Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Dr. Johnson and Coronavirus

Many years ago, my students all told me about the latest, absolutely true conspiracy theory: that playing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz revealed connections so tight as to prove positively that Roger Waters had this bizarre format of hybrid entertainment in mind when he put the album together. It did no good to tell these kids that there wasn’t even such a thing as a VCR in 1973 and that one couldn’t just decide to watch a movie privately and then do it. The best evidence I saw for this very unlikely theory was the iconic prism on the cover of the album, its white light’s explosion into color being reminiscent of the film changing from sepia tone to color after Dorothy lands in Oz. I have a great deal I could say about this weird topic, but since this is a blog about literature, not film or music, I’ll just briefly note that the correspondences between film and album seemed wholly random and extremely interpretive to me when I tried it. (The scarecrow on the yellow brick road = the lunatic on the grass???) The explanation for what seemed convincing to America’s youth that year: both the movie and the music are full of iconic, suggestive images, and some coincidences are bound to occur. Since my students refused to believe me (heavens to murgatroyd, how dare they!), I proved it by watching Casablanca while listening to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and finding ten times as many links, most of them really clear and a couple of them downright eerie. I wrote up my findings and got them published by a nationally syndicated column that appeared in hundreds of newspapers. Totally true.

What in the world do movies and Elton John have to do with James Boswell and Samuel Johnson going out for steak in eighteenth-century London? Well, when you read a book about people who converse on everything imaginable, you’re bound to come across commentary on situations relevant to your current circumstances. The coincidences are bound to happen even if they’re unpredictable in their detail. I might never have foreseen when I picked the book up this year that Dr. Johnson would tell me about living through a pandemic in the twenty-first century, but he did.

After that long tale, here finally is the diminutive dog. Or rather pair of miniature dogs. First is a note from 1772.
When one of his friends [says Boswell of his illustrious mentor] endeavoured to maintain that a country gentleman might contrive to pass his life very agreeably, “Sir (said he [i.e. Dr. Johnson],) you cannot give me an instance of any man who is permitted to lay out his own time, contriving not to have tedious hours.” This observation, however, is equally applicable to gentlemen who live in cities, and are of no profession.
Now I am a man permitted to lay out my own time. Between retirement and quarantine and a wife with many of her own interests, I have almost complete charge of my daily schedule. And I have many interests and hobbies and projects to occupy the spaces on that schedule. And yet . . . . And yet I cannot arrange away the tedious hours. I fiddle with things to put off the activity I’m most excited about. I read five pages and then get up to get a drink before I read another half dozen. I’ve had trouble finding the energy to write this post (which goes a long way to explaining the circuitous exordium). Oh, yes. Dr. Johnson knew the days of coronavirus.

And now the second little wagged dog, from 1774. The Scotsman Boswell writes: “I mentioned [to Dr. Johnson] a peculiar satisfaction which I experienced in celebrating the festival of Easter in St. Paul's cathedral; that to my fancy it appeared like going up to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover.” Dr. Johnson responds in a letter:
You must remember, that your image of worshipping once a year in a certain place, in imitation of the Jews, is but a comparison; and simile non est idem; if the annual resort to Jerusalem was a duty to the Jews, it was a duty because it was commanded; and you have no such command, therefore no such duty. It may be dangerous to receive too readily, and indulge too fondly, opinions, from which, perhaps, no pious mind is wholly disengaged, of local sanctity and local devotion. . . . I am now writing, and you, when you read this, are reading under the Eye of Omnipresence.
Do I know that God readily accepts the worship I offer him from my home? Yes. Do I know that the CDC, the rector of my church, and my own sense of safe behavior tell me to worship at home? Again, yes. And yet I would have liked to celebrate Easter at my church with my friends and would have felt that worship to be more genuine. We are beings of soul and body offering spiritual worship in phsyical places and with material means. Like Spider-man with one web on a standing building and another web on a runaway train, we strain to stay connected to both worlds and can’t help but make mistakes and then make more mistakes in wondering about the first mistakes. (Don’t ask me whether the runaway train represents spirit or body!)

OK, here’s my much better theory of a piece of recent art being inspired by The Wizard of Oz. In First Man, as Armstrong and Aldrin open the door of the LEM to reveal the surface of the new world they’ve just landed on, the grainy handheld cinematography gives way to steady, crystalline high-def images. You can’t tell me the filmmakers weren’t thinking of the changing film technique as Dorothy opens the door of Auntie Em’s cabin. If you’re having trouble scheduling away the tedious hours, may I recommend watching both movies?

