Archive for January, 2009

New Chesterton biography

January 29, 2009

It was not so long ago that I wrote about Maisie Ward’s famous biography of G.K. Chesterton.  Since that book was published in 1943 there have been numerous biographies and studies of his life, and now I see that a new one has appeared.  Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908 by William Oddie was published last month by Oxford University Press.  It is a study of Chesterton’s early life up to the publication of Orthodoxy in 1908, when he was 34 years old.  The reviews that I have found have been positive (The Tablet; The Catholic Herald).  Anyone read it? I wonder if this is a single volume project, or whether we can expect another volume on his later life?

I also notice that the author has written a riposte to that New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik that charged GKC with being an anti-Semite.

Update: another review in the Times Literary Supplement.

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

January 28, 2009

Several brief thoughts from St. Thomas, culled from Josef Pieper’s The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas: A Breviary of Philosophy:

  • Being itself is like goodness.  Good and Being are convertible ideas. (Ver. 21, 3.)
  • Union with the body belongs to the essence of the soul. (Un. int.)
  • Evil produces no effect except in virtue of some good. (Mal. 12, 1 ad 10.)
  • The virtue of chastity prepares man best for contemplation. (S.T. II-II, 180, 2 ad 3.)
  • Everything that strives after its own perfection tends towards likeness to God. (C.G. 3, 21.)

Dmitri Karamazov on cognitive science

January 28, 2009

It is a long-standing problem in cognitive science and philosophy of mind to explain how physical states of the brain are related to mental states.  I was reading through The Brothers Karamazov last night and was surprised to find Dmitri Karamazov giving it a try:

Imagine: it’s all there in the nerves, in the head, there are these nerves in the brain (devil take them!) . . . there are little sorts of tails, these nerves have little tails, well, and when they start trembling there . . . that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes, like this, and they start trembling, these little tails . . . and when they tremble, an image appears, not at once, but in a moment, it takes a second, and then a certain moment appears, as it were, that is, not a moment — devil take the moment — but an image, that is, an object or an event, well, devil take it — and that’s why I contemplate, and then think . . . because of the little tails, and not at all because I have a soul or am some sort of image and likeness, that’s all foolishness.  Mikhail explained it to me, brother, just yesterday, and it was as if I got burnt.  It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science!

— Bk.XI.3.

Well, now that you put it that way…

Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Herr Mozart!

January 27, 2009

Pentimento reminds me that today is Mozart’s birthday — his 253rd, to be precise.  We must have some music!  Here is Mitsuko Uchida, and an unknown orchestra, playing the first movement of his Piano Concerto No.21:

Hémon: Maria Chapdelaine

January 27, 2009

Maria Chapdelaine (1914)
Louis Hémon (Macmillan, 1973; trans: W.H. Blake)
175 p.  First reading.

I have had some difficulty deciding just what to say about Maria Chapdelaine.  It is a wonderful book, and it would be easy enough for me to praise this or that aspect of it, but somehow the things I would really like to say are eluding me. Despite its slender size the book is bigger than I am.  I’m just going to ease into this Book Note and see what happens.

Maria is a young woman living with her parents and siblings in a remote cabin in Quebec.  Her story is simple in its outlines, but deals at each step with elemental realities: love, family, faith, death.  The author Louis Hémon was a Frenchman who came to Quebec to live and work among the kinds of people about whom he writes — simple, hard-working, open-hearted people — and he writes with a singing admiration that only occasionally tips over into sentimentality.

All rural Canadians know that the turning of the seasons is one of the central realities of country life: the annual cycle of melting snows, spring rains, the sowing of crops, the summer evenings with their long-fading light and fireflies, the open skies and midnight auroras, the ripening garden, changing leaves and harvests, and finally, inevitably, the cool breath of Old Man Winter and the onset of the long dark.  Winter in rural Canada means hay-wagon rides, hot chocolate and apple cider, and the satisfying crunch of snow underfoot, but also howling winds, impassable snowdrifts, and real danger if caught in a storm.  The sheer ferocity of a winter storm and the enormous labour to dig out in the aftermath I remember from my boyhood on the Alberta prairie.  At such times one knows nature as an almost irresistible force, thrilling in its power to arrest and overrule one’s best laid plans, and she even reveals herself as a kind of moral teacher, sweeping in to contradict our self-importance and to deny us the fulfillment of our desires.  She teaches humility.

Such thoughts are very much in the spirit of Maria Chapdelaine.  These rural peasants dwell under the shadow of the seasons and the weather, and the shape and texture of their lives are formed in relation to it.  Hémon understands this, and so he lovingly describes the spring melt, and the hot summer nights, and the cool and quiet winter days.  The struggle to make a place for human life in these wilds is the daily bread of these peasants.  They are people of the land, and their labour to bring order and fruitfulness to the wilderness are dignified by Hémon’s simple portrayals of their work.

