Archive for August, 2007

Our times?

August 31, 2007

The Present Age (1846)
Søren Kierkegaard (Harper, 1962)
108 p. First reading.

This small volume collects two essays. The first, entitled “The Present Age”, was part of a book review Kierkegaard published in 1846, and the second, entitled “Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle”, is excerpted from his rarely read work The Book on Adler. Both essays were written under his own name, and belong to his direct communication. They are each, in their different ways, part of a polemic directed against the spiritual lassitude of Christendom, but the themes are sufficiently different that I will discuss them separately.

The Present Age

This, the more substantial of the two essays, belongs to the time-honoured tradition of the jeremiad. It is a passionate, fiercely witty critique of modern Western society. I often have doubts over how to receive such works. Casting aspersions has a certain affinity with casting horoscopes: almost anything one says will be true to some extent. This is probably unavoidable when your target is a many-headed hydra like “modern society”. The mere fact that one can think of counter-examples doesn’t mean the critique is worthless.

The general picture Kierkegaard sketches of modernity is not very positive. It is an age of advertising and publicity; it lacks magnanimity; it is satisfied with loud talk and mediocrity; it shuns self-sacrifice and renunciation. It is clever, and believes that it sees through things. It does not see the value of eros; it lacks enthusiasm and sincerity in politics and in religion; it is without piety, modesty, or repentance; it destroys authority; it is reflexively skeptical. It is an age that would rather gossip about inconsequential matters than boldly commit good or evil deeds. It encourages a slackening of intensity in the inner life.

His central claim, from which the rest of the argument flows, is stated at the beginning:

Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose.

He is not completely clear what he means by this “reflection” which is the key note of modern life, but I believe he means something like “ratiocination”, a logical but bloodless exercise of the intellect that neither draws on nor sustains moral convictions. As I read, I was tempted to associate his “reflective men” with C.S. Lewis’ “men without chests”, and I believe the comparison is a fair and instructive one. “Reflection” is constantly contrasted with “passion”.

One of the disorders that plagues a reflective soul is a gradual incapacity to act with confidence or decisiveness. Rather like Hamlet, a reflective man is paralyzed, his actions “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. A reflective man can become genuinely trapped in his own dialectic, unable to find his way out. Some, in an attempt to make a virtue of an apparent necessity, even claim that this paralysis constitutes a higher state of life:

With every means in its power reflection prevents people from realizing that both the individual and the age are thus imprisoned, not imprisoned by tyrants or priests or nobles or secret police, but by reflection itself, and it does so by maintaining the flattering and conceited notion that the possibility of reflection is far superior to a mere decision.

A consequence, says Kierkegaard, of this mindset is a gradual retreat into abstraction. As passion subsides, rationality detaches itself from the deep places of the inner life, and one begins to live by abstractions instead of values. (In a long digression he laments the practice of acting “on principle”, seeing it as a manifestation of exactly this drift toward mere rationality.) As the commitment to values erodes, so does their power to compel action and to foster ambition. Reflection “leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance”. The result is a loss of character (in the sense of uprightness and fortitude) and inwardness.

At this stage Kierkegaard introduces something unexpected. He argues that the process I have described results in a soul dominated by envy. It is somewhat unclear what he means by this, but it seems to be something like conformity, or mimesis. It is a desire to be like others in a spiritual and psychological way. It is fair to ask why he comes to this conclusion. Here is one possible explanation: if it is true that one’s basic convictions grow thin and insubstantial under the influence of dialectical reflection, it is reasonable to suppose that one loses a basic awareness of and orientation toward the good. But without that transcendent pole-star to guide, would it be surprising to find people looking about at one another for guidance? If the vertical dimension of one’s inner life is closed off, one naturally defers to the horizontal. If one is particularly lacking in spirit (as Kierkegaard supposes), the easiest thing is simply to copy others. Thus, envy.

In fact, he argues that the envy works in both directions. Not only do we want to be like others; we want others to be like us. This results in levelling, the next major theme of his critique. He defines levelling as “the negative unity of the negative reciprocity of all individuals”, which doesn’t help me very much. Levelling tries to erase the differences between people (think “non-discrimination”), and idealizes the concept of equality. Kierkegaard sees levelling as an externalization of the same process wrought by reflection in the inner life; it is the public face of reflection. If no values are very important, or compel assent, or are non-negotiable, there can be little reason to allow them to divide us. It would be better if we were all the same, or, what amounts to the same thing, if our differences were declawed and rendered harmless, even to the point of their being something worthy of benign “celebration”.

In making this last point, I seem to be following his logic fairly competently, for he stresses that reflection compensates for its loss of intensity by expanding its scope. This is accomplished by doing away with crucial distinctions that, in the past, have served as barriers to contradiction. The present age can flirt with contradiction because it doesn’t really insist on its ideas anyway; diversity becomes a good on its own.

Having done away with the distinction between talking and keeping silent, the present age is talkative. The silence of the inner life should be where passion and conviction ripen into action, but a passionless soul is empty, and chatters to distract itself. Having done away with the distinction between form and content, the present age is formless. That is, it values content without form, without context, and is happiest when “the most varied ideas are found dallying in the same company”. Having done away with the distinction between concealment and manifestation, the present age is superficial. “The concealment and reserve of inwardness is not given time in which to conceive an essential mystery, which can then be made manifest, but is disturbed long before that time comes…” Having done away with the distinction between love and debauchery, the present age is flirtatious. Flirtation is surface play, and tries to combine the indiscriminateness of debauchery with the exclusivity of love: “one can flirt with anything, but one can only really love one girl”. Having done away with the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, the present age is rationalized. It traffics in abstractions, as we have said, and individuals do not appropriate truth subjectively. They have knowledge, but not character giving rise to action.