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Because They Are Hard

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Was President Kennedy a fan of Isaac Asimov? One of Asimov’s constant themes in his robot-and-empire-and-Foundation series is that going into space is good for humanity only if they do it the hard way. Is there an easy way, you ask? Well, in Asimov’s world there is: use robots to do it. They prepare the place, do all the construction, make the new home cushy. Then humans show up and just enjoy and turn soft and live long lives of four-hundred self-absorbed years. It’s a good thing the robots know better, and they arrange to make space travel difficult.

Retirement definitely highlights the question whether hard work is necessary for our well-being. Not that things have been particularly easy since I retired what with death and divorce among those close to me and illness and injury and quarantining affecting me directly. (How do I get through my reading assignments without being able to sit in a Wendy’s or a Chipotle for lunch most days?!) But money isn’t a problem. And I don’t have to deal with students complaining to the Dean when I give them a well-deserved D or problems with administrators who change the D to a C (or an A if they’re especially brazen or a P if they’re particularly cowardly). These are good things, right? In Heaven, there are no complaints about D’s and in fact no D’s awarded. And Heaven is the goal. Right?

And yet I find myself setting myself difficult tasks. I try to program a game just beyond my coding abilities. I try to learn some Japanese and some calculus. I work on a fourth ten-year reading plan. I’m not necessarily succeeding at these tasks, but I think I feel better failing at something hard than I would succeeding at something easy, like reading nothing but Agatha Christie (a definite temptation). Maybe I need to program a robot who will tell me when to do something difficult and when to do something easy. How hard could that be?

Through ripping tales of adventure and intrigue and philosophical debate among robots and humans, Asimov will get you thinking about such things as the human need for difficulty, what privacy means, whether emotions are merely mechanical, why beings with free will tend to act with statistical regularity, and other worthy conundrums. If you want to read his books in in-world chronological order (Asimov wrote three main series of novels and then spent the last years of his life writing books to fill in the gaps and tie the series together), here’s the list. Even if you don’t want to read them in order, here’s the list. I’ve arranged the titles into ten divisions for, I don’t know, maybe a ten-year reading plan.

(1) The End of Eternity, The Complete Robot (includes the I, Robot stories and more)
(2) Caves of Steel, Naked Sun
(3) Robots of Dawn
(4) Robots and Empire
(5) Stars Like Dust, Currents of Space, Pebble in the Sky
(6) Prelude to Foundation
(7) Forward the Foundation, Foundation
(8) Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation
(9) Foundation’s Edge
(10) Foundation and Earth
 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Grant’s Fine Lines of Thought

Our current President makes all Presidential biographies about himself. He challenges and flouts so many of the customs and norms of the American President, I can’t help thinking about him when I read about any other chief executive. Each episode in our history provides a study by contrast.

A week ago, I finished Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which I have since seen cited twice (once on television). Numerous sources ascribe to it the phrase “a masterpiece of the genre.” Now, Grant said very little about his Presidency in his memoirs. Perhaps he wanted to dwell on events that went better for him, like failed businesses. But in his observations about the country, he frequently provides an interesting contrast to the successor who currently occupies the Oval Office.

For instance, Forty-Five likes to talk about traitors. Well, Grant dealt with actual traitors: people who violated their oaths of office and military duty and took up arms against their country. Grant never lets the Confederacy have its way with semantics; he always refers to its “government” in quotation marks. But what does a republic do when it achieves victory over a rebellious army? How does a government "for the people" treat 5.5 million of those people who for four years have been loyal to a rebellious “government” once that rebellion has been quelled? Grant believed that the victory he did so much to bring about made immediate compatriots of these former enemies and abettors to enemies. He couldn’t rejoice over Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. “I felt like anything,” he says, “rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

In this remarkable observation, Grant walks straightly (and soberly!) along a fine line in which he both praises his fellow Americans for traits he can admire and blames them for taking up an execrable cause. (And by the way, Grant says from the beginning of his account of the war that that inexcusable cause was slavery. No side-stepping the elephant and talking about states’ rights. Grant, having been sentient during the 1850s knew the cause of the Civil War.) I believe he was right in everything that I know he said and felt and did at that surrender, but it took subtlety of thinking, the ability to see both sides of an argument in the best light possible and then to choose on principles, the wisdom to understand that a human being is a mixed bag. I know these are difficult virtues to achieve, but they are too shockingly rare these days. No one can find praise for those who, they believe, take up poor causes. And no one upholding any cause can hear critique of that cause without taking it as a personal attack. We no longer understand the difference between opponents and enemies.

