Archive for August, 2011

Greene: The End of the Affair

August 29, 2011

The End of the Affair
Graham Greene
(Penguin, 1951)
192 p.

These notes originally written 21 January 2006.

‘This is a record of hate far more than of love’ warns the narrator on the first page of this, one of Greene’s early novels. Perhaps it would be truer to say that it is a record of jealousy, in all of its cruel complexity, so that the narrator – and the reader with him – is never sure whether his thoughts and actions spring from hatred or from love. Yet from another angle it is unequivocally a record of love, even if the story is told from the point of view of one who hates that love.

Greene is one of my favourite writers; I think him one of the finest English-language writers of the last century. His stories, many of which would in the hands of a lesser writer have been fairly conventional spy novels or thrillers, are always thoughtful and challenging. His book The Human Factor is emblematic, for the character, motivations, and relationships of his characters are always the driving force behind his stories. His characters find themselves in difficulties – usually moral difficulties – and he writes them through to a resolution, whether for better or for worse. Few can write dialogue the way Greene did; it often seems that much of what is said is said between the lines, yet, somehow, there it is. Why it took me so long to get to this novel I don’t know. I wish that it had not, for I think it must be one of his best.

The story is told by Maurice Bendrix, a writer labouring on the near side of success. His mistress, Sarah, is the wife of Henry, a competent but dull government official. The story follows these characters over the course of the eponymous affair – but not only these, for it is also the story of ‘that other, whom I had hated without knowing him, or even believing in him’. It is set in London during the Second World War, yet, with one crucial exception, the war very much yields the foreground to the intricate interrelationships of these four characters, Bendrix even remarking at one point that ‘I had almost come to regard war as a rather disreputable and unreliable accomplice in my affair’.

Bendrix is something of a monster, so consumed by his jealousy that he can hardly tell right from left. At some level it seems he really loves Sarah, and she him, yet there is something uncomfortably desperate about their love, and of course the fact that it is an infidelity casts a sickly pall over the whole business. Sarah is a harder character to understand, perhaps because it is she who develops the most over the course of the story. A significant part of the book is given over to tracing the threads of her evolving love for all three of the other principals, and Greene outdoes himself here. Perhaps it is true, after all, that only a convert can write about conversion.

Some years ago a film was made of this book, with Ralph Fiennes as Bendrix and Julianne Moore as Sarah. I’ve seen it a few times, and it is superb. It is, however, different in several important respects from the book, particularly toward the end, so that I had some surprises while reading. In the film some minor characters have been eliminated entirely, others amalgamated or transplanted. In some ways I think the film is more economical, more tightly structured. But, as I always insist, a film can never be as evocative and precise in its storytelling as prose in the hands of a master, and that is certainly what this book offers in abundance.

Remembering Victoria

August 27, 2011

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomás Luis de Victoria. Unquestionably one of the great figures in late Renaissance music, he also happens to be one of my favourites. A Spanish priest during the Counter-Reformation, he wrote (so far as I know) exclusively sacred music, and is probably best remembered today for his Holy Week music, a Requiem Mass, and a handful of gorgeous motets, principally O quam gloriosum, O magnum mysterium, and a lovely Ave Maria.

His music, while being broadly in the style of contemporaries like Palestrina and Byrd, often has a special quality that is hard to describe, but which makes it somehow especially alluring. I have had the privilege to sing his music on a few occasions, and I can testify that it is just as beautiful from within as from without. Harry Christophers, director of the British choir The Sixteen (which has itself recorded some of the most attractive performances of Victoria’s music), summed him up in this way:

“Scholar, mystic, priest, singer, organist and composer – six persons all rolled into one and that is, quite simply, why Victoria is the most outstanding composer of the Renaissance. He devoted his life to the church, and his works reveal such heartfelt passion that there are times, in performance, when we are almost overwhelmed by their intensity.”