That sounds pretty bad, and to the extent that it is true, it is bad. But all is not lost. This would not be a true jeremiad in the Biblical tradition if there were not a ray of hope breaking through the dark clouds. It will be clear, either from certain things I have written here, or from acquaintance with Kierkegaard’s other works, that he sees the remedy to the disorders of the present age in a return to inwardness and religion, for the inner life derives its intensity from its awareness that it stands before God and is called to goodness:

. . .unless the individual learns in the reality of religion and before God to be content with himself, and learns, instead of dominating others, to dominate himself, content as priest to be his own audience, and as author to be his own reader, if he will not learn to be satisfied with that as the highest, because it is the expression of the equality of all men before God and of our likeness to others, then he will not escape from reflection.

It is in the inwardness of religion that one learns the meaning of responsibility, conviction, and courage, and is equipped to live them out. The very assault that the present age makes on inwardness and religion spurs souls to resist it, and therein lies the seed of renewal.

Much of this argument is plausible, and I think it deserves attention. In my view, the picture he paints of modern society is in many respects faithful to the original. The fact that he ties everything back to a particular disorder of the inner life is most interesting. It is too bad that he doesn’t try to understand why that particular disorder is overtaking modern souls — I mean the loss of passion and the ascent of reflection. Well, everyone has to start somewhere.

As I said at the beginning, I have trouble knowing in what spirit I should take such critiques. When someone cries out that society is in decline and that things are bound to go from bad to worse, what should I do? In his parting words, Kierkegaard himself addresses my concern:

All this is only fooling, for if it is true that every man must work for his own salvation, then all the prophecies about the future of the world are only valuable and allowable as a recreation, or a joke, like playing bowls or cards.

Nothing is inevitable. The world will only be changed by changing one person at a time, beginning with yourself. This is true.

“And so when the generation, which itself desired to level and to be emancipated, to destroy authority and at the same time itself, has, through the skepticism of the principle association, started the hopeless forest fire of abstraction; when as a result of levelling with this skepticism, the generation has rid itself of the individual and of everything organic and concrete, and put in its place ‘humanity’ and the numerical equality of man and man: … then the time has come for work to begin, for every individual must work for himself, each for himself.”

[Ethical satire]
“Now satire, if it is to do good and not cause immeasurable harm, must be firmly based upon a consistent ethical view of life, a natural distinction which renounces the success of the moment; otherwise the cure will be infinitely worse than the disease.”

Of the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle

According to Kierkegaard, the central difference between a genius and an Apostle is that while a genius has influence by virtue of his talent, spirit, intelligence, or profundity, an Apostle has authority by virtue of his election by God. It is a qualitative difference. The Apostle belongs to and speaks from the sphere of transcendence, the genius from that of immanence.

Kierkegaard accuses his co-religionists of confusing the two categories by speaking of Apostles (or, we might add, anyone with religious authority) as though they were geniuses. Thus one hears evaluations of St. Paul based on the beauty (or the lack thereof) of his writing, or one hears that Christ merits respect because of the profundity of his teachings. These aesthetic criteria, says Kierkegaard, miss the point entirely, and their use is a stratagem to avoid divine authority. What, after all, should we think of a soldier who obeys his superior’s orders only because of their eloquence? To attempt to treat authority in this manner is to deny that it is authority at all. True filial obedience looks through the manner of expression to the meaning.

And it’s a good thing, too. An Apostle’s words, after all, will often lack those marks of greatness that distinguish the genius, for an Apostle is not an Apostle by any merits of his own, but only because he has, unaccountably, been called:

To become an Apostle is not preceded by any potential possibility; essentially every man is equally near to becoming one. An Apostle can never come to himself in such a way that he becomes conscious of his apostolic calling as a factor in the development of his life. Apostolic calling is a paradoxical factor, which from first to last in his life stands paradoxically outside his personal identity with himself as the definite person he is. A man may perhaps have reached the age of discretion long ago, when suddenly he is called to be an Apostle. As a result of this call he does not become more intelligent, does not receive more imagination, a greater acuteness of mind and so on; on the contrary, he remains himself and by that paradoxical fact he is sent on a particular mission by God.

This essay throws a valuable light on Kierkegaard’s thinking about faith. He is sometimes cast simply as an individualist and subjectivist who railed against the hierarchy and established church of his time. But this essay makes clear that he was not railing against the foundations of the church; he saw an irreducible need for authority and obedience in the Christian religion.

Feast of St. Augustine

August 28, 2007

Augustine received his name either on account of his high dignity or because of the fervor of his love, or again due to the etymology of the name. He was augustinus by his high rank, because, as Augustus the emperor had excelled above all kings, so Augustine, as Remy says, surpasses all doctors. Other doctors are compared to the stars: “They that instruct many to justice [shall shine] as stars for all eternity.” But Augustine is compared to the sun, as is clear from the epistle that is sung in his honor, since “as the sun when it shines, so did he shine in the temple of God.” Secondly, his name befitted the fervor of his love, because, as the month of August is fervent with the heat of the weather, so Augustine is fervent with the fire of the love of God. In his Confessions he says of himself: “You have pierced my heart with the arrow of your love”; and in the same book: “Sometimes you put into my innermost being a very unaccustomed affection — I know not what sweetness — which, if it be made perfect in me, I know not what it will be unless it will be eternal life.”

Thirdly, there is the etymology of the name. Augustinus comes from augeo, I increase, astin, city, and ana, above. Hence Augustine is one who increases the city on high, wherefore we sing of him: “qui praevaluit amplificare civitatem” — he who is powerful enough to enlarge the city. About this city he himself says in the eleventh book of the City of God: “The city of God has origin, knowledge, happiness. If one asks whence the city comes, God founded it; if whence its wisdom comes, it is enlightened by God; if whence its happiness, it has God to enjoy. From him it has subsistence and measure, contemplating him it has its light, inhering in him, its pleasure. It sees and loves, it flourishes in God’s eternity, it shines in God’s truth, it has enjoyment in God’s goodness.” Or, as the Glossary says, the name Augustine means magnificent, happy, excellent. The saint was magnificent in his life and excellent in his teaching, and is happy in eternal glory.

His life was complied by Possidius, bishop of Calama, as Cassiodorus says in his Book of Illustrious Men.

– Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea
(trans. William Granger Ryan)


Feast of St. Monica

August 27, 2007

“You put forth your hand from on high,” and you drew my soul out of that pit of darkness, when before you my mother, your faithful servant, wept more for me than mothers weep over their children’s dead bodies. By that spirit of faith which she had from you, she saw my death, and you graciously heard her, O Lord. Graciously you heard her, and you did not despise her tears when they flowed down from her eyes and watered the earth beneath, in whatsoever place she prayed. Graciously you heard her. For whence was that dream by which you consoled her, so that she consented to live with me and to share the same table with me in my home? For this she had begun to be unwilling to do, turning her back on my errors and detesting them. She saw herself standing upon a certain wooden rule, and coming towards her a young man, splendid, joyful, and smiling upon her, although she grieved and was crushed with grief. When he asked her the reasons for her sorrow and her daily tears — he asked, as is the custom, not for the sake of learning but of teaching — she replied that she lamented for my perdition. Then he bade her rest secure, and instructed her that she should attend and see that where she was, there was I also. And when she looked there she saw me standing on the same rule. Whence was this, but that your ears were inclined towards her heart, O you, the good omnipotent, who so care for each one of us as if you care for him alone, and who care for all as for each single person?

Whence too was this, that when she had narrated the vision to me and I attempted to distort it to mean rather that she should not despair of becoming what I already was, she immediately replied without any hesitation: “No!” she said. “It was not said to me, ‘Where he is, there also are you,’ but ‘Where you are, there also is he.'” I confess to you, Lord, that my memory of this, as best I can recall it, and I often spoke of it, is that I was more disturbed by your answer to me through my mother — for she was not disturbed by the likely-seeming falsity of my interpretation and quickly saw what was to be seen, which I certainly did not see before she spoke — than by the dream itself. By this dream the joy of that holy woman, to be fulfilled so long afterwards, was predicted much beforehand so as to bring consolation in her then present solicitude. For almost nine years passed, in which I wallowed “in the mire of the deep” and in the darkness of error, and although I often strove to rise out of it, I was all the more grievously thrust down again. But all the while, that chaste, devout, and sober widow, one such as those you love, already livelier in hope, but no less assiduous in weeping and mourning, ceased not in all her hours of prayer to lament over me before you. Her prayers entered into your sight, but you still abandoned me to turn and turn yet again in that darkness.

– St. Augustine, Confessions, Bk. III
(trans. John K. Ryan)

Where have you hidden, beloved?

August 26, 2007

But if a person died and had never experienced what it is to struggle with God, is this a sign that the person being buried has been uncommonly great in the fear of God? Or if he had never experienced what it is to be forsaken by God, would this be a sign that the person being buried had in a special sense been a favorite of the Lord? Or if he had never experienced the Lord’s wrath and its consuming fire, indeed, never dreamed that there was any such thing, would this be assumed to be his comfort of death, his righteousness at the judgment, as sign to him that more than anyone else he had been God’s friend…?

– Søren Kierkegaard, “The Thorn in the Flesh”,
in Upbuilding Discourses (1844).

I see that a book will be soon published containing the correspondence between Mother Teresa and her spiritual directors. I don’t know that I will read it; she requested that the correspondence be destroyed, so to peer into it, especially so soon after her death, seems impertinent. But the book is an important one for what it reveals about her inner life. Although she embodied perhaps more convincingly than anyone else in our times the spirit of Christian charity, and became a cultural icon of humility and holiness, her letters reveal that she struggled for many years, for decades even, with spiritual aridity and a sense of the absence of God.

These are deep waters, and I don’t pretend to have anything worth hearing to say on a theme so profound. No doubt the letters will come as a surprise to most, as they did to me when first I heard of them. People will draw different conclusions: that her suffering is evidence that God doesn’t exist after all, or that since Jesus is supposed to bring happiness and joy she must not have been a holy person after all, but those who know the spiritual tradition better may very well draw another conclusion: that she was a very great saint indeed.

The theory, common enough these days, that religion is about wish-fulfillment and spiritual comfort — a sort of feathered-bed for the soul — has a hard time assimilating cases like hers, and that is all for the best. For we know that the masters of Christian spirituality have often spoken of a stage of spiritual maturity in which the person is plunged into spiritual darkness, in which they wander without consolation or joy, in which their prayer turns to dust on their lips and they see no light. Yet, as often, those who know them speak of their radiance and beauty, even as they are secretly passing through the valley of the shadow of death. Those of my friends who knew Mother Teresa always say that meeting her was a transforming experience, for she showed by her life and her very presence the reality of God’s love, all the while, it seems, being herself blind to it. It is a paradox.

There is something valuable to be learned here. Anyone who has tried seriously to live the religous life is aware, albeit on a less dramatic scale, of the type of experience we are discussing. There are times when it simply seems futile, when you lose your way and find it hard to recall why you set out in the first place. Sometimes, of course, this happens because of personal failings, or distractions. But not always, for we are told that at times the Beloved withdraws quietly in order to draw the lover more deeply, and more resolutely, out of themselves and into his life. Interior dryness is a summons to self-examination, and for the great among us it may be the means to inner union with Christ, who suffered until the end. It is entirely possible that this was the grace granted to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

The love of God does not consist in tears or in this delight and tenderness, which for the greater part we desire and find consolation in; but it consists in serving with justice and fortitude of soul and in humility. Without such service it seems to me we would be receiving everything and giving nothing.

– St. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life.


Two interesting articles about the forthcoming book and Mother Teresa’s spiritual life:

Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith, by David van Biema (Time)

The Dark Night of Mother Teresa, by Carol Zaleski (First Things)

The unholy man of the mountain

August 22, 2007

Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883)
Friedrich Nietzsche (Modern Library, 1927)
368 pp. First reading.

As Zarathustra, the unholy man of the mountain, descends to preach to the people, he meets a saint of the forest wandering the woods and praising God. Zarathustra is polite, but continues his descent in smug astonishment: Has he not heard that God is dead? This proclamation is the seed out of which Zarathustra’s new world grows, like “a forest, and a night of dark trees”. In time the forest bursts with black blossoms.

