Lecture night: Hart on consciousness

October 19, 2016

Today’s lecture is a treat: David Bentley Hart speaks about consciousness to an audience at (I believe) Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Hart is currently writing a book on the subject, a book which is to be an expansion of the treatment he gave the topic in The Experience of God. The talk describes a number of the problems faced by attempts to provide a materialist account of mind and consciousness, and outlines the features that a successful account of consciousness would need to have.

As usual with Hart, the ideas are challenging, the perspective is fresh, and the whole is expressed in melodious prose.

The talk raises a number of questions in my mind, but foremost among them is an issue that has long puzzled me. Many of the arguments against a materialist account of mind have the following structure: “Given the premises of the mechanical model of nature, it is impossible to provide a scientific account of this-or-that feature of mind.” The mechanical model is the one that has prevailed since the early modern period: the real is just atoms and the void, there are no formal or final causes, the mathematical structure of matter exhausts its properties. And, given those premises, I think the arguments Hart (among many others) offers are persuasive.

Yet it seems to me that one possible response, for those committed to a “naturalistic” view of mind and consciousness, is to challenge the prevailing premises of the mechanical model. Perhaps a materialist model of mind could succeed if the potentiality of matter were not stripped down to its mathematical minimum. For instance, if contemporary models of mind fail to bridge the gap between matter, on one hand, and characteristically mental properties (intentionality, unity, conceptualization, teleology), on the other, might this not be plausibly due to the fact that, in our theory of nature since Descartes, matter has been defined to have none of those characteristically mental properties, no final or formal causes? As such, the project was doomed from the outset by the very terms in which it was posed. If we were to restore the full panoply of causes to nature, à la Aristotle, might that not provide sufficiently rich resources to permit mind to find its place within the natural order? The pan-psychism that has been advocated by, for instance, Thomas Nagel, seems to me a step in this direction, and a not unreasonable one, given the objective and the obstacles.

In the lecture, however, Hart raises this prospect only to dismiss it, and I admit I didn’t understand his reasoning. If somebody feels able to explain this to me, I’d be grateful.

Cobbett: The Protestant Reformation

October 17, 2016

220px-william_cobbettA History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland
William Cobbett
(TAN Books, 1988) [c.1825]
432 p.

I do not know much about William Cobbett, but based on this book he seems the sort who had a habit of placing his index finger on the sternum of his conversation partners, who made honest but uncomfortable remarks at dinner parties, and who was a nasty thorn in the side of the establishment. He burned with zeal for justice. In this book he sallies out to slay a giant — the historiography of the English Reformation, which he calls “a mass of the most base falsehoods and misrepresentations” promulgated by “crafty and selfish revilers of the religion of our fathers” who are full of “presumption, impudence, inconsistency, and insincerity”.

Cobbett was himself a Protestant, but he despised the way the history of English religion since Henry VIII had been white-washed. Curiously, in this book he evinces little interest in “rites and ceremonies and articles of faith and rules of discipline”; he has no theological purpose. His wants simply to set the historical record straight, and then to argue that, quite apart from doctrinal matters, the Reformation was a social disaster for England.

His general view can be summarized, as gently and succinctly as possible, in the following way:

Now, my friends, a fair and honest inquiry will teach us, that this was an alteration greatly for the worse; that the “REFORMATION,” as it is called, was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood; and that, as to its more remote consequences, they are, some of them, now before as in that misery, that beggary, that nakedness, that hunger, that everlasting wrangling and spite, which now stare us in the face and stun our ears at every turn, and which the “Reformation” has given us in exchange for the ease and happiness and harmony and Christian charity, enjoyed so abundantly, and for so many ages, by our Catholic forefathers.

In other words, to counter the prevailing history in which Protestants did no wrong and Catholics did no right, Cobbett threw his weight heavily in the opposite direction, arguing not only that the motives and methods of the Protestants were evil, but that England before the Reformation was a kind of terrestrial paradise, untroubled by the problems besetting the sceptered isle in his own time. The lopsidedness of this view makes it vulnerable for many of the same reasons that the standard history was vulnerable, but, at the same time, it is rather thrilling to follow his take-no-prisoners approach.

A word-mincer he is not. He cites with evident relish Martin Luther’s description of Henry VIII as “a pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face”, and then piles on by calling the king a “savage monster” and “the most unjust, hard-hearted, meanest and most sanguinary tyrant that the world had ever beheld”. Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “a name which deserves to be held in everlasting execration; a name which we could not pronounce without almost doubting of the justice of God, were it not for our knowledge of the fact, that the cold-blooded, most perfidious, most impious, most blasphemous caitiff expired, at last, amidst those flames which he himself had been the chief cause of kindling.” Cromwell is “slavish and base”, “the most insolent and cruel of ruffians”. Elizabeth, lauded by Protestant historians as “good Queen Bess”, Cobbett dubs “ripping-up Betsy”, “inexorable apostate”, “horrible lynx-like she-tyrant”, “terrible she-tyrant”, “termagant tyrant”, and “the worst woman that ever existed in England, or in the whole world, Jezebel herself not excepted.” Reformers in general he calls “ruffian devastators” for whom “plunder, sacrilege, adultery, polygamy, incest, perjury, and murder were almost as habitual as sleeping and waking”. By contrast, the Catholic queen Mary — “Bloody Mary” by convention — he cites as an “example of fidelity, sincerity, patience, resignation, generosity, gratitude, and purity in thought, word and deed”. The standard history he assaults from every side.


