Caesar: The Civil War

January 13, 2019

The Civil War
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2018) [48 BC]
200 p.

Caesar’s Gallic Wars recounted his decade-long campaign to bring Gaul under the control of Rome. That tale ended in 49 BC, and is continued here, in Caesar’s first-hand account of the momentous events of the years 49-48 BC, during which Caesar and Pompey contended against one another for control of Rome itself.

Though Caesar had succeeded brilliantly in his Gallic campaign, and had been awarded multiple triumphs by the Roman Senate, and had seen his popularity rise, he had also made powerful enemies. In 49 BC, as he wrapped up his campaign abroad, those enemies, led by Pompey the Great, passed a resolution in Rome requiring him to disband his army or be declared a traitor. Caesar countered that he would do so provided that Pompey, too, would disband his army. (It was one of the marks of Rome’s political decline that an army’s first loyalty was often to its commander rather than to Rome, effectively giving powerful generals their own private armed forces.) Pompey refused, and Caesar, in turn, likewise.

Marching south from Ravenna, Caesar crossed the boundary between Cisapline Gaul and Italy proper — that is, he crossed the Rubicon — with his army intact, thereby violating Roman law and sparking the civil war. It is interesting to note that Caesar passes over this now-famous moment with hardly a comment; it was later writers — Appian, Plutarch, and others — who made much of it.

Fearing that Caesar would march on Rome, Pompey and many of the leading Romans fled south to Capua and then to Brundisium (modern Brindisi). Caesar pursued them and, rapidly building a barrier across the mouth of the harbour, very nearly succeeded in trapping Pompey then and there. But, as it happened, Pompey did escape to Greece where he began assembling an armed force to oppose Caesar.

Caesar, meanwhile, abandoning the chase, went to Rome to argue his case before the remains of the Senate, who decided that negotiations with Pompey should be attempted.

One might naively expect that the Roman civil war would be fought in and around Rome, but in fact this speech before the Senate is the only time in the war that either of the two principals was in the city. Instead, Caesar next proceeded on a course that I did not anticipate: he went north again, first to the southern coast of Gaul, where he established a siege of Marsilla (modern Marseilles), and then to Spain, where he fought a lengthy campaign for control of Ilerda. These episodes are properly parts of the civil war because these cities were loyal to Pompey. Before the year was out, both cities fell to Caesar.

Concurrently (in August of 49) one of Caesar’s deputies, Curio, was commissioned to lead a force against Pompey’s allies in Numidia (modern Tunisia). This ended in disaster for Caesar: there was a clever ruse on the African side, in which they faked a retreat, lured Curio out of his fortifications and into an open plain, where he was surrounded and his army slaughtered. It was the most significant victory for Pompey’s side to that point in the conflict.

With the coming of the year 48, a more direct conflict between Caesar and Pompey was looming. Caesar succeeded in crossing to Greece from Brundisium, and established a camp across a river from Pompey’s camp. A cunning attempt at a flanking manoeuvre by Caesar eventually settled down to a peculiar stand-off: both armies built semi-circular fortifications beginning and ending on the sea, with Pompey’s being entirely enclosed within Caesar’s (like this). It was peculiar because it resembled a siege, but the besieged — Pompey — had ready access to supplies from the sea, and therefore could, it seemed, hold out indefinitely.

But several things happened to break the stand-off. One was that two of Caesar’s senior officers were arraigned for corruption, and in response defected to Pompey’s side, taking with them valuable intelligence, on the strength of which Pompey mounted an attack on a weak point in Caesar’s fortifications, resulting in the deaths of many of Caesar’s men. Caesar’s side was weakened but not defeated. The second thing was that a variety of factors, especially a lack of fresh water, led to Pompey’s being forced to break his army out of the siege and flee, which he did.

Caesar again pursued, and the armies squared off again in August near Pharsalus. Caesar was outnumbered by a factor of two, and his cavalry was barely a tenth as large as Pompey’s. Pompey planned to use his superior cavalry to flank Caesar, but Caesar, anticipating this, placed a specially selected line of infantry to defend that same flank. When the battle began, this anticipation proved decisive; while the main lines fought, Pompey’s flanking manoeuvre failed and, instead, Caesar’s defenders moved around and flanked Pompey, causing the latter’s army to turn and flee for their lives. It was a rout: Caesar reports (how accurately is hard to tell) that he lost just 200 men in the day’s fighting, while Pompey lost 15000.

Pompey, for his part, failed to embody the noble Roman virtues in defeat. He first — before the battle was ended — retired to his tent, apparently stunned, and then, rousing himself, fled. He boarded a vessel and began a circuit of the Mediterraean. As news spread of Caesar’s victory, the tide turned against Pompey, and he was denied entrance at several ports. Eventually he decided to go to Egypt, counting on the support of the young ruler, Ptolomy, and his regents. But the Egyptians, too, could tell which way the wind was blowing, and Pompey was murdered at Ptolomy’s command while coming ashore. His was a sad and ignoble end.

**

The main contours of this story were familiar to me already, most recently from reading Appian, but it was a pleasure to go over them again, in more detail, and straight from the horse’s mouth.

I’ve already remarked that it was a sign of Rome’s immense power that the Roman civil war was fought, not in Rome, nor even much in Italy, but in Gaul, Spain, and Greece.

It is also worth noting a marked difference between Caesar and Pompey in the exercise of power. Pompey took the view that “He who is not for me is against me”; a lack of explicit support was taken as opposition and treated as such. But Caesar’s rule was “He who is not against me is for me”; cities that withheld support for Pompey were, in his judgement, on his side, and he treated them as such. The result was that people who were not sure which way the conflict would eventually resolve — which was most everyone — were more likely to favour Caesar. By not forcing them to take sides, Caesar didn’t create unnecessary resistance.

Another thing that emerges from this account, as from the Gallic Wars, is Caesar’s brilliance as a general. Again and again he wins by out-thinking his opponent, anticipating their plans or luring them into traps. Even taking into account the fact that it is Caesar himself telling us about his victories, it is hard not to be impressed by his superior tactics.

As was the case in the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s writing is always clear and well-organized. His focus is very much on military tactics and strategy, with occasional feints at politics. I have been reading from The Landmark Julius Caesar, an edition whose many virtues I have sung before. Simply put, I do not believe there is an English-language edition of Caesar’s writings to compare with it.

Accounts of Caesar’s subsequent military campaigns, in Alexandria, in Africa, and again in Spain, have also come down to us, though not by Caesar’s own hand. They are nonetheless included in this Landmark volume, and I think I will tackle them soon.


Favourites in 2018: Film

January 7, 2019

I had a rewarding year watching movies in 2018, somehow managing to cram quite a few into the nooks and crannies of my works and days. For this year-end list I’ve chosen ten of my favourites. Since they all have something to recommend them, I have not ranked them, but simply listed them in alphabetical order.

