Massinger: A New Way to Pay Old Debts

September 26, 2022

A New Way to Pay Old Debts
Philip Massinger
(Methuen, 2004) [c.1625]
129 p.

If Richard III had been rewritten as a comedy — that is, as a play finding its conclusion in one or more happy marriages — it would in certain respects resemble Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts. The axis on which the play turns is the villain, and there are few laughs to be had as it unspools, but the structure of the drama follows that of a romantic comedy of the period, with forbidden romances, mistaken identities, mismatched partners, and all the rest of it. This peculiar combination of qualities made the play quite interesting and entertaining to me.

One of the things I liked most about the story was the manner in which Massinger made use of secrets. At two points the plot involved whispered exchanges inaudible to the audience. We knew that some subterfuge was afoot, but we didn’t know what, and I found this added to both the fun and the dramatic tension.

If I’ve compared the play to Richard III it’s not to imply that the play’s villain is any match for that bunch-backed toad. Massinger gives us Sir Giles Overreach — and, as an aside, I will note that Massinger is very devoted to the nomen est omen school of thought — a duplicitous, conniving man who plans to make his fortune by bilking money from dissolute wastrels. He is very conscious of his wicked motives; speaking, for instance, of one of his henchmen, he boasts:

OVER. […] so he serve
My purposes, let him hang or damn, I care not;
Friendship is but a word.
MAR. You are all wisdom.
OVER. I would be worldly-wise; for the other wisdom,
That does prescribe a well-governed life,
And to do right to others as ourselves,
I value not an atom.

And later, after describing to another character his willingness to ply his victims with flattery and largesse so as to achieve his ends (in this case, the marriage of his daughter), he is asked:

Are you not frighted with the imprecations
And curses of whole families, made wretched
By your sinister practices?

To which he replies:

OVER. Yes, as rocks are,
When foamy billows split themselves against
Their flinty ribs; or as the moon is moved,
When wolves, with hunger pined, howl at her brightness.
I am of a solid temper, and, like these,
Steer on, a constant course: with mine own sword,
If called into the field, I can make that right,
Which fearful enemies murmured at as wrong.
Nay, when my ears are pierced with widows’ cries,
And undone orphans wash with tears my threshold,
I only think what ’tis to have my daughter
Right honourable; and ’tis a powerful charm
Makes me insensible of remorse, or pity,
Or the least sting of conscience.

He is a man, therefore, who acts without empathy and unapologetically seeks his own advantage at the expense of others. This is not a level of villainy on par with that of Richard III, and, as a stage character, he pales beside that notorious monster, but within the parameters of this play I still found him an effective villain, hell-bent on destroying the lives of the innocent parties on whom he preys.


Who was Philip Massinger? I’d not heard of him before taking up this play, but it would appear that he was a well-regarded playwright of the generation after Shakespeare. He attended but failed to obtain a degree from Oxford, and lacked an artistic patron, which has led some to speculate that he may have been a Catholic convert. However that may be, he wrote dozens of plays, and collaborated widely with the other leading playwrights of the time, including Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, John Ford, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, William Rowley, and George Chapman.

Critical judgement has varied over time, but T.S. Eliot thought him an interesting enough case to have written an essay about him. He judges Massinger a lesser playwright, one whose command of language was not matched by a correspondingly rich palette of feeling, and thought him most successful “in a comedy which is serious, even sombre”, which is an apt description of A New Way to Pay Old Debts. In Massinger, Eliot saw the freedom and feeling of Shakespearean verse in transition to the statelier, more reserved poetry of Milton (who was a teenager when this play first appeared on the stage).


Whether such judgements are just is not something I can say on such slender exposure. I will report, however, that if Massinger’s plays are indeed, in retrospect, works of transition, the conclusion of this play is unmistakably, and delightfully, traditional, as he has one of his characters step forward and address the audience in these terms:

Nothing wants then
But your allowance — and in that our all
Is comprehended; it being known, nor we,
Nor he that wrote the comedy, can be free,
Without your manumission; which if you
Grant willingly, as a fair favour due
To the poet’s and our labours (as you may,
For we despair not, gentlemen, of the play),
We jointly shall profess your grace hath might
To teach us action, and him how to write.

That’s a nicely modest and elegant way to wrap things up.

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, IV

September 19, 2022

The Citadel of the Autarch
The Book of the New Sun, Book IV
Gene Wolfe
(ORB, 1994) [1983]
210 p.

In this fourth and final volume of The Book of the New Sun, our hero Severian continues his northward journey into the mountains, encounters and enters a war, returns the precious Claw of the Conciliator to its guardians, finds another Claw, or something like that, eats a brain, becomes the Autarch, and goes on an interstellar journey, or something like that.

For the most part, I found this the least successful of the four volumes. This was partly because certain elements of the plot seemed arbitrary, but mostly because some significant chunk of the book is involved in pulling together all of the loose threads that Wolfe has been spooling out through the gargantuan fabric of his story. This gathering up involves a number of “reveals”, and those are usually my least favourite part of any tale.

I will grant that Wolfe’s version of this device is more virtuosic than most, for his “reveals”, to the extent that I have understood them, which might not be very far, are such as to recontextualize much, or even all, of the preceding story, injecting new meaning into old scenes and altering our view of what the book has been about. I can understand that some readers might like that sort of thing, but I confess I dislike it.

