Archive for November, 2009

Lewis: Present Concerns

November 30, 2009

Yesterday was the birthday of C.S. Lewis (he would have turned eleventy-one), and I was reminded that I had this Book Note buried somewhere in my things.  I dug it out, and here it is.

Present Concerns: Ethical Essays
C.S. Lewis (Fount, 1986; Walter Hooper, Ed.)
108 p.  First reading.

This is a collection of short essays on topics ranging from education to literature to science.  Some fit the titular bill as “ethical essays”, others not, but each was interesting and worth reading.  There are four which I found most valuable, and I will comment briefly on each.

The first essay in the book is titled “The Necessity of Chivalry”, and in it Lewis proposes that Lancelot, that noblest of the knights of the Round Table, demonstrates a character type which is rare in today’s world but very needful.  At his funeral, Malory records that Lancelot was praised in this manner: “Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.”  His character seems a paradox: it is not achieved by restraining the mild and the belligerent tendencies in his character so as to arrive at some kind of average, but rather by giving each its rein in its proper context.  He should be courteous and civilized when appropriate, and brave and uncompromising when appropriate.  Now there is a tendency today to view violence as intrinsically wicked, to claim that “violence never solves anything”; from this point of view the chivalric ideal appears tarnished by its false glorification of the warrior.  And there is a contrary tendency, less prevalent today but not unknown, to praise the warrior for his bravery and strength; from this point of view the chivalric ideal seems polluted by sentimentality and weakness.  Both tendencies are agreed that the chivalric ideal is internally inconsistent, and, says Lewis, “These two tendencies between them weave the world’s shroud.”  The truth is that we need civilized men with sufficient backbone to defend the good when circumstances call for it.  But, Lewis reminds us, “the knightly character is art not nature — something that needs to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen.”

In “Hedonics” he proposes that we ought to develop a serious philosophy and science of happiness.  His own aesthetic experience was richer and more subtle than were the aesthetic theories of which he knew — and he knew them all.  He describes an undercurrent in his life, at some times more evident than at others, which he experienced as a quiet and unobtrusive offer of happiness. And he also experienced a temptation to reject the offer, to attribute it to illusion.  Together, these experiences seemed to him to indicate that his inner life was constantly playing host to a kind of spiritual struggle, one which does not manifest itself in the external events of his life.  I was reminded of Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”.  The essay is brief, but suggestive; I am not aware of his developing these ideas at greater length elsewhere, and that is a pity.

Another interesting essay was “Modern Man and his Categories of Thought”.  Trying to articulate the habits of thought of one’s culture is a good exercise in itself, but Lewis is especially concerned about the special problems which modern habits pose for Christian evangelization.  In the ancient world, Christians could count on three beliefs in those they sought to evangelize: in the supernatural, in sin and divine judgment, and in the fact that the world was once better than it presently is.  None can be counted on today.  During the nineteenth-century especially the modern mind was substantially altered, and Lewis explores the causes and consequences of this rift.  First, there were major changes in education; the classical curriculum declined, replaced by a more “relevant” — Lewis calls it “provincial” — education oriented  toward the present and future rather than the past.  The effect of this was a decline in both sympathy for and understanding of the past, and it prepared the ground for the changes that followed.  A second factor, more idiosyncratic and less likely today to be granted the wariness Lewis believes appropriate, was women’s liberation.  In Lewis’ opinion the mixing of the sexes, especially in education, has had the effect of suppressing the characteristically male love of argument and metaphysics, which produced a corresponding decline of interest in the abstract arguments that had animated intellectual discourse through the centuries.  As to modern habits of thought, Lewis picks out four: developmentalism, proletarianism, practicality, and scepticism. Developmentalism is the extension of Darwinian thinking far beyond the natural sciences into a general theory of history; it disposes the modern mind to believe that things are getting better, as if by a natural process, and, in particular, disposes the modern mind to imagine the past as having been “obviously” worse than the present.  By proletarianism, Lewis means to stress the spiritual complacency of modern man, who feels no awe or fear before God and who judges religion by secular standards — by how well it promotes political projects, social harmony, personal well-being, and so forth.  Modern man is also practical in his thinking; he is less interested in whether the claims of religion are true or false than in whether they are helpful, comforting, and so on.  Finally, our time is sceptical, even to the point of being sceptical about reason itself.  Under the influence of Freud (who was more respected in Lewis’ time than in ours, but the point still stands) people are ready to concede that reasoning proves nothing and that thought is conditioned by irrational processes.  This makes rational persuasion difficult.  A stimulating essay.