***

Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism in Transcendental Style in Film. These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in First Reformed (2017), which he both wrote and directed. A middle-aged clergyman, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own income, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

Schrader has said that the film is his tribute to a number of his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It is a beautifully filmed and carefully put together picture. Like Taxi Driver, it takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers; I was very nearly among them. But on reflection I lean toward admiration of the film’s boldness. Even if it is not believable as a realistic story, it works as a fable, and that fable is about — what? Maybe simply the hazards of our need for meaning; or the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith; or, though it seems a cliché, the power of love to overcome violence and despair. It’s a complex, artfully constructed film, very much worth seeing.

*

The first and maybe best reason to see Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) is that no other film shows Rome to better effect. To see the city filmed with such sumptuous beauty — and magically empty of tourists! — was a glorious consolation to me.

And that might well be the only consolation on offer. Jep — Jeppino, as he is once called, and fittingly — is a Roman socialite, one-time novelist, living off the fumes of his literary reputation and enjoying his posh creature comforts. Having reached his 65th birthday, he begins to take stock of himself, and, rightly, finds himself wanting. The film alternates between bacchanales and quiet, ruminative moments as Jep ponders how his life, and he himself, might acquire more weight and substance. He considers a variety of remedies: popularity, artistic creation, religion, sex, love. All, with the possible exception of some combination of the latter two, the film rejects with greater or lesser degrees of smugness. It is, in this sense, a spiritually dark film, blind to certain possibilities. An instinctive cynicism, which reveals itself most clearly in the film’s gorgeous opening sequence, is its chief defect.

Jep says he is lost because he was looking for the great beauty, but never found it. But were you really, Jep? Be honest.

Despite my misgivings, it is a film that grapples with a serious matter — the search for meaning in a world bereft of transcendence — and for this I honour it. That is seems to have nothing to say in the end is, first, honest, for there is no good answer given those premises, and, second, belied by the manner in which it is presented: saturated with a beauty that just might undermine the complacent immanence of Jep’s world. The film may be wiser than it seems at first blush.

*

At the beginning of Loveless (2017) a young boy goes missing; he is an only child, and his parents are in the throes of a separation. The police are called; search parties are formed; the boy must be found.

Except that the film cannot keep its mind on the plot. Instead it lures us into the self-involved, oh-so-understandable troubles of the boy’s parents, adults who have things on their minds, new lovers, and what they would no doubt call emotional needs.  They are petty and selfish, and we, to the extent that we are drawn into their concerns, are subject to the same damning criticism. Not often have I felt so strongly that a film, as I watched it, was watching me with an unsparing eye.

There is wonderful art here: patient direction, fantastic lighting and cinematography, creative use of the camera. Like the director’s previous film, Leviathan, it moves slowly but surely. What I appreciated most was its withering, steely-eyed interrogation of that mother and that father. Here, friends, is a film about divorce that is cold as ice and entertains no excuses.

*

Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969), one of Eric Rohmer’s ‘Moral Tales’, is a closely observed study of the gap between ideals and actions, and of the difficulty of knowing the heart, whether our own or another’s. We follow Jean-Louis — a thirty-something man, articulate, somewhat lonely, a committed Catholic — who is invited by a friend to the home of Maud, a beautiful young divorcée. When the friend departs, Jean-Louis is left alone with Maud, and a long conversation, like a dance, begins, as she gently but persistently probes his integrity, and he, more brusquely and instinctively, hers.

Their encounter works on a metaphorical level — this was 1969, after all, and in that room we see the sexual revolution coming up against the Catholic order of marriage and sexuality, which, if nothing else, makes the film a fascinating cultural artifact — but it also works, and works quite beautifully, on a personal level, as a tale about two people who, though very different, find one another strangely fascinating. The film has a second act in which Jean-Louis falls in love with a Catholic woman; this section reconnects with the first in some surprising ways that reinterpret what we have seen before while reiterating and deepening the film’s main concerns. Altogether an excellent film.

*

I haven’t seen many film noir on par with Out of the Past (1947). Robert Mitchum plays a man trying to start again, but his past life of crime will not let him be, and he is forced back into that world in a final effort to escape. Mitchum is weary, imperturbable, and sometimes inscrutable, such that when the plot warms up we cannot be entirely sure his crossings are not double-crossings. Much the same could be said of the excellent femme fatale character, played by Jane Greer. It’s a film in which the men are as tough as you’d expect, the women are as beautiful as you’d hope, but people aren’t always who and what they seem to be.

Dialogue in film noir is often darkly witty, but I can’t think of a single film that surpasses this one in that respect. (Roger Ebert’s review gives some examples, and they could be multiplied.) The director is Jacques Tourneur, who also made Cat People, a superior film of the creepy sort. In any case, with an abundance of trench-coats and cigarettes, and style to burn, Out of the Past is highly recommendable.

*

In the contest for least-inspired movie title, one could hardly do better, or rather worse, than Personal Shopper (2016), but that blandness is a disservice to an involving film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. The film is centred on Maureen, an American living in Paris, who is mourning the recent death of her brother, and, more than just mourning, is waiting for him to send her a sign from beyond the grave. He had been a medium of some talent, and Maureen believes that she has this gift too. And she does have experiences that could be, perhaps, signs, but are hard to interpret. The film gradually — too gradually for some, perhaps — builds toward a crisis in which something very dramatic occurs, although just what is hard to say. Like those messages Maureen seeks, the film, too, is hard to interpret.

I watched Personal Shopper twice this year, separated by several months, because I wanted to give my first enthusiasm for it a chance to wane before another sober viewing. On second acquaintance I am less convinced it holds together. Most vexing is that there does not seem to be any one interpretation of the film’s final half-hour that makes sense of all we are shown. Nonetheless, the film’s quiet exploration of desire and loneliness, underpinned by an excellent low-key performance by Kristen Stewart in the lead role, coupled with intriguing plot developments that had me watching and re-watching certain scenes with great attention, made it for me one of the more fascinating film experiences of the year.

*

It has been a decade since a Paul Thomas Anderson film won my admiration, but Phantom Thread (2017) did the trick. Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. Within that graceful framework, however, he has given us a pretty bizarre tale.

The story is that of an artist — Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer in London in the 1950s — and his muse, Alma, a younger woman whom he meets when she waits on his table one morning in a hotel. Reynolds has been through this before, typically retaining his young women until their value as a muse wears off. But Alma is different; initially overwhelmed by the glamour of the life into which she has been spirited, she cannily finds a way to make a place for herself. The film is very much a study of the complicated relationship that develops between these two.

Thus far the story sounds like one we’ve heard before, more or less, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. Anderson has prepared the ground quite carefully, but subtly enough that I missed it on first viewing. As the film drew to a close I actually began to wonder — if you know PTA’s other films — whether Alma was going to drink a milkshake.