Grant has only a few words to say about his disastrous predecessor as President, Andrew Johnson, and those are to say that Johnson did the wrong thing in trying to punish fellow Americans from the South for having taken up the wrong cause. Grant virtually said, “We need a uniter, not a divider.” I’ve heard too many times in the last twenty years – from friends variously embracing all portions of the political spectrum – that they wish they didn’t live in the same country with those who oppose them politically. This attitude seems to me so completely un-American that I’m tempted to agree with it just long enough to get rid of those who hold it. But, trying not to be a walking oxymoron, I don’t. Part of our country’s ideal is precisely the ability to live in community with people who differ from us politically. We take recourse to the ballot box, we challenge what we see as injustice through the courts, we lift our voices in the street, we post signs in our yard. But we don’t shoot our political rivals, we don’t jail our political rivals, we don’t force our political rivals to leave the country, and we don’t abandon the nation to our political rivals. Yes, it’s an ideal very, very imperfectly realized. But the ideal says that we must shake our rival’s hand (when not in the midst of a pandemic!) and vow to remember that we agree on something really quite astonishing and weird in the history of this weird, old world: laws and debate and free elections cut way down on killing. So now let’s apply those laws fairly, debate honestly, and make our elections equally accessible to all eligible voters.

I started off thinking I would talk about Grant’s other fine lines of subtle thought, but I’ve ranted on the first one for too long. Science fiction next. That couldn’t possibly get political, right?

Friday, May 15, 2020

A Notice to Made-for-TV Movie Producers

I’m writing today about a book that left my mind wrestling with two puzzles when I first read it, in college in the late 1970s. My second reading of Frank Norris’s The Octopus brought a partial solution for one of the puzzles, but I’m still mystified by the second.

I first heard about Frank Norris in an American lit class. He was presented to me as the epitome of the naturalist movement. According to what I was told, in naturalist writing, as exemplified by Norris, descriptions are factual, not interpretive, not emotional. Details that a reader would see as symbolically significant in earlier fiction represent nothing in naturalist fiction. It sounded unlikely to me that an author of any era would want to tell a story without meaning anything by it: surely an author at least means to say, “I like this story” or “I believe the people and events in this piece of narrative worth your time and contemplation.” But my professor said this was the way it was, and I know that humans go for all sorts of fashions now and then, so I accepted the lesson.

Then in an American history class in a later semester, the professor assigned The Octopus by Frank Norris. “Oh, great,” I thought, “400 pages of dry depiction of events that didn’t actually happen told with details about which I’m not supposed to think.” (Hey, I was young. It was hard for me to imagine why anyone would want to do anything in a way that I didn’t understand and approve of.) But, as wrong as my take on naturalism may have been, I can say even now that I was quite justified in being surprised at what the Master of Naturalism in Fiction brought to the table in The Octopus. Biblical symbolism of death and resurrection in the life cycle of wheat? Emotional, referential descriptions of nature? A man calling to people telepathically? (I’m obviously not really clear on my literary-criticism terminology, but if it were up to me, I’d call telepathy supernatural.) Did I remember the lesson correctly? Was this a different Frank Norris? My lit professor got her line about Norris and naturalism right from the author himself, so you can’t much blame her, I guess. But whatever Norris meant by calling himself a literary naturalist, either he didn’t mean that he would never use symbolism, metaphor, and evocative images, or else he simply didn’t end up writing the way he set out to write.

I remembered liking the book a lot, confused as I might have been about what label I was supposed to attach to it. So this time around, forty-some years after my first reading, I was less concerned about whether some label was correct or not and more interested in just experiencing and absorbing the novel for whatever it was. It was every bit as interesting and exciting as I had remembered. Sure, it’s not naturalist the way that word is defined in literature. So Norris changed his mind – or didn’t know his own style. So what? Whatever the style, this book is great! Wheat farmers in southern California in the late nineteenth century contemplate the meaning of life and death. Family businesses struggle with the inexorable forces of the American corporation. Victims of the railroad’s repression debate political solutions: Socialism? Anarchism? Democracy? Democracy with bribes? A poet struggles to write the great American novel. A girl gets called from the dead. There’s a barn dance. There are lots of shootouts. There’s a train hijacking. There’s a rich, respected family who think of themselves as lords of the land until they find out that the railroad company didn’t really mean what they thought it said when it leased them the acreage. And there’s a beautiful love story involving a crusty farmer who falls in love with and is softened by the daughter of his farmhand, a girl who rolls up her sleeves every morning to dip her beautiful arms into milk without realizing what effect the sight might have on her boss.

And all of that brings me to the second, still unresolved, mystery. Why hasn’t this wonderful story of love, drama, action, intrigue, faith, and politics been filmed? When I read it in the 70s, it seemed absolutely perfect for a miniseries. It’s forty years later, and a ten-part Netflix series would be even better. Come on producers! Somebody please rediscover this intelligent, exciting book!

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Twenty (or Forty) Years After

A little more that forty years ago, I read The Three Musketeers for the first time. I knew then that the rollicking historical novel had a sequel called Twenty Years After, and I definitely wanted to read it. But loving the original so much, I never imagined it would take me over twice as long as the period in the title of that sequel to get around to it.. But I knew I would one day: my dad told me to.

