Deeper roots of The Tree of Life

December 10, 2017

I’ve been watching my favourite film again, and I’ve discovered a worthwhile commentary on it in the form of a video essay. This format is especially well suited to a visual analysis of a film, and if there was ever a film that would benefit from a visual analysis, it is The Tree of Life. Recommended to those who’ve seen the film at least once; it’s about 20 minutes in duration.

Note that the essay relies heavily on the screenplay to draw out the film’s structure and themes, which does seem to shed some light, but is also, perhaps, misleading, for Malick generally feels free to depart from script during both filming and editing, and indeed it is obvious that he did so when making The Tree of Life. That said, and despite a few other minor missteps, I learned some valuable things from watching it.


Read: Night’s Bright Darkness

December 7, 2017

Night’s Bright Darkness
Sally Read
(Ignatius, 2016)
152 p.

Not long ago I wrote about Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir of his conversion to Catholicism. As in most such stories, there was in that book a more-or-less clear thread that one could follow as he moved toward the Church: certain questions rankled, particular insights were had, specific errors were rejected or certain truths embraced. At the end, one could understand, largely if not entirely, how it came about that he became a Catholic.

Sally Read’s conversion memoir is, rather amazingly, not like that. She begins as a cradle atheist, brought up by parents who conscientiously inoculated her against any kind of religious faith, and she ends up a Catholic, almost an instinctive Catholic, and, having read the book, it’s very difficult to say how it came about. The drama of her conversion seems to have happened just below the level of apprehension, and I have the feeling that she’s nearly as mystified about it as we are. But the book is still wonderful to read, and strangely edifying.

If we’re looking for a particular moment, we have to look for something innocuous. Imagine, for instance, that she sits down one evening to read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a book grown familiar over many previous readings, but this time something is different:

This time I put the book down when I read the vicar’s assessment of religion: “(Religion) is an art, the greatest one; an extension of the communion all the other arts attempt.” The conversation goes on, by the fire, over Madeira, the rain beating down outside. God, says the vicar, is “merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

It wouldn’t pass muster in a catechism class, but from this humble beginning, so far as I can tell, the life of faith began to grow in her. She was particularly struck by the thought that a religion could be a form of art, to be appreciated and experienced like a work of art. She was (and is) herself a poet, and the sudden connection between art and religion, like a spark, suddenly altered her understanding of both her own relationship to faith and her own artistic ambitions:

Why, after so many years of reading, thinking, arguing, would this truth penetrate me now? It was as if the tin roof of the sky peeled away. My desperate yearning to write the line, to make the poem, to nail the truth was illuminated. It wasn’t for editors, prizes, readers or myself that I sought so earnestly to harness reality. It was for communion with God, who knows already, who has the metaphor, the poem, already in hand, who is already writing, and already written, the ultimate poem. It was to try to touch that poem.

That night, I barely apprehended this. What I thought was just one word: possibility, and the sibilance of that word seemed like the distant yet all-encompassing black sea that I perceived God to be. A sound like the amniotic roar of traffic in London or the simmer of sea in Santa Marinella that natives unlearn how to hear. I had begun to learn how to listen.

It reminds me of that passage in Augustine (which, naturally, I cannot find) in which he says that each of us,  when we earnestly seek what is good, or true, or beautiful, when we long for that rich and true happiness that will come with the possession of whatever is the deepest and truest good that we pursue — then we are truly searching for God. Everything that rises, as the saying goes, must converge.

But at this point she knew next to nothing about any religion, and had no particular interest in Christianity. But she moved to Rome with her Italian (and agnostic) husband, and, when taking care of her young daughter, fell in with a group of Catholic mothers, and, through them (if memory serves) struck up a friendship with a Byzantine-rite Catholic priest, a good and intelligent man. Before long, she was reading Simone Weil, Josef Pieper, T.S. Eliot, St John of the Cross, and the Gospels, and she was well launched.

There are twists and turns in her story, but always one has the sense that her way has been prepared, that in her progress toward faith, as rapid as it is, she is nonetheless outpaced. Despite the rocky terrain she must cover — she begins as a well-catechized secularist and holds all the traditional pieties on matters like abortion, marriage, and sex — she seems not to stumble, never to find herself on the horns of a dilemma; her difficulties melt away, or are silently displaced. This, I think, is very unusual.

She returns often to her experience of Catholicism as having an aesthetic dimension. The Eucharist she sees as a kind of enfleshed poem:

…to get close to Christ I had to let him into me — not solely through mental prayer and actions, but by physically taking him into my body. There is nothing empty in God’s poetry; nothing is mere metaphor.

Even the hierarchical nature of the Church has for her a poetic effect, for it is “God’s poem — the transformative instrument of the chaos of the everyday.” That’s more suggestive than precise, but it gets one thinking, and this is true of much of her writing, which, true to her calling as a poet, is evocative, sometimes oblique, and often beautiful, just like the story she has to tell.

All this took place just a few years ago. “What do you want me to do?” was her persistent prayer through the whole process, and this memoir is, in part, part of the answer:

God’s revelation to me that spring was already a poem. I only needed to write it down and not attempt to explain its mystery. It is, in a sense, unfinished. It takes the unhesitating energy of that wave at its breaking point; it’s a love letter in response to love.


Alma Redemptoris Mater

December 3, 2017

During Advent this year I intend to learn this lovely hymn, which is sung at Compline during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

A happy Advent to all those observing it.


