of “Society,” the language of advertisements, and more. He showed characters speaking in different socio-economic dialects, each representing a different view and set of values. He showed characters quoting each other, the same words carrying new connotations when placed in the mouth of another. And as the demonstration rose higher and higher, the master metaphor of polyphony became more and more perfect. I thought often of Palestrina quoting and reshaping a phrase of chant and then quoting his own new melody over and over in a thickening texture until (in my particular imagined example) five voices all sang together, each with distinct contour and rhythm, but all contributing to a single composition.

I love novels. I love to think about the genre developing over time. I love to follow the arcs of characters who grow with events. I love to think about how novels have shaped my own life. And I love to speculate how the genre, the characters, and myself might change in the future. Now Bakhtin’s views will help me with all that thinking, so maybe today’s title wasn’t so bad.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Murder Must Advertise

Among the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors stands at the top of my list. Change ringing fills the book, and change ringing is one of the coolest things in this weird old world. But having just read Murder Must Advertise, I’d have to say it comes in a good second for me. This installment of Lord Peter’s escapades doesn’t feature Bunter at all and merely alludes to Harriet only once – definite flaws. But the story, the mystery, the solution, the setting, and the facts revealed about our detective make it all thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking.

I can’t find the reference right now, but somewhere very recently I read that T. S. Eliot, that surprising and erudite champion of detective fiction, opined that, while he approved of Sayers’s style, he found her plots too improbable, breaking one of the then-coalescing “rules” of mystery writing. In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed Sayers breaking a couple of my own rules – rules, in fact, I didn’t know I insisted on until I saw Sayers flouting them. In reading The Five Red Herrings, I discovered that a mystery novelist must not hide a crucial time among a train-schedule’s cascading flood of times (she could have called her book The Fifty Red Herrings) but should instead conceal it in some otherwise irrelevant detail: the beginning of a side character’s favorite radio show, for instance. And in reading Have His Carcase, I realized that the writer of detective fiction must not in the first chapter introduce five suspects whose exact positions along a hazily described geography are all crucial to the solution of the mystery and must be remembered some four- or five-hundred pages later. But this is all good: I learned some important rules that I will remember to follow when I begin my highly successful career as an author of mysteries next year.

Happily, I may report that Murder Must Advertise broke none of these rules. The layout of the offices doesn’t present itself with anything so clear as a visual diagram, but as long as you understand the position of the stairs down which the victim falls, you’re fine. And it’s helpful to remember who rushed out of which office when they heard the noise, but the most important movement is described often enough and close enough to the solution that the reader has no need to thumb back (or click back) through hundreds of pages to review the pertinent details. And adding to its squeaky-clean record on Literary Laws, Murder Must Advertise takes us into the fascinating world of Sayers’s first career: advertising.

Lord Peter jumps wholeheartedly into his first paying job – which he takes on undercover, of course – and armed with his more-than-slightly cynical understanding of human psychology, quickly proves himself an expert at constructing the verbal red capes that draw the consuming public bull inevitably toward the corporate espada. What I enjoyed most in this book were Lord Peter’s introspections, investigating his own actions and wondering whether it shouldn’t be an act of crime to lie to the citizenry in order to manipulate them into trading money for, to mention a prominent example, cigarettes. Detective, catch thyself! As I think about it now, perhaps this very feature is what kept Harriet Vane out of the book. Harriet to a great extent functions in the series as Sayers’s self portrait, but in Murder Must Advertise, the former ad writer surely worked out enough of her personal turmoil through Peter without exposing even more laundry by including Harriet.

I have a magnet on my refrigerator showing an ad from Dorothy Sayers’s most well known and successful ad campaign. The author may have revealed in this novel that her copywriting days haunted her conscience, but how much harm could she have actually done? I know that while I read about Lord Peter’s adventures in advertising, I smiled every day when I looked up at the happy face of a toucan announcing, “It’s a lovely day for a GUINNESS.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Longfellow’s Optimism

I’ve been reading about mindfulness recently, and the discipline of observing the present moment without distractions from past or future has been helpful in some recent, trying circumstances. But as a way of life, I can’t accept it completely. The past and future possess more than just distractions and anxieties: they offer lessons and hopes, as well. A healthy soul plans – to a healthy degree – for the future and learns from the past – learns how to do things better, learns what not to worry about since one has survived it before, learns how to forgive in other what one has struggled with. As the healthy, reformed Scrooge says, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Longfellow embodies Scrooge’s vow admirably, if he indeed lived the inner life that his poetry represents. He regularly exhibits tremendous optimism based on his belief in God’s righteous justice and a coming kingdom of eternal joy in the Divine Presence. Yet his is no blindered smile-and-ignore-the-truth enthusiasm. Longfellow is no perky ostrich, looking through rose-colored glasses at every grain of sand surrounding his obliviously buried head. He knows the darkness in his heart, in his past, and in his world. “And in despair I bowed my head; // ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”

Of all the beautiful poems I read in the last few days, none struck me quite like “The Bridge of Cloud,” originally published in the Atlantic in 1864 and still on that magazine’s website.

