Chesterton: What I Saw in America

May 29, 2016

In celebration of Chesterton’s 142nd birthday, here are some notes on one of his lesser-known books.

What I Saw In America
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1990) [1921]
230 p.

This book was the fruit of a speaking tour of America which Chesterton undertook in 1921. He visited New York, Washington, and a few other cities, including a number of small towns, if I am not mistaken. Being a famous person on tour, his experience of America was a peculiar one, and he was the first to admit it. Yet the book contains a number of interesting observations about the differences between England and America, as he saw them, along with (of course!) interesting asides and diversions.

Two of Chesterton’s most beloved witticisms are to be found in this book. Upon being asked by a customs official (as visitors to the US are still asked) whether he intended to overthrow the government, he responded with good humour that “I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.” And later, upon reaching New York and being shown the neon lights of Broadway, he wrote:

I had looked, not without joy, at that long kaleidoscope of coloured lights arranged in large letters and sprawling trade-marks, advertising everything, from pork to pianos, through the agency of the two most vivid and most mystical of the gifts of God; colour and fire. I said to them, in my simplicity, “What a glorious garden of wonders this would be, to any one who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”

Even apart from these chestnuts, there is a good deal to like about the book. Chesterton is much interested in the differences between American and English national tempers, and between American and English ways of life. He remarks on the skyscrapers of New York with evident appreciation, and professes astonishment at seeing whole towns constructed from wood. He spends some time exploring the differences between British and American English, and he takes one chapter to critically examine Dickens’ portrait of American in Martin Chuzzlewit (which, to infer from what he wrote, was a kind of cultural touchstone for the English at the time vis-à-vis America).

It is evident that, in some respects, a great deal has changed in the century since Chesterton wrote. There are still many differences between the two nations, of course, but I think there is greater familiarity on each side. It is doubtful that a modern Englishman visiting America would be astounded at wood construction. But a modern visitor to New York might well encounter attitudes just like those Chesterton encountered:

I heard some New Yorkers refer to Philadelphia or Baltimore as ‘dead towns.’

You don’t say? He goes on to explain:

They mean by a dead town a town that has had the impudence not to die. Such people are astonished to find an ancient thing alive, just as they are now astonished, and will be increasingly astonished, to find Poland or the Papacy or the French nation still alive. And what I mean by Philadelphia and Baltimore being alive is precisely what these people mean by their being dead; it is continuity; it is the presence of the life first breathed into them and of the purpose of their being; it is the benediction of the founders of the colonies and the fathers of the republic. This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and the future. It merely means that as what was done yesterday makes some difference to-day, so what is done to-day will make some difference to-morrow. In New York it is difficult to feel that any day will make any difference. These moderns only die daily without power to rise from the dead…

Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive.

That last bit is a good example of Chesterton’s aphoristic powers, not quite as powerful in What I Saw In America as a decade earlier, but still pretty potent. Numerous quotations from the book will eventually make their way to The Hebdomadal Chesterton.


Lecture night: He said, she said

May 25, 2016

The history of the Reformation in England has been of special interest to me since I read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, in which he challenged the received (though not universally so) account of the docility with which the English people embraced Anglicanism in the sixteenth century. Since then there have been many books published exploring the condition of non-conformists, both Catholic and Protestant, in England, and the oppression and violence they endured from the state.

This freshly considered history has begun to spill into related disciplines, including Shakespeare studies. Although Shakespeare’s own religious views are a matter of dispute, there is at least circumstantial evidence connecting him with Catholic recusancy: among other things, his mother’s family were well-known recusants, and his daughter was also cited for recusancy.

Some have now undertaken to re-read Shakespeare’s plays in the light of this new understanding of the historical context in which he wrote. Do the plays have anything to tell us about the Catholic experience during the Elizabethan period?

