Vodolazkin: Laurus

July 14, 2016

Evgeny Vodolazkin
Translated from the Russian by Lisa Hayden
(Oneworld, 2015) [2013]
362 p.

The press surrounding Laurus has been so positive, and the book made to sound so intriguing, that it succeeded in coaxing me out from under my rock to buy a copy. First published in Russia in 2013, it accumulated a pile of literary awards, and the English translation appeared last year, accompanied by a chorus of praise.

The novel is about a fifteenth-century Russian healer named Arseny. He is a physician, of sorts, though he himself is uncertain how much of his success is due to his medicines and how much to the touch of his own hands. He travels from place to place, even making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His name changes several times; he accepts whatever name those around him wish to use, but it also happens that each name change corresponds to a change in his way of life.laurus-book

It is probably fair to see Arseny as an example of a “holy fool”: a saintly figure whose eccentricities both divide him from others and endear him to them. He lives alone much of the time, often under very ascetic conditions, on the outskirts of towns, even in a graveyard. He dresses in rags, his hair is dishevelled, he eats hardly at all, he seeks the company of the dead, yet he has a penetrating knowledge of hearts, and of the future, and people stream to him for cures.

Figures of this sort have appeared in sacred tradition, but, unless I am mistaken, there is usually something opaque about them. They fascinate precisely because they are so out of the ordinary; we can hardly imagine what is going on in their heads. Laurus is a remarkable example of an attempt to get inside such a character.

One of the more interesting aspects of the story is how it plays with time: telescoping it, folding it back on itself, collapsing the distinction between past and future. Several characters in the story have foreknowledge of future events, and Arseny sometimes simultaneously experiences himself at different stages of his life. The language of the book reflects this: the narrator speaks sometimes in Chaucerian English, sometimes in a traditional narrative voice, and sometimes in modern slang, sometimes all of them in the span of a single sentence. This is an intriguing literary device, although I admit that I am not quite sure why Vodolazkin has done this. It might be an attempt to suggest that a saint, as he approaches God, begins to experience something like the Eternal “now” of God’s timelessness.

Early in the book Arseny does something which leads to the death of one whom he loves, and this becomes the catalyst for his internal transformation, as he seeks to atone for his sins and those of his beloved. His life becomes one long exercise in the extinction of his ego, until he becomes a kind of window through which others see something radiant. He himself does not really see it. This course of self-denial reaches an apex in a remarkable scene in which he is given an opportunity to re-live that original, fatal decision, and when he chooses rightly it is at the cost of his last shreds of self-possession and respectability.

There is a good deal of religious content in the book. Some have claimed that the experience of reading it has led them to prayer, but I cannot say that was true of me. In fact, although Arseny is clearly an Orthodox Christian, there is relatively little Christian language in the book (there is some), and his spiritual life is not especially clearly focused on traditional Christian elements (as, for example, Christ, or the Church, or the Blessed Virgin, or grace). Alan Jacobs, usually an astute commentator on literary matters, described the book’s spiritual climate as being closer to Hunduism than Christianity; this strikes me as an odd and overly strong claim, but there may be a hint of something to it.

What bothered me most about the book was its tendency to be a bit quirky. I kept thinking of the magical realism of writers like Salman Rushdie or Umberto Eco — wonderful writers (and Vodolazkin, to the extent that he can be judged in translation, is a very fine writer too), but lacking in heft.

Overall, though, I did enjoy the novel, and I found that it improved as it progressed. I’d recommend it.


This review, from the New Yorker, is quite good.


July 10, 2016

By Davide Calandrini

Introducing Heidegger
Jeff Collins and Howard Selina
(Icon, 1998)
173 p.

A Very Short Introduction
Michael Inwood
(Oxford, 2002)
160 p.

Many years ago I embarked on a reading of Frederick Copleston’s eleven-volume history of philosophy, with the intention of reading it alongside a judicious selection of primary sources. Somewhere along the way — roundabout Volume 7, I think, or, put another way, roundabout the time I became a father — that project stalled. Consequently, I never did get to Martin Heidegger.