This is all fine, yet the real reason to treasure Maria Chapdelaine lies further up and further in, and here I run up against my own inadequacy to express it.  The culture of these peasants is in the sharpest contrast to our own.  In many ways, theirs is a pre-modern society — technologically inferior, of course, with serious consequences, but that is not the main point.  They are not modern on the inside.  The modern notion of the punctiliar individual crowned by reason and will, emancipated from history and nature, maximizing choice and following desire — this is completely absent. Life for them is not a rationally organized scheme of self-indulgence. They have desires, of course, but also virtue.  These people are not alone; they have family and neighbours (remember those?).  They are not divided from one another by their mutual reliance on government; they govern their own affairs in co-operation.  They talk to one another.  They are one in their faith, and they pray together.  They sing, and their stories and songs are their own, not merely delivered to them by market analysts.  In short, they have a genuine culture.

Am I romanticizing?  I hope not.  I can only say that when I read Nietzsche’s description of “the last man”, it is quite easy to see in it a description of an average citizen of a modern liberal democracy.  The same simply cannot be said of Hémon’s peasants, and that suggests to me that much has been lost, and quickly.  Maria Chapdelaine was written less than a century ago.

This at least hints at the sorts of thoughts that this book evoked in me.  I realize that I have passed over the story, and the heroine herself, in silence.  She is a wonderful character: thoughtful, modest, and richly feminine.  I would like to say more about her story, but time runs short this evening.  Next time.

Little darling

January 25, 2009

This web log is not a diary, and I do not normally discuss my personal life in this space, but sometimes the news is so momentous that I cannot help wanting to shout it from the rooftops.  I have some happy news, and I think the time has come to let it out lest I injure myself by the effort to contain it.

Yesterday my wife and I went to a clinic.  They put a wand-like contraption up against her torso.  Lo, and behold:

Read the rest of this entry »


January 24, 2009

Here are a few interesting things I’ve come across in the past few days, but about which I don’t have time to say much:

  • The Globe & Mail has been running some feature articles about Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, and one of the truly great Canadians.  I have had the opportunity to hear him speak twice, the last time being a decade ago  when he delivered the Massey Lectures in Toronto.  He is a wonderful man, soft-spoken and gentle, but with a magnetic presence.  I’m an admirer, and I recommend the articles.  This interview is a good start.  (Hat-tip: Christina)
  • Take note, Vaticaniste: the Vatican has started its own YouTube channel!  This will be a source for short video clips about goings-on at Vatican City.  There is not much material there yet, but it may be worth keeping an eye on.  So to speak.
  • The US Democratic party’s plan to reduce abortions “through social programs” is off to a bad start: yesterday, just one day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, President Obama rescinded the “Mexico City Policy” which forbade funding of international organizations that support or  provide abortions.  This was expected — Bill Clinton did the same thing as soon as he took office — but still worth noting.  It begins.
  • The Oscar nominations came out this week.  Five films were nominated for Best Picture.  I haven’t seen a single one of them.   All of them are recent releases, and I’m not even sure they have played in my city.  They wonder why Oscar night has been losing its audience…
  • A new discovery: Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine.  Very much worth celebrating.
  • Advance word is that next month’s new Van Morrison album, a live re-invention of his landmark first album Astral Weeks, is a rousing success.  I’m beside myself with anticipation.  I’m not even joking: I am literally sitting here beside myself.

That’s enough.

More bad science journalism: stem cells

January 23, 2009

It seems that the first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.  The fact that the approval comes just days after the inauguration of President Obama is apparently a coincidence.  An article about the trial appeared today in the Wall Street Journal, and it is a doozie.  An excerpt:

Limits on stem-cell research, which prevented federal funding and were imposed by Congress and former President George W. Bush for ethical and religious reasons, have had a chilling effect on both academic and corporate research involving such cells. Proponents of stem-cell research say restrictions have delayed development of promising new treatments, while critics contend that harvesting stem cells from embryos destroys human life.

The problems with the article are not so much in what it says (though “contend” is a strange choice), but in what it leaves unsaid.  To wit: the article gives the impression that this is the first clinical trial using stem cells, and it casually casts some blame at President Bush and Congress for the delays.  In fact, there are presently over two thousand clinical trials underway using stem cells — adult stem cells.  That this article fails to even make the distinction between adult and embryonic stem cells makes its reference to “ethical and religious reasons” unintelligible. This is either an example of peculiarly flagrant journalistic ineptness, or brazen political slant.  I suspect the latter.

A parallel article in the New York Times does a somewhat better job.  It makes the adult/embryonic distinction, and it alludes (vaguely) to other trials underway with non-embryonic stem cells.  As a closing gesture it mentions that, by the way, it is possible to make pluripotent stem cells (the equivalent of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes) from adult cells, so the justification, however thin it may once have been, for killing human embryos to harvest their stem cells no longer exists.  It may be true, as the article claims, that the adult-derived pluripotent cells increase the risk of cancer, but exactly the same problem is true of embryonic stem cells. Again, bad science journalism.