Though Cobbett, as I said, does not try to argue specific doctrinal points of contention between Catholics and Protestants, and indeed seems to think them almost matters of indifference, he does not forbear to prosecute the case of inconsistency against the Protestant reformers. He wryly notes that the Protestant polemic against Catholicism — the “Scarlet Whore” — risks proving too much: so great was the Established Church’s debt to Catholicism that each polemical assault on the latter could not but weaken the former as well. The Protestant devotion to the Bible, for instance, could only survive in the company of anti-Catholicism so long as the Catholic origins of the Bible were ignored:

To a pretty state do we come, when we, if we still listen to these calumniators, proclaim to the world, that our only hope of salvation rests on promises contained in a book, which we have received from the Scarlet Whore and of the authenticity of which we have no voucher other than that Scarlet Whore and that Church, whose worship is “idolatrous” and whose doctrines are “damnable.”

Similarly he lampoons the notion that there could be any legitimate national head of the Church who promulgates teachings in contradiction of the Pope’s, and yet somehow not have the unity of that national Church with the Church universal be impaired:

It is perfectly monstrous to suppose that there can be TWO true faiths. It cannot be: one of the two must be false. … How is the faith of all nations to continue to be ONE, it there be, in every nation, a head of the Church, who is to be appealed to, in the last resort, as to all questions, as to all points of dispute, which may arise? How, if this be the case, is there to be “one fold and one shepherd”? How is there to be “one faith and one baptism”? how are the “unity of the spirit and the bond of peace” to be preserved? We shall presently see what unity and what peace there were in England, the moment that the King became the head of the Church.

This is not a theological problem, as such, but simply a logical one: the Church of England cannot both be and not be part of the Catholic Church.


But inconsistencies of this sort don’t matter greatly to Cobbett because he believes they didn’t really matter greatly to the Reformers themselves. Instead, to his mind the intellectual case against Catholicism, cobbled and threadbare as it was, was simply cover for the real motive: plunder. There was “plunder at the bottom”; plunder was “the mainspring” from which the rest flowed.

I won’t pretend to adjudicate the motives of the Reformers, but I will agree with Cobbett that it would be foolish to consider those motives without taking plunder into account. There was immense wealth at stake: Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, with the confiscation of their lands and goods, and then appropriation of Church valuables, and his decision to give that wealth to the co-operative noble families of the realm meant that the nobility had powerful incentives to let Henry have his way in religious matters. Cobbett argues that the treatment of Catholics was harsher than that meted out to other religious groups at odds with the king, such as Quakers and Jews, and he attributes this to the simple fact that the Catholics had the wealth that the king wanted.

Whatever their motives, the dissolution of the monasteries was, for Cobbett, the chief calamity of the English reformation, for it did immeasurable harm to rural England. The monasteries had been more than simply houses of prayer: they were the chief landowners, and landlords, in the nation. Each monastery was a central hub for agriculture and commerce, on which ordinary people depended for their livelihoods, and monasteries were, by and large, good for those who depended on them:

…The Monastery was a proprietor that never died; its tenantry had to do with a deathless landlord; its lands and houses never changed owners; its tenants were liable to none of many uncertainties that other tenants were; its oaks had never to tremble at the axe of the squandering heir; its manors had not to dread a change of lords; its villagers had all been born and bred up under its eye and care; their character was of necessity a thing of great value, and, as such, would naturally be an object of great attention. A Monastery was the centre of a circle in the country, naturally drawing to it all that were in need of relief, advice, and protection, and containing a body of men, or of women, having no cares of their own, and having wisdom to guide the inexperienced, and wealth to relieve the distressed.

And was it a good thing, then, to plunder and devastate these establishments; was it a reformation to squander estates, thus employed, upon lay persons, who would not, who could not, and did not, do any part or particle of those benevolent acts, and acts of public utility, which naturally arose out of the monastic institutions?

When the monasteries were seized and the monks and nuns evicted, all those who depended upon them suffered, for the nobles who received the properties did not, by and large, live on those estates, but governed them from afar, and without the personal investment and sense of responsibility that had previously prevailed. Cobbett argues that in time this sea change in English economic and social life gave rise to a new English type: the pauper, the truly destitute citizen who had nowhere to turn for help. It harmed everyone except the most powerful:

To turn the possessors of so large a part of the estates out of those estates, to destroy establishments venerated by the people from their childhood, to set all law, divine as well as human, at defiance, to violate every principle on which property rested, to rob the poor and helpless of the means of sustenance, to deface the beauty of the country, and make it literally a heap of ruins…

[The dissolution of the monasteries was] “a breach of Magna Charta in the first place; a robbery of the monks and nuns in the next place; and, in the third place, a robbery of the indigents, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”

This line of argument is, for me, among the most interesting and, assuming that the facts are straight, compelling that Cobbett offers. I’d not really considered the Reformation from an economic point of view before, my own interests tending in other directions, but I can certainly see that the “transfer of ownership” (forgive the euphemism) of all those abbeys — and there were hundreds at the time of the Reformation, dotting the landscape across the whole of England –churches, and lands must have had a significant effect on the tenant farmers of those lands. Cobbett follows this thread right down to his own time, arguing that, one thing leading to another, the rise of Protestantism in England was a cause of much of the economic devastation he saw around him, and even led to the national debt (by way of funding wars against Catholics)!