Here are are two lectures addressed to this question, both delivered at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture a few years ago. The first, by Peter Holland, answers in the negative: in his view, there is no convincing evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic and nothing in his plays to suggest that he was concerned about the plight of Catholics in England. He’s a very distinguished Shakespearian, and it’s an excellent lecture.

Opposing him is Clare Asquith, author of Shadowplay, a book which argues that Shakespeare, rather like an Elizabethan Shostakovich, laced his plays with veiled criticisms of the state, especially for its handling of religion, and that Shakespeare was deeply concerned with the suffering of Catholic recusants. She proposes a kind of “code” for understanding the references to religious and political controversy that Shakespeare’s audience would have understood, but which were artfully framed so as to maintain plausible deniability — this is the same “code” of which Peter Holland is critical in his lecture.

Taken together, these two lectures are very interesting. Holland’s skepticism is salutary, but I do think that Asquith makes some good points about his failure to adequately integrate the post-Duffy history into his reading of Shakespeare, and some of the passages she proposes as examples of Shakespearean subterfuge are quite fascinating. On the other hand, when hunting for subtleties it is hard to know when or if a trail has dried up, and Asquith runs the risk of imagining evidence where none exists.

(There are two other lectures from the same Notre Dame series: one by Joseph Pearce and one by John Finnis. Both argue that the evidence supports the view that Shakespeare was himself a Catholic. Pearce focuses on biographical and historical data, while Finnis’ approach is textual, concentrated in this lecture on Richard III. If you should want to hear them all, the order in which they were delivered is: Pearce, Holland, Finnis, Asquith.)


Leithart: Shining Glory

May 20, 2016

Shining Glory
Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
Peter J. Leithart
(Cascade, 2013)
88 p.

Because I like to do things in the wrong order, I bought this book after writing about The Tree of Life for the 52 Movies project. Perhaps it’s just as well; the temptation to discuss the book’s many insights would have made my review too long.

Leithart is a Biblical scholar, not a film critic, and he admits as much up front. He was so enchanted by Malick’s film, however, and so impressed by its theological weight, that he felt compelled to write about it. He recommends that readers see the film at least three times before taking up the book, and that sounds right to me.

If you haven’t seen the film at all, not only will Leithart’s book not be very meaningful to you, but this post might spoil things too. Not that it is the sort of film to suffer from spoilers, but some people are sensitive about such things…

tree-angel

The book covers many topics in its short compass. I was not surprised to see him writing about music, memory, and family as treated in the film, but he also treats several topics that I had not considered before, such as the way Malick uses water imagery, or the way he focuses on hands, or his use of doors and windows. For me the most valuable parts of the book were the discussion of the film’s overall structure, of the relationship between the film and the Book of Job, of the themes of nature and grace, of the role of evil in the film, and of that long, vexing final sequence on the beach.

The Tree of Life opens with a mysterious, flame-like image that fades in and then out, and the same image recurs at three other points in the film. The first divides that moving opening segment of the film set in the late 1960s from the Sean Penn segment set in the 2010s. The second occurs soon after, dividing the Sean Penn segment from the creation sequence, and the third occurs at the very end of the film. Leithart argues, quite rightly I think, that it is significant that the flame does not divide the creation sequence from the long section of the film set in the 1950s, suggesting that Malick intends them to be taken together, as related to one another, and this provides guidance as we try to interpret what the creation sequence is doing.

On this question Leithart proposes a few answers which were not new to me. He notes (what is my favoured interpretation) that the creation sequence could be taken as an echo of God’s “Where were you when I laid the foundations?” response to Job. (And Leithart notes that the film’s main (and only named) character is Jack O’Brien, whose name actually contains an echo of JOB’s name.) As in Job, God’s answer to Job’s questions is not a direct answer; God does not justify his ways to men; but it is an answer “on the slant”, asking the one who pleads to consider God’s power and providence. Or, by setting the ordinary drama of the O’Brien family against a cosmic backdrop, Malick might be raising another Biblical question: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Yet the fact that the film itself is certainly mindful of the O’Briens makes us think about what the answer might be.

