There is a delightful short essay at First Things today by David Bentley Hart. It moves from lepidopterogamy to Nabokov’s Pale Fire (one of my favourite books) to reflections on the philosophical significance of beauty. It is a nice example of Hart’s art: matters of real substance set forth in playful and acrobatic prose. Recommended.
Archive for August, 2009
Today is the memorial of St. Augustine. In past years on this day I have posted excerpts from his entry in The Golden Legend (2007, 2008), but this year I did not have time to get it together. Instead, here is one of those rare — all too rare — instances where Augustine has popped up in pop culture: Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”, from John Wesley Harding.
The Swirling Eddies : Outdoor Elvis
(Alarma, 1989; 54:00)
When I was visiting my parents last month, they remarked that there were some boxes of my things out in the garage, and suggested that I might sort through them to decide what to keep and what to toss. I had a wonderful time digging through everything. I found course notes and exams from my undergraduate days (keep), some old trophies I had won in elementary school — for academics, not athletics — (keep), and even my baby book (keep). I also found a box of old cassette tapes and CDs that I had purchased in my youth, mostly between about 1988 and 1992. This cassette by the Swirling Eddies was among them.
Outdoor Elvis was one of my favourite albums at that time in my life, and guess what? It’s still pretty terrific. The Swirling Eddies were — or, I suppose, are, since their most recent album is from 2007 — one of the many brainchildren of Terry Taylor, the mercurial mastermind behind Daniel Amos and the Lost Dogs. I don’t know how many records Taylor has made in his life; dozens, probably, and each toiling in undeserved obscurity. I have not heard them all, but there are at least a few masterpieces among them: MotorCycle (from 1993) is a brilliant and beautiful record that gets better every time I hear it, Horrendous Disc (from 1978) has achieved whatever legendary status is available to an album that hardly anybody has heard, and, in my judgment, Outdoor Elvis also belongs in this distinguished company.
The Eddies were founded as the slightly goofy, high-spirited alter ego of Daniel Amos, and there are moments of pure comic tomfoolery here: a musical therapy session (“Coco the Talking Guitar”), a herky-jerky robotic exhortation (“Don’t Hate Yerself”), and, of course, the (sort of) famous sing-a-long “Arthur Fhardy’s Yodeling Party” (which I was singing in the shower this very morning, and to good effect). But the fascination of the record partly consists in the way this forthright comedy lies cheek-by-jowl with more serious fare. This was the period in which televangelist scandals were leading the nightly news, and a touch of anger creeps into the campy “Hide the Beer, the Pastor’s Here” and “Attack of the Pulpit Masters” (with its auctioneer-style chorus: “moneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoney”, etc.). But there are bits of quiet, bemused reflection (“Strange Days”, “Blowing Smoke”) and some seriously ambitious songwriting (“Outdoor Elvis”, “Hell Oh”) on the record as well. It’s an album that seems to always have a new idea up its sleeve, always something more to offer, and, maybe surprisingly, all the bits and pieces fit together into what feels like a cohesive whole.
I’m not sure how to describe the style of this music. It’s rock. There’s a bit of White Album-era Beatles, a bit of the Beach Boys (with a dash of vinegar), and a bit of a bunch of other influences. A comparison to They Might Be Giants would not be out of order. Anyway, it’s good music, and this is a really good record. I am glad that I found it again.
Here is one of the songs from the album, called “Driving in England”:
One of the things I like to do when I visit someone’s house is browse their bookshelves. It is always interesting to discover what interests them, and to see where their reading has intersected with my own. Often they will have read some books that I plan to read, and I can ask for their opinion. It is also true that one can learn a fair bit about a person from the books they read – enough, in fact, that I sometimes feel that such browsing might be a mild invasion of privacy. I try to take a genuine, and not merely prying, interest.
Along the same lines, I have often thought it would be interesting to browse the shelves of a favourite author’s personal library. It may be easier to do than you would think: A group at LibraryThing has recently finished cataloguing the library of C.S. Lewis, and it can be browsed online. (I am a member of LibraryThing, and I made a modest contribution to the cataloguing effort.) There are about 2000 volumes, and its contents might surprise you. I expected to see Chesterton and George MacDonald, but I was not expecting to find that he collected Anthony Trollope, H. Rider Haggard, and F. Marion Crawford in abundance.
I have had a bit of fun figuring out my Erdös number. This number, if you don’t know, counts the “collaboration distance” between a particular person, such as myself, and Paul Erdös, where a “collaboration” is created when two people co-author a scientific paper. In other words, if I co-wrote a paper with Paul Erdös, my Erdös number would be 1, but if I only co-wrote a paper with somebody who co-wrote a paper with Erdös, my Erdös number would be 2, and so on.
Paul Erdös was an eccentric and famously prolific mathematician who travelled around the world co-authoring papers with people wherever he happened to be. A recent book about him received good reviews, but I have not read it.