Finally, I will mention a short but excellent essay titled “Democratic Education”.  A democratic education is “not the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy”, and the two are quite different.  For example, some argue that an education which privileges the talented over the mediocre is undemocratic.  But a system which tries to eliminate judgements of “superior” and “inferior” feeds the beast of envy, and this is foolish, for envy is insatiable and will not be satisfied.  On the contrary, “a truly democratic education — one which will preserve democracy — must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly ‘high-brow’.”  Education should be geared toward the best pupils, those who can know and want to know, for then school will be a nursery for the first-class intellects which any nation needs to thrive.  This essay is a refreshing contradiction of the theories of education which seem to be most common today.

There are fifteen other essays in the book, but I haven’t time to say anything further about them.

Advent reading

November 29, 2009

This evening I attended an Advent carol service at a local Anglo-Catholic parish.  It was a many-splendoured thing.  One of the readings was one which I had not heard, or at least not noted, before.  I found it quite beautiful and (as one would expect, given the context in which I heard it,) fitting for the Advent season.  It was this:

For thus saith the LORD of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the LORD of hosts. The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the LORD of hosts: and in this place will I give peace, saith the LORD of hosts.

Haggai 2:6-9

Great moments in opera: La Traviata

November 25, 2009

For this installment of “Great moments in opera” we turn to Verdi’s La Traviata.  This is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, but I confess that I have not known much about it apart from a few of the big numbers.  This week I listened to it again, paying some attention to the plot.  (The performance I listened to was Maria Callas’ live performance made in Lisbon in 1958, in a newly-surfaced mastering discussed here.  It is terrific!)

I am told that “la traviata” means something like “the fallen woman”. The story is about a love affair between a gallant and wealthy young man and a poor woman with a checkered past.  (Was she a prostitute?  It wasn’t quite clear to me.)  His father disapproves, and they are made to separate.  She dies in the end.  (I’m not giving much away.  Such deaths are de rigeur in opera.)  It is actually a fairly comprehensible plot, as these things go, and there is a real attempt to convey the emotional and psychological difficulty of the situation — not always the case in Italian opera.

The first Act of La Traviata is a tour de force.  Verdi gives us one hit after another: a superb prelude, a rousing opening chorus, and a wonderful opening duet for our heroes (the drinking song “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” [listen]).   The music goes from strength to strength, and the Act closes with one of the most famous of all soprano arias, “Sempre libera”.  At this point in the story our heroine, Violetta, is consumed with a kind of frantic madness, doomed, it seems to her, to a life of hedonism and fleeting pleasures, rather than a deep and abiding love.  Meanwhile Alfredo walks around off-stage singing of his love for her.

I found that the level of inspiration was not as high through the rest of the opera, with too much recitative.  This is almost unavoidable, since one has to tell a story, after all, and Verdi’s duller moments are not half so dull as, for instance, Wagner’s.  Things pick up again as the opera nears its completion, and there is a splendid final scene.

My favourite performance of “Sempre libera” is from an old recording made by Joan Sutherland.  I cannot find that audio online, but here is a good performance by Angela Gheorghiu, complete with subtitles.

Beowulf, again

November 23, 2009

Beowulf (c.1000)
Anonymous (Harper Perennial; trans: Frederick Rebsamen)
135 p.  Third reading.