Before beginning the book I’d read more than once that it was a book that improved on re-reading, and now I can see clearly why that might be true. It is, possibly, in a certain sense, a puzzle tale, but that’s not evident until one nears the end.

For me one of the more intriguing aspects of the tetralogy was the religious cosmology that it slowly unveiled. Severian came into possession of a relic, the Claw of the Conciliator, which apparently wielded in his hands miraculous powers, and the religious significance of the Conciliator seemed to be important to the story. And maybe it was. I found, however, that this fourth volume  muddied these waters, such that I no longer know if I’m supposed to know there was a Conciliator, or that there wasn’t one, or that Severian is somehow himself the Conciliator, or something else? I feel like the Claw turned to dust in my hands.

To be candid, I found the tail end of this volume to be frustratingly opaque. There’s a time travel element that was hinted at earlier but here comes to prominence, and I’m pretty sure I failed to grasp its implications. There are a bunch of denouement scenes as the story winds down, and I think I was supposed to see the point of them more than I did.


Having stumbled to the end of the tetralogy, let me conclude with a few brief remarks.

The world-building that Wolfe undertakes is, for me, the most impressive aspect of the books. The far, far future setting he imagines, which blends hyper-advanced technologies with a quasi-medieval social structure and a general sense of comprehensive decay, is superbly done. Like Tolkien, he is good at slowly revealing the true depth and breadth of his world through incidental details.

Several segments of the story were, for me, very successful. This was especially true of the third volume, which, as I said at the time, I thought the best. My very favourite scene was the one between Severian and Typhon, a marvellously dramatic encounter, fraught with tension and mystery, that took place atop a dizzyingly high mountain. Yet the point of that scene, within the structure of the story as a whole, eludes me. Indeed, the story seemed to carry on as though that scene had not occurred, which I found odd and frustrating.

The religious dimension of the book surprised and engrossed me, but, as I’ve already said, appeared to me to have been muddled in the end, or, perhaps, clarified in a way that I didn’t understand.

The books have a strong reputation, and have earned praise from fine writers and critics. Although my experience has been mixed, I leave open the possibility that they are better books than I was able to discover.

Books briefly noted

September 12, 2022

Choral Masterworks
A Listener’s Guide
Michael Steinberg
(Oxford, 2005)
321 p.

This is the sort of book that gives hours of pleasure far out of proportion to its length. Michael Steinberg has made a judicious selection of over 40 great choral pieces, and it serves as a wonderful roadmap for an extended listening project. For each piece he gives us a little background on its composition and premiere, and then an overview of its structure and content, without getting too technical.

The book includes the top-shelf masterpieces you’d expect: Bach’s Passions and the B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mozart’s Requiem, and Handel’s Messiah. There are also a large raft of unsurprising — that is, wholly deserving — pieces such as requiems by Verdi and Faure and Britten and Brahms, and several of Haydn’s Masses, and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In a few cases the composer I expected to find was present, but not the piece I expected; for example, I’d have included Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, but Steinberg chose his cantata The Bells; I was happy to have a reason to hear it again, but I’d still chose the Vigil. The book highlights several lesser known masterpieces like Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. A few of the pieces were entirely new to me — Roger Sessions’ When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Charles Wuorinen’s very interesting Genesis, Luigi Dallapiccola’s Canti di pregonia, and Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. Of these, it was only the last that made a big impression on me. The composer with the most number of pieces included? Stravinsky!

Steinberg has written several other, similarly conceived volumes, one on symphonies and another on concertos. I enjoyed this one enough to consider launching more listening projects around those books in the future.


The Fantasy of the Middle Ages
An Epic Journey Through Imaginary Medieval Worlds
Larisa Grollemond and Bryan C. Keene
(J. Paul Getty, 2022)
142 p.

Put together to accompany an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, this is a centuries-wide survey of the many ways in which the visual arts — painting, book illustration, and film, for the most part — have been inspired by medieval styles and sources. Thus we get chapters illustrating how medieval characters, like knights, monks, and kings, have been portrayed in popular culture, or how medieval settings have been associated over the years with magic and the fantastic, or, more specifically, how portrayals of legends of King Arthur have evolved. It’s quite fascinating, and it makes clear that medieval sources have been a persistent source of enrichment for a very long time, and in a great many ways, in art both high and low. If you love medieval art, it’s a very pleasant book in which to browse.

Like most things in a museum, the book is for looking at, and the pictures and illustrations are gorgeously done, in high quality reproductions. There is also a text that wends its way between the pictures, and it’s fine, not too academic, but overly beholden to faddish notions of diversity, etc. Still, it does not overshadow the skill and thoughtfulness with which the visuals have been curated and presented.


The Death of Socrates
Romano Guardini
(Sheed & Ward, 1948)
177 p.

Guardini reads and comments on the four “Death of Socrates” dialogues of Plato: Euthyphro, in which Socrates, on his way to stand trial, talks with Euthyphro about the nature of piety; Apology, in which Socrates stands trial and defends himself against the charges brought against him; Crito, in which Socrates, in his jail cell, is offered an opportunity to escape and uses it to reflect on the nature of justice; and, finally, Phaedo, in which, on the day of his death, Socrates discusses with a group of young men the nature of the soul, of the Forms, and of knowledge.