the-tree-of-life-jessica-chastain

Leithart has also helped me to appreciate much more clearly how well-structured the film is as a whole. On first viewing(s), The Tree of Life can seem like a disconnected collection of chunks: the bit in the 60s, the long bit in the 50s, the bit in modern times, the creation bit, the beach bit. But Malick has subtly tied these parts together. For instance, in the very first moments of the film, when we see the mysterious flame for the first time, what we hear are the sounds of water on a beach, an obvious anticipation of the film’s closing beach sequence (but not so obvious that I hadn’t missed it before). And, crucially, in the early Sean Penn sequence there is an insert shot of his younger brother, R.L., standing on that same beach, and he speaks the words, “Find me”. I might almost say that this brief shot, which lasts less than a second and which I had hardly noticed on previous viewings, is an interpretive key to the whole film, for it is this “Find me” that sets in motion the descent into memory and the wrestling with God and death that constitute most of the film and determine its course.

Indeed, R.L. (whose initials we know only from reading the credits) emerges from Leithart’s analysis as a key character. His birth is the first disturbance to the happiness of his older brother Jack, who begins to experience jealousy and feel temptations to violence. He is a graced character, following his mother’s lead much as Jack follows his father’s, and so permits Malick to set up the nature / grace contrasts in both generations of the family. And it is R.L.’s forgiveness of Jack’s cruelty which, late in the film, begins to heal the wounds that were threatening the family’s life together. It is in light of R.L.’s place in Jack’s life that I begin to discern the overall structure of the film and its meaning, for that initial “Find me” on the beach is finally answered in the long beach sequence in which Jack does find him. The beach sequence is not just a strange add-on, but a fulfillment and completion of what came before. (Watching the film again after reading this book, I was surprised to find, for the first time, that this beach sequence actually brought tears to my eyes.)

Most interesting was Leithart’s analysis of the elements of this beach sequence. He points out that it is actually divided into two parts: a ‘resurrection’ part, with imagery of candles, processions, and figures rising from coffins, and a ‘reunion/restoration’ part, taking place on the beach. The two are separated by a shot in which the adult Jack passes through a doorway erected in the desert. In a long footnote, he cites evidence that the ‘resurrection’ part was originally planned to be much more extensive, and that Malick spent a lot of time filming material for it. It gives me another reason to want to see that rumoured 6-hour director’s cut!

tree-resurrection

Most commentators on The Tree of Life highlight the themes of nature and grace, and Leithart is no exception. He argues that as used in the film they don’t map readily onto Christian theological understandings of either. In the film, ‘nature’ stands for domination, competition, and control, whereas ‘grace’ stands for receptivity, contemplation, and love. Nature could be taken as representing modernity, while grace presents us a vision of an earlier order, or later (the influence of Malick’s beloved Heidegger is probably felt most strongly here). Grace is attention to being, which cannot be controlled or managed. Indeed, it is Mrs O’Brien’s openness to grace that makes her so vulnerable to loss and evil. Leithart also reminds us that Malick is himself a famously “graced” filmmaker, often working without a script, using reams of film in the hopes that something special will be captured fortuitously.

The film closes with two odd images: one of a field of sunflowers, and the second of a bridge. The latter is hard to love, being just a rather pedestrian shot of a suspension bridge, but Leithart argues that it is itself a symbol of reunion, uniting what had been separated, and therefore echoing the action of the film, and I suppose that is fair enough. (Perhaps not incidentally, Heidegger pontificated (if I may) about bridges.) The field of sunflowers is richer; Leithart calls it “the perfect image of the way of grace”, for a sunflower is rooted in the ground, but follows the arc of the sun with its face. It is indeed a beautiful, and beautifully apt, image.

Tree-of-Life-sunflowers2


A missed opportunity

May 18, 2016

My other weblog is The Hebdomadal Chesterton, at which, as the name indicates, I post an excerpt from Chesterton once each week.