If the terminus of the story arc sits rather uncomfortably on my mind, the rest of Phantom Thread is of the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft. Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave one of the greatest film performances known to me in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, gives a very different but, I am tempted to say, comparably impressive performance as Woodcock, a man of fastidious habits and sensitive temper into whom Day-Lewis disappears. That Vicky Krieps, as Alma, can hold the screen with him is high praise. There is a delightful vein of understated humour running through the film that adds sparkle, and everything about the production and direction is the work of a master.

*

I saw two good films this year with titles beginning A Quiet P. One was the thrilling blockbuster sci-fi alien invasion disability farm family pregnancy drama A Quiet Place, which caused me to carefully check all the staircases in my house for a particular hazard. The other was A Quiet Passion (2016), about an unlikely cinematic subject: Emily Dickinson.

To make a film on the life of a poet seems a daunting challenge; the cinematic potential of a woman sitting at a desk, pen in hand, are limited. But of course Emily Dickinson was a woman like other women, with a family, and views on religion and society, and the dramatic possibilities to be drawn from a network of close relationships between articulate speakers gathered in a sitting room are, as we have learned from Jane Austen, rich and delightful, and A Quiet Passion makes much of its slender material.

(Speaking of Austen, by a peculiarity of the casting — in particular, by having Jennifer Ehle play the handsome second sister — I was continually tempted to conflate this story with the famous Pride and Prejudice adaptation! In this parallel universe, our poet appears in the role of Jane, the slightly homely, taller, thinner sister who has a harder time in social circles. Never had I suspected that Jane was a poet! Sadly Mr Darcy makes no appearance, having drowned, perhaps, in the pond.)

The oddest thing about A Quiet Passion is the dialogue. In the first half or two-thirds, dialogue consisted largely of aphorisms, as though everybody was choosing lines from an Oscar Wilde anthology. Quite stagey. Strangely, this effect seemed to dwindle as the film progressed.

As much as I enjoyed the story, and I did, for me the principal attraction of this film was the direction. It is my first Terence Davies film, and I am now very interested in seeing others. The direction is careful, with slow pans and beautiful compositions, and transitions are managed elegantly. I had the impression that Davies is a superb craftsman.

*

Every year since 2011 I have named Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) as my favourite film of the year. (Readers interested in why I love it might read this.) This year I watched it again, of course, but with a difference: a new, extended version of the film was released. The extended version adds about 45 minutes to the original 140 minutes, so it is a substantial augmentation.

Most sections of the film have been altered to some extent, sometimes just by brief insert shots. The most substantial changes are twofold: first, to the scenes with the adult Jack (Sean Penn), which are fleshed out and expanded from the modest material in the original version, and, second, to the long central section of the film devoted to life in the O’Brien’s household. To this section, which has always been the heart of the film, new story elements are introduced, including a dramatic storm sequence, and a new and quite upsetting plot development. The overall effect is to enrich the portrait of this family, deepening our appreciation of them. By giving this (fairly) traditionally narrative section of the film more weight, the new film has its feet planted more firmly on the ground than did the earlier, more enigmatic version. Something is gained, but also lost. And the new version clocks in at more than three hours; I don’t know how it is where you live, but for me it is hard to find three uninterrupted hours to do anything.

So, in the end, I’m not sure which version I prefer. My resolution, for future viewings, is to alternate until such time as one version wins my heart. In the meantime, The Tree of Life, Extended Version was my favourite film of the year.

*

The joys and pitfalls of young love are the theme of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Shot in retro black and white, it tells the story of two young French lovers whose romance is interrupted by war but nonetheless continues to overshadow their lives. It is a beautiful but bittersweet film that just might break your heart in the end. Part of its beauty is its special conceit: it is entirely sung. There are no ‘big numbers’, just a steady stream of through-composed music that floats the film from its first scene to its last, with the singing a kind of heightened speech. Be careful, though: your jazz allergy may act up.

**

I have listed ten films. Most were easy to choose; a few were difficult on account of competition from other good films. Those that missed my list this year, and might have made it were my mood swings more erratic, were The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), La Fille inconnue (2016), Paper Moon (1973), and Top Hat (1935).

***

Best superhero film: Wonder Woman (2017), the greatest wonder of which was that it included a battle between two invincible characters that was not dull as dirt.

Best action film: American Made (2017), if it is properly called an action film.

Best musical: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

Best animated: The Hobbit (1977), a weirdly folkadelic take on Tolkien’s tale that nonetheless managed to capture some of the childlike spirit of the book.

Best filmed stage performance: Romeo and Juliet, from the Globe Theatre; the best production of this play that I have seen, for stage or screen.

Started, but not finished: My Winnipeg (2007), in which my fledgling interest in Canadian cinema came to a sad end.

Watched, but not remembered: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); All About Eve (1950); The Assassin (2015).

Watched again: The Princess Bride (1987); When Harry Met Sally… (1989); The New World (2005).

Film rescued by a single scene: Paris, Texas (1984).

Film rescued by a single character: Cool Hand Luke (1967).

Disappointments: A Brighter Summer Day (1991), A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Shortest films: Simon of the Desert (1965) [45m]; Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928) [1h10m]; Le Monde vivant (2003) [1h10m]

Longest films: A Brighter Summer Day (1991) [3h57m]; Ex Libris (2017) [3h25m]; Spartacus (1960) [3h17m].

Oldest films: The Great White Silence (1924); Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928); Pandora’s Box (1929).

Newest films: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Nov); Mission Impossible: Fallout (July); A Quiet Place (April).

 


Epiphany 2019

January 6, 2019

adoration-magi-giotto

Reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent,
reges Arabum et Saba dona (Domino Deo) adducent.
Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae,
omnes gentes servient ei.

The kings of Tarshish and the islands will offer tribute,
the Kings of Arabia will bring gifts to the Lord God;
And all kings will adore him,
and all nations will serve Him.

 


Favourites in 2018: Music

January 3, 2019

I had another great year of listening to music, and I’ve selected, from the many that I enjoyed, ten recordings that I found particularly excellent. I’ll review them in rough chronological order, moving from medieval to modern.

***

Boethius: Songs of Consolation
Sequentia
(Glossa, 2018)

Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy has for centuries been read with profit, but would it not, like most things, be even better if sung? Several dozen poems are sprinkled through the text, and there actually is manuscript evidence from the ninth to the twelfth centuries that these poems were sometimes converted into songs. A Cambridge scholar, Sam Barrett, working with the musicians of Sequentia, with their many years of experience in early medieval song, have here attempted to reconstruct those songs, or at least, as the liner notes say, “to arrive at realisations informed by both scholarly insight and practical experience,” which is an admirably modest way of putting it. There is necessarily some guesswork involved, and I am not in a position to judge the merit of the scholarly argument. All I can say is that I have greatly enjoyed listening to the results. Here is a video describing the process the scholars and musicians went through, with some performance excerpts as well; it is well worth watching, as the disc is well worth hearing, not only for the music, if I can put it that way, but also for the novelty and interest of the project. Early music is so often a blend of scholarship and musicianship, and this is early music at its best.

