Archive for February, 2007

A Month of Music

February 28, 2007

This year I have decided to take a more systematic approach to my music listening. For several years now I have been exploring the world of classical music with a voracious appetite, and acquiring CDs at a breakneck (and break-bank) rate. It has been a very enjoyable adventure. It is true, however, that I have tended to sacrifice intimate knowledge of the masterworks in favour of the search for new and interesting repertoire. The time has come to redress that misbalance, so this year I plan to focus each month on a small set of works, and take the time to get to know them better.

Brahms: Symphonies 1-4. I’ve always liked the idea of liking the music of the bearded bard Brahms, but with the exception of his German Requiem I haven’t listened to much of his music with close attention. His four symphonies are all much admired, standard repertoire works. I listened to the following recordings:

Symphony No. 1, Op.68: Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI)
Symphony No. 2, Op.73: Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI); Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG)
Symphony No. 3, Op.90: Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI); Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG)
Symphony No. 4, Op.98: Kleiber; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (DG)

Of the four, my favourite is the first. Brahms worked on it, off and on, for about 20 years before finally publishing it. He was notoriously self-critical in all his works, but especially so in the symphonic genre where the mighty shadow of Beethoven loomed over him. Despite that pressure, when it was finally done it was brilliant. The opening notes announce the arrival of a serious work: majestic, yet underwritten by an ominous drumbeat. The second movement Andante is yearning, delicate, and sweet, and leads naturally to the genial third movement which begins like an adventurous walk in the countryside, but develops into what sounds like a contest. The expansive fourth movement crowns the work; it is based around a dramatic conflict between martial horns and a magnificent, hymn-like melody that gradually gains strength and conquers its opponent.

After toiling for so many hesitant years over his first symphony, its successful reception removed the burden from his back, and his second symphony was completed just a few years later. It is a lighter, friendlier work, full of singing melodies and bright orchestration. It’s difficult not to like it, but perhaps for that same reason I find it difficult to love. Music to love returns in the third symphony, especially in the marvelous third movement built on one of those gorgeous Brahmsian melodies: warm, mellow, and seductive. The fourth symphony I was able to hear only twice, and I confess it did not really come into focus for me. It’s beautiful music, to be sure, and the recording by Kleiber and the Viennese is regarded as one of the finest of this work, but I’ll need to give it at least a few more listens before I have something to say about it.

Shostakovich: String Quartets 1-4. The fifteen string quartets of Shostakovich are among my favourite pieces of music: they are tough, intelligent, always engaging and rewarding. I have tended to concentrate, however, on the later quartets, particularly on the famous No. 8 and the harrowing sequence of Nos. 12-15. This month I turned to the first few early quartets. ‘Early’ is a relative term here, for Shostakovich didn’t begin writing quartets until his thirties and in some sense they are all mature works. I listened to the recordings made by the Emerson String Quartet (DG).

The first quartet (Op.49) is brief (under fifteen minutes) and follows a traditional four-movement structure. It is also a light-hearted work, at least in comparison to his late quartets. (Almost anything, mind you, is light-hearted compared to his late quartets.) It is full of interesting ideas, and one has the feeling it could have been extended into a more expansive work without too much difficulty. The second quartet (Op.68) is my favourite of the batch. It is more than double the length of the first, and is simultaneously more intimate and more inviting. The second movement is built around a beautifully austere solo violin part, the third is a creepy, buzzing waltz, and the final movement – one of the most enjoyable movements of chamber music Shostakovich ever wrote – is an extended set of variations on a folk (or at least folk-sounding) melody. The third quartet (Op.73) is a more unsettling work, anxious and agitated. Its restless opening movements give way to a pensive, sad adagio and though a jaunty song tries to get going in the final movement, it is overtaken and subdued by somber rumination. The fourth quartet (Op.83), like the fourth symphony above, I found difficult. It has a generally melancholy mood and, despite having moments of great lyrical beauty, reaches out further into sustained dissonance than have the previous quartets.

It was a good month, then. I intend to undertake a similar project in March. I haven’t entirely decided yet where I will turn, but I am considering the late symphonies of Jean Sibelius and the three Masses of William Byrd.