Burn, O evening hearth, and waken
Pleasant visions, as of old!
Though the house by winds be shaken,
Safe I keep this room of gold!

Right out of the gate, Longfellow joins present and past: the hearth has awakened pleasant visions before and is about to do so again. But the visions that Longfellow-of-the-present sees are different from what they were in the unspecified past:

Ah, no longer wizard Fancy
Builds its castles in the air,
Luring me by necromancy
Up the never-ending stair!

But, instead, it builds me bridges
Over many a dark ravine,
Where beneath the gusty ridges
Cataracts dash and roar unseen.

In the olden days, the comforting visions seen in the fire all portended lovely futures of success, happiness, and ease. But his architect was necromancy. What an image! The typical necromancer of tales makes the appearance of life out of what was once living, but Longfellow’s makes the appearance of life out of what is not yet alive.

Unlike those fanciful castles, in the present the unfolding scene is one of a bridge of cloud, bright and soft and fresh in itself, but hovering over a dark past, where, in contrast to the floating hazy water droplets of the cloud, “cataracts dash.” What a perfect phrase! Confusion and chaos abound in those sounds with their four closely packed consonants near the end. Think how much weaker the image would be if instead Longfellow had said, “waterfalls dash.”

And I cross them, little heeding
Blast of wind or torrent’s roar,
As I follow the receding
Footsteps that have gone before.

Nought avails the imploring gesture,
Nought avails the cry of pain!
When I touch the flying vesture,
‘T is the gray robe of the rain.

These last two stanzas are the most cryptic for me. I think that the present Longfellow tends to think of the past as better than it was, gliding over the dark ravines on a bright highway in the sky, but, inspired by the fire that burns to do his soul good, here learns to take an honest look at the trouble the misty clouds tend to obscure. Whose is the imploring gesture? A younger Longfellow, I suppose. But even present Longfellow isn’t sure, I guess, because as he reaches to touch the beckoning hand, the figure proves to be only a gray patch of rain in the clouds. Clouds look so different from different angles. (Yes, I find it very hard to think about this poem for very long without hearing Joni Mitchell. She had the advantage of seeing the tops of the clouds from an airplane, but the earlier poet flew with the airship of his mind.)

Baffled I return, and, leaning
O’er the parapets of cloud,
Watch the mist that intervening
Wraps the valley in its shroud.

And the sounds of life ascending
Faintly, vaguely, meet the ear,
Murmur of bells and voices blending
With the rush of waters near.

Well I know what there lies hidden,
Every tower and town and farm,
And again the land forbidden
Reassumes its vanished charm.

Well I know the secret places,
And the nests in hedge and tree;
At what doors are friendly faces,
In what hearts a thought of me.

OK, here comes the truth. Longfellow leans over the parapets of his nimbus bridge and takes a cold, honest look at his past. What he does with the towns, farms, and people he recognizes is as surprising – to me in any case – as it is exactly right:

Through the mist and darkness sinking,
Blown by wind and beaten by shower,
Down I fling the thought I’m thinking,
Down I toss this Alpine flower.

Oh! If only a younger me could have received an Alpine flower dropped through the heavens from present me! That very wish should lead present me to look up at the clouds and imagine the perspective that future me will have of this troubling time, a vantage point surrounded by asters and edelweiss. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Asimov and the Great Conversation

Isaac Asimov’s books may not be considered “Great” as in canonical, but he does contribute to what Mortimer Adler called the Great Conversation, exploring in his stories questions of human agency and free will, of what minds are, what thoughts are, and what emotions are. Sometimes I don’t agree with his answers, and sometimes I don’t know if I agree with his answers, but he always makes me think.

