Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

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.

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.

le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

April 2, 2019

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John le Carré
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1974)
349 p.

It has been a long time since I read a spy novel. This one, I know, has a good reputation. A few years ago I saw the film adaptation, which I admired, but could afterwards not have explained to you exactly what happened. I then watched the BBC mini-series, which is well-regarded, and, though I did a little better at unravelling the convolutions of the plot, it remained, in the end, something of a tangle.

I’ve done not much better with the book, I’m afraid. No doubt the difficulties are intrinsic to the story le Carré wants to tell, which lurks in dark corners and feeds on duplicity and subterfuge. The effect is like a hall of mirrors, where everything can be seen from more than one angle, and one is not sure where the truth lies.

The premise is well-known and won’t spoil anything: George Smiley, recently retired from MI6, is called back in to investigate rumours that the Soviets have a high-placed mole inside the UK’s security establishment. Smiley must track down the leads and ferret out the mole, a very delicate business.

When I think of the spy novel genre, I tend to think of action-packed books, like a James Bond tale. Le Carré’s novel is a different thing: although there are scenes of furious action, and a few of spy-craft, they are exceptional; the book is, instead, mostly dialogue, through which we come to know characters.

Le Carré lets us hear and see what Smiley hears and sees, but doesn’t give us much insight into what he is thinking. When Smiley does, therefore, finally arrive at a conclusion and make his move against the mole, I failed to understand his reasoning. The book gives every indication of having been carefully constructed, but I would be interested to know if that impression holds up under analysis.

Le Carré is quite a good stylist. His prose has a sleek, no-nonsense quality about it, with a liberal salting of weary laconism. It’s the sort of prose one wants to hear from the mouths of people wearing trenchcoats and hats on a rainy night.

There is a series of books with George Smiley as the principal character, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first entry in the so-called Karla Trilogy (named for the mole’s Soviet spy-master). I enjoyed this book enough that I think I’ll read the others too.

Virgil: Eclogues

March 25, 2019

Eclogues
Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
[c.40 BC] Second reading.

When I first read Virgil’s Eclogues, more than a decade ago, I confess that I was disappointed by them. I had expected more from the great poet of the Latin golden age than these, apparently, slight and inconsequential poems about shepherds and rustics. Now, revisiting them, it would be fair to say that I appreciate them more, but still an exaggeration to say they stir enthusiasm in my breast. It would be fair to say that I am still having trouble hearing the music in this Muse.

*

There are ten Eclogues, none very long, and, as advertised, they are mostly about shepherds and rustics. Half are dialogues (I, III, V, VII, IX); in a few, the characters play games of poetic one-upmanship, composing songs on cue. Others relate the joys or woes, often romantic, of their characters.

I am told that there are political subtexts to some of the poems; all were written during the reign of Octavian/Augustus, one of whose initiatives was the confiscation of lands in order that he could bestow them on the many soldiers he wished to retire from service. In many of the poems this ill treatment — from the shepherds’ perspective — is discernible in the background. This is the case, for instance, in the first eclogue. However, the overall impression is not a political one, at least if the poems are taken at face value.

Virgil was to become most famous for the Aeneid, and though it would be tendentious to argue without firmer grounds that that great epic was already gestating in his imagination, he does at one point himself suggest that his first instincts as a poet were not for the pastoral:

I first transferred to Rome Sicilian strains;
Nor blushed the Doric Muse to dwell on Mantuan plains.
But when I tried her tender voice, too young,
And fighting kings and bloody battles sung,
Apollo checked my pride, and bade me feed
My fattening flocks, nor dare beyond the reed.
(VI, 1-6)

Whether this, in itself, tells us anything about the quality of this bucolic poetry is doubtful, but I found it interesting.

The most famous of the Eclogues is the fourth, which celebrates the birth of a boy who brings a miraculous peace to a world in conflict:

The jarring nations he in peace shall bind,
And with paternal virtues rule mankind.
Unbidden earth shall wreathing ivy bring,
And fragrant herbs, (the promises of spring,)
As her first offerings to her infant king.

These marvels Virgil partly adapted from a Sibylline prophecy, and they were widely interpreted by Christian readers as making reference to the birth of Christ (though I know of none who thought that Virgil so intended them). The frequently beautiful imagery of this poem reminds a Christian reader of Isaiah’s prophecies:

The goats with strutting dugs shall homeward speed,
And lowing herds secure from lions feed.
His cradle shall with rising flowers be crowned:
The serpent’s brood shall die; the sacred ground
Shall weeds and poisonous plants refuse to bear;
Each common bush shall Syrian roses wear.