The book takes the form of a commentary in which Plato’s text is interleaved with Guardini’s reflections upon it. I had high hopes, being under the impression that Guardini’s writing is generally worth the while, but on balance I was disappointed. The dialogues themselves are wonderful, of course, but the commentary didn’t add much for me, being either redundant or kind of . . . gassy? The book was for a long time out-of-print, though it has recently been brought back by the good people at Cluny Media. Other readers may fare better than I did.

Fletcher: The Tamer Tamed

September 7, 2022

The Tamer Tamed
Or, The Woman’s Prize
John Fletcher
(Cambridge, 1910) [c.1610]

This desultory tour through the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries has been instructive, in part, because these plays help me to better understand and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. When it comes to stage dramas in this period, we typically see Shakespeare simply as foreground, with the background blank, but exploring the work of the lesser-known playwrights of the time has helped me to fill in that background. Maybe I see the figure a little more clearly now that I also see the ground.

In any case, John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed is a particularly intriguing example of contextualizing Shakespeare, because the play is actually a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew. In that play, remember, Petruchio had triumphed by bringing his belligerent and intransigent bride, Katherine, to heel, setting himself up for a lifetime of domestic harmony. Or so he thought, but we learn in Fletcher’s first scene that it hadn’t turned out that way: Katherine had reasserted herself after the wedding, and Petruchio suffered a trying marriage.

For yet the bare remembrance of his first wife
(I tell ye on my knowledge, and a truth too)
Will make him start in’s sleep, and very often
Cry out for Cudgels, Colestaves, any thing;
Hiding his breeches, out of fear her Ghost
Should walk, and wear ’em yet.
(I, i)

Poor Petruchio. But Katherine, as this passage implies, has died, and he is looking for a new bride, one, he hopes, who will be more pliable and gentle. He believes he has found one in Maria. But some men just have bad luck in women, and on the eve of their marriage, Maria vows that she, too, will tame Petruchio:

I’ll make you know, and fear a wife Petruchio,
There my cause lies.
You have been famous for a woman-tamer,
And bear the fear’d-name of a brave Wife-breaker:
A woman now shall take those honors off,
And tame you; nay, never look so big, she shall, believe me,
And I am she.
(I, iii)

Her method, though, is quite different from that we saw Katherine trying in The Taming of the Shrew. Rather than being stubborn, rude, and difficult, she takes a simpler tack: she simply denies Petruchio her bed until he submits to her will. (In addition to reminding us of Shakespeare’s prequel, then, the play also brings to mind Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the same strategy is used.)  Misery for Petruchio, who cannot believe his ill stars, ensues.

The play isn’t much more complicated than that. By play’s end, Petruchio has heaped all manner of abuse on Maria, calling her (and I’m sorry about this harsh language) “thou Fruiterer”, and “thou Devil’s Broker”, and “thou seminary of all sedition” (an interesting anti-Catholic reference that presumably refers to the seminary in Douay), and also “thou thing”, and “thou pull’d Primrose”. But none of this shakes her resolve. There is, adding interest, a subplot in which Maria’s sister, promised in marriage to an old and ugly man, consorts instead with a dashing young lover and marries him in secret.

In the end, Maria gets her way: Petruchio becomes like clay in her hands, ready to do her bidding, whereupon she gives up the game and reconciles:

I have done my worst, and have my end, forgive me;
From this hour make me what you please: I have tam’d ye,
And now am vow’d your servant: Look not strangely,
Nor fear what I say to you. Dare you kiss me?
Thus I begin my new love.
(V, iv)

We expect comedies in this period to end in marriage; this one, contrarily, begins with marriage, but finds its happy ending all the same.


It’s not an especially brilliant play. The association with Shakespeare might lead a few readers to it — as it did me — but, having done so, it suffers in the contrast. Shakespeare’s play is simply wittier, more energetic, and more fun. Fletcher’s verse is relatively plodding, his plot relatively simple, and his characters relatively thin. But if a double-bill were played, I’d line up to see it.


(Parenthetically, while on the theme of Shakespeare in relation to other playwrights of his time, I noticed that in The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio says at one point, “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness”. Zounds! I thought for certain this was a reference to Thomas Heywood’s play A Woman Killed with Kindness. But, alas, according to irrefutable authority the latter play was also the later, by a decade or so. And so my career as a literary sleuth came to an abrupt end.)

Nymphes des bois, Graindelavoixed

September 2, 2022

The great, mad ensemble Graindelavoix have posted this week new footage of themselves singing Josquin’s Nymphes des bois. This wonderful piece was written as a lament on the death of Johannes Ockeghem, and the text is remarkable because it actually names Josquin, alongside several other composers who worked in Ockeghem’s shadow. It’s a heart-breaking piece that builds to a gorgeous “Requiescat in pace. Amen.”

Every early musical ensemble worth its salt has sung it, but nobody sings it like this. A typical performance lasts 4-5 minutes; Graindelavoix take almost 9, stretching it out, and pressing on the harmonies until the tension is nearly unbearable. But it serves the piece. They included Nymphes des bois on their most recent, award-winning [*] record Josquin the Undead.