Although it was written rather late in Asimov’s life, Robots of Dawn takes place relatively early in his world’s history: to give a rough indication, over the course of this ten-year reading plan, I’m going through all of his robot, empire, and Foundation novels in in-world chronological order, and this is only year three of my schedule. Humans have settled a few planets, but there is no empire yet. So what will happen as they expand? Will the future empire be designed by robots? For robots? Or will robots, bound by the Laws of Robotics not to harm humans, stay out of the way and let humans do the work themselves since challenges are good for society?

Asimov seeks the truth behind the truth (I’m tempted to say the foundation under the foundation, but that’s getting ahead of the story) in asking this question of whether robots will best help humanity by not helping humanity. I would add yet a third layer by asking whether strengthening society is in fact keeping humans from harm. The First Law of Robotics says nothing about Humanity in the collective plural but only one-at-a-time humans: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Many individual humans have led happy lives in societies less knowledgeable than ours or Asimov hero Lije Baley’s, less scientific, less crowded, less organized. Since the Robot Daneel Olivaw recognizes that challenges are good for humans, might it not be good to make society weak so as to give societal challenges to individual humans? In other words, I’m asking if robots would best help individual humans by not helping society, which they would in turn do by helping to make it easy for human society to expand to other planets.

Near the end of the book, it is stated as undebatable that robots have no feelings, only positronic surges interpreted (mostly by us) as feelings. But perhaps, the narration suggests, humans have no feelings, either – that what we call feelings are only neuronic surges interpreted as feelings. I don’t really understand how Asimov can ask this. Humans do interpret these phenomena as feelings, and that very interpretation makes them feelings without a doubt. How can I think I’m feeling something and not have a feeling? As the old philosophers pointed out, if you think you see a green man, that is in fact the visual sensation you are having, even if you are hallucinating, which is likely in this scenario. On the very next page after this supposition, Baley envies the robots for having no fear of rain, while Baley himself is terrified. Believing that the fear is irrational and comes from neuronic activity doesn't negate the terror that he knows exists in at least one conscious mind: his own. No one could hold a hot coal in the hand and believe that pain was only a neuronic surge.

Suppose you’re reading a book, and at the bottom of page 3, you find the words "Please don't turn the page." You turn the page anyway (who wouldn’t?), and on the left side of the next spread, page 4 says, "That hurt." Page 5 says, “Please don’t do that again,” but of course you again turn the leaf over. Page 6 bears a single word, “OUCH!” The next says, "If you continue turning pages, you will kill me." And on and on it goes. The book responds to every page turn you make; it delivers a message that would not be delivered if you didn’t turn the pages. But would anyone consider this series of responses the equivalent of a human’s internally felt pain after stepping on a nail?

A random note as a coda: I was thinking the other day about the Turing Test, which a computer would pass if its part in a conversation with you – a conversation carried out in written form as, for instance, in phone texts – made you believe you were talking with a human. I think that Alan Turing imagined the test as an incentive to make AI grow ever more sophisticated. But does it take all that much sophistication for a computer program to convince you that you are texting with a typical teenager?

One month later, I have to add a coda to the coda of this post by recommending a story by my friend Jared Oliver Adams. Here my buddy speculates on what might happen if God were to give robots sentience, that is, if they were able to feel the pain indicated (or caused by or accompanied by) their “positronic surges.” At least that’s one interpretation of the story’s wonderfully speculative setting. The tale of Pope Packard also has suspense and adventure, theology and philosophy, and possibly ghosts. If you enjoy it, please visit Jared’s website and let him know!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dombey Redux

Well, it’s happened. I’ve kept up this blog long enough that I’ve reread a book I already blogged about. So this return to Dombey and Son creates a problem for me. (Admittedly, this is a first-world geek’s problem!) My first post about this forgotten jewel is one of my very favorites on this site: a tribute to Captain Cuttle, one of Dickens’s greatest comedic creations. So what else am I to say this time?

One option is to praise Captain Cuttle even more – especially easy to do when seen next to characters from some other recent reading. In a double dose of Dickens this year, I’ve also made my third visit to Barnaby Rudge, surely my least favorite novel by the Inimitable. I remembered thinking that the part of BR that isn’t dreadful was as good as anything else by Dickens, and innkeeper John Willet a very funny fellow. But this time through, John, although funny as far as being dull-witted in a Dickensian way goes, just struck me as self-centered and cruel. Captain Cuttle, by contrast, compounds his hilariously challenged intellect with kindness and heroism, even risking exposure to the frightening Mrs. MacStinger in order to protect young Florence. On top of that, he prays perhaps more than any character in the Dickens world other than Mrs. Jerry Cruncher in A Tale of Two Cities, even if he does have a very difficult time understanding the words of the Prayer Book.