The fervent affirmation of the death of God is Zarathustra’s sine qua non. His Easter Sunday is Good Friday. And if God isn’t quite dead yet he seems quite willing to lend a hand, for the God he denounces is the cruel and pitiful All-Unworthy Lord, a father to weak and pitiful children, all worthy of contempt. He would tear down and torch not just the heavenly dwelling of the Most High, but all that anchors man in the upper-deep. Zarathustra summons men to “remain true to the earth”, setting their backs resolutely against the heavens, living a life of lofty immanence, governed no longer by the transcendent good and true and beautiful, but by will and power.

Not everyone will survive this revolution, needless to say. Zarathustra knows as much, but has no interest in the survival of the weak and compassionate. Christian man is weak and simpering, favouring the bedwarfing virtues: submission, meekness, pity — which is to say cowardice, mediocrity, comfort. Zarathustra would be free from this man, this rabble,

from all those bawlers and scribe-blowflies, from the trader-stench, the ambition-fidgeting, the bad breath –: fie, to live among the rabble; — Fie, to stand for the first men among the rabble! Ah, loathing! Loathing! Loathing!

Man must be overcome! Those spontaneous feelings of repugnance at his teaching — they are a sign of weakness, and they must be overcome! Those philosophical objections from the wise — such wisdom only flatters the rabble, and must be overcome!

The one who is to come, the Superman, the architect and surviver of the Nietzschean revolution, will be great and powerful, without pity, lofty. He will be strong in will, glorying in his strength. He rejects the doctrine of the equality of men; he calls it a tactic to keep him in chains. He values voluptuousness, selfishness, and malignificent power.

The Superman severs his vertical connection with the transcendent and, in consequence, he no longer knows any authority outside his own will that might constrain him. The hierarchy of power and authority into which humanity enters as a middling power is lopped off directly above him; it is not as though hierarchy is abolished, it is merely that the Superman places himself at the apex. “I shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” If only that were possible, for the Superman is a Patricide, and has therefore disinherited himself of the moral patrimony. To him, good and evil are expressions of will, and it is his will that refashions good and evil in his own image. He is a creator who creates by manifesting the Will to Power, that force at the heart of all life, always pressing for expression, and always seeking to surpass itself. Since good and evil are themselves expressions of Will to Power, they too must surpass themselves. Such is the nature of things. Do not say that the Superman is a monster, a tyrant, an evil-doer, for such are the whimpers of those who lose, who judge by bygone standards.

But how is man to bear up under this weight? The weak will be crushed, but to the Superman that is of no consequence. But, then again, how is the Superman himself to bear up under this weight? If he is truly bound to the earth and rejects as unworthy all hope of redemption, how can he rejoice in the face of his own immanence and inevitable death? If he himself defines the standards of good and evil, how can he truly affirm the goodness of his acts? If all his aspirations and deeds, be they ever so mighty, end in the silence of the grave and nothing else, how can he escape a sense of creeping and cumulative meaninglessness?

It is only the strongest who will survive this challenge, says Zarathustra, and that there may be no soft-peddling of the psychological demands he summons the aspiring Superman to avow, and even celebrate, the ultimate meaninglessness of his acts. He must affirm that those very acts have already been committed in the past, and will be committed again in the future, for an infinite universe in infinite time repeats itself infinitely, and there is nothing new under the sun. Thus, if I have understood the matter rightly, the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence enters as a means of separating the men from the boys. Zarathustra comes that men may have life, and that more redundantly.

All this is a potent brew, needless to say. Nietzsche tries to overthrow the entire Western tradition of thought and feeling. He himself modestly averred that his book was “the deepest ever written”; we may be forgiven for not being convinced, but it is certainly ambitious on a breathtaking scale. Be careful with that intake of breath, though. This air is unhealthy.

Nietzsche’s style is aphoristic and fragmented. There is nothing resembling a formal argument, or even a sustained line of thought, in the book. This is fitting, for his is a comprehensive vision, and he does not wish to argue this or that point. He aims at the gut, not the head. He would, to bend a phrase of C.S. Lewis, unbaptize the imagination, so he deploys wit, sarcasm, fable, allegory, and song.

Having said all this, I report disappointment. I have tried, in the foregoing, to treat Nietzsche as a worthy opponent, a man whose writing is bracing and engaging. Alas, it is not true. Granted, behind the elaborate artifice is a genuinely bold and pathological vision, and I have tried to draw it out here, but in the pages of the book itself I regret to say that it is smothered in tedium. For long, desolate stretches I felt that I could have flipped 50 pages in either direction and continued to read without missing a beat. Apart from occasional flashes, he seems unable to express a clear thought, and goes on not expressing it for page after page. This was unexpected, and not a little dispiriting. His other books, I’m told, are more conventional in style, and though that is not saying much in the present instance, I hold out hope for a more direct and rousing clash when, on an as yet indeterminate future date, I take Nietzsche up again.

‘When your heart overfloweth broad and full like the river, a blessing and a danger to the lowlanders: there is the origin of your virtue.
When ye are exalted above praise and blame, and your will would command all things, as a loving one’s will: there is the origin of your virtue.
When ye despise pleasant things, and the effeminate couch, and cannot couch far enough from the effeminate: there is the origin of your virtue.
When ye are willers of the will, and when that change of every need is needful to you: there is the origin of your virtue.
Verily, a new good and evil is it! Verily, a new deep murmuring, and the voice of a new fountain!
Power is it, this new virtue; a ruling thought is it, and around it a subtle soul: a golden sun, with the serpent of knowledge around it.
– 22 (The Bestowing Virtue)

‘Tis strange

August 16, 2007

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, 2004)
782 pp. First reading.

