Great moments in opera: Der Rosenkavalier

July 16, 2014

Richard Strauss made an operatic name for himself with the dark and exotic dramas of Elektra and Salome, with their bloodthirsty heroines and tumultuous scores, so it was, perhaps, a surprise when his next project proved to be a genteel drawing-room opera with music based throughout on the Viennese waltz. Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose) was a hit nonetheless, and has remained popular in opera houses in the intervening century.

There are four principal roles.  The Marschellin, an older woman, is carrying on an illicit affair with a young man, Octavian; meanwhile, a philandering older man, Baron Ochs, seeks the hand of a young woman, Sophie, in marriage. Over the course of the opera Octavian and Sophie fall in love, and their marriage is contrived with the help of the Marschellin and at the expense of the Baron.

That’s it, in a nutshell, but Strauss and his long-time librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, have made more of it than a brief plot sketch would suggest. Consider, for instance, the long monologue which the Marschellin sings at the end of Act I; in it, she reflects on growing old, the inevitable passage of time, and mortality. It’s a melancholy monologue, but Strauss has infused it with a delicate, beguiling beauty that resonates graciously in the ear. Here is Kiri Te Kanawa singing it, with English subtitles:

We can hear the same music sung by the wonderful soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf here, albeit without English subtitles. Live footage of Schwarzkopf is rare, so this is a treat. If you don’t know, she was one of the greatest Strauss sopranos of the ‘golden age’ of opera recordings in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the end of Act I, immediately prior to the Marschellin’s solitary ruminations we just heard, Baron Ochs had deputized the young Octavian to take a rose to the home of Sophie, presenting it to her on the Baron’s behalf. (Octavian is thus the titular ‘cavalier of the rose’.) At the beginning of Act II he arrives at her home, enters, and presents the gift — except that as he does so, he falls in love with Sophie, and she with him. This is a wonderful scene. The two of them sing a sprightly and ravishingly beautiful duet. Here are Anneliese Rothenberger (Sophie) and Sena Jurinac (Octavian); unfortunately I could not find a clip of this scene with English subtitles. You’ll notice that Octavian’s part is sung by a soprano; apparently it doesn’t prevent his being attractive to Sophie.

Strauss saves the best for last, however. As Act III draws to a close, and all of the machinations of the plot are winding down, he gives us two gorgeous ensemble pieces. The first is a trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt, sung by the Marschellin, Octavian, and Sophie. This is one of the few triple-soprano pieces that I know of; one might have to go back to baroque opera to find another. Here are Anna Tomowa-Sintow (the Marschellin), Janet Perry (Sophie), and Agnes Baltsa (Octavian) in a 1980s-era Salzburg production, with English subtitles:

This is followed by the opera’s final number: a ravishing duet between Octavian and Sophie, which begins at about the 10 minute mark in the clip above, and is unquestionably one of the opera’s high points.

Der Rosenkavalier is over three hours long in performance, and, though the plot is slight, parts of it are truly excellent, as I hope this post has made clear.


Books briefly noted

July 11, 2014

A few quick notes on books I’ve read over the past few months:

wolfe-backtobloodBack to Blood
Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, & Co., 2012)
720 p.

Tom Wolfe returned after an hiatus of nearly ten years with this cheerful mess of a novel about life in the city of Miami. It’s a diffuse sort of story, but to the extent that it has a central character that character is Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban-American police officer with an unwitting talent for stirring the racial tensions present just beneath the surface of the city’s life. Unlike Wolfe’s better novels, the central plot of Back to Blood feels disconnected from the social and moral issues that he wants to explore — principally multiculturalism in a modern urban center. Though patchy at times, it is a lively story, told with Wolfe’s usual half-unhinged winsomeness. There is a most regrettable subplot — totally inessential, as it turns out — about pornography addiction; sure, it’s “topical”, but it feels shoehorned in and I, for one, could have really, really done without it. Really.

