Archive for April, 2019

White: The Once and Future King

April 29, 2019

The Queen of Air and Darkness
T.H. White
[1939] 100 p.

The Ill-Made Knight
T.H. White
[1940] 200 p.

Candle in the Wind
T.H. White
[1940] 120 p.

When I wrote, with such great enthusiasm, about T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, a friend cautioned me not to expect the same delights from the subsequent volumes of The Once and Future King. He was right. As I was warned, these books lack the sense of happy whimsy of the first, and are, to an uncomfortable extent, quite dark and unhappy in themselves. We know something has changed when, in The Queen of Air and Darkness, the Orkney clan — Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine — dismember a unicorn, a grisly scene that is played for very dark laughs.

These Orkney knights are central to the second volume, for each is destined to become a knight in the fellowship of knights just beginning to take shape in Arthur’s mind. Arthur has grown to a youthful manhood, and has gone to war against the many intransigent lords in his kingdom, yet all the while he muses on a new ideal: a knight who fights not for conquest or gain, but for justice and goodness.

The dark shadows are brightened somewhat by a comic thread carried over from the first volume involving King Pellinore and the Questing Beast: Pellinore has fallen into unrequited love and lost his taste for questing, but is miserable, and his friends, in an effort to revive his spirits, don a Questing Beast costume which, however, is mistaken by the Questing Beast herself for the real thing, with tragicomic consequences.

The third volume, The Ill-Made Knight, follows the life of Lancelot, the Chevalier mal fet himself, and his complicated relationships with Guinever and Arthur. We know the basic story, but what I appreciated about White’s re-telling — and this was, for me, the best of these three volumes — was the very personal way in which he re-imagined the familiar tales. His is neither an “updating” — although he does allow his knights the luxury of speaking casual modern English when not fighting one another — nor an attempt to create a realistic historical setting, but something quite different: an attempt at realistic psychology within a story that retains its fantastic elements, and one that is fully aware of taking place within a tradition of Arthurian storytelling. (More than once White’s narrator remarks that Malory said X, whereas actually it was Y, or that as Malory already described A there is no need to repeat it.) This personal approach to the Arthurian legends was also there in The Sword in the Stone, but, given that most of that book related stories that Malory left offstage, it was less obvious; in these more famous tales, concerning the famous love triangle, the merits of White’s approach stood out more clearly.

Woven into the increasingly tense relationships of Arthur, Guinever, and Lancelot are increasing tensions within the fellowship of the Round Table. At this point the Round Table has triumphed; Arthur’s shining ideal of knighthood reigns; its enemies have been mostly vanquished. Yet, human nature being what it is, quarrels erupt and dissension threatens. In response, Arthur conceives the Quest of the Holy Grail, an attempt to re-focus the energy of the knights onto a spiritual ideal, an attempt that is triumphantly successful — for a time.

It is in the final volume, Candle in the Wind, that the darkness that has been pushed back by Arthur’s dream returns with a vengeance. Mordred, Arthur’s illicitly-conceived son, accuses Lancelot and Guinever outright of infidelity to the king, which leads to a spiralling series of conflicts, broken trusts, dead knights, and the end of Arthur’s hopes, attended by much mournful meditation on the collapse of the ideals of chivalry and of power restrained by law, ideals which had been premised on the idea that man is basically good. The unavoidable conclusion, in the face of disaster, is that that premise was false. Pelagianism, even when Arthurian, fails.

The tetralogy closes with a winsome coda in which Arthur, amid the rubble of his dreams, asks a young page, Tom Malory, to remember his story and to tell it to others. It’s a cheering finale to a series of books haunted by darkness and violence. If we were to forget for a moment the existence of The Sword in the Stone, these three books would stand as an impressive, personal engagement with the Arthurian legends, although emphatically not for children. Remembering that earlier book, however, they are thrown into contrast and appear too dour and too dark to really love. Alas!

Virgil: Georgics

April 25, 2019

Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(FSG, 2005) [c.29 BC]
xx + 202 p.