It would be fair to say that my preparation for reading Heidegger has been inadequate. I have no particular grounding in continental philosophy. I’ve never read Husserl or the other phenomenologists who influenced Heidegger. I’ve not read Foucoult or Derrida or the other gurus whom Heidegger influenced. For some time, however, I have become interested in him on account of the frequency with which his name has appeared in interesting contexts: in connection with Terrence Malick’s films, for instance, or in the philosophical theology of David Bentley Hart. From those sources I had inferred that Heidegger was, in some sense, the modern philosopher of being. Therefore I had mentally paired him with Aquinas, whom I think of as the medieval philosopher of being, and I surmised that reading him might contribute fruitfully to my more-or-less haphazard but more-or-less persistent ruminations on being, beauty, contemplation, and love.


Heidegger has a reputation as a difficult thinker. Insofar as I can tell, this is well deserved. In a sense, his writing is intentionally confounding, for one of his objectives was to subvert and overcome the conventional thinking of the Western philosophical tradition, most especially in its rationalist streams, and so he adopted a quasi-poetic, non-dialectical, non-analytic manner. This was not totally unprecedented in our tradition; arguably, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche adopted similar, if far more elegant, methods, but Heidegger himself seems to have looked to the pre-Socratic philosophers, like Heraclitus, for inspiration.


Both of these short introductory volumes emphasize that Heidegger’s central question was: what is being? (Thus confirming those rumours that had drawn me hither.) He thought that the West, starting with Plato, had forgotten being, and had instead devoted itself to mastering and manipulating (even if only through understanding) beings. We habitually focus on what things are, rather than on the fact that they are. Heidegger believed that the proper task of philosophy should be to draw attention back to this more fundamental question: what is being?

His pursuit of an answer — if indeed he pursued an answer in the conventional sense, which is doubtful — took him in directions that were surprising, at least to me. I would have expected that to answer his foundational question he would have turned to metaphysics, as Aquinas did, but, as I have learned, this way was blocked to him, for metaphysics belonged to the tradition he was challenging. He took a different tack: he focused on experience. He put human beings, and their particular ways of being in the world, at the center of his project. He used an odd word, Dasein, which means literally “there-being”, to refer to the thing we are — an unfamiliar word which he could proceed to define according to his own vision. He did not mean by this word a biological creature, but something expansive: “Dasein [is] that entity in its being which we know as human life; this entity in the specificity of its being, the entity that we each ourselves are, which each of us finds in the fundamental assertion: I am.”

And so he situates himself not in a lofty or abstract vantage point, but within the experience of being alive and conscious and human, and he starts there. His is therefore a philosophy “from the inside out”, if I can put it that way. It is here that the phenomenologists, with their careful attention to the shape and texture of lived human experience, inform his philosophy directly. For instance, when he discusses time — a very important part of his philosophy, as reflected in the title of his most important book — he challenges the linear model of time and its usual division into past, present, and future, for time is not actually lived in that neat way. Instead, the past is always present to us, both in memory and in the world as we receive it, and the future is present to us as we ponder its possible not-yets. The flow of time, too, is more flexible than the objective scientific view would indicate, for sometimes — in the company of good friends, for instance — time is experienced as passing quickly — but at other times — when attending a lecture on Heidegger, for instance — it is experienced as crawling along slowly. Or, to take another case, we do not experience space as geometric in the Cartesian manner, but a person who is distant can be brought near in experience if we see their photo or hear their voice on the phone.

Now, to a certain way of thinking, approaching fundamental questions about being in this way seems misguided and counterproductive. Instead of using the resources of objective, abstract reason, Heidegger has intertwined his inquiry with the peculiarities of human psychology. It’s a muddle. I am sympathetic to this appraisal, but, at the same time, I do not want to jump to conclusions. Before judging, we must do our best to really understand him, and this means taking seriously his critique of the “objective, abstract” principles on the basis of which we would judge him. I admit I’m not sure how to do that, but I if he is truly digging out the foundations, and succeeds, then the objection may not stand. And, to be fair, there is something inside-out about the rationalist tendency to give priority to objective, “scientific” concepts over subjective experience, when those very concepts have been formulated entirely within the framework of such experience, and are only ever present to us in the prior and enveloping context of such experience. Perhaps it is right, therefore, to see the experiential side as philosophically prior, and the objective side as a more or less brittle gloss. (I stop short of claiming this to be Heidegger’s reasoning; I’m simply not sure what he would say about it.)