Bring Up The Bodiesmantel-bodies
Hilary Mantel
(HarperCollins, 2012)
432 p.

Last year I wrote with mixed impressions of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which followed Thomas Cromwell’s life from his childhood up to his establishment in the court of Henry VIII. It was from that lofty perch that he presided over Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the executions of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. This sequel, which, like its predecessor, won the Man Booker Prize, has a tighter focus: the action covers the period 1535-36 and Henry’s waning devotion to Anne Boleyn as his hopes alight upon Jane Seymour. As the title of the book suggests, this volatility in the royal affections results in a bloodbath, including, of course, in the final pages, the execution of Anne herself.

Given that gruesome terminus, it might be perverse to say that I enjoyed this panel of the story, and enjoyed it more than the first, but it is nonetheless true. I objected in Wolf Hall to what I took (and take) to be Mantel’s unjust portrait of More, but here I had no reason to take such offense (perhaps simply because of my own ignorance; I make no special claim for this novel’s historical accuracy). Interestingly, one of the literary aspects of the previous novel that I had praised — namely, the way in which Mantel, through artful use of pronouns, saturated the very grammar of her story with the force of Cromwell’s character — is downplayed in this second volume; there are an abundance of clarificatory “he, Cromwell”s to steady the reader, and this I found a little disappointing. I leave open the possibility, however, that it was done precisely to begin eroding our confidence in his competence and security.

Mantel does seem to be preparing us for his eventual downfall. There is a moment in Bring up the Bodies when his position in the court is suddenly shown to be very precarious indeed, and it comes as something of a shock to realize that even so expert a political animal as Cromwell can find himself outmaneuvered by events. He has the wit to call himself “a man whose only friend is the King of England,” but there is a hard truth behind the jest that will, I expect, be brought into the foreground in the projected next volume. In the meantime, Mantel’s traversal of this much-travelled historical territory makes for engrossing reading.

esolen-ironiesIronies of Faith
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2007)
420 p.

Irony might be thought to be the special province of post-modern skeptics, who have made much hay with it: cool detachment, hip knowingness, cynical distance. Irony can be, and has been, deployed as a kind of “universal solvent,” an engine of deconstruction. But Anthony Esolen wants to rescue irony from those associations and recover its place — a joyful, enriching, surprising place — at the heart of Christian devotion. In this book he plumbs great Christian literature for ironic themes and presents them for our consideration.

Is it surprising that there should be a place for irony in Christianity? This is a religion that plays endlessly with interchanges of first and last, mighty and lowly, strong and weak; it identifies a little baby with the Creator of all things, and worships as Lord an executed criminal. Esolen wants to stress that deep irony does not arrive from mere cleverness, but is rooted in a problem of knowledge. Irony arises, he argues, when an author reveals to the reader “a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows,” and he finds it pervades the Christian imagination.

The book ranges widely, with chapters devoted to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Spenser, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins, Tolkien, and many others. Some authors — Francois Mauriac and Alessandro Manzoni, for instance — I am not familiar with, and I confess I skipped over those chapters; I’ll return to them when the time comes. There is a very fine closing chapter devoted to the anonymous medieval poem “Pearl”, which Esolen calls “the greatest religious lyric in English”. It is indeed a superb poem, and this is the best and most accessible introduction to it that I have seen.

Literary criticism is not really my thing, but I found this book rewarding nonetheless, not so much for its ironic insights — irony is not really my thing either, I must admit — but for its thoughtful exploration of literary works that are deeper and richer than my reading can plumb. This is literary criticism born of love and informed by a long tradition of moral reflection. It is a very worthwhile book.


Favourite philosophers

July 8, 2014

Philosophy Bites is a long-running podcast which features brief discussions with academic philosophers about particular topics: Roger Scruton, for instance, on “the sacred”, or Martha Nussbaum on “the humanities”, and so forth. I don’t listen to it regularly, mostly because I do not usually recognize the names of the interlocutors (and, when I do, it is sometimes a deterrent).