Or perhaps I could mention some of the other fabulously funny characters in Captain Cuttle’s circle. There’s Susan Nipper, caustic yet nurturing, and ever ready with twisted aphorisms such as “Though I may not gather moss I'm not a rolling stone.” Then there’s the man the Nipper calls “that innocentest creetur,” Mr. Toots. Toots is hopelessly in love with Florence, but interrupts every rebuff before it can be completed with the assurance that “it’s of no consequence.” While on a mission to identify sources of laughter, we cannot omit those two wise counselors, Jack Bunsby and the Game Chicken. The Chicken, a boxer by trade, can’t give Mr. Toots advice that doesn’t involve punching, and Bunsby, with a voice that appears out of a head that seems to have no moving parts, delivers guidance as cryptically ambivalent as anything from any ancient oracle, always to the appreciative amazement of the good Captain Cuttle.

Considering the direction this post has taken, I think my best conclusion is to pay tribute to my favorite funny characters throughout the Dickens world. I don’t know how to order them by level of humor, so I’ll just mention them as they come to me.

• Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield. In any method of ordering, this author of overeloquent epistles has to come at or near the top.
• Fanny Squeers, Nicholas Nickleby. Douglas McGrath, writer and director of the 2002 film adaptation, calls her letter one of the funniest pages in all of literature. Amen.
• The Crummles, Nicholas Nickleby. Their pony is in the theatrical profession!
• Prince Turveydrop, Bleak House. He has that name and runs a dancing school. ‘Nuff said.
• Dick Swiveller, The Old Curiosity Shop. Dick finds his routes through London getting longer and longer along with his list of streets he must avoid because of unpaid shopkeepers.
• Mr. Wemmick, Great Expectations. How can you top either the humor or the human kindness of a man who sets off a cannon every evening because his Aged Parent looks forward daily to the only sound he can hear?
• John Chivery, Little Dorrit. John’s unrequited love for Amy Dorrit results mostly in daydreams about how his tombstone will describe his tragically lonely life.
• Matthew Bagnet, Bleak House. Friends seek Bagnet’s wisdom, which he dispenses by asking his wife to “Tell them what I think.”
• Tony Weller, Pickwick Papers. How to explain in twenty words or fewer his eccentric view of the spelling of his own name?
• Mr. Twemlow, Our Mutual Friend. Mr. Twemlow holds his palm on his forehead most of the time, unsure whether the Veneerings consider him their best friend or don’t know him at all.
• Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol. Tight-fisted, hard-hearted, and hilarious.
• Sarah Gamp, Martin Chuzzlewit. Some critics put this drunken nurse with the possibly imaginary friend at the top of the list.
• Mr. Mantalini, Nicholas Nickleby. The ludicrous Mantalini tries to manipulate his “heart’s joy,” Mrs. Mantalini, into loving him by threatening suicide with butter knives. “Oh, demmit!”
• Mrs. Plornish, Little Dorrit. The good woman repeatedly offers to translate her Italian friend’s utterances to neighbors into loudly spoken pidgin – even though he speaks in perfectly understandable English.

I know I’m forgetting someone obvious and important. But whatcha gonna do? I’ll have to amend the list the next time I read Dombey and Son.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Elliptical Approaches

Poorly taught Americans (almost a redundancy these days) sometimes tell amazed college professors that the proper form for a paper is (1) to tell what you’re going to say, (2) to say what you have to say, and (3) to tell what you have just said. It’s a gross misunderstanding of the form, to begin with. But what this pattern misrepresents isn’t even a universal custom: only American essays typically follow the introduction-body-conclusion format. In some parts of the world, a writer launches into a topic and then adds accretions of nuance and complexity layer-by-layer. Some cultures prefer a spiral approach to the core idea of an essay, establishing every point of context first and only presenting the thesis near the end.

The British have a lovely way of starting an essay a thousand miles away from the ultimate topic and then surprising the reader with a turn halfway through. The first half is often just as instructive and entertaining as the second, even if its topics don’t find their way into the piece’s title, and I almost always find this form much more delightful than the utilitarian American scheme.