In the first chapter of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, C. S. Lewis surveys the cultural forces molding Europe in the Renaissance. He draws our attention to the prevalence of magical practice alongside, and in many cases together with, early scientific practice, a state of affairs that frequently comes as a surprise to modern students of the period. We are inclined to view magia as opposed to science, but Lewis points out that in their time they had the greatest possible affinity. Speaking of magical thought and practice, he says:

“This glance at a forgotten, but influential, philosophy will help, I hope, to get rid of the false groupings which our ex post facto judgments of “enlightenment” and “superstition” urge us to impose on the past. Freed from those, we can see that the new magia, far from being an anomaly in that age, falls into its place among the other dreams of power which then haunted the European mind. Most obviously it falls into place beside the thought of Bacon. His endeavour is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians: but contrasted only in the light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed.”

In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke asks us to imagine a world in which that failure did not happen. Her story takes place in a world in which magic is effective, in which the land of Faerie interacts with our own, and in which enchantment can be a matter of mortal danger.

Of course, the great magicians lived long ago. In the early nineteenth century, when the story takes place, magic is a subject for scholars and historians. Some, indeed, believe that practical magic is not possible, others that it is, but that it is not a pursuit appropriate for a gentleman. In any case, the practice of magic has fallen into disuse, and if it was ever possible, all have forgotten how to do it. All, that is, but one. Mr. Norrell, hidden away in his library in Yorkshire, has amassed a huge collection of magical texts, and astonishes his countrymen by emerging as the first capable practical magician in centuries. Mr. Norrell is able in a workmanlike fashion, but another man soon demonstrates a natural talent. Jonathan Strange is younger, wilder, and more passionate than Norrell. Together they band together to put English magic at the service of England once again.

The ability to do magic does not, of course, mean the ability to do anything one’s heart desires. Magic is, as Lewis said, a technology, and its practice is limited by the repertoire of spells and enchantments one has mastered. And there are other limitations too:

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.

Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”

Careful to observe this principle, Norrell and Strange nevertheless turn their craft to military ends, using spells to confound the French and the Spanish in battle (needless to say, Faerie and the magic derived from it are exclusively part of the native English genius). All this is light-hearted and pleasant enough. After all, why not use magic for practical ends?

Yet beneath this technical magic there lurks a richer, deeper Faerie magic that is not to be trifled with, a magic that speaks to the stones, trees, and sky. Norrell despises or fears it, and wishes to leave it in forgetfulness; Strange only suspects its existence, but longs to know more. Paradoxically, it is Norrell who, in a moment of poor judgment, opens the door to Faerie and cannot close it again.

Clarke’s writing is very fine. She has adopted the literary tone of the early nineteenth century: proper, loquacious, and genial. She has peppered the text with footnotes which, being wonderfully witty and inventive, are among the chief pleasures of the book. The story does go on at some length, and doubtlessly some episodes could have been trimmed, but this is not a major fault. The writing is so good, and the premise so intriguing, and the story so enjoyable, that I was delighted for the duration. I especially admire the convincing way in which she has revived the fairy tale for adults. We should remember that it was only in the nineteenth century that such tales were banished to the nursery, and there is no reason why mature readers cannot enjoy a fairy tale well told. And be assured this is not a tale for children. On more than one occasion I had to turn the lights on in the hall to calm my troubled imagination. But this, too, was part of the pleasure.

Dazzling virtuosity

August 12, 2007

Here’s a treat for late on a Sunday night. Arcadi Volodos plays Liszt’s transcription of Mendelssohn’s famous “Wedding March”. Though it starts off conventionally enough, this is no by-the-numbers transcription. The video is of regrettably low quality — in particular, the audio is slightly out of sync with the video — but there are not many people in the world who can pull off pianistic pyrotechnics of this order.  (Duration 4-1/2 minutes)

Organized reading

August 11, 2007

For some time now I have tried to follow a fairly structured reading plan. The purpose of my plan is to provide me with an education, which demands a certain amount of discipline. This bookish deliberateness is sometimes mistaken for “obsessiveness” by those dear to me, and from time to time I discover that I’ve a reputation for inflexibility in these (and, admittedly, also in other) matters. For instance, when someone offers to loan me a book they have enjoyed I am put in the awkward position of averring that I have a rather large queue of books waiting, and might possibly reach their suggested volume in, oh, a year or two. Sometimes people just don’t understand.

But I’m thinking that there must be some people who do understand. I’m thinking there must be others who follow a reading plan, as I do. And I’m wondering what those reading plans are like. To get the ball rolling, as it were, I thought I would write a tell-all post in which I unveil my reading plan in all of its intricate glory.

The Plan

A visual aid to my reading plan would look something like the Ptolemaic cosmology: cycles within cycles, wheels within wheels. Thus I observe daily, weekly, and monthly plans, and superimposed on the whole is a set of topical cycles that repeat on longer time scales.

Let’s begin at the smallest scale: the daily readings. Each day, I read a little from the Bible and from a book of poetry. These are brief readings, typically less than one page, and take little time. At present I am reading the Gospel of Matthew, and slowly working my way through the chronologically-arranged New Oxford Book of English Verse, one poem each day.

My weekly plan takes in books that consist of many short, disconnected pieces — the sorts of books that are impossible to read cover to cover because there’s no sustained story or argument. For instance, collections of essays or short stories fall into this category. A few years ago I noted that I had accumulated quite a few of these books, but wasn’t reading any of them, so I instituted the weekly plan. Each book is assigned to a particular day of the week, and on that day I read one selection from the book. At the present time I am reading A Jacques Barzun Reader on Mondays, C.S. Lewis’ Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy, and Short Stories on Thursdays, and G. K. Chesterton’s columns from The Illustrated London News on Fridays (I read his weekly column exactly 100 years to the day after it was first published. This could continue until 2031.). When I complete one book, another takes its place. You’ll note that certain days of the week have no book assigned; this is because I don’t wish to overtax myself.

My monthly reading cycle tackles longer works. I’ve only begun the monthly plan early in 2007, but thus far it has been progressing well. At present, my monthly reading plan consists of one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of Shakespeare’s plays, and one of Plato’s dialogues.

