Posts Tagged ‘St. Augustine’

Sing, but keep going

December 1, 2012

Tomorrow being the first day of Advent, today is the final day of the Christian year. I love the second reading from today’s Office of Readings, which comes from a sermon of St. Augustine:

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith, and right living. Sing then — but keep going.

“Sing, but keep going” always puts me in mind of my favourite walking hymn, “I Feel the Winds of God Today”. Since I cannot find a good version online, let’s hear instead Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Variants on Dives and Lazarus, which is based on the same tune:

And may I take this opportunity, a little early, to wish everyone a good Advent.

Goncharov: Oblomov

June 18, 2012

Oblomov
Ivan Goncharov
(Penguin Classics, 2005) [1859]
Translated from the Russian by David Magarshack
499 p.

Oblomov is a man afflicted. His ambitions have soured, his friendships faded. He no longer engages with life in such a way as to find either pleasure or sorrow in it. He spends his days (and roughly the first 100 pages of this novel) in bed, sometimes sitting up to toy with his slippers, or to summon his servant, but mostly lounging, idle. To the extent that he dreams of or hopes for anything, it is for an untroubled life, a life of peace and rest (“Isn’t that what everyone is working hard to attain?” he asks.), each day like the one that preceded it, with no unforeseen contingencies and no surprises. The world is passing him by.

His affliction has a name: Oblomovitis!

What happened to him? Did he fail to understand the task life set before him, or did he, perhaps, understand it too well? He makes his case, and it has a certain persuasiveness. Speaking of his former friends and colleagues, he says:

They argue, they discuss everything from every possible point of view, but they are bored, they are not really interested in the whole thing: you can see they are fast asleep in spite of their shouts! The whole thing does not concern them; it is as if they walked about with borrowed hats. They have nothing to do, so they squander their energies all over the place without trying to aim at anything in particular. The universality of their interests merely conceals emptiness and a complete absence of sympathy with everything!

Oblomov too is bored, but he knows it. There is an echo of Ecclesiastes here: he sees lives preoccupied with vanity and searching after the wind, given to distractions and ephemeral concerns, and he rejects such a life. Surely there is wisdom in this. His disengagement from life is not obviously rooted in cynicism or a rejection of goodness. Perhaps he is merely guilty of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

But the story is more complicated. Whatever limited value his moral case for his own manner of life may have, his Oblomovitis did not arise from an intentional decision, not entirely. It emerged from inside him, overtaking and consuming him. He explains:

My life began by flickering out. It may sound strange but it is so. From the very first moment I became conscious of myself, I felt that I was already flickering out. I began to flicker out over the writing of official papers at the office; I went on flickering out when I read truths in books which I did not know how to apply in life, when I sat with friends listening to rumours, gossip, jeering, spiteful, cold, and empty chatter, and watching friendships kept up by meetings that were without aim or affection; I was flickering out and wasting my energies with Minna on whom I spent more than half of my income, imagining that I loved her; I was flickering out when I walked idly and dejectedly along Nevsky Avenue among people in raccoon coats and beaver collars [...] Either I have not understood this sort of life or it is utterly worthless; but I did not know a better one.

This adds a dash of poignancy to the mix. Yet life does not allow Oblomov to flicker out so easily. His comfortable world is disrupted by a great power: love. Olga is young and beautiful, and it gives her pleasure to see herself as the means by which Oblomov is resurrected and returned to the land of the living. He loves her from his heart, without vanity, and he rejoices. He does return to life, at least for a time: his world is flooded with light and beauty, and he feels a sense of purpose once again.

They plan to marry, but as the plans progress his old affliction begins to reassert itself. It is, at first, a sense that his love’s rose has lost its bloom:

He felt that the bright and cloudless festival of love had gone, that love was truly becoming a duty, that it was becoming intermingled with his whole life, forming an integral part of its ordinary functions and beginning to lose its rainbow colours. That morning, perhaps, he had caught sight of its last roseate ray, and in future it would no longer shine brightly, but warm his life invisibly; life would swallow it up, and it would be its powerful but hidden mainspring. And henceforth its manifestations would be so simple, so ordinary.

Again, there is wisdom in this, for every romance, if it is to endure, has to make a successful re-entry into ordinary life. But for Oblomov there is always the fear that life will simply swallow his love, and him with it, leaving nothing behind. And there is reason to fear: he is to make arrangements on his estate, for instance, for his bride’s arrival, but he puts them off, feeling overwhelmed by the details. He begins avoiding her to avoid being questioned. He feels himself falling back into old habits. Olga, for her part, sees it too, and her pleasure in her own powers of revivification fades. You can imagine the rest.

This book, it seems to me, is a fable in the form of a novel: a man suffers a peculiar, unsettlingly comic, affliction; he is rescued from it by love; but in the very effort to translate that love into practice, to make it endure, his sickness regains its power over him, and he is lost. It is like something out of The Brothers Grimm. Oblomovitis!