The recent discovery in Staffordshire of a Saxon treasure-hoard inspired me to read Beowulf again.  This time I read a new (to me; it was first published in 1991) translation of the poem by Frederick Rebsamen that I had picked up a few months ago.  I enjoyed the story as much as ever, and I think that with each new reading I am learning to better appreciate this great poem.

Attentive and long-suffering readers of this space may recall that a few years ago I read Beowulf in a translation by Sullivan and Murphy.  At the time I praised their version, comparing it favourably to the popular translation made by Seamus Heaney.  Part of the pleasure of reading this new version was comparing its strengths to those of Sullivan and Murphy.

One of the qualities of Sullivan/Murphy that I liked was the compressed and rough-hewn language.  A faithful commenter pointed out that they still used more words per line than did the original poet, but compressing syntax while still telling the story is more difficult in modern English than it was in Old English.  Rebsamen’s version of the poem also clearly tries to limit the number of words, frequently making use of compound neologisms, and the result is blunt and spare.  Here is an example, from a late passage in which the dragon, wounded by Beowulf’s blade, crashes from the sky and dies.  Nearly every line contains a freshly-minted compound word:

\hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} That old death-flyer
no longer wielded \hspace{0.2cm} his wealthy ringhoard
but steel blade-edges \hspace{0.2cm} stopped his life-fire
hard and battle-sharp \hspace{0.2cm} smith-hammer’s leaving.
That soaring night-flyer \hspace{0.2cm} stilled by murder-wounds
fell to the earth \hspace{0.2cm} near that fire-kept treasure.
No longer at sunset \hspace{0.2cm} did he sail with hate-flames
roaming the night-dark \hspace{0.2cm} raging for his cup
scorching the skyways \hspace{0.2cm} but he sank at last
hushed by the swordwork \hspace{0.2cm} of heartstrong warriors. [2826-2835]

In my opinion that works well, but, even so, Rebsamen does not achieve the same degree of terseness as did Sullivan/Murphy.  In my Book Note for their version I quoted the passage in which the dragon, having discovered that his gold hoard has been looted, prepares to devastate the countryside.  Here is the corresponding passage in Rebsamen:

\hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} That waking flame-serpent
rushed round his treasure \hspace{0.2cm} raged for that thief
who crept past his sleep \hspace{0.2cm} swelled him with goldgrief.
Hot with hate-thoughts \hspace{0.2cm} he hurtled outside
circled the barrow \hspace{0.2cm} he saw no creature
on the wild heathland \hspace{0.2cm} hiding from fury.
At times he shot back \hspace{0.2cm} to his bountiful riches
searched for his cup \hspace{0.2cm} — soon he discovered
that some man-creature \hspace{0.2cm} had diminished his hoard
plundered his goldnest. \hspace{0.2cm} No patience eased him
as he watched and waited \hspace{0.2cm} for waning of that day.
That fearful treasure-guard \hspace{0.2cm} fumed with yearning
writhing to ransom \hspace{0.2cm} his rich jewel-cup
with flames from the sky. \hspace{0.2cm} The sun grew heavy
dragged down the day \hspace{0.2cm} — the dragon was ready
on his wall by the sea \hspace{0.2cm} soared with balefire
fueled by his fury. \hspace{0.2cm} The feud had begun,
sorrow for landfolk \hspace{0.2cm} which soon would be ended
by their great people-king, \hspace{0.2cm} greviously paid for. [2294-2311]

“Goldgrief” is a nice invention, as is “balefire”.  But this passage takes 19 lines, compared to just 13 in Sullivan/Murphy.  Overall their translation is about 10% shorter than Rebsamen’s.  Being brief and blunt is not everything in this repertoire, but it certainly counts for something.  Wordiness wars with the ethos of the poem.