That completes the elements of the plan that are tied to the calendar. In addition, I have a cycle of reading — affectionately known as The Cycle — that is organized topically and authorially. There are certain topics, and certain authors, for which I have collected a fair number of books, but have not had time to read them. The Cycle is intended to focus my attention on precisely those sections of my shelves. I occasionally swap new items into it, or swap items out, but at the present time it looks like this:

  • History of Philosophy. This is a multi-year project to read F.C. Copleston’s History of Philosophy, which in my edition is in seventeen volumes. For each major philosopher that he discusses, I try to read at least one primary text.
  • Josef Pieper. Pieper wrote a series of short, but very thoughtful, books in the general area of philosophical theology, and I always find them worthwhile. Faithful readers of this web log will have seen Pieper-related Book Notes from time to time. (Recently: Happiness and Contemplation; Scholasticism; In Tune with the World; On Prudence)
  • Pope Benedict XVI. When Pope Benedict was elected I added him to the cycle, but I confess I haven’t done very well on this item. Not only have I made slow progress, but in the meantime there have been a deluge of books brought out. I do what I can. (Recently: God and the World, Introduction to Christianity, Deus Caritas Est)
  • Søren Kierkegaard. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but somehow I collected a large set of Kierkegaard’s works, and to my benefit I’ve been working through them. In some cases I’ve written up notes (The Point of View; Either/Or I; Either/Or II; Repetition).
  • Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ve added Nietzsche into the mix recently both because I’d like to be more familiar with him at first hand and because I thought he’d make a fabulously intemperate conversation partner for Kierkegaard.
  • G. K. Chesterton. I acquired a significant portion of the Collected Works, and figured I’d better get started. I’m focusing for the time being on his non-fiction, but hope eventually to delve into his lesser known works: plays, short stories, and biographies. (Recently: The Ball and the Cross, Platitudes Undone, Heretics, The Man who Knew Too Much)
  • Church Fathers. I’ve wanted for a long time to acquaint myself with the early history of Christianity, and this item is intended to address that area of interest. The intended focus is on the first five or six centuries after Christ. This is a long term project. (Recently: St. Justin Martyr: Apologies and Dialogue, St. Ignatius of Antioch)
  • Medieval Europe. I have an amateur interest in things medieval, and try to feed that interest fairly regularly. Each time this topic comes around I read one primary text and one secondary text. (Recently: Chronicle of Bury St. Edmunds, Life in a Medieval Village, The Discarded Image)
  • Greece and Rome. This is a new item that I’ve added in a feeble attempt to redress my near total ignorance of classical culture and literature. I’m beginning, for no good reason other than my eye having chanced upon the volume, with the plays of Aristophanes.

The Cycle is a cycle, so when I reach the bottom of the list, I return again to the top. I am somewhat concerned that The Cycle has become too large. Can this sprawling structure really be called focused? The trouble is that there are other categories — Biographies and Music and Travel/Exploration, for instance — clamouring for entry. If a category gets trimmed, I’m quite sure that another will worm its way in. For the time being the door is barred, but those who are in, are in.

That concludes the account of the rigorously structured part of my reading plan. Since there are good books that don’t fit into this structure, I have a separate queue — called The Queue — the elements of which are interleaved with the books in The Cycle. Books in The Queue are drawn from a variety of subject areas, but they have to work hard to get entry. It’s not a first-in, first-out queue. There’s a complicated sorting algorithm that orders the elements of the queue internally, the details of which are a prime example of a dark art. The advantage of having The Queue in addition to The Cycle is that it provides variety — and leaves the slimmest opening for spontaneity.

You will have noticed that this reading plan governs, for the most part, non-fiction books. My reading of fiction proceeds in parallel, and is much less structured. I am presently reading through the novels of Evelyn Waugh and Charles Dickens, but these efforts progress in fits and starts and I do branch out when the fancy takes me.

A final, but not unimportant, part of my reading plan is that I almost always sit down after finishing a book to write something — anything — about it. In some cases I’m trying to set down the book’s basic argument, or struggling to settle on a judicious appraisal of the style, or piling together enough plot details to jog my memory later, or just using the book as a springboard for whimsical wandering. Sometimes these turn out fairly well, and sometimes not, but the practice itself is an excellent discipline, and I recommend it to you.

How does my reading plan compare to yours?

God’s wheat

August 10, 2007

Letters (c.107)
To Ephesus; To Magnesia; To Tralles; To Rome; To Philadelphia; To Smyrna; To Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna
St. Ignatius of Antioch (Harvard University Press, 1952; trans. Lake)
112 pp. First reading.

The letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch are among our most important non-canonical sources for the life and teaching of the early Church. He was the third bishop of Antioch, assuming those duties in around the year 70, and was reputedly a disciple of St. John the Beloved. In the early years of the second century he was arrested and sent to Rome to be executed. His journey took several months, and en route he wrote a number of letters to churches in the regions through which he passed. He was held for a time in Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey), from which he wrote letters to the churches in Tralles, Magnesia, Ephesus, and Rome. At this time, too, he met St. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Later, when he had been moved closer to Rome, he wrote letters to Polycarp, to the church in Smyrna, and also to the church in Philadelphia. These seven letters are those which have come down to us.

The letters convey a tremendous sense of urgency and passionate intensity. They give the impression of having been written rapidly, and given his circumstances it is not difficult to imagine why. One might expect that a man facing death would be sombre, or at least withdrawn and inward-looking, but instead Ignatius is eager to encourage and exhort those to whom he writes, and he speaks of his own immanent death as a goal toward which he presses.

There are several themes common to all of the letters. The first and most obvious is a deep concern for obedience to legitimate authority in the Church. Again and again he urges his readers to honour the bishops, presbyters (priests), and deacons who have been placed over them. He develops this idea by way of a strong analogy: as God the Father is to God the Son, and as God the Son in the person of Jesus Christ is to the Apostles, so the bishops and presbyters are to the faithful (Magn. c. xiii). In other words, the obedience of Christ to the Father is to be the model for our obedience to properly constituted ecclesiastical authority. In another place he teaches that his readers must regard their bishop as they would the Lord himself (Ephes. c. vi), for the bishop is the Lord’s emissary and acts in his name. The bishops, he says, have been appointed by the will of Christ (Ephes. c. iii), and there is no Church apart from them (Trall. c. iii). This obedience is especially to be rendered in matters of doctrine.