Maybe you don’t care about Josquin, Ockeghem, or nymphs in the woods. You should still listen to a few minutes of this. It will haunt your dreams.

Nymphs of the woods, goddesses of the fountains,
singers renowned across all nations,
turn your voices most clear and high
to piercing cries and laments.
For the meddlings of Atropos
ensnare your Ockeghem in their rigidity,
the true treasure and masterpiece of music,
who from death no longer escapes,
for whom great mourning covers the earth.

Give them eternal rest, Lord,
and let perpetual light shine on them.

Put on your mourning clothes;
Josquin, Brumel, Pierson, Compère,
and weep heavy tears from your eyes;
you have lost your good father.

May he rest in peace. Amen.

[*] I gave it an award. 

Douglas: Natural Symbols

August 29, 2022

Natural Symbols
Mary Douglas
(Penguin, 1973) [1970]
216 p.

When, in the course of my reading, a particular book is cited by a number of different authors, I begin to think about peering into it, and such was the case with Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols, a work of anthropology that develops a framework for understanding how social restraints and social roles are interrelated. I think. She said the book was “an attempt to develop Durkheim’s programme for a comparative sociology of religion,” which doesn’t sound like the same thing, and is probably why I was baffled much of the time.

The title sounds contradictory; aren’t symbols, almost by definition, conventional signs that vary with social context? She argues that certain basic features of human life, however, such as our bodily reality and our fundamental social relationships (to children; parents, friend, authority, etc.) provide a basis for a fundamental set of natural — that is, based on these basic features of life — symbols that govern human societies. That’s an interesting argument that I’m not in a position to evaluate.

My primary reason for interest in the book turned out to be somewhat peripheral to its main lines of argument. In her discussion of social controls she argues that certain social contexts give rise to anti-ritualism, and one of her case studies for anti-ritualism is the tide of reforms that overtook the Catholic world after Vatican II. She argues that the clerical and academic class were driving the anti-ritualist push, often against the grain of the ordinary churchgoer. The anti-ritualist reforms were promoted as a means of heightening commitment to the faith, but Douglas points out that an attachment to ritual is itself a form of commitment, and that a precipitous effort to undo the ritual risked undoing the commitment as well, which is indeed what happened, at least in some cases.

Ritualism is not a shining word for us; indeed, our leading churchmen sometimes use it as a term of abuse, but for Douglas ritualism is a positive capacity, “a heightened appreciation of symbolic action”. Ritualism, she argues, is absolutely essential for a sacramental religion, which relies on symbolic (and more than symbolic) acts throughout. Lose the ritual, and a strong sense of symbolic power, and you will start to lose the sacramental sense too.

Where ritualism is strong, and symbols are valued, external actions are considered important, and, for instance, what counts as a sin is specified clearly in terms of acts; but where ritualism withers everything moves to the interior, and people will talk instead about internal dispositions and intentions. This internal focus has arisen every time I have asked a priest about the difference between mortal and venial sins.

She identifies three phases in the migration from ritualism in religion: first, a contempt for ritual forms; then, an internalization of religious experience; and finally, a move to humanist philanthropy. On bad days I worry that Pope Francis is already in phase three, but I hope I’m wrong about that.

A main idea of the book, which I’m skirting around here, is that the degree of ritualism in a society is closely tied, by mutual influence, to the structure of social groups in that society, and in particular to the strength of social ties. She gives various arguments for this, and presents various case studies drawn from the anthropology literature to support the claim; all of that is too complicated for me to go into here.

An interesting and provocative corollary of her theory is that anti-ritualism, and indeed outright irreligion, is not at all a disposition unique to modernity, but arises whenever certain social conditions obtain:

Secularization is often treated as a modern trend, attributable to the growth of cities or to the prestige of science, or just to the breakdown of social forms. But we shall see that it is an age-old cosmological type, a product of a definable social experience, which need have nothing to do with urban life or modern science… The contrast of secular with religious has nothing whatsoever to do with the contrast of modern with traditional or primitive. The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is nonsense. The truth is that all of the varieties of skepticism, materialism, and spiritual fervor are found in the range of tribal societies. They vary as much from one another on these lines as any chosen segment of London life.

In a similar way, she sees our contemporary anti-ritualism — a general preference for casualness and a sense that formality is foreign or fake — as a consequence of larger social forces that have weakened social roles and social stability.

Interestingly, she argues that anti-ritualism is typically a posture of protest, raised against a prevailing symbolic order, and that, when it is successful at weakening or overthrowing that order, anti-ritualism fades out as a new set of symbols and rituals assert themselves. Were I adept at thinking, and seeing, like an anthropologist, I might be able to assess whether this is likely to happen, or has already happened, to us.

She argues also that anti-ritualism is usually accompanied by a heightening of ethical sensitivity. In religion it has not been at all uncommon that churches in which dogma and doctrine soften adopt instead a commitment to social reform, etc., so there may be something to this idea. It is consistent with the notion that ritualism tends to focus on external actions, and its negation to involve an inward turn toward motivation, intention, and so forth. A ritualist can find purpose in life through conscientious performance of set practices, but an anti-ritualist feels a burden of conscience and must do something in the world.