Here are a few of the best Victoria recordings of which I am aware, with samples where available:

Victoria: Cantica Beatae Virginae
Jordi Savall; Hesperion XX; La Capella Reial de Catalunya

This collection of a dozen or so Marian motets is a gem. Instruments are used to fill out the aural background, giving the music a lush, rich texture. The singing is robust and warm, not at all the cool, bloodless kind of singing one sometimes associates with polyphony. Here is the Ave Maria:


Victoria: Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae
La Colombina

A big (3+ hours) collection of Victoria’s music for Holy Week, superbly sung and evocatively recorded. Passion narratives, Tenebrae music, motets, antiphons, and hymns are all included, intermixed with some Gregorian chant. It’s a beautiful experience to hear it. I have written about this recording before.


Victoria: Et Iesum
Carlos Mena; Juan Carlos Rivera

This disc was on my best of the decade list last year, and I haven’t changed my mind about that. The concept is unusual: Victoria’s polyphonic sacred music is arranged for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment, a practice that was apparently current in Victoria’s own day. The simplicity of the settings brings out the beauty of the vocal line, and the singing, by counter-tenor Carlos Mena, is ravishing. As far as I am concerned, music does not get much better than this. Here is the Salve regina:


In Paradisum: Music of Victoria and Palestrina
The Hilliard Ensemble

This disc includes only four pieces by Victoria, but it warrants inclusion on this short list because of the absorbing and exalting singing. Victoria’s music is heard alongside that of Palestrina, and both are interwoven into the Gregorian Requiem. It’s a special recording. Here they sing Peccantem me:

Esolen on education and life

August 26, 2011

Anthony Esolen has another fine essay in the current issue of Touchstone magazine. He begins by describing an experience he had listening to a speaker at a recent convocation ceremony:

I am still trying to understand it. He congratulated the students for being part of the “most selective freshman class in the last ten years.” He congratulated them for their being what he called “engaged learners,” unlike freshmen at our school thirty years ago—many of whom, it should be noted, were present in the audience and pay his salary—who were “passive learners,” taught merely to memorize information from lectures. That last was an ill-bred and ill-informed slap at our Western Civilization course.

He concluded his short acceptance speech by declaring that he had no doubt that the honorees in attendance would make us proud. This they would do by “earning high scores on standardized tests,” or “obtaining internships and fellowships,” or “distinguishing themselves in musical or theatrical competitions,” or “winning admission to prestigious graduate schools.”

As Milton’s Belial says in Hell, “And that must end us, that must be our cure.”

The essay goes on to reflect on the relationships of teachers and students, on what teaching is for, what education is for, and what difference it makes to life. It is lovely, and surprisingly moving. Read the whole thing.

Pieper: Happiness and Contemplation

August 25, 2011

Happiness and Contemplation
Josef Pieper
(St. Augustine’s Press, 1958)
125 p.

These notes first written 25 February 2006.

‘No matter how much you labour, you labour to this end: that you may see.’

These words, delivered by St. Augustine in a sermon on the Psalms, are a convenient précis of this book, for they capture a number of its central themes: our life’s activity is directed toward an end, which is happiness; happiness is vision (that is, contemplation); and we do not achieve happiness automatically, but must seek it.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have been exposed to the cloying nonsense that fills the ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Self-Help’ shelves at the local bookstore could be forgiven for recoiling from a book tactless enough to call itself Happiness and Contemplation. A look at the cover of this book only seems to confirm the prejudice: a forest pond dappled with autumn leaves, into which one might gaze placidly and at length. Yet to pass over this book on that account would be a serious mistake.

Josef Pieper, who was professor of philosophy at the University of Munster for many years, was an extraordinary man through whom the Greek and medieval philosophical traditions found an articulate advocate and were brought into conversation with contemporary thought. His books are always rich and filled with illuminating remarks. Though they are brief, they demand and reward close reading; they are dense with argument and implication. Pieper himself had little original to say — that, one might suggest, was his great virtue — but in my experience he is unparalleled as an archaeologist of ideas. As T. S. Eliot once said of him, ‘He restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom.’ In this book he turns to address the largest question of all: what is genuine happiness, and how can we attain it?