There is much to be said in favour of the book. Even when I thought it was overlong — and its modest 500 page length disguises the fact that the typeface is small and dense (those Russians!) — it gave me much to think about. I sympathized with Oblomov more than I thought I really ought to. Goncharov put his finger on a very particular temptation that can bring a life down to ruin, a temptation that I don’t remember having encountered in a serious literary work before. I will admit that while reading I was sometimes exhausted and impatient, but since I finished it — since I saw the overall shape — I’ve been thinking about it often. There is something emblematic or archetypal about Oblomov, something worth remembering.

He makes for an intriguing, if vexing, character study. His problem is not laziness, not ingratitude, not anger. His sin would seem to be acedia, spiritual sloth, which our tradition identifies as a kind of sadness in the face of the goodness of the world and an unwillingness to accept and engage it. But maybe not. Oblomov’s closest — and really only — friend gives this encomium:

He possesses something that is worth more than any amount of intelligence — an honest and faithful heart! It is the matchless treasure that he has carried through his life unharmed. People knocked him down, he grew indifferent and, at last, dropped asleep, crushed, disappointed, having lost the strength to live; but he has not lost his honesty and his faithfulness. His heart has never struck a single false note; there is no stain on his character. No well-dressed up lie has ever deceived him and nothing will lure him from the true path. [...] His soul is translucent, clear as crystal. Such people are rare; there aren’t many of them; they are like pearls in a crowd!

True, this is but one man’s opinion, but he is the finest man in the novel, and I believe we are meant to take his words seriously. Is it possible that Oblomov is really too good for this world? Is he a kind of angel, like Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, whose purity of heart has rendered him unfit for affairs of the world? It is an intriguing idea. But too good for which world? It is one thing to float free of “raccoon coats and beaver collars”, and another to entirely divest oneself of love and responsibility. He sees through the things that are unworthy of him, but apparently he fails to see the things that should command his attention and devotion.

As years passed, he was less and less disturbed by remorse and agitation, and settled quietly and gradually into the plain and spacious coffin he had made for his remaining span of life, like old hermits who, turning away from life, dig their own graves in the desert.

The reference to desert hermits is arresting, for of course we have a tradition wherein hermits are not turning away from life at all, but rather rejecting one form of life — the trivial, ephemeral, and worldly — in order to embrace a higher. They are like Oblomov in some respects, but not in others. They withdraw in order to face life more directly, to wrestle with it and win a prize. Our religious tradition is full of such figures. I think of Augustine, for example, who wrote in Book VI of his Confessions:

I desired status, wealth, and marriage but you laughed at me. I suffered from the most bitter frustration of my ambitions but it was your kindness that let me find no sweetness in anything that was not you. Look into my heart, Lord, you who wanted me to recall this and confess to you. May my soul cling to you now, for you have pulled it away from the birdlime of death in which it was stuck fast. How unhappy was my soul! You probed my wound to the quick to make my soul abandon all ambition and turn to you — who are above all things and without whom all things would be nothing — so that, by turning to you, my wound should be healed.

A soul stuck fast, without ambition, finding no sweetness in worldly things: this is much like Oblomov. But what a difference! Perhaps what Goncharov has given us is a tale about what happens to a good and perceptive man in a world in which the world of spiritual possibility has been closed off. I do believe it could be read that way. If so, it is a tale for our times.

Pieper: Happiness and Contemplation

August 25, 2011

Happiness and Contemplation
Josef Pieper
(St. Augustine’s Press, 1958)
125 p.

These notes first written 25 February 2006.

‘No matter how much you labour, you labour to this end: that you may see.’

These words, delivered by St. Augustine in a sermon on the Psalms, are a convenient précis of this book, for they capture a number of its central themes: our life’s activity is directed toward an end, which is happiness; happiness is vision (that is, contemplation); and we do not achieve happiness automatically, but must seek it.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have been exposed to the cloying nonsense that fills the ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Self-Help’ shelves at the local bookstore could be forgiven for recoiling from a book tactless enough to call itself Happiness and Contemplation. A look at the cover of this book only seems to confirm the prejudice: a forest pond dappled with autumn leaves, into which one might gaze placidly and at length. Yet to pass over this book on that account would be a serious mistake.

Josef Pieper, who was professor of philosophy at the University of Munster for many years, was an extraordinary man through whom the Greek and medieval philosophical traditions found an articulate advocate and were brought into conversation with contemporary thought. His books are always rich and filled with illuminating remarks. Though they are brief, they demand and reward close reading; they are dense with argument and implication. Pieper himself had little original to say — that, one might suggest, was his great virtue — but in my experience he is unparalleled as an archaeologist of ideas. As T. S. Eliot once said of him, ‘He restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom.’ In this book he turns to address the largest question of all: what is genuine happiness, and how can we attain it?