A quality of Rebsamen’s translation that I really did like was the vividness of the violence.  It is probably a fault to take too much pleasure in descriptions of violent acts, but, let’s face it, this is a violent poem, and there’s no point in tip-toeing around it.  Here is the famous passage in which Grendel, not knowing that Beowulf is lying in wait, bursts into the mead-hall of Hrothgar and attacks one of the sleeping men:

Nor did that thief \hspace{0.2cm} think about waiting
but searched with fire-eyes \hspace{0.2cm} snared a doomed one
in terminal rest \hspace{0.2cm} tore frantically
crunched bonelockings \hspace{0.2cm} crammed blood-morsels
gulped him with glee. [739-743]

Crammed blood-morsels / gulped him with glee.  That is suitably disgusting.  Grendel’s glee does not last long, however, for Beowulf arises and grasps his arm with an iron grip.  Then he begins to tug and twist:

\hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} \hspace{0.2cm} — Grendel yearned away
his arm stretched thin \hspace{0.2cm} thronging with pain —
a great death-wound \hspace{0.2cm} gaped in his shoulder
sinew-bonds weakened \hspace{0.2cm} snapped viciously
bonelockings burst. [814-818]

It is Beowulf’s first great victory in the court of Hrothgar. It was a feat of such greatness as to earn him everlasting fame (here we are, after all, admiring him).  Such fame was the ambition of every great Saxon warrior:

Each one among us \hspace{0.2cm} shall mark the end
of this worldly life. \hspace{0.2cm} Let him who may
earn deeds of glory \hspace{0.2cm} before death takes him —
after life-days \hspace{0.2cm} honor-fame is best. [1386-1389]


Ugly buildings

November 22, 2009

I was delighted this morning to open the paper and see that the Royal Ontario Museum, which is just a few blocks from where I live, and from which I have been averting my eyes for a few years now, has been voted one of the world’s ugliest buildings!  This is truly heartening news.  The ROM was for decades housed in a grand and stately old building, but then they decided to make an “addition”.  Unfortunately, the addition resembles a crashed airplane.  It is ugly in itself, but made worse by the way it clashes with the existing building.  I am very happy to see its ugliness publicly acknowledged.

I live in an area with more than its fair share of ugly buildings.  Just a bit further away than the ROM is Graduate House (where, I confess, I used to live).  It looks like a bomb bunker wrapped (incompletely) in aluminum foil.  The positions of the windows appear to have been decided using a random number generator.  (I had one friend whose only window was about 2 ft. high and level with the floor).  The interior is even worse than the exterior.  A truly hideous structure.

A few blocks further and you find the Ontario College of Art and Design.  Their new building looks like a cross between a defective computer screen, a matchbox, and a spider.   I am now careful to never walk down the neighbouring streets without an umbrella, the better to shield my eyes from the horror.  This building is a public menace.

Anyway, the good news is that one of these buildings has today been denounced as an eyesore.  It’s a start.

Sacred Music on the BBC

November 20, 2009

I recently finished watching the first season of a BBC television programme called Sacred Music.  The show looked at the history of sacred music in the west, and I enjoyed it tremendously.  The first season consisted of four hour-long episodes.

The first episode was on Gregorian chant and the origins of polyphony at the twelfth-century “school of Notre Dame” in Paris.  The second looked at the flowering of polyphony in the music of Palestrina, with side glances at some of his eminent contemporaries.  The third episode, which I though the best of them, was about the music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis in Elizabethan England.  The final episode looked at the music of Bach.

The series is hosted by Simon Russell Beale, a former chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Musical examples and illustrations are provided by Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen, who happen to be one of the best choirs in the world.  Without them the show would still be pretty good; with them it is outstanding.

There are a few irritants and problems.  The historical background is sometimes over-simplified (they really play up the Council of Trent connection in the Palestrina episode), and the producers sometimes fall prey to that overly-dramatic underlining that seems to afflict British television.  The episode on Bach, which ought to have been the best, was marred by an apparently irresistible and chronic desire to lionize Martin Luther.  But those are, all told, fairly minor complaints.  I recommend the show if you’ve an interest in this sort of thing.