I have long noted, with some regret, that surprisingly few people search online using the string “Hebdomadal Chesterton”, which I surmise limits the readership of that weblog.

It occurs to me now that I ought to have called it “G.K. Weekly”, catching the resonance with G.K.’s Weekly, the publication over which Chesterton presided during the last decade of his happy life. This was a missed opportunity.

And it only took me nine years to think of it…


Lecture night: Educating the heart

May 17, 2016

My favourite pastime on YouTube is to watch news anchors making mistakes, but my second favourite is to listen to lectures. There are many excellent lectures posted from all manner of venues. I could listen to something interesting nearly every night, if I had the leisure. It occurs to me that I might post some of the more interesting of these lectures here.

For today, here is a lecture by Fr Andrew Cuneo, an Orthodox priest, broadly on the topic of education, and broadly based on C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Fr Cuneo is the first Oxford graduate to have done his doctoral degree on C.S. Lewis, so he knows his subject, but he wears his learning lightly. It’s a very thoughtful lecture.

Incidentally, I rarely sit and actually watch these lectures; I listen to them while I commute to and from work. (I usually use a simple tool to reduce the videos to audio only.)


Langland: Piers Plowman

May 13, 2016

Piers Plowman
William Langland
Rendered into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson
(WW Norton, 1990) [c.1380]
288 p.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in medieval literature, enjoying Chaucer and Dante, Chretien de Troyes and Beowulf. Naturally, some works have been more challenging than others, and for a variety of reasons: themes, structure, language. Piers Plowman is as difficult as anything I’ve come across, and then some. I’m tempted to say that there is nothing simple about it.

The work is an allegorical drama in which the main character, Will, wanders through the world populated with a variety of characters — Conscience, Truth, Scripture, all seven of the Deadly Sins, Reason, and so forth — on a journey to discover Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best. The characters offer Will advice, upbraid him, and encourage him on his moral quest, rather like a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is complicated by a series of dream-visions, and even dreams-within-dreams, that add layers of interpretive difficulty to a book already beset with vexatious challenges.

The poem is written in alliterative verse, similar to that written by the Gawain poet. The author (identified, apparently rather tenuously but tenaciously, with William Langland) writes in a dialect of Middle English that is rather different from Chaucer’s more familiar dialect. Here is a passage from the Prologue to illustrate how it reads:

Pilgrymes and palmers · pliȝten hem togidere
To seke seynt Iames · and seyntes in rome
Thei went forth in here wey · with many wise tales
And hadden leue to lye · al here lyf after
I seigh somme that seiden · þei had ysouȝt seyntes
To eche a tale þat þei tolde · here tonge was tempred to lye
More þan to sey soth · it semed bi here speche
Heremites on an heep · with hoked staues
Wenten to walsyngham · and here wenches after
Grete lobyes and longe · that loth were to swynke
Clotheden hem in copis · to ben knowen fram othere
And shopen hem heremites · here ese to haue

It’s not impenetrable, but there are enough unfamiliar words — “pliȝten”, “ysouȝt”, “lobyes”, “swynke” — that progress is slow. I was grateful, therefore, for E. Talbot Donaldson’s translation, which tries to preserve the alliterative verse but updates the language for modern readers. Donaldson is a respected medievalist who has also produced an edition of Beowulf and published a book on Chaucer. His rendering of the passage above reads this way:

Pilgrims and palmers · made pacts with each other
To seek out Saint James · and saints in Rome.
They went on their way · with many wise stories,
And had leave to lie · all their lives after.
I saw some that said · they’d sought after saints:
In every tale they told · their tongues were tuned to lie
More than to tell the truth — such talk was theirs.
A heap of hermits · with hooked staffs
Went off to Walsingham · with their wenches behind them.
Great long lubbers · that don’t like to work
Dressed up in cleric’s dress · to look different from other men
And behaved as they were hermits · to have an easy life.