Trolling through their archive recently, I did find an interesting “special edition” of the podcast in which they asked a number of philosophy professors a simple question: “Who is your favourite philosopher, and why?” I did not count the number of respondents, but there must have been roughly 100, enough for a few patterns to emerge in the answers.

To my surprise, the name cited most frequently was David Hume; he was praised for being “a good writer” — rare enough among philosophers, it is true — and for being “just plain right” and even for being “a good cook”.  Second was Aristotle. In a lower tier, but still with quite a few admirers, were Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Mill, and Kant. Nobody picked a medieval philosopher, and I was astounded that only one person named Plato.

Now, almost all of those interviewed were from American and British universities, well inside the Anglosphere, where philosophy is dominated by the analytic tradition. That might partly account for the popularity of Wittgenstein. Both Hume and Aristotle are, in a sense, “naturalistic” philosophers, intent on close observation and modest speculation, both of which qualities suit the traditional orientation of analytic philosophy toward the sciences, so that might go some distance to accounting for their high standing.

But it would be even more interesting, in light of this informal poll, to see a parallel set of responses from philosophers working in Europe. My suspicion is that the responses would be quite different: less Hume, for instance, and more Plato. But I bet that both Nietzsche and Kant would survive the channel crossing.

As for my own favourite philosopher: I’m not really sure. As I discovered some years ago while reading Copleston’s big history of philosophy, I am basically out of sympathy with most modern philosophy, from Descartes on down. I would name Plato or Aristotle — or, since he is to some extent a synthesis of the two, Aquinas. But I am not sufficiently well-educated in philosophy to be able to name a favourite with confidence.


Around and about

July 4, 2014

A few things worth noting:

  • Today is the anniversary of the death of William Byrd in 1623. Let’s hear his luminous setting of Ave Verum Corpus, sung here by the Tallis Scholars: 
  • Maclin Horton has some good commentary on the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the US Supreme Court, here and here.
  • North of the border, we’ve had our own, politer brand of cultural politics to contend with. Our Golden Boy decided, out of the blue, to bar pro-life candidates from the Liberal party and to crack the party whip on the backs of those already elected to Parliament. Raymond de Souza’s blunt criticism of those who have buckled under this mistreatment is sobering but very much to the point.
  • Also from Maclin Horton: somebody at Salon woke up and realized that Pope Francis might not be the Great White Hope that some thought he was. Instead, he’s a “sexist, nun-hating, poverty-perpetuating, pedophile-protecting homophobe”. That’s as clueless an assessment as its opposite was, but it is nonetheless oddly refreshing to hear it.
  • Andy Whitman has high praise for Joe Henry’s latest album, Invisible Hour. Maybe this will be the Joe Henry record that finally wins me over? Andy sure makes it sound great. 

Great moments in opera: Tosca

June 22, 2014

Puccini’s Tosca has been an opera-house favourite since its premiere in 1900. Joseph Kerman famously dismissed it as “a shabby little shocker”, not without some reason, for it does have an unusually vicious villain, and the finale does play in a merciless and calculated way on the audience’s heartstrings, but the music is memorable and winsome, and in opera that generally carries the day.

The action of the plot takes place in a specific 24 hour period — 17-18 June 1800 — and the three Acts are set in three famous landmarks in Rome: the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo. The action opens with a young painter, Cavaradossi, working on a mural in Sant’Andrea della Valle. He is interrupted by a friend, a political prisoner just escaped from prison. He offers him food, clothing, and a refuge on his estate. His lover, Tosca, then makes her entrance. Soon enough the fates of all three will be entangled. At this point, however, we are simply treated to a lovely duet (Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta?) (Do you not long for our little cottage?) between Cavaradossi and Tosca:

After Tosca’s departure, the Chief of Police, Scarpia, enters the church in pursuit of the escaped prisoner. Cavaradossi denies all knowledge, but Scarpia does not believe him; Cavaradossi is arrested.