Virgil wrote the Georgics a few years after his Eclogues and the two sets of poems share common ground, especially an admiration for rural life. Whereas the Eclogues were structured around rustic characters, the Georgics are much more interested in the nuts and bolts — or, I suppose it would be better to say, the grapes and olives — of farm life, and could be fairly described as outright didactic poems. I was reminded, more than once, of Cato the Elder’s “De agricultura”, not on account of the form, of course, for Virgil is infinitely more elegant, but of the subject matter.

There are four poems, or, it may be better to say, four divisions of one poem. The first is about agriculture: the sowing of crops, anticipation of storms, harvesting. The second is concerned with tree husbandry: types of trees, planting of trees, types of soil, grafting, and harvesting of fruit. The third transitions to the care and breeding of farm animals, both the nobler kind (horses and cows) and the more ignoble (goats, sheep), with an extended section on plague and diseases that can beset herds and flocks. The fourth, and for me the most enjoyable, is about bee-keeping.

We all know Virgil as the author of Aeneid. I must say that few things seem more unlikely than that he, our great epic poet, should, apart from that monumental achievement, be known for writing humble farm poems. It is as though a scriptwriter for a television nature program should then write “Hamlet”. Yet it is apparently so. Probably I am underselling Virgil’s accomplishments in these earlier poems, which I expect are exquisite in the Latin, and in which there is more going on than mere exposition, but, nonetheless, the contrast between this and that is striking.

Further to that point: my handy little Student’s Guide to Classics argues that the Georgics are actually comparable to the Aeneid in their exploration of “optimism about man’s ability to create order and pessimism about the disorder caused by his passions and appetites”. I would concur, at least, with the judgment that the creation of order is a major preoccupation of the poems. I’m unconvinced that the poems are especially focused on “passions and appetites” as sources of disorder; to my mind, they represent disorder as inherent in the natural world, from which order must be wrested.

A feature of these poems that particularly attracted my attention was the interplay in them of the quotidian and the sacred. Virgil may be describing something quite concrete and ordinary, like pruning a vine, but an attending god is rarely far off. Throughout the poems, tales from Greek and Roman mythology are interwoven with technical descriptions of farm management. The effect of this is, of course, to elevate the dignity of the farmer’s work, presided over so attentively by the gods, and also to convert the poems themselves into a celebration of Roman greatness in and through the primary Roman virtues, which since at least the time of Cincinnatus had been rooted in rural exemplars.

The presence of gods and heroes in these poems is especially striking in the fourth Georgic, which contains a long section relating the tale of Aristaeus (the Roman god of bee-keeping) and Proteus, during the course of which Proteus tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was here, in what is a very beautiful interlude, that I heard for the first time in these Georgics the voice of Virgil the epic poet. For all I know, it may have been on the strength of this very section that Virgil was chosen by Augustus to write the Aeneid.

Speaking of Augustus, he is everywhere in these poems. They open and close with references to him, whom Virgil portrays as the great patron of peace, and numerous deferential and laudatory remarks are made about him throughout. Thus the poems have a political dimension that sometimes feels merely sycophantic — emperors will be praised, after all — but sometimes seems more. The fourth Georgic, again, is interesting from this angle: in it, the bees are governed not by a queen but by a king, which makes me wonder whether we are to read this paean to the virtues of the hive as an allegory of the Roman empire? Or could it simply be that Augustan-age melittology was wayward in certain respects?


Virgil’s principal influences in these poems are Hesiod and Lucretius, both admired for their careful descriptions of natural phenomena. The Georgics have been read regularly between Virgil’s time and ours, albeit much less widely than has Aeneid. The first English translation was John Dryden’s, in 1697, and the poems enjoyed a heyday (or maybe a hay-day) of popularity in the eighteenth-century, with over 20 English translations published in that century alone. They inspired a modest echo in an English tradition of agricultural poetry, now dead, and were an influence on agrarian political and social movements at around the time of the American founding. The Wikipedia page is quite good at tracing the influence they have had.