Old English Exodus

November 26, 2017

Exodus
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
19 p.

After reading Genesis it’s natural to move on to Exodus, and in the Junius Manuscript we do just that. This poem, which runs a brief 590 lines in the original Old English, begins with the terrible tenth plague striking Egypt and ends with the triumph of the children of Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers so much flotsam and jetsam. The poet has therefore focused his attention on the central episodes in the story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their bondage, though, as we’ll see, he had other things on his mind as well.

This is a particularly vivid poem, I found, with much striking imagery. Much of it is violent. I remarked in my notes on Genesis that the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons coloured their telling of the Biblical story, and the same is very much true in this poem.

When the angel of death descends on Egypt, for instance, the poet gives us a passage that reminded me of Grendel stalking toward Heorot in the black of night:

“The hall-joys were drained —
The last, lonely song was a cry of suffering,
Of peril and pain. In the middle of the night
God cruelly struck down the Egyptian oppressors,
The many first-born sons. Death stalked the land —
Terror and torment piled up corpses —
Killing was king of that ravaged realm.” (ll.33-9)

When once they have left Egypt, the miraculous guidance of the pillar of cloud and the column of fire excite the poet’s admiration for a lengthy stretch. He remembers, too, the life of Joseph, whose coming to Egypt as a slave was the remote cause of the enslavement from which the Israelites are now being delivered.

The approach of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit spreads fear through the people, and the description of the approaching forces is wonderfully evocative:

“Then the mood of the Israelites grew desperate;
Their hearts lost hope as they saw Pharaoh’s army
Surging from the south, sweeping over the land
With shields gleaming, battle-swords swinging,
Boar-spears thrusting, trumpets ringing,
Banners waving, the cavalry-storm coming.
Dark death-birds circled the strand,
Carrion crows hungry for corpses,
Screeching like hellions for a bloody meal.
Wild wolves sang a hideous evening-song,
Frantic for a feast of flesh and bone.
The beasts of battle held no pity
For any people, Egyptians or Israelites.
They howled for carnage, sang for slaughter.
Those bloodlust guardians of the border lands,
Wilderness-wanderers, bayed through the night,
Spooking the souls of the men of Moses,
Who hunkered down in despair and doom.” (ll.162-79)

I note with interest how the poet pivots from a description of the menace of the Egyptian soldiers — imagined very much after the manner of his contemporary warriors — to a description of the menace of the natural world: the wolves, and the hungry crows, all arrayed against the people of God. One could imagine him taking the opposite tack, depicting the animals, which are God’s creatures, as friends of the children of Israel, but instead he makes them amoral, prowling on the borders and circling overhead, awaiting their chance. There seems no reason for hope.

In response to this threat the Israelites arm for battle, but Moses gathers them together and delivers a stirring speech, reminding them to put their trust in God’s protection:

“They will no longer live to scourge us
With torment and terror, making our lives
A mesh of misery, a web of woe.
There’s no need to fear dead warriors,
Doomed bodies — their day is done.
God’s counsel has been lifted from your hearts.
Remember his covenant and keep it always.
Worship your God, pray for his grace,
His promise and protection, shield and salvation,
His gift of victory in a time of triumph.
He is the God of Abraham, the Lord of creation,
Our eternal Maker of unmeasured might.
He holds our army in his guardian hands. (ll. 280-92)

The staff is stretched out over the waters, and they part, making a way of escape. Interestingly, even as they march across, away from their foes, they do so as if to war, and the poet underlines their ferocity:

As the noblest of people walked through the water,
They raised a banner high over their shields
With a sacred sign, the gold lion of Judah,
The bravest of beasts. The loyal warriors
Would never suffer insult or injury
As long as their lord and leader lived
And they could lift swords, thrust spears
Bravely in conflict with any bold nation.
The soldiers of Judah would always respond
To the call of battle with hard hand-play,
Sword-swipe, spear-stab, shield-thrust,
Blood-wound, body-woe, the cruel crush
Of hard helmets, carnage and corpses.” (ll.338-50)

I wonder if in a warrior culture this crossing of the Red Sea, fleeing from danger rather than confronting it, would have been considered shameful. The poet seems to be taking great care to reassure us that they had lost none of their courage and capacity for destruction.

At this point, as it nears its finish, the poem begins to become more complicated. We leave the Israelites and return to Noah, and then to Abraham, and then jump ahead to Solomon. Perhaps the poet is here calling to mind God’s enduring covenant with the children of Israel, which is here, at the crossing of the Red Sea and the decisive deliverance from bondage, being honoured and fulfilled.