*

My better experience on this reading of the Eclogues is at least partly attributable to my choosing the Dryden translation, rather than (as before) the Guy Lee translation (from Penguin Classics). True, Virgil wrote in dactylic hexameter, whereas Dryden wrote in iambic pentameter, but if the goal was to match one high poetic style with another, Dryden succeeded. Lee’s Alexandrine verse (basically iambic hexameter) lacks the punch. Let’s compare a randomly chosen passage in the two translations. Here are the opening lines of the Eclogue VIII as rendered by Dryden:

The mournful muse of two despairing swains,
The love rejected, and the lovers’ pains;
To which the savage lynxes listening stood,
The rivers stood on heaps, and stopped the running flood;
The hungry herd the needful food refuse—
Of two despairing swains, I sing the mournful muse.

And here is Lee:

Muse of the shepherds Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Rivals, at whom the heifer marvelling forgot
Her pasture, by whose singing lynxes were enthralled
And running rivers, altering their courses, stilled,
We’ll tell of Damon’s and Alphesiboeus’ Muse.

To give Lee his due: he is much more careful to follow Virgil’s lead, taking fewer liberties. His five lines match Virgil’s five, whereas Dryden takes six, and still neglects to tell us the names of the two swains. But I still prefer Dryden’s stout eloquence over Lee’s sprawling lines.

*

Virgil inherited the tradition of pastoral poetry principally from the Greek Theocritus, even to the point of basing several of these poems on Theocritic originals. He cannot, therefore, be said, with complete accuracy, to be the “fount” of pastoral poetry in the West, but his reputation in the West so far outstrips that of his predecessor that we may, de facto, take these Eclogues as the spring from which sprang, in time, the Forest of Arden, the passionate Marlovian shepherd, and Beethoven’s sixth symphony. It is a rich heritage indeed, in which

Our woods, with juniper and chestnuts crowned,
With falling fruits and berries paint the ground;
And lavish Nature laughs, and strows her stores around.

Topping: Renewing the Mind

March 17, 2019

Renewing the Mind
A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education
Ryan N.S. Topping (Ed.)
(CUA, 2015)
xvi + 397 p.

Where I live we have a government-funded system of Catholic schools which educates roughly half of the children in the province. The curriculum is set by the government, with approval from the bishops. Every school has a priest-chaplain, and the school body attends Mass together a few times each year. Sometimes the Rosary Apostolate comes to visit. Students can, and most do, attend these schools for twelve years and graduate knowing next to nothing about Catholic history, Catholic art and literature, Catholic theology, or Catholic ethics, and without any conspicuous adoption of Catholic spirituality or devotion. If the aim is to graduate students with a robust understanding of Catholicism and a strong personal commitment to Christ, these schools are a dismal failure. If the aim is more modest, if it is just that students graduate with a tenacious personal attachment to Catholicism, that the Catholic tradition, broadly considered and roughly speaking, is inherited and appropriated by the next generation, much the same conclusion follows. Clearly, something is amiss deep down.

The problems are multifarious. One, of course, is that the schools have largely surrendered their ability to hire teachers on the basis of religious commitment; teachers who are strongly committed to their faith — and there are some! — must be weighed against those who are wishy-washy or worse, and students can be pardoned for getting a mixed message. Another, no doubt, is the decision to adopt, or allow to be foisted, the self-same curriculum as is taught in the non-Catholic public schools; immediately whatever Catholicism is to be found in the Catholic schools is reduced to a patina. And this is tolerated, I believe, because we have largely lost sight of what a Catholic education should be: not just what it should teach, but why it should teach it, and how, and what it is supposed to achieve.

Into this amnesiac reverie comes this hefty, small-print reader on the philosophy of Catholic education. It is the sort of book about which one writes two paragraphs or twenty pages; my notes on it are the latter, but in this space I’ll steer toward the former.

It consists of a judicious selection of readings from the long tradition of Catholic thinking about education. The texts are grouped broadly into four categories: first, on the aims of education; second, on the subject matter of a Catholic education; third, reflections on effective methods of teaching; and, finally, a lengthy collection of essays and articles on our contemporary situation and signs of renewal in modern Catholic education. The selections are almost uniformly from the top shelf: starting with Plato and Aristotle — yes, they too are part of the Catholic tradition! — up through Augustine and Basil, Bonaventure and Aquinas, to Erasmus, Montaigne, Newman, and Clive Staples Lewis. Among those modern writers who make the cut are Christopher Dawson, Dorothy Sayers (with her Lost Tools of Learning, of course), John Senior, Maria Montessori, Jacques Maritain, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Some authors appear more than once; Plato and Aquinas, at thrice, share the honours at the top of the heap. There are 39 selections in all.