It would have been nice to read Dryden’s translation, but for years I’ve had this David Ferry translation on my shelves and I decided the time was ripe to finally take it down. Ferry has rendered the poems into iambic pentameter, giving them a stately feel, and, like the Latin original, does not bother with rhymes. His English, however, is a good deal more verbose than the Latin (which in this edition is printed on the facing page), often running to at least 50% more lines. But this, I believe, is common in translations from Latin, and not counted a fault. I found Ferry quite good, in general, and excellent in the fourth poem, where his lines took on an aptly honey-golden sheen.

After the fire

April 24, 2019

A week on from the fire, I can uncover my eyes and see what happened. What a joy to see this:

Notre-Dame was my first Gothic cathedral. I went to Paris when an undergraduate, on my first trip to Europe. I arrived in the early morning hours, before I could check-in at my lodgings, so I walked to Notre-Dame. I remember arriving in the plaza before the church, and gazing up at her in wonder, hardly believing that she was real, and that I was really seeing her with my own eyes. I threw my backpack down on a bench and sat, simply taking in that beautiful facade. I remember that I glanced along the bench at another traveller, also toting a backpack, and roughly my age. He said to me, in English, “I had to see her again before leaving”. I simply nodded in understanding. When I heard about the fire, among the many thoughts that crowded my mind were these: where is he now, and what is he feeling this day?

The damage, thanks be to God, seems to be not as devastating as was originally feared. The firefighters of Paris are genuine heroes in this affair. The north tower was apparently threatened most nearly — threatened by the bells, which, if their wooden supports had burned, would have plunged down the length of the tower and collapsed it. The firefighters mobilized to rescue the many treasures, sacred and artistic, which the church housed. I was most touched by the story of the chaplain to the Paris firefighters, Fr Jean-Marc Fournier, who rescued the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle and the crown of thorns reliquary. I was also amused to learn that the Parisian fire brigade deployed a secret weapon against the fire: Colossus, a fire-fighting robot.

One of the treasures of the church, after its relics, rose windows, and facade, is its organ. I attended an organ recital there some years ago, and remember it fondly. Here is a short documentary featuring it:

Much has been written about the church, about what it means to Parisians and to the French nation, and about its significance for Catholics around the world. Quite a few writers have been tempted by the metaphorical potency of a burning cathedral in the center of secularized Europe. Without denying that they have a point, such reactions seem to me tactless at this point. The church burned, and that is more than enough to reckon with, without having it turned into a lecture illustration or commandeered for partisan gain.

Having said that, I admit I cannot help taking heart, under the circumstances, from images like this, which are like an Easter homily in themselves:

Macron has committed to rebuilding what was damaged, and there have been a number of absurdly large donations from absurdly rich French citizens, along with a stream of modest donations from lovers of the cathedral around the world. I made a small donation myself. We hear rumours of our cultured despisers wanting to turn this monument honouring Our Lady into a monument honouring Ourselves. I hope and pray that they are thwarted. May the beautiful church of Notre-Dame de Paris be protected from the hands of Daniel Libeskind, I.M. Pei, and all like-minded vandals. Let us love her even in her infirmity.

Easter Sunday, 2019

April 21, 2019

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter!

Notre Dame

April 15, 2019

There could be some dispute about what is the greatest church in the world. In my heart, though, Notre Dame de Paris is first. A heartbreaking day.


O’Connor: The Presence of Grace

April 15, 2019

The Presence of Grace
And Other Book Reviews
Flannery O’Connor
Edited by Carter W. Martin
(University of Georgia, 1983)
189 p.

Flannery O’Connor didn’t leave us many books, and to find another, even if minor, is a joy. This volume gathers together over 100 short book reviews which she did for Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia between 1956-64. I believe the existence of the book is not very well known, even among her admirers.

Many of the books she reviewed were ephemeral; indeed, it is a little dispiriting to think that she invested so much time in reading books which nobody reads anymore. An occupational hazard, perhaps, for book reviewers, but who among us, in all soberness, does much better? Yet part of the attraction of this book is that she does, every so often, write about an enduring book — novels by J.F. Powers, Evelyn Waugh, or François Mauriac, for instance. It is here that one leans forward to hear what she had to say.