Earlier this month I read an excellent essay in the British idiom by Robert Louis Stevenson. I got the tip to read the piece from Chesterton in his book on Victorian literature, and I read Stevenson’s magnificent “The Lantern Bearers” just after enjoying his novel Black Arrow. Doubly mysterious, the essay takes an elliptical path to the elliptical path that eventually leads to the main point, and since the title refers only to the middle, Stevenson delivers a very satisfying second surprise.

First we hear of the geography of a seaside resort town which Stevenson visited for a week or two at a time for several years as a child. His vivid description puts the whole scene before my eye in great detail and makes me want to visit. After a few paragraphs, I even felt some of the relaxation and comfort I would experience on my own summer getaway. Then the author of so many great adventure novels for (as we see it now) children tells about a custom among the adventurous boys visiting the quaint town. Each one lit a lantern and hid it under his coat while wandering on the strand or along the village streets, every meeting between lantern bearers resulting in unspoken, internal acknowledgement that the pair shared a great secret.

But as wonderful and romantic as that image is, Stevenson has his own secret light to reveal in the second big shift of the piece and makes the custom of the lantern bearers a figure for the secret flame every person carries around at all times. This summit of the essay deals a bit with poetry, as Stevenson delivers his own version of the “mute inglorious Miltons” vision, and has some to say about the weeds of life choking out the life-energy of youth. But Stevenson’s main point, I think, is to remind us that every person we meet has – or is – a hidden treasure. I could go into more detail, but of course, you’d be much better off spending a quarter of an hour reading “The Lantern Bearers” instead of reading my little blog post, so I won’t be offended if you get up and leave now.

I have a schedule of reading precisely because it leads me to just such moments as my discovery of “The Lantern Bearers.” This beautiful essay is itself a burning lantern hidden away under the coat of the more famous works of RLS, and I wouldn’t have uncovered it if I hadn’t planned to read Chesterton’s guide and hadn’t had a Stevenson novel slated the very next month. It’s the best thing I’ve read in quite a while and already a front-runner for my end-of-year rewards next December.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

It’s All Latin to Me: John Webster Edition

I just finished reading John Webster’s The White Devil. There’s a lot of scheming and killing in the play, and as to the question, Who precisely is the white devil? several characters provide compelling cases for themselves. According to Webster’s own preface, the play didn’t go over so well at its premiere. The problem may be due to the lack of any appealing characters whatsoever, but also perhaps to the drama’s generous use of Latin. Here’s a little quiz for you today on several classical Latin phrases found in The White Devil.

Latin phrases
1. "Casta est quam nemo rogavit."
2. "Flectere se nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo."
3. "Haec hodie porcis comedenda relinques."
4. "Haec fuerint nobis praemia, si placui."
5. "Inopem me copia fecit."
6. "Manet alta mente repostum."
7. "Nec rhoncos metues maligniorum, nec scombris tunicas dabis molestas."
8. "Nemo me impune lacessit."
9. "Non norunt, haec monumenta mori."
10. "Non potes in nugas dicera plura meas, ipse ego quam dixi."
11. "Nos haec novimus esse nihil."
12. "O dura messorum ilia."
13. "Quae negata grata."

a. Anything you leave behind is just going to be eaten by the pigs.
b. Chaste is she whom no one asks.
c. If I can't bend the heavens, I will move Hell.
d. It remains deep in my mind.
e. My work will be my reward, if you have enjoyed it.
f. No one provokes me without punishment.
g. These reminders did not know how to die.
h. We know these things are nothing.
i. Wealth has made me poor.
j. What is denied is pleasant.
k. What strong stomachs these farmers have!
l. You can't say more about my trifles than I have said myself.
m. You shall not fear the snoring of the wicked nor become stinky wrappings for mackerals.



1: b. This one is from Ovid. It’s part observation and part advice, I suppose.
2: c. The Acheron is one of the rivers in mythological Hades.
3: a. Don’t cast your pearls before swine; don’t even leave them where the swine can find them!
4: e. Many of these quotations came from Martial, writing about his own writing.
5: i. So many examples come to mind.
6: d. This one is from Virgil. I didn’t look up what exactly was deep in his mind.
7: m. Again Martial, this time speaking to the papyrus he has written upon.
8: f. Oh, tough guy, eh?
9: g. I knew we should have burned the evidence!
10: l. Martial was a humble self-critic.
11: h. And yet they are things . . . .
12: k. Horace could praise anything!
13: j. Didn’t know I wanted it until you took it away!

Hoping you enjoyed today’s quiz. The next post will be about a more pleasant piece of reading, so I’ll have more to say about the work itself.