The crossing complete, the path through the waters collapses upon the pursuing Egyptian forces in a scene of carnage:

“The arrogant Egyptians could not hinder his hand
Or escape his doom, the sea’s fierce fury —
He destroyed them all in shrieking horror.
The seas slid up, the bodies slid down;
Dread fears rose, death-dreams plunged;
Fresh wounds wept, bloody tears tumbled
Into the ocean’s embrace. The Lord of the flood
Ravaged the ramparts with an ancient sword
Of storm-winds and wave-walls. Troops perished.
Hordes of the sinful headed toward the bottom,
Where they lost their souls in endless sleep.” (ll.518-28)

And here, at the climactic moment of the poem, before describing the victory song and the joyous dancing of the Israelites, the poet introduces another apparent digression, but one which, it seems to me, is a key to interpreting the whole poem. He inserts a meditation on the pilgrimage of each soul through this earthly life:

“It’s true that our present worldly pleasures
Are transient. Time unravels them all.
Desire and delight fade, touched and twisted
By inevitable sorrow — an exile’s inheritance.
We wander the world pursued by woe,
Our homeless hearts mired in misery.
[…]
The day of reckoning, the hour of doom,
Draws near, a moment of might and glory,
When all our deeds will be judged by God,
And he will lead the steadfast, righteous souls
From their exile on earth to a homeland in heaven,
The light and life of the Lord’s blessing,
Where everyone in that company of joy
Will sing hymns, glorious hosannas,
To the Kind of hosts for all eternity.” (ll.566-587)

The poet is therefore encouraging us to read the story of the Exodus as a metaphor for the deliverance of each soul from the bondage of sin and death, “an allegory of the soul, or of the Church of militant souls, marching under the hand of God, pursued by the powers of darkness, until it attains to the promised land of Heaven”. (So says Tolkien.) This is a common theme in Christian theology, of course, but it is here expressed in a particularly artful and powerful way.

In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson highlights the poem’s “deliberate ambiguities and allusions, its concealed figurations and fulfillments, and its textual and narrative difficulties”, which initially made me think I was about to read an Old English Prufrock. It didn’t turn out that way, but, nonetheless, there is something to what Williamson says; this is a complex, and quite beautiful, poem. At least some of the textual difficulties may have been mitigated by Williamson’s thoughtful translation, which is about 10% longer than the original. At any rate, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m looking forward to the next poem in the Junius Manuscript — which is, mercifully, not based on Leviticus, but on the story of Daniel.


Cecilia virgo

November 22, 2017

In honour of the feast of St Cecilia, patroness of music and musicians, here is a very fine performance of James MacMillan’s Cecilia virgo, sung by the National Youth Choir of Australia.

Virgin Cecilia, all musicians celebrate your praises,
and through your merits, supplicants can be heard by God.
With one voice and with one heart, they call upon your name,
that you may deign to change the mourning of the world into the glory of paradise;
and be willing, O protecting Virgin, to look upon your wards,
calling upon the pious Lady, and always saying:
Saint Cecilia, pray for us.


Plautus: Four Comedies

November 19, 2017

Four Comedies
Titus Maccius Plautus
Translated from the Latin by Erich Segal
(Oxford, 1996) [c.200 BC]
xlvi + 242 p.

Plautus is the earliest extant Roman literary figure; he was the author of about 130 plays, of which 20 survive in whole or significant part. Writing at a time when Rome was expanding in power and coming into contact with other major powers in the Mediterranean, his period of success overlaps with the Second Punic War (218-201 BC); Rome was under the greatest existential threat she’d yet known, and so, naturally, Plautus wrote raucous and diverting comedies. Rome was also moving more into the Greek sphere of influence, and this was decisive for Plautus; many of his plays are adapted from Greek originals, even retaining a Greek setting and making frequent jests about Greeks.

On the evidence collected here, his plays are works of quick wit, rapidly developing plot, wordplay, and delightful farce. His characters are not richly developed, but then the plays are not really about the characters; they are comedies of circumstance and situation. This Oxford edition calls Plautus “the single greatest influence on Western comedy”, and his manner does feel familiar (more so than does, for instance, Aristophanes). The characters crack jokes, make frequent asides, and even address the audience. They are unbuttoned affairs in which, it seems, anything might happen.

**

The Braggart Soldier is the longest of the plays in this volume (about 1400 lines), and it illustrates well the attractions of Plautus’ writing. The situation involves a conspiracy among the household slaves to allow the mistress of the house to abscond with a handsome young man, and a boastful husband who is duped into trading her for her non-existent twin sister. It is great fun, and Segal’s translation is part of the pleasure: there is a long sequence in the middle in which he sustains page after page of lines with internal rhymes, and it is quite a delight.

*

The Brothers Menaechmus is about twin brothers, separated as children, who find themselves, many years later, unbeknownst to themselves or anyone else, in the same city at the same time. It’s a delightful little comedy featuring a long string of hilarious instances of mistaken identity. I was quite taken with Segal’s translation, which, though it introduces elements (such as occasional rhyme) not present in the original, is wonderfully witty and engaging.

The play is best known to English speakers as being the play Shakespeare adapted into The Comedy of Errors, and it is on account of this adaptation that English speakers have a motive, and an understandable one, not to get to know the original. The truth is that Shakespeare’s version is incomparably superior, not only in its verbal wit but in its plot construction, for by adding a second pair of twins (the Dromios) as the servants of the twin brothers, Shakespeare exponentially expanded the play’s scope for confusion and comedy. It’s no contest. But presumably Shakespeare chose to adapt Plautus’ play because he saw some merit in it, and he was right so to see. It would be fun to read the two plays in close conjunction. But read Plautus first, to avoid disappointment.

*

Although I anticipated that The Haunted House might have a supernatural angle, in fact the house in question is just one that emits noises because a wayward son and his many drunk friends are inside, hiding from the father, who has returned unexpectedly from a long journey. Meanwhile, outside, a clever household slave concocts a series of comedic diversions to prevent the father from entering. It’s an entertaining play that I imagine would work very well on stage.