It’s wordier (as modern English usually is in comparison to Old or Middle), but certainly much easier to follow.

Langland’s style in Piers Plowman is quite unusual. Though this might seem a wild comparison, as I read I kept thinking of Dostoyevsky, not for his interests or his genre (naturally) but just for that unhinged quality, as though the characters are a little wild-eyed, prone to do or say anything. Langland jumps from one thing to the next. He salts his poem liberally with Latin phrases, fragments of Scripture, and quotations from antiquity. He is going somewhere, but unsteadily, with numerous rapid detours. The language is thorny and angular.

I haven’t said anything yet about Piers Plowman, the title character. Will meets him at several points in the poem, always, I believe, in a dream. At various points Will meets him riding into Jerusalem, or in the guise of the Good Samaritan, or offering a pardon for sins. Will speculates that he is Christ in disguise, and, given his characteristics, this seems reasonable to me.

Commentators on Piers Plowman stress its moral seriousness and its satiric edge. Of the former there is ample evidence, for the poem contains many scathing criticisms of Church and society in his day, but of the latter I confess I was able to detect but little. Satire is a tonal matter much of the time, and that’s hard to convey in a translation and hard to detect in an unfamiliar dialect.

In the end, I am pleased to have read the poem, though I confess I did not greatly enjoy it. It is one of those hurdles that anyone wanting an education in medieval literature will have to clear, and it feels good to have cleared it (more or less!), but, unlike Chaucer or Dante or the Gawain poet, I doubt I’ll return to it for pleasure.


Happy birthday, Monsieur Fauré

May 12, 2016

Today is the birthday of Gabriel Fauré. (He’s turning 176.) He is best remembered and most beloved today for his Requiem, and justly so, but he wrote other wonderful music too. Here is the opening movement of his String Quartet, played by Quatuor Ysaye.

 


A few children’s books: gods and fairies

May 5, 2016

Some brief notes about children’s books I’ve read over the past few months:

colum-golden-fleeceThe Golden Fleece and the Heroes who Lived before Achilles
Padraic Colum
(Aladdin, 2004) [1921]
320 p.

The story of the quest of Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece is one of the best known episodes of Greek mythology. Padraic Colum re-tells the tale in a way suitable for children. The bulk of the story, as one would expect, is devoted to the voyage of the Argo and adventures encountered on the way. After the successful return of the Argonauts, Colum tells stories about some of Jason’s companions: Theseus, Heracles, Admetus, Peleus, and Orpheus, and he finishes up with the story of Jason and Medea (though not including, oddly, the particular story dramatized by Euripides in his Medea).

Colum also wrote a number of similar books, including one on episodes from the annals of the Trojan War and one on Norse mythology. I had hoped to read them, or suggest that my children read them, but now I am not so sure. I found Colum’s writing dull and lifeless. There is little stylistic colour, and the prose plods along. But perhaps my judgment is faulty or eccentric: this volume on the Golden Fleece was a Newbery Honor book when first published.

jacobs-english-fairy-talesEnglish Fairy Tales
Joseph Jacobs
(Everyman, 1993) [1890]
428 p.

A splendid collection of fairy tales collected from England during the nineteenth century. Well-written, occasionally gruesome, and almost always enjoyable. A classic.

hawthorne-wonder-bookA Wonder Book for Girls and Boys
Nathaniel Hawthorne
(Dover, 2003) [1851]
176 p.

For years now I’d been curious about this book, and its companion volume Tanglewood Tales. It was written, I believe, shortly after Hawthorne’s triumph with The Scarlet Letter, and was quite popular in its day. It is a re-telling of a half-dozen tales from Greek mythology: Perseus and Medusa, King Midas, Pandora’s box, Heracles and the Golden Apples, Baucis and Philemon, and Bellerophon and Pegasus. The tales are presented within a framing story in which a group of children, called by unfortunate fairy nicknames throughout (Cowslip, Squash-Blossom, Milkweed, and so on), are told stories by a young man to while away the time on a summer afternoon or before a cozy evening fire.