A related central concern of the letters is to confront Docetism, the doctrine that Christ did not truly suffer and die, but only appeared to do so. Docetists believed that it was not fitting for a divine being to suffer. They may have further insisted that Christ only appeared to have a human body, but was in fact a pure spirit. Ignatius denounces this teaching as false, and warns his readers to reject those who preach it, urging them instead to faithfully adhere to the teaching of the Apostles and of their bishop.

These two concerns, of hierarchical obedience and doctrinal purity, are closely related, and together they not only have implications for the whole of Christianity, but they touch in a poignant and personal way the heart of Ignatius’ situation. They are related because they both reveal an underlying concern for unity in the Church. Ignatius wants the churches to be united in their teaching and faith, and also visibly in their institutions, and he understands that each expression of unity serves the other. He rejects the idea that the Church is a disembodied “community of believers” whose beliefs more or less agree; there is no Church apart from the hierarchy and authority of its bishops and teachers.

He also sees a strong connection between unity with the Church and unity with Christ. Ignatius desires to be united to Christ, and sees his coming martyrdom as the means to that end. This, I think, is why he is so unsparing in his critique of Docetism. For if there is doubt about whether Christ truly suffered, there is certainly no doubt that his followers, and Ignatius in particular, will. The Docetists would sever that deep existential unity with Christ which is the special honour of the martyr. Ignatius also stresses that Docetism must lead to a denial of the reality of Christ in the Eucharist, which is the sign and means of unity in the Church (Philad. c. iv). Against them, he affirms that the Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of Christ (Smyrn. c. vii, Rom. c. vii), the “medicine of immortality” (Ephes. c. xx).

Despite their brevity, the letters are thick with doctrinal references, and thus provide us with a precious window into early Christian theology. John Henry Cardinal Newman, a man not prone to overstatement, once wrote that “the whole system of Catholic doctrine may be discovered, at least in outline, not to say in parts filled up, in the course of his seven epistles”. I have already touched on what he says about Church hierarchy, doctrinal authority, and the Eucharist. The Catholic Encyclopedia tries to summarize the many other subjects he addressed:

Among the many Catholic doctrines to be found in the letters are the following: the Church was Divinely established as a visible society, the salvation of souls is its end, and those who separate themselves from it cut themselves off from God (Philad., c. iii); the hierarchy of the Church was instituted by Christ (lntrod. to Philad.; Ephes., c. vi); the threefold character of the hierarchy (Magn., c. vi); the order of the episcopacy superior by Divine authority to that of the priesthood (Magn., c. vi, c. xiii; Smyrn., c. viii; Trall., c. iii); the unity of the Church (Trall., c. vi; Philad., c. iii; Magn., c. xiii); the holiness of the Church (Smyrn., Ephes., Magn., Trall., and Rom.); the catholicity of the Church (Smyrn., c. viii); the infallibility of the Church (Philad., c. iii; Ephes., cc. xvi, xvii); the doctrine of the Eucharist (Smyrn., c. viii), which word we find for the first time applied to the Blessed Sacrament, just as in Smyrn., viii, we meet for the first time the phrase “Catholic Church”, used to designate all Christians; the Incarnation (Ephes., c. xviii); the supernatural virtue of virginity, already much esteemed and made the subject of a vow (Polyc., c. v); the religious character of matrimony (Polyc., c. v); the value of united prayer (Ephes., c. xiii); the primacy of the See of Rome (Rom., introd.). He, moreover, denounces in principle the Protestant doctrine of private judgment in matters of religion (Philad. c. iii).

One of the letters stands out from the others. In most cases he was writing to places he had passed through, or to churches which had sent messengers to comfort him, and to them he wrote words of encouragement and asked in return for their prayers. But he was clearly leaving them behind. In his letter to Rome, however, he writes to his destination, with full awareness that his arrival will mean his death. To them, too, he writes words of greeting and encouragement, and he asks for their prayers, but he also asks them not to lament his fate, and not to interfere with his execution, which he accepts as a gift from the hand of God:

“I beseech you, be not ‘an unseasonable kindness’ to me. Suffer me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ.”

When he arrived in Rome, he was thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. According to Eusebius, his martyrdom took place in the year 107, being the tenth year of the reign of the Emperor Trajan.


While I was reading, I tried to puzzle out the geographical details. I made a map to assist me, and perhaps it will be of interest to others as well.

UPDATE: I’ve discovered that Pope Benedict recently delivered a talk on the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

Rome recommended

August 8, 2007

I have a friend who will shortly be visiting Rome for the first time, and she has asked me to draw up a short-list of sights to guide her exploration of the city. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to post it here as well, for the benefit of all interested parties. Her visit will be four or five days in duration, which is long enough to see a fair number of things.


Dear –,

You asked me for some suggestions for how you might profitably pass your time in Rome. I’m delighted that you did so. There is certainly much that I don’t know about the city, but there’s no city I love more, and that must count for something.

If the weather is good, I recommend staying outside and walking the streets. Much of Rome’s glory is in her buildings and churches, not gathered up into museums. When I’m there, I love to simply walk around. Around every corner there’s something wonderful to see.

I’ve included links to Wikipedia pages for most of the sights I mention. They usually contain a very useful link in the upper right corner that shows you the location on a map.

Major sights

San Pietro and the Vatican. You could easily spend two days in and around the Vatican, but if pressed for time you can try to compress your visit into one (or two half-days). There are two main parts to the visit: the church and the museum. If you can, try coming to the church early in the morning (it opens at 7 am) before it fills up with visitors. At that hour you’ll find priests celebrating Mass in the many side chapels.