I believe that the episodes still air from time to time on BBC TV.  If you don’t have access, you’ll have to shift for yourself (remembering, perhaps, that even a television show can be abstracted to a torrent of bits).  But it will be worth the effort.

Here is a clip from Episode 1, in which we learn about the first two polyphonists whose names have come down to us: Leonin and Perotin.  This is great music, and the scenery is not bad either:

Mount Athos in pictures

November 19, 2009

It is a dream of mine to one day visit the ancient monasteries at Mount Athos in Greece.  This evening I have found this beautiful set of photographs taken there.  What a place!  It is heartening to read that the number of new novices is increasing.  Let us hope that monastic life on Mount Athos continues for a very, very long time.

(Hat-tip: Rod Dreher)

Pieper: Tradition

November 16, 2009

Tradition: Concept and Claim (1970)
Josef Pieper (ISI, 2008; trans: E.C.Kopff)
128 p. First reading.

Our time is unfriendly to the idea of tradition, so much so that the word itself acquires in some circles a perjorative connotation.  Nietzsche said, “What is under the most profound attack today is the instinct and will of tradition.  All institutions which owe their origin to this instinct are opposed to the taste of the modern intellect.” Pieper’s tastes are rather different, and he is especially interested in traditions of teaching — that is, traditions which aim to preserve important truths.  This little book is an examination of the concept and the value of tradition.

The purpose of a tradition is to preserve something through time, passing it from one generation to the next.  Tradition requires two unequal partners: the one who “hands down” the teaching, and the one who receives it. The thing handed down is not an original contribution of the one who hands down, but rather something he himself received. “I received what I handed down to you”, as the Apostle says. The act of reception is not “learning”; receiving a tradition is not the same as gathering information.  The tradition is only received when the hearer accepts and appropriates the thing handed down.

A paradox in tradition is that a healthy tradition does not talk about itself as a tradition.  The tradition is not accepted because it is “traditional”; it is accepted simply and solely because it is true and valid.  Yet the one to whom a tradition is offered cannot independently know that the tradition is true; if he could, he would not need to receive it.  This means, says Pieper, that “accepting and receiving tradition has the structure of belief.”

Since participating in a tradition involves relying on the testimony of someone else, the question of authority necessarily arises.  (This is the point on which tradition runs aground in our culture, which is so allergic to authorities.  Tradition is incommensurable with the doctrine of the autonomy of the will.)  For the one who receives, the one who hands down acts as an authority.  Yet he himself relies on the word of the one who handed the tradition down before, and so on.  When we accept a tradition, therefore, the one in whom we ultimately place our trust is the one who stands at the beginning of this chain.  Plato called these originators “the ancients” or “the men of old”.  Yet their authority was not derived simply from the fact that they lived long ago, but from the fact that they received a divine gift:

This is the definitive platonic formulation about the status and authority of the “ancients”.  Their dignity consists in the fact that they received from a divine source a message, a pheme, something spoken, and handed on what they had received in this way.  This is the only reason why they are the “ancients”.

In this understanding, by accepting a tradition one places one’s trust in the divine source that originally spoke the truth which the tradition preserves.  This means that the concept of tradition is intrinsically related to revelation.  In fact, the only legitimate way something can merit preservation for all time is if it goes back to divine speech. By believing this word, we are in a real sense united to that divine source, for “whoever believes in another person by that act wants and realizes ‘spiritual union’ and communion with him.”