Moreover, a trend to anti-ritualism affects religion in other ways as well. For an anti-ritualist, for instance, the person’s relationship to God is conceived as an intimate, inward one, rather than as an objective one governed by rituals. But at the same time the idea of God, because it is captured in the orbit of “friendship” or “personal relationship”, tends to be drained of glory and power. One doesn’t typically find the Pantocrator in an evangelical revival church.

As a case study in the decline of ritualism, or the attack on ritualism, she takes the Catholic custom of abstinence from meat on Fridays. After Vatican II this obligation was nuanced: no longer a strict obligation, Catholics were given the option to replace the long-standing practice with a personal act of charity. It sounds harmless enough, perhaps, but the result was the wholesale collapse of the custom. Why did that happen? She argues that it was foisted on ritual-oriented Catholics by well-meaning but symbol-blind clergy, who did not understand what they were doing. The clergy wanted their people to deepen their faith, and considered the Friday fast to be “mere externals”, mere habit, without the religious depth that they thought preferable. But Douglas argues that any custom strongly adhered to is serving some important purpose, and can be tampered with only by the bold or careless. As Chesterton said, a fence should not be taken down until you understand why it is there. Undermining the symbolic order tied to the Friday fast, whatever it was, sowed confusion that reverberated in that space where Catholics related to the Church, and to one another. The Friday fast disappeared, but not because everybody was conscientiously doing good deeds. It was just gone. But even if they had been conscientiously carrying out acts of charity, something basic would have nonetheless changed:

Friday no longer rings the great cosmic symbols of expiation and atonement: it is not symbolic at all, but a practical day for the organization of charity. Now the English Catholics are like everyone else.

It might be worth noting that many Catholics whom I know, myself included, have returned to the Friday fast, albeit without much encouragement from our pastors and bishops. I won’t try to specify exactly what purpose it is serving, but that there is one I do not doubt.


There is a great deal more to this book than these notes would indicate. As I said, I didn’t understand most of it. I suppose what I take from the book are a few things. First, as a general observation, the way anthropologists see things is quite intriguing; the conceptual framework, and the habit of perception it makes possible, was unfamiliar and felt kind of exciting and kind of dubious at once. Second, I was surprised by her claim that the drift from religious sensibility to irreligious isn’t at all a peculiarly modern one, but rather a commonplace in the anthropological literature in all sorts of contexts. Third, the specific association she makes between formality, ritualism, religion, hierarchy, and strong social structures on one hand, and anti-ritualism, irreligiosity, and weak social structures on the other looks, in retrospect, rather plausible and even obvious, but it’s an association I hadn’t seen fully made before. Finally, I found that the application of her ideas to the post-Vatican II Catholic Church valuable insofar as they cast new light on a much-mulled phenomenon.

I also learned two new words from this book: cachinnation and eleemosynary. Perhaps you already knew them, but let’s not have any cachinnation, even in an eleemosynary spirit, on that account.

Richard Taruskin, RIP

August 26, 2022

The great American musicologist Richard Taruskin passed away last month, and this week Alex Ross has written an appreciation in the New Yorker:

The imperiously brilliant music historian Richard Taruskin, who died on July 1st, at the age of seventy-seven, combined several qualities that are seldom found together in one person. He was, first of all, staggeringly knowledgeable about his chosen field. His near-total command of the history and practice of classical music engendered “The Oxford History of Western Music,” a five-volume, forty-three-hundred-page behemoth, which Taruskin published in 2005. His ability to hold forth with equal bravura on Gregorian chant, polyphonic masses, Baroque concertos, and Russian opera was grounded not only in profound learning but also in deep-seated musicianship.

His Oxford History of Western Music is one of the glories of my home library. Way back when, I wrote about it in this space, and at some length. It remains a staggering achievement, and it is probably the work for which Taruskin will be best and longest remembered, and rightly so.

Ross describes his interests as a scholar, his apparently prickly personality and pugilistic tendencies in argument, and also his (Ross’) own relationship with Taruskin over the years. He reminds us that Taruskin’s wide-ranging intellectual interest in music was always personal and passionate:

An underlying agenda of Taruskin’s work was his drive to convince nonspecialist readers that music mattered—not in some timeless fairy-tale realm but in the fraught lives of twentieth- and twenty-first-century people.

That is certainly the impression I took away from his books. RIP.

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, III

August 22, 2022

The Sword of the Lictor
The Book of the New Sun, Book III
Gene Wolfe
(ORB, 1994) [1982]
205 p.

This third volume of The Book of the New Sun is a strong entry that continues the epic world-building of the previous volumes, introduces dramatic plot developments, and summons up several effective new characters who develop relationships with our hero, Severian.

As to the first point, although it is true that most of the main planks of the world of the novel have been laid, we continue to get intriguing elaboration of details. We learn, for instance, that the story takes place as an ice age threatens the civilization of which Severian is a part, and — I’m not sure why this surprised me so much! — that it takes place in the southern hemisphere. Some of the details we are offered are so perplexing, such as the casual observation that the moon is green, and then the even more disconcerting claim that the moon is “a sort of island hung in the sky, whose color derived from forests, now immemorially old, planted in the earliest days of the race of Man”, that I really don’t know what to make of them.