Last words from Fr. Neuhaus

January 23, 2009

I wrote a few days ago about the recent death of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.  In the meantime I received the February 2009 issue of First Things, which includes what is presumably his final “Public Square” column.  Reading it is a solemn and somewhat strange experience, as I’m sure you can imagine.  He is gone, yet here he is.  It is as though his voice comes to us from the far side of the grave.  When I reached the very last paragraph, I was quite moved by what I found.  Fr. Neuhaus writes:

As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin.  I am, I am given to believe, under the expert medical care of the Sloan-Kettering clinic here in New York.  I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven.  Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live.  If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be.  If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim.  After that last round with cancer fifteen years ago, I wrote a little book, As I Lay Dying (titled after William Faulker after John Donne), in which I said much of what I had to say about the package deal that is mortality.  I did not know that I had so much more to learn.  And yes, the question has occurred to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column.  I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther — when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers.  (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favored beer.)  Maybe I have, at least metaphorically, planted a few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers.  Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong”?  This is not a farewell.  Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come.  But maybe not.  In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind.  The entirety of our prayer is “Your will be done” — not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression.  To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.

It was a farewell, after all, Fr. Neuhaus.  May we all have the grace to take our leave so well.

Miola: Early Modern Catholicism

January 22, 2009

Early Modern Catholicism
An Anthology of Primary Sources

Robert S. Miola, Ed. (Oxford, 2007)
534 p.  First reading.

Robert Miola has done us a good service.  In this book he pulls together dozens of texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that pertain, in one way or another, to English Catholicism.  He cuts a wide swath, taking in devotional texts, biographies, histories, religious tracts, poems and songs, letters, plays, and more. It is a genuine treasure trove for anyone with an interest in this period.

Among his selections one first finds the major authors whom one expects to find.  St. Thomas More is represented by excerpts from his works of religious controversy, by A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, written while he awaited execution in the Tower of London, and by a portion of William Roper’s early biography.  Great poets like Donne, Jonson, and Crashaw are all represented, though the particular poems, all on Catholic themes, may not be well-known.  William Shakespeare is here, not because Miola thinks him a Catholic playwright — he has put the matter this way: “Dante was a Catholic, Milton was a Protestant, Shakespeare was a dramatist” — but because Catholicism does appear in Shakespeare’s plays, and his treatment of it is in some ways atypical for the time.

Just as interesting are the selections from less well-known sources: an anonymous song about the destruction of the pilgrimage shrine at Walsingham, an account of the death by piene forte et dure of St. Margaret Clitherow, beautiful religious poetry by Henry Constable and St. Robert Southwell, and Elizabeth Southwell’s record of the death of Queen Elizabeth (in which she explains that not only was Anne Boleyn an illegitimate child of Henry VIII, but she was graced with “a projecting tooth under the upper lip and on her right hand six fingers”).  Some of the material, like that last, is polemical and scandalous, but other selections, such as Nicholas Sander‘s Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1585), contain serious argumentation and careful reasoning, and would still make edifying reading for Anglicans today.  Bartolomé de Las Casas contributes The Spanish Colony (1583), in which he describes his horror at the brutality of the Spanish conquerors of the New World and pleads that the essential humanity of the natives be recognized and respected.

For a few years now I have had a particular interest in the Jesuit mission in England under Elizabeth I and James I, and Miola had included several excellent pieces in this connection.  We find Edmund Campion‘s famous Letter to the Privy Council (1580), more commonly called “Campion’s Brag”, in which he announces to the authorities with dashing confidence his religious mission among the English people.  Even more absorbing are Campion’s arguments before a panel of clerics during his imprisonment in the Tower, and finally an account, by one Thomas Alfield, of his 1581 martyrdom.  The Jesuit Superior of England from 1586-1606 was Henry Garnet, and Miola includes a selection from his A Treatise of Equivocation (c.1598), which attempts to treat one of the most pressing issues of moral theology for English Catholics facing threats of violence: is it licit to equivocate in answer to the authorities, or is such equivocation tantamount to lying?

I cannot convey the richness of the book in such short compass.  It was a maddeningly complex time, with political and religious loyalties intertwined and often in conflict and confused.  Allegiances were sometimes unstable: John Donne was raised Catholic but became a great Anglican clergyman, Ben Jonson converted to Catholicism and then converted back a decade later.  Religious convictions had to contend, in a quite immediate way, with the threat of physical violence.  Even among the Catholic faithful it was sometimes not clear just what was at stake in the English Reformation, and there was controversy over what changes were or were not licit.  Miola has managed to reveal that complexity in perhaps the only way that it could really be done: by allowing the people to speak to us with their own voices.