## Archive for September, 2019

### Gleanings: MacMillan, Wittgenstein, and more!

September 30, 2019
• At Image Journal, I’ve discovered an essay by Michael Capps which gives an appreciative overview of the music of the fine Scottish composer James MacMillan. I learned quite a lot from it. MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony recently premiered in Edinburgh.
• Also at Image Journal, the editor, Gregory Wolfe, in a neat inversion of the usual formula, confesses to being “religious, but not spiritual”. I don’t know that I’d put it quite so emphatically myself, but I’m sympathetic.
• The Toronto International Film Festival wrapped in the last week or so, and, once again, I failed to attend any screenings, but I did take note of this positive reaction to Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. I wonder when I’ll get a chance to see it…
• Standpoint has been running a series on persons and things they judge “overrated”. It’s hard to argue with some of their targets (Harry Potter, Ayn Rand, Voltaire, Richard Dawkins); I confess I’ve never heard of some others, which makes me wonder how overrated they can be. But the most recent entry, on Wittgenstein, is a gem.
• Deal Hudson has assembled what he thinks the 100 best Catholic movies. Inclusion criteria seem to have been fairly loose: we expect to find “A Man for All Seasons”, but “First Reformed” isn’t specifically Catholic. “Movies of interest to Catholics” is probably closer to what was intended. I’ve seen 8 of his top 10, but only 30-odd of the titles on the full list. Plenty of fodder there for future movie nights. Did you know there was a film version of “Kristin Lavransdatter”?

For an envoi, let’s hear a piece that ravished me this week: the “Agnus Dei” from Johannes Tinctoris’ Missa sine nomine, performed by Le Miroir de Musique.

### Lux aeterna

September 29, 2019

### Lewis: Space Trilogy

September 25, 2019

On my first attempt on Lewis’ Space Trilogy, over twenty years ago, I mostly disliked it — disliked it enough, at least, that I abandoned (space)ship after the second volume. When I mentioned this to a friend a few years ago I was told (to vary the metaphor) that I had left the wedding just as the best wine was being served. So I thought that I would give the series — the entire series — another try, and I have finally made good on that decision.

***

Out of the Silent Planet
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1938]
158 p.

Lewis wears his debt to the science fiction of H.G. Wells on his sleeve. Out of the Silent Planet will remind Wellsians of The Time Machine and especially The First Men in the Moon on account of its speculations about other rational species and varieties of social organization conjoined to a marked lack of interest in the niceties of rocketry and thermodynamics.

The premise, if anyone should be ignorant of it, is that Ransom, an English academic, is kidnapped and taken via makeshift spacecraft by two mad companions to Mars — which, as we soon learn, is called Malacandra by all rational creatures save ourselves. The story follows Ransom as he lands on Malacandra, escapes from his captors, and lives for many months among the native species, learning their ways.

The book is partly an imaginative exploration of several of the themes of his great non-fiction book The Discarded Image — that is, an exploration of pre-modern astronomy and cosmology. We learn from Ransom, for instance, that our modern conception of interplanetary space as “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness” is inept, the ancients’ name for it — “the heavens” — being much more suitable. The book is also, more thoroughly and specifically, an attempt to think through Christian and Platonic ideas about embodiment, rationality, morality, and the hierarchy of being(s). It attempts, in fact, to take many of the elements of medieval cosmology and adapt them to the new world-picture given us by modern astronomy. The Christian doctrine of the Fall, for instance, plays a central role: Earth is the silent planet, whose creatures and presiding spirits have been “bent” and fallen out of contact with the other rational beings who inhabit the solar system.

In addition to Ransom, the book introduces us to two other characters, Weston and Devine, who reappear in subsequent volumes and are, in their own villainous ways, central characters in the trilogy.

It’s a good book, better than I remembered. I think that my younger self was put off by the somewhat corny and unconvincing handling of the scientific elements of the story — this has always been an obstacle to my enjoyment of science fiction — and he, my younger self, was also probably not astute enough to appreciate Lewis’ larger and more learned interests and concerns.

**

Perelandra
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1943]
192 p.

It was Perelandra that crashed my spacecraft on my first attempt on these books. My memory of exactly what went wrong was, I would have admitted, hazy, but if pressed I’d have pointed first to that garish sequence in which Ransom, now spirited away to Venus, witnessed a herd of pastel-coloured beasts, long-legged and flimsy, like a cross between a Star Wars Walker and one of Dr Seuss’ more whimsical creations, galloping across a field of lily pads. This was just too much for my sober imagination.

All of which would have been quite amusing, because, as I now discover, there is nothing like this in the book. Where these lurid imaginings came from I cannot now say.