The science-fiction vibe of the novels is heightened in this volume by more details about interstellar travel and alien life forms, but at the same time the religious character of the novel is deepened. Severian continues to carry a relic called the Claw of the Conciliator, and it continues, to his considerable perplexity, to work wonders by a logic all its own. Of the Conciliator himself, also called the New Sun, a shadowy, possibly-historical figure who figures largely in the religious cosmogony of the story, we continue to learn. Severian remarks at one point, for instance:

“I found myself thinking how strange it would be if the New Sun, the Daystar himself, were to appear now as suddenly as he had appeared so long ago when he was called the Conciliator, appearing here because it was an inappropriate place and he had always preferred the least appropriate places”

which is rather suggestive. There is some evidence that the influence of the Claw — so called because it is a gem with an apparent claw-shaped defect at its heart — is affecting Severian’s own heart without his knowing it; it is, perhaps, the Claw’s influence that sends Severian into the mountains early in the novel, and we even learn, later, after yet another miraculous episode, a suggestion that Severian’s will is being conformed to the will of the Claw:

I came to understand that I should never reach any real knowledge of the tiny thing I held, and with that thought (for it was a thought) came a third state, one of happy obedience to I knew not what, an obedience without reflection because there was no longer anything to reflect upon, and without the least tincture of rebellion.

The Claw is something like the inverse, then, of Tolkien’s One Ring. It is gentle, and it leads its possessor, step by step, toward goodness. Or so it seems. The real nature of the relationship between Severian and the Claw, which in some real sense is the central relationship in the books so far, is still mysterious. Why has it come into Severian’s possession? Where is it taking him?

Two fine new characters appear in this novel, one a young boy, also named Severian, whom our Severian befriends for a time, and one a monstrous creature whom Severian encounters atop a dizzying mountain peak in what was, for me, the best scene in this series thus far.

On the other hand, several characters from previous volumes returned, and, because I didn’t think they were particularly well-developed earlier, and not particularly well-developed here, I found their segments of the book, including the climatic sequence, rather confusing and arbitrary. It is possible that I missed details earlier that would have helped. (People say that this series is one that improves on re-reading.)

Still a bit of a mixed bag, then, but, on balance, the best so far in my judgement. There are still a number of gigantic loose threads dangling, so I’m very curious to see what transpires in the fourth and final volume.

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, VI

August 14, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 6
Edward Gibbon
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1788]
xxv + 684 p.

The previous volumes had brought the story to roughly the eleventh century, on the cusp of the Crusades. In this final volume Gibbon gathers up all the dangling threads and follows them to the middle of the fifteenth century, when, with the fall of Constantinople, the decline and fall of the Roman empire was completed.

Naturally, the focus is mainly on the eastern empire during these centuries, but he also keeps an attentive eye on the city of Rome. Along the way, we learn about the rise of the Ottoman Turks, the Crusades, religious controversies and schisms and councils, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 (after which, for a time, it was in the hands of Latin-speaking Crusader emperors), the migration of the papacy to Avignon, the Mongol invasions, and, of course, the final defeat of the eastern empire in 1453.

These pages are peopled by a remarkable cast of characters, from great Crusaders like Tancred (in whom “we discover all the virtues of a perfect knight”) and St Louis IX of France (“the father of his people, the friend of his neighbors, and the terror of the infidels”), to admirable foes such as Saladin, Timur, and, at the last, Mehmed II. Nearly an entire chapter is devoted to the life of Rienzi, who tried to revive Rome in the fourteenth century (and who, for his trouble, became the subject of a Wagnerian opera).

It’s a big story, bursting with incident, and boasting a sometimes bewildering surfeit of narrative paths to tread. Some, such as those about the Crusades, were fairly familiar; others, such as those about the Turks and Mongols, were not. Generally speaking, the predominant focus on the long denouement of the eastern empire made this volume the least engaging in the set for me. In these notes I’ll not attempt anything like a thorough overview. Instead, I’ll simply pick out a few aspects that particularly interested me.


The tendency today is to look askance at the Crusades, for a variety of reasons that are too familiar to bother with here. Gibbon, for his part, sees them generally as motivated by an unseemly fanaticism, but he is not unwilling to acknowledge individual excellence among the Crusaders when he sees it, nor does he overlook what he sees as their positive consequences. We saw in the previous volume, for instance, that he thought contact with the western powers en route to the Holy Land gave a very salutary spark to the ailing, inert cultural life of Byzantium. He also, in this volume, makes an argument that the Crusades benefitted western Europe by breaking the feudal system:

“The independence, rapine, and discord of the feudal lords were unmixed with any semblance of good; and every hope of industry and improvement was crushed by the iron weight of the martial aristocracy. Among the causes that undermined that Gothic edifice, a conspicuous place must be allowed to the crusades. The estates of the barons were dissipated, and their race was often extinguished, in these costly and perilous expeditions. Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer, and gradually restored a substance and a soul to the most numerous and useful part of the community. The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the smaller and nutritive plants of the soil.”

“Unmixed” and “every” strike me as exaggeration; no doubt feudalism had its weaknesses, but the testimony of medieval Europe is more mixed than Gibbon allows here. All the same, it is interesting to me that he makes this argument at all. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a theory that the Crusades were undertaken by those members of European society who had nothing to lose: unpropertied second sons, and the like. On that view, the Crusades were a kind of greedy violence by which Christendom enriched and employed itself by spilling the blood of Muslims. This theory has been overturned in medieval scholarship, I believe, and has reverted to something very much like what Gibbon argues here: that the wealthy families of Europe impoverished rather than enriched themselves by taking the cross. I’d not have been surprised to find that Gibbon was the originator of the earlier theory; it is instructive to learn that he was not.