We were probably in the local public library when he said it. He and I often went up and down the aisles looking at the titles, my dad giving me his opinions and advice. Well, not so much advice. When it comes from Dad, it’s more like life instruction. One day, son, when your beard begins to grow . . . . One day, son, you’ll have to make difficult decisions about balancing family and career . . . . One day, son, you should read Twenty Years After . . . . Yeah, it sounds different in that context, doesn’t it? And after all, he was right about the beard and the career. So I owed it to the Old Man to read this book and keep his record spotless.

And, boy! am I glad that I did! I woke up every day of the last few weeks looking forward to my time with D’Artagnan and his friends, and not a single page disappointed my expectations.

I suppose I have to admit that there are reasons the first book is so famous, so popular, so ingrained in public consciousness, and so frequently filmed, while the sequel languishes in obscurity. For instance, as much as Dumas tries to tell us that Cardinal Mazarin, though a smaller man than Richelieu, is just as interesting, the successor to Richelieu just comes out, well, smaller. The real Mazarin did big things like making France (and himself) rich and contributing to the principles of Westphalia that continue to govern international relationships, but somehow Dumas only saw the mean side of the man. Perhaps the author could never forgive the later cardinal for being Italian.

There’s also the problem of names and factions. I thought the rivalries between King, Queen, and Cardinal were confusing when I first read The Three Musketeers. Well, that political situation was a simple game of tic-tac-toe compared to the intrigues of Twenty Years After. It didn’t help that almost every major player in the machinations went by at least two names. Dumas’s original audience probably knew that J. F. P. de Gondi was also a cardinal named Retz and was also “The Coadjutor.” But I felt like Lois Lane landing the biggest scoop of her life when I discovered halfway through the book that they were all the same person. And then there’s le Duc de Condé, who is sometimes, without explanation, referred to as The Prince.

But all that got straightened out. And in any case, none of the confusion detracted from the joy of going on new adventures with the musketeers, four of the most wonderful characters I’ve ever encountered. And what adventures! They find themselves in battle against each other early on (those tricky factions!) and discuss (while battle rages around them) how to remain loyal friends to each other while continuing to perform their respective duties. (I know of some people in Washington who could learn from this book.) They chase and are chased by Lady de Winter’s son. (The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the rotten tree.) They protect young Louis XIV during the Fronde. They try to rescue English King Charles I from execution. (They fail, as actual history determines they must, but Dumas allows himself to place Athos under the scaffolding where he holds a hushed conversation with Charles during that unfortunate monarch’s historically documented quiet moment to the side before he placed his head on the chopping block.)

I have The Man in the Iron Mask, another sequel, scheduled for 2022, year 6 in my third ten-year plan of reading. But now I discover that Iron Mask is only the last part of a trilogy that, in its entirety, is a sequel to Twenty Years After and completes the story of D’Artagnan. Two other Dumas novels – each with nineteenth-century length – fill in the gap between what I just read and what I plan to read in two years. What do I do? What do I do? I wish I could ask Dad.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Last Man Who Knew . . . What?

I’ve read in my life about two people being called The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Isaac Newton and Athanasius Kircher. One is extremely famous, and the other is Athanasius Kircher. I first heard about Kircher in a History of Music Theory class I took at the University of Iowa around 1985. There, he was presented as a polymath, which I learned was a fancy word meaning someone who knows everything. Among the things he knew, apparently, was music theory. But I never learned much of the details because his works on music have never been translated from Latin. (I started reading Kircher's Latin once and quickly realized that deficiency in Latin is one of the many gaps that make me Not A Man Who Knows Everything.)

In any case, learning more about Kircher had been on my mental back burner for decades, and this month that simmering pot finally got brought to the front and spilled its savory contents into my bowl. I had originally put Paula Findlen’s Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything on my reading list for year 4. (You can still see that title on the master list under the "Third Decade" tab at the top of this page.) But last year as I was buying the books for this year’s literary trek, Amazon’s “Customers also bought” feature changed my mind. It seems Amazon readers prefer Joscelyn Godwin’s Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World. It is a beautiful big coffee-table book filled with marvelously clear reprints of hundreds of amazing illustrations from Kircher’s books. Godwin explains that since most people today will have a hard time understanding the Christian and proto-scientific worldview and ideas by means of the texts of Kircher’s many works, the illustrations actually provide the best access to Kircher’s world for the twenty-first century reader. And for the most part he does an excellent job fulfilling that promise.