**

En seumeillant
Dreams and Visions of the Middle Ages
Sollazzo Ensemble
(Ambronay, 2018)

The Sollazzo Ensemble was founded in 2014, in Basel, and now has two recordings to its credit, both tremendously good. This disc, bearing a nearly unspellable title (try it!), is built around the theme of “reveries, fantasies, trances, visions, [and] nightmares”. The music is fascinating: the group reconstructs, from medieval descriptions, a “discordant litany” in which a plainchant melody is harmonized dissonantly; they sing an apocalyptic “Song of the Sibyl” that was, for centuries, sung in Catholic churches during Advent; we get a Florentine lauda, which would have been sung in procession through the streets of the city; and we hear a simply splendid performance of the oft-recorded but ne’er-tamed Fumeux fume, which, if it was not actually inspired by a hallucinogen, might serve as one. This is fantastically difficult and intricate music, often, and just as often exceptionally beautiful and alluring. The Sollazzo Ensemble seems to have absorbed the refined idiom of this music into their bones.

**

Ockeghem & La Rue: Requiems
Diabolus in Musica, Antoine Guerber
(Bayard, 2018)

About 25 years ago Ensemble Organum made a recording of Ockeghem’s Requiem that was like nothing on earth: a big, bass-heavy sound, wild dynamics, and pervasive ornamentation of the vocal lines gave the piece, which can sound polite when done in the best English choral tradition, an alien cast. It was glorious — radical, yes, but defensible, because the truth is that we don’t really know what this music sounded like at the time it was written; the notated sources only tell us so much.

This new disc of Ockeghem’s Requiem from Diabolus in Musica seems, to my ears, to have that earlier recording in mind. It is sung, as before, by an all-male choir, giving it a rich, visceral sound, and the style is craggy rather than smooth, as though great blocks of sound, like tectonic plates, are moving around. It is not as radical as Ensemble Organum’s version of the piece, but is still very much off the beaten track. I confess I love it. They give the same treatment to Pierre de la Rue’s Requiem, a piece that I do not know nearly as well, and it sounds terrific too.

**

Antoine de Févin: Masses and Motets
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
(Hyperion, 2018)

Everyone has their short list of favourites when it comes to medieval and Renaissance polyphony; yours, like mine, probably includes Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, Ockeghem’s Requiem, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, and the entire surviving corpus of Benedictus Appenzeller, but at the top of my heap sits Josquin’s gorgeous motet Ave Maria … Virgo serena. I’ve never sung it for an audience, but I’ve frequently sung it in the privacy of my car, or late at night, muffled, into a pillow, and I know it pretty well. Imagine my delight, therefore, to discover that Antoine de Févin, a little-known French composer active around 1500, wrote an entire Mass, his Missa Ave Maria, in which the music is based on Josquin’s motet. This practice, of basing a Mass setting on pre-existing music, was common at the time; Masses were written based on chant fragments (as in Josquin’s famous Missa pange lingua, for instance) or on popular songs (as in the rash of Masses based on the song “L’homme armé'”) or on pieces written by other composers, and Févin’s Mass falls into the latter category. What is special about it is simply that it is based on a piece that I particularly love. It is wonderful to hear Josquin’s original music adapted to its new setting, like seeing a familiar picture turned to a new perspective and recoloured. I have a new appreciation for the art involved in writing these homage Masses, and I think no single piece of music has given me greater pleasure this year.

**

Bach: Magnificat
Handel: Dixit Dominus
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
(Alpha, 2017)

From the Belgian group Vox Luminis come marvellous performances of two Baroque masterpieces: Bach’s Magnificat and Handel’s Dixit Dominus. Vox Luminis has been going from strength to strength in recent years, making a series of excellent discs of early music, and being justly showered with praise — including having Gramophone magazine’s “Recording of the Year” honours bestowed upon them. There is a luxurious quality to their music-making; they have an unusually rich sonority, both instrumentally and vocally, that gives nice body to these two joyful works. I am especially impressed by Dixit Dominus, which I’ve never heard done better.

**

Life
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2018)

The programme on Life is one Igor Levit crafted in response to the sudden death of a friend, and consists mainly of melancholy, quiet pieces expressing, naturally enough, his sorrow. We get some old chestnuts: Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and of the solemn march from Parsifal, Brahms’ left-hand transcription of Bach’s mighty Chaconne, and Schumann’s Ghost Variations. But there are also some rarities, like Busoni’s Fantasia after Bach, and some pieces entirely new to me, such as a substantial excerpt from Frederic Rzewski’s Dreams and, most notably, a half-hour-long transcription of an organ piece by Liszt (!). The recital closes with a meditative piece by Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, and even this does not ruin it. Some of this music might not be of the very highest quality, but it works together well as a programme, and the playing is simply magnificent. Levit’s playing seems to come from a place of profound stillness and attention. He is a very wonderful pianist indeed.

There’s more!

**

Mahler: Symphony No.6
Teodor Currentzis; MusicAeterna
(Sony, 2018)

It has been a long time since a disc of orchestral music has thrilled me as has Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna’s recent recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6. I praised Currentzis last year for his way with Mozart, and the same passion and intensity are all over this Mahler recording. The opening march rhythm, which usually puts me in mind of an army on the move, here becomes the tread of an army of ferocious beasts, snarling and snapping, and this intensity continues through essentially the entire work. What is amazing is that Currentzis has been able to amp up the music, infuse it with quivering excitement, without also flattening it out. It is as though he went over every phrase, every bar, and thought about orchestral colour and balance, and found a way to clarify the texture while simultaneously amplifying weight and presence. Certainly I have heard details on this recording, especially from the low strings, that I have never heard before. It’s magnificent.

In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much that I have begun to second-guess myself. Currentzis is an iconoclast. His orchestra goes to 11. My worry is that perhaps I am being seduced by a debased aesthetic: orchestral music for rock ‘n’ rollers, which is to the main tradition as Charles Atlas is to you and me — basically the same, but exaggerated. I am also a little wary of the unusual vividness and clarity of the sound: is this really the sound of an orchestra, or a sound collage made possible by close-micing and a sound board? I’m not sure, nor do I know what to make of my aesthetic concerns. I suppose that I will just keep listening, and trust my judgment. In fact, I think I’ll put it on again now.

**

Stravinsky: Music for violin, Vols 1-2
Ilya Gringolts, Peter Laul
(BIS; 2017, 2018)

I’m cheating a bit by grouping together two discs. The first volume narrowly missed making my year-end list last year; this year, in combination with the fine second volume, it makes the cut easily. Ilya Gringolts, accompanied by Peter Laul, tackles the music Stravinsky wrote for violin and piano. I recall that Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s amanuensis, once said that all of Stravinsky’s music is happy music, and that judgment is borne out by this collection, which is unfailingly delightful and interesting. Many of these pieces are minor, mere chips from the workman’s bench, but Stravinsky’s imagination did not run in dull channels. Some of the pieces are arrangements of his ballet music (including excerpts from The Firebird, Petrushka, and the “Suite Italienne” from Pulcinella). Gringolts plays them with poise and wit, which is exactly what they need, and he has superb sound.