It is impossible to summarize this wide range of sources in a brief space, but let me mention a few highlights. I had never before seen the Ratio Studiorum written in the 16th century to guide the huge network of Jesuit schools; I cannot say I was greatly inspired by it, but it has been very influential and I was happy to read it. I relished the section from Newman’s The Idea of a University in which he discusses the challenges the Protestant tradition in English literature poses for English-speaking Catholics; I really must find time to read that great book in its entirety. And I was fascinated by Pope John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia, a 1962 encyclical in which he commended to all Catholic schools the importance of teaching and learning Latin! I wasn’t sure whether to be sad that a papal document of such authority could be such a thoroughly dead letter, or, given subsequent developments, encouraged for the same reason.

A more ambitious person than I would draw on this wonderful collection to synthesize the consistent and foundational principles of Catholic thinking about education through the centuries. It could be that the editor of this volume, Ryan Topping, has done just that in his book The Case for Catholic Education; I’d like to find out. The barest, briefest summation would be something like this: we are made to know and love God, and love of God, the highest Good, should guide and shape our study; the human mind desires to know and love truth, and this desire is not in vain; education has intellectual, moral, and aesthetic dimensions; and, finally, Rousseau was a flap-eared knave.

Facetiousness aside, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to readers with an interest in Catholic education. It is a rich feast.

Roman Civil War histories

March 10, 2019

Alexandrian War
African War
Spanish War
Anonymous
(Landmark, 2017) [c.45 BC]
150 p.

At the conclusion of his own account of the civil war, which brought the story up to the autumn of 48, Caesar had triumphed over Pompey at Pharsalus and, chasing him to Alexandria, had found him dead. Not content to rest on his laurels, Caesar had occupied the Alexandrian harbour and taken Ptolemy, the young Egyptian ruler, into custody.

We have no more history from Caesar’s pen, but we do have these three anonymous works — each by a different author — which relate Caesar’s consolidation of power in the years 48-45.

**

The most substantial of them is the Alexandrian War, which picks up where Caesar left off. We read about Caesar’s tactics, about his decision to permit Ptolemy to return to the Egyptian side as an ally, Ptolemy’s betrayal of Caesar, and the culminating battle at which Ptolemy was killed. In compliance with Ptolemy’s will, Caesar installed his sister Cleopatra in power. (Interestingly, the author says nothing about the romantic intrigues between the two.) Altogether, the Alexandrian campaign took about five months, ending in March 47.

The author then backs up and tells us what was happening elsewhere during the same time period: how Caesar’s deputy Domitius was defeated by Pharnaces in Asia Minor; how Caesar’s forces were triumphant in Illyricum; how Caesar’s men defeated the allies of Pompey the Younger (Gnaeus Pompeius) in Spain; and, finally, how Caesar, leaving Alexandria, went to Asia Minor and gave Pharnaces his comeuppance. The author is very well informed, and has largely succeeded in matching the quality of Caesar’s own historical books.

**

Late in 47 Caesar set sail for the northern African coast, where a trio of leaders loyal to Pompey — one of Caesar’s former lieutenants in Gaul, Titus Labienus; the Numidian King Juba; and the senator Metellus Scipio — remained at large with considerable forces at their command. The African War tells us what happened: how Caesar, in a series of brilliant strategic and tactical moves, emerged victorious over all three. The author, who demonstrates personal knowledge of Caesar and an understanding of his strategic decision-making, was probably a high-ranking officer under Caesar’s command. He does a good job of showing how Caesar gradually improved his position relative to his opponents, and how he responded in moments of crisis. (At the Battle of Ruspina, for instance, which took place on 4 January 46, Caesar was badly outnumbered and eventually completely encircled by Labienus, but improvised a new troop formation that allowed him to defend on all sides while simultaneously breaking the encircling ring at one point to permit escape.)

Interestingly, some of this activity took place during a period with no dates; Caesar had initiated calendar reform, including the insertion of an intercalary period to which no standard dates can be assigned.