Most of the books were non-fiction, and, given the publications for which she was writing, it was natural that they had mostly to do with Catholicism. Among the “big names” whom she reviewed were Louis Bouyer and Romano Guardini; she knew quality when she saw it. I was a little surprised, I admit, at the praise which she lavished on Tielhard de Chardin, whom I know was making waves at the time, but one hardly expects Flannery to be susceptible to hype. Nonetheless, she considered him “a great and saintly man” whose mind “dealt in immensities” and whose books would “probably have the effect of giving a new face to Christian spirituality”. Following his censure by the Holy Office in 1962 she conceded that his books were “incomplete and dangerous,” but her admiration for his person seemed undimmed. I don’t know much about de Chardin, I admit, his star having faded in the meantime, and quite possibly her assessment of his personal merits was just.

A salutary feature of the book is that it can disabuse us of fond imaginings that Catholic life before Vatican II was sunshine and roses. Her general view of American Catholicism in relation to the wider culture was that it was narrow and fearful, and not particularly distinguished, “having compromised with the secular in everything from doctrine to decoration”. One is tempted to say, as a rejoinder, “Miss Flannery, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”, but, still, the point she makes is worth hearing.

Much of the fun of the book is in the jibes and barbed praise which she bestowed on books and readers. Of one book she writes that

This book is well worth reading for its virtues and we have its faults to thank for its being read so widely.

And of best-sellers in general she muses that

The best seller list is a standard of mediocrity through which occasionally a work of merit will slip for reasons unconnected with its quality.

A review of a biography of St Catherine of Siena begins in this way:

The signs and wonders that increased the faith of the 14th century will very generally have the opposite effect on that of the 20th, and this biography of St Catherine, written by her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua, can very well have the effect of inspiring the reader with a genuine repulsion for the saint.

or, commenting on the jargon in a book about education, she writes that

…the reader, unless he is a student of education and thus habituated to such, will quit the book half way through, with the thought: if they do this to the language, what do they do to the child?


Most of the reviews are brief; just a paragraph or two, though occasionally we get a page or two. I could learn something from her about the soul of wit. They are arranged chronologically, and are interspersed with letters between Flannery and the diocesan papers’ editors on book-related matters; her personal voice comes through more clearly in the letters, and one can’t help missing her.


[On a wordy volume of unadulterated wisdom]
The ideal form for unadulterated wisdom is the aphorism.

[On Catholic imagery]
The images absorbed in childhood are retained by the soul throughout life. In medieval times, the child viewed the same images as his elders, and these were images adequate to the realities they stood for. He formed his images of the Lord from, for example, the stern and majestic Pantacrator [sic], not from the smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart. When childhood was over, the image was still valid and was able to hold up under the assults given to belief. Today the idea of religion of large numbers of Catholics remains trapped at the magical stage by static and superficial images which neither mind nor stomach can any longer take.

That far country

April 12, 2019

If anyone thinks that this present life is a life not only of labour but also of reward, a life not only of sowing seed but also of harvesting, then we must let him follow the rules of sagacity that are in harmony with his view of life. But we would not care to ask his advice, since he is, after all, an alien and a foreigner who has no knowledge of, no connection with, that far country about which we are asking.

— Kierkegaard,
“The Expectancy of Eternal Salvation”.

Weinberg: Sonata No.2 for solo violin

April 10, 2019

Weinberg wrote three sonatas for solo violin over the course of his life (in 1964, 1967, and 1979). They are good examples of his writing for solo string instruments, a body of work that also includes three sonatas for solo cello, four for viola, and several pieces for a double-bass soloist. But, because of the high profile of the instrument, his solo violin pieces are of special interest.

Naturally, one always thinks of Bach in such situations, and Weinberg doesn’t try to fight that legacy. His Sonata No.2 is arranged in seven short contrasting sections, rather like a baroque suite. In this video, which helpfully allows us to view the score as we listen, the piece is played by Alexander Brusilovsky. It comes from an old Soviet recording from the 1970s. The sound is a bit sub-par, but the quality of the music still comes through.