The major work (appearing on Vol.2) is the Violin Concerto, surely the most amiable violin concerto of the twentieth century. Everybody and his dog have recorded it. Gringolts, supported by Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, does not, perhaps, give us a performance for the ages, but it’s a creditable, perfectly fine performance that I have enjoyed. It sits somewhat awkwardly alongside the smaller-scale chamber works that otherwise fill the discs.

**

Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus
Jean-Rodolphe Kars
(Piano Classics, 2017)

I have in my collection several recordings of Messiaen’s feature-film-length piano masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, surely the least catchy Christmas-themed music ever written — but wonderful music all the same. I might not have heard this one but for a laudatory review from a reputable source, and then another, and another. The recording has an interesting background story: the pianist, Jean-Rodolphe Kars, calls Messiaen his spiritual father, and in fact converted to Catholicism shortly after the recording was made. He then entered the seminary, and has served as a priest in France ever since.

That interesting story would be little more were it not matched by artistry of a high order, but it is. There is a wonderful spaciousness to Kars’ playing; Messiaen’s music can be extremely complex and multifaceted, but never sounds hectic or laboured in Kars’ hands. The claim that one can hear the difference between a world-class pianist who plays with devotion and one who merely plays as if with devotion is probably false, but nonetheless over the course of this long concert Kars’ musicality does cast a contemplative spell over the listener that I, at least, have not experienced with other pianists. This recording, made live before an Amsterdam audience in 1976 and reissued in 2017, is now my first-choice for this music.

**

Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance
Pärt: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Kaspars Putnins
(BIS, 2018)

Several years ago I highlighted a recording of Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance that, to my ears, wasn’t quite up to the expressive standards set by my reference version of this work, but that had superior sound and therefore a claim to serious consideration. In 2018 we got this new recording that takes the palm in both the artistic and technical categories, and therefore becomes the obvious first choice for a recording of a work that, I would argue, belongs on a short list of the greatest choral works of the 20th century. It’s a harrowing piece in some ways, the music an often thorny and agonized stew of dissonances, but it is very beautiful in its way, without gimmickery or self-indulgence. It is music that I love, and it is given here, by one of the world’s best choirs, the performance of a lifetime. After those haunting sounds, it is sweet relief to fall into the still pool that is the music of Arvo Pärt, Schnittke’s contemporary, fellow subject of Soviet power, and fellow convert to Christianity. Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis have been recorded many times, including previous recordings by this choir, but he has rarely sounded better. This is my record of the year.

***

Addendum on popular music

The big box of outtakes from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks sessions brought me great pleasure this year, but is not something I’m likely to listen to very many times, if only because it takes so long to get through it. My favourite new album this year was Sam Phillips’ World on Sticks; I usually find her characteristic combination of flint-dry voice, precise manner, and enigmatic lyrics beguiling, and this new record is no exception.

I have an appetite for melancholy in song, and this year I grew fat and juicy feeding on Patty Griffin’s “Rain”, from her 2002 record 1000 Kisses.

Oh Patty, where have you been all my life?


Favourites in 2018: Books

December 28, 2018

I had, by hook and by crook, a pretty good year of reading. In this post I’ll highlight what were for me the most satisfying, interesting, and entertaining books I had the pleasure to read this year.

**

My ongoing Roman reading project started this year with Appian’s history of a century of conflict (c.130-30 BC) and concluded with some of the early poetry of Virgil. In between I sallied at Lucretius and Catullus, but spent most of my time with Cicero and Julius Caesar, the latter of whose first-hand accounts of the Gallic Wars and Civil War were a highlight of my year. I read Caesar in the unsurpassed luxury of the Landmark edition, which I recommend unreservedly.

*

This was also the year in which I polished off the final few volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I’ve written about the pleasures of these books in previous years, so I’ll simply say that even apart from the wonderful characters, musical language, and adventurous stories, I loved them for their portrayal of a friendship, between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, that has few literary rivals.

*

Forlorn without Aubrey and Maturin, I turned to Jeeves and Wooster for comfort, and spent the rest of the year devouring comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I expected to like the Jeeves books, and of course I did, but I also dipped into the Psmith novels and the Blandings Castle books, and, to my unalloyed delight, found them just as good. If I have to pick just one to highlight for this list, I will choose Something Fresh, the first of the Blandings Castle books, through which I laughed with hearty cheer and admiration. P.G. Wodehouse and I will remain boon companions in 2019.

*

Another highlight has been my slow perusal of The Complete Old English Poems, a massive volume packed with Anglo-Saxon verse rendered into modern English by the indefatigable (I assume he must be indefatigable) Craig Williamson. This year I read the Vercelli Book and the Exeter Book, two of the principal surviving anthologies of Old English poetry, and I relished both. Lives of saints, clashes with cannibals, dream prayers, gnomic riddles, moral meditations — Old English poetry has it all. The thought that I still have about 500 pages to go in this colossal codex, including another encounter with Beowulf, is cheering.

*

Of the two Dickens novels I tackled this year, the best was A Tale of Two Cities, my edition of which is now stained with tears. By some unlikely series of mischances I had arrived in life on the threshold of this book having no idea what it was about, and I was thoroughly absorbed by the tale of a family caught in the cross-fire of the French Revolution. Dickens is always good, of course, but I found him particularly good here, especially in the final quarter. I now have, I believe, only one (and a half) Dickens novels left before I’ll have read the whole groaning shelf-full.

*

Perhaps the greatest surprise of my year was T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which I began only in a dutiful effort to scout ahead of my children for good books to hand to them, but which quickly won my heart for its winsome combination of wit, supple language, and inventive storytelling. I’ve since been working my way through the other volumes in White’s Arthurian tetralogy, but, as I was warned, they have not been the equal of the first, which has earned a spot among the ten or fifteen greatest children’s books known to me.

*

The last novel I will praise on this list is George Mackay Brown’s Magnus, a mercurial book that is, on the surface, a life of the twelfth-century Earl of Orkney, St Magnus Erlendsson, but which turns out to also be lyrical medieval hagiography, ruminative meditation, and, in one dazzling sequence, a kind of spiritual portal into the twentieth century. Formally inventive and beautifully written in a style that drifts, as circumstances demand, between knotty toughness and languid beauty, I found it an excellent and memorable read.

*

Among the best nonfiction I read this year was Mont St Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams’ love letter to France in the high middle ages. His is a very personal encounter with the architecture and literary art of the period, with a premium on imaginative appreciation rather than objective analysis. It is a book that is willing to engage the great masterpieces of medieval art in a childlike spirit in an effort to collapse, so far as is possible, the centuries separating us from those who made and first inhabited them. I found in its pages a kindred spirit.