I could have done without the frame, which pops up not only at the beginning and end, but also between each of the stories; after a few episodes I began skipping it. The tales themselves, however, I enjoyed quite a bit. They are told in a down-to-earth manner, though perhaps with slightly too much informality for my tastes. I read the story of Pegasus (in which he helps Bellerophon fight the dreadful Chimaera) to my kids and they really enjoyed it; my own favourite was probably the story of King Midas.

Having said that, I wasn’t as taken with the book as I expected to be, and while I will probably leave a copy of Tanglewood Tales lying around for the kids in a few years, I’m not sure that I’ll read it myself.

black-ships-before-troyBlack Ships Before Troy
The Wanderings of Odysseus
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Laurel Leaf, 2005) [1993, 1995]
151 p. + 144 p.

I enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff’s paraphrase of the Arthurian legends so much that I decided to try these re-tellings of The Iliad and The Odyssey, both intended for older children. I was not disappointed, exactly. The tales are extremely well told, but I did find that they moved a little too briskly for my taste. Whereas her Arthurian tales I think could justly be described as “novelized”, such a description would be a stretch here. Moreover, it seems to me that Homer’s poems are quite accessible in themselves (what with so many fine translations available), and as I read Sutcliff’s stories I wondered, more than once, whether I ought to put it down and just read Homer again. But certainly if a child conceives an interest in Homer and finds the poetry daunting, these volumes could be recommended with confidence.


Johnson: Preface to Shakespeare

April 23, 2016

Preface to Shakespeare
Samuel Johnsonshakespeare-234x300
[1765]

Johnson, together with George Steevens, edited and published an edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765, and included in it this prefatory essay, surely one of the most famous examples of literary criticism in English letters. I had previously read it, years ago, but, being a noted dullard, did not remember much about it, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to read it again.

johnsonThe first thing I’ll note is that Johnson’s views on Shakespeare are far from being boiler-plate. We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing Shakespeare spoken of in exclusively laudatory terms, as the greatest literary figure in history, as the Bard, that it can be a little shocking to read what Dr Johnson has to say:

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.

or, even more startling:

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.

That Shakespeare should be an author accused of writing “cold and weak” speeches seems almost comical, for is he not especially treasured for his famous speeches, and is there anyone to match him on that terrain? And Johnson makes other statements that are more or less the opposite of the received wisdom, such as that Shakespeare, the most eloquent man in England, was especially adept at capturing the texture and tones of common speech:

The dialogue of this authour is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.

This is all intensely interesting, but I’m honestly not sure if it tells us something about Shakespeare or about Johnson, who goes on to argue that Shakespeare — the author of Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar — was a greater comedian than tragedian:

In his comick scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.

This, too, is a fascinating judgement, and let’s pause a moment to appreciate how elegantly it is expressed (“produce without labour, what no labour can improve”). But I’m not sure if its contradiction of the common view tells us more about Johnson or about ourselves. I rather like what Johnson says here, though, because I do feel that our appreciation of Shakespeare as a comedian falls short of what he deserves, and partly so because we, as a culture, lack something, some spiritual capacity, that would allow us to comedy of comparable stature. I can’t resist quoting Chesterton, who echoed this point:

No audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare’s comedy. No one has made any real attempt to recover the loves and the laughter of Elizabethan England. The low dark arches, the low strong pillars upon which Shakespeare’s temple rests we can all explore and handle. We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate to his coal-cellar; but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky. Perhaps it is right that this should be so; properly understood, comedy is an even grander thing than tragedy. (The Illustrated London News, 27 April 1907)

Shakespeare has often been praised in our day for his even-handed approach to moral issues: Shakespeare doesn’t moralize, and all but disappears into his characters so that we’re never quite sure what he thinks. This quality might account for some of his appeal to an age seduced by moral relativism. Johnson perceives much the same quality in Shakespeare, but he is clear that this is a fault:

He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.