Happiness and Contemplation proceeds systematically. The first half of the book is devoted to an examination of happiness: its linguistic usage (ranging, as we know, from the banal to the profound), the nature of our desire for happiness (we desire it by nature, we cannot not desire it), the metaphysics of happiness (the possibility of happiness and the goodness of Being stand or fall together), the cause of happiness (possession of a good), the relationship between happiness and joy (cause and effect), and the means to happiness. This means, argues Pieper, is contemplation: an intuitive perception of the bonum universale inspired and sharpened by love. This startling thesis is the theme of all that follows.

After introducing the idea of contemplation — or rather, after gradually assembling the idea by analysis of the demands of human happiness — he devotes several chapters to further unfolding the meaning of this word. Contemplation, according to Western tradition, is an activity of the mind; it has no practical aim; it is intuitive, not discursive; it is a kind of perception whose natural context is silent attentiveness; it is accompanied by amazement and, surprisingly, unease. In his own words, it is ‘a focusing of the inner gaze, undistracted by anything from outside, but troubled from within by the challenge to achieve a profounder … peace.’

This teaching that contemplation, which is supposed to be the means to happiness, is not a state of untroubled bliss, but is, as he says, ‘troubled from within’ seems contradictory, and merits closer attention. The first error to avoid is to misconceive happiness as an emotion; in Pieper’s meaning it is not. Happiness is possession of a good; the fullest happiness is possession of ‘the whole good’ (in theological parlance, God); emotion may, in the form of joy, accompany the attainment of happiness, but should not be confused with it. But even if we grant that happiness, not being an emotion, can co-exist with a sense of unease, why should it?

We said earlier that, as traditionally understood, contemplation is accompanied by amazement, and this turns out to be crucial to answering this question. Why should we feel amazement when our interior gaze rests on ‘the whole good’? Because, says Pieper, it is beyond our comprehension.

Earthly contemplation is imperfect contemplation. In the midst of its repose there is unrest. This unrest stems from man’s experiencing at one and the same moment the overwhelming infinitude of the object, and his own limitations. It is part of the nature of earthly contemplation that it glimpses a light whose fearful brightness both blesses and dazzles.

One might say that its very vastness is a silent call to venture further in, to desire possession of more and more of it. And, says Pieper, the Catholic theological tradition has interpreted it in just this way. He cites a statement of the poet Paul Claudel: the unease in contemplation is ‘the call of the perfect to the imperfect, which call we name love’. And so a picture emerges in which contemplation, being directed and sustained by love of the good, is, in attainment of its object, met by a complementary love that beckons it on. It is the meeting place, then, of that human love of which Augustine spoke (‘my love is my weight’) and that other love of which Dante spoke (‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’).

Pieper continues by considering contemporary examples of the contemplative spirit (for in our time the word is rare, though the experience is not — or at least not so rare as the word). Interestingly, in this discussion the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins looms large. He then devotes a chapter to various objections that could — and are — raised to the very idea that the highest human happiness is really to be found in contemplation. Alternatives that he considers are: happiness is found in work and accomplishment; happiness is found in living virtuously; happiness consists in selfless love for one another; happiness is crowned in artistic creation; happiness is fulfilled in loving God. All these, for various reasons, he rejects.

Finally, as a sort of a posteriori argument in favour of the thesis that happiness and contemplation really are found together, he closes with a disarming comparison between popular notions of ‘the happy man’ and the contemplative.

In his last pages, he reiterates a central point of the book. The modern world raises, he says, one final high-minded objection to the supremacy of contemplation — indeed, to the very notion that one ought to pursue happiness: suffering in the world.

Ought not a generous person who does not care to deceive himself about what is going on in the world day after day — ought not such a person to have the courage to renounce the ‘escape’ of happiness?

If, he says, the world is fundamentally unsound, and if therefore contemplation and happiness are empty escapes and delusions, then indeed this objection is decisive. The important implication is that the whole conception of happiness and contemplation developed here relies on the premise that the world is fundamentally good and harmonious. This sets it profoundly at odds with much contemporary thought, from Nietzsche on down. But that only increases its merit in my eyes.