It is fair to say that Cobbett sees no redeeming features in the reign of Henry VIII, and his successor Edward VI doesn’t fare much better. He cites David Hume’s History of England — the “lying book, which the Scotch call our history” — which says that

“All English historians dwell with pleasure on the excellences of this young king, whom the flattering promises of hope, joined to many real virtues, had made an object of the most tender affections of the public. He possessed mildness of disposition, a capacity to learn and to judge, and attachment to equity and justice.”

To which Cobbett offers the acerbic rejoinder:

Of his mildness we have, I suppose, a proof in his assenting to the burning of several Protestants, who did not protest in his way; in his signing of the death warrants of his two uncles; and in his wish to bring his sister Mary to trial for not conforming to what she deemed blasphemy, and from doing which he was deterred only by the menaces of the Emperor her cousin. So much for his mildness. As for his justice, who can doubt of that, who thinks of his will to disinherit his two sisters, even after the judges had unanimously declared to him, that it was contrary to law? The “tender affection” that the people had for him was, doubtless, evinced, by their rising in insurrection against his ordinances from one end of the kingdom to the other, and by their demanding the restoration of that religion, which all his acts tended wholly to extirpate.

So much for Edward VI.


As I mentioned above, Cobbett’s general strategy of switching the labels on those traditionally designated unimpeachably-good or irredeemably-bad leads him to say kind things about Mary I. Now, the tradition had dubbed her “Bloody Mary”, which is, to say the least, rather one-sided, so Cobbett’s defence of her has merit simply as a corrective. In fact, he’s more nuanced in his defence of her than is typical for him: he defends her not as being above criticism, but as being no worse than Henry VIII or Elizabeth, and in some respects better.

He argues, for instance, that she was, at least, not a hypocrite: she persecuted those who held a faith contrary to her own, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who held a faith that she herself had previously professed and defended. Moreover, she persecuted those who departed from the faith of their parents, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who adhered to it; she defended the virtue of filial piety. Also, he argues that she acted as she did to contain and correct a situation created by her predecessors, not one of her own creation; she was a defender rather than an aggressor.

These and other arguments can be legitimately made in Mary’s defence (and other historians have expanded on the case). Though the lengths to which we will go to defend a woman who killed 283 (Cobbett thinks 277) of her religious opponents is necessarily limited. About these executions, Cobbett’s treatment is a mixture of fair and foul. Among his praiseworthy contributions is to point out that, although it is true that Mary re-instated statutes permitting the burning of heretics, statutes that had been previously repealed by Edward VI, it is not often noted that the reason Edward had repealed them was not from a surfeit of tender-heartedness, but because the statutes in question specifically authorized the burning of those who taught “contrary to the Catholic faith”, an awkward fact for Edward since it authorized the burning of his own party rather than his opponents. And although Cobbett correctly notes that Elizabeth executed more of her religious opponents than Mary did, he fails to note that Mary achieved her total in just a few years, as opposed to Elizabeth’s few decades.


Cobbett’s treatment of Elizabeth I is also fairly nuanced. It is true that he peppers his prose with a litany of devastating sobriquets, some of which I cited earlier. Here he sums up his case against her:

Elizabeth was as great a tyrant as ever lived; she was the most cruel of women; her disgusting amours were notorious; yet, she was the most popular sovereign that had ever reigned since the days of Alfred; and we have thousands of proofs, that her people, of all ranks and degrees, felt a most anxious interest in everything affecting her life or her health. Effects like this do not come from ordinary causes. Her treatment of great masses of her people, her almost unparalleled cruelties, her flagrant falsehoods, her haughtiness, her insolence and her lewd life, were naturally calculated to make her detested, and to make her people pray for any thing that might rid them of her.

We seem to have a puzzle before us: Elizabeth was cruel and detestable, but her people nonetheless rallied to her and were anxious for her well-being. The reason is not far to seek: the alternative to her was, by and large, considered worse. The alternative was subjection of England to foreign powers:

According to the decision of the head of the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was an usurper; if she were an usurper, she ought to be set aside; if she were set aside, Mary Stuart and the King of France became Queen and King of England; if they became Queen and King of England, England became a mere province, ruled by Scotchmen and Frenchmen, the bare idea of which was quite sufficient to put every drop of English blood in motion. All men, therefore, of all ranks in life, whether Protestants or Catholics, were for Elizabeth.