A Beautiful Debut

February 27, 2007

My good friend Kirsten Boehm, who is a wonderfully talented artist, has just launched a new site showcasing some of her work. The site itself has a lovely design – certainly it’s vastly superior to the design of my home page – and the art on display is even lovelier. I encourage you to visit her and look at her creations.

Scholasticism – Josef Pieper

February 26, 2007

Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy

Josef Pieper (St. Augustine’s Press, 2001)

192 pp. First reading.
Posted 26 February 2007.

This small volume introduces the reader to the characteristic mode of medieval European philosophy: scholasticism. Scholasticism is not a set of philosophical positions, but a method for inquiry and instruction. The word has come to represent the general intellectual climate of medieval academia.

At one level, the book is a kind of rogue’s gallery of medieval philosophers. Pieper moves chronologically from the sixth century to the fourteenth, introducing us to the most eminent and influential thinkers of the period. Thus we meet Boethius, a Roman who lived to see the fall of the Roman Empire, the author of the famous Consolatio Philosophiae, and the man whose translations of Aristotle’s logical works supplied Europe with the only books of Aristotle that it knew for many centuries. We meet Pseudo-Dionysius, who, owing to an advantageous case of mistaken identity, became the sole Greek author to exercise any great influence in the medieval Latin West. We meet St. Anselm of Canterbury (whom I was surprised to learn was an Italian by birth), Peter Abelard, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. We climb over St. Albertus Magnus to reach his pupil St. Thomas Aquinas, then spill down the other side, declining by degrees from Duns Scotus to William of Ockham, whose work Pieper takes to mark the end of the medieval period.

Along the way he also introduces us to some lesser known figures. Few people, I imagine, know very much about the sixth century statesman and monk Cassiodorus, but Pieper reminds us that we all owe him a great debt, for it was he who first prescribed that the copying of manuscripts be part of the monastic rule, and through his influence the thin thread of classical learning was sustained through the difficult years that followed the collapse of the Roman state. In fact, a great part of the texts which survive from ancient times do so because he had the foresight to promote their preservation — and it was foresight, not happenstance, for he knew very well what was happening to learning in his own time. His Institutiones is a catalogue of phrases and summaries, fragments shorn against the ruin of his civilization, through whom the memory that, for instance,

“philosophy is cognition of divine and human things, in so far as our minds can grasp them; that it is the science of sciences; that it is contemplation of death and learning how to die; that it is attainment of the greatest possible similarity to God”

was saved from oblivion. We also meet John of Salisbury, a twelfth century Englishman who was among the first to promote an empiricist approach to philosophy, and whose interesting biography includes having witnessed the murder of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. And there is his contemporary Hugh of St. Victor, who wrote the first great Summa of the high Middle Ages, and Peter Lombard, whose Sentances was the most popular textbook in theology for several hundred years.

But the book is more, much more, than just an historical tour, for Pieper has a point of view through which he views the history. What, after all, were all these thinkers trying to do, and why is it appropriate to study them all in one book, under one title? The answer is that they were all scholastics. And what are the defining features of scholasticism?

It is, as I said, the method by which medieval civilization tried to appropriate for itself the heritage of classical learning. Pieper sees the intellectual culture of medieval Europe as being primarily a project of Europe’s northern peoples. It was not, in other words, a continuation of classical culture, but the record of a foreign people attempting to appropriate and integrate classical culture into their own.

Yet European culture was more than the memory of Athens; it was — and is, pace the European Union — the marriage of Athens and Jerusalem. The most characteristic feature of scholasticism, says Pieper, was that it was a program for systematically negotiating the appropriate relationship between reason and faith, Athens and Jerusalem, and it is with this central issue in mind that Pieper undertakes his historical survey. How did the different thinkers of this period view the relationship of faith and reason?