*

The last play in this volume is The Pot of Gold, about a miserly father who obsessively guards a pot of gold — that is, not a pot full of gold, but an actual gold pot, though the distinction hardly matters for the play’s purposes. He is one of the best rendered characters I’ve encountered in this set of plays, coming closest to having something like a realistic, albeit exaggerated, psychology. Meanwhile his daughter, soon to be married, is about to give birth — though she is apparently not great with child, for the father is entirely unaware of her condition — having been “ravished” (or, to speak plainly, raped) at a city festival by a relation of her fiancé. In the principal comic scene this “ravisher” approaches her father to confess his crime and ask for her hand in marriage, but her father misconstrues his confession as an admission that he has stolen the precious pot of gold. This is comedy, yes, but dark; the man’s greed corrupts even his closest relationships and, indeed, his whole experience. The play breaks off before the conclusion, but the notes indicate that “most scholars” believe it ends with the father giving the pot of gold as a dowry gift — a redemption story.

Molière was impressed enough by this play to take it as the model for his L’Avare (The Miser); he retained many of the comedic elements from Plautus, including the discomforting humour of the daughter/pot-of-gold confusion, but infused all of the characters with more realism and, in my mind, brought out the interior corruption of the central character with even greater force.

**

I’ve enjoyed each of these plays. In his introductory notes to this volume, Erich Segal makes a distinction between “great drama” and “great theatre”; with his stock characters, loony situations, and comedic high-jinx, Plautus may not qualify as the former, but he might very well deliver the latter. Should I ever have the opportunity to see one of his plays on the stage, I would not readily turn it down.


Thinking on your seat

November 17, 2017

This is pretty great: Marie João Pires was scheduled to play a Mozart piano concerto with Riccardo Chailly and (I assume) the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. When the orchestra began to play, though, she realized that she had practiced a different concerto!

It’s difficult to hear the exchange between Chailly and her during the introduction. He seems to be rather enjoying her quandary. But his faith in her is not misplaced; taking a few moments to recollect herself, she finds her footing and begins to play.

When I see something like this, it helps me to realize what a wonderful and perilous thing music-making before a live audience is. It could collapse at any moment, and is only kept afloat, note by note, by superb musicianship and retentive memories.


Livy IV: Dawn of the Roman Empire

November 13, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XXXI-XL
The Dawn of the Roman Empire
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by J.C. Yardley
(Oxford, 2000) [c.20 BC]
xxxvi + 612 p.

The previous volume in this edition of Livy’s Roman history had ended with the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio Africanus and the consequent end of the Second Punic War. It was Rome’s first victory over a major regional power, and it was a signal to the other political powers in the Mediterranean basin that the Romans were a force to be reckoned with.

An ally of the Carthaginians during that conflict had been Philip V of Macedon, a ruler a few generations removed from Alexander the Great, presiding over a much-reduced but still extensive territory to the east of the Adriatic. In Books 31-40, which are the topic for today, the Romans go to war against Philip and other Mediterranean powers, especially King Antiochus of Syria. They eventually emerge victorious, thus establishing themselves not only as a European and African power, but an Asian one as well, and in consequence the territory later generations would know as “the Roman Empire” began to take on recognizable shape.

The particular conflicts described in this sequence of books are known to historians as the Second Macedonian War and the Roman-Seleucid War. The period covered is 201-180 BC.

**

Livy remarks at the outset that his task seems to be becoming unmanageable:

“I plainly perceive that, like those who, tempted by the shallows near the shore, walk into the sea, the farther I advance, I am carried, as it were, into a greater depth and abyss; and that my work almost increases on my hands which seemed to be diminished by the completion of each of its earlier portions.”

It is beginning to become unmanageable for the reader too, or at least for this reader, not because of its length but on account of its complexity; when the Romans moved into Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor they encountered a bewildering variety of small kingdoms, with alliances and enmities already formed, and then broken and re-formed in response to the Roman threat, and the course of events by which the Romas eventually came to dominate fits no neat narrative the way the conflict with Carthage and Hannibal had. One hardly knows where to look for the main story. Nonetheless, a few significant events can be picked out.

It is worth noting that when the Romans first came into Greece they did so, publicly, as liberators, to free the Greek peoples from submission to Philip of Macedon. And Livy leaves open the question, so far as I can tell, whether this cry of liberation was genuine or merely a front for Roman imperialism. Certainly there were those in Rome who thought it foolhardy to start another war so soon after the victory against Hannibal had been concluded, and it is not obvious that there was a widely shared appetite for expansion of the Roman sphere of influence.

Yet, be that as it may, in 200 they commenced hostilities against Philip, and, after a series of convoluted developments, came to a decisive battle with him in 197 at Cynoscephalae, a battle in which they were victorious, in the aftermath of which the consul Flamininus declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. A few years later the Romans were again victorious against Nabis, the “tyrant of Sparta”, and again declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. For later generations this pronouncement acquired an ironic tone, for whatever their intentions at the time, the Romans never did relinquish influence over these areas, and eventually, some decades later, annexed them as Roman territories, the liberators having become the masters.

Sensing a power vacuum with the ousting of Philip, the Seleucid king Antiochus III, who ruled over a large territory to the north and (primarily) east of the Mediterranean, entered Greece in 192 with an army intent on expanding the Seleucid Empire. Whereupon several Greek cities appealed to the Romans for help, which they very obligingly did.