The “decision” alluded to was Pope Pius V’s Regnans in Excelsis, a papal bull which condemned Elizabeth’s birth as illegitimate and her claim to the throne as empty. Both charges were true, but if there were ever a case study to illustrate the value of a prudent silence, this is it, for the Pope’s bull put Elizabeth herself in an impossible position, provoked an intense persecution of English Catholics, and, in the end, nearly erased Catholicism from English life. Elizabeth acted from self-preservation:

In short, she saw clearly, that, if her people remained Catholics, she could never reign in perfect safety. She knew that she had no hereditary right; she knew that the law ascribed her birth to adultery. She never could think of reigning quietly over a people the head of whose Church refused to acknowledge her right to the crown. And resolving to wear that crown, she resolved, cost what ruin or blood it might, to compel her people to abandon that very religion, her belief in which she had, a few months before, declared, by praying to “God that the earth might open and swallow her alive, if she were not a true Roman Catholic.”

And so she prosecuted a policy of sustained and quite aggressive persecution of Catholics in her realm, a campaign that has been well-studied and about which I have written before (here). Cobbett also reviews the main features of this policy, and is quite good at conveying the experience of Catholics under what was, in effect, an early police state:

The Catholic gentleman’s own house afforded him no security; the indiscretion of children or friends, the malice of enemies, the dishonesty or revenge of tenants or servants, the hasty conclusions of false suspicion, the deadly wickedness of those ready to commit perjury for gain’s sake, the rapacity and corruption of constables, sheriffs, and magistrates, the virulent prejudice of fanaticism; to every passion hostile to justice, happiness, and peace; to every evil against which it is the object of just laws to protect a man, the conscientious Catholic gentleman lived continually exposed; and that, too, in that land which had become renowned throughout the world by those deeds of valour and those laws of freedom which had been performed and framed by his Catholic ancestors.

In the end, Elizabeth is portrayed as a ruthless and unprincipled monarch, but one whose hand was forced by papal imprudence and who acted to defend England.


With the accession of James I, Cobbett’s history begins to move more rapidly, and he returns to an emphasis on the social and economic consequences of the English Reformation. He argues, for instance, that the decision of the English monarchs to fight “no popery” wars on the continent led to the establishment of the English national debt, a millstone around the necks of all Englishman that continued to be borne in his day (and ours). (Yet I note that he does not consider the possibility that a Catholic England might have similarly fought “no popery” wars on the continent, but fought on the other side.) He describes the Penal Laws against Catholics that continued for generations after the Reformation, barring them from universities, civil or military service, and imposing other disabilities. He argues that James II was overthrown precisely because he suspended these laws and granted liberty of conscience; I don’t know this history well enough to know how plausible that claim is.

Although the French Revolution is not exactly part of English history, Cobbett can’t resist comparing the typical response of the English establishment to militant French atheism with the facts of England’s own history:

Now, in the first place, they saw about forty sorts of Protestant religion; they knew that thirty-nine of them must be false; they had seen our rulers make a church by law, just such an one as they pleased; they had seen them alter it by law; and, if there were no standard of faith; no generally acknowledged authority; if English law-makers were to change the sort of religion at their pleasure; why, pray, were not French law-makers to do the same? If English law-makers could take the spiritual supremacy from the successor of Saint Peter, and give it to HENRY THE-WIFE-KILLER, why might not the French give theirs to LEPEAU? Besides, as to the sort of religion, though ATHEISM is bad enough, could it be WORSE than what you tell us is “idolatrous and damnable”? It might cause people to be damned; but could it cause them to be more than damned? Alas!

And so it goes, as he brings his history up to the events of his own time.


The title of the book indicates that it is about the Reformation in England “and Ireland”. I haven’t said much about Ireland in these notes, and that because while Cobbett does occasionally refer to events in Ireland, he doesn’t give it a sustained treatment, and I don’t know enough to fill in the gaps. The Irish Penal Laws are his chief interest.


This is a highly enjoyable book. Yes, it is cranky, and surely a comparably-toned book written today would rub me the wrong way, but we make allowances for dear English eccentrics, and Cobbett is certainly one, in the best sense.

At the close of his book, he sums up his admirable motives in writing it, and it seems fitting to quote them in conclusion:

I have now performed my task. I have made good the positions with which I began. Born and bred a Protestant of the Church of England, having a wife and numerous family professing the same faith, having the mains of most dearly beloved parents lying in a Protestant church-yard, and trusting to conjugal or filial piety to place mine by their side, I have, in this undertaking, had no motive, I can have had no motive, but a sincere and disinterested love of truth and justice. It is not for the rich and the powerful of my countrymen that I have spoken; but for the poor, the persecuted, the proscribed. I have not been unmindful of the unpopularity and the prejudice that would attend the enterprise; but, when I considered the long, long triumph of calumny over the religion of those, to whom we owe all that we possess that is great and renowned; when I was convinced that I could do much towards the counteracting of that calumny; when duty so sacred bade me speak, it would have been baseness to hold my tongue, and baseness superlative would it have been, if, having the will as well as the power, I had been restrained by fear of the shafts of falsehood and of folly. To be clear of self-reproach is amongst the greatest of human consolations; and now, amidst all the dreadful perils, with which the event that I have treated of has, at last, surrounded my country, I can, while I pray God to save her from still further devastation and misery, safely say, that, neither expressly nor tacitly, am I guilty of any part of the cause of her ruin.