The book, for all its outstanding virtues, disappointed me in two ways, though. First, Godwin makes at least one mistake in explaining Kircher’s old-world view of the hierarchy of existence. In one diagram Kircher illustrates the inanimate, the sensitive, and the animate by means of three pictures, pictures which he lays out in a triangle and does not label, making it unclear from the text alone which picture goes with which concept. The pictures show – in alphabetical order – a cock and stag, a magnet’s needle, and a palm tree. Godwin’s explication links the inanimate with the needle, the animate to the animals, and the sensitive to the palm tree – the “sensitive palm tree,” he calls it. No one will argue that, of the three pictures, the magnet represents the inanimate. And the forms of the words sure suggest that the ANIMAls represent the ANIMAte. But are palm trees especially sensitive? I mean, do they cry when you insult them? If Godwin really knew the major sources of this Jesuit scholar (he repeatedly says that Jesuits were bound to accept Aristotelianism as interpreted by Aquinas), he would understand that these words represent levels of being. An iron needle has existence but, in spite of its movement, no life; it is inanimate. In addition to existence, a plant has life (Latin anima), but no sense of sight, hearing, etc. So it is animate but not sensitive. Animals, on the other hand, have existence and life and the five senses to boot, so they are sensitive. (Humans reach a fourth level of being, sharing existence, life, and senses with animals but adding reason. But rational creatures weren’t part of Kircher’s present purpose and so didn’t make it into the picture.) Now if Godwin got this central tenet of Aristotelianism wrong, what else, I wondered, did he misinterpret for me in illustrations of things that I knew less well?

I was disappointed in Kircher himself, as well, though. I thought he actually knew things in all the hot fields of study among seventeenth-century European intellectuals. But as Godwin explains (and here I have no reason to doubt him), all we can really say is that Kircher wrote about history, languages, astronomy, music, history of religion, ethics, geology, anthropology, mythology, and physics. What he didn’t know, he just made up. He claimed to have decoded the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but every obelisk ends up saying virtually the same thing in his “translations.” He drew pictures of many machines, only some of which he claimed to have built and seen working. He claimed to have a box of cards that wrote music automatically for the person who knew how to pull the cards out and interpret them, but he only showed samples of music that had been written this way (by whom?), not the system of cards itself.

So this dream I had enjoyed for thirty-five years, a dream of one day knowing about a fascinating genius that no one else knew about, my vision of having secret knowledge about a guy with secret knowledge, my hopes of being more entertaining at parties have all been dashed. I guess I’ll have to settle for Isaac Newton as my example of an intellectual paragon.

But actually, the Last Man Who Knew Everything was probably a woman who didn’t feel the need to tell the world about it.

Friday, March 27, 2020

What’s New?

Well, here it is. The best book by my favorite author. Not my favorite book; that would be A Tale of Two Cities. But The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery, by most accounts, the masterpiece of Charles Dickens. It’s my fourth reading of David, and my second since starting this blog. What could I possibly have that’s new to say about one of the greatest of all novels?

If I have anything new to say, it isn’t about marriages in the book or about David’s memory. I wrote about those topics in February and March of 2011 in two of my four posts about DC. (Good Heavens! Did I really write four posts on one book? How did I find the time while I was working? I definitely don’t have the time now that I’m retired.) In revisiting those posts, there is one detail I seem to have left out. It occurred to me nine years ago that David’s vivid memories actually fulfill the predictions of the neighborhood ladies at his birth that he would see ghosts.

My new contribution isn’t that Steerforth and Dora look different as I reread the book and mature. Many critics before have written about David’s “undisciplined heart.” Even though the David who writes the first-person narrative is older and wiser than the David we watch in the story, he invites the reader to see the world as his younger self did, through his undisciplined heart, and I, for one, believed what David first said about his school hero and his future wife and tried to love them as much as he did. But David and I both learned as we got older.

No, what I wish to add to the conversation concerns the power of Dickens’s influence across oceans and across generations.

First, something very familiar jumped out at me when I read these sentences:
With the unerring instinct of her noble heart, she touched the chords of my memory so softly and harmoniously, that not one jarred within me; I could listen to the sorrowful, distant music, and desire to shrink from nothing it awoke. How could I, when, blended with it all, was her dear self, the better angel of my life?
I don’t remember noticing the connection before, but this time I couldn’t help but be jolted by the phrases chords of memory and better angel. The second was certainly common before Dickens made use of it, and the first might have preceded him. But the close proximity (is there such a thing as distant proximity? I apologize for the redundancy) of the two striking turns of phrase must have had an influence on Abraham Lincoln since they appear together again in the last sentence of his first inaugural address just eleven years later. Now, I’ve read that William Seward wrote the peroration of that speech, so perhaps the future Secretary was responsible for the innocent, complimentary plagiarism. But surely Lincoln, the eloquent humorist, was familiar with the works of the creator of Sam Weller, Dick Swiveller, Captain Cuttle, and Wilkins Micawber.