The answers distribute themselves along a spectrum. At one end we have those who tended toward a rationalist position: Boethius himself, who wrote a theological tract on the Trinity in which he made not a single reference to Scripture; or St. Anselm, whose ontological argument attempts to prove that God’s existence is necessary in logic; or Peter Abelard, the hot-tempered Parisian dialectician. These men had a profound confidence in the power of human reason to penetrate to the truth of things, so much so that they seem sometimes to have believed that even the content of Revelation could be discerned without recourse to Revelation. At the other end of the spectrum we have Pseudo-Dionysius, advocate of the via negativa, arguing that reality is, in the strict sense, a mystery which can never be truly penetrated by a finite mind; or Hugh of St. Victor, who argued in the twelfth century that knowledge is valuable chiefly as a prerequisite for contemplation; or St. Bernard, who held that philosophy is oriented toward wholeness, who said that “Burning must be added to knowledge”, and who countered Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum with anima quarens Verbum.

The main problem with both of these extremes, at least for the purposes of understanding how faith and reason are to relate, is that for each there is the danger that they cease to be really related at all. If the emphasis falls too heavily to one side, the temptation to simply neglect the other will always be present.

I have called neglect of either faith or reason a “problem”, but why should that be so? If there are these two acts of the mind, two ways of knowing some particular aspect of the world, why should we insist on retaining a balance between them? Why not privilege one at the expense of the other, if either will do? The answer given by the Christian tradition is simply that faith and reason are not — or at least not usually — two ways of arriving at the same truth about the world. Rather, they are ways of knowing two different realms of reality. The realm that is accessible to human reason we may know by reason; the realm that is not we must know only by faith. To speak of the relationship of faith and reason, in this understanding, is to speak about the relationship between these two spheres of reality. And since knowledge in both spheres may continue to advance in each generation, the task of relating them never ends, but must be constantly renewed upon new, or at least expanded, grounds.

It is obvious that this effort is a difficult one, yet for thoughtful religious people it is a plain obligation. The articles of faith need to be brought into contact with secular knowledge, while still striving to remain faithful to the religious tradition. Secular knowledge, in turn, needs to be interpreted in the light of revelation. Advances in understanding — or even just apparent advances — may disrupt the harmony between the two spheres for a time, and those who live during that period of disruption face a serious challenge. The temptation may be to either forsake one or the other, or to adopt a theory of ‘double-truth’ wherein both faith and reason are confined to their respective areas of competency and never the twain shall meet. For intellectually honest people, however, this is not acceptable. Instead, they must live honestly and tenaciously within the tension.

It might seem that I am straying from the book under discussion, but this is not so, for this crack-up in which faith and reason part ways did in fact occur, and for Pieper it marked the end of scholasticism, and even the end of the medieval period.

How did it come about? In the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the entire Aristotelian corpus finally began to make its way into European universities. They had been preserved in Arab culture, and translations began to be produced in Spain, where Muslim and Christian societies mixed. (Pieper points out that some of these Greek texts took the scenic linguistic route to Latin, moving from Greek to Syriac, then to Persian, then Arabic, then Castilian, and then finally Latin!) Aristotle’s physics, ethics, and metaphysics hit European intellectuals like a bomb, and it seemed that the long work of appropriation, which for centuries had been proceeding along a largely Platonic line, would need to begin again, and on different grounds. And what were they to make of Aristotle’s startling new ideas, and how were they related to long-established theological principles? The tension between faith and reason which I discussed above was suddenly present, seemingly everywhere.

The effort at reconciliation was made, most successfully by Thomas Aquinas, but two years after his death the ecclesiastical authorities issued a formal condemnation of certain propositions advanced under the influence of Aristotelian ideas. The nature of these propositions was such that they merited censure, but the intervention of the Church had unforeseen, and unfortunate, consequences. For Pieper the Condemnation of 1277 is the pivot of medieval intellectual history because it cast a cold chill over the dialogue between theology and philosophy. The conversation was now a minefield, and theology became defensive and anxious instead of co-operative. The result was that faith confined itself to safe subjects, and reason went its own way.