In fact, this venture by Antiochus occasioned one of the most memorable events of this period of Roman history: another face-to-face meeting of Scipio Africanus and Hannibal. It happened in this way: in the aftermath of the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio, Hannibal had temporarily fled Carthage, but when he returned the Carthaginian authorities saw him as a liability likely to inflame Roman wrath, and they forced him out. He fled to the court of Antiochus III, where he began to encourage Antiochus to take up arms against Rome. Antiochus was convinced; he sent his troops across the Hellespont into Greece, bringing about the Greek appeal for Rome’s assistance that I mentioned above. Opening with a diplomatic move, Rome sent Scipio Africanus to meet with Antiochus for discussions, and Antiochus, with a flair for the dramatic, hosted a dinner and invited them both to attend.

A memorable conversation is reported to have taken place. Scipio, perhaps seeking to tweak Hannibal’s ego, asked him, “Who is the greatest general?”

Hannibal answered, “Alexander, king of Macedonia; because, with a small band, he defeated armies whose numbers were beyond reckoning; and because he had overrun the remotest regions, the merely visiting of which was a thing above human aspiration.”

Scipio then asked, “To whom do you give the second place?” and he replied, “To Pyrrhus; for he first taught the method of encamping; and besides, no one ever showed more exquisite judgment, in choosing his ground, and disposing his posts; while he also possessed the art of conciliating mankind to himself to such a degree, that the nations of Italy wished him, though a foreign prince, to hold the sovereignty among them, rather than the Roman people, who had so long possessed the dominion of that part of the world.”

On his proceeding to ask, “Whom do you esteem the third?” Hannibal replied, “Myself, beyond doubt.”

On this Scipio laughed, and added, “What would you have said if you had conquered me?” “Then,” replied the other, “I would have placed Hannibal, not only before Alexander and Pyrrhus, but before all other commanders.”

This answer, turned with Punic dexterity, and conveying an unexpected kind of flattery, was highly grateful to Scipio, as it set him apart from the crowd of commanders, as one of incomparable eminence.

It’s a great story.

The diplomatic route went nowhere, so Rome went to war against Antiochus. This conflict was not so convoluted as that against the Macedonians, but it was not straightforward either. An important battle took place at Thermopylae, where Leonidas and the Spartans had, centuries earlier, attempted to defend Greece against the Persians. Antiochus chose the ground, thinking it would give him at advantage, but it was not enough; the Romans flanked him and he was routed. There followed a sea battle; the Romans triumphed again. Finally, the Romans, led by Lucius Cornelius Scipio (brother of Scipio Africanus), crossed the Hellespont and forced Antiochus to accept terms. This was important not so much because Antiochus was defeated, but because it marked the first time a Roman army had crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor. They would find that they rather liked it there, and would be disinclined to leave.

One of the conditions the Roman consul, Flamininus, imposed on Antiochus as part of the peace negotiations was that Hannibal be turned over to the Roman authorities. He was their greatest opponent, and it rankled that he was still at large. Hannibal, of course, was unwilling to go peacefully, and fled to the court of Prusias, king of Bithynia, where, however, the Romans caught up with him. He chose death before dishonour. Livy gives us an account of Hannibal’s end that is worth quoting at length:

“The Carthaginian had always foreseen some such end of his life; for he knew the implacable hatred which the Romans bore him, and placed little confidence in the faith of kings. Besides, he had experienced the fickle temper of Prusias, and had, for some time, dreaded the arrival of Flamininus, as an event fatal to him. Encircled by enemies on every side, in order to have always some path open for flight, he had made seven passages from his house, of which some were concealed, lest they might be invested by a guard. But the imperious government of kings suffers nothing to remain secret which they choose to discover. They surrounded the circuit of the entire house with guards in such a manner, that no one could escape from it. Hannibal, on being told that some of the king’s soldiers were in the porch, endeavoured to escape through a back door, which was the most private, and from which the passage was most secret; but, perceiving that to be guarded by a body of soldiers, and every avenue round to be blocked up by the guards that were posted, he called for poison, which he had long kept in readiness to meet such an event, and said, “Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since they think it too long to wait for the death of an old man. Flamininus will gain no very great or memorable victory over one unarmed and betrayed. What an alteration has taken place in the behaviour of the Roman people, this day affords abundant proof. Their fathers gave warning to Pyrrhus, their armed foe, then heading an army against them in Italy, to beware of poison. The present generation have sent an ambassador, of consular rank, to persuade Prusias villanously to murder his guest.” Then imprecating curses on the head of Prusias, and on his kingdom, and calling on the gods who presided over hospitality, and were witnesses of his breach of faith, he drank off the contents of the cup. This was the end of the life of Hannibal.” (XXXIX, 51)

Hannibal was not the only major figure to pass from the scene in these years. Scipio Africanus had died as well, a few years earlier, and Philip of Macedon died shortly afterward, in 180. The time of giants was passed, it seemed.

**

The great majority of Livy’s attention in these books is focused on military affairs. I have not even begun to try to convey the immense complexity of the story, which took place not only in Greece and Macedonia and Asia Minor, but also in Spain, and in Gaul, and in Liguria, a region that still retains the same name today, near Genoa. (Livy quips of the Ligurians: “This enemy seemed born for the purpose of preserving military discipline among the Romans, during the intervals between important wars.”) Yet from time to time we get a glimpse of domestic politics in Rome, and these glimpses are quite enjoyable.