I had this much right: Ransom goes to Venus. He is summoned, and knows not why. Eventually he learns that his arch-nemesis, Professor Weston, is also there, intent on colonizing the planet, destroying whatever native life he finds there, bringing evil and sin to a world where it does not yet exist, and Ransom infers that his task is to prevent it.

Misapprehensions being corrected, I find that there is actually much to like about the book, which is clearly deep in conversation with Lewis’ beloved Paradise Lost. His Venus is Edenic, an unfallen world, complete with its own Adam and Eve, and some of the images he uses are echoes of Milton’s own. It has often been said that it is easy, for us, to imagine and describe evil, but to do the same for goodness, to make goodness alluring and involving, is strangely elusive and difficult. Lewis here does his best to climb that endless mountain.

A great strength of the book is Lewis’ portrait of Venus, the watery planet. He gives us vast floating islands like lily pads (there they are!) which flex as waves pass beneath them, and stunning mountains, and cataracts, and, in one memorable sequence, intricate networks of caves. Of course, the fact that he calls his planet Venus, rather than, say, Planet X35, is complicated by what we now know of Venus, but, that aside, it is an impressive attempt at cosmic world-building.

Perelandra is also a very theological and philosophical novel. The Space Trilogy is much concerned with bringing Christian theology to bear on matters typical of science fiction — other worlds, alien creatures — and Perelandra is focused closely on the nature of original innocence, and how temptation might appear to it, and what sin actually is, and also on how the Christian story, seen from an Earthly perspective, might fit into a larger cosmic story which is, nonetheless, still ultimately the Christian story.

Lewis was a more than competent theologian and had a keen philosophical mind, so this is quite excellent on the whole. It does, however, make the novel quite wordy and discursive. I didn’t always mind this — the long peroration with which the book ends is a fine example of Lewis’ high rhetoric on a high theme — but overall I found it delayed and disrupted the action of the story. The book also, I think, has a problem of narrative structure, with too little to happen and the reader often at sea (as it were) about the direction in which the narrative wind is blowing.

**

That Hideous Strength
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 2003) [1945]
384 p.

That Hideous Strength returns to Earth, to England, where the cosmic conflict anticipated in Perelandra is beginning to play out. Lewis sub-titled this volume “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, and it is true that the science fiction elements of the previous volumes are here largely set aside in favour of something more wondrous strange.

We are introduced to the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), a suitably Orwellian name for a quasi-government agency with loads of money, lots of political clout, and high ambitions to transform society along progressive lines using propaganda, scientific methods, and — this being a fairy tale — magic. In the novel’s early stages they are attempting to recruit a promising young sociologist, Mark Studdock, and it is primarily through his eyes that we, as readers, come to know about the inner workings of the N.I.C.E.

Meanwhile Mark’s wife, Jane, is being pulled in quite another direction: she has begun to experience peculiar, disquieting dreams and, in an effort to get to the bottom of them, is quietly and providentially drawn into the orbit of Ransom, around whom a small group of people has formed who are determined to resist the advance of the N.I.C.E.

Having read the previous volumes, we are not surprised to learn that the N.I.C.E. is, in fact, the instrument by which the bent presiding spirit of Earth (aka Lucifer) intends to advance an inhuman ideology and political programme designed, ultimately, to erase from humanity the imago Dei by a thorough reconstruction of human nature and society, and that Ransom, a friend and servant of the unfallen planetary intelligences — the eldila — is the keystone in the counterplot. The story plays out as an escalating conflict between the two sides.

To a large extent the book continues the dialogue between Christianity and secularism that was begun in the earlier volumes, but here Lewis adds an unexpected third partner to the dance: the Arthurian tradition, which plays a key role both theme-wise and plot-wise. I’m not quite convinced that this is entirely successful, on the whole; unless I missed it, there was nothing in the earlier books about Arthur, and its introduction feels a little ad hoc. (This despite Lewis’ attempt, late in the book, to frame the Arthurian elements as simply a manifestation of England’s true self, the natural form which her native genius takes.) On its own merits, I rather enjoyed the Arthuriana, but artistically it’s a tad awkward — though perhaps no more awkward than having a fairy tale conclude a science fiction adventure.

Readers familiar with Lewis’ other writings are likely to notice how ideas in That Hideous Strength remind them of Lewis’ other books, so much so that I began to think of the novel as a kind of Lewisian ouvre in miniature. Essays like “The Inner Ring” and “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” are obvious points of reference, and I also picked up ideas which are familiar from The Discarded Image, The Abolition of Man, and even The Chronicles of Narnia.