This analysis seems to imply that tradition is always at least implicitly sacred tradition, and Pieper does indeed want to define this strict sense of the word.  In this strict sense, Catholic Christianity is obviously an example of a tradition: it claims to possess a divine revelation which it preserves from corruption and forgetfulness through time, passing from one generation to the next truths of great and abiding value.  Yet Pieper points out that even Christian theologians acknowledge that other legitimate traditions exist: from its early days the idea has been put forward, renewed and emphasized again by Vatican II, that all people possess an “original revelation”.  All have heard, in one way or another, the divine Logos who is Christ.  This divine speech has entered into the respective myths and religions of different cultures, though “hidden beneath a thicket of fanciful additions”, and mixed with heterogeneous elements.  When Plato turns to myths in his dialogues, he seems to recognize that they are “only broken shards, fragments of a tradition which can no longer be grasped as a whole”.  Here, indeed, is the difficulty: this fragmented tradition cannot be restored to its original form without a further divine intervention.  (It is this further revelation that Christianity claims to have been entrusted with.)

The practice of handing down a tradition poses challenges to both parties.  The one who receives does not do so casually or uncritically.  It is natural and important that the value of the tradition be questioned and its claims probed if it is to be truly appropriated and its value truly appreciated.  This critical attitude, however, must remain humble, open to the possibility that it may reap a unique benefit from this gift that is offered.

The challenge is more severe for the one who hands down the tradition.  If the tradition is to be kept alive and vibrant, the truths it conveys must be presented in a compelling and credible manner.  To do so, especially in a culture that changes rapidly under the influence of powerful forces alien to the tradition, is extremely difficult.  Pieper quotes a Hebrew proverb: “Teaching the old is harder than teaching the new”.  We can draw a distinction between the core truths of the tradition and the external form in which they are presented.  Granting, and even insisting, that the relationship between these two elements, inner and outer, is not to be lightly tampered with, we must acknowledge that it is legitimate, and may at times be necessary, to alter the external form in order to preserve the inner substance.  To be stubbornly attached to a particular historically accidental form may hinder the transmission and reception of something truly worthy of preservation, and is, says Pieper, a form of decadence.  At the same time, the essence of what is to be preserved becomes naturally entangled with particular historical forms, and altering those forms risks altering or destroying the understanding of those essential truths.  It is a delicate business, then, requiring what Pieper calls a “very rare linking of prudence and courage”.

We can see this delicate interplay of historical forms and inner truths in recent Catholic history.  The liturgical changes that followed Vatican II are an obvious example: the outer form changed considerably, and to this day people argue about the degree to which our understanding of the theological truths conveyed by the liturgy has been damaged.  Another example is John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, in which he reformulated in modern, humanistic language the historic teachings of the Church with respect to human sexuality, teachings which had traditionally been presented with quite different language and reasoning.

With this understanding of the nature of tradition and the challenges it poses, we can briefly sketch the character of the ideal “critical traditionalist”.  We look for “a characteristic element of fundamental reverence and thankfulness”, for he recognizes his debt to those who have proclaimed and entrusted these truths to him.  His respect for tradition produces “distrust of that zero-point radicalism that fancies it always possible to start again from scratch with a tabula rasa, as well as distrust of the inclination to treat each new moment as a ‘completely new situation’, and so forth.”  A traditionalist makes a distinction between innovations in science or medicine, and innovations in our basic understanding of human nature, death, love, or God.  The former may be warmly welcomed; the latter provoke grave suspicion.

When a generation tries, as ours does, to emancipate itself from reliance on tradition, a consequence is that it loses sight of those truths which were the special province of the tradition.  If those truths were trivial or otherwise insignificant this is fine, but if they were of genuine value the result is inevitably an impoverishment.  Karl Jaspers remarked that divorced from sacred tradition philosophy was characterized by “an increasingly empty seriousness”.  Pieper cites the following aphorism by Viacheslav Ivanov: “Freedom achieved by forgetting is empty”.  “Empty freedom”: the phrase describes quite aptly the modern spiritual situation.

Although Tradition was written in 1970, this is (I believe) the first English translation to be published.  The translator, E. Christian Kopff, also provides a lengthy introduction and extensive notes and bibliography.  The length of Pieper’s text is just over half the length of the whole volume.