Livy tells us, for instance, about a controversy that arose when it was proposed that the Oppian Law be repealed. This law, a war-time measure, had forbade Roman women to buy or wear ostentatious clothing or jewelry; they could show no signs of luxury while the men were in harm’s way and the public coffers were empty. However, with the coming of peace a move was made to remove the law. A drama arose when Marcus Porcius Cato (viz. Cato the Elder), one of the chief statesmen of his day, opposed the repeal. Livy gives us his splendid speech, in which he argued, in effect, that though the need for the law had been occasioned by the war, its effects had been, on the whole, beneficial, as tending to maintain an honourable austerity and suspicion of luxury, and that it should therefore be retained in perpetuity. The restrictions had been put in place to combat a real problem. Although Cato’s conservatism has irked some modern commentators — with one calling him a “self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude” — Livy admires him immensely.

About 10 years later (c.183) we read about a controversy which arose over the introduction of the Bacchanalia in Rome. These religious rites were an import from Greece, and were an occasion of scandal when the nature of the rites (drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, mixing of classes) and the extent to which they had infiltrated Roman society were made known. How much of Livy’s reporting of these matters is faithful, I am not sure, but in his telling the response of Rome’s civil leaders was swift and brutal, and the rites were suppressed.

Another religious controversy arose when some books, purporting to date from the reign of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, were discovered on the Janiculum Hill. The religious authorities found the books to be unsound inasmuch as they would tend to cast doubt on Roman religious practices. They were, accordingly, burned. Unfortunately Livy does not explain what was objectionable in them, but his brief account nonetheless exposes to view, like a crack in the foundation stone, the vulnerability of Roman religion.

Also, a note about domestic politics in Rome: in the early days of the republic the most important political posts had been those of the two consuls, and in this period the consuls remained important but were joined by six praetors and one censor. The praetors, like the consuls, were also military leaders, and were each assigned a theatre of conflict to manage, but the role of the censor is less clear from Livy’s account. What we do learn is that the censor had at least two roles in Roman life: he counted the number of Roman citizens (hence, our modern “census”) and he oversaw maintenance of Roman public morals (hence, our modern “censor”). It’s just interesting to see how these two quite different ideas came to bear the same name for us because they were originally conjoined in one Roman office.

**

This volume of Livy’s history was, for me, the most challenging thus far, principally on account of the tangled, disjoint, multi-faceted military history it has to tell, which I found difficult to follow. But the overall picture is clear enough: Rome expanded her sphere of influence into Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Syria, and the Roman Empire, or something very like it, was born. The next volume in this edition, which contains the last books of Livy to survive (Books 41-45), treats of a renewed challenge to Rome that arose in Macedonia after the death of Philip. Sometimes, it seems, a victory has to be won more than once before it takes.

[Liberty]
“Of all blessings none is more grateful to the multitude than liberty.” (XXXIII, 32)

[Jealousy]
“No personalities are as susceptible to jealousy as those of men whose strength of character does not measure up to their pedigree or status, because these people hate quality and merit in another.” (XXXVIII, 43)

[Reactionary politics]
“As diseases must necessarily be known before their remedies, so passions come into being before the laws which prescribe limits to them.” (XXXIV, 4)


Morton: A Traveller in Rome

November 5, 2017

A Traveller in Rome
H.V. Morton
(Methuen & Co., 1957)
432 p. Second reading.

I first read this book shortly after my first visit to Rome, in 2001. Having returned to the city four times in the intervening years, and having come to know it much better in consequence, I decided to revisit the book, both in order to return to the Eternal City in my imagination once more, and also to see how the book stands up. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

H.V. Morton was a British travel writer who wrote a shelf-full of books over the course of several decades, finding his first success in the 1920s and continuing to publish until his death in the late 1970s. I have a half-dozen of his books on my shelves, but as yet this is the only one I’ve read. My tardiness in this regard has to be attributed to culpable neglect or honest incapacity, because, on the basis of the evidence I have, he’s a fine and judicious guide, generous in judgement, discerning and articulate, and I’ve every reason to believe that those other books of his would be rewarding.

But the theme for today is Rome, a city that one walks, as Gibbon said, “with a lofty step”, surrounded on all sides by beauty and history, a great clamour in one’s ears and a great fullness in one’s heart. It was Garibaldi who called her “a dethroned queen”, adding that “from her ruins, immense, sublime, gigantic, there emerges a luminous spectre — the memory of all that was great in the past…”; and this is quite true. She is sublime, and she is gigantic. I’ll not forget the morning, a few years ago, when I entered the Borghese Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore for the early morning Mass, having flown to Rome late the night before for a weekend’s sojourn, and I stared, stupefied, at the thick marble columns, gilded angels, and hovering frescoes, and knew that I could be nowhere but Rome, sublime and gigantic.