Naturally it would be misleading to give the impression that Johnson makes none but critical remarks about his subject. Qualities which he selects for approbation are Shakespeare’s tonal range:

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

and his talent for creating memorable characters:

Perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other.

Indeed, what author author, save perhaps Dickens, has given us an array of characters to match Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago, Desdemona, Romeo, Juliet, Marc Antony, Bottom, Shylock, Miranda, King Lear, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Rosalind, Beatrice, and Benedict? Although in this connection Johnson also makes another judgment which I don’t quite know how to interpret:

In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

At first blush this seems to contradict his judgment immediately above, for are not individual characters more likely to be distinct from one another than are species? Well, perhaps not; species are, almost by definition, more different from one another than are individuals of the same species. I’ll hazard that the modern idiom of “he’s an individual” to denote his peculiar distinctiveness was not current in Johnson’s time.(Parenthetically, is it not wonderful to see “individual” used by Johnson with a slight perjorative sense. Let us raise a glass to old books.)

Moving on, we find another surprise: Johnson claims that the standard five-Act structure of Shakespearean drama is “void of authority,” and is merely a convenience introduced by editors. Can this really be so?

Not that we should speak disparagingly of the labours of editors, for Johnson reminds us how our possession of Shakespeare’s plays in anything like their current form and extent is largely due to the interventions of editors, the playwright himself having taken little interest in preserving his work:

It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he solicited no addition of honour from the reader…

So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little “declined into the vale of years,” before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.

Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in the late editions, the greater part were not published till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the authour, and therefore probably without his knowledge.

There’s a delicious irony here, of course, that the most eminent literary man we have didn’t particularly care for literary eminence, and that our most famous writer should have cared so little for fame. Certainly it makes a marked contrast with the giants writing in other languages. (This interesting essay on Goethe brings out the contrasts well.)

***

Apart from these remarks specifically about Shakespeare, the Preface includes a number of characteristically Johnsonian — that is, characteristically pugnacious and eloquent — pronouncements about literature more generally.

We find, for instance, his famous dictum that

The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.

Maybe. Or rather: yes, sometimes. I once knew someone who argued that the purpose of art was to provoke self-reflection and teach self-knowledge. Yes, sometimes. But art might also be for the sheer joy of it, or ad majorem Dei gloriam, and what goes for art in general goes for poetry in particular. I wonder what Johnson would have thought of T.S. Eliot?

Speaking of Eliot, if you’re sitting down with a gigantic scholarly edition of his poems and you’re wondering if you should just read the poetry or dig into the line-by-line commentary, Johnson has some advice:

Parts are not to be examined till the whole has been surveyed; there is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension of any great work in its full design and its true proportions; a close approach shews the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.

And as one labours toward “the comprehension of any great work,” one is naturally always engaged in forming a judgement about its merits. Johnson gives his view of how such judgement is developed and matured:

Judgement, like other faculties, is improved by practice, and its advancement is hindered by submission to dictatorial decisions, as the memory grows torpid by the use of a table book. Some initiation is however necessary; of all skill, part is infused by precept, and part is obtained by habit.

This seems of such general application for education in general that I think I’ll commit it to memory. Or maybe I’ll just write it here in this table book. What was I saying again?

Ah yes: the formation of judgement. I’ll close with Johnson’s views on how the collective judgement of readers through time gradually establishes particular literary works as masterpieces. Apparently he had never heard that it was all a conspiracy of white males to project their power. He writes:

…to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour…

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.

***

I hope it is clear from the length at which I have written that this Preface to Shakespeare is a very stimulating and enjoyable read. It is always a pleasure to spend time in the good Doctor’s company.


Pop music odyssey: the finale

April 20, 2016

At long last, about two years and 235 albums after it began, my pop music odyssey has come to an end. Rejoice!