The consequences were evident in the next generation. John Duns Scotus and William Ockham largely abandoned the effort at harmonization. They emphasized the doctrine of God’s absolute freedom, which implied that there could be no necessary reasons in God. In one blow, philosophical theology was crippled. But their ideas also dissolved the expectation of rationality in the natural world. In place of natural reasons, we were left only with singular facts. The result was empiricism, theologically grounded yet having no resources within itself to engage with theology. The imperative to bring the things of faith into contact with the things of reason fell away.

Like all of Pieper’s books, this small volume is thoughtful and challenging. It has value as an historical introduction to medieval philosophy, but also as a reminder of the ever-renewed obligation placed upon Christians to confront the world with faith, and vice versa. The medieval schoolmen made their attempt; it remains to us to make ours.

[St. Bernard of Clairvaux on motives in education]
There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are others who desire to know in order that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonourable. But there are also some who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is caritas. And again there are still others who seek knowledge in order to be edified: that is prudence.

A Lenten exhortation: “the pure heart”

February 23, 2007

“[T]his commandment [‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’] is a hard discipline: it destroys, it breaks in order to bind; like a cautery, it wounds in order to heal; and now, in order to heal the damage it has in part inflicted, it must be applied again. In practical terms, I suspect that this means that Christians must make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic tradition. It takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism — especially, perhaps, the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers — that all Christians, whether married or not, should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture — all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.

It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are — even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant — usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices. It means, in short, self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as fierce as the refusal of our Christian ancestors to burn incense to the genius of the emperor. This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add: Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of “Marian” waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness. This is why it has the power to heal us of our modern derangements: because, paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christian asceticism is the practice of love, what Maximus the Confessor calls learning to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God, and it eventuates most properly in the grateful reverence of a Bonaventure or the lyrical ecstasy of a Thomas Traherne.”

- David Bentley Hart, “Christ and Nothing”

Chastened Etymological Humour

February 22, 2007

I am delighted to have made the following discovery:

Aristotle’s works were usually arranged in the following order: I. The Organon (tool) or works on logic. 2. The scientific works or phusika. 3. A book or books on God, Unity, Being, Cause, and Potentiality. 4. Works on human activities (Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, Poetics). As it was not very easy to find a name for the things in the third section, they were named simply from their position and called ‘the things after the phusika‘ (ta meta ta phusika). When these ‘things’ came (no doubt wrongly) to be regarded as one book, this book was called ‘the Metaphysics‘.

- C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 2, XIII.

This is funny, it seems to me, because the word metaphysical, for all its grandiose suggestions, thus has no higher origin than a librarian’s practical device for indicating a subdivision — oh, dear. Lewis continues:

It would be easy to make an ironic point by saying that the word metaphysical, for all its grandiose suggestions, thus has no higher origin than a librarian’s practical device for indicating a subdivision of the Aristotelian corpus which nobody could find a name for. But the name is not so unhappy and certainly not so foreign to Aristotle’s thought as this sally would suggest. We have already seen that he believed in realities outside what he called phusis and made them the subject of disciplines distinct from phusike (or natural philosophy). If the names are superficial, the division they express is genuinely Aristotelian.

Suitably chastened, I yet venture to suggest that perhaps a slight residue of etymological humour remains. Even if we forsake the truly grandiose word metaphysical, a small yet detectable morsel of grandiosity still attends that lovely prefix meta-, and a prefix cannot defend itself by taking refuge in a grand philosophical scheme. I’m sure you will agree, therefore, that this revelation of the humble origins of this moderately grandiose prefix is truly, if moderately, funny.

UPDATE: Scott Carson expands on the origins of this word, and adds a little humour of his own, in a recent post.

The Chair of St. Peter

February 22, 2007

There are three kinds of ‘chair’ – the royal chair, or throne, 2 Sam. 23:8: ‘David sitting in the chair, etc.’; the priestly chair, 1 Kings 1:9: ‘Now Eli the priest was sitting on a stool before the door of the temple of the Lord’; and the magisterial or professorial chair, Matt. 23:1: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have sat on the chair of Moses.’ Peter sat on the royal chair because he was first among all kings; on the priestly chair because he was the shepherd of all clerics; and on the magisterial chair because he was the teacher of all Christians.