Morton takes the reader through the city, exploring the famous monuments and some lesser-known sites as well, filling in the history with genial exactitude, giving us some notion of how the city has changed over the centuries, relating tales of memorable events and people, and also giving us a portrait of modern Rome — Rome of the 1950s, that is — and its citizens. I laughed in recognition at his account of a taxi ride through the city streets:

The driver of this car was a mild looking Italian until he settled himself behind the wheel, when he became aggressive, if not actually homicidal. We shot round the Piazza Barberini, weaving our way in and out at great speed, missing by an inch or so a man on a bicycle loaded with carnations, braking violently to avoid another car, shooting ahead to overtake it, for he was one of those drivers who consider it dishonourable to be passed, and darting up narrow Renaissance streets hooting insanely until the passers-by dashed for shelter.

‘In one year,’ he said, turning to me and accelerating, ‘I have nine accidents…’

As if this had not sunk into my mind, he took both hands off the wheel and shouted, ‘Nine!’

I will not try to summarize the contents of the book; if there’s something about Rome that particularly interests you, the probability is high that it is mentioned somewhere. He visits the Forum, the major basilicas and many minor churches, the Vatican, the principal fountains, the gardens; he makes side-trips to the catacombs and even to Castel Gandalfo (where I, alas, still have not been!).

Let me highlight a few my favourite passages.

On the overall plan of the city:

Rome has no centre. There is no part of the city which you can say at once is definitely the one and only heart of Rome… Instead of one great forum, Rome has innumerable piazze scattered all over the city, and the stranger cannot decide which is the most important. There seems little to choose between the Piazza Colonna, the Piazza Barberini, the Piazza di Spagna, the Piazza dell’Esedra, and all the other piazze; and even the famous Piazza Venezia, with its adjacent monument to Victor Emanuel, is more a landmark and a beacon to the stranger than a civic centre.

On the characteristic architecture of Rome:

The landscape of Rome is itself declamatory. Upon the roofline stand hundreds of gesticulating saints, their garments tossed about in a baroque breeze, their fingers admonishing, pointing and blessing. The undulating architecture with which the Church in the seventeenth century expressed its satisfaction with the Counter Reformation is itself a gay, inspiring background for gesticulation. It is a stage upon which a Puritan with modest, downcast eyes would be an impossibility: it is the Church flamboyant, the Church resurgent, the Church so sure of itself that it can be quite humorous at times.

On the sense of discovery one feels:

It is the singular charm of Rome that, turning a corner, one comes suddenly face to face with something beautiful and unexpected which was placed there centuries ago, apparently in the most casual fashion. Rome is a city of magic round the corner, of masterpieces dumped, as it were, by the wayside, which lends to the shortest walk the excitement of a treasure hunt.

**

Insofar as I can tell, Morton was not a Catholic, but he seems to have appreciated the Church, and he writes with knowledge and understanding about her prominent place in Roman history. Of the many religious pilgrims who visit the city every day, whom he calls “the original visitors to Rome”, he writes that “they may be strangers, but they are at home”, and this, too, captures something of the uniqueness of the city.

Most interesting to me was what he had to say about Pope Pius XII, who was pontiff at the time. For the past several decades, since the production of Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” in 1963, Pius XII has been criticized from various quarters for, at best, inaction in the face of the Nazi’s final solution, and, at worst, collaboration in its aims. Naturally the question of what Pius did or did not do to help the Jews in their darkest hour is a valid and valuable one, but Hochhuth’s charges owed more to imagination than any historical discovery — if they were not actually engineered by the KGB — and the least subtle of Pius’ detractors seem to have gone down to defeat.

In any case, Morton was writing before the controversy arose, and so the book gives us a window into what an informed non-Catholic thought of the Pope at the time. He says that “There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonized than Pius XII”, and then proceeds to tell how he first saw him during the praying of the Angelus at St Peter’s:

It may be a strange thing to say of a small figure in white on a distant balcony, but I was aware that this man was radiating to us all an extraordinary sense of peace and tranquillity; of holiness, for there is no other word.

Later he was granted a brief personal audience, about which he wrote:

When my turn came, I made my reverence and found myself looking with interest at the most beautifully made red velvet shoes I have ever seen. There was a small gold cross embroidered on the toe. The shoes looked comfortable, and the Pope’s foot was small, narrow, and aristocratic. I rose and found myself gazing into a pair of dark eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. I felt I was in the presence of a beautifully dressed hermit… Everything about him was fastidious. He had spoken French to the Arab, now he spoke in English with a strong accent, and when I answered his questions, he drew a beautiful cross in the air and passed on. And I knew that I had spoken to a holy man.

The interest in the shoes is consistent with Morton’s slightly aristocratic temperament, but it is clear that he admired the Pope greatly, and this, I believe, was a fairly common judgment at the time.

**

A book about Rome could never be a substitute for the real thing, but, as books go, this is a worthy one. I would recommend it most highly to readers who have already been to the city at least once; someone reading it sight-unseen would not, I think, reap so great a reward. This makes it rather peculiar as a guide book, but then again it is not really a guide book in that sense, but rather a memoir of one man’s experience of the city, and a testimony that

To seek out good thoughts and to reverence them is the privilege of those who have lived for no matter how brief a time in the mother city of the western world.


Bouteneff: Out of Silence

October 29, 2017

Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence
Peter C. Bouteneff
(St Vladimir’s, 2015)
250 p.

Of the books written about the life and music of Arvo Pärt, this is the first to focus specifically on the way in which his life and work are rooted in Orthodoxy, to which Pärt converted in the early 1970s. Given the obvious importance of sacred texts and religious tradition for Pärt, the book fills an important gap.