Dylan wins the Nobel Prize

October 13, 2016

I am delighted by the news today that Bob Dylan, my long-time pop-music pole star, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead of entering into speculations about whether a tune-smith really deserves to be so honoured, let’s enjoy the moment. Many happy returns!


I’ve written a lot about Dylan over the years. A list of posts should pop up if this link is clicked.

With his rumpty-iddity, rumpty-iddity

October 12, 2016

Chesterton was much interested in popular song in the modern world, where “popular song” is understood in the sense of “songs the people sing”. It is true that this was, already in his time, something of an antiquarian interest, with popular song, in this sense, having nearly disappeared from public life, and matters have not much improved in the meantime, to say the least.

He wrote a rather wonderful essay on the topic, “The Little Birds Who Won’t Sing”, in which he noted the disappearance of singing in modern employments, and proposed anthems for contemporary urban workers (bankers, mailmen, and so forth). It is always fun to revisit it.

I recently came across another, lesser-known essay (from Alarms and Discursions) in which he treated the same topic from another angle: he imagines modernist works of art, those “bewilderments of the solitary and sceptical soul”, re-cast in the model of folk songs, complete with “rumpty-iddity” refrains.

But the chorus of the old songs had another use besides this obvious one of asserting the popular element in the arts. The chorus of a song, even of a comic song, has the same purpose as the chorus in a Greek tragedy. It reconciles men to the gods. It connects this one particular tale with the cosmos and the philosophy of common things, Thus we constantly find in the old ballads, especially the pathetic ballads, some refrain about the grass growing green, or the birds singing, or the woods being merry in spring. These are windows opened in the house of tragedy; momentary glimpses of larger and quieter scenes, of more ancient and enduring landscapes. Many of the country songs describing crime and death have refrains of a startling joviality like cock crow, just as if the whole company were coming in with a shout of protest against so sombre a view of existence.

It’s a nice little piece, recommended and made available courtesy The Hebdomadal Chesterton. Read the whole thing.

The Book of Margery Kempe

October 6, 2016

The Book of Margery Kempe
Margery Kempe
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [c.1420]
336 p.

This autobiography, the earliest in English, was dictated to scribes (for Margery could neither read nor write) in the first decades of the fifteenth century. In it, Margery describes her spiritual life and her travels, and gives portraits of English life at the time.

Her writing has about it that same refreshing candidness and lack of pretension that I found in the writing of Julian of Norwich (whom Margery met on at least one occasion). She refers to herself as “that creature” much of the time, and is as matter-of-fact about the storms of her soul and the voices she hears as she is about weather and the hazards of travel.

Much of the book is devoted to Margery’s descriptions of her remarkably vivid spiritual experience. She reports having spoken with numerous saints — sometimes St Peter, sometimes St Paul, sometimes St Katherine or some other — with Our Lady, with Our Lord himself, and even with the Holy Trinity. She had an especially strong devotion to Christ’s Passion, and is regularly reduced to tears at the very thought of his suffering. Indeed, these plentiful tears, which she took as a special gift from God (“tears with love are the greatest gift that God may give on earth”), were also a recurring source of tension in Margery’s social circles, and I came to feel a certain affection for them. Again and again she describes how she was overcome with grief and cried out in great sorrow, with copious tears, abundant tears, astonishing tears, unquenchable tears, while those around her gazed with incomprehension or derided with scorn. “Some said it was a wicked spirit tormented her; some said it was an illness; some said she had drunk too much wine; some cursed her; some wished she was in the harbour; some wished she was on the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as he thought.” Margery was aware of the disdain, but, it seems, she remained grateful, for her tears “never came without surpassingly great sweetness of devotion and high contemplation”.

For me, among the most interesting parts of the book were those that described her travels. She made several pilgrimages, including journeys to Santiago, Jerusalem, and Rome. Late in life she volunteered to accompany a young widow from England to Germany. Her accounts are of great interest, partly for their details about the uncertainties of travel at that time, and partly for the descriptions of the places she went and the people she met.

The Book of Margery Kempe is not an immortal classic. It owes at least part of its fame to the mere fact of its survival (in a single manuscript, I note, which can be viewed online courtesy the British Library). I said above that Margery described her spiritual life in the down-to-earth manner in which one discusses the weather, and, as with descriptions of weather, a little goes a long way. But it was genuinely fascinating to read of her travels, to imagine her visiting places that I myself have visited, and to learn, through her, something of the attitudes and character of her contemporaries.


[Heavenly music]
One night, as this creature lay in bed with her husband, she heard a melodious sound so sweet and delectable that she thought she had been in paradise. And immediately she jumped out of bed and said, “Alas that ever I sinned! It is full merry in heaven.” This melody was so sweet that it surpassed all the melody that might be heard in this world, without any comparison, and it caused this creature when she afterwards heard any mirth or melody to shed very plentiful and abundant tears of high devotion, with great sobbings and sighings for the bliss of heaven, not fearing the shames and contempt of this wretched world. And ever after her being drawn towards God in this way, she kept in mind the joy and melody that there was in heaven, so much so that she could not very well restrain herself from speaking of it. For when she was in company with any people she would often say, “It is full merry in heaven!”