The Church commemorates the Chair of St. Peter with a feast day because blessed Peter is said to have been raised on this day to the seat of honour in Antioch. There appear to be four reasons for the institution of this solemnity. The first is that when blessed Peter was preaching in Antioch, Theophilus, governor of the city, said to him: ‘Peter, why are you corrupting my people?’ Peter then preached the faith of Christ to Theophilus, who immediately had him imprisoned and deprived of food and drink. The apostle was almost exhausted but regained some strength, turned his eyes to heaven, and said: ‘Christ Jesus, helper of the helpless, come to my aid! These trials have almost destroyed me!’ The Lord answered him: ‘Peter, did you think I had deserted you? You impugn my kindness when you are not afraid to say such things against me! The one who will relieve your misery is at hand!’

Meanwhile Saint Paul heard of Peter’s imprisonment. He presented himself to Theophilus, asserted that he was highly skilled in many arts and crafts, and said that he knew how to sculpt in wood and stone and could do many other kinds of work as well. Theophilus pressed him to stay on as a member of his household. A few days later Paul went secretly to Peter in his cell and found him very weak and almost dead. Paul wept bitterly and took Peter in his arms, weeping profusely, and burst out: ‘O my brother Peter, my glory, my joy, the half of my soul, now that I am here you must recover your strength!’ Peter opened his eyes, recognized Paul, and began to cry but could not speak. Paul quickly opened the other’s mouth, forced food into him, and thus got some warmth into his body. The food strengthened Peter, who threw himself into Paul’s embrace and both of them shed a flood of tears.

Paul left the jail cautiously and went back to Theophilus, to whom he said: ‘O good Theophilus, great is your fame, and your courtliness is the friend of honour. But a small evil counteracts your good! Think about what you have done to that worshiper of God who is called Peter, as if he were someone of importance! He is in rags, misshapen, reduced to skin and bones, a nobody, notable only for what he says. Do you think it is right to put such a man in jail? If he were enjoying the freedom to which he is accustomed, he might be able to do you some useful service. For instance, some say that he restores the sick to health and the dead to life!’ Theophilus: ‘Idle tales, Paul, idle tales! If he could raise the dead, he would free himself from prison!’ Paul: ‘Just as his Christ rose from the dead (or so they say) yet would not come down from the cross, so Peter, following Christ’s example (it is said), does not set himself free and is not afraid to suffer for Christ!’ Theophilus: ‘Tell him, then, to bring my son, who has been dead for fourteen years, back to life, and I will release him unharmed and free!’ Paul therefore went to Peter’s cell and told him he had solemnly promised Theophilus that his son would be brought back to life. ‘That’s a hard promise to keep, Paul,’ said Peter, ‘but God’s power will make it easy!’ Peter was taken out of prison and led to the tomb. He prayed, and the governor’s son came to life immediately.

There are some things here, however, that sound improbable, for instance, that Paul would pretend that he had the natural skills needed to do and make a variety of things, or that the son’s sentence of death was suspended for fourteen years. But however that may be, Theophilus and the whole population of Antioch, together with a great many other people, believed in Christ. They built a magnificent church and erected an elevated throne in the center, to which they lifted Peter up so that he could be seen and heard by everybody. He occupied that chair for seven years, but afterwards went to Rome and ruled the see of Rome for twenty-five years. The Church, however, celebrates this first honour because it was the beginning of the custom by which bishops are distinguished by place, power, and name. Thus what we read in Ps. 106:32 is fulfilled: ‘Let them exalt him in the church of the people, and praise him in the chair of the ancients.’

- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea
(trans. William Granger Ryan)

Perhaps I’ll post the other three reasons ‘for the institution of this solemnity’ later [for instance, next year].