In fact, this is a superb book; I have not done in justice. A fresh wind blows through it, and it is full of matter ripe for reflection. It assumes, and therefore encourages, a magnanimity on the part of the reader to seriously consider these great themes: happiness, love, and God. And it has been, not least, a very salutary reminder of the depth and humane dignity of pre-modern philosophy. ‘No matter how much you labour, you labour to this end: that you may see.’

Pieper: The Platonic Myths

August 20, 2011

The Platonic Myths
Josef Pieper
(St. Augustine’s, 2011) [1965]
Translated from the German by Dan Farrelly
95 p.

Into many of his dialogues Plato incorporated material which has been described as ‘mythic’. There are the famous allegorical myths of the cave (from Republic) and of the sexes (from Aristophanes’ speech in Symposium), and Timaeus contains an influential creation myth, for instance. Also in Symposium we find a story about man’s original state and subsequent fall. Three great dialogues in particular – Phaedo, Republic, and Gorgias – end not with a philosophical conclusion or even a philosophical question mark (as was typical in Plato’s early dialogues), but with extended presentations of myths about death, the other world, and judgment.

Why did Plato include this apparently ‘non-philosophical’ material in his dialogues? How should these myths be interpreted? What place, if any, should they be given in Plato’s philosophical programme? What significance can they have for modern readers? These are among the questions Josef Pieper takes up in this slender book. He is not the first to ask them, of course, and he notes that over the centuries readers have responded to Platonic myths in very different ways. Some have read them as poetic flourishes, included for their aesthetic value but not to be taken seriously as philosophy; others have seen them as concessions of futility and ignorance, as gestures toward an honourable alternative to a (failed) philosophical inquiry, perhaps with the suggestion that the myth is a second-rate substitute for genuine, but elusive, knowledge; still others have seen the myths as philosophically important in their own right, as expressing Plato’s belief that philosophy finally opens onto mystery, and that certain questions pursued by the philosopher find their answers only outside the philosophical tradition, in an encounter with the divine.

Pieper’s special concern is with the eschatological myths found in Phaedo, Gorgias, and Republic, in each of which Plato concludes an ambitious and probing philosophical discussion by presenting a myth about “the last things”: death, judgment, and divinity. All three myths include what Pieper takes to be the essential marks of myth: they are narrative, they are part of a tradition that has been passed down rather than being the invention of the narrator (Socrates says in each case that he has ‘heard’ the story he is about to tell), and they concern the relationship between humanity and divinity. Myth is thus closely connected to religion and sacred tradition. The basic conceptual contents of these myths are, in Pieper’s words, “the idea that all being proceeds from the ungrudging goodness of the Creator; the occurrence of primeval guilt and punishment; [and] judgment on the other side of death”.

The central claim that Pieper makes for these myths is that they should be taken straight: they are included because Plato considered them to be bearers of important truths. By including these myths in his dialogues, Pieper believes Plato is saying that the most deeply human things are rooted not finally in politics or in the intellect, but are linked to ‘the beyond’ and the unknowable, and find their fulfillment only there. This realm, in which there is an interchange between the human and the divine, is beyond our experience, inaccessible to our imagination, and even, except through metaphor and imagery, beyond language, which is why philosophical inquiry alone cannot reach it. Yet this reality, which is in one sense beyond philosophy, is in another sense a part of it, because philosophy moves us toward it. Sacred myth, in other words, is a part, and a legitimate part, of the philosophical project broadly considered.

These claims are, obviously, out of step with the temper of modern philosophy, which, like modernity itself, has a bad allergy to mystery and transcendence, and which is certainly unlikely to look to sacred tradition for its consummation. Yet it cannot be said that this understanding of Plato is wrong simply on that account, nor is it clear that this view of philosophy is really so foreign to our most profound thinkers. Rumours of glory are still heard from time to time. I think of Wittgenstein’s statement about the limits of philosophy: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” Perhaps that is as far as modernity can go, given its other commitments, but it is not so bad: there are worse things than reverent silence. In any case, Pieper understands that his interpretation will encounter resistance, and he devotes considerable effort to careful analysis of the dialogues in defence of his view. Personally I found him pretty convincing, but, then again, I am not committed to a view of Plato, or of philosophy, that would rule this interpretation out of court. Also, I am a notorious rube.