Speaking of digging out the foundations, Heidegger challenged the usual notion of truth as “correspondence” between ideas and things, along with the concomitant notion that ideas are true or false. (Alarm bells begin to ring; this is a classic self-defeating view. But wait…) Instead, he proposes the notion of truth as “unconcealing”, in which beings are revealed to us in one or another of their aspects, and to varying degrees, at different times and in different contexts. On this view, truth is not saying or thinking the right things about objects, but a process or experience of disclosure or revelation. Our proper attitude is one of reception and attention, rather than judgement. We open ourselves to being, rather than imposing a conceptual framework upon it. Crucially, this is not actually a contradiction of the “correspondence” idea of truth, but rather a preamble to it, conceptually and experientially prior, for unless beings first disclose themselves to us, in the play of light and shadow of unconcealing, in the “field of relatedness”, we cannot know them at all, much less formulate true or false propositions concerning them. On the other hand, this notion of “unconcealing” is not one that we can test empirically to see if it is right, for this would put the cart before the horse, trying to slip the correspondence theory of truth into a crack where it cannot fit. Unconcealing can only be experienced, not verified.

As these reflections suggest, implicit in Heidegger’s view of being is a critique of technology — not of any particular technology, but of the technological mindset. For the tendency of the technological approach to the world, informed as it is by the long tradition of empiricist and rationalist philosophies of nature, is to obliterate the awareness of the truth of being as Heidegger conceives it. It is to approach things in a spirit of domination, rather than devotion. It is to demand, rather than to wait upon. It is an exercise of power, rather than contemplation. For Heidegger, technology leads us away from being toward oblivion. Therefore by advocating the view of being and truth that he does, he lays down a profound challenge to the whole modern project, more or less root and branch, which was explicitly founded on the principle that “knowledge is power”.

But there is one kind of “technology”, one way of “making”, that does not, or at least need not, fall prey to the danger of forgetting or obscuring being, and that is art. On the contrary, art has the power to reveal being with an unusual power insofar as it is attentive to being, “conferring brightness on the light itself”. This view of art seems to me to plumb deeply, a depth made all the more evident by contrasting it with the view of art which emerges most naturally from, say, an empirical, materialist worldview, in which it is extremely difficult to make any sense of art, or even of a particular work of art as a coherent unity, and of the experience of art as anything other than a peculiar neural epiphenomenon. And this suggests a paradox: namely, that a philosophical project founded on the priority of objective reality and public knowledge finally fails to deliver a world that makes sense, whereas a philosophy deeply grounded in the subjective experience of the world turns out to have further reach and richer resources.


Another aspect of Heidegger’s commitment to doing philosophy “in the first person,” as it were, giving subjectivity its full weight, is that he discusses matters that I associate with Kierkegaard and his existentialist offspring — matters of personal import about the interior life and relationships with others and with society. For instance, Heidegger has a good deal to say about the experience of being temporal. We are temporal creatures, living our lives in one direction, with our births and our society’s history behind us, and our future decisions and, at some point, deaths ahead of us. We have a certain amount of freedom to shape our own lives, but this freedom is hedged about by factors we cannot control. Our finding ourselves in this situation he calls “thrown-ness”: we are thrown into the world, confronted with forces and facts beyond our control. Yet we look forward, planning, preparing; this he calls “projection,” a kind of mapping out of the possibilities of our lives, including, eventually, death and the end of such possibilities. As I mentioned already, Heidegger is not greatly impressed by the old idea that the past and future do not exist, and that the present, which does exist, is but fleeting and ephemeral. For him, the past and the future are present, in experience, and both greatly enrich and influence that experience.