Naturally, it’s quite gratifying to read a novel in which progressive causes are bad. Lewis had a life-long aversion to social planning and scientific, “rational” disruptions of traditional ways of life, and, as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, shared none of modernity’s characteristic fascination with the newfangled.

In the end I found That Hideous Strength, like the trilogy as a whole, to be a quite fascinating attempt to combine things not normally treated together in fiction: theology and science, technology and magic, Arthur and Wells, sociology and sophiology. It makes one think about the intellectual and spiritual currents which contend against one another in our times, just as they did in Lewis’, and to consider, like Mark and Jane are forced to do, where one’s allegiance lies. The ambitious — indeed, cosmic — scale of the storytelling is attractive, and, I think, a necessary preparation for the story that the final volume wants to tell.

*

I cannot help noting that there is today, in the UK, an organization called N.I.C.E.! I guess not everybody reads.

**

I’m so pleased to have finally read this trilogy in its entirety, after so many years of intending to do so. Lewis is an unimpeachable stylist, always graceful and civilized, always a pleasure to read. The trilogy is better than I had judged on first acquaintance, even if it is not likely to rank among my favourite of Lewis’ writings. This is what is called “praising with faint damnation”.

***

For an envoi, we must listen to the song “Out of the Silent Planet” by King’s X. They made an entire album called Out of the Silent Planet, but this song comes from what I think is their best record, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. It must be played loudly.

### Wodehouse: Something Fresh

September 12, 2019

Something Fresh
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2005) [1915]
284 p.

This is the first Blandings novel, and it ranks with the very best of Wodehouse. Everything about it is top notch, from the smoothly-oiled machinations of the ingenious story to the raft of eccentric characters to the buoyant mirth of the prose. If I had migrated from the Jeeves stories with some expectation of a decline in delight, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and encouraged.

The plot circles around the recovery of a precious Egyptian scarab “of the fourth dynasty”, which has been absentmindedly removed from the collection of the American millionaire J. Preston Peters by Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a doddering man who believes he received it from Peters as a gift, but of course Peters wants it back. The matter is delicate because the children of the two men, Freddie Threepwood and Aline Peters, are engaged to be married, and to accuse Lord Emsworth of theft would be a faux-pas of the first magnitude.

When a prize is offered by Peters for its recovery, three parties decide to make a try: Ashe Marson, writer of detective fiction, who engages himself to Peters as valet; Joan Valentine, old school friend of Aline and struggling actress; and R. Jones, an obese fix-it man. When the rivals, Ashe and Joan, begin to fall in love, the plot thickens!

There are other factors in the mix too, most notably the ill-luck of Baxter, the suspicious personal secretary to Lord Emsworth. Lest there be any concern on the point, everything works out beautifully, and Wodehouse’s manner of spinning the yarn yields pleasures on every page. Superb.

### Labyrinthine

September 8, 2019

Everybody thought that George Crumb was cool for notating his music in a circular fashion, but here’s an anonymous medieval piece on a labyrinthine theme that is actually notated to look like a circular labyrinth. It was way, way ahead of its time (and the music is better than the Crumby modern stuff).

### Virgil: Aeneid

September 4, 2019

Aeneid

Virgil
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
(Penguin Classics, 1997) [19 BC]
480 p.

Aeneid, Book VI
Virgil
Translated from the Latin by Seamus Heaney
(Faber & Faber, 2016)
xiii + 53 p.

What Diomede, nor Thetis’ greater son,
A thousand ships, nor ten years’ siege, had done:
False tears and fawning words the city won.

Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates; Virgil might well have titled his poem Aeneid, with Constant Reference to Homer. Not only do many episodes in Homer find echoes and analogues in this poem, but the story itself is the mirror image, as it were, of the Odyssey: both launch from the sack of Troy, but whereas Homer follows the victorious Greeks as they return home, Virgil follows the defeated Trojans as they seek a new homeland in which to found a new city, great Rome itself.

We join the story in medias res, Aeneas and his men having been blown off course on their journey and landed at Carthage in North Africa. There they are feasted at the court of Dido, and the Aeneid relates, in verse that is grippingly dramatic, the backstory of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy. Sent into exile, they endure various hardships and adventures before washing up at Carthage. (One amusing episode has them land on the island of the Cyclops. A Greek comes rushing unexpectedly out to meet them, begging them to take him on board. This, it turns out, is a sailor left behind by Odysseus when he visited the island a few weeks before! (Odyssey, IX)) During the telling of this tale Dido falls in love with Aeneas, but when he insists that the gods have destined him for other things, she commits suicide. This tragic love story forms one of the more satisfying sub-plots in the poem.