[God speaks to his daughter Margery]
“Daughter, you are as sure of the love of God, as God is God. Your soul is more sure of the love of God than of your own body, for your soul will part from your body, but God shall never part from your soul, for they are united together without end. Therefore, daughter, you have as great a reason to be merry as any lady in this world; and if you know, daughter, how much you please me when you willingly allow me to speak in you, you would never do otherwise, for this is a holy life and the time is very well spent. For, daughter, this life pleases me more than wearing the coat of mail for penance, or the hair-shirt, or fasting on bread and water; for if you said a thousand paternosters every day you would not please me as much as you do when you are in silence and allow me to speak to your soul.”

Things blight and beautiful

September 30, 2016

A few brief noteworthy items:

  • The Tragically Hip have been on tour in Canada, a final, farewell tour that was organized after frontman Gord Downie announced that he has brain cancer. Non-Canadians probably don’t understand the place of The Hip in Canadian pop culture: a band that at least aspires to art, that has nonetheless been consistently popular here, but a band that never made it big outside our borders. I am not a huge fan, but I will be sorry to see them go, and naturally I wish Downie and his family well. That said, the laudatory coverage of this final tour in the Canadian press has been a bit hard to take at times, and I admit I was rather grateful for this high-spirited critique of their “spasmodic non-sequiturs and salvos of blurry amplification”.
  • For the opposite of blurry amplification, check out this charming video of Boris Giltburg, who found an upright piano in a train station and decided to pass the time by tinkling a few keys. (The music is the middle section of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7.) Isn’t music a wonderful thing? (Hat-tip: The Music Salon)
  • Speaking of beauty, an interview with Peter Kwasniewski reviews a century of Catholic teaching on sacred music and argues that the beauty of our worship should be a central concern for Catholics:

Human beings need beautiful things; human beings long for beautiful music that is suited to divine worship. The liturgy is supposed to be special; it’s not supposed to be an everyday affair. It’s not supposed to look or sound like the prevailing popular culture. It’s supposed to be different, distinctive, an encounter with the transcendent God.

  • A few years ago I reviewed Robert Reilly’s wonderful book Surprised by Beauty, an alternative history of twentieth-century music that focused on composers loyal to tonality and dedicated to making something beautiful. A new edition of the book, much enlarged, has just been issued, and here is a good interview about it. I hope to get this book for Christmas.
  • Terrence Malick’s new film, Voyage of Time, is set for wide release soon. I missed seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival, but I’m determined to see it once it hits theatres. Early reviews have been mixed: Richard Brody at The New Yorker loved it, Ben Croll at IndieWire hated it, and I’ll just have to see it for myself. Here is the trailer:
  • The title of this post promised blight. The other day I walked past the north side of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum:royal_ontario_museum


For an envoi today, let’s hear one of The Tragically Hip’s best songs:

Children’s books: here be dragons

September 26, 2016

Beowulf the Warrior
Ian Serraillier
48 p.

A number of authors have distilled Beowulf into a version intended for children, but this is the only one of which I’m aware that does so in verse. Serraillier condenses the original 3800 lines of the poem into about 800 lines of blank verse. All of the essential plot elements of the story are included, and quite vividly depicted. Overall, the writing would be challenging for young children, but I think would be suitable for roughly ages 10 and up. This edition is complemented by interesting illustrations by “Severin”.


St. George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti
(CreateSpace, 2014)
162 p.

This short novel tells the story of Marcellus, a Roman soldier who encounters a fierce dragon lurking on the outskirts of his father’s estate. The story has a two-fold motion: the conflict with the dragon gradually escalates, on one hand, and on the other Marcellus encounters Christians and is gradually converted to the new faith (taking the baptismal name George). The two arcs come together in a final battle between George and the dragon — but of course we knew that would happen.

It’s a first novel for Michael Lotti, and quite a good one, best suited, I would estimate, for children aged about 8-12. The writing is not as supple and convincing as one gets from the most accomplished children’s writers, but the characters are well developed and the story is an interesting one. I would like to know how much of the material comes from the legends about St George, and how much was Lotti’s own creation. For me the most engaging aspect of the book concerned Marcellus’ encounters with the Christians, and especially with an itinerant Christian bishop named Agathon; there is a good deal of inspiring catechesis packed into those conversations, but I never felt that I was being preached to. I will certainly encourage my kids to read the book when they’re a little older.


The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
(HarperCollins, 2007) [1937]
300 p.

This was my third or fourth time through this book, but my first with the kids, to whom I read it aloud. I have not a great deal to a say about it, apart from reporting that it was a huge success with the older kids (now aged 5 and 7). Actually, the experience of reading it to them was enriching for me too; I do not recall enjoying it on previous readings as much as I did this time.