Yet the present retains a special status, for even if we remember or contend with the past and anticipate the future, each day we live now, today, and now is when the past and the future mingle. Heidegger identifies a temptation that arises in living out the present moment which he calls “fallen-ness”: a temptation to fall away from oneself and into society. A person who lives in this fallen state is one who lives, as it were, by proxy, taking their cues from those around them and “going with the flow”. It manifests itself in idle talk (such as one finds on weblogs like this one, for instance), curiosity, and something translated here as “ambiguity,” by which he seems to mean something like a falling away from deep understanding to surface chatter. Living in fallen-ness is the default state for most people most of the time, he says. But living in fallen-ness obscures Being; instead, one is immersed in and preoccupied with superficialities, alienated from true understanding, care, and moral responsibility — from what he calls “authenticity”.

Now, this language of “authenticity” has been so abused to justify a willfulness that is itself a flight from true understanding, care, and moral responsibility that we might justly groan when we hear it, but I do think that there is a hard kernel of wisdom here which no army of adolescents (of whatever age) can efface. There is an important difference, known to anyone who has tried it, between just going along with society, on one hand, and trying to live with integrity out of one’s commitments to truth and goodness, on the other. Where does society rub up against you?


Speaking of going along with society, Heidegger was a Nazi. He joined the Party in the 1930s, and remained in Germany during the war. Perhaps on analogy with Diogenes of Sinope and his bathtub (and perhaps not) some of his writings seem to try to integrate the aims of National Socialism into his philosophy. Most damningly, despite having lived until 1976, he never publicly disavowed his association with Nazism or condemned Hitler. This personal history has complicated Heidegger’s position in philosophical and cultural circles, to say the least. Was he a true Nazi or not? If he was, to what extent does this undermine or invalidate his philosophy? These are matters of controversy. The two books which have occasioned these notes take different positions: Michael Inwood argues that Heidegger’s philosophical eminence is not seriously impaired by his regrettable political life; Jeff Collins adopts a more ambiguous position.


These two books, by the way, which I turned to because I do not have leisure to read Being and Time itself, and also because I am afraid of it, served me quite well — insofar as I can judge of the matter. Both give overviews of Heidegger’s life, the currents of thought that influenced him, his main interests and ideas, and his influence on other philosophers. The volume by Collins is part of a series (“Introducing …”), and it reads more like a graphic novel than a regular non-fiction book: each page contains illustrations (by Howard Selina) with a paragraph or two of text. (Illustrating a book on Heidegger involves drawing quite a few pictures of a man sitting, looking thoughtful.) The book by Inwood is also part of a series (the Very Short Introductions), and it reads more or less in the usual way. Of the two, I much preferred the former. Not only was it shorter, but I found it significantly clearer, and it spent more time on topics of greater interest to me, such as Heidegger’s philosophy of being.


It was St Augustine who said that he wrote in order to find out what he thought, and this has been my experience while writing these notes. When I began, I was confused by these books and thought I’d write a cursory paragraph of two in vague summation. But as I wrote I began to see more clearly, enough at least to write what I have written, and I finish these notes in considerably better spirits than when I began. Naturally my understanding is still rudimentary, but I do feel that I’ve emerged from this exercise clutching more than just a handful of dust.

Moser: Most Ancient of All Splendours

June 13, 2016

Most Ancient of All Splendoursmoser-ancient
Johann Moser
(Sophia, 1989)
94 p.

I do not read a great deal of poetry, not as much as I should, certainly, and, having never shed my preferences for strict metrical and rhyme schemes, I read very little contemporary poetry. In theory, therefore, I shouldn’t have read Johann Moser’s collection of poems, and, having read it, I shouldn’t have liked it, but I did read it, and I did like it, and sometimes the world is a surprising place.

These poems reveal a poet steeped in history, with wide interests and sympathies. There are poems about Alexander the Great, about the great medieval monastery of St Gall, about Mozart, about Venice, about Gilgamesh, about Galileo, about World War II, about Erasmus, about Solzhenitsyn. There are poems based on musical forms — the caccia, the barcarolle, the berceuse — and there are poems of lament and poems of praise.

There are no poems of rhyme.

