Archive for May, 2012

Chesterton & Mumford (& Sons)

May 30, 2012

Tonight my wife and I were listening to “The Cave” by Mumford & Sons, and I was struck by a section of the song that I hadn’t much noted before. Mumford sings:

Come out of the cave walking on your hands
See the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s hand

That bit about walking upside down from a cave tugged at my sleeve, and set me scrambling through the Chesterton section of the bookshelf. Sure enough, there is a passage in his book on St. Francis of Assisi in which one finds the following, in connection with a discussion of Francis’ conversion:

Francis, at the time or somewhere about the time when he disappeared into the prison or the dark cavern, underwent a reversal of a certain psychological kind; which was really like the reversal of a complete somersault, in that by coming full circle it came back, or apparently came back, to the same normal posture. It is necessary to use the grotesque simile of an acrobatic antic, because there is hardly any other figure that will make the fact clear. But in the inward sense it was a profound spiritual revolution. The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude towards the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.

That is rather too close to be a coincidence. And there’s more! A few paragraphs further down one finds this:

… the symbol of inversion is true in another way. If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasise the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hung the world upon nothing.

So we have a cave, walking upside down, dependence, and the Maker, all four elements being also present in the stanza above.

As you can well imagine, I am quite pleased to have stumbled upon this connection. I would be even more pleased if I were the first to have noted it — but, alas, I am not. A little poking around online turns up others who noticed the same thing: here and here, for instance, and here.

It turns out that Marcus Mumford may be something of a Chesterton enthusiast: last year he chose The Outline of Sanity (which I have written about with striking incompetence here) for the “Mumford & Sons book club”, saying that the book changed his life.

Consider this post, then, as my unoriginal contribution to the study of Chesterton’s impact on popular culture. And listen to this song:


“Like a bright-colored toy”

May 30, 2012

When we see things for the first time we feel instantly that they are fictive creations; we feel the finger of God. It is only when we are thoroughly used to them and our five wits are wearied, that we see them as wild and objectless; like the shapeless tree-tops or the shifting cloud. It is the design in Nature that strikes us first; the sense of the crosses and confusions in that design only comes afterwards through experience and an almost eerie monotony. If a man saw the stars abruptly by accident he would think them as festive and as artificial as a firework. We talk of the folly of painting the lily; but if we saw the lily without warning we should think that it was painted. We talk of the devil not being so black as he is painted; but that very phrase is a testimony to the kinship between what is called vivid and what is called artificial. If the modern sage had only one glimpse of grass and sky, he would say that grass was not as green as it was painted; that sky was not as blue as it was painted. If one could see the whole universe suddenly, it would look like a bright-colored toy, just as the South American hornbill looks like a bright-colored toy. And so they are — both of them, I mean.

— What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

(Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

Chesterton mini-festival

May 29, 2012

A few months ago I noted Christopher Hitchens’ posthumous essay on G.K. Chesterton. It wasn’t a very complimentary essay, which was, considering the principals, not surprising. In any case, the whole affair left a rather bad taste in my mouth, and so today — Chesterton’s birthday — I thought I would restore the balance by posting something nice about him.

In fact, I have decided to set aside the next couple of weeks, until the anniversary of his death on June 14, for a Chesterton mini-festival — if you can imagine anything about Chesterton being mini. There won’t be much to it: just a few posts  here and there, and some thoughts on a few of Chesterton’s books that I have read over the past few months.

To start things off, let’s hear something in praise of the man. The following appraisal appeared in the Observer in 1927, and was written by J.C. Squire; it is reproduced in the General Editors’ Introduction to volume 10C of Ignatius Press’ Collected Works (which is where I found it). It does what Hitchens’ essay did not do: it demonstrates a good, rounded understanding of the man. To wit:

His greatest distinction lies in the hold he has upon the fundamentals of human life, considered both in its social and its metaphysical aspects. In an age of new questions he has reiterated old answers; in an age of skepticism he has laughed at the laughers with a hilarity less hollow than theirs; in an age which tends to excuse baseness, even when it does not explain it away he has flown the banners of honour, fidelity, and generosity; in an age of mass-regimentation he has stood for the sanctities of the individual’s soul. And above all — a fact in whose presence all his levities, quibbles, occasional injustices, easy assumptions, and prejudices pale into insignificance — living in a period when the value of life itself has been widely questioned (and, by that very fact, impoverished) he has maintained that “it is something to have been,” showing the world the spectacle of one man enjoying the thousand miracles of the day, though the sword of Damocles hang over his head as it hangs over the heads of us all. There lies his “optimism” not in any shallow Panglossian delusions, either about the present or about the future. In point of fact this self-proclaimed optimist habitually maintains that society has gone most of the way to the dogs, and will probably complete the course. “Earth will grow worse ere men redeem it, And wars more evil ere all wars cease.”

That last sentiment notwithstanding, I am feeling better already. More anon.

Pentecost, 2012

May 27, 2012

Today we get to sing my very favourite hymn:

(In this video the hymn ends at 4:00. Believe me, you have time to hear it.)