The book closes with a few other observations and questions about Platonic myth. Pieper notes the sometimes striking similarities between the specific content of Platonic myth and Christian doctrine: the sense that some sort of past calamity has disrupted our relationship to the divine, for instance, or the idea that a final judgment will bring justice to the affairs of men. He also asks why it is that philosophy might be expected to encounter limits when it attempts to penetrate into the sphere traditionally presided over by sacred tradition, and his answer is disarmingly simple: certain truths cannot be expressed conceptually but only in the form of a story, and this is so because we are dealing not with ‘truths of reason’ but with actions along the borderline of the world of the gods and the world of men. Finally, he notes that a serious appeal to sacred tradition, whether in Plato or anywhere else, implies that the tradition is worthy of belief, and he asks who is believed when a tradition is judged worthy in this way. The answers to that question are only sketched here, but developed more fully in his fine book Tradition: Concept and Claim, about which I have written before.

Though not one of Pieper’s most profound books, I found The Platonic Myths to be well worth the short time it took to read. It was originally published in 1965, but I believe that this edition, from St. Augustine’s Press, is the first English translation. This volume also includes an introduction by James V. Schall, the much beloved political philosopher from Georgetown. Schall goes further in his praise for the book than I think really justified (“No philosophical book brings us closer to the proper understanding of how all things fit together”), but I do agree with him that it is a good book.

Shakespeare on film

August 18, 2011

Last week Joe Carter drew attention to a list of great Shakespearean films compiled by the folks at Rotten Tomatoes. I consider myself something of an enthusiast for Shakespeare on film, so I examined the list with interest.

A few observations:

  • I understand that Shakespeare is a great dramatist, but for me it is his use of language that gives the most pleasure. Consequently I am mostly unmoved by very loose adaptations in which the dramatic structure is based on a Shakespearean model but in which the language is updated to modern English. Into this category go films like Ten Things I Hate About You and The Lion King. (The Lion King?!?!) For similar reasons, I am not eager to see Shakespeare adapted into other languages. (Kurosawa’s Ran, for instance, which adapts King Lear, was a big disappointment for me.)
  • There are quite a few highly regarded adaptations that I have never seen, nor, in some cases, heard of. I have seen none of the Laurence Olivier or Orsen Welles adaptations, for instance, which, based on these rankings, is evidently a major oversight. I am an admirer of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare, but somehow I missed his Othello. I was also unaware of Polanski’s Macbeth.
  • Having said that, all of my favourite adaptations made the list. Almereyda’s Hamlet, about which I have written before, made the cut. The 1995 Richard III rests principally on a terrific, riveting performance by Ian McKellen. But my very favourite Shakespearean film, which gives unalloyed pleasure on each viewing, is Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing.

None of which takes anything away from this memorable soliloquy:

I am curious to know which Shakespearean films you would recommend. Feel free to leave a comment.

Great moments in opera: Trial by Jury

August 16, 2011

The taxonomy of stage-and-song extravaganzas is sometimes ambiguous. The Gilbert & Sullivan collaborations, of which Trial by Jury was the first, are not, despite their designation as ‘Savoy Operas’, generally considered to be operas in the strict sense, and certainly not in the grand sense. I suppose they could be called operettas, or even stage musicals. In the end it hardly matters. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and no difficulties of nomenclature can efface the bountiful pleasures afforded by Gilbert & Sullivan’s whaddaya-call-ems.

The inspiration in Trial by Jury isn’t as consistently high as in their later, more famous works, and at only about 40 minutes in length it is comparatively slight, but it is good, clean fun all the same. The ludicrous plot involves a man on trial for forsaking his wife, and mostly serves as an excuse to poke fun at judges, juries, and law courts generally.

The most famous song in Trial by Jury is “When I, good friends, was called to the bar”, in which the judge explains to the court how it was that he came to be a judge. His career path was quite atypical — or was it?

The part is sung here by Anthony Warlow in a superb production from Opera (there’s that word again!) Australia. It’s a very funny performance. The words can be found here.