In the second Act, the evil in Scarpia’s heart becomes fully evident: he brings Tosca in for questioning and vows to torture and kill Cavaradossi unless she will submit to his lecherous advances. She, hearing Cavarodossi’s cries of pain, vacillates as to what she should do in the famous aria Vissi d’arte (I lived for art). This is one of the best-known soprano arias in all of opera, and with good reason.

Much to my joy, we can listen to Maria Callas sing this aria! I haven’t featured Maria Callas much in these “Great moments in opera” posts because I generally prefer to embed live action, staged, and subtitled clips, and there is precious little live action footage of Callas. This clip of Vissi d’arte, however, meets all of my criteria. I am especially pleased about this because the role of Tosca is indelibly associated with Callas: her 1953 recording (opposite Giuseppe di Stefano and under the baton of Victor de Sabata) is widely considered to be the greatest recording of Tosca. Indeed, in a discussion of the greatest opera recordings ever made, it would have to be (andhasbeen) part of the discussion.

Anyway, here she is singing Vissi d’arte, in a 1958 recording. (The clip is unfortunately not embeddable.)

The outcome of Tosca’s prayerful deliberation is a cunning scheme: she consents to submit to Scarpia’s desires on condition that he afterwards grant Cavaradossi and her safe passage out of Rome. He agrees, but stipulates that Cavaradossi must first go before the firing squad, as planned. He tells Tosca that he will have the soldiers fire blanks — never intending, of course, to honour the promise. He writes and signs her letter of safe passage. Then, as he approaches her, she draws his knife from his belt and stabs him. When he collapses on the floor, she grabs the passport and runs.

As the third Act opens, Cavaradossi is awaiting execution. In the quiet of the early morning, as the last stars he will ever see begin to fade from view, he sings what is one of my favourite arias in the repertoire, E lucevan le stelle. It’s a great example of Puccini’s art: simple in construction, lasting not longer than a typical pop song, but powerfully affecting. It begins with a quiet dialogue between the singer and a clarinet; the singer ruminates on a recitation tone, and the clarinet answers with a plaintive rising and falling phrase. Then, as the aria gathers momentum, the singer adopts the same arcing phrase, to wonderful effect. My favourite moment in the aria comes somewhere near the mid-point: as the singer reaches the top of his arc, Puccini has him drop to pianissimo and add a gorgeous little decoration. In the right hands, this comes through as meltingly gorgeous. Here is Joseph Calleja showing us how it is done:

Tosca tells him of the deal she struck with Scarpia, and of her subsequent murder of him. She instructs Cavaradossi to go bravely before the firing squad, and, when he hears the shots, to feign injury, falling and lying still until the soldiers leave. He, overjoyed, yet eager to flee before Scarpia’s murder is discovered, agrees. But of course the squad does not fire blanks, and though Cavaradossi falls and lies still, he feigns nothing.

These moments, immediately before and after the shooting, are the dramatic high point of the opera, and for many they are powerfully effective, but I have reservations. The dramatic situation is precisely but cruelly calibrated, and to me it feels manipulative. Listen to the music Puccini writes after the shots ring out: the agony is allowed so much time to ripen that I almost feel Puccini is relishing it. Is this just me recoiling from a particularly powerful but painful dramatic success? Maybe so, but I can’t shake the feeling that the scene, which might have been superb, is, in the end, too indulgent of feelings that I’ve no wish to cultivate.

Here is the scene, beginning a minute or so prior to the execution. We’ll watch it through to the end of the opera.


Odyssey notes: The 1960s

June 17, 2014

My pop music odyssey, structured, you may recall, around the discography of Bob Dylan, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few months. It began in 1962 with Dylan’s self-titled debut record, and, as time goes on, is widening to include the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, along with a few other things thrown in from time to time.

I recently reached the end of the 1960s, which seems a good time to pause and offer a few thoughts. This leg of the odyssey has included 15 records by Bob Dylan (including a number of live and bootlegged recordings in addition to his studio albums), 12 by the Beatles (leaving only Let It Be, from 1970, still to come in their discography), 3 each by Neil Young and Van Morrison, and 2 by Leonard Cohen.