Mr. Mom’s Kitchen-Cam

May 25, 2012

Modesty becomes me, but I do believe things have improved a little:

Johnson: Modern Times

May 21, 2012

Modern Times
A History of the World from the 1920s to the year 2000
Paul Johnson (Phoenix, 1999)
882 p.

Citizens, our nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Nothing in it will resemble ancient history. Today’s fears will all have been abolished — war and conquest, the clash of armed nations, the course of civilization dependent on royal marriages, the birth of hereditary tyrannies, nations partitioned by a congress or the collapse of a dynasty, religions beating their heads together like rams in the wilderness of the infinite. Men will no longer fear famine or exploitation, prostitution from want, destitution born of unemployment — or the scaffold, or the sword, or any other malice of chance in the tangle of events. Once might almost say, indeed, that there will be no more events. Men will be happy.

— Enjolras on the barricade;
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.

Under the Wormwood Star bitter rivers flowed.
Man in the fields gathered bitter bread.
No sign of the divine care shone in the heavens.
The century wanted homage from the dead.

They traced their origin to the dinosaur
And took their deftness from the lemur’s paw.
Above the cities of their thinking lichen,
Flights of pterodactyls proclaimed the law.

They tied the hands of man with barbed wire.
And dug shallow graves at the edge of the wood.
There would be no truth in his last testament.
They wanted him anonymous for good.

The planetary empire was at hand.
They said what was speech and what was listening.
The ash had hardly cooled after the great fire
When Diocletian’s Rome again stood glistening.

– Czeslaw Milosz, “The Wormwood Star”.

My purpose in reading this book was to try to fill the many holes in my knowledge of twentieth-century history. In my reading or conversation it happens too often that I am left scratching my head over an historical reference which it is assumed I will know. I had many questions going in: How exactly was Trotsky related to Lenin and Stalin? What was the Tet Offensive? How did Communism arise in China? Why was the Spanish civil war fought? Who was Charles de Gaulle? What was Japan’s strategy at Pearl Harbor? And so on. On balance, this was a good book to read, since Johnson addressed all of these questions.

He covers a lot of ground. The book claims to be a world history, and it is. We get European and American history, as you would expect, but also African (especially the rise of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of European colonies), Indian, Chinese, Japanese, South American, and, of course, Russian. The sheer amount of information he piles onto the reader is impressive and exhausting, but he shapes it into a natural master narrative: the rise of totalitarianism, its persistence and consequent threat to the free democracies, and its collapse and happy ruin. His interests are primarily political, military, and economic, but he is also at pains to examine the effect of personalities on history. A theme of the book is that history is not inevitable or deterministic, but contingent upon the specific actions of powerful figures. He draws attention to numerous occasions in which the personalities of political leaders, their friendships, or their peculiar interests had major consequences for policy and action. He has a mildly polemical purpose in doing so — to contradict the Marxist theory of history — but that is fine.

No history of the twentieth century can overlook the fact that it was the most brutal and bloody that the world has ever known. Johnson cites a figure that I have seen before: state action was responsible for the deaths of about 135 million people. This happened all over the globe, especially as a result of the two world wars and, later, the policies of the Communist states. Johnson attributes this unprecedented slaughter to the rise of moral relativism. This may not be the most profound attribution, but it is reasonable enough to suppose that it is at least a relevant factor. Relativism influenced not just the bad guys, but infected the free democracies as well. Johnson points to the British policy in World War II, when planning bombing runs over Germany, which stated that “the civilian population around the target areas must be made to feel the weight of the war”. Johnson comments:

The policy, initiated by Churchill, approved in cabinet, endorsed by parliament and, so far as can be judged, enthusiastically backed by the bulk of the British people — thus fulfilling all the conditions of the process of consent in a democracy under law — marked a critical stage in the moral declension of humanity in our times.

An earlier mark of decline was the readiness of Western intellectuals to heap praise on Communism. I was frankly astonished to read the kinds of things that were said. George Bernard Shaw said of the Soviet prison system that one who entered as a criminal would consistently come out as a reformed, law-abiding citizen “but for the difficulty of inducing him to come out at all. As far as I could make out they could stay as long as they liked.” H.G. Wells said of Stalin that he had “never met a man more candid, fair and honest. . . no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him.” Joseph E. Davis, the American ambassador to Russia (!), described Stalin this way: “His brown eye is exceedingly wise and gentle. A child would like to sit on his lap and a dog would sidle up to him.” Pablo Neruda called him “a good-natured man of principle”. Even if we grant that the full horror of what was playing out in Russia was not completely evident, such comments give one pause. Who talks this way about any head of state, much less a dictator?

Johnson originally published this book in 1983. When a new edition was issued in 1999, he added a lengthy final chapter to bring the narrative up to date, and, happily, he was able to give the story a very different ending. This chapter he entitled “The Recovery of Freedom”, and it relates the events behind the collapse of the Soviet system. This happened during my own lifetime — I was about fifteen years old — but at the time I didn’t really understand what was going on, much less what was at stake. It was good to have the story retold with all the background as context. In Johnson’s judgement the main factors in the collapse were the native weakness, both economic and political, of the Communist regimes, and a renewed confidence in the West under the bold leadership of certain figures, notably Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II.