Ratzinger: God and the World

August 8, 2011

God and the World
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, with Peter Seewald
(Ignatius, 2000)
460 p.

These notes originally written 10 November 2005.

I ordered this book in the days following the election of  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  Like many others, I was keen to learn something of the man now known to the world as Benedict XVI.  God and the World is not one of the Cardinal’s books in a strictly authorial sense, but rather a book-length interview conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald.  The interview took place at the great Benedictine abbey at Montecassino over a period of three days in the early months of 2000.  It was the third such interview Cardinal Ratzinger had granted Seewald, the previous two having also appeared in book form (published as The Ratzinger Report (1985) and Salt of the Earth (1996) ).  True to its ambitious title, the interview ranges widely over many subjects: basic Catholic teachings, the Church and society, the person of Christ, problems of belief, ecumenism, the liturgy, the future of the Church, and on and on.  It is, however, reasonably well organized, falling into three main sections (God, Jesus Christ, the Church), each of which is divided into numerous subsections.

In the immediate wake of the papal election, I was taken aback by the manner in which the media lined up – one tried charitably to resist calling it unprofessional – to take pot-shots at the new Pope: ‘Panzerkardinal‘, ‘God’s Rottweiler’, ‘Cardinal No’, and so forth.  The image that came across was that of an authoritarian tyrant, hell-bent (one might say) on suppressing dissent, and eager to beat his shepherd’s staff into a cattle-prod.  Yet I heard from others – others who knew the Cardinal personally – that there was little truth and less justice in this portrait.

The nature of the complaints against him were often obscured behind the thicket of name-calling, but when a grievance was aired it was usually one of three: he had been a member of the Hitler Youth as a young man, he had suppressed the liberation theologians in Latin America, and he was a hard-line dogmatist who, if one could infer from the hysterical tone, roamed back and forth on the earth excommunicating embattled free-thinkers every day, and twice on Sundays.  In their lead story on the election, the CBC actually managed to get all three elements into the first 20 seconds of coverage — a journalistic tour de force!

Yet I knew that though he was recruited by the Hitler Youth as a teenager (as was mandatory at the time), he deserted the German army immediately upon seeing action, and spent the remainder of the war as an American POW.  And I knew that he had suppressed liberation theology in Latin America because its advocates were encouraging armed guerrilla warfare against the government in the name of Christ. (That this was frowned on by the secular western media was peculiar; after all, the Cardinal was placing restrictions on the involvement of priests and theologians in politics, something one would suspect the secular media would view favourably given their devotion to the separation of church and state.)  Finally, I read that in Cardinal Ratzinger’s twenty-six years as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church’s primary guardian of the integrity of Catholic teaching, he had disciplined, sometimes by excommunication, but usually by suspending their license to teach theology, just twenty-six people.  Now, you might argue over the merits of this or that case, but one disciplinary case per year hardly rises to the scale of a new Inquisition.  I wondered to myself whether the journalists had any idea what they were talking about.

But, given the conflicting reports, what better means to resolve the question than by sitting down with the man himself for a long conversation?

After patiently reading through the pages of this book one will find it difficult to give the media caricature any credence.  On the contrary, the person who emerges from these pages is a rather quiet, studious, thoughtful man who, quite against the natural inclination of his personality, finds himself duty-bound to occasionally discipline wayward Catholic theologians. Based on my reading of this book, I would say that we can expect the present Pope to be a generous but careful man. He has a special concern for the liturgy and a reverence for the enduring traditions of the Church; he has a love of European culture and a scholar’s understanding of her intellectual history; his first concern is for the well-being of the universal Church, and he cares not a whit what they think of him at the New York Times. I read with particular interest the portion of the interview in which he discussed the papacy. The then-Cardinal’s remarks on the almost unendurable demands placed on the Pope now have, of course, a special poignancy.  I will not be surprised if he manages to provoke the anger of many in the years ahead, but if so it will almost certainly be only because he is a faithful Catholic, and not because he is ‘Cardinal No’.

[On Christianity]
Christianity is great because love is great.  It burns, yet this is not a destructive fire but one that makes things bright and pure and free and grand.  Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.