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Of these, it is of course Bob Dylan who reigns supreme: listening to those records from the middle years of the decade again — from Freewheelin’ in 1963 up through John Wesley Harding in 1967 — it is amazing to consider his achievement. His debut album hardly prepared us for the supple, evocative, and often hilarious songwriting that showed up on Freewheelin’, and he only went from strength to strength. Sometime in 1962 he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song whose ambition outstripped everything else he’d done, but in the years that followed it was outstripped in turn. He seemed to spiral upward, shedding one persona after another, his music changing along with him, as in a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine where he might have gone after Blonde on Blonde had a motorcycle accident not laid him low, out of sight, for an extended period in 1966-7. When he came back, he had jumped tracks again, singing with a simplicity and straightforwardness that was belied by the enigmatic songs he had written. It is a period of artistic creativity that I, at any rate, find endlessly fascinating and absorbing, and it has been a great pleasure to revisit it.

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What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time? Van Morrison was not entirely unknown at the time: he had been the frontman for Them, and in the months leading up to Astral Weeks his record company had, without his consent, released a couple of records of solo material. But, even so, listeners could hardly have been ready for the ecstatic flights and spiritual longing of this, his official debut album. It is a kind of miracle, a one-off in a career by no means devoid of admirable achievements. Its whole spirit seems to have descended from on high, an exultation in song burst from the heart of the singer, who was, astoundingly, then just 23 years old. Despite the absence of anything resembling a single, and though it has long lingered in the shadow of the more accessible (and justly beloved) Moondance, there are few pieces of popular art that affect me more deeply and delight me more thoroughly than it does. Give me Astral Weeks, a steady rain, and the open road, and I’ll be the happiest man on earth.

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A few years ago, on a bit of a whim, I sat down and listened to the first four or five albums by Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd was a famous band whose work I did not know well, and I thought it would be instructive. I was surprised — flabbergasted, really — to find those albums almost unlistenable: the dull sonic experiments, the aimless meandering, the pretentious tedium…

Well, I had a similar sort of experience — though admittedly to a lesser degree — with Neil Young’s self-titled debut record. Though I am an admirer of Neil Young, this was an album that I had never heard, and it turns out I wasn’t missing much. My purpose right now is not to critique it, but simply to ask: how did a lacklustre record like that lead to anything else? How did it become a stepping stone to a great career, rather than a torpedo to it? What did people hear in it that they liked? Maybe I’m just spoiled by knowing the Young of the 1970s before knowing the Young of the 1960s.

Now that I think of it, I suppose much the same line of comment could be applied to Dylan’s debut record too. It barely hinted at what was to come, and that only in retrospect.

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This leg of my journey may well eventually prove to have been the most rewarding. In Rolling Stone’s list of the “Top 500 albums,” for instance, fully seven of the Top 10 are from the 1960s (and, of those, six have been part of my odyssey). Perhaps it’s all downhill from here. But I hope not.

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Meantime, here is a list of my ten favourite odyssey-albums from the 1960s, more or less in descending order:

Van Morrison — Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan — Freewheelin’ (1963)
Bob Dylan — Live 1964 (1964)
Bob Dylan — John Wesley Harding (1967)
Beatles — Abbey Road (1969)
Bob Dylan — Another Side (1964)
Leonard Cohen — Songs (1967)
Beatles — Help! (1965)

Making a list of favourite odyssey-songs from the same period seems slightly pointless: it more or less amounts to making a list of favourite Dylan songs. But why not? It’s a cruel exercise, there being so many fine candidates, but I’ll give it a shot.

“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
“To Ramona” (Another Side)
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (Freewheelin’)
“I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde)
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Suzanne” — Leonard Cohen

Looking at that list, I realize it probably doesn’t overlap much with a standard list of Dylan’s “best songs”: no “Blowin’ in the Wind”, no “Like a Rolling Stone”, no “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But there are not meant to be his best songs, by some indeterminate measure, but only my favourite songs, tried and true over many years of listening. And look! one non-Dylan song snuck onto the list in spite of all.