The church itself is immense, the largest in the world, and it’s full of wonders. The tomb of St. Peter is beneath the main altar. Look for Michelangelo’s famous Pietà near the main entrance. The interior of the church is filled with funeral monuments of Popes and saints; a guidebook can help you sort through them if you’re interested. I also recommend going into the crypt (to reach it, you have to leave the main church and go around to the north side), where you’ll find the tombs of many Popes, including that of John Paul II. And no visit to St. Peter’s would be complete without climbing the dome. You’ll have to pay a few Euros for entry, but the views from the top are well worth it.

The Vatican Museums are the great exception to the rule about Rome itself being better than its museums. They are vast, and there’s no way to see everything in a single visit, but, then again, there’s no way to see everything in two or three visits, so you’ll have to focus. Everybody wants to see the Sistine Chapel, and indeed it would be a shame to miss it. Besides that, you can take your pick: paintings, sculptures, maps, tapestries, jewelry – it goes on and on. Be warned: the Museum generates huge queues for entry, so it’s best to arrive first thing in the morning.

If you’ll be in Rome on a Sunday, you can see Pope Benedict at noon when he joins the crowd to pray the Angelus. He also usually holds a public audience on Wednesday mornings, but for this one must request a ticket on the previous day.

Forum Romanum and Colosseum. These are the historic ruins of the city, where the ancient city of Rome was focused. The ruins are really quite ruinous, and since there are no helpful signs it is possible to wander around without a clue as to what you’re seeing. A good guidebook can help, or you can latch onto one of the many guided walking tours that move through the area. Try to look like you don’t understand what’s being said, else you might be asked to pay.

In the Forum you’ll see the Roman Senate, the remains of a number of important temples and civic buildings, triumphal arches commemorating military victories, and the Rostra from which Roman leaders addressed the crowds (Marc Antony, for instance, addressed the people from this platform after the assassination of Julius Caesar), among other things. You’ll also see lots of little rocks and fragments of columns lying around.

Nearby is the Colosseum. You can pay to go inside, but doing so doesn’t add much to the experience, in my opinion. Perhaps it’s better to just sit and admire it. Next to it you’ll see the famous Arch of Constantine.

Santa Maria Maggiore. Rome has many churches under the patronage of Our Lady, but this is the main one. It’s located in the east end of the city center, near the Termini. There’s been a church here since the fifth century, but it has been enlarged and embellished many times over the years. It’s a beautiful, magnificent building, usually not as crowded as Rome’s other main sights. Since you’ll be staying near this church, you might try to attend an early morning Mass in one of the side chapels.

San Giovanni in Laterano. This church is Rome’s cathedral, and it is well worth a visit. Unlike Santa Maria Maggiore, which has a cool and dark interior, this church is bright and glorious. There are many things to admire inside, but don’t neglect to go around the side and visit the famous baptistery, which dates from the fifth century. The church is a little out of the way, but you can easily combine your visit with a trip to the catacombs.

The Catacombs. The catacombs are located to the south of the city center, and you’ll want to catch a bus to reach them. (The bus can be caught from a stop next to San Giovanni in Laterano. You’ll have to look up a route map to know which one.) There are a number of different entrances, and I believe that all access is guided. I recommend the catacombs of St. Domitilla, but since they all seem to follow highly irregular opening hours, take what you can get. It is a wonderful experience to walk through the underground passageways, seeing the ancient burial sites. In some cases you’ll see preserved wall paintings, and even early churches. A visit to the catacombs should be allotted about half a day.

Santa Maria ad Martyres, aka The Pantheon. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, this is one of Rome’s most memorable buildings. It’s essentially a single room, but what a beauty! It is the best preserved ancient Roman building in the city, and perhaps in the world. It would be difficult to miss seeing it, planted as it is in the center of old Rome.

Old Rome. I highly recommend you take some time to simply wander through this area of narrow streets that begins just across the Tiber from the Vatican and extends a kilometer or two to the west. It contains some of Rome’s best spots: Piazza Navona, in particular, is a nice place to relax. When I was last in the city the great fountain in the center of the piazza was under restoration, and unfortunately you may find the same thing. The Trevi Fountain is also somewhere nearby (I always have a hard time finding it). You should throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain to ensure that you are able to return to Rome one day.

Lesser-known Sights

Here are a few places that people often miss, but which are really worth seeking out.

San Clemente. This small church located near the Colosseum shows the history of Rome in miniature. It’s actually three separate buildings stacked one on top of the other. On the lowest level you find an old Roman building, including a small temple to Mithras, the Roman bull-god. Above you find an excavated fourth-century church. There’s not much left of it, but you can see the basic layout and some surviving wall paintings. On the top level is the most recent structure: a twelfth-century church, and a gorgeous one. It’s worth visiting just to see the magnificent mosaic behind the main altar. There’s a small fee to descend to the excavations.

Santa Prassede. This small church is just down the street from Santa Maria Maggiore, but hardly anyone goes there. It’s very beautiful. There’s a side chapel that has been decorated with floor-to-ceiling gold mosaics. In the ninth century a large set of bones of early Christians were brought here from the catacombs, and they are kept in a small crypt beneath the altar.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva. This is Rome’s only Gothic church, located just a few steps from the Pantheon. There are many reasons to love it, starting with the charming little elephant statue in its piazza. Inside you’ll find the tombs of St. Catharine of Siena (under the altar), the great medieval painter Fra Angelico, and there’s a side chapel painted with scenes from the life of St. Thomas Aquinas. This is one of my favourite churches in the city.

Weird Rome

Capuchin crypt. Certainly the strangest thing I’ve seen in Rome, and maybe the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, is the small crypt attached to the church of Santa Maria della Concezione, near Piazza Barberini. The Capuchin monks have decorated a set of rooms with – how to say this? – the bones of their deceased brethren. It’s not something you’ll soon forget.


There are many other worthy sights in the city, so don’t take these recommendations too seriously. Whatever you decide to do, I’m sure you’ll have a great time.

Your friend,


Roman sky