**

Having returned to Rome in July 46 — the month of July, incidentally, was then still called Quintilus; it would not be named after Caesar until after his death a few years hence — Caesar again set out late in the year for Spain, where Gnaeus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, remained at the head of an armed force opposed to Caesar. It is difficult to discern the shape of the campaign from the Spanish War, for not only is the text corrupted in many places, but the author has not the qualifications of those we’ve seen thus far; he may have been a low-ranking officer, and is more interested in army gossip — who was defecting, what happened in minor skirmishes, where camps were moved — than in the overall arc of the conflict. What is clear is that the forces of Pompey and Caesar established opposed camps near Corduba (modern Cordova), and finally met in a decisive battle near Munda (the location of which is disputed today) on 17 March 45, nearly a year to the day before Caesar’s final mortal reckoning. It was a massive battle, with over 100000 men on the field, and the fighting was fierce. (Caesar said of the battle, “I fought not for victory, but for my life.”) Caesar’s army was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, yet he emerged victorious. Pompey escaped, but was discovered a few weeks later in a cave, and died fighting. This battle may be said to mark the end of Caesar’s civil wars. His enemies in the field were vanquished — though his enemies back in Rome were alive and well.

**

They form a modest pendant to Caesar’s military chronicles, but nonetheless I appreciated the chance to read these shorter works, which fill in important gaps and are engaging on a number of levels. They are included in The Landmark Julius Caesar, which I have been praising at every opportunity, and continue to praise at this one. If you’re at all interested in this history, and cannot read Latin, this is the edition to get.

Wodehouse: Psmith I

March 3, 2019

Mike at Wrykyn
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2012) [1909]
192 p.

This is the first half of Mike: A Public School Story; the full book was split into two by later publishers eager to distinguish the half that did not have the character Psmith (this half) from the half that did (below). Considering that it was originally part of a larger whole, it has a pleasing structure, beginning and ending at Mike Jackson’s breakfast table, and neatly wrapping up the main plot. Well done, Wodehouse.

Had I been subjected to a blind “name the author” test, I’m not sure I’d have guessed correctly. It is a comedy, certainly, and some of the Wodehousian sparkle is there, and even some of the calling cards (like references to Shakespeare), but overall it didn’t impress in the way his other books have. A major difference was the complexity of the plot; in the Jeeves novels, at least, there are usually several lines of development working in tandem, but here there is really just one — Mike’s fortunes as a cricketer at his new public (that is, private) school. And Mike, as a character, is from the rather dull side of the tracks, I’m afraid.

There is a good deal of cricket in the book, which makes it an amusing tale for a reader who knows nothing at all of the game. For the most part the cricket jargon just adds local colour, like the nautical terms in the Aubrey-Maturin books, but at the story’s climax — the big game — I can testify that ignorance of the rules and structure of the game makes it impossible to understand what is happening.

I confess that I read the book only as a prelude to the books about Psmith, which are the real object of my present interest, but it was reasonably good on its own terms.

***

Mike and Psmith
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2013) [1909]
214 p.

In this, the second half of Mike: A Public School Story, we meet Rupert Psmith — “the P is silent” — who was to become one of Wodehouse’s best beloved characters.

The story picks up where Mike at Wrykyn ended: Mike, removed from his former school for poor academic performance, is sent to a new school, where he meets another new boy, Psmith, and strikes up a friendship. Together they join the Archaeology Club, giving the stiff shoulder to the cricket team, and have a variety of adventures. At the story’s climax, Mike stands wrongly accused of having painted the headmaster’s dog red. We are here deep in the realms of profundity. All comes right in the end, and the novel closes with another mystifying bout of cricket.

This second panel of Mike is much better than the first; the writing livelier, the comedy more inspired, the prose smoother, the story more engrossing, the characters more distinctive. Psmith, especially, is a wonderful creation: loquacious, playful, and dignified; he enlivens every page on which he appears. I look forward to Psmith in the City, the next book about him.

Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities

February 19, 2019

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2008) [1859]
386 p.

Somehow I managed to reach my ripe old age without having read this great novel, a defect that I am happy to have now rectified. Yes, even through these tears, I am happy.

The story is set during the final decades of the eighteenth century, the two cities are London and Paris, and the story follows a family that, with one foot on each side of the channel, gets caught in the crosshairs of the French Revolution. I suppose everyone knows this, although I did not.

It’s a wonderful book in pretty much every respect. The characters are excellent, even the rare female villain, and the amiable old banker, and the kindly old father, and the courageous young woman, and the principled young man, and, of course, the noble-hearted young lover. The writing is, even for Dickens, marvellous; there are sections — such as the passage about the storming of the Bastille, or that scene of spilled wine in the street, or that prophetic vision — that are like orchestral music. It has been ingeniously constructed, with key revelations concealed until the appropriate hour. At barely half the length of one of his typical novels, it is unusually focused and fleet of foot.