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And now, turning to face forward, and putting on my bell-bottoms, I see in the distance Dylan painting a Self-Portrait, Neil Young reaping a Harvest, Van Morrison breakfasting on Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen donning New Skin for an Old Ceremony, and Tom Waits, who until now has been warming up his crooning voice in the wings, I see serenading Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the 1970s, and I’m cautious but resolute.


Chesterton Mini-Festival, Farewell!

June 14, 2014

g-k-chesterton5

Today, which marks the anniversary of Chesterton’s death in 1936, also marks the end of my Chesterton Mini-Festival for this year. I’ve had a good time; finding time for the blog is challenging these days, and it has been good to see a little project like this, however modest, through to its conclusion. Many happy returns!

As a way of wrapping up, let me direct you to this interesting page which compiles a list of writers and otherwise notable figures who have, in one way or another, acknowledged Chesterton as an influence upon them. You might be surprised at some of the names.

The set of posts which comprised the festival this year can be summoned up by clicking here.


Oddie on Chesterton

June 13, 2014

Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy
The Making of GKC, 1874-1908
William Oddie
(Oxford, 2008)
411 p.

In this book William Oddie examines Chesterton’s early life, from his birth in (so we are told) 1874 through his boyhood, schooling, and eventual emergence into the journalistic and literary world of England in the early years of the new century, culminating in the watershed year of 1908 in which Chesterton, still in his early 30s, published two of his most enduring and widely read books, The Man who was Thursday and Orthodoxy, and had reached a point at which, in Oddie’s words, “he had fully established the intellectual foundations on which the massive oeuvre of his last three decades was to be built.” Oddie’s purpose is to trace the development of his mind and his talents, in an effort to understand how Chesterton came to be Chesterton.

He is greatly assisted in this enterprise by the British Library’s recently completed cataloguing of many previously unpublished — and even unknown — early papers, which collectively provide a good deal of new evidence about Chesterton’s intellectual and spiritual development.

Chesterton came from a lively home. He had an argumentative younger brother, Cecil, and a creative father much devoted to a variety of hobbies: painting, drawing, writing, and theatre. (Chesterton’s life-long love of toy theatres was an inheritance from his father.) It was a fine home for the cultivation of a young writer, but it was not the sort of home from which one might expect a noted establishment critic and Christian apologist to arise. He had little in the way of religious formation, and that he did have was at odds with his later views: he was anti-clerical and anti-dogmatic as a teenager and young man, though these tendencies were counter-weighted by a longstanding fascination with the Blessed Virgin and an enduring admiration for medieval culture, both of which would eventually have a hand in moving him toward Catholicism.

While still in grade school Chesterton formed, together with several friends, the Junior Debater’s Club (JDC), of which he was the official chair and the unofficial heart. It was in the context of this club that he really began to stretch his intellectual wings as a critic, a moralist, and a debater. It was here that we first begin to hear his distinctive voice. (“A dragon is certainly the most cosmopolitan of impossibilities,” began one paper, given at age 16 but already characteristically “Chestertonian”.)

After his graduation from high school, when his friends went off to university, Chesterton chose instead to enrol at the Slade School of Art. The time he spent there was probably the most unhappy of his life. This period is usually characterized as something like his “dark night of the soul,” and though Oddie cautions against overstating the case, it is true that it was during this time that he confronted, in his heart, as it were, a moral and intellectual darkness that he saw gathering around him, and indeed around Western society as a whole. “I dug quite deep enough to discover the devil,” he later wrote. He was particularly troubled by the decadents in the English artistic world, represented by Oscar Wilde, with their cry of “art for art’s sake”, a formula that filled Chesterton with dismay, and even horror, for he always saw art as having a moral purpose.