*

A rewarding short read was Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On the Education of Children”. Montaigne wrote about the aims, methods, and motives of education from within the broad tradition, playing on a thread that has grown frayed and strained in the centuries between his time and ours, and therefore providing a healthy, robust contrast with our own habitual ways of thinking about education today. This was my first foray into the world of Montaigne’s essays, and I look forward to going back.

*

I’ll round out this list with another book about education. Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education, edited by Ryan Topping, is a treasure trove of reflections on the nature and purpose of education culled from eminent pens, starting with Plato and Aristotle, running up through Augustine, Basil, and Aquinas, through Erasmus and (yes!) Montaigne and into the 20th century. It’s a superb collection that has been put together in part to remind modern Catholics, the great majority of whom have attended schools much more influenced by Rousseau and Dewey than by Bonaventure and Newman, just what the Church through time has thought and taught about education. If my dozens of pages of notes are any indication, it’s a book with a lot of valuable things to say.

**

Record keeping:

Oldest: Plato, Phaedrus.

Newest: Ross Douthat, To Change the Church.

Longest: Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

Most by one author: Shakespeare (11), Wodehouse (11), Thornton Burgess (5).

**

That’s the kind of year in books it’s been for me.


Christmas music recommendations

December 27, 2018

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, I’d like to recommend two wonderful discs of Christmas music that have brought me much pleasure over the past few years.

**

ros-christmas

The first is RÓS: Songs of Christmas, from the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, a group of which you’ve probably not been previously aware. The music is a blend of things you’d think wouldn’t work well together, and you’d be wrong. The disc begins with a Norwegian-language rendition of Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming (called Det hev ei rose sprunge), as lovely a version as you’re ever likely to hear. The centerpiece is a “suite for Christmas” which interweaves the ecstatic melodies of St Hildegard von Bingen with carols, sung in a manner inspired by the Norwegian folk tradition. The arrangements of St Hildegard’s music are unusually rustic, and the carol arrangements are unusually elaborate, which helps to bridge the gap between these two very different musical realms. Of course, you and I don’t speak Norwegian, but it hardly matters: the warmth and happy good cheer of this music are such that it could be nothing but Christmas music, and this disc is among the most joyful and delightful collections of Christmas music known to me. Here is a featurette about the disc:

**

rusby-sweet

Kate Rusby has made a few Christmas records, but I’m partial to Sweet Bells. She is a bright light on the English folk music scene, with a distinctive lilting voice and a wonderful way with traditional songs. On this record she sings some standard Christmas fare — carols like “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, the latter given a slow and surprisingly effective tempo — with songs, both sweet and sad, that draw more strongly on the folk tradition, like “Serving Girl’s Holiday” and “The Miner’s Dream of Home”. It’s an unconventional combination, but convincing in her hands. Here is “The Holly and the Ivy”:

Merry Christmas!


Adams: Mont St Michel and Chartres

December 20, 2018

Mont St Michel and Chartres
Henry Adams
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [1904]
xli + 398 p.

I went to Chartres on my first trip to France. It was a short train ride from Paris; I remember passing through the Versailles train station en route and caring not a whit for it; my heart was set further down that track. It was a slightly overcast day; perhaps I had hoped to see Chartres draped in an overhanging blue mantle, and so was slightly, very slightly, disappointed as I approached. I met the famous English guide, Malcolm Miller, who has been giving tours there for decades. My dominant memories are of a dimmed, vaulting interior and glory all around.

Henry Adams also saw Chartres, and loved it. He made it, along with the great Mont St Michel, the launching point for this extended imaginative engagement with the art and culture, mostly French, of the 12th and 13th centuries. It is not a book of “art history”, though there is a good deal of art and history in it; it is not a book of theology, though it cannot avoid grappling with some. It is instead something less common: a very personal encounter with great artistic achievements, in which Adams makes a serious attempt to feel his way back into the past:

One needs to be eight centuries old to know what this mass of encrusted architecture meant to its builders, and even then one must still learn to feel it. The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young.

Mont St Michel he values chiefly as an achievement that brought the political, artistic and religious aspirations of its time into a compelling unity:

The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe. The priest and the soldier were both at home here, in 1215 as in 1115 or in 1058; the politician was not outside of it; the sinner was welcome; the poet was made happy in his own spirit, with a sympathy, almost an affection, that suggests a habit of verse in the Abbot as well as in the architect. God reconciles all. The world is an evident, obvious, sacred harmony.

He emphasizes the masculine character of the Mount, presided over by the warrior St Michael and expressing rugged strength in its form. Chartres, on the other hand, expresses the feminine spirit, being the special domain of Our Lady and expressing her tastes. The Virgin of Chartres

was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence eternally final. This church was built for her in this spirit of simple-minded, practical, utilitarian faith,—in this singleness of thought, exactly as a little girl sets up a doll-house for her favourite blonde doll. Unless you can go back to your dolls, you are out of place here. If you can go back to them, and get rid for one small hour of the weight of custom, you shall see Chartres in glory.

Chartres, too, by expressing the Virgin’s glory, expressed the ideals of the time, for she was at the center of that society in a manner that transcended the usual social and political divisions. All disputants, on whatever question, were united in honouring her with “good faith, depth of feeling, and intensity of conviction” as the exemplar of human perfection:

The Virgin still remained and remains the most intensely and the most widely and the most personally felt, of all characters, divine or human or imaginary, that ever existed among men.

Adams takes the time to inspect in detail the structure and decorative programme of the church, meditating upon the rose windows, the portals — west, north, and south — and of course the famous twelfth-century stained glass. (When reading these sections it helped greatly to consult a coffee-table book with pictures of the scenes under discussion; there are pictures in this Penguin edition, but of inadequate quality and too few.) It is clear that he thinks Chartres is the greatest architectural achievement of the time — in fact, he goes further and dubs the smaller of its two spires “the most perfect piece of architecture in the world”.

Although the book’s title would lead one to believe that it is focused entirely on these two great buildings, in fact they account for only half the length of the book. Adams moves on, in the same playful and inquisitive spirit, to a consideration of the literature of the time, and to its intellectual and religious life.

Among works of literature he values especially Le Roman de la Rose, Le Chanson de Roland, the songs of Adam de la Halle, and the wonderful collection of legends Les Miracles de la Vierge. Of these, I especially enjoyed his ruminations on the song of Roland, which I myself have written briefly about, but with far less success. Equally excellent is his appreciation of the religious poetry of Adam of St Victor — most of it, again, in honour of the Virgin — which he praises for its simplicity of spirit and technical excellence.

Later chapters of the book set up a contest, within medieval culture, between the intellectual engagement with faith — represented by Abelard and Aquinas — and an emotional, instinctive approach to the sacred — represented by Bernard of Clairvaux and, in a rare voyage outside France, Francis of Assisi. I didn’t find these sections entirely successful, in part because it wasn’t clear to me that Adams really knew what he was talking about. (For instance, while I would never claim to be a gatekeeper to authentic Thomism, I have read a good deal of and about St Thomas, and I could hardly recognize him in Adams’ portrait.)