Second, I believe that David Copperfield had thoroughly simmered in Tolkien’s mind by the time the later writer invented one of his best characters. Uriah Heep’s pale skin and hands that feel like dead fish might constitute a true connection without being absolutely convincing. But look at these paragraphs involving the odious junk dealer who buys little David’s clothes from him:
‘Oh, what do you want?’ grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. ‘Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!’

I was so much dismayed by these words, and particularly by the repetition of the last unknown one, which was a kind of rattle in his throat, that I could make no answer; hereupon the old man, still holding me by the hair, repeated:

‘Oh, what do you want? Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo!’--which he screwed out of himself, with an energy that made his eyes start in his head.

‘I wanted to know,’ I said, trembling, ‘if you would buy a jacket.’

‘Oh, let’s see the jacket!’ cried the old man. ‘Oh, my heart on fire, show the jacket to us! Oh, my eyes and limbs, bring the jacket out!’
Now let any honest person read that passage and tell me that that junk dealer isn’t the progenitor of Gollum!

Monday, March 9, 2020

I Am Torn About Coleridge

Each year for the last fourteen, I’ve chosen one classic poet to read rather thoroughly. Last year it was Longfellow, for instance, and this year it was Coleridge. Part of my self-given liberal education has been devoted to learning to appreciate poetry in the English language from the days of meter and form. Since no school ever trained me in the art of reading this literature, and since I have indeed been steadily growing in my understanding, almost every poet becomes a new treasure to me. I liked Longfellow so much more than I thought I would!

So it came as a surprise to find that Coleridge disappointed me. It’s presumptuous of me to think I know enough to say that he struck me as inferior in skill to Shelley and Wordsworth, although that’s the way the situation looks to me. But my dissatisfaction came from something else. After all, a poet can pale in comparison to Wordsworth and still be very, very good. Partly, I just didn't like reading his many overtures to the woman he wished he had married or his eloquent, poetic laments on how he couldn't write poetry anymore.

But then this reaction might have come from the peculiar arrangement of the collection I read. In the Penguin edition I had, editor Richard Holmes arranges the 101 poems he selected into eight categories: Sonnets, Conversational Poems, Ballads, Hill Walking Poems, “Asra” Poems, Confessional Poems, Visionary Fragments, and Topical Poems. So I read, for instance, fourteen poems written to the secret object of his heart in a row. (Was she a secret, though? Was anyone at the time really fooled by his respelling of Sara as Asra?) The happy result of this arrangement, though, is that the poems I enjoyed most also came one after another and seemed to magnify the beauty and power in each other. So I was torn about Coleridge. Some mornings I rushed to the book and was rewarded, and on other days I trudged to my reading knowing I was going to cover thirty more pages of irrationality or immorality.

I know I became acquainted with many new poems in reading the Coleridge collection, but I want to end with a few remarks about “The Eolian Harp,” which I’ve known and enjoyed for many years. It is undoubtedly beautiful. “The stilly murmur of the distant Sea / Tells us of silence” is just pretty stuff, with all its sibilant s’s imitating the watery susurration and the quaint extra suffix on the word still. And some of the images are marvelous:
Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untamed wing!
Or how about the rhythm on these lines:
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.
The successive accents on breeze and warbles and again on mute and still (with their viscous t-s-t sound combination) slow down the line to match the calm cadence of the air.

But then, what does the poem mean? I’ve read that the focal point of the poem called “The Eolian Harp” is the harp itself, not the descriptions of the idyllic setting, and its suggestion to Coleridge’s mind that he ask whether perhaps
all animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
But then Coleridge follows that climax with a but. The woman he sits with reminds him that this view is not orthodox Christian doctrine, and he says he is brought to his senses and becomes grateful again for “Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honored Maid!" Does Coleridge believe in his supposition that he is only a material instrument animated by the collective soul of the universe? Or does he believe the Christian orthodoxy of Sara? If he favors the idea of the World Soul, why does he end with Sara’s correction? If he’s comfortable with his Christianity at this moment, why does he write us such a lovely poem depicting his flight of fancy? It seems Coleridge was torn about himself, too.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Sword and the Cup

How does a Christian know when to denounce a doctrine as heresy and when to hold an open mind and talk things out? When should a Christian refuse to worship with someone holding different beliefs, and when should we agree to disagree? Jesus normally squared off with the Pharisees, but He welcomed the Pharisee Nicodemus into a theological discussion. Paul says the Lord will requite Alexander the coppersmith for his deeds, and yet two verses later, he prays that the desertion of his fair-weather friends not be charged against them. When to show judgment and when mercy? When to bare the sword and when to offer the cup? I have a tentative explanation for Jesus’ differing approaches, but I don’t need to share it here, partly because I think there is no one clear-cut answer – that handling these dilemmas correctly depends not on a rule but on an ongoing relationship with living Wisdom. I will say that it has seemed clear to me from the time I was a teenager and first started to think of such things that Americans tend to err on the side of separation much too often. (I also think Americans excessively tend to make these decisions individually rather than in the body of the Church as a whole, but that’s a slightly different story.)