[On conflict between the Church and culture]
If she [the Church] simply aims to avoid conflict, merely to ensure that no disturbances arise anywhere, then her real message can no longer make any impact.  For this message is in fact there precisely to conflict with our behaviour, to tear man out of his life of lies and to bring clarity and truth.

[On dealing with opponents]
We must recognize in our enemy the man who is God’s creature.  That does not mean that we should allow evil to befall us without attempting to oppose it.  But it does mean that in dealing with him, we should preserve at a deeper level this respect for him.  That we should aim at what is good even for the enemy, aim to bring him to what is good, finally to turn toward Christ.  In that sense, praying for him is one of the basic factors in our attempt to do him good.  In making a positive intervention on his behalf before God, and in trying to ensure that he does not remain our enemy but should abandon his enmity, we have already changed our attitude toward him.

[On the Papacy]
It is an ‘impossible job’, which is almost unlivable.  On the other hand, it is also one that has to be done – and which can, then, with the help of the Lord, nonetheless be lived after all.

[On sin]
It is true that wherever the idea of God disappears from people’s view of life, the concept of sin loses its meaning as a matter of course.  For if God has nothing to do with me…then there cannot be a distortion of my relationship with him – because I haven’t got one.  At first sight, sin seems then to have been cleared out of the way.  And at first one might think that life then becomes merry and easy again; it takes on, so to speak, the dimensions of an operetta.
But it has rapidly become apparent that the operetta phase of existence is of very brief duration.  Even if man wants to know nothing more about sin and has apparently got rid of whatever torments his consciousness, he soon notices that he still feels guilty… By denying the existence of God, and of the will of God, you can get rid of the concept of sin, but not of the particular problem of human existence that was thereby represented and expressed.

Hansen: Mariette in Ecstasy

August 4, 2011

Mariette in Ecstasy
Ron Hansen
(HarperCollins, 1991)
179 p.

(Some spoilers.)

I first heard of Ron Hansen a few years ago when he published a novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins (Exiles, from 2008); I did not read that book, but I was intrigued enough that I remembered the author’s name. I later saw this novel and picked it up, not knowing what to expect. It sat on my shelf for several years before I recently took it down, and now, having finished it, I am frankly amazed that Hansen, and this novel especially, were not known to me earlier. It is an impressive book, a rare example of an attempt to treat with sympathy and literary excellence a story saturated with Catholic devotion, theological seriousness, and the miraculous.

At the center of the story is Mariette (pronounced “Mar-iette, like a flaw”, we are told), a young woman of seventeen who seeks entrance into a cloistered community of nuns. Like all novices, she must undergo a period of discernment during which she and the community evaluate one another. Mariette is devout and simple — a simplicity that might be naivety and might be something higher and lovelier — and in her artless way she begins to divide the judgment of the sisters, and of the reader too. I was reminded of Christ’s claim that in his goodness he would divide father against son; there is a light that reveals the hidden places of the heart, for better and for worse. This disturbance, which ripples out from her in gentle waves at first, becomes turbulent in the wake of a crisis that suddenly overtakes the community as a whole and Mariette in particular. In the midst of that turmoil, a crack in the world seems to open up in Mariette’s own person. The community’s priest, seeking solace in the quiet of the church, finds her at prayer:

…he sees Mariette in the night of the oratory, intently staring at the crucifix above the high altar, her hands spread wide as if she were nailed just as Christ was. He puts on his biretta and overcoat and half genuflects with difficulty and goes back to the priest’s house.

Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like red handwriting on the floor.