Indeed, this might be a general criticism to levy against the book as a whole. It is clearly the work of an amateur (and was, in fact, originally published privately in an edition of only 100 copies, to be shared with friends). His oft-repeated, self-depreciating references to his substitution of imagination for expertise — “what we want is not dates but taste” — might be intended to defuse such criticisms. He needn’t have worried overmuch, for he was obviously a man of intelligence and sensitivity, and the lapses in judgment or errors as to fact must be relatively few.

I will, say, however, that I found his prose to have a certain lugubrious quality; the same complaint put me off his other great book some years ago.

Every so often I read a book that I feel I might, under different circumstances, or given more talent, have written, or tried to write, myself. This is such a book for me; not that I think I could have done it nearly so well, but I’d have liked to try.

***

[The evangelical power of Chartres]
Any one can feel it who will only consent to feel like a child. Sitting here any Sunday afternoon, while the voices of the children of the maitrise are chanting in the choir,—your mind held in the grasp of the strong lines and shadows of the architecture; your eyes flooded with the autumn tones of the glass; your ears drowned with the purity of the voices; one sense reacting upon another until sensation reaches the limit of its range,—you, or any other lost soul, could, if you cared to look and listen, feel a sense beyond the human ready to reveal a sense divine that would make that world once more intelligible, and would bring the Virgin to life again, in all the depths of feeling which she shows here,—in lines, vaults, chapels, colours, legends, chants,— more eloquent than the prayer-book, and more beautiful than the autumn sunlight; and any one willing to try could feel it like the child, reading new thought without end into the art he has studied a hundred times; but what is still more convincing, he could, at will, in an instant, shatter the whole art by calling into it a single motive of his own.

[The unity of medieval architecture]
The architects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took the Church and the universe for truths, and tried to express them in a structure which should be final. Knowing by an enormous experience precisely where the strains were to come, they enlarged their scale to the utmost point of material endurance, lightening the load and distributing the burden until the gutters and gargoyles that seem mere ornament, and the grotesques that seem rude absurdities, all do work either for the arch or for the eye; and every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed, or weight where concentration was felt, but always with the condition of showing conspicuously to the eye the great lines which led to unity and the curves which controlled divergence; so that, from the cross on the fleche and the keystone of the vault, down through the ribbed nervures, the columns, the windows, to the foundation of the flying buttresses far beyond the walls, one idea controlled every line.

[The synthesis of Aquinas’ thought]
An economic civilization troubles itself about the universe much as a hive of honey-bees troubles about the ocean, only as a region to be avoided. The hive of Saint Thomas sheltered God and man, mind and matter, the universe and the atom, the one and the multiple, within the walls of an harmonious home.

[The 11th century]
The nineteenth century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin; but the eleventh moved faster and more furiously still. The Norman conquest of England was an immense effort, and its consequences were far-reaching, but the first crusade was altogether the most interesting event in European history. Never has the Western world shown anything like the energy and unity with which she then flung herself on the East, and for the moment made the East recoil. Barring her family quarrels, Europe was a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the unit. Mont-Saint-Michel and Byzantium were near each other. The Emperor Constantine and the Emperor Charlemagne were figured as allies and friends in the popular legend. The East was the common enemy, always superior in wealth and numbers, frequently in energy, and sometimes in thought and art. The outburst of the first crusade was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry, colour, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its women were worth all the rest.


Lecture night: Educating freedom

December 11, 2018

It has been a while since we had a lecture night. In this talk, entitled “Educating Freedom: An Allegory of the Allegory of the Cave”, Michael Hanby speaks about liberal education, the modern understanding of freedom, the relationship between the two, and the implications of each for contemporary politics and culture, with constant reference to Plato and Puddleglum. It’s an excellent lecture.


Pellowski: Latsch Valley Farm

December 6, 2018

First Farm in the Valley: Anna’s Story
Winding Valley Farm: Annie’s Story
Stairstep Farm: Anna Rose’s Story
Willow Wind Farm: Betsy’s Story
Anne Pellowski
(Bethlehem, 1982)
191 p. + 202 p. + 180 p. + 180 p.

These four books, about several generations of a Polish immigrant family living in Wisconsin, give an engaging portrait of farm and family life over a long century of changes. They are based on reminiscences handed down in the author’s own family. Nothing overly dramatic has been cooked up — which is not to say that nothing dramatic happens — and the stories have a homey, satisfying feel to them.

First Farm in the Valley is set in the 1870s. Latsch Valley is populated by a number of Polish families, and the fact that they live in America is almost incidental: they still speak Polish, observe Polish traditions, and farm very much as, I suppose, they would have done in Poland. Our narrator is Anna, an 8-year old who is an interested observer of the goings-on in her busy household (of eight children, if I recall correctly). This book, like the others, is episodic, with each chapter focusing on a particular day or event, and the reader left to fill in the details between. We read about a Fourth of July celebration, at which the Pellowski children taste ice cream for the first time; about a hail storm that strikes while the children are herding the sheep; about a winter wedding; about a fire at the local school. The family is basically a happy one, held together by bonds of love and their Catholic faith. There are darker rumblings beyond the borders of the home: wandering tramps who might steal goods from the farm or pose a threat, or, more ominously, a diphtheria epidemic that strikes a number of homes in the valley, leaving dead children in its wake.

This second volume is similar in many respects, but is set in the 1910s. Anna appears again, peripherally, now grown with children of her own, but the narrator of this volume is Annie, another young girl who lives down the valley. Some of the stories are quite funny, especially one in which a group of boys plot to release bees, one by one, inside their one-room schoolhouse; Sister Pelagia’s method of dealing with this rambunctiousness is a model of good disciplinary tactics. The family in this book is again a large one, with everyone pitching in to help with chores. We are given a warm picture of farm life, both in the home and throughout the valley.

The third volume, Stairstep Farm, is set in the 1930s and is based on the personal childhood recollections of the author herself. Though things have changed — the children no longer walk all the way to school, and there are cars in addition to wagons — life on the farm is still fundamentally one of a family working together: lots of chores and manual labour, lots of know-how, and a pervasive sense that all is well with the world, in spite of sorrows and setbacks. The family’s Polish traditions are still alive — Dyngus still comes on Christmas Eve, and Polish songs are part of the family’s life — but American life has also begun to make inroads — they get a visit from Santa Claus, and they have learned to speak English, at least some of the time. The narrator of this book is Anna Rose, a 5-year old who wants nothing more than to finally go to school with her big siblings. The stories are about baking, a biting gander, playing games with cousins in the yard, Grandpa being struck by lightning, kicking a pig, riding in the hay wagon, and, most dramatically, a tornado.