Moser is obviously a man of wide education, and an educated reader will be better positioned to understand and appreciate the poems, but they are far from dryly intellectual. On the contrary, a notable qualities of many of these poems is their sensual tangibility, the way they conjure up sights and scents, so that the reader feels present in the past:

Over studded mountains,
\, High-timbered slopes of the Absaroka,
\,  Storms of summer, swarthy-throated,
\,  \,  thundering down the valleys.
Hayfields buckle,
\,  Dust whirls on sagebrush hills,
Lightning brindles blackened skies.
And rain:
\,  Rain over grassy tablelands and wooded hollows,
Over white-bouldered rivers
\,  and bottomlands of cottenwood and aspen;
Slender sheaves of rain —
\,  Purple, gold, across the wilderness,
Trailing to bronze-rimmed prairies eastward.
And now,
\,  The glittering pinnacles of cloud and sun;
Glad arroyos splash,
\,  \,  dazzle amid canyons.
Sunlight showers
\,  through tender-dripping forests
And wet bark of giant spruce,
\,  \,  \,  \,  ponderosa —
\,  Fragrant in the valley winds.
Among clusters of gooseberry leaves,
\,  A black bear shrugs his dusky hide;
A puma sniffs the clear, cool air.
And listen:
\,  Birds are singing in the mountains.

— “Wyoming Rain”

That’s a highly irregular meter to deal with, but it certainly reminds me of the rain storms I experienced as a child on the prairies; I can feel the wind and hear the rain as they sweep across the land.

Here is an excerpt from a more metrically regular (and in that respect also more characteristic) poem, about the Battle of Riade between the Franks and the Magyars:

Then, at Riade, we mustered our brave legions,
\,  Mounting high before us the lofty Whalebone Rood
and Holy Lance of Imperial Constantine.
\,  Over us, unsteady heavens of storm and sunlight;
Packed battalions sloshed in river shallows,
\,  Their kirtles soaked and steaming in the morning heat.
The thud, flash of weaponry; shouts, assaults,
\,  Trumpets honking like wild geese within the bracken,
Sword-hilts slippery with blood and rain
\,  As thick carnage clotted marshy rivulets and streams,
And mounted spearmen butted, wallowed in the mud.
\,  Finally, rearing our banners upwards, we invoked
Lord Saba-ôth, Hoarder of Sky’s Kingdom,
\,  From whose stout-thonged, strong-thewed gauntlet
Angelic Mika-El, fierce sparrow-hawk,
\,  Swooped downwards through thunder-driven clouds,
Bearer of Sun’s blazoned baldric,
\,  Golden-armored, Barb of the Sacred Tempest,
Felled before him the heathen host
\,  That fled to craggy tors, the dense holt and hinterland.

— from “Henry the Fowler”

If, like me, you’d not given much thought to the Battle of Riade, or even, like me, never heard of it before, perhaps you find, as I do, that the poem is nonetheless evocative and exciting. It is rare to find modern poetry that can summon religious imagery and language without losing for a moment its muscular power, but Moser does it here. Just as rare is a poet who both knows and loves the long cultural tradition we have inherited — or could inherit, with enough labour, attention, and love.

I see that this volume has been reviewed at The University Bookman by Thomas Molnar, and his review is better than what I have written here. I recommend you now go there.

Henri Dutilleux

June 10, 2016

Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to the music of Henri Dutilleux in this, his centenary year. He is one of those composers whose music lingers on the fringes of the repertoire, not greatly beloved by many, but respected for its superb craftsmanship.

Like his fellow Frenchman Duruflé, he was extremely exacting in the demands he placed on himself as a composer, and he published only a small number of works over the course of his long life. He wrote two symphonies, a number of orchestral works, a violin concerto, a cello concerto, and a variety of chamber works. In the French manner, the interest of his music is largely in the textures and colours he is able to draw from the orchestra. A melodist he is not! He dandled with serialism, and his music does sometimes assume the astringent character of that school, but it is counterbalanced by his ear for lush and vibrant orchestral sound.

To give a flavour for his orchestral music, here is an excerpt of a performance of his Symphony No.1, written in 1951, with Hannu Lintu leading the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. It starts very quietly.