Dickens was clearly no friend of the Revolution — its rallying cry he always modifies to “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death!” — though of course he was no friend either to oppression and injustice. He saw the desire of the people for liberty as healthy, but the means followed to that end horrible. He is the patron novelist of the common Englishman, but was able to put a sympathetic aristocrat, and a French one at that, at the center of this book. In the end, he gave us a large-hearted story about the power of love, requited and unrequited, romantic and filial, to shine in the darkness, though the darkness does not comprehend it. I judge it one of Dickens’ best.

Cicero: Murder Trials

February 11, 2019

Murder Trials
Marcus Tullius Cicero
(Penguin Classics, 1975)
[80-45 BC]

368 p.

Cicero was a statesman, an orator, an amateur philosopher — and a lawyer. This volume gathers together four of his most celebrated speeches given in the context of murder trials; in each case he was speaking for the defence. The earliest dates from 80, when Cicero was just 20 years old; the latest from 45, when he had, unbeknownst to him, of course, just two more years to live.

*

The first speech is in defence of one Sextus Roscius, accused of murdering his father. This was a particularly heinous crime for the Romans, being an assault on the Roman virtue of filial piety, and the guilty were punished in a particularly ghastly way: by being tied into a sack with several animals (a dog, a cock, a monkey, and a snake) and thrown into a river. Cicero’s defence consisted partly in blaming the accuser for having committed the crime himself.

The second speech, in defence of Aulus Cluentius Habitus, was given in 66. Cluentius was accused of murdering his stepfather. It is an especially celebrated speech; we have a letter from Pliny the Younger to Tacitus in which Pliny judges it Cicero’s finest oration. It is also, at 140 pages in this edition, the longest of Cicero’s surviving speeches.

In 63 Cicero was called upon to defend Gaius Rabirius for a murder alleged to have occurred 37 years earlier. The victim, Saturninus, had been a radical politician who got on the wrong side of the establishment, was shut into the Senate-house and killed there, presumably on orders from opposing Senators. When the politics of Rome swung around, however, Rabirius, a senator, was prosecuted. Technically the charge was treason, not murder, and the accused faced a crucifixion if found guilty.

The political situation had changed again in 45; Caesar had ascended, alone, to the highest position in the state. A minor eastern prince, King Deiotarus, was accused of plotting to murder Caesar himself when Caesar had been a guest in his home. Allegedly, Deiotarus had a group of men waiting for Caesar to enter a certain room, at which point they planned to stab him. (Had they succeeded, the world would presumably have been deprived, many centuries later, of either Macbeth or Julius Caesar!) Cicero spoke in Deiotarus’ defence, arguing his innocence in Caesar’s own home, with Caesar sitting as judge, a difficult assignment about which Cicero remarks:

“the task of defending a man accused of murder before the very person whom he is accused of murdering seems a formidable proposition, since few people could judge a threat to their own lives without showing greater favour to themselves than to the defendant.”

Arguing Deiotarus’ long and faithful service, the implausibility of the success of the supposed plot, and Caesar’s magnanimity, Cicero succeeded in this case of convincing Caesar to reserve judgment. But this was an exceptional outcome: if one was accused of murder in ancient Rome, one could hardly do better than hire Cicero as one’s advocate; his clients were usually acquitted.

*

With the exception of the last, I cannot say that I found these speeches particularly riveting. In fact, as I read, and reflected as well on my experience reading Cicero’s political speeches, I came to the reluctant conclusion that I am not at all a good judge of speeches. The most celebrated examples from modern times (such as, say, the Gettysburg Address or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) tend to be quite short, certainly by comparison with those included in this volume. High, extended oratory simply has no place in our culture today, and this lack of exposure surely at least partly accounts for the fact that I have no savour for the genre, and no great powers of discrimination.

Having said that, there were some interesting things to learn from these addresses. Perhaps the most surprising was that Cicero, as the defence lawyer, didn’t do the things we expect defence lawyers to do. He didn’t discuss testimony of witnesses; he didn’t discuss forensic evidence. In fact he dwelt almost entirely on motive, attempting to convince the audience that his client had no good reasons to commit the alleged murder. (In the speech before Caesar he added a healthy serving of flattery to his winning recipe.) This strikes us as an oddly limited way to proceed. It is also worth noting that we do not have the speeches of the prosecution in these cases, nor the records of cross-examination, so other aspects of the crime might have come out by those means.