As you can imagine, this irruption into their quiet world of the miraculous and grotesque (according to taste) does nothing to unify the sisters’ division of judgment. Some consider Mariette delusional or a fraud, some are convinced she is a genuine saint, and others are unsure what to think but are wary and understandably worried at what this, miracle or not, portends for the tranquility of their cloister and the life of the community. The prioress, speaking with Mariette, expresses how even to the eyes of faith this ‘gift’, even if genuine, is hard to understand:

“[…] And what are these horrible wounds, really? A trick of anatomy, a bleeding challenge to medical diagnosis, a brief and baffling injury that hasn’t yet, in six hundred years, changed our theology or our religious practice. Have you any idea how disruptive you’ve been? You are awakening hollow talk and half-formed opinions that have no place in our priory, and I have no idea why God would be doing this to us. To you. […]

“[…] But I shall not suffer your confusions much longer. And so I pray, Mariette, that if it is in your power to stop this — and I presume it is — that you do indeed stop it.” She pauses and then stands. “And if it is in your power to heal me of the hate and envy I have for you now, please do that as well.”

In lesser hands a story about a young woman with the stigmata could have degenerated into vulgar sensationalism or saccharine piety; Hansen seems to be aware of the dangers, and keeps things grounded and honest. How would you respond to an encounter with someone who claimed to bear miraculous wounds of Christ in her body? Your response is found in these pages.

The book is so intelligently and elegantly written that I have little doubt it could be enjoyed by anyone, religious or not, but it obviously will have a special appeal to Catholic readers. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century, it reads something like a love letter to the liturgical and devotional life of the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council: the sections of the book are structured according to the feast days of the Church calendar, the nuns greet one another in Latin, and the devotions reflect a piety now considered ‘traditional’. There is a good deal of mystical theology in the book (and, given the name of this blog, I can hardly fail to note that Julian of Norwich is among those whose influence is felt). In this sense, it was a luxurious read.

Hansen is an very good writer, with a sensitive and poetic style. The argument from authority may be the weakest kind of argument, but I nonetheless note that he has been nominated for both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award. I will say, however, that there are elements of his style — in this novel, at least — that I do not like, and which detracted from my enjoyment. The book is written in the present tense; I understand that this is grammatically legitimate and perhaps artistically justifiable, but it always sounds affected to me. Worse, there are sections in which the prose dissolves into isolated clauses and verb-less fragments:

Water drips onto pink brick in the garth.

White skirt, black sandals, castanets.

Written on a rafter is: ‘They mortify their bodies with abstinence.’ And on the one just after it: ‘May they renew and strengthen their souls by good actions.’

Electric blue just before sunrise and two white points of light high overhead. The planet Jupiter. The planet Venus.

This sort of thing sounds precious to me and I find it distracting. I grant that Hansen uses the device to fairly good effect — to establish a quiet rhythm, and to cleanse the literary palette as the story moves from one stage to the next — but I would have preferred that it not be used at all.

In the end I found Mariette in Ecstasy to be a beautiful and intriguing, but disquieting, book. Curiously, I expect that someone who does not share my religious views might describe it in the same way, but for quite different reasons. To the non-religious reader it presents a world of piety and a portrait of saintliness that is strangely and even cunningly attractive, and in good faith it presents an apparent miracle without finally offering a credible ‘natural’ explanation. To a religious reader, on the other hand, and especially to a Catholic, it offers the troubling thought that those who draw closest to God will suffer for it. The book is not meant to be a comfort to anyone. I recommend it.

Lobo: Versa est in luctum

August 3, 2011

I think I have remarked before how difficult it is to find good quality videos of competent performances of medieval and renaissance music. They do pop up occasionally, however, and here is a splendid example.

Alonso Lobo is not all that well known today, but he was a contemporary of Victoria, and, like him, one of the Spanish masters of the polyphonic style. His motet Versa est in luctum, written in 1598 on the death of Philip II of Spain, has been recorded quite a few times. It is sung here by a group called Continuum, of which I have never heard before. Where do all these marvellous English choirs come from?

My harp is turned to grieving,
and my music to the voice of those who weep.
Spare me, Lord, for my days are worth nothing.

If an angel were to appear to me and offer me one musical wish, I would wish to be able to stand in a circle with friends and sing this music as well as these gentlemen do. I can imagine few things finer.

Does anyone know where this footage was filmed?

(I have noticed with dismay that I have been posting quite a few videos lately, rather than actually writing something. This is due to a lack of time and to sleep deprivation-related brain damage. Bear with me.)

(Hat-tip: The Chant Cafe)