As the millennium rolled up, the world looked a much safer and more stable place than it had twenty years before, but there were clouds on the horizon. Johnson saw looming threats in advances in genetic engineering and, with considerable prescience, in a resurgence of Islamic terrorism.

This was an enjoyable book that will serve as a convenient handbook the next time a historical allusion puzzles me. It is the second of Johnson’s books that I have read, the other being his History of Christianity. If anyone would care to recommend another of his many books, I would appreciate it.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, RIP

May 18, 2012

The great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has died, just a few days shy of his 87th birthday. He had a wonderful voice, but, more than that, he was a great singer. His vast repertoire ranged from Mozart and (pre-eminently) Schubert to Wagner and Mahler. Alex Ross chooses the right word, calling him a “monumental” figure in twentieth-century music making.

His recording of Schubert’s Die Winterreise, with Jorg Demus on the piano, was one of the first classical music recordings I ever bought, and I have treasured it ever since. His classic recording of Mahler lieder is another desert island disc for me. And just these past few months I have been slowly working my way through the massive set of Schubert lieder that he did with Gerald Moore; I will now continue that listening project in a more sober mood.

Requiescat in pace.

Feast of the Ascension, 2012

May 17, 2012

Jesus led his followers into the vicinity of Bethany, we are told. “Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from then, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51.) Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain stretched out over this world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it.

The gesture of hands outstretched in blessing expresses Jesus’ continuing relationship to his disciples, to the world. In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. That is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy.

— Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth.

Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven?
This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven,
shall so come as you have seen him going into heaven.

God is gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
The Lord hath prepared his throne in heaven.

St. Hildegard

May 11, 2012

Yesterday Pope Benedict had Hildegard of Bingen’s name formally inscribed in the catalogue of saints, thereby completing a process that began almost 800 years ago. We may now refer to her at St. Hildegard; her feast day will be September 17.

I wish that I had time to go into the history a little, but I don’t. Acknowledging that she has not been canonized for her musical composition, her music is nonetheless what I know best about her, so I’ll celebrate by linking to one of her compositions. This is O vis aeternitatis (O eternal power), sung here by Sequentia:

Chrétien de Troyes: Lancelot

May 8, 2012

Or, The Knight of the Cart

Chrétien de Troyes
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 1997) [c.1180]
241 p.

Because my lady of Champagne
Wants me to start a new
Romance, I’ll gladly begin one,
For I’m completely her servant
In whatever she wants me to do…

So began Chrétien de Troyes, dedicating his poem to the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who, Chrétien tells us, also proposed the subject of the work: the knight Lancelot’s adulterous love affair with Queen Guinevere. Chrétien may indeed have been glad enough to begin the poem, but for whatever reason he was not glad to finish it; the poem was abandoned midstream, after roughly 6000 lines, and was completed by an otherwise unknown cleric named Godfrey of Lagny, who tells us in his brief epilogue that Chrétien himself granted him permission to complete the last 1000 lines or so.

One can speculate as to why Chrétien did not see the project through to completion. He may have been working simultaneously on Yvain, and lost enthusiasm for the one in favour of the other. He may quite possibly have been discouraged by the dishonourable subject matter of Lancelot: as he says, the theme was not of his choosing, and elsewhere (in Cligès, for instance) he goes out of his way to avoid having his hero commit adultery, much less so disloyal an act as adultery with the wife of his king and lord. Lancelot, in Chrétien’s hands, is an ambiguous figure whose knightly prowess is beyond dispute but whose moral character is rightly suspect.

My own opinion, having completed the poem, leans toward the second view: that Chrétien’s heart just wasn’t in it. The poem has little of the sparkle and wit that so enlivened his earlier works, and it seems to lack even the structural cohesion (admittedly rather loose even under the best of circumstances) of his other poems. The basic elements are all here — brave knights, magical rings, pretty damsels, supernatural dangers — but the spark is missing.

Roughly the first half of the poem is concerned with Lancelot’s efforts to find and rescue Queen Guinevere, who has been abducted from Arthur’s court. In the second half, he struggles to defeat her abductor, the villain Meleagant. The subtitle of the poem refers to Lancelot’s early decision, in pursuit of Guinevere, to ride in a “cart”, a mode of transport reserved for criminals and thoroughly inappropriate (one would think) for a knight of the Round Table. Throughout the poem Lancelot endures the opprobrium of others for having stooped so low. The irony — which, in the nature of the case, does not tip over into humour — is that Lancelot is indeed a criminal, guilty of the most unknightly behaviour with the Queen, albeit privately. Thus there is a kind of justice in the disdain heaped upon him.

The poem has been influential in Arthurian lore. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere was quite possibly original with Chrétien, and became a mainstay of later Arthurian tales, and Lancelot himself was, of course, destined to become one of the central Arthurian figures. Evidently some reader have liked the poem more than I, on balance, did.