Ash Wednesday: Prayer after the Canon

February 21, 2007

Pantocrator (Moscow)

O Master Christ God, Who hast healed my passions through Thy Passion, and hast cured my wounds through Thy wounds, grant me, who have sinned greatly against Thee, tears of compunction. Transform my body with the fragrance of Thy life-giving Body, and sweeten my soul with Thy precious Blood from the bitterness with which the foe hath fed me. Lift up my down-cast mind to Thee, and take it out of the abyss of perdition, for I have no repentance, I have no compunction, I have no consoling tears, which uplift children to their heritage. My mind hath been darkened through earthly passions, I cannot look up to Thee in pain. I cannot warm myself with tears of love for Thee.

But, O Sovereign Lord Jesus Christ, Treasury of good things, give me thorough repentance and a diligent heart to seek Thee; grant me Thy grace, and renew in me the likeness of Thine image. I have forsaken Thee – do not Thou forsake me! Come out to seek me; lead me up to Thy pasturage and number me among the sheep of Thy chosen flock. Nourish me with them on the grass of Thy Holy Mysteries, through the intercessions of Thy most pure Mother and all Thy saints.


- from the Orthodox Canon of Repentance

The Habit of Perfection

February 21, 2007

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins (1866)

Lenten fare

February 20, 2007

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the forty day fast that carries us to Easter. It’s a wonderful period, a gift for which I am always grateful. The Church asks us during this time to practice the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. All three should be a regular part of life, of course, but during Lent we are invited to refocus, reevaluate our lives, and renew our commitment to those things that are truly important. It is a period for simplification and removal of the clutter that tends to grow up around and inside us without our noticing.

Every year during Lent – every year, that is, that I have observed Lent – I draw up a Lenten reading list. This year I have decided to read three things: St. John’s Gospel, The Confessions of St. Augustine, and T.S. Eliot’s poem-cycle Four Quartets. The first needs no justification; it has been several years since I last read the second, and this year I will read it together with my friend W (and anyone else who wishes to join us); the last has been my Lenten companion for several years now, simply because the poems have a Lenten feeling about them, at least for me.

It is also traditional to practice a modicum of asceticism during Lent, usually by abstaining from some good (or, naturally, bad) thing. I’ve not yet decided what I will give up this year, but am considering the following ambitious list: television, chocolate, coffee, and sex. (Those who know me know why this is funny.)

Since Lent is a time of prayer, I will occasionally post prayers to this page. There may also be other Lenten-themed posts; we’ll see.

If you, dear reader, will also be observing Lent, may I ask that you remember my good friend W in your prayers? For the past several months we have been attending the RCIA at a local parish, and God willing she will be formally received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. This decision, however, is not an entirely easy one, and she would benefit from the prayer and support of anyone willing to offer it. Thank you.

How are you planning to observe Lent this year? Let me know in the comments.

Chesterton and Bacon

February 19, 2007

No, not that kind of bacon. If Chesterton ever wrote about bacon – and, since he wrote about most things, it is rather likely that he did – I don’t know about it.

The Bacon I have in mind today is Kevin Bacon, Hollywood star and, for some reason, the man by whom insider-ness in the world of film is judged. I refer, of course, to the Bacon Number phenomenon. It works like this: if one is in a film with Kevin Bacon one has a Bacon Number of 1, if one is in a film with someone who is in a film with Kevin Bacon one has a Bacon Number of 2, and so forth. To have a low Bacon Number is considered a mark of excellence, or at least of mild notoriety. Kevin Bacon himself is the only person with a Bacon Number of 0; people like me, who don’t appear in films, don’t have a Bacon Number, a revelation which will surely affect different personalities in different ways. It leaves me morose and surly.

I bring this up now because I’ve just learned that G.K. Chesterton, to whom I have recently dedicated a new web log, has a finite Bacon Number! The chain of connection goes like this:

G.K. Chesterton was in Rosy Rapture (1914) with George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw was in Masks and Faces (1917) with Fabia Drake
Fabia Drake was in Valmont (1989) with Colin Firth
Colin Firth was in Where the Truth Lies (2005) with Kevin Bacon

His Bacon Number is therefore 4. Very well done!

I have not seen any of the films in this list, but I would certainly love to get my hands on a copy of Rosy Rapture. The scene in which Chesterton gives Shaw a thorough thrashing (this is my imagination talking) would be a wonder to behold.


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