Augustine also made these distinctions and usually seems to have been comfortable with his decision either way. He clearly considered Pelagians outside the pale of orthodox Christianity and devoted several books to refuting them. I chose the metaphors of sword and cup to represent the two options, but doesn’t Augustine actually employ both? While he draws with the sword tip a sharp line between Catholicism and Pelagianism, doesn’t he also drink together with his foes in sharing so many words with them? After all, he doesn’t recommend the literal sword for dissenters as many later purported Christians would do, so the separation isn’t so wide as to be unbridgeable.

In the three short works I read this month, Augustine presents examples of both strategies, and they both struck me as particularly wise. In Predestination of the Saints and The Gift of Perseverance (which he considered the two parts of a longer, unnamed whole), the Bishop teaches that God is the source of both the beginning of faith and the end of faith. He proves his point both through Scripture (an appeal to authority) and argument (an appeal to reason), and sometimes uses a homey form of reasoning that could be called an appeal to experience: if you don’t think God is responsible for the beginning of another person’s faith, then why do you pray to Him to bring about the salvation of others? I found his variety of strategies and his understanding of the psychology of his readers impressive, reassuring, and convincing.

In his early treatise On Faith and the Creed, when Augustine reaches the topic of the Holy Spirit, he says that Bible scholars have not yet agreed on what relation the Holy Spirit has to the other two Persons of the Trinity. We know He is a Person, he says, and that He is not begotten from either the Father or the Son (so He is not the brother of the Word, and He is not the Holy Grandson of the Father). He is not a second Beginning: all comes from the Father. But then how is He related? Is He the Love between the Father and Son or something different?  He makes no mention of either breathing or procession. I appreciated Augustine not taking a stand on this one but acknowledging that Bible scholars can reach different tentative conclusions.

Now, the Church split in 1054 supposedly over this very question of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the other Persons. By that time, procession was generally considered the name of the bond, but does He proceed from the Father only, as the Eastern Church insisted, or from both the Father and the Son, as the Western, Latin Church declared? I recite the western form of the creed, professing that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, but I maintain confidence that my eternal salvation won’t depend on getting that one right. One thing I know: if anyone tries to tell me that “The” Church “always” believed one way on this issue, they are mistaken. Augustine says the scholars hadn’t yet agreed. Apparently they still don’t.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Where Did I Read That?

Have you ever plagued yourself trying to remember where you read some given thing? It happens to me all the time. Sometimes I want to tell my wife about something I read in just the last day and can’t remember where I read it: News story? Novel? Philosophical work? In other instances, I look for years for the elusive source of my mental Nile. One imaginary Dr. Livingstone slashed about for about fifteen years through the densest tangle of confused memories seeking the place where I had first read about the difference between wit and judgment. He finally fulfilled his quest when I reread Thomas Hobbes in 2009. (Wit is the power of comparing disparate things, while judgment is the power of discerning differences in similar things.)

Another jungle trek came to an end in just the last few days. I really don’t know how long I had been hoping to rediscover where C. S. Lewis talks about creation as the greatest miracle. The words as I remembered them were something like these: “Creation is the first and greatest miracle because by Creation, God brought into existence what is not God.” I thought sure I’d come across it in Miracles when I revisited that book a few years ago. But I had to wait until rereading The Problem of Pain to find my rest.

It turns out that those words were all mine (except where they borrowed from Jesus talking about commandments). But the gist was accurate. Here is the actual phrasing in the inimitable style of the great professor: “To make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.”

But wait. Creation in a book about pain? Yes. In his answer to the age-old question of how an all-powerful loving God can allow evil (he’s especially interested in the pain involved in the consciousness of evil), Lewis speculates on why God made a physical universe. I don’t know of anything else like this passage, although if I told him that, he’d probably chuckle and tell me I just hadn’t read enough. Lewis then runs through his ideas on the moral constitution of humans, sin, the Fall, the meaning of goodness, the Incarnation, Redemption, Heaven, and more. Maybe this, and not Mere Christianity, is the fundamental exposition of Lewis’s view of life, the universe, and everything. Why isn’t it more popular?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Who Wants to Read Apollonius of Perga?