In the fourth volume the year is 1967. Our narrator is Betsy, a seven- or eight-year-old, the granddaughter of Annie, who narrated the second volume. Once again the structure is episodic: picking blackberries, putting on a play, going to school, making doughnuts. The texture of modern life has begun to reach the farm: they drive cars, and have a record player. But some things remain the same: this is still a large (8-child) family, close-knit, faithful, and working together to keep the family farm running. Oddly, the tone of the writing is noticeably different from the previous three volumes; it is more verbose, more on-the-nose, and somehow less childlike. I do not know the order in which the books were originally written, but this one does stick out relative to the others.

I’ve just discovered that there is a fifth book in the series, also narrated by Betsy, called Betsy’s Up and Down Year. I suppose I should read it, and perhaps I will, but the inconsistent naming convention for that book — it ought to be called Betsy’s Up and Down Year Farm, should it not? — makes it seem like an adjunct, not an essential, rightly or wrongly.

For the time being I’ve rounded off my time in Latsch Valley. I’ve enjoyed the stay. One could imagine a series of books spanning this same time period that would cross-examine the changes to family life, economic life, technology, and culture, amounting to a sustained sociological critique of how we live now and how we got here. These are not those books; go to Port William if that’s what you want. Instead, these books are heartwarming and entertaining, and could be given with confidence to a child of 8 or 10 years old. Our daughter read them rapidly, and, I’ve noticed, has been reading them again from time to time.

Farewell, Latsch Valley. I may soon pay a visit to the prairie, where I’m told there’s a little house.


Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods

November 22, 2018

On the Nature of the Gods
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 1998) [44 BC]
lv + 230 p.

When Cicero was in his 60s he embarked on an ambitious project to write a series of philosophical works. Though he, when a young man, had studied with several of the leading philosophers in Athens and Rhodes, he was by profession a lawyer and politician, not an original philosopher, which he knew quite well, but he did his contemporaries a service by translating Greek ideas into elegant Latin prose, and summarizing the views of various philosophical schools, often in a dialogue format.

Such is the case with De Natura Deorum, which explores the views of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics as to the nature of the gods. There are four characters in the dialogue, each of them, interestingly, based on a real person: Velleius presents the Epicurean view; Balbus defends the Stoic tradition; Cotta is an Academic; and Cicero himself is an interested listener. The principal school missing from the dialogue is the Aristotelian.

Though formally a dialogue, the give and take familiar from Plato’s dialogues, for instance, is mostly absent. Instead, Cicero gives us a series of set speeches in which individual characters present, at length, their views on the question, or rebut the views of others. In the seams between these monologues there is some back-and-forth, but little more.

**

The dialogue opens with Velleius presenting the Epicurean view. As we recall from reading Lucretius, the Epicureans were materialists who believed that everything is made of indivisible and eternal atoms. Lucretius himself didn’t discuss the gods, apart from a few references here and there, and the present dialogue is actually our best surviving source for what the Epicureans thought about these matters. For them, the gods were akin to material beings (they are said in this translation to have “quasi-bodies”) having human form, but living a life of idleness and bliss — which does, indeed, sound divine. They held that the gods pay no heed to human affairs.

Cotta, the Academic, then steps forward with a critique. He ridicules the anthropomorphism of the Epicurean gods, the ad hoc quasi-materialism, and wonders why we should bother to reverence these beings who care not for us. He contests Velleius’ simple argument that we know the gods exist from common consent.

In the next stage of the dialogue Balbus presents the Stoic case. The Stoics, too, defended the existence of the gods on the grounds that belief in their existence is nearly universal, but added other arguments too: from design of the world, from divine interventions, and from religious practices like divination. Balbus then proceeds to construct something like an ontological argument: God (or a god) is the greatest being, and therefore possesses every good, including reason, sensation, and even sphericity; and, since the universe as a whole is the greatest being possible, the universe itself must be this divine being. In this way, the Stoics arrived at something like a pantheist theology. Against the Epicureans, the Stoics maintained that the gods providentially ordered the world, and that therefore religious practices were right and salutary.

But this view, too, is subjected to an Academic critique by Cotta, who contests essentially every point in the Stoic case apart from the bare existence of the gods. The arguments offered for their existence he finds weak. He rebuts the ontological argument by deducing from it absurdities, such as that if the universe possesses every good then it must be adept at reading, writing, and flute-playing. In one interesting section he even challenges the premise that reason is a good thing, arguing to the contrary that reason makes men cunning in their evil-doing. “That Providence of yours is blame-worthy for bestowing reason on those who she knew would use it unreasonably and wickedly.” He catalogues inconsistencies in stories about individual gods, and concludes that, in the end, we cannot trust much of what the religious tradition has handed down about the nature of the gods. Likewise the pious belief in divine providence is misguided, for if the gods took care for the affairs of men then the good would prosper and the wicked suffer, contrary to fact.

At the conclusion of this critique the dialogue draws to a close. Cotta, who has been the principal critic, never does present his own positive case, if he has one. (He may not; the Academics were largely skeptics.) He only states that he has offered his criticisms out of simple honesty, though he “longs to be refuted”. As the interlocutors disband, Cicero remarks, rather unexpectedly, that his sympathies are with the Stoics, perhaps because this was the school that sought to preserve the rationale for the state’s religious practices, which Cicero was, as a public figure, responsible for upholding and observing.

**

It is striking that the gods in this dialogue are seen simply as “superior beings”. They are better than us, but not transcendent. They are corporeal, existing alongside us as beings in the world, akin to the “flying spaghetti monster” beloved by modern armchair atheists. Nowhere in the dialogue does the conversation turn to what it could mean to conceive of a high god (i.e. God) as the origin of the being of all else. Had Cicero seen fit to include Aristotelian natural theology in the dialogue this problem could have been partly addressed. As it is, however, the rudimentary metaphysics of these philosophers is in high contrast to what Christian and Islamic philosophers would produce in centuries to come.

**

Its shortcomings notwithstanding, this dialogue has enjoyed a long tradition of influence in the West. Parts of it (especially the critique of the stories of the Roman gods) were cited by early Christian apologists against paganism. Augustine himself references or quotes from this dialogue more than a dozen times in The City of God. It was also read by the great medieval philosophical schools, and we find citations from it in Abelard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon. It was even more important to Renaissance thinkers, for whom Cicero was a touchstone: it was a favourite of Petrarch, and Montaigne cited it nearly 50 times in his writings. The skepticism of Cotta was especially influential in this period.

Among early modern thinkers, Locke and Hobbes both knew it, and Hume gave his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the same structure and cast of characters (though with different names). Voltaire, with a characteristic lack of temperance, saw fit to describe it as “le meilleur livre puet-être de toute l’antiquité”, but this, it seems, had the nature of a last hurrah, for in the nineteenth century its influence declined along with the prevailing appraisal of Cicero’s value as a philosopher.

Today it is not widely read, and I would argue that its value as an historical document, describing the leading arguments in theology at the time, eclipses its value as a living source of reflection on the questions it poses. But I am, nonetheless, pleased to have read it.