At one point, Gibbon discusses the work of the Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles (c.1430-c.1470), and the result is quite diverting. By this time quite a lot of Crusaders had come through Byzantium, spinning tales about home, and it is amusing to read what the easterners — or at least this one easterner — thought about the western nations.

Of Germany, for instance, Laonikos writes that

“The soil, except in figs and olives, is sufficiently fruitful; the air is salubrious; the bodies of the natives are robust and healthy; and these cold regions are seldom visited with the calamities of pestilence, or earthquakes…and the Germans may boast of the invention of gunpowder and cannon.”

I’d not be at all surprised to learn that the Germans did indeed boast of it.

Of the French, he notes that they

“…are an ancient and opulent people; and their language and manners, though somewhat different, are not dissimilar from those of the Italians. Vain of the Imperial dignity of Charlemagne, of their victories over the Saracens, and of the exploits of their heroes, Oliver and Rowland, they esteem themselves the first of the western nations; but this foolish arrogance has been recently humbled by the unfortunate events of their wars against the English, the inhabitants of the British island.”

Some things, it seems, just don’t change. Although the English cannot smile too broadly at this appraisal, for they are next:

“…the land is overspread with towns and villages: though destitute of wine, and not abounding in fruit-trees, it is fertile in wheat and barley; in honey and wool; and much cloth is manufactured by the inhabitants… Their language bears no affinity to the idioms of the Continent: in the habits of domestic life, they are not easily distinguished from their neighbors of France: but the most singular circumstance of their manners is their disregard of conjugal honor and of female chastity. In their mutual visits, as the first act of hospitality, the guest is welcomed in the embraces of their wives and daughters: among friends they are lent and borrowed without shame; nor are the islanders offended at this strange commerce, and its inevitable consequences.”

In the face of this scandalous reputation, Gibbon protests that poor Laonikas has “confounded a modest salute with a criminal embrace”, and draws this lesson: “to distrust the accounts of foreign and remote nations, and to suspend our belief of every tale that deviates from the laws of nature and the character of man.”


For me, as, I expect, for many readers, the most engrossing section of this volume concerned the siege of Constantinople in 1453. I was startled to realize, while reading, that although I consider this siege as historically important I did not know much of anything about how it happened. I did not know, for instance, that the siege was led by a young (just 21 years old) Ottoman commander, the Sultan Mehmed II. I did not know that the attacking force numbered in the vicinity of 200,000 men, while the defenders, under the command of Constantine XI Paleologus, were fewer than 10,000. Nor did I know that the attack on Constantinople is important in the annals of military history because it made use of the new technology of gunpowder, which was to so profoundly change both tactics and strategy in the centuries to come.

Most poignant to me was the account of how, after nearly two months of siege,  the people of Constantinople prepared for what they could see was imminent defeat. Of the eve before the city was finally taken, Gibbon writes:

“They wept, they embraced; regardless of their families and fortunes, they devoted their lives; and each commander, departing to his station, maintained all night a vigilant and anxious watch on the rampart. The emperor, and some faithful companions, entered the dome of St. Sophia, which in a few hours was to be converted into a mosque; and devoutly received, with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the holy communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations; solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured; and mounted on horseback to visit the guards, and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Cæsars.”

And so the city fell. Mehmed II, who earned in this affair the cognomen “the Conqueror”, allowed his soldiers three days of looting, slaughter, and rape, after which about 30,000 civilians, the last remnant of the Roman empire, were sold into slavery.


Around the same time — technically, a few years earlier, but from this distance they look nearly simultaneous — across the sea in Rome, a scholar named Poggio Bracciolini stood with a friend overlooking the ruins of the Roman forum, meditating on the transitoriness of human endeavours, and he later composed a memorable lament for the city, which Gibbon preserves for us:

“Her primeval state, such as she might appear in a remote age, when Evander entertained the stranger of Troy, has been delineated by the fancy of Virgil. This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill. Cast your eyes on the Palatine hill, and seek among the shapeless and enormous fragments the marble theatre, the obelisks, the colossal statues, the porticos of Nero’s palace: survey the other hills of the city, the vacant space is interrupted only by ruins and gardens. The forum of the Roman people, where they assembled to enact their laws and elect their magistrates, is now enclosed for the cultivation of pot-herbs, or thrown open for the reception of swine and buffaloes. The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”

It could hardly be said better.


All good things must come to an end, and we now, at long last, have come to the end of Gibbon’s great work. Nearly two hundred and fifty years have passed since its publication, and naturally some of his scholarship has been superseded, but as a masterpiece of both historiography and of English prose it can have few, if any, rivals. To read the book is to acquire an education in Western history; its principal themes and theses are, as he says, “connected with many of the events most interesting in human annals”. To wit:

the artful policy of the Cæsars, who long maintained the name and image of a free republic; the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of the civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East: the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age.