The other peculiar feature of these speeches is how much effort Cicero devotes to constructing an alternative theory of the crime, rather than focusing narrowly on defending his client. In the long defence of Cluentius, for instance, only about one-third is actually specifically arguing his client’s innocence. These countermeasures are largely speculative in content, and no doubt contain their fair share of misdirection, the intention being not to build an air-tight case against another, but merely to raise enough doubts in the judges’ minds.

Cicero did also sometimes argue as a prosecutor. I was interested to learn that he would refuse to act as prosecutor if he thought the accused was innocent, yet he would argue for the defence regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused, “provided he is not really a depraved or wicked character”, on the grounds that

“popular sentiment requires this; it is sanctioned by custom, and conforms with human decency.”

**

Of the three volumes of Cicero I have read over the past few months, this was the one I enjoyed the least. It is convenient, therefore, that this is the last of Cicero that I have planned to include in my Roman reading project. Based on this limited experience, I would say that my impression of Cicero falls somewhat short of what his reputation would seem to warrant, and this is due in large part, I expect, to the fact that I am reading him in translation. I don’t know what it is like for an Italian or Frenchman to read Shakespeare in translation, but it can’t be much like reading Shakespeare in the original. I would like to read more of Cicero, but it really would be best to learn Latin first.

Aucassin and Nicolette

February 3, 2019

Aucassin and Nicolette
Anonymous
Translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon
(Folio Society, 1947) [c.1200]
60 p.

In the annals of medieval love lore you have your Tristans and your Yseults, you have your Lancelots and Guineveres, your Romeos and your Juliets and your Dantes and your Beatrices — and you have Aucassin and Nicolette? I confess that, until I stumbled upon them recently, I’d never heard of this pair. Their love is one for which, naturally, the course does not run smooth, and the basic problem is obvious enough:

Here they sing.

Aucassin was of Beaucaire;
His was the fine castle there;
But on slender Nicolette
Past man’s moving is he set,
Whom his father doth refuse;
Menace did his mother use:

“Out upon thee, foolish boy!
Nicolette is but a toy,
Castaway from Carthagen,
Bought a slave of heathen men.
If for marrying thou be,
Take a wife of high degree!”

“Mother, I will none but her.
Hath she not the gentle air,
Grace of limb, and beauty bright?
I am snared in her delight.
If I love her ’tis but meet,
So passing sweet!”

What follows is a kind of medieval singspiel, in which verse songs alternate with prose narration. This form has been dubbed a chantefable (literally, a sing-say), and the category has been invented specifically for Aucassin and Nicolette, which is our sole surviving medieval example of what was presumably a genre.

It is a delightful creation, plump with good humour and full of energy. It is a celebration of the medieval ideal of “courteous love”, and a fresh, cleansing wind blows through it. Love has captured Aucassin’s heart, and he prefers his beloved to honour, to wealth, to glory — even to the salvation of his soul. In this sense, he is the “foolish boy” his mother decries, but his devotion is so strong that it inspires him to great deeds of another sort, and to heroic virtues of another order. His love, in fact, renders him worthy to be the hero of a medieval romance.

The story is packed with oddities. In one episode Aucassin finds himself at a castle where the king lies in child-bed and the queen rides forth to battle. Joining the fight, he discovers that they fight not with swords, but with crab-apples, cheeses, and mushrooms. In another, Nicolette stumbles in the forest upon a group of rustics enjoying a pastoral picnic, almost as though the Forest of Arden had been transplanted to France.

A number of English translations have been made. I tried out three (by Lang, Mason, and Bourdillon) before settling on the last. All were made about a century ago, and all are afflicted to some degree by maladroit archaisms. Bourdillon seemed to be the least egregious offender, but even his version contains its fair share of “honoured wight”s and “gramercy”s, such that I had liefer die than suffer another. This is a work ripe for a fresh look by an enterprising translator of Old French. But, despite these troubles, I enjoyed the book, and arrived in good spirits at the happy ending:

Towards him to her feet leapt she.
Aucassin, when he did see,
Both his arms to her he holds,
Gently to his bosom folds,
Kisses her on eyes and face.
So they left him the night’s space,
Till the morrow’s morning-tide
Aucassin took her to bride,
Made her Lady of Beaucaire.
Many days they then did fare,
And their pleasure did enjoy.
Now has Aucassin his joy,
Nicolette too the same way.
Here endeth our song-and-say;
I know no further.

The book, which is quite short, is available at the Gutenberg project.