The modern recording to get, for anyone interested in this music, is the one made by Linus Roth.


Stoppard: The Hard Problem

April 8, 2019

The Hard Problem
Tom Stoppard
(Faber and Faber, 2015)
76 p.

Tom Stoppard has always had a reputation as a playwright with an intellectual bent, bringing science and philosophy to the stage in a way that is accessible to audiences and infused with personal significance for his characters. The Hard Problem, his first play in nearly a decade, continues this tradition, though perhaps not as successfully as in earlier plays. The “hard problem” is the famous problem of consciousness: both whether and how conscious experience can be given a scientific explanation.

The play’s central character is Hilary, a young brain science research scientist, who has been well catechized. She knows that science is the privileged means of knowing the world and ourselves, that we are material in every aspect of our being, and that there are no mysteries in the world, but only problems to be solved. The trouble is — and this is what makes her an interesting central character — she doesn’t believe it, and is adept at ferreting out the cracks in the explanatory facade. She asks awkward questions. She calls bluff. She even prays.

The “hard problem” of consciousness is hard for a variety of reasons. One is that there is an explanatory gap between the kinds of entities that science deals with and the phenomena of first-person experience. One can know everything there is to know about the neurobiology of how photons of a particular energy incident on retinal cells trigger electrical signals to certain regions of the brain, but nothing in that body of knowledge tells us anything about what it is like to experience the colour blue, nor is it clear how knowledge of matter — which, according, at least, to the reigning scientific paradigm for the past 500 years, is defined to be essentially mathematical in structure and devoid of all mental properties — ever could tell us anything at all about conscious experience, or indeed why it ever could or would produce something like conscious experience in the first place. Given our understanding of what matter is, we can’t get there from here.

I am sorry to report that Stoppard does not solve “the hard problem” in the course of the play. Nor, to be honest, is the play much concerned with the problem of consciousness in particular. It comes up now and then, but the play’s interest is more broadly in whether scientific claims to complete or exclusive explanatory authority are justified. Are we really convinced by the portrait science paints of us? Thus in addition to the problem of consciousness, the play devotes quite a lot of time to the “problem” — for Darwinists — of altruism, and hints here and there at deeper problems posed by moral claims in general, which creep into our thinking and acting, and into the very practice of science itself, in ways that are subtle and often overlooked. In one funny scene Hilary asks an atheist character to pray for her, and, when he protests that doing so would compromise his moral and intellectual integrity, she asks, rather pointedly, “And that’s a problem, is it?” It is amazing how bags of chemical reactions get uppity when provoked.

The play therefore takes a refreshingly unorthodox approach to its subject matter. I note with pleasure that a review of the play at New Scientist complains of the “great shame” that Stoppard is interested in “what he sees as the limitations of science”. Clearly he’s doing something right. That said, the philosophical wealth of the play is more pauperish than princely. Even within the ambit of “the hard problem”, there is so much more that might have been said — about the common view that consciousness is like software running on brain hardware, for instance. And the play leaves untouched other aspects of mental life at least as difficult to account for in materialist terms, such as intentionality and even conceptual thought itself.

However, a play with a running time of 90 minutes cannot do everything. Its main purpose, of course, is to tell a compelling human story, and Hilary’s story, leaning heavily but effectively on dramatic irony, was interesting to me, and if the play raises provocative questions along the way, and does not presume that the received answers are the right ones, so much the better. Tom Stoppard hasn’t let me down yet.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me

April 5, 2019

We need to recognize […] that this commandment is a hard discipline: it destroys, it breaks in order to bind; like a cautery, it wounds in order to heal; and now, in order to heal the damage it has in part inflicted, it must be applied again. In practical terms, I suspect that this means that Christians must make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic tradition. It takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism — especially, perhaps, the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers — that all Christians, whether married or not, should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture—all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.

It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are — even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant — usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices. It means, in short, self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as fierce as the refusal of our Christian ancestors to burn incense to the genius of the emperor. This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add: Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God.

— David Bentley Hart,
“Freedom and Decency”.