It was Walt Whitman who had a large hand in helping Chesterton through this trial. Under Whitman’s influence he was fortified in a basic belief in the goodness of all things, in the equality and solidarity of men, and in “the redemption of the world by comradeship”. He emerged from this bleak period with a fresh sense of gratitude for life and art, as captured in the famous quotation from his Autobiography:

“At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”

Oddie argues that he began at this time to take a greater interest in theological questions, and even described himself as “becoming orthodox” because “heresy is worse even than sin”. At this time Christian theology began to be for him a point of reference. But it was only when he met Frances Blogg, his future wife, that his interest in religion and doctrine was really catalyzed. Frances was a devout Anglican, and in her social circle Chesterton met, for the first time, a group of intelligent and articulate Christians. Interestingly, the influence of this group on Chesterton’s thought is largely hidden from view to the biographer; we simply do not know very much about the arguments and ideas which Chesterton found persuasive at this time.

We do know that by 1903, being by now a well-established columnist with The Daily News and having published a well-received study of Robert Browning (which really marked his entrance into the world of serious English letters) he was ready to enter public debate in defence of traditional religious ideas — these are the so-called “Blatchford controversies,” after his principal opponent, Robert Blatchford.

There are many other threads to Chesterton’s intellectual and literary development during these years: his talent for posing fruitful paradoxes, his social and economic advocacy (in which an early socialism eventually turned into distributism), his love of the Middle Ages (in Oddie’s words, “a parallel dimension…in which truthfulness and humanity perpetually and exuberantly flourish”), his belief in the wisdom of fairy tales (in which “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition”), and many others. Oddie does a very good job of pulling them together into a unified portrait of the man.

As already mentioned, the two great books Chesterton published in 1908 mark, for Oddie, his maturity as a thinker and write, and he closes the book with an interesting analysis and appraisal of each.

Over the years I have read quite a few books about Chesterton; this is among the best. It is certainly one of the most scholarly treatments of Chesterton’s life and thought that I have encountered, but never at the expense of accessibility. What sets it apart from other biographies — of which there are quite a few now — is, first, the thoughtful detail in which these early years are treated, and, second, the access Oddie had to previously unavailable papers. The story of Chesterton’s life comes alive in these pages. I enjoyed the book thoroughly.


Chesterton: The Defendant

June 12, 2014

The Defendant
G.K. Chesterton
(Dover, 2012) [1901]
112 p.

One of Chesterton’s first writing gigs was an occasional column in the Speaker paper in London. The Defendant is a collection of those early essays, issued when he was just in his mid-20s, and the collection is so called because each of the essays bears a title of the form “A Defense of [Something]“.

Despite its early date, I was a little surprised to find that his voice in these short pieces is already recognizably his own: the wit, the playfulness, and the splendid, quixotic joy in sallies against received wisdom were already well evident. For Chesterton came bounding to the defence not of great things like beauty, art, or friendship, but overlooked or snubbed things like juvenile fiction (“A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls”), plumbers and mailmen (“A Defence of China Shepherdesses”), lower-class entertainments (“A Defence of Farce”), and trivia (“A Defence of Useful Information”). I am told that while the book was fairly well received on first publication, many readers took it as a kind of facetious provocation, a novelty item in which he defended the indefensible for mere amusement. The prevalence of paradox in these pages led one early reviewer to remark, “Mr Chesterton’s salad is all onions.” Only with time, as Chesterton’s views were reiterated and extended in his many books and articles, could his initial seriousness be fully appreciated. For the happy truth is that Chesterton really did love these unloved things, he really did regard them with gratitude, and he really did think them worthy of praise. That “Chestertonian spirit” was the gift which he was, in these essays, just beginning to bestow upon the world, and they make for good reading still.

Choice excerpts from The Defendant can be read at The Hebdomadal Chesterton; the full text is also freely available.


“So tiny a thing”

June 11, 2014

“The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand.”

– G.K. Chesterton
The Defendant (1901).

(Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)


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