Pressing on toward Italy, they eventually make landfall, but despite their intentions to build a new city and live in peace, their neighbours, inflamed by the ill will of Juno, march to war against them. The entire second half of the poem is devoted to this war, and the poem ends abruptly when Aeneas at last kills his rival, Turnus:

He rais’d his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain’d his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound.

*

If you have ever wondered why Dante chose Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, you need only turn to Book VI, which relates the journey of Aeneas to the underworld in search of his father. Each time I read it, my hair stands on end, and I can feel the atmosphere again of Dante’s epic, through a glass darkly. It is among my favourite parts of the poem, so I was pleased to supplement my reading of Dryden’s translation with the recent translation of Book VI which Seamus Heaney made shortly before his death. He says he undertook it partly as a way of reflecting on his own father’s death, and on the birth of his granddaughter, but also as a way of honouring his childhood Latin teacher.

Heaney’s version has not the incantatory power of Dryden’s, but I nonetheless found it very good on its own terms. He writes in blank iambic pentameter. Let’s compare a few passages.

When Aeneas makes his first entry to the underworld, Dryden writes

Obscure they went thro’ dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.
Thus wander travelers in woods by night,
By the moon’s doubtful and malignant light,
When Jove in dusky clouds involves the skies,
And the faint crescent shoots by fits before their eyes.

while Heaney gives us

On they went then in darkness, through the lonely
Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,
Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king —
Like following a forest path by the hovering light
Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,
While the colours of the world pall in the gloom.

In this case I think I prefer Heaney; the ‘shoots by fits’ in Dryden sounds awkward, but ‘clouds and unclouds’ is a nice phrase, and I think Heaney, with his ‘darkness’, ‘shadowing’, ‘nowhere’, ‘deserted’, ‘pall’ and ‘gloom’ captures better the desolation of the place.

Moving downward, Aeneas comes upon a mysterious tree which Dryden describes in this way:

Full in the midst of this infernal road,
An elm displays her dusky arms abroad:
The God of Sleep there hides his heavy head,
And empty dreams on ev’ry leaf are spread.

and Heaney:

$\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ $\;$ Right in the middle
Stands an elm, copious, darkly aflutter, old branches
Spread wide like arms, and here, it is said,
False dreams come to roost, clinger together
On the undersides of the leaves.

That ‘darkly aflutter’ is a nice touch, but I think the rhymes in Dryden add to the solemnity of the moment. Heaney, though, does tell us that the dreams are on the undersides of the leaves; I don’t know what this means, but it does seem an important detail, if indeed it is in Virgil.

For one last comparison, let’s take one of the more gruesome moments. Aeneas sees, Tityos, ‘the foster-son of Earth’, bound to the ground while a vulture of perpetual appetite perpetually consumes his liver. Writes Dryden:

There Tityus was to see, who took his birth
From heav’n, his nursing from the foodful earth.
Here his gigantic limbs, with large embrace,
Infold nine acres of infernal space.
A rav’nous vulture, in his open’d side,
Her crooked beak and cruel talons tried;
Still for the growing liver digg’d his breast;
The growing liver still supplied the feast;
Still are his entrails fruitful to their pains:
Th’ immortal hunger lasts, th’ immortal food remains.

Fantastic! And Heaney:

Tityos, his body stretching out
Over nine whole acres while a huge, horrendous
Vulture puddles forever with hooked beak
In his liver and entrails teeming with raw pain.
It burrows deep below the breastbone, feeding
And foraging without respite, for the gnawed-at
Gut and gutstrings keep renewing.

It’s good, but for me it’s simply not as good.

**

Toward the end of Aeneas’ underworld sojourn, the shade of his father, Anchises, foretells the future history of Rome, from the city’s founding down to the reign of the mighty and stupendous Augustus. When I have read the poem in the past, I have stumbled through this section, needing constantly to refer to the notes. But this time, rafter having spent the better part of two years reading Roman history, I read it with understanding! A nice pay-off.

To my mind the Aeneid is front-loaded with its best material. I love the story of the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy in Book II, and the fateful romance of Dido and Aeneas in Book IV, and the journey to the underworld in Book VI, but once the Trojans make landfall in Italy and begin the long process of forming alliances and fighting battles with the locals it seems to lose its forward momentum, becoming a blur of minor characters and shifting allegiances. I feel about the first half as I feel about the Odyssey, but about the last half as I do about the Iliad.

This was my first time through the poem with Dryden; in the past I have read the Fitzgerald translation. There is no contest: Dryden prevails. His poem has the high epic tone. He carries the reader aloft. By all means, let there be other translations, but for English-speaking readers I am convinced he is essential. It is one of the few examples of a translation that stands on its own as a poetic masterpiece.