It is always amusing to see the light-hearted, gee-whiz attitude this book takes to the One Ring, which we know will later prove to be so doom-laden. I used to surmise that Tolkien had not yet worked out the Ring’s significance at the time of writing, but this time I noticed that he returns to the Ring at the very end, emphasizing that it was a secret ring and that Bilbo never spoke of it to anyone. This inclines me to suspect that Tolkien did know its significance after all.

Das Nibelungenlied

September 13, 2016

Das Nibelungenlied
Translated from the Middle High German by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 2006) [c.1200]
375 p.

The Germanic tradition of stories about the Nibelungs was familiar to me only through Wagner, but for some time I had wished to acquaint myself with the medieval roots of the legendarium, and at long last I arrived at this Song of the Nibelungs, which is one of the chief glories of that tradition. It was written by we know not whom, and we know not when (but probably around the year 1200).

I first noticed that although the story shares a number of characters with Wagner’s version — Sifried, Brunhild, Hagen, and Gunter, principally — the story as a whole bears no resemblance to Wagner’s, not even in the sections about those shared characters. But in adapting the story for his own purposes Wagner seems to have been in good company, for there is a rich and complex manuscript tradition testifying to the malleability and creativity with which medieval culture treated these tales. The translator, Burton Raffel, does not explain why it was this version of the story which he chose to translate, and I rather wish he had.

The basic arc of the story concerns two royal marriages which, poisoned by jealous pride and suspicion, erupt into violence that eventually leads to the downfall of all. Surprisingly (for those coming to the story from Wagner) there are no gods in the cast, and, although there are cursory references to Christianity here and there — the characters hear Mass in the morning, for instance — the poem as a whole shows little interest in religion, and is far from pious in spirit. There are a few magical elements around the edges, as when one character hears a prophecy from fountain sprites, but otherwise the tale is grounded in the political and interpersonal world of its characters.

I almost wrote that it is grounded in “realism”, but that would not be quite right. The knights at the center of this story — Sifried, Volker, Gunter, Hagen, Rudigor, and a few others — are heroes of legend, which means they fight with superhuman strength, slaying dozens or hundreds of adversaries with ease. The women are surpassingly beautiful. Everyone is impossibly polite: indeed, a significant part of the poem is devoted to the niceties of courtly etiquette, with page after page devoted to the elaborate ceremonies of court: gift-giving, welcomes, and feasts. The author seems to relish the intricacy and formality of these encounters, and the reader — the happy reader, at any rate — will relish them too.

The poem is not all please and thank-you, however. When things go wrong, they go very wrong, and death stalks through these stanzas. The poet’s dramatic strategy is to tell us in advance that things are going to turn out badly, and this is effective, for we as readers are then alert to missteps in courtly protocols and intimations of interpersonal friction:

The king’s attendants hurried \, about, making the royal /
palace fit for a visit \, from eagerly awaited, /
deeply beloved guests. \, Everyone was joyful, /
ready to welcome those \, their king had invited, who would try to destroy him.

(I note with some dismay that when formatted in WordPress the lines are too long for the available space. Slashes inserted to indicate the ends of lines.)

At its most violent, the poem can be quite gruesome. Here the Burgundian prince Giselher speaks following an extended battle against the Huns:

“We can’t afford bodies \, lying under foot. /
Before the Huns can claim \, victory in battle, /
we’ll get to chop them up \, again, which makes me happy. /
And I intend,” said he, \, “to have as good a time as I can.”

“Now that’s the kind of ruler \, I like having,” Hagen /
said. “Only a real \, warrior talks that way, /
gives you the kind of advice \, my prince has given today. /
All you Burgundy men \, should rejoice. That’s all I have to say!”

They did as the prince advised, \, and carried seven thousand /
bodies out the door \, of the hall. Then they dropped /
the corpses down the stairs, \, and left them where they stopped /
rolling. The dead men’s families \, wept and cried, and wrung their hands.

Some of the wounded men \, were still alive, at the start, /
and could have been completely \, healed, if cared for. The jarring /
fall had killed them, every \, single one. Their friends /
and families wailed in sorrow \, for such a bitter, painful end.”

It is worth noting that Giselher and Hagen are not the villains of the piece, but instead something like its heroes. In fact it’s not so easy to say just who the heroes are: everyone has faults, and everyone pays for those faults in the end. To my mind Sifried comes closest to being an unequivocal hero, but (***spoiler alert***) he is killed off in the early going, the victim of jealousy born of misunderstanding. His wife Krimhild is the wronged party who seeks revenge, which might, on a warrior’s code, be the honourable course, but she too is vindictive beyond measure. The poem is morally complex.


The original poem is written in quatrains consisting of rhyming couplets: AABB. Each line is divided into two halves, with each half-line having three (or, in the case of the last half-line of each quatrain, three or four) stresses. Raffel has tried to preserve this structure in his translation, but inevitably compromises were necessary. He has strictly preserved the metrical scheme, as is evident from the passages cited above. He claims to have usually preserved rhyme as well, but to my ear the rhymes are often only approximate, and as I read I was almost never aware of them.