This leg of the journey was the longest, covering the years from 2000-2016, and it consisted of 13 albums by Neil Young, 10 by Van Morrison, 6 each by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and 4 by Leonard Cohen.

During the 2000s (the actual 2000s, not this rehearsal of them) my interests had migrated away from popular music toward classical, and in consequence many of the records I’ve been listening to over these past few months have been new to me. There have been some really nice discoveries, Tom Waits’ Real Gone especially.

Having said that, it is also fair to say that the level of inspiration among my chosen few has been ebbing away during these years. There were few outright bad records, but there were quite an armful of mediocre ones, and it has been rather difficult to come up with a list of ten favourite albums.

Nonetheless, a tradition is a tradition, so let me propose the following list, arranged more or less in descending order:

Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (2001)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (2002)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (2012)
Tom Waits – Orphans (2006)
Tom Waits – Alice (2002)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)
Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs (2008)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (2001)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (2006)

Ten New Songs I consider to be one of Leonard Cohen’s best records, and maybe the only downright masterpiece on this list. Sonically it is quite spectacular, especially by his rather lacklustre standards, and the songwriting is consistently excellent. Van Morrison’s Down the Road is uneven, but it has a few real corkers on it and I love to put it on. Orphans was a 3-disc set of unreleased songs, fragments, and experiments, and it too is uneven, but gloriously so. Waits had all these songs lying around, and he went back into the studio to record them all afresh in his late, Cerberusian style, so there is a sonic consistency throughout even though the songs were written over the course of decades. It’s fun to try to guess which period each dates from. Dylan’s records in this period have been critically lauded, but for me they lean too much on the blues, and I’ve put them onto the list more or less in order to fill it up. I hate to say that, but it’s true.

**

It’s easier to come up with a list of ten favourite songs, and even to put them in rough descending order:

Dylan — “Ain’t Talkin'” (Modern Times)
Cohen — “Alexandra Leaving” (Ten New Songs)
Morrison — “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” (Down the Road)
Cohen — “Come Healing” (Old Ideas)
Waits — “Down There By The Train” (Orphans)
Cohen — “You Got Me Singing” (Popular Problems)
Morrison — “Once a Day” (Pay the Devil)
Waits — “Alice” (Alice)
Cohen — “In My Secret Life” (Ten New Songs)
Dylan — “Cross the Green Mountain” (Tell Tale Signs)

Dylan’s lawyers prevent me linking to his songs, which is a pity.

**

Odyssey MVP

At the outset I assumed that the MVP would be Bob Dylan. He’s my pop music pole star, and I built the odyssey around his music. But, here at the finish line, I’m inclined to give the palm to Van Morrison. He never reached the colossal heights that Dylan reached in the mid-1960s, but, then again, neither did anybody else, including Dylan over the subsequent decades. And Van Morrison never really had a bad patch; he’s been consistently good-to-great for decades.

And, by the phonebook test (“Who would you most want to hear sing the phonebook?”), it’s Van Morrison by a country mile.

I hereby name him the Odyssey MVP.

**

As a way of wrapping things up, let me point out a few examples of cross-referencing: instances in which one subject of the odyssey makes reference to another. There weren’t many that I noticed, but there were a few.

  • On A Letter Home, Neil Young covers Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”.
  • In the song “Twisted Road” (from Psychedelic Pill) Neil Young sings about hearing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.
  • On “Highlands” (from Time Out of Mind) Bob Dylan sings about “listening to Neil Young” (and everybody shouts at him to “turn it down”).
  • Bob Dylan and Van Morrison recorded a session of duets together.

So it would seem that it’s been mostly Young and Dylan trading cards.

**

This has a been a really rewarding project, and in a sense I’m sad to see it end. In another sense I’m glad, because I’m ready to move on to something else.

I’ve been mulling over a few other possible projects that I might start: Mahler symphonies (again), Schubert lieder (actually, I’m already doing this one), fifteenth-century music, Mozart’s operas, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. Any suggestions?


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