Bouteneff is a musician and an Orthodox theologian, and is co-director of the Arvo Pärt Project based at St Vladimir’s Seminary. If he is not the ideal person to write this book, I don’t know who is. He writes with an eye to how Orthodoxy has influenced Pärt’s life, and also to how Orthodox theology and devotion has affected the subject matter of his music and, in important ways, his musical approach.

Writing about Pärt almost invariably gets around to describing his music as “spiritual”, but it is less common to find it described as “religious”. Bouteneff welcomes the testimony of those listeners who, though not religious themselves and not particularly interested in Pärt’s religion, find something valuable and “spiritual” in the music, but the point of his book is largely to remind us that, however spiritual it may be, the music is definitely religious:

“To a person conversant with biblical, liturgical, and/or theological themes, locating the spirituality of Pärt’s music requires no great excavation: it is right there in the words, addressed to God, to Jesus, to Mary or another saint.”

Pärt’s compositional career falls into three main phases: an early period, in which he experimented with a variety of avant-garde techniques; a silent period, during which he immersed himself in Gregorian chant and polyphony but published few compositions; and, beginning in the 1970s, his tinntinnabulation period, when he wrote the music for which he is best known. Bouteneff is interested in all three periods, which he sees as closely related. Roughly speaking, the early period culminated in a compositional crisis in which Part did not know how to proceed; the silent period was the remedy for the crisis, during which he discovered both musical and religious sources that opened up, as the title of this book suggests, the artistic pathway that he has followed ever since.

The process by which he found his compositional voice again through contact with the ancient tradition of sacred music was more than just a musical one, but also a religious one. Pärt has said that sacred polyphony — the music of Palestrina, Josquin, Ockeghem, and the other great masters — can, he believes, only be fully received by someone who has learned to pray, for the music itself arises out of a life of prayer: “Only through prayer is it possible. If you have prayer in your hand, like a flashlight, with this light you see what’s there.” This was his own experience, and his learning to pray went hand in hand with his learning to compose again.

There is something odd about describing a composer’s years of silence as a phase in their artistic career, but for Pärt it seems apt. It is, at least, no odder than describing his music by talking about silence, which is nonetheless a pretty common response to it. His music seems to many listeners, myself included, to be in a kind of dialogue with silence. He allows silence to slip in between the notes — his scores often look mostly empty — and sometimes give the impression of having arisen out of silence in a way that most music does not. And, as Bouteneff’s book makes clear, there is a genuine truth in this impression, for Pärt has been greatly influenced, in his own inner life, by that stream of Christian devotion, often ascetic and monastic, in which silence plays a key role. Silence, in this tradition, is not emptiness, but fullness; not poor, but rich; for it is in silence that we hear God speak. Silence fosters prayer, and prayer, in its turn, fosters silence.

The book has many good things to say about silence in the Orthodox tradition; a parallel account of silence in the Catholic tradition would not be radically different. Bouteneff also brings in a few contemporary voices who speak specifically about the kinship of music and silence, such as Manfred Eicher (the founder of ECM Records, the label by means of which most listeners have come to know Pärt’s music) who once said that music bears the greatest hope of expressing the inexpressible, save only silence; or George MacDonald’s description of heaven as “the regions where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence“. Even Screwtape knew that there is a special relationship between the two, and Pärt’s music seems to capture and convey this closeness to an unusual degree.

Since the 1970s Pärt has, with rare exceptions, written music with a text — sometimes even his instrumental works are “texted”, although the text is not sung; this I did not know before reading the book — and the text has usually been a sacred text. Words are critical to Pärt as a composer; “the words constitute the skeletal structure on which his music is hung and which gives it its form”. This attention to integrating words with music has for him theological roots, being ultimately grounded in the prologue of St John’s Gospel: words are rooted in the Word, and all meaning is finally rooted in God. He has said,

These mystic words of the Gospel according to John, “In the beginning was the Word,” lie at the heart of it all, since without the Word, nothing would exist. I believe that this concept should not only be conveyed in the text, but in every note of the music as well, in every thought, in every stone. The roots of our skill lie in this thought: “In the beginning was the Word.”

His compositions, therefore, are intended to convey the meaning of the text, which at least suggests that listeners who are indifferent to the meaning of the text are missing something.

The final principal theme which Bouteneff draws on as being particularly pertinent to Pärt’s music and important in the Orthodox tradition is what he calls “bright sadness”: a kind of interpenetration of joy and sorrow that characterizes our lives, an acknowledgement that “there is no joy not tinged with grief, and no suffering beyond redemption”. Theologically, the Crucifixion is the exemplar of this conjunction, but Bouteneff discusses many sources, Biblical and otherwise, that highlight this mixed quality of experience. He notes that Pärt’s music is a particular favourite in hospices and palliative care wards, for it is music that has a sad quality (most of his compositions are in minor keys) but seems nonetheless infused with light and hope. It speaks to people who are suffering. This, too, I did not know, but can well believe.

*

There are now a number of good books about Pärt. I think the best is still Paul Hillier’s; for analysis of the music he is pre-eminent. But this book exploring the religious sources and character of Pärt’s art needed to be written, and I very much appreciated reading it. Bouteneff has not only helped me to better understand the music, but also encouraged me to listen more closely to several of Pärt’s recent compositions, such as In Principio and Adam’s Lament, to which I have not, for whatever reason, devoted much time. For this, I am grateful.