For my second post of the year, I’m already going to some extracurricular reading. Among other treasures, I received for this last Christmas a copy of A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam, who, the cover tells me, is also the author of Gracefully Insane. Now I received on another Christmas around 1994, the best present my mom ever got me: the Britannica Great Books, the books that gave me the liberal education I had longed for over decades, the books that got me hooked on ten-year reading plans, the books that inspired this blog. One of the downsides of having a ten-year reading plan is that when someone gives you a book, it’s not always easy to find a place for it in your schedule. But when I get a history of the Britannica Great Books, I’m going to read it and I’m going to blog about it.

Alas, Beam takes a dim view of the enterprise. Not that his skewering send-up of my beloved Great Books isn’t fascinating and hilarious. Mortimer Adler was indeed a ludicrous personage, and Beam makes me laugh as he shows Adler pushing himself into situations he’s not qualified for, trying to show off at parties, or claiming that syntopicon will become a household word. And, yes, Adler comes across as a wannabe scholar when he has to admit he knows only one language. But Beam’s bottom-line critique asks whatever made Mortimer Adler think that any twentieth-century American would want to read the Conics of Apollonius of Perga. And yet, thousands of people did. They read it in English, in an old-fashioned translation (copyright free) from the previous century. They read it in 8-point type. They went to the University of Chicago to read it, and they formed clubs all over the country to read it. And they came back for more.

Also providing much comic relief in the story is Kenneth Harden, who developed techniques of selling the sets door-to-door. And it worked! Intellectually insecure suburbanites bought them up by the – ok, by the tens. But somebody had to pay for the production of these books. So what if Mrs. Midwest spent a few hundred dollars on books that got no interaction from her other than dusting? As the funny papers’ Blondie once said, “If I’m not going to read, I might as well not read something educational.” Who are we to say that that American Dreamer didn’t get enjoyment out of just having the books in the living room for guests to see?

At some point, one of those sets made it to Adrian’s Used Book Store in Oklahoma City, and then made it to me. Nothing about the set I bought suggested that any one volume had ever been opened. There were no markings in any of the books. The cracks in the cheap binding might have come from nothing other than decades of changing weather. But I have read many words in every volume and every word in about half the volumes. A couple of them I’ve read twice (Shakespeare and Boswell). Many of the volumes have book-repair tape holding the fragile covers together. And they're marked up plenty now! At some point I had to start using a magnifying glass to read the small type, but that’s no trouble for me. So why is Beam so dead set against a project that doesn’t excite millions of people at a time? Who wants to read Apollonius? I do.

And, yes, I read it in English. I’ve learned all that I’ve learned from the ancients and from the French and the Russians through translation. Beam tells of several experts arguing with Adler that Greek philosophy can only be understood in Greek, and he makes fun of Adler’s habitual retort as defensive and inadequate. But I think Adler makes a good point by asking his critics, “Oh? So you read the Old Testament in Hebrew?” Does Beam or anyone else seriously think the world would be a better place without these translated words?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Poetry of Broken Sentences

OK, I’ve seen some movies written by David Mamet, but I had never read one of his plays. Were the films I saw full of the interruptions, fragments, and grammatical solecisms of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow? There may not have been a single complete sentence in either play.

The characters in these dramas are as shattered as their grammar; they certainly talk in the manner of people who want to make sense of life and pronounce principles without having been disciplined to read, think, and listen coherently. But does this diminished argot really make for better art than iambic pentameter does? I didn’t like Glengarry Glen Ross. I felt sorry for the dejected realtors trying to separate fools from their money by joining them to specious plots in Florida. But Death of a Salesman it was not, and so the steady flow of linguistic shards got tedious.

By the end of Speed-the-Plow, on the other hand, I found the bumpy cadence of the lines contributing integrally to a moving, pathetic portrait. Here, it’s movie producers, working in a medium that conveys meaning but constrained to create a work that a mass public will pay to see. Two of the three characters find themselves confronted with the opportunity to make a movie with a message that has a hope of changing viewers for the better, but they each alloy their altruism in various ways enough to disillusion each other, and crass commercialism wins out in the end. And yet at least now they know that commercialism is crass and that there’s a contest. In my mind, the realization moves them from being two-dimensional machines into being fully rounded tragic figures.

 In the same week, I read Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough from 1798, having planned it thinking it had some connection with Mamet’s play. Apparently it has none except mutual inspiration from an old saying about God’s eagerness to bless industry. In Morton’s play, everyone works hard to keep secrets, marry the right person, and end up with some money: all the requirements of a good farce. And for good measure, there’s a literal plowing race.

 I much preferred this classical comedy to Mamet’s biting cynicism. Maybe I just don’t want my art imitating life too closely right now. A death and a will have a way of bringing out the worst in people, and I need some happy endings.

A happy post-script: I just found out that today, the first Monday after Twelfth Day of Christmas, is traditionally known as Plough Monday. Well, let’s all get to work!