Great moments in opera: Dialogues des Carmélites

November 13, 2009

Francis Poulenc is not the first composer most people think of when they think of opera, but he did write a few, including one, Dialogues des Carmélites, that is a great personal favourite.  Set during the French Revolution, it follows a group of Carmelite nuns as their cloistered lives of prayer and contemplation are overturned by the frenzied violence of those times.  It is a great opera for those who hate the French Revolution, and it has terrific music too.  Poulenc, who as a young man had a reputation for insouciant humour and elegant buffoonery, outdid himself in this magnificent achievement.  He aimed high, and produced an opera of moral seriousness, psychological complexity, and spiritual grandeur.  It is a French opera, influenced by Debussy, and is largely devoid of “big numbers”, using instead a style of singing that is supple, quiet (for opera), and conversational.

I consider the last scene of Dialogues to be one of the great scenes in all of opera.  The sisters are brought to the guillotine.  As the first of them goes forward to meet the blade, they break into song, singing Poulenc’s own beautiful setting of Salve regina.  As the guillotine slices down through the music, the voices drop out, one by one, until all are gone.  It’s a devastating conclusion, which Poulenc’s music infuses with a transcendent beauty.

Here is that last scene.  I had always imagined the sisters going off-stage to meet the guillotine, but this production takes a more abstract approach that nonetheless works pretty well.   The woman who joins them at the very end is Blanche, a sister who had fled when she realized that she faced martyrdom.  Standing alone, she sings the final stanza of Veni Creator spiritus before the blade silences her.

Here are the texts with translations: Salve regina and Veni Creator spiritus.

Poulenc’s libretto was based on a screenplay by Georges Bernanos, and the screenplay was, not incidentally, based on real events.  The sisters, from Compiègne convent, were beatified by Pope Pius X in 1906.  Their feast day is July 17.

Wells: The War of the Worlds

November 9, 2009

The War of the Worlds (1898)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2002)
205 p. First reading.

This must be one of the most famous science fiction stories ever written.  It has been said that in his first batch of novels Wells annexed the whole scope of subsequent science fiction writing: monstrous creatures, other worlds, time travel, special powers, technological dystopias — and here, in The War of the Worlds, alien invasion.  Its imagery, especially that of the Martian tripods striding across the countryside, has entered the popular imagination.

The apocalypse is an ancient literary genre, but Wells’ variation on the theme strikes a distinctively modern note.  Past ages have imagined that the end of human civilization would be accompanied by a great judgment, the triumph of justice, the vindication of the good and the destruction of the wicked.  It would have meaning, and could be seen as the ultimate culmination of human history.  All of that is gone for Wells.  He is ready to see the end as sheer destruction, just another stage in the remorseless triumph of the strong over the weak.  Our culture, religion, art, and science simply fall useless on the wayside, false or irrelevant.  A lot of things had to go wrong to make that vision possible.

To describe the confrontation between the Martians and us as a “war of the worlds” gives us too much credit.  The Martians’ enormous technological superiority — which nonetheless appears rather quaint by today’s standards — renders humanity’s defences useless.  Even if it is true that in the end the Martian invasion fails, it is not quite fair to say that they are defeated.  The means Wells uses to save humanity is certainly clever, but it comes about, as it were, by accident, and only serves as an ironic coda to the theme of history as meaningless struggle.  We are saved, but this kind of salvation is good news only in a sense.

Stylistically The War of the Worlds is the best of these early novels that I have been surveying.  The tone is that of a newspaper report: direct, taut, and unsentimental.

After finishing the novel, I listened to the 1938 “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast made by Orson Welles.  Roughly the first half of this radio program is “staged” as a radio news program, which famously led some people to worry that an actual Martian invasion was taking place, though I am told that the scale of the reaction has been exaggerated.  (It is always so pleasant to think that people in the past were dumber than we are.)  In any case, it becomes obvious in the second half of the program that it is just a dramatization.  The program makes a fleeting reference to a “MacMillan University” in Toronto, but this venerable institution, laden with so many undoubted excellences, nonetheless lacks the particular excellence of existence.


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