Happiness and Contemplation proceeds systematically. The first half of the book is devoted to an examination of happiness: its linguistic usage (ranging, as we know, from the banal to the profound), the nature of our desire for happiness (we desire it by nature, we cannot not desire it), the metaphysics of happiness (the possibility of happiness and the goodness of Being stand or fall together), the cause of happiness (possession of a good), the relationship between happiness and joy (cause and effect), and the means to happiness. This means, argues Pieper, is contemplation: an intuitive perception of the bonum universale inspired and sharpened by love. This startling thesis is the theme of all that follows.

After introducing the idea of contemplation — or rather, after gradually assembling the idea by analysis of the demands of human happiness — he devotes several chapters to further unfolding the meaning of this word. Contemplation, according to Western tradition, is an activity of the mind; it has no practical aim; it is intuitive, not discursive; it is a kind of perception whose natural context is silent attentiveness; it is accompanied by amazement and, surprisingly, unease. In his own words, it is ‘a focusing of the inner gaze, undistracted by anything from outside, but troubled from within by the challenge to achieve a profounder … peace.’

This teaching that contemplation, which is supposed to be the means to happiness, is not a state of untroubled bliss, but is, as he says, ‘troubled from within’ seems contradictory, and merits closer attention. The first error to avoid is to misconceive happiness as an emotion; in Pieper’s meaning it is not. Happiness is possession of a good; the fullest happiness is possession of ‘the whole good’ (in theological parlance, God); emotion may, in the form of joy, accompany the attainment of happiness, but should not be confused with it. But even if we grant that happiness, not being an emotion, can co-exist with a sense of unease, why should it?

We said earlier that, as traditionally understood, contemplation is accompanied by amazement, and this turns out to be crucial to answering this question. Why should we feel amazement when our interior gaze rests on ‘the whole good’? Because, says Pieper, it is beyond our comprehension.

Earthly contemplation is imperfect contemplation. In the midst of its repose there is unrest. This unrest stems from man’s experiencing at one and the same moment the overwhelming infinitude of the object, and his own limitations. It is part of the nature of earthly contemplation that it glimpses a light whose fearful brightness both blesses and dazzles.

One might say that its very vastness is a silent call to venture further in, to desire possession of more and more of it. And, says Pieper, the Catholic theological tradition has interpreted it in just this way. He cites a statement of the poet Paul Claudel: the unease in contemplation is ‘the call of the perfect to the imperfect, which call we name love’. And so a picture emerges in which contemplation, being directed and sustained by love of the good, is, in attainment of its object, met by a complementary love that beckons it on. It is the meeting place, then, of that human love of which Augustine spoke (‘my love is my weight’) and that other love of which Dante spoke (‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’).

Pieper continues by considering contemporary examples of the contemplative spirit (for in our time the word is rare, though the experience is not — or at least not so rare as the word). Interestingly, in this discussion the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins looms large. He then devotes a chapter to various objections that could — and are — raised to the very idea that the highest human happiness is really to be found in contemplation. Alternatives that he considers are: happiness is found in work and accomplishment; happiness is found in living virtuously; happiness consists in selfless love for one another; happiness is crowned in artistic creation; happiness is fulfilled in loving God. All these, for various reasons, he rejects.

Finally, as a sort of a posteriori argument in favour of the thesis that happiness and contemplation really are found together, he closes with a disarming comparison between popular notions of ‘the happy man’ and the contemplative.

In his last pages, he reiterates a central point of the book. The modern world raises, he says, one final high-minded objection to the supremacy of contemplation — indeed, to the very notion that one ought to pursue happiness: suffering in the world.

Ought not a generous person who does not care to deceive himself about what is going on in the world day after day — ought not such a person to have the courage to renounce the ‘escape’ of happiness?

If, he says, the world is fundamentally unsound, and if therefore contemplation and happiness are empty escapes and delusions, then indeed this objection is decisive. The important implication is that the whole conception of happiness and contemplation developed here relies on the premise that the world is fundamentally good and harmonious. This sets it profoundly at odds with much contemporary thought, from Nietzsche on down. But that only increases its merit in my eyes.

In fact, this is a superb book; I have not done in justice. A fresh wind blows through it, and it is full of matter ripe for reflection. It assumes, and therefore encourages, a magnanimity on the part of the reader to seriously consider these great themes: happiness, love, and God. And it has been, not least, a very salutary reminder of the depth and humane dignity of pre-modern philosophy. ‘No matter how much you labour, you labour to this end: that you may see.’

Dreaming of St. Augustine

August 28, 2009

Today is the memorial of St. Augustine.  In past years on this day I have posted excerpts from his entry in The Golden Legend (2007, 2008), but this year I did not have time to get it together.  Instead, here is one of those rare — all too rare — instances where Augustine has popped up in pop culture: Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”, from John Wesley Harding.

Update: The excellent blog Nunc Stans is marking the day properly.  I suggest you go there.

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