Even with those efforts to preserve the poetry of the original, I confess I often found the translation very “prosy”. Here’s a sample stanza, plucked more or less at random:

Whatever other warriors \, did and were able to do, /
Dancwart and Hagen and many \, courageous, accomplished knights, /
however heroic they were, \, princess, it still remains true /
their deeds were nothing at all \, compared to noble Sifried’s might.

Take out the tabs and carriage returns and — again, judged by my ear — this turns into rather plain prose. It does rhyme, I grant, but it doesn’t sing to me, and I wish it did. Perhaps this can help me explain:

Take out the tabs and carriage \, returns and — again, judged /
by my ear — this \, turns into rather plain /
prose. It does rhyme, \, I grant, but it doesn’t sing /
to me, and I wish it did. \, Perhaps this can help me explain.

That rhymes at least we well as one of Raffel’s typical stanzas, and it has the right stress pattern, but I’d not call it poetry.

Having said that, the stress patterns did sometimes serve as a helpful guide to emphases in the lines. Take this example, for instance:

Then Krimhild’s father-in-law \, approached her, and said to the queen: /
“We ought to be at home. \, Neither of us can feel /
like welcome guests, here \, in Wurms along the Rhine. /
My dear Krimhild, now \, we need to return to my land. It’s time.

In the third line “here” gets a stress, emphasizing that where they are is the problem, and in the fourth line “now” gets a stress, emphasizing the need for immediate action. Were that stanza smeared out into prose, I’m not sure I’d read it in quite the same way.

Despite the difficulties I had with the translation, we English speakers do not have many means by which to get to know this poem, and I am grateful for Raffel’s labours.


Das Nibelungenlied is a great poem, one especially bracing for readers from our culture, for in it we encounter a world quite other than our own, where honour and strength are the leading virtues, and in which courtesy and violence are engaged in a high-stakes contest of wits. It has a cast of characters that is memorable in action and manageable in size, and strong dramatic instincts. In the sweepstakes of medieval Germanic poetry it doesn’t displace Beowulf in my affections, but I did certainly enjoy reading it.

Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

September 6, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli
(Riverhead, 2016)
96 p.

These short “lessons” were originally serialized in the Italian press, and are here collected and rendered into elegant English. Rovelli is an eminent physicist who gives us a series of meditations on developments in physics since 1900.

They are arranged in order of increasing speculation: he begins with general relativity and quantum mechanics, presenting in non-technical language the main points — space and time are dynamic and responsive, and are filled with a restless boil of quantum fields. He proceeds to give brief — and I do mean brief — overviews of modern cosmology and the Standard Model of elementary particles. All of this is solid science; questions linger, of course, and he draws attention to those loose threads and nagging problems, but basically he is describing successful theories.

In the last three sections of the book he moves to topics of greater uncertainty. The outstanding problem of how to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics he broaches with a very interesting discussion of theories of loop quantum gravity, the basic postulate of which is that space-time is quantized. (Rovelli is himself one of the architects of this theory.) Amazingly, and rather gratifyingly, he doesn’t even mention the other principal effort to solve this problem: string theory. This is unquestionably the book’s finest witticism, one that I imagine has raised a few consternated eyebrows in faculty lounges.

The last section specifically about physics tackles the vexing puzzles that arise at the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Laying great stress on the time-irreversibility of thermodynamic processes, he argues that thermodynamics has something crucial to tell us about the uni-directionality of time itself. This is a common trope in physics circles, but, correlation not being causation, it seems to me suggestive at best. But then he reminds us of Hawking radiation, in which quantum effects near black holes actually cause them to radiate heat, and one feels a chill of delight running up the spine.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the book’s final chapter, in which Rovelli takes a step back to ponder the implications of all this for human self-understanding. He emphasizes that modern physics has revealed the world to be radically different from the way we intuitively think of it, which is fair enough, and then argues that more such intuitions — those pertaining to human freedom, for instance, or consciousness — are due to be superseded by counter-intuitive scientific explanations. There appears to be nothing more to his argument than the power of analogy. He tries to declare a peace between his commitment to the power of physics to completely describe the world, on one hand, and his commitment to the legitimacy of humanistic values, on the other, but it is far from convincing. And he is rather dispiritingly emphatic in his devotion to immanence:

“Immersed in this nature that made us and that directs us, we are not homeless beings suspended between two worlds, parts of but only partly belonging to nature, with a longing for something else. No: we are home.”

Nothing new here, of course, and this view does have about it a certain poetry — he even cites Lucretius, the patron poet of materialism — but there are such a host of issues being passed over in silence that such poetry as it possesses sounds rather hollow.

The book is written in a lyrical tone, and would be accessible, I imagine, to anyone who has an interest in the subject matter. There is only one equation — Einstein’s field equation for general relativity, which he describes as “the most beautiful of theories,” and I’ll not argue with that.

Blessing of bacon

September 1, 2016

Apparently this is a real thing:

Bless, O Lord, this bacon, that it may be an effective remedy for the human race, and grant that through the invocation of Thy holy name all those who eat of it may obtain health of body and protection of their souls. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

They’ve thought of everything, I tell you…

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