Anyway, on to the matter at hand: my Erdös number is not greater than 6. The chain of collaborations goes like this:
6. Yours Truly with Michael Luke [paper]
5. Luke with Mark Wise [multiple papers]
4. Wise with Edward Witten [paper]
3. Witten with Ron Donagi [multiple papers]
2. Donagi with Marcel Herzog [paper]
1. Herzog with Paul Erdös [paper]
My Erdös number is not very impressive. I haven’t seen statistics on the distribution of Erdös numbers, but I expect that a large percentage of people who have published a scientific paper, especially in physics or mathematics, have an Erdös number equal to or less than mine.
Incidentally, I am dumbfounded that an automated Erdös number calculator has not been established online. (There is one for mathematicians, but what about the rest of us?) Most of the publication records for most scientific journals are now online, and it ought to be a fairly simple matter to crawl them and build a collaboration network. Then one need only apply a straightforward shortest-path algorithm to find the Erdös number (or, for that matter, the Einstein number, Feynman number, or even Burrell number) of anyone who has published a paper. Someone ought to do this.
Alright, I will try. Last week I posted a list I found of the “100 Greatest Writers of All Time”, and then proceeded to criticize this and that aspect of it. That was fun, and then a few other people criticized it too, and that was even more fun. And then somebody said I should draw up my own list, purged of the errors that marred the other, and then somebody else said the same thing. I am really not equal to the challenge — the perils of presumption lie everywhere underfoot — but I can try.
This list names twenty writers whom I judge, based on my own reading, to be the best. They are not necessarily my favourite writers, but they are the ones whose achievements I consider to be truly and surpassingly praiseworthy. They are all great; this list should be considerably less tendentious than that other. I am attentive to specifically literary achievement here — language, craft, character, imagination, originality — not influence or “importance” or, needless to say, sales.
I can have no sound opinions about writers, be they ever so great, if I have not read anything they wrote, or if I have read but little. This is true of more great writers than I would like to admit; a partial list includes Goethe, Joyce (the major works have been sitting there on the shelf for years), Proust, Whitman, Dickinson, Euripides (!), and others. In consequence, I couldn’t put them on the list. Also, like many people these days I have a blind spot with poets, especially Shelley, Keats, Byron, and their ilk. I am told that they are great, and I believe it, but I don’t see it myself.
This list is ranked, sort of. I have grouped the writers into tiers, but I won’t say where the divisions between tiers lie. Maybe it will be fairly clear. I also have not added commentary, because I simply haven’t time.
1. William Shakespeare
2. Dante Alighieri
3. Jane Austen
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
5. Charles Dickens
6. Miguel Cervantes
7. Geoffrey Chaucer
9. Thomas Mann
10. François Rabelais
11. T.S. Eliot
12. John Milton
13. Herman Melville
14. Leo Tolstoy
15. Gerard Manley Hopkins
16. William Blake
17. Bob Dylan
18. Jorge Luis Borges
19. Vladimir Nabokov
20. William Wordsworth
What did I get wrong?
Reflections on the Psalms
C.S. Lewis (Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1958)
151 p. First reading.
In this small volume Lewis takes up a number of different questions that arise for modern readers of the Psalms. It is written with his customary grace and insight.
One of the more obvious problems for a modern Christian praying the Psalms is the prevalence of curses, angry outbursts, and the psalmist’s occasional longing for his enemies to meet a violent death. I normally respond to such passages in one of two ways: first, by admiring the honesty of the psalmist, who does not engage in fruitless evasions to disguise his own ugliness from God; and, second, by associating the “enemy” with my own sinful tendencies, towards which I may licitly express hatred. A problem with the first approach is that the psalmist often seems unaware that he is expressing ugliness; on the contrary, he considers his complaint just. This is probably why Lewis does not suggest this line of interpretation. Instead, he asks us to take the psalmist’s rage and vindictiveness as a warning: this is what injustice can wreak in the heart of him who suffers it. He does endorse the second method, however, and gives a memorable application of it to the most violent of the Psalms (137):
From this point of view [i.e. that of moral allegory] I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “You owe yourself some consideration”. Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best. Knock the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done.
Another issue that arises for Christian readers of the Psalms concerns not so much the Psalms themselves, but the purposes to which they have been put in Christian prayer, liturgy, and theology. I am referring to the practice of reading certain Psalms, or even just certain verses of the Psalms, as references to Christ. Lewis calls this the problem of “second meanings”. Such interpretations sometimes strike the modern reader as capricious or sophistical. We might be tempted to dismiss the practice entirely, but this Lewis believes is premature, not least because Christ endorsed it in some cases, applying certain passages in the Psalms to himself.