But the piece I have most enjoyed as I’ve been spending time with him has been his Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, for solo cello. Granted, I’m a pushover when it comes to solo cello, but this is truly enchanting music: subtle, elusive, strangely beautiful. Nicolas Alstaedt plays:

A constitutional right to palliative care

June 6, 2016

Starting today physicians in Canada can commit acts of assisted suicide and euthanasia without facing criminal penalties. The deeply flawed law proposed to regulate these “procedures” is still under debate in the Senate, so the present legal framework is murky. Looking for a silver lining in these dark clouds, I propose an argument I’ve not seen elsewhere.

In Carter v Canada the Supreme Court of Canada claimed to discover a right to assisted suicide (and euthanasia?) in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and more specifically in Section 7, which reads

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Initially — and perhaps also persistently — it seems mysterious that the Court would seek to ground a right to death in a constitutional provision protecting the right to life, but here is the Court’s reasoning in the Carter decision:

The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly. Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged. An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.

Focusing for a moment on the first part of the argument: the Court claims that a prohibition on assisted suicide violates the right to life because it forces some people to kill themselves before they otherwise would were assisted suicide permitted.

Let’s try to put this into the form of a syllogism:

(a) Forcing someone to kill himself violates his right to life.
(b) Failure to provide assisted suicide forces someone to kill himself.
(c) Therefore, failure to provide assisted suicide violates the right to life.

This reasoning is obviously tendentious — premise (b) is false — but for the moment let’s take it for granted. I want to suggest that this same reasoning implies that Canadians enjoy a constitutional right to palliative care.

The argument is simple: absent effective palliative care some individuals will be “forced” to kill themselves — whether directly or through activation of our newly-minted right to assisted suicide — earlier than they would had they access to palliative care. Therefore failure to provide such palliative care to Canadians violates their right to life. In the syllogism above, just replace “assisted suicide” with “palliative care”.

The other arguments deployed by the Court in the section above, pertaining to the rights to liberty and security of the person, are just as relevant to the case of palliative care: without access to palliative care Canadians cannot truly “make decisions concerning their integrity and medical care” (for at least one option for which they might decide is unavailable), and failure to provide palliative care abandons patients “to endure intolerable suffering” and so “impinges on their security of the person”.

Today only 16-30% of Canadians have access to palliative care.

MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin

June 5, 2016

The Princess and the Goblin
George MacDonald
(Everyman’s Children’s Classics, 1993) [1871]
340 p.

Our oldest children are now 4 and 7, and for some time I’ve been looking for a way to transition our bedtime reading from picture books to novels. With The Princess and the Goblin I think we might have finally managed it. The kids loved it.

The story is about a princess who lives in a mountainside castle, where the local peasantry are miners, digging tunnels deep into the mountain. Yet there is more activity under the hill than you might expect: long ago a group of disaffected subjects retreated under the mountain, and have nursed a hatred for the royal family for many generations. These goblins — for so they have become, hidden away from the sun and the fresh breezes — are also miners, and it is almost inevitable that at some point their tunnels will encounter those of the kinprincess-grandmotherg’s loyal subjects, and the ancient malice against the royal house break into the open…

This book was a favourite of C.S. Lewis, who was a great admirer of MacDonald. And G.K. Chesterton accounted it one of the books most formative of his whole outlook on life:

But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I ever read … it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald…

It really is a beautiful book, informed by courage and faith. On one level it is a rousing adventure story, of secret missions and clashing armies, but it has a mysterious register as well, a spiritual aura of goodness that emanates from Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother, who lives, under enigmatic conditions, in the little-frequented upper passages of the castle.

I do not know much about MacDonald’s theology, but for me the “great, huge grandmother” is redolent of the Blessed Virgin: a loving, maternal figure, clad in blue, surrounded by stars, and possessed of a rare grace and quiet power. She makes an effective contrast with the horrid goblins who dwell under the ground.

MacDonald wrote a sequel to this book, called The Princess and Curdie, which does not seem to be as widely read. But we enjoyed this one so much that we may try it.

Chesterton: What I Saw in America

May 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t say? He goes on to explain:

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

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

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

Lecture night: He said, she said

May 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leithart: Shining Glory

May 20, 2016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


A missed opportunity

May 18, 2016

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

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

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

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 412 other followers