The very last sentence of the book is a famous one; he, like Poggio Bracciolini, was inspired to write as he sat overlooking the Forum:

“It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candor of the public.”

I am happy to acknowledge my gratitude to him — and happy, too, to have finally finished! It took nearly 10 months for me to read the entire book, and, given my state of life, it is fair to say that this counts as a modest but, remembering the parable of the widow’s mite, fine achievement.

In any case, I believe that I have now concluded my efforts to blog about this large work. May those who think I have blogged too much, or those who think I have blogged too little, forgive me. May those who think I have blogged just enough join me in giving thanks to God.

Dickens: Our Mutual Friend

August 7, 2022

Our Mutual Friend
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2011) [1865]
925 p.

This was the last novel that Charles Dickens completed, and it marked, Chesterton thought, “a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’ life.” It is the story of a man who, thought dead, returns to his former life in disguise and observes the repercussions of his “death” as they reverberate through the lives of his friends and enemies.

The structure of the story reminded me of Les Miserables: a man has a window into his own previous life, and must decide whether and how to reclaim it. For Jean Valjean that former life was one of crime and suffering, whereas for John Harmon it is one of riches and happiness — yet he hesitates, convinced that he must win the heart of the woman he loves on his own merits, before she knows his true exalted station in society.

Having a character appear under false pretenses for much of the novel gives the book a juicy dose of dramatic irony, an aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and Our Mutual Friend suffers from too much, much too much, in the way of false pretenses; a late revelation that certain character arcs were wholly feigned struck Chesterton as “highly jerky and unsatisfactory”, and I agree with him. A truly splendid chapter (“The Golden Dustman at his Worst”), which I cheered my way through, turned to ash and dust in the wake of these unwelcome reversals. It would be a shame to allow a book this big and beautiful to be ruined by such a fault, but the temptation is there.

The novel gives us one of Dickens’ least characteristic, but remarkably successful, villains in Bradley Headstone, a desperate third wheel in a love triangle. He is an ordinary man, not a colourful villain in the usual Dickens manner, and noteworthy for being wholly sympathetic; we understand his pain and the actions that follow from it, and nothing about him is lurid or larger than life.

Amusing to me was a subplot involving an interminable reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I have myself been reading alongside the novel. Call me Wegg.

I have compared it, above, to Hugo’s masterpiece, but tonally the two books could hardly be more different. Dickens is a humourist, and his humour is irrepressible. Where another author, for example, might be contented to narrate that a character walked from his house to another, Dickens tells us that

He held as straight a course for the house of the dolls’ dressmaker as the wisdom of his ancestors, exemplified in the construction of the intervening streets, would let him.

It’s a small thing, but typical of his penchant to inject humour into even incidental details. Even the moments of high drama are usually accompanied by an absurd or incongruous aspect that winks our way. Or consider this happy passage on a new mother’s joy in her baby:

It was charming to see Bella contemplating this baby, and finding out her own dimples in that tiny reflection, as if she were looking in the glass without personal vanity. Her cherubic father justly remarked to her husband that the baby seemed to make her younger than before, reminding him of the days when she had a pet doll and used to talk to it as she carried it about. The world might have been challenged to produce another baby who had such a store of pleasant nonsense said and sung to it, as Bella said and sung to this baby; or who was dressed and undressed as often in four-and-twenty hours as Bella dressed and undressed this baby; or who was held behind doors and poked out to stop its father’s way when he came home, as this baby was; or, in a word, who did half the number of baby things, through the lively invention of a gay and proud young mother, that this inexhaustible baby did.

Name me another major novelist who could, or would, write this. Dickens can be inexhaustibly happy, and even goofy, when the situation arises, and I love him for it.

About the only thing I didn’t like about the novel — apart from the structural defect already noted — was a cluster of secondary, or tertiary, characters who popped up here and there, usually only loosely connected to the story. All were unlikable figures — self-important, self-conscious, fashionable, snooty, and joyless. I found their scenes hard to follow, and unnecessary, and therefore irritating. I was delighted, and suitably chastised, therefore, to find that Chesterton, in his essay on the book, singled these characters out as being especially praiseworthy. Chesterton always loved the shaggy, unpremeditated Dickens of Pickwick the most, and in this circle of snooty killjoys he saw Dickens making a near approach to his earlier manner. “The whole point of an early Dickens novel,” he writes, “was to have as many people as possible entirely unconnected with the plot,” and in their scenes, which I found simply confusing, he found the characteristic Dickensian humour, “an unfathomable farce—a farce that goes down to the roots of the universe.”

Reading Chesterton’s remarks on Dickens is an essential adjunct to reading Dickens himself, and I invite you to peruse the essay if you are so inclined.


I conclude with a brief personal note: I believe that I have now read all of the novels that Dickens completed. I began 15 years ago with David Copperfield and, in the intervening years, in fits and starts, somehow worked through all of them. I feel good. Perhaps next year I’ll start with David Copperfield again.


[A good word]
burglarious: relating to or involving burglary

[Power and character]
Power (unless it be the power of intellect or virtue) has ever the greatest attraction for the lowest natures.

[Chesterton on Dickens’ strengths]
He was not good at describing change in anybody, especially not good at describing a change for the worse. The tendency of all his characters is upwards, like bubbles, never downwards, like stones.