As a starting point, Lewis asks us to imagine two ways that an earlier author might respond to a later attempt to apply his words to a figure or event of which he had no knowledge. He might say, “That is not at all what I meant!” An instance of this (I trust) would be the kind of “prophetic readings” we find in The Bible Code. But he might also say, “Yes, this is just what I meant!” As an example, Lewis cites Plato’s description (Republic) of the truly just man who, coming to live amid the corruption of human society, finds himself reviled, cursed, and put to death. Christian readers of Plato applied this passage to Christ, and (says Lewis, and I agree) Plato would likely have approved. The life of Jesus was the sort of thing he was thinking of. And, argues Lewis, since Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah whom the psalmist longs for, we ought not to be suprised to find passages in the Psalms that resonate with his life, and to interpret them in the light of his life may often be legitimate.
A variety of other topics are also covered: he discusses nature imagery in the Psalms, how it differs from other ancient sources, and what that difference tells us about the theological distinctiveness of the Jewish people; he reviews what the Psalms teach us about death; he addresses concerns some readers might have about the Psalms constant injunctions to praise God (Does it mean that God is insecure?). The book is far richer and more thoughtful than this little summary would suggest.
During the past few weeks I’ve been listening to cover versions of Bob Dylan songs. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that thousands of singers have recorded one or another of his many tunes; I’ve been skimming the surface with a few dozen. There is little doubt in my mind that Dylan is his own best interpreter; while many of the cover versions I’ve heard have been excellent, I would judge precious few to be the equal of their original. The best of them manage to bring out something in the song that was already there, waiting to be found.
A superb example of this is Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Chimes of Freedom”. The song is one of Dylan’s overlooked masterpieces, from the Another Side album of 1964. That record was recorded with just Dylan and his guitar — and perhaps a bottle of whiskey — and “Chimes of Freedom”, with its long and complex stanzas and circular musical line, came across as cramped and somewhat arcane. At least, I never truly appreciated its merits until I heard an alternate version. Springsteen works magic with it, opening it up into an anthem that sends chills up the spine. Here’s a live version, taped in (I am told) 1988:
Put that on the next time a thunderstorm blows through your town! For comparison, here is Dylan’s original:
I admit I am attracted to this sort of thing: a site called This Recording has compiled a list of the “100 Greatest Writers of All Time” — a ranked list, no less. All of the usual caveats and complaints apply: yes, these judgments are subjective; no, your favourite writer didn’t make the list; yes, there is a provincialism at work here (over half of those listed were writing in the twentieth-century, and over seventy wrote in English); no, ranking Gertrude Stein in the top ten is not, as yet, a federal offense. Still, lists like this are great fun. Each name is accompanied by a picture and a short paragraph discussing the writer’s special qualities and notable works. Curiously, frequent mention is also made of the author’s sexual practices; the reason for this is not given — perhaps it is evidence of provincialism of another kind — but in the end it is not too distracting.
There is an unusually strong stress on poets, with roughly one-third of those listed working primarily in poetry. I don’t know much about poetry, especially the most contemporary variety, and in consequence nearly one-fifth of the names on the list were actually unknown to me. I have a hard time believing that these obscure figures are actually worthy to rank with the acknowledged masters of our literature, but I suppose it is not impossible.
There are some outrageous errors in the list. I have already mentioned the appalling misprint that places Gertrude Stein among the immortals, but presumably that will be rectified when an angry mob descends upon the proprietors of This Recording. There are certain writers whom they have surely ranked too high: the achievement of Mary Shelley (ranked 38), fine as it is, doesn’t really belong in this company; Laurence Sterne is clever and lively, but one of our twenty best?; the inclusion of Virginia Woolf (at 14) and Samuel Beckett (at 7) was probably intended to stir up stupefied indignation. On the other hand, I would certainly have ranked Borges (65), Tolstoy (56), and T.S. Eliot (53) far higher. (Judging from their comments, those who compiled the list reserve a special animus for Eliot. I suppose we should be grateful that he wasn’t bumped off entirely.)
Even worse than contemplating the adulation of Virginia Woolf is the thought that she occupies a place which might have been filled by a more worthy figure. What, pray tell, has happened to Miss Austen? Where is Thomas Mann? How did it happen that one of our great prose stylists, Evelyn Waugh, did not make the list? This is unjust.
Half the fun of these lists is complaining about them, but the other half is praising them. Many of the included names are incontestably great, and there were some pleasant surprises as well. I was happy to see Czeslaw Milosz squeezed in (at 98, and with a great picture), and seeing Flannery O’Conner’s name (at 57) also made me smile. Dr. Johnson was ranked surprisingly high (at 26) considering that he is remembered today chiefly for his dinner conversation rather than his literary work, but I don’t mind. Both Melville and Dickens made the top twenty, which pleased me immensely, the former because my first reading of him (last year) was one of the great literary experiences of my life, and the latter because Dickens is too often dismissed as a sentimental populist rather than regarded as the towering literary talent that he was.
Perhaps the really big surprise about this list is that Shakespeare does not sit at the apex. He is ranked at number 3. Care to guess which two writers they deemed greater than the Bard? No, not Dante. The mystery deepens. . .
(Hat-tip: The Daily Eudemon.)